Swimming Through Mud at the World Bog Snorkeling Championships

This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the world’s strangest (and messiest) competitions

A competitor named Rich Welsh midway through his challenge at this year's World Bog Snorkeling Championships in Wales. Steven May/Demotix/Corbis
A competitor in action at last year's championships. GEOFF CADDICK/epa/Corbis
Competitors in costume at the 2014 championships. REBECCA NADEN/Reuters/Corbis
Hundreds of spectators line up each year to watch the competition and revel in the festivities. Here, a 2014 competitor takes a pause for breath. GEOFF CADDICK/epa/Corbis
A competitor named Joanna Parker pumps her arms in the air after finishing the race last year. REBECCA NADEN/Reuters/Corbis
A man in a hot-pink tutu waits to compete at the 2014 world championships. REBECCA NADEN/Reuters/Corbis
At this year's event, Daisuke Miyagawa, a Japanese TV star, looks weary after completing his snorkeling challenge. Steven May/Demotix/Corbis
Costumed competitors at last year's event, including a "nurse shark." REBECCA NADEN/Reuters/Corbis
A camouflaged competitor at the 2014 event. REBECCA NADEN/Reuters/Corbis

“Snorkeling would be so easy in the azure seas of the Pacific, Indian Ocean or indeed the Mediterranean,” Bob Greenough says, naming places where the water is clear and tourists can swim calmly. “But here in the landlocked county of Powys, Wales,” he explains, “we have taken a humble bog and turned it into a sporting arena.” 

Greenough is the administrative director at Green Events Ltd., an organization that hosts the World Bog Snorkeling Championships. At the annual event, which marked its 30th anniversary on August 28, contestants don snorkeling gear—as well as funny costumes—to swim (or sort of swim) through a murky Welsh wetland called Waen Rhydd.

As the Toronto Sun reports, “Entrants must negotiate two lengths of a 60-yard trench through the peat bog in the quickest possible time without using any conventional swimming strokes.” The muddy slog draws competitors from all over the world, as well as hundreds of spectators, and is accompanied by other festivities, including live music and a bouncy castle.

Bog snorkeling grew out of a need to draw visitors after the area saw a decline in tourism. “This was originally a spa town,” Greenough says, “where thousands flocked each year to take of the waters,” which contain sulfur. But with advances in medicine, the natural sulfur wells could no longer compete. As Greenough says, people “could stay at home and pop pills which would have the same beneficial qualities that the waters apparently did.” For a little while, pony trekking—travelling through the countryside on the backs of horses or ponies—became the tourism activity du jour, but the area needed something more.

“So in one of our three pubs,” Greenough recalls, “locals would assemble and discuss over a few pints ideas of things we could offer as an enticement.” In 1980, they created a man-versus-horse race. After its success, folks were invited to float new ideas. As Greenough puts it, “One local wag said that all he had to offer was a bog in his garden.” Bingo. Why not have a race through a bog? “The beer was obviously of a high standard,” Greenough quips, “as it was not long before the first trench was dug.” Green Events organized the first event, and it has become an annual tradition ever since. 

The 2015 winner, Briton Haydn Pitchforth, bested more than 100 competitors, but still came in about two seconds short of the world record set last year by Kirsty Johnson, who slogged through the bog in one minute, 23.56 seconds.

What’s it like to swim through marshland? “It’s wacky, it’s wild, it’s wet and it’s really brown,” said one contestant.

“It is harder than people think because you can’t see anything when you put your face under. So if you get claustrophobic because you can’t see something, you can’t breathe—which isn’t the case—people panic and then you swallow a bit of water,” 2007’s winner, Joanne Pitchforth, told the International Business Times.

Wearing “fancy dress”—Brit-speak for costumes—is a tradition for the soon-to-be mud-covered participants. This year brought goldfish, sharkturtle and even Elvis get-ups to the bog. Check out some of the costumes in the pictures below:

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