Mary Margaret McEachern
Slow is Smooth, and Smooth is Fast!
This column departs from my usual because, frankly, this is about an unusual – no, virtually impossible! — feat which was accomplished with absolute aplomb by my incredible and talented running coach, Kristen Smith Jeno, and her good friend, super-runner Jennifer (“Jenny”) Perrottet. In achieving the impossible, they placed eighth in the WORLD at an event known as the ÖtillÖ World Swim-Run Championship. WOW! I’m sure many of you may have heard of an event called “swim-run” or “aquathlon”, but only a select few could ever even think about taking on the challenge of ÖtillÖ, which traverses a gorgeous yet rugged 26-island Swedish archipelago amid the harsh northern Mediterranean Sea.
The brainchild of adventuresome friends who concocted the challenge over drinks ten years ago, ÖtillÖ is ranked by CNN as one of the world’s toughest endurance races. The event boasts the “mother of all endurance courses”, comprising 75 kilometers of which 10 are open water swimming and 65 are trail running. And this is not just some peaceful, balmy lake and groomed dual-track trail; due to the nature of the archipelago, athletes are required to negotiate numerous swims and runs, traversing extreme seas and impossibly technical trails. They must also complete 55 transitions from land the water and water to land, over seemingly impossible-to-scale slick, rocky escarpments! Couple the sheer difficulty of the course with frigid water temperatures and harsh, windy conditions, and you have the makings of a truly world-class challenge!
In order to get into the race, athletes must meet tough qualifying standards and even then, entry is by invitation only. The format is two-person team, but it is not a relay. Team members must remain together and can never be more than 30 feet apart from each other. Most teams, including Kristen and Jenny, utilize physical tethers known as “paracords” to prevent them from running afoul of the rule. Teams must decide who will “lead” or “pull” through each portion of the race, and this requires a good knowledge of each person’s respective strengths and weaknesses. As they progress through various phases of the race, teams must meet strict cut-off times lest they be pulled from the course and not allowed to finish. The race thus tests not only sheer physical ability, but also requires a level of mental toughness, strategic planning, and pure heart that can only be tested in such a team format.
Before proceeding with their account of their amazing experience, here’s a little background on Kristen and Jenny. I simply can’t say enough great things about Kristen. She is an amazing athlete; not only is she a terrific runner, she’s also a world-class Masters swimmer! She’s a well-rounded and upbeat coach who always puts you in a better mood after having been at practice. It’s such a refreshing departure from “ancient times” when I ran for high school and college, and so often the coaching methods that were popular at the time left runners feeling so guilty for not having reached contrived expectations in a particular workout that they became demoralized and often injured themselves trying to “make up” to their coaches. Not so with Kristen and the other coaches at Without Limits. There is never a negative moment at any practice, and this is how she lives her life! She has kept me healthy and, as a result, my running is much more consistent than it was even during my high school and college years and, most importantly, I’ve been enjoying my running more than ever. This seems to be the case with all the athletes with whom she works.
While I do not know Jenny that well yet, what I do know seriously impresses me! Having begun her running career as a collegiate walk-on, she skyrocketed from being the slowest runner on the team to being a record-holder by her senior year. She joined the United States Marine Corps, was a member of the All-Marine Running Team from 2002 to 2011, and was a member of the USA Military World Marathon Championship Team in 2009! She has suffered numerous injuries, including among others over 36 stress fractures, a partially torn Achilles tendon, a torn soleus muscle, a fractured back, a fractured leg, a broken foot, a collapsed joint, a torn hip flexor, a torn plantar and a broken heel! Yet after all that, she just had her most successful racing year to date! She has run 17:20 for 5K and 1:18:28 for the half-marathon. These are blisteringly fast times! She credits Kristen and the Without Limits program for keeping her healthy in recent years. Oh, and did I mention that she is also a world-class Masters swimmer?!?
Needless to say, these athletes have what it takes to conquer any challenge life could throw at them. Following is an adaptation of an actual blog composed by them. They have graciously permitted me to tell their story, and when I read their blog, I knew I couldn’t say it better! So, without further ado, here it goes:
“We arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, six days before ÖtillÖ. This gave us plenty of time to sightsee, get used to the climate, and even learn a few Swedish words! The one other U.S. women’s team arrived around the same time and found lodging near some trails and an inlet — an ideal spot to perform final training and shakeouts. They graciously hosted us so we could develop a feel for the terrain we would encounter during the race. This also afforded us the opportunity to test our race gear and make tweaks and additions; we had a blast!
