“We entered ÖTILLÖ with zero expectations. Our only aims were to have a good time… and come back in one piece.”
For the past ten years, in the cold grey corners of Scandinavia, athletes have been scrambling, sliding and running across rocky islands and swimming in the icy cold waters between them. Sometimes for more then ten hours at a time. The competition is known as ÖTILLÖ, which is Swedish for “island to island” and the race that claims its name is the original swim-run competition and the designated World Championships. In 2012 ÖTILLÖ was ranked as one of the toughest endurance challenges by CNN.
The 2015 event was held on Sept 7th and celebrated 10-years of racing in Sweden. Athletes compete in teams of two. The first year featured 9 teams. This year, 115 teams from 24 nations competed on the same course – 26 islands from Sandhamn to Utö with a total distance of 75 kilometers, 10 of which are open-water swimming and 65 trail-running featuring over 50 transitions.
Sara McLarty, Misty Becerra, Lisa Norden, Steven Zawaski and Charles Garabedian
Athletes compete with hand paddles, pull buoys and must carry items like a compass and a whistle. blueseventy was well represented by many of the athletes who competed. They had chopped the arms and shortened the legs of their trusty wetsuits to make running and scrambling easier, whilst still providing warmth and speed in the cold waters. Three of the teams competed in a tailored version of the new 2015 Helix wetsuit made specifically for the 10th anniversary race.
Limited Edition ÖTILLÖ HELIX
Mark Threlfall lays down his gear the night before the race.
Former ITU Pro Sara McLarty soaked in the atmosphere, commenting: “While getting breakfast, dropping bags at the ferry, and standing around waiting for the race start, everyone was super friendly and experienced racers were freely giving advice and tips. It was a competitive atmosphere, but we all knew what journey was ahead and that your biggest competition was yourself.”
At 6AM under dark skies and howling wind the race began.
“The gun goes off and it's a mad dash. 240 racers run through the town and onto the wood path fighting for position. Approaching the water everyone starts randomly breaking off towards the shore. Charles jumps in the water and I jump in behind him. Immediately the tether cord, which we had never practiced with, starts entangling around my right arm. I have to slow down to unravel it.”- Steven Zawaski
“There is nothing in America that comes close to the logistics that this race puts together. We board a ferry on Sunday at noon and everything is taken care of until we get off the ferry on Tuesday. The aid stations were manned by locals that absolutely loved the race and cheered you on by name as you approached. It was so motivating.”
- Sara McLarty
“We lost complete concept of time as we followed the distances marked out on our hand paddles.”- Mark Threlfall
“The swells grew as large as 5ft and you have to judge the current correctly to hit the shore. That is when we realized that this race was much harder than anticipated. That is when Charles looked up to me from the valley of a swell in the freezing water and I put on a huge grin on my face as this was the most fun and exciting event we have ever done!”- Steven Zawaski
“I’ve done some pretty nuts off-road running in the past, but this surpassed all of them! If you weren’t running on loose rocks, then you were climbing over rocks, or finding your way through a forest marked by occasional bits of tape. It was incredible, and nerve-wracking all in one. Sometimes you would slip out, loose your foot down a hole, trip over a log, or just get lost!”- Mark Threlfall
Cold and wet conditions from a large storm the night before made the island crossings tougher then many expected. Mark Threlfall fell, causing his leg to seize up with another 60km of running to do.
Steven Zawaski recalls hearing a guy scream and turning around to see him lying on his back in pain. “We continue slipping and sliding around very cautiously as other teams go by at what seems like dangerous speeds across the rocks.”
Sara McLarty perhaps took one of the worst falls in this year’s race. “I screamed for a couple seconds, Misty shooed the medics away, and then we got up and changed our tactics from racing to getting to the finish line.” Twelve hours later Sara and Misty crossed the finish line, later discovering she had broken her knee cap. In the end 99 teams out of 115 would cross the finish line. The top team finished just under eight and half hours and the last team to cross the line did so in in under fourteen hours.
Mark Threlfall & James Grundy (UK)
Finishing time 9:24 – placing them 7th in the highly competitive all-men’s team division.
Charles Garabedian & Steven Zawaski (USA)
Finishing time 11:30 placing them 31st among all-men’s teams.
Sara McLarty & Misty Becerra (USA)
Finishing time 12:26 – placing them 6th in the all-women’s team division.