Tracey McQuire from Penticton finishes and shares the dirt on this grueling event
Q: A week ago you participated in the SwimRun World Championship race called Otillo. I understand that this race is ranked as one of the toughest endurance races in the world by CNN. Tell us a little bit about this race, where it takes place and what makes it so challenging.
A: Swimrun is a fast growing sport in Scandinavia /Europe where you alternate trail running and open water swimming. ÖTILLÖ is the world’s longest swimrun race and is renown as one of the toughest one-day races in the world. Otillo takes place in the Archipelago Islands (a 3 hour ferry ride from Stockholm, Sweden). What makes it so challenging is that the cut-offs can be quite tight; therefore, you basically run in your wetsuit and swim in your runners. And when I say "trail" running, I mean bouldering, clawing over/ along rocks, running on unmaintained areas of brush and slip and sliding over algae covered rocks with the occasional "trail" and a few km's of welcome road :) The weather has a history of being "epic" with sleet, rain, wind, sun and cold water. This year the water temps hovered around 12 degrees C and it was sunny and warm. One would think the sun was nice, however, it did make the wetsuit running a "tad" warm!
In 2002 the now finish line hotel owner challenged his staff– “Last team of two to Sandhamn pays for hotel, dinner and drinks”. Two teams of two started the next morning with the only rule being that they had to pass the three different restaurants on the islands between the start and the finish. The last team at the restaurant had to drink and pay what the team ahead of them had ordered for them. It took them more than 24 hours and they were too tired to party on arrival. They tried again the year after with the same result.
In 2006 Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott got involved and made a commercial race out of their crazy challenge. The first couple of years only 11 teams started and only two managed to finish within the time limits. Then something happened and the teams learned that the only way to race is by not stopping, with constant movement. Today, two of the initial challengers are still racing the event!
Fast Facts ÖTILLÖ – the Swimrun World Championship
• 9th edition 2014
• 75 km running and swimming from dawn till dusk small
• 65 km of trail running
• 10 km of open water swimming
• Water temperature between 10 - 15 degrees C
• 26 islands to cross
• 50 changes between running and swimming
• The swims are between 100 and 1 780 metres long
• The runs are between 70 and 19 700 metres long
• 120 teams - 80 men, 25 mixed, 15 women
• Teams of two, for safety reasons
• 22 Nationalities: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Australia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Portugal, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, UK, USA, S Africa, Romania, Belgium, France, CanadA
Q: You raced as a team, correct? Tell us a little about your partner, how you two decided to do this epic race and how you two had to work together to finish.
A: Yes! You race as a team of 2 for safety reasons. Many of the islands you cross are uninhabited and the water has a history of being quite cold with heavy currents. In 2012 I was in the UK to visit family, friends and to scout out the UMUK race course. Sitting in my friends living room in Croydon, her husband Matt Lawrence mentioned this crazy race called the Otillo where you would swim and run between islands…the seed was planted and we had it on our bucket list! Last year in October, Matt asked if we should apply to the race on Merit. There is an option to get in via a paid lottery or a qualifying race, however, we wanted to be as close to earning our spot as possible. Of course I said YES! and then we sat on pins and needles until those selected were mentioned. On selection day we were messaging back and forth as Matt lives in the UK - I think the world could hear us as we yelled with excitement when the list was posted!
We knew we'd have a challenge living in different parts of the world and the fact that Matt was racing as his first pro race at Challenge Penticton only a week prior to Otillo! We have know each other for near 10 years, so we actually weren't nervous about the lack of training together. We did though, spend quite a few hours emailing each other and skyping! Matt's coach Simon Ward, was very helpful in giving us a lot of tips as he has finished the race once and his wife is a two time finisher. As was Lisa Neidrauer from Ontario, whom had race in 2013 - I am forever grateful for her to take the time to email me back with all of my questions!!
