Thursday, 16 June 2016

In the land of the Midnight Sun

The midnight sun in Svolvaer
I could describe the inaugural Lofoten Ultratrail very the most brutal one-day race I have even run.......but that just wouldn't do it justice.

When I was invited to take part in the race, I confess that I wasn't exactly sure where it was to be held (apart from "Norway") but when I found out that the Lofoten Islands were reputed to be the most beautiful in Europe, I jumped at the opportunity to go and run there (as what better way to see stunning scenery than by running through it?).

I thought it was slightly unusual that a headtorch wasn't included on the compulsory kit list, but it made sense once you realised that Lofoten is within the Arctic Circle and hence in the "Land of the Midnight Sun". The initial plan was for the 50 mile race to start at midnight so we got to run through this amazing light, but unfortunately there was a large demand for the start to be moved to 9am. All was not lost as, due to an airline mess-up (trying to put a positive spin on 17 hours of travel), I did not actually arrive in Svolvaer until 1:30am.....and could see that the sun had still not set on the mountains.....beautiful!

I also got to experience the extreme changes in weather first hand as it was 22 degrees, hot and sunny on the day I arrived, yet the next day was wet, windy and about 5 degrees. Who knew what the following day (race day) would hold - we were told not to bother believing the weather forecast as it was so changeable.

Race day dawned (well, not really as the sun hadn't actually set) without least not until half an hour before we were due to start. We were all sitting in the bus having been driven an hour from Svolvaer to the Viking Museum, when the rain started beating against the windows. What an omen! Luckily it stopped and so we all piled off and lined up on the start line, only for there to be another shower as we waited for those runners who'd forgotten to fill up their waterbottles before leaving the hotel. Luckily the starting speeches were brief and so we were soon off and running (and warming up). There was an initial small loop down to the water before we came back past the longhouse and starting flags. We had been told that the first few miles (until we joined the 100 mile race route) would be well marked, but a couple of us managed 2 wrong turns in that initial loop....oops!

After crossing the main road (which was v well marked) we headed uphill on trail. At this point it started to snow.....not exactly what I'd expected after the warmth of my arrival day. The trail wound up and down through small bushes and scrub - it was impossible to see at times so you had to look ahead for small flags spaced about 50m apart. This meant that 4 of us had bunched up by the time we hit the road on the other side of the hill, so we could bounce the navigation off each other. As the only foreigner, I found it amusing that the three Norwegian guys I was running with were looking to me for the nav. To be fair, I was thumbing my map as I ran, whilst one of them was just following his GPS watch and another was trying to use his phone to help him find the route.

We were fairly evenly matched over these few of the guys ate up any flat road more quickly than the rest of us (his stride length was about twice mine), 2 of them loved hurtling down the rough downhills, yet I had the advantage when we went uphill. I have two main memories of that is how beautiful the scenery was (especially as you crested a hill on a small trail and looked down at the next fjord, rather than cutting through a tunnel like the road did) and the other is how much the racks of drying fish stank as you ran past them!

The first "service point" (this was a new thing for me - a "Service Point" was a simple aid station with some food and drink, whereas a "Check Point" was one where you had to go inside and speak to the race crew/medics etc) was on the deck on a house at the end of the village. I don't like to stop for long so grabbed a drink, ate an "Arctic" (ie muesli) bun, picked up another for the road and was away with the guys in my wake.
The route description for this segment describes a "run around the coastline to the lighthouse and then on to Eggum village" - which I interpreted as a nice easy flat coastal/beach run. I couldn't have been more wrong, but as it turns out, the guys had all thought the same thing as me so we were all taken by surprise. The coastline was very dramatic with steep slopes running straight down to the sea below, and so we found ourselves running on narrow, windy, undulating paths along the slopes and cliffs. It was stunning, but you had to keep your brain switched on at all times in order not to stumble on rocks and find yourself hurtling down towards the water. At other times we dipped right down to sea level, sometimes lowering yourself down over rocks onto shingles or timing your boulder hopping for short dashes between waves. All great fun, but I'm not exactly the fastest person over such terrain so 2 of the guys soon disappeared out of sight. I caught up to one when we started clambering up and down rocks but the other guy (Frode) was way ahead as he described it as his "favourite terrain for running".
As I neared Eggum, it became much easier to run at a decent pace and I managed to catch up with Frode (and the overhead camera/drone!!!) so we had a brief chat before I moved ahead along the following road kilometres. I tried to get into a steady rhythm on this quiet section while tracking my progress along the map. Very few cars passed that way but those that did all gave a friendly wave. The rain and cloud would come and go as would the sea on my left and the mountains on my right. I could see the location of the next checkpoint away in this distance, and knew that the portion of the race I was most worried about started there.

