Swimrun has been growing in popularity since it started in Sweden ten years ago – all because of a drunken bet between friends! The race born of this bet is ÖTILLÖ, meaning island-to-island. The race route travels over Stockholm’s archipelago, covering some 24 islands, with competitors racing in pairs. ÖTILLÖ also now stage the Swimrun World Series and Swimrun World Championships.
Swimrun concept and best footwear
The concept is simple – swim and run multiple stages over a set course, with a partner, and without stopping. Athletes run in a wetsuit and swim in trainers (the swimrun shoe range of choice for many is the inov-8 X-Talon series as the shoes are lightweight, drain water, dry quickly and grip on all terrains). Aids are allowed – and most competitors use a pull buoy and hand paddles. Partners must keep within 10m of each other, so many pairs attach themselves using a bungee cord. This can also help even up the differences, if one is a stronger swimmer or runner.
Dipping a toe into the sport of swimrun
My friend Claire Wilson and I (Jenny Rice) took part in our first swimrun, Breca Buttermere, last summer in the Lake District, UK. We absolutely loved it and enjoyed racing together. A desire for simplicity had led us away from triathlons and towards swimrun and thus neither of us has tried using the extra kit like hand paddles or pull buoys. They may well make us quicker but we just don’t fancy running with hand paddles on!
When ÖTILLÖ launched their World Series races earlier this year and Scilly was announced as their UK event, we decided to go for it. Along with the other teams, we made the long journey to the Isles of Scilly, enduring three long hours on the Sickalonian (ahem, Scillonian)… but the sight of the islands more than made up for the ‘lively’ ferry journey. We crossed our fingers for calmer seas on race day.
Isles of Scilly – The second race in the 2016 Swimrun World Series
The pre-race atmosphere was remarkably chilled, with everyone being given a beer on arrival. The ÖTILLÖ duo, Michael and Mats, gave a comprehensive, relaxed yet firm briefing, reinforcing the values of swimrun – look after each other and the environment we are in.
The race started at 10am, allowing for a relaxed morning of kit faffing. There were 80 teams on the start line, colour coded with male pairs in red, female pairs in orange and mixed pairs in green. We gravitated towards the few orange heads we could see. The race began with a run along the Strand and onto the coastal path, filtering the runners into single file. We came to the first of many rocky scrambles to the sea, and readied ourselves for the first 2km swim. Entering the water, seaweed hid the varying size of rocks under the water and people, including myself, either fell or tripped. Not exactly a speedy transition, but we were on our way to Tresco.
First it was numb feet and hands… then we began overheating!
Initially Claire and I swam at the same speed, but she soon began to move ahead. Every so often she checked on me, waited, and then we swam next to each other again. It felt like a very long 2km but we eventually stumbled onto the beach feeling a little wobbly from the cold. We had 200m on land before the next swim… or was that a run: the tide was out and the water was initially too shallow to swim. The teams ahead were walking the whole section so we initially followed suit. After a while we looked at each other…. ‘Swim?’, ‘Swim.’ It was definitely easier than wading. Another small run, and back in the water again. I was now getting pretty cold, had a slight shiver on, and my hands had reverted to the good old claw. All I could think was how much I didn’t want to do that last swim…
A slightly longer run around Bryher warmed us up before a short swim back onto Tresco. I’d been looking forward to this run section as it let us through the incredible Abbey Gardens. Support from the islanders and tourists was fantastic the whole way round, there was genuine excitement and interest in the race from everyone we encountered. For the first time in the race we began to overheat. Having spent most of the race with numb feet and hands, we now resented our wetsuits, but agreed to stick it out for the km’s that remained.
Swimrun tactics – on land and in the water
Next up, a series of short swims and runs over the tiny, uninhabited islands of Northwethel, St Helens and Tean. Thankfully we had some clear directions as we left the shore – ‘Aim left, there’s a strong current taking the swimmers right.’ We looked at the flag we needed to aim for and all the other swimmers were bowing to the right of it. We aimed far left of where we wanted to land and (according to spectators) caught five teams on the swim on our direct line across the channel. Admittedly we then lost those places back on land… but we were pleased to have gauged the current and not get taken off course!
The penultimate run took us around the exceptional coastal trails on St Martin’s. Hugging the coastline, twisting and turning, we passed Little Bay, Great Bay, Wine Cove, Brandy Point… I made mental notes of which beaches to visit the following day when we could be normal tourists. On all the other runs I had tended to be in front of Claire, but with the knowledge that next ahead was the dreaded 2.4km swim back to St Mary’s, I began to drop back. I felt sick with nerves. I mentioned my concerns to Claire… and got a firm reply, ‘You’ll be fine, you’ve done harder things, you’ve just got to get your head down and get on with it.’
The dreaded final swim
Before we knew it we were at the checkpoint before the swim. We were handed a pink tow-float for the slower swimmer (that’ll be me then!) A spectator was quizzing the marshall: ‘How many teams have come through already?’ ‘About 20,’ the marshall replied. ‘How many more to go?’ ‘Another 60.’ I nearly spat out my energy drink….. 20th? I thought we were near the back of the field. Obviously not! The knowledge that we were doing well gave me a confidence boost ahead of the final swim.
To my surprise, I enjoyed the first half of the swim, but inevitably the cold began to set in and my stroke changed from smooth and controlled to slappy and messy as my limbs stopped listening to me. I just wanted to swim properly, and even though we’d aimed far right our landing point we were still getting dragged left by the current. I punched the water a few times in frustration and Claire looked at me concerned. She motioned to put in a last effort to get to the buoy, from where we’d be protected from the current in the bay. I put my head down and moved my arms the best I could. As we reached the beach, the change in my mental and physical state was instantaneous. I don’t remember being cold at all after the swim, just ecstatic that we did it. All that remained was a 7km run back to the finish.
Swimrun – a team game of two minds and two bodies
Running back to Hugh Town I thought how grateful I was to Claire for getting me through that last swim. If it wasn’t for the partnership aspect of swimrun I think it’s unlikely I would have finished the race. It wasn’t until afterwards that Claire told me she too was worried about the final swim, but had kept her concerns quiet.
The final stretch along the seafront was filled with cheering from spectators. We crossed the finish line with huge smiles, hugged each other, then Mats and Michael. We finished in 6 hours 42 minutes. We were 20th overall, roughly 20 minutes behind the 2nd placed team, Rosemary Byde and Isobel Joiner, and 45 minutes behind the world champions, Maria Edstedt and Annika Ericsson. We hadn’t even considered that there were two ÖTILLÖ World Championship qualifying places up for grabs… but were told, because the first place women had already qualified, the two places went to the 2nd team, and Claire and myself. Wow!
Drowning in Swimrun beer and refuelling on a feast of giant pasties
Not only can ÖTILLÖ organise incredibly epic swimrun races, they can throw a damn good party! The Slip Inn became the ‘Official ÖTILLÖ Pub’ for the weekend. Lots of official swimrun beer was served and the evening banquet following the Awards Ceremony was a feast of giant pasties. We’re not sure it gets much better. Thank you ÖTILLÖ – we’ll see you in Sweden!
* Qualifying for the Swimrun World Championships was not something we had contemplated until we were awarded a spot at the Scilly event ceremony! inov-8 has been great at helping us with kit, but the cost of the event in Sweden is currently beyond our budget. If any businesses are able to help with sponsorship, we would be extremely grateful for the support. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org