On Saturday 18th June 2016 I had the opportunity to participate in a crazy, exciting ‘new’ adventure sport 28 nautical miles off the south west coast of Cornwall, England, called ÖtillÖ (http://otilloswimrun.com, pronounced “urr-till-urr), which is Swedish for “island to island”. Teams of two compete whilst tethered together using any means possible to cover 37.5km split as 30km of challenging trail running and 7.5km of cold, ocean swimming divided up into 19 continuous stages where you roll from the land to the water and back again like the proverbial amphibious beast emerging from the primordial soup of life…or something like that!
A great 3m26s video review of the race can be found here: https://vimeo.com/171616668 and if you have Facebook you can see an extended version here: https://www.facebook.com/otillorace/videos/1005483822882557/
The Isles of Scilly
Sitting squarely in the middle of the Gulf Stream in the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean, the Scilly Isles is an archipelago of over 100 small islands where many hundreds of ships have been wrecked and thousands of lives lost to the sea during unpredictable storms and weather patterns.
The experience would prove to be life-changing in more ways than one and also sits atop all my other previous endurance challenges such as the 20km Rottnest Channel Swim, the 46km Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and even the mighty 34km English Channel in terms of difficulty and extremism. Yes, it’s that tough, but somewhat perversely more enjoyable at the same time!
ÖtillÖ, or the sport of “swimrun”, is not actually that new. Dating back some 10 years since it’s first inception in the Swedish Stockholm archipelago, this would be the first official ÖtillÖ event outside of Sweden to form the new World Series. Each event allows up to 10 teams of two to qualify for the World Championships in Sweden on the 4th September each year. The event in Sweden comprises some 65km of hardcore trail running and 10km of open water swimming and island-hops between 26 different land masses. In comparison the Scilly Isles race was just 30km of beautiful coastal trail running and 7.5km of cold, ocean swimming visiting eight key islands with some six energy stations; you could think of this then as the “little sister”:
The fact that the Scilly Isles event was only 50% of the distance of it’s Swedish big brother sheds some perspective on how challenging the big kahuna really is; even the winning team featuring multiple world aquathlon champion and a former training partner, Richard Standard from Great Britain, stated it was the hardest event he’d ever done! If Richard says it was tough, it was tough.
The concept is very simple: you and a partner (male or female) work together to follow a marked course and are typically bound together by a bungy-cord, which serves as a safety mechanism, or an anchor, depending on how you view the world and the differential in your speed! Pull buoy and paddles are allowed to help offset the drag of wearing your trainers when you swim, but depending on how you use them, they’re not always an advantage (myself and Richard Stannard both opting not to use paddles in order to keep the stroke rate higher in the cold, choppy waters). ÖtillÖ’s number one philosophy is that you work together as a partnership to experience unbridled beauty in the environment as you seamlessly transition from the land to the water some 19 times, running in your wetsuit, swimming in your trainers (no easy feat let me tell you!) and navigating (hopefully!) the stunning flora and fauna of the islands:
Every twist and turn saw you experiencing a new landscape, never knowing quite what was coming next or how you’d handle it. It was as much liberating as it was a chance to view the world from a whole new perspective that you just can’t get from any other angle.
It’s a sport that encourages innovation rather than stifles it. A sport where the number one goal is survival rather than competitive performance and to use your tether like a metaphorical umbilical cord to feed each other both physically and mentally over the duration. A sport which embraces the environment rather than litters it with gel wrappers, empty CO2 cannisters and discarded water bidons. In short, it’s what triathlon felt like in the 80s and 90s before the big corporations came in and commercialised the whole experience to such a point that competitors are lost amongst a sea of anonymity. Never before in a sport have I felt so much inclusion - like a true sporting family - and having spent a lot of time with it’s founders Mats Skott and Michael Lemmel over the weekend listening to their hopes for the growth of the sport, something tells me this will always reside above the potential for commercialisation. It’s exactly the sport I have been looking for:
The excitement and air of participating in something truly special bristled over the entire weekend and extended to the masses of enthusiastic islanders and bewildered tourists who’d never seen anything like it before. I doubt I have ever felt so much support and energy from a crowd who truly wants you to succeed than on the Scilly Isles. It was the perfect place to run the event, no question.
A Tale of Two Journeys
I first heard about the event from a Swedish swim and triathlon coach called Matti Tordsson in March 2015. Matti was attending one of our 3-day Coach Education Courses in the UK and knowing my passion for all things crazy and my distant life as a triathlete, Matti enthusiastically suggested I’d love to have a go at the event which he’d experienced himself several times before in Sweden. At this stage I passed it off quite quickly as I hadn’t run for the best part of 10 years.
