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A tale of two swimruns

At the end of November, I took part in Ötillö Swimrun Malta. We’ll be publishing an event report in Outdoor Swimmer magazine shortly. But I also want to share something of my personal experience here.

In the original Ötillö, in Sweden, people raced in pairs. The pairs format now extends to all Ötillö World Series Swimrun events for safety and traditional reasons, and also to many of the events other organisers host. It has become part of the unique culture and spirit of the sport.

I estimate the chance of finding a race partner who exactly matches your swimming and running abilities, has the same level of fitness and the same approach to racing as zero. Even if you think you are closely matched, you might have different experiences on race day, or on different parts of the course throughout the race.

For Swimrun Malta, I raced with Chris Freeman, someone I’ve trained with at Teddington Masters Swimming Club for about 10 year. It was our fourth swimrun together. We’re the same age, and we swim and run at about the same speed, but there are differences.

Swimrun Malta Start

With Chris at the start of Swimrun Malta

In the pool I’m faster up to about 400m. Beyond that, Chris is quicker. That would suggest Chris would have the edge in longer open water events but it’s usually the other way around, possibly because I’ve got more experience of open water racing. In running, I’ve got the fastest 5km PB by a few seconds but Chris is faster at the moment – and the longer the distance, the bigger his advantage. In our previous swimruns, especially towards the end, I’ve struggled with the pace (and the distance) while he found it relatively easy. I’ve been so close to the limit on some run sections that I’ve had to slow down and recover during the swims, losing my usual open water advantage. We were expecting more of the same in Malta.

Swimrun Malta, at 30.9km of running and 8.7km of swimming, was the longest race we’d done by a significant margin. Having done Ironman and run marathons, Chris wasn’t daunted by the distance. Having only done a marathon once, in 1993, and suffered so badly I swore never to do one again, I was!

We made the decision to enter the race at the beginning of September, giving us 12 weeks to train. My priority was to do long steady runs to ensure I could cover the distance. Chris also did the long runs but as he was already confident about the distance, did more speed work. While we trained together for swimming, due to logistics and timing we didn’t run, although we kept track of each other’s training through Garmin. Based on that, I estimated my running race pace would be about 10 to 20s per km slower than his. That might not sound like much, but in a swimrun, it can be the difference between running comfortably and being on your absolute limit. I was nervous I’d struggle on the longer run sections.

Race day didn’t turn out as we expected due to surprising wet and windy conditions. On a positive note, this meant there was little risk of overheating. On the other hand, the sea was rough and the terrain was transformed from what our research had led us to prepare for. Instead of dry and dusty trails, we had wet and muddy ones. Rocks we would have happily bounded between if dry were horribly slippery when wet.

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Captured by the official photographer Pierre Mangez at the first transition

While this made running and swimming more difficult for both of us, it impacted Chris more than me. When racing, Chris is good at sustaining a fast consistent pace, both in the water and on land. In Malta, with the rough sea and wet technical trails, we were constantly stopping, walking and scrambling, with frequent changes in pace and intensity levels. I loved it. Chris, not so much. It didn’t help that he fell several times and collected a colourful set of cuts and grazes. He was unnerved after a particularly painful tumble, which caused him to be extra cautious. Where I was happily leaping from rock to rock, he was gingerly picking his way between them. When I was lightly skipping over the mud, he was sliding and sinking. It’s probably relevant that Chris is 193cm tall and weighs 95kg, while I’m 176cm tall and 30kg lighter.

Then, towards the end, we came to a section of straight road with a slight incline – the perfect place to actually, finally, properly run. Chris was delighted with the chance to pick up the pace. Unfortunately for him, this was the point when my legs decided they’d had enough. “Sorry,” I said, “I need to walk a bit.” I was relieved when we got back to the rough terrain and could stop feeling guilty about holding us up.

When we told people about our experience after, even though we’d done exactly the same race at the same time, it was if we’d done two different swimruns. Chris is now looking for a swimrun for us to do that plays to his strengths! I’d better work on my running speed and endurance.

Finishing Picture @ Katia Vastiau

Finishing the final swim. Picture @Katia Vastiau

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Team 409 tackle one of the more challenging swim entries. @Pierre Mangez / Otillo

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One of the more straightforward swim exits @Pierre Mangez / Otillo

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.