Adventures in Swimrun: The Calanques, France
François-Xavier Li, better known as “Fix”, founded Swimrun France along with Jean-Marie “Akuna Matata” Gueye. Together they promote the sport, supporting other swimrun start-ups and offering free advice
Born in Marseille, the second-largest city by population in France, Fix has a background in elite sailing, which was followed by “a lot of” long distance and ultra-triathlons, trail running and some open water swimming. “Competition is a big part of what I do,” Fix, 52, said, “but I also have a deep love for nature in its wilderness – nobody can tame the sea – and team effort.”
With a PhD in Sport Sciences – “you could say that sport is part of my DNA” – Fix discovered swimrun in 2012 and immediately fell in love with the sport.
“I started to train for races in Marseille and other places, but it was hard at the time to find quality information on swimrun. So I decided to create Swimrun France and invited Akuna Matata to join me. Our goal is to promote the sport and provide free information. I also co-founded World of Swimrun with Swedish friends for the English-speaking people.”
Akuna Matata, 49, also lives in the Mediterranean city of Marseille. “I did track and field in 800 m and have a triathlete background – the Nice triathlon – back in the last century … The new millennium brought me to trail running and a new way of competitive thinking, based more on experience than result-oriented.”
Akuna Matata admitted that this change of outlook challenged his professional career choice. “I swapped a steady but boring engineer position for a job in photojournalism. It was a natural step to my ever-changing self.”
With UltraMag, his employer at the time, he followed that “crazy Viking stuff up in the northern Europe” which he explained was “a mere speck in my endurance addict universe at that time”, because he was so into the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and Marathon des Sables kind of stuff … until Fix had another shot to the ÖTILLÖ Race 2015.
“We did it together. So that’s when swimrun as a competition kicked in, because before that milestone, my life in the calanques, we used to have our own way to swimrun.”
The calanques of Marseille is a 30-kilometre stretch of limestone coastline (7-kilometers wide) where the erosion of white limestone has carved chiselled creeks and cliffs. Described as “specific and beautiful”, they’re sometimes compared to the landscapes in Italy or Croatia, dry and harsh, but stunning with an amazing light.
One mind-blowing feature of the calanques, which is a protected National Park, is the pristine water. The combination of white stones, crystal clear water, sun and famous blue Provence’s sky creates a unique setting.
“When you do a swimrun here,” Akuna Matata described, “you discover that you can literally see underwater up to 50 or sometimes 70 metres. The cliffs that you can see on land continue underwater for 50 to 150 metres.” The Swimrun France founders make a point of explaining the “flying” effect to other outdoor fellows.
“Transitioning back and forth from the sea to the air, your senses get a little bit mixed up; the sky and the sea can be of the same hue of blue and you have the sensation of flying above the calanques.”
Also, the land is jagged with many cliffs, a paradise for rock climbers but it does mean that doing a swimrun involves a lot of steep ascents and descents, so there are technical sections to reach the little hidden coves.
Fix originally started training in the calanques in the summer of 2012, on his own. “Nobody else knew about swimrun in Marseille! Having grown up in the area I have been in the calanques with my parents since I was a kid – walking, swimming and diving. It was only natural that I would swimrun here. Later as Akuna Matata and I were part of the Marseille Trail Club, we started talking about swimrun while running … and the seed was planted.”
For Akuna Matata’s part, he admitted that he was always the one to drag all the runners to unofficial paths, off the beaten tracks, as they say. “Trails created by fishermen and climbers were an excuse to explore the calanques,” he detailed. “Progressively, we tried to challenge the trails, exposing them to new activities, climbing, jumping in the water from cliffs, shooting pictures underwater with full running gear … I did want to have some fun with my buddies, however, it did stick and during the summer, our trail sessions often included a swim, partly because it’s very hot at this time of year.”
By 2014, a regular core of five to ten trailers were “kind of swimrunning”, but short distances of 10 to 15 km and with no understanding of the equipment, and certainly no neoprene swimsuits. “Later Fix showed us how it’s done, and boy it was quite a steep learning curve!”
Speed was never an objective and at the end of the journey, about 6 or 7 hours, we were stunned that time had passed so quickly.
