When an adventure such as this comes my way I find it very difficult to turn it down. However this was going to be perhaps the toughest adventure I have undertaken so far.
Unfortunately due to injury a friend, Jenny Rice, found herself looking for a partner to take part in the Otillo Swimrun world championships, something Jenny and Claire had worked hard for and achieved a place at.
I don’t really know why Jenny thought of me and the text message made me intrigued when I was initially asked if I could swim and before I could answer she had found some results from a triathlon I had done over 2 years ago!! Swiftly came details of this epic adventure across the Swedish Archipelago and it sounded utterly amazing. I was immediately interested, I had been intrigued by these events and had thought about taking part in one perhaps next year…this was something else. 75Km including over 65Km of running and 10Km of swimming. Of course I am not totally crazy and had a few conditions before I went for it:
- I could swim at least a mile and feel good after…not totally wrecked.
- There were no jelly fish and
- The water wasn’t too cold
I was assured of these things and managed a mile swim in Windermere and felt pretty good after….perhaps this was possible. Treat the swimming as recovery from the running….I would basically just have to keep my arms moving and draft behind Jenny….I was in…well as I said to Jen, I was in as long as there was absolutely no one else!!
So 2 weeks before the world championships I was quickly introduced to the world of swim run, 4 crash courses in various waters of the lake district bungied to Jenny, looking the part as Claire very kindly lent me her wet suit and pull buoy, learning how to get the pull buoy from between my legs and back again during transitions from running and swimming with out getting tangled up, trying to deal with feeling drunk as I stumbled out of the water and start running desperately trying to not fall over.
We flew out to Sweden and I was full of anxiety. That week I had spent evenings writing down all 52
transitions trying to memorize the longer sections, Jenny had printed the whole route out on a map which I studied each evening….it all started to sink in how big this event was going to be, fortunately I have an amazing partner who for whatever reason I think believes I can do anything if I put my mind to it and most of the time I would tend to agree, I am too stubborn and proud but this for me had DNF written all over it and I desperately didn’t want to let Claire and Jenny down.
We had a lovely relaxing day in Stockholm but the next day we woke up and it was off to board the Otillo boat that would take us to Sandhamn. I looked around and I suddenly felt totally ridiculous…what on earth was I doing here! Jenny introduced me to a few people and the standard first question, particularly as I was a new face was ‘how long have you been involved in swim run for?’. ‘New to it’ sounded like a totally ridiculous answer and I could see peoples faces full of disbelief…particularly when I then went on to say I had never swam in the sea before and neither had I ever swam more than a mile!
Again, seriously what was I thinking!!
We arrived in to Sandhamn where we registered, got the keys to our hotel and then received a whole host of goodies. We took a wander along to the start of the route to the first transition and looked across
the first swim, the water looked relatively calm and I was somewhat reassured. Jenny took her swimming things but I decided to save myself. As Jenny got in the water and went for a swim….with no wet suit, the gasps from around me were hilarious…there was no one else going in for a swim and particularly with no wet suit!
The briefing was in depth and informative however there were key details that started to fill me with dread:
- There were going to be lots of jellyfish…not dangerous but equally…jellyfish none the less
- The water temperature was somewhat chilly
- There were gales forecast and
- There was as a result the high possibility of waves and currents
I left the briefing to go and eat and I have simply never felt like that before an event, under prepared, out of depth, full of anticpation, anxious, sick…..and then I read this:
‘ÖTILLÖ is ranked as one of the toughest endurance races in the world by CNN’
‘The Kona of the swim run world’
Again…what had I been thinking and there was no going back now. Deep breath.
Jenny was amazing, she filled me with reassurance and confidence as I lay there trying to sleep with a howling gale going on outside the bedroom window.
We woke at 4am, I would love to say ready and raring to go but honestly, I was petrified. I managed to get a coffee and a yogurt down me then off we went to the start line. Thankfully, a lady Jenny knew lent me a rash vest so at least I had another layer to put on as it occurred to me, it may get a bit chilly out there. This top saved me! There were a lot of anxious looking faces around, the conditions were less than ideal and I think everyone was starting to feel a little on edge.
The race started at 6am and I was grateful to have a bit of a run to start with to help get rid of some of the pre race nerves before the first swim. The first swim was one of the first long ones, 1750m, thankfully that would be over early on. It was a relatively easy ish swim and I started to settle in to the race. The first few transitions are a bit of a blur now, I felt I quickly got in to the swing of things and I was thankful that the drunk feeling started to disappear the more I was in and out of the water. However, I suddenly started to get cold, my teeth chattering and I started to feel a bit scared. I had to get back in the water and keep moving but the thought of getting back in made my stomach turn…every time I got in it felt like I was being hit by a brick wall, the icy water really took my breath away and it did make me panic a little. The water temperature really hadn’t crossed my mind as being an issue. However, there was no choice I had to get moving and weirdly, the next swim actually felt a little warmer.
