ÖtillÖ Isles of Scilly 2017
‘You will be cold, but you will be warm.’
As soon as I found out a couple of years ago that ÖtillÖ (Swedish for island to island) was launching more swimrun events as qualifiers for their Sweden ‘World Championship’ race I knew soon, I would be entering one. The Scilly Isles was a no brainer, I had been there a few times as a kid and told wife Laura we should go, this was the perfect excuse. I made sure we signed up early, nearly seven months early! SwimRun is a team event (pairs) and if we were to complete it and still be married at the end, we needed to practice and seven months might just be long enough for me to calm Laura’s nerves (and chose the right moment to tell her we had entered the full event and not the sprint distance). In the meantime I was lucky enough to hear a talk from Michael Lemmer the founder of ÖtillÖ at the London Triathlon Show. He laid out the history of swimrun and the ethos of the ÖtillÖ series. This left me lots of great phrases that I knew Mrs Cronk would feel at ease with; ‘if you are not there to win you are there to have fun,’ ‘take the time to take in your surroundings’ and ‘help others.’
Seven months later and it’s June, we are on the ferry from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly. You can tell this event has considerably lowered the average age of visitors to the island. Plenty of leathery skinned, down jacket wearing athletic looking types on board. The types that make Laura nervous until I remind her ‘we look exactly the same as them.’ But I’ll be honest I didn’t have much of a come back when she said ‘those guys just told me they swam 7KM on Tuesday, neither of us have ever swam that far!’
After a quiet night in our holiday home it was Friday, the day before the race. We got kitted up and went for a short run around the headland and down to the beach for a short familiarisation swim. The water looks clear blue and really inviting, the weather is perfect at around 20 degrees so we thought nothing of legging it straight down the beach and into the water……..ooohhhh jeez, brass monkey and a few other expletives! It is cold, even in a wetsuit, no wonder the beaches were busy but with no one in the water!
By Friday evening the town of St Mary’s was buzzing with athletes. We headed down to the marquee by the harbour to do the formalities (register, briefing & expo). The briefing was great. Michael & Mats the race directors put everyone at ease and reiterate the values of ÖtillÖ. What I found impressive was that these values were followed through in all aspects of the experience. There was ethical & environmental reasons behind what was in the goody bag, what was sold at the expo & what would be on offer at the feed stations. The goal being to have people from all over the world come together in a unique location, share a challenging but memorable experience, inject some income into the local economy and then leave with no negative impact. They certainly made you aware that if events were to continue in such idyllic locations we all had to do our bit to protect them. Their message went way beyond the usual, ‘don’t drop gel wrappers’ that we are all very familiar with.
Besides the environmental message there was one phrase from Michael Lemmer which has stuck with me and resonates every time I put my swimrun kit on; ‘you will be cold, but you will be warm.’ An obvious oxymoron but he has absolutely nailed how you will feel during a swimrun event, trust me!
Saturday morning and we are lined up on the start line. The weather is scorching, mid 20’s by 10AM. Sweating already just from standing around in my wetsuit, that cold water already not seeming so bad. The start line was like no other start line I had ever stood at. I’ve never really seen the amount of kit vary so much. There was full length wetsuits, cut off wetsuits, proper swimrun suits, compression socks, buoyancy compression socks, pool buoys, paddles, webbed mits, foam strapped to shins or trainers, bungees, trail shoes, minimalist shoes, socks, no socks and LOTS of lubricant! It made it feel very pioneering and adventurous knowing that no one really had a clue what kit to use yet. Team Cronk had gone for old swim wetsuits with cut off legs at the knee and arms at the elbow. A bungee would keep us together for the swim. This meant Laura wouldn’t have to worry about sighting as she could just swim behind me following the cord and I wouldn’t get cold if I had to slow down or stop and check she was close and OK. We wore normal trail shoes with socks and had pool buoys strapped to our legs. After a few practice sessions in the sea with paddles and webbed mits it became clear 8KM with them would make our arms fall off, also one less thing to carry.
The race got under way and we immediately stuck to our tactics. Laura would set the pace for the runs, I would lead the swim. Now, how I pictured the day going in my mind is not how it played out! I was sure we would be running along chatting, and at times I may have to call upon some words of encouragement to maintain marital bliss. Instead we landed on the beach after the first swim, Laura turned and shouted ‘this is awesome,’ took off up the beach and left me for dust! This pace continued and I had to politely remind her we still had about four and a half hours to go. This didn’t deter Laura as she tiptoed through the coast path and left me behind coughing now and then to let her know our gap had extended.
