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The Hardest Race You Haven’t Heard Of
Teams of three. Days of swimming and orienteering. Why is the One Water Race so difficult to finish?
If you have no idea what One Water is, don’t worry, you didn’t miss some memo. Until a coworker started talking about it last summer, I didn’t know what the One Water Race was either. But when the inaugural event finally went off a year ago and only three teams in the world finished, it caught my attention. In the canon of crazy endurance feats, why exactly was this one was so hard? And then when I found out a friend was racing for the U.S. team later this August—with the goal of becoming the first Americans to finish the damn thing—I wanted to know more.
Here’s a look at the hardest race you don’t know about yet. But one likely to ultimately join a list with things like Barkley Marathons or the Death Race as a step beyond, even for those of us who are accustomed to many steps beyond normal.
At this point, you’ve probably heard of the ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships. It started out of a bet among friends in Sweden (as so many things do): Could teams of two swim and run from island to island off Stockholm unsupported, carrying all their gear with them? Swim in your shoes, run in your wetsuit, paddles and pull buoys flapping, partners tied together by a tether. About 16 years in now and with Swimrun events everywhere, the world championship race in Sweden has settled on a distance of (approximately) 9K of swimming and 61K of trail running—though trail running might be a strong term for the kind of scrambling and adventuring that epitomizes Swimrun.
One Water Race takes this all a step farther. Could you do the same thing—but cover the whole of the Stockholm archipelago? From Arholma to Landsort.
“They tell us it’s 50K of swimming, but the teams that finished had more like 65-70 miles of swimming and the equivalent running,” said Kristen Smith, who crewed last year and will crew this year for the U.S. team.
Two years ago, One Water’s organizer, Thomas Ogander (an ÖtillÖ veteran) did a test run of his new event. Last year was the first-ever official race, with eight teams selected via a competitive application process. Only three teams finished.
There are no course markings. While the start and finish stay the same, the checkpoints along the route will change from year to year. Three athletes and one crew member, who pilots the team’s safety boat, have to orienteer and navigate themselves. Athletes aren’t allowed to touch the boat, but the three of them stay together while the crewmember pilots to the next checkpoint (and prays that everyone makes it). Covering the entire archipelago off Stockholm, the race took anywhere from 47 to 58 hours for the three teams who finished—no sleeping, swimming through the long and cold dark. All the other teams last year, made up of Olympians and elite athletes, DNF’d.
That included an American team with Smith as crew, and athletes Jarrod Shoemaker, Sara McLarty, and Misty Becerra. They dropped out 37 hours in.
Looking back at the maps, our team covered 75-80 miles of the total course during our 38 hours in the race. We crossed about 45 islands, with 45 swims between them. We watched the sunrise once and the sunset twice. We crossed paths with a moose on one of the final islands. We saw an incredible amount of Swedish beauty on the islands. But we also got our bodies beaten by the archipelago. It took three days of recovery in Stockholm, including night sweats, whole-body swelling, tick removal, neck bandages, and endless amounts of eating until we felt human again.
Despite all that, Shoemaker was convinced the thing was actually finish-able. You just needed to approach it with a different attitude: less focused on going fast, more focused on surviving. McLarty and Becerra weren’t interested in trying again. So that’s when he started looking around for two other people who might want to tackle this new impossible race.
“Jarrod Shoemaker slid into my DMs,” said Alyssa Godesky.
Many of you know Godesky. She moved in recent years from pro triathlon to adventure-style racing, setting the female Fastest Known Time (FKT) for Vermont’s famous Long Trail and the overall FKT for New Hampshire’s 48 peaks. She made it through a loop at Barkleys in 2022 and started toying with orienteering—looking for a new adventure. This year, she was waiting for something to spark an interest, an urge to push herself, a question: Can I do it?
Here, without looking, the perfect adventure presented itself. There was just one problem.
“Cool, but I’m not a Jarrod Shoemaker-level swimmer,” she said.
Sure, she can swim around an hour in an Ironman, but Shoemaker went to the Olympics, he can swim circles around her. And she hadn’t been in the pool in almost six months.
Don’t worry, he said, it’s less about swimming ability and more about knowing how to keep going, problem-solve, and adventure. And, anyway, she’ll put on the biggest hand paddles she can find and stick to his feet.
She said OK, and got back into the pool the next day.
Next question: Who else was going to be on the team? They knew they wanted Kristin Smith to crew, but they still needed another teammate for the swimming and running. They asked around, looked at other ultra-triathlon and adventure athletes, before they finally found who they wanted: Steve Keller. He’d taken second at the Ultraman World Champs last year, done 10K open-water swims and adventure races, and understood the team dynamic. He was also looking for something that would excite and excite him.
“So I slid into his DMs,” she said.
The team was set. Now they just had to figure out what the heck they were doing and if they could all get along long enough to finish the thing.
“When you say yes to something like this you’re either patently insane or cool,” said Smith.
I’ve known Godesky for a pretty long time, and so I’ve seen and heard about the parts of all the adventures that don’t always make the news stories. I know exactly how hard these things can be, and yet people still manage to finish them. So I couldn’t understand why was this one really so much harder than the others? People do the SwimRun World Championships; people swim across huge bodies of water and run days through the night; people have explored arctic conditions and even compete in ice diving competitions. What is it about One Water that makes it so hard to finish?
“If hypothermia doesn’t get you, it’s the mentality,” said Smith.
First, there’s the sheer amount of swimming. In cold water. In the dark. Hypothermia is a very real risk. Second, there’s no course to follow and athletes aren’t sure where to go even once they’re on the island. That requires a constant focus and decision-making. You can, absolutely, get lost. Third, it’s all of those things combined with the lack of sleep. And, then, all of a sudden, things go south—first slowly and then quickly, all at once.
We all know how this goes in less extreme conditions. Now multiply it exponentially: You begin to think you can’t do it anymore, maybe you really do have hypothermia, maybe you really are lost, maybe you’re not but your brain is playing tricks on you. On that second night, jumping in and out of freezing water in the dark, you start to worry it’s simply too much. You’re not going to make it. You just want to be dry and warm. You just want your arms to stop hurting and everything to stop chaffing. The body does weird things in cold water for that long, things swell and go numb and rub until they bleed. You can handle it, until you can’t. And then you’re done. DNF’d.
That’s why the team has been working on their communication as much as their training. Even though the four of them live in four different states, they got together for long Zoom calls and started a WhatsApp group, and they met up for training camps—which, at first, ended up focusing less on training and more on talking about what makes them tick, what motivates them, how they deal with challenges.
“It’s like a counseling session,” said Smith.
They developed a 10-point system. Every time they check in with Smith they’ll flash a number of fingers. Anyone putting up something higher than a five is cause for concern. What’s wrong, how do they all fix it together? Nip any potential problems in the bud, before they grow into big problems. Avoid the cascading negativity.
And they’ve focused on building up their mental resilience. For example, at one training camp they practiced the repetitiveness of getting in and out of the water in the dark by jumping into the ocean every hour on the hour—ultimately covering 12K overnight.
In terms of the actual physical training, it’s a “system of trust,” said Godesky. She and Keller need to swim more than Shoemaker, and they all adapt to different kinds of load differently, but they each trust in each other to do “whatever you need to do to get yourself mentally ready to get to a place where it sucks and you can keep going.”
Now the question is just: How much will it suck? And will they be ready enough for it when it does?
Is this new impossible race possible?
One Water Race goes off on Aug. 22. It now comes with a $100,000 prize purse and you can watch the live broadcast on onewaterrace.com.