Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2016
After what felt like a long summer of racing it was finally time to do Ötillö again. We were coming back and had something to prove to ourselves.
We had made preparations and plans. Although probably no fitter than last year, we had made several trips out to East Lothian to swimrun along the coast. As well as the obvious sea / wave swimming, this included plenty of rocky sections. Arriving on Thursday in Stockholm, we spent some time relaxing, swimming in the beautiful lakes, taking a sauna, eating veggie buffets and relaxing. I was slightly jealous of people who live here!
I also spent some time reading (most unusual for me). My pilates teacher had recommended ‘How Bad Do you Want It?’ – covering the science of mental fitness, illustrated by gripping tales from endurance sport. The general gist is that you always reach your mental limit before your physical limit, and that it is your coping mechanisms that help reduce your perception of effort and get the most from your physical ability. I had to stop reading before the race as it was hyping me up too much to sleep properly 🙂
The boat ride over to Sandhamn on Sunday was far more relaxed than last time. We sat outside in the sun and chatted to a few people we knew from other races. We were not afraid, and we knew what was coming.
We had a plan:
- Conquer the rocks. To this end, we were wearing new, grippier shoes (from Icebug). These had given us great confidence in our training. We had practiced on as similar terrain as we could find despite having barnacles and seaweed instead of slippery slime. We had also decided it was easier to run these most technical sections without the tow, devising a way for me to stow it securely. Finally, we approached it with a positive attitude, bracing ourselves for the worst but knowing we could do it.
- Concentrate. Looking at our timings last year, there were two sections where we went much slower than we had planned. They were both a succession of shorter swims and runs, one coming after the hardest swim, and the other after the last cut off. We thought the key here was to stay focussed and keep pushing.
- Have target timings. Knowing how fast we went last year over different terrain, using our experience from training and other races and setting ourselves some challenges, I came up with a realistic (but not too easy!) time plan. Key points were written on my paddles so that we knew whether we were ahead or behind target.
We also had goals!
- Follow the plan
- Go faster than last year
- Arrive at the finish early enough to get a women’s t-shirt
- Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me)
- Stay positive (for Izzy)
I find early morning starts fairly traumatic, but got through this one and before long the dawn light was on us and we were out on the first swim. We seemed to be way off to the left of the group of competitors, but I thought we were going straight to the strobe light. Our gps track said otherwise, as it seemed we did an elegant curve, adding an extra 100m to the straight line distance.
Then we were onto the rocks. The weather had been drier than last year, which probably helped, but we also felt almost ‘at home’. The shoes and the training were paying off. We even overtook one team and certainly didn’t experience the stream of over-takers that we had last time. A few male teams were quite aggressive, pushing past, or bounding in and out of the undergrowth to get round. We had our fun, identifying pairs we thought would crash and burn, paying for their over-exertion later. Unfortunately, there was not enough room in my head to memorise their race numbers and check whether we passed them later on!
We got to the first time cut off 29 mins quicker than before and well ahead of plan. We began thinking what had been our problem last year?! We’d told a few of our friends and other teams how awful this section was – and we thought they would now be wondering what we had been going on about.
There is a swim in the next section where we follow the bank as we cannot cross someone’s land. It is murky and smells funny and we slipped in slimy grey mud on our way out. We postulated that the owner puts their compost in there all year, just to discourage us! We saw someone running back along the route, looking for a lost yellow paddle, but we had not seen it.
One of the swims was really rough. I could see the boat carrying spectators, the Silverpilen, when I turned to breathe. Izzy was trying to find the best position to swim, behind or next to me. I knew she was moving about but was not concerned and just kept swimming on. She was on the tow, so I knew I couldn’t lose her. Later she told me her goggles had even come off and she had stopped to put them back on! We had a chuckle imagining what the spectators must have made of all the shenanigans. I had one fall before a timing section. I was sore, but only bruised. Izzy fell several times and days later was covered in blue patches and had a black eye! Maybe it was from a shoe-in-face incident on this swim…
We trundled on until we got to the second cut off, which has a short out and back to a feed station. I remembered getting cheese sandwiches with dimpled Swedish bread here and wasn’t disappointed. We felt like we were ‘in the race’ this time, seeing lots of teams in both directions. It was so different. We’d also wondered how the other British/Irish women’s teams were getting on, and found out when we saw them both just behind us as we left. We had enough energy to be pleased they were doing OK, but weren’t concerned about positions for this race, only our time and ‘the process’. We stayed focussed on own race.
It felt like we had just started, had maybe done 1 or 2 hours, but I looked at the time and realised we’d done nearly 5h. Oh, I wished I had not done that, because it made me feel tired. However, we were now moving according to our planned pace, and still ahead from our strong start. We had gained another 13 minutes on last year’s time. I guess we were just fresher from having wasted less mental energy.
The next section was starting to feel tough, but I tried to buoy the mood with news of the pig swim coming up! Although this is notorious for being the hardest swim of the race, we found it very exciting last year. This year was a bit calmer, but still a challenge. Because of the currents, I did not aim for the landing point, but rather a big piece of land to the right. The new watch gets a bit upset trying to hold onto gps signal when it is choppy and rough, adding lots of little squiggles compared to the smooth straight lines of other swims! But our general direction was straight over, no bending here.
