OTILLO Swimrun World Championships 2016


September 13th, 2016 by



9th place team – 8:57:21

10km swim / 65km run / 26 Island crossings 

Having raced Ironman Hawaii I was fairly sure I had already reached the limit of what my own toughest racing experiences might ever be. I don’t think I could have been more wrong! OTILLO is without a shadow of doubt the hardest event I have taken part in. This race is, simply put, incredible.

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Andrew Fargus & I after negoatiating 75km of swimrun across 26 islands off the coast of Stockholm. Don’t let my smile fool you.

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From the outset I should point out that OTILLO was never a race I had planned on taking part in. Sure, I knew about the race and I have noted the general rise in swimrun events as a whole. Indeed, there are at least 3 in and around Scotland already I believe. However, racing triathlon has always been my sole interest and if I’m totally honest, the concept of having to swim with your running shoes on and then run with your wetsuit did not in the least bit appeal to me! Nonetheless, when at the tail end of July Andrew called to say his partner, Richard Stannard had hurt his achilles and ‘would I be interested in filling the spot?’ I wasn’t entirely averse to the idea, for some strange reason. Fear of missing out perhaps. Through the year I had been loosely hearing from Andrew how things were going with their prep, and when they won an OTILLO qualifying event in the Scilly Isles I was certainly interested in the whole process. I guess it was just the racer in me, or perhaps it was just the inherent nosiness! Long story short, I agreed to help Andrew out. He assured me it wouldn’t be that hard really (and I believed this). When I asked how he felt recovery wise after the Scilly event, he said he could’ve probably run the next day, so armed with this ‘knowledge’ I happily told myself that ‘without a bike ride, it’ll not be as tough as an IM’. What absolute nonsense!

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‘Where’s Wally?’…. The neutralised one miles race start; calm before the impending storm… 

With 5 weeks of time to prepare in some form, I largely wanted to make sure I at least held up my end of the team bargain. OTILLO (in fact all swimrun events) must be completed as a pair and you should never be more than 10m apart, although this rule was very loosely adhered to from what we experienced. Bearing this team concept in mind, I felt the best I could do to alter my usual training routine with the least disruption was to 1. Add in some extra long (and more hilly / demanding) runs 2. Make sure I had all my equipment firmed up properly and 3. Have at least one ‘trial’ run with full gear. I accept, hardly the most bombproof of prep but it was as much as I could squeeze in and I hoped it would suffice.

My (our) belief was that the general endurance required would be the most significant factor of the day. Although the event is split over 26 swim-to-run island crossings, some of those are extremely short. Indeed it was to prove that these smaller islands would be by far the hardest for me. If the island (run) was less than 3k in distance it generally meant that there was almost no defined path or trail to follow, just rough heather and bracken. And lots of rocks. Rocks everywhere! This made these sections extremely technical and mentally challenging. You had to concentrate fully, or else you could easily come a cropper and have a nasty fall. This couldn’t be further from what happens in an ‘Ironman shuffle’ where one ‘simply’ puts one foot in front of the other until the next aid station. Tarmac and pavement are a LOT easier to negotiate under pressure I can now appreciate.

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Finish of the 1st (and longest, at 1800m) swim. If you look to 5 o’clock you will see myself & Andrew. A large group hit the 1st island to begin running.

We figured that that there were 2 ‘longer’ runs earlier in the day; at 8km & 9km plus another long swim (1400m) later in the day that preceded the ‘long’ run, at 20km which would be key sections to focus on. This certainly proved to be true, in so much as we were actually able to ‘run’ on these sectors. This, as I realised, was because the long runs were by extension on larger (and inhabited) islands. This meant there was actual fire trails and well formed tracks. This I could deal with, and actually begin to run at a respectable pace as opposed to scramble and climb.

