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Training Day: Help! SwimRunning has taken over my life

Training Day: Help! SwimRunning has taken over my life

By Nancy Heslin - October 10, 2016

Facing my last day big SwimRun training today
Not amused. My last big SwimRun training Saturday.

After 12 weeks of progressively heavy training for an inaugural SwimRun taking place outside of Berlin at the end of the month, today was my last Saturday spending 7 hours running and swimming along the coast from Nice to Antibes and back again.

I’m not going to lie, it was tough. Not so much physically (well, maybe a little) but on the mental side. I couldn’t get my head in the game and, as I’m sure anyone who has ever prepared for an endurance race would agree, that last big day is boring, you just want it to be finished so you can get your personal life and weekends back.

For those of you who don’t know about SwimRunning, it’s a relatively new sport, started ten years ago by a group of four Swedes who, no surprise, made a drunken bet to swim and run across 26 islands in Sweden’s archipelago. The concept was marketed by two Swedish adventure racers, Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott, and the race, which is 65 km of running alternating with 10 km of open water swimming, officially became known as Ötillö – meaning island to island – in 2006. The dusk to dawn race was awarded the title of “one of the toughest endurance races in the world” by CNN and is now the World Championship SwimRun, for which there are 5 official Ötillö qualifying races, in Üto (Sweden), Engadin (Switzerland), Scilly (UK), 1000 Lakes (Germany, which is 35 km of running and 10 km open water swimming with 11 transitions) and, as of next year, Hvar (Croatia). For more, read my article in N for Norwegian Airlines Magazine September 2016.

The thing that’s cool about SwimRunning, apart from the literally sinus-numbing 8°C to 10°C Baltic Sea temps and the bragging rights of swimming in your runners and running in your wetsuit, is that you have to compete in a team of two, for safety reasons.

Our introduction to SwimRunning was in Üto, Sweden, where the sea was 8°C.
Our introduction to SwimRunning was in Üto, Sweden, where the sea was 8°C.

Training as a duo can be complicated but make that partner your spouse, and it’s a whole other ball game. Last year, my husband and I trained for two SwimRuns, Üto at the end of May and Ötillö in early September. We were close to begin with and those months tightened the knot even more. Try spending 5-7 hours SwimRunning with your spouse on a Saturday, followed by a 20 to 24 km run the next morning and then a 6-7 km swim on Monday. It’s like a decade of “date nights” compressed over 12 weekends, complicated by the fact that if you run or swim at difference paces, you have to be patient and work it out. If one of you is having a fast physical day while the other is crashing, you can’t just bail and say “see you at home” (well, I have done this before in marathon training but my sportsmanship has matured since then). I joke with people and say it’s the best form of marriage counselling.

But then I am lucky because my husband is not a competitive guy. I only picked up running to do a marathon to mark my 40th birthday. When I decided to give Ironman France, held in Nice, a go, I needed to learn how to ride (I hadn’t been on a bike since my family moved when I was six). My husband has done endurance running and a few Ironman events so he uncomplainingly took me out to get comfortable riding with traffic and cycling on cliff edges. I would scream and brake descending and he would stop every so often and wait, smiling. He has never sighed out loud or rolled his eyes at me. Admittedly, I can’t say the same in turn.

We also share a common goal, to finish the race. We are not fast or young. My husband teaches history at the Patrick Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Sophia Antipolis. He’s been working there for years and the students know him as the sporty teacher who every year gives himself a physical challenge, say a run like the 100 km de Millau or the Connemara 160 km in Ireland. A few days ago one of the kids, who is a gifted athlete and often wins tournaments  asked him what he was training for. When he replied a SwimRun in Germany, she said, “Great, do you think you’ll win your age category?” He laughed. “Well, do you think you’ll place then?” was her follow-up. Sure, maybe when we’re 70 and the only team competing in the mixed category. Until then, our PB is to make the cut-offs.

The advantage of training with your spouse is the shared level of fatigue, which inevitably dominoes across the week, affecting work, household chores, a strict meal plan (I sought advice from Séverine Olivie, a sports nutritionist at IM2S on avenue d’Ostende) and, yes, “adult time”. After five straight weekends with our Saturday peak training consisting of 35 km running and 8 km of swimming and then a half-marathon on Sunday, we are zonked.

It’s not as bad as training for Ötillö last summer, which was the second hottest summer ever recorded in France. We had to be up at 4 am and out the door by 5 to make the most of the “cooler” morning temperatures of 25°C!

This summer training has been unbearable for a different reason. The Bastille Day attack. For seven years, I lived half a block from the Negresco Hotel before moving a year ago, for fear of an attack of this type. I’m still less than 500 metres from the Promenade des Anglais, which I use every day between swimming, running, dog walking and cycling.

The majority of our training has always been east of Nice, to Villefranche and Monaco. But since July 14, neither of us have had the heart.

It’s hard to put into words the sadness of “the Prom”, it’s like she’s still weeping. The days following the atrocity, the pavement stained in human forms seeped blood in the summer sun. From Magnan to Jardin Albert 1er, there were improvised floral tombstones zigzagging the breadth of the Prom as far as the eye could see.

These memorials grew from a few flowers to pictures with names. Children that died had stuffed toys covering the tiny spot on earth where they fell; an entire family was killed by the bench where I sit to stare at the sea. How can you run on someone’s soul? Even today, I don’t know what to expect when I approach the Prom, what keepsake has been added by a grieving family member, how many candles are burning, you can’t escape what has happened here.

Driving over the patch of road between the Palais de la Méditerranée and the Negresco is no easier, even now, two months on. I cry each time, having walked, with thousands of others en route to the memorial on July 18, to pay respect to each of the victims who stopped breathing along that very 1 kilometre. It just hits you.

So we now head west and train towards Antibes. There are lots of open stretches of beachfront in Cagnes-sur-Mer and Villeneuve Loubet, although you encounter amusing facial reactions when you are running with hand paddles, a pullboy and wearing your swim cap with goggles along strips of seaside road. Men, often running or cycling by, stop to ask if we are training for a SwimRun and if we know of anyone they could partner with.

biteThen there’s the jellyfish. I first started swimming in the sea in 2013 and I was terrified of jellies. I used to imagine them hanging out in a large group, wearing berets and smoking, just waiting for me to approach them so they could sting away. My husband, again, good-naturedly, swam alongside me, enduring my screams of panic anytime I saw anything move below me (including my own air bubbles).

Fast forward three years, I swim through areas of jellyfish without a second thought. And although this summer has been exceptional in comparison to previous years, with very little presence of these gelatinous nuisances, I’ve been stung a bunch of times, including this afternoon. The worst was two weeks ago when a huge beast thought my shoulder was an all-you-can-eat buffet, leaving my upper arm numb for hours, and scarred. Still the ethos of SwimRunning is nature dictates. I’m in their way, not the other way round. Maybe we’re crazy in the head but if you’ve been stung (which feels like a bee sting) and you’ve soldiered on to complete your seven-hour workout, it’s like a badge of honour.


So why do we do it? We are dragging ourselves out of bed on the weekend to endure hours of SwimRunning? Swimming in the Med at sunrise. The coastal views running from Monaco to Nice. The hard-earned feeling of physical exhaustion. Having gauffres (bakery waffles) and cafés au lait post-workout. Doing something you love with someone you love.

To all those who were so kind to invite me to the many events and parties over the Yacht Show weekend, this goes out to you. I really did have a good excuse as to why I couldn’t be there.

Got a favourite run, bike route or swim or are you training for a race? Share your stories and photos with Monaco Life. Email:

First published October 4, 2016.

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