Throwing Down in Sweden – OtillO

Throwing Down in Sweden – OtillO

otillo1Last Monday, my workout was 21 islands, 40 transitions, 10K of swimming and 55K of running. A good friend and I raced down the Swedish archipelago as part of Ö TILL Ö.

It was one of the best days of my life. Here’s the story.

The swims were in the Baltic Sea — “warm” this year at 14C/57F. As you’ll see in the photos, we used hybrid equipment to save time on transitions and to cope with the unique challenge of Ö TILL Ö, which means Island-to-Island in Swedish.

My partner, Jonas Colting, is one of the greatest athletes I’ve met on my athletic journey. Physically, he’s a true champion and I’m no match for his strength and endurance. Fortunately, ultra-distance racing isn’t always about the physical side and I was able to play a role in our day.

There was suffering but I deeply enjoyed the race. Of course, I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The adventure started Saturday morning when I landed in Sweden. I made my way to the hotel, ate breakfast and suited up for a practice session. Running through central Stockholm with our wetsuits, paddles and running shoes — we turned a few heads!

Not having slept on the flight over, I was exhausted but Colting was determined to keep me up. So next up was a series of “fikas” during a walking tour of the old town. I was completely ruined but Colting wouldn’t let me sleep. Finally, around 3 p.m., he took me back to the hotel. I was asleep by 4 p.m.

Turns out we were booked in the Party Hotel and around midnight the room started shaking from the music pumping in the disco below. By 2 a.m., the sound of Swedes singing Total Eclipse of the Heart was enough to roust me from bed. I grabbed my computer and headed to the lobby to work. Security thought that I was a party-goer and kept shuffling me around as they sent drunken vikings back home. Eventually, I found a cubicle where I could work.

Later that morning we made our way to the ferry and were taken to the race start, an island at the top of the chain. I managed to stay awake through dinner but was out by 6 p.m.

Colting had been very specific with the equipment that I needed to bring. Even then, he swapped out a few items so that my set up was “just right.” Looking around the starting area, a number of teams had been paying attention to him over the years — there were mini-Coltings everywhere and ready to race! You can see for yourself if you browse the race photos.

There was a team that used carbon fiber fins that we expected to be chasing for the first couple of hours. One of their members forgot his goggles at breakfast and, as a result, they hit the first swim 10 minutes down and were never a factor. It turned out that our main competition was a team of adventure racers from the Swedish military. They absolutely crushed us through the forest and rough terrain on the early islands. We’d pull back on the swims and they would disappear on the runs.

It’s not until a couple hours into the race that we reached the combination of road running and long swims that really suited us (stage details). In fact, if you were going to design a course specifically suited to a team of Ultraman Hawaii champions, Ö TILL Ö would be that course. Once we fell into the long swims and road runs, we steadily pulled away.

Colting’s spirits were high when we arrived at the start of the long run on Orno (17.5K). We had a 10 minute gap on second, were set to extinguish the dreams of our competition and ready to cruise to victory…

Then we got lost!

When you hear Colting tell the story, the race was the victim of sabotage!

Now that might be the case (kids pulled down all the marking flags) but we did have maps/compasses and the islands weren’tthat big… anyhow, we were running down a farm track and arrived at a lake, which I mistook for the ocean, and turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction! By the time I pulled the compass out to confirm that we were heading north (not south), we were far off the correct track and completely lost. Luckily, Colting spotted a farmhouse and, eventually, we found the farmer who pointed us to a track, which lead to a gravel road, which lead to a paved road, which lead back to the course!

It was at this point that Colting decided that splits were bad for morale and stopped telling me how fast we were running! If I had to guess, we were five hours into the race and it was a real race!

A local mailman drove up and told us that we were off course — as far as I could gather in Swedish — this went down well with Colting! Over the next two kilometers the mailman was treated to an extended Scandinavian tale of woe. Seemed like a lot of talking for the middle of a nine-hour day. I trotted behind them and worked on holding good running form (spine tall, chin down). Now wasn’t the time to get involved.

Just outside the mid-island checkpoint, a local lady rode by on a bicycle and encouraged us by saying (in Swedish), “you’re not far behind.” While I was encouraged, there was some yelling from our team captain!

The way I saw it, we’d won the race already. This was to be expected and kind of boring! Now we had a race on our hands and would have to fight to the finish against a couple of military guys (they never give up).

At the aid station, we found out that we were only two minutes down but the guy that gave the split didn’t fill me with confidence as he wasn’t wearing a watch!

With 6K left on the island, then a lot more bushwhacking, the terrain was about to favor the adventure racers. We’d been running fast for over an hour, with not a whole lot to eat or drink. I was surprised how good I felt given that I had to be depleted and dehydrated. We were both starting to cramp and unsure when the bottom would fall out!

We caught the military guys with 2K left on the island, they re-passed us and disappeared when we went back into the brush to finish off the island. This section of the race featured four foot high stinging nettle — I was so tired that the nettles made me laugh.

Over the next couple islands we swapped the lead a few times and with two islands to go we exited to find the race director and a final aid station. I had a quick drink and noticed that Colting was offering “feedback” to the race director — while a couple of Swedish cyborgs were only 25 meters behind us in the water. I yelled, “forward, forward, forward” and headed into the bush!

A rocky hump led into a short piece of road and our pursuers were less than 50m back. Picture four Frankensteins staggering down the road and that was all of us. Both Colting and I expected the adventure racers to blast past us…

…but they never came. So we plugged through the brush.

Popping out of the forest and down a rocky cliff, I saw a short swim with a ton of photographers on the other side. Everyone was screaming as we hit the water. Once out, I was too scared to look for the military guys. Coming out of the water, we picked up a road and immediately started climbing. I was able to run faster than Colting so started to push him up the hill. That took the load off his badly cramping calves and he encouraged me to give it everything that I had. With both hands in the small of his back, I gave everything to get my buddy to the top of the hill, then watched him disappear down the other side!

I was blown, cramping, dry-heaving and working to bridge back. I could see the military guys just behind us, about 400m back. When I’m really working, I tend to make sounds (moans, groans, grunts, etc.) and Colting asked if I was okay. My reply was, “I’m fine, don’t stop f***ing running, they are right there!”

To have nine hours of racing come down to a sprint, that we would win, was incredibly satisfying to me. The first time that we won the race was all Colting — his swimming was the decisive factor. The second time we won, I was able to play a role. So the overall victory, by two minutes, was a proper team effort.

We couldn’t have done it without each other.

Thanks buddy!

P.S.: Those of you who know Colting will appreciate a few highlights from the big guy:

  • “Gordo put me in the hurt locker and kept me there for hours.”
  • Going from totally screwed (“I can’t walk”) to running sub-3:40 K pace (with wetsuit) in less than five minutes.
  • Sharing his tale of woe with random spectators along the length of the archipelago.
  • ”I wanted to quit but couldn’t have Gordo go home and tell Monica that I folded.”

At the finish, the media asked me what I was most proud of, I thought about it and replied, “that we didn’t quit.”

Don’t quit.

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