Courtesy of Creative Commons
Photo by Simon James
Every August, the smallest town in Britain hosts the World Bog Snorkeling Championships.
...ready, set, everybody into the bog!
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The first look always comes the day before. You could be high above Lillehammer, eyeing the drops and curves of the giant slalom, or on the Bonneville Salt Flats, preparing to break a land-speed record. Except that on this particular Sunday in August, I’m in a sodden pasture on the outskirts of Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, officially the smallest town in all of Britain, where I’ve come to swim in the 23rd annual World Bog Snorkeling Championships. Tomorrow is race day. I’m feeling good.
Before me, the water in the Waen Rhydd bog shimmers like opals while the reflections of cauliflower clouds bounce across it. Carnivorous sundew plants quiver. Rushes spear the air. A fence runs alongside the course, tufts of wool trapped in its wires. The morning is quiet, save for the madrigal of bleats.
When I was six months old, my parents hired a Welsh au pair. It was 1966, her name was Margaret Jenkins, and she came from Ystalyfera, a coal-mining and iron-working village outside of Swansea. She left us after a year, but first her mother sent a letter:
“Dear Mr and Mrs Sturz,
I wish to thank you very much for looking after Margaret, and for being so kind to her. I hope that you both, and the little ones, are in the best of health as we are. You wanted to know about the lady with a rat on her face. It’s true, it is years since I saw her very close, and I would not like to see it again. I have seen the lady from far since it was about last year. Here is another thing for you to hear, I have seen a man in Cardiff, who has got one side of his face as a pig, and his feet are a pig’s feet. This is very true Mr Sturz, and no fairy story, but it’s up to you if you want to believe or not.
Once Margaret left New York, my parents never heard from her again. But the letter remained, with the town’s name and the family’s street address at the top. Long before I had heard of its bogs—before I’d read Roald Dahl or Dylan Thomas, or learned it was the birthplace of Merlin—Wales already seemed a magical place; I imagined it teeming with stories. If I wanted to win this race, a bit of that magic wouldn’t hurt. The only place to start was with the Jenkinses.
So I had driven north from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, to Ystalyfera on my way to Llanwrtyd Wells. (One advantage of a country as small as Wales is that everything’s on the way.) Did it rain during the drive? Do sheep leave droppings in green pastures? Ystalyfera’s main street has two pubs, the New Swan Hotel and the Old Swan Inn beside it. I pulled my raincoat closed, and visited both. Ystalyfera is not a town with tourists.
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I ordered ale and met a man named Lyn, and another named Lynn, and then a local kid who slid into my car to show me where to drive. No, Margaret was gone, but I met two of her four brothers. (Margaret was one of four sisters.) We drank tea and looked at photos. They asked how on earth I was there. To snorkel in the bog? In Llanwrtyd Wells? “Everyone in Wales knows about the bog!” “Margaret lives in Jacksonville, Florida—is that very near New York?” “But we’ll watch you this weekend. It’ll be on the BBC!” “Then tonight at the Swan, we’re going to have a story!” It didn’t matter which Swan they meant.
“You do know the bog is cold?”
“Good morning,” the announcer says, as the rain falls. “Whose idea was this, anyway?”
The rules of bog snorkeling are simple: Swim two lengths of a 60-yard, four-foot-wide, four-foot-deep trench, without using conventional strokes. Techniques vary, but most contestants simply kick, keeping their arms at their sides. Wetsuits are standard apparel, but some snorkelers prefer “fancy dress”—this includes a very convincing Mr. Incredible (convincing, alas, until he enters the water) and a guy with an ironing board strapped to his back (“Extreme ironing,” he explains seriously).
The morning of the race, the sky comes down. It’s an enduring irony that a Welshman invented artificial rain. But today’s downfall looks natural. And horizontal. The sheep are unfazed, but the pine trees shiver. Then it occurs to me that horizontal wind can push you forward.
