In Swedish, ö till ö means “island to island.”
Kurmanaeva Irina
In Swedish, ö till ö means “island to island.”
In Swedish, ö till ö means “island to island.” (Kurmanaeva Irina)

The Best Thing About SwimRun? It’s Not About the Bike

Ötillö Swimrun is a grueling race series alternating long passages of open-water swimming with rugged runs of up to 40 miles. But unlike a triathlon, there’s no biking. That’s great news for W. Hodding Carter, a former collegiate swimmer who plans to qualify for the world championship. At age 56.

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One version is this: we barreled out of the hills overlooking eastern Cannes, on the French Riviera, passing our opponents like they were a pod of salted snails. Or there’s this: I clopped downhill like a deranged Clydesdale while my partner, Alan Schmidt, tethered to me by a seven-foot bungee cord stretched to a tensile-testing 30 feet, backpedaled like a tortured two-legged crab.

The following account is based on the latter scenario.

“I told you I can’t run downhill anymore. Slow down!” Alan yelled.

“Only way I can keep moving forward,” I shot back. “Come on! The ocean’s right there. We’ll be swimming in a couple of minutes. Let’s go! Let’s go!”

“Fuck you! I didn’t do this to you when you were dragging behind me on the uphills.”

But, of course, he had. I gently reminded him: “You did too, asswipe.”

I slowed down enough to reduce the tension (of the bungee cord, that is), and we shuffled up to the last aid station of the Ötillö Swimrun Cannes, a 23-mile race (18 miles on foot, five in water) and one of six qualifying contests in the Ötillö Swimrun World Series that originated in Sweden. At this point, Alan and I had been swimrunning for more than six hours, with roughly 17 miles of running and more than four miles of swimming behind us. The only thing propelling us forward was our witty repartee, a smidgen of remaining pride, and the cheerful volunteers handing out recovery drinks and energy bars.

The final aid stop was perched near a small parking area overlooking the green-blue Mediterranean. But at this one, unlike previous stations, only Red Bull and large gummy candies were left. Alan clotheslined a half-dozen of our competitors with our bungee as he searched for water, aghast at the sugar and caffeine. I shrugged and started scarfing candy, washing it down with two Red Bulls for good measure.

The start of Ötillö Swimrun Cannes, on Île Sainte-Marguerite, France
The start of Ötillö Swimrun Cannes, on Île Sainte-Marguerite, France (Harry Borden)

While Alan disentangled himself and worked his way back toward me, I noticed a tanned, elderly gentleman standing on a rocky peninsula a few feet above us, hand on his hip, groin thrust forward. He was naked, with a penis the size of a Coke can.

“Alan, look—a nude beach!”

“Thanks,” he said, glancing quickly. “Not exactly what I had in mind.”

Calmly watching the race, the man shadowed us for the next couple hundred feet as we swam toward our third-to-last run. In the glow of my sugar and caffeine binge, I felt complete, whole for the first time in a long while. Despite our lowly standing, maybe I was born to swimrun after all. Or maybe I was just born to drink Red Bull at the far end of an all-day whinefest. Or maybe being so easily emasculated by Coke-can man flipped a switch. But for the first time in six hours, I was on fire. We were not going to get last place.

A while back, my wife showed me some photos online of a new race some crazy Swedes had come up with—the original Ötillö, held in the Stockholm Archipelago, a swath of some 30,000 islands just east of the city, in the Baltic Sea. With 40 miles of running across islands and six of swimming in hypothermia-inducing waters, the event looked designed more to maim than to challenge. Competitors tripped over barnacle-encrusted rocks, swam through whitecaps, and ran, often tethered together, through spruce woods. Yet most of them appeared to be smiling. Odd.

In Swedish, ö till ö means “island to island,” and indeed, the whole idea began in 2002 with a barroom bet among four friends to see which team of two could make it faster from the island of Utö to the island of Sandhamn, a distance of roughly 30 miles as the crow flies. The rules were simple: each duo could choose their route, provided they checked in at certain restaurants and bars along the way. The last pair to each of these “stations” would have to pick up the tab. The race ended up taking more than 26 hours. But no one died, and so it was a huge success.

