Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dad's birthday ski extravaganza

In the world of Dad, there is no better way to celebrate your birthday than by going skiing. This may not seem so unnatural, until you realize that Dad’s birthday is June 5. (Every year people!) Living in Norway, there’s definitely always the possibility to extend your ski season this long, if you know where to look.

Last year’s birthday trip to Trollstigen had ended in rain, a wet avalanche, and resorting to hiking rather than skiing on Sunday. This year, the weather forecast was really good. Too good almost. It was supposed to be hot and sunny all week, and I was definitely skeptical. What if there was no snow? What if all the snow was just a pile of watery, rotten mush? Still, it was Dad’s birthday, so Audun and I dutifully drove the six-odd hours to Romsdalen from Oslo. And this is how we found ourselves, on an incredibly sunny Saturday morning, staring up at Store Vengetind’s northeast-facing couloir. 

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I’ll ski that for sure: Store Vengetind from our parking spot in Vengedalen.

It was an impressive sight. Store Vengetind is one of those peaks I have always admired from afar, and thought that, one day, one day! I’ll climb you. The time was now. 

Along for the ski was Dad's grizzled French mountaineer friend Christophe along with Christophe’s budding alpinist son Niels. Looking up at the mountain, I couldn’t see how we would be able to patch together a continuous route on snow. Christophe pointed to a long, narrow tongue of snow coming down the mountain that we would climb, before scrambling over some rocks to get into the main couloir. With skis on our back, we set out up the mountain in the hot spring sun.

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Skiing in June means booting up a narrow strip of snow in the hot sun.  Photo by Dad.

We booted our way up the snow for a while, then climb for some time on one of the vertical strips of exposed mountain dovetailing the snow. I was in the lead, and felt like everyone behind me was a chase pack. I pushed hard uphill, going as fast as my pack ladened with skis and the clumsy ski boots on my feet would allow me. Upon reentering the snow, Christophe announced that is was time to put on crampons. The snow wasn’t icy, merely hard, but it was steep enough that we needed extra traction.

The next challenge was crossing a band to steep rocks to reach the main couloir. Clambering around on the rocks was awkward, but there was a ledge that brought us most of the way around.

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Moving into the main couloir. Photo by Dad

Now the main couloir loomed above us, with the rest of Romsdalen stretching out to the sea behind us. It could not have been a more perfect day. 

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Dad climbing the main couloir of Store Vengetind, with the spectacular view all the way to the sea behind him.

The couloir on Store Venjetind is cradled by a wall of rock on the left side, dwarfing skiers booting slowly uphill. Progress seems to be nonexistent at times as you look up and still see the exact same features in the same configuration above you. Climbing a couloir becomes a sort of meditation, wherein you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and accept that the uphill progress must be happening somehow. 

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Christophe and Niels stop to fix a malfunctioning crampon on the steep snow.

And then, above us, I could see an end to the snow. The rocky outcropping of a sadle between the sub and main peak of Vengetind presented itself. We clambered over the rocks in our crampons, and then had a quick lunch break before ditching our skis and other excess equipment to make our summit bid.

To get to the majestic summit, we had to climb an exposed ledge that wrapped around the mountain from the couloir and brought us to the east-facing summit face. Some people actually ski the east face in its entirety, but this is a project that involves skiing 50 degrees in you-fall-you-die terrain - not something for me!

I had heard much about the ledge to get to the summit face from Dad, who had climbed it before, and I had thus been anticipating this particular part. Although the ledge was narrow and dropped straight down to a glacier many meters below, the rock was dry and there were secure hand placements all the way around. For once, I didn’t feel scared at all.

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The magical ledge around to the front of Store Vengetind. Photo by Dad.

After wrapping around, a final climb on snow to the summit remain. The snow was quite rotten, and our feet sunk deep in as we booted our way up the steep face. Just below the summit, perhaps 10 vertical meters, the snow abruptly stopped, leaving bare, steep rock. We stood for a few minutes, discussing possible lines up. In the end, we concluded that getting to the top basically required simple rock climbing, and since the consequences of a fall were very very bad (sliding down a steep snow field off a cliff bad), we wouldn’t do it without a rope. I was a little disappointed at our decision to turn so close to the top, but I respect the cool-headednes of Christophe’s judgement compared to my drive to get to the top by any means.

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Dad below the summit. You can see our bootmarks to the edge of the snow, and the final meters of rock that we didn’t climb.

We then had to down climb the steep, rotten snow field, which was much scarier than going up. For some reason down climbing with my body facing the hill (as opposed to outward, the way you would be if you just walked) makes me kind of dizzy. I guess practice will have to make perfect!

