In about November last year, I started thinking about what my next big race might be. I like a challenge; something that I might not be able to achieve tomorrow, or next month.
My eye alighted on Ötillö, the SwimRun World Championship held in the Stockholm archipelago. In teams of two, you start on one island and make your way over 23 more, swimming between and running across them until you get to the end. You both stay together, completing the whole race distance as a pair.
The total length is 65km of running and 10km of swimming. The individual legs vary wildly, from short hops of just a hundred metres, to the longest sections of 1.6km (swim) and 20km (run). The sea temperature and conditions can be changeable and the run terrain covers everything from surfaced roads to footpaths to trackless routes.
Once I decided this was the race for me, I set about getting a partner. At the last minute, I found Izzy. She’s in the same club as me and we had a close race at the inaugural Celtman Extreme Triathlon. Even better, she said ‘yes!’
This is the 10-year anniversary of Ötillö. The race is hugely popular and over-subscribed. There are about four applicants for every place. There are three ways to get in:
1. Qualify in one of four specified races
2. Selection by merits
3. Random draw
We applied through the second route. As well as listing our top race results from the past two years, we had 500 characters to convince the organisers to give us one of only six merit spots for female pairs. We were very excited when we heard we had been accepted!
Preparation, preparation, preparation
This was fantastic motivation for me to focus on my run strength and distance. I have been gradually increasing my weekly distances and keeping on top of any niggles. I find myself wondering: since when did running become a valid form of transport? I run to work, the pool and even friends’ houses (“hello, how are you, may I use your shower?”).
In the pool I’ve found I can now keep up with the front guys in my lane and go faster than I have for many years. I suspect that there are strong psychological factors at play. 10km of swimming is a rather different prospect to the start of most triathlons!
There have been other things to think about too. Like getting to know Izzy better and sorting out kit. We’ve read lots of reports from previous competitors and met with two of them to ask questions. It was also very important to us to practice under race conditions. With this in mind, we headed out to Borås near Gothenburg, Sweden in June.
Getting a taste for the real thing
Borås swimrun is about a ‘half-distance’ Ötillö, but with significantly more ascent. It has 14 runs totalling 29km and 13 swims totalling 5km. This early target helped focus our minds. We got outside when it was still cold and started practising. The kit rules are quite relaxed, but there are some things that make life easier. We used swimrun-specific wetsuits from Head, plus pull buoys, paddles and trail shoes.
Izzy was ill the week before the race, so we missed our last training date. In Borås, we were staying with people who rent out a room through AirBnB. Once there, we spent a morning drawing lines on our suits and cutting bits off them.
This was followed by some intensive dry-land transition practice, which is when we met one of our hosts. We hastily explained why we were running round his house, joined with a bungee cord and wearing wetsuits, pull buoys, swimming hats and goggles. He just looked slightly bemused!
I wrote all the route stages on a small piece of paper and laminated them to take with us. As a back-up I went over the map and stages many times, firmly fixing them in my mind.
“We will have the weather”
The organisers reassured us that the conditions would be ideal. We could feel the wind buffeting the car on the way to the start but when we arrived the lake (Öresjö) looked fairly calm. I mused that further down it might be less sheltered. I wish I’d been wrong!
The water hadn’t warmed up as much as usual and was about 11ºC. Cold, but not unlike our training conditions. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet swum in a wetsuit with missing bits, but there was nothing we could do about that now.
Smart people walk the start
With about 10 minutes to go we were standing in all our kit, ready to start and listening to the briefing. I was looking at everyone else’s clothing and kit choices, to see what we could learn. Suddenly I noticed timing chips on people’s ankles. “Argh! Where was ours?!” Izzy sprinted back to the car to retrieve it just in time.
The first hill was very near the start and was steep and narrow. We ran to it at a steady pace and walked up. It was a good strategy, as for the next hour or so we steadily caught and passed team after team.
I was sure that we could save a lot of time by being smooth at transitions. As we neared the first short swim we went through the routine we’d rehearsed the day before and would repeat throughout the day. It all went well though communication and teamwork were essential.
Mind over matter
The middle section of the race was one of the hardest. After a number of shorter runs and swims, we had our first big crossing of Öresjö. We were swimming well, and overtook a lot of people but we were in a wide expanse of open water, with the wind whipping up waves and creating white horses. I suddenly started to feel cold and irrationally panicky. I reminded myself of the race briefing: ‘If you get cold, keep swimming!’
I was very relieved to make land on the other side. A short run round a hill and we were heading back across the lake. It didn’t seem so bad the second time. I also seemed less thirsty now – probably due to the amount of lake I accidentally swallowed! This won’t be so convenient in the seawater of Ötillö.
We were using a bungee tow cord. This is quite standard in adventure racing but a strange concept to many triathletes.
In the water, it kept us close together and took away the need to keep checking where the other was. When it was busy, it meant we didn’t lose each other. When things got tough it was reassuring for me to know Izzy was never more than 3m away.
On land, if one of the pair is feeling stronger they can physically tow their partner. A race like this is all about teamwork and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible – but still together!
Despite being warned that the constant change of activity was difficult, I was still surprised just how difficult it was! There was always so much to think about. Keeping track of the stages, knowing when a swim was coming up and preparing to transition. All this took energy, adding to the physical demands of constantly getting cold and having to warm up again.
Even though we felt slow, the results show that we were strong in the second half, making up ground on the team in front of us and moving away from the team behind us.
A short swim across a pond and back was actually a relief, despite us forgetting to zip up our suits. I knew the end was in sight from here and kept pulling Izzy along, trying to crack jokes. I think I managed one or two laughs, though my ‘chariots of fire’ rendition near the end may have left something to be desired!
The final surprise
We had absolutely no idea where we placed. Even if we’d kept track at the start it would be impossible to see who was passing who on the swims. It’s possible that some of the excited cheering was telling us something.
Rosemary and Izzy get their medals for third place
As we finished, we got a hug and medal from the race director. Then he told us ‘you are the third females!’. We were ecstatic and hugged each other jumping up and down and hugging him again. We finished 15th overall, out of 80 finishers, though several teams withdrew due to the cold and plenty of others did not start at all. Full results here. Right now the thought of Ötillö is daunting, but at least we are prepared!
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters including; Head, BeetIt, Chia Charge and Gococo. Thanks also to Jonas Colting for putting on a great race. I’m sorry I was concentrating too hard on everything else to admire more of the scenery. Prizes were running shorts from Salming and free entry for next year. Let’s see how we feel about that later!
You can read more about our races and journey to Ötillö here: www.planetbyde.com
Race day images: Johan Valkonen