Fresh from competing in the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship earlier this month, swimrun athlete Rhian Martin joins me on the blog. A former GB triathlete, Rhian also represented Wales in duathlon and swimming before work in investment banking led her to leave competitive sport. Fast-forward to today and Rhian and her husband, Ben, are a force to be reckoned with on the swimrun scene, ranking third overall in the mixed category world rankings.
Rhian, who now runs her own personal training business, chats to me about her love of swimrun, how she and her husband juggle training with the school run, and the crazy swimrun conditions she competes in.
Photo: Breca Swimrun
Firstly, how was your ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Champs experience this year?
Against our race in 2017 we noted that the competition has stepped up – we’re now competing against true swimrun professionals who are ex-Olympians, current World Adventure Race champions, world multi-sport champions, professional triathletes and lots of world record holders – across 22 nations. We could sense the raw talent in the room! Swimrun is one of fastest growing endurance sports in the world with well over 400 global events.
On the day, we swam between – and ran over – 24 islands in the Swedish Archipelago. The total distance was 75 kilometres of which 10km was open-water swimming and 65km extreme trail running. ÖTILLÖ is ranked as one of the toughest single day endurance races in the world!
What was the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship course like?
Whilst the weather was favourable this year – making the swimming enjoyable and fast – the running terrain was as technical and challenging as ever. Rocks, more rocks, climbing over trees, roots, stones, sand, marshes – it took 60km of racing before we hit our first a bit of tarmac!
As usual in endurance racing, you go through some incredible highs and lows during the race, and that’s where teamwork and mental strength play a huge factor. The island of Orno, about two thirds into the race, is appropriately named ‘Island of hell’ due to the 20km run across it. Never have we been happier to slide down rocks in to a cold, 15-degree ocean to stop the pain of running!
In summary, whilst the running was tough, we smashed the swims and it was an honour to line up with some of the world’s best endurance athletes.
You came top UK mixed team and 15th mixed team overall – was that the result you’d hoped for?
Initially, we were a little disappointed as we felt it didn’t reflect our true position in the world, but when you put it into perspective we have to be proud of what we’ve achieved after overcoming setbacks. I suffered a career-threatening injury in late 2017 and then this year, Ben got pneumonia. It got worse before it got better as I then twisted my other ankle on a training run in France in July – with only 6 weeks to go before the race. But who said it was going to be easy!
The World Championship event is weighted towards runners rather than swimmers (we are better swimmers) and the Scandinavians are able to train on this terrain all the time – 80 percent of the teams that beat us are from, or live in, Scandinavia. But we walk away with our heads held high as we left everything out on the course and we could not have done anything more – we were 51 minutes faster than last year!
You’re also still ranked highly in the swimrun world rankings?
We’re currently ranked as no.3 in the world swimrun mixed team rankings – this is based on our cumulative 2 year points total. It includes four podium finishes in the World Series ÖTILLÖ events, where we’re really good as there is more swimming and less running.
You’ve been a GB triathlete plus a duathlete and swimmer for Wales. How did you get into swimrun?
Having competed internationally and nationally up to the age of 22, I then left top level sport and started an investment banking career in London. Fast-forward 12 years, and following the birth of our second child I wanted a career that could fit around the children, so I retrained as a personal trainer and started a fitness business. Post-children, I upped my fitness and qualified and competed in the British Marathon Championship. One day a client came to me, saying he was competing in ÖTILLÖ swimrun – I Googled it, trained him for it and the seed was sown!
In 2015, by chance, Votwo Events held the inaugural UK ÖTILLÖ swimrun sprint series at Eton Dorney Lake, just down the road from us. I persuaded my husband to enter. We won the series and won entry in to an ÖTILLÖ World series event in Switzerland. We haven’t looked back!
How did your first swimrun compare to your triathlons – were there learning curves and any mistakes you made as a swimrun newbie?
The biggest change is that you’re doing everything with a partner, unlike triathlon when it’s just you. You even get disqualified if you separate more than 10 metres apart in a race. The learning curve was huge, from working out what kit worked for us – you have to carry everything from the start to the finish line – to nutrition, to working as a team and managing so many transitions (there were 48 in the World Championships!).
For those who don’t know just how tough swimrun races are, tell us what they’re comparable to?
Compared to both half and full Ironman triathlons, swimrun events tend to be similar in length – taking 5-10 hours depending on the course. The terrain, and often the weather, for swimrun is what makes these events harder. And yes, I have done an ironman!
The running is often extremely tough trail running, and often not even actual trails – rocks, forests, beaches, pebbles and sand dunes. Also often hilly.
When swimming in the sea we’ve had rip tides, currents and huge waves – if it was a triathlon the swim would be cancelled. We’ve also had to swim in very cold water – as cold as 9 degrees in lakes in Germany! Having said all of that, we’ve seen some spectacular places with stunning scenery that most people would not get to experience.
How often do you and Ben replicate the open water/run transitions in training? I imagine it’s tough to fit in?
Yes, we have children aged 6 and 8, so training together can be tough, especially as the lakes by us aren’t open in school hours! In the run-up to competitions, we’re very lucky that family and friends help us out so we can get some key 2-3 hour swimrun sessions in. We also plan our holidays so we can get some decent open water swimruns in!