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Down climbing the steep snow on the east face of Store Vengetind. Photo by Dad

Soon enough we were clicking into our skis to enjoy the long descent of the couloir. The conditions were rather challenging, as the snow was still hard and lumpy at the top of the couloir and rotten lower down. 

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Me in action in the couloir. Photo by Dad

There was, of course, a Goldilocks section where the snow was just right!

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Niels enjoying the dwindling snow.

We went out for dinner in Åndalsnes that evening and consumed enormous amounts of pizza, pasta and water while toasting our near success and Dad’s birthday. I still have unfinished business with Store Vengetind, but it’s not nearly as intimidating as it once was.

The next day, we drove up to Trollstigen to conquer another peak: Breitind. Strolling out of the tourist parking lot and along the walkway to the viewpoint, I felt like an alien compared to the tourists just there to take in the view. We were on a mission though, and soon veered off the main walkway to follow a beaten footpath to the snow.

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Weird people carrying skis on the Trollstigen walkway. Photo by Dad

Even starting at 500 meters, we had to work hard to get to the snow this time. Sometimes I think late-season skiing is more for the novelty than anything else, but then a couple of turn down the mountain I remember how great all skiing is.

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The birthday boy in his Hawaiian has just found snow.

The path to Breitind was well-beaten, although it involved a long, nasty, icy traverse before the final climb to the summit.

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Audun and I opted to ski in shorts. We did not regret it. Photo by Dad.

Christophe, Niels and Dad decided to leave their skis a little ways below the summit so as not to have to ski the steepest part. Audun and I opted to carry our skis, which we did not regret when we crested the slope to see that the final 300 meters to the summit were all on snow and therefore easier on skis.

The summit is perched on the top of the Troll Wall, and sitting on top is a precarious perch. None of us wanted to stand up while we were on top!

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Group photo on top of Breitind.

After summiting, Christophe and co headed back to their skis, while Audun and I could ski more or less ski straight down the mountain. The conditions were rather icy, but we still got in a few good turns.

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Audun descending Bretitind, with Romsdalen valley a 1500-meter sheer drop below us.

The skiing was better lower down, where the snow was a bit softer. As we skiied down, we saw hoards of people skiing up the mountain. Starting at 9 o’clock, we had been the earlybirds! Skiing in Norway is like the complete opposite of the Alpes, where everyone starts super early to avoid avalanches.

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The birthday boy enjoys the descent.

With this beautiful last hurrah, I’m happy to hang up my skis for the 2015/16 season. Come October, I’m sure I’ll be looking at them longingly again. I always do.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Eagle Road

I have many failings as a road cyclist. The doctrine of the road cycling way and aesthetic is (half-)jokingly documented in these famous rules, and it’s safe to say I’ve broken pretty much every rule in the book. I still, even after owning a road bike for four years, use mountain biking pedals and helmet (gasp!). I am terrible at drafting, and I have been know to order lattes. As far as I can see, my only redeeming quality as a road cyclist is my utter refusal to let bad weather stop me. I quote, rule #9: If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass.

During the long weekend for Norway’s Constitution Day, May 17, Audun and his dad Odd Arild officially joined the club. The forecast was pretty atrocious for the next day, but we had driven 8 hours from Oslo to Sunnmøre with our road bikes, and we would not be kept from riding by a little rain! Audun just bought a new road bike, and was excited to share some time on the tarmac with his dad, who is a rabid road cyclist himself. We decided that nothing would do but that we cycled to Geiranger and back, even though the forecast was calling for snow in the mountains above Geiranger.

Geiranger is a tiny village in the inner part of Norway’s steepest, most dramatic fjord. On a summer day, it looks something like this:

Geiranger fjord

Note the steep switchbacks in the upper right of the picture. That is the Eagle Road, which we would descend to Geiranger before turning around and climbing back up.

We set out in full bad weather attire, with rain pants, shoe covers, long fingered gloves and buffs covering us from head to toe. After an initial chilling descent from the perch far above the valley where Audun’s grandsmother’s farm lies, we start to climb up the backside of the Eagle Road and were soon shedding our rain jackets.

The climb was gently graded, and we pedaled up past lush farmlands into increasingly mountainous and craggy terrain. This is my favorite kind of road biking, rolling through beautiful, mountainous places and experiencing them so much more intensely than you would in a car.

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Odd Arild and I enjoying the mountain scenery. Photo by Audun.

Soon enough we were at the top of the Eagle Road road, looking straight down at the dozens of switchbacks than lead steeply to the fjord. As the forecast promised, it had started snowing. Big wet flakes that fell lazily through the air before disappearing when they hit the black asphalt. We put on all of our layers again and cautiously rode the switchbacks down to the fjord. 

