Ötillö – Swimrun World Championship 2015
After months of preparation we were on the start line for Ötillö at 6am in the gloom of early morning light. We’d already had two nights of ‘feels like we hardly slept at all’, experiencing an almighty thunderstorm back in Stockholm and an early start and nerves on Sandhamn. In our 3 days in Stockholm we had eaten enough to sink two battleships, had a delightful costume-only swim in a lake, kicked back in a sauna, gone for a 5km jog, contorted ourselves on a portable foam roller and met up with friends who popped over from Finland. We had left strange piles of empty beetroot juice bottles by the bins and scribbled all over my hand paddles. We were ready.
As several mixed couples had a pre-start kiss I felt left out … so I got a cheek-to-cheek and air kiss from Izzy! Then we were off. After running in silence for a minute or two Izzy said: “Thanks for doing this with me. I thought I should say it now in case I feel differently later”. I was equally grateful to be racing with her and couldn’t believe our moment was finally here.
As we got to the beach we looked across the expanse of sea to the next island. 1.7km, just over a mile. There was a strobe light, but as soon as we got in, I lost sight of it and just aimed for a suitable looking bit of land. We had plenty of other racers around us and were overtaking those who had set off fast. I got disorientated part way over, seeing rocks on the seabed below us. How was it so shallow in the middle?! The first time I got a taste of the water I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost like a salty sports hydration drink, and did not induce the sort of sounds that we get from North Sea mouthfuls (think; cat with a fur ball in its throat).
As soon as we got out we were in for a shock. It doesn’t matter how many photos you look at, how many videos you watch or how many people you speak to who have been there before. You can’t know how the terrain really is until you experience it. Slabs of wet, slippery rock and boulders. I am not the most sure-footed and Izzy felt worse. Our practice attempts at uneven get-ins and outs were no match for this!
Team after team streamed past us. I tried to stay calm and kept moving until the next short swim, when I slipped forwards. I could feel myself going and did a ‘superman’ move to distribute the impact, bashing my knee hard and scuffing my palms. Someone helped me up and we jumped right in the water. I felt a bit shaky and my knee was sore. I imagined I had cracked my knee cap, until I realised that was probably ridiculous and I had better just get on with the job in hand.
Some time later we had just 4.5km run to get to the first checkpoint. I checked the scribbles: we were well off our target pace. But, hang on! I suddenly realised we were cutting it fine to even make the cut-off, something I had not anticipated at all. We had 35 minutes, no problem for a normal run, but we had no idea what the terrain would be like and we had already been on the move for 2.5 hours. There was no way we could allow ourselves to go out of this race, let alone at 9am.
Soon we were breathing heavily and finding it hard to talk. When I asked Izzy to check our pace on her gps watch we were under 5 minutes / km. Panic spurred us on and we fell into transition with 14 minutes to spare. Little did we know it, but we were almost at the back of the field, with only about 15 teams behind.
From that point on I kept an eagle eye on the time cut offs. I knew we had to build more of a buffer. The effort had taken a lot out of us and we were using the tow. I was worried because I knew I couldn’t pull for the long 20km run to come. Izzy later said she had been feeling low as well, demoralised by our difficulties on the rocks.
Although the first swim had felt fairly tame, things were going to get more interesting. Several of the crossings had strong crosswinds, currents and waves. I am sure if I had been on holiday and stood on the rocks looking out to sea I’d have decided it wasn’t possible (or safe) to swim. But here we were, clambering in and setting off towards another elusive strobe light.
We already knew that small-looking waves on land can seem huge when you’re in them with just your head above water. But these appeared quite big to start with! A few times I’d turn to breathe and almost roll over, getting a wave right over my mouth and missing a breath.
We also had to aim to the right of where we actually wanted to go. This was quite fun, as you could physically feel the angle of the wind and currents against you, and by keeping this angle constant go in a straight line. It almost reduced the need for sighting! Which was useful, since half the time all I saw when I lifted my head up was water …
It felt dangerous and it felt exhilarating. Most of the time we were strong and effective and knew we were passing or leaving teams behind on each swim.
I did have one aiming glitch, when we came the wrong way round a rocky outcrop and got grounded in shallow water. After one swim I felt tired, so we swapped the lead for the next – and I apologise to Izzy for my inability to follow properly!
The second cut off came and went and now we started making good time, moving at the pace we had hoped to go at from the start. We still only had 31 minutes in hand though. We tried to be efficient in feed stations, stopping to drink two or three cups of water or energy drink and picking up food to eat whilst we walked out and kept moving.
The infamous ‘pig swim’ loomed large. I almost wished no-one had told us anything about this difficult swim! But in the briefing we were informed some people might take an hour over it. Really? For 1400m? At any rate, I was determined this would not be us and set my stop watch as we got in.
We emerged smiling and triumphant on the other side after 29 minutes of swimming. My swimming mojo had returned 🙂 . We had spectators here, cheering and handing us a Twix bar. Izzy asked me something but I could only say “I’m trying to climb up these rocks, eat a Twix and do a wee all at the same time … but I will answer when at least one of those things is finished with!” We passed through the third cut off with 61 minutes to spare.
