Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott are the founders and passionate race directors of the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun event and we had a few words Michael about the relatively new sport that has grabbed the imagination of many athletes around the world.
Slowtwitch: With the 11th edition of ÖTILLÖ almost upon us, please share your thoughts about the 2015 event, and take us on a stroll down memory lane and tell us how the event has evolved over the past decade and in what aspects it has remained the same.
Michael Lemmel: ÖTILLÖ, The SwimRun World Championship is generating incredible athletes and beautiful stories. Teams are preparing better and better, they are focusing on SwimRun. The course is more or less the same from the beginning until today, the change is in the way people move. The race is getting faster and faster, teams race harder and harder. The presence of women in the very top of the field is increasing and Marika Wagner proved that 9 hours is no barrier when taking 5th place overall and winning the Mixed Team competition. We hear she and Staffan are gunning for the overall podium this year! We love that!
ST: A lot of our editorial in recent years has been about what it means to be a multisport athlete. As triathletes, we know how to swim, how to ride a bike, and how to run so it is only our mindset that is limiting us from putting those tools to use in out-of-the-box settings. In Scandinavia, race directors and racers are pushing their boundaries with unique events and races. These races are booming. Here in the US we are in a rut. What do you notice when you look at the multisport scene in Sweden, in Switzerland for Engadin, and elsewhere?
Michael: Great question. I think the endurance world is too compartmentalized. As Mats and I come from the adventure racing world we want to make people from different sports come together. To see SwimRun as a new way of moving through nature instead of just chasing time. It is a way of travelling, you just pass the obstacles in your way and keep a straight line. To train and race in a pair adds a great dimension as you are interdependent of another being. You get to share your experience, your pain and your elation. We need to use the tools we have in a broader mindset to keep motivated.
ST: You come from the world of adventure racing. You were teammates. This was necessary in adventure racing but in SwimRun events this concept is also used. Tell us why you feel so strongly about why these races should be done with a teammate?
Michael: As above, you share the experience with another person. You have to show weakness and strength. You are interdependent. This adds a new dimension. It is also a safety issue.
ST: Do you take surveys or ask racers what other sports they compete in? Do triathletes make up a large component of your SwimRun racers?
Michael: Yes, we do in a way. You can enter the race via merit application and then we see what sports they come from. There are a lot of triathletes, but most of them that apply for the ÖTILLÖ have also tried trail running races, open water races, etc. To be able to finish the ÖTILLÖ you must be used to running in rough terrain as well.
ST: The images that come out of ÖTILLÖ are captivating and showcase the natural environment as well as the immense physical and mental challenges racers face. What lured you to this particular event a decade ago and captivated you to showcase it to the world?
Michael: Mats and I wanted to make a race out of the crazy drunken challenge as the distance is immense yet possible. People in Stockholm do not realize what they have one hour out in the archipelago, the same is with the majority of the people in the world. We wanted to show this unique environment. At the time, Mats and I were looking for a venue to build a race and the timing was perfect!
ST: You raced some of the biggest adventure races at the height of the sport’s popularity. In what ways did competing, and witnessing Mark Burnett’s production, at events like Eco Challenge shape the way you organize and produce ÖTILLÖ?
Michael: I think both Eco Challenge and Raid Gauloises inspired us, as well as Ecomotion in Brazil. You are in for a race and it is competitive, but what all these three have in common even if they were big productions is that they were personal, with the race directors having direct contact with the competitors. That we really like.
I come from traditional sports like orienteering and cross-country skiing where this is not the case. There you enter a race and you know it is an organization that organizes it. It is more anonymous.
ST: ÖTILLÖ provides live coverage of the SwimRun World Championships hosted on your event website. Do you have other post-production broadcasting plans to showcase your event to the world?
Michael: We do a TV production for international distribution, it has to date been shown in over 120 channels world-wide. We have a Youtube channel where all footage is gathered. [Link is at the bottom.]