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Audun and I descending the Eagle Road in the snow. Photo by Odd Arild

By the time we reached the bottom of the chilling descent, I was soaked through and so cold I could barely cling to my brakes. We stopped at a small bakery and sat down practically on top of the heater, slurping mediocre coffee from paper cups while we wolfed down sandwiches, cinnamon buns and waffles.

And then it was time to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse. It had cleared off considerably as we set off up the switchbacks. I was entertained to note the goat pasture carved out in the at least 30 degree slope between two switchbacks. People from Sunnmøre will build a farm nearly anyway!

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Goats enjoying the view of road cyclists head up the Eagle Road. The village of Geiranger can be seen in the background.

We started at a leisurely pass, spinning on our lowest gears and chatting. But then another guy on a road bike passed us, briefly biking along side to say hi. I decided I wanted to go a little harder, and I used the man ahead of me as a rabbit. 

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The Eagle Turn, with the fjord far below. Photo by Audun.

I worked hard the rest of the way up the Eagle oad, never quite catching the road biker who had passed us but reeling him in on occasion. I later regretted spending so much fuel on the climb, when we had to ride the final climb up to Audun’s grandmother’s farm. I was so spent I couldn’t keep up with Odd Arild and Audun any more, although I later learned they were actually pushing hard on this final climb. Strava data here.

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Odd Arild near the top of the Eagle Road. Photo by Audun.

A few days later, it was Norway’s Constitution Day, May 17! In lieu of a more traditional celebration, Audun and I decided to take advantage of the fact that we were heading back towards Oslo. We would start riding our bikes across the mountains, and Audun’s brother Vebjørn, who had carpooled with us, would take the car and catch up with us at some point down the road. We told him to start driving 3 hours after we left, which, we hoped, would give us a good long ride before he caught up to us.

Given the festive occasion, we attached Norwegian flags to our bicycles and set out towards Geiranger, following the same route as a few days previously.

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Enjoying the sun in Eidsdal, at the beginning of the first climb of the day. Photo by Audun.

It was sunny and pleasant this time around, although clouds still lay on the mountain tops above us.

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Audun placed his flag slightly more aerodynamically than me.

A large cruise ship was docked in Geiranger and there were literally hundreds of tourists loitering around in the tiny town center. Norwegians, dressed in their bunads for Constitution day, walk through the streets, in strange contrast to the causally dressed tourists snapping photos around them. And then there was us, two dweebs in full cycling attire, stopping to buy a hotdog before we left Geiranger for the next big climb.

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Lush Geiranger on May 17th.

We started on the switchbacks out of Geiranger, pacing ourselves for what we knew would be a long climb to Djupvasshytta. We had stopped in Geiranger for longer than I expected, and I was looking nervously at my watch, trying to calculate how far we would get before being caught by our car.

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Audun enjoying the long climb to Djupvasshytta.

In the beginning, a train of tiny electric cars that tourists had rented in Geiranger zoomed by us. We kept catching them, since they stopped at every scenic viewpoint and we didn’t. Eventually the electric car tourists got sick of ascending into the fog and turned around, leaving us virtually alone on the long mountain road.

Caution! High risk of rock slide! Don’t stop!, a sign warned us. So we pedaled on, passing occasional high banks of snow where the narrow strip of asphalt had been carved from winter’s clutches by a snow plow.

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Are we there yet? Photo by Audun

 I love a good, long climb, I thought to myself. Soon enough, we were at Djupvasshytta, 1000 meters above the fjord in Geiranger, and sun was penetrating the fog.

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Group photo at our high point of the day.

The road from Djupvasshytta was a gentle downhill, making for extremely fast going. We were able to average close to 40 km/hour down from the top. When Vebjørn finally caught us in the car, we had ridden 99 kilometers and beg to allowed to make it past 100. In the end, we rode 103 kilometers from Norddal, a little less than a fourth of the long road home to Oslo. It was time to sit back and indulge in many ice creams, another time-honored May 17th tradition.

Strava data here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Race report: Birkebeinerløpet

As unusual as it is, I find myself penning a race report for the second time in less than seven days (read the first here!). For easy perusal, this race report has four parts, with the following subtitles: Anticipation, How can I possibly be this slow?, Oh well., and Pedal to the Medal. Enjoy.

Part 0: Anticipation (no kilometers, well except for a few during my warm-up)

Birkebeinerløpet, which took place on Saturday, is a trail half marathon that is a sister race to the famous Birkebeiner ski race. Every year it attracts thousands of participants. It’s rare to see an event of this caliber and size on trails, but if there’s one thing the Birkbeiner people are used to dealing with, it’s crowds!

