Getting ready for a World Championship

In the sport of swimrun, getting ready for the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship in September is a bit different to other sports. Every course in this sport is unique and the WC course happens to be almost twice as long as the ÖTILLÖ World Series courses, making knowledge of the course a key factor.

But don’t worry, because I’ve done the race twice and I’ve compiled a list of things that are good to know when attempting this race and this course, right here.

Knowing the Course

  • The runs are more wild than you think, meaning pace calculations by a first-timer are at best no use, or counterproductive. If weather is bad, you’ll be shocked by the currents and wind, meaning you might not be able to rely on swim time calculations either. Generally, I’d recommend pacing conservatively by perceived exertion. The long and exposed pig swim is about half way and at the landmark Ornö church energy station you have about 20 % left to go. Those could be your milestones.
  • Not everyone has the possibility to go out into the archipelago of Stockholm, Sweden, to scout what they are about to undertake. I’d recommend you recon every section with online maps. The ÖTILLÖ website has an official Google Maps route with stations. This GPS route, distances and some leg descriptions are available here at swimrun watch.
  • Some people write a table of distances of all the legs on their paddles. We don’t. Instead we focus on the key takeaways such as those following below, which are not too hard to remember.
  • On which island is there no energy station for a long time but still enough time to eat a bar? (Answer: Vånsholmen)
  • Where do I need to pick up water or sports drink in a soft flask that I’ve carried with me? (Answer: Ornö church, and more places if very hot conditions)
  • Where do I keep my swim cap on and goggles readily on forehead at water exit, because the next swim is just around the corner? (Answer: after the pig swim, after the 1 km swim, on Mellankobbarna but not Järnholmen if hot weather, etc)
  • If the weather is warm, will want to take the top of your wetsuit down at Ornö. Don’t wait and see. Just peel it down to your waist immediately. In exceptionally warm weather Runmarö and perhaps even Nämndö are also places to possibly do this.
  • How long does it take for both teammates to peel the wetsuit down and up again? If it takes a long time, would it be better to only peel down at Ornö and accept a little heat and drink a bit more? Is it faster if you help each other or do it by yourself? Try this out yourselves.
  • If your team is strong in the off-trail, where do you want to avoid being stuck behind a pack where there is little room for overtaking? This is mainly a concern after the first and second swim as the field thins out the further into the course you get.
  • You might think that nine or so hours give plenty of time to think but that isn’t really the case with ÖTILLÖ. There are so many micro decisions and focus needs to be on point almost all the time. To me ÖTILLÖ has more intensity and adrenaline than a 10 km race on the road.

Swimming

  • You are aiming for beach flags mainly. At the first swim and one or two latter long swims have a strobe light on the other side to guide you. Sometimes there are intermediate guidance pyramid buoys. You don’t need to pass them on a specific side. All but one swim you are able to see the exit from the entry, provided weather is clear.
  • Draft whenever the opportunity arises, or even strategically stalk a team at suitable speed from land. You’ll always have your partner draft on you or the other way around, in any case. Side-by-side is wasting your team’s energy total to no use. The men’s front of ÖTILLÖ will usually be a group for a very long time, until a team breaks away on a run. You might realize why.
  • Swimming about 10 km in a day with long runs in between means energy efficiency is key. You don’t venture into higher heart rates if there is not a very good reason to do so. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time at the end for redlining anyway.
  • If you realize you gap your partner swimming and you don’t have a tow line, slow your stroke down as to help your partner to get back into draft. When approaching shore, on the other hand, you could swim a few meters ahead allowing for some exit scouting.
  • Sighting is very important. Even if you are a good swimmer you don’t want to be swimming 740 m when everyone else is swimming 700. Personally I prioritize sighting and swimming straight over pushing it very hard since my ability to swim straight deteriorates at very high effort. Especially so in choppy water.
  • Most teams use fairly big hand paddles but don’t bring paddles so big that you are no longer able to pull through the whole stroke at the back half of the race.
  • ÖTILLÖ WC is in the Baltic Ocean, which has brackish water. Some people will go without goggles and that works. If you use stronger contact lenses, you might want to bring a spare contact if swimming without goggles. This also being a thing to definitely practice before adopting.
  • You may swim through currents, especially on the swims between Ornö and Utö. Those are the last swim sections of the course when you are the most fatigued. If the water is moving rapidly, counter already before hitting the current to get some slack. Currents may switch directions from one year to the next.

Running

  • The course has everything from tarmac to scrambling. ”65 km of running” is more like 35 km of runnable, 25 km of technical trail and 5 km of wilderness expedition.
  • First-timers will likely be surprised by the amount of orienteering-like running and the many sections of slippery rock. You need good grip. Especially in a wet year when rain is falling on race day or the days before. Non-spike orienteering shoes are popular with ÖTILLÖ Worlds athletes.
  • If one of you is a considerably stronger runner, that person might be pulling with a tow line at the runnable sections. You might prefer pulling a little throughout the whole race instead of one of you bonking two thirds into and the other then trying to pull very hard. Watch out since pulling hard might trigger cramps in the calves.

