“This course goes on forever, hey? We spent two days marking the course and doing that each year, we remember how intense the course is. There are some parts that are smooth and easy and some parts where you just think… ‘hell!’”
It’s Sunday 4th September and 220 are in Sadhamm, Stockholm for the 11th ÖtillÖ world championships race briefing. Hosting are Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott, race organisers and they’ve just shown the 120 registered teams of two the map of the course they’ll take on the next day.
The atmosphere is a weird mix of tension, excitement and apprehension, As Lemmel lists each of the 21 nations racing, there isn’t a single whoop or cheer. “You’re all so quiet!” he laughs. “Is there anyone in here?!” At that the tension breaks and there’s laughter… But soon the focus turns back to the challenge ahead.
The next day, each of the 240 athletes will traverse 75km of the Stockholm archipelago, covering a total of 26 islands. Within that they’ll encounter ankle-wrenching trails, slippery rocks, cold waters and seemingly endless swims with strong tides and currents.
Swimrun is fast growing in popularity and this is the original and biggest, baddest swimrun of all. Started as a crazy bet, there are now only 120 race spots available, but over 600 teams on the wait list.
GB on the start line
Qualified this year are several GB teams including Jenny Rice and Claire Wilson, team Girls Wot Can, who qualified by coming third in the inaugural ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly.
“We only started swimrun last year, we were fellrunning, swimming, adventure racing and training in the Lakes, so it was a good fit,” they tell us. “So we raced Breca Buttermere and then Scilly and qualified…. We want to beat Pippa Middleton’s time from last year, that’s our goal!”
One of the fast, flat section of this year’s race. Image: Jakob Edholm
There are some famous faces from the world of tri here as well, most notably Kona champ Faris Al-Sultan. Thanks to a couple of last-minute illnesses and injuries within teams though, he’s racing with a Swedish partner, Peter Oom, and the pair only meet on the ferry the day before the race!
Some big guns of swimrun are back to defend their titles as well, with five of the six 2015 world champs here, racing in various teams. Back together are Staffan Björklund and Marika Wagner, last year’s winning mixed team; plus female team champs Annika Ericsson and Maja Tesch are racing in different teams, while reigning men’s champs Oscar Olsson and Paul Krochak (Team Head Swimming) are back to hope to win again. Also lining up are Lelle Moberg and Daniel Hansson (Swedish Armed Forces), holders of the overall course record of 08hrs 16mins.
Training in Wales
Race morning dawns and it’s breezy but relatively warm at 4:30am. There’s much talk of water temperatures, with about 13 degrees expected – and a few nervous faces as athletes collect the generous breakfast packs issued to each athlete.
220 track down GB team Five Frogs, which includes Matt Evans from Activity Wales, organisers of events including the Long Course Weekend. This is his first swimrun with partner fellow welshman Nicky Rees and the pair are looking pretty pumped at the start line. “We’ve got breakfast down and we’re ready to go! We just want to get the first islands under our belt,” they say.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere, everyone really looks after each other. We trained in Wales, using the terrain there that we think is perfect for this. Swimrun has to springboard – it takes the expensive elements of tri, the bike, out of the mix and lets you really explore nature.”
The race starts this year at 6am sharp (although exact time is dependent on a ferry crossing through) and the athletes are soon out of sight – following a quad bike 1.2km through beautiful pine forests to the first swim.
ÖtillÖ swims are often long, with technicals exits. Image: Jakob Edholm
This first swim is the longest at 1.7km, but already a cracking pace is being set. Leading is Team Head Swimming, while the Swedish Armed Forces team are also looking strong, but following a slightly different line to the pack (whether by design or current, we’re not sure). There are also a large number of teams together in a line at the front – we count 22 – which is unusual towards the end of the first swim and reflects the strength of this year’s competition.
Athletes sight off either buoys, flags or – in this case – a flashing beacon on the far island. The lead teams are soon hauling themselves out onto the rocks and away, a real skill in slippery, treacherous conditions. Watching them across the next couple of islands a real mix of kit is evident too – we see more flippers than in previous years (apparently many stronger competitors are also experienced divers) as well as the usual mix of paddles, pull buoys and home-made buoyancy aids.
Setting the pace
220 are following the race by boat and as the middle part of the course is tricky to access, we loop around the second section to catch up with the action again at Time 8 and Energy Station 4, which falls 29km into the course. Here, a crowd are waiting to cheer and fuel for the athletes includes sandwiches, warm soup and bratwurst, along with gels and drinks.