I had high expectations of myself going into the Birkebeinerløpet. I knew I was fit, and I was frustrated a having not been able to use the extent of that fitness at Oslo Ecotrail. Based on a multipart analysis of Jack Daniel’s VDOT formula, the fastest women’s times at Birkbeinerløpet from the previous years and their corresponding road half marathon times (yes, I am both a nerd and a PhD student, own it!), my A goal was to run the course in under 1:40. Still, I had a nagging ache in my hip flexor, a pulled tendon of some sort, that I was afraid might cost me my race. 

Mom was also running the race, and Dad had signed up for the shorter, 12K event. Our start times were staggered throughout the day, and since I had the la

test start time, I spent a lot of time milling around in the morning. I checked the results as Dad raced, and was pleased to see that he took 8th place in his age group. I went to meet him at the finish and race expo, where I decided new sunglasses in order.

“They’ll make you go faster!” claimed Dad.

I certainly hoped so. 

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Fast glasses? We’ll see. Photo by Dad.

I took the shuttle bus to the start arena an hour before I was due to start and was happy to have plenty of time to warm-up and eat some last minute snacks, consisting of smoothie and a Snicker’s ar. I watched Mom’s splits online as I waited and was pleased to see her go through 15K before I lined up for start. I wouldn’t have time to find out about her finish until later.

In uncharacteristic fashion, I lined up towards the front of my starting wave, which consisted of a couple hundred people. The race organizers asked you to predict your own finish time in order to place you in an appropriate wave, and I had decided, perhaps unwisely, to start with the 1:44 group.

Here. Goes. Nothing. I thought as the person on the loudspeaker counted down to the start.

Part 1: How can I possibly be this slow? (0-10K)

I accelerated slowly, and tried not to get caught up in the current of people rushing past me. I was being passed left and right, but I actually liked not having to pass people for once. I found a comfortably hard pace as we charged around Birkbeiner Stadium and headed out into the woods.

The first section of the course was in rolling terrain, and I had a basic plan to try and stick to 5:00 min/km pace. As we hit the first hills, I saw that pace come and go. These hills were steep, and given the length of the race I didn’t find it wise to charge up them as hard as I could. I think I walked at least three times during the first 4K. I kept thinking the terrain would get easier and my pace would get faster, but I just saw my average pace getting slower and slower.

I was surprised at the technicality of the trails as well. Based on my experience on the last section of the course, which is the same as Ultrabirken, I had decided to wear my road racing shoes. But I found myself working to stay upright on muddy patches and off-camber doubletrack. Bad choice. The hundreds of participants running in the vicinity of me churned up dust on the trails, and I felt it mixing with the sweat coming off my temple. The sun beat hot down on us all, and I happily gulped sports drink at the aid stations.

I was passing people on the short sections of downhill, only to be caught again on the uphills, unwilling to work hard to stay ahead. Glancing at the pace on my watch far too often, I wondered how I could possibly be this slow. Maybe I was sick? Maybe I hadn’t slept enough? Maybe it was too hot? Maybe I was just having an awful, terrible day? 

I sucked down a Strawberry-Kiwi gel after 8K and gagged at the burning sweetness. Half-marathons are stupid. Maybe I’m just really bad at this, I thought woefully.

Part 2: Oh well. (10-15K)

After 10K, I stopped looking at my watch so much. It was just too depressing. You can still run under 1:45! I told myself. Just keep going. I was entertained to see some Ultrabirken runners stumbling through the last section of the course. I kind of envied them, they didn’t have to run nearly as hard as I did. Not all of them looked like they were having fun though. Sixty kilometers is a long way.

Then, in typical schizophrenic Norwegian weather fashion, it started to rain. First a few drops, then a full on rain shower. “This is not what I signed up for!” I joked to a man running near me. Still, the rain cooled everything off, and the dust was settling. Rain drops rolled down my face and into my mouth, tasting of the sweat of the first kilometers.

With the pressure of following a strict pace gone, I settled in and found myself enjoying the actual running part of the race for the first time. The course started to incline inexorably downhill, alternating between double track and dirt roads. The rain shower passed, leaving behind only the bright sun and some spots of dried raindrop on my new sunglasses. In my new, relaxed state, the kilometers ticked by.

At the final aid station at 15K, I saw a display showing that I had been running for 1 hour and 13 minutes. A few quick calculations left me elated: even if I only ran 5:00 min/km for the rest of the race, I would still finish in 1:43! Maybe I wasn’t doing terribly after all!

