The inaugural One Water Race consisted of a 250km course from one end of the Stockholm Archipelago to the other. Mixed teams of 3 attempted to complete the course via running and swimming across nearly 100 islands, using only compass and map to navigate to checkpoints along the way. A time limit of 65hrs was in place and several cut-off points along the way. For more information head here.
Wednesday 17th August, 5pm, Sickla Lake Stockholm.
This would be the first time that Team Australia would meet each other. Fast forward a week and we were deep in the midst of one water race relying and trusting completely in each other to continue to make forward progress. Elizabeth and Glenn had never met Julian before. Rob had only met Glenn hours previously at Stockholm airport, but we all had a common focused goal – to survive and attempt to finish the One Water Race. Julian and Rob went way back from orienteering in Australia. Elizabeth had done her first ever adventure race with Rob some 8 years earlier, and Glenn had raced with Elizabeth for 100 hours in an Australian adventure race in May and had put up with her singing and jokes enough to agree to race with her again. With his swimming background he was an obvious choice.
And so it came to be that on this Wednesday afternoon, in the glorious Stockholm summer afternoon sun, we were on a rock on the banks of Sickla Lake and Julian was trying to impart his extensive swim run knowledge onto the 3 of us who had never done a swimrun race in our lives. “Don’t be too hesitant getting into the water or you will slip and land on your backside and hit your head” was Julian’s very sage advice. Elizabeth then promptly demonstrated what not to do as she narrowly avoided a pre-race concussion. I am sure some of the local swim runners were thinking – geez team Australia is going to struggle as we did look very much like the newbies we were!!
Despite the lack of familiarity of racing or training with each other, there had been plenty of messages exchanged in the previous few months as we attempted to curtail our nervousness about this epic event that we had all agreed to participate in. Geographic separation had prevented any team training sessions on all but one weekend that Elizabeth flew up to Queensland to train with Glenn. Elizabeth was just trying to find warmer waters than Melbourne, Victoria’s chilly 9-11 degree bay temperatures and was keen to join Glenn in the warmer Sunshine Coast waters although the weather did try to inhibit this opportunity with huge swells and unseasonable storms. Rob had been on the holiday of a lifetime with his family through America and Canada finding lakes to swim in where he could. Julian had been living in Sweden for many years since leaving Australia to follow his passion for orienteering.
Julian was an unbelievable best on ground support crew for us. He meticulously planned our training itinerary in the few days before we would meet the rest of the One Water Race teams as he ran and swam us through an intensive swim run 101 course and provided so many tips and tricks that would soon become second nature to us. We had all done a very solid block of specific swimming and running training for this event and our background in adventure racing would serve us well. But there was still a lot of unknowns – different equipment, transitions, support boats, feeding, chafing, unknown terrain. Admittedly it is the most scared I have been before a race for a long time and testament to the challenge that awaited us.
Saturday was the day we were to arrive at the race hotel and meet all the accomplished athletes who had also agreed to attempt this challenge. An intimidating line up for sure. Boxes had to be packed for transport to the start island Arholma Nord and it was somewhat of a concern when we realised that 3 of our 7 boxes were completely stuffed full of just food. Was it too much, was it not enough, would it be what we felt like eating when we were sleep deprived and fatigued? But the packing of boxes also gave us a bit of the finality that we had sought. Things were packed, we were ready, bring it on!! We could relax and try to rest up as best we could over the next few days as we continued to hypothesise about potential route options. Other teams were busy making some last-minute gear choices and squeezing in some final training sessions. We were trying to bluff ourselves that we were not as nervous as we were. Oh and fika, lots of fika. We are glad the race was to start on Tuesday as we would have all put on way too many extra kilos if we had been allowed to continue to fika at the rate we had over those few days.
(*Fika roughly translates as drinking coffee, munching sweet treats particularly cinnamon rolls or kanelbullar and chatting and seems it is a very important part of Swedish lifestyle which we were only too happy to immerse ourselves in)
And then it was race time. Here is a breakdown of the 5 stages. Maps were only handed out at the completion of a stage, so we really didn't know what was coming ahead.
Memory lapses and confusion about specific order of events are common in extended races where there is no sleep or stopping to break up the individual days. But suffice to say that after the first couple of runs and swims between islands, the unknown that we had feared suddenly became more of a known skill, and we all felt more comfortable with this new method of achieving constant forward momentum. Rob and Julian were working better than a well-oiled machine as they flawlessly navigated and strategized on the go about route choices. Transitions were very streamlined as we confidently followed the directions of Julian who had everything we needed and always encouraging words for us.
The Swedish archipelago was certainly spectacular. The views were remarkable and we were constantly impressed and amazed at the scenery we were travelling through. I can see why swimrun is such a big thing in Sweden. These islands are literally made for it. As Rob wielded the map on land, Glenn and Elizabeth were just surprised they had continued to wrangle the tow lines effectively without getting tied up as they tethered for the swims then untethered for the longer and more technical runs across islands. As the day finally gave way to night, nutrition primarily of gels for the first day gave way to a winning combination of 2 minute noodles in zip lock bags eaten on the go and then our untested secret weapon Blabarssopa. This is a Swedish staple or so we had been told, essentially blueberry soup and we had loads of it packed. We had not tried it at all before the race, preferring to have it as a surprise throughout the race. Fortunately, it was a pleasant surprise.
As night fell, we had new challenges such as trying to swim in pitch black with very few aids to be able to help with swimming in a straight line. One of the early night swims, the illuminated safety bag unclipped from Rob’s belt and started floating away. There was a distracted conversation between Julian and Rikard- on the other support boat, about who could pick up the bag. When this problem was solved Julian had some trouble working out which direction we were meant to be traveling, got out the compass and then realised we had swum full turn and heading back to the island we had just left- and of course team 2 were still stuck to our feet. Lots of yelling came from both boats and it took a while to convince us all that we had to turn around and start swimming back the other direction.
