Friday, August 7, 2015

the long run: tierra arctic ultra


Distance: 125 km, unsupported
Elevation: +2500m
Route: Kungsleden (the King’s Trail) Nikkaluokta to Abisko with a detour up to Tarfala glacier, northern Sweden
Conditions: Cool and comfortable, sunny spells, occasional drizzle, cold at night.
Rank: 2 Women,  21:18:26   Results here. *Over 24 hours listed as DNF

3am alarm: we took down our tent in the flat, early morning light, made oatmeal, and boarded the bus to travel from Kiruna to the start at Nikkaluokta. I dozed during the hour ride, and before I opened my eyes, I could hear rain on the windshield. Luckily, the drops didn't last long, and by the time we had dropped our bags to be sent ahead to the finish line, the rain had stopped. Cool and cloudy would make comfortable running conditions for our third skyrace in eight days.

We gathered with the other runners in the starting area to fix our numbers, safety tags, and timing chips to our bags and bodies. We chatted and made final adjustments and tried to anticipate what to expect on the trail ahead. Derek and I decided to run together. In all of this season's races, we have been within minutes or seconds of each other crossing the finish line, so we would benefit from the company rather than spend the hours alone. Besides, today was our 11th wedding anniversary, so we would celebrate the whole day together.

We all moved in a loose pack to the start, the countdown, and at 6am, we are running. I have to repeat to myself to stay slow and steady, there is a long trail ahead. The first 18 kilometers, and then the first split of the 100km/120km routes. Our race runs 8km up to the first checkpoint at Tarfala glacier, and retraces it's steps back to the split point to rejoin the route. The trail up and down is muddy and rocky, crosses snow, and scree. It's the type of trail I like, and the majority of our elevation gain. We cheer the lead few men  after they have made the turn around, and soon we are at the checkpoint too. As we return on the same line we cross the other runners on their way up with high fives and encouragement. A helicopter has been following this section, so we wave and jump, and run with better form. I am having so much fun still leading the women's race and feeling strong in my legs and spirit, playing over the rocks. It is much to early to think it, but maybe I can win this one. I won't let myself imagine that with so much still ahead, and the discomfort in my left ankle growing. My concern now is how long I can ignore it, and whether or not I should ignore it. I eat my first peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich as we run along narrow wooden boards and through cheering at the second checkpoint, Kebnekaise.  

Loving the return from Tarfala glacier.

By 40 kilometers, I was debating how long it would take to recover if I continued. At the time, I thought it was related to a recurring Achilles issue, not something I wanted to aggravate, but I am too stubborn to turn around. (Later decided it was a probably a stress fracture). It would have been a long walk back to the start, so it made sense to move in the direction of the finish. I was suddenly overcome with frustration, partly for the day ahead, but mostly for the coming weeks or months. I don't like time off from running, and I started to worry about the runs I knew I was costing myself beyond today. I wanted to run, but couldn't. And so we walked. Rather, I limped. And so we moved forward, knowing we would add hours to our journey. I was down for a while, some long, slow kilometers. It was hard to let go of my projected finish time, of competing, of just running the whole distance. 

Emotionally overcoming the change of plans, we would enjoy this beautiful day in northern Sweden. The sun came out, and revealed mountains hiding in the clouds. The landscape was new and exciting. I had my partner, and we would take one step at a time. I decided we would never arrive at the finish if we continued at my current hobble, so it was time to dig into some intervals. I could run for 1 minute before the pain was too much, so that is what we did. 1 minute run, 1 minute walk. Hours passed with this distraction. 

My watch battery died after 68 kilometers, and so we would go the second half of the race without counting down the distance, knowing we had more hours ahead than we had already done.

We drank from streams, plodded through rivers, over rocks and lots of mud. Took a few stumbles and falls. We ran over endless planks, and kept moving forward, occasionally enjoying leapfrog with other runners. The final course split took the 120km runners up a steep climb, I was relieved, uphill I could handle. We reached the high checkpoint and angled down wild, choosing our own way to rejoin the trail below. We crossed a waterfall and disrupted a wasp nest. Derek was stung twice, but we were in a better stride on this small off-track detour.

