The Quest for the Holy Trail: Joakim Axelsson goes for ÖTILLÖ number #10
SLM: Although you now live in Stockholm, you grew up in Markaryd and played football, racquet sports, swimming, orienteering, cross-country skiing. What turned you on to endurance sports in 1994?
JA: In 1994; I did a “Svensk Klassiker”, which means during on year you do a combination of races – Vasaloppet 90km cross-country skiing, Vättern runt 300km cycling, Vansbrosimningen 3000m open water swimming and Lidingöloppet 30km trail running. After that, and during the same year, I did my first triathlon or duathlon, because the water was too rough for the swim part. I have been competing in triathlons ever since and swimruns from 2008, although the last few years I’ve only been doing 1 or 2 races a year.
SLM: You have said before that 2001 was “a high point” for you when you got to be part of the Swedish Team Time Trial team with Joakim Willén, Jonas Djurback, Andreas Wiberg and Jonas Colting and won the European Championship in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. Tell us about this experience.
JA: It was great to stand at the top of the podium with my teammates, hearing the Swedish national hymn and after that popping the champagne. It’s special to compete in a team, and this was a team time trial, not as a relay as they race now.
SLM: You are an officer and work with the physical fitness department of the Karlberg Military Academy. What did/does this involve and why do military personnel make such good endurance athletes?
JA: I’m a teacher at the Academy, and develop sports and physical combat performance in the Armed Forces. Being a soldier is a kind of endurance team sport with high intensity intervals (combat).
SLM: Why did you decide to do ÖTILLÖ 2008, and what sticks out from that race?
JA: I first heard about the race in 2006 although I couldn’t participate in 2007 because I was in Kosovo (SFOR) that year. In 2008, I raced with Örjan Gustafsson and we were first after the first swim and the two swims after that. We raced with a backpack that we put in a sack and towed in the water. At every swim, we took off and put on shoes, so we had a long day in the archipelago and time for planning the next year’s race. A great day!
SLM: You have finished 8 out of 9 ÖTILLÖ races. What happened the year you didn’t finish?
JA: My partner had injured his calf two weeks before the race. We started and the calf held out for only a third of the race.
SLM: How do you process not succeeding as a team? I mean, when it’s you, you can beat yourself up a little, but is it different when you have a partner?
JA: At first you are disappointed, but after at time you realise that it could happen to you. So you look forward with new goals, plans and tactics for next year’s season and what you can do so it doesn’t happen again.
SLM: Do you ever doubt that you can finish?
JA: No. The first year, and in 2010 when we were supposed to run on Ornö (20km) for the first time, I was really tired when got to Ornö for the long run. In previous years, before that stage we were on bicycles.
SLM: What is your biggest worry when entering a race?
JA: That my partner will forget his goggles at the start. It happened in 2010 and we had to turn back 1km. We finished third that year.
SLM: Do you set a set a specific goal each time?
JA: I want to race fast and hard.
SLM: Greatest race moment? Hardest mental moment?
JA: It was great to win the Mixed category at ÖTILLÖ 2012 with Åsa Annerstedt. I like to swim in a rough sea, so I also remember one year it took three attempts to get out of the water at Utö.
The hardest part mentally is to keep running when you just want to sit down and rest and sleep.
SLM: What makes swimrun so different than triathlon?
JA: The constant shifting between swimming and running, the nature, rough terrain and a partner to share the fun with.
SLM: Would you say that swimrun is a lifestyle?
JA: Yes, I think it’s starting to become a lifestyle, but I hope it won’t be like some other sports with a lot of “rules”, like how to act or, for example, the length and colour of your socks.
SLM: Any race challenges to mark the occasion of your 50th next year?
JA: Wow I’m 50 soon, I’m trying to ignore the fact. I hope to finish ÖTILLÖ for the 10th time in 2018 (I hope I haven’t jinxed myself). Last year I raced, ÖTILLÖ 1000 Lakes in Germany, which was a great venue to race in and I’m looking forward to racing more outside Sweden and also Europe, for example, in New Zealand and the US. The ÖTILLÖ organisation has other races in great locations, so maybe some of them, too.
SLM: Are you a stronger swimmer or runner? How did you train to compensate for your strengths/weaknesses?
JA: I’m a swimmer! Keep your strengths and develop your weaknesses. I have done a lot of running on cliffs by the sea in Halmstad, and nowadays I have fast feet in that terrain. I have to be faster on the flats.
SLM: You’ve been doing endurance sports for more than 20 years. How do you adapt your training to any aging body?
JA: I still think I’m 29! … no, longer, slower and more rest.
SLM: Advice for staying injury free when training for ÖTILLÖ?
JA: Long, slow, and rest a lot. Vary your running and go off trail.
SLM: What advice would you give to a team who can’t train on the ÖTILLÖ environment (the rocky terrain, transitions)?
JA: Get out and train in bad weather and cold water. Try out some long swims in rough sea, to get used to the “Pig Swim”. Try to find a hilly or rough terrain (run off the trails) close to a lake or the sea and do loops.
SLM: What would you say to people considering a swimrun but have never done a team sport before?
JA: Set up a goal and a plan together. Find out you strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a team, get out and train together!
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue # 2 (Apr/May 2017)