I just ran my first Ultramarathon two weekends ago: the Swedish Alpine Ultra - a race in northern Sweden, close to Kiruna. The race is held on Kungsleden, or the ‘King’s Trail’, between Nikkaluokta and Abisko.
I can’t say that I was well prepared for it, not at all. The longest race i ever ran prior to this was the Ursvik Xtreme at 15k. The challenge i was about to embark on now was 107k - over 7 times longer and all in the Swedish wilderness. “Totally doable” I thought, “how hard can It be? What could possibly go wrong?”
So, what were my preparations for this race, you may ask? I had my ultra-guru-friend Jerry set up a thorough training program that consisted of combination of interval, strength, hill running and long distance training sessions that would get me in proper shape and gain the needed kilometers. All the good stuff. Did I follow that? No. Why? I don't know. Lazy and ignorance i guess.
Although ignorance and laziness combined with my not-so-optimal training season was not the best foundation for an ultra, I managed to put some kilometers behind me, at least. According to my Suunto Movescount summary I had ran about 30k this season. That’s only the recorded runs as during a couple of weeks I ran without a watch. At best, I maybe had 40k this season - not even close to my goal of 80-100k. In any case, 40k is still better than zero!
I started the season pretty well but then, as always, my shins started to ache. My eternal nemesis the shin splint was raising it’s head again. To combat it, I started seeing my chiropractor on a more regular basis combined with consciously altering my posture while running. Although I had to keep my running sessions to 5-10k maximum, followed by a lot of stretching, these changes worked well for me and minimised pain and the risk of exacerbating shin splints
After a month or so, of the aforementioned stretching regime and short distance sessions, my legs felt good again. They could handle the pressure, and as they held up for incresingly longer distances, I upped the distance to 22k with no problem. "Hell yeah!" I thought, “this ultra Is gonna be a walk in the park.”
About 6 weeks before the race Jerry and I took a trip up to northern Sweden, where we did some runs on the sunny ski slopes. The hardest session was at 7k with a 500 meter elevation. Although hard this went fine and my legs felt okay. Once again I had the feeling of that this ultra race was not that impossible after all. It would be hard but I could probably do it.
One week before the race
This late in the game all physical preparations became redundant: now it was just a matter of keeping the circulation going in my legs. I went for shorter runs, around 5k, maybe three times in the week before the race followed by a lot of stretching everyday to loosen up my calf muscles.
The rest of the time went into buying the last things I needed for the race, like energy and nutrition. In a panic I also bought a new backpack - the exact same to the one I already owned (Ultimate Direction - SJ Ultra Vest 2.0) but sized medium, instead of the small that I had originally. Who can even fit in that thing?
Checking things off the packing list
I spent a lot of time mentally preparing for the race. As the big day drew nearer I became nervous as hell over this thing. I knew I wasn't physically prepared enough. So I did "cue cards" with mental checkpoints along the trail and broke down the race into smaller, manageable chunks. Now I had a bunch of 15-20k races within the 107k race. I only had to conquer one part at a time.
It helped a lot during the preparations to have walked the trail the year before. I knew about the rough parts, where there wasn’t much water and where I could possibly risk taking a wrong direction.
I went up to Kiruna a couple of days before race day to enjoy the nature and ease my nerves. I managed to keep them under control until I picked up my number tag during the briefing the day before the race.
To top it all off, the weather forecast was not in our favour. Earlier in the week they announced it was going to be cloudy and about 14°C but when we woke up on race day the forecast showed 9mm of rain more or less over the entire day - lovely! Oh well, at least it wouldn't snow.
I had already gone through, switched out and reorganised my backpack a million times in the lead-up to the race but this time I modified and added my merino wool long sleeve layer, rain pants, and replaced the windstopper with a proper rain jacket. Just in case thing went south. You never know how the weather in the mountains will shift, even the small mountains here in Sweden can be pretty unpredictable.
We ate breakfast at the Nikkaluokta tourist station where we’d all spent the night before in cabins. At 7:45 in the morning we all lined up at the starting line with fifteen minutes to go before the starting gun. I'm starting to get nervous again. What have I gotten myself into? Idiot. You can't do this, but I can't back out now either! After all, I’m standing here, geared up and everything. With fifteen minutes till start.