Race-day Nutrition

  • I bring about 400 ml of energy gel. You might need to put additional caffeine (500 mg is good for me) and electrolytes (sodium being most important) in there. Carbohydrate supply from stations just won’t be enough. ÖTILLÖ Worlds is similar to an Ironman effort but with more heart rate fluctuation.
  • I put my gel in a 500 ml soft flask with no risk of littering and no messing around with packaging. Take a sip of gel every 20 min or so when on land. Time just before swim entry to distribute over time. Also, you might want to put the caffeine in the bottom half of your container, to give you that boost at the back half of the race.
  • Gel is the cornerstone, but in addition to that I pack one bar to eat at Vånsholmen and eat banana or equivalent from aid stations as they appear. I find it is possible to take solids at an early stage but increasingly harder the further I get into the race, at that point relying almost exclusively on gel and an occasional sports drink at stations.
  • Drink plenty of at the stations. It is difficult to sense dehydration at an early stage. Especially when you are in the cold water. As with gels, keeping count on ingestion is more reliable than ”feeling”.
  • Provided your stomach allows, drink from the ocean while swimming. You might want to try that during exercise to see what amount your stomach can handle.
  • I bring two soft flasks. One, as said, containing my gel mix and one initially empty for liquid picked up at aid stations. Stations do not provide cups as an environmental consideration.
  • In case of stomach pain, I choose to back down but it is very important to continue taking gel as soon as the pain subsides.
  • If you are competitive bathroom breaks are done in-flight. Preferably during a swim or just before, to avoid developing rashes.

Team Work

  • Leave all pride aside. If the pace is too high for you, let it be known. It is obviously better for the team if you don’t blow up.
  • The other way around, check your partners status, like asking if they’ve remembered to take gel and drink. His/her success is your success.
  • Equal swimmers will let the more tired runner draft swims to regain some energy for the next run. Even if you’ve got equal capacity in all respects, maybe bring a line under the wetsuit in case either of you ends up having a bad day.
  • Is your partner struggling? Figure out if it may be the heat, nutrition, foggy goggles or whatever — and help fix the problem. ÖTILLÖ is not typically an event that attracts lazy people, so nagging or blaming your partner would likely be misguided.
  • The level of competition at Worlds is increasing with every year, but camaraderie between teams is still respectful. Teams overtaking will often give you encouraging words. I think this spirit is a natural result of everyone relying on someone else and all of us being part of this special experience.

Pacing

  • What perceived exertion would you be able to maintain throughout the whole race? If you’ve been honest, that should still end up being a bit slower than how most teams pace themselves.
  • In my opinion, people are generally too aggressive in the first half ending up jogging Ornö quite slowly and walking across the very hard last islands between Ornö and Utö.
  • The laws of pacing are a bit different at the men’s front as options for drafting are limited, so you might factor that in too if you are at that level. The mixed and women’s leaders should be able to pace themselves without interference since they have more teams to draft if they so wish.

Gear

Although this and that is allowed, at the sharp end gear has basically consolidated into:

  • Pullbuoy with a lot of lift (compared to what pool swimmers are used to). The most popular are probably Ark Keel and Swimrunners Piraya. I use a DIY epoxied double Huub Big Bouy also favoured by some other athletes. Some have seen the guru to get a Rövraket (if you know, you know).
  • Wet suit specifically made for swimrun. I use Ark Korp but there are several good options. A pocket is handy to store gel and mandatories. In most weathers short sleeves are enough. Front-end athletes typically prioritize run performance. The bib will mess up your drag anyway and lift you get from the pullbuoy. The wetsuit is basically there to not be in the way and to provide warmth in cold water. I found that in protecting against cold water, it is more important that the wetsuit does not let in too much water than that the neoprene is thick.
  • Hand paddles equivalent to Strokemakers. Lighter is better, size according to strength.
  • Goggles: light is fast. Slim or even Swedish Goggles.
  • Shoes: for this race, think orienteering. VJ Sport’s butyl rubber mix and rock plate shoes are currently in fashion.
  • Tow line: roughly half of the front-end use it at Worlds. Some bring just in case.
  • In case of extreme cold: neoprene bandana, long sleeves and perhaps even a neoprene vest. Unusual, though.
  • Where do you store gel flasks and mandatory first aid? In a sports top or bra, your lower underwear or a pocket if your suit has one. Make sure they don’t bounce around too much or fall out while running.

Conclusion

This article covers perhaps 25 % of the things that are handy to know. Dissecting this race you will find it is potentially so complex that you can’t expect to perform at your full physical potential the first time entering. Still worth it!

Most important:

  • Know the course,
  • pace and eat,
  • work as a team.

I don’t want to scare anyone from entering and it is not only for the very competitive. ÖTILLÖ World Champs is magical. Rich Roll even went as far as to call it life-defining. The scenery, the spirit among the racers and the staff. All magical, regardless of how serious you are about competing.

Good luck with your own racing!
Andreas Ribbefjord, 2018 WC 08:57:49 finisher