By Valerie Wong
My twin sister and teammate Nathalie and I had attempted the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship back in 2017. As you may recall, the weather was the worst in the history of the race: storms, hail, 80 km/h gusts of wind … you name it, we got it. Eight hours of battling nature and 45 km into the race, we were at risk of hypothermia so we made the difficult decision to pull out at Getskär. Two years on, we were better trained and prepared, so we thought.
Our pre-race preparation (not to be confused with training!) started on Wednesday August 28 when Natalie and I flew out to Stockholm to acclimatize, to ready our bodies and minds, and to prepare our gear. Seasoned swimrunners are familiar with the feeling of running around town (especially if you live in a big city like London) as if attending a costume party. Though our weather-beaten “costumes” fit like body armour to our tiny frames, everyone agrees that the ÖTILLÖ World Championship is a mental game; it’s enough that we go through all sorts of feelings, ups and downs throughout a normal day, but swimrunning means alertness is elevated and emotions run high and in our case for almost 13 hours.
Thursday and Friday were dedicated by mini-swimrun sessions of 1.5 hours, just enough to get used to our new wetsuit (rookie mistake, too tight!), studying the racecourse, laminating the distances onto our paddles (see photo) and ensuring early nights. By Saturday the carb loading and tapering meant that we could no longer sit tight; I felt especially jittery.
To ease tensions, we took a day trip to the beautiful Djurgården (the Royal Game Park) and what was initially a plan to visit the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) culminated in a rollercoaster ride on Twister at the Gröna Lund amusement park, thinking it might expend some of that excitement (aka nerves). I’m now convinced that I pulled my neck – or at least that’s what I am telling myself seeing – as I really struggled during the race swims.
To avoid the queue, we got to the pre-race hotel early. It turned out to be a good strategy as we had an early lunch and prepared our gear in a timely fashion leaving room for a couple of episodes of Friends to de-stress.
At the race briefing, we were told the weather “should be” relatively pleasant though overnight thunderstorms meant wet, slippery rocks on some of the technical runs. Never mind, we always walk those sections anyway… Finally, we were shown the unforgiving schedule, breakfast at 3:45 am, ferry ride at 4:45 am, race start at 6 am on Monday morning. Thankfully dinner was promptly served at 6 pm which meant we were all tucked in by 8 pm (yup, Grannies).
So far, so good
By the second cut-off, we’d managed to catch up with some teams, including 3 women’s teams, and with 10 minutes to spare – a massive improvement from our previous time. So we took some time to ensure that we recharged our batteries, hydrated and consumed salt tablets for the next sections. The infamous and dreaded Pig Swim was ahead of us and I reassured myself that it’ll be fine because the weather is much nicer this year.
Mother Nature quickly proved me wrong. We got to the shore and a kind volunteer named Johanna reminded us the origin of the name Pig Swim – the combination of a strong current and head wind often results in losing body coordination while swimming. This is coupled with another strong westerly wind pushing us to the left. At this point, it was as if I’d lost control of my arms … no matter how hard I pulled it felt like I was going nowhere. Meanwhile Natalie soldiered on steadily ahead of me, but this is why I love swimrun: being a team means sticking together throughout the entire race, so I drafted behind her and enjoyed not having to keep sight, something I really need to work on!
From the third cut-off at 41 km, three more runs and three more swims later, we reached Kymmendö, officially passing the point where we blew our whistle and abandoned the race two years ago. Forty-seven kilometres in – at the fourth cut-off point – we were cheered on by staff, volunteers, spectators and one of the race directors, Mats Skott, who congratulated us for coming this far.
Jonas E Jonefjäll
The dreaded half-marathon
We swam 300 meters to the largest island of the course, Örnö, and the start of the long-awaited half marathon. Running a half marathon is normally a relatively casual affair, but not this time – we had been battling the elements for 9 hours by this point. Natalie, who also had a cold, was not feeling great and said “I can’t lift my legs”, so we adopted a 3-minute run, 2-minute walk strategy, which we were able to maintain quite consistently throughout. It took us almost 2.5 hours, but hey, we are in no rush.
Emerging from the forest, the shore is ahead of us again with 7.5 km, some 6 more islands to go. We’d reached all the cut-offs within the time limits, and only now we were able to enjoy the rest of the course. I was getting excited but reminded myself not to be too jolly, after all, our bodies are probably reaching their limits and we must not lose focus.
A few transitions later we got onto Utö – the much-lauded island of love – 3.65 km to go. Suddenly our legs, especially Natalie’s, felt almost fresh again and we started running, slowly but continuously … wow, our bodies are so resilient! The last 500 metres means a small climb to the Utö Värdhus, unsure whether we could run up the whole thing – mind over matter! – we walked the first half, and as spectators, fellow racers, staffs emerged, we started running again (one must keep up appearances).
A well-earned hug
As always, my sister and I held hands and crossed the finish line, and were immediately greeted by race director Michael Lemmel, who congratulated us on the “cold revenge”, to which we replied, “No, it was a warm revenge!”
We set out to complete an unfinished business, but the truth is swimrun is never finished. It’s all about an enduring team spirit, an occasion for which to rise up to overcome a challenge. We’re still riding the highs from the World Championship, and have yet to make future plans, but we’re already looking forward to whatever the next adventure swimrun may bring!
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Article first published in September 2019.