“I have been to hell and back and let me tell you it was EPIC”
The cold water of the Baltic Sea was not only beginning to affect my judgement, it was in full blossom. I could only think of two things: a hot sauna and “What the hell are we doing here”.
When first I got into the business of running in a wetsuit and swimming in shoes some ten years ago, I had NO clue what I was doing. We were absolute beginners who kind of made up the sport as we went along. As many of you know, many teams used quiet big backpacks and floatation devices designed for kids. The sport of swimrun was literally being born in front of us. The first years of Swimrun offered only one competition: ÖtillÖ, today the world Championship. In fact the sport didn’t even have a name back in the early years. We where just people who liked a good challenge and didn’t care too much about the “strangeness” of running around in the woods with wetsuits. But the spirit of teamwork, nature and of course really hard mental and physical challenges have appealed to many people these last years. The beautiful and sometimes harsh Stockholm Archipelago with its many Islands offers a perfect setting for a spectacular sport. Over the years I have done other swimrun races, but I have always found ÖtillÖ to be the original.
The ingredients for a swimrun should in my humble opinion include: A course from A to B, long and hard swims, technical trail running. Some waves to stir up things. A good teammate and some epic nature. Swimrun have been a part of my life for almost ten years now. These past years have only consisted of a few swimruns every year to concentrate on the distant cousin: Triathlon.
A couple of days after I finished Ironman Wales September 10th, my good friend Daniel called me and asked how I “felt” about joining him for a Swimrun in the Baltic sea on the small Islands of Åland. “Hey, It will be fun! But it must be cold, and I hate being cold! No worries about the cold water. Just buy a neoprene balaclava and you will be fine. How long is the running? It’s really short just some 42k running and …10k swimming.. OK! Lets do this.” One week later we were on our way.
“He just answered with a stoic maybe.”
The adventure to get to the starting line started with the two of us being overly optimistic about the time we needed to get to the ferry. Daniel somehow managed to call the captain of the ferry and convinced him to wait for us. ”Please wait for us. We are driving as fast as can! The captain just answered with a stoic “maybe”. Saved by the bell and a friendly captain. We had a great dinner on the boat and talked about the race. I was not overly interested I must admit. I figured I would just keep my head in the sand until the race. Daniel was trying to boost the team confidence with stuff like: This is THE Finnish Swimrun Championships. We are going for gold. Lets open a can of whatever. The less I knew about the course the better. I knew the day would involve running and swimming, and that it would probably would be really cold. I told Daniel I was a bit worried about my shoes (a pair of Adidas Adizero) not being suitable for running over rocks covered in seaweed. Daniel said; “There is not much we can do about right now. We will manage with what we have.” He had a good point. Later that night Daniel discovered that he had lost his own shoes somewhere on the ferry. He had a minor panic-attack for a minute or two. When I offered him my New Balance vintage sneakers. “Ok, we will manage tomorrow. “
“a good nights sleep”
As with every race the expression “a good nights sleep” is somewhat lost during the night when tension is building up inside. And you end up spending the night with thoughts that won’t go away. Imagine having 10 cups of coffee and then trying to sleep. The night before Åland Swimrun was no different. I was overheating, waking up the next minute cold. I woke up thirsty at least 10 times.
The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast. The start was located on the northern part of Åland and the racecourse was a ellipse-shaped loop covering the northern-south archipelago in total, some 10k of swimming and 42k trail running in-between the islands. When we sat on the bus that would take us to the starting line, I was slowly realizing that this was going to be a long day. We meet the other racers and Daniel asked around for a pair of shoes better suited for a day of swimrun in the Finnish archipelago (Åland is located in Finland). An old swimrun friend, Göran came to the rescue with a pair of Asics. GREAT. We where ready to dive into the archipelago. I was slowly waking up. YES.
The last minutes before the race was a blur of nervous feelings and thoughts about involuntary vomiting. It does not matter if it’s for fun or the world championships. When you put on a race number, everything changes. All the great plans go out the window and your body and mind takes off in a weird autopilot-mode. All of a sudden the race was on. The first couple of kilometers leading out to the first swim, went over classic archipelago trails: rocks, moss, slippery rocks, logs in a mystical pine forest. We where flying, or at least I was. Body felt good, probably because of all the adrenaline. Daniel was just getting warmed up, and told me to hold my horses. I felt like a newborn baby and alive. I had absolutely no idea what would happen during the day.
– Then reality hit me in the face. Hard.
The ocean appeared in between the pine trees. The morning haze of fog and a calm Baltic Sea appeared. Had a short epiphany of what the sport of Swimrun really is about. A team of two sharing an exceptional moment. We are the only ones here. We are so fortunate to able to experience this. Then reality hit me in the face. Hard.
“Oh my god, 10 kilometers of this.”
The first swim is always interesting. You never really know what will happen when you first put your face in the water. My open-water training this year have mostly consisted of training I did Mallorca in August. With temperatures well over 30 c. I was shocked. It felt like someone was pouring ice over my head. I knew that these feelings would go “away” after a while and we kept swimming. The first swim was a short 500m. My head was spinning and I was almost hyperventilating. “Oh my god, 10 kilometers of this.”.
I finally came to my senses and calmed down a bit and slowly found my pace behind Daniel in the water. We had previously agreed that since I was the weaker swimmer, Daniel would lead most of the swims. But being behind saves you about 30% effort/energy but can make you cold.
-This was going to be a very long day.
The first hour is really about getting into the race. We were in high spirit at this point. We talked about the majestic nature and how exceptionally fortunate we are. Life was good. We were talking and laughing with the other teams that we meet. I occasionally glanced at my watch that told me how slow our pace was. This was going to be a very long day.
