Swede George Bjälkemo is a busy man. He is a relatively new father and races triathlon and Swimrun events at a Pro level and there is no sign of slowing down. Just recently he finished 3rd at the inaugural ÖTILLÖ Swimrun Hvar in Croatia and he had a big win at ÖTILLÖ Swimrun 1000 Lakes in Berlin in 2016. He has a few half Ironman events on his calendar for 2017, but the big target is the ÖTILLÖ World Championships in Sweden.
Slowtwitch: How are you doing?
George Bjälkemo: I'm doing good, thank you! Still taking it easy after the race, meaning a lot of time for family and friends. Also, I’ve had time for some sponsor related activities. Just spend a few days with Salming Running at the very northern part of Denmark shooting running gear for spring 2018. It is a very cool setting and from a Swedish perspective, basically in our backyard.
ST: When did you return from Hvar?
George: I got home at midnight the day after the race. It's really not a long trip but there are no direct flights between Split and Stockholm so we had a few hours connecting in Frankfurt. So we had plenty of time to talk the race through.
ST: Was that your first trip to Croatia?
George: Yes, it was my first time there. I really didn’t know what to expect but I’ve heard a lot of great things, especially about those parts, and it all turned out to be true. I definitely would like to go back and bring my family. Hvar is certainly a unique place. People are friendly and the scenery is breathtaking.
ST: I have seen you post images from Stellenbosch, South Africa and from the Playitas resort in Fuerteventura. How often do you travel south for warmer training conditions?
George: 2-3 times a year, usually late fall and early spring. I can barely count the times I've been to Playitas but it was my first time in South Africa.
ST: Which location works for you best?
George: You get good training done in both. I feel very much at home in Playitas but South Africa has much more to offer besides training. Fuerteventura doesn´t. I would like to explore that part of the world more.
ST: Has the birth of your child changed how much you travel?
George: Yes, but not as much as I thought it would. Mostly in the sense when I'm traveling on my own, I’m no longer away as long as I used to. I try to limit it to about a week at the time. Other than that, we keep traveling but now more so as a family. It´s good to get some sun and warmth to stay healthy but the best training I usually find myself doing at home.
ST: You stumbled upon triathlon in 2010. What captured you?
George: I have a background in running and was dealing with injuries at the time. I started biking to maintain fit. There was an Olympic distance race in Stockholm that caught my attention. On the assumption that swimming couldn´t be that hard for someone growing up on the west coast of Sweden, I bought a wetsuit and registered. I was of course painfully mistaken. It was a lot of fun and things still went pretty. Having one of the best run splits I saw the potential and was eager to see how far I could reach.
ST: What are some of your running PR times?
George: My 10 km PR is 32:28. I usually do a 10 km road race at the beginning of the year to check my running form but I never taper for it.
ST: Looking back over the years, which triathlon result are you most proud of?
George: Not looking at the result necessarily but at my performance, my best races are the Swedish Half Ironman Championships (2nd) and Ironman 70.3 Austin (5 th) both in 2013. Both races with solid performances in all disciplines with a 1:12 run off the bike.
ST: What is on schedule triathlon wise for you this year?
George: As I´m coming back from some injuries from last season the planning is still very much in the making. I would however like to take another shot at the Swedish Half Ironman Championships. There will likely also be one or two other half Ironman races. This will depend a bit on how this fits with my other goal, to win the ÖtillÖ World Championships with Pontus.
ST: At the OTILLO race in Hvar you finished 3rd with your teammate Pontus Lindberg after what seemed to be a pretty tight battle for the top podium spot. With almost 50% of the teams dropping out how tough were those conditions?
George: Conditions were really tough during the swims, with strong currents and big waves. You had to be a good swimmer to stay confident. However, I think that the longer time spent in the water due to these conditions was the actual reason for the high number of dropouts. The fastest teams did the longest swim of about 3 km in about 1 hour, while some, I heard, did it in more than twice that time.
ST: For reference, what are some of your best swimming in the pool or open water?
George: In a half Ironman race I usually do a 25-26 min swim.
ST: At the 2016 ITU Long Course Triathlon World Championships in Oklahoma you had some difficulties during the swim and then pulled out. Can you tell us what happened?
George: The reason I pulled out was in fact that nothing happened. Already during the first half of the swim I was done. It´s a big race and it was the last of the season. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well. At the same time, I believe I wasn’t in a good place mentally and felt uncertain about my form. It all became too much for me. It was also my first time ever pulling out, if not due to injury, so it got emotional.
ST: It shows how important the mental aspect is.
George: Yes, no doubt it has a significant impact on your ability to perform. In the past I didn´t give that part of being an athlete much thought but that has changed over time. This of course having to do with a lot of different things, my expectations, family situation, work etc.
