Meet Julia Andersen, endurance sports nut and mum to a 5-year-old daughter. A former GB Masters swimming record-holder, Julia discovered swimrun after her daughter was born and competes as a mixed pair with her husband, Martin. Together they’ve been crowned Breca Swimrun Sprint champions and last year finished the notoriously tough Ötillö World Championship – a mad combination of 6 miles of swimming and 40 miles of technical trail running.
With an impressive talent for endurance, Julia has enjoyed wins in triathlon, aquathlon, open water swimming and swimrun. Below, the 36-year-old tells me where it all started.
Tell me about your background – it started with swimming, right?
I originally started as a dancer, following my two older sisters who were already competing. From an early age, I was up on stage competing and doing ballet exams. I was also learning to swim and passed through the swim schemes into squad swimming. I was a latecomer to competitive swimming but quickly progressed through the groups reaching the top squad in my teens.
During that time, I juggled 3 dancing classes a week with 7 swimming sessions. Eventually, I had to make a decision [to drop one or the other] as progressing to the top swim squad meant 10 sessions a week and extra time in the gym. It was an easy decision and after 13 years I gave up the dancing.
How did your Masters GB records come about?
I moved into the Master’s squad to continue my love of the sport. Here I could still compete whilst working, and I managed to break two GB age-group records in both long and short course swimming. I was having fun and still continued to set personal bests. But in my mid-twenties, I lost the passion for swimming competitively and tailed off the galas to just train – something I’ve always enjoyed.
Do you think your swimming work ethic has contributed to your success in multi-sport racing?
Due to the large amount and longevity of [swim] training I used to do, I can now mentally cope with endurance events. Training in the pool helped me develop a big endurance base for all the sports I now do. It has also improved my lung function as I suffer from mild asthma.
You’ve podiumed in numerous open water races. Do you feel at home in open water?
Open water swimming was on my bucket list as a means of conquering a fear; I’m a pool swimmer and I like the lines on the bottom of the floor. The murky depths of lakes and oceans have, in the past, unleashed paranoias. My husband, on the other hand, loves open water. Entering an open water event is a great way of facing demons and I used my competitiveness to ignore my fears so that over time I have developed a love of ‘wild swimming.’ (Although swimming with jellyfish has yet to be fully conquered.) I don’t regularly train in open water, instead using events, holidays at the coast, and any willing babysitter to get that all-important fix.
How did you get into racing endurance sport?
I fell in love with the outdoors, dabbling in various sports like mountain biking, rock climbing and hiking. It wasn’t until we had our daughter that I started competing again and here I blame my husband for entering me into events. As a swimmer, my view on running was slightly negative, but my first event after giving birth was a 10km run and I surprised myself. Moving into triathlons required me to do some structured training – including running! I was tired of babysitting whilst my husband went out and did these events, and I found I had a natural aptitude for them.
You compete together in swimrun – how did you get into it?
I came across swimrun in a triathlon magazine and said to my husband, Martin, ‘This is the only way you will get me to run a marathon.’ Running is not my first passion, but I was getting faster in that department and I was curious. My husband needed no encouragement and was soon researching UK swimruns. Most people would start off small, but my husband jumped in with two feet and entered the most extreme UK event, BRECA Buttermere. We instantly fell in love with the sheer beauty of the environment and the technical trail running. The swimming was by far the easiest for us and so enjoyable doing a point-to-point course.
Which has been your most memorable swimrun event?
We’ve done quite a few events now, but you always return to the stunning beauty of the surroundings, the camaraderie with your teammate and that sense of wild adventure. The most technical terrain was in theÖtillöSwimrun World Championship in Sweden in 2019, with 6 miles of sea swimming and 40 miles of highly variable technical running. It was always going to be the hardest.
What’s it like having your husband as your racing partner?
I’m very lucky to be able to enjoy these swimrun events with my husband. It’s our way of spending quality time together whilst doing things that we both enjoy. Some couples go out for romantic meals, we choose to swimrun. Our racing team is pretty much equal. I’m the stronger runner but he’s more confident on technical ground. He usually leads in the swimming and happily clears away the jellyfish whilst I concentrate on slip-streaming him. Training is generally done separately, but every so often my amazing mum ensures we are able to train and compete together.
Have you had any race disasters over the years or has it all been plain sailing?
Oh yes, I learnt the importance of correct electrolyte balance during a hot event, the Isoman half-triathlon. Due to scheduling, we entered the run at the peak of the day. I had hydrated, but at 29C degrees, I lost all my electrolytes and was feeling extremely nauseous and sick. I was reduced to a walk for a small section (something I don’t like to do). I managed to finish and win but ended up in the medical tent afterwards going into severe cramping. Thirty minutes later I was still in that tent.
