The inaugural ÖtillÖ Hvar swimrun race was going to be a real challenge. Already on paper the course promised several tough challenges; swimming across a 3km open water stage, running on razor sharp rocks, climbing the many peaks of the islands, all while facing a strong and hot sun. The course was made out of some 35 km of running, nearly 11 k of swimming, with 20 transitions and tight cut-offs. Hvar, a popular destination in Croatia during high-season, seemed as a good place for a tough swimrun race.
The forecast looked promising with sunny conditions, albeit with a worrying 1-day storm coming in from the south.
This came as no surprise since the weekend weather basically mimicked the 2016 situation, with the same strong forecast winds and waves.
The challenge was later confirmed at the race briefing when the race organisers informed us about adjustments to the course due to the weather. The 3km swim had been moved closer into the strait, to protect people from being pushed-out into the open Adriatic Sea. Instead we were to run to the 2nd time station, pick up a mandatory safety buoy and then to head back to the 2nd swim exit and from there, cross over the strait.
This created some confusion among the racers but after some negotiation including relocation of energy stations and land-marks for exits, all changes were settled and agreed upon.
The course was laid out in an 8-shaped form, passing the start at the city centre half way through. Despite the weather forecast, I decided to go with a shorty suit, i.e. cut arms and legs and only the race cap as protection. No calf guard or long socks. My partner opted for the same set-up, however keeping long arms. Given the many energy stations we decided to travel light and not to bring much extra energy.
We started off the race by dropping a paddle at the 1st swim. As we were not allowed to use the pull-rope during this swim we couldn’t make up for lost time, which pushed us back to the end of the starting field. But knowing this was going to be a long day, we decided to relax and have fun while working our way towards the 3km swim. The water was cold but manageable. After a short run along the coast, we came up to the 1st long swim of 1700 metres which turned out to be quite easy since we swam with the waves behind us and along the coast. It was fast and easy to navigate and the water felt fresh.
Entering the bay, we exited the water onto a beach and started to walk-run uphill on gravel road. Since we were sheltered from the wind by the trees the temperature rose quickly. Cabbing down the wetsuit did the trick. Working our way up, meeting the leading teams, cheering them on, we reached the re-adjusted 2nd time station. We drank water and energy drinks, picked up and inflated the mandatory buoy, and started making our way back towards the long swim. Going back down-hill went fast and it was nice to meet all the racers along the road. It did however feel a bit strange having to do a 2+km run with a safety-buoy under your arm. If the buoy had been fitted with shoulder straps this would have been OK.
The 3km swim
When returning to the beach we were told by the staff to swim out of the bay area and then to aim for a red boat. Swimming out we could see a strobe-light blinking on the other side, but no boat. The islands all looked the same in the backlight and it was difficult to make out any detail. The water temperature was still manageable and after 10 minutes all that was visible on the other side when going up and down the waves was just a black coastline. The strobe-light couldn’t be seen, nor the boat, so we aimed for our back-up navigation point consisting of a split between 2 islands, only possible to make out when coming over a wave.
During the whole swim, we saw once a safety boat in the far distance. Pulling my team mate, I adjusted according to the rhythm of the waves and swam with a 2 long – 3 short repetitive arm stroke, trying to sight on top of the waves and every 5th stroke. This rhythm worked fine and we were fast in the water. The teams just behind us when exiting the bay was no longer to be seen and we got to swim alone for quite a while. Towards the end, we caught up with another mixed team but since my goggles kept fogging-up, navigating was hard. When finally we were able to make out the coastline, we saw a red lighthouse. Making our way onto this small shallow reef, focusing on our next navigation point, a safety boat approached us and from distance shouted and pointed onto shore. It was impossible to hear anything in the strong wind, but we confirmed their direction with gestures and got a thumbs-up back, and they then rushed off carrying several teams on board, probably quitting the race. I looked back out on the ocean and saw a bunch of teams heading our direction, and safety boats scattered over a large area.
Getting colder from the strong wind, we jumped into the water and swam across only to realise that the directions given to us were about to make us come short of the designated exit, why we had to adjust and correct. When reaching the relocated time 3 and 1st proper energy station at Palmizana, we found out that there were no hot food/drinks, nor energy bars or gels. There were a few teams around, some sitting down obviously quitting the race. We also struggled with low energy levels, being cold, especially my team mate who suffered greatly at this point, forcing us to spend a good 20 minutes on location to get some heat going again. We shared a gel we had brought, ate bananas, drank lots of the not so ideal cold energy drinks, and after some jumping jacks and ups-and-downs a small hill in the sun, we hit the trail again.
