There’s a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the King is talking to his son, the Prince.
The father talks about how the kingdom before him will belong to his son one day, about how he will marry and gain huge swathes of land. The Prince says weakly, “But father, I don’t want any of that, I just want to sing”.
This is pretty much how I felt throughout Breca Jersey. I didn’t want to run fast or swim quickly, I just wanted to enjoy the outdoors and pootle around.
Let’s not kid ourselves, I was woefully unprepared for the 47 kilometres of running and 6.5k of swimming but I was also fairly sure I could muddle my way through in an average time.
The thing that I’d forgotten to account for was the fact that Breca (named after the guy who beat Beowulf in a swimming contest) is done with a partner and you’re not allowed to be more than 10m apart from each other or you face disqualification.
Enter Simon “Finchy” Finch. Fresh off a sub 5 hour half Ironman and not an ounce of fat on him, he was the Arnie to my Danny DeVito. Where I was happy to powerwalk up the hills and coast along the flats, he attacked them with relentless energy the Duracell bunny would’ve been proud of.
During our training, I got loads of personal bests by almost literally being dragged along the north coast of Jersey. I even threw up on myself during a swim after a couple too many the night before.
So you get the idea. Chalk and cheese. Yin and yang. Etc. etc.
But come race day, I’d dropped a couple of pounds, felt strong and injury free. Hanging out in Jim’s lounge just below the start at Gorey Castle, I was relaxed and looking forward to the challenge. As my new favourite quote says, “nothing good ever came from being cosy and comfortable” (Alex Honnold).
Time to clip in
From Castle Green, it would’ve been a quick sprint to the first swim if there weren’t 280 people running along the road in wetsuits, swim caps and goggle – some like us tied together with luminous rope. I’d love to know what any onlookers thought we were doing.
As it was just after low tide, we ran left towards the rocks and got in the water quickly. It was an incredible sight: hundreds of hands windmilling through the dark water, churning it into froth while ahead heavy grey skies were underlit by the rising sun while sheets of rain passed on their way to France.
The adrenaline and the relatively calm waters made for a quick swim and fast exit past the red and white tower Martello Tower at Archirondel. This part of the course involved short runs and shortish runs so we kept our wetsuits done up and rope clipped in as we headed north towards St. Catherines pier.
It was after this that things began to feel like they might get away from me. Every ultrarunner knows that you walk the hills. I just clearly hadn’t told Finchy. The climb out of Fliquet was a time to eat and drink, not push on but I felt pressure to try so did a painfully slow jog around to the top of the hill before catching up properly and catching my breath.
Dropping down through bushes of thorns past La Couperon dolmen was to be our first tough swim. By now the swell was rising and the northerly wind would be a battle. If nothing else, Breca has made me an expert in weather and tides.
During our training, we encountered some beastly weather but as horrible as it was at the time, it gave me confidence for nearly all eventualities so across Rozel Harbour and up another hill. This was the beginning of the end of my enjoyment for a looooooong time.
I’m usually a pretty positive “athlete” but on the north coast I found myself praying for the cooling respite of the sea while overcooking on the run and then desperately searching for the end of the churning swells and arrhythmic exertion in the water. Even the respite of transition seemed to be a chore as we pushed on.
After the second of these brutal swims, our path took us past the cruellest of sights: a sign pointing left to the finish of the sprint distance while we went right to another aid station and the beginning of nearly 17 miles of running with only one swim to break it up.
Again, running should be my strong point but there’s a difference between popping out for an hour on your own and running a marathon while wearing a wetsuit. Despite my fear of properly blowing up, we kept up a pace of roughly 10 minutes per miles along the beach, it was still tough for me but must’ve have felt like watching a sloth to Finchy (who has a sub 3 marathon in the bank).
For someone who has a habit of listening to dubious music at the darkest points, it was refreshing to be accompanied by Scoff by Nirvana on repeat for the remainder of St Ouen’s although the chorus of “give me back my alcohol” may have both a cry for help and the reason that I was feeling so terrible and running so slowly.
And it got slower and slower. I thought I had fuelled alright up to that point but suddenly the lack of carbohydrate in my body meant that my legs had all but given up and my head was getting fuzzy.
I was walking slowly, feet dragging just above the path and wobbling towards the gorse bushes, barely registering forward movement for what seemed like hours. It was like a slow death had finally caught up with me and I was disappearing in front of my own eyes. That might sound overly-dramatic but even when we got to the aid station above Beauport, I could see people looking at me with a “he’s not doing well but we need to be supportive” look! I took on two gels, lots of sweets and finally succeeded at putting crisps in my face.
All this time, Finchy was trying to keep me going with endless positivity and I was grateful, even if I couldn’t muster the energy to respond. We headed down into the bay, across golden sand and looked out on halcyon flat water. This had been my first ever Breca training swim and it almost put me off from the beginning. But today it was serene and despite my fumbling hands struggling with goggles and caps, the water looked cool and inviting.
It was better than cool, it was revelatory. It was like entering the water brought back all my senses, flushing out any negativity and replacing it with a reminder of why I do these things to myself. I was reborn. We swam comfortably through gaps in the rocks, looking down with crystal clear vision to the watch the seabed pass by. Getting out at St. Brelades, the tide had receded to the extent that we did not have to climb the hill separating it from Ouaisne. And once at the top of Portelet Common, I looked back to see the closest team still on the beach below.
With less than a mile to run and a short swim, they wouldn’t catch us.
So across the common, down among soft pine needles and over barely touched paths to the rocks below where we saw another team preparing to get in to the water. Our arrival hurried their departure and although the competitive glint was back in Finchy’s eyes, I wasn’t bothered about catching them. I was just ecstatic that I’d recovered from probably the lowest I’d gone in any of my races to actually enjoy these final steps and strokes.
On Portelet beach, Vic, David, Katie and Olivia were waiting. If you’ve ever thought whether cheering people on makes a difference, you have no idea how much it means and how much it can lift spirits, even if we don’t show it.
In my heart I thanked them although by the sounds of it I just ran straight past. Over the beach and up to the stairs: “all the way up, we can beat them” cried Finchy.
And while my heart was willing, my legs were laughably lacking. No more than five steps were attacked before I realised it was folly. Finchy tried in vain to literally drag me up the final few metres. I wouldn’t have got this far without him and he was still encouraging me on – you gotta love a trier!
Up to the top, a second to compose yourself and through into the finishing funnel – probably the hardest things I’ve ever done. Done.
Such is the nature of endurance events (or possibly my nature) that I immediately hated and loved what I had been through. I spoke to Ben who founded Breca and tried to explain, badly, what a weird, horrible, amazing sport it was.
At the finish line, family and friends stood to cheers on all finishers while chatting about their experiences during the preceding hours. We’d finished in 8:28 and 19th place and I was still talking to Finchy so it was a success in my eyes!
And what an amazing idea to finish at a pub. Why aren’t more races designed like that? Never has a cider tasted better.
I won’t be rushing to complete another full distance one but to think that I swam 6.5k (5k more than I’ve swum in any race before) while running an ultramarathon – swimming in trainers and running in a wetsuit – is a fact of which I am immensely proud. The fact that Finchy managed to get me to do it in under 9 hours and I’m still talking to him is a testament to his fitness and probably that I wasn’t quick enough to smack him when I did feel like it.
Honestly though, thanks mate. Couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without you!