Malta. A small, Mediterranean island between Sicily and Tunisia. Governed by the British for many years, but now a republic with British, African, Arabic and Roman influences.
Max Andersson and Hugo Tormento were under huge pressure to deliver their clean sweep of winning all 7 Otillo races this year, could they do it?
Gale force winds batter the island from the west
As athletes, we often look ahead at the long range weather forecasts to get a feel for what is to come, watching eagerly as race day draws closer and for me, this was no different. 3 weeks back, everything looked lovely with warm, intermittent sun and cloud and very calm seas with a light breeze. Perfect for swimrun. Oh, how that changed.
The Monday pre-race, a storm was on its way and expected to hit the western side of Malta with force 7 winds, rain and everything else mother nature could chuck at it right on race day.
Having spent hours and hours watching Otillo’s legendary race videos, I was very familiar with the 2019 Malta race conditions when a similar storm hit the event and the anxiety started to build. This one though, was another level.
Michael Lemmel and his crack team of event safety and local experts had to make a decision.
The event team steps in
On Tuesday we were told that there would be a change to the course for our safety.
To this day, I’m flabbergasted at how an events team managed to not only ‘change’ the course but actually completely re-design a fresh course, get all the right permits in place and publish it in less than 2 days. That just shows how professional and experienced the ÖTILLÖ team is.
So race day. Instead of starting at Golden Bay, where by now the ocean was raging like an angry Greek God, we were bussed to Mellieha on the other side of the island, where the water was in the lea of the wind and somewhat calmer. So far, the skies were blue, but you could still feel the wind on your back on the start line.
World Series racers started first, followed by the sprint and experience events.
World Series racers straight into a swim
A mass swim start was the expected bun fight, with paddles clashing, argy-bargy and desperate search for clean water to get going. Exiting the water across the bay at Mellieha town after 600m the field had spread out a little bit and we could start to get a feel for the course.
Malta’s volcanic history produces dramatically technical trails where no segment was the same as the one before. Heavy rain overnight had turned the undulating trails between Mellieha and Mistra Bay into a slip slidy theme park, with 3 lovely swims to freshen up.
Coming out of the water at Xemxija Bay, we knew that we were about to take our bodies and especially our minds into some very dark places. Those times when we are reminded that nature is in charge, we can do nothing but embrace the race you are given, get into survival mode and dig deep into our mind’s ability to overcome fear, pain and the desire to give up.
The new course had given us a total of 14km running in this next stage; much of it into the storm. From Xemxija on the east, right up and across the exposed top of the island to Paradise Bay (it was anything but, today!) and around to Marfa. Coming down towards Popeye Village, when you look to the skies, big, black, angry clouds were approaching.
By this time, we’d been running into a gusting 30mph headwind for several km, but now that wind took on a new personality; we were about to get hit. HARD.
Several gusts literally stopped us in our tracks. Hand paddles became sails and when the rain hit, it came in sideways, at speed. Many athletes were running with swim goggles on to be able to see
This felt like a darts team had lined you up in front of a dartboard and was using you for practice. Massive kudos to the awesome race marshals who despite being soaked themselves, all managed to cheer us on with smiles and friendly words of encouragement.
Coming down the rocky, hugely technical trail to Marfa was a blessing, albeit short lived. Right at the top of the island, Marfa is exposed to the storm. Guided down the steps to the harbour wall, looking to the left, the sea was raging and coming right over on to the wide concrete path that we were on, giving us very wet feet as it surged and drained with each wave. Now though, we were on the homeward path. Only 7km of running and 2.2km of swimming to go.
Cutting around to White Tower beach involved several short sections, running across rocks, through villages and technical swims where the currents required good navigation skills. This was some pretty exposed, gnarly swimming in which I lost my goggles in the surf coming into land. From now on, any rough swim events I’ll always carry a spare pair!
The final push
The last run of just under 3km on tarmac really was a chance to reflect and find that deep will to finish. By now, the body has taken a battering, the mind is tired, and everything hurts. ÖTILLÖ had one last gift for us. The long swim home.
1.3km straight into the wind back to the finish line at Mellieha beach. You could see the building in the distance, but it just didn’t seem to get closer. On every recovery stroke, you felt the wind catch your paddles. Every sighting stroke you were smashed in the face by the wind chop and the rain (which with no goggles is not fun, I can tell you!). Finally though, the shouts and cheers from the finish line got through, the water under you became shallow and the beach was there, with Michael greeting everyone with his usual infectious smile and positivity.
ÖTILLÖ Malta 2022 was done. The season was over. The sense of achievement amongst all athletes was palpable. The gratitude to nature for allowing us to play in its playground and indeed to the ÖTILLÖ team for their wisdom which kept us safe. They pulled off a masterpiece!
Max and Hugo got their grand slam, in just over 3 hours, Huge congratulations to them for their performance this season, with French team Matthieu Poullan and William Even, 10 minutes later.
A humbling, awesome day which will never be forgotten. I can’t wait for next year’s edition!