Before I know it, Råland starts the countdown; "3, 2, 1, GO!" and we’re off, the race has started. Now there's no turning back. I would look like a right idiot if I did.
Participants of Swedish Alping Ultra 2016
I was holding a good pace and everything was going fine - it hadn't started to rain yet so the first thirty minutes of the race was pure joy. I was doing it, I was running my first Ultramarathon!
Everything was going great: I kept the same pace as the guy in front of me, who had already run the race two times before. He was aiming for a time tin the same ballpark i was aiming for, and to my surprise, everything was going to plan. Until it didn't, of course.
It had started to rain, and the rain made the rocks and the foot bridge's slippery. For a split second, when I turned my head to look at my new running mate behind me, I slipped and twisted my right ankle just after the 19k mark, right by the Kebnekaise mountain lodge. Shit!
It was a nasty slip but my ankle seemed to hold up, so I kept on going. I didn't start feeling the pain until 10k later. The pain was not in my foot though, but manifested in my knee - probably due to compensating for the small pain in my right ankle. "Well, heck, fuck it" I thought and kept on going. Then the next pain came, this time in my left knee after another 10k.
At this point, I was going pretty slow and had a weird running posture due to the hard terrain and the pain in my knees. It didn't take long until my hip and groin started to cramp. Now I was 40k deep along the trail and my legs were kaput. I thought of calling it quits and calling Råland to say that I'm hurt and can't continue. Then the only way out from there would be by helicopter, or a long walk back.
Starting to feel the pain in my knees
The helicopter ride is pretty expensive, but most of all, you'd be that idiot who didn't prepare for the race, had to abort after 40k and be flown out with a helicopter because of some pain in the hips? Nah, I wasn’t going to be that guy, so walking it was!
Really, by that point turning back wasn’t even really an option for me. “I’m almost halfway through” I thought, “I might as well keep going forward.”
The 60k walk
So now with my legs and hips no good for running, every step felt like someone was twisting a corkscrew in my hip. I kept a calm and steady pace to keep the circulation in the legs going. If I stopped, I would stiffen up and the pain would become even worse - I just had to keep on going. At the time it was a relief that I knew the course and knew what challenges lay in wait ahead of me.
The walk started from the Sälka cabin up to the Tjäktja pass - the highest point of the trail. It was hard and took a long time with intense pain. When i was halfway up the pass some fellow runners ran by and asked me how i was doing. I told them that about what happened and felt a mental boost just talking to someone, but the biggest booster of them all was when they borrowed me a pair of trekking poles. Now I finally could release some pressure from my hips and have more control. This was amazing! But they were still worried about me, so they ran ahead to the next cabin to tell the caretakers there that i was on my way, and that I was hurt.
When I arrived at the cabin I felt quite good: the energy boost from chatting with the other runners helped me push through the rocky Tjäktja pass but I was pretty cooled down by the rain and my slow pace. Needless to say, I was pretty psyched to get inside a warm cabin. That was not to be the case as the cabin caretaker refused to let me into the cabin. Apparently they were full in the messhall! You would think that they could squeeze in a cripple in the middle of the night, but apparently not. Instead they put me in the woodshed, gave me a wool blanket and a cup of warm soup. At least didn't have to stand on the porch in the rain.
I sat in the woodshed for 20 minutes, getting stiffer with every second and eventually I decided to leave the cosy shed and push on. By now I had reached part four of seven on my trail cue cards. It was good progress so far, and I knew I wasn't even in last place!
The next cabin, Alesjaure, was about 15k ahead but the journey there is one of the more illusive parts of the trail, because you think you're almost at the end, all the time.
When I reached the cabin and knocked on the door I was greeted by the two fellow runners that had helped me at the Tjäktja pass. I think at first the didn’t recognise me as they looked confused and a bit stressed out, but when I removed my cap and hood and all of a sudden they looked relived. One of the them came running towards me:
–"Oh good it's you! How are you feeling, are you gonna continue the race?" –"Of course, I've come this far" –"Good, then i'll call off the helicopter".
Apparently they had met another runner on their way to Alesjaure and he had gone back to help me. However, by the time he reached the Tjäktja cabin he couldn't find me, probably because i was sitting in the woodshed.