Sadly in September of 2015, Matti’s 8 year old daughter Stina was diagnosed with high risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) and his whole family’s life was turned upside down in an instant. Stina has had to subsequently undergo intense chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, suffering in the process with five brain strokes and even coma in response to her critical state. Having a son who is just six months younger than Stina, I could not begin to imagine how such a terrible condition would wreak havoc on their daily lives as they came very close to losing Stina.
When the Scilly Isles race was announced in December, I recalled Matti’s earlier enthusiasm about the event. Having never been to the Scillies myself - but knowing it to be a magical place - I reached out to Matti and tentatively asked if he wanted to team up with me, not knowing if this would even be on his radar given everything he and his family was going through. I wished that the positive outlook of having a goal to aim for, and the chance to raise awareness of Stina’s condition, would be something that could help bring hope where mainly despair existed. As I was about to experience, the goal of completing this event also had a profound impact on me and what is truly important in life.
Obviously the practicalities of training for the event given Matti’s circumstances and the fact that we’d never be able to practice together until the actual event, meant that we had to approach the event purely as participants rather than competitors, though this emphasis proved to be exactly what the ÖtillÖ was all about:
Thankfully, nine months on and five months since the coma, Stina has been responding well to the treatment, but even up to the race day, we weren’t sure if we would be able to compete together.
Of course, you cannot pretend to understand the implications of having a child so gravely sick, but you can certainly reframe your perspective on life when someone you hold dearly as a friend is suffering so much. In the last 3 years since my Manhattan Island Marathon Swim win I have personally been through a bit of a slump. I endured major back surgery in late 2013 and have suffered through a shoulder issue for the last 18 months, both of which have prevented me doing what I love as much as I would have liked. I felt my body was starting to fail me at only 37 years of age. Other than that though I’m healthy, my family has been healthy and my coaching has been going from strength to strength. How utterly ridiculous it seems to be so self-absorbed that (what are effectively very minor issues in the grander scheme of things) can bring you to feeling down in some kind of mid-life crisis. The prospect and perspective of racing with Matti, doing it for Stina and raising awareness for the Childhood Cancer International and the Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation has helped me to take a hold of what these types of events are all about and for the first time ever I was pleased to find myself smiling the whole way around a race, ditching my serious 'race face’ for a much more appreciative outlook:
And so to the race!
As mentioned, we expected very little from ourselves during the event, but ultimately this proved to be our biggest asset. Matti had managed precious few training sessions in the last nine months and I had only begun running again in December 2015. 3 weeks out from the race I injured my left glute (requiring a cortisone shot) and couldn’t run at all and Matti had also injured his foot too in the lead-up. We also had no opportunity to practice together at all until the gun went off to signal the start!
I watched in awe as over 100 teams arrived on the island looking super-fit and amped to practice on the course - I had to just sit and watch as they did. I felt every bit under-done and yet had the prospect of running further than I ever have over terrain that amplified the intensity one hundred fold:
What had I got myself in for? The only thing I knew is that I could not let Matti and Stina down. I had to start and I had to finish no matter how long it took or whatever happened to my body along the way; and very ‘strange’ things happened as I was about to find out…
Stage 1 RUN: Hugh Town to Halangy Porth (2.5km)
My lasting memory of the start was one of enthusiastic energy, not the dogged race-face anxieties of a typical triathlon or open water event, but perhaps that was just a change in my own perspective? We crossed the start line with a resounding shout of “For Stina!” and the race was on!
The plan was to start very steady knowing we had about 7 hours of racing ahead of us. We watched as the leaders raced away from us and peered wistfully down the cliff face as they entered the water some 500m ahead of us as we came to a standstill amongst the mid-pack on the single track high above the rocky shore. Several of my former racing and training mates were in the top-3 teams at this stage so it required a monumental amount of control and acceptance that I’m just not at this level of running anymore. The good news was that I felt no pain at all in my glute and actually felt quite light and easy on my feet.
