The Struggle Within – ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championships 2022

As my quad seized up into a ball of painful cramp, I let out a frustration growl as I slowly limped to a stop.  Pounding on my leg with my fist, in an effort to break the cramp loose, I look up at Kawika who’s slowing from his run to look back at me.

“This really, really sucks, Beek,” I exclaim through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry…” I continue.

“It’s ok.  We’re a team.  We’re doing great,” he says, cutting me off in mid-apology.

It’s Ornö, about 6 hours into the race and I’m being plagued by mysterious cramps that are not only slowing my run pace, but at times causing me to come to a walk or complete stop.  They’re showing up in my quads, calves and even my arms.

“Look,” I say to Kawika while pointing to my quad which is convulsing and writhing like there’s an alien just under the skin trying to bust out.  I don’t need to explain the pain.  He can visibly see it.  We began walking again and then to a slow run trying to keep moving forward as fast as possible until the next wave of cramps hit.

Is it a lack of electrolytes?

Did I take enough gels so far?

Have I not taken in enough fluids?

Did I push the 500-400-300 workout the previous week too hard?

All the questions continue to bounce around in my head trying to figure out what the source might be.

But, again, I am getting way ahead of myself in this story.  Let’s go back to the beginning of this race.

I had just spent over a month in Sweden and Norway on a grand trip where I would live close to my racing partner, Kawika Tarayao, training and racing, all under the close supervision of our Coach, Nicolas Remires.  Being that I live on the east coast of the United States, Kawika on the west, and our Coach in Sweden, we hadn’t the chance to do anything like this before.

The trip began with an awesome ÖTILLÖ race in Gothenburg, Sweden, just two weeks after Swimrun Casco Bay.  We had an unexpected, great day at Gothenburg with 34 run segments and 32 swim segments.  Talk about a race with a lot of transitions.  So. Much. Fun.

We followed up that race with running Rockman Swimrun two weeks later.  So much could be said about this wonderful race, but it is so much better in video.  Watch the Rockman video I put together and the Official Rockman 2022 video to get an idea.

My trip culminated with the grand finale of racing the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship race.

During said trip, I got to live in the Tarayao household for a bit which allowed us to train together, eat together, laugh together and for me to be an adopted member of his wonderful family (thank you, Stephanie and Kawika for your incredible hospitality). Being close to Coach also meant that we could hop into group workouts, even leading them at times, and spend some time breaking bread with Nico, Catarina, George and Noelle.  Other benefits included all the great people I got to know in the swimrun community and the opportunity to train in the beautiful Sweden forests.  Truly a rewarding experience.

The week before the big race, Coach Nico took us out to Älgö and to Hellasgården with a lot of the Envol team, Team Adorkable and even the Low Tide Boyz (joining us for Hellasgården).  He ran us through the terrain that would mimic the race, allowing us to practice transitions and nail down final gear choices.  He also helped us set goals and we settled on an attempt for a sub-9-hour time and to be in the top 20 men’s team.  We had a stretch goal of 8:30 and top 10 men’s.  I knew these were tough goals, especially the stretch ones.  I guess that’s why they’re called stretch goals.  Above all, however, was our goal to have as much fun as possible, regardless of where we finished or what the clock said when we crossed the line.

Kawika and I talked about the strategy over several days and hatched a skeleton plan of how we reach the goals.  He dissected previous finish times by us and different teams and set several key points where we needed to be and what time we needed to be there. We reviewed maps of the course and pinned our strategy. We were even joined by the Adorkables on one strategy session where we all went over the maps together.

Arriving at the host hotel, we got checked in, saw many friends we hadn’t seen in a long time, picked up some race swag and headed to the race briefing. It was so humbling to sit in a room with so many great athletes from so many nations. Michael and Mats gave us a run-down on the race, the course and showed us this incredible video put together by Rasmus Lodenius (ÖTILLÖ videographer extraordinaire):

There were many cheers and even some tears after watching that video, especially in the emotionally-charged room full of athletes. Rasmus – he is a crafty one who can easily stir emotions with his awesome videos. After the race briefing, we had a great dinner with fellow Team Envol members and Coach Nico along with his partner, Katie Knight.  Team Adorkable (Trista Mennen and Amy Bush) joined us after dinner and the four of us made our morning breakfast (good ole’ PB&J) while we did last minute preparations and discussed the race. 

Once we reached race day, we felt prepared, both physically and mentally, and was really looking forward to the race. Race morning was an incredible whirlwind.  We had breakfast in our room while getting suited up like two Vikings dressing for battle. We joked and had small talk conversations but concentrated on getting things done and out the door to the ferry.  The ferry ride over to Sandhamn was quiet for some and conversational for others.  There was a buzz in the air as everyone knew a hard, long day was coming up.

Photo: Aaron Palaian

At the start area, we saw lots of friends and fellow Envol athletes where we wished everyone a fun race.  We chatted with Rasmus where Kawika stated our goals on camera, to which I was surprised and said to myself, “Well, I guess that cements it.”  We fist bumped and headed to the start corral. 

