The Ötillö Swimrun World Championships: A Perfect Day

Ötillö Swimrun World Championships

It’s September 2017, three years since Hamish Cropper and I (both swimrun virgins at the time) rocked up to the Ötillö Swimrun World Championships. With memories (both good and painful) starting to fade I popped onto YouTube, took a swig of tea and tuned into the live streaming of Ötillö 2017. I wanted to see how a couple of mates were faring. Most would have watched the footage of the waves big enough for a rough ferry crossing and thought these folk were bloody mad. Bizarrely, it was this spectacle of man vs nature that reignited the spark. It was time to get back out to Sweden and give this beast another go.

The Build Up.

Meet the Team

From the left: Knut, Tim, Alan and Max

Over the next few months ‘Die Bruder Wunderz‘ was born: Max, Knut and me. As usual the summer was to be pretty full of work, holidays and weddings. Three team mates instead of two covered any clashes, plus it mitigated the possibility of injury. The trio worked wonders as it meant we were able to get our new team out there to as many events as possible, whilst successfully managing other commitments (and girlfriends) back home. It was Knut and I who were teed up for the Ötillö Swimrun World Championships, leaving our third Bruder, Max, back at home to move house AND celebrate his 30th birthday.

The Plan…

Knut and myself had discussed our goals and strategies leading into the race. Placing in the top 5 or 6 in a number of qualifying races we optimistically believed that a top 10 was within reach. Furthermore setting a target of sub-9 hrs seemed to be a bit of a benchmark to aim for. Game on. We knew that in order to achieve this we would need to position ourselves towards the front early-doors. Early on in the race there is a lot of incredibly technical single track running. Its crucial not to get caught behind slower teams. Top teams go out hard but getting too carried away early on runs the risk of ‘blowing up’ later in the day. As with any race there was a delicate balance to be struck!

The Kit:

The Bruder Wunderz are very fortunate (and grateful) to have been provided with Ark Swimrun Wetsuits.  Ark suits provide the foundations for race day; being the most technically advanced swimrun suits in the sport. Fast, warm, tough and (most importantly) stylish. Alongside the suit we wear Inov 8 X-Talon 210 shoes and  in Knut’s case, dinner plates for hand paddles. Personally, I opt for a slightly smaller size as I am quite fond of my shoulders. We both use large pull- buoys for extra buoyancy and tether to each other during the swims. This leaves the option to tow each other on the run if required. TOP TIP: Even if you don’t always use a tether it is great to have it there in case one of your party is suffering.

All in all we felt 100% confident in the kit we were using. Psychologically this is a very powerful thing when you are entering into a race of this magnitude.

Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2018 Race Day.

Glassy waters all day long!!

Alarms buzzed at 3.20am leaving just enough time for a quick breakfast. Lady luck was smiling as there was not a cloud in the sky. Last year had been the toughest conditions on record. It appeared this year was set to be the polar opposite. We boarded the ferry and sailed through the millpond seas to Sandhamn where the race gets underway. You could certainly sense the anticipation on the ferry (side note –  you could also smell it emanating from the busy loos).

The Gun:

At just gone 6:00am a busy starting pen emptied as the the gun fired and the Ötillö swimrun world championships 2018 began. For the faster teams the first run and swim are super stressful. One constantly vies to keep near the front, whilst trying not to trip over unseen objects and other athletes. Like the Tour de France, Ötillö enforces neutral start for the first run. A buggy holds back the marauding masses. This however does not prevent the risk of dropping back and losing your team mate. After 1200 meters 160 teams/320 competitors then frantically enter the water. Each team looking for fast feet to help traverse the 1750m swim (the longest swim of the day).

Coming out of the first swim after losing my hand paddle half way though!

