“You’ll be hot, cold, hot, cold – that’s the nature of swimrun…” says Michael Lemmel. “Or, in the case of this race,” muses fellow race director Mats Skott, “cold, cold, cold cold…”
We’re at the race briefing for the inaugural ÖtillÖ World Series 1000 Lakes race in Rheinsberg, Germany and not one of the 150 teams starting are underestimating the challenge ahead. The next day we’ll face a 43km course that includes 10km of lake swimming in temperatures ranging from 10-14 degrees, plus the air temperatures are unseasonably cold, too. Brrrr.
Race day dawns fresh and misty and we’ve got a 7am coach trip to the start line in the town of Wesenberg. I’m racing again with four-times World Champs finisher Göran Wernqvist, who was my partner earlier in the year for the ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly race. We’ve been tempted back by the promise of a fast, flat course timed to take in the autumnal beauty of the Mecklenburger Seenplatte area and as the coach weaves through the darkness we get glimpses of enchanted forests and calm, clear lakes. There’s no doubt – this is going to be an epic course.
Race prep hasn’t gone quite to plan though. A niggle in my calf has flared up and my physio diagnoses a problem with the peroneal nerve and the tissue around it. Frantic icing and taping in the days before settles it a little and as racing won’t make it worse, it will just be painful, we decide to go ahead. We’ve been looking forward to the race for a long time and training hard, so we don’t want to miss it!
Race start is in the town hall courtyard and the atmosphere is great, with plenty of local support and drones buzzing ahead. Michael Lemmel counts down and we’re off – heading through cobbled streets out of the town and then onto single file forest trails. This first run is 4km and the pace feels good – we’re keeping up with the pack and getting nice and warm in our zipped-up wetsuits, which we know is important before jumping in chilly water.
Into the water
Göran and I did the final 500m swim on the course as prep the day before and the water temperatures felt chilly but ok – once you get used to the face freeze – so we’re feeling good about the swimming ahead. We swim tethered as Göran is a much faster swimmer than me, so we clip the elastic line between our belts, pull our goggles down and head into the water. This first swim is 900m and with the water temperature around 10 degrees and air temperature around 7 degrees, we can see mist rising off the water around us. It’s both magical and spooky, all at the same time.
Mist rises off one of the early lake swims. Image: Jakob Edholm/ÖtillÖ
The temperatures feel ok and we’re getting into a good rhythm with the swimming and I’m enjoying seeing glimpses of the beautiful forests as I turn to breathe. It doesn’t feel long before we’re out of the water and into the second run, which is a short one at 1.2km, and it’s here that the problems start. We’d hoped the cold water would blunt my calf pain, but in fact it’s caused my ankle to lock up and I’m struggling to run already. Our pace drops to 8:38min/km which, even despite the uneven terrain, is way below our planned pace!
Running took in amazing autumnal colours and magical forests. Image: Nadja Odenhage/ÖtillÖ
The second swim is another long one at 1,370m and takes in a bend in a lake, so we first head out to a flashing beacon and ÖtillÖ-branded buoy, then turn and head to a second buoy. Once we make the turn though, I’m starting to feel the cold so concentrate hard on my swim technique instead, something I’ve been working on with Total Immersion coach Tracey Baumann, who trains long-distance open water swimmers. This really helps and again I’m enjoying being in the water and we’re making good progress, with Göran powering ahead in front.
It’s in the last 200m of the swim that things fall apart. Göran later tells me that all of a sudden he felt very aware of me behind him and he knew I was struggling. The key to swimming tethered is to keep the same rhythm and rotate in the same way as your partner, and once you stop doing that, you both start struggling rather than flowing through the water together. At the time I don’t really know what’s happened, I just find I’m struggling to breathe – plus my stroke’s obviously fallen apart!
Getting out of the swim we’re at the first race cut-off point and actually, doing pretty well – we’re in position 99/150 and have made it with time to spare. Göran’s feeling the cold too, but it’s obvious to him by now that I’m not going to make it – I’m shaking uncontrollably and passing swimrunners keep asking if I’m alright! A big part of the sport is taking care of your partner though and this is why you race in teams of two, so Göran makes the call. “Ok, I think here we’ll break,” he says, before shepherding me towards the race HQ in a country house at the cut-off where there’s medical support, a roaring fire and hot tea. Funnily enough as we enter we see one of the reigning women’s world champs Annika Ericsson sat by the fire waving hello to us – it turns out some of the best teams in the sport were struggling with the cold conditions as well!
The run up to the first cut-off point, where 220’s team called it a day! Image: Jakob Edholm/ÖtillÖ
The support team are fantastic – we get wrapped in blankets and handed herbal tea (although I’m still shaking so much I can’t hold mine!) and it doesn’t take long to start thawing out. I feel bad that Göran had to stop as well, as I have no doubt that he could have finished the race. “This is swimrun though,” he says. “You start as a team, you finish as a team and if you break, you break as a team.” I’m grateful for his good humour, strength and support.
Looking at the course later, the next run was only 1.7km and we’d then have had another longish swim of 725m. With my injury I was finding it hard to run fast enough to warm up between the swims so we absolutely made the right call – it wouldn’t have been sensible for us to carry on. We later find out that the ÖtillÖ organisers redesigned the course during the race to remove one long swim – plus another had already been modified the day before so it ended up totalling 7.5km of swimming, rather than 10km. Despite that, 49 teams still didn’t make it. Nobody ever said this sport was easy!
At the finish
As we get ferried on to a coach to the finish line to hot showers, bratwurst and Gluhwein with rum (posting my first ever DNF isn’t all bad, it seems!) the race continues – and once warm again, we head to the finish line to see the winning teams across the line. The first team to finish are a men’s team, Swedish Team Terrible Tuesdays Triathlon of Sweden, Pontus Lindberg and George Bjälkemo, in a winning time of 4:42:02. “Our game plan was to get a gap on the runs, where we knew that we could accelerate,” said Bjälkemo, “It was hard as our legs were so stiff from the cold but we managed!”
Team Terrible Tuesdays Triathlon cross the finish line. Image: Nadja Odenhage/ÖtillÖ
Mixed team Jasmina Glad-Schreven and Thomas Schreven, Team Say No To Doping! from Finland came in second, finishing in 4:47:59. The first women’s team, Diane Sadick and Fanny Danckwardt-Lillieström, Team Orca, cross the finish line at 5:33:45.
For team 220 Swimrun, there are lessons learnt here but despite not finishing the race, it was a wonderful experience and weekend among some of the most inspirational (and friendly!) people in multisport. ÖtillÖ Swimrun 1000 Lakes set a new standard of endurance for swimrun and will undoubtedly see athletes back next year to take on a course that is faster and flatter than many other ÖtillÖ races, but challenging in new ways. If you fancy racing in fairytale forests and calm lakes – and don’t mind being more than a little chilly – then make your way to Rheinsberg next year.
As for us? Some rest and injury rehab (and possibly some work over the winter on acclimatising to cold water!) and we’ll be back for more swimrun fun. If you never fail, then you haven’t challenged yourself hard enough – but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t take on those challenges again and beat them… Bring on the 2017 season!
Tempted by swimrun? Read our beginner’s guide and find out more about the gear needed in this article.
Find out more about the ÖtillÖ World Series on the official website.