On July 26, in Engadin, Switzerland, around 400 racers took part in the first swimrun event of the Ötillö World Series since the COVID-19 pandemic hit worldwide. “For a long time, the race in Engadin was a beacon of light for us,” wrote founder and race director Michael Lemmel in his race report. “Something to hold onto in the storm, as we had to postpone or cancel race after race due to COVID-19 circumstances.”
Lemmel is one of a small group of race directors around the world who have been able to put on mass participation multisport events in the wake of a pandemic. While in some parts of the world, the U.S. included, major events have not been permitted due to improper public precautions and rising infection rates, other areas, like Europe, have been able to host races in modified formats.
According to the World Health Organization, Switzerland is a country who has seen their reported coronavirus cases level off since late April and their deaths level off since late May. The U.S., on the other hand, has seen huge spikes in almost the exact same timeframe. Looking at the way other endurance races in other countries ahead of our own have had to adjust will give us a glimpse into a realistic future of multisport—one with fewer racers, different starts, creative protocols, and mindful precautions from the racers themselves. In other words, the first races in the U.S. certainly won’t (and shouldn’t) look anything like races from 2019.
To get a peek into the multisport world we might inhabit in the next few months (if we’re lucky) or in the next year, we turned to Lemmel’s experience with Ötillö Engadin. Here’s our conversation with the Swimrun RD:
Was there anything unique about hosting the race in Switzerland that allowed it to go off as planned?
Lemmel: The regulations in Switzerland are quite rigorous around how to put on a race. That is why we created our COVID-19 Safety Management Plan. Besides that, they allow 1,000 people in an event (staff included). We chose to be no more than 300 each day, so we were well under the limit. [They are] strict on social distancing in all race facilities; face masks on for everyone. Only individual packaging at the energy stations. Food and drink are handed out by race officials in masks and gloves.
At the moment, we are following the regulations in the different countries in which we have planned races. Depending on what the status of each location is, four weeks prior to the races we will adjust and decide if and how we will put on the race. We think this is how we will have to operate for at least another six to 12 months.
(Ed note: When he traveled from Sweden, a strict 10-day quarantine was in effect for Swedish citizens before they could enter Switzerland. “We went and put ourselves in 10 days of quarantine in the beautiful Engadin valley,” wrote Lemmel in his race report. “In separate rooms so as to make sure that even if one of us got sick for any reason the others would be able to put on the race weekend. We spent 10 days in our ‘gilded cells,’ an experience I personally am happy to have had but also hope I never will have again.” Soon after, the restriction was lifted, allowing Swedes to enter Switzerland and compete at Engadin without quarantine.)
What are participation numbers normally for Otillo Engadin (this year saw approximately 400)?
Lemmel: Usually we have around 550 participants for the weekend. The races represented a total of 24 nationalities (this does not mean that they travelled from 24 countries). All of them travelled from within the E.U., as no others were allowed in. Pro triathletes Jan Van Berkel, Antony Costes, Samuel Heurzeler, and Thom Navarro all raced.
What was racers’ number one concern that you heard before the event?
Lemmel: After we published our COVID-19 safety management plan we did not hear any more concerns.
Are there any other unique regulations for the next race (Ötillö Sprint Final15K on Aug. 29 and 30 in Sweden)?
Lemmel: The regulations in Sweden are the strictest in Europe at the moment. Fifty people are allowed to start at once. They have to finish before you can start another field of 50. That is why we have changed the ÖTILLÖ Sprint Final15K concept for the end of the month, with three starts of 50 people each day over two days—so a total of 300 racers. The interesting part is that we will not know who the winners are before the end of the last session. For this, we have designed a completely new course which will be fantastic.
As a race director, do the six starts present any unusual challenges?
Lemmel: The challenge is to be able to give as much energy and attention to the first and last starters, where our race production has to be on its toes from the beginning to the end so that everyone has a special experience. For the racers it will be special with such small fields and they will all feel very alone at times, so the immersion in nature will be a lot bigger than usual.
Do you know of any other mass participation multisport events in Europe that have occurred since the pandemic has fully taken hold?
Lemmel: Every country in Europe has different regulations around events. The same weekend we hosted ÖTILLÖ Swimrun Engadin you could also race in the Swiss Alpine Marathon. I think they had 1,000 participants on each of the two weekend days.
In France, some swimrun events are beginning to happen. There are some running events too. In Sweden, there are trail running, mountain bike, and swimrun events. Even some triathlon events. The restriction in Sweden is that you cannot have more than 50 people out on the course at the same time. This limits the amount of races and also creates some creativity with different loop courses, etc. In Austria, Germany, and the U.K., I also see some races taking form again.
As a race director, how has the pandemic affected your business? Do you think the pandemic will change the way we race in the future, as well?
Lemmel: From a business standpoint this year has been a complete disaster. Our business depends on putting on races, as entry fees and sponsorship money is tied to event production. In other ways it has been good, as we have had to stop the constant churning of the wheels to look at every little thing we do in detail to see if we need it, how to make it more efficient, and what we can add to the consumer experience. Many of these things will follow us into the future, and I personally believe that we all need to adjust to a new reality where COVID-19 is only one of many things that might follow. Our societies are too vulnerable, and we need to make ourselves be able to function even in times of difficulty.
Did you notice anything different about the competitors’ attitudes this year after Engadin, as opposed to pre-pandemic?
Lemmel: Everyone on-site was extremely grateful that we put on the races and that we even put ourselves in a 10-day quarantine to do so. I would say we and the racers all take less for granted. The atmosphere was fantastic, albeit the face masks and the social distancing. The joy of coming together to put on a race weekend bridged all physical distancing.