John Stevens grew up summering on an island in Casco Bay. At age 15, he became the youngest swimmer to win Peaks to Portland, and has been dominating open-water swim competitions in Maine for nearly a quarter century.

Now he’s embarking on a new endurance challenge: the Swimrun World Championship in Sweden.

Stevens, 39, won the 2.4-mile Peaks to Portland ocean swim for the sixth time this year and has won the Casco Bay Islands Swimrun race each of its first three years. He’ll compete Monday in the 46-mile swimrun race with Nathan Larlee of Northport as one of 160 two-person teams.

The Swimrun World Championship, also known as Ötillö (which means “island to island” in Swedish), spans several islands in the Stockholm archipelago and consists of 6.2 miles of open-water swimming and 40 miles of running.

“It seemed really appealing,” said Stevens of his first swimrun race in 2016. “I’ve done triathlons. The problem is, I’m no good on the bike. With swimrun, there’s a lot of swimming, which is my strength, and more running. And it’s more of an adventure race. You swim in shoes and you run in your wetsuit. Swimrun is a little more of a rogue adventure race. There’s no governing body (for the sport).”

Swimrun races started in 2006 in Sweden and have grown in popularity in Europe. But these endurance events are more than two of the three disciplines in a triathlon.


The races take place across beaches, cliffs and mountain trails, often from island to island, typically in the ocean. And teammates must traverse the rugged courses only 15 feet apart, some choosing to be tethered together.

Unlike triathlons, competitors can’t drop their gear at a transition point or hand it off to a support team. They must carry everything they use. If they wear running shoes, they must swim in them. If they use hand paddles for the swim, they must clip them to a belt.

Swimrun came to North America in 2016 with the first race in Casco Bay and has spread across the country.

The Casco Bay Islands Swimrun is held by Swimrun USA, and now offers a long and a short course. The longer race consists of four miles of swimming and 14 miles of running on seven islands.

In August, Stevens won the Casco Bay race for the third straight year with Matt Hurley, who now lives in California. Their win in 2017 secured their entry into Ötillö this year. But after they procured an invite to the Swimrun World Championship, Hurley couldn’t make the trip, so Stevens flew Friday to Sweden for the “mother of all swimrun races” with Larlee, who finished on the second-place team last year in the Casco Bay Islands Swimrun.

Larlee, 43, who grew up in Auburn swimming, backpacking and rock climbing around Maine, wanted to do the Ötillö race before Stevens ever asked him if he’d be his partner. He loves the adventure-sport element of swimrun.


“I think swimrun will increase in popularity,” Larlee said. “People are hot on adventure races. It’s a test. As you get older, it’s fun to test yourself in a way that makes you feel alive and young and ask, “How else can I surprise myself?”

Larlee envisions Stevens to be a future ambassador for the sport in Maine, because Stevens has dominated open-water swim races in Maine and also knows the islands of Casco Bay intimately.

“John’s in a unique position,” Larlee said. “He’s talented and he’s a strong swimmer, and he’s got the personality to be an ambassador. He’s humble and kind. And he grew up on these islands.”

Stevens’ swimming roots in Maine go back to when his father, Paul, and mother, Dodo, bought a house on Little Diamond Island and started bringing their Portland family out to the small island to spend the summer.

Stevens was taught to swim at age 2, and competed for Portland High and the Portland Porpoise Swim Club, then for the University of Miami in Florida. After college, Stevens took up road racing in his late 20s and moved on to triathlons. But three years ago, he thought he should try swimrun events.

Having never raced in Europe, Stevens and Larlee don’t know how they’ll do in the Ötillö. Last year, the 46-mile race was won in 7 hours, 58 minutes. And out of 155 teams, 24 didn’t finish and five were disqualified. Many teams take 12 or 13 hours to complete the race.


But after studying the competition on YouTube videos and knowing Stevens’ swimming ability, Larlee thinks the two might have a shot at a top-10 finish.

Stevens is simply looking forward to his first taste of world-class competition.

“The Casco Bay Swimrun has always been about winning on this course. I grew up on these islands. I know them like the back of my hand,” said Stevens, a stay-at home dad who lives in Portland with his wife, Melanie, and two children, Stratton, 6, and Charlie, 4.

“In Sweden, I don’t know the course. It’s much, much farther. Casco Bay took us 4.5 hours. This race, we have to be prepared for 10 hours.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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