*The sport of swimrun has been up and coming in recent years, getting a name for itself as one of the most demanding multi-adventure sports out there. And it’s easy to see why. A sport which is synonymous with teamwork and determination, it also exposes you to the elements throughout the 75km race. Swimrun began in Sweden, with Ötillö – arguably the most gruelling of them all.
We caught up with two Ötillö competitors – Helen Wikmar and Emma Wanberg to hear more about their Ötillö story – 'Synergy in Sweden' and why teamwork and companionship is crucial to succeeding in the race.*
Swimrun is quite a niche sport. Could you explain what it is, how you got into it and what inspired you to pursue the sport?
Helen: Swimrun is an unpredictable adventure. You run and swim between lakes, oceans, islands or bays so unlike a triathlon, you feel a bit more like you are out on an adventure. I first encountered the sport when I was relaxing on the beach. I was wondering what the hell they were doing – running around in a wetsuit and swimming with shoes! One year later, I started to train and decided to try swimrun with my brother in a race held near where I live.
I was inspired to pursue swimrun because each race or training session differs from the other. The nature is unpredictable and invites us to experience so many variations of adventure. I also like the team part of the swimrun as when you are a team the race becomes a shared experience instead of just another race.
Photo by Pierre Mangez
Having read your story it’s clear that Ötillö was a particularly special race for you. Can you explain what it is that makes Ötillö so special?
Helen: Because it has always looked so magical! Something in me had a desire to do it. I can’t explain it. I knew it immediately. I have never cared at all about it being the world championship - I just wanted to experience the race and the adventure!
Emma: Ötillö is special for me as it’s such an intense race. When you race for 6-10 hours you have to know what you want. I think it’s very liberating to race with Helen, especially in Ötillö.
Photo By Jakob Edholm
Preparing for such a tough and exhausting race like Ötillö must have been a challenge. How did you train for the race?
Helen: We trained a lot, swimming 3-4 times a week and running 4-5 times a week. Apart from that I also included strength, yoga and cycling in my schedule. Emma and I also make sure to work-out together - it is an advantage to get to know each other as well as possible as you need to be a good team on race day. I have to make sure that I have done everything I can for me to be as satisfied with myself at the start line as possible. I don’t want to have any doubts at that stage because you have to rely on all the training and effort you have put in.
A key part of your story is your close-knit partnership. When did you first meet and how did this partnership form?
Helen: We met for the first time at a crawl course in Gothenburg. It turned out that we actually lived 1km from each other and so we started meeting more often in a running group that runs in the trails where we live. Emma raced with another girl but she was injured. The same thing happened to me, my teamie got injured and I needed a new one. So, I asked Emma if she wanted to try to qualify for Ötillö with me.
Emma: From the very first time we met in Gothenburg, the communication between Helen and me was honest and straightforward. We can explain our thoughts and emotions in a very easy way, not puffed up with fluffy words.
Endurance athletes often compete individually. How does the dynamic change when you are competing as a pair?
Helen: You have to listen to each other and be humble about the fact that anything can happen in a race as you don’t have the same control that you have in an individual sport. Ötillö has the added bonus of a rope which connects you as a team. Just the look of the rope connecting to Emma makes me feel stronger. And when you accomplish something difficult together as a team - it’s a magical feeling.
Emma: It can be a real advantage when you have a teammate who you can understand without much communication, since you’ll both experience lows throughout the race. When you are close with your teammate a mere nod, an anxious glance, or a change in running style can be all it takes to know your teammate needs you.
Photo by Jakob Edholm
Communicating well and being a strong partnership when things are going well is one thing but how do you cope when things aren’t going your way and you are hit with injuries and disappointing races?
Helen: I was actually pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to start Ötillö because of a hip injury which I picked up in the lead up to the race. I’m really bad at coping with situations like injuries prior to a race. I always cry and get angry at everyone around me. During these moments, it’s so important to encourage each other so that negative thoughts around injuries or disappointments can’t get any room inside the brain. We also try to focus on other stuff like the nutrition, the other teams, the environment, the next transition and the distances.
Emma: It’s about knowing how to handle the lows to optimise the team’s effort. Helen had been going through a tough season following her injured hip, but she was able to keep her head high. Part of that is because of our ability to make fast decisions and balance each other out when suffering dips in performance. With Helen, it’s just honest, raw and naked in a way. We can be very upfront regarding decisions or thoughts; nobody gets hurt or irritated. We simply don’t have any time for that when we have a common goal.
Having a strong competitive partnership is obviously important if you want to be successful at Ötillö. What do you think are the main features of a strong competitive partnership?
Helen: Good and honest communication is one of them for sure. I think it’s important that you have the same goal and you both what you are trying to achieve. And then it’s also a big advantage to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses
Emma: I would say the ability to have clear and straight communication which is our best team weapon. As well as not letting each other give up, with Ötillö once we started there was no turning back. We were always going to the bitter end.
For people who are interested in trying swimrunning and competing in Ötillö your story of companionship and teamwork is inspiring. What advice could you give to any aspiring swimrunners out there?
Helen: Number one is get a good wetsuit which allows you to breath while running and doesn’t leak too much water while swimming. It’s also important to have a good pair of shoes with great grip on slippery hills. Other than that just be confident, find some friends and go for an adventure!
Emma: Find a partner who you have a good connection with. It’s true that one human body can do great things alone. But companionship and teamwork can take it to new levels!
Photo by Jacob Edholm
To find out more about Helen and Emma’s swimrun experiences click 'here'.
Photos by Jacob Edholm and Pierre Mangez.