For those of you that haven’t been following the blog or my Facebook page, we set out to do ÖTILLÖ which is touted to be one of the toughest races on the planet. It’s a swimrun race that consists of traversing 26 islands in Sweden, swimming a total of 6 miles in the Archipelago and running 42 miles across the islands. To give you a quick synopsis, check out this map (all lengths are in kilometers):
Dan prepared me the best he could, and frankly, I felt I had made huge strides in my fitness. We took our better halves and boarded the flight for Stockholm. To say I was a bit nervous was an understatement. It was nervousness, excitement and anxiousness all balled up in one tiny package. Once we got to Stockholm, we parted ways to get checked in since we had decided on different hotels, but soon hooked back up for some sightseeing and breakfast.
We were lucky enough to have breakfast in the shadow of the Swedish Academy (Google that) and then do some sightseeing to stay awake, including seeing some stuff we couldn’t eat (yet) and a lap or two around the Stockholm Palace and Parliament.
Alba and I even went on our own little adventure and had breakfast with an old, new friend and his little buddies.
Afterwards, we headed to the hotel for a good night’s rest before heading over to Sandhamn via 2 hour ferry where we would start the race.
On Sandhamn, a small island and port city, one of the last sheltered ports before ships head to the Baltic, we got checked in for the race and our accommodations. Due to how the race is organized, Dan and I shared a room while Alba and Kim stayed on the other side of the island. We attended the race briefing which provided great information about the course along with recognizing some of the previous racers that started the event 10 years ago, the current champions and some other very important behind-the-scenes folks.
Race morning, we woke up promptly at 3:45 in order to get ready, eat breakfast by 4:15 and to the start line by 5:30. It had rained brutally all night and was still raining off-and-on when we woke up. We were told that the race would start sometime between 5:40 and 6:00. This was due to our race swimming through shipping lanes which the race staff had to determine when it would be clear that morning. As we picked up our GPS unit and timing chip, we were informed it would start at 6:00. With a light misty rain in the air, we lined up on the start line.
With the sound of the gun, we were off through the small village of Sandhamn. Dan had explained it the day prior that it would sound like soldiers marching through the streets with all of our feet pounding the ground of narrow streets. His description was dead on. After a tromp through town, we quickly found ourselves heading through a wooded section and scattering out onto the beach. We picked a line on the far left and ran into the water without hesitation.
The water was cold, but bearable compared to our brief swim the day before in only shorts. With no wetsuit, I chickened out only 300 meters into our pre-raceday swim after my skin got so cold it was burning. But starting on race day, the water was 54 degrees, which wasn’t bad at first, with wetsuit and gear, but I knew we had 1800 meters (little over mile) to swim. It was very, very windy and the water was choppy. With the sea of over 232 racers in the water, I lost track of Dan, which was not a good situation since we could be disqualified for being more than 10 meters apart. I paused and sat up in the water to try and find him, looking for red paddles which we were one of only few teams I noticed using them. All of a sudden, off to my right I hear Dan yell my name and I swam over to his direction as he took back off. This would repeat itself again until we broke ahead of the main pack and I could stay on his heels.
We exited the water and scurried up the rocky shore headed for the first of many technical runs. When I say technical, for those of you in Charlotte, think the Ridgeline trail at Crowders. Now multiply that times 10. There’s nothing else out there that even comes close. Again, Dan got away from me in the crowd of racers. It’s not difficult to lose him as we all looked alike. All the male teams were wearing the same orange swimcap and we were all wearing the mandatory racing bib (vest), so in order to spot him, I had to pay attention to small details, or spot the number. Finally we got back together and started running/climbing/dancing across the rocks.
I’ll spare you the long, island by island, swim by swim details as this would break a record for me in lengthy race reports since we had 26 islands, 6 miles of swimming and 42 miles of running to do. Instead, I’ll throw in a few highlights.
