Ice Ultra Race Report

Well, the 2017 Ice Ultra has come and gone, another amazing experience in the books. Beyond the Ultimate’s Ice Ultra is a five day, 230 km self supported stage race that takes place above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. I am not typically a “winter person”, normally preferring to huddle inside under a pile of blankets waiting for spring rather than getting out there and frolicking in the snow, so when I signed up for the Ice Ultra last year I knew I was going to have to change my attitude about being out in the cold. I started buying up all the cold weather gear and spouting things like “there’s no bad weather, only bad gear” as I prepared for this event. This was also the one and only time in my life when I actually hoped for a cold, snowy winter. Mother Nature was only too happy to oblige, and we did indeed get a rather cold, snowy winter, perfect for my training.

Having a very healthy respect for the cold, this event made me pretty nervous. So, in my typical fashion, I dealt with my anxiety by becoming ultra prepared. I spent hours on the internet researching and buying gear, and even more hours testing it all in the cold. I did 8+ hour training runs in -25C, and I even slept outside in a tent in my backyard when it was close to -30C to test my sleeping bag. I ate freeze-dried meals on the nights before long runs, and I threw my snacks into the freezer to ensure they would still be edible once frozen. By the time race day came, I was feeling pretty good about both my training and my choice of gear, and I was excited to get going.

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Backyard tenting

The adventure began in Gallivare, Sweden, where we boarded a bus that would take us to the starting point of the race, a winter camp over 300 kms above the Arctic Circle. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends, and meeting new ones, and the bus was filled with chatter on the way to the camp. Once at the camp, we had a race briefing with race director Kris King and other members of the Beyond the Ultimate team, followed by a kit check. It was during this kit check that I realized that a couple important items of my kit had been left behind. I’m still not sure how this happened as I am normally very careful about my kit, but somehow it did. My balaclava was missing, as well as the Kahtoola Microspikes I had planned on bringing. It was ok though, I had enough other head and face coverings to make up for the balaclava, and the spikes were just an extra that would have been nice to have, mainly on the first stage.

After kit check, there was a lot of mingling and waiting around until the teepees were ready and it was bedtime. Bed was a reindeer pelt on the snow in an unheated teepee. I was glad I had tested my sleeping bag and night gear, because even though the temperature dropped very low, I was toasty warm all night. During the night the wind picked up, which would prove to become a factor during the first stage the next day.

So, at this point I had planned on doing a detailed report of each stage, but as often happens to me on long runs, I tend to zone out and really don’t remember large chunks of the route. I do have general impressions from each stage, but many of the details are really eluding me at this point. The thing I remember most about the first, 50 km stage is the relentless wind. Going over bare frozen lakes (where those forgotten spikes would really have come in handy!), climbing a seemingly endless hill, and the wind that threatened to blow me off my feet every time it gusted. As the day wore on, the wind only seemed to get stronger, and as darkness fell, another endless hill. At this point I am not sure if it was actually snowing, or if the snow was just blowing, but as I turned on my headlamp, the sideways snow made visibility very difficult. I don’t know if you’ve ever used a headlamp in the snow, but it flashes and glitters in the light and you really can see very little. The route was marked by small reflective flags, and the flashing snow made it very difficult to see them. I was literally going marker to marker, reaching one, then searching for the flash of the next one that was a little different kind of flash than that of the blowing snow. This section of the course was literally the most extreme thing I have ever done. I was by myself and could see no other runners either ahead or behind me, the temperature was falling, the wind was blowing very hard, and I could not tell where I was going. It was only the occasional passing of one of our Sami crew on a snowmobile that kept me from giving in to the fear that I felt at this point. Once I reached the top of that hill though, and started running down the other side, things definitely started improving. There were some trees so the wind wasn’t quite as fierce, and the path became much more defined. Once I started seeing lights in the distance, I knew I had this stage licked. The warm hikers cabin was a welcome retreat, and after some hot food and a change of clothing, everything was fine in my world once again. I did have one of the medics look at my face, but she deemed it to be windburn and not frostbite, for which I was thankful. Others were not so lucky, and several people were not allowed to start the next morning due to frostbite.

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The vast, emptiness of stage 1

The morning of stage 2 was bright and sunny and the nasty wind had abated. My biggest impression of stage 2 was that I felt tired all day. I can’t really remember too much else about this day, except for the feeling of being tired. In the morning it was announced that due to an impassable lake, the 60km course was being shortened to 44km (I think?), and because of how I was feeling all day, I wasn’t too disappointed about that. I do know that is was bright and sunny with a lot of soft snow, over lakes and through forests and it was all very beautiful. I had the pleasure of “running” the last 10 or so km with fellow Canadian Paul Chan. Paul was feeling a bit tired this day as well (and no wonder, check out Paul and brother Eric’s epic journey here), so it was good we had each other to finish off the stage with. Because of the shortened course, the place we finished was not the same place we were spending the night, so we were being shuttled in a car to our night camp. I unfortunately had to wait a little while before it was my turn to go, and as soon as I stopped running, I got very, very cold, as I tend to do. The medical crew did a great job of getting me warm drinks and a big warm coat and keeping an eye on me until it was my time to go. The nice warm car with heated seats and heater on full blast helped get me warmed up, and then the heated cabin, change of clothes, and some hot food finished the job. It was at this point I realized that I had way to many snacks left over from the day, and I also had not peed all day. No wonder I felt tired all day, I had totally mismanaged both my food and hydration over the day. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I vowed to do better the next day. I also had a couple of small blisters at this point, a result I am sure of being in the snowshoes the entire day. I got them drained and taped up and they were not an issue for the rest of the race. I was also totally shocked when I looked in the mirror that night…the windburn on my face looked terrible, all brown and scabby and my entire face was very swollen. One of the medics had a look at it the next morning though, and did not seem overly concerned about it, so neither was I. Sadly, we were not sleeping in the nice toasty cabin this night, it was off to the teepees and the reindeer pelts again.

