Ironwoman and Headweats-sponsored Athlete completed Ö TILL Ö – otherwise known as “One of the toughest 1-Day races in the world.” That’s right, WORLD. Here’s her recap of the race:
Written by Penny Comins
Being the only kiwi that has ever raced I felt I had to knock this one off. As the waves rushed up the rock face, crashing me against them and then sucking me out as quickly as they had compressed me, I was more worried about my life than representing my country. Drawing on my rock climbing lessons at school I looked for finger holds and pulled up on the wave, scrambling with hand paddles failing around my wrists and my pool buoy trying to separate my legs, I made it out of the water. No time to soothe myself as we had to press on. Time to engage legs and run, and scramble. This was the Swim-Run World Championships in Sweden. My partner Renata and I were deep into the race, learning on the job. 22 islands, 65 kilometres of running, 10 kilometres of swimming.
A neutral start set us off on the first island of Sandhamn. The sun rose through the cloud in a star formation, symbolic for the adventure that lay ahead. We were a bundle of nerves. So many questions that had stirred around in us couldn’t be answered until we were actually doing the event. Hitting the water for the first time and swimming to a flashing beacon showed us just how raw and open this race was going to be.
On paper, the race sounded achievable; O till O is 75 kilometres of racing over the Stockholm Archipelago, the second largest in the Baltic Sea. Broken down, the longest swim was 1,650 meters while the longest run was 20 kilometres near the end of the race on the longest island Orno. Completed in pairs, my partner Renata was an accomplished Irish long-distance triathlete. We mused for weeks over kit and how the distances broken down would be achievable. We had tried to calculate our splits being very generous on the timings to allow for getting in and out of the water. With these times laminated and glued to my swim paddles we thought we would have a tough day but make all five cut offs and finish in time for beers before dinner.
The first island was nature’s slap in the face, timings went out the window as our focus shifted to getting through each cut off with time to spare. Our mantra was always to ‘keep moving forwards.’ We were told repeatedly to not stop moving at any time. The rocky shoreline, boulders and slippery granite that greeted us was not conducive for a nice easy running flow. We got down to a fast scramble and picked our path along the shore, through scrub and over boulders following carnival tape hanging from trees.
We were told at the briefing that we had to go around the side of several islands due to land ownership issues; we were cursing the owner after 4,400 meters of wobbly walk/running in ankle deep waters.
Prior to the race I had been in contact with the previous winning woman’s team; they had said to get your ‘in’s and outs’ practiced. If you waste five minutes with each entry and exit over 22 islands that equates to three and a half hours of dead time. Simply, we would never make the cut offs if we mucked around. We had a decided to verbalize our process as trying to put your goggles on when you already have your hand paddles on just wouldn’t work. “Pull buoy, goggles, paddles, push off.”
Once in the water it was nice to cool the legs. Each island had a yellow flag on the shore that we had to sight towards or in the swims over a kilometre a flashing strobe light. Without the comfort of buoys marking the course, we could take any line we liked. The rules state you must be 10 meters from your partner at any time; many using a tow rope. We trailed a rope but found that it was more hindrance than help and opted for looking out for each other. This added to the adventure when the current was ripping between the islands pushing us out to sea. Having been brought up near the beach in New Zealand I didn’t find this too stressful and just swam in a vector to the current. For my Irish teammate this was a new sensation and she nearly missed the exit points several times, showing how nature has the final say each time. This made for interesting swims watching out for her while still navigating to each exit. The birds flew above while jellyfish pulsed below, an overwhelming feeling of being in nature rushed me many times. We were really doing this!
We made it through the nine am cut off with 25 minutes to spare. This was going to be a tough fought race with nature; our minds and the time checkpoints. The course headed west for four islands before a crossing of 500 meters to head south. The weather forecast had given us favourable winds for the day pushing us to the final island Uto. Due to the nature of being 60 kilometres off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea several storms rolled through bringing thunder and hail at times but these were brief and almost a relief when running in our wetsuit.
Either the favourable weather or the fact that this year’s race was the SwimRun World Championship where teams had to qualify through the Uto swim race or merit meant that of the 114 teams on the start line 99 made it to the finish, the highest completion rate in the eight year history of the race. Last year only two woman’s teams finished and this year nine of the 13 finished indicating the level of participant that the race now attracts. 120 teams were given slots from over 300 applicants and with the use of qualification or merit proved to be a winning formula meant the top teams pushed each other harder than in previous years. The record of nine hours and 15 minutes set in 2011 was smashed by 32 minutes this year.
