Synergy in Sweden – Helen Wikmar and Emma Wanberg

Each year, traversing the wild terrain of the Stockholm archipelago, teams of two race over 65km on foot and 10km through water in the toughest Swimrun event in the world. ‘Synergy in Sweden’ tells the story of how two Swedish swimrunners, Helen Wikmar and Emma Wanberg, pushed each other to the max to complete the ultimate Swimrun race – The Ötillö World Championship. We spoke to Helen to hear more about hers and Emma’s Swedish adventure and how they work together to motivate each other during the 10-hour race.   

Photo by Jakob Edholm

Swimrun is an unpredictable adventure sport. You run and swim between lakes, oceans, islands or bays. The jewel in the crown of Swimruns is the Ötillö World Championship where competitors swim and run from island to island over a route that stretches from Sandham to Utö in Stockholm’s archipelago.

Ötillö is special because you compete as a pair, tethered to each other by a rope. When you are a team the race becomes a shared experience instead of just another race. A teammate is there to help you up from lows when you have dips in performance. Pulling, pushing and encouraging.

Emma and I met for the first time at a crawl course in Gothenburg. It turned out that we actually lived 1km from each other and so we started meeting often in a running group that runs in the trails where we live. I had reservations about asking Emma to compete with me. She was a stronger, faster and more experienced swimrunner. But I just had a good feeling about our partnership – and Emma thinks it’s all about our communication. She said that from the first time we met, it was very honest and straightforward, which is essential for these types of races.

Competing as a pair is very different to competing individually. There is no way out, you have to push as hard as you can to not let your teammate down. In an individual sport the only one you can disappoint is yourself and so it is easier to give up or to go slower than you would actually be able to go.

Even before getting close to the Ötillö race, we were pushing each other. Preparing for the race, I’d sustained a hip injury and it got to the point where I didn’t think I’d be able to start the race. I’d even contacted other girls to take my place.  But it was Emma who convinced me that we should do it together, to experience it as a team. Once it was decided that we would start the race, I knew we would finish it, no matter what. As Emma said – to start and abort the race was not an option!

When we got to the starting line, I vowed to Emma that I would do my best for her, but I was anxious that I would let her down. I didn’t want to disappoint myself or anyone else.

The first 20 minutes of the race are always hard but you sort of land amongst all the adrenalin and emotions after that. I find that the race properly starts when I can feel some sort of control and perform according to the decided plan.

I can get quite easily influenced by the hype of the crowd as I’m addicted to public attention and love when everyone is cheering. I noticed that my energy levels were peaking whilst Emma was focussing hard, keeping a steady eye on the road to keep up.

We reached the first cut-off point on Runmarö island in sixth place when Emma revealed that her knee was giving her a lot of pain. As we tried to keep the pace, Emma’s knee pain worsened. Eventually, she could barely even walk, reduced to a limp. But she showed no sign of giving up.

Our teamwork was flawless. We didn’t have to discuss anything; we knew who was doing what during the whole race. We complement each other very well. If one was tired, the other one stepped up. Something I’ve noticed about myself is that I can get really low if I notice I’m struggling, when my teamie is excelling. I think I don’t like the idea of being the weakest. So, when I notice my teamie struggling, I try to be extra super-duper strong, talking to my teamie so they get through the low faster. Things can change in an instant so you have to listen to each other and be humble about the fact that anything can happen in a race.

Photo by Pierre Mangez

As we got towards the end of the race, Emma took over – it was now her turn to help me. Her knee felt better and she set a good pace. I focused on watching her heels and kept telling myself that my hip was not hurting. Emma began to count down how many kilometres we had left. I squeezed the last bit of energy out and after ten hours, three minutes and 30 seconds – we had finished in the top ten!

I know that after a really low dip it can change very quickly and I can feel strong like a She-hulk again. With a friend reminding you of all the good stuff going on, you can focus on them instead of continuing in a negative spiral. The fact that we were tethered together by a rope also helped us really connect as a team. Just the look of the rope connecting me to Emma made me feel stronger.

The feeling of accomplishing something so difficult together as a team is magical, it’s hard to really describe that feeling. We had completed an amazing endurance race and it was all about two people sharing one experience and reaching the same goal. Emma put it best when she said:

“It’s true that one human body can do great things alone. But companionship and teamwork can take it to new levels”

To read more about Helen and Emma’s Swimrun story click ‘here’.

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