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Tackling the Ötillö Swimrun, The Ultimate All-Terrain Endurance Test

Mike Christensen
·8-min read

From Men's Health

Such is my love of physical activity that it’s rare that I feel like a total novice. But that’s exactly how I feel when I sign up to my first Swimrun, with a mere four weeks to train.

“Surely it’s just a bit of swimming and running,” my wife says. “A triathlon minus the cycling?” That may have been what my month of warm-up training involved but, by the time I’m standing at the start line, I know that the simplest answer is: “Not in the slightest!”

Though it was established in Sweden more than 15 years ago, many still consider Swimrun to be a new discipline. Made up of – you guessed it – swimming and running, it now has a curious rep for instilling in participants a hippy-like, holistic relationship with nature. Some speak of how it activates an inner, amphibious mode of being, as you move seamlessly between land and water, swimming with shoes on and running in a wetsuit, for distances of up to 75km. My assignment, I’m told, is a “sprint” distance over roughly 12km.

Michael Lemmel, the founder of Ötillö Swimrun, knows better than anyone what the sport is about, so I feel lucky that he’s the man who picks me up from mainland Sweden. He gives me a few tips for tomorrow’s race.

“All you can do is adapt to nature. That has been our ethos from the very beginning,” Lemmel tells me, as we speed across the Baltic Sea towards the island of Utö on the outer southern archipelago, the spiritual home of Swimrun. “There’s no value in talking about times, or the toughness of something. Swimrun is more about sharing the love of being outside in nature and the passion of pushing yourself. Because when you push yourself, you realise more things about yourself and about others.”

Just then, the boat slows and ahead lies a picture-postcard backdrop for an event, draped in late-summer sunshine. “This is Utö,” Lemmel says, proudly. I get goosebumps, but I can’t tell if it’s mild seasickness or butterflies about what I’ve signed myself up for. I know the ugly truth: how hard I’ll have to push my body across this beautiful landscape.

The pep talk over, I hop off the boat and take my chance to explore part of the course before dinner with my race partner. That’s right, you Swimrun in pairs – being attached to them is optional. Lemmel tells me: “To do it with someone is so much better than doing it by yourself, as it brings so much more to the experience, sharing all the ups and downs with someone.”

I check-in and quickly change before heading out to meet Gabriel, the unassuming local tasked with getting me around alive. It’s here that my novice status truly manifests. In terms of preparation, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks mastering how to use the kit required to optimise Swimrun – non-absorbent shoes, hand paddles, a buoy between my legs and, of course, a special wetsuit.

Turning the corner, I set eyes on my partner, and it clicks as to why I’ve found it near-impossible to zip up my wetsuit. For a month – documented for all to see on my Instagram feed – I have been wearing it back to front.

Instinctively, I dart into a bush, right my wardrobe malfunction and emerge, my shoulders freed from their unintentional shackles.

Photo credit: Pierre Mangez
Photo credit: Pierre Mangez

Set against picturesque evergreen trees, moss, overgrown shrubbery, rocks and tranquil water, the short test Swimrun we do is a first date that I’ll remember for a while. Running in tow through the wilderness, the excitement builds ahead of tomorrow’s race. I can’t get enough of the ever-changing route. Distance events can so often be a monotonous slog, but here I am, darting along, up and down trails, scaling cliffs and jumping into the (surprisingly mild) Baltic Sea.

Pumped, I thank Gabriel. He tells me to get a good meal and a decent night’s sleep, and we’ll meet again bright and early on the start line.

Strenuous exercise isn’t supposed to be poetic, but Swimrun on Utö is exactly that. The mini-practice calms any nerves. My usually competitive nature evaporates. I’m not thinking about what position we might come, or how fast we’ll complete it. I’m suddenly a wetsuit-clad cliché, assured that it’s only the taking part that counts and, come rain or shine, I’m looking forward to testing myself physically with the elements, not against them. How long that feeling of serenity lasts, though, remains to be seen.

