The best way to see the Isles of Scilly? A swimrun, of course.

Like all of the best races, the original Swimrun event OTillO (‘island to island’ in Swedish) came about as a result of a drunken bet, after a couple of crazy Scandinavians decided to race under their own steam between a series of islands in the beautiful Stockholm Archipelago.

Although I can’t actually remember whether alcohol also played a part in our decision making process, Eliot Challifour and I decided to have a go at racing OTillO a couple of years ago when we were looking for a goal to motivate us into some training. The more mainstream events like Ironman had started to lose their appeal to us and this looked a bit different. We did that event and loved it so much that when the event organisers Mats and Michael announced there would be a UK edition in 2016, we were among the first to sign up!

The Swimrun concept is really simple; you race in pairs around a course that mixes up sections of trail running and open water swimming. You have to wear wetsuits (the water is often pretty cold) and can use pull buoys, hand paddles and pretty much anything else you like to help you to swim with shoes on, which is harder than it sounds!. The only catch is that you have to carry all of your kit around the whole course.

 

Zone 3 Evolution Swimrun wetsuit

Ready to fight cri...I mean Swimrun with my Zone 3 Evolution Swimrun wetsuit and my Precision Hydration SweatSalt capsules!

 

The original (World Championship) race has around 10km of swimming and 60km of running in total, and qualification events like the one we entered in the UK mercifully come in at around 50% of that distance. This was a very good thing, as a 9 hour event would have been a bit of a stretch for Eliot and I this year given the training volume that we’ve both managed to put in!

The GB qualifier is based on the Scilly Isles (to be found 45km off the coast of Cornwall), one of the most picturesque places in the whole of the UK. We arrived on the main island of St Marys the day before the race via the Scillonian Ferry from Penzance. All that needs to be said about that part of the experience is that there’s a reason why that particular ferry is known as ‘the big white stomach pump’…

Once we’d recovered from the boat trip Eliot and I had a jog out on the first bit of the run course and then got our assorted race kit ready for the start the following morning. This time around we had proper Swimrun wetsuits from Zone3 to use (unlike in Sweden where we just cut some old triathlon wetsuits up for the race) and were excited to see how much of a difference using purpose-made kit would have on our performance.

 

Start line of OtillO Scilly Isles Swimrun

 

Pairs racing always creates an interesting dynamic and in OTillO you have to stay within 10m of each other, so effectively you’re only as fast as the slowest half of the team. Eliot and I fancied our chances at a top 10 finish, so had tentatively agreed to hang around in the top few teams on the first run, to be there or thereabouts when we hit the first long swim after just 2.5km. However, it came as little surprise to me (and to anyone who knows Eliot well) that about 1km into the first run he made an aggressive move to the front of the pack, and as his partner I obviously had to go with! The result of this was that we ended up hitting the water in equal first place and waded out through some thick seaweed to start the swim from St Marys to the island of Tresco.

 

Andy Blow staying hydrated during OtillO Scilly Isles Swimrun

I always practice what I preach...

 

We expected to lose a little bit of time to some of the really strong swimming teams on this leg and in fact we ended up in about 6th, just off the back of the front group as we hit land again. This wasn’t too bad and we started the next little run with the idea of getting back in touch with the leaders. We almost stayed in contact with the front 5 teams as we entered the water for what turned out to be low tide half swim, half wade across the stretch between Tresco and Sampson islands, before jumping in for a proper swim again to reach Bryher.

The trail running on the islands was spectacular but Eliot and I could only manage to hold our 6th place, whilst losing little bits of time to the teams ahead as our swimming was not quite on par with theirs. We did get into a semi decent rhythm though and kept our heads down, chewing off the miles bit by bit as you just have to in such a long race. It was on the longer run sections in the middle of the race where we definitely felt the benefit of having purpose-made Swimrun suits on, as the mobility around the hips and thighs made it a lot less tiring than was the case when we had used normal tri wetsuits in the past.

 

OtillO Scilly Isles Swimrun race

That's me, 10 metres ahead of Eliot ;-)

 

Having got more than a bit warm on one of the longer (7km) runs back on Tresco, we were both actually pretty glad to jump into the Atlantic again for the various little swim sections across to St Helens and Tean, before we made a slightly longer crossing to St Martins for another big run. We probably hit St Martins with about 3hr 15 min under our belts so fatigue was just starting to kick in as 2.5 to 3 hours has been around the longest training session either of us have managed this year. The aid stations on the island were definitely needed at that point to re-fuel and re-hydrate before the final push for home. 

We got to the last swim - a 2350m channel between St Martins and St Mary’s - at 3hr 49min as I remember looking at my GPS just before we hit the water. Normally I’d expect that kind of distance to take about 35 minutes, so it is a measure of the tiredness, cold water, tidal currents and wind that it took us nearly 1 hour to get to the other side! To say that swim was emotional would be an understatement and talking to a lot of other finishers at the end it was a relief to discover everyone else had similar horror stories to tell about that bit.

We were briefly overtaken by a Swedish team in the final 100m of the last swim, but managed to muster some mental resolve and overtake them early on in the final run to regain our 6th position. We actually ticked the final few km’s off at a decent clip and were pretty happy to finish in 6th overall (3rd British team) and in a time of just a shade over 5 and a half hours.

 

At the finish line of OtillO Scilly Isles Swimrun race

 

With the sun out, a post race ice cream with family and friends was just what the doctor ordered to kick start the recovery process and then it was off to the pub for a good feed and a couple of pints of Cornish Doom Bar ale.

At this point I could go on to tell you about the kind of rubs, sores and chafing that you get after running and swimming through sand and salt water in a wetsuit for 5 hours…but to be honest it’s probably not something you really want to know, so I’ll gloss over that! What I will say though is that if you’re an endurance athlete looking for a fresh and interesting challenge you should definitely take a closer look at Swimrun in general, and OTillO in particular as it is a hell of a lot of fun and a unique racing experience.

OtillO Scilly Isles course

 


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