Swimrun: is this the wildest sporting event going?

A new outdoor running and swimming race is coming to the UK next year, but with one catch: you can’t change your clothes.

Triathlon may be the one of fastest growing sports in the world, but for many it is the antithesis of adventure: flashy gear, £8,000 bikes and repetitive routes. Step forward swimrun, a new sporting event that ditches the tri-bars and asphalt roads in favour of a bit of off-road and open-water adventure.

Unlike traditional aquathlons, which combine swimming and running in a two-stage race, swimrun involves multiple legs of each discipline. What’s more, you have to race self-sufficiently – you swim and run in the same gear and carry everything you need for the race from start to finish.

“I wouldn’t say triathlon is its nemesis, but it’s certainly a reaction to it,” says Michael Lemmel, who co-founded the first swimrun, the Ötillö, in Sweden. “In triathlon, you try to control your environment 100%. With swimrun, you have to adapt to the environment around you. You become amphibious.”

The idea behind swimrun started out as a drunken bet between two Swedes to swim and run across more than 20 islands in Stockholm’s archipelago. Lemmel helped turn it into a commercial race in 2006. After growing in popularity in Scandinavia, the sport is set to arrive in a big way in the UK next year with around a dozen events planned.

It has already got adventure sports fanatics excited. “There is something quite wild and primal about the sport,” says triathlete and fell runner Chris Stirling, who can certainly testify to that, having got lost in Scottish moorland while leading this year’s Loch Gu Loch swimrun.

“As more and more people look to escape the manmade environment, activities such as swimrun – invariably set in picturesque surroundings – are reaping the benefit,” says Rick Pearson, managing editor of Men’s Running, who thinks the popularity of trail running and wild swimming will entice many. “It feels more back to basics, with slightly less of a focus on expensive gear.”

Although the origins of the event lie in long distances and sea swimming (“ö till ö” is Swedish for island to island), there are no set rules and shorter inland events are emerging to help broaden the sport’s appeal.

One aspect that seems unlikely to change is the inability to change clothes during the race. The early pioneers found the only way they could complete the tough Ötillö course in a single day was by not carrying – and changing between – swimming and running gear. Instead, participants tend to wear shorter, thinner wetsuits that leave their ankles, legs and arms free for running. The shoes are normally lightweight trail ones, with food and emergency gear carried in a waterproof bag attached to their bodies (Love SwimRun’s website has a helpful guide to what to wear).

The other big difference from triathlon races is that participants run in pairs, partly for safety as they race across open water and often mountainous trails, but also to bring a new element of camaraderie to sport.

“Sometimes you might think you could have gone faster on your own, or you might feel that you’re holding your partner back,” says endurance athlete Rosemary Byde, who completed both the Ötillö and Loch Gu Loch races this year. “This is just part of the race format. You have to adjust your mindset and put any ego to one side.

“At the end of the race, your race partner is the only other person who really understands what you’ve been through,” she says. There are also other benefits, such as a slipstream to swim in and help pointing out dodgy ground and the best running routes over what is usually rough terrain, adds professional triathlete Mark Threlfall.

All in all, reckons Byde, it is a sport unlike any other. “When you look back at the map, it seems incredible where you’ve been without stopping and without any wheels or boats!” For Lemmel, it has left a lasting impression. “I used to look at a map and think about how I could run around a lake, now I can go across it. You don’t see obstacles any more, you just keep moving.”

Try it out

If you fancy giving it a go, here are a few swimrun races confirmed for the UK in 2016:

Loch Gu Loch, Loch Ness
Inch by Inch, Loch Lomond
Hells Hop, Outer Hebrides
Love SwimRun Llanberis, north Wales
Llyn i Llyn, Snowdonia
Breca Swimrun, Lake District
Hokey Cokey, Cornwall
Hampstead Heath Pondathon, London

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