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Never Get Out of the Boat: An Ötillö Catalina Race Report

Two former pro triathletes go out to an island in the Pacific Ocean to try swimrun; things go well until they don’t.

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Just like the doomed Captain Willard says in Apocalypse Now, “Never get out of the boat … Unless you were goin’ all the way.” While there were no tigers or deranged Coronels waiting on shore at Ötillö Swimrun Catalina, there were huge wild bison, cute little Catalina foxes, and hills that could only be called dumb. We covered 19 miles of running with 4,300 feet of elevation, and I can tell you firsthand that not one single person in this race—former world champions included—ran even half of the hilliest sections.

For everyone involved in racing the inaugural Ötillö Catalina, it all began with a boat ride. Unless you were fancy and important enough to take a small plane (I know Rich Roll and the Iron Cowboy were there, so?), at least one boat ride was a prerequisite for even getting to the start line. For me and my Ötillö partner, another former pro named Ben Collins, our maritime adventure also involved spending the night before the race on a 129-foot wooden historic tall ship named the American Pride, docked just off the coast of Two Harbors, Catalina Island.

As if the course itself wasn’t enough of a challenge, the unique experience of sleeping below deck on an 80-year-old schooner with some truly fantastic swimrun comrades from Odyssey SwimRun brought its own challenges as we rocked, creaked, and even dropped anchor during the night. But the next morning, it was time to get out of the boat. It was time to go all the way.

swimrunners exiting at otillo catalina
Swimrunners move from water to land on Catalina Island. Photo: Pierre Mangez/ÖTILLÖ Catalina

Ötillö Catalina: The Race

For those who don’t know, swimrun is a series of runs then swims then runs that go on ad nauseum. You don’t change clothes, there is no transition area; you run in your wetsuit, you swim in your shoes. There’s far more to it than that, (check out below for more resources) but that’s the overall gist. Ötillö Catalina was the first Ötillö event (think: Ironman of swimrun) to ever take place on U.S. soil, and it took place on a small island about 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles with 19 total miles of running and almost five miles of swimming in the clear, chilly sub-60-degree waters.

Learn More About Swimrun:

Ready to Try a SwimRun Event? Start Here
Everything to Know Before Attempting a Swimrun
Hold My Bike: A Look at the Rapid Growth of Swimrun
Swimrun: Your Ticket to a Faster Tri

While “the Ironman of swimrun” is absolutely a simplification, the Ötillö brand is the originator of the entire sport, and of course with history comes prestige, honor, and fanciness. Ötillö puts on a great event. Though the course itself was mostly created by SoCal locals from California Swimrun, Ötillö bigwigs like Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott were both present on Catalina to make sure their brand was represented.

Lemmel personally provided a few weekend highlights like giving a very…Swedish…race meeting in the beautifully restored Catalina Casino theatre. Lemmel told stories about Ötillö, introduced some people who made it happen, and then gave what could only be described as “restrainedly polite” answers to some very American questions from the audience like, “What about the kelp?” (to which Lemmel answered something along the lines of: “We are moving through nature, kelp is a part of that.”) or “What about the weather?” (to which no response was given except nearly audible eye-rolling from the hearty Euros in attendance). That said, Lemmel was also at the finish line speaking to and caring for almost every finisher. He even personally attended to one unknown (to him) first-time swimrunner who was going through some mild hypothermia—something you could not expect from an Ironman higher-up.

Otillo Catalina Island
Catalina provided a brutal but beautiful backdrop. Photo: Pierre Mangez/ÖTILLÖ Catalina

Without breaking it down blow by blow, the race was brutal. Many of the uphills were so steep even some of the best swimrunners in the world were reduced to walking for miles on end. Some of the downhills were so sketchy, many were again reduced to a light shuffle. The views from the top of these climbs—assuming you hadn’t gone gray yet (more on that later)—were literally breathtaking.

From the top ridge you could see the ocean on two sides of the island: the brutally rough windward side that we would only swim on once and the leeward side that calmly faced L.A. While there was one swim section that was particularly brutal, the hardest part in the water was staying warm and not getting distracted by the tall cliffs that guarded the bright sea life living below.

Ötillö Catalina: The Suffering

For these two former pro triathletes, Ötillö Catalina was our first swimrun experience. We won’t get into the training specifics (or the lack thereof), but we will cover our gear and the gear choices of a former world champion who raced alongside us. Just like everyone, we were reduced to walking on many of the steep climbs, and we destroyed our legs on the near-vertical downhills. We dropped our gear (a lot), we got swept away by some waves, we didn’t eat (or drink) enough, and we had a lot of fun until we absolutely didn’t at all.

