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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 🙂

Approaching Sandhamn

Approaching Sandhamn

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

  1. Follow the plan
  2. Go faster than last year
  3. Arrive at the finish early enough to get a women’s t-shirt
  4. Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me)
  5. 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.

Dawn swim

Dawn swim

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.

Us emerging from the woods

Us emerging from the woods

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…

Helicopter! It was sitting on the beach acting as a great sighting object for one of the swims...

Helicopter! It was sitting on the beach acting as a great sighting object for one of the swims…

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.

Entering a swim (yes, it is us in orange!)

Entering a swim (yes, it is us in orange!)

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!

Beautiful islands

Beautiful islands

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.

Loud and enthusiastic supporters

Loud and enthusiastic supporters

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.

View across one of the swims

View across one of the swims

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).

A swim.

A swim.

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.

Not us, but typical island terrain.

Not us, but typical island terrain.

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.

The finish - yeeaass!

The finish – yeeaass!

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:

  1. Follow the plan: √
  2. Go faster than last year: √
  3. Arrive early enough to get a women’s t-shirt: X – no T-shirts this year!
  4. Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me): √ (thanks Mårten!)
  5. 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!).

My mum came to look after me for a few days after the race, and brought this handmade jellyfish with her as a well done present!

My mum came to look after me for a few days after the race, and brought this handmade jellyfish with her as a well done present!

 

Ötillö – Swimrun World Championship 2015

At the finish line! The only actual picture of us racing ...

At the finish line! The only picture of us actually racing …

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.

Ö till Ö 2015, Foto: JakobEdholm.com

The first swim at sunrise

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.

The golden source of information all day

The golden source of information all day

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.

Difficult sea conditions

Difficult sea conditions

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.

Some interesting places to get out

Some interesting places to get out

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.

Tricky terrain in the woods

Tricky terrain in the woods

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 …

Physics in action

Physics in action

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.

Try doing this when you're tired

Try doing this when you’re tired

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.

ÖTILLÖ 2015

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.

Borås Swimrun

According to the race briefing notes 🙂

“And by “I don´t have a partner” I don´t mean match making but a partner for the race. Use our FaceBook page for any last minute replacements or requests. Who knows what a new race partner will lead to though…”

This bit was easy. Izzy and I are racing at Ötillö in September and we needed to practice! We chose Borås swimrun, to the east of Gothenburg. It fitted our schedule, was relatively cheap and easy to get to and a good first race distance to try. The format was similar, but instead of swimming between and running across islands, we swam in little pools, zig-zagged across a large lake and ran up a lot of hills. Overall, 14 runs totalling 29km and 13 swims totalling 5km.

A view down the length of Öresjö. Looks a long way!

A view down the length of Öresjö. Looks a long way!

Unfortunately, Izzy got sick on Monday night before the race and didn’t eat for two days. Luckily, by Thursday she had enough energy to pack, but even at the airport on Friday she was feeling a bit unsteady. Uh oh! Saturday’s plan was to eat and eat …

“For a complete information regarding accommodation please visit http://www.borasboras.se. Yes, that´s right, TWO Borås in that web address – that´s how awesome Borås is!”

Well, we didn’t use the website because a friend at my Italian class had told us all about airbnb. I’d never heard of it before, but after a quick search, we were booked in to stay with the lovely Peter and Monica just outside town. More on their generous hosting later, but this worked out really well for us.

“And for the love of God, make sure to cut your wetsuits above the knee joint! You´ll thank me after the race…”

Almost everyone at Ötillö chops the arms and legs off their wetsuits. This makes it easier to run, reduces the risk of chaffing your bendy bits (backs of knees, insides of elbows) and means you can easily pull your wetsuit off your upper body to run if you want to.

Chop, chop ...

Chop, chop …


 
Ouch!

Ouch!

 
 

Despite laughing when I read a race report from last year, where the competitor had chopped their wetsuit at the start line, we found ourselves with this job still to do on Saturday! One of the advantages of staying with a family was we could ask to borrow scissors. Even better, Monica works with textiles and is a designer, so we got a proper pair to use!