The race continued on, we made sure we kept eating as much as we could at every aid station but trying to get any food in has never been so difficult. It took me a flipping long time to force a sandwich down! Its really hard during endurance events sometimes, you know you must eat but you really don’t want to and so swallowing anything becomes effortful but those first few aid stations where we really made the effort to eat as much as we could really helped us. During ultra runs I tend to eat little and often so this was again a challenge for me, just eating at the aid stations. Thankfully the aid stations were actually amazing, full of homemade energy snacks, bananas, soup…they had managed to cover all bases so there was always something I thought I could tackle.
As the race continued on we came across a lot of hyperthermic people that got pulled from the race and I think the one reason this didn’t happen to us was the effort to keep on top of our fuel and fluid levels and we made a reak effort to kept moving, we really didn’t hang around too much. We made a really good team, and in this event I learnt that this is so important. Keeping an eye out on each other, making sure we were both ok and doing quick body checks all the time….was there anything troubling us that needed sorting.
Next up the Pig swim….called so as it is an unprotected, tough, mile swim. We clambered down to start the swim….I looked across and all I could see were these huge waves, engulfing the swimmers already in the water. The next island seemed a long way off. I was scared…..like really scared and I think Jenny realized this and if I had said so, that could have been the end of our swim run adventure. However, I was with an experienced, strong swimmer, there were boats dotted around in case you needed pulling from the water…I needed to get myself together, think strong and go for it. There were tears I am not embarrassed to admit, sometimes I cant control this but I was seriously petrified, in no other circumstance would I EVER choose to get in this type of water. I swam as strongly as I could but half way across cramp started to set in….oh god…what do you do when you get cramp in wild water! Jenny must of sensed something was up and came and grabbed me whilst I flung around with my calf, thankfully it seemed to settle quickly but I had to be careful when kicking with that leg. We made it across and I have never been so happy to be back on land.
The pig swim was the turning point for this event for me. It was tough but we were through it. Pride and stubbornness kicked in and it was evident we would be finishing this event unless something major happened. There were a lot of transitions but we kept moving through each section ticking them off as we did so, and along the way came across more and more people injured having slipped on the rocks and hyperthermic waiting for boats to come and get them. Unfortunately because of the sea conditions the boats were having a real tough time getting to people. They did an amazing job, I think the boat teams must have had a really tough day out there too!
The comedy phrase of the day became:
‘It wasn’t like this last year!’ (Jenny)
As we entered swampy water, boggy trails and slippy rocks…it made running very difficult. Thankfully wet rock is something I feel relatively confident over so I got a little frustrated at some bottlenecks when I finally felt I could make up some ground. We would then get to another body of water to cross and it would be wild, again….Jenny would declare that last year it was calm and a recovery swim! It was very apparent this was a very different event from the previous year!
Later in the race Jenny ‘bonked’ mid a 970m swim…less than ideal and after the event she said she had considered asking me to lead the swim….then we would have had real fun with me spotting! She somehow managed to get us across though and swiftly got a gel in to get the sugar levels back up again.
The rest of the event was simply a battle against nature. The half marathon island should for me have been my strong point but because I had been working so hard in the water I didn’t feel quite as good as I hoped for and found I was having massive highs and feeling strong then massive lows again, there was clearly a fuel issue going on and I started giving myself a bit of a hard time. Jenny had got us through all the swims, the least I could do was get us through the runs.
The last few transitions totally broke me. We were in and out the water constantly so never really getting chance to warm up, I have never not wanted to do something, i.e. get in the water, so much in all my life. Not only because it was cold but there were really strong currents going through them. We stood looking at the water each time, planning the route across. I kept seeing couples that had been pushed out by the current and were fighting their way back to land. I wasn’t sure I had the strength left in me to be able to fight those currents if we ended up in that situation. Thankfully, Jenny was again amazing, I was to swim as hard as I could and she got us across. I panicked on one of them as we got 3/4 across and then felt like we weren’t moving anywhere, the current was really strong and I could feel myself tiring. Not only that there were waves going in the opposite direction too, I just felt hopeless but Jen reassured me again and we made it.
Running in to the finish of this race was simply the happiest, proudest moment I have ever had at the end of an event. I was shocked and in disbelief that we had made it, elated to cross the line, excited for a beer and absolutely exhausted. Never have I felt like I had battled with the elements for so long but I guess that is the nature of swim run. As the one of the directors of the event gave me a hug (everyone that crosses the line gets one and it is very much needed after a day like that!!) Jenny revealed to him that this had been my first ever swim run event and that I had never swam in the sea or swam more than a mile before. He just looked at me, he probably thought I was totally mental, but he smiled and congratulated me.
I have to thank Jenny for inviting me along, although I think I was traumatized from the swimming, that is starting to fade and I feel so grateful for being invited to be apart of it. It has been the biggest achievement ever for me as I had to face so many fears and I simply couldn’t have done it with out the support from Jenny. What an absolute legend, she spotted and took the brunt of all the swims, provided reassurance and installed confidence in me when I was struggling, it really was an epic adventure. I am constantly amazed at the power of our minds and what we can achieve with a bit of grit and determination.
Out of the 143 teams that started the race, only 120 finished and we came in 95th and the 15th female team!