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Mark in cold water. Photo credit: www.triscore.co.uk

ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championships

22-Sep-15

By Mark Chandler

After months of training in lakes, swimming in trainers and running in wetsuits, making their own kit and planning, the time arrived for Mark Chandler and Dave Hodgson to take part in the ten year anniversary of the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championship in Sweden. ÖTILLÖ means island to island and the race spans 26 islands with 65km of running and 10km of swimming in the Baltic Sea. How hard could it be? Here, Mark answers that question and tells us about his experience with a very famous bottom...

The ferry from Stockholm was chartered for the 120 teams taking part in ÖTILLÖ and as we boarded we were met by racers from 24 nations. An intimidating bunch of racing pros, wearing race t-shirts from some of the toughest endurance races in the world. My Ironman Wales rucksack made me look like the fat lad at the back and Dave was the biggest man on the boat with his 6 ft. 4ins, 95kg frame.

Basically, Swimrun is about running across the islands and swimming to the next one – simple really. But this means running and swimming in the same kit, which is pretty specific to the race.

We wore:

  • old triathlon wetsuits which we’d cut the arms and legs off for easier running;
  • lightweight minimal trainers which would drain easily;
  • GoCococo socks from Sweden, which hold very little water and have a magic ability to stop blisters;
  • a pull buoy attached to our thigh with a home-made elastic garter contraption attached to a waist belt. This was there to raise our legs due to the weight of the trainers with the elastic allowing movement;
  • large hand paddles to help with the long distance swimming. We had the run and swim distances written on them so we had a vague idea of where we were; and
  • a first aid kit, maps, and compass as the race is self-navigating and self supporting.

A shock to the senses

The alarm was set for 3.50am for a 4am breakfast and a 6am race start. 6am came all too soon. We lined up in the dark, light rain and wind and with a traditional gun blast we set off on the brief 1.2km run to the first swim of 1750m to the next island. As you’d expect, entering the water with the temp of about 14 degrees was a shock at that time of the day. We’d practised well, so we entered swiftly with the mantra “goggles, pull buoy (as it needed to be pushed from the outside of the leg to between your legs) and paddles”.

In the distance was a dim flashing light on the next island… it looked a long way off! Once we got away from the shore and into the main strait, the waves came up to about one metre and the next 35 minutes were spent trying to swim smoothly, making sure Dave and I stayed near each other. The limit is five metres of separation from your teammate in the water. We aimed straight for the flashing light.

With another 120 pairs in the water, it was hard to spot each other, but we ploughed on. We reached land, but what an exit. Large, slippery, moss covered rocks faced us. We had to clamber up them with our hand paddles flapping about our wrists, while simultaneously removing our goggles and getting the pull buoy from between our thighs, so we could walk. At this point, we realised this was not going to be an easy day at the office!

We followed the others, and the marker ribbons attached to a few trees, up onto the sharp rocks and then around the shoreline. This consisted of a cliff face with a drop of about 30-40ft onto rocks below with small ledges/footholds and thorny trees for handholds. Knowing that you were in single file and others wanted to make their own way was extra pressure. Going back down to the shore there was every size of rock imaginable, all as slippery as ice. I thought to myself, “surely it can’t be all like this?” It only got worse.

As we were dealing with this shock to the senses, one of my previous race pains recurred. Both thighs swelled, full of lactic acid that feels like each step is a knife. I almost cried. This happened halfway through the marathon on Ironman Wales last year and caused me to almost crawl the last 13 miles. I wasn’t prepared for 11+ hours of that pain.

Next thing, whilst waiting for the queue ahead of me to make progress across more slippery rocks, I heard a thud and I turned around to see Dave lying flat on his back in the crucifix position, eyes closed and goggles about 6ft away. He’d been stood still and his feet had simply disappeared from beneath him, so he slammed onto the rock with his back and his head. Ouch! But luckily he was OK, so we got him up and carried on.

It had been an eventful first hour...

Moving away from the island edge we found a different terrain of thick trees, tree roots and the island rock underfoot, ankle deep muddy water with steep ascents and descents. Overall, we’d covered 800m for our first ‘run’!

Waves, rocks and smelly embraces

Scarily, the second swim was rougher than the first. To try and describe what we were experiencing is impossible, but I’ll try. I’d breathe to the right and see a 1.5m wave coming, so I’d put my head back in to ride the wave and take three strokes, look to my left to check for Dave where he’d usually been carried about four metres away by the wave and current, swim in his direction to try to get near to him, then take three more strokes and check ahead for the flashing light on the next island. Invariably, this system failed and at one point I looked for Dave and he was nowhere to be seen. I could see a few other swimmers within 20m of me, but I couldn’t identify Dave. I thought I’d get to the next island and wait for him.