After three nights in Stockholm, we ventured out to the Stockholm Archipelago in the northern Baltic Sea. This is where the race was being held. We discovered Grinda Island, located about halfway to the race’s starting point in Sandhamn. Complete with guest cabins, it was perfect for our final pre-race preparations. It was also where we learned just how truly cold the water was! The day before the race was cold and rainy, only reminding us of just how brutal Scandinavian weather conditions can be. We were beginning to question our sanity at this point. After an athlete meeting and pre-race dinner, we headed to bed; our 4:00 a.m. wake-up time was going to arrive in no time!
In what seemed like only minutes later, we were up, gathering gear, eating, dressing, and repeating to each other for the thousandth time, “I can’t believe this is actually happening!” Jenny, who had fallen ill shortly after completing the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Austria the week before ÖtillÖ, was feeling worse. She felt and looked awful; we silently both worried but we knew this was our chance to race the storied ÖtillÖ and nothing was going to stop us! We stuck to our race plan.
When we arrived at the start, the rain had subsided but the wind had intensified to the point that things were getting really rough! It was finally dawning on us though that this was actually happening! We were in awe of the other competitors; we could tell that these world-class athletes were a different breed of tough!
We placed our belongings on a boat which would carry them to the finish on Utö Island. We found the other U.S. women’s team and wished them luck. Then, BANG! We were off at 6:00 a.m. Both the air and water temperature were around 55 degrees, a far cry from balmy Wilmington, N.C.! We first ran 1,200 meters through town, reaching a gentle, wide path leading to the water’s edge. This is where we encountered our first and longest swim, which spanned 1,750 meters of rough seas between the first two islands.
Kristen took the lead and pulled on the swim portions. Being an excellent spotter, she could sight the quickest path through the water and keep us on track. The race organizers had placed a strobe light on the target island; this provided crucial guidance in the predawn light. It was windy, but not terrible yet, and the water didn’t seem too cold, but we were relieved to reach dry land and begin running again.
The next two swims were shorter and actually provided a refreshing break from the intense terrain we were negotiating on the runs. These early “run” portions were extremely technical and more like rock climbing or bouldering than running. We also encountered several thigh-high mud pits, thick brush and treacherous roots. Kristen, being a bit more sure-footed than Jenny on trails, led these technical run segments. Jenny took two hard falls on the rocks early in the race, scaring Kristen as she smashed both her hand and her tailbone. Thankfully, the klutziness left Jenny’s system and she forged ahead, pulling Kristen through the final 5.4 mile run portion of the first section of the race. The race was divided into five sections, each approximately 15 kilometers in length. The first section was daunting and took us over two hours to complete!
The transition between the first and second sections involved a 5.4 mile run through which Jenny pulled Kristen. Jenny pulled on the longer run sections, most of which took place on wide paths or gravel roads. Since the grueling initial section had taken over two hours, we were thankful that we had brought nutrition to supplement what was available at aid stations. The race had specific cut-off times for each 15-kilometer section of the race, and a failure to meet these cut-off times was grounds for removal and disqualification from the race. We had made the first cut-off time by about 45 minutes, but the effort left us depleted; not eating was simply not an option! We literally shoved calories and fluid into our bodies every 45 minutes. The running portions of the second section consisted primarily of technical trails and one swim portion of 1,000 meters which, thankfully, was not too rough. The transition between the second and third sections involved another non-technical 5.5 mile run where we made up some time. We were one hour and 15 minutes ahead of the cut-off at the transition.
The third section comprised several short swims and runs with maximum distances of 100 meters. In this section, we caught several teams on the swims but we lost time on the technical trails and rocks. The infamous “Pig Swim” loomed. It was a bear at 1,400 meters in length, complete with 4-foot swells and white caps. The winds blew so fiercely from the right side that Kristen was forced to swim hard right in order for us to maintain a straight line and “land” in the appropriate spot on the target island. The current was also a factor; it was extremely strong which rendered accurate sighting even more crucial. We nailed it!
