They say no two races are the same, but in the case of the ÖtillÖ swimrun series, this seems to be especially true. The thing is, with swimrun there are so many variables. The course route, the terrain, the water conditions – added to which you race with a partner – all these things make each race feel like completely individual.
So, heading to the start of the inaugural ÖtillÖ Final 15 race in Stockholm on 3rd September I’m facing a series of emotions. Having already raced the new ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly earlier in the year (report here), people seem to have me down as some kind of swimrun veteran. But if I’m being completely honest, the day we’re facing in the Stockholm archipelago has me more than a little spooked…
So what is it? Well, in essence the Final 15 is exactly as it sounds. Forming part of the new ÖtillÖ Sprint race series, it offers a shorter version of an existing ‘full’ race. Only in this case, the full race in question is the mythical ÖtillÖ world championship final, renowned for being one of the world’s toughest endurance races, in which athletes traverse 75km of brutal trails, slippery rocks and current-strewn swims in the freezing Baltic.
“It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the course,” says founder Michael Lemmel during the race briefing on the ferry to the start line, “but our racers are a bit foggy by the time they reach it…. So this is a new way to experience the finish.”
Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here, though. The race is called the ‘Final 15’ when in reality it’s nearer 17km (and my Garmin finally reveals our race to be more like 18km!) and within that there are nine runs across often tricky, technical trails and eight swims, including strong currents at times, the longest of which is 900m.
Lemmel is right though – already from the ferry we can see just how beautiful the scenery in the area is, with dense woods sitting on rocky outcrops, while the air feels clean and fresh in a way that makes you desperate to get outside and take in the environment.
A Unique Experience
The Final 15 ÖtillÖ Sprint also gives you a chance to experience something that very few athletes will be lucky enough to go through. The full championship race follows two days later and only 120 teams of two are lucky enough to qualify to take on the full 75km course, with another 600 (ouch) registered on the wait list. So if ÖtillÖ is on your bucket list but you can’t contemplate the full distance, or never managed to qualify, this is a good alternative.
I’m racing with Laurent Grabet, a fellow journo from Switzerland, who I meet the night before. He’s never raced swimrun before, but with plenty of trail experience and a faster swim ability than me, we decide to go for it and try racing tethered with belts and ropes, with hand paddes for Laurent in the swim.
Many of the water exits were straight on to slippery, steep rocks. Image: Jakob Edholm
The first run is only 1400m, so we’re soon arriving at the first – and longest – swim. I’d been nervous about water temperatures after really struggling in the Scilly race, but in fact either a summer of hanging around in lakes trying to toughen up has worked or things are much warmer here, as the water feels comfortable to swim in.
Laurent and I soon get into a rhythm and we’re keeping up well with the field. I get the odd paddle in the face but I’m loving the beautiful surroundings – and bizarrely, am enjoying spotting the many jellyfish swimming beneath me. Not everyone reported liking them so much!
Swim done and we’re into the longest of the runs, at 7400m. Most of this one is remarkably flat and easy-going for ÖtillÖ though, with the first 5k taking us down wide country trail roads. It starts to pelt it down with rain, but actually we don’t mind as it’s refreshing and means we don’t have to bother ‘cabbing down’ (swimrun speak for peeling off the top of the wetsuit to avoid overheating).
From here on though, the terrain soon starts to become more technical. I’m more used to flat runs and am also conscious of a recent Achilles injury that is still a little creaky. Laurent pushes the pace though and I’m surprised to find I (mostly) fall into step with him – although there are a couple of moments I fall flat on my face…
Distances from here are much shorter between swim and run legs, so we’re constantly in and out of the water. We seem to have transitions pretty nailed though – apart from one memorable swim where I forget to do up the front zip on my wetsuit and it promptly filled with water on each stroke. Not a mistake you make twice.
Runs varied from technical trails to swampy undergrowth. Image: Jakob Edholm
One thing I am finding tricky though is the water exits. Many are on to steep and slippery rocks and I just can’t get a foothold. Swimrun is a friendly sport though and I find other swimrunners behind me only too happy to give my bum a good shove to help me out!
As well as trying to keep to a decent pace, we’re trying to take in the scenery as well though. There can’t be anything else in the world like this race – we run through beautiful forests, along magical, almost fairytale, trails and scamper across barren rocks feeling like the last people on earth.
With no cut-offs in the Sprints, there’s plenty of time to enjoy them! Image: Jakob Edholm
All too soon we reach the final island – Utö – where the course slightly alters from the world championship course to allow us to take in a final beautiful trail and a couple of short extra swims, before we head up the final hill to the finish line where race organiser Michael Lemmel is there again to greet finishers with a hug – along with a welcome finish line buffet! Our finish time? Three hours and five seconds…. We joke that if I hadn’t spectacularly fallen off the rocks back into the sea during one swim exit we’d have come in under three!
220’s Editor Helen and race partner Laurent at the finish. Image: Magnus Ormestad
There’s no doubting that this is a tough race. Don’t be fooled by the ‘Sprint’ name – you’ll need to be in reasonable shape to attempt it and you’ll meet some tricky trails and rough currents along the way. But most regular triathletes should be more than up to the challenge and it’s also a fantastic way to experience the things that truly make swimrun unique. Plus having the opportunity to try out the same course as the world champs racers – but without having to get in shape for 75km – is a truly wonderful experience.
Race done and I’m tired but by no means exhausted and I’m soon wondering what it would take to manage the full distance some day. That’s the other thing with the new Sprint distances. They hook you in. Enter one and prepare to be converted…
Find out more about the ÖtillÖ full and sprint distance race series here.