Working our way over the island we met a team heading in our opposite direction, towards the energy station, mumbling (most likely cursing) about an error in swim navigation. However, they still managed to smile while shaking their heads, indicative of the challenging conditions. Real life swimrun I thought. How can you not love this? We’re all in this mess together, fighting the elements. Strengthened by this feeling we pushed on. Reaching the next swim, we came across yet another collapsed team with one member being sick. We asked if everything was OK, got a thumbs-up and jumped into the water. Over the next couple of islands, we passed several teams slowly working their way across the razor-sharp rocks, really putting your running technique to the test.
The scenery was stunning but dangerous. One misstep and you would definitely be out of the race. We were fast but the rocks were so sharp that they actually cut holes in my shoes.
The swim back to main island
During the island hopping I kept thinking on the swim back to main island. The 600-metre swim through the narrow dreadful bottleneck between the Jerolim island and main island. Reaching the intended entry, we were met by race staff, with a big smile of course, informing us about the difficulties with navigating the upcoming swim and that the entry and exit had been moved some 100+ m for safety reasons. For us, this meant having to swim an added 100 m against the currents, strong winds and big waves. Then, on the opposite side, to circle around the coast another 100 m+ in currents to get back onto shore. Still tired from the 3km swim, this swim turned out to be just as tough a challenge since you basically had to swim sideways, fighting the drift, all the way across. While exhaling under water, I decided to curse a lot to get rid of my inconclusive negative energy, loving what I hate, hating what I love, adapting and trying to fight the conditions.
Climbing up to the castle
Finally we had hit the main island, being greeted by lots of spectators. Happy to be across, we were now about to run for a while, the strong side of my partner. We switched lead and my partner now took charge. After refuelling at the start/finish line, this time with real energy gels, we were informed by race staff that the last 2 swims had been cancelled. However, there was still confusion regarding the remaining cut-offs along the course. We decided not to bother. We had finished the hard swims and now it was up to my team mate to drag me up and down the hills. We quickly climbed the castle all while laughing and cursing the heat and the sun. An awkward feeling after having been cold for such a long time. The wind did provide some cooling effect but most of the running over the hills were protected. I did cab-down, but in hindsight I should probably have taken the wetsuit off completely. A team caught up with us and we could make out another team in a distance, but we didn’t bother. We just kept going at our own pace. My team mate kept the tempo going, navigating the trails and when reaching the peak, we quickly descended towards the last swim, on paper an easy 1800 m. Out of the bay area and then go around the bend and back in again.
The north side swimrun
At the energy station, we ate candy talked to the other teams, laughed and dreamed of hot food and a nice finish-line beer, but had to settle for the cold energy drinks, not ideal just before hitting the swim. But very much needed. The water on this side turned out to be much colder. The first 800 meters went fine. Calm and easy. But when coming around the bend, the current picked up as did the strong wind, which was forcibly funnelled down the valley. Making our way into the 2nd bay we had to swim against the wind, whipping up these annoying small waves that really disrupted your swim technique and breathing, and at this point my shoulders started to show signs of pain and fatigue. I kept grinding through the waves with my partner tucked in behind me, close, aided by our pull-rope. We had the 2 teams in sight but had to let them go, I just couldn’t increase the speed anymore and had to resort to a basic tempo. When we came out of the water we were both so cold that we had to walk slowly not to get injured and when realising that we were facing a straight 2km ascent, we ended up walking all the way up. Another team overtook us during this ascent. They looked really fresh and we smiled and laughed and we never saw them again. When reaching the flat, I took the wetsuit off completely and my partner cabbed hers down and we stopped for a short while just to absorb the magnificent view. What an island, what an event I thought.
From here on out we had a rough 15-18km run to the finish line. We really didn’t have any idea. It was an estimation based upon the info we received from different race staff along the way. But it was a run on runnable terrain, a strength of ours. My partner took lead and to our surprise we had to keep ascending another 1km, all the way up to the village of Brusje. There, there was some redbull at the energy station. Normally I don’t drink this kind of thing so late in a race but it really made my day, and together with gels brought all the way from the start/finish line, we managed to boost our energy levels significantly. Running forward on the gravel road, we were accompanied by the Brusje church bell in the far distanc. Grinding on in this beautiful mesmerising landscape with a remarkable view, we quickly made head-way down towards the 600-year-old village of Malo Grablje.