Safely across, Twix in hand, and we had done this section on plan and about the same speed as last year. It was time to focus. We had to keep moving well. Now I could see how we had slowed here last year. It was technical again and we had to find new energy to maintain momentum. We had come off the tow, to reduce stress. I would get ahead a bit and find the route. Over the race I had developed my version of a ‘gripometer’. I’d shout out one of ‘very grippy, quite grippy, grippy enough, slippery’ as I tested each section of rock!
Izzy didn’t seem best pleased about the terrain, but I asked “what do your paddles say?!” Oh … the motivational sayings she had written on them the day before had washed off. So we had to make them up … I shouted back: “Are you still moving? Are you still smooth? Are you still positive?!” “Yes!!” came the reply! Her attitude was top notch.
We approached the famous garden, where a lady and her family always come out to support. On the way in, we wondered what the skull and cross bones flag hanging above us signified?! But they had the nations flags strung along the fence, they were cheering, tooting, banging a drum and shouting out our names as we came through. A fantastic boost at this point in the race.
We were passing the time and wondering what the wildlife is on these islands, and why we hadn’t seen much. We spotted several anthills, some harmless purple jellyfish and tiny shoals of fish. Then only some quiet sheep in a field. Izzy had been reading a book before the race too. Hers was called ‘Run or Die’, by Kilian Jornet, a renowned ultrarunner. I joked that we had to keep running else when we sat down, we would die when the crazy sheep came to eat us!
We started going back and forth with team 118 (another pair of girls). We were better swimmers than them, they were better runners than us, especially when it got technical. So we kept on overtaking each other and saying hello as we alternated swims and runs. We only once lost the track where it turned along the shore after the swim, and a mixed team helped us find it. Other times, we were less hesitant than last year and just kept moving forwards.
Soon enough, we got to Ornö. We had gone another 14 minutes faster than last year. The plan was still working.
Now we had to do the long run. It was hot and I started feeling weary. I decided I had not eaten enough. Darn! This is something I keep forgetting, I need to learn this. It seems a hassle to eat along the way, but the feed stations alone are not enough. I took a gel, a soft flapjack and some Honey Stingers. We only exchanged a few words for a long time. Izzy told me she didn’t want a running commentary, and I got told off when I mentioned how far we’d managed to do! I was playing alphabet A-Z for fruit and veg, then animals. Izzy was singing her way through the Madonna back catalogue. Both of us doing it in our heads.
We’d passed the church, the official aid station, the unofficial aid station, and the cold hose shower. Suddenly I realised I had become totally spaced out. I was reading my paddles but could have been anywhere. I snapped to and made myself eat more, asking Izzy for help to get at it. We did this section a bit slower than last year (4 minutes).
I couldn’t wait to get in the cool water, and then suddenly I had energy again for the last sections. I must remember to eat more!! This was the second part where we had to pay attention. Last year we were so relieved and tired at the cut off that we slowed down and stumbled our way through the last part. This year we would stay focused.
Team 118 had only caught us at the end of the run, but we had already walked and got our wetsuits zipped back up, so we could set straight off. We did not see them again until the finish.
On some tricky rocks, Izzy had almost her only grump (about the unsuitability of a tow for the trail we were on). This is good going for anyone in such a long race, so I was happy! We laughed about it later 😀 I had a faint recollection that the track got easier again, and I promised we could unclip if it didn’t. But thankfully it did.
On the long run we had lost a bit of our earlier advantage compared to the plan, but were now going faster than last year again (another 16 minutes gained). I knew we were still under our target pace for 12h, and we would make it.
We landed for the last run. Izzy asked me “So, what’s this one, 7km?” This might have been the best bit of the race, as I was able to say, “No! Less than 3.5km!!”. We set off at pace (OK, 6 minute kms), readying ourselves for the final hill. It seemed quiet coming into the last few hundred metres (we were spoilt by spectators at Isles of Scilly!), and then there we were at the arch. We danced and whooped as we had done 11h47. 72 minutes faster than last year and 12 minutes under our target time.
Our time was great, though our placing in the women’s ranking sank and we only moved up 6 spots overall. But this is because of the competition. It is getting better and better every year, and for women especially the quality is going up and deeper into the field. One hope I have is that the women’s teams can keep on getting more slots in the race now.
As for our aims:
- Follow the plan: √
- Go faster than last year: √
- Arrive early enough to get a women’s t-shirt: X – no T-shirts this year!
- Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me): √ (thanks Mårten!)
- Stay positive (for Izzy): √
After the finish, we pondered how we could go faster if we go again. This time it is less obvious. We have some ideas, but have time to think for a while. Qualifying to race at all is not easy in the first place! We enjoyed ourselves enough to sign up for 1000 Lakes in Germany though, and get a race per country for the World Series this year 🙂
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters, especially Head / sportextremeswimrun, Icebug UK and Gococo socks. Also to my coach Scott and everyone else who has helped us and followed progress (Andy, Jim, Helen, Ellie … I can’t list you all, but you know who you are!).