2018 ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championship Report

Laying it all on the line: physically, mentally, emotionally. As we said on the blog last week, “life begins on the edge of your comfort zone” and I have to say I was very much teetering on that edge - quite often over the other side too - for nine hours and four minutes on Monday at the 2018 ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships. I was absolutely, totally spent when I crossed that finish line with not another ounce to give. See the race finish video here.  I couldn’t feel my face or hands, not least speak coherently, but the effort was fully worth it. I unpacked some pretty deep, emotional baggage out on that course too so it feels great to have come out the other side and hopefully a better version of myself as a result. I’ve never, ever been so physically fatigued as I’m feeling right now and yet at the same time so emotionally light. It’s a great feeling - thanks Andy for taking me to that place and making sure I got across that line as I frequently doubted that I would both pre and during the race!

Quick Summary Of How We Did

We finished the 75km course in 9h04m and 23rd male team (32nd overall out of 160). When planning for the event I said I’d be happy with around 10hrs and Top-50, so vis-a-vis “I’m happy”. It was an amazing day out in the Swedish archipelago and one which I shall cherish greatly. There was no question that it was Andy whom was the one dragging me around the brutal course. After being our lead on the first couple of swims it rapidly became obvious that I’d be better tethered behind Andy for the swims so as to recover for each subsequent run (especially the half marathon that occurred at six hours into the race). I was literally hanging onto Andy all day long and simply repeating “1-2-3, 1-2-3” to try to keep focused on my rhythm. I struggled a lot nutritionally (perhaps with the warmer temps) but kept bouncing back after 500-700ml of Precision Hydration at each aid station. I’d carry some with me and have a big shooter of it prior to each swim and use the swim as a chance to digest and come good. I can count at least 5 or 6 major blow-ups during the day (the first at just 2hrs in which I wasn’t sure if I’d recover from) plus the final 7-8km was a bit of a struggle combined with major technical terrain to deal with. But soldier on we did and I’m incredibly happy to have finished. Now time to celebrate my 40th birthday!

I felt the best way to write the race report from Monday’s event would be to start by giving you some links to various sub-articles, videos, images and stats from the day to help paint the fuller picture and equally, to possibly entice you to be better informed should you wish to consider undertaking one of these swimrun events as they gain popularity around the world. I then wanted to detail a bit more about the ups and downs of the race, including a few of our own photos, before finishing with a selection of the best official images from the event organisers. So here goes:

Quick Informative Links:

VIDEO: Paul Newsome's video diary about preparation for the 2018 race (0h46m): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zziwuSiaU6Q&t=878s

ARTICLE: "Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone" (discussion of Paul’s preparation, warts and all!): www.feelforthewater.com/2018/09/pauls-racing-otillo-2018-on-monday.html

VIDEO: Paul & Andy’s swimrun kit choice (0h07m): youtu.be/YGXWEn3M5yk

STATS: Results link: otilloswimrun.com/races/otillo/results-2018/

STATS: Paul and Andy’s GPS file: connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2986693093

VIDEO: Paul and Andy’s race finish video (0h01m): youtu.be/rUvKTRiFp38

STATS: Breakdown of distances: otilloswimrun.com/wp-content/files/OTILLO/OTILLO2018-TimesAndDistances.pdf

STATS: Google Map of course: www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1Nrsgx1cRoshkirpxJlNCBq_1M5Q&ll=59.23670500000001%2C18.723375000000033&z=10

VIDEO: Race Summary video (0h05m): www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqt1zg4NYIo

VIDEO: Live broadcast of the entire event (12h00m): www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1xj9kedJZo&t=18870s

IMAGES: Complete image library of the event (249 images): www.flickr.com/photos/otillorace/albums/72157697685946442

ARTICLE: Official Race Director’s Report (Michael Lemmel): otilloswimrun.com/races/otillo/race-report-2018/

Paul’s Report:

