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The following blog is written by Charles d’Haussy (HKG), who participated in ÖTILLÖ Swimrun 1000 Lakes on October 23, 2016.
The city is closed. Offices are closed. Limited transportation. Typhoon signal 8 warning has been issued by Hong Kong authorities. All meetings are cancelled. I enjoyed an unexpected day at home with my girls and get extra time to pack and re-think the next 72 hours.
Best races are simple. OtillO is simple. It’s a one day swimrun race, you compete in team of two, running and swimming across unique parks and islands. 10km swim mixed with 42k run. In 2012, CNN ranked OtillO Sweden, one of the toughest endurance challenge in the world. This German edition shouldn’t be an easy one.
In pre-race newsletters, organizers insist on water temperature expectations and gear athletes must have with them. By the end of October, German lakes are expected to be chill, 10 to 14 degres water. I have been training only during the hot and humid summer of Hong Kong.
Time to pack. Checking my gears I am doubtful, would a wet suit head band help ? All youtube videos I watched showed most athletes having one. I missed that. My friend, David Gething might be of help with re-insuring a stressed up athletes. He raced some of the craziest races around the world. 7 marathons in 7 days in 7 continents, and some of the coldest IronMan distance triathlons. Braving the rain and wind of the typhoon, I drive to Dave for a quick chat and diligent advises.
My 10PM flight to Berlin is delayed to 4AM. Timing will be tight but I am happy to fly, whatever the time. I’ll be busy at the airport with my BlockChain Business Strategy exam to submit. I am all focused on the exam before the race. Around me people are zombies, I’ve already set my watch to European time.
Frankfurt connection is perfect for a coffee, hunt for a WIFI network and exam submission. Done ! Landing in Berlin, I discover a tiny airport, surprise. The new airport construction has been delayed for years, rare thing in Germany.
I will be racing with my all time partner in crimes, JP. We’ve been to high school together. Our team training can easily be sum-up, we ran 10K together 12 months ago. Beside that, we exchanged messages and phones calls, but trained by ourselves in Paris and Hong Kong respectively.
While driving out of Berlin, the autumn scenery quickly put us into the race atmosphere. We are driving to the middle of nowhere. This is gonna remote but beautiful. North Germany fields are in Autumn mode. We can see storks and foxes. Forest leaves’ colors are magical.
I have been Travelling for 24 hours but it’s no time for a shower. Quick check-in at the hotel and off we go to grab our race kits and attend the race briefing.
Lots, lots of IronMan tee-shirts and bags all around us. Swimrun is a natural sport for triathletes. During the briefing, Mats, one of the organizer, tells us how they got the local cities on-board with the race, share details about the course, security rules. The community spirit around this new sport stands out. Former champions and swimRunning community pillars are introduced to the 300 person’s in the room. Female teams are highlighted to us. Much more female athletes in SwimRun than Triathlon. I like it. Athletes seems all very humble. Female world champions from 2015 and 2016 will be racing with us. They will be fast. Very fast.
Rules are simple and straight forward. Each team member has to stay 10 meters from each others max. Zero trash during the race or disqualified. No warning, no discussion. We are told that this is not a city marathon. “No warning, no discussion”. I love that stand.
We are explained the course and main obstacles, cut off time point, food points. The doctor of the race explains us we will be cold. Very cold. We need to keep drinking, nutrition will be key to keep our body calories level high enough and able to compensate low temperature. We will be in hot and cold alternation for 7 to 8 hours. “This will be hard. You will feel uncomfortable but don’t worry. There is an end to that and it’s called the finish line.” JP and I are listening seriously the briefing. “Keep moving” seems the best advice for tomorrow.
During race briefings, ones always look at competitors around. I learnt that body shapes and branded gears don’t say much. 21 countries are represented among the 300 plus participants. I am the only “Asian” enrolled, representing Hong Kong.
Michael is said to be from military background. He is real clear and directive in his briefing, yet real nice. We have seen him on TV a few years ago when a report from canal plus introduced to French people this crazy sport from Sweden. He wears a tee shirt and we can all guess he is a super strong swimmer. Triangular shaped upper body doesn’t lie.
Off the briefing we thank Michael (pictured above, right) for having us, 2 frenchies from Paris and Hong Kong. We planned to train before the briefing but we couldn’t so we decided to get our hands in the lake and test the water. It is now almost dark. The light is beautiful. Calm calm. 2 ducks are begging for some bread. We chat with a British and Irish teaming up for the day. Get our hands in the lake. We looked at each others and stayed silent for seconds felling minutes. This water is real cold. Not chill like a swim in ocean. Real cold.