We spent all morning drawing lines on our suits and cutting bits off them.  This was followed by some intensive dry land transition practice, which was when Peter arrived home. We hastily explained why we were running round his house, joined with a bungee cord and wearing wetsuits, pull buoys, swimming hats and goggles. He just looked slightly bemused 😀

“We won´t, however, distribute smaller race maps for you, the competitors. In our experience they don´t really serve a purpose and are never looked at. To keep track of the course we recommend you to write down all the swims and runs on your hand paddles or fore arms. Maybe even get a tattoo with it.”

We had hired a car so it was easy to drive out to the race area in the afternoon and have a look around. We went on a little walk round some of the course, and I studied the maps. It was all becoming clear what we had to do, though looking down the lake and knowing we would be right at the far end, out of sight, was a bit daunting!

Route notes, side 1

Route notes, side 1

I also wrote all the route stages on a small piece of paper and laminated it in an unused membership card holder. After I had done that and looked at the map many times, I had the route firmly ‘tattooed’ onto my mind!

“Weather: We will have weather”

We could feel the wind buffeting the car on the way to the start on Sunday morning. But when we arrived the lake (Öresjö) looked fairly calm. I mused that perhaps further down, it would be less sheltered and the wind would have got some waves up. I wish I’d been wrong!

The day before. Everything looks so tranquil ...

The day before. Everything looks so tranquil …

The water hadn’t warmed up as much as the organisers had hoped, so the long swim at the end had been shortened. We did still have to do 5km in total, with one leg of 1.3km. The water was about 11ºC. Cold, but not unlike our training conditions. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet swum in a wetsuit with missing bits, but there was nothing we could do about that now!

“Since we have a lot of teams on hand and a very narrow beginning of the first run, we´ll send off every category separately to avoid any unnecessary queuing. If you still end up queuing you may consider this a blessing in disguise as the first run features an ascend of 120 metres. SMART PEOPLE WALK THE START (official race slogan)”

With about 10 minutes to go we were standing in all our kit ready to go and listening to the briefing. I was looking at everyone else’s clothing and kit choices, to see what we could learn. Suddenly I noticed timing chips on people’s ankles. Argh! Where was ours?! Izzy sprinted back to the car to retrieve it just in time!

Then we were on the start line. Izzy suddenly said to me ‘Don’t go charging off at the start!’ I looked at her, surprised. ‘But I thought that’s exactly what we’d agreed to do, to avoid the queue on the hill?’. ‘I’ve changed my mind’ she said, and I could tell from the look of panic on her face that I’d better listen! So we ran to the hill at a steady pace and walked up.

It was really not a bad strategy, as for the next hour or so we just steadily caught and passed team after team. We didn’t need to ‘burn our matches’ so early in such a long race.

The first run. Theoretically we're probably in shot somewhere, at the back of the line. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

The first run. Theoretically we’re probably in shot somewhere, at the back of the line. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

I was sure that we could save a lot of time just being smooth in our transitions. As we neared the top of the hill, I knew the first short swim was close. We went through the routine we’d rehearsed the day before and would repeat throughout the day:

‘zipped up?’ / ‘zipped!’
‘unlooped bungee?’ / ‘yes!’
‘goggles on?’ / ‘goggles on!’
‘paddles ready?’ / ‘ready!’
Then, right at the water’s edge: ‘pullbuoy round?’ / ‘yes!’
‘OK, in we get … ready to go?’ / ‘let’s go!!’

The middle section of the race was one of the hardest. After a number of shorter runs and swims, we had our first big crossing of Öresjö. We were swimming well, despite the waves hitting us from the right. I seemed less thirsty after the three big swims, probably due to the amount of lake I accidentally swallowed! This won’t be so convenient in the sea water of Ötillö.