I finally arrived at the checkpoint and went inside to check in with the race crew. They seemed surprised that I did not want to stop while they brewed me a hot drink, but as I was so anxious about the next section, I just grabbed a handful of chocolate (yummmmm.....chocolate with salt crystals in it was exactly what I needed), a couple more Arctic buns, some electrolyte drink and headed off.

photo credit Kai-Otto Melau

The next 16K or so looked like they would be the toughest (well for me anyway) of the whole event. It looked like we had to climb mountains, run along ridges, and route-find ourselves as there were no obvious trails marked on the map. The initial climb up from the checkpoint wasn't so bad as there was a decent rough path and it was partially runnable. Apart the 100mile competitor that I passed I could see nobody either ahead of me or behind me, so I knew I had to be completely self-reliant. I could work out where I was as I ran along the top of the first ridge (and there was a lovely reassuring small Arctic Ultra flag marking the highest point) as the weather was clear enough for me to identify specific lakes, streams and valley features below, but suddenly the trail petered out. I had looked ahead and worked out a vague route but I wasn't too confident of this when I saw the actual terrain underfoot - springy heather, low shrubs, small trees, rocks, bogs and sharp drops. Luckily I finally managed to get my borrowed GPS to work. However, I discovered that it is not possible to follow a trace accurately unless you are superhuman and can avoid all the obstacles put in your way.

After a few false summits I saw the highest point of the route a long way ahead and to my left. Unfortunately it appeared that I had a lot of descending, circumnavigating and climbing to do to get there. I passed another couple of 100mile runners who were gently climbing down slopes, but pushed on myself as I felt that all those following me would be much more confident of their route choice and mountain skills. I did spare a thought that my tracker might be providing some entertainment for those following at home as I was probably running around like a squirrel searching out its store of hidden nuts. At least all the climbing was an excuse to refuel with the supplies I had in my pack. The climb up onto the highest peak of Daltuva was so steep that I also had to use my hands to haul myself up and I worried about overbalancing and falling off the mountain if I actually straightened up fully. Eventually it flattened off to become a more rounded summit, but this meant there was a snowfield to traverse. Although it was a rather slippery section (and cold, as it actually snowed again just as I got there), I found some reassuring tracks of those who'd passed by earlier so I knew that I wasn't too far off course.

The descent from Daltuva could only be described as "interesting". I could see the road far below but no obvious way of getting there. For those people that know Wales, the closest thing I can liken it to was coming off Crib Goch without a path in strong winds - I wasn't feeling exactly confident that I'd even make it. If I tried to look at the GPs trace too closely as I got lower I would find myself either ankle deep in a bog, scrambling over huge rocks or trying to negotiate a miniwoodland area. At one point I even realised that there was a lake appearing to my left - and the map showed that it should definitely be on my right.

spot the tiny dropbag
I managed to scramble back up round and down the right (ie the correct) side and finally picked up a little trod so could get back to running at a decent pace. Suddenly I came across 2 camaramen associated with the race. They gave me some nice encouragement, but I really didn't believe them when they say I'd navigated the section well and was leading the race. Having not seen anyone for hours, I was convinced that I'd dropped right to the back of the field.

After a mile or so along the road, I got to the refuel point...or "special service station" where our drop bags were. Everybody seemed to have a lot more in their bags than me - change of clothes, shoes, socks, the kitchen sink etc - whereas I just had a can of redbull, some cereal bars, minicheeses and small chocolatey snacks (all of which I grabbed and took with me....though I downed the can at the time).