The sun was hovering low, casting pink and purple into the sky and reflecting in the water. The landscape was lovely, but I was tiring from the monotony of running planks and stumbling over stones. Planks, stones, mud, and now mosquitoes. I didn't really notice the bites, I had become numb to everything after so many hours, only thinking one step at a time. I tried not to miss the beauty, and our conversation repeated, "Try not to trip, but look at that!"

For hours, we made our way towards the mountains that separated us from the finish at Abisko, we took the pass and waded through the boggy forest. I imagine we are close, and I start watching for the archway signaling the exit of the Kungsleden. It has become dark in the woods, but we see smoke and a tent. It is the seventh and final checkpoint. They recorded our bib numbers and tell us there are only 17 kilometers to the finish. Only? At our current pace, this meant more hours than I thought I could handle. (But I also thought that half the day ago). I had been cold for a while, but didn't have the energy to open my race sack, finally I have to put on my jacket and mittens. Derek has already added his jacket and pants- mostly to try to keep the mosquitoes off his legs. Now it is dark, drizzling a bit, and we weren't as close to the finish as I thought.   

The sensation of movement feels strange, my steps are slow and small, shuffling. I feel the night, and cold. What I am doing out here? Someone is holding my hand and coaxing me forward. My whole body jolts back into consciousness, and that nearly causes me to fall from the narrow planks we are walking across. I have been sleep walking, despite using everything in me to keep awake. My eyes are just too heavy. Sometimes, I notice that I have staggered a few steps from the trail. It all seems to stop, the pain, the tiredness, and then I suddenly gasp from this comfortable nothingness into a moving body, and that body stumbles. 

Runner after runner passes us in the night, in the distance of only 10 kilometers, an endlessness. Throughout this day, we have not sat down or stood still, but I ask to sleep, I ask for ten seconds to sleep, standing upright on the trail. Derek says it isn't time to sleep yet, not even the ten seconds I claim to need. I am so afraid I will fall to the ground before the next time I wake from my sleep walking. 

We see the first kilometer marking on the course: 6.5 km to go. I sprint. What just happened? There is a little light in the sky, maybe that helped to stay awake, maybe it was entirely the reassurance that we could arrive. The final 6.5 flew by. We ran on strangely fresh legs. For the first time I felt like racing, not the cautious start to conserve energy, or the 80km of limping, or the exhausted sleepwalk. I woke up, and started to run fast over the final portion of trail, startling the runners who had passed us in the last few hours, continuing at the steady paces they had been able to maintain. The damage had already been done to my ankle, it was 3am, and I needed to fly. We laughed and smiled and sped toward the finish. 

The endlessness suddenly, abruptly, quietly, ended. We found the showers, and fell asleep beside other runners sitting up in chairs and against the walls. The only thing I felt in that moment was tired. I wouldn't really appreciate the whole journey until weeks later, looking back, analyzing, and realizing that I need to try again. 

Check out this awesome video from the course and just a taste of the beautiful landscape along the Tierra Arctic Ultra:

A few aspects to this race made it a new type of challenge for me:

- First, the race was unsupported. Each runner was responsible for anything they might need during their entire time on the course, and it was disallowed to accept any outside  assistance. We needed to estimate and carry the proper amount of nutrition for the hours, but we needed to carry very little water since there were frequent streams. This kept our pack weight low. I carried only a 500ml flask, which was plenty to last between refilling from the cold, rushing sources.

- I love the feeling of running totally alone in the world, and this trail is especially remote. In the Alps, we pass through occasional villages, but running in northern Sweden, we felt a truly vast wilderness with no option for abandonment. After we begin, we must put one foot in front of the other until we arrive at the finish.

- This was the first time I underestimated the difficulty of a race. I was the second of only three women to complete the course under the 24 hour time limit, but several hours after my projected finish. The trail was flatter than I am used to running - only 2500 meters of elevation gain over 125 kilometers sounded easy considering we often make the same gain in a 25 kilometer race. I expected to move quickly on a flatter course, but the rocky terrain slowed us more than I anticipated. I love running rocky trails up and down mountains, but found myself cursing the rocks as I grew tired of trying not to misstep. This difficulty might have been exaggerated by the pain in my ankle. I probably would love the rocks on a normal day. I can't really blame the trail for that, but it was tough.

