It may only involve two out of the three sports that make up a triathlon, but that certainly doesn’t make a Swimrun any easier - and having both completed several triathlons and a couple of Ironman races, Helen Wikmar and Emma Wanberg can certainly testify to that. We spoke to Helen and Emma about their story, “Synergy in Sweden”, to hear more about their experiences in the toughest Swimrun around: The Ötillö World Championship.
Ötillö is the original Swimrun movement. Competitors swim and run from island to island (Ö till Ö in Swedish), over a route that stretches across Stockholm’s archipelago. In total, it’s ten kilometres of open-water swimming and 65 kilometres of trail running. But unlike other marathons, triathlons or Ironman races, Ötillö has one key difference – you must compete as a pair, tethered together by a rope.
The reason I pursued the sport is that each race and training session differs. They’re different to Ironman races or triathlons which are more of a struggle – Swimruns are more of an adventure! When you’re competing as a team as well, the race becomes a shared experience instead of just another race. Emma and I met during a crawl course in Gothenburg and it turned out we actually lived one kilometre from each other! Emma’s teamie became injured and then so did mine, so we ended up training together to qualify for Ötillö and became teamies.
From the fi rst time we met, the communication between Helen and me was very honest and straightforward. That’s one of our biggest advantages as a team, it makes us take fast decisions and balance the other one out. When you’re racing for up to ten hours, you have to know what you want and understand your teammate with minimal communication.
I agree. You have to listen to each other and be humble about the fact that anything can happen in a race. You don’t have the same control as in an individual sport. You go through your inevitable lows in a race but have to continue to push as much as you can because you can’t let your teamie down. You don’t have that pressure in an individual sport.
The partnership was put to the test pretty early on, as well. We’d just qualifi ed for the Championship when I suffered a hip injury. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to participate in the race and contacted a lot of people to see if they were interested in taking my spot. But Emma was super supportive and convinced me that we should do it together. At the starting line, I vowed to Emma that I would do my best for her but I was anxious that I would let her down.
Before the race, I was a little worried that Helen might be a bit overexcited and would go too fast! She was like a panther, jumping from stone to stone, over trees and through the mud. She was the embodiment of determination, she wanted to own the race. And she did. Being the more experienced swimrunner, we both thought that I would lead the race. But the opposite was true. She had so much energy while I had to focus on keeping a steady eye on the road, just to keep up.
The first 20 minutes of a race is always really hard. But after that, you sort of land in all the adrenalin and that’s when the race really starts for me. I also find that getting to the point where you start to see your family and friends really helps. To me, the sight of people I know provides a better boost than any energy gels. But as we kept running, Emma started to get a bad pain in her knee.
Her injury resulted in my first mental dip of the day and I really thought about giving up. But Emma showed no sign of giving up. With over five hours to go, she fought. And so I had to step up my game. I took inspiration from her fortitude. And that is why I Iove competing in a pair: for me, it’s only positive. When I have a dip, my teamie can help me up from the lows. She can pull me, push me, encourage me – and remind me to eat! When I compete in triathlons by myself, if negative thoughts begin to enter my head, it’s often difficult to find my way out again. But it’s different when you’re competing as a pair.
After the last swim section, I took the lead, having found a new release of power in my legs. I could tell Helen was struggling now, so I pushed her to keep up the pace for the last few kilometres – and we had to end with a steep uphill trail of around 400 metres. We had to keep going. We pushed each other to the limit.
After nearly eight hours, everything was hurting. A lot. I shouted to Emma it was no longer fun! But the rope tying us together helped us. It was a physical reminder that this race is not about one mind or body. Being connected to Emma makes me feel stronger. Emma was counting down all the way until the end. “1,600 metres left, 1,400 metres left, 1,200, 1,000, 800…” I squeezed the last bit of energy out and we crossed the finish line in ten hours, three minutes and 30 seconds. We had finished in the top ten.
The whole experience showed me that we are a great team. I’m a bit more confident in my swimrunning capabilities now and we complement each other very well. Competing in the Ötillö races has been one of the best experiences of my life – and I think Emma would say the same. It really is an amazing experience.
But we’re definitely planning to race together again in the future. Our minds are flexible and tough. And together, we are strong.