The loneliness of a longdistance runner
I was so relieved to have made it safely over the mountainous section and knew I could relax as the next 10K were all on road. I'm not sure I've ever run a road 10K wearing soggy, heavy trail shoes and carrying a pack (having already run more than 50K) but I determined to make the most of it....despite the fact that I seemed to be running straight into a fairly stiff headwind. The scenery more than made up for it though, as the road wound round fjords and mountains, over huge humpbacked bridges between islands, and there was hardly a vehicle in sight.

In the final mile before the checkpoint, runners started joining my road from the right hand side. They had just started the 24K and so we would be on the same route from now on until the finish. After being alone for so long it was a bit of a shock to see so many people....and I was jealous of their lovely fresh legs. The race rules dictated that although the 24K runners could carry straight on up the road after we crossed the final bridge, I had to go and have a medical check to ensure I was fit to continue. I'm afraid I made the medics jog across the parking lot and into the buildings with me, as I didn't want to stop and walk. I was cleared to carry on, but they were surprised that I didn't want to sit down, rest and have a cup of coffee...."plenty of time for that at the finish" was my reply.

photo credit Kai-Otto Melau
Joining back into the melee of 25K runners, I was surprised to find myself running faster than several of them on the tarred and then gravel road. I managed to maintain some sense of pace on the following narrow path up the side of the fjord, but when it became a case of picking your route across rocky beaches, I started being overtaken again. The next section was rough tussocks and my legs were definitely betraying me, as I couldn't keep up with those who'd just passed by, no matter how much I wanted to.

Next came another steep climb that just seemed to go up and up. The element of navigation was now not an issue as the 24K was marked out by flags some distance apart so you just had to look for a marking in the distance and make your way to it. Whenever it was possible to do so (as I seemed to spend a lot of time on my hands and knees crawling uphill very slowly) I urged people to pass me so that I didn't slow them down. I was trying to surreptitiously check their race numbers to ensure they weren't in the 50M race, but then again I couldn't have put up a fight if they had been. That was my lack of fuelling on the road stretch catching up with me - I know that I didn't judge that well, but as I was running faster along there, I hadn't felt like eating. A couple of people said they "recognised me from Facebook" and that I was leading the 50M by over an hour....but I hadn't a clue what they meant or how they knew this (unknown to me the race FB page had been updated with a picture of me running along in an earlier stage).

photo credit Alexis Berg
Fabulous scenery again, but I wasn't exactly in the best state for taking it in - I thought I'd reached the top, only to realise that I had to scramble down a long steep slope and then climb up another snowfield. The weather wasn't being very kind to me either as the wind had picked back up and I was rather cold. Luckily, I managed to get some more food on board before I descended to the final service point. I have never been a good descender....and the terrain didn't help as you had to pick your own path/choose which rocks to jump off, but luckily the bogs you landed in saved your knees when you propelled yourself off the "minicliffs".

The last summit in nicer weather (my first day)
What a difference that food made - I felt so much stronger in the last few kms, even in the drizzle. I'd walked this bit of the route on my first day there, but seemed to be covering the ground much quicker than then, even though I had already passed the 75K mark. The last summit came almost before I expected it, and suddenly I was using the rope to lower myself down the other side. The lower section of the path had seemed rather technical on my recce walk, but on race day I just got on with it knowing the end was in sight.

A final steep gravel road down and I knew I was on tarmac all the way to the finish. I ran through a tunnel into Svolvaer, down to the waterfront, avoided a few walkers on the boardwalks, ran the "victory" lap of the town square and finally broke the tape on the finish line (which was a fish drying rack!!).

I had no idea how long I'd taken (10hrs 38mins), or where the next person was (Frode finished in 12:14) but all the tough bits were forgotten...I'd made it to the finish (52ish miles and something like 14 thousand feet of elevation gain later)....what an amazing day it had never to be forgotten!!!

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to see and run in such a beautiful place and meet such amazing friendly people....full marks to the crew of the Lofoten Ultratrail!!!


  1. Amazing photos and it sounds like a spectacular race! Well done on the victory.

    1. Thanks Richey....get yourself there for 2017 - you'd love it!!

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