Staffan Björkland is very close to nature as an avid and accomplished climber, skier, adventure racer and Swimrun athlete. He won the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championships in the mixed division with Marika Wagner in 2015 but he is not simply defined by that result. He will soon race an XTERRA triathlon and who knows what will be next after that.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time.
Staffan Björklund: My pleasure.
ST: You recently returned from Switzerland. What was on your agenda?
Staffan: I was in the Swiss Alps for a little more than two weeks ski guiding with a quick turnaround in Cortina, Italy too. I’m going back later this March, but that time to the Engadin valley. The mountains have a call and I learn a lot by spending time in them, it was there, in the mountains I found the bigger purpose with my training.
ST: Did you ski much?
Staffan: Yes, I skied a lot. And got some training and mountaineering in between work. I have been taught to see the mountains in a special way by the people in Telluride and I appreciate Mother Nature, weather and different conditions. It makes us feel small. I’m trying to connect others to nature and the mountains by showing them what awareness and understanding can do. This way we skied a lot of powder in safe conditions and had fun adventures in the mountains.
ST: Are you pretty good?
Staffan: There was a time I answered a similar question this way. I’m really good at three things, which I can brag about, yet in a humble way - running, skiing and piloting high-speed boats. I dedicated many years to travel the world and ski powder. So, yes, I’m a decent skier.
ST: And how much climbing do you do?
Staffan: I used to do more climbing, but I did less the past three years because of my push to become a full time athlete, Swimrunner and adventure racer. However, last winter I achieved a long time goal to ice climb all big frozen water falls in Telluride, CO. I find more satisfaction in climbing ice, but I also love running up long easy traditional routes in Red Rocks, Las Vegas or in Europe. Professional climbing athletes, both females and men are one of the few groups of athletes that really impress me today. You need to be so versatile, control both body and mind, be super strong, flexible, stamina, smart, dedicated and extremely head strong to conquer fear and their projects they are climbing. Very impressive!
ST: What is the toughest climb you have done to date?
Staffan: Hum, that’s a tricky question. I’ve done a lot of easy climbs in the beginning of my climbing careers that was very hard by that time. Today however, I would consider them easy. I have no climb in particular in mind. I have this approach; there are three steps for me. First I need to collect knowledge, get the skills required for the particular climb, find facts, learn fear management, talk to people and prepare mentally and physically to increase my chances for success and survive. Step two, the test, now I climb my object, fist now I will know if I will manage the climb. All my skills, knowledge, and pre-trained experiences are now put to the test. When I run into a problem, it’s with these experiences I have to find the solution through. Hopefully I do, if not, I have to turn around. Third and last step; if I failed I start over at step one. If I succeed I enjoy the feeling of fulfillment. I can just lay in bed with a quirky smile on my face, not needing to talk to anyone. I engage self-knowledge, confidence and have reach new levels of my own awareness.
The most recent one of these climbs I’ve done was Bridal Vail falls I had mentioned earlier. It took me 5 years to prepare and three attempts before me and my partner Daniel could reach the top of this +220 m ice fall.
ST: Do you think you might return to more serious mountaineering at one point and are there any specific climbs on your bucket list you still want to do?
Staffan: Yes, I’ve started moving that direction now. I have missed the mountains and the way they make me feel the last few years. I still have objects that I’m looking at, but they change all the time, when you check one of after another. But I have looked at The North Face of Eiger now for two years. That would be fun! I like the way this compliment my athletic career and my training. Gives me perspective on things. I appreciate the instant feedback I get in the mountains if I do anything wrong.
ST: Nothing in the Himalayas?
Staffan: Not yet but have some plans for the future there. For adventures like this I need a bigger wallet too. I been offered to climb Everest a few times but would never do that, just if I got paid to do it. I was just going to start guiding on these big mountains (Seven summits) when Adventure Racing got in the way of that.
ST: During the summer how much time to you spend adventure racing compared to Swimrunning?
