It was the night before an early start to Gallivare, Northern Sweden. This being my third multi-stage race you may think I was calm and ready for bed, however, I was still anxiously packing and repacking my race bag, checking the mandatory kit over and over again, constantly questioning myself whether I could live without an extra pair of socks, a spare mid-layer top and lots of additional calories. So many questions racing through my mind.
I was checking each item, weighing it and working out how to lose the grams. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weight of my bag before but my mindset had changed. In previous races I’d been running to complete; in this race I would be running to compete.
The journey to Gallivare involved two planes, a train and a final bus to the Mountain Centre where the event truly started. Once there we took our seats and listened to Kris King, Race Director for Beyond The Ultimate events. As the brief went on you could feel the tension, and the fear, rising in the room. The trepidation of what this terrain could do to us, as for me, with each moment, I got more excited for the challenge that lay ahead.
From the moment the race brief finished time seemed to speed up. The room exploded into a hive of activity with medics checking runners for every item on the mandatory list. Simply put: if you don’t have an item you’re not running. I knew my pack was complete with all the required items but there is always something about this moment in epic races – you’re not 100% sure about your bag until the medics sign your kit form, which they did, and I could then focus on eating (something I am not big on).
Food is unique to each runner and only recently have I felt comfortable with myself and the amount I eat during races. I am on the minimal side and trying to eat a 1000-calorie dinner wasn’t easy. It probably took me over an hour to finish and I only felt relaxed when it was done. I was eating 1000 calories based on what I’d heard from past runners so, with the fear of running out of energy, I didn’t want to be caught short.
My race food per day was as follows:
On the longest day I would have extra cheese and Chia Charge bars. After that day, however, and all the other days I had food left over. I also struggled to eat 1000 calories at breakfast. If I were to change something it would be to have a 500 calorie breakfast with an additional desert meal. Please don’t think my food plan will necessarily work for you. Every individual is different so you really must experiment and find what suits your body … it’s taken me four years and I’m still learning.
We get the call to say the overnight accommodation is ready. Reindeer skins are down so it’s time to go. Setting off through the cold night we find our home for the night are tepees in the snow. There are six of us to a tepee. We dive in to escape the cold, scrambling about to get our expensive sleeping bags down and inside them as quick as possible. I made sure I changed into my night gear before we left the Mountain Centre.
It was an interesting night’s sleep … anxious, excited, cold, do I really need to go out for the bathroom? … this all adds to the experience.
I was the last one out of our tepee. I couldn’t find my gloves. They were deep inside my sleeping bag in my dry bag - big mistake; luckily I didn’t miss my breakfast meal!
Back to the Mountain Centre we go, walking briskly to keep warm. My focus is on eating and feeling content that my pack is exactly as I want it to be. The centre is busy with kit all over tables, some people talking, some completely engrossed. I was more on the quiet side today; I felt calm; my mind felt relaxed; I was ready to run. In the final moments before leaving the centre I had a discussion with Simon Wilson and his son Sacha over whether to wear a mid-layer top. Having never experienced such cold weather in the UK it was an unknown for us, so I had cautiously put on a base-, mid- and outer-layer. After ten minutes of debate we all decided that two layers was the way to go, so off came the mid-layer and in the bag it went. This was to be one of the best decisions I made during the entire week, the two layers were just right for my body temperature and effort level.
Stepping out in the two-layer system I could feel the cold. Next to me was good friend Craig Williams who, with a military background, mentioned it’s best to start cold, let your body warm up and then adjust layers if needed. This made complete sense and with my mind set on running as much of the course as possible I felt happy.
Knowing that there would be times of walking, mainly on the hard uphill’s, I would take this as a march, giving my running muscles a rest whilst moving forward making good progress. This also allows me time to eat more comfortably, think about what is coming next and prepare for the next section.
As Kris does the countdown I am focused. I have a plan. I’ll move at my own pace; at my effort level; sticking to my movement strategy whether that be on ice or snow. We start running on a frozen road, the sun is shining, the scene is beautiful, this is why I do these races for moments like this.