But the worst has to be the events that go wrong and you’re not sure why. This occurred the second time we did Breca Buttermere. Half-way up the big climb over Dales Head Pass, I had a pain in my stomach that did not subside. Both running and eating made it worse, but we had a long way to go to get to the end. It was my husband that got me through that day. It was very emotional for me crossing that line, as I felt I had let him down badly, losing out on a top-three finish. But it teaches you a lot about each other.
Running, swimrun, triathlon… What does a typical week of training look like?
I love – and need – to train and I don’t need any events or goals to motivate me. It’s probably a blessing and downfall. I train every day, a habit I picked up from the swimming regime. On weekdays, I cycle on a turbo trainer before my little girl gets up for school. This is followed by core exercises. Three days a week I get to do pool swimming with the masters group and these are usually double session days. Running is still mentally challenging, although it’s getting easier. I manage this twice a week. Friday is my easy day, but this tends to be my busiest day at work. It’s a lot of training, but the cross-training element is highly effective at keeping the body balanced and preventing major injuries.
Do you set goals when it comes to races and training or are you quite laidback?
Not needing goals to train is a bonus, but having goals helps structure my training. I still need to see what I can do in running as this holds my greatest potential. Having restricted time to compete means putting running to one side and choosing swimrun as my main event. I’m far more laidback about goals than my husband. He always has something he wants to achieve. I get more of a kick from challenges than events, seeing how far I can push my boundaries. Although I do get that small thought wondering how fast or far I can go.
You have a 5-year-old daughter – does this mean some tag-teaming between you and Martin in order to fit your respective training sessions in?
Yes, absolutely! Routine, getting up stupid-early and finally a bit of give and take from both sides, means a lot of solo training, but we can at least get our training in. There is always a way, one just has to find it.
Do you ever experience negative self-talk in races or are you quite good at staying positive?
I’m negative about entering events, but my husband just enters me and talks me around to giving it a go. I can overanalyse pre- and post-race too much, getting myself worked up. Usually, at the start line, I’m quite focused about the whole thing. When competing I’m a bit of both; we all get the black demon whispering in the ears, but I will always finish a race. You never know whether it will be a good day or not. I have the mental strength to never give up, but if the race isn’t going well, my usual motto is ‘just finish’.
You’re also a keen kitesurfer…
Kitesurfing is by far the best sport I have done! It has the extreme nature that I like and the absolute freedom of a big ocean. For a few years pre-kid, we were shooting off to the beach every weekend the wind forecast allowed. Sometimes just to stand on the beach awaiting a forecast that never came, other times trying to hold down the smallest kite in your quiver. Kitesurfing took us to some spectacular venues around the world. You have to be careful, knowing your limits and learn to read the weather, not just the app on your phone. But if the clouds roll in, you are playing with Mother Nature, and she will win every time.
Is this a hobby or do you compete?
The only time I entered a competition it was cancelled, so I kept kitesurfing as a passion. Being landlocked with our nearest kitesurfing beach 55 miles away, it was never going to progress to much more. I’m usually the only female on the beach but met some great friends through the sport. As with most things, parenting didn’t allow as much time on the water, having to take into consideration a little baby/child. Tag-teaming works to some extent but it seems that not many kids want to sit on the beach when sand is blowing in their face! Plus, the travelling wasn’t fun for a little one, so it was easier to turn to sports closer to home. When we can, we rent a property close to a kitesurfing beach for a long weekend to keep the levels topped up.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2020?
We’ve entered a few swimrun events and hope to enter more. We’re hoping that all niggles from last year can clear up before then. The Ötillö World Championship was an amazing race to do and we have unfinished business there; there’s a lot to improve on and we haven’t quite reached our potential yet. Just finishing was a great feeling and it was a privilege to be a part of that magnificent event. But that means qualifying again and fingers crossed we can do this.
We have a few friends who are passionate triathletes and it’s always a joy sharing an adventure with them. Hopefully, we can get some events with them sorted out this year. I enjoy the camaraderie and watching other people achieve their goals. This is what it makes these endurance events great; the people you meet along the way and pushing your own limits.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
He/she who dies with the most toys wins! What a great saying. I love gear, it’s part of the adventure. Who doesn’t love a shiny new kite or the latest wetsuit? I have to say, my kites and bikes are my favourite toys, followed by my snowboard which gets dusted off once a year. I seem to have a growing number of wetsuits but would rather go without as they always seem so restrictive to me. Having said that, as swimrun wetsuits are compulsory I’m getting used to them slowly.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No, but we have a great friend at Yonda who helps us out with swimrun wetsuits and we return the favour with product feedback as it is such a new developing sport.
You can follow Julia’s racing and training via her social media: www.instagram.com/juliaandersen38.