Staffan: They go well hand in hand. Even though I think in a near future I have to choose one of them to become World Champion in either of them. Both sports are growing fast. I’d say I spend 50/50 training the two sports now. Last year I ended up doing more adventure racing and happily won the European Championship. That said, I think 2017 will be more about Swimrun than adventure racing.
ST: How and when did you get started with Swimrun?
Staffan: Long story short. I used to live on Sandhamn (the start island of ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championship) and I was working for Sandhamns Guiderna. The first three years I helped Mats and Michael by driving a safety boat, marking the course and taking down the ribbons after the race. After the third year, they said “Next year you’re racing, we want you on the start line.”
So in June I got the call from Jonas Andersson and he had gotten my number from Michael. He had done the race the year before but his partner was injured and now he was looking for a new partner. I had never taken a single freestyle stroke in my life when he called me. But I said yes and the next day I did my first swim session in the outdoor pool on Sandhamn. I could not make it over without stopping half way, panicking because I was so short of air. The pool is 12 m. The days following I got one lesson from a friend who was a former elite swimmer. She had me train to float properly for 2 h. After that I swam 20 min or more everyday for three month before my first start.
ST: How and when did you meet Marika Wagner?
Staffan: I met Marika Wagner at ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championship 2013 for the first time. We met at the award ceremony; she finished second in the mixed category and I finished in 6th place in the men’s category that year. We talked a little bit and 18 months later we needed a new female for our Adventure Racing team and I called her. We started to race together and one of our sponsors, Apollo Sports, asked if we would race for them in ÖtillÖ 2015.
ST: In 2015 you and Marika broke the course record at the OTILLO World Championship event and with a huge advantage over the next team. Talk about that day.
Staffan: That was one of those days when nothing could stop us. One of those perfect days you have now and then. We had prepared for months and knew exactly what we had to do. We had trained a lot together, attached to each other and spent more time on the course than anyone else. We had left nothing out. Mentally we were ready and we had learned each other well. We knew when to push and when to slow down. We knew we were going to be behind after the first swim. After that our race started, however, we did a great first swim and took the lead in mix category on the second island Skarprummarön. Many people thought we went out to fast and hard but we were just following our plan and did our race. However, it was not until Utö we could relax. At Ornö Church I remember a conversation Marika and I had. The only thing that could stop us from winning now is if one of us got injured. We slowed down and took it really easy and we were careful when we swam and run over the last islands to the finish line. We walked the last islands to stay safe. That day I think we sat a new standard for Swimrun, by being just 26 minutes or so behind the men’s winner, Paul and Björn. And we were not even tired and had another gear. It was the best feeling ever to win the 10th anniversary with Marika and the way we did it.
ST: Describe the Swimrun gear you and Marika use.
Staffan: Ah, right! We try to stay clean and keep everything simple. We have Swimwin Carbon wing paddles on our hands, they are stiff and have the best grip on the market for open water. They will be out for sale to the 2017 season. We have a custom made pull buoy, made out of juice bottles. They weigh 70 grams and have the best buoyancy compared to the weight. We use the mandatory swim cap but we don’t use eyewear. It just takes to much time, they fog up and it’s hard to navigate. Here in Sweden the ocean water pretty much has the same salt density like the water in your eyes, so it doesn’t hurt. We always bring some extra gels inside the wet suit, and for ÖtillÖ we bring 2 liters extra water. 0.5 liters for Rummarö, 0.5 liters for Nämndö and 1 liter for Ornö. That way we have minimal time at energy stations. We also have a bungee cord between each other the whole race. We never take it of, start to finish. I believe our biggest secret though, is all the hours we trained together and how well we know each other while racing.
ST: With all the time you have spent in Switzerland, why not the race in Engadin?
Staffan: Well, just a handful people know this. I used to work in the Engadin Valley and spend many weeks there every summer guiding. I had to get in shape for ÖtillÖ and had to find a way to train while working through out the Alps. So I packed my wetsuit in my backpack and roamed ice-cold alpine lakes all over Europe. And the Engadin valley was and still is my favorite. I spend the days up in the mountains guiding and the evenings running and swimming around in all the lakes in the Engadin valley. After one summer, I called Michael and asked him to sit down with me for a Swedish fika. I pulled out the map and showed him where and how I had trained. The rest is history! It became the first Swimrun race outside Sweden in the World Series. Marika and I have planned to do Engadin this year!
