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Hold My Bike: A Look at the Rapid Growth of Swimrun

Swimrun is booming faster than tri in the early 2000s. Brad Culp reveals its lure and what its rapid growth says about today’s triathletes.

The way endurance athletes seek adventure is changing. We’re trading in fast roads, ultra-aero equipment, and chasing PRs on GPS-measured routes in favor of gravel roads, minimalist gear, and courses determined by nature. There’s no better example of that than swimrun — a sport that is still small in numbers but is growing at a rate faster than triathlon was in the early 2000s.

In all of the roughly 300 swimrun events worldwide, the distances of swimming and running vary. Events can take anywhere from two hours to eight or more. The race is about which team (or individual) can get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, crossing whatever sea, bay, lake, river, island, crag, inlet, or mountain lay between. That has plenty of appeal for old-school endurance junkies—and it helps that the swim is never cancelled.

Swimrun in the Beginning

According to ÖtillÖ, organizers of the Swimrun World Championship and the sport’s most prestigious series, swimrun is “a team sport based on two persons traveling through nature and time, completely dependent on each other.”

It began late one night at a hotel bar in Sweden in 2002, when four friends challenged each other to race to another hotel bar 75 kilometers (46.6 miles) away. It took more than 24 hours, and by the time they tried it again the next year, it was becoming somewhat of a local legend.

In 2006, Swedish adventure racers named Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott organized the challenge into a proper race and invited Jonas Colting — one of the most popular Swedish triathletes at the time. Eleven teams of two competed that year, with only two teams reaching the finish.

By 2010, teams were coming to Sweden from all around the world, and then returning home to organize events of their own. As the original ÖtillÖ grew to more than 300 participants, events around Europe went from hosting a dozen racers to a few hundred in only a couple of years. Races began popping up from Australia to Morocco to the U.S. What started with four friends in Sweden in 2002 had grown to thousands of racers around the world in just 17 years. The numbers are still relatively small, with something close to 10,000 swimrun athletes worldwide, but the year-to-year growth continues at an exponential clip.

swimrun
Photo: Jakob Edholm

Growing Painless

ÖtillÖ has been leading the swimrun charge and now sanctions nine more events worldwide that serve as qualifiers for the ÖtillÖ World Championship on the original course in Sweden. The first ÖtillÖ events in North America will take place at Catalina Island off the Southern California coast on February 28 and March 1. With ownership of the sport’s marquee event, ÖtillÖ holds most of the chips in the swimrun world, but they’re most interested in seeing the entire sport grow while preserving its core principles.

“At ÖtillÖ, they really stress that it’s more about conquering the terrain and having a respect for nature than it is about the competition,” says ultra-endurance addict Rich Roll, who finished the 2017 World Championship alongside former pro triathlete Chris Hauth. “They even have a zero-tolerance policy for littering — you can get disqualified for dropping a single gel. The briefing the night before is all about not leaving anything behind and sharing this beautiful experience in nature.”

That ethos is what ÖtillÖ hopes to instill in every new event and series springing up across the globe. But they’re not looking for ownership of the entire sport —something that has caused conflict in tri. Instead, they’re working with new event organizers to offer the opportunity to race at the world championships, and they’ve helped form an international governing body — The World Swimrun Federation — to further legitimize and standardize the sport.

National federations have been formed around the world, with countries like France operating swimrun as part of its triathlon federation. France, Sweden, and the U.K. have seen the largest growth, accounting for more than a third of the roughly 300 stand-alone events worldwide.

Swimrun is growing in the U.S. as well. Independent events like the Ignite series, which hosts six races from Rhode Island to Michigan to Tennessee, report a 65 percent increase in participants from first- to second-year races. Back when Ignite was founded in 2016, there were only four swimrun events in the U.S. In 2019, there are no less than 20 swimrun “weekends” planned — with some events boasting multiple events and distances.

The Ödyssey Swimrun Series now operates four of its own events in the U.S., with their original event in Maine hosting nearly 400 athletes last year. Lars Finanger, who co-founded the event after competing in the 2014 world championships in Sweden, says he’s seen the most growth in the individual category, which has been slowly embraced by organizers around the world — ÖtillÖ included.

“I don’t know if it’s the American athlete mentality that just clicks with solo racing, or if it’s an unawareness or unwillingness to find another athlete,” Finanger says. “But it’s the way the sport is evolving, and it’s part of the growth. Our hope is that individual racers see the fun that the teams are having and they decide to team up while they’re sitting around the keg after the race.”

Finding Limits

Like running in the ‘90s or triathlon in the early 2000s, swimrun is enjoying rapid growth. The sport as we know it is a little more than a decade old, and it might be another decade until it reaches an inevitable plateau.

About 50 races have been added worldwide each of the past four years. That rate may be able to continue for another couple of years, but ultimately race organizers will have to scale back growth because there simply aren’t that many swimrun athletes out there yet.

Then there’s the swim, which has always been the biggest barrier to entry for triathlon. While it makes up a small part of a tri, swimming can account for up to 20 percent of the total distance in swimrun. That can mean upwards of seven miles of swimming at the more extreme events. And true to its Swedish roots, most swimrun races take place in cold, exposed bodies of water.

“During one of the final swims at ÖtillÖ, I remember thinking that there’s no way in hell an insurance company in the U.S. would underwrite this,” Roll says of his experience at the world champs. “It was wide open sea, and it was so risky and scary. In Sweden, they’re Vikings — they think you’ll just get through it.

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