Apple Watch Adventures: SwimRun Holy Island, 1st September, 2019

Wondering what a SwimRun actually is and what gear you need? Check out my earlier post.

This was a bit of a rash decision

After training for about a year for my third IronMan Distance triathlon race (Outlaw Nottingham) I had been somewhat disappointed on the day as I exited the water (it was a good swim, right on my planned pace) to be told “Bike has been cancelled”.

“Fuck!”

The bike section was what I was really looking forward to - it is a fast flat course, and was going to give me my best opportunity in getting a sub 14hr long course triathlon. But torrential rain had come down during the swim (I had felt it on my back, but never imagined it would stop the race), and there was a lot of standing water and broken branches on the bike course, so it had been cancelled for safety reasons. Fair enough but damn! I looked around and saw the utterly drenched spectators, and then I used my Apple Watch to call my wife.

“The bike has been cancelled!”

“I know”

“Should I stay for the run?”

We had an option of doing the marathon in a couple of hours. I already knew that I didn’t fancy that. I had no change of clothes, so standing in the rain in a cold wet tri-suit then running 26 miles and achieving what exactly? I couldn’t claim a triathlon PR, and I already had the London Marathon under my belt this year - I wasn’t very motivated.

“It’s up to you”

I really wanted Steph to give me a way out, but she had passed it back to me.

“Let’s call it a day, we can go out for lunch somewhere…”

And so that was that. I didn’t feel bad on the day, safety has to come first and the organisers made the decision they had to make, but afterwards there was a bit of an empty feeling. In the following week, where I should have been wallowing in short-lived sympathy for completing such an incredible event, and lounging around recovering, I felt somewhat lost.

That’s when I started looking online for another event to do. Could I book another IronMan distance event this year somewhere else and just roll into it based on the training already completed? I didn’t find anything really suitable in terms of date and distance though.

And then I remembered I always like the idea of SwimRun, but had never actually done it. I also knew I had the Dart 10K swim in mid September, so a SwimRun would be good prep for that. Then to cap it all my friends David and Tracey had already entered the Holy Island event as a pair. So I quickly and happily booked the event, and the hotel and then started to think about what I needed to do to get ready for it.

Not much time to prep, a long time to get there and back

The event was only a few weeks away, so I didn’t really have any opportunity for any race specific prep, Instead I just chilled, bought a stack of gear and did a few swims and some test SwimRun’s around the local lake.

In addition Holy Island is not exactly close to where I live. The plan was to drive up on Saturday, do the event on Sunday and then drive back the same day. 6hr drive in each direction, for a 3hr race. Totally normal.

Not exactly a short journey

Not exactly a short journey

What a setting!

It was a long drive with some very variable weather. As I crossed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait and the rain was starting to come down, it was all quite imposing.

The impressive Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait

The impressive Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait

However, by the time I got to registration the weather had turned for the better, and after collecting my pack, and having an equipment check, I drove back to the hotel. It is a stunning location - I have never been to Anglesey before but it is a beautiful part of the world. I went for a walk and little jog around the coast, the same coast I’d be running along the next day, and the same bay I’d be swimming across.

Just a snap from my iPhone XS Max

Just a snap from my iPhone XS Max

I look quite content and happy here. At the same spot the next day, not so much.

I look quite content and happy here. At the same spot the next day, not so much.

Let’s do this then…

Before any event I write a long list with plenty of detail showing exactly what I need to do in the morning. Without that I will invariable forget something. Here’s my list for the morning - and yes I did make a note to remember to put shorts and a t-short over my trunks and vest before going for breakfast

Don’t forget to not do up your wetsuit

Don’t forget to not do up your wetsuit

Before long I had eaten (a vegan) breakfast, got all kitted up and was at the start which was actually the finish where the briefing was, and where we got a bus to the start so we could swim and run back to the finish. Totally logical. Here’s the route:

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I met up with Dave and Tracey at the briefing - they were there before me, which was fitting because they would finish way before me in the race too.