The decent was technical, on a narrow trail with lots of sharp lose rocks, really putting pressure on the running technique and front thighs. We were alone during this whole run but could make out a team in the far distance. Passing through this village the feeling of history swept over us, the hardship of living this remotely but also the purity of being so close to nature. Reaching the last energy station by the ocean we caught up with another team. They were really happy and had decided not to push harder but to enjoy the last run towards the finish line. A good choice I thought and an idea worth stealing, starting again to think about that finish line beer. We re-fuelled on redbull and chips before making our way towards the supposedly easy run along the coastline. Or so we thought.
More razor-sharp rocks
This run turned out to be just as challenging as the runs during the 1st half of the day. However, the sharp stones were loose, moving around when you landed on them. At times, it felt as if you were running on big chunks of broken shattered glass. Running behind my partner, keeping the tempo, I sometimes had to fend off lose sharp stones jumping up just after her gait. The run around the coastline, on this difficult technical trail, turned out to be more challenging and mentally tiresome than I had expected. To counter-balance this negative feeling we had the massive sea on our left side, roaring in over the cliffs. It felt like nature was celebrating us in its own way, a crescendo of waves getting bigger and bigger as we made our way forward. Every time we saw a bend in the coastline, we thought we had reached the end, but no. There were so many that we stopped counting. But we were glad not having to jump in the water and fight off more waves. That would just have been hard. When finally coming around a bend we saw the expected tarmac road and we both sighed heavily, pushed our heads down and increased our tempo. Coming back to the bottleneck transition we started to laugh realising that we were actually going to finish. The feeling we felt is hard to describe when finally running the last stretch towards the main square, seeing all the people enjoying the sun, drinking beer and cheering.
We’ve both done difficult races before and are used to push ourselves to the max, but this race was something different. We were just so happy to have made it through all the difficulties.
In all it took us just over 8 hours to finish.
|What was good||What can be improved|
|The professionalism, flexibility and adaptability of the overall ÖtillÖ organisation||The energy stations just before or after the difficult cold swims could have greatly benefited from having something warm to offer but also some energy packs/liquids, as many swimrunners coming out of the waters were struggling with various forms of hypothermia|
|The variation of the course. It was just excellent and had everything you could think of but snow||Better security for the long 3 k swim during this type of weather. This was the big subject of conversation among several teams after the race. Our team however never felt unsafe but this comes from experience of similar conditions|
|The number of energy stations and race staff who were all so friendly and always cheering||The level of information among race staff. Some were misinformed which created confusion|
|Sufficient level of bananas, chips, sausages, water and energy drinks etc. at each energy station||Fixed and high mounted dual strobe lights, or similar, for all longer swims in high waves|
|The live coverage. It’s always a treat to hear about people talking about the enthusiasm of the live commentators||A better description of available food/drinks/energy at each energy station|
|The markings of the running segments were superb||Running with the buoy, it was just a nuisance given that they could have been easily delivered straight to the beach|
|The hospitality of Hvar and its people|
|The sponsors with their tents helping swimrunners with their equipment|
|The sunny warm weather|
|Hvar itself. It’s just a perfect swimrun training and racing destination|
All in all, this was a stunning race. The setting of Hvar is just beautiful and perfect for a challenging swimrun race but also training in varying terrain. The people are friendly, the food is great and it’s easy to get around the island. It’s also spectator friendly given that it’s a popular tourist destination. If you go here, don’t go only for the race. Make a week, or at least a long weekend out of it. It’s definitely worth the stay and there is so much to explore.
And just as the day before the seas calmed down the day after, as if nothing had ever happened.
Getting to Hvar turned out to be easy and cheap due to off-season prices. For the Swedes, by luck, Norwegian opened a direct route from Stockholm to Split the very same week making travels straight forward. Getting from the airport to Split and finding the ferry was easy as the bus stopped just next to the harbour. The ferry took less than 1 hour. At Hvar, you had the option to stay at the ‘race hotel’, or as those travelling in larger groups or with families chose to do, rent one of the many available apartments or houses coming in at reasonable prices.
Reaching Hvar, we quickly realised that the Island was still in off-season mode, as many restaurants and shops were closed or still undergoing preparations. It seemed as if the Island had been taken by surprise by the sharp influx of people. Speaking to the locals, they really didn’t seem to understand why there were suddenly neoprene dressed people running around town, throwing themselves into the cold water ? .
There were swimrunners everywhere, testing gear, the water, the saltiness, training on entries/exist and cycling up and down the coast scouting out the race course.
Remember. If you plan to do a race like this, you have to train hard and in real-life conditions. Swimming in a pool or a protected lake is not the same thing as crossing open water in waves and hard wind. And never ever underestimate the seriousness of hypothermia.
Better safe than sorry.
Until next time Hvar.