First, the swims got progressively colder. This was exacerbated by the fact that towards the end of the race, the swims got shorter, but more frequent. Couple that with a 25 mph cross wind, not only did we have 3 foot swells with the chop, but we also got a cooling effect while running. Only twice did I take my swim cap off or unzip my wetsuit and one of those was during the longest run which was approximately 13 miles. The rest of the time, I kept everything on in an attempt to warm up before the next swim.
Here’s one of me and Dan (Team 23) climbing out with Team 47.
The sea was angry. At times the wind was sideways, coming in from your right side. Breathing on that side was impossible as you would just get a mouth full of water. It was also very difficult to get into any sort of a rhythm with your stroke. When I tried to time the swells, I would throw my hand forward only to grab a hand full of air as I entered the pull portion of the stroke. Other times, I’d be thrown into a swell just as I was in the recovery portion of the stroke and hit water a lot earlier than I had anticipated. Riding the swells was also a chore. One minute you’re lifted up high in the air and the next you’re slammed to the bottom of the next one. During one such encounter, I was slammed into a swell face first so hard that it almost took my swim cap off. When I got to shore, I had a completely exposed forehead that is normally covered.
Did I mention the runs were technical? I talked with the Mexican team after the race and they stated that they hadn’t done any trail running as part of their training and they were impressed by the difficulty. I quickly explained that it wasn’t what I would consider “normal” trail running, or at least what I had experienced running trails and racing across the U.S. or abroad. However, with the trail running came a fair share of gravel roads and even about 5 or so miles of paved road as well. On the flip side, we encountered what is considered “trackless” terrain where you’re following tape hanging from trees through unkempt bush, wild blueberry bushes, trees, rocks, bamboo swamps and you name it. The only way you knew which direction to go was to spot the next piece of tape. It was flippin awesome.
Entering and exiting the water was a chore. Sometimes you were lucky and had a dock to jump off of, but other times you had to climb down a cliff side or slide in on mossy/slick rocks. For the entire race, the Inov-8 Terraclaw 220 shoes were awesome and worked on the terrain, in and out of the water, road or off-road. However, no matter what shoes you wore, we learned pretty quickly that if the rocks were black, green or covered in white “hair” that you should consider them slicker than pig snot. I found that out after the very first swim where I slipped on a rock and landed on my elbow. I was further reminded entering the last swim where I slipped, ala ice skater style, where both legs went up in the air and I landed square on my left butt cheek. The judges gave me a 3.5 for the maneuver but a 9.5 for the pain. If you want to see a clip of it, watch the next 4 minutes of the video here of us on the last swim a little over 10 hours into the race. You’ll also get an idea of the water conditions. (click the video, it automatically starts at the swim crossing):
Getting back out of the water was just as much of a chore because we had the same slick rocks to climb out on, but the waves (remember 3-4 foot swells) caused it to be even more treacherous. Dan had devised a technique about a third of the way through the race where we would swim up-current from where we were to get out, but then changed direction so that we would ride the waves directly into the spot we wanted to exit. It worked flawlessly.
As for swimming together, Dan is the stronger swimmer of the two. So, I had to completely let go and fully trust him. If I lifted my head to sight, it would throw off my body position and rhythm enough that he would pull away from me. For you triathletes out there, I couldn’t do the famed “alligator eyes” given the choppy conditions and swells. Instead, many times I had to lift my whole head up. Not good. So I just kept sight of the yellow stripe down the sole of our Inov-8 shoes and stayed on his tail. 100% trust in my partner. If he went off course, so be it, but I was sticking with him and trusting him. If I lost his shoes, I’d stay on his bubble trail. Only if I lost his bubble trail would I look up and if so, it was only to spot him, not our destination.
