Doing a test lap on the course in the morning turned out to be a splendid idea from my point of view. Our team is focused on ultraswimrun. We need at least two/three hours to be able to use our full potential. Back on the course Nic fought really strong. We wanted to close the gap to our biggest competitors in this race, a swimrun team from Terrible Tuesday, Pierre and Scott. Two great and funny swimrunners I met several times during this season. After a warm-up lap, or rather “cold-up” session, three hours before the big race, I had a fresh mind and where in as good shape as I could be, this late September day.
Coming off my latest attempt at SAUC, this year Stefan Bergsten and I managed to complete 5 out of 6 stages, i.e. some 180 km of running and 40 km of swimming. We averaged 9-10 hours of swimrunning each day, making Åland swimrun ultra a perfect fit for me. However, when the ultra-distance was cancelled I was really disappointed. But then Daniel got in touch with me, being very excited, telling me that the race organisers were going to allow us to do a test-lap. A test lap before the race? Really? I was sooo happy. I mean, when swimrunning I honestly need an hour or so just to get warm and up to speed, sometimes even longer before my real capacity kicks-in.
This was going to be fun!
Photo: Pre-lap race briefing.
As an ultraswimrunner with diabetes type 1 since 2017. My body needs at least two hours to wake up and to be work as good as it gets. Since I started swimming in club for over a decade ago. I need time to wake up and to preform 100%. Every time I try sprints I get far in the back in the end of the day. My idea to start with an opening lap made me hungry and motivated. We had three hours advance for the big one. Our plan was crystal clear. Start in a good tempo, not top speed, just to get warm, and look for a smart way to do the course. My job this morning was to set a normal pace on the long runs and try to keep warm during the swims. Late September in the east sea can be rough. Last year I managed to convince my dear friend Philip alias Svettpåhjärna to cool down from his ironman in Wales with a little swimrun for almost 11 hours on this island (the long course). We made it to the podium. This idea was perfect. I couldn´t be more motivated then to do this with Nic this year. He was in good shape and I hadn´t lost mine totally. We started in a mid-range tempo as far as I know. The Ark ornö-wetsuit did a good job. Easy to run in. The adventure this morning consisted of surviving the lap, to be warm and to get a feel for the forest and the waves.
Let´s start the fun I thought.
After one hour I felt a little bit better. The second swim was thought in the storm. I was shivering but still ok. After the second hour, I was convinced that it could get really hard this day to get on to the top of the podium. If I go on this type of events I really want to be racing as much and for as long as I can. Around five hours would be enough I thought. Towards the last swim I was happy but a little bit cold. The sky started to give us some sun and the wind started to ease-up a bit. Yesterday we were watching the super sprinters on the last swims in the cove of Kärringsund. It was choppy. And hell, I it was more difficult to do than I thought as we tried to be fast during this swim in the test-lap. The small islands in the middle was slippery when wet as John Bon Jovi screamed in the eighties.
When we had our race-meting for our pre-lap, we were told by our jet-ski security guy that it was blowing around 25 m/s on the south side. I asked him if he felt comfortable providing us security in rough seas like this and he just gave me they eye, the eye of the tiger.
Finnish people are tough I thought, and I felt a teeny-bitty hesitant to throw myself in waters like that, especially since it had been blowing like this for nearly 2 days. The waves were big, really big. Well, we will just end up on land somewhere if we don’t make it I thought. Hopefully Åland. Worst case scenario in northern Finland somewhere.
We decided to keep a decent tempo for the first lap, to get the momentum going before the race. We started at 10:00 so we had a window of 3 hours to get to the race start. The running was ok but when we approached the 1st swim, no jet ski could be seen and the waves and currents were really angry. Ok I thought. Manageable. But when we hit the 2nd long swim, the exit buoy had ripped loose and was very far from the exit point on the map. The Jet Ski guy caught up with us and he looked like a moon landing / Michelin kind a guy with all his protective clothing. It was impossible to even scream to each other and with hand signals we identified which direction we had to take. When swimming across, all I could make out on the other side was a tree line. You couldn’t see anything. It was a really tough swim and when we exited I honestly started to think that we wouldn’t make the 3 hour mark to get back in time for the start. I mean, we still had the 25 m/s or-so on the south side to deal with.