Since then, the duo has been foraging the best spots to swimrun, looking for potential water entries and exits, checking the current, where to bring novices or more experienced swimrunners. “With the nearly nonstop cliffs from Marseille to La Ciotat, you can’t just look at a map and say, ‘I will exit the water there’. You have to find out by yourself, a lot of trials and errors.”
However, because the area is a National Park, no official race can be held here due to ecological, safety and legal constraints. This led Fix to create an urban swimrun in Marseille for beginners (“but this is another story”…)
So in August 2014, the informal swimrun was 10 km of running with 500 m of swimming. The following year, it increased to 30 km running, 1500 m of swimming, plus 200 m climbing (some 1500 m+) and 3 caves of underwater exploration. “We have multiple options to extend or shorten the route. Swimrun is about adaptation, and the distance legs are not carved in stone,” Fix stated. “There were no boats or volunteers to support us, so self-managed security was paramount. We did pair each other, but mostly we progressed as a tribe, helping each other with the climbing, the technical running, keeping an eye on each other in swimming. Speed was never an objective and at the end of the journey, about 6 or 7 hours, we were stunned that time had passed so quickly.”
It’s not promoted as a race, only a new way to explore the calanques. “We want to inspire people, through the common values shared by our sport: team work, adaptation, love of nature and exploration. We take groups of people with us to share the experience as a pure discovery and initiation for some, and now as a training for others.”
As such, Fix and Akuna Matata, who speak perfect English, offer training camps and discovery days in the calanques (details can be found on the Swimrun France Facebook forum and on Marseille swimrun facebook group). Marseille, which was the European Capital of Culture 2013, was quoted as one of the Top 10 Cities to discover by the New York Times two years ago. Culture, food, weather, the not too expensive Provence region, plus Marseille has its own airport 27 km northwest of the city, which services low-cost carriers easyJet and Ryanair.
“As Swimrun France, we support a lot of race directors who start their races in France. We helped the launching of the Swimrun National Tour, and we are also building a swimrun community via social networking in Marseille to help others in France and Belgium,” Fix shared.
Akuna Matata added, “We are so thrilled to see that all around initiatives on Facebook are popping up, showing the increasing popularity of swimrunning.”
So if you want to discover one of France’s spectacular fjord-like inlets, the boys at Swimrun France have some advice:
- Get used to steep technical ups and downs.
- Use shoes with enough protection for unforgiving sharp rocks – Akuna Matata uses Inov-8’s Terraclaw 220 or X-Talon 200, which have good grip on wet rocks, but are light and dry quickly.
- Become 100% autonomous: there is no source of fresh water or food in the calanques. You have to bring whatever you’ll need, and a bit more for your teammates just in case. And, of course, never ever leave anything behind you.
- The sea is rather salty, so buoyancy is not a problem and you won’t need salt tablets!
- Be ready to stop and take in the scenery. And smile
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Swimrunning in the Calanques
Total running: Approx 25-30 km
Longest leg: 8 km
Type of terrain: Very, very rocky, the best runners can top 10 km/h average
Best suited for? Trail runners, but if you’re afraid of the void, you’ll be stuck on the low-level routes. For the best spots, you need to be able to run very technical rocky terrain and do moderate rock climbing.
Longest leg: 800 m to 1500 m
Water temp: 18-23°C. There are numerous freshwater streams in the calanques. Combined with the surrounding depth of the sea (100 to 200 m), the water is surprisingly colder than in some other parts of Provence.
What you’ll likely encounter in the water: Fish (a lot), jellyfish (sometimes, depending on currents and wind direction), manta (rarely), urchins (watch out where you put your hands during transitions), tourist boats especially in the summer (the most dangerous species, by far).
Best suited for: Swimmers who aren’t afraid of open water with cliffs on the side. Sometimes there’s no easy escape route, and the sea can at times be rough, but mainly because of the wind: the famous Mistral can be very strong, and surprisingly fresh. Swimming in this case requires more power than glide. We also explore several caves and narrow passages, underwater and on land. They are extremely easy to get in, but if you are claustrophobic, beware!
How many: 5 to 10 transitions, again it depends on the route, exits are mainly rocks, could be challenging if you’re not experienced. The rocks are not very slippery but the waves and the steepness can make it a real challenge.
Depending on the route, we can jump from at some height from cliffs. It’s fun (and safe)! The cliffs go very deep in the sea and where we jump there are no hidden rocks.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue # 2 (Apr/May 2017)