Most Swimruns feature a wide mix of trails, gravel roads and trackless terrain on a wide variety of surfaces. It did not take long before I understood that my Adidas shoes would be a disaster. Going into the water on slippery rocks was like trying to break-dance on butter. I was trying my very best not to hurt myself. Entering and existing the swims was really hard, and I slipped almost every time. I told Daniel this.” My shoes are not working on this surface! Its like dancing on butter! Philip, don’t worry. There is nothing we can do about now anyways.” I agreed.
– Then the swimrun turned into an orienteering.
The first 15k of the course were marked so it was easy to navigate on the Islands. Then the swimrun turned into an orienteering. When we reached an Island there was a bucket with a map of the island that we were supposed to use to get to the next swim. I usually got lost after the first checkpoint when I was in High School. Daniel just laughed and told me he got an A+ in geography in school. Good enough for me. Navigating on the islands was more difficult than we anticipated. Being cold and in race mode didn’t exactly help.
We soon learned that no Island had any trails to relax the legs. Just relentless and trackless terrain. In fact it was the most challenging terrain I have ever seen. I was thinking; This is just temporary and we will encounter some trail. Even a tiny trail will do. The terrain was filled with steep cliffs and at some points of the race we had to take leaps of faith into the water to avoid doing the scary climb back. This was swim- run, mountaineering, orienteering and Swimrunning, and I was just getting colder. Most runs were about 2-4k and then long swims of about 600-1000 m each. A perfect recipe for hypothermia.
After about 2 ½ hours of racing, hypothermia sneaked up on me during a swim. My arms turned into jelly. I started shivering and shaking my teeth. My hands and feet were completely numb. My body was beginning to shut down. I was involuntary opening my mouth and taking big gulps of ocean water. This was not good. Not good at all. I had never struggled so much during a swim. In fact it felt like I was swimming for my life at this point. The cold water of the Baltic Sea was not only beginning to affect my judgment, it was in full blossom. I could only think of two things: a hot sauna and “What the hell are we doing here”.
“I just have to run.”
When we finally reached the shore my skin was beyond red and I was shaking almost uncontrollably. We had reached a checkpoint with drinks and energy. I tried to speak. “How are you?” asked one of the volunteers. “I just have to run.” I was shaking. This is not good. Daniel told me we had to keep on running to get warm again. This is the point of the race when things become blurred for a couple of hours.
I remember crossing island after island. Followed by swims in icy waters.
I tried to keep up my mood. When you get really cold you develop something we call “porcelain feet” and running is very painful. It is crucial that you load up on energy when you are cold. I was slowly getting my senses back.
We knew that the really cold swimming was behind us and that the water temperatures would increase from 9 to about 12c. This wisdom gave me hope. I was slowly getting myself back together, when we reached the southern tip of an Island. We saw no safety boats and we tried to figure out were to swim. We jumped in and started the swim on a southern course with the sun in our eyes. We figured it was a little more than 1k to the next island.
We stopped multiple times to get our bearings right. I was leading some sections of this swim trying to keep my hypothermia under control. But as the swim progressed I was once again getting really cold and shivering.
-We were laughing again.
We finally reached the next island and I was once again under the ice. Running was my only option. Daniel had to dig really deep during the swim and was unusually quite. We saw another team and began to chase them. I told Daniel that I needed to wake up and just GO. After some intense running we reached the other team and ran together. We passed a flock of sheep that found us very interesting in our wetsuits and they decided to join us on the run. All 30 of them. We were laughing again.
Swimrun is a mental sport. During a long race, a team will encounter ups and downs. Hope and despair. A team will also face themselves and find out hidden things about life. I just knew I needed to get new shoes when I got back home. Deep thoughts I know.
As the race progressed I could see the finish line or at least beginning to see it.
When we finally arrived to the main Island and faced the last 8k run we were excited and I had totally forgot how cold I was. We meet Daniels parents and they told us, that it was just a short run and we will see each other at the finish line. Great. We where running like there was no tomorrow. YES. We ran for some 8k when we suddenly reached another swim! “This can’t be right. Your parents told us, just a short run and then the finish line.“. We once again started swimming. It was a short 400m swim and when we finally reached land, we were convinced that this MUST be the last swim. We asked a volunteer about the course and he told us; ” about 8 more kilometers. 8!! Yes, maybe its 4 or 2 until the next swim. I don’t know exactly. Ehh. Swim? More running? Yes ok. Ok..”.
I asked Daniel if this was some bizarre joke. He was also getting really tired at this point. “I have no idea, but I guess this is not the finish line.” We pushed forward and told each other to just go. I was talking about the sauna. Daniel was talking about the potential medal we could win in the Finish Swimrun Championship. I was zooming in on the sauna.
When we finally stumbled across the finish line, I was just happy that we had pushed forward during the day. It was hard. It was epic. It was well-organized. I had run some of the most brutal and challenging terrain I had ever encountered. And I had never been so cold in my life. (And I did the record cold ötillö 2009) We finished in third place in total. But in the very first Finnish Swimrun Championship we took silver.
This race is hard and slots are limited to 30 teams. Make sure to visit Åland next year in September. You will have the time of your life. Don’t forget really good shoes and if you are a person who occasionally have problems with cold water. Bring a heat west.
I would especially like to thank me amazing teammate Daniel Becker. My fellow and awesome racers. The organizers of Åland Swimrun for putting together such a raw and though race. THANK YOU!! Also thanks for the sauna and the exceptional hospitality. Åland is well worth a visit.
And finally: I have been to hell and back and let me tell you it was EPIC.
Philip Robson aka. Svettpahjarnan