He had doubled back towards Alesjaure and met up with the other runners and he told them that he couldn't find me. They thought that I had fallen in the river or some other horrible thing so they had contacted Mountain Rescue. By some miracle, I must have arrived no more than ten minutes after the last runner because had I arrived just five minutes later, the helicopter would be in the air looking for me in some river. It felt nice to save myself the embarrassment.
Part five of seven completed, great! Almost done. We regained some energy, heat and changed clothes in the cabin and 30 minutes later, around midnight, we went back out again Despite the time it was still light outside due to the midnight sun they have up north. I checked my cue cards and saw that there was 20k of trail until the next checkpoint.
My two fellow runners ran ahead: they were tired and just wanted to go home. Who wouldn't? The third guy stayed with me for another 15k, just until we got down from the mountains. It was really nice to have some company again and talking allowed me not to concentrate on the pain in my legs. As soon that he saw that I was beneath the tree line again he set off to the finish line. From that point I had about 17k left, and that was where the real struggle started.
To get under the tree line you have to walk along the ridge of a mountain, followed by a long slope down. This part of the trail was really steep and rocky, so I had to slow down my pace even more. That was a big mistake as my muscles stiffened up more than ever. Every step almost made me cry. I tried to push my body as much as I could, but the dehydration, the cold, the rain and lack of energy was starting to take its toll after 21 hours.
I was exhausted, everything cramped due to the injuries I’d suffered 45k earlier and I walked like I was on stilts. I couldn't lift my feet more than 5-10 centimeters from the ground since the tendons in my groin as taut as guitar strings.
I cried. I screamed. I laughed. I hallucinated. I was a wreck. The last runners started to pass me, they encouraged me that I was almost done. "Only four kilometers left, you can do it" they would say.
Hell, a hundred meters took me thirty minutes to complete at the pace I was going at so four kilometers would take me ages to cover. Before they continued I asked them for painkillers, but unfortunately they were all out. For the best really: I had already taken a dozen at this point.
With three kilometers left I finally got reception on my phone again and by then I couldn't resist the urge to call it quits. I called Jerry to come help me and ten minutes later he found me, sitting in a slope that I couldn't get over. He helped me up and we continued. After another five minutes his brother and another runner rallied up to us and I got a piggy-back ride all the way up to the finish line. They dropped me down, and I walked the last few meters over the finish line myself.
In total, it took me 29 hours to complete the race and the last 17k took me eight hours.
Even though I could barely walk, was dehydrated and hungry and in constant in pain I can’t remember ever being that happy and proud of myself. I had done it! I completed an Ultramarathon, with all odds against me. Unfortunately, because I was helped for the last three kilometers, I didn’t complete the race officially and so didn't receive any UTMB-points. But I don’t care. I got my t-shirt, my diploma and I gave it my all to finish the race.
The last meters
So what have I learned from this race? First of all, you can do it if you relay want to. 95% of what keeps you going is your head, not your muscles. The second thing, It would be a lot easier if you had those muscles. Which I didn’t. Take your training serious to prepare for these kinds of challenges. This will reduce the injuries and pain during the race. Not have to be carried to the toilet due to inflammations and overall pain can be worth that extra effort you put into your training. Trust me.
The third thing, don’t underestimate the environment and weather. Grab that extra energy bar and t-shirt. Depending on season and environment it could change whether you finish the race or no. Sense i hadn’t had a run that was more than 35k before this race I made me uncertain of how much energy i needed. So I brought some extra, just in case. What i ate during the race was:
- 3 GU’s (3X100 kcal)
- 3 Clif shot (3X100 kcal)
- 4 Clif blocks (4X200 kcal)
- 4 Clif bars (4X200 kcal)
- 4 liters of water with electrolytes supplement (480 kcal)
- 50 grams of candy (200 kcal)
I don’t think that I would’ve been able to eat more than I did. But i should have been drinking a lot more water.
The fourth and last thing. Even though your worn down and feel like crap. When you’re done, when you cross that finish line. It’s all worth it. It’s been one of my best experiences. And for some reason I want to get back out there. But this time faster and stronger.
That’s why I’m gonna give it another shot next year. This time I’m gonna take my training more serious. I’m more pumped than ever to get in better shape. As soon as I’m done with my rehabilitation training I will be out in the trails again. Give in that extra at the gym. To be able to enjoy and explore the beautiful places that's out there.