Before we dive into this unique and interesting article, let me explain what a SwimRun is?
It’s a multi-stage competition where participants are doing a combo of running and swimming over a cross-country racecourse that transitions between the swim- and run stages of the race.
This year, one of the world’s toughest endurance races is happening on the Isles of Scilly.
For the first time ever, this unique ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship race will be held in the United Kingdom.
100 teams of two members from Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Germany will be chasing the eight qualification spots for the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship on September 5th, 2015.
The race will be a true test of toughness and endurance for the teams of two participants that will tackle a 45km long run course with a minimum of eight swims.
Let’s dive into the event and learn what this whole race is all about!
“It’s going to be incredible,” I overheard a local explaining. “They’re going to swim all the way to Tresco and back again.” Actually, it’s worse than that, I thought to myself, as I tried to walk off my pre-race nerves. We’d be alternating between swimming and running across six of the Isles of Scilly, off the southern tip of Cornwall. No stopping. No change of clothes. Just a wetsuit and a pair of trail shoes. Welcome to the sport of swimrun, invented by two Swedish adventurers with a penchant for drunken bets.
Despite being sober, I was on my hands and knees within the first 10 minutes of the race as we traversed slippery rocks into the turquoise-coloured sea. Ahead of me lay a 2km swim from St Mary’s to Tresco followed by a further 35km of island hopping across the southernmost point of the British Isles before the finish line.
Many would never make it that far. Exhausted by the constant alternating of rocks, sand, seaweed and trail running, they would later be pulled out of the sea for their own safety, as tides and currents sapped what remained of their energy. Even the winners talked not of triumph but relief that mother nature had spared them even worse.
For most of the last decade, swimrun has been confined to Nordic countries. The original race was across more than 20 islands in Stockholm’s archipelago, later turned into an annual event known as the ÖtillÖ (“ö till ö” is Swedish for island to island). But rumours of a new adventure sport have been spreading.
This year, the Isles of Scilly were chosen to host Britain’s first ÖtillÖ race. A clutch of famous names including an ex-Channel swimmer and a former British triathlete sensation hoped to be its first winners. The rest of us just to live to tell the tale.
Contemplating the course sent tingles down my spine, but in hindsight I could have worried less. The atmosphere pre- and post-race is one of familiarity and hugs for those who reach the finish and those who don’t. It’s the antidote to the intense and often sterile ironman and triathlon circuit. In the pre-race briefing, organizers talk not of conquering but immersing yourself – quite literally – in nature.
What’s more, you’re never alone. Just like the original Swedish duo who made true on their late night bet, you race in pairs. My own was Mårten Vidlund, a Swedish cardiac surgeon with big shoulders and a gentle smile. He would be my companion, motivator and rescuer if needed – and me his. We’d make it to the finish together or not at all.
Those broad shoulders came in very useful during the long swim legs as I drifted into his slipstream. Less so on the rocks and knee-high seawater we were forced to wade. Six hours later and we could have been swimming through high tide, but at low tide, Samson Flats, between the islands of Tresco and Samson, was a landscape of rocky outcrops and barely submerged sand. Walking was hard work on the thighs but quicker than swimming.
Growing up with beach holidays in Cornwall, I got used to the rubbery slime of seaweed. Today I could reminisce drifting in and out of underwater forests in the sea approaching the islands of Bryher and St Helen’s. Such nostalgia was probably lost on the racers lying on their backs on the shore frantically pulling out long reams of it tied round their shoes.
Despite having never met Mårten before – nearly everyone else paired up before entering the race – we were a seamless duo. A strong swimmer and a “running machine” as he would later compliment me. By the time we hit the beautiful coastal trail run around the island of St Martin’s we had time to chat about the seals staring up at us from a bay and laugh at a spectator who politely asked why we weren’t running up a steep section (I needed a break).
The bliss was only broken as we reached a lighthouse on that penultimate run. The channel crossing back towards the finish on the island of St Mary’s lay below. This was the sting in the tale that had been talked about in hushed tones among racers the night before. A one-hour-plus swim in 13C water, fighting currents and a rising tide.
Within minutes, my buttocks were wobbling and I couldn’t close my fingers together for each stroke. Four participants were pulled out by the safety crews and a dozen others moved to prevent them being dragged out to the open sea. The final 7km run would feel like a victory lap for those who made it.
My own survival was down to Mårten’s big shoulders and another quirk of swimrun – the umbilical cord, as I would later refer to it. An elastic rope that many racers attach between themselves and their partner. It keeps you close together for the swims, saving time looking for each other in open water and, if you are positioned close behind, energy too. After a brief stretch for cramp in our cold legs as we clambered ashore, we headed off, shivering and chastened, to the finish.
The Otillo swimrun world championship takes place in September. To discover more about the Isles of Scilly, go to visitislesofscilly.com. There are Skybus flights all year round from Land’s End and Newquay Airports, and between March and October from Exeter Airport. There is also a passenger ferry from Penzance. To book your journey, visit islesofscilly-travel.co.uk. The writer was a guest at Star Castle Hotel on St Mary’s.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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