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Engadin Swimrun: Tough Race in the Swiss Alps
A spirited evening at the pub in late summer 2002
Four Swedish friends sit together at the bar in the Utö Värdshus hotel. The beer is flowing freely, the conversation gets louder and the ideas stranger and stranger. They put their heads together over a map and ask themselves: “How can we get from the island of Utö to Sandhamn without a boat?” Their conclusion is as simple as it is strange: let’s organise a race in which you have to run and swim to and across several islands in order to reach the finish line. The next morning they set out in pairs. The only rule: they have to stop and drink something in each of the three restaurants along the route. The last team to make it to the restaurant in Sandhamn has to pay for the hotel, food and drink. In the end, the friends need more than 24 hours to reach their destination and are too exhausted for a victory celebration. The following year they try again. The swimrun is born.
In 2006, Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott joined. They made a professional race out of the crazy challenge and in doing so are considered the founders of the swimrun movement. In the first years only eleven teams started the race, of which only two reached the finish within the time limit. Today, ÖTILLÖ (Ö till Ö, Swedish for ‘from island to island’) is internationally recognised as one of the toughest one-day races in the world. The men’s, women’s and mixed teams cover 65 kilometres on foot and swim ten kilometres in the predominantly cold Baltic Sea.
Due to high interest, a qualification procedure to participate in ÖTILLÖ was introduced in 2014. One by one, qualification races were established in Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany and Croatia. The ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Series aims to expand in 2017 to establish itself in countries outside of Europe.
The Swimrun Engadin is one such qualification race. The competition takes place every year in the Engadin alpine valley in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden and is already extremely popular. This is surely owed to the stunning surroundings. The route goes through alpine paths and ice cold mountain lakes.
At the start, at around 1800 metres altitude, I notice the lower oxygen levels as a lowland inhabitant. What was I thinking when I entered the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun Engadin in high spirits with my husband and two friends? Awaiting us are 47 kilometres of trail running at a 2000 metre altitude. Apart from that, there are six kilometres to swim in approximately 12 degree cold water.
We start in pairs – as in all ÖTILLÖ races. The special feature of the swimrun is the repeated shift between water and land. Different to a triathlon, there is no change zone – you run in your wetsuit and swim with your shoes on. You move like a kind of amphibious creature through the breathtaking landscape and feel a bit like an adventurer discovering new unknown worlds. Aids such as flippers, pull buoys or paddles are allowed, but must be carried from start to finish. So you need to consider wisely which aids are important enough to be carried the whole route.
On the day of the race the alarm rings at 5am. The sun is still hiding behind the mountain peaks and it is cold and foggy in the valley. I nervously sort through my equipment one last time, then I put on my second skin wetsuit and go to breakfast. At 7am we get into the shuttle bus that takes us to the starting line in Maloja. In the meantime, my nervousness has increased to fear. I go through the individual sections of the route and wish that I hadn’t been so slack during training.
One hundred and seventy-nine other teams are waiting at the starting line. Some are in deep concentration, analysing the mountain pass that must be crossed to get to the first swimming section. Others strive to achieve the final optimisation of their equipment. The starter gun goes off at 8am sharp and we get going on the first running part over the mountain summit to Lej da Cavloc. This first steep climb already leaves my thigh muscles burning and I gladly glide into the cool water. Because team members are not allowed to be more than ten metres apart from each other in the water, many use an elastic cord so as not to lose each other in the scramble.
The third running section leads up the Alp Ca d’Starnam. During the ascent we see the leading teams far down below in the valley swimming towards the Chastè peninsula. Unbelievable, how much distance these guys and girls could cover in such a short time! In the meantime, we have managed three swimming sections and are relieved that the cold isn’t so painful.
The fourth running section over Sils Maria leads up the mountain again and in a loop back to the lake. We can really use the cooling down swims now because the next running part is a tough ascent to La Muotta and demanding on our thighs. My legs are burning and I notice how my strength is slowly fading. But there is no time for breaks. The first cut-off time awaits us in Silvaplana. For those who don’t make the cut-off, the race is prematurely over. A truly unpleasant thought, because at this point we have already been going for 5 hours and 45 minutes and covered the most part of the race. After a short, panicked sprint we manage to just make the time limit and are discharged on to do the longest swimming section of the race. About a third of the 180 starting teams don’t make it, and are sieved out of the competition. For a moment I am not sure whether I should be happy. The running saps my energy and the coldness of the mountain lakes is beginning to get to me. But giving up is not an option so we leap into the cold water. After about 24 minutes we reach the other shore, where a food stand with warm broth is waiting for us. Soup never tasted so good!
Following this is a flat run to St. Moritz, where a never ending 1250 metre swim awaits. Now, finally frozen to the bone, the run goes on towards Lej Staz, which I am almost excited about because it is announced as the warmest lake at 19 degrees. Upon arrival at the lake, however, my excitement vanishes into thin air after a glance at the unappetising brown soup. Reluctantly we paddle through the water, trying to swallow as little as possible. On the other bank there is another food stand waiting for us, at which the cheerful and extremely dedicated residents offer slices of Swiss salami. We take a short break and fill our bellies whilst enjoying a chat.
Following on from this is the return trip over the hilly terrain towards St. Moritz, where the second and final cut-off is located. As we pass the time keeper with a reasonable buffer of 20 minutes we can hardly contain our joy. We will achieve our goal, even if we have to crawl on all fours. No one can take that from us.
We start leisurely along the path to the finish line in Silvaplana. There is no longer any time pressure. The goal time is secondary, we just want to finish the race. We take a short break on a lonely bench in the forest and talk with an Italian team about the race and how tiring the day has been. After the short exchange we continue towards our goal. The last swimming section of 400 metres is short, but I have to convince myself to jump into the cold lake. On the other bank we drag ourselves out of the water. I am tired, weak and my batteries are completely drained. But then the last 2.7 kilometres to Silvaplana are pure enjoyment. Full of pride and overjoyed we cross the finish line after 9 hours and 32 minutes to be warmly received by the organiser Mats Skott.
The Swimrun Engadin is definitely one of the toughest and, at the same time, most beautiful races in which I have ever taken part. A race with so much heart and soul and committed helpers in the stunning Swiss mountain scenery. The route and the water temperatures should definitely not be underestimated. Long distance experience is an absolute advantage, but in the end winning or losing the race is decided in the mind.
And for those who aren’t sure about the long route, but still feel the desire for adventure, you can sprint the shorter route.