The first checkpoint (CP1) is 10km which we reach comfortably. I have a very small lead over Aodh from Ireland as we hit the first of the frozen lakes, which is where the first decision has to be made – snow shoes or not? I persist without them across the lake to the first climb, but here it’s very clear that snow shoes are needed so on they go. I’d practiced taking them on/off many times so this was a quick change but, nonetheless, frustrating to stop. Having gained a minute on Aodh, I’m hoping he’s doing the same! At this time I also make the decision to use the poles, strictly for the uphill only, as I want my hands free for downhill running. In haste I don’t put my hands through the Leki gloves, I hold my poles directly, this caused the gloves to come off of the pole clip a few times, running back to meet Aodh who had kindly picked them up. Not something to be repeated, although happy to see Aodh in snow shoes as well.
After locking my pole gloves in my bag I set off up the climb, only treating myself to the view behind me once at the top. It is truly spectacular. Having never led a race before this is a whole new feeling – the only similar feeling I have had was on day four of the Jungle Ultra when I ran into second place. I now told myself that no-one would be taking this away from me, so I kept moving forward on undulating ice and snow, keeping within my chosen effort level which I hoped would keep me in front.
I find myself moving nicely, feeling happy and absolutely loving it. I have music on and I’m really in a trance, in the zone. I move through CP2 quickly continuing on the same type of ground. , I switch in and out of snow shoes a few times, only to switch back into them again quickly, so I decide they’ll be staying on for the rest of the day and most of the week. I feel a hot spot on my heel, thinking the snow shoes may be causing rubbing, I decide to assess it at CP3. There isn’t anything going on. I have a good chat then off I go. I was there for 10 minutes and Aodh had come into view. At this point my race head kicked in and I would no longer be having good chats at the CPs!
CP4 is the final stop before camp, at the bottom of a climb before a fantastic descent into woodland. I love this hill: the downhill is amazing; you can see for miles; it’s so much fun moving quickly knowing the camp at Aktse isn’t far away. I see the cabins and I know I’m close, I’m buzzing for my first ever stage win in an Ultra. I see the Yeti flags and adrenaline kicks in … I run past the finish line but no-one is there. What an anticlimax for me. I shout hello and up pops a local Sami on top of a roof clearing snow. He logs my time and a medic tells me I’m early 🙂
The cabins are amazing, warm and cosy. Now it’s recovery time and preparation for day 2, Aodh comes in second and Alex third, lovely guys I would get to know well over the week.
After a relatively good night’s sleep we are woken by Kris and it’s time to get ready for day 2. I make the decision to wear the Leki gloves from the off to prevent me from having to run backward to meet Aodh again! It had snowed overnight so the ground is soft, meaning snow shoes from the off, something I got used to and in the end I forgot they were even on.
We group at the start for the countdown, again with Lee and Craig at the front, soon to be joined by Aodh. I don’t feel any pressure about the day ahead. Yes I was surprised by my performance on day 1 but there are 3 racing days left and I’m not thinking about the win, purely let’s do the same today and see what happens.
As we set off I am joined by Aodh. He takes a nice video of us running across the lake, then we enter woodland prior to a final lake before the 700m, 6KM accent up Mount Kabla. As I cross the lake before the climb I have a few minutes on Aodh and Alex, I could see them in the distance, but I’m also starting to lose some feeling in my hands. The temperature difference between lake and woods must be 10 degrees or more as I continue across, not wanting to stop to lose time or for the guys to see me stop, I keep pushing on to the woods whilst continuing to lose the feeling in my hands. My biggest mistake of the race was having my down gloves packed away in my bag. To this day I can’t remember why I did this, maybe a slip of preparation concentration. Once I make it to the woods it’s an operation to get the gloves, which is a frightening moment as the cold comes so quickly, affecting me badly as I fumble about and get them on. My fingers are painful and not easy to move but, once the gloves are on, I feel happy to push on, with a look over my shoulder I can’t see anyone and off I go.
They say experience is what you get when you do something wrong, so I put my small but painful mistake down to experience and remind myself how important it is to anticipate potential problems and plan for how I’m going to deal with them when they occur during the race.
Now I’m climbing steadily in sheltered woods towards CP2 which is before the main climb to Kabla. A very quick stop to replace frozen water bottles and I am straight off with no chatting like yesterday. As I work my way up I can see the guys behind me. I check my watch and tried to figure out the margin I have. I think at this point it’s about 10 minutes. The climb is one of those climbs that just keeps giving … when you think you’re at the top you have more to do, so when I finally reach the top I look back over what I’ve run, and again it’s spectacular.
CP3 is before the big decent down to Arrenjarka. Getting to CP3 is a mixture of running and power hiking as it’s up, down, up, down, constantly. When the CP comes into view I pick up speed and execute a quick pit stop to refill with warm water. I’m conscious that I ‘m in the lead so I don’t hang around except for a quick chat with Kris, who is on Facebook ‘live’, before going down hill to camp.