Photo credit: Pierre Mangez
Photo credit: Pierre Mangez

Out-of-body Experience

Standing on the start line with Gabriel, the mood is jovial. The start times don’t split men, women and mixed, and there are no separate age categories. It’s one big community. Everyone seems relaxed with their swim caps and goggles on, paddles tucked
into wetsuits and buoys positioned just above bottoms. Some have the course mapped out on their paddles by distance per run, swim, run, and so on. In total, today’s course is just over 12km, with the longest run 3.5km and the longest swim 900m.

Last night’s dinner chatter suggests that around the two-hour mark would be very respectable for a Swimrun rookie, so I keep that in my mind. Stretched and ready, we hear the klaxon and we’re off into the wilderness. As I stride up the first hill, I’m thrilled by
the sensation of entering the unknown – physically I don’t know what lies ahead, and mentally I don’t know how my body will cope with the challenge.

The ensuing one hour and 58 minutes (scraped it, didn’t I?) are almost an out-
of-body experience. It’s human nature to “end-gain” your way forward, with your mind focusing on the finish line and not on the present. But as I tear across Utö, the only thing going through my mind is my next step, stroke, slip, drop, climb, crawl, paddle or reach. Such is the changing terrain and currents that I have no choice but to be immersed in every moment, or else I would risk tripping, slipping, wasting energy in a rip or, well, endangering my life.

So, I don’t check my watch to monitor our progress. Neither do I think about who is in front of us, or behind us. A thunderstorm comes and goes, largely unnoticed – though the rain does cause me to slip and fall down some rocks. Adrenalin kicks in and picks me back up. Every time we enter the water, I feel energised; every time we reach land, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Every stride feels so good.

Photo credit: Pierre Mangez
Photo credit: Pierre Mangez

That said, I’m pushing. Really hard. Running up and down the tracks uses every muscle in your legs, and swimming with paddles is a full-body workout in itself. As we come out of some bushes, Gabriel knocks me out of my trance, saying, “This is our last swim.” I look up and recognise the view. We are in the home straight. As I lunge into the water for the last time and swivel the buoy between my legs, I feel a chill. My body is low on energy. Still,
I savour the final swim, marvelling at the scenery around us.

Out of the water, we have one more push 200m up a steep incline to the finish line. It’s here that I begin to process the past two hours – the quaint Scandi huts dotted around the island we passed; the endless vistas stretching across the horizon; the density of the woods we travelled through; the stunning natural beauty that engulfed my consciousness. We sprint up the last hill and, as we cross the line to applause in fifth place (OK, I was counting), we embrace one another.

I am as elated as I am exhausted. My legs, lats, shoulders and pecs are done. By 8pm that night, after a dose of fine Swedish cuisine, my Garmin chimes in to say my “body battery” is at 20%, the lowest it’s ever registered. I’ve burned in excess of 4,000kcal and my heart rate sat in the high 140s. Out of my wetsuit, I’m still swimming in clichés – I really haven’t experienced anything like it. Nature, eh? You gotta love it.

The Ötillö Swimrun Training Workout

Grappling with the demands of a SwimRun course is no mean feat and requires a decent level of fitness to complete. For those unfamiliar with this increasingly popular outdoor pursuit, it's tempting to think that there's not much more to it than it's component parts - a bit of swimming and running. But these events are some of the most demanding - but also most rewarding - outdoor pursuits so personal trainer and all-round fitness guru George Pearse is on hand to suggest some training tips for anyone keen to embark on a SwimRun this year.

While the focus for most will be swimming and running, a foundation of strength and endurance will really help during the later stages of the event. It could also help fortify you against injury. Perform the following moves in a strength training workout twice a week, gently progressing the weights as you adapt to the demands.

Visit otilloswimrun.com to sign up for the Isles of Scilly experience, from 19-21 June, the pandemic permitting

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