Paul Ogden dons his Serpie wooly hat and enters the icy world of Arctic ultramarathons.
Arctic winter ultramarathons are a very well kept secret. Typically, they only attract a few dozen racers competing on foot, cross-country skis or special snow-adapted mountain bikes known as “fat-bikes”. They certainly haven’t attracted the attention that the popular desert or mountain ultramarathons have done in recent years and that’s part of their charm. Europe’s biggest event of this kind is the Rovaniemi 150 held in February each, year just inside the Arctic Circle in Lapland, and I was privileged to be one of only 7 Brits in a field of 34 people racing the 150km distance on foot.
So Many Toys to Buy
One reason that they have remained small is that unlike most foot races, which typically need very little equipment, a race in the Arctic requires competitors to carry enough kit to be totally self-sufficient for at least a couple of days. Fortunately, racing in an environment that guarantees ample snow means that a pulk, the technical term for a man-hauled sled, can be used and this greatly increases the amount of kit that can be carried.
Aside from ensuring that all of the necessary survival and race equipment had been acquired, there was the issue of preparing physically for a race in conditions that are impossible to replicate in the UK. The closest approximation that I could manage was plenty of long, slow distance runs and quite a lot of time pulling a car-tyre attached to my pulk harness on many laps of Highbury Fields. To my amazement, it turns out that tyre dragging is a reasonably good proxy for pulling a pulk through powder snow. I also think that it may be a good way to train for the very long climbs found in the Alps whilst stuck in flat-as-a-pancake London.
Rovaniemi: Home of Santa Claus
The race is centred on Rovaniemi, the largest city in Finnish Lapland and one of the most unlikely tourist towns imaginable. It looks like a 1970s redevelopment of an English town centre, it is very cold and has lots of snow but no mountains; however, it is the self-proclaimed global capital of “Santa Claus tourism”.
The pre-race briefing was hosted by the Santa Claus Hotel and it was here that the race director broke the bad news that the course, which is normally prepared by snowmobiles spending many days compacting the snow into something like an icy skiing piste, had been largely covered by fresh windblown powder and would now require a lot more effort to drag a pulk over. Even worse, it would also mean that snowshoes would be needed for large parts of the route. I’d been told to fear snowshoes as they can cause lots of leg injuries and, having done exactly 1km of training in them across a muddy Highbury Fields, I was hardly very prepared.
A Frozen River and the Winter Wonderland (Start to 21km)
The key to dressing for an Arctic winter race is to wear just the right amount of clothing to be warm enough when working hard, but not sweating, as sweat would freeze. The other important thing is to always have your heavy, down-filled survival gear within easy reach if you need to stop or slow down. This meant wearing race gear of a fleece jacket and lined trousers that I would normally wear to travel to a UK cross country event, in temperatures more than 20C higher.
I got my loaded pulk out onto the icy road outside the hotel to head to the start and it was like a dream, the thing just glided along with very little effort. Now some might say that the first time that you actually pull a pulk over snow shouldn’t be on the way to the start-line of a 150km race, but there was little point in worrying about that sort of detail with only 40 minutes to go before the race start.
We headed down to final check-in at race control and then out onto the frozen River Ounasjokl for the start. I wasted no time in making my first mistake by not keeping an eye on the time. The gun went off whilst I was still unclipped. The start-line photographs show me stumbling over the line holding the pulk poles and desperately trying to get their carabineers clipped onto my harness.
All that messing around at the start meant that I had to push hard for the first 10km, and by the time I reached the first checkpoint, I had unzipped all the vents in my trousers, I’d undone my jacket and unzipped the mid-layer too. I was also down to glove liners in an effort to avoid the dreaded sweating. Even having gone to those lengths I found that my beard, eyebrows and woolly hat had all developed a heavy glaze of ice, as my breath and sweat were freezing on contact. Indeed, my hand knitted Serpies hat ended up becoming more of a solid ice helmet during the race.
Leaving the checkpoint, I spent a short time on frozen roads before reaching what must be the most beautiful section of the whole race: a trail through pine forests with the trees absolutely piled up with powder snow. It was here that I first toyed with using snowshoes, as the going underfoot had now started to resemble what skiers would call soft packed-powder, which was deep enough that sometimes your feet would break through the surface and sink about six inches into it.
Pain in the Arse and an Endless Lake (21km to 44km)
After spending a beautiful afternoon on that trail, I reached the second checkpoint, after which the course changed from being an easy, dead-straight trail, into a dense and convoluted thicket of trees with deep powder and tree roots everywhere – this was the notorious and perfectly christened “Pain in the Arse” section. On more than one occasion I put weight on my hiking poles to find them sink all the way to the handle without hitting a solid bottom. The pulk kept jamming under trees and would even more frequently tip onto its side. This hellish area only lasted for 700m or so, but it was a real challenge, I have no idea how hard the fat-bikers must have found it.
The trail then emerged onto the frozen surface of Lake Sinettajarvi for a very boring and seemingly endless 11km stretch of featureless lake. At the top of that lake the course turned back on itself and climbed through some wooded hills to reach the next checkpoint. This turning point was where the snow finally became deep enough that I had to get out the snowshoes. Whilst stopped, I took the opportunity to sort out my water and torches, and to pop a couple of M&S mini pork pies down my shirt, to de-frost on my belly, for dinner at the next stop. By stopping to do all of those things I suddenly learned a very big lesson about the cold. If you stop suddenly and take your gloves off, you will get painfully cold in no time at all. I had been stationary for less than 12 minutes but that was more than enough to cause me real discomfort. This is a perfect example of the sort of cascade of bad things that seem to happen in these temperatures.
