Event Review: The Wales Swimrun 2023

Wet, wild, windy: these are some of the words used to sum up the Wales Swimrun of 2023. No doubt, most participants spent the week before worrying about the weather forecast. I was checking it several times a day, hoping for an improvement that never came. I was also dreading an email from the organiser cancelling the event or perhaps turning it into a run-only race.

When the email eventually arrived, about 36 hours before the start time, I was pleasantly surprised. There would be changes, but not as many as I feared, and about 4.5km of the originally planned 7km of swimming would be retained. At the event briefing on the Friday evening before the race, the organisers said they planned to keep the swims in the more sheltered bays, but those facing the incoming weather front were dropped.

The event briefing is worth a mention. Firstly, it’s compulsory, so make sure you factor that into your planning. You will need to stay overnight if you’ve travelled. More importantly, they provide food, and you get the opportunity to meet some of your fellow participants.

Swimrun Wales has a ridiculously early start. The shuttle bus set off from Amroth at 5am, in the dark, and dropped us in Freshwater East about 30 minutes later. From there, we climbed a hill to the start line, in a windswept field on a cliff top. It was now light enough to appreciate the view, which is amazing, while we huddled like penguins, trying to shelter from the gale blowing straight off the Atlantic. There is a bag drop at this point. Organised people had brought changing robes or warm clothes. The rest of us got cold and wet. The start signal couldn’t come soon enough.

The first run was an easy descent to the beach at Freshwater East, and barely long enough to warm up. We then plunged into the ocean for a 950m swim across the bay, which was lumpy but not too taxing.

By the time we finished that, the rain had set in. Credit where credit is due: Wales can do rain. We had lashings of it. Torrential, heavy, horizontal, just about any variation of rain, except for gentle. There was none of that. But, if you were to pick a sport where rain could be advantageous, then swimrun would be a good choice. Running in a wetsuit no longer feels stupid when it’s belting down. Plus the rain softens the ground, which makes running in minimalistic trail shoes a lot more comfortable than the hard-baked ground we’ve had at other events this year.

Anyway, run 2 was 9.95km along the coastal path, which has a few ups and downs, as coastal paths often do. The original route had this run split into two, with a swim across the beautiful bay at Manorbier, but this was one of the swims that had to be dropped. We ran across the beach instead.

At Lydstep, we crossed the start line for the sprint event, which was due to begin. In the supportive atmosphere of swimrun, people waiting for their race cheered us on. We then re-entered the water for swim 2, another bumpy 900m.

Run 3, another long one at 6.93km, took us all the way to Tenby but not before leading us over some high and exposed cliffs. Here, the wind was so strong that we were blasted by the rain. My race partner described it as “wind and needles”. I pulled my swim cap over my ears to protect them and at one point briefly put my goggles back on. At least the wind was mostly from the side and behind, rather than against us.

At Tenby, we had our most challenging swim. When the tide is out, you can run on the sand between South Beach and Castle Beach. But the tide was in and we had to swim. I’m a confident swimmer, as is my race partner. We both like swimming in waves. But we hesitated here. These were not predictable surfing waves but a seething mass of angry water smashing against the cliffs. Once we’d summoned up the courage to plunge in, it was fun, but progress was slow. Luckily the water support team were there on jet skis to show us the way and even dragged us a short distance at the end to help us back to the beach. Then, after a brief recovery jog through Tenby, we went back into the water at North Beach, which was sheltered from the wind and pancake flat in comparison.

Next, another 5.4km run, again up onto the cliffs, out onto exposed fields, then tricky descents through woods, on paths now flowing with water and criss-crossed with exposed and slippery tree roots. Care was needed. At the feed station in The Glen, they told us the Amroth swim was now cancelled so the 1.1km swim to Saundersfoot was our final dip. This was followed by a welcome flat stretch of path through tunnels under the cliffs, another climb on a road and final descent to Amroth. With the final swim removed, the last stretch was now a straightforward run along a flat road, which was both a relief – as the sea was wild – and a disappointment for those of us who are stronger swimmers than runners. But that’s the nature of swimrun. Could we have caught the team in front if the final swim had been there? Possibly. Did it matter? No. We still had a fabulous day.

Swimrun Wales is up there with the more challenging swimruns in the UK. The organisation was smooth, the marshals cheerful despite standing around in the rain for hours, and the feed stations well-provisioned. The race served up a good mixture of runs across different terrain, spectacular views and decent length swims. If I have a slight criticism, it’s that I would like swims that take you around headlands, from one beach to another, rather than across bays. But I also realise that would make water safety more challenging and expose more of the swimming to the risk of cancellation. I was impressed they were able to retain as much swimming as they did, given the weather. It’s not alliterative but my single word to sum up the Wales Swimrun 2023 was “epic”.

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Did I mention the rain?

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Still smiling despite the rain (or because of it)

The weather was better in 2022 (this is one of the swims we couldn't do in 2023)