In 2006, two Swedish race organizers, Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott, shaped the original challenge into an actual event. Nine teams joined the fun that year, wearing life jackets and using boogie boards for the swims. Since then, the sport—or the “swimrun movement,” as Ötillö’s website calls it—has grown exponentially. There are now 150-plus swimrun events in Sweden alone and more than 600 around the world. The original Ötillö is now the world championship.

I’ll pretty much try anything in or on water, ever since I fell into a pool at 11 months and crawled right back in after being rescued. I swam for Kenyon College when we won a NCAA Division III championship and since then have sailed a Viking ship in the Arctic, cruised the British Virgin Islands by swimming instead of sailing, and even tried out to be a mermaid, er, -man, at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Also, I’ve always bemoaned the inequality found in triathlons, a sport in which swimming has nowhere near the same value as running or biking. Ötillö was pretty much tailor-made for me.

If I could run, that is. The farthest I’ve ever “raced” is 10K in fewer than a handful of triathlons.

One day, however, my favorite Fortnite partner, Zach Gasaway, 38, a.k.a. Tankyy11, and I were decimating a field of fifth-graders when Zach started talking about wanting to get in shape. (His avatar was a stud.) Concentrating more on beating him to a special weapon, I offhandedly suggested, “Well, we could do Ötillö. Maybe one of the series races outside Berlin at the end of September.”

Zach, a swim coach and former swimmer, hadn’t laced up his running shoes since middle school cross-country, on account of flat feet. By his own admission, he was some 60 pounds overweight and built more for being carried in a litter than running. It was a ridiculous suggestion.

“I’m in,” he said. “I just wanna go to Oktoberfest. Beer and sausage!”

At its heart, swimrun is a tandem sport, to such a degree that, while not mandatory, practically everyone competes tethered to their partner. It’s the sharing of each stroke through the water, each fall on slippery rocks, that sets it apart from other endurance competitions. When you do Ötillö, you’re only as good as your partner. If you don’t stay together, your race doesn’t count. You need teamwork, training, and complete trust that your partner is as ready as you are. With that in mind, Zach dropped out at the end of three months. He’d lost some 20 pounds but was averaging only six miles of running per week.

I was up to 18 miles on a good week, though I should have been closer to 40. I’d done maybe four days of bricks—a swim combined with a run or vice versa. The hard part was getting used to swimming with my shoes on, which is what every good swimrunner does, duh. That makes it impossible to kick effectively, though hand paddles are legal in swimrun races, which is some compensation.

With Zach out of the picture, I needed a ringer, quickly. So I texted fellow Kenyon swimming alumnus Alan Schmidt asking for suggestions. He’d organized a swim relay around Manhattan in 2007 that I’d been a part of and was in touch with way more Lords (our team mascot). I was hoping he could suggest a couple of thirty­something prospects who’d partner with me out of kindness. Instead, he offered himself.

Like me, Alan is over 50. A hemp farmer outside Boulder, Colorado, he has done an Ironman triathlon, multiple shorter triathlons, and a handful of marathons. With his bald dome and fat-free physique, he looks like the endurance athlete he is, and as luck would have it, he had recently been swimming with a bunch of professional triathletes. Our prospects of finishing skyrocketed instantly.

“Every time I’m in the race, I always think to myself, This has got to be the last, last year,” says three-time champ Jonas Colting. “In the beginning, it’s always really difficult and technical, but halfway through, I’m happy once again I’m doing it.”

Pretty quickly, however, I hated my new partner. I had to start running more frequently, farther, and faster. Even though he hadn’t run in six years, Alan ran his first three-miler at the pace I’d worked my way up to over months of training in midcoast Maine, where I live—and he was running at 5,300 feet. The only good news was that there was a final series race in Cannes on October 21, a month later than the German event, and the water would be warmer. Also, how hard could hills overlooking a Mediterranean resort town be?

Wearing wetsuits in Ötillö races is mandatory, and Alan suggested we get some special Colting swimrun wetsuits, designed by three-time Ötillö champ Jonas Colting and artfully decorated with enough pecs, abs, and back muscles that we looked like superheroes. The open-water-swimming guru of Scandinavia, Colting founded the company a few years back, and I turned to him via Skype for some advice. He’s competed in Ötillö 13 years in a row, yet he told me, “Every time I’m in the race, I always think to myself, This has got to be the last, last year. In the beginning, it’s always really difficult and technical, but halfway through, I’m happy once again I’m doing it. Once you get past those first three or four hours, you’re OK.”