The snow is treacherous if you step off the marked course, and even on the marked course you can find yourself deep in waist high snow. That’s what I discovered on the way down. Smiling to myself I get back up and move on. I keep looking over my shoulder for Aodh and Alex as I haven’t seen them since coming down Kabla. Knowing they could be close behind me is one of the things that keeps me pushing on. Again the run to camp is down through woodland, frozen lakes and finally more woodland and, of course, more frozen lakes. This part of the course is brilliant: happy free legs and the stage finish not too far away. The mind, body and soul are happy and when I can see cabins I know I’m home. This is when the body releases extra energy to push you on, and I’m happy to see Will who guided me in. A 2nd stage win, is incredible and surprising. I’m slowly starting to believe I can do this.
The big downer for the day was hearing that my very good friend Lee Haswell had to withdraw from the event due to suspected and later confirmed broken ribs. I met him in the main centre and had a cuddle and relaxed for a moment. It’s never a nice feeling to see a mate injured and out of the race, but we’re stronger in the long run when this happens.
Day 2 round up with Will.
Marathon day on the frozen lakes. We’re the last cabin to be woken which leaves us with very little time to get ready. Another lesson learned here – take control of the alarm!
A frantic 45 minutes commences, trying to eat, pack and make sure I’m set for the day is a right stress and not something I want to happen again. I hardly eat anything and don’t want to miss the race start, so this isn’t a great start to day 3, a fast day. It feels more like a race day today as we are out of the snow shoes and my feet are running free. My thinking is the same as the previous two days: keep to my effort level; see what happens. Gathering at the start line it’s very cold, down gloves are on and once more I am totally focused on the day ahead.
This is a great day of running, non-stop, no walking, but very challenging. Starting without snow shoes feels great and I set off across a frozen lake before entering woodland. As soon as we are off the lake the soft snow hits and the feet sink instantly into the snow, sometimes inches, sometimes a foot or two. I don’t immediately change into the snow shoes as the bulk of the day is on a long frozen lake so, with this on my mind and sensing Aodh behind me, I’m not keen to stop and put them on. Then it gets to a point where I’m waist-deep in snow and getting very frustrated with the inability to move, so it’s definitely time for snow shoes. I make the change quickly and instantly know it was the right thing to do. Now I’m moving quicker and with less effort.
After the first woods with the snow shoes on I cross a few lakes and hit CP1 very quickly. I don’t stop. The medics call out lots of questions and I say yes to all, moving swiftly on, hunting CP2 down. This would be the start of the long lake section of 20K. Aodh, and what looks like Dariusz rather than Alex, are only minutes behind me. If I can just keep ahead as each CP goes by the overall win would be getting closer. I’m really in race mode now.
Between CP1 and CP2 it’s either frozen lake or woods. I pass a small settlement with waves and claps, which makes me suspect CP2 is close, and means a fast change out of the snow shoes to make my way across the lake.
Upon reaching CP2 the snow is very soft. I shout at the CP from meters away asking if I should take the snow shoes off. The Sami says yes so off they come. I had prepared myself for this quick change and putting them quickly in my bag, change made, fresh water on-boarded, I move on, checking over my shoulder and there are Aodh and Dariusz, minutes behind. This next section is where nothing changes: you are moving forward but it seems at such a slow pace; you look behind and you see runners; it’s impossible to get a feel for the distance or time difference; the only thing to do is keep moving and fast. My effort level has increased during this stage and I‘m not letting up as I close on CP3 … with 10K to go I just have to keep moving. I can feel myself getting fatigued, slowing down, and looking back I can sense that I’m being hunted down. With that in mind I dig in, kept my cadence up and eventually see the island where the stage finishes. Leaving the main track of the frozen lake, the soft snow stops me in my tracks. 100 meters to go and they hit you with this! I’m cursing. Charlotte, an amazing medic and supporter, is cheering and clapping like mad. I make it to the finish line and fall to the ground. A good day’s racing!
Now it’s time to recover and get ready for day 4. Dariusz finished 2nd, with Aodh in 3rd. This result puts me 42 minutes ahead overall, which is nothing with a long stage to come, but I now feel like I have the opportunity to do something that I would never have imagined possible. I am starting to believe there is a chance to win with just one big day to go!