Matt, was my lifesaver in this race. Going into the race, I was the stronger swimmer and Matt the stronger runner. So the plan was to race to each other's weaknesses where Matt would pace the swim, and I the run. As partners we would also keep track of each others nutrition, help with wetsuit opening / closing and water exits. As I became extremely ill after the second water crossing (likely a mixture of jet lag, getting caught in a pack and "drinking" too much sea water and having my first ever experience with sea sickness), Matt was an amazing and patient race partner. We both knew that this could be the end of our race, however, neither of us would admit it and Matt knew that I would give 100% of what ever I had left in. Thanks to Matt, I bounced back in the last third of the race and we managed to make the remainder of the cut-offs and start picking off some teams…it felt SO good! At this time Matt, started to have some knee and ankle issues due to the extreme mileage his body had incurred from Challenge Penticton the week prior - but, we got it done!!
Q: How did you fuel during this event with so much time spent in the water?
A: Ha!Ha! Fuelling?? I only laugh as I was so very ill that I couldn't digest anything for the first 6 hours of the race! At one section a lady jumped out with TWIX bars (you've got to love Swedes and their chocolate!) and I couldn't even get a bite down. The plan was to eat/drink at the aide stations (filled with electrolyte drink, chocolate bars, cinnamon buns, bananas, Red Bull, water etc..sadly no Coke) adn we had a small water flask to refill and a few gels with us. So we should have been able to take in 100 calories or so every hour. On the "long" run section there was an aide station at 11km and 7km - this was the first time I could eat…I had the biggest KEX bar (yum!!), could drink electrolytes and finally sucked back my 2 gels at the start and finish of these sections. It was a golden moment for me. Next time, I would refill my flask with electrolytes at each aide station (12 in total) as I don't think taking on solids would be easy to stomach with the multiple enter and exits (horizontal to vertical moments).
Q: How did you prepare for this event? Not only does it require endurance in both running and swimming I can’t imagine how tiring it would have been to get in and out of the water up to 38 times. That would have also required a lot of strength.
A: I had a coach, Consuela Lively, with whom I asked to train me after we had raced together over a couple of years on the Ultraman circuit. I knew that she was aware of my strengths and weaknesses and that it was a bucket list race for herself as well. I chose to swim with paddles, so I did a large volume of training with hand paddles and then in March I began swimming in my runners at the pool. I am (was) a road runner, so I also started doing more runs with Neil MacDonald's "Buttercup" group in Penticton and joined the PACE Rossland mountain trail running camp where I learned to really enjoy the trails. As the weather warmed, I started doing more lake swims. Yes, as it warmed up…one would think with the cold water temps, I'd have been in the lake earlier…however, I HATE cold water and I couldn't get in until the water was at least 20 degrees C! I then tried to swim when the lake was rough and had a friend "run:swim" with me laps around Powell Beach so I wouldn't look crazy by myself! I also really appreciated the long swims I was able to log with Haley Berrisford, a phenomenal 14 year old open water swimmer - I regretted not having done more swimming with her.
With my hours of research through race blogs, there was one common theme. The women had all mentioned that they had wished that they had done more strength training. So, I spent 2 sessions a week with Brent Dobie at the Lakeside gym working on leg strength, shoulder stability and core strength. I was very happy that I did so!
Q: What kind of equipment did you use and did you have to carry anything with you or did they have drop bags and fuel on each island? Tell us a bit about the logistics.
A: We decided to go with wetsuits cut above the knees and elbows. In hindsight, I would have left the full arms I think for the swim, however, cutting the arms did make it easier to pull the top up and down. Under my wetsuit, I wore Sugoi compression shorts and an ice fill Pearl Izumi tri top. Chaffing was resisted with copious amounts of Body Glide, TriSlide and Sport Slick. We didn't use pull bouys as many teams did…I float well enough thank you! I started with a thin latex cap under the silicone one they provided - I quickly got rid of this :) I chose medium sized Speedo Power hand paddles to over come the drag of my shoes. They also came in handy to write down our distances and cut off times. Matt hadn't been using paddles in his training, so he didn't use them. I would say that 75% of the racers appeared to use paddles. I spent hours going through Flicker photos of races past and saw that a significant number of teams were wearing Inov-8 Talon series shoes. So I ordered and trained in the the X-Talon 212 and raced in the X-Talon 190. These shoes are quite minimalistic, so I had to train my feet to like them, however, they have a killer grip and drained the water extremely well. To protect my calves, I wore 2XU calf guards as they were the thinnest that I own and I loved my choice in socks - Smart Wool toe socks. Between the socks and slathering my feet in TriSlide, not a blister or hotspot was to be had!! High recommendations!! For water, we went minimalistic and I loved our choice in the soft sided 5-8oz Salomon Flasks; we just tucked these up under the thighs of our suits. In the rules we HAD to carry a GPS unit, whistle, pressure bandage, compass and waterproofed map. These fit wonderfully in our SpiBelts (from Podium Imports) under our wetsuits. We also had to wear a huge bib to identify our team and I thought that this would provide a lot of drag, however, once in the water you didn't even notice it.
