Hokey Cokey (UK, October 2015)

Cornwall is at the South-West tip of England. A rather isolated region, its coast is rugged and wild. It is best known for surfers, walkers on the coastal path, and its Cornish pastries. That’s where the first edition of the ‘Hokey Cokey’ took place in October 2015, a sprint swimrun of 12km. It is remarkable by the proportion of swim (4km) to run (8km). On paper it seems to be an easy race advantaging strong swimmers. However one should not underestimate the toughness of the run course despite its short distance. The famous coastal path serpentines up and down along the coast, going from beaches to the tops of numerous cliffs. This will not be easy. Another interesting feature of this race is that it as a solo effort. First solo swimrun for me.

The Hokey Cokey. 'A sprint start'
‘A sprint start’

The start, like the rest of this race, is a low key affair. We line up under the start-finish banner in a large green field. 1, 2, 3 GO! The first 100 metres is a mad sprint to pass a first narrow gate. The bottleneck slows down the field, and although I thought I sprinted, at least 13 guys are in front of me. We take a short portion of road before joining a single trace trail. The first group is clearly too fast for me and I try to forget the excitement of the start to settle down into a more realistic rhythm. The first run section is the longest at 4km and leads us to the western extremity of the course. We go up and down, zigzagging as the trail tightly follows the contour of the cliffs. We drop down to the charming tiny port of Charlestown, more of an open air museum than an active port. But there’s no time to admire the beautiful old boats. But there’s no time to admire the beautiful old boats as we climb again to the top of the next cliff I am in a little group and nobody wants to slow down. As the start of a swimrun, this is way more intense to what I am used to! Finally we drop down to the Porthpean beach for the first swim. My transition is shockingly slow; focusing on running fast I am not ready and I lose those few seconds so painfully gained on the hills.

Charlestown port
Charlestown port

The water is not too cold (everything is relative…), but the waves are chaotic. It’s hard to find a rhythm as we swim along the wild coast. This 1.2 km swim feels long, maybe the consequence of a fast start. A kayak shows us the way and we turn left toward the Charleston port. Landing is a bit hard with a nice swell hitting us just when we don’t need it. A very quick drink at the minimalist (but sufficient) aid station, still no time to look at the old rigs (the touristic trip is for this afternoon. I realised then that I had no idea I had run along a very nice boat, sure sign of being in the red zone). After a little run on a firm sandy beach we dive in for the 1.7 km swim leading us to Carlyon Beach.

I jump in the water with two other competitors who stay way clear of the rocks when I decide to go for the shortest route, even if swimming close to the rocks where the waves are smashing does keep your heart pumping. The waves and tide are against us and we make slow progress. I swim with power into the waves, more of a tug boat than a speed

boat, but eventually I find a good rhythm. I can’t see my two mates and I conclude that my choice in navigation was good. I am beginning to enjoy the race and the scenery, swimming along the deserted notched coast. A last rocky spur hides the next beach and it is therefore difficult to estimate the remaining distance. Getting around another rock I finally see the beach and land rapidly. I look behind, but it’s impossible to know if the competition is close.

Carlyon Beach
Carlyon Beach

During a swimrun I often want to run at the end of a long swim, and vice versa. Therefore I was eager to run on this 1 km Carlyon Beach. Well, after maybe 100m I was ready to go back into the water! The sand is shifty providing no stable ground. Each step is a fight as my feet sink into the sand and I feel like I’m making zero progress. I try to find solid ground, going down toward the edge of the sea, then up to the land. It’s a waste of time, I can’t find any surface to run on. I carry on, slowly and short of breath. Finally after what feels like a Sisyphean torture I reach the end of the beach. A short sharp hill leads me to the top of … yes, another cliff where we turn right toward the East. Lungs and legs are burning, but the view compensates a bit. It is really a splendid area. The coastal path drops down to the tiny Spit Beach where we start the last swim.

At last the waves and current are pushing us! Real bliss. I feel like I know how to swim! The waves are still present but we can surf to go back to the end of the now infamous Carlyon Beach where we thankfully don’t run down the beach but rather we take again the little sharp hill. At the top, we turn left, and run towards the finish. We run on the edge of a golf course. The contrast between sweaty swimrunners running in wetsuits and the golfers in pastel polos is… interesting. Finally we exit the golf course and reach the field where we started. I finish with a respectable 10th place in 2h13. David Bartlett and Verna Lee won in 1h41 and 2h20 respectively.

This format of solo swimrun has pros and cons. The organisation is easier as there is no need to find a partner, and the race is exclusively about you. On the other hand we lose the warm feeling of camaraderie specific to team races. The rather short distance is somewhat misleading due to the challenges in swimming and running. However such individual short races are ideal for beginners who want to try swimrunning, before maybe going onto longer distances. The organisation of ‘Mad Hatters‘ is minimalist but efficient and spirited. This first edition was a success and should be repeated in 2016.
Race web site: http://madhattersportsevents.co.uk/

François-Xavier Li

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