There’s something about ÖtillÖ that gets under your skin. After visiting Sweden last year and following the world championship race for a feature, I’d kept in touch with the organisers and was looking forward to trying a taster ‘sprint’ distance at their new UK world series race in the Scilly Isles. Their ethos of holding challenging races but in stunning scenery – and with a partner to help you out – really appealed to me.
With 10 days to go though, the phone rings and it’s one of the organisers, Michael Lemmel. “Helen, how are you? How is your training going?” he says. “The thing is, we have this really great guy Göran Wernqvist who needs a partner for the full distance – and we know you can do it…”
One day of training
So that’s how I find myself less than a fortnight later, on the Isles of Scilly, meeting my new partner for the first time and about to embark upon a race that involves 30km of running across beautiful (but technical) rocks, trails and sand dunes and interspersed with swim legs totalling 7.5km (seriously! 7.5km!) between the islands of Scilly.
Luckily Göran is a bit of a superhero when it comes to ÖtillÖ. He’s completed the world championship race several times before and has an awesome tattoo of the course on his leg. I’m in good hands. That said, nothing has prepared me for the shock of the 14 degree seawater in our first and only ‘test’ session the day before the race. We do two short swims to practise swimming tethered (Göran is a much stronger swimmer than me so will be leading) and in these sessions I go so blue and shivery, that we’re both a bit concerned.
The whole spirit of ÖtillÖ is teamwork though – and Göran more than proves this later in the day when I discover he’s chopped the legs off his Orca tri wetsuit to make me neoprene calf guards to help keep the cold out (I’m wearing a swimrun-specific wetsuit with short legs). For him there’s no question that we’ll complete the race and enjoy it as a team – even if it means sacrificing his own kit! The man’s a legend.
Time to run, and swim…
Race day comes and as I walk down to the start line the sun’s coming out and I can see the beautiful islands spread out before me. Seeing all the other ÖtillÖ racers walking ahead of me in their kit gives me a shiver of excitement too (makes a change from the cold!) and suddenly I’m really looking forward to the day ahead. Let’s do this!
Race start is on St Mary’s and we all gather under the start line. The signal’s given and we’re off on a 2,500m run along the first part of the coast, rising up and over a hill down to the first swim start. There are two long swims – a 2,000m first swim and a 2,350m last swim – and after struggling with the cold the previous day, I’m nervous about them. In the heat of the moment though there isn’t really time to worry and running in the swimrun wetsuit (and a lot of thermal layers!) makes you pretty hot, so the water doesn’t feel too bad.
Göran hooks up our bungee rope, goggles go down, pull buoys are spun round and we wade into the water. Swimming tethered is a strange sensation – Göran leads and sets the pace while sighting, while my job is to try and swim behind him matching his rotation and stroke pattern and trying not to create resistance!
Getting the first swim done feels good and I’m really enjoying myself – but I’m also discovering that there’s a real art to swimrun. While Göran scampers happily across the big boulders on the beaches and seems to be able to wade through thigh-high water without a problem, I’m stumbling about all over the place like Bambi on a bad day. There’s a reason you have a team-mate in ÖtillÖ though and for the first time of many during the day, my hand gets taken and I’m helped along.
In swimrun you have to be within 10m of your partner at all times which is a lovely way to race, as whenever you have trouble there’s always someone there to help you along – whether physically, or with words of encouragement. Later in the race I have a couple of falls on the trails due to wet, numb feet and tired legs and I’m glad of a reassuring friend to pick me up and check me over!
Running in neoprene
We complete a couple of medium (880m and 450m) swims and a 3,250m run and are starting to get into a routine with the transitions (basically Göran organises us and I try not to fall over too much!), but then at about 2hours 40mins in we’re into the first longer 6,800m run, around Tresco. Oddly it’s here that I start to struggle a bit. I’d thought I’d find the running easier than the swimming, but the multiple terrains are tougher than I’m used to, my kit feels hot and sweaty and the second long swim towards the end of the race is playing on my mind. I’d been warned that my brain would give up before my body in this event – and it seems that’s true.
Spotting that I’m flagging, Göran decides we’ll try running tethered for a bit. “Are you going to drag me?” I ask, “No!” he replies. “It’s just so I know where you are!” Oddly this really helps as I don’t feel like I’m being left behind, or holding my buddy up, any more and as we run through the gorgeous botanical gardens on Tresco, waving at cheering tourists and high-fiving the kids, I really start to enjoy myself again. Plus there’s cake at the aid station, which helps!