It wasn’t long before we got to experience parts of the islands with no one else in sight. Around every headland was a picture postcard scene, time flew by. Running was hot, really hot! During the briefing we had been advised to strip our suits to the waist for the longer runs. This would obviously cost time and Laura was in the zone, no time for stripping suits down, I even got mocked for pausing to tip sand out of my shoe! Despite not stripping the suits down we were handling the heat, in good spirits and moving along steadily, until the final three legs. Left to go was an 8KM run, 2.5KM swim and a final 8KM run. During the penultimate run we dropped down from the coast path to run along a sandy track lined with high hedges and the temperature soared. We were both reduced to a shuffle. By the time we reached the next feed station I was overheating and dizzy. Due to dehydration setting in every time we entered the water it felt refreshing at first but soon much colder than the previous swim. I knew the final swim would take us up to fifty minutes, after already swimming further than I ever had in one day my suit felt like the only thing holding my arms on. Before entering the water for the last time there was some serious ‘pulling myself towards myself’ happening in my brain. Of course on the outside my teammate was not to know I was suffering.
That swim was the loneliest most mentally challenging part of a race I have ever experienced. Land was not getting any nearer. I would tell myself 1KM to go, then again what felt like ten minutes later still 1KM to go. Just as I thought land was getting closer and I was entering the bay a trawler passed between us and the land, as I focused on it the land shrunk behind it, it felt like I had gone backwards. Next to play on my mind was the tether, I began to feel every little tug on the bungee and blame my teammate for my arms feeling like noodles. Unclipping the carabiner crossed my mind many times but ditching your wife in the middle of ocean was something that would either leave me single or unable to have any input on holiday activities ever again. It was my idea seven months ago that got us here so I would have to suck it up. Fifty minutes later we land on St Mary’s for the last time. The beach is rocky, I stand up dizzy, stare at the rocks and try to pick a line up the beach. Before I can even see straight Laura runs past and shouts ‘that wasn’t that bad.’ I immediately regret not unclipping the carabiner!
We got stuck into the final run. We had to walk a few of the steep hills but the end was close, adrenaline took over and we got it done. The final 200 meter run next to the harbor is awesome, most of the people who have been supporting you around the course have caught ferries back to St Mary’s, Mats is armed with a microphone and greets you at the finish with a hug! To our surprise out of the 90ish teams entered we came 23rd and 5th mixed pair in a time of 6:10 we had managed 30 KM of running and nearly 8 KM of swimming. The atmosphere at the finish again rang true with the ÖtillÖ theme. Everyone chatted to competitors and spectators sharing the high’s and low’s of the day, comparing sunburn and chaffing whilst cheering others across the line.
We know we have only one ÖtillÖ experience to comment on but in our opinion they have nailed it! Everything about the event was slick and efficient yet laid back at the same time. The course was brilliantly marked with paper streamers attached to posts, hedges etc, at every swim entry the marshals directed you around sea weed, rocks and currents. Buoys, kayaks and safety boats in the sea guided you from island to island. The feed stations were stocked with healthy homemade treats, sweets and electrolytes (even warm tea after the longest swim). And to round off my report I’ll leave with a story that sums up ÖtillÖ:
On the course there are cut off times at checkpoints. This is to ensure safety staff are not spread thinly and in my opinion perfectly fair to have in place. Michael Lemmer insists that only he can inform a team that they must withdraw when not reaching a cut off. Upon hearing two teams were behind schedule during a swim early in the race he took a boat to their next beach landing. As the team walked up the beach looking dejected he ran down to them and asked them how they were. They were expecting to be pulled from event, instead he threw them a lifeline and said ‘get to the next checkpoint within five minutes of the next cutoff and you can continue.’ The team relished the opportunity to continue and finished the event beating all of the remaining cut offs.
If you are considering a swimrun event you will not be disappointed with ÖtillÖ. Footage from their other events looks equally as impressive. Through some sort of roll down Team Cronk were offered a spot at the ÖtillÖ World Championships, a monster race of 10KM swimming & 50KM of running. We can’t make it this year however, we are already eyeing up Hvar next year for another shot at qualification.
Still not convinced by swimrun? Check out this recap clip from the Scilly Isles.