Midway through the first swim I knew that we were in a good group and somewhere towards the front. Great, it was all going to plan. Almost as soon as this thought popped up, my right handle paddle was inadvertently ripped off. Another competitor had got too close trying to draft of my hip. Luckily I managed to grab the sinking paddle. I then proceeded to hold the paddle at its top in a fist – using a paddle drill. This is great for training, however bloody painful to swim flat out for 700m. Exiting the water I proceeded to fall arse over tit, slipping on the legendary ‘slippy rocks’ that you are warned about. Despite my antics, Knut’s strong swimming had got us into a great position as we hit the technical single track trails.

Sod The Plan.

The first few hours of racing were some of the most intense of my life. We were going full gas over very technical trails and sharp rocks. All the time pushing to stay with the teams in front. On a slightly flatter trail I remarked to Knut that we must be pretty close to the front. Knut chuckled, telling me that we weren’t close to the front – we were at the front! Shit… We were taking a big risk by going out so fast.  Would we be able to hold on. It was at this point a touch of misfortune arose. I felt a ‘rumbling’ in my stomach… not the hungry type!! I hold my hand up and confess that it was my “pit stop” that caused us to lose the leading few teams. However, it was a bloody quick pit stop as we already had our suits down to the waist for the longer run section.

The Battles:

The next few hours of the race were a succession of tough runs and swims as we traded places with 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th place. The infamous Pig Swim was so still it was genuinely shimmering. The 1500 swim was surprisingly pleasant due to the unseasonably mild water temperatures.  This meant that the race was going to come down to the run on Ornö. This 20k section of running begins with some technical trails, before opening out onto a mixture of tarmac and gravel roads. Whilst the top three teams were having their own battle a little further up the road, we were now duelling it out for 5th place. The ‘Golden Bib’ team who had won all the qualifying races had managed to drop us after the Pig Swim. So we hit Ornö trying to distance 6th place who were right on our tails.

A Dark Place:

As we gradually pulled away from 6th place cementing our hold on 5th, we visited some very dark places. I was still having stomach issues and offered Knut a couple of brief rests as i finessed my Formulae 1 esque pit stops. Despite only being in the low 20s, the heat from the midday sun was sapping our energy and increasing the weight in the tired legs. The Ornö run is akin to having to run a half marathon straight after you have just completed a tough trail marathon. Every step is an effort as your tank runs low. The only thing keeping you going is not wanting to let your team mate down. Knut was in better shape and half way through the run I swallowed my pride and accepted the tether. In spite of all of this we were still pulling away from 6th place.

The Final Push.

When Ornö ends teams plunge back into the cool waters of the Swedish Archipelago and are momentarily relived by the load being taken off tired legs. Only to quickly realise that the arms and shoulders are still destroyed.

A picture paints a thousand words…. Exhausted!!

The last part of the race is tough and technical. However the mind is kept occupied by skipping over rocks and roots while dodging bushes and brambles. Landing on Utö for the final 3k run, we were both utterly spent. Having gone out very hard we were now holding on by a thread. It was the prospect of finishing in 5th place (and the fear of who might be creeping up behind us) that kept us running. In true Ötillö style, the final 200 meters is probably the steepest hill all day. As the noise of the finish line speakers grew louder and the banner came into sight we knew we had done it!!

Finished!!

The moment we saw the clock reading 8.00 hours flat!!

Crossing the finish line at the Ötillö swimrun world championships in 5th spot and a course time of 8.00 hours flat was totally mind blowing. We had gone out hard, taken some risks, dug extraordinarily deep and had come out the other side smashing expectations. It’s safe to say that when you plumb a new depth of suffering, exhaustion and hardship then make it to the other side, there is a feeling of absolute elation. I am proud to say that this was the toughest race of my life… I bloody loved it!!

Swimrun

Swimrun is not unlike many endurance sports: You push yourself hard, explore nature and have genuine appreciation for what you have completed. In my opinion what separates it from most other endurance sports is that it’s a team event. You and your team mate are in it together. You win, lose and suffer together and that’s special. It will often bring out the best in each person as they push to keep up with, help out and not let down their team mate. Then at the end of the day you have shared this amazing race and experience with a great friend or significant other.