We overtook a lot of people here, but at one point I started to feel cold and irrationally panicky. I reminded myself of the race briefing: ‘if you get cold, keep swimming!’. I was very relieved to make land on the other side. I think we were being filmed as I shouted ‘we made it!’. A short run round a hill and we were heading back across the lake. It didn’t seem so bad the second time.

“from reading the rules on our web site you should know that your biggest security out there will be your partner. And vice versa. Stay together!”

We were racing using a bungee tow cord. This is quite standard in adventure racing but a strange concept to many triathletes. In the water, it kept us close together. When it was busy, it meant we didn’t lose each other. When we had to cross wide expanses of open water, with the wind whipping up waves and creating white horses it was reassuring for me to know Izzy was never more than 3m away. Practically speaking, by removing the need to keep checking on where we each were meant one less thing to think about. This was significant when also trying to breathe, sight and swim fast enough to stay warm!

Just about smiling still!

Just about smiling still!


 
Before the start. At last I don't look like I'm dressed strangely any more ...

Before the start. At last I don’t look like I’m dressed strangely any more …


 

We did learn it was easy to get tangled up in a bungee when getting out though – something we’re already thinking about how to fix!

The second use is on land, if one of the pair is feeling stronger than the other. I was towing Izzy behind me, feeling the tug on the cord as I gave a helping hand. A race like this is all about teamwork and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible – but still together!

“All race officials will wear yellow vests with a Borås Swimrun logo on them. Be nice to them! The race officials that is. Not the vests.”

As we passed spectators and aid stations, the support was amazing. Every time, people cheered and clapped and shouted. Many things were said to us. Here’s our quick guide to conversing in Swedish during a race:

They say You say
Anything that sounds cheerful, enthusiastic or welcoming Hej hej!
Anything preceding the offer of food or water, or showing the way Tack!
Anything that sounds like important information OK!

 

It was funny when we’d get into the water and Izzy would ask me ‘did you get all that?’. I’d say ‘um, swim to the red flag?’ … I wondered what else there was to say. Perhaps, watch out for killer piranhas?

After running up and down another hill it was time for the longest swim, of 1.3km. The house and garden we were aiming for looked obvious when we started. But soon we seemed to lose sight of other competitors, and sometimes I couldn’t see where we had to go. Each time I sighted, I might see the house we were aiming for, or I might get a view of nondescript land or a wave instead! Halfway over I felt a bit alone and had to stop to double check we were going the right way. We were. My pullbuoy kept working its way down my leg, which was annoying.

Pre race contemplation

Pre race contemplation

At last we could see the landing flag clearly, but there were reeds between us and it. We tried to swim through but they were sharp and unyielding! How frustrating. We had to detour upwind to get round them. Other swimmers came in higher than us and were fine. If there’s a next time I’ll remember this!

Then we hit another patch. They looked smaller this time and we wanted this swim to be over. I could feel my buttocks shaking, whether from cold or tension, I wasn’t sure. We just barged through this time, getting scratches on face, arms and legs. Izzy, who was behind me, seemed to emerge less scathed – perhaps my paddles had hacked a path through!

“DNF (did not finish): Do not DNF.”

We were out, running, but soon back to a river. We got some more unintelligible instructions, but it turns out these ones might have been important. I just got in and started going upriver. I’d told Izzy this was a short swim, and distance-wise, it was. But the current was strong, and the water tasted funny. We kept hitting logs beneath the surface and I saw some people resting at the sides. It was taking forever to get anywhere and I was desperately looking for the exit round every bend.

Racers leave the river of doom. Think our faces probably looked a bit like this too! Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

Racers leave the river of doom. Think our faces probably looked a bit like this too! Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

Soon enough, up ahead I could see fallen trees blocking the way, and a clutch of other racers. I paused to tread water and see what was going on, but was getting dragged backwards! This was quite scary, so I powered forward and caught onto a log. It moved and I had to let go as it floated away. Then I grabbed another and hung on, feeling my legs pulling away from me downstream until Izzy was there too and we could talk. Everyone was getting out, so we followed them and made our way along the shore briefly before jumping back in for a short stretch.