“To be honest,” Colting added, “I’ve pretty much never come across someone finishing a swimrun not being happy. Ötillö is arguably a lot harder than a triathlon, for instance, but you do it as a team. That becomes your main concern, getting from point A to point B with your partner. Not so much your time or place.”

Strangely, the thing Colting said that helped the most was just how difficult a swimrun can be: “It’s really an uncomfortable sport, all in all.” Somehow those words, from one of the sport’s best, made the pain slightly more tolerable and got me through my one and only 12-mile training run.

I can’t say our first 12 hours in Cannes boded well for us. I felt our boutique hotel was quite chic, with its shiny gold and black wallpaper and cozy queen-size bed we got to share, but Alan said he’d rather have stayed at the fully equipped Airbnb he’d found with separate bedrooms. Admittedly, it didn’t help that a new cold had me coughing and snoring all night. Alan spent more time poking me awake than sleeping, and by the next morning—the day before the race—we were not in the best of shape.

A quick stop at the local patisserie helped us turn the corner, and by the time we made it down to the palm-lined park serving as race headquarters, we were even being pleasant to each other. From 100 yards away, we could see a large tented area and the giant yellow, red, and black Ötillö starting gate. We arrived just in time to watch the beginning of the sprint race. There were close to 200 competitors (there would be 320 in the World Series race with us), all of them disturbingly young and in shape.

We met Anders Malm, one of the Ötillö founders, who told us “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” for inventing the sport. And we ran into the other American team, California Swimrun, made up of Andy Hewitt and Daemon Anastas. Also in their fifties, they compete in multiple swimrun races each year, some in Europe and some in the U.S. Andy, a blond-haired, blue-eyed former Marine turned businessman and a seemingly full-time swimrun promoter (his bright-yellow California Swimrun business card features a photo of him and Daemon emerging from the water midrace) had lots of good advice. Their team T-shirt alone offered No Complaining… Ever! and Dog in and out of Swims. Andy explained the second one: “You know, a dog just runs full speed into the water and exits without a care. We do the same.” According to them, we also needed to pee while running, so as not to waste any time on bathroom breaks, and we must shorten the length of our bungee to just past our height, so it’d be easier to draft off each other while swimming. Daemon offered what would prove to be the most important tip for me, however: “You definitely want to stay tethered the whole race—in the swimming, you won’t lose your partner, and in the run, when one of you is tired, that tautness on the line keeps you going.”

Alan had lots of questions for California Swimrun, and I could sense his mind racing with worry. Or maybe it was just mine. With such short notice to get race ready, Alan had damaged his shins and heels so much that even walking bothered him, and I had so hurt my calves and knees during that lone 12-mile training run that I hadn’t resumed training for ten days. At the evening’s prerace meeting, we went over the course. There would be nine swims and ten runs. We would begin on the island of Sainte-Marguerite (famous as the site of one of the Man in the Iron Mask’s prisons), run halfway around it, then swim to the next island farther out, Saint-Honorat. We’d run all the way around that, swim back to Marguerite, and run its other half. Then we’d swim to the mainland, run a short distance through pedestrians and beachgoers, swim much of the world-famous Croisette Beach area, then… well, after that I sort of lost track. We’d plow through the flea market and the old town, run up some steep something or other, swim again along the Croisette, run up an even steeper hill, and on and on, with the segments getting shorter toward the finish.

None of the presentation made any sense to me except that there’d be a shitload of hills, some of which would be really “fun,” according to Michael Lemmel, the Ötillö series cofounder and one of the race directors, because they were fairly technical. The only good news: there’d be several nice long swims where we’d be able to catch other racers.

The gleeful look on the race directors’ faces was even more disconcerting than the exhausted look on the sprint finishers’ faces. There was a lot of talk about overheating, and I was suddenly concerned about the fact that my wetsuit was a tad (OK, more than a tad) tight in the chest, because I hadn’t lost the ten pounds I’d planned on. I wouldn’t be able to unzip and slip out of my top on the shorter runs, because it would take too much time to squeeze back in at each transition. I was almost certainly going to overheat. I wanted to go home.

