Updated: Mar 13
I have really missed racing so I was overjoyed to find that the SwimOxford swimrun was going ahead with Covid safety measures in place. I’ve done this race a couple of times in the past and it is small, friendly and always lifts the spirits. If you ask anyone about the memorable features of a SwimOxford race, they will most likely say the glorious cake stall at the end where competitors can have their choice from piles and piles of baked goods. However, because my partner, Inigo, and I are being extra Covid-cautious, we agreed we wouldn’t stay long at the finish, so I had to replicate the legendary SwimOxford cake stall experience myself. My dream stall would feature cinnamon buns so I decided to make my own to enjoy after the race. (If you love cinnamon buns you can read more about my bun-rating adventures here). If you’re here for the swimming and running, carry straight on to the race!
SwimOxford races are small but bustling and always full of good positive energy. With social distancing measures in place, we lined up in race number order for a rolling start at 15 second intervals instead of the usual good luck handshakes and bunched up start. I thought I’d miss the excitement of a mass start, but it was equally lovely to see us all do our own jump-step-hop variations into the water and start swimming off like a line of ducklings. After my duck jump, I joined the swimmers snaking up the Thames and was pleased to find my river swimming all summer had given me good open-water strength, as I started reeling in the swimmers ahead of me. It was like a game of stepping stones, seeing a swimmer in front, trying to get up to draft them, then onto the next.
Before I knew it I was at the ladder to climb out and onto the first run section into Wytham Woods. Running up into the woods, catching glimpses of fellow competitors round the bends and through the trees, made me appreciate the shared adventure of racing that I’d missed. We were spread out along the course but all moving in the same direction and with the same purpose, even if that was something other people might find odd, like swimming in your trainers and then running in your wetsuit! I was enjoying the run, even the inevitable hills (although they would come back to bite me later).
The race was on my local patch, and I am very lucky to be able to swim in the Thames and run in Wytham Woods all the time. However, doing a race makes you see them differently and transforms the everyday beauty into an adventure. There is always something unexpected. I kept hearing snatches of music and wondering if the marshalls had a radio on, or if the race exertion was starting to get to me. I emerged from the woods and Inigo handed me my drinks bottle. ‘Enjoy the music’, he said, enigmatically. Well at least I knew it wasn’t just me. Soon I saw where the music was coming from, as there was an explosion of circus tents and vans and an impromptu festival on the opposite river bank - all laid out with carefully socially distanced plastic chairs. The music seemed to be winding down as people headed to bed after a long night, but my race was just getting going. I was grateful to plunge back into the cool river at just the right moment when wetsuit-running was becoming too warm.
I settled into my rhythm for the second and longest swim. Right, time to catch those two competitors who had just passed me on the run! And another ahead of them. I really love this section of river, seeing the bends and banks from the water with a frog’s eye view. A quick hop out and 400m dash round the lock to get back in. This final swim section was the one I was most nervous about as I was worried about getting cold, but thankfully a week of September sunshine meant the river was warm(ish) and I didn’t feel any creeping cold in my fingers the whole way. The final swim exit was slippery and I couldn’t get a purchase on the river bank. The marshall maintained perfect Covid-protocol and directed me to a rope instead of trying to haul me out. I was glad to see Inigo there with his roving water and gel supply and helpful directions. I made my way over a lumpy field to start heading back to the woods for the final run. I was feeling pleased that I’d traversed the lumpy field because I’d been practising running on uneven ground, as I tend to prefer a smooth road for racing.
My uneven ground training was paying off as I felt braver running flat out down the downhill sections than I usually do. A cheery shout-out to the marshalls and on to a familiar path round the edge of the woods. Although I couldn’t feel smug for long as the people I’d passed on the swim were probably hunting me down.
Swimrun is a perfect event for social distancing as the pack tends to get stretched out depending on our strengths; for much of the race I was on my own enjoying the experience. It was good that I was on my own so no one saw me trip over and sprawl flat on my hands and knees. After all the uneven ground prep, I was undone by a flat, familiar section - embarrassing! Straight up with stinging knees and on with the very final part of the run which always seems to have far more uphills than the first time. My legs were starting to feel tired, and my brave downhills might have been cancelled out by my turgid uphills. I saw Inigo at the top of the final rise and made one last effort to run through to the finish line by the iconic Wytham Chalet. I was probably making an ‘urgh-hills’ face in the finish-line photo and SwimOxford’s ebullient organiser, Darrin, asked if I was OK. ‘Yes, my face just looks like this at the end of races’, I assured him cheerily. A few moments to catch my breath and wish my fellow racers well done, then a longing look at the cake stand, but it was time to go home for my own cinnamon buns. A huge thank you to Darrin and his SwimOxford crew for putting on a safe and fun event in a gorgeous location so we could experience the joy of racing again!
Post by Michelle Reid, competitor and former winner