Running and swimming are both incredible endurance disciplines. They make up two thirds of a triathlon, but now the two individual sports are increasingly being intertwined more seamlessly through the sport known as ‘swimrun’.
Taking part in point-to-point races, competitors must swim and run their way along the course. Unlike a triathlon or aquathon, which have very defined transitions between each sport, in a swimrun you seamlessly switch between open-water swimming and cross-country running many times. There are no kit changes – you run in your wetsuit; you swim in your trainers. It’s also, for the most part, a team event. Usually you take part as a team of two, often literally joined together by a rope.
While it’s relatively new here in the UK, swimrun was first imagined in Sweden in 2006. The popular Ötillö race (meaning Island to Island) is now an annual event and is where swimrun started. Competitors take part in teams of two, tied together by a rope, to cover the challenging 75K race across Stockholm’s archipelago. They must swim between and run across each island, in a non-stop test of endurance, fitness and mental strength. In total it’s around 65K of trail running and 10K of open-water swimming.
Helen and Emma: the perfect team
Helen Wikmar and Emma Wanberg are two Swedish swimrunners, and just last year they took part in the Ötillö World Championship race in the Baltic Sea. Helen took part in her first swimrun event in 2016, having already completed the endurance triathlon Ironman, before setting her sights on the Ötillö event.
Emma is her perfect teammate, which is an important aspect of this kind of event. The ability to work together effectively is key to finishing strong. As Emma says, “From the first 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 each other out when suffering dips during long races.”
Emma was the more experienced of the pair when it came to swimrunning, but they both have their own strengths that they contribute to the team. They qualified for the Ötillö World Championships in their first race together in the Swiss Alps.
Training for this kind of event is not easy. It involves a busy week, swimming 3-4 times and running 4-5 times, as well as strength work, cycling and yoga. Emma and Helen worked out together as much as possible, which helped to build that essential bond and get to know each other really well. It also helps that the both grew up in Sweden, home of swimrun. As Helen says, “The swimrun world is quite a small world, but we are both living in it and swimrun is a big thing for us in Sweden.”
A large part of being a success at swimrun is having a certain kind of mental strength and the ability to keep going when it gets hard. It’s the same drive that ultrarunners and mountain runners call upon when it’s time to dig deep. Except that in a swimrun, it’s not just your own mind and body that you have to pay attention to, but that of your partner too. It’s something that sets the sport apart from other, far more solo, endurance events.
So does the tethering have an impact on mental stamina and performance? Well, yes, but only in a positive way, says Helen: “When I have my dips, [my teammate] can help me up from the lows. She can pull me, push me, encourage me and remind me that I have to eat! In a triathlon, I often tend to start with negative thoughts and then it’s difficult to find your way back to the positive again. But with a friend reminding you of all the good stuff going on I can focus on her and those things instead of continuing with my negative spiral.” Emma and Helen train with the rope, and use it to their advantage.
There are inevitable comparisons with triathlons, given that many of the participants have some from a triathlete background and, bar the cycling, the disciplines are the same. However, the format of the event it less rigid, which makes it more of an experience according to Helen: “Swimrun is more of an adventure than a triathlon. Even though the race is marked in swimrun, you feel a bit more like you are out on an adventure. But the big difference for me is that you are competing as a team. I love that dimension of the sport.”
Ötillö World Championships: home of swimrun
For those who compete in swimrun, getting to Ötillö is the Holy Grail of the sport. It’s swimrun’s birthplace, as well as its flagship event. It’s set in a stunning archipelago, with its blue waters and pretty islands.
But it’s not to be underestimated. Its full distance is hard, even for a seasoned swimrunner. The 65K of running is across rugged terrain that requires a certain level of skill in trail running. The swim totals 10K, but it is broken down into relatively short sections.
Helen suffered a hip injury in the lead up to the race, so at one point, they didn’t even know if they would be on the starting line. “I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to start the race. I contacted a lot of girls to ask if they were interested in taking my spot. As a result of this, I performed an Ironman, but after the swimming and bike part I decided to abort and focus on the Ötillö in two weeks’ time. That’s how much Ötillö meant to me.”
Working together as a team, Helen and Emma managed a top ten finish, an incredible achievement. Helen is positive about their experiences of competing together: “I think we are a very good team, and I am a bit more confident in my swimrun experiences now. We complement each other very well. We are both fairly good swimmers. I would still say that Emma is a better runner than me, but I can also say that I’m stronger than before and hopefully that is worth something as well.”
Emma and Helen are keen to compete together again in a swimrun event. Sadly, this year Emma has suffered with illness that has meant she couldn’t train for Ötillö in 2019.
Helen, however, has been swimrunning with another teammate, Isabella, qualifying for Ötillö together in April, where they placed third in that race. Emma will miss this season, but hopefully they will get to swimrun together again soon.
Helen is also taking part in some individual events, including an Ironman in August, alongside three other triathlons. She finds triathlon a good complement to swimrun, though she knows where her heart lies: “While it is a fantastic experience to be a pair and pushing each other as hard as possible, it is also a fantastic feeling to be able to handle everything on your own. To be able to cross the finish line by your own strength and power. But if I had to choose, I would choose swimrun.”
See the full Synergy in Sweden photo story here: https://discoverinteresting.com/endurance-series/synergy-in-sweden/
Follow Helen on Instagram: @myfirstironwoman
Follow Emma on Instagram: @swimrunemma
*Featured photo © Jakob Edholm