Covering the Engadin Swimrun
The Engadin SwimRun is a 53K alpine adventure. Isaac Williams travels to the beautiful Swiss valley and discovers a sport taking the endurance-racing world by storm
It’s 8.30am. A throng of fellow journalists, photographers and I are gathered on the shore of a pristine alpine lake. For a fleeting moment, I wish I was among the athletes making their way through the near-freezing water towards us. Moments later, though, pained gasps and hypothermic shivers convince me that this is not for the faint-hearted or unprepared.
Swimrun is fast becoming something of a phenomenon. As co-founder Mats Stock told me, “After very humble beginnings, it has grown into a real sport. It’s simple: all you need are running shoes and a wetsuit.” In addition to this, most of the two-man teams opt for swimming paddles and some kind of float to minimise leg exertion in the water.
To my surprise, the field is not confined to a few Scandinavian countries; the 180 teams are comprised of 21 nationalities. 10K in, though, it becomes immediately clear that this is a debut Swimrun event for many: while the leaders make a swift, effortless transition from land to water, the tail runners spend several precious minutes pulling on wetsuits, swim caps and buoyancy aids.
It’s also clear that, despite the shimmering, crystal-clear allure of the lakes – of which there are six to contend with – water temperature is the toughest obstacle. Around the 30K mark, with the glaring heat of the midday sun and after a brutal 1,400m swim just outside the village of Champfer, it’s a point that’s reinforced with frightening clarity.
First out of the lake are the surprise Swiss duo of Igor Nastic and Jean Marc Cattori. Moments later, the Swedish pre-race favourites, Lelle Moberg and Björn Englund, clamber up the bank. Moberg, pale as a ghost, stumbles around briefly before collapsing in a heap. Five minutes later, with over 20K of bruising climbs and several swims to go, he’s on his feet and trudging off into the distance. The casual indifference of the spectators goes some way to convincing me that this is not a freak occurrence.
From the lake, a steep climb through the wooded section of Ova Lej Nair leads the athletes to the resort town of St Moritz, before another gruelling swim. By this point, the cheery pre-race optimism has been firmly replaced by expressions of regret and pain.
As I wait by the penultimate lake, however, I’m astonished to see the Swedish team of Moberg and Englund – immobile 15K previously – take to the water first. Moberg’s resurrection is testament to the calibre of athlete Swimrun attracts – I later discover that he stormed to victory in last year’s Swimrun World Championship at ÖtillÖ (for which this race is a qualifier).
One final, mercifully flat running section sees the Swedes cross the finish in 6hrs 28mins 23secs. “That was the hardest race we’ve ever done,” said Moberg.
Standing at the finish line, it’s easy to see why this is a race – and, on a broader scale, a sport – that many endurance athletes are turning to. Free from the expensive, cycling-related hassle of triathlons, Swimrun’s beauty is in its simplicity. However, while a wetsuit and trainers may be technically all you need, I’m sure the 33 teams who failed to finish would testify that endurance-racing experience is also a must.
This article was published in the September 2015 issue of Men's Running.
Photo credit: Jacob Edholm