A hard, cold and stunning day

I have written about unique multi sports endurance events for many years now and have always had a passion for them, but now I finally was able to experience one of them within - the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun Engadin. It was a hard, cold and absolutely stunning adventure and I am now completely smitten with the event and the passionate organization.

Matus Kriska and I competed together at the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun in the Engadin Valley in Switzerland on July 10th, 2016, but originally he was not meant to be my team mate. Here now is the story of the background, the preparation and how the race itself unfolded, plus some SwimRun details.

I actually had previously signed up for the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon 2 years in a row, but I ended up being injured during the preparation time each year and thus I did not start either event. When I signed up for the 2016 ÖTILLÖ SwimRun Engadin late in 2015 I swore that something completely crazy would have to happen for me not to start this race. Luckily with Jan Kriska I had quickly arranged an experienced and very tough teammate. At the time Jan and his son Matus were getting ready for the 2015 Loch Gu Loch SwimRun race, and I tried to listen and learn. Interestingly enough though, swimming is my least favorite segment of a triathlon, and cycling has always been my prowess. But I had always preached to other folks to think outside the box, and the SwimRun event was clearly outside my comfort box. I had done a few longer trail races, but since the birth of my now 4-year old twins I had not entered a triathlon that was of any significant distance, nor had I been swimming much. It was thus time to swim and run more and figure out the equipment.

When Jan and Matus had competed in the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championships in Sweden in 2014 they had used older triathlon wetsuits and simply cut the arms just above the elbows and the legs just above the knees. That clearly had worked prior, but we all decided to invest into SwimRun specific wetsuits and ended up purchasing the Huub Amphibia. The advantage of that suit over a standard triathlon wetsuit is an additional zipper in the front and 3 internal pockets for some race nutrition, plus space for the mandatory whistle, map and emergency kit. Additional brands offering SwimRun wetsuits are Head, Orca, Colting and Zone3 and a few more brands are currently working on one.

Although Jan Kriska and I only live 45 minutes apart, we did most training sessions on our own, but we talked often to share ideas and compare progress. However when Jan called me one day in early December to inform me that he had other obligations in early July and could thus not race with me, I was taken aback, but did not see it as the end of my plans. Jan, who felt bad about this, then suggested that I should have his son Matus as a partner, and although that seemed farfetched to me, when I sat down with Matus on New Year’s Eve I felt very good about that scenario.

Matus actually lives in Europe where he is studying medicine and thus the trip to Switzerland would be very simple for him, but I actually worried more about my swimming fitness swimming and thus went to the pool now very regularly. At the local YMCA I did many SwimRun sets where I often ran a few miles on the treadmill (in the men’s locker room) rinsed off in the shower and then jumped in the pool with paddles and pull buoy for 10-20 minutes, then back on the treadmill for a few miles, rinsed off and swam again, and repeated these activities over and over. When I only did a swim set, I warmed up a few hundred meters without any tools, but did all the main sets with pull buoy and paddles. Plus of course I swam open water too and ran a bunch. I also raced the Nantahala Hilly Half and the Chattanooga Rabid Raccoon trail running races in preparation for the ÖTILLO SwimRun Engadin. During most of my swims during the year I had been swimming with a Finis Axis buoy, and I absolutely loved it, but was concerned that this open buoy design might be more fragile when brushing up against a tree or tumbling during a point of the race. The solid and big Huub Big Buoy was thus chosen late in the game for Switzerland instead. About 10 days before the race I also moved from the yellow #2 Strokemaker paddles to the slightly bigger red #3 ones and those are the ones I took with me to Europe and raced with.

I arrived in Zürich, Switzerland on a Thursday and that is where I met up with Matus who had flown in from Bratislava, Slovakia. All bags were there and since no bike box had to be dealt with we were soon in our small rental car and on our way to the breathtaking Engadin valley and our hotel in Silvaplana. Walking up the steps to the hotel you could feel the thin mountain air, but we were rewarded by breathtaking views. The first night we met up with Josh Rayner and John Craft of the Houston, TX based Team Danger and their spouses Agustina and Amy and we all bonded that evening while we had dinner.

The next day Matus and I checked out the first sections of the course and we both were surprised how tough and difficult it was. With outside temperatures fairly warm we then decided that on race morning we would start the race with our wetsuit tops down, that we would not use a neoprene swim cap, and that we would only wear jammers under the wetsuit. We also realized that we likely needed to stay calm and mellow the first 2 hours of the race, because we had a long day ahead. We also thought it would be best to take our time in transition and in aid stations, and the plan was to stop after each swim to pull the wetsuit top down, and do the reverse at the beginning of the next swim. Plus of course we had to deal with that bib number shirt, the swim cap and paddles. We had tested a tether during the swim that day, but since we swam together well that first swim without ever stretching the tether we agreed to only tether during the two long swims, unless something odd happened. With aid stations on the course with gels, bananas and a few other items about 1 hour apart we decided to only take a few emergency gels with us, and drink the water of the mountain lakes during the swims to stay hydrated.

On Saturday we watched the Engadin SwimRun sprint event in the morning for some inspiration, and that afternoon we had our race briefing. 160 teams from 18 different countries were there and race director Michael Lemmel captured the crowd with his message about respecting nature, being considerate to other trail users, and helping competitors in distress.

“We race in symbiosis with nature. We need to be respectful of the environment we are in. We want to make unique races in unique places. We will accept no trash whatsoever and you will be disqualified if you do not follow this,” said Lemmel. “ÖTILLÖ SwimRun racing is about having fun and taking care of your partner. This means that you stop and care for those in need. You do not ignore and swim or run by. Racing is not about life and death. We can prove that a competitive world also can be a caring world!”

