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Sweden's tough 75km island race born of barroom banter

By Philip O'Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - On Monday at dawn over 200 athletes will line up on an island in Sweden for an endurance race that, having started as a friendly challenge after a few too many drinks, has become one of the toughest races in the world.The "ÖTILLÖ" ("Island to Island") swimrun race takes place in teams of two across 75 kilometers of Stockholm's fabled archipelago, featuring 10 kilometers of open-water swimming and 65 kilometers of grueling trail running."It is a massive race," organizer Michael Lemmel told Reuters in an interview as he made the final preparations to stage the race."You run in your wetsuit and swim in your shoes, and with the race going over and between 26 islands, that means getting in and out of the water a total of 50 times.

"And as we start at dawn the racers are chased by the light all day. The last swimmers need to be out of the water by the time darkness falls. There are checkpoints along the way too, so if they fall too far behind they are disqualified," he said.The race has its roots in a late-night challenge laid down to his three drinking partners in 2004 by Anders Malm, owner of the Utoe Inn.

Sitting in his bar late one night, he challenged his three companions to race in teams of two over the islands of the archipelago to the hotel in Sandhamn, and whoever arrived last would pay the bill for whatever food and drink the winners had ordered.

Their first effort took 24 hours to complete. By the time they arrived, both teams were too tired to go partying and went to bed instead.The story quickly made its way around the islands of the archipelago, better known as a home and muse for the likes of playwright August Strindberg and film director Ingemar Bergman than a venue for extreme sports.But in 2006 endurance athletes and current race directors Lemmel and Mats Skott decided to take the challenge born of friendly banter and run it as a properly-organized competitive race.A mere 11 teams entered the first year, but those that took part were bitten by the bug and, in a country with a wide range of endurance races in sports such as running, cycling and cross-country skiing, it quickly became popular among endurance enthusiasts.Realizing that the best way to complete the course quickly was with non-stop movement, Lemmel and Skott dispensed with rest stops in favor of an all-out attack and the modern version of the race took shape.   

'WEAK GET WEAKER'

Having started out as a simple duel between four friends, Monday's race will see 240 athletes from 22 different countries take part.80 teams are entered in the men's class, 25 in the mixed class and 15 in the women's - with the 240 athletes representing 22 different countries.The team members must stay together at all times, with a maximum allowable distance between the pair of 100m on land and 10 in the water. If those distances are exceeded at any point, the team is disqualified.The only restrictions on the equipment teams bring is on the size of flotation devices, which means that in practice they can bring whatever they want to aid them, such as flippers or goggles - but anything that leaves the starting gate must also be carried across the finish line.The order of the race has been reversed since the original challenge, with the participants now starting in Sandhamn at dawn and aiming to cross the finish line at Malm's Utoe Inn before dusk, if not sooner.The current course record, held by 2013 winners Björn Englund and Paul Krochak, is eight hours and 35 minutes, but for most of the field it will take a lot longer than that.The long distance and tough conditions are seemingly not a deterrent, and such is the popularity of the race among extreme sports enthusiasts that the waiting list numbers hundreds of teams.Lemmel, a lithe figure who at 47 still looks like he would give the course a good run for its money, says that the last 15 km of the race are among the toughest in any sport that he has encountered."That's really where the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker," he says.His racing days may be behind him, but the best days for swimrun as an endurance sport may be yet to come, and 2014 marked the first time that qualifying races were held for the main event, with one in Sweden and one in Great Britain."We hope to continue developing the sport by introducing new qualifier races in other countries," says Lemmel.To increase the profile of swimrun, the race directors have invested heavily in broadcasting the event live on their website.Come sundown on Monday, Lemmel will be on the finish line to welcome the participants who manage to finish the race, but unlike them he will be already looking forward to the 2015 version. And maybe even a few drinks, too.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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