- Derek and I chose to stay together (mostly to share our anniversary). We both assumed I would have the advantage of endurance, but he was the strength of Team Strom all day. I really needed the companionship for the long hours. I am grateful he waited for me so we could enjoy the journey in stride.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

tromsø skyrace 2015, tromsdalstinden

Race report: TROMSDALSTINDEN SKYRACE, Tromsø, Norway

Distance: 20 km
Elevation: +1600m
Route: Loop from Fløya to Tromsdalstinden summit at 1238M
Conditions: Chilly, foggy, light rain
Rank: 5/85 kvinner,  2:55:01 Women's results here.

Today was one of my most favorite days, ever, of all time. A race morning, so we woke to the usual soggy tent, but with no thoughts of not wanting to run. We were excited to get moving, and so thankful for the opportunity to participate today. The long Tromsø Skyrace drew us here initially, but by the time we committed to making the trip, the two longer distances were fully booked, capped at 200 runners for ecological purposes. We came for the combination of the VK here, and an Ultra in Sweden next week, but thanks to a helpful race organizer and a few no-show runners, we got ourselves registered last minute for the 20km. Bonus race!

A group of runners staying at the campground gathered to make the trip up to the start- a warm-up hike to the top of the telecabine at Fløya overlooking the city, although, today not overlooking anything but fog. We lined up together, the 20km and 45km runners who would face a much longer, harder day in the difficult conditions, some of us regular runners beside our heros all waiting for the same start. 

The beginning kilometers were fast and fun. We covered bouncy low shrubs, mud, snow, and rolling terrain up until the hands-on-the-knees climb up to Tromsdalstinden, choosing the best footing among the mounded boulders. I was happy for the conversation of a strong Czech runner, the only woman to race the long one in it's initial phase last year, as we pushed through the final few hundred meters of climb to the split, where she continued her journey to Hamperokken over the edge of a cliff. 

The short race turned left to start our steep descent from Tromsdalstinden, down wet, slick rocks. The fog made it difficult to follow the flag markers, and once I found myself climbing back up to the previous marker to correct my route. There was no one ahead of me (not within view) to follow, and I was relieved when someone passed so I could relax a bit from leading our current bunch over the scree. I met the Russian couple (traveling for the same Norway/Sweden races as we are) and for the first time learned that I had a good position in the race. He told me there were only a few women that had passed before me, so my racing switch turned on. I had been running very calm, up until now, knowing we were just 4 days away from our longest race. After some slow and careful movements (and a few stumbles), our feet returned to a muddier trail and it was time to run. My next encounter was a strong Norwegian VK specialist who I met at Blåmann. She was also hiking in this wet weather to support the racers, and her cheers gave me a huge boost. I felt so strong as I started passing a few runners, barreling through stream crossings and flying over the grassy rolls. She also called out that Derek wasn't far ahead of me, so of course I was going to fly.
We made a sharp turn left to begin the final climb back up to Fløya, I knew there was a woman just behind me and soon I would see Derek, not too far ahead. The gradual incline curved it's way through mud, water, and snow, through a seemingly endless fog, leading to a finish line that might appear around any corner, but never did. Good- that will give me time to catch up. I slip in the snow and when I bounced back up, my bib was hanging by one pin. I kept trying to tuck it into my pants and jacket, but it didn't stay. I decided not to fiddle with re-pinning it, the finish line would be here any second, so it will hang on. I looked down again and had no bib. Since the timing chip was attached, I figured I couldn't finish the race without it. So, I turned around, I ran passed the next woman (she might have thought we all made a wrong turn) so I called to her that I had lost my bib. I could see she felt bad, we had a good competition. Then another runner, then one more, and he was carrying my bib. Thank you! He passed it off, and I turned and sprinted back up the hill. Let's see if there is enough race left for me to catch up... There was nothing left, I crossed the finish line less than a kilometer after recovering my bib, 18 seconds behind 4th place, and only 30 seconds behind Derek (he got ahead of me in both Tromsø races...I've got some work to do). It was a better finish than I expected, and I had so much fun the entire race.

We started to get cold after our body temperatures dropped and we were soaked. The long race would be going for some time yet, so we made our way back down to camp for a warm shower and drier, heavier clothes before coming back up to cheer on the 45km runners. They really experienced something today in the difficult conditions and rugged terrain, and I hope to have a chance to face that challenge sometime, too. We were fortunate to watch several new friends finish the long run, and how about this welcome party!

