The ICE Ultra 2014
At 6:30am on Tuesday 18th Feb 2014 I was sitting in a log cabin on a remote island on a frozen lake in the arctic, Swedish Lapland. The temperature outside was around -10°C and 6 runners had already set off on the final stage of the Ice Ultra. Reports were coming in that snowmobiles heading off to set up checkpoints 2 and 3 had got stuck in the snow and the runners were encountering knee deep water out on the lake, resulting in the potential to get soaked and frozen only 4km into a 90km stage. A medic came in the cabin and announced that they were going to hold runners at CP1 and no one else would be starting until they could get out and set up the next few checkpoints. I was trying to get my rehydrated porridge down and felt very tense. In fact, I gave voice to my feelings a couple of times – I was scared, pure and simple.
The previous day, I’d been the only runner to start stage 3 without snowshoes. We’d been wearing them since about half a kilometre into the race on day 1, and I’d developed a really sore achilles tendon. It was bad enough without them, but in snowshoes it was agony. I was desperately hoping I could cope without them that morning, the thought of having to put them on filled me with dread. The snow was just too deep though, and I had to relent. This put Sally and I at the back of the field, and I was moving pretty slowly with every step being so painful. It literally felt like my achilles was going to rip. I took some painkillers and Sally and I swapped snowshoes to see if the different type might help. I was so frustrated and doubtful of my chances of continuing in the race so Sally and I decided to carry on separately – with a hug, Sally headed off with the intention of warning the medics at checkpoint 1 of my situation. I trudged on painfully through a wooded section and things got quickly worse – perhaps it was the painkillers but suddenly I felt very woozy and I had to keep stopping to get my head together, I kept drinking and I think I had something to eat and after a while I started to feel a little better. If in doubt, get something down you.
As I left the forest into a more open area, I saw CP1 not far ahead. I also saw another runner who was almost to the CP but appeared to be moving very slowly and erratically. As I got closer, I saw him get to the CP.. Martin (the talented photographer) was helping him off with his pack and he seemed to almost just collapse. By the time I got there, he’d been bundled into the tent and covered with reindeer skins. My fellow runners Nick and Camilla were there and Nick headed off. Camilla was attacking the back of her shoes with a knife – another one suffering with problems caused largely by the snowshoes. I looked at the guy in the tent (who turned out to be Maik) and thought to myself “I might be in pain, but I’m not in as bad a state as him” and suddenly there was no more decision to make – I was carrying on. The question of quitting didn’t even come up.
I headed off, leaving Camilla at the CP with renewed vigour. Brett (chief medic) came towards me along the trail on a snowmobile. He asked about my injury but I was more concerned about Maik back at CP1, clearly where Brett was off to. Not too much further along, Wes the RD came along on another snowmobile. At some stage I was out in the open and thought I heard an aircraft somewhere overhead. In the UK that’s a pretty normal to hear (as is traffic noise and general background sounds all the time) but I’d got used to being out in the wilderness with absolutely no sound around other than that of myself trudging along and the occasional fall of snow off a tree branch. Every now and then I’d stop, close my eyes and hold my breath for a second – total silence. It turns out that the aircraft I thought I’d heard was an air ambulance which had been called in to take Maik to hospital with suspected hypothermia, something which I discovered a little later on when Wes came back on his snowmobile. We also discovered later that evening that Maik’s heart had stopped for a few seconds and it was thanks to the expert care of Kim that he is still with us.
At CP2 I caught up to Belinda and Nick and was feeling much more positive.. from almost pulling out I’d managed to get going and pass a few other runners. Throughout the day people kept asking about my injury – clearly the word had got out. I felt a little sheepish about it given what had happened to Maik, but in truth it was a day of constant pain. As well as the achilles, I now had pain up the front of the shin on the same foot. The curse of snowshoes – we’d have been in real trouble without them, but they made life so much harder in some ways and introduced unfamiliar stresses. I spent much of the time focusing my mind on good things.. lots of thoughts of my kids, of Sally and of what I’d eat when I got home! I had regular updates on Sally’s progress too – everyone was clearly, and quite rightly, impressed by her strength. Whilst we like to run together, in tough events like these we’re probably better off on our own, doing our own thing, drawing on our individual reserves to get us through.
