Swimming

8 of the toughest swim challenges in the world

© Getty
Written by Tom Ward
From freezing lakes to choppy oceans and, erm, a desert, here are eight gruelling aquatic endurance trials for any swimmer looking for a big test.
You don't need to be Ross Edgley powering around the coast of Great Britain in a wetsuit and goggles to understand just what a physical and mental test swimming in open water can be.
Take some of the many outdoor swim challenges scattered across the world, where you not only have to contend with the elements but also go elbow-to-elbow with some equally driven competitors.
But which are the toughest of the tough? We've scoured the globe for the very best, most exotic, and, crucially, most challenging swimming events coming your way in 2020. Some will see you travel halfway across the globe just to reach the start line. Others take in some of the most stunning scenery this earth has to offer. And one is in Glasgow...
Now’s the time to wet your head and start training as if your life depends on it.

1. Channel 7 Port to Pub with Hotel Rottnest, Perth, Australia

One of the more novel swim races you'll find in the world
One of the more novel swim races you'll find in the world
When: March 21, 2020
Want to go under down under? Then get yourself along to Perth’s Hotel Rottnest Port to Pub open water swim. Featuring local, interstate and international swimmers, the idea is to travel from Leighton Beach to Rottnest Island, across the Rottnest Channel. The event includes both a direct crossing (19.7km), and a 25km ultramarathon option for the hardcore (that means you, right?). The first race can be completed in teams, but the ultra distance will require you to go it alone, battling crystal warm water, scorching sun and possibly a few sharks, in the Southern Hemisphere's longest open water swim race.

2. ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championships, Stockholm, Sweden

You'll need to be fast on land as well as in the water to conquer this race
You'll need to be fast on land as well as in the water to conquer this race
When: August 31, 2020
A gruelling mix of running and swimming, ÖTILLÖ (island-to-island in Swedish) came about after a drunken bet between two friends, when they challenged each other to swim and run across 24 islands in the Stockholm archipelago, beginning at Sandhamn, and ending at Utö Värdshus on Utö. In total, there are 46 transitions, with teams covering 75km, 10km of which is open water swimming, 65km of which is trail running, including scrambling in and out of the freezing waters. In other words, make sure to pack both your wetsuit and your running shoes. Next year marks the 15th anniversary of the first run, making it the ideal time to give it a bash.

3. Red Bull Neptune Steps, Glasgow, Scotland

Red Bull Neptune Steps 2019
Red Bull Neptune Steps 2019
When: March, 21-22, 2020
If swimming through 400m of brutally cold water and hauling yourself up and over seven canal locks doesn't sound brutal enough then you've obviously never entered Red Bull Neptune Steps. With heats seeing swimmers advance through semi-finals and eventually the finals, the better you do, the more you suffer.
Beloved of some of the best aquatic athletes around – including Ross Edgley – Red Bull Neptune Steps will return to Glasgow’s Forth & Clyde canal for 2020. Only this time with a difference...
Due to the popularity of the event, this year will see the event split over two days, with the men's action on the Saturday and the women's action on the Sunday. Additionally, there will even be a new pair's format (Sunday), so if you don't think you could handle the whole course perhaps it's a good chance to go halves on the glory.

4. Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, Eidfjord, Norway

Racers swim at dawn after jumping from the ferry
Racers swim at dawn after jumping from the ferry
When: August 1, 2020
Renowned as the hardest triathlon swim in the world, the Norseman Xtreme covers the usual Ironman swim distance of 2.4 miles. But there’s more to it than that: competitors are dropped 12 feet from a ferry into water averaging just 14 degrees Celsius. And sure, after that, there’s the casual prospect of 138 more miles to be covered on bike and foot, covering 15,000ft of elevation gain, but the swim challenge alone makes it worth all of the training and all of the pain.

5. Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim, Istanbul, Turkey

Competitors taking on the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim
Competitors taking on the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim
When: July 21, 2020
Entering its 27th year in 2020, the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim (organised in collaboration with the Turkish Olympic Committee) promises to be bigger and better than ever. In 2019 over 2,400 competitors took to the 65m depths of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait for the only open water swim event crossing two continents. One of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the course is 6.5km at its widest point, and will naturally be closed to traffic during the swim. Speed is of the essence; you have just two hours to swim the route, with slow coaches literally pulled from the water. It pays to be speedy on your keyboard, too; in 2018 the race’s quota of non-Turkish swimmers was filled within 27 minutes…

6. Morocco Swim Trek, Sahara Desert

When: November, 24, 2020
Mark this one down as a proper adventure. To begin with, this is a swimming event that takes place in the Sahara Desert. In other words; the last place you would expect to find a swimming event (or liquid of any kind). It’s also a staged race, similar to the country’s (in)famous Marathon des Sables running race. Over six days competitors will battle races of 6.5km, 8.5km, 10km, and 5km, with events taking place on different swim courses, with different starting lines, each day. Basically, not only do you have the desert heat to contend with and the need to stay race-ready over multiple days, you’ll likely not even know where the day’s race begins until you’re there, challenging mind just as much as body. The winner is the swimmer (be they amateur or pro) with the fastest combined time.

7. Swim For Alligator Lighthouse, Florida Keys, Florida

What lurks beneath...
What lurks beneath...
When: September 10, 2020
The Swim for Alligator Lighthouse is an eight-mile open water swim, starting and ending at Amara Cay Resort, with participants circling Alligator Lighthouse. The event began when an artist named Lighthouse Larry decided to swim out to the lighthouse and back alone and self-supported. His friends thought he was crazy, but the event became the first world-class open water swim event in the Florida Keys. There may be a few sharks swimming around the legs of the 150 solo swimmers and 120+ team swimmers, but your chances of encountering an actual alligator are slim; the name comes from the U.S. Navy schooner Alligator, part of the country’s anti-piracy fleet that was run aground in this location in 1822. Avoid the island’s jagged coral to ensure you don’t end up the same way.

8. Vidösternsimmet, Tånnö, Sweden

When: August, 8, 2020
A good question to ask at this stage of this list is probably, “What the hell is wrong with the Swedes?” No disrespect to ABBA, but it seems that when it comes to opportunities to be as wet, cold, and miserable as possible, the Swedes jump at the chance. Alongside the ÖTILLÖ series, Sweden is home to Vidösternsimmet, the country’s longest and toughest open water swim event. Taking place in the ahem, ‘fresh’ waters of Lake Vidöstern, this 21km race will see you battle the forces of nature to make it to the finish line. Should you complete the elite event, the only thing you’ll want to race for is the sauna.