4 years ago my brother in Law bought me a book for Christmas – “The greatest races on earth”. Some we had done, many we had not; but one race stood out, “The Otillo.” Island to Island – Swim and run between 26 islands over 75k. Run in your wetsuit, swim in your trainers, tied to your parter… Perfect ! The seed was sewn…..
So its my 18th Wedding anniversary and I am going to spend it tied to Nicky Rees!! This better turn out well…..
The Ferry to Sandham, left the day before the race. The last time I boarded a boat with this man we had to jump off it at Norseman!!! So it was quite a treat to know we had 24 hours before the race.
The Boat trip to Sandham was about 2 hours and very special. Incredible views of the islands and chatting to all the other teams, getting an idea of what was ahead. When we landed, registration was slick, we checked into our hotel rooms, a little downtime and then the inter team banter began !
It’s always at the briefing that the size of the task that lay ahead actually sinks in! Not one athlete finished this race in the first year. One athlete that has won it three times has failed to finish twice. We were in a room with some very special people, all with a story and all very fast !! The briefing was excellent; light hearted, to the point and the important issues covered. We all knew what we were here to do, the aura that you were part of something special filled the room. But there was also a huge feeling of togetherness. After the briefing we had an early slot for dinner and then bed.
4am and the Alarm sounds. One never sleeps on race day. You wake hour by hour, staring at your watch, excited to race, hoping for a little longer in bed. It’s a special feeling and one every athlete has a love hate relationship with!
Breakfast was well organised with bags for all athletes and then extra should you want it. We grabbed our bag and coffee and returned to our bedroom for final preparations. 5am – Register chip and load our bags onto the boat that leaves for the final island. 5.30am the start line begins to get busy.
“Enjoy it; hundreds never even get this far and never get to stand where you are now” words from Helen Webster of 220 magazine as we make our final preparations. We are confident, we have trained well, but have no idea what is about to come our way.
Navigation through the islands is by ribbons tied to the trees or rocks. Some athletes have spent the summer here training and they know the course. The plan was very much to try and stay mid field and follow those that knew the way. A plan that was about to out the window at a rate of Knots…
As the gun goes, it’s immediately apparent this is not simply an endurance race, it’s quick too. When we hit the first swim, we are sitting comfortably in the top 20 odd teams. Minutes later, some goggle issues and we are at the back. We hit the first island, get very lost; 15 minutes later we are standing on the same rock we exited the water on! In the distance the marshals disappearing on a boat. We are seriously lost. We track back again and again, each time finding a different path – We are lost, on the first Island! Its over!!
Next we hear the helicopter; assuming its following the race, we simply run towards the sound. Minutes later we emerge at a waters edge; there is the ribbon, in the distance the second to last team exiting the water on the next Island. We are last…but we are back in the race!
The plan of being mid pack and restricting the need to navigate was firmly out the window. We do the Maths and we know we now need to run our hearts out over the next 12 hours if we are to make the cut at the end of section 5 by 6pm.
The terrain was relentless – Trees you duck under, climb over, rocks to climb and balance over. To get up to any form of speed that we need, just seems impossible. You look for the ribbons in the trees, you fall. You look at the floor, you miss the ribbons and have to track back. Its a balancing act. When you get any form of running terrain you need to dig deep and move fast, very fast.
As we approached the first check point we passed 2 teams and then soon after we past another. The relief of not being at the back was uplifting, but we knew this was not about places; this was simply us vs the watch. As we hit the first check point we had 17 minutes, the second check point we made up 30 minutes.
The swims really varied – Some short; the longest being just over a mile. Entries and Exits are a real skill and discipline of Swim Run. The highlight is the Pig Swim. Its 1400 metres……if you swim it in a straight line. The problem…you can’t ! With currents moving left to right, then right to left, against you and then with you. Currents, constantly interchanging, so you constantly have to dramatically change track and time the swell. We are lucky as we train in the sea all the time; not the greatest of swimmers, but we are comfortable in the sea. This section always claims a few teams and apparently it did again this year with a few retiring here.
