From time to time, we run into exceptional athletes and great new workouts that we want to share with our athletes and adventurers! Below, you’ll find the story of Sean Durkin, a local San Diegan, and his journey with the new sport of swim-run racing. Enjoy!
How did I start out with Swim-Run racing?
In September of 2014, I decided to move back to San Diego where I spent my college years learning to row, race triathlon, swim and surf. I’d spent a fantastic five years in Washington, DC and Colorado but it was time to return to the Southern California sunshine. When I arrived back in San Diego, I quickly connected with old friends from the San Diego Rowing Club and found there were many new members who had joined the club and a few others who had moved on to other activities.
My good friend Andy Hewitt found me one morning at the boathouse and commented that I needed to get back into training. My time in Colorado was great for starting my business but, I’d failed to find the training partners that I had in San Diego and Washington, DC. I assumed he meant rowing, but not so. Andy asked me to join him on a swim-and-run workout he’d been doing. He’s one of those great guys who you just want to say “Yes” to, and it’s always a valuable experience.
I’d given blood the day before but I figured I would be OK, and Andy assured me it was going to be a “short” workout. Andy said that all I needed were some comfortable running spandex shorts and a pair of goggles. In typical Andy fashion, he had goggles and shorts to lend to me and all of a sudden, there were no more excuses.
Andy had been training with a rowing coach and former collegiate rower, and the three of us met on the sand, ready for the new sport of swim-run racing.
First day of training for swim-run racing
We headed out running and it wasn’t long before Andy said we’d be getting in the water in just a few minutes. He told me I should get ready and jump in with no hesitation, just like a dog. Before I was able to think, the three of us were in the water and swimming for the opposite shoreline. I’d swam for a year in high school and competed in some triathlons, but this was a completely different experience. Swimming out in the open water really gave me a sense of adventure and it was just the new challenge that I’d been looking for. Once we reached the end of the swim, we climbed up the rocky shore without missing a beat and began running while the water drained out of our shoes.
Soon, we had completed several short swims, we were rounding the southern edge of Mission Beach, and heading for the pier for an ocean swim. I was quite surprised on the swim out around Crystal Pier; it was incredibly challenging but exhilarating at the same time. When we finished up, I was pretty tired but I also felt refreshed. My joints didn’t hurt at all from the running. I quickly realized that swim-run training was a great path for me to get back in shape and try a new sport that I hadn’t even known existed.
Continuing with my swim-run training
Andy started inviting me out on training sessions 3-5 times a week and soon, I quickly developed a routine of rowing in the morning followed by putting on my swim-run gear and heading out for training sessions. During the run portions, we had hours to talk and Andy filled me in on the sport of swim-run. It was interesting to learn that the first swim-run race was held in 2006 in the Swedish Archipelago near Stockholm. The story of ÖTILLÖ is pretty remarkable – ÖTILLÖ means “island to island” and was originally a challenge setup in a hotel bar on the island of Utö between friends and the owner of the hotel bar late one night.
As Andy and I trained, we adjusted our diets, which helped us become fit – real fit. We were able to cover long distances and trained up to 5 hours per session. We even trained in San Francisco to adapt to the cold-water conditions. Soon, we learned that we had been accepted as a team for the Utö race in June, which was a qualifier for ÖTILLÖ. There are several ways to get into the world championships including merit, lottery, qualification and a long waiting list.
Competing in our first Utö race
In June, we traveled to Sweden to compete in our first swim-run race and we were one of only three teams from the USA. On the ferry ride to the island of Utö, I became very aware of just how popular swim-run had become in Europe.
All of our long training proved to be very worthwhile when we placed 2nd in the Utö sprint, and finished the long course the next day in the middle of the pack. We didn’t place high enough in the long course to qualify but the local Swedes were impressed by our performance and we could only hope that we would find a way into ÖTILLÖ .
Passing on the sport of swim-run to our fellow San Diegans
When Andy and I returned to the USA, many of our friends were in disbelief that we’d actually travelled to Sweden and done so well in this foreign race. People started asking us how they could get involved and start training for swim-run as well. We decided to set up weekly training sessions in Mission Bay to share our swim-run training excitement with others who were interested. Soon we had people telling us that swim-run training was helping their backs hurt less ; and others, who had been runners and had to stop from knee and leg pain, were able to run comfortably again.
With all the demand from athletes in San Diego, we decided that it would be a great idea to hold a swim run race in San Diego under the California Swim-Run name. We scheduled the race for September 20th to ensure that we would have plenty of time to prepare and get more people interested. Then, came some wonderful news.
Participating in the ÖTILLÖ Championship
During one of my long swim-runs with Andy, we discussed the small possibility of coming off the wait list and competing in ÖTILLÖ. We decided that we would just keep training as though we’d already been accepted in the world championships, that way we would be ready if fate came knocking.
Luckily, fate did knock, just as we were getting ready to race the US Masters Nationals Rowing Championships in mid-August. We were contacted by the ÖTILLÖ race organizers who told us that a few teams had decided not to participate in the challenging ÖTILLÖ race, so our team from California Swim Run would be competing in ÖTILLÖ 2016! Needless to say, Andy and I were both ecstatic and very happy we’d continued our training – we felt well prepared for the road ahead.
Soon, August was ending and Andy and I were boarding a plane once again bound for Sweden and the ÖTILLÖ world championships. What a year it had been so far.
We practiced for a few days in Stockholm and then boarded the ferries that would take us and the other 119 two person team to the island of Sandham for the start of ÖTILLÖ.
It was the 10th anniversary of the ÖTILLÖ race and Pippa Middleton, younger sister to Kate, would be competing. The 75km race started off just before dawn with a shotgun blast, just as the Utö race had three months earlier. All 240 athletes ran through the tiny town and then entered the first swim that was nearly a mile long. The course had unusually large waves that were kicked up by the stormy conditions. We had planned out the course meticulously and trained to utter exhaustion, but nothing could have prepared us for the 26 islands we were about to cross in our journey to complete ÖTILLÖ. The race was a test of speed, endurance, agility and mental toughness.
We were able to complete the race in less than 12 hours, which put us in 54th out of 99 finishing teams. There was another men’s team from the USA but they unfortunately were not able to complete the race. A women’s team from Florida finished well and it was great to see them at the finish line!
The first Mission Bay 10k Swim-Run Race
Following the race, we celebrated and headed back to the USA to host our own race, with just over a week to finalize the details. The Mission Bay 10k swim-run race was a big success and the first ÖTILLÖ-style swim-run race held in the USA. The first triathlon was held in Mission Bay back in the early 1970’s so, it was only fitting that we also held our race in this beautiful place we call home.
What an exciting year it has been! There are now over 200 swim run races which will be held in 2016; the sport of swim-run is rapidly growing, and I am happy to be a part of this great movement. In March of 2016, we held our second swim-run race, the Mission Bay 12k Swim-Run Sprint. We had a much bigger field of competitors and are now focusing on hosting our 2016/2017 race series. Our 12k Sprint will be held on October 30th in beautiful Mission Bay. If you are up for a longer race, we are hosting our 22k Challenge on January 22nd, 2017 and our championship race will be 42k and held on April, 23rd, 2017.
For more information check out