The course headed across some of the larger, and less populated islands with some tricky orienteering legs. We had some great navigation across this section and made up 30mins on the leaders and ended up catching them. The weather was miserable at that point, but our motivation was high and we felt great to be right in the fight. Both Swedish teams then followed our lead for about 30 mins before Team Sweden/Aus took a different, and decisive route choice- adding an extra swim, where we chose to run further left, through a marsh section, that ultimately proved to be slower and they got the lead again.
It was also a pleasant surprise that we had survived the first night relatively unscathed and the temperature had been manageable as long as we kept moving. Stopping for too long would have meant drops in core temperature which could have been difficult to manage. Julian was not going to let this happen as he continued with his reliable instruction as we expectedly became less mentally crisp and our transitions became slower. But we had another team with us for the first 24 hours to keep us on our toes as we continued to tighten the screws in an attempt to distance ourselves from them. Johanna from team Sweden and Elizabeth shared a sing along karaoke on that first night, swapping national anthems and a rendition of “the Gambler” to keep us awake and motivated crossing one island. Johanna would also confide that she was a bit cold having not had enough time at the last transition to put on enough layers as we had been too quick to leave. Elizabeth bluntly responded that team Australia were actively trying to drop Team Sweden and we would love it if they took longer in the transitions to let us get away. Eventually it was a stellar effort from Rob who expelled a bit of pent up frustration as he towed both Elizabeth and Glenn 6km across one particular island in about 25mins. Not a bad pace especially at 24hours into the race. We had left the transition from the previous swim only about 50m in front of Team 2 who were just that little bit slower getting the nutrition and gear they needed. But that was enough as our burst of pace was finally enough to make the decisive break.
At some point in the race, Julian had survived his own drama, our boat had crashed into a rock and had to be replaced. But so organised was our support crew that we did not even notice as fortunately we had taken a tiny detour on one particular island so swapping all our gear and finding a replacement boat did not cause any hold up for us whatsoever. In fact I think it took us many hours to notice that the boat had completely different writing on the side of it. Or maybe we were just too focused on swimming and running….
We continued our push to catch the leaders through the morning and afternoon of day 2 and got to within 15mins at the end of Stage 3. This was a close as we got, after taking a poor off-track route choice losing about 30mins and then starting to suffer with tired legs as we moved onto sections of the famous Otillo swimrun World Championships course. This was also a familiar area for Team 4 Sweden/Aus as they held about 10 wins over that course with their very experienced team.
One of the biggest remaining challenges lying between us and the finish line at the lighthouse in Landsort was the looming 6.7km swim. At one stage we optimistically thought we might get to start this in some sort of light, but everything always takes longer than you expect especially towards the end of an event like this and so it would certainly be well dark when we would start. But we were prepared. A few islands earlier, and before we started the few smaller swims leading into the big swim, we all changed into full swim wetsuits, neoprene hoods, booties, gloves and thermal layers. If we got cold during the long swim it was going to be difficult to warm up and getting out early was not an option unless we got onto the boat which would mean we were out of the race. What proved even more difficult on this leg was trying to aim for an invisible landmass too far in the distance in the pitch black to even attempt to see. Aim for the flashing red beacon was our direction. Easier said than done when you are at sea level in the swell and the red light is only flashing about once every 6 seconds. Glenn did an amazing job leading this swim (as he did leading all the swims!!) and as Julian and Glenn tried to work through this difficult section of navigation, Elizabeth and Rob kept very quiet for fear they would be asked to take a turn at the front if we offered too many useless suggestions. In fact, a rolling swell without sight of a horizon, tired arms so trying to rotate the body more and a tether that rhythmically moves back and forth in front of your eyes the entire time, turns out to be a great recipe for some seasickness on longer swims at night. It took Elizabeth another whole island afterwards and then some vomits on a pier with her favourite chocolate milk and blabarssoppa, to realise that she was indeed suffering from seasickness rather than the delirious and unsteady gait also common at such a sleep deprived stage of the race.
As is always the case, with enough patience and persistence, we eventually reached land after the long swim. Such a welcome relief. A few more islands and the sun came up again. A sleepy march across one island around dawn was the only hint of our bodies actually exhibiting how tired we really were. Another immersion as we swam to the next island and we were awoken again and ready for our final push to the finish line. In one of our training days before the race that Julian had organised for us, we had essentially learned the technique for swimrun from the ferry terminal to Landsort and it had taken us 85mins.
Almost exactly a week later, this now familiar section had taken us 2 ¼ hours and we had finished second in the epic One Water Race. We could not have been prouder. 49hours and 52minutes of continuous racing without sleep and being in a wetsuit the entire time is no walk in the park, but it is a pretty outstanding achievement and one we will be bragging about for a while.
When asked before the race if Julian wished he could be swimming and running rather than on the support boat, the answer was a resounding no as he thought he had the better end of the deal in this team. The sleep deprivation was very new to Julian having never done any races overnight before. The length of this race was also unimaginable to many in the swimrun community and we will be the first to admit before the race even we did not know whether it would be possible. I am not so sure if we asked Julian after the race whether he would rather be swimming and running next time if his answer would be the same. But we could not have done as well without his level headed support, organisation and knowledge that he imparted to all of us. This was certainly a race where our individual skill sets and training all came together in the race and we worked seamlessly together to achieve this result. The entire One Water Race crew were hugely professional and all the behind-the-scenes support from skippers, safety crew, logistics, admin, media, runners was incredible. From the moment we met Thomas Ogander in person, he looked at us intently and with such a caring and enthusiastic nature. We felt like we were part of the One Water Race family. An amazing experience we will cherish forever.