Picture this: Trail running across the islands of Stockholm’s archipelago and swimming through the warm waters surrounding them. It sounds idyllic. But competing in the Ötillö ("Island to island") Swimrun, leaves little time for you to be admiring the scenery. Helen Wikmar and Emma Wanberg can testify to that. We spoke to Helen and Emma about their story, Synergy in Sweden, to understand more about the Ötillö Swimrun, the challenge that has competitors swim and run a combined distance of 75km, tied together by a rope. It’s the ultimate test of endurance.

Swimrunning is an event many people are unfamiliar with. Can you tell us more about it?
Helen: You swim in and run between lakes, oceans, islands or bays. Often you do this as a team of two and during the Ötillö Swimrun, you are tied to your teamie by a rope. Ötillö is the origin of the swimrun movement. The jewel in the crown. Competitors swim and run from island to island, over a route that stretches across Stockholm’s archipelago. In total, it’s 10km of open-water swimming and 65km of trail running. I love swimrunning because unlike marathons, triathlons or Ironman races, Ötillö is more than a race, it’s an unpredictable adventure.


In your opinion, what is it that makes the Ötillö World Championship such a tough race?
Helen: The distances! 65km running, and especially the 20km on the Ornö is very challenging. However, the sections of the 10km are fairly short and broken up. The longest swim is 1700m and compared to some of the other races that is reasonable.

Emma: Because it’s such an intense race, too, you have to be very upfront about decisions and thoughts, you simply don’t have time for mismatched communication during the race. There is quite a lot of pressure to get that right, so it makes the race tough in that respect too.

Ötillö is quite unique in the fact that you compete as pairs, tethered together by a rope. How does that affect performance?
Helen: The rope is definitely an advantage for us. We use the rope throughout the race, for the swimming and running parts—some teams don’t use it the whole time but we find it quite helpful. The rope connects us as a team and just seeing the rope connecting me to Emma makes me feel stronger!

Emma: From the first time we met, the communication between Helen and me was very honest and straightforward. We can explain our thoughts and emotions in a very easy way which is one of our biggest advantages as a team. It makes us take fast decisions and balance each other out when suffering dips during long races. And the rope is a physical connection which helps with that as well.

Why do you think companionship and teamwork can take your capacity for endurance to new levels?
Helen: I think because you have to continue pushing yourself as much and as hard as you can so you don’t let your teamie down. In an individual sport the only one you’re going to let down is yourself so in some ways it’s easier to push yourself less.

Emma: Absolutely, in a race that lasts six to 10 hours, you need to understand your limits and your teamie’s limits and how to push through them. You need to know how to handle lows in order to optimise the team’s effort.

How do you cope with the inevitable lows of a race, when competing as a pair?
Helen: This is the worst scenario. I can get really low when I notice I’m struggling but my teamie is having the time of her life, and the same if my teamie struggles.
This happened to me and Emma during the race, not too soon after we’d set off. We’d just got to the first cut-off point when Emma revealed that her knee was giving her a lot of pain. This resulted in my first mental dip of the day. I thought, “good, let’s quit. Emma is in too much pain.” But Emma showed no sign of giving up. With over five hours left to run, she fought. And so I had to step up my game so I didn’t let her down.
You have to listen to each other and be humble to the fact that anything can happen in a race. I think I’m good at talking to my partners to keep them positive when something goes wrong, as well. You don’t have the same control as you have in an individual sport. But the feeling of accomplishing something difficult together as a team is magical, and it’s worth the lows you might experience along the way.

Emma: It’s about pushing each other as well. Taking the lead when you know the other person is struggling, as Helen did with me when my knee began to hurt. And there is always a chance to return the favor, as I did toward the end of the race when I noticed Helen struggling.

How do you mentally prepare for a race of this magnitude?
Helen: I don’t do any specific mental training. But I make sure I have done everything I can to be as satisfied as possible with myself at the start line. I don’t want to have any doubts at that stage. You have to trust your capacity and your effort up to this point. You have to rely on all the training and effort you have put in! You make sure you have a good plan for the race, that you and your teamie have the same goal, that you are prepared ahead of the running and swimming sections and you go through all your gear and have a solid nutrition plan. Then it’s just the last part left—to do your thing, the best you can on that day.

Helen, you mentioned how you were initially anxious about being the less experienced swimrunner. How do you see the partnership between you and Emma now?
Helen: I think we are a very good team, and I am a bit more confident in my swimrun experiences now. We complement each other very well. We are both fairly good swimmers. I would still say Emma is a better runner than me, but I can also say I’m stronger than before and hopefully that is worth something as well.

Emma: Helen had been going through a tough season following a hip injury, but she kept her head high. She was worried about committing with her injured hip but we both knew that once she had committed, there would be no turning back—if we started, we’d carry on until the bitter end.

Helen: Yes, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do the race when I got the hip injury and contacted a lot of girls to ask if they were interested in replacing me. Emma was supporting me, though, and convinced me that we should do it together. If we experienced it as a team this year, then next year we would come back stronger.

What advice would you give someone who is interested in Ötillö but daunted by the race?
Helen: Get a good wetsuit! And you need to be confident. Find some friends to train with and get excited for the adventure. There are also loads of swimrun communities you can join, to help you prepare. But most of all just have fun and get ready for an amazing experience!

Emma: It’s important to find a good teamie that you really connect with. The human body can do great things alone but companionship and teamwork can take it to new levels. When you find this, you’ll have an amazing experience.

To read more about Emma and Helen’s experience competing in the Ötillö Swimrun, click here:http:// www.discoverinteresting.com/endurance-series/synergy-in-sweden/|[Synergy in Sweden]

Photos by Pierre Mangez and Jakob Edholm

Perhaps it's not surprising that swimrunning was born in the Stockholm archipelago, and Ötillö, Sandhamn (www.otilloswimrun.com) is the original race, this year on September 2 (there may still be time to qualify)!

First raced in 2006, it is also the Swimrun World Championship. To finish the Ötillö course from dawn to dusk, the competitors must be very fit and very fast in and out of the water as there are 46 transitions. The teams swim between the 24 islands and run over them. The total distance is 75 kilometres of which 10 are open-water swimming and 65 are trail-running.

To gain entry in ÖtillÖ you must either qualify in an ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Series race, have great merits, participate in seven races in 24 months or just be lucky.
There are now swimrun races all over Sweden and in other parts of the world. For a list of races, see www.swim-run.se