By Nancy Heslin
ÖTILLÖ. World. Championship. We’ve all seen epic videos of the pig swim, read articles about the gruelling terrain, and heard through the swimrunner grapevine how “the howling winds kept me awake the night before the race”.
To non-Swedes, ÖTILLÖ seems like a way the natives spend a day outdoors frolicking with friends before the long dark winter sets in. But for those of us not born in the country that bares a yellow Nordic cross on a field of blue, the ÖTILLÖ course in the Stockholm archipelago – 75 km that cross 26 islands, known as one of the toughest endurance races in the world – is daunting.
This “fear of the unknown” is one of the reasons why the ÖTILLÖ WC piques the interest of athletes around the globe. Here we take a look at some of those taking on the “mother of all swimruns” for the first time on September 3, 2018.
Stéphane Collet Photographie
Director’s Choice: Team Czech Alliance is new to the sport
Petr Vabrousek has completed 190 Ironman pro races – winning 40 overall. “I have done the Antarctica Ice Marathon and 100k Ultra, the North Pole Marathon, the Marathon Des Sables, and the World Marathon Challenge – that’s 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.” This year he qualified for the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii in November.
Petr is teaming up for ÖTILLÖ with Tomas Svoboda, 33, who also completed the Ironman World Championships and was a member of the Czech National Triathlon Team for three seasons during which time he won the Aquathlon European Championship as well as the Biathle World Championships. He now competes in Quadrathlon (swimming, cycling, running, kayaking) and swims daily with paddles. (Tom’s brother David won gold in Modern Pentathlon at the 2012 London Olympics.)
Petr first heard about swimrun through Jonas Colting. Because he and Tomas live 300k apart, their only training has been the only swimruns they’ve ever done – two in Vassivieèe France, and the Immeln Swimrun in Sweden. “We were able to test our equipment and coordination.”
Petr (who turns 45 on September 27) admits he’s not sure what to expect from their performance having never trained or raced in such conditions. “Our swimrun specific experience is very close to zero. Tomas is more of a sprinter, while I am slow diesel …”
Petr has continued racing triathlon of all distances from sprint to Ironman in preparation for Ultraman Worlds. He’s swapped some swim sessions for swimrun specific training in a local lake to get used to swimming with paddles, shoes and a pullboy plus the constant transitioning. But with water temps at 27°C and the air over 30°C, ÖTILLÖ conditions will be a bit different.
“To be at the start of ÖTILLÖ is definitely a dream come true. It’s extremely hard but extremely beautiful, a combination I’ve never been able to resist.”
When ÖTILLÖ comes knocking
Clemens Coenen, has been a triathlete for 25 years, including four Ironman Championships in Hawaii. He tried the short-distance SwimRun Urban Challenge Hamburg last year and was hooked, although ÖTILLÖ was a challenge he envisioned later down the road.
“I am pretty exited and think the experience will be raw and very close to nature,” the 40-year-old comments, although he admits the weather and cold-water temps are a concern, plus he’s never run 65km in one day.
Fortunately, Wolfgang has done ÖTILLÖ a couple of times and knows the “pig swim” and how to pace the long runs. “He’s given me a lot of advice about equipment and how to run-swim-run with a tether. All I need now is a bigger pullbuoy and smaller paddles!”
First time to ÖTILLÖ, first ever swimrun
Alaska-based Samantha Wuttig, 47, and her sister Heather Royer, 43, are teaming up for ÖTILLÖ 2018 … but they’ve never done a swimrun.
Racing as Team Sassy Sourdough Sisters, Samantha explains “sourdough refers to a status in Alaska that you’ve been there for a while and have experienced the remoteness, weather, culture … Sassy came along because we sometimes get sassy with each other.”
In 2008, Samantha and Heather did the American Triple T triathlon – a super sprint triathlon on Friday, two Olympic distance races on Saturday, and a half-Ironman on Sunday – and qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2013, the year of the bombing.
“I was gathering my clothes when the first explosion went off,” Samantha recalls. “I didn’t know where my sister was but was thankful that all our family was sitting in a bar nowhere near where that bomb went off.”
Heather was on the final street before Bolyston when she heard the bombs go off. The police reacted quickly, and she wasn’t allowed to finish the race.