Bogs are plentiful in Britain and the western coast of Europe—abundant enough for there to be different kinds. But one thing they all have in common is peat, the soil-like buildup of partially decomposed vegetation, formed when excessive rain prevents decay. Peat is made of trees, grass, fungi, leaves, mosses, lichens, and insect and animal corpses. Scotch drinkers know that burning peat during the whiskey-making process adds to the drink’s flavor, and archaeologists know peat’s acids and lack of oxygen preserve bodies well. In Britain, the most famous bog discovery was the first-century Lindow Man, in Lindow Moss, Cheshire, whose last meal of cereal grains was intact in his stomach. Even older bog bodies have been found in Denmark.
But in this particular mire, the only men and women who will be buried past their necks are living. By the morning of the event, held each year on the last Monday in August, 170 snorkelers have paid £15 to race, and several hundred more people have come to watch. The ground is littered with sheep droppings and tufts of wool. Puddles expand in the tall grass. There’s an army tent to register, and an army tent for women to change. Between them, there’s another tent with medics.
“Good morning,” the announcer says, as the rain falls. “Whose idea was this, anyway?” The first snorkeler enters the water at 10:22 a.m. She’s Kerrie Stroud, a bog virgin from Dorset who wears pink pajamas. She swims without fins, and flounders in the clear brown soup. Five minutes and 17 seconds later, she crawls out on her knees, emerging like a water lily. “It’s fucking cold,” she groans. “And bloody disgusting.” She’s followed by a man in white overalls, whose face is painted orange and topped by a bright green wig. He churns the water behind him, sending spectators recoiling, until the bog resembles a chocolate float.
Since selling the Neuadd Arms in 2001, Green has been trying to lessen his role in the event, and this year Sheelagh Tompkins, a local nurse, is taking charge. She admits she’s the only organizer who’s ever swum in the bog intentionally. She adds, with medical authority, “It does your skin a world of good.”
We have come here to swim through cold, water scorpion–infested muck. In the rain. Why?
Then my turn arrives. As I ready my gear, the snorkeler before me abandons the course mid-lap and scurries from its banks like a water vole.
“You’re up!” the timer tells me. I step into the water, and cold oozes around me. But there’s no time to consider it. “Five-four-three-two-one!” she shouts, and I’m off.
I kick hard and can hear the crowd cheering, but my mask is immersed in semi-gloss paint. Trout? Before entering the water, I’d marveled at the newts and water scorpions (which breathe through their tails, which they extend above the water’s surface like snorkels) some kids had caught. So now I just kick. The first lap seems endless.
Soon, I’m huffing. I’ve already seen snorkels dip below the surface, and racers come out of the water coughing up mouthfuls of muck.
By the second lap, I feel each kick in my calves and thighs. But I haven’t traveled this far with the well-wishing of the Jenkins clan just to give up. So I keep kicking, even as I careen into the banks. The announcer declares, “Our chap from New York’s taking the scenic route!” The only thing I see is a clump of reeds stuck in my mask. Then suddenly the cheers get louder, and I push my arm forward.
“Two minutes, 11 seconds!” By the end of the day, I’ve placed 27th.
The day’s champion, Conor Murphy, hails from Northern Ireland and finishes in 1:38.09. A former triathlete and competitive swimmer, he’s fresh from winning the Northern Ireland Bog Snorkeling Championship the previous month (held on International Bog Day in Dungannon’s Peatlands Park, no joke). He wears short fins and a wetsuit, and has honed his technique by videotaping his time trials. On land, Conor’s a dead ringer for the cartoon character Tintin. When he swims, he uses dog paddle, and looks like a skiff with an outboard motor.
“I arrived in town last night, and had two pints at the pub,” he says after the race. “Then I went to the bog and swam 20 laps to get a feel for it. Then I returned to the pub and had another nine pints. But I got to bed by 11:30, and got up this morning for an Irish fry-up—sausages, bacon, eggs, toast, beans, and black pudding. That was mostly to soak the alcohol up.” Still, he’s disappointed he missed the world record. “That’s what I came for.”
We’ve all come for something this year. From across Wales, England, both Irelands, Germany, Slovakia, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. In prior years, competitors have come from France, Belgium, Holland, South Africa, and Russia, too. We could have gone to Hawaii for a triathlon or to Boston to run a marathon. Instead we have come here to swim through cold, water scorpion–infested muck. In the rain. Why?
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