Jonas Colting – the man who speaks his mind, has an opinion about everything and a will of steel when he wants something – just swam around 300 km around Gotland in cold, dark Baltic Sea water.
In previous years, Jonas has been heard yelling across the ÖTILLÖ legendary course that he would like to pour asphalt the whole way. He’s the only person who has started in all ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship races and he also won three of them.
This is his story.
With a background in swimming and professional triathlon, Jonas Colting has won a number of ITU World Championship medals over Long Distance/Ironman as well as Ultraman World Championships. “I was definitely the most well-known triathlete in Sweden at the time of the first ÖTILLÖ event in 2006. I guess that’s why I was invited by Michael Lemmel to do that inaugural race.”
Jonas knew of adventure racers Michael and his partner Mats Skott but they had never met.
He says he was hesitant about ÖTILLÖ at first as he didn’t get a good explanation about what this event really was. “Was it an aquathlon? Was it an off-road triathlon?”
As Jonas puts it, “Were we supposed to switch gear between the islands and how were shoes and gear being transported? Was the course marked? There were so many questions and I suppose Mats and Michael didn’t even know themselves!”
On the early races
Intrigued by the fun factor and the huge adventure, Jonas asked one of his best training partners at the time, Pasi Salonen, to be his teammate and they signed up.
Jonas claims one of the things that complicated the first few years of ÖTILLÖ was “an almost ridiculous attention to safety and mandatory gear. For instance, we were all forced to wear safety vests (like on a boat) on top of the wetsuit. It was almost impossible to swim with the vest and it really took away ability from those of us who were good swimmers.”
According to Jonas, racers also had to carry fins and “other stuff” even if they never intended to use them. “We actually had a big backpack with all that stuff and since I was a better swimmer than Pasi, I towed our backpack on a small Boogie board behind me in the water. I also remember us taking off our shoes before every swim and stuffing them down in said backpack. Needless to say we probably stood still putting stuff on and off just as much as we were moving forward on the course.”
One thing the race directors didn’t regulate though was floating devices.” You can imagine our surprise when two top adventure racers showed up at the start with one huge floating mattress … each! They paddled on those and didn’t swim one stroke during that first ÖTILLÖ and managed to win.”
For Jonas and Pasi, between too few course makers and the rough terrain it felt like “some sort of slow adventure hike in the archipelago”. In fact, the team wasn’t impressed. “We didn’t finish that first year, nor the year after either,” Jonas explains, “mostly due to the fact that the equipment regulations didn’t let us race but merely hike the course.”
For the 2008 edition, the mandatory gear regulations were slimmed down so no more safety vest and backpack. “We could pack whatever we needed in our wetsuit and it became swimrun as we know it today. The year 2008 was also the first year we won the race.”
From then, the numbers racing also increased greatly, from a handful to some 20 teams and from there it exploded.
“As far as the basic equipment, we got most things right from the get go. We had our wetsuits cut accordingly from the first year and we swam with paddles and double swim caps,” describes Jonas, who said he used very light running shoes that didn’t drag too much in the water but allowed him to move as fast as possibly over the rocky terrain “without twisting my ankles too many times”.
From 2008 he experimented with compression socks that he stuffed with Styrofoam for flotation. “Today we have floating neoprene calves but this worked very well.”
On the bike leg
“Since everything was very slow the first few years, the organisers had a bike leg on the largest island, I guess in order to not run out of daylight and have people finish. They transported out a bunch of very ordinary bikes, I think they had three gears, with baskets in front … nothing you would race in a triathlon!
“However, as we were now spending basically no time in transition between every swim and run, the finishing times dropped significantly and after the 2009 race the bike section was scratched and we now had to run everything on land.”
On the characters across the years
“No one was a swimrunner during those first years,” says Jonas. “The racers were an odd mix of triathletes, adventure racers, elite soldiers and random people attracted by the craziness of this race. Since the start – and not counting the first year with floating air mattresses – triathletes or athletes like Ironman Hawaii winners, Olympians and World Champions, with a triathlon background have heavily dominated the race and the sport as a whole.”
Jonas believes that the real characters are found among the journeymen that shaped the event and the sport. He cites Jesper Mars and Mats Andersson, aka “the brothers” who did the very first drunken bet ÖTILLÖ years before the first actual race.
He also mentions “Kajak-Rickard” who was notorious for never finishing and for some races even showed up without a partner. “One year he even swam off course to a random island and went missing for some time before someone picked him up. One of the greatest moments of ÖTILLÖ is when he finally did finish, together with open water extraordinaire Mikael Rosén, who pulled him along and finished as the final team, in the dark.”
On doing ÖTILLÖ every year
Jonas articulates that “for many reasons” he races at ÖTILLÖ every year. “I used to be fast and able to compete for the win. I won 2008, 2009 and 2010. During the 2011 race we were in the lead with the best part left when my partner suddenly became very ill and we had to abandon in the lead.
“Since then I haven’t really been close and now I’m just in it to keep my streak alive as the only contestant having been a part of every single ÖTILLÖ since the start.”
These days Jonas races with his fiancée Elin and “we’re not even close to the podium” but as he says, “It doesn’t matter. It’s such a great race to be part of. It’s a very unforgiving course if you’re not fit enough so I hate it while I’m out there and it beats the shit out of me.”
He also shares that he’s not a big fan of very technical terrain so “these days I take my time not to hurt myself on the slippery and sharp rocks on a lot of the islands”.
“Every year after the race I figure there has to be a better way to spend a long weekend in September but when time comes to sign up I’m still there.”
On what makes ÖTILLÖ a tough race
For Jonas, the Stockholm archipelago is a very unique environment that’s hard to fathom before actually experiencing the course.
It’s way different than a triathlon, he emphasises. “First of all, both the swimming in shoes and the running in a wetsuit is way off anything you’d ever experience in a tri. Also, there’s the running surface and the technical challenges – it’s often a bushwhacking forest walk following a marker over logs and rocks. The water can be very cold and the weather both hot and cold. Even if you get really cold during the swimming it’s easy to overheat when running in a wetsuit. Finally it’s a team effort. You need to be in tune with your partner because a team is only as strong as its weakest link.”
Jonas adds, “This race demands endurance, strength, agility, fearlessness, teamwork, gear selection smartness and grit like you wouldn’t believe it. And, as I said earlier, it’s a completely unforgiving course.”
On the swimrun culture
“I’m proud of having been a part of the shape and growth of a sport that now is a global affair. I’m so impressed over how Mats and Michael have built the ÖTILLÖ brand and the entire sport of swimrun.”
Jonas now has his own swimrun event in his hometown of Borås, as well as his own brand of wetsuits and gear aimed at the swimrun culture. “I know that for a lot of people I’m very associated with ÖTILLÖ and the sport of swimrun. It feels great. Winning ÖTILLÖ three times is something I today regard as some of my finest merits.”
On swimming and refugees
Jonas has a coaching company and works with triathletes and swimrunners, as well as running swim camps, which he works with his wetsuit brand and with the two events he puts on annually.
Also, through his company Colting Communication, he does a lot of public and corporate speaking on health, lifestyle and fitness.
“I have a very outspoken agenda on public health and fitness. As part of that agenda, I promote swim safety and exercise as a way of integrating refugees and immigrants in Sweden. I just finished a 300-kilometre swim around Sweden’s largest island, Gotland, in the Baltic Sea. This mission aimed as raising awareness for the need of having more public swimming pools in Sweden and for our society to invest more in public health and fitness.”
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #3 (July 2017)