ST: In 2016 you finished 2nd at the Swedish Half Ironman Championships and 3rd at the Swedish Duathlon Championships. Plus you had an 8th place at Challenge Denmark and a 9th place at Challenge Billund. And in Berlin you struck gold at the OTILLO 1000 Lakes again with Pontus Lindberg. How would you rate the season?
George: A bit disappointing. It was my fourth time finishing 2nd at the Swedish Half Ironman Championships, so can´t say I was pleased. I was hoping for a bit more in regards of the other races as well. So, it was great finishing the season with the win at 1000 lakes with Pontus. We really fit perfectly as a team and it was great to share that experience.
ST: Was 1000 Lakes the first Swimrun race for you with Pontus?
George: Yes. I had no Swimrun experience before that whatsoever. Pontus on the other hand had at least some. After pulling out in Oklahoma and having nothing more planned for the rest of the season the timing was perfect.
ST: How were you two connected?
George: We have happened to be on the same triathlon teams over the years and both of us were on the Swedish National Team. We have been training a lot together. Taking a shot at the ÖtillÖ World Championships after “retiring” from triathlon is something we have been making jokes about. At some point this somehow got more serious and even though retirement is not the case for both of us it just seemed like a good idea right now.
ST: How do you balance your training to do both triathlon and Swimrun at an elite level?
George: For now, I basically keep doing the training I need to do for triathlon. However, I do focus on trail on my regular distance runs and include a specific paddle/pull buoy session in the weekly routine. Who knows, maybe it will make me improve in both sports.
ST: How much paddle/ pull buoy swimming do you do in training?
George: Apart from the weekly paddle/pull buoy specific session, I incorporate paddles/pull buoy training at least 1-2 times per week during my regular swim sessions. All together roughly 5000-8000 meters a week.
ST: At 1000 Lakes did it all fall into place?
George: I would say so. It was a test for us to see how we worked as a team. We knew that, at least in theory, we would be a great match. This race confirmed that this was also true in practice. It was a perfect race for us.
ST: How tough was that battle with that mixed team?
George: We were in the lead for most of the race. From what we understood we had a different team getting as close as 2 min behind us towards the end of the race but they then dropped back. We were not aware of the mixed team, Thomas Schreven and Jasmina Glad-Schreven, overtaking that team until after the finish. We know them well. A very solid team and they were finishing strong but didn´t get close enough to be a threat.
ST: Back to OTILLO Hvar, can you talk about your race?
George: It turned out be a really tough day. Considering how things unexpectedly turned for the worse early on, we were happy with 3 rd place. We were in the lead and everything was going as planned until the long swim. During that swim and the following swims Pontus was struggling to not lose his pull buoy. Swimming half of the time with it down by his ankles. We lost a lot of time due to this. We tried to make up for it on the runs, but with a very technical course it was not enough. We never really got into a good rhythm, one of us working a bit too hard all the time.
ST: There is this assumption that folks from Sweden aren’t bothered by cold water. Is that true for you?
George: Not sure about not being bothered, but I have certainly been exposed to the cold a lot. Maybe to a point where I know better how to cope with it. My wife might not agree with that though. I haven´t experienced anything as cold as 1000 Lakes. That bothered me, but after that race nothing really feels cold anymore. Actually, that type of thinking might be a way to cope with the freezing cold water.
ST: Both of you raced in Hvar with the sleeves of your wetsuits cut of but in Berlin you raced with sleeves in Berlin. How do you decide when to race with or without sleeves?
George: In this case it was easy. As I said, nothing compares to 1000 Lakes. We knew for sure that in Hvar it would be at least 15 c air temperature and with a bit of luck, somewhat similar water temperature. At 1000 Lakes it was half of that. Also considering a lot of climbs on the run, we knew it would get warm.
ST: Can you describe the rest of your gear?
George: In Hvar I used a Head Aero suit. While in 1000 Lakes I used a suit from Zone3. Both suits are great. Other than that, I use a pull buoy size bigger and relatively small paddles (stroke master, green). So, no fins. Simply doesn’t seem like a winning concept. For shoes I use Salming Elements and for timing etc I use a Garmin Fenix 5.
ST: What pull buoy did you move up to and did Pontus do the same?
George: We both used a pull buoy from Huub.
ST: Who of you is stronger in which discipline?
George: We are rather evenly matched. However, Pontus is the stronger swimmer while I might be considered the stronger runner even though that may depend a bit on the distance.
ST: Do you tether?
George: Yes, both on the swim and the run.
ST: Are there any other Swimrun races on your calendar?
George: Apart from the ÖtillÖ World Championships in September, we are looking at racing ÖtillÖ Utö 28 May and in November, ÖtillÖ’s new race for 2017 in France.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
George: Nothing more than that I´m grateful to my family and friends for putting up with me. Life could be easier but not as fun. My wife, being an elite runner herself, pretty much got me into more serious running and on the path to where I am today. I´m forever thankful for that.