Swimming

8 of the toughest swim challenges around the world

© Getty
Written by Tom Ward
From freezing lakes to choppy oceans and even a desert, here are 8 gruelling aquatic endurance trials for any swimmer looking to take on 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 open water swimming 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.
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.
1. Channel 7 Port to Pub with Hotel Rottnest, Perth, Australia
Swimmers take part in the Port to pub race in Australia.
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.
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.
More info: Porttopub.com.au
2. ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championships, Stockholm, Sweden
Participants take part in the Otillo swim run world champs in Sweden.
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 and 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.
Find out more here: Otilloswimrun.com
3. Red Bull Neptune Steps, Glasgow, Scotland
People climb the lochs in Scotland during Red Bull Neptune Steps.
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, 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 format for pairs on 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
A photo of triathletes entering the icy waters of a Norwegian fjord during the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon.
Entering the water at the start of the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon
When: August 1, 2020
Renowned as the hardest triathlon swim in the world, the Norseman Xtreme covers the usual Ironman swim distance of 3.8km. But there's more to it than that: competitors are dropped 3.5m from a ferry into water averaging just 14°C. And sure, after that, there's the casual prospect of 222km more to be covered on bike and foot, covering 4,570m of elevation gain, but the swim challenge alone makes it worth all of the training and all of the pain.
More info: Nxtri.com
5. Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim, Istanbul, Turkey
Participants take on the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim.
Taking on the turquoise waters during 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, as 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.
Find out more here: Olimpiyatkomitesi.org.tr
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'd expect to find a swimming event. 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
Lighthouse seen in turquoise water in Florida.
What lurks beneath...
When: September 10, 2020
The Swim for Alligator Lighthouse is an 12.8km open water swim, starting and ending at Amara Cay Resort and 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-plus 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 '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.
Find out more here: Vidösternsimmet.se