The Arctic Night and Mild Hallucinations (44km to 58km)
Checkpoint three was the first real checkpoint. It was here that the inability to escape the cold in this race became evident, as the race only provides one small shelter at halfway. The next section was largely on snow-covered trail, requiring snowshoes, which really mess up your gait. Indeed, I am now convinced that they are the Devil’s personal favourite choice of winter sports equipment.
Towards the end of the section I could see a tree illuminated by the next checkpoint’s fire. In my rather bewildered state, I was completely convinced that it was a giant floodlit sculpture of a saxophonist. I found that throughout the second half of the race, whilst not having vivid hallucinations, I was frequently “seeing things” in the shapes of trees and suchlike. These are really just a welcome distraction and in no way off-putting. It was also during this section that I started to feel a slight discomfort in my left heel that felt rather like the beginning of a blister forming. This started the chain of events that would result in a trip to the A&E in London. In response to what I thought was a loose shoe, I tightened up my shoelaces and all seemed well.
A Little Bridge and the Majestic Aurora (58km to 70km)
At checkpoint four I found that one of my soft flask water bottles had completely frozen. The astonishing thing was that it had been under my jacket, in my armpit, for the whole time. By now the sky had started to clear and I overheard that the temperature had dropped to -20C, although I couldn’t really feel the difference. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint, I noticed a few wisps of cloud and then realised that those wisps were green and moving. I stopped dead, turned off my headtorch, and watched the aurora borealis for about five minutes, completely alone on a remote trail in Lapland… utterly entranced.
Pushing on, the trail reached a similar area to the earlier “pain in the arse”, this time in the middle of the night, complete with a treacherous bridge over a still-flowing stream. It was here that I discovered the utter impossibility of walking backwards in snowshoes without falling over. By the time that section gave way to a road, I had learned to fully savour the chance to be free of the snowshoes and to pick up the pace.
Short and Slow (70km to 80km)
After a brief stop at checkpoint five, I was keen to push on to the next one, called Kuusilampi, which was just past halfway and actually had a proper shelter. The distance was only 10km but it was all on trail and that meant snowshoes for a couple more hours. By now I was having some problems with powder-snow and Velcro. Eventually I managed to further tighten up the snowshoes in a way that the straps would hold. With hindsight, I think that I should have been prepared to use much looser snowshoes to ensure that the circulation to my feet remained as good as possible. However, at the time they were not uncomfortably tight and my feet were not particularly cold.
I was weary and very relieved when I finally got to sit down in the tiny smoke-filled cabin in Kuusilampi, the only shelter available in the whole race.
I’m Just Stepping Outside and May Be Some Time (80km to 103km)
Stepping into the cabin I was really surprised that the place wasn’t full of people sleeping. This meant that my no-sleep strategy wasn’t unusual and that the cut-off times must be harder than I’d imagined.
To show how unwilling I’d become to get cold, I chose to not have any hot food, as it was too hard to get it out of the pulk without taking my gloves off! However, I had grabbed my change of socks and I can vouch to not having frostbite at this stage. I left the checkpoint at the first light of dawn, knowing that this was to be the longest unsupported section, potentially lasting for much of the day. As preparation for another day without sleep, I munched my way through a couple of handfuls of chocolate covered coffee beans and they really seemed to help.
I expected that there would be a short section of trail on snowshoes followed by a very long but easier second part mostly on roads. What I actually found was both beautiful and dispiriting. For the first four hours I was using snowshoes on soft-packed powder snow but the sky had cleared and I was greeted by a beautiful and very crisp Arctic morning.
Eventually, at 11:00am, I reached a road that had been used by cars and the opportunity to get out of snowshoes and to try to pick up some speed. Annoyingly, by now my left ITB and hamstring were really tightening up, in turn this meant that I wasn’t able make use of the faster road section. I was now having real doubts about being able to maintain the speed needed to keep warm and to finish within the cut-off times.
V.W. – Voluntary Withdrawal
Finally, after a few more hours of slow progress, I spotted a passing official car and made the decision to withdraw. I had travelled 103km in just less than 30 hours in temperatures as low as -20C, so there was nothing to be ashamed about. When I got back to Rovaniemi I took a shower and was pleased to find no unexpected injuries; just the usual sore tendons, bruised feet, some numb toes and a bit of bruising around one that had lost a toe nail on a previous race.
That evening whilst getting dinner in the centre of town, the temperature sign showed -22C. Moving slowly, I felt properly cold for the first time in the whole weekend. It really illustrated that being able to maintain even a moderate pace is essential to avoid serious problems in the cold.
Once home in London, I started to eye my swollen and numb left big toe with growing concern about frostbite. A few hours later, when a very deep blister covering much of the toe suddenly appeared, any doubt subsided and I took myself off to University College Hospital’s A&E department, with what must have been their most unusual self-diagnosis of the evening. When a doctor was finally brought in to prod my blistering, angry looking, but totally numb digit, I was already running through the possible outcomes – one of which involves a garnish in a cocktail (Google “Sourtoe Cocktail” if you aren’t too squeamish). Fortunately, his diagnosis was second-degree frostbite, with a prognosis that allowed for colourful anecdotes without the inconvenience of auto-amputation.
I now have more of an insight into what an amazing challenge these races pose. Conditions are not just difficult but also highly unpredictable and difficult to train for. Next year, with a bit of luck, I’ll not be wearing my snowshoes very much but there’s every chance that it could be windy or much colder, making for a very different type of challenge. At least I’ll know much more about frostbite though.
Paul Ogden ran his first marathon for the Spinal Research charity after a near miss in a car accident and was immediately hooked on endurance running. Since running the 56 mile Comrades Marathon 10 years ago he’s gone on to run many international ultras including the Marathon des Sables, Caballo Blanco in Mexico, UTMF in Japan and CCC in the Alps. He hopes to complete his tenth consecutive Comrades this year.