Photo: Aaron Palaian
Photo: Aaron Palaian

We stepped into the race chute and before we knew what hit us, the gun went off.  The first run was a controlled start where we couldn’t tether together.  The column of athletes ran through the narrow streets of Sandhamn like a column of troops double-timing to their next mission objective.  For us, it was an 1800 meter swim, the longest of the day, in 60-ish degree water.  Everyone hit the beach and scattered, all in search for clear water as we all aimed for the first strobe light.  Kawika and I were tethered at this point and we hit the water with a smooth transition.

“Ready?”

“Ready!”

“Let’s go!”

And we seamlessly transitioned from land to sea with zero hesitation.  

The swim was crowded, but there were no run-ins with other teams.  It seemed to go by quickly and soon I could see rocks on the bottom which meant I needed to be prepared for a quick transition.  Kawika stood up partially as he began to scramble up the slippery rocks.  I attempted the same right behind him but my feet slipped a few times while my fingers attempted to find cracks in the rock to grab ahold of.  I found them and pulled myself across the slippery rock on my belly until I could get my feet under me.  We both got upright and started scrambling across the rocky, technical island.

There’s where your mind has to work just as fast as your feet, picking the fast line through the rocks and where to place your next footstep.  The faster you can make those hundreds of micro-decisions, the faster you can run.  Couple that with still being tethered to your partner, you’ll also have to manage the tether so you don’t trip over it, get it caught on something or one of you pulls the other down. 

This sequence would continue for 24 islands. 

Kawika and I were moving smoothly with each other and around the other athletes.  Our runs were clean, at a fast pace and our swims were quick with him pulling them.  Kawika’s swim had improved faster than mine over the past couple of months which meant he was a bit faster than me in the water.  We had noticed on training sessions in Sickla that he would consistently pull away from me in the swims if we were not tethered.  We had agreed that he would pull the shorter swims with us switching off, and taking turns on the longer ones.

But today, something was off.  When I rolled out of bed on race morning, I had a brief cramp in one of my calves.  I blew it off, just thinking something was wrong with how I slept or some other reason.  This calf would again start to cramp on some of the swims as I pointed my toes to be more hydro-dynamic.  It’s fine I told myself.  Just drink.  S’fine.

We swam and ran the first 7 islands with precision and skill, picking off teams here and there.  We reached Nämdö, the second long run of the day, and I was feeling great except for this little calf cramp that seemed to be nothing but a little twitch from time to time.  On Nämdö, there was an aid station, an out-and-back from the main gravel road that we ran for the majority of this island.  This out-and-back allowed us to see where we were in relation to the other racers around us.  On our way out of the aid station, we spotted the Boston Wetsox, Greg and Bronwen Dierksen. 

The Dierksens are really good friends of ours, and we’ve had an on-going, friendly rivalry in previous races throughout the season. Even though we race as a men’s team and them as a mixed team, we still had fun racing against each other from race to race. There were even times of poking fun at each other. At Swimrun Lake James, we had traded the lead with them during the race with Kawika and I almost catching them towards the end.  They beat us by 8 seconds. Here was Bronwen’s post-race photo to our Coach:

Spotting them on the out-and-back on Nämdö, Kawika and I discussed when we thought the Dierksens would have the potential to pass us.  Since they are phenomenal swimmers, we thought that it might be the Pig Swim, the second-longest swim of the day, and revered as the toughest given the typical wind and currents you encounter between Mörtöklobb and Kvinnoholmen.  However, I told Kawika that I believed it would be the 11-ish mile run on Ornö.

We continued our race over the next 5 islands, being fast with out transitions, carrying good paces on both land and sea, and communicating well in-between.  Things seemed to be going according to plan and we had built up quite a buffer on our sub-9-hour finish time.  We were ahead of schedule.  Until…

The cramp in my calf gradually got worse and worse.  When both calves began to cramp, I spoke up. 

“Kawika, I am starting to get a little crampy in my calves,” I said.

“Me, too, a little,” he replied.

That was about all we said for the time being, both acknowledging that we were both feeling the effects of the race. 

The first section of Ornö, coming out of the water, was very technical, but didn’t seem to bother the cramping too bad.  Once we hit wider, flatter sections of the trail that eventually gave way to pavement, I was beginning to feel it in both quads, in addition to the calves.  I became frustrated, angry, puzzled, apologetic and every other emotion as I tried to troubleshoot in my head.

I tried pushing through the cramps, hoping that I could play catch-up with my nutrition and hydration, just in case one of them were the cause.  I had success in other races before, in swimrun, adventure racing and off-road triathlons, while incorporating this strategy.  As I pushed through the cramps, they became more intense and more painful each time.  Before I knew it, I was audibly grunting with each step trying to push through the pain.  Don’t recommend.

We began taking small walk breaks in an attempt to get the cramps to subside and during these breaks, Kawika would look back and state what he saw.  For the longest time, he would just say, “nobody”.  That was always a welcomed statement to hear as it meant we had a decent buffer on the other racers.  It wasn’t long before he said “red caps coming”.  The men’s teams all wore red caps and bibs, while the women’s teams wore orange and the mixed teams wore green.  At one point, he stated orange was coming.  As Ulrika and and Helena of Team Stena Recycling, the lead women’s team passed us, I gave them fist bumps.