Stage 2 SWIM: Halangy Porth to Bathinghouse Porth (2.0km)
As we poured into the water on the first swim I felt like this was our time to shine. This swim proved critical in us moving up from 35th place to 15th and eventually to 12th which unbelievably saw us miss a spot at the world championships in September by only two positions. It was a far cry from what we expected of ourselves and a strong indication that our pacing strategy was working out. We weren’t fast in any of the sections, but we always kept moving and this allowed us to steadily chip away at those in front of us:
The water was cool (13ºC) but clear and had huge clumps of seaweed to contend with like swimming through an organic version of the garbage collection bay in the Star Wars movie! I towed Matti using an elastic tether which allowed him to stay firmly within my draft zone. This worked really well and we moved swiftly past 20 teams. I was using a Finis Axis Pull Buoy between my ankles and whilst this slowed our transitions a touch I felt it held my feet higher in the water and reduced drag better than between my thighs. In my prior research I am about 10-12 seconds per 100m slower in all this get-up than swimming ‘au natural’ which apparently is ’normal’:
Stage 3 RUN-SWIM-RUN-SWIM-RUN-SWIM: Bathinghurst Porth to Castle Porth (6.0km)
The next six sections were a series of short runs and swims, many of which were more like wading through the shallow water, seaweed and slippery rocks, all of which made for slow going:
We finished this section with our first energy station where we took onboard energy drinks, gels, bananas and even some yummy cake! This might have been the source of my later stomach discomfort around the 4hr mark!
Stage 4 RUN: Castle Porth to Long Point (6.8km)
The first long run was simply stunning, starting with a run through the world-famous 200 year-old Abbey Gardens and then became more challenging as we edged out along the coastal path. We were moving well though and closing down on a few teams in front of us at this point just by holding a steady, consistent pace. Upon reaching the steeper climbs, Matti would immediately instruct us to walk so as to conserve energy for later in the race. Whilst this seemed to slow us down initially, it offered a bit of respite which definitely served us well on the final run of the day.
Stage 5 SWIM-RUN-SWIM-RUN-SWIM-RUN-SWIM: Long Point to Lower Town Quay St Martin’s (3.0km)
We then commenced another seven section zone where we were constantly in and out of the water. I’m not sure if it was a combination of the horizontal to vertical repetitive movement, the cold water, the carbohydrate-rich energy stations or the belt that I was wearing around my middle to tow Matti along, but towards the middle of this zone I started to develop some pretty severe stomach cramps. Ultimately I couldn’t hold things in any longer and as we approached the ramp of the Lower Town Quay at St Martin’s I crossed the proverbial last bastion of dignity and finally discovered how to “go #2” whilst on the move. It wasn’t pretty or comfortable but it was entirely necessary and made me feel better immediately after. Unfortunately though this was just one of fifteen subsequent bowel movements during the last two hours of the race which rapidly started to really dehydrate me - how’s that for an open / honest report!
Stage 6 RUN: Karma Hotel to Crow’s Nest (7.6km)
I went from hero to zero very quickly indeed and felt absolutely terrible during the second long run of the day. I didn’t let Matti see this, though I’m sure he felt the pace slow and my conversation ceased entirely developing a horrible cold sweat to boot. Even feeling like this I didn’t doubt we’d finish but I knew it could be a long way back to Hugh Town at this pace! I was desperate for a drink and even stopped to ask two hikers if I could steal theirs only to have Matti block my approach and warn of the impending disqualification if I did. I bowed my head and carried on, fearful that we’d start to fall back down the standings as my pace slowed. Eventually we reached the energy station and I drank what seemed like gallons of pure water to try to flush everything through. We spent a long time at that station but were cheered on by some fantastic volunteers which really helped.
Stage 7 SWIM: Crow’s Nest to Innisidgen (2.4km)
The notion of starting what was billed to be the hardest challenge of the day when I was feeling at my absolute lowest took some resolve, drawing upon the doggedness that is required to swim things like the English Channel. Whilst only 2.4km, this swim was against the tide and we ended up meandering all over the place through fatigue, cold and (in my case) a touch of disorientation from the stomach issues. I figured we could well be in the water for about an hour and ultimately this proved to be the case. All that was driving me on at this stage was to not let the team behind us catch up, so we carried on, one stroke after the next and eventually reached the shore. I was heartened to later find out that even the great Richard Standard found this challenging also!
Stage 8 RUN: Innisidgen to Hugh Town (7.2km)
Incredibly, as soon as we had regained some feeling in the ice blocks that were now our feet and ankles, we actually ran really strongly for the final run and I felt great again. Anything better than terrible would have been a bonus, but we ended up putting 3 minutes into the chasing team at this stage which was a great way to finish the most epic of all challenges.
