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Triathletes Can’t Get Enough of This Crazy Swedish Sport

Once upon a time, only Europeans got to swimrun. Not anymore.

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Once upon a time, only Europeans got to swimrun. Not anymore.

It all started with a drunken bet. A hotel owner, his partner and two employees challenged each other to get from Utö to another island in the Swedish archipelago called Sandhamn, 75 kilometers away. No boats—just swimming and scrambling over the dozens of islands in between. Drinks and hotel rooms were on the last pair to make it, but the joke was on everyone when they arrived to find the hotel full and had to sleep outside.

Fast-forward to 2016 and that route, now running in reverse, is one of the world’s premier endurance events, called Ötillö (which means “island to island” in Swedish). Teams of two swim among 26 islands and run over them, ultimately swimming 10K in water temps hovering around 60 degrees, and running 40 miles. Just like the original Hawaii Ironman spurred the growth of long-distance triathlon and became a world championship event, Ötillö put swimrun in the international spotlight and is now the sport’s world championship race.

Jeffrey Cole watched a YouTube video of the 2014 Ötillö and was instantly smitten. “I said, ‘We have to bring this to the U.S.!’” says Cole, co-owner of Maine’s White Mountains Triathlon and a race director for various USAT events since 2002. “I immediately started mapping out the course in [Portland, Maine’s] Casco Bay. There’s no place in the U.S. with more similar terrain to where the race is conducted in Sweden than right here in my backyard.”

After a test run with about 20 athletes from the Kennebunk Beach Triathlon Club (their reaction: “This is wild!” Cole says), he and his co-organizer opened up registration to the inaugural Casco Bay Islands Swimrun. Cole received more than 1,000 applications in less than 10 days for 120 team slots, with triathletes making up a huge chunk of those swimrun hopefuls. The race took place on Aug. 14, 2016, covering 4 miles of swimming and 10 miles of running.

“It reminds me of what we used to do when we were kids, just run on the rocks, hopping and skipping and jumping around the islands,” says John Stevens, 37, who won the event with his partner, Matthew Hurley, 32. The two met through Portland’s local tri scene. “In triathlon, the distances are mostly the same. Swimrun is always different, depending on the tides and conditions. I was excited because of the unpredictability.”

The Casco Bay Islands race was the first and only U.S. event thus far to offer qualifying points for Ötillö, where only 120 teams are allowed to compete. Those teams are selected by points earned at one or more of eight merit races; the other seven qualifiers are in Europe.

Stevens is already looking forward to the 2017 edition of the Casco Bay race, set for Aug. 13 with two distances: a long course with 6 miles of swimming and 16 miles of running, and a short course with 2 miles of swimming and 6.5 miles of running. “We’ll definitely be back to defend our title,” he says. “It was awesome.”

California, Virginia and North Carolina are also getting in on the swimrun action. The California Swim Run Series already held races in January and May ( Swim-Run-Va, which supports a local non-profit whose mission is to make water safety accessible to all, will take place on Oct. 21 in Richmond ( The SwimRun NC event will take place on Oct. 29 at Hanging Rock State Park (