As I hit the rocks, banged against them by the waves, I saw Dave stand up about 10m away from me. A referee was wagging her finger at him. Dave spotted me, pointed and I gingerly made my way across the slippery rocks to him. As I got there, I also received the finger wagging treatment and a warning for being too far apart. The message was clear it was a final warning. If it happened again we’d be disqualified. We were having a great race so far!

After a couple more swim sections of a few hundred metres, where we made sure we were next to each other, we finally hit a gravel track where we could make up time. As we ticked along aiming for the first checkpoint and cut off, we were passed by a male/female team and she looked strangely familiar – especially from the back.

As she went by, we identified her as Pippa Middleton with her Swedish teammate. We had a chat with them but they pressed on at a pace that was too rich for us this early on in the race.

We reached the checkpoint and aid station after 2hrs 20mins, about 40 minutes inside the cut-off. We loaded up on gels, bananas, energy drink and I even broke into the “Everything is awesome” Lego movie theme as this was what my daughter, Mia, had drawn me a picture of before leaving and it was a happy place.

Off we went, buoyed by knowing we’d done stage one and covered about 11km on land and three kilometres in the sea.

After a few more runs and swims we hit a swim of 1000m. Normally, we could do this comfortably in 15mins in a calm lake but this swim threw rip-tides and massive waves at us, meaning it took about 30mins. We were certainly shaken when we exited, but headed off to the next checkpoint and aid station. There we found we were 1.5 hours ahead of the cut-off after 4.5 hours of Swimrun.

At a house on the island of Morto, family and friends had gathered to cheer the racers on. They had drums and loud hailers and gave us an amazing reception as we emerged from the forest. They were tracking people on the Internet so knew our names. They gave us chocolate, lots of motivation and even a hug... that was dedication when we were wet and stinking. Fantastic!

Swiming the pig

It was around this point that we developed a signal whereby if I stopped with my arms out in a crucifix position, Dave knew I’d lost the trail. Well, that and me shouting “where the ****’s the next ribbon?”
As we headed through more beautiful scenery the carb loading, gels etc. of the past few days gripped me and despite best intentions to hang-on for the next aid station, nature called. After fighting with wetsuit, pull buoy and compression shorts, I propped myself up against a tree and enjoyed a moment of calm before spotting some handy moss growing which sanitised the situation.

Further down the same path, Dave hit his toe and commando-rolled past me into a ditch half laughing, half in agony as he’d fallen onto the pull buoy which had dead-legged him.

As we came across another swim, we got caught behind a female American team with stars’ n ‘stripes paddles and pull buoys, attached together by a rope. Many people were using ropes to stay together and either we let them pass, or they let us pass. It was that kind of race. As I tried to pass them on a very steep, slippery cliff face about 30ft up, I lost my footing and slid all the way down, just catching one as I went – oops - sorry.

We knew the next big thing was a swim that had been nicknamed “The Pig”. If I’m honest, I hadn’t really given it much thought. It was just a swim and we were both decent swimmers, but how wrong can you be?

Entering, it was a few degrees colder, the waves were bigger, and the current was stronger. By the time we reached about halfway, I could feel my core temperature dropping which gave me a mild panic as every time I looked up we didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I guess this is one reason why it’s called an adventure race. Overall it took us 32 minutes and I was shivering with my teeth chattering when we finished.

Even after running a few kilometres over the next couple of islands, I didn’t warm up. We were too exposed to the wind. Still cold, we entered another infamous swim of 1000m. From the start, we were being pushed off course by the strong current, as well as battling waves in excess of one and a half metres. By the time we reached halfway, I could feel my teeth chattering in the water as my core temperature dropped.

At this point I became slightly worried, as we didn’t seem to be moving closer to the flashing light. It was a mental battle to stay focused on our direction, swim a decent stroke and stay next to Dave. It was a huge relief when we got out. Last of the big swims done.

Nearly there

Another reason for relief was that we’d reached a major point. It was the long run of a half marathon after we’d been on the go about 8 hours. This was always going to be a major challenge but also a major motivator as if we could get through the next 13 miles we knew we would be within a couple of hours of the end.