In the final hour, I was legitimately concerned about passing out as I swam and tried to calculate in my head if Ben would have enough time to feel my limp body tugging on the end of the tether, get me to shore, and get medical attention before I drank too much of the Pacific to survive. Fortunately it never came to that. Though both of us suffered from some mild hypothermia (one of us had it a little worse, guess who?), we both enjoyed pretty much exactly four hours of the five-hour race. Big shout out again to Michael Lemmel and his medical staff.

Ötillö Catalina: The Gear

One of the most confounding things for any new swimrunner is the gear. While guides for swimrun gear abound (see below for a few), it’s shocking to see how little uniformity exists at even a high-level swimrun event like Ötillö Catalina. There are new things, old things, secret things, weird Euro brands, and even literal garbage that people wear at a swimrun. Below, we’ve compiled a gear list that contrasts what one brand-newbie wore (Ben) against what literally the most experienced Ötillö veteran wore (Jonas Colting, who has done every Ötillö event since its inception in 2006).

Related Swimrun Gear Links:

Video Review: New Roka Maverick Swimrun Wetsuit
Ready to Dive into a Swim/Run Race? Here’s Your Gear

Crowd of swimrunners running toward camera on a tree-lined dirt road
The author (right) and Collins (left) in numbers 14, heading out at the start. Photo: Pierre Mangez/ÖTILLÖ Catalina

Ben Collins

Former pro triathlete at Olympic and half-iron distances. Now a weekend warrior living in Santa Monica.

Hardest part about the Ötillö Catalina course?
The very steep downhills and mentally keeping track of where we were.

Easiest part about the course?
There was nothing easy during the race, but racing with a friend made it way more fun than doing it alone.

What surprised you about the course?
With so many short segments on the back half, the fatigue really crept up on me. I was totally spent by the end.

Wetsuit Choice: Blueseventy—I like the orange color (it stands out), and I’ve had good luck with Blueseventy wetsuits.

Footwear Choice: HOKA Evo Jawz—Massive lugs on the Vibram soles were ideal for an extreme trail run like this. I had zero issues with traction.

Pull Buoy Choice: Two soda bottles duct taped together. I read the Ötillö rules and saw that a maximum pull buoy size was instituted last year. Scanning swimrun sites for pull buoys, it was hard to find anything that was big, hydrodynamic, and lightweight. Two-liter soda bottles are all of those, so I went for it. I really liked the outcome and it certainly stood out from what everyone else at the race was using.

Paddle Choice: Speedo Power Paddle Plus

Sock Choice: HOKA compression shorties (I wouldn’t recommend, short socks allowed lots of sand to get inside).

Goggle Choice: ROKA F1

Nutrition Carried: Clif Bloks

Quick Swimrun Advice: Practice those transitions, and make sure your pull buoy is attached well enough to withstand you getting pummeled by a big wave.

Two men rest in their swimrun gear with arms around each other, smiling
Colting (right) and his race partner Alex Berggren post race. Photo: Pierre Mangez/ÖTILLÖ Catalina

Jonas Colting

Three-time Ötillö winner, Ultraman world champion, and the only participant to compete in every Ötillö event since it began in 2006.

Hardest part about the Ötillö Catalina course?
The uphills and the downhills! This was by far the hilliest swimrun I’ve ever participated in.

Easiest part about the course?
The water was awesome and very clear, which made all the swim sections a pleasure. Also, the views around the course made it easier to keep going.

What surprised you about the course?
I knew it was going to be hilly but the severity of the long climbs surprised me. Rarely am I ever forced to walk in a race but here even walking was tough.

Wetsuit Choice: Colting Wetsuits SR03—It’s my own brand and I’ve put my 15 years of swimrun experience into developing it.

Footwear Choice: HOKA Evo Jawz—It’s light and low to the ground which is awesome on technical parts. It also provides good traction.

Pull Buoy Choice: Homemade, “swimmer’s style”

Paddle Choice: Colting Wetsuits Paddles PA01

Sock Choice: No-name running socks

Goggle Choice: Malmsten Swedish goggles

Nutrition Carried: A few Maurten gels and Cellexir Endurance

Quick Swimrun Advice: Racing as a team is important. You’ll both be having highs and lows through the day and communicating is key for performance.

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