I'm back home from an extraordinary event, about as far West as you can go in the UK, and I'm still taking in the enormity and excitement of it all: the Ötillö Isles of Scilly SwimRun.
What follows is a longer than normal blog post. I ran out of energy actually doing it but gained so much, some of which is captured here. So see if you can read on and then share with others (or just skip to the great photos).
Ötillö are the pioneers of SwimRun, a rapidly growing endurance sport like no other. Originating in Sweden, the format is to swim and run as a team of two, always staying within 10 metres of each other. You swim in your trainers, with the option of paddles and being tethered to your partner and run in your (adapted) wetsuit, going from the water to one land mass and on to the next. And the Isles of Scilly SwimRun takes in a big, daunting circuit of the islands, with strong currents and rugged trails, all adding up to 8kms of open sea swimming and 30kms of trail running. Oh, and against tough cut-off times along the way. Quite a challenge!
At the closing ceremony one of the Race Directors said we had shared our souls, bringing ourselves to a beautiful, natural environment and being with each other; and that we would be changed by the experience - maybe gushy for some but there was a general murmur of agreement all around the marquee where we were all sprawled out, exhausted, elated and taking in what we had done.
I'm not embarrassed to say that for me it was a deep, emotional and immensely enriching experience. If soul is about our innermost selves I certainly brought mine to the place and shared it, being wholly immersed in the extraordinary natural environment, going to new limits and beyond whilst also drawing on and being touched by the energy and enormous good will of others.
At One with Nature:
A big theme of Ötillö is the connection to nature. Strict rules apply about not leaving any rubbish behind. Collapsible cups you can carry with you are provided to cut out the waste of plastic at every energy station. And there's an emphasis on respecting and caring for our environment beyond the event.
For me, I was taken away with how beautiful and unspoilt the Isles of Scilly are: gorgeous white sand beaches, crystal clear water and a breathtaking wildness of trails and coastal footpaths. Even in some of the hardest and most challenging parts, such as running along the energy sapping sandy beaches, clambering over rocks or grappling with dense seaweed, it felt exhilarating just to be there.
The leading American Sports Psychologist Michael Gervais talks about creating living masterpieces - an idea we've taken up in Confidence Centred Coaching. Here we were totally immersed in each and every moment, bringing out the best in ourselves in the most idyllic environment imaginable. It felt like being given a present of seeing just how far you could run and swim in an inspiring paradise of marine life and stunning landscapes. If you're going to create a living masterpiece this is about as good a setting for it.
Energy from Others:
Another Ötillö theme is around the idea of working together as a team of two. All the sports events I've done and coached others for so far have been very much about solo efforts - on one's own, drawing on every inner resource against a terrain, or clock or competing against others. Here key to the success is working together, supporting each other through the event. And what a great partner Rose was.
As the stronger swimmer, I led the way with Rose close behind in my slipstream. What a terrific rhythm we kept going - even being admired by one of the Race Directors as we set off on our last swim. I'd be looking at my hands as I reached and rolled forward, slicing through the water; in the next instant looking at the underwater forests of exotic seaweeds and occasional blue jelly fish floating by in the currents; a brief head up to make sure we were on course; and then a look back to check behind on Rose. Come the runs and Rose largely set the pace, getting us into consistent steady pace and urging me on - particularly when I over-heated on the penultimate and hardest longer run.
There was also a lovely boost from seeing my partner, Anne, twice on the two edges of the last island. Her exuberant enthusiasm helped lift us both when certainly I was close to my limit (and soon to go beyond it!). She also subtly reminded us about the importance of continuing to communicate with each other.
Worth saying there was also a real sense of all the participants encouraging and supporting each other. The Ötillö ethic is so much about enjoying the natural space and working together that one can't help but feel part of something bigger and more communal than just your own team.
The First Shall be Last and the Last First:
Now, this last bit takes me even further into new territory.
Rose and I started right at the back of the first run to conserve our energy for the long day ahead, then overtook lots of teams on the first swim, making the first cut-off without really needing to think about it. Four islands and several tough hours on and we just made the second cut-off by three minutes, being the last team to avoid being stopped at that point. We then struggled round the hardest run (or rather I struggled and Rose remained strong), making the final cut-off by six minutes and resiliently holding on to our position at the back.
With the pressure off we could relax a little - although the longest swim of almost 3kms and a final 7.5km run lay ahead. And what an experience! Over that last long swim we were escorted along the way by a growing flotilla of safety crafts and kayaks. Then on to the final run and everyone at the aid stations, marshals and even watching spectators seemed elated to see us through.
And what a reception we got as we crossed the finish line! A compere thrust a microphone in my face to ask how we felt as the last to make it. I cheekily answered by correcting him on his choice of the L word: Rose and I were not last, we were the "first final finishers."
Enormous thanks to Michael and Mats, Directors of Ötillö and everyone else involved in their remarkable team. As I gushingly told one of you, you have created a space in which people can connect with nature, with themselves and others and feel joyously alive.
Special thanks too to Anne and everyone on St Martin's Campsite (very strongly recommended!) for all their support and encouragement, especially Ben & Caroline, Ros & Steve (who took some of the super photos). Bri Tri Club mates Matt and Graeme also did the event, so great to share our nerves before and celebrations afterwards.
I've been touched by all the expressions of support from friends and Bri Tri Club members - many thanks.
And, avoiding the L word, final finisher and not least, big thanks to Rose for being such great company, never more than 10 metres away throughout the day. We did it!