Swimrun World Champion Fanny Kuhn relives her first ever swimrun race at ÖtillÖ Utö in 2015. Her win there would go on to direct the course of her life for the next five years, lead to adventures across the world, and eventually, a World Championship title
For me, no matter the race, the trip to the start line is always nerve wracking. ÖTILLÖ Utö particularly so. On the ferry from the mainland, everyone sits there staring down at the competition. Everyone is friendly, of course, but there’s a real buzz of expectation, nerves and competitiveness. It’s an environment unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Utö was my first ever swimrun race, in 2015. I can vividly remember the feeling of excitement, mixed with fear when I first said yes to taking part in the event. I had never run that far before, and although I was an experienced swimmer, I’d never considered swimming 5k in 8-degree water. I had so many questions and fears: How fast did I need to run? Could I keep up with my race partner? Would the water be too cold? What should I wear? I remember sitting on the ferry on my way to the island from the mainland that morning, looking around at all the other swimrunners and feeling like a total newbie.
At the time, I had only recently begun to know about running pace and that you are supposed to measure it in minutes per kilometres. I remember asking Pär Kristoffersson, my race partner and renowned long-distance athlete, how fast he thought I should run. “About 4:30 pace on the flats,” he said. That same afternoon I went for a run, trying my hardest to stay steady at a higher pace than I normally would. I could hold a 5:15 pace for 3k, and I was totally dead afterwards. Luckily, that didn’t deter me. Two weeks before the race I said yes to Utö, and Pär and I joined the mixed category. It wasn’t nearly enough time to get in any serious training, but I did my best to prepare as well as I could.
Looking back, this was such a big decision. It would direct the course of my life for the next five years, lead to marvellous adventures all over the world and, eventually, even a Swimrun World Champion title. Who would have known!
Leading up to the race, I had no experience and no equipment. Pär managed to get me in touch with a triathlon shop in Stockholm, which lent me a swimrun wetsuit. I remember feeling in awe when it arrived. It was so cool. I didn’t dare ask if I could cut the legs off by the knees, as I’d seen other swimrunners do, so I wore it like I received it: long arms and long legs!
Pär insisted that I should carry a pull buoy with me the whole race, but I didn’t see the point in that. It seemed like a hassle, so I just went without. I listened to his suggestion of taking a pair of hand paddles though, and unwillingly strapped on an extra elastic by the wrist, as apparently this was important. I also had doubts about the swim cap. I was worried about putting it on and off during the race with my long hair tangling up all over the place, but I solved that by chopping my hair off to a neat boy cut the Wednesday before the race. By this stage, I was as ready as I could be.
Leading up to the race, the things I was most nervous for were the distance, the cold, and not being able to keep up. Looking back at it now, I’ve forgotten about all those fears. I remember it being hard and that I got a brain freeze the first time I jumped into the water. I remember my entire back cramping up at the end out of exhaustion. But these are faint memories, almost blurred out by the happy ones.
It was such a cool experience. Pär was amazing and helped me on the runs – he must have been quite bored due to the pace we held! We didn’t have a cord, so at times he pushed me forward to help, carried my equipment, and patiently answered my repeated question: “How much farther until we get to swim?”
Never in my wildest imagination did I think that we could make it to the podium that day. We kept up a steady pace and passed many teams in the water, which helped us cross the finish line as the first mixed team. After a few years off the grid as an athlete as a swimmer, it felt amazing to step up on the podium and receive a trophy (the largest I’d ever seen by the way). And best of all, I wasn't alone up there. I was there because of my teammate. We had done it together and we got to share the glory.
My first swimrun experience at Utö got me hooked. With swimrun, everyone is exposed to the same wonders of nature. No team or athlete can change the course of the waves or reduce the wind in their favour. Nature is every racer’s toughest competition, and it is all about handling it in the best way – with respect and appreciation for the adventure. Utö left me wanting more.
When I found out that this win had earned us a spot to ÖTILLÖ, The Swimrun World Championship, later that summer, I could hardly say no to my next challenge!
From newbie to victorious in one day – that’s how life can be sometimes. Just like that, my swimrun journey had taken off. Perhaps I would have stumbled into the sport another way later on, but I really think that taking on that challenge when my friend Pär asked me was the key moment.
Think about that next time you get the opportunity to do something you're a bit scared of. Perhaps you'll turn out to be the best in the world at it.