Our #swimrunjourney began in 2012 at the ÖTILLÖ in Sweden. For those who don’t know ÖTILLÖ is an approx. 75KM swimrun race comprising 10km of swimming and 65km of running down a chunk of the Stockholm Archipelago conceived as a drinking contest between some yachties about 7 years ago. These days there’s no drinking (of the good sort anyway) but plenty of Nordic adventure racing loons and an increasingly large number of Brits keen to race in some splendid scenery.
As the race starts from Sandhamn, an island far out on the archipelago described as the ‘Swedish Cowes’, everything begins on the Sunday with a boat ride from a small port near to Stockholm. Here we queued for the chartered ferry by a Red Bull jeep/truck thing which was rather incongruously playing ‘extreme sports’ stylee music while the competitors milled around in the traditional ‘my t-shirt’s longer than yours’ competition. UTMB, Trans Alpine, Marathon des Sables etc all made an appearance, to be honest if all you could muster was an Ironman finisher’s shirt then you were with the fat wheezy kids at the back of the boat, all rather unsettling!
No more settling is that fact that the ride out takes 1hr45 and only covers about a third of the course. Once you’re in there’s a quick check of mandatory kit, a nice pre-race brief where you are instructed to enjoy yourself but remember that there are some ruthless cut offs and then to bed. Come Monday morning it’s a 4.00 start to drop off kit going to the finish at the boat and then a massive breakfast before shuffling down to the start in wetsuits. We were travelling with two other teams and so there was a healthy amount of chat about who would beat whom, who would drown etc.
At most events, there’s a good bit of eyeing up at the start line. Here there’s double as much because everyone has different ideas about what kit to use. The rules mandate that you have to have a wetsuit, whistle, map case, bandage, waterproof phone (provided by Samsung) and a bag to carry it all in. Other than that, it’s pretty much a freestyle-jazz odyssey and this shows. Some people have bum bags, some have camel backs, the fastest guys have nothing (where does the mandatory kit go? Don’t ask, don’t tell). There are people with fins, people with paddles, people with pull buoys (in previous years there have been people with lilos!) and every variety of wetsuit configuration under the sun. We went for normal tri-wetsuits, cut off just above the knees, with hand paddles and a camel back a piece. We had considered fins but didn’t have time to try them out so gave up on them, from looking at the results I doubt they added much as none of the top guys used them.
Everything kicked off at just after 6 with a mass start behind an ATV. The Swedish Cowes has no paved roads and within seconds we were jogging though a small pine forest for the first 1200m to the swim start. As soon as we hit the beach the weather made its presence felt. It was a warm day but there was a strong headwind bringing up decent sized waves for the opening 1650m swim towards a strobe light in what seemed like the far distance. No one was going to be setting pbs in trainers and a rucksack but the swell played havoc with everyone’s race plans. The organisers have a ‘slow time/fast time’ list to give you an idea of how fast you need to be going. They predicted that the first swimmers would take 19 minutes to do the mile, in reality it took them the best part of 40. I’m a reasonable-ish swimmer (1.13 for iron-distance) but pretty much freaked out, especially when the helicopter filming events hovered over me and the passenger ferry cruised through! I crawled out of the water after more than an hour, worried that my teammate would be waiting for me and angry to find he had only just emerged himself. While we weren’t setting the world alight we were not at the back of the pack either.
From there it was a series of longish (3-7km) runs and shortish (250-600m) swims along the top of the chain. The course was very well marked with tape and there was no need for the map (didn’t come out in the whole day). As the route is more or less in a straight line we were running on everything from no paths to main roads and it was a wonderful setting. It was during this section of the race that I abandoned front crawl. The paddles were a mistake I think and my left shoulder had become very sore and I soon found out that breaststroke was allot quicker and saved energy. As a consequence, I did 8ks of breaststroke, which was worth it to see the looks on other teams’ faces if nothing else. There’s nothing much to report for this first section, except to say that there’s a quite cheeky swim of a k or so that seems to come out of nowhere and take forever! It was really all about settling into rhythm, using the longer runs to claw back some of the swim time, and enjoy the beginnings of a serious day.
