SLM: Why did you team up for the ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly swimrun on June 18, 2017?
Wez: The ÖTILLÖ World Series came to the Isles of Scilly in 2016. One of my friends suggested we have a go, but it sounded a bit too daunting so we decided not to. On the day I regretted this decision as the organisation of the event looked really slick and everyone looked like they had a great time. It also looked achievable, very hard, but definitely achievable if I were to put the training in.
There were also a few other islanders who liked the look of it, so within a week we had organised the first Scilly Swimrun, it was about an 8km course and 16 people turned up to see what the fuss was all about. Over the next few weeks of social swimruns, teams got together until everyone who turned up for the first Scilly Swimrun, had a partner and took part in the 2017 event, either the sprint or World Series event.
Alison: I watched the 2016 event with interest – not really knowing what to expect. I went up to Innisidgen on St Mary’s; which is the exit point for the last long swim; and I saw how cold and tired some of the competitors looked and I thought, “No way would I do that!” Then in the Autumn of 2016, a few locals started to talk about doing it and Wez and I got talking, and the next thing I knew we were entered.
SLM: As Islanders, what does the ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly swimrun bring to the community?
Wez: Apart from the “Rubber Runners” – our local swimrun club – it brings more adventure to Scilly. Scilly has always been known for hosting the World Gig Rowing Championships, which brings over 200 rowing crews to Scilly to race. The swimrunners are a different style of people giving another opportunity for the outside world to really see the spectacular scenery and unique experience of the Islands. Swimrunners probably visit more islands and cover more of each island in a 4- to 8-hour period than most visitors do over 2-weeks. Most swimrunners I’ve talked to after seeing so much so quickly would like to return, or stay for longer next year to see more.
Alison: ÖTILLÖ has really shown us what is possible on our islands in terms of challenge and adventure. It has definitely enriched the lives of all of us who took part and so many locals got involved in marshalling, safety boats and supporting. It’s a massive boost to our economy by bringing competitors, their families and the organisers over here. Everyone benefits – the transport company, accommodation providers, restaurants, pubs and shops.
SLM: What did you think of race day and just how lucky were we with the weather this year?
Wez: What a day! It ended up being in the top three of the hottest days of the year, with no wind at all. Not brilliant to run in, but beautiful to swim in, fantastic for spectators and incredible footage was gained to promote and show off the beauty of Scilly. For me, race day was great, the atmosphere was brilliant, locals were all out supporting; I even had friends kayak to Tean – an uninhabited island, to offer support and cheering for local and all swimrunners!
Alison: The weather was absolutely incredible. We don’t get many days here with sun and absolutely no wind, and the colours and visibility in the sea were at their absolute best. As I was swimming and looking up at the sky to take a breath, the colours amazed me (and took my mind off the cold a little!). But it was very hot for the running, especially in a black wetsuit and we were all sporting great suntan marks on the backs of our legs. The organisation on race day was faultless, very professional.
SLM: What was the biggest surprise of a swimrun race?
Wez: For Isles of Scilly, there weren’t many surprises, except the heat. We had trained well and covered all of the course in advance so we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. The World Championship was a complete unknown and the biggest surprise for me was the lack of buoyancy in the sea. I knew it had less salt in the water, however, I didn’t realise just how much difference there was between the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea and so I was ill-equipped and found my legs dragging more than I was expecting.
Alison: I think the biggest surprise was how much quicker and further up the field we were than I predicted. As Wez said, we knew the course here very well.
SLM: You qualified for the World Championship. How did you prepare?
Wez: Good question! We found out 6 weeks after the Scilly event and neither of us had kept up our training. With 6 weeks to go until ÖTILLÖ, we were very nervous. It was the start of the school summer holidays, over the next 6 weeks, we each had a 2-week family holiday booked – I have two children and Alison has three that we had to entertain and do nice things with – we had work, and we had to keep our partners happy, knowing we were going to be going away for five days at the end of the holiday to get to Sweden and back. This meant that Alison trained early in the morning as her children are a bit older than mine, and I trained late in the evening after mine had gone to bed.
I managed only one (my first ever) 20km run, the rest were only 10 km due to the time I had available to train. I jumped in the water when I could, and Alison and I only managed two swimruns together before the event. However, we both knew we had worked hard for Scilly, so we had a good core fitness and great teamwork, we knew each other’s strengths and how to use them well.
Alison: As Wez said, we didn’t have long enough to fully prepare and follow a training schedule, which made me feel pretty uneasy and added to the nerves. We decided to mainly focus on our running endurance but this was a careful balance between getting enough miles in but not ramping them up so quickly that we got injured. We swam whenever we got chance and managed one long training swim from Tresco to St Mary’s. We were fairly happy with our transitions and didn’t feel we needed to change much from our first race.
We got in touch with a great guy – Roland Kelly who we met on Scilly as he teamed up with a local friend of ours. We knew he had done the WC before so we asked him for advice on how to prepare, race strategies, equipment etc. He couldn’t have been more helpful and without his advice, I’m not sure we would have completed the course, as we were a bit naive as to what was in store for us.