Crossing the finish line and the emotions were evident for both Matti and myself. To have done this side-by-side with Matti for 6h16m without a single moan or whinge from him was incredible after all he and his family have been through, but that’s what perspective does for you. Nobody holds a gun to your head forcing you to do these types of events. We are all privileged enough that we have the health to do it. We had finished 12th overall after expecting to finish in the latter half of the whole field, all things considered, and were 45 minutes quicker than I calculated we would be. Given that the winners were 25 minutes slower than predicted, this really was a great result and one which I’m very proud of.
Over 100 teams had entered the event but only 85 had made it to the start line. Of these 85% would go on to complete the entire course, including our new Japanese friends Umi and Hanae who were very fearful of the cold on the day before the race but in a great show of resilience powered through regardless - well done girls! Full results can be seen at http://otilloswimrun.com/races/isles-of-scilly/results-2016/ There’s also a complete set of images at https://www.flickr.com/photos/otillorace/sets/72157668427523542 if you like what you see here. (Photo credits: Nadja Odenhage / ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly 16 or Matti Rapila / ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly 16).
So if you’re still reading I’m assuming that’s because you’re as crazy as me and Matti and fancy the challenge of something new and exciting like the ÖtillÖ? This is what my typical training week has looked like since the start of April. You’ll note the extremely low volume involved. Two things caused this: 1) limited time availability with family and work; 2) having not run in 10 years I needed to respond to my body, running when I could, not when I’d planned necessarily. Ultimately I didn’t run at all in the last 3 weeks either:
- Monday - 4km easy off-road run at ~4:30 per km / 2km swim using our Goldilocks CSS set as a template (reducing down from a CSS of 1:28 per 100m in April to 1:14 prior to the race). Total training time = 60 minutes
- Tuesday - 3-4km swim including some longer intervals of 300m, 400m and 500m at CSS +2s/100m and mixing in some pull-bouy and paddle work to simulate the race and non-use of my legs. Total training time = 60 minutes
- Wednesday - a repeat of Monday’s swim session. Total training time = 45 minutes
- Thursday - a swim-run practice session lasting about 75-90 minutes. This was an integral part of my program. I’d typically cover about 3km in the open water with a group of friends, sandwiched in the middle of two 4km runs in all my gear. I was able to use this session to see not only my swim fitness improve again after a very mediocre 12-18 months, but to also measure the effectiveness of changes I made along the way to my kit. I started off being dropped like a lead-balloon by my mates in April with all the gear on (slowing me down by 10-12s per 100m) to being able to hold and then challenge them on the front of the group within 6 weeks. It was very frustrating at first to be swimming so slow and yet working so hard, but eventually I got there. I always tried to keep the swim to run ratio the same as what we’d do on the event itself, i.e. 20-25% swimming and 75-80% running. Total training time = 90 minutes
- Friday - (always in response to how I recovered after Thursday) but typically another 2-3km swim session including some drill and technique work. Total training time = 45 minutes
- Saturday - long, off-road run, building from 8km to 15km at ~4:30/km, or a longer version of the swim-run session on the Thursday (up to 2hrs). Total training time = 75 to 120 minutes
- Sunday - day off with the family (or alternate with Saturday)
Total weekly training time = 7hrs (add to this 10-15 minutes every morning and evening 7 days a week running through some stretching for mobility and injury prevention)
We will be soon adding a complete swimrun training program within the http://www.swimsmooth.guru to help flesh out these details a bit further - stay tuned!
What did I learn from this event?
My ultimate personal goal for the 2016 ÖtillÖ Scilly Isles Race was to simply give myself a goal and pull myself out of the silly slump I was in. I simply wanted to feel fit and healthy again without the pressure of extreme performance. Ironically enough this mindset has been very agreeable for me and is one which I aim to continue. Always having the thought that we were doing this for Stina and the greater cause of uniting as a partnership on the day was incredibly motivating too. In total over 215,000 SEK ($26,000 USD) has been raised for the Childhood Cancer International and the Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation - if you feel like you’d like to contribute to Stina’s cause, please visit: http://hejastina.se/about-stina-and-leukaemia/ and if your Swedish is not what it used to be, you can visit a quick video tutorial of how to donate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmtmYN0Ge7w&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=MattiTordsson
Above all, I learnt that to do the ÖtillÖ you need RESILIENCE, a sense of ADVENTURE and more than a realisation that you are doing this for FUN because you can. Not everyone is so lucky. Use your body, do something positive and make a difference. See you out there!