Thunder. Lightning. Sunshine. Hail. Nature threw pretty much all it could at the Ötillö swimrun world series at Engadin in the Swiss Alps on Sunday. But that is part of the thrill of swimrun – the adventure of being out in the wilds. As race orgainser and Ötillö founder Michael Lemmel explained in his post race speech: “It is nature. Deal with it. Be part of it.”
If you don’t know what swimrun is, it is a fast-growing endurance team sport where competitors swim and run without stopping over challenging courses in amazing places. You run in a wetsuit and swim in your shoes with the help of paddles and pullbuoy. Completely lacking in the excess of testosterone that mars some triathlons, swimrun is big on camaraderie and has a strong community feel. Indeed, it is almost more a movement than a sport: look after your fellow competitors, respect the environment (any littering means instant disqualification) and spread the word and spirit of swimrun.
“Beautiful but brutal and a whole lot of fun” pretty much sums up the experience of racing the 47km course up and down the Alps and across mountain lakes. The race started at 8am on Sunday morning with 154 teams of two from 27 nations lined up in a dip by a small car park at the bottom of the Engadin valley. Me and teammate Mark (who is coached by Outdoor Swimmer contributor Fiona Ford) set ourselves firmly mid-pack. As we set off we high-fived the marshalls and began the first run: 3,275m to the first swim, a 270m dash across a small lake. Well, I say run… who would have thought that an Alpine race would be so… Alpy. It set the scene for the day’s racing: walk the uphills. And quite a few of the downhills too, as the trails were so steep and twisty to run them would have risked tumbling and injury. In total the vertical gain was a gruelling 1,570 metres, all at altitude of 1,800–2,100 metres.
Our team tactic was “slow and steady.” We knew we had a long day ahead of us so didn’t race off and we made sure we made full use of the energy stations. After the first swim we untethered (we swam tied together with a rope as swimrun rules state that you can’t be more than 10m apart from your teammate) and set off on the next 8km run. We presumed that this run would be downhill; instead we climbed for 230m, descended 355m and then climbed another 50m only to drop back down to the bottom of the valley for swim number two, a 550m traverse. As the race progressed the swims got longer and more challenging as fatigue set in.
We did well on the swims, holding our position and usually picking up a few places. Tethering worked well, meaning that Mark could draft off me and tug on the rope if I started going off course.
Racing at altitude made a noticeable difference to breathing, especially on the swims when we both felt a bit asthmatic!
The longest swim of the race was the second last swim of the day – 1400m. On the previous swim it had begun to rain and by the time we reached the entry point of the 1400m it was torrential and visibility was low. As we entered the water it was difficult to sight on the bouy half way across the lake as the rain and hail slammed onto the surface of the water, throwing up spray. Then the thunder began and lightning streaked across the sky. As the wind picked up so did the swell, but we managed to reach the bouy and stopped for a breath before swimming on. The exit flag was now in sight. But a safety boat zoomed alongside us and a marshall shouted at us to get out the water and start running. Lightning is obviously quite dangerous if you are in the middle of a lake with bits of metal kit attached to you, but it was the highlight of the race for me – fighting the swell as the storm raged above. But safety comes first, and we got out and ran along the side of the lake and then up (and up) for the final climb of the day.
After a long ascent and descent we were looking forward to the final 750m swim when we reached the lake again.
“Do you want to run or swim?” shouted the marshall at the bottom of the trail.
“Swim!” we whooped.
“Oh,” he said. “You have to run. We have had to cancel the last swim because of the storm. But everyone else was happy to run!”
Feeling slightly cheated we ran around the edge of the lake, now bathed in sunshine. But it was the right call by the organisers. Only eight teams were able to do both final swims, the rest of us did either part of them or none of them at all. By this point a few teams ahead of us were walking but we were able to keep running and picked up a few places. We even managed a sprint to the finish line to finish in 7 hours 23 minutes.
Ötillö Engadin was an amazing race and a real privilege to compete in such an awe inspiring landscape. If you run as well as swim and you haven’t yet tried swimrun, what are you waiting for?
Top 3 results
Jonas Ekman and Lars Ekman (SWE), Team Bröderna Bäver, 05:16:10
Oscar Olsson and Martin Flinta (SWE), Team Löplabbet, 5:29:00
Santi Pellejero Gacia and Francesc De Lanuza Gimeno (ESP), Team Head – VO2, 5:34:02
Kristin Larsson and Daniel Hansson (SWE), Team Addnature/Swedish Armed Forces, 5:37:17
Michelle Nyström and Erik Fridolf (SWE), Team Garmin, 5:54:28
Diane Sadik (SUI) and Tim Lange (GER), Team Swimrunshop.com, 6:02:46
Salli Carlfjord and Charlotte Eriksson (SWE), Team Öra, 06:27:16
Anna Sporrong (SWE) and Nina Ellmark (GER), Spiggen och Spättan, 06:32:08
Malin Broström and Marie Dasler (SWE), Team Merrell, 7:01:14
More information: http://otilloswimrun.com/