After orientation, the California Swimrun guys introduced us to a Canadian team living in Nice, Nancy Heslin and her husband, PJ Heslin. The editor of Forbes Monaco, Nancy also edits Ötillö’s online magazine, Swimrun Life, and she and PJ compete in series races every year. “You can’t worry about how you’re going to do,” she said. “We’re back-of-the-packers and love it. Swimrun’s about just doing it.” They told us we were going to be fine, then proceeded to distract Alan with tales of anal bleaching and vaginoplasty by the riviera jet set. I don’t think he remembered to worry for hours.

Race day. Jogging down to the ferry taking all the competitors to Île Sainte-Marguerite, I felt surprisingly out of breath. Perhaps it was just from repeatedly saying “Île Sainte-Marguerite” aloud with a bad French accent too many times in a row? I was also a bit annoyed with all the crinkly packets of Gu that Alan had thoughtfully brought for us, which I’d stuffed in the crotch of my wetsuit as Daemon advised. Once we were gathered on the dock with the hundreds of other swimrunners, however, I started to relax, almost. The colorful race jerseys—red (men), green (mixed), and orange (women)—lent a festive air, and everyone was smiling, talking loudly, and snapping prerace photos. A third of the racers were from Scandinavia, maybe a quarter from France, nearly the rest from all over Europe, and a few from Asia and Russia. It felt more like a UN party than a competition.

We zipped on our superhero suits within the faded walls of Fort Royal, just yards away from the Man in the Iron Mask’s cell.

Everyone had their swimming paddles either strapped to their equipment belt or, like me, already attached to their wrists. Most of them also had race-legal pull buoys strapped on their belt, but Alan and I had opted for more streamlined, shin-guard-like calf sleeves, which had built-in flotation. I found that my worries had been correct: I couldn’t breathe, because my suit was too tight. Not only that, but we’d somehow ended up starting at the very front of the pack. Even with my tiny triathlon experience, I knew that we were about to be shoved and pushed aside like last week’s meat loaf.

When the race started, however, half the pack whizzed by us, but without a shove or jostle. They even politely hung back as we made our way through a section of rocky singletrack.

“Just keep it nice and easy,” Alan told me a half-mile in, as if I could do anything else. Our California buddies trotted by, saying, “Don’t worry. Most of these guys will burn out!” They may well have, but we certainly never saw it.

Either the 1.8-mile run around the first half of the island was longer than the race directors claimed, or we were a couple of minutes off our projected pace. Frighteningly, my legs were already tired, but Alan kept things light, pointing out certain birds, large private yachts, and anything else that might distract me. I was really glad we were in this together. Then we hit the stunning first half-mile swim and dove in like dogs, my pink paddles chopping through the light swells. The ocean was clear blue, with fields of seagrass waving beneath us, and we passed a dozen competitors.

The second 1.8-mile run was on Saint-Honorat. Using more wind than I could spare to talk, but wanting to seem at ease, I remarked that the abbey we were running below looked like the one in a Monty Python movie. This sparked a long monologue from Alan about the merits of The Holy Grail while he intermittently repeated, “Fetchez la vache!” (fake French for “fetch the cow”).

On the next run, after swimming back to Sainte-Marguerite, we passed Michael Lemmel. I told him how much I hated running hills as we worked our way up a teeny-tiny one. He laughed and then called out, “Oh, you’re in big trouble if you think this is hill running!” About then, Nancy and PJ passed us, exclaiming, “Hey, Outside, smokin’!” I misheard this comment as “Outside Smoke” and kicked myself for not thinking of this perfect team name myself.

We were now in the bottom quarter of the competitors. But we soon regained our mojo, passing dozens of teams during the third swim, a mile-long crossing from Marguerite to the mainland. We felt like the Romans, masters of water everywhere, arriving to conquer Gaul. Of course, many of those same teams trotted right past us on the next short run. That would be the back-and-forth pattern for the rest of the race. We developed a friendly rivalry with a couple of the teams, in particular two Frenchmen roughly our age, who we took to calling Team France, yo-yoing with them until the race’s end.