It’s evident a blistering pace is being set this year as the leading men’s teams, Team Head Swimming and Swedish Armed Forces charge through neck-and-neck at a time of just 03:16 – way under the predicted fastest time of 03:24.
Faris Al-Sultan and Peter Oom are through in eighth place just 9mins later, while USA team Valhalla Racing pass through soon after and cause cheers and laughter by shouting “where’s the party guys? Let’s hear some noise!”
In the mixed race it’s Thule Adventure Team through first in 03:33 and in the women’s race the two teams including reigning world champions are with us in first and second places – team Addnature including Annika Ericsson racing with Kristin Larsson in 03:46 and team Head Swimming with Maja Tesch racing with Bibben Nordblom in 03:53.
Just keep swimming
From Time 8, the course takes athletes through a couple of longer runs of 3.4km and 3.6km as well as some shorter runs and several three short swims of between 60m and 210m. We’re back on the press boat and heading to Time 10 though, to see competitors take on the second-longest swim, the infamous ‘pig swim’.
The leading mixed team on one of the many swim exits. Image: Nadja Odenhage
At 1.4km this doesn’t seem too long, but as with so many elements of ÖtillÖ the map and times alone can be deceptive. We arrive at 11am, after the very fastest lead times are gone and now competitors are noticeably slower in transition before going into this swim, edging their way down the steep rocks before entering the water and taking time to make sure kit is correctly adjusted and that they have a plan to work with the currents.
Even so though, most swimmers find themselves pushed far left midway across and as we follow them on the boat it becomes noticeably choppy at the mid point. For the swimrunners, it must feel like the longest 1.4km in the world.
Then keep running
Time check point 10 comes just after the ‘pig swim’ and at this point at the front of the race, Swedish Armed Forces and Team Head Swimming are still on each other’s feet, with only seconds to separate them. In the women’s race Team Addnature have extended their lead to 11mins, while Thule Adventure Team lead by 2mins in the mixed race.
The next stage of the course is shorter runs and swims again, taking in some beautiful trails and isolated islands, some of which are inhabited by only a couple of families.
Athletes must stay 10m apart, so often swim and run tethered. Image: Jakob Edholm
Long swims done though, there’s only one thing on athletes’ minds now – the 9.7km run from the top to the bottom end of the island of Orno. The thought of doing what is essentially a half-marathon after, for the slower athletes, already having been working hard for over 9 hours must be daunting. The fastest teams reach end of this section and check time point 13 in just 06:23:34.
We meet them at time point 16, by which point a small gap is appearing between the two lead teams.
It’s apparent now that we’re on for some fierce racing to the end. Swedish Armed Forces are out of the water and powering up the rocks and through this point of the course in 07:19:44, while Team Head Swimming are a few minutes behind in 07:23:06. The estimated arrival time here was 07:46 based on last year’s times, so they’re already smashing course records.
The last few islands are a section of the course that also makes up the new ÖtillÖ Final 15 course (see Editor Helen Webster’s account of racing this here) and take the teams through magical woods, across rocky terrains and through a last series of short swims from 100 to 350m.
The atmosphere on the finish line is electric. The final part of the ÖtillÖ course takes athletes round the finishing island of Utö, with the final part a run up the hill to the finish line. From the cheer that goes up from the crowds waiting it’s obvious the winning team are coming in and coming in fast – and with huge roars of celebration team Swedish Armed Forces cross the line in a new world record time of 07:59:04 – just sneaking under eight hours!
New course record holders Team Swedish Armed Forces. Image: Nadja Odenhage
That isn’t the only smashed record either – in the mixed class Team Thule Adventure Team set a new world record time of 08:49:58. Meanwhile in the women’s race, Annika Ericsson and Kristin Larsson of Team Addnature took a new world record, finishing in 09:32:03.
As we publish this article amidst finish line celebrations and athletes drinking bottles of the unique ÖtillÖ beer (this race really does have it all!), however, there are still many teams on the course – with the last finishers expected in an eye-watering 14 hours.
Having seen the course (and raced part of it in the Final 15), it’s fair they have 220 Triathlon’s upmost respect. This is a race that is on a serious multisport pedestal, but with the growth of swimrun many more triathletes will take a try at qualifying. Although whether this year’s amazing records can be ever beaten, remains to be seen…
For a full list of finishers and times visit www.otilloswimrun.com.