Limits
By J. Travis Smith
on 6.26.14

On September 1, 200 swimrunners gather on the island of Sandhamn, 30 miles due east of Stockholm in Sweden, for a race. The competitors are heading to the island of Utö, about 46 miles to the southwest — an impressive distance, but certainly not deserving of the title “one of the toughest endurance races in the world” awarded by CNN. That’s until you realize that the race is called Ö Till Ö, which literally translates to “island to island”.

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Six of the race’s 46 miles are completed in the water, and the other 40 miles are run atop islands, 26 of them in all. This amounts to 52 transfers between land and sea, forcing racers to scurry up and down the smooth rocky shorelines of islands small enough not to have names, or refueling stations; there are only nine hydration/energy stations along the course. To put this in perspective, a typical New York half marathon has around ten stations, on courses under a third of Ö Till Ö’s distance…on paved roads.

Michael Lemmel, the race director of Ö Till Ö, become involved with swim/run events during his time as a professional multisport athlete, during which he participated in more than 70 of the world’s toughest adventure races. Drawing on his experience, and working with fellow racer Mats Skott, Lemmel commercialized the Ö Till Ö — which up until 2006 was a fringe race spawned from a bet made at a late night of drinking at a bar. Today the race is recognized as one of the toughest competitions internationally, and it’s only becoming more popular as more people hear about it. We spoke with Lemmel about the Ö Till Ö, from strategies to conserve your legs during a swim, to equipment used, to exactly how many teams finish the 46-mile island hop.

Interview with Michael Lemmel

GP.
What is the longest continuous run and continuous swim in the course?
ML.
The longest run is 19.8 km (12.3 miles) and the longest swim is 1,780 meters (1.1 miles).

GP.
What food do you offer on the course?
ML.
On the course we have a total of nine energy stations. At these you can find sports drinks and energy bars from Enervit, bananas, water, cinnamon buns, hot dogs, broth, coffee and candy.

GP.
Are there any specific tools/aids that competitors can bring to make the course easier?
ML.
The racers have the choice to use hand paddles, fins and/or pull buoys. However, these are not always advantageous, for several reasons. A) There are 52 transitions between running and swimming. Unless you are very good at using your fins you will loose that advantage taking them on and off. B) Hand paddles might feel good in the beginning but towards the middle of the race I am not sure that you will have the strength to use them. C) You have to carry everything that you start with. This can definitely be in the way on a lot of the runs. Pull Buoys are probably the best help as you can get flotation in your legs so you can rest them on the swims. We see more and more teams not using any aids as they realize that the fastest way through the course is to never stop. Just to keep moving and doing it clean.

GP.
What percentage of teams finish?
ML.
About 80 percent of the teams finish.

GP.
Any plans to expand this beyond a single event, to a tour?
ML.
We already have two qualifiers. One in Sweden, one in Switzerland. We are expanding this to a tour.

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