Running in a Wetsuit, Swimming in Shoes
Swimrun has become a popular endurance sport
By David Gladish November 17, 2023
Four friends are sitting around a bar in Sweden, sharing a few drinks and catching up. One turns to another and says, “Do you think we can swim and run 75 kilometers up the coastline of Stockholm?” After a few more drinks and perhaps a little chest puffing, a plan was set in motion. The next day, the friends, having split up into teams of two, raced each other across islands and open water, finishing in a small town where the losers had to buy the winners dinner, hotel rooms, and more drinks. Sound like a bit of a tall tale?
The roots of swimrun aren’t made up and have become legend in this up-and-coming sport born in 2002. Swimrun combines the sports of open-water swimming and trail running. Participants become amphibious creatures, transitioning from swimming to running effortlessly, across islands, peninsulas, lakes, open ocean, and single-track trails.
With the help of specialized equipment made explicitly for swimrun, such as wetsuits developed to keep competitors warm, yet allow breathability and performance while running, the sport is growing as each year the gear gets refined and more people are exposed to the sport.
ÖTILLÖ, which means island to island in Swedish, is the largest swimrun organization in the world, hosting 10 events each year, including the World Swimrun Championships, which took place in Sweden this past September. In the United States, Ödyssey hosts four swim run races, with one of them being on Orcas Island.
This year, the Orcas Island swimrun took place on Sept. 17, with around 150 competitors swimming and running around, across, and up rugged trails, rocky cliffs, and cold lakes in Moran State Park. Brent Molsberry, a firefighter paramedic based in Everett, helped launch the Orcas Island swimrun in 2018.
“You tell 99% of people you’re putting on a swimrun race, they ask, ‘What is that?’” Molsberry says. Based on his own experience and hundreds of people who have taken part in his race, once you try swimrun, you are hooked. “You have a lot of people looking for a race experience but something not as particular as a triathlon,” he adds.
In addition to wearing a wetsuit, most swimrun racers must include goggles, an emergency whistle, compression bandage, and a tether in their kit of required gear. The tether is there to keep swimmers close together, but can also be used to help tow the weaker swimmer, increasing overall team efficiency.
Bellingham’s Brandon Nelson has competed in several swimrun races around the country, including on Orcas Island. “I couldn’t tell (my teammate) was there when I was towing. It took so much time off the race,” Nelson recalls. The majority of swimrunners use hand paddles to decrease drag while swimming and maximize speed, as well as a pull buoy, which rests between the swimmer’s legs, allowing more floatation.
For Chris Douglas, who hosts the only dedicated swimrun podcast called Löw Tide Böyz, swimrun has been a way to train and compete in a satisfying sport, without the same time commitment that triathlons take.
“There is something magical about the experience. You can get into these flow states,” Douglas says. Swimrun is more than just a sport for him — it’s about being in nature, discovering new possibilities of where swimrun can manifest, and helping others experience the joy he feels while taking part in the activity. Almost four years into the podcast, and nearly 200 episodes later, Douglas is just as excited about swimrun as ever, believing that, “The proliferation of the sport is on the way.”
Most swimrun races, including the Orcas Island event, provide options for how to experience a race. There is the choice of competing as a team of two, or solo, as well as a long course and short course. For the Orcas Island swimrun, the long course involves 21.75 miles of running and 3.4 miles of swimming, while the short course is 10.7 miles of running and 2 miles of swimming.
The total running elevation gain for the long course is 6,100 feet, and 2,150 for the short course. “In the Orcas race, the trails are incredible,” Molsberry says.
For racer Brandon Nelson, swimrun is a way to get uncomfortable without compromising safety.
“Swimrun is not hurtful or dangerous, but it’s the ultimate cure or antidote to that comfort crisis,” says Nelson, who uses swimrun to build friendships, stay fit, and experience a way of being in nature that few know exist. “It’s an incredible tribe of people to be a part of.”