There are no drop bags allowed for this race. Everything you start with, you must cross the finish line with.
We decided to go minimal before the race as with 12 aide stations, we thought we could get away with the distances with our fuelling and the plan was to refill our flasks at each aide station. The longest stretch of running was the split up 19km section, for which we both carried 2 of our own gels for this section. On review of this race, I think that this strategy would have worked out perfectly for us. I only say "would have" as I couldn't get any fuel of any sort into my system for such a long time, so I spent more time at the later aide stations that we had planned to try to catch up a bit on nutrition.
The goal for us was to keep moving no matter what! We were going to take time just on the water entrances to be sure read the current properly and could sight the target exit on the upcoming land section. I think Matt did a stellar job at reading the currents for us. Looking back at our data, I can account for an hour and a half lost due to issues with being ill (speed on the swim, run, fuelling stops, retching stops…). However, when I look at other aspects of our race, I think we nailed our plans and we were adaptable when required. Heck, 18 teams didn't finish and that was our #1 goal.
Q: This race is so unique Tracey and I could ask you a million questions. I’ll leave this one up to you to share anything you feel our readers might find interesting or inspiring about the event. Please share information or a story from your experience.
A: This race is absolutely amazing. It is in my blood now. If I could go back next year, I most certainly would; however, due to some other life plans I am hoping that Matt will be keen to race with me again in 2016. It will be tough to get in with the popularity of the sport. We were told that over 500 teams applied and only 120 were able to race - I can only imagine how tough it will be for a North Americans to get in over time as there are only 2 other current qualifiers between Sweden and Switzerland.
When we finished, Matt said unequivocally that he would NEVER do this race again. He was super glad we did it, but it was cold and tough! I said I wouldn't either, but when I skyped with my boyfriend Kevin that night, he reminded me that that's what I always say…he was right. By morning, I wanted a rematch and I couldn't imagine doing it again without Matt. We flew back to the UK the next day and Matt had to go to work that night…when he came home guess what he said, "I need to do that again!"
What would I do differently? Knowing I have problems with jet lag flying to the UK, I would have liked to have gotten there a few days earlier and I wouldn't have pace the week prior at Fat Dog for near 50km! We flew from Kelowna on Thursday and landed in the UK on Friday and flew to Sweden on Saturday to take the ferry to the start on Sunday….it was a bit much, however, it worked with what we needed to get done this year. I would also have done more what I would call "boulder" running. Even though I didn't train in the cold lake temps, I do not think that this hampered me. I have talked to other athletes on to combat the sea sickness and I'll try some of these measures next time if I get the opportunity.
There are so many memories to share. The scenery is amazing, the other racers were amazing, and it was just nice to do something so different from what we race on here in North America. As a race itself, it was very well organized, the race directors were extremely personable and Mats Skott (one of the directors) even appeared on the different islands at multiple times to talk to each participant. From the minute you boarded the ferry to Sandham in Stockholm you were taken care of in regards to accommodation and meals until you arrived back in Stockholm. This was such a stress reliever. Some participants had family members come along to check out the islands by boat during the race, so everyone was able to get a good feel of what the race was about.
I'll leave you with some of our favorite quotes from the race (I won't say who said what, as I want Matt to race with me again!!):
"I can actually run, eat and pee at the same time!"
"Does my butt look big?" (GPS unit under the wetsuit - note to self, don't call it a fanny!)
"It's hard as Hell" - Race director
"If shit happens, we'll be there for you" - Medical Team
"These Swedes are crazy!"