We kept a high pace down to the south side and when we saw the roaring ocean I didn’t know what to think, other than survival.
We need to survive this.
I had mixed emotions of fear and excitement coming out at the same time. Very weird I thought. The jet ski-guy showed up, we gave the thumbs up and then we jumped into the water. I aimed for the exit point and well half-way across I realised I was now looking at a small house instead of a yellow sign. The waves and currents were so strong they forcefully pushed us sideways and it was really hard to swim. When I approached the “exit” I couldn’t make anyone out. The waves hitting the coastline were so big, throwing water straight up in the air thus creating white wall. If I miss this one it’s going to hurt I thought.
I started counting the time between these wave-explosions, and when a moment appeared, decided to have a go. I more or less timed it perfectly and got thrown onto the rocks by the waves, limiting the impact with my paddles and shoes. Like a cat. If I had had music there, I would have moon-walked out of there like a king (not showing at how lucky I had just gotten). Using my fingernails grabbing onto any crack I could feel, I pulled myself away from the waves crashing behind, tugging Daniel along in the pull-rope. WoW, I didn’t get injured. Such luck, and thought to myself that I don’t wanna do this again. I looked back and Daniel came right after me, still attached to the rope.
After a quick reorientation we started to run, fast to keep warm, and jumped into the water for the next swim, and the up and down that followed thereafter was just a mess. Strong wind, big waves, really cold and very exposed short runs on land. When we hit the final swim I sighed. We were going to make it in time for the race start, and we also had some time to spare for the race briefing.
But the last swim was crazy. Swimming head on into the current, just below a narrow bottleneck. It was so tough that when I climbed out of the water I just couldn’t see myself doing another lap of this. We sprinted on and came to the finish/starting line cold, depleted of energy and a bit disoriented.
How on earth would I re-set my system and energy level in just 20 minutes?
Photo: Heading out alone on the pre-lap
THE EXPOSED SWIMS ON THE SOUTH SIDE DURING THE RACE
In the race we were still fighting the elements.
We exited on a rocky island after gasping for air in the tumbling sea. I just love to swim in such weather conditions. This section of the race was definitely our strong side. Not really mine but as a team we were doing fine. Before the fourth swim I saw Scott and Pierre tumbling on the rocks and entered the water, not pushing so strong now as we saw at the start, and Nic and I had made up a plan to unleash the cord and try to use both forces much more. I was confident but at the same time not sure how it would end up.
This time around the swim was just as hard as during the first lap. The wind had calmed down a bit from the morning, but the waves were just massive. We were hit very hard, while swimming almost sideways. But it went fast I felt strong and we were soon across. The exit went better than expected this time. Very much thanks to the not so strong winds and superb grip from the VJ shoes. Like glue on wet rocks. This surely gives confidence I thought.
Better safe than sorry, I thought. Suddenly it became crystal clear that I lacked yoga training sessions this year, just as the east sea we were friends with so far. A short run then quickly in the water again.
The run was a short one, tip-toing over wet rocks to reach the upcoming 500-meter swim. While running I could see the leading men’s team (or so I thought) already in the water. I got excited. Very excited and could feel my adrenalin kicking-in. I looked at Daniel for a final ok and threw myself in the water with the ambition to catch-up.
Back to the swim four, I pushed as hard I could and we were closing the gap. This pretty calm 530 m swim there more my taste and more sufficient for my style. As of this year I had plenty of sessions in the ocean but nearly no waves this summer. Nic pushed really hard now I had it hard to keep up with his tempo. I started to wonder.
I almost started screaming of excitement as I exhaled under the water. Progressively as I was swimming, I could feel my energy build-up on the inside. Each time I navigated I could see us getting closer, but it was still tough. I kept an eye out for Daniel behind me. He was still there. Great. I felt strong and superior. In control.
With 50 meters left we caught up with the team, and I decided to swim along them just to make my presence, and to accelerate only close to shore. We exited 1st and it felt good. My horns grew.
Photo: Overtaking the lead.
Energy station two was a blur. Nic told me to push on, I was groggy and felt the downward spiral after pushing hard on the last swim. Some drinks and off we go. It´s hard to step up when you’re touching the limit. My lack of up and down training had turned me stiff. The extra kilos where no problem in the water, but on land on the other hand.
