Breca Gower race report: the solo swimrun experience

Narrowly avoiding Storm Evert, 220's Kate Milsom heads to the Gower for her first solo Breca Swimrun. Cue stunning scenery, rough coastal paths and choppy swims in the Atlantic.

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Breca Gower is an iconic race on the swimrun calendar and has been running since its inaugural event in 2017. Despite the 2020 event having to be cancelled due to Covid-19, a horde of 250 eager swimrunners descended on the infamous Mumbles on Saturday 31 July for the long-anticipated adventure race. Among them was 220‘s editorial assistant Kate, who attempts swimrun for the first time as a solo participant. 

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With no full distance race this year, all racers had their sights set on the 20km ‘sprint’ distance, which comprised of five runs totalling 17.9km and four swims covering 2.1km. Of course, the latter depends on how clean your swim lines are.

All participants must endure a rigorous kit check where safety whistles, shoes, reusable cups, wetsuits and two floats (for soloists) are checked. This is to uphold the biosecurity of the surrounding wildlife and the safety of participants. Then, it’s a 45-minute coach ride along winding country roads from the finish to the start of the point-to-point challenge.

And they’re off…

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The race commences with a sand run along Oxwich Bay / Route North

We huddle in a cloud of nervous chatter between the Breca start flags at the end of Oxwich Bay in the heart of the Gower Peninsula, much to the amusement of nearby beach-goers. The start whistle sounds and we’re off, the first run leg takes us along the 2.9km length of the sandy beach to the headland before Three Cliffs Bay. It’s hard going at times, but we’ve got to remember to pace ourselves as this is only the beginning.

Diving in between waves, I secure my hand paddles and start to push myself out past the break. Rounding the corner, I spot a safety kayak herding us alongside the rocky cliffs. As I reach the peak of each wave, I catch glimpses of the other swimmers ahead before they’re obscured once more by the churning murky water.

Diving in between waves, I secure my hand paddles and start to push myself out past the break

It feels like I am making no progress and the waves crash violently against the cliffs just to my left as I try to keep a short line without getting battered against the rocks. This is madness! I hear shouts from other swimrun pairs around me, as we all try to navigate our way through the 700m to the next bay.

220's Kate stumbles out of the first swim complete with mud moustache / Route North
220’s Kate stumbles out of the first swim complete with mud moustache / Route North

After what feels like an eternity, we stumble out of the water spluttering and exchanging relieved smiles. I whip off my hat and goggles and clip my paddles to my belt, ready to start the longest run leg of the race, a brutal 7.8km of wild coastal trails. To get out of the bay, we’re reduced to a scramble over endless sand dunes and boulders, until the path eventually flattens out and we start to run. The route takes us past Pwlldu Head and to the first aid station of the race, where I unzip my collapsible cup from my back pocket and fill up on electrolytes.

To get out of the bay, we’re reduced to a scramble over endless sand dunes and boulders

Down to Brandy Cove, my feet move fast on the uneven stones as I try not to stumble or create any avalanches. A couple of volunteers shout words of encouragement as we hobble across the pebbles and wade into the water, strapping our paddles on and splashing around the headland to start the 650m to Caswell Bay.

I’m parched at this stage, having swallowed several mouthfuls of salty water in my effort to stay afloat in the swim, so I’m relieved to see the first aid station. A head bobs up in the water alongside me as I wade through the waves – it’s my dad in his budgie smugglers shouting words of encouragement as I fumble around with my paddles and goggles once more.

Undulating coastal path awaits…

Kate strides along the stunning Gower coastal path / Route North
Kate strides along the stunning Gower coastal path / Route North

Another steep ascent leads us out of the bay and back onto the coastal path, dodging hikers with their dogs, always keeping an eye out for the pink Breca flags marking the way. Another 2.1km sees us climb around to Snaple Point View Point, where my parents are diligently cheering as I juggle and drop one paddle after another (I wanted to run an extra 100m anyway), huffing and puffing up the headland.

A steep scramble through ferns and brambles leads us to a rocky entry point for the penultimate 600m swim across Langland Bay to the smaller Rotherslade Beach inlet, where we fight our way through masses of seaweed to reach the steep steps back onto the coastal path for run number four.

A steep scramble through ferns and brambles leads us to the rocky swim entry point

It’s just the final five kilometres of the run now, I tell myself while trudging up another incline on the trail. There’s lots of downhill scrambling here, along what looks like a dried-out ravine with rocks and roots to navigate. I overtake a few more cautious (sensible) racers on the descent, as we make our way to the final swim (cue collective sigh of relief).

The final push…

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220’s Kate completes the gruelling race / Route North

It’s the final half hour of the race, barring any disasters. We slide down the rock face, goggles on, paddles and pull buoys at the ready, as the volunteers direct us on how best to avoid getting skewered on the rocks just below the surface at the start of our 200m swim into Bracelet Bay. I enjoy this one, only because I can already see the yellow Breca flag billowing on the beach ahead of me signalling the exit point for the swim; the light at the end of the tunnel.

‘There’s only 2.8km until the finish, you can do this,’ I tell myself. Another steep incline that leads us deep into the Mumbles Hill Local Nature Reserve reduces us to a walk, our legs pulsing with lactic at each step. We descend onto the first pedestrian street of the race, which surely this must mean we’re nearly there? “One more kilometre,” number 52 shouts over to me in encouragement as I tell him I might die of thirst before I get there. A muddy path leads us out onto the finishing field at Underhill Park, where we begin our final lap of honour to the sound of cowbells and cheering.

For anyone looking for an adventure, look no further...

I break the line at 3:05:58, fifth solo woman to finish. Each finisher gets to run through the line like a champion and get papped in all their sweaty, salty glory. I’m knackered but triumphant. I survived the massive waves, crawled up colossal sand dunes, clambered down slippery rock faces, I’d beaten my way through bracken and brambles along the trails, and I’d even made it to the finish in one piece. For anyone looking for an adventure, look no further. Breca Swimrun is an amazing experience and it’s one where every finisher is a champion.

What is Breca Swimrun?

The Breca Swimrun events team are a dedicated group of individuals who organise and host challenging adventure races in breathtakingly beautiful and wild locations in the UK, Canada, and New Zealand. Breca was founded by Ben de Rivaz in 2015, who had the simple dream to bring the excitement of the Swedish Otillo races to the UK and, in doing so, celebrate the beauty of the British countryside, lakes and coastline. Sustainability is a core focus for Breca, who’s been cup-free since 2017 (swimrunners have to carry plastic cups if they want a drink when racing), and provides a plant-a-tree finisher’s option and sustainable wooden medals.

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Image credit: Breca