It may lack the prestige of the Olympics, but its competitors are arguably the bravest sportsmen on earth. PATRICK GOWER heads to Wales and competes in the world bog snorkelling championships.
My toes curl into the black oily mud beneath me. I take one last look at what lies ahead. There are 60 yards of Welsh peat bog in front of me. There and back in a decent time and I’m the world champion. Of bog snorkelling. Yes, bog snorkelling.
I’m about to take part in the bog snorkelling World Championships. It’s my first time at this, which explains why I don’t have a wetsuit on. Firstly, I didn’t think it would be this bloody cold. Secondly, while I knew the bog would be a bit muddy, I didn’t think it would be this disgusting. Yes, I visualised the mud, but no, I didn’t think about all the flies and disgusting other hives of insects that would be festering in the thing. A wetsuit would be great right now, not just for the warmth, but for that extra layer of protection from whatever heebie-jeebies are in that brown water down there.
Now is not the time for regrets, though. I pull my mask down over my face before the steward gives me one last rundown on the rules – kicking only, no conventional swimming strokes, but you can dog paddle and put your head up for looks”. Then there’s a tap on the shoulder, and it’s time to drop into the water.
The trench may only be a metre or so wide, but it’s over head-height deep. There’s a countdown, but the Welsh accents are so strong I can barely understand them say “go” and take the cheering of the crowd – yes, there is one – as my cue. I kick furiously with my fins. The mask is, of course, absolutely meaningless. I can’t see a thing. The snorkel, on the other hand, is my life-line. It’s the one foot of plastic piping that keeps me breathing fresh air and from sucking in bog water.
Then it happens. In the excitement of it all, I get my breathing out of time – I start trying to look up, I start spluttering on the surface, trying to suck in air. Don’t swallow it,” says a spectator crouched on the side of the bog in yet another thick Welsh accent. “Whatever you do son, don’t swallow it.” Too late. I taste mud.
I flash back to the advice I got from a local the night before – to skol consecutive big bottles of Coke immediately afterwards “to clean yer insides right out” – and to the definition of bog I’d read that used words like “acidic” and “a difficult environment for even the most hardiest of organisms to live in”. That’s more than enough to get me breathing – or is it gasping? – properly through the snorkel again.
I’m not even at the end of the first 60-yard length and I’m struggling. I resort to cheating and use my hands against the sides of the ditch to help push myself. I mean, it’s that muddy, no one is ever going to know.
I reach the end and, after a very unathletic turn, am back on my way again. I can tell you that this ditch in a bog looks no different on the way back than it did on the way there. I make it home in a very worthy two minutes or so – not bad for 120 yards, but a bit off the pace of the leaders. The eventual winner, a firefighter from Bristol, comes home in one minute and 46 seconds.
So I’m no world champion, but it sounds like I just might be able to lay claim to being the fastest Kiwi in the bog this year after a guy called Chris Horan came in a second or so slower than me. I guess that’s something.
The Bog Snorkelling Championships have been held in the Waen Ryth bog near Llanwrtyd Wells since 1976. What began after a boozy brainstorming session down the pub – where else? – has now splintered into the World Bog Snorkelling triathlon and World Bog Snorkelling Mountain Bike Championships.
Llanwrtyd Wells is that kind of town. It also hosts a Man versus Horse cross-country race – yes, man has won – and a “real ale ramble” (drinking ale and wandering through the woods). It must be something in the water, so to speak.
“This is a great place,” the barman Steve tells me as I have my celebratory post-snorkel pint. “Everybody is totally off their heads here. All of them. Off their heads. They just come here and don’t go away.”
It’s obviously this attitude that leads them to welcome the crazy kind of punters who want to bog snorkel. (Case in point: having foolishly forgotten a towel, the guy I stopped to ask directions was only too happy to loan me one.)
This may surprise you, but there are plenty of people ready to dive in that bog. OK, there were a couple of hundred, but that was still enough to mean we had to queue in the driving wind and rain for our shot at the title. There was a brass band, complete with a bog snorkelling composer. There were entire bog snorkelling families and even a 70-year-old competitor who had just had a heart transplant.
Such was the demand, in fact, that the organisers had dug a second ditch and even a warm-up pool for this year’s competition. What got me the most was that a lot of competitors were back for a second or third go at the bog.
I, for one, probably won’t be back, but having never competed in a World Championship of any kind before, I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to pit myself against the world’s elite in something.
And as I made the seven-hour drive back to London, with bog caking my every pore, that was something to be proud of.
• The 21st annual World Bog Snorkelling Championships will be held on bank holiday Monday, August 28 this year. For more information, see llanwrtyd-wells.powys.org.uk. Patrick Gower was a guest of the Wales Tourist Board. See www.visitwales.co.uk.
With a population of just 600, Llanwrtyd Wells in Mid Wales is officially the smallest town in Britain. Renowned for outdoor activities like mountain-biking and rambling, it is also home to some of the weirder events in Wales.
• Man v Horse marathon race, June 8
A 22-mile marathon between runners, cyclists and horses. For the first time in its 25-year history, it was won by a man in 2004.
• Bike bog snorkelling, July 8
Ride your bike while wearing a snorkel along the world famous bog trench.
• Third bog snorkelling triathlon, July 9
If you are still up for it, the next day you can run 8-10 miles, bog snorkel approximately 120 yards through the same bog trench and take a 16-18 mile mountain bike ride. Can be done as a relay.
•Real ale wobble, November 18-18
A non-competitive mountain-biking event held in conjunction with the Mid Wales Real Ale Festival, there are choices of 15, 25 or 40 miles with half pints of real ale to be consumed at the checkpoints.
• Real ale ramble, November 25-26
A walking event a week later with choices of 10, 15 or 25 miles daily and checkpoints with refreshing glasses of real ale.
• Saturnalia wobble and ramble, January 13-14, 2007
Celebrate the Roman god of Saturn and go on a boozy ride through some of the Roman roads and ruins in the area. Even eat the Roman speciality Lumbuli Assi Ita Fiunt – apparently small roast testicles!”