We chat and laugh about it for a while. But before leaving I had to put my hands back there. I am not scared, visualizing the race, the course, the competition, the obstacles ahead of D-day make it all easier.
The restaurants of this little town are all full. We head back to hotel and could only bargain and table for 2 on the terrace, outdoor by 8 degrees. Some athletes from Frankfurt help us to order a piece of pork and rice. I am jet lagged by 9pm, after getting our gears ready, I am knock down. We set alarm for 5h30am the next morning.
Quick breakfast, check out, luggage in the car and off we go to the meeting point where buses are waiting for us. We have 30 mins drive north to start line. JP and I chat and agree on various tips and strategies. Off the bus we are welcome by a orgue de barbarie. Clin d’œil from the organizers much welcome. My ORCA swim core wet-suit fits perfectly and make me feel confident. We joke and chat with people around, activate our time chip and get ready. We set ourselves to finish the race whatever happened. I know we will deliver but none of us is sure nor aware of the day ahead yet.
8h30 we have to be ready. We chat with a London girl. We’ll find out later she won her category.
The watch is ready. We are ready. Bang! A gun shot signal the start. Off we go. 300 athletes run across the village and enter soon the superb nature and forest. Some drones are shooting us, I can only imagine the beauty of the shot. Lines of vivid colors crossing the autumn sceneries of north Germany.
We enter the forest, some locals are supporting us from the early hours and this is amazing. After 3k run, at junction in the forest, a messy situation appears. Suddenly the constant flow of runners is disrupted and people now run in all directions. Looking at it, we can’t define the way to go. A old local man is right in the middle, JP ask him in German where the water is? And he shows us. We keep going. Both of us are running strong. We have been prepping for months. I spot ahead the team numbered 12, we are 11. JP and I will speed up, catch them up and explain we are number 11, therefore should be ahead of them. Four of us laugh. Great time before the first swim.
Here we are first swim. Adrenaline is up already. We are not thinking anymore. We adjust goggles. Ok, ready? Ready.
It is the first swim, so it is a busy swim start. That’s not the problem. We both jump in and realize in matter of seconds that our body do not welcome such a temperature shock. I am hyper ventilating. I can’t settle and nor get in a swimming rhythm. I am breathing very irregularly. Can’t coordinate any parts of my body. Looking behind my mate isn’t looking good neither but we both keep trying. JP gets ahead of me and take the lead. My face is burning. Any sip of water in your mouth shock your teeth. Not thinking is the best option. I quickly realize I can lead us ahead of the cohort and decide the take the swimming lead again. JP and I discover, in this extreme conditions, that we happen to be great swimming partners. We never trained together before race day.
The first swim is 1200 m. I get my triathlon technique back and keep an eye on direction every 5 strokes. 1200 meters is long. In cold water it is longer. The water is clean and transparent. We can see from time to time plants and algae.
Off the first swim we arrive close to a traditional castle. I see some people with space thermo blankets already. I know those are leaving us. That’s early in the race. JP and I keep running toward the first drinking station. I check my mate drinking some hot tea. He is dreamy looking at nothing. Blueish lips. His face speaks for him. “You need to eat and move man! Eat! eat! move! Putain. I clap my hands, speak loud. Making myself a pain to get things in order. Within 15 secs we were running again to the next swim. That run is a bit hilly in some grazing. We can see some hunting houses along. Runners far away. It is beautiful and great to run. We pass a few teams. Some kids have climb in trees and shout supporting line to us.
The next swim happen to be fairly close. That means you get very limited time to warm your body temperature again. No choice. Need to roll down the plan. JP is back strong. No worries. Off we go. I spit in my goggles to prevent fog. The distance between teams started to spread. We are hammering the water with our hand pads. Pushing water along our body till our knees and repeat. Every 3 stroke we turn our head aside to catch a breath of fresh air and exhale from nose. During those kilometers of swim, you get to smell the forest and lakes. Wet wood. Fresh grass.
We are done with that swim, we get off, unclip each other and start running again. No break, no rest. That run part is short and on wooden platform to keep us over the swamp below us. The German TV films. We are about swim in a river which will be different.