It’s an early start to a long day. We wake to multiple alarms after not wanting a repeat of the previous day. Dariusz is out of the door fast. After getting to know each other and hearing stories, Dariusz is a good 100-mile runner, so him literally running out of the door gets us all thinking he is on for it. My plan for the day is to maintain my effort level, not to blow up and loose the hard fought minutes I had acquired. The 10 minutes wasted on Day 1 could come back to haunt me. We line up at the start and it’s Alex not Dariusz who flies out of the blocks!
Right from the off Alex takes off. I think for a moment ‘Let’s have some of this”, then I tell myself to not get sucked into in a battle. Alex has 1 hour 39 minutes to make up over the day and I know I just need to keep moving at the pace which has served me so well so far. It’s actually nice being the chaser not the chased. At each CP I ask how long ago Alex had left, which allows me to keep focused and not to lose my head with the fact he’s surging ahead with that great spare set of legs he got known for.
Today is mainly flat, with either frozen lakes or woodland, all stunning. It makes me feel privileged to be running in such a place. My memory of this day will be that it was just one foot after the other, ticking off CPs until they eventually got closer and closer to the finish line. At the final CP, the Sami give some basic instructions that we aren’t far from the finish. At this stage of the event and this time of day, I feel like it’s great news, but … either I miss a turning (which I don’t) or his idea of not far is completely subjective, and from the perspective of my legs it is far!
I’m now heading up the trail in search of the finish knowing Alex is approximately ten minutes ahead. I’m feeling happy, but this last stretch goes on forever. It’s so interesting how your brain can keep your body going along quite comfortably, then new information makes your brain think differently and ultimately affects your effort level when the finish is not as close as your brain thinks. With the increased effort level my brain is telling my legs to stop and walk. I don’t. I’ve battled too hard and too long to allow this happen, and I wonder now if the Sami had not given me the information, how different this last stretch may have been.
The last stretch concludes on a frozen lake with large, uneven and impossible-to-run-on ice cracks. Not exactly what is needed at this moment, but it doesn’t matter. I can see the end point in the distance and my legs are kicking on. Hearing the team shouting and clapping, I speed up, zoom under the underpass, then up the hill to the centre and into the Arctic circle, Supermanning onto the ice. This was a special moment for me. Alex had finished 12 minutes ahead; a great day’s running by him, indeed.
My good friend Lee Haswell picks me up off of the ice, put’s his arm around me and tells me I’ve won the Ice Ultra 2020. It simply didn’t sink in
We start off with a group photo: all battered, sore muscles, tendons, blisters, the normal for a multi-stage, but it’s easy to forget that and there are plenty of smiles as we move onto the start line for the final time. It’s a sad moment as this really has been an amazing experience, but it’s going to come to an end.
Aodh, Alex, Dariusz and myself talk about running this stage together which we do. It’s a great end to the week. We soon catch up with my Jungle Ultra mates, Lee and Craig, who had sped off at the start. Dariusz decides to walk the last few kilometres so the three of us run the remainder of the course to the finish, one of my best moments from the race, sharing a good emotional chat with amazing human beings.
Finishing is fantastic. I’ve done something I hadn’t thought possible. Was it the focused and dedicated training that had allowed this to happen? My mind? Or even both? Whatever it was, it had all come together and opened up my world to discovering what more I can do with my body. I’m already beginning to research what my next event could be in the ultra trail scene.
Beyond The Ultimate (BTU)
Everyone who takes part in an Ultra event is there for their own reasons. They are on their own running journey and just putting themselves out there on the start line is amazing. If you are reading this and thinking about signing up to this event or any of the BTU events I simply can’t recommend them enough. The team at BTU is like a family when you’re out there, and once you do one you’ll be hooked. (ICE ULTRA ENTRY)
I caught up with Will from BTU a few months after the event for an Everything Endurance Podcast.
THE BIRTH OF FOCUSED RUNNING
I will be launching Focused Running in 2021, my coaching business for runners. Focused Running was born on the long bus ride back from Jokkmokk. Sat next to me was Lee Haswell who gave me the confidence that I could do something with my passion and experience. Learning to run efficiently is what made the difference at the Ice Ultra. That process wasn’t just one thing – it was a combination of both physical and mental changes that made the difference.
If you’re interested in improving your running, whether it’s to complete a long-distance race or even to compete for a podium finish, then please do register your interest in being coached. You can submit your details below. All the information you provide will, of course, be confidential. I look forward to hearing from you.