Running along the narrow Lakeland ridge through horizontal rain and strong winds, we attempted to keep warm by pulling on our swimming hats and goggles. Across the skyline, figures in wetsuits and bright yellow bibs could be seen scrambling over rocks, while beneath us a lone couple was hurtling down the fellside, pull buoys and hand paddles flapping around, en route to their next swim.

Along with my team-mate Calum Hudson, I was climbing Dale Head, the highest fell on the Breca Buttermere – one of the most gruelling swimrun races in the calendar. Set in and around the remote English lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere and taking place on the first weekend of July, 94 teams of two had to complete a course comprising of 40km of fell-running, 6km of swimming and 1,900m feet of ascent, some of it near-vertical.

Calum and I were wearing – as is the way with swimruns – the same wetsuit and trainer outfit throughout the day as we attempted 17 alternating runs and swims. And, like many of our fellow competitors, we were not quite sure what we were letting ourselves in for.

With the strains of the Guns N’ Roses classic Welcome to the Jungle signalling the start of the race, the day had begun in an almost party atmosphere. There was a bit of sunshine as the chatting and joking mass of neoprene jogged across the fields to the first swim. But even as we queued to get over a stile, I could see the elite competitors already steaming across the lake.

An enjoyable 600m first swim in clear, glassy water was followed by an awkward waddle as we adjusted to moving quickly in wetsuits and squelchy trainers. By the middle of the second lake crossing the reality of what we were up against began to sink in. With the current dragging us away from the course line and wind-blown spray making it hard to breathe, I was feeling seasick – and there were six more swims to do.

I was glad, then, to get out of the water but ahead of us lay a 300-metre climb up the deceptively named Low Bank. In fact, the steep gradient was a blessing as it gave us a chance to warm up. Laughing at the sight of scores of wetsuited walkers fanning out over the hillside, we realised we were quite good at climbing and were beginning to enjoy ourselves.

From the summit, a sublime descent back to Crummock Water gave us a chance to savour the surroundings, with the western fells rising up above the lakes. A feeding station at the end of the section offered an amazing spread of children’s party food: cake, crisps, jelly babies and even flat coke. We ignored more serious-looking gels and salts.

A 1km swim across calmer waters was followed by a 13km excursion around the fellside above Loweswater. By now, it was becoming apparent what an inspired route Ben de Rivaz – Breca’s founder and director – had created.

Unlike the more traditional mountain marathons, which involve two days of orienteering/camping, top navigational skills are not a prerequisite of the Breca. Instead, a combination of race marshals, signing and arrows created out of sawdust marked out the route. That was the theory, but at the head of lane we came across a posse of lost swimrunners. Out came the waterproof maps each team had been issued with and even a compass or two, as the way back onto the route was worked out.

And so the day progressed. Run, swim, a bit of climbing, grab a handful of sweets and then back in the water. Thankfully, the frequent changing of disciplines gave a chance to rest the legs and then the arms. Calum and I had met a couple of times on the Swimmer – a relaxed half-marathon linking London’s lidos – and were reasonably matched. As an endurance swimmer who has swum the entire 90-mile length of the river Eden, in Cumbria , he knew how to set a steady pace for us in the water.

I only had a tiny bit of experience, having travelled to North Wales to take part iLlanberis SwimRun the previous week. More of a sprint event than the Breca, the key lesson I learned was not to waste time messing around at the transitions. Pull buoys, which are attached to a leg and used to counter the drag created by swimming in trainers, should be ready to spin round as you enter the water.

Teamwork is a key part of swimrunning. Ben de Rivaz explained that this was in part for safety reasons. But there was also the matter of “sharing the experience” – the pain and joy of working with a teammate on the course. This was certainly backed up by Calum who later admitted to me that “constantly chatting and sharing the views helped me to forget that my knee hurt like hell from almost the second run”.

Beyond this, I was surprised at the way competing teams chatted and exchanged tips on the course. This social aspect was enhanced by the fact that many people stayed at the local youth hostel, the race’s base. There, a variety of participants –elite athletes, who were aiming to do the course in under six hours, triathletes and enthusiasts – mixed around the dining table. A sure sign of the growth of this nascent sport was that for nearly 80% of the field, this was their first swimrun.

The penultimate “run” up to Dale Head, a 753m block of Lakeland fell towering over the Honister pass was the point at which mental stamina came into play. Having stocked up on Kendal mint cake, we started the steep climb as the skies began to darken. Earlier that morning, Markus Rössel a veteran of the 2015 inaugural Breca had warned us: “You’ll be crying as you handrail your way up that mountain”. I’d scoffed at this but there were moments on the near-vertical climb when a fence was asking to be pulled on. I resisted, but yanking at grass and rocks was the only alternative to get up to Littledale ridge.

As we neared the top, we could hear one competitor wailing at her companion to get a move on, while people around us were complaining of the cold. And then it began to rain and hail.

Despite this, as we moved along the exposed ridge, I began to appreciate how liberating it is to run and swim in the same outfit, unencumbered by any other gear. Finally reaching the summit, we nearly ran towards the wrong valley, before we spotted a mushy pile of sawdust indicating the route down to Honister.

We felt rough, but were humbled by the volunteers, who had manned the windswept feeding station for hours. All that was left was a welcome downhill road section, a final 600m swim and a short run through lakeside woods. The decision as to how best to rehydrate was made for us as we were handed a bottle of Jennings beer – featuring a fellrunner on the label – as we crossed the finishing line.

We completed the course in under nine hours, just inside the cut-off time. The winning team did it in a sobering five hours 41 minutes. Still, we felt that we had grown into the competition and will be back.

Breca Árainn Mhór in Donegal, Ireland takes place on 20 August. Breca Jersey on 24 September

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