The last 20km of this stage were across a huge frozen lake. It just went on and on, and on. Someone at one of the CPs remarked “welcome to purgatory”. Hour after hour. I had a little pick me up when I ate a small packet of thai chilli rice crackers.. yum! It grew dark and I consoled myself that I would finish this stage and I’d have completed three stages and over half of the overall distance of the race. Whatever happened tomorrow, I’d at least have that. More updates at CPs told me that Sally wasn’t all that far ahead. I saw a bright light on the horizon which seemed like a snowmobile headlight – perhaps the last CP. I got there, 4km to go and didn’t want to hang around. Focus. Get it done. Further on I saw a light ahead.. was it the headtorch of another runner? There were lights far off ahead and to the left too. Those weren’t moving – had to be the finish. I was closing in on the runner ahead, very gradually. Was is Sally? I sped up briefly, and painfully. That didn’t last. As the runner turned left towards the finish, I saw that it wasn’t Sally but Albert, one of the Spanish guys.. he must have been suffering. I finished about a minute behind him and soon found Sally who was rather surprised to see me so soon!
I warmed up and got changed, had some food. I felt utterly exhausted. As things stiffened up, my achilles and shin pain reached new levels, making just walking around pretty difficult. Many of us spent a great few hours in a large cabin, chatting, eating, rehydrating and trying to dry clothes in front of a roaring log fire. Physio Rachel kindly taped up my achilles to offload some of the work it was doing and then off to bed – I think we were in our sleeping bags by 9:30pm in a pretty cold cabin. So that was day 3 which brings me back to where I left this above .. but more on that to come.
Most of the runners and medics met at Lulea airport at 2pm of Friday 14th – Sally and I had spent the morning husky sledding which was absolutely amazing! A few introductions and onto the coach for the 5 hour journey up into the Arctic Circle. We pulled over for a photo op as we crossed ‘polcirkeln’ which was great fun. Onwards to Kvikkjokk and a couple of large cabins where we quickly found a bunk and started getting to know each other over a dinner of various freeze-dried delights! I went for the very standard but reliable spag bol btw, pepped up with a dash of Tabasco (many thanks to Naomi Prasad for that suggestion – great idea!).
After the first of many nights of boiling in a -40°C rated sleeping bag, we stirred at about 6:40am.. uh oh, first briefing is at 7! Steph, the last runner to arrive, got to us sometime during the night following a long journey from Canada, so we were all present finally. That first briefing was somewhat nerve-wracking and full of the terrors of frostbite, hypothermia and the local wildlife (including wolverines, which were described as “really stupid, they’ll attack anything” and “but there’s nothing you can do if you see one” – great) and safety advice and information on our GPS trackers etc. Breakfast and kit checks followed (with potential time penalties for missing items) before it was time to be ready to run, with the first stage of 46km starting at noon.
As we congregated outside before the start we had lots of photos and we were able to properly take in the size of the behind the scenes operation. As well as the two RDs Wes and Andy and the team of medics, there was a team of local people working with and under the direction of a Dane called Per. These, the ‘Sami’ were driving the snowmobiles, marking the courses out and transporting medics around to set up checkpoints and to lug bags, tents, wood and other supplies around. Most of us thought perhaps we might be overdressed and would have to shed layers at some point, but there was one of us who definitely wasn’t – Ed Catmur, wearing just tights and a t-shirt. As we walked to the startline, his arms appeared to be turning blue. Off we went, a short distance up a ‘road’ (still totally hidden by hard-packed snow) and past a few hardy locals before we hit the Kungsleden (Kings Trail) which we were following for the first day. Almost immediately it was uphill into the woods, on deep snow, and very, very hard work. The packs we were carrying were at their heaviest, containing all our food and some extra clothing, medical and safety supplies etc. I think we covered about half a mile at the very most before Sally and I decided to get the snowshoes on. Neither of us had ever used them before bar a quick try-on, but they felt great and we were able to cope with the snow more easily. We passed a few other runners who asked if it was easier with them on and I think everyone ended up in their snowshoes pretty quickly. Oh and yes, we took a layer off pretty early on!