The next section of the race is a bit of a haze. I am not sure what happened, but we slowed down somewhat. My knee was sore from both the fall and the slight injury I was carrying from an adventure race in Ireland 5 weeks earlier. We were tiring of the hard conditions underfoot. We were also moving inexorably closer towards the 20km run section, which I was more afraid of than the pig swim.
Finally we were there, 55 minutes before the cut off. I was doing a lot of mental calculations about how fast we needed to move to make the final time cut. I knew it should be OK but also knew we were both tired. Our legs were sore and quads were burning. I burbled out loud to Izzy who pretended to sound interested, in much the same way as she had when I tried to describe our swims against the wind in terms of vectors of the forces acting against us relative to our direction of intended travel …
The result was that we had to run each km in at least 8 minutes. I decided to set my stopwatch and ask for a distance check every 8 minutes. All very well in theory, though by the time we were getting to 12 x 8 and beyond, the maths was making my head hurt. Not to worry; it was a great distraction.
After 8 minutes we’d done 1.3km. After 16, 2.5km. Then a tricky section where we only covered 1km in the time slot. Soon we were back on wide tracks and asphalt roads. The km ticked by and we gained 200-300m every 8 minutes.
We rewarded ourselves with a pack of Honey Stingers (pomegranate) halfway to the first feed station. We passed through someone’s back garden and a lady with a team list shouted “Go Rosemary! Rule Britannia!” – now that’s dedicated supporting! Small children sat on the verges shouting “Heja! Heja!” and our feet fell into the rhythm of their chants.
As we stuck to our own pace, we steadily passed teams. 10 of them, in fact. I’m sure I saw a snake as we tripped along, but Izzy was beyond caring (unless it ate her, in which case, she stated, she’d be pleased it had ended the run). Enthusiasm was dipping somewhat but we pushed on, maintaining an average speed of 6:09/km, which I was pretty pleased with considering we were already nearly 50km in to this race at the start of it! To Izzy’s displeasure I insisted we wriggled back into our wetsuits before the start of the next swim, on a section that had us walking anyway. And soon we were back at the sea, the final cut off, 39 minutes to spare.
After a moment where I celebrated and Izzy greeted a playful dog, we just had the final section to go. We were going to do this thing. A bit of running, a bit of swimming.
The trouble was that we no longer trusted our legs. They were wobbly on the uneven stones and refused to work as we hauled ourselves out of each swim. The transitions we’d practised so often were getting slower and more fiddly and no sooner had we got our legs working on the ‘runs’ (walks?) it was time to swim again. Finding the route, watching for the colourful marker strips in the trees that had shown the way like a dance all day. Sometimes we couldn’t see them even as they were right in front of our eyes. Our pace had dropped again. Perhaps without the focus of the cut offs our minds were less strong to will our tired bodies on.
At last we started the final 3.2km run. We forced ourselves to ignore our screaming muscles and run properly. As we looked up ahead I remarked “oh, a phalanx of teams”. We drew closer and saw that Pippa Middleton (celebrity sister of Kate Middleton, royal, in case you’re not up with these things … ) was amongst them. Our friends had urged us to make sure we beat her, and I admit we were surprised she had still been in front of us! We might have sped up somewhat as we gunned for the line. 1.5km more and we were faced with a cruel uphill finish. Then we were there.
We celebrated, we moved forwards, I collapsed onto a bench and started crying from all the emotion. We had actually made it! We had (as is my wont) under-estimated the difficulty of the undertaking. We had our highs and lows, times when we felt weary and wondered how we’d ever finish in time, and times when we were high on the craziness of what we were doing. Now we had done it. We had finished a World Championship race and we were proud.
I won’t lie. The week after has been tough … talk about post-race blues! The body and joints are tired and achey, my knee hurts and my emotional state is unpredictable at best 😉 . The thoughts of ‘we could have done better’ are creeping in, and we have moved from ‘not next year’ to ‘maybe next year, if we could get in again’. We both want to conquer those slippery rocks that drained us of so much physical and mental energy and time at the start!
Izzy is emphatic that it is the toughest thing she has ever done (despite several Ironmans and Celtman under her belt). I probably agree: multi-day adventure races are a test of sleep deprivation and endurance but the intensity is much lower.
I still keep reminding myself that only 1 in 4 people who want to do this race are selected to start. We swam 10km and ran 65km in one day. Two things I have never achieved before. I will hold onto those facts, even though they seem unreal 🙂 .
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters for this race: Head (wetsuit and goggles) Gococo socks (blister free compression heaven) and BeetIt (nitrate power). It has been pointed out I should thank my long-suffering colleagues, friends, family and boyfriend for putting up with almost a year of Ötillö chat, trials and tribulations. Also my coach, Scott, for his sage advice. And finally, my straight-talking physio Graham, who has endless patience, a cheeky sense of humour and without whom I might not have even made it to the start line.
Now all we need to do is recover enough to do it all over again at Loch Gu Loch – a Scottish equivalent based around Loch Ness, but slightly shorter. Then I can get my bike back out and slide gracefully into winter racing.