Something special happened here, really far north, on a wet foggy day. There was a positivity and excitement that kept us hanging around into the evening, not wanting it to come to an end. Congratulations to the victors, to all the runners, and a big thank you to the organizers and volunteers. You all made this one of the best races ever!  

A first look down at Tromsø as the fog opens for the first time tonight.

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground,  article about the Tromsø Skyrace by photographer Ian Corless.

Everything was tops in Tromsø, including these great videos from Crux Films. Here's a taste of the races and atmosphere, and the gorgeous scenery.

Friday, July 31, 2015

from sea to summit: blåmann vertical

Race report: BLÅMANN VERTICAL, Tromsø Skyrace, Norway

Distance: 2.7 km
Elevation: +1044 m
Route: from sea to summit, Store Blåmann
Conditions: Cool, foggy, humid, lighter above the clouds.
Rank: 15 kvinner,  58:19

The first race of the Tromsø Skyrace series, and of our northern trip, the Blåmann Vertical ran today just outside Tromsø, Norway. Most of the racers met in the city this afternoon, and rode buses to the start, a few tents beside the road. It was damp and cool, and possibly fortunate that the fog swallowed a majority of the mountain above us. When it was time to start, we all corralled toward the sea, so that our heals were nearly in the water. From sea to summit, following some of the fastest mountain runners in the world up through the clouds, here we go! 

The start was normal enough, everyone sprinting forward, hoping to avoid the backups as the runnable trail narrowed to single file and funneled into steep climbs. Soon after the start, this race became something different than the VK that I knew. We did not use poles, there was no chance to stabilize into a steady rhythm, left right left right. Everything was irregular and awesome! Soon after departure, after soft, slippery mud and stumps, we were already using our hands to pull ourselves over climbing passages, leaping from snow fields, angling across slanted rock faces. Everything was wet and slick, looking for grip for your hands and hoping your shoes wouldn't slide down (or the shoes above you wouldn't slide down either). This was so much fun that I almost didn't want to reach the top, one of crags I could see above me, a dark ghostly point appearing through the thinning clouds. I turned a corner, and was face to face with Killian Jornet, cheering and taking photos of us on our way up the Blåmann - now that's not something that happens everyday! A little more climb and some bolder hopping and already I was at the finish line, where the racers ahead of me were  all balanced on rocky perches like a herd of colorful chamois.

I didn't perform as well as I hoped, and yes, it was the first race of the season that Derek finished ahead of me, but it was about as much fun as I can imagine, so I didn't care about my time today. We had just participated in something special, the first Blåmman Vertical. This wasn't a typical VK, this was something rare, wild and free, playful, and just a little crazy. 

After some time on the summit talking, meeting other racers, all that was left was to go back down the way we came up. 

Thanks to all the organizers for an incredible event, and congratulations to the winners, Stian Hovind-Angermund and Emelie Forsberg. Full results here.

Post-race photos, coming back down:

Want more race videos? Check these out:

Tromsø Skyrace 2015 Blåmann from Red Cross RPAS Team Tromsø Norway
Blåman Vertical 2015 by Tommy Stoa

Thursday, July 30, 2015

sight seeing

Tomorrow we are running the Blåmann Vertical in Tromsø, so today we are sight seeing, a.k.a. running 20km in the mountains! We know that warm sunny days are a rare gift in northern Norway, so we plan to make the most of it. We started on a trail leading away from our camp site, and before long found ourselves in a lush green bowl surrounded by streams and waterfalls and rocky routes upward. 

Nothing tastes as good as cold clean water from the rushing streams, so we stopped often to enjoy a drink.

We reached a snowy patch and run up and slid down - repeated several times for fun.

It's the day before a race, so we don't want to tire ourselves out too much - better take some photo breaks and stop and admire the view.

From the ridge, we spotted a group of reindeer over the other side. Dark dots on the snow- this is as  close as we would get to them on our trip.

A lovely view from the summit of Tromsdalstinden, 1238M. (We didn't know we would be running Sunday's race- or even that it was a similar route, but we were happy to have seen some of the course, especially the rocky descent).

We took another pause to lie in the soft shrubs and enjoy the sunshine before racing through the birch forest and back to camp. Tomorrow is the VK!