This swim-leg was particularly brutal — probably the toughest swimming either of us had ever encountered! There was no rest for the weary! We became colder and colder as the wind beat us down, and we were no doubt close to hypothermic. We were extremely relieved when that swim came to an end! As we clamored out of the water, an event staffer remarked, “well done ladies, well done!” Another staffer presented us with two well-deserved Twix bars which we promptly shoved into our mouths. We hugged each other and nearly cried because we had survived that swim! For the next ten minutes we shivered and joked about not being able to feel our feet, even though that wasn’t really funny! After the Pig Swim, we encountered several shorter swims, along with short runs which were just long enough for us to warm up slightly. At the conclusion of the third section, we were a comfortable 90 minutes ahead of the cut-off time.
Prior to the race, Kristen had jotted all of the swim-run distances on her paddles so that we could keep track of our position on the course and have some idea of what challenge lay ahead. We knew that another long swim loomed and this made us nervous, since we had yet to thaw from the Pig Swim. We took solace in knowing that upcoming swim, 970 meters in length, was our final long swim, and that the 20 kilometer run following that swim would surely help us get warm!
After managing that swim, with Jenny pulling we crushed the 20K run! Feeling strong and smooth on the gravel and asphalt roads, we passed several teams. It actually felt pretty weird to run on asphalt after negotiating rocks, roots, and soft dirt for most of the race. We thawed to the point that we actually got hot! It felt great to not be cold! We made the final cut-off checkpoint with a 45-minute cushion. At this point, we knew we were going to finish, as long as we stuck to our motto: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast!”
We had about four miles of short technical runs and swims remaining after that final checkpoint. We were so ready to stop moving! Our feet hurt, our legs were exhausted, scraped and bruised; our wetsuits were torn, and we were just plain tired of being wet! When we finally arrived at the final leg of the race, a 3,000 meter run, we were both hurting, but Jenny wasn’t going to let Kristen walk. We were going to finish with everything we had left! Then we spotted the finish line atop a winding driveway and, wow, what a glorious sight! We crossed in 12 hours and 53 minutes, good enough to place eighth among the women.
We started this race together and we finished this race together. There were several points at which we wanted to cry. There were several points at which we questioned what we were doing and we questioned our sanity. There were several points at which we looked around and smiled at the beauty around us. This was the experience of a lifetime, and what an honor it was to participate! This event was a true testament to the adage, “The strength of the team is each individual member; the strength of each member is the team”.
We would like to thank the following supporters, without whom this experience would not have been possible: Prone2Paddle; the Kehaya’s – SpeedFaces; Greg and Maleia Tumolo; Distressed Mullet; CA SwimRun; Cecelia Marrese; Alex Llinas; Jenn McCall; Henry Singletary; Without Limits; Leanne Vella; Carrie and Bill Collier; Kathy and Jim Pawlowski; Lindsey Lynskey; Mark Laboccetta; Keith Helton; Troy Fuller; Patty Pyritz; Gary Cook; Jennie Stone; MJ Barbaretta; and Jerry Clark.”
After reading this amazing account, I hope you are as awed and inspired as I am! These athletes, through their account of this experience, have taught me that if you focus on achieving a goal, there simply are no limits. This account has taught me to believe in my ability and the abilities of those with whom I have the pleasure to run. While ÖtillÖ might not be in my future, I am seriously considering an ultramarathon, a feat I would never attempt but for the privilege of relating the experience of these extraordinary athletes! After reading this, I hope you, too, find yourself dreaming of something new. Perhaps a triathlon, duathlon, aquathlon, marathon or ultra, or maybe even the ÖtillÖ itself! Your personal challenge doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, although it could be; the important take-away is to never limit yourself and don’t be afraid to set lofty goals! I truly hope you enjoyed this read, and if you’d like to find out more about the ÖtillÖ race, see their website at www.otilloswimrun.se. Until next time, Happy Running!
Our quaint guest cabin on Grinda Island.
Kristen (left) and Jenny (right) preparing to take on the ÖtillÖ course!
Our coveted ÖtillÖ race bibs! Being that this was the tenth anniversary race, they were extra-special.
No friendly beaches here…most transitions involved scaling steep, slick rock faces!
Ominous skies on race morning!
Jenny (left) and Kristen (right), are all smiles at the starting line!