Before entering the water again, a group of swimmers unexpectedly waits before their next drill. Probably 20 of them. Lots of medics there as well. Someone is laid down in a ambulance wrap and a space thermo blanket. He or she is bluish, teeth clapping. I turn my head and look elsewhere. JP and I agree without talking that it’s a place we don’t want to stay. We struggle to get our frozen fingers in our pad and jump in the river. 2 Swedish girls are before us. Their calm and determination struck me. Machines. Swimming in the river is refreshing, in a way, not that the water is warmer but we can see the bottom, see trees close to us every time we get a breath. Some Water Lilly get on our way from time to time. We have to look ahead more than usual as the river is narrow. I see flags on shore, this is the point where we start running again. Some people are there to support us, I wonder how they got there, we are in the middle of nowhere. We thanks them for their support. That swim was pleasant, we feel strong and get into this new run leg with a smile. It is a forest run. Partly wild with barely a track to follow, then reaching timber men tracks. It is a long run. We both grab gels we have inside our wetsuit. Nutrition is key. Colors are great. We chat, joke. we’ve been in the race for 4 hours or so. Some colorful bands confirm us we are on the right track. Knowing that the run is long, we get our head caps off. I get my pads into my wetsuit, along my ribs. It is not comfortable but comfort is relative anyway that morning.
In the middle of nowhere, some cars and security guys check us at some running points for security. We reach a road where a car stop traffic for us. A lady show us the way and shout “We are so proud of you!”. We meet a lot of anonymous people on the way. Their words are always kind and boosting us. They seems as resilient as we are in supporting athletes. We always thank them unless we are in a down moment and disconnected/lazer focused in the race.
We are for a short while on a road. Cars a super careful of us and very very respectful. JP looked behind and saw the team with BIB number 1 catching up on us. Cool guys, we joke while running. They are number 1 team good for them. We are team 11 which is double one!
We leave the road to run across a farm and its building. Super nice farmers letting 300 runners across. It smelt like a farm, I could guess what kind of animals are behind the walls. Reaching the next refuel station, lots of people wait runners. We greet them with open arms, breakfast! Finally! Soup, bretzel, banana, energy gels… Looks like a banquet. I stick to my plan despite the plenty of choice. Water and my gels. Period. JP stays longer fueling up. It is time to go mate! One girl is disappointed to see us leaving so fast. I promise to enjoy pretzel, curry wurst and all after the race.
Leaving the village, at a cross road we hesitate on direction. Some locals show us the way like fathers supporting their sons at a soccer match. Passionate. Amazing.
We run along a very quiet road. A car slows down next to us. It is Mats. When seeing him at time checks or refill station we are always a bit anxious. Are we late? Will he pull us off the race? No worries. He always get the right words, advice. When an athlete supports another athlete, words are always different and more powerful. I can’t say why.
Some women push trolley on their way for a Sunday walk in the forest. “good morning!”
Come with us it’s fun
No no thank you!
Back in the forest, running quietly on forest soil is a rare privilege. Feels luxury. Trees are majestic around us. Running in forest make specific sound. It is soft to your body and knees. A man show us the way in the middle of nowhere. Think about nowhere…. You’re not there yet. We thank him and wish him a good day.
How can the organizers get all this kind people waking up early, heading to random places in random forest to show the way to sweaty swimrunners?
That next swim is long again. We are up for it. Fingers get always harder to slide in the swimming pads. Kids are close to water with us, I joke with them mimicking I am gonna spread them of freezing cold water. We laugh.
That swim was long. Quickly our brain unplugged. I became a swimming robot again. I feel some cold water leaking in the wetsuit but nothing terrible. I try to concentrate on the right strokes movements as I start to feel pain on wrist and elbows. JP and I are still doing good but we have to dig inside ourselves. We reach the shore, I stand, and start running. Tried to. I have been for too long in the cold. My mind wants to run. I order my legs to run. But not much happens. I basically fast walk while JP is running. I feel hopeless. Push and keep pushing but nothing comes. Forest soil feel like concrete road. I try to diversify my legs moves to push hot blood back in. I doesn’t work great. It is taking minutes before the legs wakes up from the cold and tiredness. JP got good words for me. Give me a energy gel. “Get a magnesium capsule! Here.” We keep going. No need to overthink. We are going to finish this race, it is agreed already, the plan won’t change.
The next swim is here again. We barely remember the next distances to tackle on the list. We ask some safety staff. That swim start is not a great one. None of us jokes. We are cheering up each other’s but the passion is not there anymore. We are faking it. We have to. I get my head cap on again, goggles on. My cold fingers make their way in the pads. We get on the swim. The arms feel strong for now. The first 300 meters always. But the tiredness catch you back, always. My face is burning from the cold. Any part of my body exposed to water burns. I try to keep my mouth firmly close when underwater. The cold water is pain on my teeth when sneaking in. I look at my hands diving before my eyes again and again. I try to remember my swimming sessions back in Hong Kong with Rob and the crew. I know technique is crucial. My brain unplugs, replugs, unplugs…
That swim was suppose to be very close the last ones but we need to reconfirm . We lost counts again.
