Ötillö is the original swimrun event for teams of two. My clubmate Izzy and I decided to try for a place in this iconic race held in the Stockholm archipelago. We put in our merits application and held our breath … When we heard we had been selected we were so excited, but knew this was where the hard work started!
Our plans for the year were shaped as we prepared ourselves for a race involving 26 runs (totalling 65km) and 25 swims (totalling 10km) over and between islands, dressed the entire time in a wetsuit and shoes.
After months of preparation we made it to the start line. We stood there at 6am in the early morning gloom, the starting line flags flapping hard in the wind. We were surrounded by 120 other expectant teams, many of whom had done this before. It seemed unreal to be there. A helicopter buzzed overhead as the gun went off. We were really doing this!
A first taste of the Baltic Sea
As we’re taking it steady through the trees to the start of the first swim, Izzy thanks me for asking her to do this with her. She’s unsure if she’ll feel the same many hours later. I’m equally grateful to have found someone who didn’t think it was a crazy idea, else I wouldn’t be here at all.
At the beach we look across the expanse of sea to the next island, over a mile away. I pick out the strobe light, but as soon as we get in, I lose sight of it. Part way over, through the clear water I can see rocks on the seabed below us. It doesn’t take long before I take a direct hit from a wave over my mouth and nose. I’m pleasantly surprised that the water is quite palatable and not too salty!
Fighting the terrain
As we clamber out we’re happy about how fast we swam. But we are in for a shock. Slabs of wet, slippery rocket at all angles. Neither of us feel confident in our footing and teams stream past us. It’s still early in the race, so I stay calm and keep moving.
Suddenly I slip forwards and do a ‘superman’ move to distribute the impact as I hit the ground. It’s not enough to save my knee, which gets a hard bash and starts bleeding. Another competitor helps me up and we get into the next swim quickly, although I’m feeling shaky.
Conditions aren’t improving, but eventually we climb out of a swim and I check my hand paddles. I’ve scribbled all the details we need on them – stage lengths, cut off times and aid station locations. We’ve got 4.5km to run to get to the first cut-off point. I look at my watch and my heart thuds. We’ve only got 35 minutes, we’ve been racing for 2.5 hours and we have no idea what the terrain is like between here and there.
Chasing a cut off
After a moment of panic I resolve there is no way we can be eliminated at 9am. And if we make this cut-off I will do everything in my power to make them all.
Soon we’re breathing heavily and finding it hard to talk. Izzy checks our pace; it’s fast. The trails are more like we’re used to. Panic spurs us on and we fall into transition with 14 minutes to spare. Little do we know, but we are almost last, with only about 15 teams behind.
The effort has taken a lot out of us and the unexpected difficulties have dented our morale. But we’re still in the race and now is our chance to turn it around.
Fun in the high seas
Although the first long swim was fairly tame, things suddenly get more interesting. We pause on the rocks and look out to sea. There are strong crosswinds, currents, waves and chop. I’m not sure it’s even possible to swim in these conditions. But we slide in and set off towards another far shore.
1.5m high waves seem huge when we’re in amongst them. I turn to breathe and I’m almost flipped, getting a wave right over my mouth and missing a breath. Our aim has to account for the strong currents pushing us away from our target. There are no big orange buoys to guide us. We are working on instinct, using every bit of confidence and strength we possess. It feels dangerous and it feels exhilarating. I’m loving it!
A ‘pig’ of a swim
We’re making good time now, and moving at a pace we had hoped for. I even enjoy some of the winding trails through the forests. This is more like it! We’re efficient in feed stations, stopping to drink two or three cups and picking up food to eat whilst we walk out and keep moving.
The infamous ‘pig swim’ looms large. At the briefing we were told some people might take an hour to cross the exposed 1400m channel. I am determined this will not be us and set my stop watch as we get in.
We emerge smiling and triumphant on the other side after 29 minutes of swimming.
The next section passes in a haze. My knee is sore. We are both tiring of the hard conditions underfoot. We’re also moving inexorably closer towards the 20km run section, which I’m more afraid of than the pig swim.
Counting the kilometres
Finally, after 47.5km of racing, we’re there. My mind goes into overtime as I calculate how fast we have to move to make the final cut-off. I decide we should be OK but also know we are both tired. My hips are sore and my quads are burning. I burble out loud to Izzy who pretends to sound interested, in much the same way as she had when I tried to describe our swims against the currents in terms of vectors of the forces acting against us relative to our direction of intended travel …
A lot of this run is on wide tracks and asphalt roads. The kilometres tick by and we know we are gaining time. We reward ourselves with a pack of Honey Stingers (pomegranate) halfway to the feed station. We pass through someone’s back garden and a lady with a team list shouts “Go Rosemary! Rule Britannia!”. Small children sit on the verges shouting “Heja! Heja!” and our feet fall into the rhythm of their chants.
As we stick to our own pace, we steadily pass teams. I’m sure I spot a snake across the path. I excitedly inform Izzy, but she’s beyond caring, unless, she says: “it eats me, in which case I’ll be glad this run is over!”. Our enthusiasm is dipping but we push on. We’re maintaining a speed that I am pleased with. On a swampy section that has us walking anyway, we wriggle back into the top half of our wetsuits before the start of the next swim.
The final push
We are back at the sea, the final cut off, 39 minutes to spare. We celebrate and know we are going to do this thing. A bit of running, a bit of swimming.
The trouble is that we no longer trust our legs. They are wobbly on the uneven stones and refuse to work as we haul ourselves out of each swim. The transitions we’d practised so often are getting slower and fiddly. No sooner do we get our legs in gear on the runs, than it is time to swim again.
We’re picking out the route, watching for the colourful marker strips in the trees that have shown the way like a dance all day. Sometimes we can’t see them even as they are right in front of our eyes. Without the focus of the cut offs our minds are wavering as we try to will our tired bodies on.
At last we start the final run. We force ourselves to ignore our screaming muscles. As we look up ahead we see a group of teams. We draw closer and as we pass, we see that Pippa Middleton is amongst them. We speed up as we gun for the line. 1.5km more and we face a cruel uphill finish. Then we are there.
Elation and emotion
We celebrate, we move forwards, I collapse onto a bench and start crying. We have actually made it! We had our highs and lows, times when we wondered how we’d ever finish, and times when we were high on the craziness of what we were doing. Now we had done it. We had finished a World Championship race and we were proud.