It’s true that Dave and Tracy are partly responsible for getting me into these mad events in the first place. Thanks you two! (I think)

It’s true that Dave and Tracy are partly responsible for getting me into these mad events in the first place. Thanks you two! (I think)

And after the bus journey, and then a walk up a hill (with the required stop at the toilets where you take everything off to go to the loo, and put it all back on again) I was at the start line with all the other solo competitors (the pairs started a few minutes after us)

Ready to go

Ready to go

The view from the start looking out to sea

The view from the start looking out to sea

And We’re Off!

Before I knew it we were running down the hill for the first 5k coastal run. I had started my Apple Watch on an Outdoor Run and it all looked good, but half way down glancing at the pace, I realised this was a little fast for me. No worries, we are going downhill I thought. As it levelled out and we started running over uneven trails, I slowed my pace a bit, but I was starting to feel quite hot. I had put my swim cap on for the run, thinking this was the easiest place to keep it, but that was a bad idea.

At around 2k and a few meters ahead of me a woman tripped and fell on the path. I stopped to see how she was - she was a little grazed and frustrated with the fall. I suggested we run together at an easy pace so she could recover and I could try to cool down. My heart rate at this point was way too high in zone 4 and 5. As we ran along and chatted she told me this was her 7th SwimRun and she had also completed some IronMan events. Maybe in sympathy for her earlier fall I tripped too and crashed to the ground. (Note Apple Watch did not detect this as a fall, even though I had that feature turned on - it may be because it was a slow motion type of fall with my hands out but who knows?).

“I don’t think the IronMan shuffle running style suits this course” she said.

Spot on.

I continued slowly through this first run, removing my swim cap and stuffing it into my wetsuit, but feeling quite uncomfortable and not able to get my heart rate down to zone 3 which is where I wanted it.

This is the Training Peaks log exported from Apple Health using the HealthFit app. My heart rate was crazy high for this run.

This is the Training Peaks log exported from Apple Health using the HealthFit app. My heart rate was crazy high for this run.

Finally I came to the start of the first swim and what an amazingly beautiful spot it was.

What an amazing spot

What an amazing spot

I clambered down the bank breathing heavily and got ready to get into the water.

After unclipping the tow float from my shoulder, pulling the pull buoy round a bit in between my legs, putting on my swim hat and goggles and getting my hand paddles sorted, I lifted my Apple Watch and said:

“Add an outdoor swim”

This worked a treat - the outdoor run activity was stopped and the open water swim activity started and I got in the water and started to swim.

What a glorious swim!

This first swim was planned at around 700m but the water was pretty rough with fairly big swells - I ended up swimming around 750m which honestly is not bad at all. Others were saying afterwards how hard this swim was but I massively enjoyed it, the cool water brought my temperature and heart rate down quickly and swimming with a pull buoy and wetsuit meant I felt I was just gliding effortlessly through the water, with the hand paddles offering a bit more pace (though not much more!)

This was the biggest swim and the one where we went most out to sea and thus experienced more of the “swell” - but I loved it!

This was the biggest swim and the one where we went most out to sea and thus experienced more of the “swell” - but I loved it!

Getting into the SwimRun Groove

From there we had a series of a few short runs and swims. At each transition I used Siri on Apple Watch to “Add an Outdoor Run” or “Add an Outdoor Swim”. This worked perfectly apart from one where I had no Internet connection, in which case I swiped and tapped on the screen instead (a bit tricky with wet hands and watch face)

The second swim had changed from the planned route because the large swells in the sea meant it was too dangerous to swim out of the bay, so instead we swam out to a red buoy, tapped it and turned back. Every swim I loved, and every run I felt too hot, even with my wetsuit unzipped and my swim cap off.

The third swim was across the bay at the hotel I stayed at. Here I am arriving.