Sprint prizes throughout the race kept the teams pushing all the way. The Red Bull sprint prize was first on the island of Rumaro and won by Team NybrovikenRib passed the line in first, which was the same as last year. Followed by Paul and Björn of team Head swimming and Lelle and Magnus who were last year’s winners.
However at the Addnature sprint prize, 24 kilomteres in to the race the order had changed to Paul and Björn in the lead while Magnus and Lelle had used their prior course knowledge and over taken Nybroviken Rib, Simon and Rasmus.
The Milebreaker.com last 15 kilometres was a test of who had paced their race in a way to have enough gas for the last half of the 20 kilometre run and then five more islands to hop over. As Michael and Mats, race organizers, had said in the race briefing, this is where the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.
Coming up the last hill dubbed ‘Devil’s Hill’ to the finish line at Utö Värdshus Björn and Paul of Team Head swimming held their lead and won Ö till Ö 2013 World Championship in a winning time of 8 hours and 35 minutes. Lelle and Magnus followed seven minutes after. Simon and Rasmus of Team NybrovikenRib rounded the podium off. A total of four teams finished under nine hours, a new record that tested the logistics team of the race.
In the woman’s it was a one horse race with mother-daughter team Puppy TS of Bibben and Lotta leading the whole way and setting a new course record of 10 hours and 55 minutes placing 21st overall. Last years winners Helena and Linda of Lisa’s Cafe finished second and Sanna and Victoria, Team Cougar completed the set. In the Mixed competition Team Freddan and Ankan smashed the last record in 10 hours 33 minutes, a compelling 15th overall. Björn and Marika of Team Adeptic came in second with Erica and Thomas of Team Bisnode pushed hard for third.
Meanwhile Team PenRen, the Irish and Kiwi girls were ticking off the islands one by one. Without Renata knowing, I had set my watch fast by 10 minutes so every checkpoint we went through we had a bit more to spare than she thought. Still, we were not on our times, down to the wire and starting to fade. Renata’s shoulders started to feel the strain of the paddles and the longer swims in waters of 10 to 16 degrees she was feeling the cold. Luckily running in our cut off wetsuits and swim caps meant she warmed up quickly. Momentarily we did wonder how we got in to this crazy race as we came to rock faces to climb over, ducked under branches, wove through reeds and swam in grey silt filled inlets all in our wetsuits, caps, paddles and a pull buoy tired to our leg.
Getting through the 1,400 meter swim from MörtöKlobb – Kvinnoholmen was the demon we had in our minds as the current is tough in the exposed swim and has taken athletes up to an hour in the past. We got across the straight and out the other side relatively unscathed. It was the 20 kilometre run on Orno that showed us this was an ultra race in every proportion. We decided to take our wetsuits to our waist and run this section hard to make the six pm cut-off at the south end of the island. Once we passed here we could take as long as we wanted to get the finish.
We struck several hurdles when the terrain became rocky and slippery so we had to run the gravel road section hard. Renata’s body wanted to shut down but she fought hard to hold her legs together and support her shoulders that stabbed with every jarring step. After the milebreaker.com feed station we had an hour and 20 minutes to cover 7,900 meters. “Easy,” I hear you say. Not so when you have been in and out of the water all day covering 60 kilometres. We were reduced to a walk-run strategy and chatted with other teams who too were just ‘moving forward.’ We made the cut off by 30 minutes and gave garbled whopping interviews to the TV cameras at the timing zone. Mats said he would see us at the end for beers in the hotel, a great touch for the race directors to be out on the course.
Only 7,100 meters and five islands lay between the finish and us. We totally underestimated the enormity of this simple thought; coupled with the sun going down and the current ripping around the smaller islands made for a rock n roll entry and exit at each island. Tired, slightly delirious, and starting to swell from the exposure we smashed over the islands in and out of the water. Each time we got out there were more people cheering us on yet the wind had picked up and Renata was shivering uncontrollably. Some blueberry soup at the last feed station helped as we pushed on not wanting to be swimming in the dark. The last exit was emotional as that was when the swimming was over. We ran-walked to the finish under the orange sun sliding to the horizon. As we got closer to Devil Hill, the hotel and finish line sat on top, Renata got a new lease of energy and bolted to the top and across the line. Her first words ‘Can I have a big beer for me and my mate?!’
2014 entries open in February with qualification or merit the way in to the swimrun World Championship.
For more info on the race, visit: www.otillo.se