Isles of Scilly (Alamy)Isles of Scilly (Alamy) © Copyright

Island hopping on the Isles of Scilly

"You will be sore. Sore legs, sore backs, sore knees. You will be cold in the water. You will get blisters on your feet from running across the sand. Suck it up!”

Michael Lemmel is the boss of ÖtillÖ, a European series of swim-run races, and in our mind, he isn’t great at selling his race. Still, the latest stop on his tour is the Isles of Scilly (those tiny islands 28 miles off the tip of Cornwall, in case you were wondering), and for some reason, I’ve found myself entering to see if I can get to the finish line. He has devised a viciously cruel yet wonderfully beautiful course.  

The route circumnavigates all the main islands of the archipelago, alternating between trail running sections and ocean swims. It’s 23 miles long in all, with 18.5 miles of running and 4.5 miles of swimming, all across eight islands, requiring 18 transitions between water and land.

Fortunately I’ve entered the sprint category, which is a lot shorter. All competitors race in two-person teams, presumably to avoid any nasty drowning incidents on the really long swims.

Our odyssey starts on a sandy beach on Tresco, Scilly’s second biggest island (population 180). Within a couple of hundred metres, we’re ankle deep, wading through the shallows and slipping on the seaweed. Our trail running shoes protect us from the rocks, while our cut-off wetsuits keep us warm as soon as we submerge for the first swim, a short distance to a tiny islet called Puffin Island. After a few minutes’ running along a sandy beach, it’s back in the water for a couple of hundred metres to the uninhabited island of Samson. 

Splashing through the surf, sprinting up the beaches, and diving back in the water, I feel a bit like a soldier making an amphibious beach landing. A few machine gun emplacements would add to the overall effect. Now comes the biggest swim. Our race takes us north across the 880m channel between Samson and Bryher – the waves choppy, the currents quite strong, swirling patches of seaweed to negotiate.

Twenty-five minutes later, we’re stumbling onto Bryher’s southern beach, waggling fingers in ears to release the seawater, scratching our shins on the rocks, and unsteady on our feet as we adjust to solid land. Jogging up the sand, I stop twice to disentangle seaweed from my ankles. My feet are numb with cold.

Next comes a two-mile run round the edge of Bryher. The sandy track twists and rolls as it follows the coast. Forced to skip through bracken, gorse and over huge lumps of granite, we have no chance to admire the views since we’re too busy trying to stay on our feet.

Every few hundred metres, we pass holiday-makers out hiking. They all offer encouragement, but in their expressions, there’s a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. Not surprising. Dressed in wetsuits, swimming hats and goggles, we must look daft.

Team camaraderie is at the heart of this sport. First staged in 2006, in the islands of the Stockholm archipelago off the east coast of Sweden, it owes its existence to a drunken bet between four friends who challenged each other to race 75km across a string of 26 islands. Their route became the official course of the ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championship, now the year-end finale to the ÖtillÖ SwimRun World Series. 

Back on the Isles of Scilly, my teammate and I are on the final run section around the island of Tresco. The route takes us past Cromwell’s Castle, through the beautiful Tresco Abbey Gardens with its exotic plants, past Abbey Pool, and along the edge of Pentle Bay. By now, the only other sprint team in the race have caught us up and we’re all running as a foursome.

A few hundred metres from the finish, out of (possibly misplaced) chivalry, all four of us agree to cross the finish line together and share the honour. We slow down for our final checkpoint, the timing chips on our ankles triggering the clock simultaneously.

Later, once all the racers have finished the full course (British duo Richard Stannard and Andrew Fargus win in five hours, two minutes), we are handed our official times. Of the two teams, it seems our ankles had crossed the finish line first, by a split second.

We’re champions of the inaugural ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly sprint race. Just the two teams competing. Imagine the glory.

How you can do it

Isles of Scilly Travel ( offer flights and ferries from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly ( There’s four-star accommodation at the Star Castle Hotel on St Mary’s (

As well as the Isles of Scilly, there are four other ÖtillÖ swimrun races in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Croatia, plus the big daddy of them all, the ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Champs in Sweden in September. If you just want to dip your toe in the water, there are also sprint editions of each race.


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