I first discovered Swimrun through friends, as is often the way. They spoke in awed tones of a race across the Stockholm archipelago that took all day to traverse 75km over 20+ islands, entailed running in a wetsuit and swimming in trainers, and had to be completed as a pair. It was just the sort of bonkers event that appealed to me, and so I approached a friend who was keen, entered the ballot, and began training. In 2013, the sport was still very much in its infancy, and ÖTILLÖ (the race in question) was still one in which you stood a reasonable chance of getting a ballot place. Its popularity has soared since then, and a path to the start-line of the flagship world championship event is now considerably more convoluted, involving ranking points, qualifying races, and a lot more luck (if you go down the ballot route).
Mercifully, a host of other swimrun races have sprung up around the world, offering keen athletes a wide range of courses against which to pitch themselves. The variety is astonishing, from inland lakes in mountainous terrain, to coastal swims between low-lying islands, and with the development of sprint races too, there is also a range of distances to ease newcomers gently in to the sport.
I’ve been lucky enough to compete in a number of other swimruns: the inaugural Breca Buttermere in the Lake District was a particularly special race – a small number of entrants (as befits a test race), my first experience of the Lake District itself and the infamous Honister Pass, and a race directed by a friend and former army colleague, meant it was a memorable day out. It was also the first and only time I’ve lost my goggles midway round the course, which made some of the later swims a bit emotional (never have I been more thankful for my teammate’s garish yellow compression socks, to which my blurry gaze was glued throughout)! The cold beer handed to us at the finish by Ben, the race director, tasted unbelievably good too, and the after-party in a local pub will live long in the memory.
On the kit front, it’s amazing how much it has changed since the early days of the sport. Remarkably, some early entrants to ÖTILLÖ carried inflatable lilos with them, and when I competed in the event, we, like many others, carried small Camelbaks full of water and gels – something I wouldn’t dream of doing now.
Today, the mantra “Light is right” has taken hold. There are still a few common items you see: hand paddles (for all but the most accomplished swimmers) for extra propulsion in the water, and pull-buoys to lift legs otherwise weighted down with trainers. Interestingly, people are still innovating – I’ve seen plenty of people with foam inserts stuffed into the front of compression socks in place of a pull-buoy (providing less encumbrance on the run and enabling faster transitions), and many wetsuit brands are now producing specialist swimrun suits – meaning the somewhat traumatic process of hacking a normal triathlon wetsuit to pieces pre-race is no longer necessary. My Breca teammate, for instance, was a little over-enthusiastic in cutting the lower legs off his suit, and ended up with what can only be described as a neoprene hotpant suit. Strong look.
I’m hugely enthusiastic about the sport and continue to urge friends to give it a try. I’m a keen triathlete and recently completed an extreme triathlon in Norway, but my love for swimrun remains undimmed as they have a unique appeal. For example, there’s no technical equipment (such as a bike) to let you down, and there’s a wonderful simplicity in the concept – getting from A to B, across whatever terrain or water you encounter on the way. Competing with a teammate also makes it an incredibly sociable sport – during a long race, it’s inevitable you’ll have low moments, and being able to draw on a teammate for support in such instances is a real boost. Plus, there’s the joy of shared experience – nothing beats reminiscing about the highlights of a course which inevitably takes in some spectacular, wild scenery over a cold beer afterwards.
If you’re wondering whether to give it a try, I’d heartily encourage you to do so, whether you’re a swimmer, runner, triathlete or just keen for a challenge, it’s a sport which is hugely rewarding, and the community is easily the most welcoming of any sport I’ve taken part in. The Breca race series is a great starting point, particularly for UK-based athletes (and indeed those in New Zealand, where Breca now runs two events), and equally, the original ÖTILLÖ team of Matts and Michael continue to run fantastic events.
Oli is a keen and aggressively amateur endurance athlete. While he’d love to have more time to train, he frequently has to resort to a brute-force-and-ignorance approach which to date has just about got him through to the finish line, often with the words of James Joyce’s Ullysses ringing in his head: “Strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. Races he’s completed include ÖTILLlÖ, Breca Buttermere, the Thames Path 100, ThorXTri in Norway, and the school Under-11 800m in 1991 when he came 2nd, his highest placed finish to date.