ST: ÖTILLÖ sells out very quickly. How do racers go about qualifying? What considerations do you put toward the future as it continues to grow in popularity? For example, Norseman Xtreme in the triathlon world limits their entrance field to 250 athletes yet has over 3000 applications vying for those coveted spots.
Michael: This situation is difficult at the same time as we are very grateful. We are in a similar situation as Norseman is; we have 120 teams (240 persons) due to lack of hotel beds. We receive many many more than we can accept. We want to accommodate teams and we try to find new ways of making the selection process more fair. For 2017 we will have to find a new way of doing this process. We have the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Series races through which you can qualify. We will also have about 20 - 25 lottery spots to give anyone a chance to get in, to keep the dream alive. How we manage the bulk of our merit applications we will have to figure out in the next six months.
ST: As part of the qualifying race series, in addition to the UTO race which shares a modified version of the ÖTILLÖ course, you introduced Engadin and more recently a few others. Tell us more about these unique challenges.
Michael: The Engadin SwimRun was the first export of the SwimRun sport and we chose the Engadin Valley which is one of the most beautiful Alp valleys with nice lakes. The first international race we wanted to be in the mountains and lakes. Now in it’s third year, we have beautiful weather and incredible images with racers running in wetsuits in the mountains at an altitude of 2500 meters. Switzerland is also a country that is a very nice destination for everyone, with it’s incredible nature and very well organized structure.
ST: Can you also tell us about 1000 Lakes and Isles of Scilly SwimRuns?
Michael: Our path forward is to introduce new, unique races in unique places. The Isles of Scilly is a place few people know about. It looks like the Caribbean but with Harry Potter stone walls on land. It is a truly an amazing place.
1000 Lakes is another unique location, only 90 minutes North of Berlin where there are more than 3000 lakes. The majority of these lakes are lined with beech trees which means the colors in the end of October will be amazing. It will be like swimming in fire. The trails are through open forests. It will be fast and it will be very cool. We have increased the swimming distances in these two races as we feel we need to balance the field so swimmers have a chance to give the strong runners a match.
ST: Tell us about the growth of SwimRun in Scandinavia. We hear there are now hundreds of events taking place. Why do you think Scandinavians are so captivated by this sport?
Michael: Over the last three years the popularity of ÖTILLÖ has grown immensely. This has spawned off in local races that have become quite big. All of these races are shorter and easier than ÖTILLÖ and therefor more accessible. We need something new after triathlon, multisport and other endurance sports where you can combine all of these in one go.
ST: Do you hear if SwimRun is growing outside of Scandinavia?
Michael: We get suggestions every week from different parts of the world about people who want to start new races. We see 2016 as the year when SwimRun really starts taking off outside of Scandinavia.
ST: Look into your crystal ball for a minute. What do you see in the future for ÖTILLÖ and SwimRun as a sport?
Michael: Mats [pic below] and I think ÖTILLÖ will grow in popularity. SwimRun will be one of the fastest growing sports in the 5-8 years ahead.
ST: You have just announced the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Series. Can you tell us more about this?
Michael: The ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Series is our gathering of races that will continue to grow over the years to come. These races will be Qualifiers to ÖTILLÖ, The SwimRun World Championship, and also fantastic, stand-alone events. More exciting things will be presented throughout the year.
ST: I couldn’t help but notice two former IRONMAN World Champions on the starting line for ÖTILLÖ in 2016. How do you see Chris McCormack and Faris Al-Sultan stacking up? Are there now athletes who are 100% focused on SwimRun events only and specialize in this racing?
Michael: It is an honor for us to have great athletes on our start line. No one mentioned and no one forgotten. It will be very special to see these triathlon power houses challenged by the environment of ÖTILLÖ and also by the very specialized field of ÖTILLÖ perennial top 10’s. The outcome will be quite dependent on how much Macca and Al-Sultan will spend in the environment before the race. It is like Coast to Coast in New Zealand, impossible to know how to race unless you have done most of the course several times prior to the race.
The ÖTILLÖ YouTube channel can be found here