Suddenly we were at an aid station and a timing mat. There were loads of people shouting and cheering. I felt dazed and slightly traumatised!!

“When running on a road, a path or a trail we won´t have as many markers. The rule follows; ”keep running forward until a sign tells you otherwise!” If you, by any chance, find yourself running on said road or trail for a very VERY long time and/or the sun sets, chances are you´ve run the wrong way. Turn back and run back the same way you came. If, on the off-chance someone actually do run the wrong way, we´ll have ice cream for you in the finish area, a free start for next year, a compass and a shoulder to cry on. DON´T RUN THE WRONG WAY!”

As we approached aid stations we’d check what we doing. Were we stopping, and what for? This way we could coordinate and move on quickly without getting annoyed with each other or wasting time. We did carry some food and water and were testing how well this worked. We learnt: soft bottles down a wetsuit leg can easily work their way out. A hard bottle in a flipbelt stays put but is slightly awkward to get in and out. Pockets on the backs of jerseys are hard to use. Pockets in the fronts of wetsuits are easy to use.

I was surprised how difficult it all was. Stuart, a former Ötillö racer, had warmed us that the constant in and out of cold water and change of activity was hard, and he was right. Throughout the race, there was so much to think about. Keeping track of the stages, knowing when a swim was coming up and preparing to transition, planning around aid stations and sighting on the swims. All this will have taken energy and added to the physical demands of constantly getting cold and having to warm up again. It was definitely not the same as swimming 5km then running 29km!

The exit from the first long lake crossing. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

The exit from the first long lake crossing. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

On we pressed. This is the first time Izzy and I have raced together. I was looking for clues about how she was feeling; in footfall, breathing, talking and the amount of pull on the tow rope. As we moved along the longest run sections, I could tell she was finding it hard as well.

Even so, we were still steadily catching and passing quite a few male pairs. Despite how we felt, the results show that we were strong in the section after the timing mat, making up ground on (though not catching) the team in front of us, and moving away from the team behind us.

A random short swim across a pond and back was actually a relief, despite us forgetting to zip up our suits. I knew the end was in sight from here, and kept pulling Izzy along and trying to crack jokes. I think I managed one or two laughs, though my ‘chariots of fire’ rendition near the end may have left something to be desired!

“podium placings will receive nice prizes and a lot of admiration from everyone else.”

We had absolutely no idea where we stood in the placings. It’s possible that some of the excited cheering was telling us something, but we didn’t know. Even if we’d kept track at the start it would be impossible to see who was passing who on the swims.

About an hour before the end, I thought I’d seen a girl climbing out in front of us, but wasn’t sure. I knew in any case that we were going as hard as we could, and that what seems close in the water can be much further on land. I decided to minimise potential stress and kept quiet.

20150607_170152

As we finished, we got a hug and medal from the race director. Then he told us ‘you are 3rd female team!’. We were ecstatic and hugged each other and jumped up and down and hugged him again, even though we were wet. In fact, the 2nd placed girls had been just two minutes in front and had known we were behind, so had felt the pressure! 1st place were a long way ahead. We were 15th overall out of 80 finishers, though several teams had to withdraw due to the cold and plenty of others appeared not to start at all. Full results here. We were delighted. This was our first ever swimrun, our first race as a team and we did it off the back of a bad week for Izzy.

We also learnt so much that will help us in September. Right now the thought of doing double that distance is daunting, but at least we are prepared!

“You´ll get some delicious food served after finishing the race.”

“We’re vegetarian. Do you have anything?”.

“You like pasta, yes? You could pick the chicken out?”

Er … No thanks, maybe we’ll just go and buy a cake and drink tea out of a glass before heading into town for a giant Thai tofu curry!