Things progressed well, albeit slowly. The average temp for this time of year is -15°C and the going should have been like running on the hard wet sand you get near the water at the beach, yet with the warmer temperatures and all the snow, it was much harder going and much slower. We (well, I mainly) were also concerned with not overheating and sweating too much – there’s nowhere for moisture to go in these temperatures and sweat will just freeze on you if you’re not careful. Sally was visibly frustrated at how all of this affected our pace and whilst I was too, I took a more philosophical view. After all, we were in a brutal but beautifully stunning place – soak it up! I kept clipping the inside of my ankles with the snowshoes which caused some swearing as the day wore on. Later on in the day we spent some time with Mark who was taking part with his friend Dave (who was further back). It was dark in the latter part of the first stage and we had to cross a frozen lake which we had been warned that had sections with surface melt which could be a problem (wet shoes, socks, feet, potential frostbite hazard) but we managed to navigate through it ok. Eventually (it seemed to go on forever) we made it to some trees and uphill a bit to the end of the stage and a nice surprise – we were staying in cabins rather than tents! This was for a couple of reasons – the snow made it a slower race, so some people were going to be out pretty late and would need to get inside to warm up and dry their kit out, so it was much safer. The other reason was that much more snow was falling and there was the danger of getting snowed in if we were in tents. We got in and changed and welcomed other runners as they got in. Mark’s mate Dave had been suffering – he’d been sick a few times and obviously very low on energy. In fact, during the night, he and Camilla were both ill on an epic scale.
We’d been told to prepare for a 9am start, so we were up at around 7 to make breakfast and generally get ready. Dave and Camilla were only just about able to start getting some food down them but looked a lot better than they had the night before. The news came in that the start was going to be delayed – there’d been a massive snowfall overnight and the Sami team were unable to get to us on their snowmobiles. The wait lengthened and it transpired that they’d got snowed in and had to wait for a snowplough and then there was just far too much snow to clear and use the planned course for the day, over a mountain to the south. A new course was put together, gone over a few times in the snowmobiles and marked outready for a 12:30 start. The amount of work that must have gone on behind the scenes is mind boggling! In the meantime, we relaxed in the cabin, eating a bit, snoozing a bit and having a fine old time!
We started with a bit of a run before settling into what worked best for us.. somehow I got into a stride which got me covering the ground pretty quickly whilst Sally was mixing it up with marching and jogging. We spent much of the morning leapfrogging Kenny, a great guy from “the end of the road” (John O’Groats) who previously did the Jungle Ultra. I must have been motoring because at one point Sally was struggling to keep up even when jogging. However I did start to develop the achilles pain that was to become a feature of the rest of my race. We’d been promised that the last 8-9km of the stage was on a road and “very runnable” so we looked forward to that. It was a huge relief to be able to take off our snowshoes and run those last few miles. Due to the course change, we finished at a road junction where we had to wait to be transported by minibus to where we had supposed to finish, and some small cabins for the night. Sally and I shared with Ed and Ignacio, who both seemed nicely settled in already when we arrived. I wasn’t looking forward to putting the snowshoes on again the next morning, but you’ve already read about that.
The morning came with some bad news – Mark, one of the runners, representative of race sponsors Vivobarefoot, and a really nice guy had been withdrawn from the race by the medics. Incredibly frustrating and disappointing for him, but the right decision – he’d injured his ankle in the snowshoes the day before but still went on to do another 6+ hours post-injury to finish the stage, but was not in a state to continue safely. I’ve already covered stage 3, so let’s get back to where I’d left things earlier.
Where was I?… Ah yes – fear. At no stage did I commit, to myself or to anyone else, to even starting that day. 90km was ahead of us and a 3-4am finish was what I expected. I was low on food (as was everyone else with the long days) and I’d basically given myself permission to quit the day before by getting to the end of stage 3. I’d love to say I pulled myself together, did some chest-banging and generally psyched myself up for it, but that’s just not me. Instead I just quietly went through the motions, donning the fresh socks which I’d been saving for the long stage, got ready to run and gently came round to the idea of potentially another 20 hours or more out in the cold. By the time we were ready to go at about 8am, I felt much calmer.
