Race Review: Madhatter Hokey Cokey St Austell Bay Swimrun

By Alex Juggins of the Ashdown Amphibians

Swimrunner, Alex reports on this years edition of the Hokey Cokey Swimrun, Cornwall’s second toughest multi-sport event (the first being Mad Hatter Roseland).

The Hokey Cokey epitomises all that’s great about swimrun – an idyllic location, a course that blends beauty and brutality in equal measure, a charismatic event team and a race experience brimming with camaraderie and adventure.

Alex Juggins (Right)

A Cornish Classic

Taking place in the picturesque seaside village of Charlestown, this Cornish classic is one of the original swimrun events in the UK. Race Director, John Yelland (our interview with John here) and his team at Madhatter Sports are famed for their off-the-wall events, and the Hokey Cokey is one of their wackiest creations.

2022 was my inaugural year in swimrun, and with the Hokey Cokey being a perfect season opener, the eighth edition of the race would mark my first competitive foray into the sport.

Mad Hatter Events are famed for brilliant swimming and rugged trails.

There are two distance options to choose from at the Hokey Cokey: the short, solo-only course, which features 2.5km of swimming and approximately 8km of running, or the long course, open to solo athletes and teams, which is a sterner test of 5.2km of swimming and 13.8km of running.

Both courses are quite swim dominant, with long, exposed sections of sea swimming punctuating comparatively short running sections.

Given that this was my first attempt at a race of this nature, I opted for the ‘short’ course. This meant that my training partner, Sam, and I would have to race as solo competitors. While our full debut as the Ashdown Amphibians would have to wait, we decided we would still race this one together as practice for team events later in the season.

Pre-race In Charlestown

Arriving in Charlestown, it’s hard not be taken in by the charm of the place. It really is picture postcard stuff – an original Grade II listed harbour awash with nautical history, flanked by attractive period properties and bustling restaurants. The race hub itself was located in the centre of the village, close to the famous Dough Buoys Pizza, which would later host post-race festivities.

The evening before the race, athletes were invited down to the race village to sign in, get their race bib and timing chip, and nervously size up the competition. It was immediately apparent that this was a slick operation and that no stone had been left unturned when it came to logistics and planning. Hats off to the Mad Hatter crew for a supremely well-run event.

The Start Line

Much to our relief, the weather was set fair on the morning of the race. As we strolled down to the start, we were greeted with a view of crystal clear, calm blue sea, which we were reliably informed was measuring a toasty 13-14 degrees. Not bad for the UK in mid-May.

As it had been the night before the race, the atmosphere on race morning was lively, as 100s of lycra-clad nutters assembled their gear and cast occasional nervous glances out to sea, wondering what adventures lay ahead.

Swimrunners continue to dazzle the general public.

The race start must have been quite a sight, as both races were set off at the same time. A mixture of proud supporters and perplexed holidaymakers lined the harbour walls to get the best view of the first swim, as we descended en masse towards the ocean.

Once Sam and I had negotiated the initial melee of paddles and pullbuoys, we found ourselves swimming just behind the two leading pairs. The early pace was frenetic. I loved it.

Our wives would later remark at the differing approaches to the first swim. At the front, competitive racers hastily went through their transition protocol – goggles down, pullbouy in, paddles on, go – while at the back, others were ambling casually into the water while chatting and laughing, ready for a long day out with their mates. That, in essence, is the beauty of swimrun. No discrimination or elitism whatsoever.

Exiting the first swim, Sam and I were first and second in the short race, with just the two long course teams from Precision Hydration ahead of us. The 2km run went by without incident, and soon enough we were gearing up for the first big swim of the day.

The swim to Porthpean is perhaps one of the most spectacular sections of racing I’ve ever done. We were 200m out to sea, with nothing but open ocean stretching to our left and rugged coastline on our right. For a while our destination was completely obscured by rocky outcrops, but eventually the sandy beach of Porthpean came into view.

Cows, Rabbit Holes & Currents

A welcome aid station greeted us once we’d staggered up the beach and found our ‘land legs’ again. We each guzzled some hydration drink before starting the 5km trail loop that many had warned us would be ‘eventful’.

It turned out that this description was grossly understating it.

What with Sam almost having to shoulder barge a hefty cow off the trail and me losing an entire leg down a rabbit hole only to be rescued by fellow racer and triathlon royalty, Richard Stannard, it’s fair to say we had a hell of a time on that 5km run. There were hills aplenty, as well as a sadistic number of steps, but this was all offset by spectacular vistas over the glistening Celtic Sea.

The course has plenty of variety and ‘sadistic steps’.

By the time we arrived back at Porthpean beach to tackle the 1km swim in reverse, the refreshing water was a welcome change from the clammy heat of the run. By now, we were placed second and third in the short race, having been hunted down by the eventual winner, Ian Wright. The race was extremely strung out at this point, so Sam and I braced ourselves for a lonely slog back to Charlestown harbour.

The swim back was unquestionably harder and slower. It’s difficult to say whether this was down to unfavourable currents, fatigue, or both, but as we rounded the rocks for the final time, we were both very relieved to see the familiar sight of Charlestown again.

The Finish Line Looms

We emerged from the swim with just a short uphill run to the finish left. Even Sam suffering from a bout of calf cramp couldn’t take the spring out of our step, as we strode towards the finishing chute and an exuberant high five from John Yelland.

High fiving John!

As we were milling around in the finishing area, adorned with our medals and basking in the glory of finishing on the podium, we noticed competitors from the long course running past the finish line and continuing on their way. In that moment, I was grateful not to be one of them, but I made a quiet promise to myself that I’d be back next year to take on the full distance.

A Bucket List Race

Having raced 100s of triathlons, trail races and other endurance events in my life, I can assuredly say that nothing compares to the Hokey Cokey. There’s something uniquely special about this race. Part of it is down to the sheer beauty of its setting, but there’s something intangible about the atmosphere, the ‘vibe’, that will keep me going back for years to come. If you haven’t ticked this seminal UK swimrun off your list, you should!

You can find out more about Madhatter’s Swimrun Races here.