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Lake to lake

The alpine Swimrun Race
Engadin
Lake to lake

Ötillö Swimrun

Swimrun is young, slightly crazy and booming. The activity involves running in a wet suit and swimming in trainers.

“Ten minutes to go till the start.” The race director addresses the assembled competitors through a megaphone: about 200 men and women are bustling excitedly around the starting area. They squeeze into wet suits, pull on swimming caps and look up to the mountains, where the morning sun is shining between the peaks and lighting up the lush green forest around Maloja.

The neoprene-clad figures on the meadow look like penguins, ready to leap into the cold water. But where exactly is the water here? The idyllic mountain lake of Lägh da Cavloc, which competitors in the “Ötillö Swimrun Engadin” will soon jump into, lies 3 ½ kilometres away. All in all, the racers will have to run a total of 39.6 km of trail as well as swim 5.8 km. Running and swimming stages alternate along the route, with a total of eight swimming sections in four lakes. All without any breaks along the way: this is probably the toughest test of endurance that the Engadin has to offer.

Back to nature

Why do people take on such an ordeal?

“Because Swimrun is an unbelievably starting area confirm this: taking part is what counts, the journey is the goal, and getting as far as Silvaplana is their ambition. The first racers are expected to arrive after 5 ½ hours; the finish line closes after 9 ½ hours. Michael, who is a head taller than most of the competitors, acts as a calming influence at the heart of the increasingly edgy Swimrunners. “Tackle it gently, do not underestimate the altitude and the steep climbs, and enjoy this unique alpine landscape,” he says through his megaphone. He then gives the starting signal: 200 people in wet suits and colourful caps race off, running along footpaths up the valley. A few hikers watch the scene and clap. “The first year, people gave us funny looks,” Michael says, “but now they know us and know what Swimrun is.”

Michael Lemmel, race organiser

More fun in pairs

In contrast to other endurance contests, Swimrun involves teams of two. In all, 60 men’s teams, 12 women’s teams and 26 mixed teams are at the start in Maloja. Throughout the race, the two members of each team may never be more than 10 metres apart, and during the swim sections they must be joined by a rope. One reason is safety: two team members can help each other, for example if one gets cramp. In the swimming sections, especially, it is important to pay careful attention to each other, says Michael.

You run through fragrant forest, jump straight into a cold mountain lake, and after the swim carry straight on running. It’s fun and also quite strenuous.”
Ötillö Swimrun
Ötillö Swimrun

Michael, who is a head taller than most of the competitors, acts as a calming influence at the heart of the increasingly edgy Swimrunners. “Tackle it gently, do not underestimate the altitude and the steep climbs, and enjoy this unique alpine landscape,” he says through his megaphone. He then gives the starting signal: 200 people in wet suits and colourful caps race off, running along footpaths up the valley. A few hikers watch the scene and clap. “The first year, people gave us funny looks,” Michael says, “but now they know us and know what Swimrun is.”

Swimrun Event 2020

Ötillö Swimrun

The next Ötillö Swimrun Engadin takes place on 4 and 5 July 2020.

Ötillö Swimrun

It all began with a crazy bet

It all began with a crazy bet Swimrun’s story began in late summer 2002 on the Baltic coast of Sweden. Four friends were sitting together in a hotel bar drinking a beer. They wondered whether it would be possible to go from the island of Utö to Sandhamn, where one of the four ran a hotel, purely by swimming and running, without assistance: a distance of about 75 kilometres, no mean feat.

The same evening they decided on the route, which leads over 26 islands, and set the rules: competitors would have refreshments at three restaurants along the course, and the losers of the race would pay the bills. The next morning, they set off in teams of two; it took them more than 24 hours to complete the route. Swimrun was born.

Two of the four friends, Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott, developed the personal challenge into a professionally run contest. They named the event “Ötillö”, which is Swedish for “Island to Island”, and realised they had captured the spirit of the times.

The pair subsequently decided to turn Ötillö into a world championship, adding qualifying races at other locations. The Engadin, with its high mountains, lush forests and sparkling lakes, scattered along the valley like pearls on a necklace, is the most soughtafter destination. “On the Swedish coast, we swim from island to island,” Michael says. “In the Engadin mountains, we run from lake to lake.”

The first Engadin Swimrun took place in 2014. The organisers were lucky: the weather was perfect, pictures of the event went around the world and sparked international excitement for Swimrunning. Swimrun’s story began in late summer 2002 on the Baltic coast of Sweden. Four friends were sitting together in a hotel bar drinking a beer. They wondered whether it would be possible to go from the island of Utö to Sandhamn, where one of the four ran a hotel, purely by intense way of experiencing nature,” explains Michael Lemmel, race director and organiser of this somewhat crazy but highly professional event. “You run through fragrant forest, jump straight into a cold mountain lake, and after the swim carry straight on running. It’s fun and also quite strenuous.”

“On the Swedish coast, we swim from island to island. In the Engadin mountains, we run from lake to lake.”

Ötillö Swimrun
Ötillö Swimrun

Addition of shorter courses

The popularity of Swimrun really took off with the introduction of additional shorter distances. Ötillö Engadin also features a Sprint Race (12.6 km running / 2.6 km swimming) and an Experience Race (5.6 km running / 1.3 km swimming). Fanny Josefine and Patrik Widell, who travel the world as a sports-loving influencer couple, entered the Sprint Race and have come second. “A year ago we took part in our first Swimrun, even though I could barely swim,” Fanny says. “It’s really cool it’s now going so well.” She is a former kick-boxer, known for her super-tough workout videos. “Maybe it’s to do with the mountains,” she adds. “It’s like being in a fairy tale, running and swimming through this landscape.”

Ötillö Swimrun

Winners drink from the lakes

The athletic Swedish couple want to go further: “Our goal is the Ötillö world championship.” That’s why at the event area in Silvaplana, they observe carefully the state of the long-distance competitors as they cross the finish line. Some have struggled with hypothermia, others have suffered sprains, and quite a few are running with a stoop or limping. All of them, however, have a smile of satisfaction on their face. Winners drink from the lakes 80 of the 98 teams that entered the race have reached the finish within the set time. The winning team comes, unsurprisingly, from Sweden. “We have been training a lot in trail running,” say Joakim Brunzel and Johan Carlsson, “that really paid off.” And maybe their refreshments trick helped: “The water here is so clean and fresh that we drank from the lakes as we swam.” For Michael, too, who has been up since 5 am, a long day is coming to an end. “Like every year, this has been an incredible race. I’m already looking forward to next year.”


Foto:
Filip Zuan
Pierre Mangez
Akuna

Text:
Franco Furger

Further information