When Heather, who lives in Santa Barbara, California, found out she’d be working in Sweden this September, the sisters applied for Director’s Choice to get into ÖTILLÖ. “We really didn’t think we had much of chance.”
The closest the girls have done to a swimrun was the “Kihei 10k” – a swim from their condo down to Kihei, Hawaii, running back on Sugar Beach, about 10k in total.
Swimrun has yet to catch on in Alaska and training in Fairbanks is a strange.
“The trail running here is fabulous but we don’t have many bodies of water with established trail systems around them,” Samantha shares. “There’s one local lake with public access and I’ve created a loop of a 400-metre swim and 1-km run. I’m getting some funny looks and comments from people.”
In July, Samantha met with her sister in San Francisco and Oakland to train together. “In San Francisco, we had quite a few stares running around the pier near Ghirardelli Square in our wetsuits. But no stranger than some of the people that are in the city.”
Samantha says their hope at the ÖTILLÖ WC is to enjoy the opportunity to participate in this event and to make it to Utö in one piece. “My sister says her goal is just to get to the start line. Mine is to get to the finish.”
Team Germany Girlspower aHEAD live 800 km apart
It was through HEAD’s Stefan Sponer, that Birgit Wandratsch, 46, and Sabine Kost, 47 met. “I’ve known Stefan for 30 years through triathlon, and we crossed paths last year. In January he asked me if I wanted to compete in the Costa Brava Swimrun with Sabine.
“Unfortunately we cannot train together, but when we did a swimrun in Barcelona this year, we prepared individually and then came together perfectly as a team on the day.”
Birgit has a strong background in swimming: from the age of 6 to 17 she was part of the Erlangen Swimming Club in Germany. “My triathlon career started when I was 16 and it was intense, competing several times in Full Distance triathlons in Roth, Germany, and Forster, Australia.”
In 2003, after having children, Birgit stopped competing. “Family became the most important thing in my life.”
Last year, however, her brother Christof – who in 2005 set the world record for the fastest swim of the English Channel with a time of 7:03 – asked to team up for Allgäu swimrun in October.
“We had so much fun together. I figured my brother would be doing the swimming and I’d lead in the run … but this was not the case. I had to start swimming again and train for my first swimrun. We finished quite fast”. The siblings signed up again this year.
“I think the ÖTILLÖ WC will be a long, hard day but I’m certain we can finish and it will be a great adventure.”
In preparation of the race, Birgit adds, “Lucky for me my husband is a very good trail runner and both of my children are excellent swimmers so they help me with training.”
8 years trying qualify
Triathlete Pierre-Julien Michel first heard about ÖTILLÖ in 2010 when his friend competed in the race. He’s tried every year ever since to qualify.
“I quit triathlon but held onto this final ‘must do’ race. When I was finally offered a spot last summer, my wife was expecting due around the time of ÖTILLÖ, so we turned down the coveted slot at the start.” (His son was born on September 21.)
Pierre-Julien, 43, and his Team Envol teammate Marine Blanpain, 29, trained hard during winter and finally qualified at ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly. “It was one of those day when everything is perfect and you’re in the zone.”
For Pierre-Julien, there’s no backstory, just two simple people who love swimrunning. “For every one like me that has held onto the dream of doing ÖTILLÖ for so long, I say keep the faith that your turn will come. Every year of waiting is a year of training that makes you stronger in reaching your goal.”
Mauritius Moka Ranger takes on first swimrun
Simon Desvaux is the only ÖTILLÖ WC racer from the island nation of Mauritius, 2,000 km off the southeast coast of the African continent in the Indian Ocean. The coldest month of the year is July when temps dip down to 21°C.
This will be Simon’s first swimrun. The 37-year-old elite trail runner is teaming up with Laurent Valette, 48, as Mauritius Moka Rangers Head. The pair, who met in Mauritius and became great friends, decided to try for a shot at ÖTILLÖ together and got picked as Director’s Choice Extra.
Laurent is an adventure racer (Marathon des Sables, Norseman, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Adventure Racing World Championship) who completed the 2016 ÖTILLÖ WC with Camille Marchand (now of UL’ Team with Julien Antoine) and has a slew of World Series races behind him – Utö, 1000 Lakes, Hvar and Isles of Scilly.