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Bright and sunny on stage 2

Stage 3 was the day of the endless lake. It started out nice enough, through some pretty forested areas, but about half way into the stage was the very, very long lake. I am told this lake is 40 km long, and for the last half of stage 3, we traversed around 20km of it. 20km of flat, you can see forever, lake. It seemed endless….just an endless expanse of soft, mushy snow, going on forever. I got through this part of the stage by counting trail markers…100 markers, take a drink, 100 more markers, have a snack, repeat, repeat, repeat. Half way through the lake section was a checkpoint, at which RD Kris told me, just around the next bend you will start to see the red flags of the next camp. Well, that was a lie because it was much, much farther before I started seeing the flags, but when I did, it gave me hope that this stage was almost over. The camp for the night was a beautiful set of little cabins on an island in the middle of the lake. A large, warm cabin awaited for eating and socializing, and then small 3 person cabins, complete with a wood stove and real beds was home for the night. We unintentionally turned our little cabin into a sauna by stoking the fire a little too much, but truthfully I didn’t mind, because the heat felt so nice after being out in the cold for so long.

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“As soon as you get up there, you’ll start to see the flags” Not.

Stage 4 was the long day…64 km, and some time during the night it had started snowing. The snow continued to fall for the entire day. I have to say, I really enjoyed stage 4, well the first 50 or so km of it anyway. The trail wound its way through forests and across lakes all day, and the snow fell all day. I felt really good this day and my spirits were high. There was a short course cut off for those who did not make it to the 50 km checkpoint by 8:00 pm, but this wasn’t an issue for me, I made it there with plenty of time to spare. After the 50 km mark however, the route got significantly more difficult. It got dark and colder, there was a fairly substantial hill to climb, and because the snow had been falling the entire day, the track was deep and soft, which made for some very tough going. At one of the checkpoints I was told that at the end of the stage there was a lake with surface water. The dreaded surface water. We actually had been very lucky this year and had not encountered surface water yet, unlike last year’s racers who faced it on almost every stage. The thing is, the surface water is not actually water, but is very heavy, wet slush on top of the ice. You put your foot down on what you think is firm snow, and next thing you know, you are up to your knees in this heavy, wet slush. There were times when I feared I was stuck because I was still wearing my snowshoes, and it was very, very difficult to pull my foot out of the slush with my tired legs. So, with each step, legs and feet were immersed in freezing cold water, and for the only time on the entire race, my feet got cold. This lake section was only around 500 meters long, but it was such slow going and felt like it lasted forever. To top it off, I could see the lights and buildings of the finish taunting me ahead.

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Beautiful, snow terrain of stage 4

When I got to the stage finish, I still felt pretty good. I went inside the heated building and started getting something warm to eat and drink. Suddenly though, I started shivering and shivering and felt incapacitated by cold. The Exile Medics team were right on top of it though, getting me my night bag, helping me to get out of my cold, wet clothing and shoes and get my warm night clothes on, giving me one of their big warm down Yeti suits to wear, bringing me warm drinks and hot packs, and just generally taking excellent care of me. They put me by the wood stove, where I lay there shivering for literally several hours before I eventually warmed up. From what I understand, this was likely caused by warm blood leaving my core to go and try and save my freezing extremities, combined with caloric deficit and extreme fatigue. It is very common for me to get really cold after extended sessions, but I have never experienced anything like this before! By the time I warmed up enough to be released by medical, it was very late. Home for the night was a very large teepee with a wooden floor heated by a wood stove. From all accounts, it was not actually very much warmer than outside, however, I had been allowed to stay and sleep in the building that was being used by the medics, only slightly warmer than the teepee, but my big sleeping bag kept me toasty again. After just a few hours sleep, it was time to get up for the final day.

There was a feeling of excitement in the air as everyone prepared for the final stage, just 15 km. First though, we had to go back across the lake. Thankfully, some of our faithful Sami crew had found us a path that would avoid the surface water. Still, we all set off in single file as nobody wanted to take the chance of getting their feet wet! After the lake we climbed a big hill, then a big, super fun downhill run in the soft, fresh snow. After that it was winding our way around the edges of Jokkmokk before coming right in through the town to the finish line. It is always an exciting and euphoric feeling to come across the line at the end of a big event, and this was no different. There were congratulatory hugs, cold beer, and delicious rotisserie chicken waiting at the finish line before we were driven to our cabins for the night, where hot showers and soft beds waited.

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Finish line!

The after party was full of good food and drink, much laughter and tales of the trail before the bus ride to Lulea the next morning, where we bade farewell to friends old and new until next time. One of the things I love most about these adventures are the people I meet along the way. I love my ultra running family, and each time I do a new race, I add new members to it, and I just love how my family is growing. I love showing up at a race and seeing familiar faces. I love how my ultra family, which used to be just local, has become international. Everyone has their own story, their own reasons for being out there, and even though we are all facing our own challenges and walking our own paths, we are united for this short time we are together and we all become a part of each others stories. I love that.

If you have managed to read this far, I thank you for that because I know it is very long, and I thank you for letting me share my journey with you. If you would like more information about Beyond the Ultimate and its races, drop me a line and I’ll try and tell you what you want to know. Thanks for reading.

Just keep moving forward.

Photo crew to the incredible Mikkel Beisner

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