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.

ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly: swim-running in the Cornish Atlantic

This years rabble of swim-runners were treated to beautiful sunshine and calm seas across seven swims and seven runs that traversed the islands of St Mary’s, Bryher, Tresco and Saint Martin’s. Competitors from 17 nations would have to scramble over boulders, tackle sandy trails, fight through thick clumps of seaweed for a total of 38km (30km on land, 8km in water).  

Shiny and new

This was the first outing for the Wolke – Scott version of the Bruderwunderz and our first opportunity to see how we stacked up against the best teams in the world. 

We set ourselves the target of a top 5 finish, which on reflection was achievable but ambitious given the strength and depth of the field – which not only included the current golden bib holders in the men’s, women’s and mixed categories but professional triathletes, former olympians and a number of semi-professional teams. Sporting our new ARK swimrun wetsuits  we looked like we knew what we were doing. Now was the time to back it up – and with kit this technical, light and fast there were no excuses.

Executing our race plan

Our race plan was to start steadily on the long swims and attack the longer island trails where we expected to make up time. We knew the Swedish men’s and women’s teams would be strong in the water, but were surprised by just how quickly they were moving on the first 2km swim from St Mary’s to the southern tip of Tresco.

We exited the water in 11th place as we fought through the seaweed to get onto land. I temporarily lost a paddle but thankfully we were not long delayed as we gave chase (both of us very quickly realizing that we had to up our intensity to get ourselves nearer to the sharp end of the race).  Race footage accompanied by some excellent commentary here:  https://youtu.be/PWffH4k5gZY?t=4107

The first half of the race

Alan was the powerhouse on the first two swims and was looking strong with his new dinner plate sized hand paddles. This left me relatively fresh to lead out the next two runs (3 km on Bryher and the following 6.8km on Tresco), both of which were punctuated by two short and refreshing swims. We put the hammer down to good effect and started to reel in our competitors, moving ourselves up to seventh, only narrowly behind the mixed golden bib pair as we exited the water onto Saint Martins –  https://youtu.be/PWffH4k5gZY?t=7158

We caught and passed them on the undulating and technical coastal trails but had to push hard, knowing that we needed a decent buffer going into the final 2.5km swim back to St. Mary’s.

A moment to take it all in

I sometimes wonder whether racing is the best way to experience a place because the arena of competition requires you to shut things out and to focus on the path ahead, not the views on either side. But like the glance of a beautiful woman, the Isles of Scilly beckon you to look at them and appreciate their perfection. As we reached the highest point on Saint Martin’s, the sun beating down on a stretch of smaller islets in front of us, we temporarily eased off to appreciate the splendor of Scilly.  It’s a credit to the race organisers that the course takes it competitors around all of the main islands (with the exception of St Agnes). For anyone short on time and high on energy there are few better whistle stop tours available!

The second half of the race

As we approached the final swim we were informed that the team in front of us were flagging – at this point we didn’t know that this was Richard Stannard (multi-time world aquathlon champion) and Mark Threlfall (a former pro triathlete). As we had feared, we were passed in the water, about a quarter of the way into the swim, by the leading mixed team and the Dyson brother’s, meaning we were now relegated to seventh position.

All we could do was empty the tank on the final 7km and see who we could catch. Alan set off like a bat out of hell, scything through the ferns and bracken- legs pumping, arms driving, brow glistening. They say fortune favours the brave, and it seems like fortune was looking down on us as we turned ourselves inside out in the hope that we might catch our competitors on the trails ahead. It turned out that the leading mixed team made a wrong turn (we beat them but didn’t pass them on the course), and we caught Stannard and Threlfall with less than a kilometer to go – mostly owing to the fact that they had blown up spectacularly after setting out too hard on the early swims and runs. As we approached our heavy legged competitors we put in a final acceleration, knowing the end (and cold beer) was just around the corner.

Bringing it home

Cheers and whistles greeted us as we headed along the promenade towards the finish line; the fantastic support on the course having been a constant feature and source of energy throughout the race. After 4 hours and 51 mins we crossed the line in fifth – two Bruderwunderz in arms. https://youtu.be/PWffH4k5gZY?t=18787

Full results here: https://otilloswimrun.com/races/isles-of-scilly/results-2018/

Bruderwunderz Origins – Breca Buttermere #RaceReport

The story of the Bruderwunderz began in the Lake District in 2015 at the first ever Swimrun in the UK – the inaugural edition of the British classic Breca Buttermere. The founding Bruders Alan Scott and Hamish Cropper won the race, also defeating Knut, who on this occasion was competing under the colours of the The German Sparkle Party.

The pure and honest nature of the Cumbrian fells makes the race a one of a kind in the Swimrun scene and one of our personal favourites. We have returned to Buttermere for every edition of the race and Alan currently stands with a track record of three wins. At the 2017 edition, Alan and Knut competed together for the first time and Max made his debut Swimrun appearance at the sprint race.

One of the peculiarities about the previous editions of the race, was all teams being accommodated at the Buttermere YHA. Bunkbeds and packed rooms added a special kick, creating kind of a school trip feeling. Unfortunately, housing in Buttermere is scarce and the increasing number of teams racing called for an update of the housing concept forcing a relocation to Keswick.

For this year’s race, the start was moved west to Fangs Brow and the finish line was placed at the edge of Derwent Water in Keswick, making it a point to point race. But much of the course is still on the same trails, just now and again running in the opposite direction to previous years.

However tough this race was before, the new course for sure stepped it up a notch. Whereas the incredible scenery and unpredictable weather conditions have remained untouched, the new course have introduced some interesting changes. One of the biggest being the extension of the run section from Buttermere up to Dale Head by another ~5k (now total 14,4k). Thereby also adding more trails and more elevation. The extended trails and upped ascent at this point being a key feature of which the Bruderwunderz failed to take note prior to the race.

The new route somehow gave the race completely new dynamics. On the old course, an early swim as well as technical trails and heavy climbing in the early stages separated the teams early on. Already on the first kilometres, the field was fairly well sorted. This time, slightly longer and easier runs made the first sections very fast. We kept ourselves in the front of the race trying not to invest too much energy early on. After all, we were (to some extent) aware of what was to come further down the road. However, pacing yourself is a challenge when the distance back to the chasing teams is short. Sub 4min k’s on the first runs only goes to prove that there is still some room for improvement.
By the time we hit the big climbs, our advantage on second place was less than 5 minutes and the lead felt far from safe. The relief of seeing the distance increase going up the hills made the suffering significantly more enjoyable. On the other hand, realizing that the hardest run section was now even harder than expected, caused some additional mental provocations.

By the time we hit the finish line, we had worked up a good 20 minute lead and fortunately did not have to worry about a photo finish. All in all a happy coincidence since we also outdid the estimated “fastest finish” time and the photographers were not yet around 🙂

The point-to-point course added some new features to this unique competition. Combined with the additional sprint race (yes, 18k is a sprint), we expect to see more teams from outside the UK on the start line next season. In any case, one thing is for sure: The Bruderwunderz will attempt a fourth strike!

2017 Breca Buttermere Race Video

Pics by Paul Mitchell