As discussed in juicy detail in last week’s blog and video, this event meant more to me than simply the performance aspect of completing just another endurance event. In many ways, the sheer magnitude and scale of the challenge has been enough to really rattle my cage and scare me into a full 12 months of dedicated preparation which, with it, has seen me challenge a few demons as I rush headlong towards the milestone that is my 40th birthday next week. Being able to reconnect with an old friend at the same time and then sharing the experience of the training load and the course itself far supersedes anything by way of outright performance on the day. That’s not to say that I wasn’t proud or happy with how we did, far from it in fact (we went 30 minutes quicker than Andy did in 2014 to finish 8th, albeit conditions this year were magical), just simply that the 2018 ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships has helped me finally realise that there is more to sport than simply where you finish or what your time is. This realisation it appears is nothing new for many of the participants of these events, who, like me, could be described as “post-multi-sporterists-seeking-experiences-over-performance”, or some such thing.

20 years in the making - reconnecting with Andy was the best part of the event - the fact we did really well was just an added bonus!

Read and (just about) willing for what lies ahead!

We were up at 3:45am for breakfast followed by a 30 minute ferry ride in complete darkness to the race start on Sandhamn. I was feeling super apprehensive by this stage, mainly because whilst we knew the course layout from the briefing the evening before, it was hard to get a full appreciation of just how gnarly some of the terrain was going to be. Still, the weather looked like it was going to be amazing and everyone seemed to be in very good spirits.

Our GPS trace - all 75km of it! 24 islands traversed by 65km of running and 10km of swimming

We made our way to the front of the queue to get across the start line and managed to position ourselves within the top 50 or so teams. The first section was a 1200m run down to the first swim of 1800m which was controlled with a neutralised start by a 4WD buggy keeping us all at exactly 5:00/km pace. This of course ensured good pacing from the off, or was it simply delaying the chaos that was about to ensue? We felt like a tribe of warriors marching in unison with a distinctly quiet aura about us, everyone concentrating hard not to put a foot wrong and risk being trampled by the stampede behind.

Marching through the first 1200m “neutralised zone”

We got away to a good start on the first swim and were moving up inside the Top-20 teams. An altercation midway through the swim with another swimmer saw a few tempers frayed but we backed off and recomposed in the knowledge that there was plenty of time to make up any lost ground later in the day.

The feeling of that sunrise in those conditions racing against these top athletes... priceless!

The exit from the first swim gave us our first real insight into how challenging the 52 transitions into and out of the water would be. Despite it being very dry, the first few meters up the face of the rocks were like black ice and we’d find ourselves battling with this aspect of the race and losing valuable time all day long. You had to just keep your cool and take your time for fear of slipping and doing yourself a major injury.

The top teams handled the slippery rocks like ninjas! Me on the other hand...

As per the race briefing, it took us the first three or four islands to find our running groove and thankfully prior to the first aid station we found ourselves running on some easier terrain and moving up through the field into 16th position overall.

Throughout the day I seemed to be really craving fluids, so I’m not sure if I was dehydrated prior to the start or it was just the heat generated by running so far in the wetsuit on a warm, dry day, but we made sure to stop and try to fully refuel at each aid station. This saw us losing a lot of valuable time, but the fear was that if we didn’t I would completely implode and not make it around the course.

After just two hours in I was starting to really flag, which on normal trails wouldn’t be a major issue, but on the gnarly rocks it became disastrous as the risk of rolling an ankle was so great. We slowed down significantly at this point and lost a good ten places or so after having found ourselves running alongside the fastest swimmer at the 2016 Ironman World Championships, Harry Wiltshire (who coincidentally was the first swimmer I ever started coaching), and also Petr Vabrousek from the Czech Republic (who is an 80 time Top-10 finisher in Ironman events around the world). My concern of course was “have we gone off too fast?” It certainly didn’t feel like it, but then how many times do I say that to my swimmers? "The correct pace should feel easy”. We dialled it back, but the first seeds of doubt with another 7+ hours ahead started to creep in - would I finish this thing?

