A new grueling multi-sport race just arrived to the Southeast — one that involves icy swims and uphill climbs, all while being tethered to a partner. Here's everything you need to know about ÖTILLÖ, aka SwimRuns, shared by one local following her first event.
It's pronounced Uh-till-Uh.
I've wanted to compete in an ÖTILLÖ (SwimRun) ever since the Swedes created the crazy sport around my freshman year of high school in 2006. I read a little blurb about it in Outside magazine and it sounded like the coolest race on Earth.
Here's how the race works:
Teams of two must get from point A to point B via multiple stages of trail running and open-water swims. For the duration of the race, athletes are tethered together with a bungee cord and must carry all of the crazy-looking gear they'll need — which means running in a wetsuit and swimming with shoes on.
The first ÖTILLÖ, in Sweden, consisted of swimming for a total of 10 kilometers and running for a total of 65 kilometers, from one harsh, cold island to another harsher, colder island — totaling 26 islands! As a varsity swimmer and runner in high school who loved being in the woods, I thought the sport was made for me.
At first, ÖTILLÖ races were exclusively in northern Europe, but once they crossed the pond in 2016, I kept my eyes peeled for races in the South by searching the phrase "USA SwimRun" online. All ÖTILLÖ races are now called "SwimRun" races, and they've now become a series with world championships.
In January of last year, I found SwimRun NC, set to take place in Danbury, North Carolina, in October, and I signed up myself and my husband James.
Based on my research, North Carolina's SwimRun is a pretty standard race compared to the others out there. And it's considered an ÖTILLÖ merit event, one of only four events in the USA with that status, which basically means the points gained in the race are key to future participation in the world championships.
It's held on the beautiful trails of Hanging Rock State Park and the Dan River. Over the course of 11 run segments totaling 15.8 trail miles and nine swim segments totaling 3,000 meters, the teams run from the Green Heron Ale House at the edge of the park, up to the top of Moore's Wall and back down. In doing so, the athletes must traverse a waterfall and swim across a portion of Hanging Rock Lake and the bay. The segment lengths vary, but the longest run segment is 5.7 miles and the longest swim segment is 900 meters. There are various aid stations along the way.
To describe it best, one of the North Carolina race directors called it "an amphibious trail run."
James and I generally run 3-8 miles a day four days a week. Once we signed up for the race, we had to come out of swimming retirement and get in the pool as well. The race was scheduled for October, and for the four months leading up to the race, our weekly workout schedule usually looked something like this:
Monday: Sprint workout, usually doing 3-6 miles of fast intervals at a high school track
Tuesday: Tempo run (or a "comfortably hard" run), usually doing about three 20-minute segments slightly slower than a race pace, followed by a 20-minute swim
Wednesday: Strength training at Orangetheory Fitness, taking an hourlong high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class focused on cardio and strength
Thursday: Trail run, usually doing around 4-5 miles, followed by another 20-minute swim
Friday: Rest (aka date night!)
Saturday: Long run, usually totaling 8 miles, but we'd get into the double digits if we were feeling crazy, followed by biscuits and gravy
Wetsuit: Most athletes wear SwimRun-specific suits due to their having front zippers, breathability, thin fabric at the inner thighs (to prevent chafing!) and short legs.
Base layers: Most girls wear a sports bra and swim bottoms, and it seems like most guys wear athletic underwear or a jammer. (It's important to note that if you get overheated, you can pull your wetsuit down to your waist while you run, so don't wear anything you don't want people to see!)
Emergency kit (required): Emergency pressure bandage and safety pin
Hand paddles and pull buoy, or leg float (optional, but not really): It is worth every extra gram of weight to carry these two lifesavers around. Paddles give you a stronger pull and buoys keep your legs afloat, and trust me, your legs will get heavy in the water while wearing shoes. We kept our hand paddles inside the front of our wetsuits while we ran. James drilled holes in our buoys so that we could weave bungies through them. This way, the buoys stayed up on our thighs during the run.