What does a typical week of training look like during swimrun race season?
We tend to train on average 3 hours a day, 6 days a week with Sunday being a 100% family day. We will combine swimming, running, some cross training (turbo), strength and conditioning and two yoga sessions a week. Each evening we stretch and roller for around 30 minutes before bed – a program that’s been designed for us by our physios, The Drummond Clinic.
Is a lot of your swim training in open-water or do you mostly train in the pool?
Most of our open water swimming is in lakes. We combine endurance open water swimming, tethered together, with quality interval sessions in the pool. And we always include drills in our pool work!
What kind of running do you do as part of your swimrun training?
Running is a mixture of trail and roads as well as intervals, tempo, hills and fartlek. Due to injuries we don’t do that high mileage to protect our bodies.
How do you fuel and hydrate during a swimrun?
Whilst you have to carry all your kit, including running in your wetsuit and swimming in your trainers, swimrun organisers do provide feed and hydration stops on the course. Depending on the length of the race, we will carry all the gels we need to fuel us and take on liquid at the stations as we’re focused on speed. However, for longer races we will top-up from feed stations.
We use Clif gels to fuel us. For hydration, we’re lucky that our sponsors, Precision Hydration, provide their electrolytes at the feed stops at Otillo branded races. For other races, we pre-load on their electrolytes and carry salt tablets.
You’ve got two young children and you and Ben both train – does fitting it all in take some juggling?
In a nutshell, yes! Aside from some help occasionally from family and friends we do not have any childcare, so we plan each week and tag team school drop offs/pick-ups so we can optimise training time. For example, one of us will go for an early morning 5K pool swim whilst the other gets the kids up, fed and drops them at school. Luckily, Ben has been working from home for the last three years which means we can do this and spend lots of quality time with the kids. However, going forward he’s going to be working in London, so we’re going to have to be even more effective about fitting our training in!
In triathlon you hear about jelly legs running off the bike, but in swimrun do you have a similar thing moving from swim to run?
No – but I guess we are used to it, as there are so many swim to running transitions!
Which has been your most memorable swimrun event, and which has been the toughest?
All our swimrun races are memorable as each race is so different – ÖTILLÖ, who run the World Series and Championships, provide “unique races in unique places” and this is certainly the case! The Breca Swimrun races are also in stunning locations.
My favourite location for the swimrun is the Isle of Scilly – beautiful Caribbean-like beaches and unspoilt islands, plus very friendly locals. We have podiumed twice there.
The toughest race was last year’s ÖTILLÖ World Championship in Sweden – aside from being 65km of extreme trail running and 10km of sea swimming it was the weather that made it even harder. 40-knot winds, huge waves, heavy rain, rip tides, slippery rocks and cold seas! I’m pretty sure if that had been in the UK the race would have been cancelled.
Have you had any hairy moments during a swimrun event?
Yes, quite a few! In the World Series in Hvar, Croatia, we managed to get lost on an island for an hour!
In last year’s World Championships in Sweden, there was a large sea lion swimming underneath us on one of the swims – initially I thought it was a shark. We swam fast on that leg! In the same race there were a couple of rip tides that took swimmers out so far they had to be rescued by boats and were thus disqualified from the race. We decided to swim at a 45-degree angle against the rip current to make it to the swim exit. It was a very short swim – about 100 metres – so we looked at each other before we jumped in and agreed to go ‘full gas’, repeating what we do in our favourite 100m swim training sets!
What are your favourite items of kit for swimrun racing and training?
We use special swimrun wetsuits from Zone3. A lot of thought and testing have been put in to these suits to make running in them as comfortable as possible. They have front zippers, neoprene panels for ease of movement and are cut off above the knee. They also have calf guards to give feet additional support, as well as front and rear pockets for all our energy gels.
Sighting is crucial in Swimrun as, unlike triathlon, there are often no buoys to sight from – just a flag or similar on the other side of the swim. Photo-chromatic goggle lenses are good as they give you better visibility in changeable weather conditions.
Wearing the right socks is also key – they need to be supportive but light and drain easily. We use Gococo ones which have been especially made for swimrun. I also do all my running training sessions in them.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
We are very lucky to have support and help from our sponsors: The Drummond Clinic, (mending our bodies on a frequent basis!), Precision Hydration, (huge supplies of hydration products, which are so important for training for these races), Zone 3 (excellent swimrun kit – we go through quite a lot of it!), Clif bar (fuelling our adventures) and Gococo sportswear (protecting our feet). I have also recently become an ambassador tor Sundried, an ethical but premium range of sportswear.
What’s on the horizon for you next in your racing?
The swimrun calendar now runs all year with events in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, however, the World Series is from April to October with World Championships in September. Having had a challenging year injury-wise, we’re going to recover and go back to base work and strength and conditioning.
I will be racing a number of off-road races over the winter. Next year’s swimrun targets are not finalised yet but we will be focusing on Isle of Scilly World Series, Cannes World Series and Breca Jersey.
To find out more about Rhian’s personal training business visit www.rhianmartinfitness.com.