Andy pulling me up yet another incline! Check out the concentration / exasperation on my face!

The tactic which I started to employ was two-fold: 1) try to smile a bit more and suck on my own words “life begins on the edge of your comfort zone”; and 2) count out a rhythm “1-2-3, 1-2-3” over and over again - a little like “bubble-bubble-breathe”. I wasn’t speaking much to Andy, just following his lead and trying to stay in the here and now. At one point (about four hours in) Andy said, “how’s life right now mate?” to which I could only mutter under my breath and recognise that no one was forcing me to do this, it was my choice - get on with it, princess!

The original plan was for me to lead each swim and Andy to lead the runs, but after just a few of the longer swims, it became obvious that the best course of action was for me to fuel up with a gel and some fluid immediately before each swim and then use the swim to tether behind Andy so as to digest it as well as possible and to be ready for the next run. This started to really help. Andy was swimming great, and by the time we got to the infamous “Pig Swim” we were starting to really motor, catching up with the leading female team at that point, which contained two Swedish olympic swimmers, Fanny Danckwardt and Desiree Andersson. Life was suddenly good again (to answer Andy’s question), but no sooner did I feel awesome did I hit another rough patch and the whole process started again - feed, tether on the swim, digest and run. I can count at least five or six major blow-ups on the day, but I just had to do everything I could to bounce back. Amazing how fitting my horoscopes were for last weekend in view of all this:

Believe them or not…this is what they said prior to the race start!

Prior to the race and then during the first half, I was super concerned about the half marathon run which occurred about six hours into the event, but as it happens, this turned out to be our strongest part of the race as we caught and passed many teams in front of us to bring us back into the Top-25. This section was only let down by an emergency toilet stop (me) and arguably my biggest implosion of them all. With 800m to go the easier trails we’d been enjoying for 20km suddenly turned brutally rough and technical again which made my legs feel like they’d gone into full bore “shutdown”. Walking this section was our only option and we succumbed to the ultimate female winning team (Annika Ericsson and Kristin Larsson), passing us for the last time. Andy reassured me though that these athletes had won this particular event many times in the past and as such we should be happy with how we were placed. I managed a smile at this point, but only a small one - I was feeling truly wrecked by this stage.

Appearances are deceptive - I’m absolutely smashed at this point leading into the continuous
half marathon run at six hours in.
Here we are preparing for the swim at the end of the half marathon section and over 8hrs into
the race - boy, did that water feel good!

Once we were at the end of the half marathon run, we’d reached the final check-point and were going to make it to the finish (in theory). We were told that we were the 21st male team at this point, but my energy levels were fading rapidly that I wondered how many more places we might lose, especially as the last 7 or 8km were supposed to be the toughest from a technical point of view.

I had begun knocking back the Coke and Red Bulls halfway through the half marathon, craving a little sugar and the sparkle to bring me back to life. The problem was that by the time we got through the half marathon and were swimming away from the largest island on the course, Ornö, I was starting to feel almost like I was hallucinating - I couldn’t feel my face or my hands and started to believe that I might suddenly just come to a grinding halt, no matter how close to the finish we were. Eventually - and with strong persuasion from Andy - we made it onto the last island, Utö, and with only 3km left to run I started to feel hopeful that after nearly nine hours on the go, we would indeed make it. Andy must have been confident that I was coming good at this point as he suggested I unleash from the tether. We did this for no more than about 700m before I begged him to strap me back up again, so as to be towed to the finish. The cruelest blow came in the final 600m as we turned left past the tennis courts and up a 8% incline to the pub at the finish. I nearly shouted out in exasperation at this nasty little final hurdle, but we managed to get up there, just.

