‘You can do better than that’. Not the words one expects to hear at the start of a race, but here I was with dozens of other neoprene-clad participants preparing another attempt at a star jump. Apparently our first star jump was a bit lacklustre, so to a person we went for it and gave a star jump that PE teachers across the country would be proud of.
I landed hard on the ground and hoped that we had satisfied the gregarious John at Fenland Runner who led this opening ritual. A big grin came from a bearded face, and we were ushered to the start line.
We were all about to embark on the 21km (at least) Middling Mustard at Grafham Water run by As Keen As Mustard Events. But do not be deceived, at almost 25km this is more akin to a full distance race than a sprint course. With 9 swims and 10 runs, anticipation was building on a fresh but bright morning for the race ahead.
And we were off! After a hot summer, the water level on the reservoir was extremely low which changed some of the swim exits and entries quite dramatically. One such entry was thick with weeds and mud, but actually was tremendous entertainment. Swimrun is a sport in nature after all rather than a sterile overly managed environment, overcoming obstacles both on land and in the water is just part of what the sport is about.
The water was clean and clear you could see to the bottom in most places and a delight to swim in. I was surprised to see clams lining the shore and although wouldn’t recommend it, had the odd slug of water while swimming to satisfy a dry mouth in a bid to keep pace with my parter, Jon who is the better swimmer.
Suddenly a high vis jacket of a marshal appeared in the middle of the undergrowth and I knew we had reached swim 8 also known as the ’10m river splash’. Why he was there soon became clear as we had to cross a shallow yet fast flowing stream. We clambered over a fallen tree and made slow progress against a surprisingly powerful current. It was slow, clumsy and unbridled joy.
It’s hard to say what the ‘crux’ or centrepiece of this course is, it really is so varied. The first section is frequent in and out of the water. The middle part is a rhythmical 9km run and the back-end of the course holds longer and harder to sight swims. For me the finish line was a personal highlight, a long lead in with plenty of time to reflect on your race as the announcer roars encouragement.
Some of the trail running is superb, we ran along little paths which twisted their way through woodland and survived tall maize fields which looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park (5km winner Alex Sheen was especially inspired). You can see the finish line from about 3km out, to get there, you must run over the dam where you can see the entirety of the reservoir you have spent hours crossing. It’s a great feeling.
The atmosphere is both warm and welcoming. I’ve been to other races where your reaction might be one of sheer fright ‘what the heck am I doing here’ which can be intimidating, with all these people with sparkling new looking kit and looking very serious. Not here, there is a calmness and sense of community that welcomes in newcomers and old faces as friends.
The marshals are happy and helpful. Several times we made a few deviations on the swims and either a kayaker or powered craft was over to point us the right way. Special mention to Claire Vallance who herself is a superb swimrunner, managing two tricky marshal positions at once while cheering us all on along (including her husband Piers).
It was a convivial race and the community vibe is intoxicating, As Keen As Mustard have the reputation in the UK for being THE grassroots event and it’s easy to see why. There are lots of people willing you on whether that be the event team, fellow competitors or members of the public. I also liked the fact that we received a mug and a buff in our finishers packs, useful objects rather than yet another medal, oh and a sachet of mustard which was a nice touch! The course has plenty of variety and for the most-part very runnable. An enjoyable morning out, I look forward to participating in other races in the series.