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This was generally the story of my day: try to keep Andrew within sight. I was almost always lagging behind him on every section that required any amount of technical ability plus he was also much swifter at getting ready for each entry back into the water. This process involved re zipping and tightening the wetsuit back up, putting your hat and goggles back on and adjusting your pull bouy from the side of your quad back to a position where you can swim with it. I wasn’t very good at this. The rules of swimrun state that anything you start with you must carry and then finish with. So almost every team used paddles (some even had snorkelling fins!) We didn’t, which for anyone who knows me remotely well, will come as a surprise since I am never far from a bouy/paddles swim set. ‘Swimming pool’ being the marked difference though; I couldn’t imagine having to deal with the awkwardness of paddles in the open water and more importantly, every single time we had to try and grapple with the slippery rocks for each swim exit. And as the day went on I was even happier we didn’t have them, as my shoulders got entirely fed up by the 8th and 9th hour of racing. As much as no single swim was as long as 2km, it was the culminative effect of those total 10kms during the day that had an impact. Simply put, it was the beginning of an overuse issue. Coping with the extra surface area of paddles wouldn’t have been amusing.

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The scenery of the Stockholm archipelago without a hint of overstatement is incredible. I was blown away by the entire region. Thankfully we were collected at the city harbour the day prior to the race (as the race was point to point from the islands of Sandhamn to Uto) which provided some time on the 3 hour ferry journey to have a look at the surroundings – same on the return leg too. I’m afraid to say come race day, I was less observant.

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If I were in charge, it would be described as ‘swim/scramble/run’

In any team situation I think you are only as fast (or good?) as your weakest link. It is safe to say that I represented that within our pair. Having never really played team sport at any level (Primary School doesn’t count) I am not a very good ‘teamie’. I was struggling from the very outset with some sort of bizarre ‘dead leg’ kind of strain that seriously slowed me down. I can only presume it was something to do with the long cold first swim (although I have swum in <14C waters enough before) coupled with swimming with running shoes on, plus having poor core stability. My hip flexors and quads clearly threw in the towel from the outset, especially on my right leg.

This meant during the first couple of hours I was having to explain to Andrew why I was holding us up so much. To his total credit he was on good form about it and ways always ‘glass half full’ in his encouragement. We were well down to begin with, somewhere around the 30th team or so, but as I hoped, we ran well (it’s all relative of course) on the longer run segments and made up places. I only recall us passing one or possibly two teams whilst swimming, and we are pretty good swimmers, which only served to highlight that OTILLO is without doubt a running race with some swimming intermixed, albeit ten kilometres of it! The longest run came deep into the day, starting around 6 hours, when tiredness was creeping in. However by now it was a case of ‘who slows down the slowest’ or something like that anyway, and we passed a number of teams and reached a high of 8th place. Regardless, my sorry state of affairs eventually reduced the final 3 or 4 short island crossing to a virtual walk/hobble. Never have I been so glad to hear someone utter the words “this is the last island”!

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Relief at finally getting to stop and not have to keep moving forward

During the bulk of the day I was unquestionably never doing one of these events again. Enjoyment was not a word I was associating with my day. That being said, as the race progressed, I was able to fleetingly appreciate quite how mad and impressive the whole undertaking was. It really is quite staggering how 120 teams can leave one island and hours upon hours later, finish up 75km south on another. A brilliantly crazy concept that is rapidly gathering international interest beyond Swedish shores.

Would I do it again? Asked after the event I would absolutely have said ‘not a snowballs chance in Hell’, I would simply have been happy to have completed it that one time. A week down the line, well, I might be tempted some day, who knows. Above all, the key to doing well in the OTILLO (and by that I mean actually enjoying your day too) is to have a partner that you are suitably matched – both run and swim – to, as any differences in abilities are significantly magnified out there, believe me! Oh, and some technical running capabilities wouldn’t go amiss either.

Thanks to Andrew for asking me along… I think! And thanks to Michael and Mats who represent two of the most passionate and creative race directors I have had the pleasure of meeting. Chapeau!