Since it’s humble and hilarious beginnings in 2002, swimrun has become somewhat of a movement. There are now more than 400 swimrun races and an estimated 40,000 athletes involved in races across the world. The idea of it all is that entrants must swim and run and swim and run (repeat) in a continuous race across water and land. It’s simple in concept but grueling in practise. At the pinnacle of it is the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship held in the Stockholm Archipelago. It’s widely considered to be one of the toughest races in the world. To find out how this all began Will Renwick spoke to Michael Lemmel, who’s one of the partners who turned swimrun into the commercial success it is today
How did the idea for swimrun come about?
It started with a bet in 2002 between four people on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago. It was a late night situation with a little bit too much to drink. A challenge was set for the next day to go to another part of the archipelago 75km away by just running and swimming, and the losing pair would have to pay for the bar tab in the evening. Sometime after the challenge the four guys approached my business partner and I to see if we could do anything with their crazy bet. We looked at it and created the ÖTILLÖ, the Swimrun World Championship which is held the first Monday of September every year. For this, teams of two run 65km in their wetsuits over 26 islands and swim 10km between the islands. 2017 will be the twelfth year the World Championship will have been held. In 2012 there was our race and three other shorter copy cat races in Sweden. Now, we have races all over the globe as part of our World Series, and there are around 400 separately organised swimrun races, so the sport is really exploding.
People seem to get hooked on it fast. What do you think is behind its huge appeal?
I think it’s because of three things. First, it’s because you race as a pair and get to share the experience and push each other along. Secondly, because it’s so simple – you just run and you swim and you don’t need all this gear. Last but not last, it’s the fact that you are in real nature. That natural experience adds a whole dimension to it.
How do you go about choosing new locations for the ÖTILLÖ World Series?
We say that we ‘want to make unique races in unique places’ so the natural landscape is very important to us. The races need to be both interesting and challenging for the competitor.
Have you got a personal favourite out of the race locations?
I really like the UK race that we have created on the Isles of Scilly because it’s in a place that I didn’t think existed and it’s just so wild, you really feel the raw nature there. That’s really the essence of what were trying to create. It generates a real buzz in St Mary’s as around 500 of us all arrive for the same purpose. It’s a warm community and the whole weekend is very special. Best of all, we have a good party at the end!
What makes a good swimrunner?
You need to be a team player and need to be willing to work hard with your partner. That’s the essence of the sport. You need to push each other but also be very humble towards the challenge and acknowledge the fact that you’ll both be very tired at one point or other in the race. So a good swimrunner needs to have empathy. But of course you need the physical skills of open water swimming and trail running also.
And are there many specialist Swimrunners now?
In the last couple of years it’s really changed as the top teams are now focused specifically on swimrun. It’s so fast and competitive at the top that you can’t just rock in from another sport and think that you’re going to do well. You really need to focus on swimrun.
Michael will be speaking at the Outdoor Adventure & Camping Show, which will be at ExCel London from 16–19 February. For more information and to book tickets, see http://www.outdooradventureshow.co.uk