Living 10,000 km apart, this a team of contrasts. “We have done one cold-water mountain training in Savoie, France, and another in Mauritius in the lagoon’s very warm water,” says Simon.
And what does he expect from the first Monday in September? “I know that the course will be very hard and challenging but I intend to finish the race.”
After breaking both arms, Sophie Pejean qualifies at Isles of Scilly
Sylvie Ferriol, 45, and Sophie Pejean, 55, both moms of three who live in Bordeaux, often say “our team is 100 years old”. As team Good Old French Frogs, they belong to the association of swimrunners “Les Vieux Neptuniens”.
The first time they saw “crazy” ÖTILLÖ footage was on Canal+ in 2015. “Although we joked about the cold and said that we could never do that race, we really liked the concept of swimrun.” So they started training together in the summer of 2016, and did their first swimrun in Brittany that September, followed by Barcelona in November.
“We loved it and came in third place”. In the spring of 2017 while training for their first half Ironman, Sylvie and Sophie were both in a bike accident; Sophie broke both her arms. From then on, they decided to forget cycling and focus on swimrun.
By the fall, they did Korrigerri in Pays Basque and then another swimrun in Royan, on France’s west coast. “None of these were more than 20k of running and 7k of swimming. We always try to choose events where the swimming ratio is very high,” Sylvie shares, which is why they choose to race ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly, with nearly 8k of swimming.
“Isles of Scilly 2018 was a great experience and we finished under 7 hours. We were relieved to have missed the slot for ÖTILLÖ by 4 minutes, because we still thought only crazy people do the World Championships.”
Then everything changed on July 27 when another Women’s team pulled out from the WC opening up a place for Sylvie and Sophie. “Our first reaction was ‘it will be freezing’, followed by ‘we’ve never run more than 30 km’!” Sylvie admits the bigger issue was that they had just signed up for the new ÖTILLÖ Cannes race in October.
“So even if we wanted to do it, we didn’t have the money…” Then they realised it might be their only chance to participate in this WC, so they launched leetchi pot – an online fundraising site. “And so here we are, absolutely sure that we won’t make it the finish line but willing to give it our best shot.”
Lucky ticket draw for Epic Landus HEAD
Miguel Larraga and Juan Geijo, both 44, have a group of friends that together share sport and nature. At the end of every triathlon season, they have a big dinner and Miguel puts out a challenge. “I was running out of ideas but in 2015 I was on a business trip in the UK when I read an article about the ÖTILLÖ World Championship. At that time, it seemed like such a crazy idea I was sure my friends were going to say no way.”
However, on January 1, 2016, ten friends joined Miguel for their first ever swimrun, in the lakes around Vitoria, Basque Country, where they live. Vitoria is located in southern Europe, and the water temp in January is around 10ºC so they swim in wetsuits, neoprene caps and “a huge smile in our faces”.
“It was love at first sight,” beams Migeul. “We didn’t plan a course but just decided where to swim and where to run as we went. We discovered a completely new world of sport adventure in nature with friends.” Later that same year Miguel organised Spain’s second swimrun, Epic Landus.
“We are not a business but just five friends in love with the sport.” He also puts together Demo Days to showcase the fantastic swimrun landscape and help develop the community.
In May of this year, Miguel and Juan did their first ÖTILLÖ race at Utö. “It was very hard,” shares Miguel. “I twisted my ankle very early in the race and Juan had big problems in one shoulder that basically left him swimming with one hand. But we finished and had a blast.”
The team was then selected in the ÖTILLÖ random ticket draw on July 23 and they have been increasing their training together but they admit that race day is going to be hard. “The good thing is that we trust each other and we have so much fun doing swimrun that September 3 is going to be the best day of our lives.
“We have also come up with a race day strategy. Each of us has to tell 30 jokes to boost the other teammate during hard patches. We can’t complain, otherwise whoever does has to pay for all the beers … and we both like beer.”
Watch live the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship on Monday, September 3. If you’re new to swimrun or want to try the sport, see the new Solo option, available only for ÖTILLÖ Sprint and Experience distance races.
ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN SWIMRUN LIFE MAGAZINE ISSUE #8 (AUGUST 2018).