Tether: In the race, competitors must stay within 10 meters of each other at all times. To ensure that they do, they are allowed to tether themselves to each other with an optional bungee cord. The cord is helpful in the swim. Athletes don't have to worry about the location of their partner while dozens of other competitors claw along beside them. However, it's slightly annoying to carry on the run. James and I brought one with us but decided at the last minute not to use it, and we did just fine without it.
Running shoes: Some people drill holes in the bottom of their shoes to let the water escape, but we did fine without altering ours. We both wore Altra shoes. I went with the "Lone Peak" and James wore the "Timp 1.5." We absolutely love our trail Altras. They were perfect for the race — no blisters or pain. We forgot about them, which is the best compliment you can give a pair of shoes during a race.
Body Glide anti-chafing cream: Never leave home without it.
Goggles: Can you justify wearing anything besides Swedish goggles, the widely popular and inexpensive goggles made in Sweden?
Extras: The race supplies you with a cap, jersey and timing chip, which is used to record the time you cross the start line and again at the finish.
The race started at 8 a.m., but we arrived around 7 a.m. to warm up and keep our nerves at bay. Mine were at an all-time high because I had no idea if we'd make the 2 hour and 15 minute cutoff time after the fourth swim — following 5.1 miles of running with serious elevation gain and 1,050 meters of swimming. James kept reminding me that we were just doing this for fun. We weren't out there to be competitive, we were out there to have a wild day in the woods.
The race was delayed by 30 minutes due to stormy weather, but it soon cleared up and it was such a perfect day: a little drizzly but so warm that we did all of the run segments with our wetsuits down around our waists.
The race started with a 4.5-mile climb up to Hanging Rock Lake, the site of the first swim segment. It was gorgeous. I have an obsession with rhododendron plants. Appalachia is covered in the dark, waxy leaves, and Hanging Rock State Park has an overabundance. We ran past them, through them, under them. We forded through streams, bunny-hopped mossy rocks and climbed up a waterfall. This first run was easy because the "high" from the start line hadn't worn off.
Following that run, we were so overheated going into the swim that it never crossed my mind that the water might be even the teensiest bit cold. Oh my word! I had to use all of my willpower to force my head into the water. My body immediately choked up at the water temperature, which was about 62 degrees F, and I struggled to lift my arms with every stroke. I probably swam about half the speed I typically would in a race.
It was so ironic because swimming is James' and my strength. We thought, "Oh there will be tons of fast runners that will be way ahead of us, but we'll catch up during each swim."
There was piping hot chicken broth at the lake aid station, but I didn't know that until the third swim. It was a game changer. That stuff was liquid gold.
Anyway, the moral of the story: Train in cold water.
Above the lake was a 2.1-mile climb up to the highest point in the race, Moore's Wall. That was a tough ascent. There were 642 steps. I was losing energy and it was impossible to see the top, so I never knew when it would end. Once we got to the top, I was on cloud nine because I love the downhill. I don't worry about tripping myself up as much as I should; I just barrel down.
The second half of the race was amazing. The downhill was fast and glorious, and we beat the cutoff time by 45 minutes, so all of my worries went away.
We were flying, soaking up all of the North Carolinian beauty and fantasizing about all of the chicken tikka masala we were getting when we made it back home.
The run ended at the Dan River with a 900-meter swim to the finish. We were too far behind the team in front of us and too far ahead of the team behind us to panic, so there was no competitive stress. We just enjoyed the final swim.
Going in, we didn't expect to touch the podium with a 10-foot pole. There were tons of pro triathletes racing this event. But we also knew we wouldn't come in last because we'd trained so hard. That knowledge was comforting, and we ended up placing 83rd out of 102 teams.
It was a beautiful, wild day in the woods, just like James said.
On your mark, get set…
The next SwimRun NC will take place in Danbury, North Carolina, on Oct. 25, 2020. Learn more at trisignup.com/Race/NC/Danbury/SwimRunNC.