Once again, as in a fairy tale, in the middle of the forest, a man was there, waiting, we have seen him before. He is french and supports his girl friend racing. He sounds like an athlete himself. He talks to us positive things in an intensive flow. He sounds like, we are done, like almost, like so close… We shall keep running, he follows us while talking. He has maps on his iPhone and tell us how many swims remain as well as running legs. His girlfriend team arrives, they are in serious troubles. One seems OK, the other looks around as she was drunk. The man order her to do push ups to warm up. She has to move. We decide to go. It felt like a full day to me. We finally reached the shore, I got my hands in sand and stood up. Brainless we went running to the next swimming leg. We get understand at a junction that a 1200m, 700m and 300 meters swim are waiting for us. Some run as well but we are not concerned by runs really. Those don’t impact as much as swims by Celsius 10 degrees. Time get gels in again ahead of the next effort.
For long swims, organizers get a massive buoy on the lake as we can really see the point to reach from swim start. Same story, eye check, head cap on, foggy goggles, fat cold fingers, feets in water. Ok? OK. Go. That swim was a bit different. The lake was crystal clear and we got swim a good 300 meters before reaching more than 1 meter depth. We swam through algae. Never seen a fish or anything alive though. Reaching half way a security boat got close to us. Did we missed something ? No we are good. We make him to leave us and go away. We want to noise nor smell around us. Reaching the sore on this one was a long way. I heard a drone flying over us. Every breath out, I can have a eye check with the drone. We finally reach the shore and I felt I forgot my legs again on the other side of the lake. Nothing. Nothing there. I barely walk. JP is ok. I am not. I feel cooked. I have been there before but it is no fun. A guy with Russian accent come to us and shot at us that we have to warm up aggressively as the next swim is super close front the previous one. Then 3 guys showed up with the same message. Not a good sign while I was barely recovering. Then Mats showed up, telling us “top work guys. Now, I want you to finish. Warm up. Run.” Everyone is super supportive. We have no idea what is happening is the overall race but it seems weird to me.
Indeed the next swim is super close. Not time to real warm up again. 700m. We get our way through the reed and start swimming again. JP and I aren’t discussing any of it. We have a deal. I feel we are both real tired for now. That swim didn’t helped with the legs. JP was OK, I was relentlessly fighting against my shut down legs.
Charles, Mats is there at last fuel station.
We just want to see him at the finish line. Not earlier. Really.
We reach the last fuel station. Every single person there is scanning us. Are they blueish?Are they shaking? Do they have a straight eyes? Walking straight? We pass all the tests.
Done with the 700m we have a 3k run or so and then a final swim.
Mats was there again. Caring about each of his teams. Away from the cameras and press celebrating the race winners. Diligent.
OK les gars, now you don’t stop, you grab some of these chocolates and keep going.
You have one more swim and you’re done. You are finishing this race.
Off we went, keeping face. I can’t run and eat at the same time anymore. Have to stop to swallow needed calories.
Yes, that’s us.
Last run we had. The sun was getting lower and colors superb. We reached the last swim strong and confident. Cold wasnt and issue anymore. That was an easy one. The last one.
See the flag over there?
Go there. Straight.
We joked with the security and volunteers. Quality time.
Jumped in. Felt the pain, but half of it really.
I could literally smell the sausage on the barbecue 200 meters away.
We reach the last swimming leg, 20 people wait for us at the shore.
We have a last 500 meters to run, the adrenaline from the finish line kicks in.
Racers know that the last 1000m from a race are not from this world. Pain, injuries and all disappear. Your body get a boost of no kind.
JP and I reach the finish line feeling a million dollar. Incredible.
All is blury around you, you’re not on this planet anymore.
– People hand a medal to you.
– Race director is brave enough to embrace you, smelly sweaty piece of flesh.
– You embrace your mate. We’ve done it!
My gears during the race:
– Orca SwimRun core wetsuit
– Salomon S-Lab sense 2 running shoes
– Speedo Hand paddles
– Wetsuit head cap. Lifesaver.
– No Name pullboy + strap made of bike inner tube
– Rope/Sling homemade, bought components a sailing gear shop.
– Nabaiji Swimming goggles
– Science In Sport energy gels . SIS
– Garmin GPS watch Forerunner 910XT
Published in original format with permission. Read post here
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue # 1 (Feb/Mar 2017)