The feed stations were great and the general support, volunteers and staff were all excellent. There were bananas, cinnamon rolls, candy, hot soup, gel products, water, electrolyte drinks, Red Bull, Coca-Cola, coffee, candy and all sorts of other stuff. I used GU Roctane gel as my primary fuel and what I used throughout the months of training, but I took advantage of the feed stations as well, stuffing my face at every chance. At one point, after the long “Pig Swim”, I came ashore, cold, shivering, dizzy, confused, wondering where to put my next foot, what rock to grab ahold of, and JUST as I got on flat land… “TWIX!” a girl shouts while stuffing a Twix about an inch from my nose. Dazed and confused, cross-eyed looking at this Twix bar for a split second, I grab it and stuff it into my mouth, Cookie Monster style, as I ran through the checkpoint. Nom. Nom. Nom. Cough. Cough. Nom. Nom. They covered our last portion of the Pig Swim on the live feed and you can see it here (we’re the ones in the front with red paddles). Listen to why the announcer says it’s called the “Pig Swim”. (click the video, it automatically starts at the Pig Swim):
The local Swedish residents of the islands were phenomenal. We were cheered on as we passed through towns and villages, from island to island and even farmland where we encountered gates that “must be opened and closed behind you so we don’t have farm animals getting loose.” Many of the natives setup their own water stops. We turned one corner on a gravel road where an entire family were setup with cups of water and a water hose to shower you down had you gotten too warm in your suit. It was during the 13 mile run and was welcomed. It was probably the only point in the race that I felt hot. Another water station was literally in a lady’s front yard, complete with all the trimmings including hot dogs. As we stopped to get a drink, she had a list of the teams and greeted, “Welcome Daniel and Marcus! Where are you from?” After replying that we were from USA, she asked if we were going to take the lead. I smiled, hugged her and politely explained that it was unlikely to happen. She shouted “GO USA” several times as we ran out of her front yard.
All of the kids would treat you like sports stars, trying get a high five as you ran by. At one church, shortly after a water stop, there were 10 or so kids all lined up behind a white picket fence. I ran by them giving each of them a high five as they all yelled “Hey ya! Hey ya! Hey ya!”
We had a few issues during the race that prevented us from finishing where we had planned. We made it up to 15th early in the race and leap frogged with a couple of teams through the first half. I am a firm believer if we could have stuck to our racing plan that we would have picked off a handful more of the teams ahead of us. We hadn’t started off too fast. Matter of fact, Dan even pulled me back once that I was going too fast on a run, stating that we needed to stick to the pace we had planned. However, due to the hand we were dealt, our back-half of the race was not what we had planned and we ended up 24th men’s team out of 116 total teams. We’re still proud of the fact that out of 8 USA teams, we were the first to finish.
Here’s a shot of us climbing out of the Pig Swim
One of the smallest, but coolest things about this race? Race director, Michael Lemmel hugged every competitor that crossed the finish line. Every. Single. One. Check out our finish line crossing and subsequent live interview (click the video, it automatically starts at the point of finishline).
Heading into the race, Sara McLarty was telling me that Pippa Middleton was doing the race, to which my response was, “Who is Peppa Middleton?”. Guess I’m not up to speed on the social circles. Many of you have already asked, so yes, I did see her. Just as I had gotten into some warm dry clothes and went to grab my second round of beer, she had just made it to the food tent after many rounds of interviews. I chatted with her a bit about the race and, in fact, Dan and I had to take a picture because she has great taste in shoes (she’s wearing Inov-8).
As for the after-effects of the race, here’s what your neck looks like after swimming and running in your wetsuit for over 10 hours:
And these were brand new paddles when we started the race:
If you’ve read my Facebook post right after the race, you’ll know by now that I am still extremely happy with the race we ran and the experience of it all. There’s nothing else like it and there are parts of the course and the experience that no matter how hard I try to explain, will not do it any justice. You have to experience it for yourself. Who’s in for next year?
Post race reflection the next morning.
Race Recap: ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championships
Location: Sandhamn, Sweden
Date: September 7, 2015
Distances: 24 swims, 22 runs, 6 miles of swimming, 41 miles of running
Result: 24th men’s, 1st US team
Products used: GU Roctane, Inov-8 Terraclaw 220 shoes, First Endurance Multi-V.
Want to see a quick 5 minute video recap of the entire race? Check out this awesome video: