To prepare for a Swimrun race, you not only have to run and swim, but also find a partner. Thanks to some help from friends I was connected with Elisabet Pärsdotter Westman winter 2018 and we did some test runs and swim. I think both were a bit nervous. Our trainings went well, and we decided to have a go at the World Series race at Utö. Elisabet is a very experienced Swimrunner and athlete in general. It’s a joy to be around her and our sessions always leave me with lots of energy. This is what I love with this sport: the companionship.
When I do things I want to do it well, and especially be well prepared. When it comes to the training and my physical ability, I am still a novice and driven by “fun”. I am still learning that I won’t die if I push hard. If I want to race and develop myself (I first wrote to be on the podium but deleted it, I do but that is not the real reason why I do it) this kind of push is a necessity. In a race I still need to pace myself, plan when to push and when to take it a bit easier to not “blow up”. I have not fully got the hang of it yet but I guess it is a life-time project.
So apart from the physical preparations, which I kind of leave a bit to “chance”, I make sure I prepare what I can prepare; gear, teamwork, race course knowledge, and mentally what I am up against in terms of other teams.
I love to doodle with the gear. I have made my own pull buoy and changed the cord around my waste several times to make it work well. I also like to make sure all the colors match nicely, so I searched out a turquoise pull buoy specifically 😉 (this Fanny added herself when I asked her to edit my text haha). My belly usually swell during a race and I hate when something is tight (yep, great to pick a sport which requires a wetsuit!). I carry the pullbuoy on my back (at least when the swims are relatively short) and the rope around my waist is adjustable. I can loosen it later in a race, which works great for me. Elisabeth and I had tried out different tow-ropes to use but we initially struggled to get the length right. Since we are quite equal swimmers, we opted for a pretty thin and elastic rope since none of us would pull the other we mainly use it so we do not have to waste energy on looking for the other or to keep the draft position at the feet. A thin rope also makes it easier while running – we never have to disconnect it. Being equal swimmers is great in one way, as we can both lead on the swims, but it also makes it difficult for the one being the caravan as the strokes get affected. We tried several of the ropes we already had but none really worked well. Eventually, I bought a new rope and suddenly it was just perfect! We were game, set and ready for the long journey ahead. At least gear-wise.
During our preparatory training, we also got to know each other well and from being two strangers who trained together, we became a team. I have a high stroke rate and Elisabet got really stressed when I banged my paddles into her feet when I was the caravan (which I TOTALLY can understand) and I felt that I could not run properly if I was behind her in technical terrain. We practiced a lot, learned from each other, and eventually overcame our difficulties.
I used to do competitive horse racing as a teenager, and in this sport, you always study the course beforehand. You walk it and you know it. You do not want to get eliminated due to a stupid mistake. You only do that once and then you make sure you never ever do it again. This I have taken with me to Swimrun. It is not always possible to check the course out before but you can often study the information a race organization provides on their website. I also read all the race reports I can find on Google! When it comes to ÖTILLÖ Utö, for us living in Stockholm it is quite easy to go there and check the course out. So this we did two weeks before the race. We did the first two swims and the last two, so we knew what to expect at the start and how the finish would be. This is huge mental help for me. I know what is expected and I know I have my mind with me. The unknown plays tricks on my mind when I am tired.
This I probably should not confess, but I check my fellow race competition out. I study the starting list, and try to find out previous race results of the other teams, and compare my times. This gives me an idea how and where I should be in the results compared to them. If I see them on the course I have an idea if I am where I want to be or if I am going too fast or too slow. However, I know that this is not to rely on but it gives me an indication about my progress. Maybe I should mention that I always race against all teams on the course, not just the orange women bibs 😉
I had started off 2018 with a foot injury (damn that cross country skiing!) and got going a bit late with the running. I was scared to increase the distance too fast, so the longest I had ran was 22 km before race day. A few weeks before I had raced Costa Brava Swimrun with Fanny Danckwardt-Lillieström and knew my physical form was great! The only question was, would it be “great” to double the distance?
Elisabet and I decided that she would set the pace, she had done this so many times before and knew her body well and what an endurance race like this requires. She would also lead the majority of the swims and I would let her know when I really wanted to lead, or she would tell me if she felt she needed a break. It is a lot tougher to be in the front in the swims, which is good to bear in mind.
We spoke briefly about our goals and said top-five in the women’s category. BUT we were totally agreeing on that this would be a test race, to have fun and to see how we functioned as a team and how I would performed doing such a distance. We would do our race.
A few cinnamon buns later and after a great tip from Race Director Michael Lemmel to take a dip in the water, we were ready and eager to get going.
We had a steady start and could see the great Team Envol with Anneli Wall and Jenny Ramstedt behind us. They passed us ahead of swim two. I thought that if we stayed at their feet, we would have a good pace. On the third swim I took the lead and Elisabet got a little break. Getting out of the water, we stayed behind Team Envol A & J but I soon felt that we probably could keep a higher pace. I did not know how to communicate this to Elisabet. I wanted to pass, but would that be stupid? Would we have to suffer for that later….? But feeling like I was running with the brakes on and not with a natural flow I just said, let’s go! And Elisabeth did not have a choice, she was attached to the rope!
We kept a steady pace and realized that we transitioned really well. We often passed other teams getting in and out of the water and gained valuable seconds or even minutes. This was all thanks to Elisabet’s experience! She knows how to not waste unnecessary time and energy out on the course.
We heard we were not far behind the first two women’s teams, but we stuck to our plan to do our own race. We were not there to chase a medal, we were there to prepare for greater things….the World Championship in September. Elisabet had a spot but no partner and had asked me. I said, if you still want to have me as a partner after this race, then YES of course! I wanted to know that I “deserved” the spot, that I had qualified for it myself.
The Utö race is so much fun. Lots of transitions, short swims, technical trails (which I LOOOVE) and this year we had stunning weather with sunshine and cool swims (which I also see as an advantage for me, cold is usually not a problem at all).
On the cliffs of southern Ålö, we dropped in pace a little. It was not really due to energy in hindsight, but because our focus shifted to how amazing life is and less on “let’s get this race done”. The views were so stunning, and we were running along, chatting and enjoying ourselves and the scenery.
Both of us had a good day and we kept the pace up. Getting up on the stunning beach on Ålö and then heading into the forest, I tripped… It went well, and we had a little laugh, but it shifted my focus a bit and shortly after my right knee started hurting a bit more and it became uncomfortable (although not due to the fall, but to the distance). I took a painkiller that I had brought with me (good or stupid I have not decided yet but things we can not undo is stupid to regret is my conclusion now, some time after).
We had talked a lot about the long gravel road. I was a bit scared that I would have a mental dip there. I do not like gravel roads…. But I had ran the road a few times to prepare my mind, but still strongly disliked it. I had built up that dislike in my head and I know that when I get there, it is usually never as bad as I think. And I was right. I can not say it flew by but we felt good and kept a steady 4.40-4.50 pace and still chatting. We had decided to keep the wetsuits on. Or I had. I have more problem with heat than cold and Elisabet the opposite. The volunteers were amazing at helping and cheering and cooling us off at the aid stations. It is amazing how great it is to see friendly faces along a race, it kind of makes the whole race. I am a social person and love to cheer on the cheerers as much as racing.
After the longest swim (600m) we were back at Gruvbyn and the last section of the race started. On the gravel road heading over to Rävstavik, I had my only minute of a really low point. But a few seconds after, I think my 6th gel kicked in. Realizing Elisabet also had a low point, I went up ahead and we used the rope for the first time running in this race. Elisabet said, “Great Maria, go ahead,”perfect! That’s what I love about getting to know your partner, you take turns, you read each other and can kick in that little extra when needed. She got a “mental rest” and back in the water she was like a little dolphin again, steadily leading us to the shore. I felt quite strong and pushed us a little extra on the runs with the help of the rope,and we were on our way home! The last bit we took turns on the swims and runs, and getting out of that water on the last swim, we knew we would come in as third women’s team! We had raced just the way we wanted. I would even say it was a perfect race. Yes, we could have gone harder but that’s not what we had set out to to.
Crossing that finish line, I was extremely proud of myself. I had achieved something I thought I could and somehow, at the same time, felt the need to prove to not only myself but to “others”. Now I had done it. It was a great feeling. I also knew I had a lot more to give than that considering the little amount of training I actually had done.
Swimrun is so much more than racing. I love it because of the community; the social aspect of it and all the friendships it has come with. Sharing the hot tub with amazing athletes and people under ARK Souls was inspiring. To go out and cheer on Nina Lovén who had attended one of our WILD Swimrun Camps a few weeks before and her partner Liselott Silwer was such an great feeling. They really fought hard to make the cut-offs and did. Their achievement made me really emotional.
All that cross the finish line automatically climb up on their own little podiums just by the sheer achievement. But to actually get to go up on THE PODIUM at an ÖTILLÖ World Series race is something special! I could not stop beaming. Mainly due to all the fun times leading up to this. A little to my left I saw Fanny at the top and that just made me even more excited!
I wish I now could write that I slept well but I did not. At some point that night the pain in my right knee kicked in and I almost wanted to scream right out! It was awful. I gave it a few days and then Kristian Berg (super duper Naprapat) took a look at it and said that I had runner’s knee amongst other things. I thought I could rest a little and then be up and running again. My first contact with rehab was made. Little did I know then that it would become my companion for the coming year and a half (due to new injuries as well not related to this occasion). I knew my dream race of Engadin was out of the question but the World Championship should be fine. It wasn’t, it was GAME OVER for the rest of the summer basically….
Do I have regrets? No. But I have learned to really prepare the body for a long race and to never ever race on painkillers. I do not think I would have stopped, but in the future I know when to listen to my body. Or I learned that after the ÖTILLÖ Final15k race, but that is a completely different race report.
Doing Utö this year? Come to our WILD Camp 4-5 May and check the course out!