Swimrun: Training with Hand Paddles

Swimrun Strength Endurance

Markus from the mighty ‘German Sparkle Party’ racing Breca Buttermere 2016 & showing us how its done!!

Strength Endurance pretty succinctly summarise what swimrun swimming is all about. Dragging yourself in your wetsuit, race bib, pull buoy, shoes and socks through large expanses of open water for stints that can stretch to well over a kilometre. And if you are looking to go fast you will almost certainly want to use hand-paddles. All of these factors lead to a massively increased load on the shoulders during swimrun swimming when you compare it to normal laps in the pool. So Strength endurance is key.

How to Build Up to Race Day

Hand Paddle Selection

Like with so many things in life, start small and work your way upwards, Rome was not built in a day and your upperbody strength wont be either. To much to soon = sore shoulders, injury and set back. If you have some experience using hand paddles then by all means use the ones you have, provided they are not to big. If not, i suggest starting with finger paddles. Here are some you can easily get online: http://www.wiggle.co.uk/speedo-biofuse-finger-paddle/  As you can see by following the link, hand paddles are pretty cheap so growing into larger sizes is not going to break the bank.

Swim Technique

If you are new to swimrun and are using hand paddles for the first time you may find the hand paddles slipping off while swimming. If this is the case there is a strong possibility that you have an issue with your swim technique. One very common thing  is dropping the elbow during the catch part of the stroke. If this happens the paddle can start to slip off meaning you will really struggle. If this is happening its time to get some help as you need to have a half decent stoke to use hand paddles. A good test for this is to use a hand paddle that has no straps. This means you must keep pressure on the paddle in the right direction during the stroke, if you don’t they will slip off. These particular paddles are great for technique and come in different sizes:  http://www.wiggle.co.uk/finis-agility-paddle/

Building Up Over Time.

Now (January) is the best possible time to start building up swimrun strength endurance. Start incorporating the hand paddle swimming into your sessions now and build up that strength endurance. Like anything your body and muscles will adapt, but it takes time. Gradually  you will be able to increase the load and duration, so by the time the season comes around you will be ready for the open water sessions in a wet suit….. and Shoes!!

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

If you have ever raced or seen a race over in Sweden (the home of swimrun) you can’t help but notice some Swedish thoroughbreds using bloody great dinner plates they call hand paddles. Yes this might work for them, but everyone knows a tiny chassis cant support a huge engine. If you weight 50 kilos then dare i say monstrous sized hand paddles are not going to do you any favours. Use the pre-season to find your suitable hand paddle size. You must be able to maintain technique, keep a decent stroke turnover and most importantly not overload your shoulders. If in doubt stick with the smaller paddles for this season and re asses next year.

Ankle Bands & Drag Pants.

As your swimrun training progresses its worth incorporating some kind of drag into your training. This will go some way to simulate what it is like to swim with your trainers on. Start off with a pull buoy and strapping on an ankle band (simply ties your ankles together to stop you kicking, very easy to home make) and doing some lengths like this. If this becomes easy you can try removing your pull buoy which will cause your feet to start to sink, increasing drag. Another option to use drag is ‘drag pants’ which catch the water as you swim. A cheaper alternative to buying drag pants is just to swim with baggy board shorts on!! Either way it makes life harder and increases the load.

Resistance Work

Finally doing some on land strength work is going to really help set you up for getting the best from hand paddles. Press ups and wide arm pull ups are a great start to building up some upper body. Then if you want to add in a little more; some triceps dips along with some resistance band work will really help, especially if you have limited  pool time. Check out this specific band work out article:  9 Stretch Cord Exercises To Improve Swim Strength And Technique

Consistency

Constancy, perseverance and discipline. Want to improve rapidly and successfully then stick to the plan. Don’t skip sessions, keep working at it. There is so much literature out there pointing to success coming from dedication to training/practice more than any other factor.  The most ‘talented’ performers are simply the most dedicated trainers. Building up your strength endurance ready for the swimrun season requires focused training and consistency. Start this week and build to the summer!