We got up to energy station number 2. I was in the zone, I didn’t want to stop. I approach Daniel and tried to whisper-scream in the wind; – Now is the time. We have the momentum. Let’s push-on quickly and create some distance.
We ran off but I could see that Daniel wasn’t responding as he usually does. Still in strong winds it was hard to communicate and I signalled that I was pushing on in the direction for the next swim. I ran ahead and tried to signal as much as I could, to help Daniel navigate his way across.
I was in the zone. Tired of one hand but happy on the other. I wanted so badly to be really tired today. Here I was in the Åland archipelago with a good friend fighting the course as much as I could. My swimming had been just fine the last weeks before the race, but not so strong as Nic. I was annoyed and starting to hit a deep unfocused mood. Mainly because I couldn’t reach Nic´s. everything was on red on the energy output. And my signals out to Nic where far from easy going.
We didn’t use the rope now. Perhaps a mistake as Daniel appeared tired, almost angry. Water in my ears. Neoprene cap on top and howling wind. I could hear a god damn thing. I swam in front and Daniel kept up. Good. He still has energy left I though. However, it was hard to look back when he was behind me because of the waves and current. It messed up my swim a bit keeping an eye both on the exit in front and on Daniel in the back. But I pushed on. Going strong.
I started to be angry. Nic was off in other league as far as I saw. He was in a different team for a while in my mind. I started to wonder, – What´s going on? Shouldn´t we be experts in team building? I mean I been competing in this sport since 2011. Why am I not in full force? This section is loaded with swims and short trail runs. My head, legs, mind where tumbling to slow down, but Nic had that hunting look. The gold finger eyes as Gert Fröbe got in the Bond movie from 1964. Do you remember this dialog? Bond – Do you expect me to talk? Goldfinger – No I expect you to die Mr Bond.
I didn’t turn back. I wanted it to end soon. But we carried on. I told Nic to think about the last swim, to have a smart plan and how to navigate as a team. He told me to not to be stone sour and to think strategic. I did not have the sprint legs or arms in my mind at this stage. But we were close to the finish.
When Daniel got out of the water he was angry. He kept talking about the team effort, stay together and so forth. Still hard to communicate I realised we shouldn’t have dropped the pull-cord. I also understood that I hadn’t managed to be clear about my strategy to run ahead and navigate for both of us. I told Daniel to keep pushing, that it was not far to the last swim and to think about how he wanted to do that one. Last time around this morning, this swim was through a bottleneck, head-on in really strong currents and it was honestly really difficult to swim.
We entered the last swim and I felt that almost 5 hours of swimrunning is going to be perfect today. The opening lap was more windy and chilly than this one, but still, I felt happy again. After a blurring last 30 min or so. No chord and we started to swim towards the harbour in Kärringsund. After 200 meters it´s a stone section to walk on, I couldn´t care less and was wobbling over it like a circus artist on dope. Anyway, finally we reached the ladder and I heard some voices.
The strategy was clear. Swim across. Run over the small stones in the middle and stay on the opposite side while doing the final stretch head-on in the current. It was tough. I was beginning to feel soar in my shoulders now. But I kept on grinding. Daniel was at my feet. Good. When I climbed up the ladder I quickly looked around. No one was in the water. This is it. We’ve got this!
We started to run like rats on the final stretch. Momentum. We were going to catch the gold in the men class on this year’s Åland Swimrun Sprint. I was nocked but never the less knackered as Nic hit the pavement for some minutes to catch his breath. Suddenly I realised that we did it great today. We got tired and pushed as hard we could. Brilliant arrangement as we even saw last year on the long course. We will back for sure for the long course next year.
During the last run I dropped the pull-cord. Luckily Daniel saw this and picked it up. I was cramping now. It felt like I was basically cramping everywhere. As we hit the tarmac Daniel picked up speed and I felt my body resisting. Daniel in a nutshell. The ultra-runner with all this extra energy stored and hidden away. I told him to slow down since I was running in the red zone now. My body wanted to start shutting down. I could feel it. Running towards the finish line I felt really good. I had manged to deplete my energy-tanks for once and didn’t have much left to give. I was happy. A 100 % performance. Such a treat!
Photo: Finishing the race. @ Heidi Ikäheimo
Text: Daniel Becker and Niklas Karlsson