Towards the end of Ornö, the road turned to gravel and the road narrowed, giving us the hint that we’re nearing the end and soon be back on technical trails.  We were taking yet another short walk when Kawika looks back and says, “Wetsox”.

I don’t remember exactly what I said as a reply, but given my frustrated state, I’m sure most of it was either expletives or curse words.  We began running again.  We continued to run with me grunting as the cramps came and went, slowly picking up the pace.  As we neared the water, Kawika confirmed we had 5 more short islands between us and Utö.  We transitioned quickly to the water and the cold brought me some instant relief to the sore and crampy legs. 

The short break from running seemed to be just enough.  As we transitioned onto the next island, I found myself able to run, but quickly, we were back in the water again.  The next island, Marbaling, would prove to be a bit different.  Again the cramps popped back up, turning one of Kawika’s favorite islands into one of horror for me.  I began to grunt and growl trying to push through the pain like a powerlifter yells while throwing heavy weights into the air, although my noises continued with each step… for almost the entire island. 

Photo: Aaron Palaian

The next three islands, the last of which is Jarnholmen would prove to be another reprieve for me as any non-repetitive movement seemed to be easier.  Plus, I’m happiest on very technical terrain, so I’m sure that little spec of “smiling when it hurts” seemed to help, allowing me to bound from rock to rock with a lot more ease.   

Once we landed on Utö, a sense of relief came over me and I knew I just had to make it through that one last run.  I looked over at Kawika and said, “We’re not f@#king walking this.”  I had no doubt that he could do it, so it was more of a statement of my intent as I began to run.  I didn’t care if the cramps hurt at this point, all I knew was that the finish was in sight, and I certainly didn’t want another sprint finish with our friends, the Boston Wetsox.

As we came across the finish line, I could barely keep standing.  After an embrace with my race partner and then one with Michael Lemmel, I bent over and grabbed my knees, both legs convulsing in cramps and pain.  Waves of many, different emotions, happiness, frustration, relief, sadness and many more all came crashing at once.  Kawika came back over to hug me again and to see if there was anything I needed.  I didn’t know what to do or what to say.

“We did it.” Kawika says in regards to our sub-9-hour goal, while attempting to assist me in standing.

“We f@#king did it,” I say in reply.

Still not knowing how to process everything that was hitting me at once, I sat onto the ground and just sort of gave in to gravity, my legs and my emotions.  I just sat there.  Confused.  Dumbfounded. Ecstatic. 

Michael Lemmel came over and helped me to my feet and congratulated us again.  “Go get something to eat,” he said in his signature calm and caring voice.

As of this writing, I am still confused at all of the emotions that slammed against me at the finish line that day.  I still find it tough to look at the finish line pictures above without getting emotional. 

All I know is that I fought against the tough race course, I fought against my defiant legs, and all the while, fought inside my head with why they were doing what they were.  I was frustrated with my legs, angry at myself for not doing something right, sad for my partner who I was holding back. I wanted to stop so bad.  I wanted to quit.  The constant pain was overwhelming.  But I fought those demons in my head and I prevailed.  It was a long mental battle that literally went on for almost 3 hours. I tried my best to fight it without letting Kawika know and face the potential that he was having a low point, too.  I didn’t want to give up on myself and I didn’t want to give up on him.

In the end, we exceeded our goal and finished at 8:39 and 10th men’s team.  For that, I am very happy.  We set out with a goal and exceeded it. 

In retrospect, if we had breezed through Ornö and completely smashed our goals – sure that would have been cool, but instead, we had several super-low points in the race. We went from nailing our splits to having serious doubts about whether we would even reach any of our goals while possibly spending 2 hours limping across the last five islands.  We both feel that having the low points made the accomplishments so much sweeter.    

Photo: Envol

The race was just as amazing as I remembered from back in 2015. The course so beautiful, the island locals so friendly, the volunteers so helpful, and the staff so hard-working – all of them in a beautiful concert together making this event undeniably one of the best on the planet and forever memorable.

My entire European trip was also amazing.  I had the opportunity to connect with the swimrun community in Sweden, make many new friends and meet old ones face-to-face again.  We trained together, laughed together, enjoyed fika and friendship on a level that has proven to me, once again, that the swimrun community is special and unique to this sport.  It transcends nationalities, physical abilities, sex, age or anything else that may put us in different buckets.  It’s one family and it’s one I love. 

Photo: Envol – The Blue Nation

Here’s a short summary video that Rasmus put together from this year’s race. Don’t worry, he has a MUCH longer version on the way that will give you several stories within the race (hint hint) in documentary style. I cannot wait to see it when he finishes.

Race Recap: ÖTILLÖ World Championship
Location: Sandhamn, Sweden
Date: Sep 5, 2022
Distances: 24 swims, 23 runs, 6 miles of swimming, 38 miles of running
Result: 10th men’s, 1st US team
Full Results
Products used:  Ark Ornö X wetsuit, Ark Carbon Blades paddles, Ark Keel + buoy, Ark Zip + flask, Ark Kangaroo top, Ark Aid pressure bandage, GU Roctane

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