LLANWRTYD WELLS, Wales — There are some seriously oddball sporting events in the world and, last year around this time, I took part in one when I entered the World Bog Snorkelling Championship.
What was I thinking? I can’t remember what prompted me to participate in this competition, now in its 27th year, but it may have had something to do with my passion for swimming, travel and anything quirky. Bog snorkelling satisfied all three.
It sounded easy enough. Put on a mask, snorkel and flippers, and snorkel two laps — a total of 110 metres — in a narrow water-filled trench cut through a peat bog. Last year saw 110 participants from more than a dozen countries, including some as far away as South Africa and Australia.
The competition takes place every August on a bank holiday weekend (Aug. 26 this year) on the outskirts of Llanwrtyd Wells, recognized as the "smallest town in Britain," by the Guinness Book of Records.
"Peace amidst beauty," proclaims a local brochure promoting this quaint town of 600 people that "lies at the centre of one of the last remaining wild areas in Britain." Llanwrtyd Wells, a Lonely Planet travel guide maintains, "has a newfound status as the capital of wacky Wales " for its many unusual festivals.
The day of the bog snorkelling championship didn’t start well. It was raining, and I awoke with a pain in my knee. To top it off, my wet suit didn’t arrive, though I later met someone who kindly offered to lend me one.
At the event site — a big open field, where the grass had turned soggy — I encountered two kooky-looking characters, Welshmen it turned out, wearing brightly coloured wigs and dressed as Hawaiian Hula dancers. They had entered the "fancy dress" category, which requires completing only one lap instead of two. The first-time contestants, already sporting their participation medals, were happy to relay their experience.
"It seems like you’re in there for an eternity. It’s very cold, very cold, but it is enjoyable once you get in," said the man in the blue wig, who had no idea of his finishing time. "We entered for the laugh not the competition."
Along the bog, there was a buzz of excitement as spectators lining the route cheered on friends. "Come on Bob," several people called out.
"Put your head back down," commanded an official holding a stopwatch and enforcing a rule that snorkellers not look up.
Contestants stood in the light rain. Many wore only bathing suits, while others were wrapped in foil blankets against the cold. I wondered what motivated people to shiver in the rain for a chance to swim in a cold, murky bog and pay an entry fee of about $24 to do so.
I talked to one couple who were on their first date! The woman finished ahead of her new male friend, who was feeling demoralized, and jokingly questioned whether there would be a second date.
Then there was Julia Galvin — a participant every year since 1999 — who has also bog snorkelled in Australia and her native Ireland. She practices in a bog on her property at home but says she is no longer interested in winning.
"I’m getting older now, so do it more for fun. It’s a great international event and I think there should be someone from every country here."
It’s not just fun for former competitive swimmer Dineka Maguire of Northern Ireland, the reigning Female World Champion (2011 time of one minute and 24.41 seconds). As for the chilly water? "I surf all year-round in the sea and I’m OK in it," Maguire says.
When my turn came I slid into the bog with trepidation, and set off kicking vigorously (you’re not allowed to use your arms). Unprepared for the frigid water — a real shock to the system — I began to panic, then accidentally gulped some bog water through the ill-fitting snorkel. Ugh!
Putting aside thoughts of any harmful bacteria I may have ingested, I continued kicking my way forward, although staring down in the murky water I had no idea where I was going. While repositioning the breathing tube, I lifted my head, breaking the rules. Struggling to catch my breath, I swallowed some more bog water. That’s when I stood up (breaking another rule).
"Keep going. Keep going," spectators cheered in encouraging tones.
"I want to get out," I pleaded, my feet sinking into what felt like pudding. I edged to the side of the bog and realized it wouldn’t be easy to escape. The embankment was high and there was nothing to grab onto. A man took pity and offered me a hand, pulling me out before I’d even completed one lap.
"You’re brave for trying," a sympathetic voice said back at the starting line, where I was handed a medal for participation.
Obviously I didn’t have the stamina of other contestants, such as 75-year-old Tom Harrison. The trim senior sporting a 19th-century Prussian helmet, was taking part for the second time and, shockingly, did not even have a wet suit as protection from the numbingly cold water!
"I’m planning to be the world’s fastest bog snorkelling pensioner," he told me confidently.
This year’s World Bog Snorkelling Championship has been incorporated into the World Alternative Games. After learning London was hosting the 2012 Olympics, people in Llanwrtyd Wells decided they would celebrate by staging their own games. Instead of Olympic sports such as running, jumping, cycling and swimming, the town is hosting "more exciting and imaginative events" such as worm charming, backward running, bath-tub racing and wife carrying. Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded, but organizers, keen to promote the "Corinthian Spirit," stress participation is more important than winning. The Games, which started yesterday and run through Sept. 2, will become a biannual event with the next one in the year 2014. See worldalternativegames.co.uk.
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