The Emergence of SwimRun

In the past decade, something changed in the endurance recreation landscape. As long-distance triathlon finished its journey from the outskirts of sanity to the firm mainstream, those participants who longed for the hardest, longest, strangest challenges began to search outside the swim-bike-run barriers for whatever was next. We saw gravel riding spread through the cycling world on a wave of thirst for something new, resulting in 200-mile moonshots like The Dirty Kanza; Crossfit jumped from the gym to the field, spawning Obstacle Course Racing, or OCR, where skills such as spear-tossing became relevant for the first time in a few centuries (in North America, at least); and first in Europe and then on this side of the Atlantic, a sport that involves frigid water, swimming in running shoes, and tying yourself to your partner grew from a drunken challenge to a worldwide phenomenon, ÖtillÖ.

OK, first of all, how do you say it? It’s actually a portmanteau of three words that means “Island-to-Island” (notice that second capitalized Ö? That’s not a normal construction in Swedish), and it’s pronounced kinda like “Uhr-tuhr-luhr.” The race has its roots way back in 2002, when four Swedes (now known as “The Original Four,” as if they were some group of mythological characters in a Western, or a Kurosawa film) drinking at night in a hotel one of them owned, challenged each other to a race along a string of islands off the country’s coast, the loser having to buy dinner, the night’s lodging, and drinks. They outlined a course of 10 kilometers of ocean swimming and multiple legs of running totally 65 kilometers. They set a date and started training. On the day in question, when the four of them staggered to the finish after more than 24 hours of deep discomfort, the legend says that they were too tired to do anything other than collapse into bed—the wagered drinks were forgotten.

If this origin story sounds familiar in any way, you’re probably thinking of the origin of Ironman, where a small group of endurance junkies challenged each other to the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon, one after another, to settle a bet as to which athlete could claim to be the fittest: swimmers, cyclists, or runners. You know the rest of the story: that original handful of participants set in motion the Ironman behemoth that dominates multisport competition today.

ÖtillÖ provides the multisport athlete who looks at Ironman and sees a commodified experience something fresh, and in 2020 the race series exports its top-tier race to the United States for the first time. Don’t misunderstand us, there have been several SwimRun races in North America in the last ten years, but only a small number of races actually receive the ÖtillÖ brand name (and concurrent prestige and attention). This ÖtillÖ will take place on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, over the weekend of February 29 (that’s right—a leap year!) through March 1st, and includes eight kilometers of swimming (the longest leg 1600m) and around 30 kilometers of running.

A swimrun competitor navigating the cold waters during the 2019 World Championships. Photo: Jakob Edholm

How to Train and Prepare

As Molly Balfe—one of our coaches at Chris Bagg Coaching Group—discovered over two SwimRun races in Maine in 2017 and 2018, ÖtillÖ-style racing presents all of the physical challenges of any extended endurance challenge coupled with extreme logistical and teamwork hurdles. In ÖtillÖ, you get to use gear such as wetsuits, pull buoys, and paddles during the swim legs (awesome, right?). The other side of that two-edged sword, however, is that all of that gear needs to come with you on the run. Conversely, your running shoes need to accompany you during the swim. Anybody who has taken a lifeguarding course knows just how hard it is to swim with shoes on, which is the reason that you get those pull buoys and paddles in the first place. Also along for the race is all of your safety gear and, um, your partner, who is tethered to you by a ten-meter cord for the entire duration. So practice and rehearsal is an absolute must, something Molly and her partner discovered early on during the 2017 SwimRun Odyssey race in Casco Bay, Maine, when he abandoned an important piece of gear only a few hundred meters into the first leg of swimming. Learning your partner’s motivations, enthusiasms, fears, strengths, and weaknesses will be crucial to your success at ÖtillÖ, and that stuff should probably get discovered during the training process, not during the race. Find some local lakes and rivers to practice swimming together, bound by a tether, so you can figure out how to support each other and take turns with the lead, rather than getting in each other’s way all day. Be honest with each other about what you want out of the race, so you both know what a win is for you and for your partner—they may be different!

Another wrinkle of the ÖtillÖ-style SwimRun races is that the courses are not marked, and you need to do the navigation yourself. At first this sounds straightforward, but many of these races take place in areas where the water is cold and complicated by currents. Planning, scouting, self-reliance, and navigation practice are also an absolute must, not only for performance but for safety. One feature of the changing endurance landscape over the past ten years, I’d say, is the increase in actual risk (versus perceived risk) that these bigger, longer and more remote events pose to the individual. Know the risks. Understand your accountability to them. Then make your decision.

I think the physical challenges of ÖtillÖ are secondary to the personal and logistical ones, which is why I’m placing them here. Doing a smaller, local SwimRun race, such as the Bellingham SwimRun in, uh, Bellingham, Washington, which features two miles of swimming and seven miles of running? If you’re a regular multisport athlete, completing a normal week of training, you’ve probably got the fitness right now to complete the event. The one tweak I would suggest is bumping up the amount of swimming with paddles you do, along with a concurrent strength program to stabilize your shoulders. That “important piece of gear” that Coach Molly’s partner threw away in the opening meters of the Casco Bay event? His paddles, since they were a) too big and b) he hadn’t trained with them. He simply didn’t have the strength to power the paddles.

Going big, such as the ÖtillÖ Catalina race? Well, first I would suggest tackling a smaller race to see if you like it, but I know multisport athletes, and a few of you are simply gonna sign up for the big one without ever doing a smaller one. For the swim, see above (lots of buoy/paddles/band swimming and shoulder strengthening/stability), aiming for 2-3 times the race distance in weekly volume (for Catalina, that means 14-21K of swimming per week). For the run, speed is not a limiting factor, but durability and the ability to change your pace is an important skill for races such as these. Get off the road and hit run courses with lots of elevation change (both up and down), aiming to build up to about twice the run distance per week, depending on your own personal durability. For ÖtillÖ Catalina, I would suggest building up to 35-40 miles of running per week, with some one-to-five-minute hill repeats tossed in to stimulate the upper end of your engine along the way.

Where Else to Practice

If you’re looking for another race, either to prepare for an ÖtillÖ or because you’re sensible and want to try this all out first, here is a short list of US-based options.

Odyssey SwimRun Series (www.odysseyswimrun.com)
Casco Bay, Maine: (08.09.2020)
Les Chaneaux, Michigan: (08.23.2020)
Orcas Island, Washington: (09.27.2020)
Auston, Texas: (11.08.2020)

Ignite SwimRun Series (www.igniteswimrun.com/races)
Maryland (05.09.2020)
Tennessee (06.28.2020)
Minnesota (08.29.2020)
Virginia (10.17.2020)

Other SwimRun Races
SwimRun Lake James, North Carolina: (04.18.2020)
SwimRun Georgia: (04.19.2020)
Blue Sky Endurance Fest, South Carolina: (04.26.2020)
Bellingham SwimRun, Washington: (06.07.2020)
Crawlman SwimRun, Georgia: (06.14.2020)
Summer Solstice, Maine: (06.20.2020)
Garden State SwimRun, New Jersey: (08.22.2020)
SwimRun North Carolina: (10.25.2020)

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Chris Bagg
Chris Bagg has been an actor, cook, teacher, writer, professional triathlete, and coach. He's at his happiest surfing, riding a bike, backpacking, or playing board games. As a coach, his fondest wish is for athletes to achieve their dreams and to find value in those achievements.