The terrain was rough at the start. We fought our way through forests and scrambled up and down rocks. After a couple of miles, we came onto a trail and settled into a steady pace. We’d both been carrying two caffeine gels for this run. These gels are the equivalent of about four espressos and provided a much-needed mental and physical boost.

The aid station at about halfway was very welcome. Once we’d had our fill of Red Bull, water, bananas and gels, we headed off only to see Pippa and her partner arrive. That was another motivational boost, as we must have passed them on one of the big swims despite them speeding past us on a run about seven hours earlier.

We settled into the second half of the half-marathon, pulling the pin on our last caffeine gels. We were “all-in” at this stage and had no other safety net to get us through. There was more road but every incline seemed like a mountain and we stuck to the plan of fast walking uphill and jogging everywhere else.

This stage, for me, was like the equivalent of the 16-22 mile stage of an Ironman marathon when you sink into a deep, dark place and need every ounce of mental strength to keep it going. You have to ignore your body saying, “just give up” and tell it to “get lost”.

We passed a young, fit American team who stepped aside and said "good job" which gave us a massive mental boost. As they say, in the final fifteen kilometres, the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.

When we reached the end of the half marathon, there was that amazing feeling - belief that we would make it. We were still over an hour from the end, but we’d caught three other teams. At that point, Dave had forgotten how to swim and was bobbing around on his back, stuck between two rocks. I shouted to roll over and swim … which hadn’t occurred to him. Our brains were not functioning!

After the ‘easy’ running of the half marathon, we were back to climbing, fighting with trees, sliding on slippery-as-ice rocks in the water and clambering down cliff faces. As we made our way down the list of stages written on the hand paddles it was hard to keep the concentration and focus on the ribbons on the trees. In fact, we missed a few and had to backtrack.

Catching up

It was on one of these final few runs that we started to catch teams ahead of us. Again, at this stage of the day after we’d been passed by so many runners earlier in the day this was a massive boost and we kept our pace to pass them… then another, and another.

We ended up dicing with an Italian team that were pure racing snake material. Calves the colour of walnut and carved from alabaster. We passed them and then they passed us, as we each took slightly different routes across rocks and through tress. Despite being in race mode, we were still helping each other, handing each other up the steep cliffs and shouting if one of us spotted the next ribbon. It’s this kind of camaraderie that adds to the special race feeling.

All of a sudden, it was the last swim and together with the Italians we passed the USA female team from earlier in the day. One of them had a knee the size of a football and was really struggling, but she was fighting on slowly.

The feeling of getting onto the last island where there was only 3300m to run was amazing. Dave gave the shout to make progress and as we hit the gravel trail we picked up our pace passing a couple more teams and trying to catch the Italians. Unfortunately, just as we got to within three metres of them, Dave made the call that we needed to back off.

It didn’t matter, we were less than one kilometre from the end and we were going to make it. Then we rounded the last corner to see the steep hill trail, followed by about 50 steps... talk about cruel!

Photo credit: www.triscore.co.uk

We clambered up, rounded onto the grass and then I can only say that I lost the plot. I have no idea what I was doing, but after 12 hours, 22 minutes and 33 seconds I released the last of my energy and emotion as we ran down the finish chute to hug Michael the race director.

Within seconds, that energy had disappeared and I was slumped on a bench stuffing chicken and bacon sandwiches, recovery drinks and water into my face with emotion flooding over me. So much that I couldn’t even drink my ÖTILLÖ beer!

And that’s that… it’s an amazing, emotional, tough, rough, scary, friendly race in a beautiful part of the world that makes an Ironman look like a recovery day!

As for how we felt, apart from quads in screaming pain and tired we came out of it OK. Dave had a few scuffs, bruises, scratches and somehow I only had various small cuts from trees and rocks. We’d trained in Skins compression kit under the wetsuits and that performed admirably despite the numerous calls of nature they had to endure along with seawater and sweat. The wetsuits look worse for wear but minimal trainers were ideal and GoCococo compression socks are amazing.

We also raised over £600 for Parkinson’s UK, Prostate Cancer UK and Macmillan Cancer Support via Guess2Give and all our friends and family who supported us.

The final word has to go to our families who supported us through months of training by putting up with us disappearing on training weekends, early 6am swimruns, vast amounts of food, making and buying kit… and putting up with many hours of talking about it. Sorry, but thank you.

We were 65th overall and the 3rd British team across the line.

 

Watch Mark and Dave cross the finish line:

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“I thought to myself, “surely it can’t be all like this?” It only got worse.”

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