With about 20 meters to go my legs finally gave way as I fell onto Andy and had to be literally dragged across the finish line. I was totally and utterly spent and could not go a step further. Our finishing video appears almost comical and looks like I was going in for the world’s longest man-hug, but the reality was that I simply could not hold myself up any longer and was escorted away by the medical team once across the line. The numbness I was feeling in my face meant I wasn’t being very coherent at all and a few have asked what I was saying to Andy in those bromance-looking moments. Whilst it might look like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky crying out “Adrien!” I was simply saying thank you, thank you for everything Andy. And that, as they say, is that.

Remember, you’re only truly living when you’re on the edge of your comfort zone…I dare say that during the 2018 ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships I teetered well across that line!


An emotional finish indeed!

45 minutes later
A deserving drop at the finish line!

In Summary:

Things we did well:

• Communication (at least from Andy - I just mumbled and obeyed given my lack of energy at times)
• Pacing
• Positivity - Andy had to keep reminding me that we were right up there with some of the best swimrunners in the world and that we should feel proud of that

Things we could do better:

• Quicker into and out of the water transitions
• Quicker over the really gnarly terrain where we were losing a lot of time
• Quicker through the aid stations

Selected Official Race Images:

A 3:45am ferry ride started the day to escort all 320 athletes to the start at Sandhamn

Swim Smooth Glasgow Coach Alan Cardwell towed the line with his mate Thör

Therese Alshammar (6-time Olympian and 3-time medallist in sprint swimming) was just one of several Olympians competing on the course

320 athletes about to tackle something so mind-blowingly challenging that many of us didn’t really have any idea of just how hard this would be!

We felt like warriors off to war as we marched through the first 1200m “neutralised zone"
Most open water events don’t allow the smallest of jewellery to be worn - here you had 320 athletes with razor-like paddles and shoes to content with - one blow could spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R!

The groups stayed remarkably well bunched on the first 1800m swim - pull buoy and paddles are a great neutraliser for many athletes

Most swim exits were followed by very technical rock sections making it incredibly hard to a) get into a rhythm and b) pass of be passed by others

One of my former University triathlon team mates, Rhian, was competing with her husband, Ben

The support of the locals was amazing - I couldn’t help wonder though how they managed to access all the nooks and crannies we found them in!

Teamed up with top swimmer Therese Alshammar was Swedish hip hop icon, Petter - his music is AWESOME! Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gITjhYfdjvs

Whilst not massively hilly, it wasn’t massively flat either...

...see what I mean!

The scale and magnificence of the landscape was awe-inspiring!

We tussled most of the day with the multiple female World Champions, Annika Ericsson and Kristin Larsson - they got the better of us in the final 5km #kudos

No fear! Some cliff jumping was involved!

Like a millpond! 

One of my favourite sections, through the 3m tall bullrushes!

Another Olympian, Chris Hauth (left) with team mate Frank Karbe from the United States

The very first athlete I ever coached, Harry Wiltshire (right) on his way to an 12th place finish overall. Harry led the Hawaii Ironman World Championships out of the water in 2016 as a nod to the standard of competition at this event

Those greasy rocks! Crawling was the only option on many of the 52 exits!

The rocks were so steep in some sections that abseiling was required!

A brilliant image to capture the teamwork and camaraderie required to conquer this event

You, your mate and nature - this is swimrun!

Andy’s company, Precision Hydration, provided for the fluid needs of all 320 athletes on the course


Ermie said...

Great article Paul - I am totally overcome with admiration for everyone in the race! Just finishing would have been an amazing achievement. Those slippery rocks look awful! How fortunate to have such glorious weather in such a magnificent environment! You and Andy are obviously a terrific team - I can’t believe you didn’t do your share of encouragement too - you are such a positive person.

Well done both of you!

Dmitrii said...

Great report Paul! Wasn’t able to stop reading till the end. You showed amazing strength and will to finish the race. You must be really proud to have such a mate as Andy. Very motivating, thank you.

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