We were called out and Steph and Sally had already set off just ahead of me. For the first time in the race, the sun was peeking through the clouds. As well as the colour this brought to the already stunning landscape, this gave us hope that we might see the aurora borealis that night. Any reason for fresh optimism is cherished in times like these! The sun was very low and it was quite misty once we got out onto the lake and it wasn’t long before I lost sight of Steph and Sally ahead. And then, all of a sudden, I could see them. Getting closer. Hmm. We must have gone the wrong way – we’d been following the usual sticks in the ground along a snowmobile trail markers but it just stopped – fresh snow everywhere around. Steph had lost it a bit.. the three of us decided to hit the SOS buttons on our GPS trackers because we weren’t sure where we should be. Albert wasn’t far behind and we turned back to retrace our steps. We saw some snowmobiles taking a different route across the lake and assumed that’s where we should have gone. Once we got back to the fork in the route, we could see where we should have gone, but we could also see why we’d gone wrong – there were lots more marker sticks on the wrong route – the next one on the correct route (albeit with the BTU tape) was a fair way off, and it had been misty when we got there earlier. As we headed off along the correct route I could see that Steph was putting her frustration to good use and seemed to be pulling away, with Sally not far behind her. I saw a couple of snowmobiles head to where we’d got to before turning back, so obviously the SOS system worked! I tried to turn my SOS button off, but it didn’t seem like it wanted to. I wondered if perhaps it would cancel itself after a while and promptly forgot about it. The snowmobiles caught us up and Per decided to give us a little lift along the course to make up for the extra ground we had covered, as the poor marking at the fork had been the problem. Just before getting on the snowmobile though, we’d gone through the surface water on the lake and my shoes and socks were wet. We only had a few km to make up on the snowmobile and it didn’t take long but by the time I got off at CP1 my shoes had frozen over so I sat in the tent in front of the fire for a couple of minutes to warm up. I got me some ‘glove love’ – my cold gloves warmed up on the pot of water over the fire. Lovely!
Not long before CP2 I caught up with Camilla, who’d been struggling with illness and a knee injury for the whole race. Nothing was going to stop her finishing this though – Camilla and Allan, two of the three Danish runners, were doing the ‘grand slam’ – all four BTU events in a year. They’d already completed the Jungle Ultra in Peru, Mountain Ultra in Colorado and Desert Ultra in Namibia.. seriously impressive stuff. After CP2 we were on the right side of another large frozen lake and off to the left were some reindeer! Finally (apart from a tiny mouse on stage 1) I’d seen some wildlife! At CP2 I caught Belinda who was in good spirits (always a smile on Belinda’s face) who mentioned to Rachel at the CP that she thought she’d heard that the stage was short. Rachel said just to have 90km on our mind. Not far after I saw a sign saying ‘Jokkmokk 40’ which got me thinking. We’d done about 20km since then, and assuming that the 40 meant 40km, that meant a 60km stage.. but we were supposed to be doing 90km. Hmm. Later on just before the 42km checkpoint, I saw a ‘Jokkmokk 20’ sign. It still didn’t add up, but this was at least occupying my thoughts. I wondered if they were messing with us – setting us out on a 90km stage only to spring a surprise that it was only 60km after all. At some point I remembered and tried to turn off my SOS alert again – nothing doing. I decided to turn the whole unit off and on again. That seemed to fix it. I subsequently found out that they’d received over 300 SOS messages from me during the day – at least we know it works! There was a long, straight crossing over a lake during which darkness fell and as I got to the other side I got a glowstick out for my pack, put my headtorch on and treated myself to another painkiller. I was generally ok on the flat, but any little incline brought fresh pain from both the achilles and particularly now the lower shin. Sadly the clearer skies hadn’t lasted and it had clouded over, so no chance of seeing the famous lights.