And here’s me exiting - looking a lot worse than I remember feeling

Keep smiling (picture courtesy of  Wildman Media )

Keep smiling (picture courtesy of Wildman Media)

This was swim 4 I think, where we clambered down the rocks and slid into the sea on our backsides

The senery was incredible throughout the whole event, even when I was overheating again on the second 5kish run, by now I was resigned to a slow time, and just enjoying the experience and relaxing into it.

The last but one run was a rugged trek over the cliffs

The last but one run was a rugged trek over the cliffs

And soon I was arriving at the last swim across Borth Wen bay

The last swim straight over the bay (but swerve round those rocks in the middle)

The last swim straight over the bay (but swerve round those rocks in the middle)

And then to the finish

The last run was a short uphill back to the town hall where we had the briefing in the morning. Not as tough as I expected, and before long I was through the finish line and met back up with Dave and Tracey (who had plenty of time to get changed and freshen up before I arrived). By the look of this photo though we all seemed to have enjoyed it.

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This SwimRun was really great - it’s fun to be travelling somewhere rather than looping a course, and enjoying battling the environment to get there. Yes I did feel a bit like Legolas (but without the Oliphaunt) at times and that was great.

So How did Apple Watch do?

I was running with my Series 4 cellular aluminium 44mm watch, and a white Sports Band. As noted above I mostly used Siri to change from Outdoor run to Outdoor Swim and this worked great apart from the one exit from a swim when I had no Internet. That was a bit tricky because tapping the wet screen with wet fingers is not ideal.

My iPhone was packed into my tow float (this is a requirement for this event) so Apple Watch was connected to that all of the time so I had turned cellular off on Apple Watch because it wasn’t needed. Battery life was no issue, even though it took over 3 hours for me to complete this, I had around 30-40% charge left at the end (sorry I forgot to screen grab the exact figure).

At the end of the event I had a nice summary as shown below together with confirmation of how slow I was.

Here it is on iPhone:

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I used the always trusty HealthFit app to export the individual fit files to an iCloud folder. I did this rather than export directly to Strava because I wanted to combine them into a single file for the whole event. I used the handy and free web site Gotoes to do this (note this doesn’t work on iOS unfortunately because you can’t select multiple files, so you will need to use it on a desktop browser).

Of course Strava doesn’t know anything about SwimRun so I just classified it as one big run - that worked ok but Strava somehow removed a lot of times where I was apparently not moving so I look a lot better than I actually was.

Strava doesn’t understand SwimRun so it sees this as one big run.

Strava doesn’t understand SwimRun so it sees this as one big run.

What is striking is how accurate the tracks are, and how reliable the heart rate data is throughout the swimming and running. Apple Watch is so good at this I don’t ever worry about it at all nowadays. Interestingly with series 5 just released (mine is on order for next week) the new built-in compass will offer further improvements for accuracy and navigation (also the always on screen could be useful for activities like cycling or the rowing machine - but that’s another blog post yet to be written).

I also exported to Training Peaks - this is a little nicer than Strava in that you can created an ‘event’ and add multi sport activities to it as shown below (though I had some issue getting them ordered correctly)

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But as far as I could see there are no platforms (outside of event result tables) that are specifically designed to show SwimRun logs - an opportunity for someone judging by the growth in the sport.

Moreover it is surely within a developers ability to create a SwimRun app for Apple Watch that automatically switches from Outdoor Swimming to Outdoor Running when it detects you are doing that. The ideal would be to hit start at the beginning and stop at the end, and Apple Watch works everything else out for you.

Back in the day I used to code a bit but I have never done any iOS development, however in the spirit of “coding for all” I thought this might be an interesting project to blog about. What sort of Apple Watch app could I develop for SwimRun events from a standing start in terms of iOS and watchOS development. So that is now a project I am working on. Stay tuned to see how I get on…

Conclusion

I have two things to say

  1. SwimRun is great fun - no question. I’m going to do more.

  2. Apple Watch is a pretty good device to use on a SwimRun (check out all the reasons on my previous post) but it could be the best thing ever for this sport with some specific SwimRun development. As it stands it offers great tracking and safety features out of the box for SwimRun.

Cheers

ian