It seems strange looking back on it now, but the first cut off was at 12.00 at Namdo and so after 6hrs of racing and a decent chunk of distance, but appeared in a flash. We were told in the pre-race briefing that no one has any problems with the 12.00 cut off, and that if you are brushing against it you should stand by for a real fight for the later cut offs. As such out tentative plan was to get there for 11.00, but in the end pitched up at about 11.15. I wasn’t too concerned about this, having noted the extra time taken on the first swim and that the wind seemed to have calmed down. We had 45 mins in the bag and were not feeling it too much, especially after the cheese sandwiches and hot dogs they hand out at this point! We’d made up a good amount of time and seemed to be sitting inside the top 50, though things were still fluid at this stage.
From the Namdo lurks the ‘Hell swim’ of 1400m and its little cousin of 900m which we had dubbed the Purgatory swim. While there are plenty of other swims these two play on the mind because they are the most open of the course and are in deep, cold water. As such they tend to be the major events of the day, especially for the weaker swimmers. A consequence of this is that I can’t really remember much of the island hopping between Namdo and the Hell swim in detail, as it was playing on my mind. It all seemed to pass by in a blur of rocks, pine trees, and swedes cheering us along. What I do remember is clambering around a rocky promontory and seeing the Hell swim in all its glory, with the strobe on the other side seeming a very, very long way off.
Fortunately, the wind direction meant that the Hell swim was not all that hellish at all. Effectively the island we were swimming to blocked it and while it was pretty choppy and seemed to take forever, with my new breaststroke technique I found it rather enjoyable. Having done a brief survey of participants, including my teammate, it seems my experience was an aberration though. Most people found it suitable hellish! An interesting comment from one of the more experienced guys I spoke to later was that actually the Hell swim was the same as it always was, it’s just that they are used to have glassy crossings more or less everywhere else. Not so this year.
From the hell swim it’s on to the second major check point for the 14.30 cut-off, through a combination of rocky maize and forest paths. The plan was to hit this at 13.30, but didn’t actually get there until nearly 13:50 or so. This was encouraging as clearly, we weren’t losing much time and the bulk of the swimming was dealt with. This check point is also helpfully stocked with Red Bull and sweets which we gorged ourselves on while talking to our support crew for the first time in the day. They had come out by boat and provided some much-needed morale while giving us the (important) race standings: one team ahead, one behind!
At this point things started to become a bit of a grind; there were some shorter swims and the 900m Purgatory swim, but the islands between them were short and too rocky to really get a run going. Fortunately, we were soon at the 16:00 cut-off, with only a short swim and 17kms between us and the 18:00 cut off, reaching the 18:00 cut means glory as they allow you to finish not matter how slow you are from there.
We hit the 16:00 cut off at around 15:35, and with a long run (our best discipline) ahead of us felt a little complacent. It was then that the sound all athletes fear drifted over on the breeze: the pounding feet of our friends catching up. It was hard to believe but after 10 hours of racing we were in the feed station at more or less exactly the same time, clearly some serious running needed to be done.
A quick dash across the 200m or so swim later we were pounding the trails. This should have been a relaxed soak of some beautiful countryside, instead it was a hard (as we could manage) run being chased all the way. We thought we were passed twice but somehow managed to hold on to a slender lead, bursting through the trees at the 18:00 cut off at about 17:30. The staff were puzzled as we charged through and down to the water, commenting that we had plenty of time now! They didn’t realise who was on our heels as we dove in for the final 5 swims and 4 islands.
It turns out we needn’t have bothered as the team chasing had decided that they were going to make the 18:00 cut off and then take a relaxed approach to the rest of the event. Sure that they were on our heels we pushed it hard through the remaining islands, passing a number of teams we had been duelling with all day. This stage is probably the most picturesque, with short swims between craggy islands in the twilight, sadly we couldn’t enjoy them too much!
The finish is something special (though uphill which seems sadistic) as the race director appears to be on hand to greet everyone who crosses the line. There’s a bar right there and it was great to sit with the other racers and chat about the day’s events. Thanks to being pushed right through the final section we ended up coming in at 33rd of 102 starting teams; I think 38 or so dropped/were dropped. For the first time, there were a number at the first cut off, most likely due to time lost on the first swim and never recovered.
All in all, this was a spectacular event, incredibly well organised and supported. The social media effort alone was immense, with friends and family being kept informed of progress all day and photos uploaded within moments of their being taken. Would thoroughly recommend it, though be warned that both my teammate and I thought it was ‘post-ironman’ in phys terms, and it’s a lot of money to spend in order to be pulled out!
‘Robert Graves would accept no honours, his medals from the Somme campaign being honour enough. For Henry no bio need be given other than that he was once one half of Team Zulu Alpha.’