One big area of concern I had over this last long stage was a lack of food. I’d been making my snacks last all day – I ate a clif bar in three phases over about 25km. I had a few nibbles of chocolate covered kendal mint cake here and there and had a freeze-dried custard and fruits in my bag which I was making myself wait until after 50km for. My stomach was rumbling all day. When I reached the 50km checkpoint I headed into the tent and was delighted to find that Sally had left me a packet of Chicken Pesto Pasta which I prepared and ate pretty quickly. Normally I wouldn’t touch anything that said pesto but this was divine! Feeling much, much better, although very stiff after stopping for 10-15 minutes, I set off again. Not long after the CP I saw a ‘Jokkmokk 10’ sign and grinned to myself. I was becoming more and more convinced that the stage was going to end after 60km – surely they couldn’t bring us that close to Jokkmokk and then take us away again? Actually, yes – they could, so I wouldn’t allow myself to really believe it until it happened. I had to save what little food I had left and keep my mind focused on what could still be 40km and many hours to go. It was fun to have that to keep occupied with though.
With what must have only been about 5km left on the main snowmobile route to Jokkmokk, our route suddenly took a turn off to the right and up a hill. Oh, bugger. Hmm. At the top of a hill we skirted around a small frozen lake to the next CP. Christian caught me here and he was a bit confused about the distance – my Suunto read 56km, but he thought he’d been told he’d done 56km at the last CP. I was just grinning as I still thought we only had about 4km to go. I’ve a pretty good sense of direction and thought I knew where Jokkmokk was, plus every now and then I’d cover my headlamp and check where the ambient light was over the trees – we seemed to be heading in a loop first away from but then turning back towards the town. 60km came and went, 61, 62. I still knew we weren’t far off though so was still convinced we weren’t doing the full 90km. Once the trail came out near some huge buzzing powerlines overhead and the route turned to follow these powerlines, I knew we were nearing the finish – where else could those powerlines be going? The trail dropped into a bit of a valley which ended with a huge hill in the distance. As I neared, I could see the light from Christian’s headtorch as he headed up the hill. It seemed to go on and on. As I reached the bottom, he’d just gone over the top and it was massive. Typical – a huge hill just before the end of the whole race. Nice one Wes – ‘Nothing Tougher’. I dragged myself up the hill, having to stop a few times and pull myself together. I could see a single headtorch some way back and then what seemed like a group of 5 quite close together.
Eventually I made it to the top of the hill to see what was unmistakably the lights of Jokkmokk in the distance. There was a CP here where Per and Ian confirmed that it was about 8km to the finish. As I headed down the hill, two ladies took about a hundred photos of me – local media I think. I was shifting now, and excited. There was a sting in the tail to come though – as I was closing in on the town some of the Sami guys passed me on their snowmobiles with a shout of “so close!” and I reached what I at first thought might be the finish but was in fact another CP. “4km to go” Richard said. “4km still, bloody hell” I thought. I didn’t stop. A loop across another lake and then along a path behind houses and what I was pretty sure was the hotel where the finish was, yet still no sign of an actual finish line. Back to the main road I’d crossed at that last CP and right into town, along the high street and I took off my snowshoes. I finally saw the BTU flags marking the finish and had a little run, waving my showshoes in the air.. A little under 80km for the final stage and it was all over.
I celebrated with a cold, 2.8% beer which tasted wonderful and got into the minivan with Christian who’d finished a little before me and Michelle who finished a little after, and Ed, who’d finished ages ago! Andy took us to a camping area out of town where there was a large gift shop – we were spending the night upstairs. Reunited with Sally, we celebrated with a few mini eggs that I’d been saving 🙂
The next day we were picked up and taken to Hotel Jokkmokk were we could finally have our first shower in 5 days and put some clean clothes on.. that was so good! Lots of us went out for a late lunch in town where we feasted on pizzas, chips, burgers and so on and generally ate an awful lot without feeling remotely full. A bit of shopping in the supermarket and back to the hotel to get ready for the meal, awards ceremony and party that evening. Great food, medals, speeches (and a speech related buzzword bingo drinking game), new friendships solidified and a wonderful evening. The bar bill the next morning was a bit frightening, but at least I could find my shoes, unlike Mark and Dave!
I can’t endorse this race and Beyond the Ultimate enough – great organisation and they overcame many obstacles along the way to put a fantastic event together.
Full results are at http://www.beyondtheultimate.co.uk/race-results-template.asp?rid=4 and the Race Directors blog from during the event, which is a really good read, is at http://www.beyondtheultimate.co.uk/ice-ultra-race-blog.asp
Many thanks to Martin Paldan for the amazing photos, some of which I’ve used in this blog.