Humanitarian response workers in Iraq team up for ÖTILLÖ swimrun in Germany

Sep 12, 2017 | 0 comments

By Nancy Heslin

Sean Casey and Mitch McTough are both aid workers in Iraq working on the humanitarian response around the offensive against ISIS and the large-scale displacements the terrorist group has caused.

American Sean is the Coordinator for a UN agency and Mitch McTough, who is British and Kenyan, is a Coordinator for a charitable foundation. They both spend one or two days in the field each week, which can mean travel in armoured vehicles and sometimes wearing body armour for several hours a day.

The pair have teamed up for their first swimrun, currently training for the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun 1000 Lakes event in Germany on October 1st, after they were introduced to the sport through a friend. Running in wetsuits over 33.80km and swimming 7.56km in their runners over 10 transitions in Germany’s 1000 Lakes district should seem a breeze compared to training in their current conditions.

“We’re having a blast trying to work out in our 16-metre pool at the gym here, doing our runs on the treadmill or getting out VERY early so it’s not 40+ degrees when we’re training,” Sean, a runner with five marathons and an Ironman under his belt, explains.

“Two weeks ago, we ventured out to a local lake for a six-hour swim-run brick workout, but we almost got heatstroke when the sun was at its highest, as it was around 46°C and we had no shade.”

Sean is a morning person while Mitch a night owl, so their schedules don’t always align, but they’re making it work, with weekend brick sessions together. Sean uses a HR monitor to manage their collective exertion, and he has a coach back in the US, who provides workouts, most of which Mitch and Sean do together.

Iraq is the 11th country Sean Casey has called home. He has spent the majority of his adult life jumping from one emergency to the next: he’s worked in some 30 countries and visited over 100, from the Haiti earthquake to conflicts in South Sudan and Mali to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014/2015.

“In disaster zones, emergency response days are long and exhausting, and usually end with beer, rather than a workout. I never found, or made, time for exercise,” he admits. “Towards the end of the Ebola response, late 2015, a few friends encouraged me to start getting fit, so I picked up the workout app Freeletics in the field and soon after started running occasionally.”

After signing up for a destination half-marathon, the Bhutan Half in March 2016, Sean trained together with his best friend and housemate, Claire.

“After that I was hooked! From that first race until today, I’ve done 28 races – including five full marathons on Easter Island, Pattaya in Thailand, San Francisco, Reykjavik and the North Pole.”

Sean’s also competed in 14 triathlons, including two half-Ironmans and one full Ironman (Challenge Roth last month) and several other shorter races.

“Doing a swimrun seems like the logical next step for me. I’m also planning to do a 100k in Antarctica next year, Marathon des Sables in 2019, and hopefully, eventually, finish an Ironman on every continent, yes, including Antarctica.”

Mitch on the other hand grew up in Kenya, and was exposed to many sporting disciplines from a young age.
“I grew up in front of the world’s largest tropical lake, Lake Victoria, which has meant lots of sailing throughout the years. I’ve always enjoyed an array of sports, in particular swimming, tennis, squash and rugby.”

However, this “slowed” for the British-Kenyan when he left university and set up his own charity organisation. “My hands were often tied with the business of leading groups to East Africa on development projects. Once I entered the humanitarian sector, it became a challenge even fitting in healthy meals at the end of the long days in the field, let alone sports,” he describes.

Mitch has lived between the UK and Africa, as well as Iraq. In the lead up to Ötillö, Mitch is spending late evenings and early mornings training with Sean in Iraq. “Personally, I haven’t done anything like this before,” he admits. “A few duathlons in my late teens and early twenties, a couple half marathons and the World AIDS Day Marathon in Kenya. Luckily, swimming is my thing and not too much of a challenge for now, except for the occasional cramping.”

Mitch says his running could improve, but currently it’s about keeping the momentum and avoiding injury in what is a tight lead-up to the race in Germany in less than a month.

Whether Mitch and Sean, Team Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, can land a podium position on October 1 remains to be seen, but hands down, training in a 16-metre pool and 45°C exterior temperatures makes this team an ÖTILLÖ legend even before they arrive at the start.

“We have no future swimrun races on the horizon, but Ötillö may inspire us to do more,” Mitch adds.

As for their team name, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Sean teases that they worked through a number of names, but settled on this one because “we figured it would be fun to torture the announcers with it come race day”.

Sean and Mitch’s Training Schedule

Sean’s role is to coordinate a range of partners (government, UN, NGO and private sector) to ensure that conflict casualties – people who have been shot, bombed, burned or affected by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or unexploded ordinances (UXOs) – receive fast, high-quality trauma care. This includes monitoring how civilian casualty flows may come across the frontlines to make sure they have the ability to stabilise, transport and get patients into surgery within the “golden hour” – the one-hour period that is critical for survival.

“Work is demanding, and it’s often difficult to get workouts in the evenings,” Sean shares. “So during the work week I tend to get up at 4:30/5am to run or cycle, and then I head to the pool in the evenings whenever I finish at the office, as it’s open late. I don’t have much of a social life here with a schedule like this, but it works for me.”

Sean’s averaging 10-15 hours of training/week, and leading up to the race, he and Mitch are planning a few more weekends in the countryside to do some open-water swims and brick sessions. “There’s an interesting quirk to this as Iraq is littered with landmines and UXOs, so we have to be very careful if we’re doing any trail running! Not to mention the logistics of hydration and nutrition in 40+°C …”

During the day, Mitch is in and out of meetings with partners, in particular, UNICEF, UNHCR and UNDP, or conducting project presentations, particularly in drainage as part of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Often his efforts are part of a first-line response, which means immediately (up to 3 months) after a conflict has afflicted a target area. Days often involve 6 am starts, with 9 pm returns from the field. “Although they said it was all ‘character building’, I assure you, knowing you’ve got a 5:30 am brick session the next morning, with 3 hours swim time and more on the trot, there’s your character building,” Mitch says. “My evenings are spent laboriously doing research (sometimes Facebook, Snapchat, more Facebook, Instagram) for my PhD.”

Mitch has been struggling with a near-tear of his right pyramidalis muscle (the muscle right at the bottom of the abdominals), so training for the ÖTILLÖ has proven to be quite the feat in itself. “It’s super HOT here right now 40-50°C so I am oddly enough counting on some cool air and water running over my body on October 1st, in one of the 1000 Lakes.”


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