The course took us through crowded streets, past markets with grandmothers toting bags of produce, up narrow cobbled lanes, and, to my chagrin, up every single incline overlooking the city and the Mediterranean.

The course took us through crowded streets, past markets with grandmothers toting bags of produce, up narrow cobbled lanes, and, to my chagrin, up every single incline overlooking the city and the Mediterranean. After the fifth swim, along the Plage du Midi, we hit our first real hill. I kept a decent pace for the first couple of miles, until the route turned nearly vertical. My legs ached as if I’d been running stadium stands, but as I tried to slow to a walk, Alan kept his pace, stretching our bungee tight. It kept me moving, just as Daemon had said it would. We fist-bumped at the top, and as Alan started on a guarded descent, I blurted out “Let’s go for it!” and set off at a sprint. Tripping over my tired feet, I fell flat on my face. Luckily, I was still wearing my paddles, so my hands escaped with only a scratch.

That first hill would be the only one I’d run up all day. From then on, the end of every ascent consisted of Alan beckoning me forward, sometimes with “You can do it, Hoddo!” and other times mockingly: “Come on, loser. You can’t walk here. Even my dead grandpa could do this.” The worst was when he went into a long-winded anecdote that his high school swim coach liked to recount, something about how “On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones of countless thousands who on the dawn of victory paused to rest, and in resting died.” I so wished I had one of those bleached bones to smash his face in with.

The worst hill for me took us up the steps to Musée de la Castre, an attraction majestically overlooking the western end of Cannes, which houses a collection of artifacts from around the world. Here, a kindly 80-year-old woman took one look at me and started clapping and chanting, “Allez! Allez! Allez!” When I responded, “No, no, no,” Alan encouraged her while sprinting ahead to tighten the bungee, and she started running beside me, cheering as she went. She beat me to the top.

After that we swam along the Croisette again, then headed off on yet another, roughly three-mile run. We were jogging up a city road from the beach, next to a pair of women from England who we’d changed positions with a couple of times, when one of them said, motioning toward the highest hill in town, “You don’t think they’re making us go up there?”

“Please no,” I moaned. “That’d just be cruel.” But, of course, they were. It was in the posh neighborhood of La Californie, Cannes’s Beverly Hills, but less tacky. As the miles went by and the path narrowed, the trail followed a worn-out funicular track overgrown with trees and brush, rising at what must have been a 60-degree angle for almost a mile. Every team we’d passed in the last swim went by. When we rested on the edge of a precipice and Alan encouraged me to keep going, I imagined pushing him off, him screaming, his head bashing the rocks as he tumbled down. But I was too weak to follow through.

The author crossing between islands in the Mediterranean
The author crossing between islands in the Mediterranean (Harry Borden)

The “run” down was even crazier than the slog up, as the “trail” was a bushwhacked, equally steep course through dense underbrush, culminating in a mile or so through a drainage ditch. For the most part, this was best done speed walking, as we had to plunge from solid rock to two feet of water to a soggy log to a rock-strewn bottom to a muddy, foot-sucking bottom—again and again and again. Once we got out of the muck and back on a road headed toward the nudist beach, I started to run, but Alan reined me in, because he could barely walk. While I felt bad for his pains, I kept the bungee tight simply because I could. Oh, and a little payback.

Here, Team France passed us yet again, smiling and calling out, “See you after the next swim!” Soon after that, we ran into Coke-can man, I drank the heavenly Red Bull, and we passed Team France in the swim. They then did the same back to us on the second to last run, because at that point Alan could only walk. Still, I kept the bungee taut, stretching it out to 30-plus feet at one point, dragging him along. Jumping in for the last 200-yard swim, Alan rallied, exclaiming, “Let’s catch the French!”

Alas, it was too late, and sprinting off the beach we crossed the grassy finish line at 7 hours 34 seconds, a hundred or so feet behind them but not so far that the four of us didn’t get to hug and congratulate one another. Clearly, none of us were qualifying for the world championship—this time!—but what the hell. We’d survived. Then Alan, who was having difficulty even standing, threw his arms around me. “This was perfect,” he said. And it was.

Contributing editor W. Hodding Carter (@hoddingcarter) wrote about retracing Benedict Arnold’s 1775 Quebec expedition in the July 2018 issue.

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