SLM: How did the WC differ from the Isles of Scilly event? It must have been quite a travel journey.
Wez: Yes, we left home on the Friday on the ferry, travelled all day to London by train on Saturday for a Saturday evening flight to Stockholm ready to meet for the ferry on Sunday. On the return journey we travelled non-stop from 8am Tuesday until 12:30 pm on Wednesday, when we arrived home on the ferry (with very achy legs!).
It is hard to describe the WC without mentioning the weather – WOW! This was as scary, if not more, than the thought of the race! Waking at 4 am with the windows rattling and rain hammering down was not the most inviting wakeup call.
For me the hardest thing was keeping warm, I felt the water temperature was very slightly warmer than Scilly, however the slow running on slippery rocks with a wet wetsuit and 40 mph winds whipping through made me very cold, at one point I shivered for five hours, my jaw ached so much, but I was loving it too much to worry about it. The transitions were more interesting at the WC.
Alison: Apart from the event being a race from island-to-island, it couldn’t really have been more different. The distance for starters was impossible to imagine and before we left home I told everyone that I really wasn’t sure if we would manage to complete the course. The only way I could deal with it was to break it down into all the sections of the race and cut-off points and mentally “tick” them off as we went.
The terrain was also very different and much more difficult and technical than Scilly, which was mainly on proper paths (and we knew exactly where we were going), so we lacked a bit of experience there. The rocks and mud were so slippery that we slowed to a walk for lots of parts as we didn’t want to risk injury, having witnessed a couple of other incidents on the course. The entries and exits to some of the swims were very challenging at the WC compared to mainly beaches on Scilly.
The combination of big seas, very strong currents (which I hadn’t bargained for) and rocks as slippery as ice made some of the exits treacherous. Apart from the sea conditions and strong currents, I actually found the Baltic Sea really pleasant to swim in – slightly warmer than at home and the low salt content was far nicer when you end up swallowing it.
I hadn’t really thought too much about the weather conditions until we got to Sweden because we had so much else to think about. Unlike Scilly, I never actually felt hot during the WC and we didn’t even “cab down” during the 20K run. My nerves really went through the roof when we were on the ferry from Stockholm to Sandhamn and everyone was talking about a “storm”. At the safety briefing the night before the race I really began to wonder if I was in the right place amongst a lot of elite athletes. As for the morning of the race, I think “terrified” best sums it up! Once we got underway, the nerves settled, apart from during a couple of the swims, and it was just a case of keep going. It was a great feeling to make it through the cut-off points and then the realisation that we really could complete the course was quite overwhelming and unbelievable!
SLM: How did the community support you before and after the World Championship race?
Wez: The local support on Scilly was incredible. I couldn’t, and still can’t, get over how much the islands got behind us. As we got ready to leave Scilly I felt massive pressure; during the last few days, it seemed like every other person stopped me to wish us good luck. It was then I realised the tremendous support and pride Scilly was showing towards us and although everyone was very real and saying just enjoy the experience, I really didn’t want to let them down.
After the event social media and text messages went crazy. I had no idea just how many people had spent the day following the live stream. Even now, six weeks later, I still have people stopping me in the street to either offer congratulations, to check if I’ve recovered or ask what’s next. We even had a celebratory party thrown for us by the local swimrunners.
Other people from the island have done some really amazing events – marathons, ultra-marathons, ironman and cycling events but I think the fact that most locals witnessed how challenging the ÖTILLÖ was here and knew how much further the WC course was really gained us a lot of support. The amazing coverage on social media also really helped.
Alison: Like Wez said, we had great support from locals and so many messages on social media. I couldn’t believe how many people said they followed the race and our progress on social media, especially with it being held on a working day. My family literally watched the coverage all day and everyone commented on how difficult the conditions were, which made it all the more satisfying to know we completed it.
SLM: What do you have to say to people considering the ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly Swimrun 2018?
Wez: The ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly Swimrun is a very unique event over here, and it’s one of very few occasions that people can experience many islands using their own power and skill to get around. Although the last two years have been relatively calm or even flat sea conditions under blue skies, do not expect this every year (last year the week earlier was very different with winds over 30 mph and rough sea conditions – not too far from the 2017 World championship race). The water is often very clear, but chilly. The running is mainly all on coast paths but every island is different from the others and with constant beautiful views around every corner with support from many locals and visitors alike it really is a spectacular place to race.
Alison: Give it a go! Be prepared for anything in terms of the weather and be prepared for the water temperature – I think it is usually about 14 degrees. There are no major inclines but having said that there are very few flat stretches – just a lot of small hills. The terrain isn’t too technical and the entries and exits are gentle, just some seaweed. The tides add variety to the course from year-to-year so next year will be different by starting at low tide unlike this year. This makes some sections of the course very different. The support along the course is great.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #4 (October 2017)