After Tresco we’re on to a series of smaller islands and swims that Göran calls the ‘washing machine’ as we’re constantly being dunked in and out of the water. It’s a bit choppy here and the current is stronger, plus the pressure is on as we’re approaching the island of St Martin’s, where the two cut-off points are. On the start line Göran had made me two promises though – “we will finish the race and we will not come last!” – and he’s living up to his vow, powering through the swims and keeping an eye on the course timings written on his paddles to make sure that we make it. Many of these smaller swims are through tall clingy weeds and seaweed too, so it’s no mean feat!
We make the first cut-off with over 10mins to spare, which gives us time to relax (a little!) on the 7,600m run around St Martin’s. Here the swooping coastal trails are beyond beautiful, with views of almost Mediterranean beaches. With the warmth from running we ‘cab down’ (swimrun talk for taking the top of your wetsuit down) and fall into a rhythm of alternating running in areas where the terrain is easier and speed-walking up the rocky and steeper parts. I suspect Göran could run the whole lot far, far, quicker, but after seeing me fall on my face a couple of times I think he’s decided caution is the better option!
The second cut-off is reached with cheers and over 15mins to spare. The time pressure’s off and here we pick up a bright pink floating buoy so the kayaks can easily spot us on the last, longest swim. Göran’s enthusiasm is infectious and with the sun out and cries of ‘time to go home!’ we head into the water and start the final swim back to our starting island.
I’m lucky to have a partner who understands the sea, as Göran heads off away from the marker buoys towards a giant phone mast in the distance – meaning that although we’re still facing strong tides, they aren’t throwing us too far off course. I later find out other teams really struggled here, so I was glad of his know-how.
That said though, as the swim goes on it feels like it’s lasting forever and I start to fret about how cold I’m getting. Göran’s like a machine powering through the water (despite a nasty cramp in his leg!) and I try to focus on keeping the same rhythm and swimming as hard as I can to keep warm. With the strong tide though, I’m being jack-knifed behind him and keep hitting his feet. “I thought you were trying to give me a manicure!” he laughs later on.
After what feels like an age we make it onto the beach and although I’d love to stay and thank the supporters waiting and cheering, my teeth are chattering uncontrollably by now and I know I need to move to warm up, so we head off on the last 7,200m run. After 1,400m of running we reach an aid station where water, gels and a very friendly Old English Sheepdog are waiting. Much to Göran’s amusement I end up hugging the dog (well it’s warm and comforting!) as it licks the salt off my swim hat. It’s a good job I’m not worried about split times!
On to the last run and our pace is more than relaxed, with walking punctuated by sections of jogging when we feel like it. By now I’m warm again and the sun has come out and the final island feels like heaven on earth. We take in the scenery, chat about the day and play cat-and-mouse with a couple of other teams that seem to be following a similar pacing strategy.
Coming back into the town and towards the finish line we do the obligatory ‘finish line sprint’ and cross under the ÖtillÖ-branded arch hand-in-hand to be met by Michael Lemmel, who hugs us both and congratulates us on finishing the race. There aren’t many races where the organisers meet every finisher in person and it’s one of the things that makes this series so special.
Finishing the race I feel about a million emotions. It’s definitely the toughest race I’ve ever done and I’ve pushed boundaries I never even knew I had – I still can’t quite believe I finished it! I’m hugely grateful to my new buddy for helping me through the race (there’s no way I’d have made it alone, which proves the whole point of the race format), plus there’s a massive sense of achievement. We did it!
I’ve also got a few bruises, sand in places that sand shouldn’t go and some seriously sore muscles… but with a pint of Cornish ale and a giant pasty in my hand at the post-race party, I’m already planning more swimrun adventures with new buddy-for-life Göran and wondering what we could achieve with a bit more than 10 days’ notice. Who knows? If we make it onto the podium next year, I might even get an ÖtillÖ tattoo as well…
To discover more about the Isles of Scilly, go to visitislesofscilly.com. To book your journey, visit islesofscilly-travel.co.uk or phone 01736 334220. There are Skybus flights to St. Mary’s all year round from Land’s End and Newquay Airports, and between March and October from Exeter Airport. Prices start from £140 return from Land’s End. From spring to late-autumn, the Scillonian lll passenger ship sails up to seven days a week between Penzance and St. Mary’s. Prices start from £90 return. 220 Triathlon stayed at the Star Castle Hotel, St. Mary’s, star-castle.co.uk.