What Is SwimRun?

If you've never heard of SwimRun before, you may be wondering "What IS SwimRun", and maybe even "Where did it come from, how did it start?"

Swimrun and ÖTILLÖ

Swimrun is the fastest growing sport in the world. You participate in teams of two,  alternating between trail running and open water swimming along a marked course. But you don't get changed for each section - there's no time to lose – you run in your wetsuit and you swim in your shoes!

It is a unique sporting experience, as you always race with a partner, and the race courses are usually through beautiful but wild natural scenery. The ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship (ÖTILLÖ meaning island to island in Swedish) is the original swimrun race, renowned as one of the toughest one-day races in the world.

Now - let's answer the question of how it all started, which also goes a long way to explaining what the sport is all about.

There is a very short version of the story at the official Ötillö website, but there's much more to it than that. If you've ever been to an Ötillö swimrun event, you'll know that the organisers Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott explain the full story, for the benefit of newcomers.

what is swimrunWhat is SwimRun?

Swimrun has its origin in a bar in Stockholm, in 2002, overlooking the Stockholm archipelago. That is a scattering of many islands in the sea off Stockholm.

Late one evening, four Swedish gentlemen were enjoying a drink - or several.

They were Anders Malm, Janne Lindberg, and the 2 Andersson brothers.

On the table in front of them, the napkins had a map of the Stockholm archipelago - all the islands. At some point during the evening, one of the men wondered out loud if it might be possible to run and swim the length of the island chain - swimming from island to island, and running over each one to the next swim.

Of course, everyone thought is was a crazy idea. Who on earth would want to swim in the freezing waters of the Sea, as well as running over the rocky islands too?

Well, with the assistance of some alcohol, a bet was made. They agreed to race each other, in teams of 2, across the islands and sea of the Stockholm archipelago. They had to check in at each of 3 restaurants en route, and the first team to arrive at each restaurant could eat and drink whatever they wanted, with the second team to arrive paying for it!

what is swimrunWhat is SwimRun?

What Is SwimRun?

When they started the race, it took them 24 hours to finish, and they were too exhausted at the end to do any partying!

The following year they had the race again, with the same results.

In 2006, one of the original 4 had the idea to make a commercial (ie. proper) race event out of the crazy sport. They approached 2 experienced adventure racers, Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott, to ask if they thought it might be possible.

At first, Michael and Mats had doubts. They didn't really want to get involved. After giving it some thought, they decided to give it a go. They set up a small company to run events, which they called  Ötillö - which means "Island to island" in Swedish - But they didn't have an official name for the crazy sport. 

It was only after they had run a few events that one of their podium finishers, Erika Rosenbaum, came up with the name "SwimRun". She simply said to Micheal -

"Hey, you should call this event a SwimRun!" - and so the sport had its name.

True to the original race in Stockholm, the modern SwimRun races are for teams of 2 persons, racing together. They must always remain within 10 meters of each other, and must help each other through the tough challenges, and enjoy the beauty of the environment of the race together.

Teams can be made up of 2 men, or 2 women, or a mixed team of 1 man and 1 woman.

Rules are fairly relaxed - you can wear any design of wetsuit that you want; you can use paddles to help you on the swim legs; you can use a float (or any floatation device) on the swim legs. But whatever equipment you start with, you also have to carry for the entire race. So you don't want to carry anything too bulky that may slow you down on the run legs. Most of the running involves steep ascents and descents on trails!

Over the years, some competitors have turned up with an extreme solution of some sort, which gave them such a huge advantage that it was subsequently banned!

Quite early on, one team appeared with a large inflatable airbed in the shape of a mobile phone, from the company Nokia. This was very light to carry on the running legs, and the team climbed onto it for the swim legs, aided by a following wind! After that, floatation devices were limited in size to a maximum of 90cm x 70cm.

A few years afterwards, some teams raced with very long diving fins to help them in the swim sections. Again, this was outlawed afterwards. You can still use small swim fins, but the limit is 15cm from the toes to the tip of the fin. Not many people use them!

SwimRun in SwitzerlandSwimRun in Switzerland

Swim paddles can be any size, but the bigger they are the more tired you will become in the later swims. It's a trade-off.

Most racers now use small swim floats between their thighs to help them rest their legs on the swim sections, tucking them into their belts on the running sections.

Teams are allowed to be joined by a tether, often called a tow-rope. This is most commonly used on the swims, where one swimmer is stronger than the other and can give some help to the slower swimmer. It's also a safety feature when swimming in strong seas and currents!

Some teams remain tethered on the run sections too, but it's less common because it's easier to get tangled up in the tow-rope when running.

The tow-rope itself is usually elasticated, to allow some "give" in the rope, and attached to each racer by special clips called Karrabiners. They are also used by rock-climbers and mountaineers. They need to be big enough to manipulate with freezing cold hands!

You can read more about all the equipment you might need HERE.

I hope this guide to What Is SwimRun has been interesting and fun!

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