Remind me, which country were we in again? Sweden does giant flags

Remind me, which country were we in again? Sweden does giant flags

We got home tired but satisfied. Peter and Monica had put the sauna on and we were soon indulging in ‘therapeutic’ heat treatment. Something we’d have never got elsewhere!

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters. Especially Head, whose wetsuit was invaluable and designed for the job. Also BeetIt for giving us the best start and Chia Charge for on the move nutrition and post-race protein bar. Next time we should also be wearing Gococo compression socks – more on those later!

Finally, thanks to Jonas Colting for putting on a great race. I’m sorry I was concentrating too hard on everything else to admire more of the scenery. But he did the most entertaining briefing notes I’ve ever read and everything went smoothly. Prizes were running shorts from Salming and free entry for next year. Let’s see how we feel about that later! 😀

More about Ötillö – this year’s Big Race!

So, it’s been some time since I got over excited in the office about getting to race Ötillö this year. You can read more about it here.

Every year, in about October or November, I start thinking about what my ‘big race next year’ might be. In 2012 it was Celtman. I devoted 2013 to triathlon, particularly the Scottish middle distance championships. In 2014 it was all about Itera.

Training tip 1: persuade your friends to make you an Ötillö cake.

Training tip 1: persuade your friends to make you an Ötillö cake.

I like to have something to work towards, something that I might not be able to achieve tomorrow, or next month, but that is doable in 9 months’ time. I also like endurance races, something quirky and not too mainstream.

So, at the end of last year my eye alighted on Ötillö. I’ve looked at this race several times before and decided it wasn’t for me due to the ‘excessive’ amount of running (65km in total). However, the effect a couple of expedition length adventure races can have on you is that what before were seemingly daunting distances provoke a reaction akin to ‘oh, only …?’. I also got inspired by an episode of the Adventure Show (an ace BBC2 Scotland programme, which airs sort-of monthly, following adventurous races and other goings on!). There was a segment on two chaps running up and down mountains, looking free and comfortable. I wanted to be like them and thought why can’t I run further??

Running with a hint of fish

Running with a hint of fish

And so the wish was born. With a lack of other options grabbing my eye, I set about finding a race partner. This was easier said than done. I encountered a variety of reasons for being turned down, ranging from being a teacher and having to work on a Monday, being too busy studying for exams, concern over getting too cold in the water, expecting a baby, not being able to swim and plain old ‘don’t have time to train for that’. I was also ideally looking for someone who I knew, located somewhere nearby (ish) and of a similar ability to me in both swim and run. I didn’t want big mismatches in either discipline as I thought it could become frustrating.

Eventually, as I almost gave up hope, I found Izzy … so close to home I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of her earlier! She’s even in the same club as me and we had a close race at the inaugural Celtman. Even better, she said ‘yes!’ and the race was on to get our application submitted.

Running with a hint of water

Running with a hint of water

Since then I have been training! Lots of running. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I had problems with my hip back in October. After several physio sessions and some determined doing-of-prescribed-exercises, I have been going from strength to strength – pun intended! Whereas the last few years I managed to race on about 20-25km a week, if I was lucky, I can now squeeze in 50km a week and I’m going faster. I find myself wondering since when did running become a valid form of transport? I run to work, the pool and even friend’s houses (“hello, how are you, may I use your shower?”).

Lean, mean, racing machine

Lean, mean, racing machine

Swim training has been interesting. I have found that I can now keep up with the front guys in my lane and go faster than I have for many years. I suspect that I have not got physically better, but that there are strong psychological factors at play. I know I need to swim harder, there is a reason to get better at it, and I therefore believe I need to / can have a go at keeping up with them. 10km of swimming is a rather different prospect to a 1.5km triathlon bimble 😀 .

Learn to swim, Stockholm metro art style

Learn to swim, Stockholm metro style

There have been other things to think about too. Like getting to know Izzy better (we’d only really spoken a handful of times before), reading up about the race and getting kit sorted.

