''MY BIGGEST OPPONENT IS MYSELF''
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How I completed the Rovaniemi 150 ultramarathon

This year was already the ninth time the Rovaniemi 150 extreme ultramarathon was organised in winter in Northern Finland. This competition was like a training for me where I had decided to practise my routine and learn how to manage better with my equipment, learn how to navigate better in the dark and find my things.

Take off, 14th February 

In the morning I felt somewhat anxious, it was -15 °C outside and my mind was filled with thoughts about what to wear and what to leave behind.

Once again, I quickly checked I had everything listed under mandatory gear – sleeping bag, mat, headlamp, sled, thermos flasks and food. Not having the mandatory gear can result in discount penalty.

After the take-off, I saw how at least half the cyclists, runners and skiers dashed off. I got scared – is the level really so high or am I really so weak? After 15 minutes a couple of guys rode past me in a sledge and smiled. Probably they thought I was a stupid Estonian who had somehow ended up in the race.

My aim was to complete 40 kilometres in six hours, with a 20-kilogram sled to be dragged along. I managed to do it just fine.

The most difficult aspect for me was the fact that -15 degrees wasn’t too cold after all, and for more than a half of the race I had to run without gloves and cool myself down.

After four hours it suddenly started snowing, the sled was sliding a lot worse and my clothes and shoes got wet.

In the fifth checkpoint I had already completed 58.38 kilometres. I decided to have a decent meal break, take off wet socks and put dry ones on, practise my horrible Finnish skills and move on.

I was feeling well, I only had to move my feet, carry on and stay positive.

It was the first time I wasn’t listening to the music during the first 20 hours of the race, although I normally I do listen to it. Since it gives me strength, I had decided to leave it for the final kilometres.

On the track I met an English ultra-runner. He was one of those guys who had dashed off in the start. Now I felt like competing since it was one of the first sings that the guys who had left me behind in the beginning would hit the wall at one point. This was exactly what happened.

In the beginning, I tried to run in the draft of the Englishman, since it was good when the person in front of me made the track on the snow and I slid better. At one moment, there was the first climb and I passed him. Now the roles had been turned around, I had become the one doing the hard work in front, and the Englishman was just behind me.

The competition between us lasted for about 20-25 kilometres, until we reached the 69.7 kilometre checkpoint at Peurajärvi. I thought I had shaken him off. At this checkpoint, I was a little careless and had my first accident. I was filling a bottle with hot water and put on the lid so that I accidentally poured scolding water on my left shine. Fortunately, it only hurt for a second and it was cold outside after all. Now I had to move on with my leg wet and hope it would dry before the windy part of the race comes.

Before leaving the checkpoint, while taking my last bite, I heard someone shouting, “Joel, is it you?”. I said yes, and the guy told me he had been following my trainings for a long time already and found them really inspiring. With him we moved on. Me in front and him behind me. Then we reached the highest checkpoint of the track, the sixth checkpoint in Kuusilampi (79.2 kilometres already behind me). There we had a nice surprise – a little hunters’ hut with a small fireplace. I quickly changed my warm underwear because we had reached the windiest part of the track and it was good to start the road dry. After a light meal, I felt excellent and decided I would go until the finish line without sleeping. I knew that there were two longer distances before me – 2 x 35 km. I said goodbye to the others and wished them luck. No one went past me after that.

The penultimate checkpoint

Now the road felt weird. My stomach was full, I heard nothing but silence and had moments to share only with myself. After a couple of hours, I saw no one. Just a bit before the penultimate checkpoint, I saw a light three kilometres away. First I thought I was hallucinating because of tiredness, but then I understood there was someone stumbling in front of me. This motivated me and I started to take longer leaps until I passed the competitor in front. It was the same Englishman, and so I though the third place was definitely mine. This was already proved in the penultimate checkpoint where I saw only two competitors resting. Now I had to move along at full speed.

Road to the finish line

I did not stay long in the penultimate checkpoint, I only checked how much water I had with me. I had the final 35 kilometres before me. I did not feel sleepy, instead I sensed adrenalin. I wanted to move far away from the competitors behind me and I managed to do so. I constantly kept looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was there to catch me.

When I had the final 35 kilometres to go, I decided not to change my socks and cure my blisters with Vaseline.

This is how I moved until the finish and crossed the Rovaniemi 150 ultramarathon’s finish line being the third. When comparing the results of the 9 years, I had the 4th best result. All together it took me 26 hours and 46 minutes to pass 150 kilometres.

Hereby I must stress that for me the competition was just a training and the place did not play a great role. Of course, it made me feel good and proved that I keep getting better. In general, one must understand that this competition is not anything that could be compared with a regular marathon or ultrarunning race. Therefore, the places are insignificant, instead each competitor who crosses the finish line being healthy is a winner.

What did I learn?

Running with minus degrees is something else than breathing in warm air for 24 hours. You need to consider several nuances. For years, I have had problems with chafing, which also made me quit the Yukon Arctic Ultra ultramarathon in Canada.

Now I tried everything again and found out how to avoid it. Running in the cold is impossible with regular running or skiing clothes, you need clothes with maximal breathability.

When I compete, I always take everything but kitchen sink with me, but now I knew that it is also possible to manage with fewer things.

 

 

Important remark

It happened for the first time when at -15 degrees I did not wear gloves for more than a half of the race. It is certain that with training in the cold (swimming, breathing exercises, understanding what cold does with my body) I have learned to know my body more, and I manage better and better in the cold.

Elevated heartrate

The day after the race I still felt good. But I could not sleep and spent the total of 34 hours awake. Therefore, I made a little recovery walk the next day and rested. On the third and fourth day my Garmin watch started sending alerts that my heart rate was too high. I got scared, why was my heart rate high, was I going to die? Luckily everything was ok. After discussing the matter with my trainer, we understood that my body had had a shock after such an effort and now was reacting accordingly. By now everything is stable once again and I can get moving.


Dangers on the track

The first part of the track was easy. I had to run along a frozen river and there were several surprises awaiting, for example the pain section. This means that you have to slow down and even the sled behind you turns upside down. The track also has several places where heavy men can fall into knee-deep snow. There was also the infamous frozen bridge, where every year there is someone whose sled falls into the water. The constantly changing temperature and weather are only some of the surprises you encounter on the road.

According to the data on my watch, I had to climb 1516 meters during the 150-kilometre road.

 

The checkpoints have lukewarm or hot water, but you need to have everything else yourself. Toilet is in the nature, but without snow boots you cannot step anywhere without falling in the snow reaching to your neck. Therefore, without proper gear, you need to wait until you reach the checkpoint. Climate warming has made the weather conditions very unexpectable – it might even start raining. Rain is one of the worst things in such competitions, since if the weather turns cold afterwards, you need very specific and durable clothes.

More specific results can be found here.

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