The Third checkpoint was actually in a ladies Garden! She closes it all off and invites the entire Island and her friends around to support. They have a few drinks, well maybe more than that and have a massive party! Every athlete arrives into her Garden with your national anthem playing and she personally greets you by name. they are all interested in where you come from and how you are. This race just gets more unique and incredible every step.
We now have 40 minutes in the bag – If we held 40 minutes we knew we could make the 5th. As we hit the 4th, somewhere and somehow we had lost time! We were down to 15 mins. We now had 2 hrs 25 mins to eat, swim 1k, cab down the suits and run 13 miles ! We fuelled as fast as possible, ran down a pontoon and jumped into the water. As I tried to swim there was a problem, Nicky had stopped. I turned to see if he was OK; he hadn’t stopped, he was in fact suspended in the air from the pontoon!! As we jumped the rope had caught on a boat hook!! We were stranded… after a plea for help a marshall popped his head over the pontoon….”Ah Team Wales” he laughed. We were fast developing a reputation!! He released us back into the Wild and we headed out for the next section that we knew would define not only the race, but our year. As we hit land and stripped our tops down ready for the run we had 2 hrs.
This is now down to how much we want this medal. We knew it was going to hurt and we also knew when we had the opportunity we had to run harder than we had ever done before. The first few Miles were woodland again, making it difficult to get any consistent speed. Branches to climb over or duck under, all day had been relentless just chipping away at the joints minute by minute, hour by hour.
After about 4 miles we finally hit road. A chance to open up and get some consistency on the watch and do some maths. With 4 miles to go before the checkpoint we had a feed station. When we arrived we laughed and joked with the team; it had that atmosphere all day. Then reality set in, they were sure we could make that cut if we moved and moved fast. Move we did! We caught another team and with 2 miles to go we re-entered the woodland trails. Nicky was running strong; I knew it was about dialling in with him !15 minutes to finish the last mile and then we lost the ribbon….. Lost again! At the very last. We stopped looked around and there was the ribbon! As we turned and climbed through the forest one last time; there it was. The final check point! The Greeting was amazing, sincere and highly emotional. If I had written this blog 100 times, 99 versions were about not making the cut! It was really about being able to run in pain for those 13 miles. We had encountered every emotion and to make it was simply incredible.
We laughed, joked and simply enjoyed the moment with other teams, knowing not many behind us would make it. Then in came Team Canada – Sophia and Brian – They had run harder than hard ! And to top it off Brian had come in as a replacement 3 weeks ago, only putting on his swim run wetsuit for the first time this morning! Heroes!
Then it dawns on us – we still have another section to go. We know our loved ones at home can now ditch the tea and biscuits for bubbles in tall glasses. They were watching the live stream and us scraping through each and every section.
The islands are closer together now, the water temperature colder and the currents stronger.
But we knew it was time to take this all in now – switch the brain from race mode to appreciation of where we are. Stunning, breathtakingly scenary. A few volunteers had now began Island hoping and supporting us out the water each and every time. Somehow we had a Team Wales supporters club!
The last Swim was a little strange. We were there, heading for the finish. The checkpoint had drained all that finish line feeling from me now, the emotion and relief. There was almost a feeling of regret sinking in; regret that the race was going to end. I had loved every minute; Nicky and I had shared something so special today. We have done Norseman together, ran the Mds and done multiple Ironman and Marathons together. Nothing and I mean nothing has got close to the intimacy, beauty, sense of love and belonging that the swim run family delivers.
We head towards the finish line. You hear it before you see it. There is Helen from 220 and all the crew. This is it, we are going to finish Otillo. As we cross the line we hug, we know what each other has been through today and without each other neither would have finished.
Standing there with 2 cold beers was Marcus Hultgren; 7 times top 10 finisher and winner of The Long Course Weekend in Wales this year. A true legend!
I don’t think sinking a cold beer minutes after racing for almost 14 hours would be allowed in the UK, but it certainly hit the spot ! As the did the following one and the one after that !
Otillo is special – the ingredients are so right. As accommodation is so limited at Sandham (first Island) the athletes take every room. So this race will always be about those 120 teams that qualify for what is a magical weekend in Sweden. Do it !
Finally a huge thank you to my lovely wife for allowing me to be tied to another man for 14 hours on our Anniversary! Yes I did buy a present and sent Flowers !!
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