In this regard, we’re delighted to announce that Head Swimming are sponsoring us! They are the only company to offer a full line up of swimrun specific wetsuits. This sport is really popular in Nordic countries, where the brand already has a strong following. We are lucky to be able to train and race in a top of the range suit, so we’ll have no excuses there! If you’re doing any swimrun events and want to know more about what to look out for, just ask. More on that later, with a wetsuit review to come 🙂 .

Head

We’ve also started experimenting with paddles, pull buoys and run tows. We have two great options for open water swimming nearby, but the water has barely warmed up enough to get in (for me, at least!). We braved it twice last week, and are getting used to swimming in shoes and running in a wetsuit.

I like to build my race season to support my big target event. The trail race at the start of this month was a great test of my running legs. Next up is a 5km swimming race. I’m not worried about going the distance, even though this will be the furthest I’ve swum for many years. Rather, I’m keen to feel strong and fast! Although it will be warmer ‘down south’ in Salford Quays, a bit of speed won’t go astray in helping me stay toasty 😀 .

Getting ready for our first Scottish dip

Getting ready for our first Scottish dip

It’s also been a bit of a whirlwind organising a ‘practice’ swimrun event under race conditions. With a last minute change of plans, we’re heading out to do Borås swimrun (near Gothenburg, Sweden) in less than three weeks’ time (gulp). It’s an event that’s about a ‘half distance’ Ötillö, but with more transitions per km and significantly more ascent on the run. This is focussing our minds nicely! Meanwhile I just need to learn how to pronounce Swedish words. “Er-Till-Er” ? “Bor-oarse” ?

Keep an eye out for more progress reports. You’ll be able to read about how we’re getting on here, at 220triathlon.com and sleepmonsters.com. And if you’re doing a similar event and want top tips, look out for our advice articles for Loch Gu Loch entrants. This will be a great swimrun event based around Loch Ness on 26th Sep. We plan to be there too, assuming we’ve survived the Swedish version! We’re learning as we go along and are more than happy to share what we find out.

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters: Head Swimming, Beet IT and Chia Charge.

Exciting Race News!

Have you heard of Ötillö?

People have been asking me for a few months what my plans are for this year. I’ve had to hum and ha, because I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know if I would be able to do it.

Ötillö is the SwimRun World Championship held in the Stockholm archipelago. In a team of two, you start on one island at the top and make your way across over 20 more, swimming between them and running across them until you get to the end!

otilloRace-Logo

This is the 10 year anniversary. The race is hugely popular and over-subscribed. There are three ways to get in:

1. Qualify in one of four set races

2. Selection by merits

3. Random draw

After I set my heart on this race, the first challenge was finding someone willing and able to do it with me! Just two weeks before the closing date, I hooked up with Izzy. Perfect! She is in the same club as me and we are very similar ability. At Celtman we finished within 4 minutes of each other.

The next challenge was making our merit application. As well as listing our top race results from the past two years, we had 500 characters to convince the organisers to give us one of only 6 merit spots for female pairs 😕 .

Tension built in the run up to the announcements. We heard that there were more than four applicants for each space. Then we were told the merit selections would be made two days early. On Wednesday morning I was in a state of high tension as I checked down the list as soon as it was published. Would we be judged good enough? Were we the sort of team they were looking for to be a part of this race?

Past the male pairs, onto female, past race qualifying listings, onto merits. Not there, not there, then … last on the list, there were our names!!  I leapt out of my chair and ran down the office making excited squeaking noises 😀 .

otilloentries

More about the race, why I wanted to do it and tales from our build up to come. But for now, here’s our team description:

We first met at a cold, grey lakeside. We jumped in. As the wind whipped up waves we swam another lap. In 2012 only 9 women did Celtman Extreme. We were 2nd and 3rd. Izzy took a year off and created a business inspiring others to get outside and make the most of life. One tough race wasn’t enough for Rosemary who hasn’t stopped since. UK SwimRun interest is booming. We want to experience the original and tell everyone about it! 220triathlon.com will report on our race. The journey is calling.

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