All the athletes and family members in the audience seemed to agree with the strong message and cheered for the ÖTILLÖ crew. Most of the teams also applauded when it was announced that teams from the USA were racing in this Engadin event.

The next morning we were up early and by 7am on a bus on the way to Maloja to the race start. At the starting area we had time for a bathroom visit, made sure our GPS tracker was registered, got final starting instructions and after a big Icelandic clap we were off to run 47.5 km and swim 5.8km, but split up over 9 runs and 8 swims.

As planned we started the first run of 6.3km with the 350-meters of elevation gain slowly, but we should maybe have not placed ourselves that far back in the field. We ended up passing a few teams up that tricky steep trail, but passing was somewhat difficult. After the climb there was a tricky 250-meter elevation drop descent to the first lake and I managed to stumble and fall just as I had two days earlier in training. But I didn't really hurt myself other than some scrapes and a bruised ego. The first swim was very cold at only about 48/49 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was only 270-meters in length. It took us a little bit of time to get our bib off and the wetsuit up and closed, and all other gear ready, but we were soon in the water and swimming across. Matus was much faster and had to wait for me, but it was over with rather fast and did not feel as cold as it sounds.

We then ran mostly downhill for 5km to the next 550-meter swim, and that felt very good. During the swim we tethered again and I was back on his feet easily even though the tether was completely slack. I basically used 2 arm strokes to every 4 of his and had to reach out wide not to hit his feet.

We then hit two more 6km running segments with 200-meter elevation gain each and 830-meter and 625-meter swim sections in between, and we steadily passed folks during the runs, but always lost a few spots swimming. All the competitors we encountered on the course were super friendly and in some cases talkative, and we tried hard to return that favor. We also went back and forth all along the course with Josh Rayner and John Craft and thus also got to enjoy the absolutely fantastic support of their wives in many locations.

The run after those sections was a monster - 6.75km with 375 meters of elevation gain and drop, and then followed by the first of two long cold swims. The run was indeed super tough and we made sure not to go too hard on that climb and walked some of the steepest sections, but so did the teams around us. We knew though that we were not close to be in trouble with any time cuts and guessed that we were running roughly near the middle of the field. The views were spectacular all along the course and sometimes I wondered if my breath was short because of the elevation or the stunning area we were racing in. We even encountered horses and cows along the way. Running that close past the horses (with no fence between us) was actually a bit scary to me, but the horses were really not too interested in us.

The first long swim had about a 54-degree water temp and was choppy and 1400 meters long. When we finally came out of the water we were very cold, but they had soup at the aid station, and running soon made us warm again. We also kept our wetsuit and swim caps on for quite a while after that swim.

The next swim was 1250 meters long and similar in temperature and during that swim I felt better and I started to pull Matus on the tether in the later stages of that swim, but I could not really feel him, as he easily swam on my feet. Once we came out of that swim we know that we had the hardest part of the course behind us. We basically had about 12.5k of running left and 950 meters of swimming, but split up over 3 runs and 2 swims. I felt pretty good at the time and from that point on we started running with the tether too.

Shortly before the final swim Josh and John passed us once more and we then did not see them again until the finish. A couple more teams passed us in the water during the final swim and we then charged towards the finish. I could feel the day’s work in my legs and one more team passed us with .5k to go. I also started to look back and that is never a good sign. When we reached the finish Matus managed to score a goal with a soccer ball that had somehow landed in the finish chute. We were super happy with our day out, but glad that it was finally over after 8:18:41. We got hugs from the race organization as we crossed the finish and then learned that we ended up in 62nd place out of 130 teams who finished.

Since there currently is no SwimRun app available for the Garmin 920XT (only the Garmin Fenix3) I recorded the complete event as a singular running event. But I had forgotten to stop the activity at the finish and the Garmin ran about another 20 minutes longer while we chatted with various folks. When I looked at the data later it showed that I only moved 7 hours and 10 minutes. I guess that means we wasted a lot of time in transition and the aid stations.

Where does this race rank in terms of personal race participation experience? I think it was the hardest and most stunning race I have ever done. No race I have done previously has fulfilled me as much. I have done Ironman races, ultra endurance mountain bike events, 24 hour adventure races, MTB World Cups and a variety of other unique events such as Iditabike in Alaska over the years, but I do not recall any of these events touching me emotionally anywhere close as much as this one. Maybe I am simply older and wiser now, or can't recall those old days so well. I am surely ready however for more SwimRun events, so sign me up.

The SwimRun sport is still in its infancy and thus each team has to decide what works for them. I noticed a team that finished second in the mixed division that swam without pull buoys and paddles, and one of the members of the winning female team used fins in the race. During the running sections she carried them attached to her hips with velcro strips. There were some teams with full wetsuits and others with very minimal ones. Some teams carried liquid storage backpacks and a lot of nutrition, while others carried only the mandatory gear. To some degree it feels a bit like triathlon in the early days where folks were testing and experimenting with various products and methods to see what might work best.

But unlike the sport of triathlon where it is all about being an individual and doing things on your own, in the sport of SwimRun it is all about the team and that makes it very special. I very much enjoyed racing with Matus and we supported each other during the whole race and we both were pretty patient with each other. I also think having a partner makes you dig even deeper into your pain tolerance.

In addition to the current ÖTILLÖ events in Üto (Sweden), Isles of Scilly (UK), Engadin (Switzerland), 1000 Lakes (Germany) and the World Championships in Sweden there will also be a race in Croatia and a yet to be announced mystery location in 2017. Plus of course there are now hundreds of other SwimRun events mostly in Northern Europe, but these events are also coming to North America and Oceania too. Among the races in NA are SwimRun USA at Casco Bay, SwimRun NC at Hanging Rock, NC and SwimRun VA in Richmond, VA.

But watch out when entering one of these events, you might end up being completely hooked.