Two buddies take on SwimRun Bay of Islands

Written by Oliver Smith & Clement Grech

We met at OceanFit as regulars in Andre’s ENERGY morning ocean fitness sessions.

Over the years we would take on local ocean swims, but then one year we did something crazy… we registered for the 2019 SwimRun Bay of Islands.

The event was to be held on 14th April 2019 and we registered in May 2018.

Plenty of time to train.

Welcome to the Bay of Islands, NZ

It’s a bit of a hike to New Zealand’s Bay of Islands from Sydney, so we decided that the short little ‘sprint’ version was not worth it. If we go, we go for real! Full distance!

Fast forward to the evening before the race. We’re looking around the briefing room and no one looked as nervous as we were. In fact, they all looked very lean, fit and confident.

Oliver all smiles at the briefing

We had done some training, including with the kit. But we still didn’t feel ready. Clement was not happy with the pull buoy around his legs, and Oliver was worried that his shoulders were not strong enough to use the paddles. The wetsuit rubbed around the neck and he hadn’t run more the 10K in his new shoes. The only good thing were the socks – they felt great and looked great!

The training in full kit at Bondi beach was a little embarrassing. People couldn’t understand why we needed all this stuff just for a swim, but the socks were good.

All up, 27km of running and 10km of swimming was ahead of us. Oliver felt run ready, but not confident with the swim. Clement was swim-ready but worried he may tear of a muscle in our first 100m run out of Waitangi.

Why did we sign up for it? Firstly the video is a selling point, everyone was smiling and the sky was blue. When we booked it, it was over six months away. We conveniently ignored this bit of the website;

  • Estimated completion time: 6-11 hours
  • Terrain: sections of technical, off-trail running; rock-hopping; island crossings; steps; steep slopes
  • Swimming: technical transitions, ocean swims, high likelihood of swell
  • Difficulty: hard. To complete this race you need a high level of fitness and should be comfortable swimming in the ocean

Clement pointed out that we never actually signed a waiver.

We left the briefing with a mixture of nerves and excitement, and hunger. At the Italian pasta dinner, Clement managed to polish off two main course chicken-pesto pasta dishes, much to the surprise of the waitress.

It was an early, chilly start. The sky was clear, no wind, and the water – flat. It couldn’t have been any better conditions. We dropped our bag at the jetty, not to be seen until our finish at Otehei Bay. Hopefully, we wouldn’t be taken there by boat, having missed the strict cut off times.

Competitors get ready for the start
Clemont at the start of the Swimrun

The challenge is done in pairs, so we were busy checking out all the other couples, for some, it was their first-ever Swimrun, at least we had done Swimrun Sydney a couple of times, which must give us a little head start.

Breca has organised a Powhiri, a traditional Maori welcome. This was one of the many highlights. They had organised this perfectly. Silence, in the sunrise, with our challenge ahead in the distance. It will be unforgettable.

The Powhiri

We were on our way, soon reaching the first of 24 transitions.

We did study the course map. It is 13 run stages and 12 swim stages. We will hop from island to island. Seven islands in total. Breaking down the 37.3km in 25 stages does help to make the event more accessible: the longest run is ‘only’ 11.7km and the longest swim is a ‘short’ 3.1km. Manageable. Yes, it is manageable… but 820m elevation gain…

We have the route handwritten with a permanent marker on hand paddles and after each stage, we can mentally prepare for what is coming next.

Our target is to avoid the shame of a ‘DNF’. Physical injury is a serious risk…

The weather is ideal. Sunny, no wind, no waves, water temperature between 20-22C.

Adrenaline has skyrocketed. Heart rate probably at 150bpm and we are standing still.


The first run is a short 500m sprint and the main target is not to lose each other with the 105 other teams around. Pull buoy already on the knee… it will have to be hand-carried until the end.

The first swim is chaos; everyone is on top of each other. We decided, after some unsuccessful trials during training, not to link each other with a leash, and so we need to constantly check where the other one is. This is made easy with Oliver’s bright orange flashy shoes. A definite benefit, and at the end of this first swim, we are together. This is a good start.

We are in the race. The scenery is amazing. We often stopped to simply look and record quick memories with a GoPro.

Making our way over the many rocky shores
Running through the vineyards

We arrive in Russell and the first checkpoint where Oliver’s family is waiting to cheer us up, with exception of Oli’s son Harry who has given higher priority to his fishing!

Run number six is the long one. We know it. The race volunteers remind us as we get out of the water.

We need to pace ourselves. Oliver can run 4min 20s km’s over 10km easy. Clement struggles back at 6min 30s and his body shape is not as aerodynamic… and so, Oliver must make sure that this stage is not the last one and looks after his teammate with encouragement.

We keep moving. No pain. Careful and very nerdy selection of the equipment (shoes from the UK, socks from Sweden…), high dose of body glide, and some too moderate stretching. We move slowly and we reach the end of the longest run to arrive at the start of the longest swim.

We are in the North Island, looking away at Motuarua Island 3.1km in front in a straight line. Impossible to see the finish. No buoy to help us to navigate. A race volunteer indicates to target the island higher peak. We have look, then we get into the water and go.

Entering the water on one of many inter-island swims

We have shoes on and so no kicking possible, our legs are around our pull buoy, being dragged as dead body parts. Nevertheless, cramps kick in and Clement has to find a way to stretch during the swim.

Longest swim over. We gain confidence that we are likely to be able to finish. We are still reasonably fresh and grateful to be there.

Another beautiful swim

After a short run, we are back into the water for another 1.8km swim. Still good. After that, the swims are moderately short. We both start to feel some chafing around the neck. Checkpoints do not have enough body glide and at the last minute, we decided not to carry some with us.

We arrive at the swim eight, it is only 600m but with the fatigue now accumulating, this is getting long and tiring. Consequently, it is kind of a little drama when we make it to the end of the swim leg and the race volunteer advises us to stay in the water and to keep swimming. Indeed, the run stage course has been flooded by high tide… Right! So it is an additional 600m swim then. And again, as we arrive and get ready to go out of the water, a race volunteer instructs us that the run stage is not available: keep swimming guys!… Right?!… Another 400m to eventually join the last long swim at 1.4km. We have not been running for quite some time now!

Some of the water entries were wild!

We reach the fifth and final checkpoint, we have two stages of run left and a very manageable 400m swim before we can celebrate. The pressure not to finish has vanished. Even if we get injured now, we should be able to crawl to the end.

We’re into the last run – 4.8km – and we’re 8 hours 13min into the race. We decide to set ourselves a new target: sub nine hours. Indeed, 47min to run 4.8km, this is possible, surely… but this last island, Urupukapuka, does have some elevation. We are walking uphill. Everyone does. Each flat or descent, we push as hard as possible, but this does not seem to end… this 4.8km run stage must have been 7km!

We arrive in 9 hours 05 min 37s ranked 73th out of 107 teams overall.

All finished, a little worse for wear, but super happy.

We are very happy and feel privileged to have been part of this experience.

It’s a shower and BBQ on the beach before we wait for the ferry back to Pahia/Russell.

We are already talking about the next one!

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