ST: Ha I guess I will see you then.
Staffan: Great fun, let’s do something in the mountains when we’re done racing. I’ll bring my climbing gear!
ST: In 2016 you started the OTILLO World Championships with a big target on your back. Was that extra pressure?
Staffan: If there was someone who built pressure it was just us. We want this sport to grow bigger and we wanted to take our responsibility. We wanted us to be like professional athlete in other sports - able to get paid for our profession and pay our bills. We spent as many hours training and racing as other professional athletes who get paid. So we set high goals. We wanted to make a point and show that it’s possible, not just to us but also to everyone. Just like we showed 2015 but now in a different way.
ST: In think I remember you saying that you had a slow start. Can you elaborate?
Staffan: Yes, you remember right. We had a terrible start. We hit the water with the first 10 teams. We took off and I could not find rhythm and pace and I couldn’t relax. I got frustrated seeing team after team pass us. Marika was strong but I didn’t have that day you need to win. Finally, after Nämndö we could start our race. Since I love running and the longer the distance we found our race again and could finish second. I was so proud that we kept going and got our race together after that start and still finish second. We had a journey that day, yet very disappointed but still proud of what we had achieved. We learned a lot!
ST: What is the closest you got to them and when did you know that you were no longer able to catch them?
Staffan: At one point my thoughts and mind told me to quit the race. But at that same point I wanted to give it another chance. This all happened on Nämndö. We knew we were way behind, but not by how much. And to be honest, right there and then I didn’t care. I just wanted to give Marika and myself justice. We started over, and without telling each other we began picking up speed. Still struggling in the water, but faster on the islands. We started to pass teams and felt stronger on Ornö and at the final 15k we just did everything we could to catch up with as many as we possible could. That took us to the second place in 2016. Still second in the world, but it’s not the same as winning when that was your goal.
ST: So what is on agenda for this summer?
Staffan: Right now I’m heading over to Paraguay to support and take photos of Marika doing a World Series event in Adventure Racing. For swimrun Marika and I plan to do Utö Swimrun, Engadin Swimrun, ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championship, France Swimrun and maybe Rock Man in Norway. Next up is Xterra Phuket in April. For Adventure Racing we’ve planed to race European Championship in Russia and Åre Extreme Challenge. Hopefully we qualify to the World Championship in USA too.
So there is plenty to do.
ST: Are you a descent cyclist?
Staffan: I guess, but of course it depends. I’m probably a better MTB cyclist than road cyclist. I’m pretty strong and have good, or really good numbers on all my tests. I have some kind of watt record in a test lab in Tanyapura Phuket, Thailand. However, when it comes to road cycling there is more than just being strong and have a big heart, you need to be smart too and know about tactics. I guess that’s my weak side. I’m a “front runner”, both in running and cycling, and that can be really tiring, as you all know. I love riding my mountain bike on smooth single trails, push hard in the uphill and charge downhill. I tend to break a lot of components cause of my fairly aggressive style. Yet I know few people who take better care of their bike than I do. Biking has become my favorite training device in the summers. I use my road bike mainly for my intervals and distance sessions, and trying to ride as nice as I can with my aggressive MTB style in the pace line. Marika is a good teacher after many years as a road cyclist, but I’m a slow learner here.
ST: Have you done any road triathlons?
Staffan: I have not. But who know what the future brings. After all, I will do my first XTERRA in Phuket, Thailand, on April 2nd. I have no specific goal since I been on the road traveling for so long now. I haven’t trained properly in two 2 months. I will just go there and enjoy the new experience and have fun!
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Staffan: Well, hopefully I can inspire in some way, if so, please follow my Instagram account: @Staffaneb and our hashtags, #whatsyourdream and #natureisyours.