By Nancy Heslin
Between rhubarb tarts and Spinach halloumi pies, foodies Valerie and Natalie Wong, 33, also share a passion for swimrun. And although they have unfinished business with ÖTILLÖ WC, team TwinnyDip admits their biggest competition lies in each other.
Valerie: I first heard about swimrun when a childhood friend, Yijia, randomly suggested that my twin Natalie and I try the sport. I say “random” because Yijia is not a confident swimmer so I figured, “If she can do it, we can, too.” Little did we know she thought swimrun was a relay where she runs and her partner swims.
Swimrun was the perfect new challenge I was looking for but I didn’t realise as a city-dweller what lay ahead with my first endurance race: open water swimming, energy consumption, specialised equipment we’d have to get, and the lack of training “facilities” in London.
Nathalie: I was a proper urbanite and fair-weather athlete. I started swimming in the pool from age 7 but never ran outdoors until 2015 – and that’s road running in London! Fearing creatures of my own imagination, I wouldn’t swim when I was at the beach and don’t even mention slugs along the trail!
In any case, we started training in and around London, and did a couple of city-style swimruns in the infamously stinky Thames – it actually isn’t that bad – and ventured into the English rolling hills for trail runs. It was fun and enjoyable, the pub grubs and large pints of cider afterwards were what kept me motivated to struggle in the cold!
And then came race day in Utö in May 2017. We didn’t feel prepared at all, having trained no more than half the race distances in any one session. So we had no expectation whatsoever, apart from that we had to finish the race!
Valerie: Being twins, we have always been competitive with each other, the theory being that we have the same genes so naturally one shouldn’t be less capable than the other – otherwise you’re the slacker!
Running was my weaker link, so keeping up with Natalie was tough but I did not want to disappoint. The beautiful surroundings helped – looking out just before the longest swim – dare I say now, a mere 600 metres! – I was overcome with a sense of peace, though it quickly turned into fear as we pushed on.
When we crossed the finish line 6 hours 8 minutes later I couldn’t believe what we had achieved. Only while gorging on the buffet did we learn that TwinnyDip had qualified for the World Championship. I am pretty sure I said to race director Michael Lemmel, “This is a BAD idea,” as we received the qualifier certificate.
Natalie: At the Utö Finish Line, I remember vividly thinking to myself, “What the hell just happened?” And it didn’t take us long to decide to take on the ÖTILLÖ WC but it was a tough decision. I am extremely risk-adverse – I am used to planning everything down to a tee to avoid the unexpected. But swimrun, especially for novelists, is the exact opposite.
Before May 2017, everything was conducted in a somewhat “controlled” environment. So navigating a course of 65k running and 10k of swimming in the mercy of Mother Nature was just simply beyond my imagination. But then Val firmly believes in living life to the fullest! And she was right, this could be our once-in-a-life-time opportunity to race with professionals – we may never qualify again.
Valerie: Leading up to the ÖTILLÖ Championship, we trained as much as we could. The weather on race day was bad, but there we were, giving everything we had. The first few sections were challenging but everyone was still in a pack, until we quickly fell behind.
Natalie: Then came 25 minutes before the 2nd cut-off – we were 5k away and we ran as fast we could and somehow made it with 1 minute to spare! We gave ourselves a 10-minute break. The moral support at the energy station and those butter and cheese sandwiches and coffee will forever be the best ever. Then we carried on, more of the same struggle and we even finished the pig swim.
Valerie: Staying warm became our biggest challenge. The quick transitions and running in the rain had not helped. I kept on telling myself, “A couple more swims and we’ll be back on land for the half-marathon”… but at Getskär, we made a difficult decision to pull out, we did not want to risk hypothermia.
Natalie: I just got so cold and tired. Val was very encouraging, but when we saw our friends who were volunteering at T-12, I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. I think I had a mental breakdown. Val suggested attempting the pig swim – the only reason I agreed was that I didn’t want to give up in front of my sister, mostly due to my pride and I didn’t want to be the “lesser” twin. But then we got to land … the hail continued… When I saw the water I just couldn’t bring myself to go on anymore; it wasn’t even a long swim, I just refused.
Valerie: Although one could argue that we gave up, I see it more as postponing the completion. To “redeem ourselves” we decided to enter 1000 Lakes, which was three weeks later. Throughout that race, our major concern had been the temperature. To add to the fun I lost my goggles after the fourth swim and Natalie had just come off a long-haul flight from Singapore the day prior. But when we crossed the Finish Line, I felt such a sense of achievement!
Natalie: The ÖTILLÖ WC was a big set back in my open water swimming confidence, and while the 1000 Lakes course was beautiful, I was struggling with jetlag and tiredness. With a cold start, after the second swim I had déjà vu – am I giving up again? No! And looking at our race photos, you can see an expression of relief on my face as I crossed that Finish Line.
Valerie: We will be at ÖTILLÖ Utö in May and hope to again earn a spot for the 2018 WC. As work has been hectic this year, training has been less than optimal. Swimrun has given us a medium to compete and at the same time support each other. I won’t stop fighting until we get to the ÖTILLÖ WC Finish Line.
Natalie: Eight months on, I thought I’d have gotten over ÖTILLÖ by now, but every time I think about it … the incredible sense of guilt just wells up inside me and I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself. But it’s okay to admit to defeat. To me, it’s about learning from the experience and using that insight to guide me through greater achievements in the future.
I unfortunately broke my hand a month ago and metal wires means swimming is not an option. So we could only run the Costa Brava Swimrun in April – it was tough as I couldn’t hold onto ropes well with my bad hand – but Utö is around the corner and if the doctor allows me to swim, we’ll try the full distance no matter how slow.
Although rebuilding my strength has been has a huge challenge, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every swimrun moment, despite the setbacks and my continual struggle with the cold. Being able to grow together with my biggest enemy and best friend in the most beautiful of places has made this the most special and unique endeavour for me. I won’t stop fighting until we get to the OTILLO WC Finish Line.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #7 (May 2018)