Part 3: Pedal to the medal (15-21K)

It was then I decided it was time to turn on the afterburners. I started to charge all the downhills with reckless abandon, passing people left and right. I felt two of my toes rubbing together, the dirt that had sifted into my shoe functioning like sandpaper. Still, I could ignore it, unlike the ungodly side stitch demon during Ecotrail. I had more important things to think about. I had acquired a shadow, in the form of a woman in a pink shirt who tried several times to pass me. 

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Charging the downhills. Race face: on. Photo by Dad.

Oh no you don’t! I thought to myself, speeding up even more. It soon became clear that neither of us was going to shake the other off, and she drew up alongside me.

“Thanks for pushing me to run so hard!” I told her through deep gulps of air, actually meaning it. I noted that her bib had the same color as mine - we had started in the same wave.

“Yeah, being fast on the downhills is definitely an advantage on this section!” she answered, “You know, if we keep pulling each other, I think we can go sub 1:40!"

Sub 1:40?! I had given up on that dream long ago. But I had lost track of how long we had been going for, and if she said we could do it, I would be damned if I let that time go.

So we alternated pulling, pushing each others pace harder and harder. I was pulling away on the short uphills, almost sprinting, but she was starting to leave me behind on the downhills. I finally lost her on the last downhill to the finish, but I had saved enough to make the victory lap before the finish a full on sprint, passing several other people in the last few hundred meters.

My official finishing time was 1:39:24. Although Strava counted this run as under the half marathon distance (20.3K in fact!), I still know this is a strong time. I came 31/250 woman in my age group, and beat 10 of the women who had started in the elite field. 

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The men behind me are busy eating my dust. Photo by Dad.

My hip flexor was fine. The sandpaper feeling between my toes turned out to have been most of the skin on the inside of my toe ripping loose (Gross!). I hobbled around afterward, grinning like I had won the race outright. In some ways, I had.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, June 10, 2016

Race report: Rett til værs!

Preface: Tomorrow is Birkebeinerløpet, which will be my first ever half-marathon. I’m kind of nervous (as usual), partially due to my high expectations of myself (as usual) and partially due some lingering pain in my hip flexor (not usual). The hip flexor issue started about two weeks ago, but it doesn’t seem to be the ‘bad’ kind of pain, although it’s definitely exacerbated by running. Of course we’ll see how bad it gets during the race tomorrow. *Nervous laugh*. Anyway, on to the race report!

An uphill race is a borderline ridiculous proposition, yet sometimes I find myself drawn to them time and time again. Oslo Bratteste - 'The steepest in Oslo’ and Fjellseterløpet in Trondheim are two that have appeared on this blog. I often jokingly claim that I’m drawn to the pain involved in these races, but the reality is I love their stripped-bare nature. You cannot fake your way through an uphill race. There is nowhere to hide, and you can throw everything you have into the hill. It’s a kind of soul-baring experience, transcending the monotonous predictable of the everyday. I race uphill to see who I am.

In the ongoing effort to combat my race nerves, I signed up for the first in a series of uphill races on my local trails in Oslo on Tuesday. Although I had run in the area before, I wasn’t sure exactly where the race course went, so I was glad to have time to jog the first couple kilometers before lining up to start. The race was of the informal type, just a bunch of people lining up at the start of a dirt road through the forest with timing chips. I made sure to line up behind the women dressed in only sports bras and lycra who were clearly in it to win it, but tried not to start at the very back.

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Selfie on the first portion of the course, during my warm-up jog.

Kilometer 1 (4:54, HR 169): I didn’t want to start too hard, so I fell in behind a woman in a red singlet who seemed to be running at a reasonable pace. As usual, all of my pre-race jitters disappeared the moment I started racing. The first part of the race was on undulating dirt road, and was all runnable. I felt comfortable, but knew it this was bound to get harder.

Kilometer 2 (6:27, HR 188): The dirt road continued, but did steeper and steeper rollers. Red singlet woman set a hard pace up the hills, but I was determined to cling on. The race was only 4K after all, and I wanted to leave it all behind on the course. We were getting pass left and right, but I decided I couldn’t care about all those other people. I was going hard enough for me and that had to be good enough.

Kilometer 3 (8:19, HR 189): The course left the dirt road and hit rooted, rocky, and occasionally wet singletrack. It felt like coming home; I was in my element. The trail steepened so much that all the racers near me started to powerhike, heads hanging and arms swaying. Something inside of me shifted. It was close to instinct, a feeling so automatic I had no choice but to obey. Go! it said. This is your moment. Pass them. Crush them all. So I went. Hiking as efficiently as I know how. Ducking around other panting racers, picking up my feet and forcing myself into a run any time the trail flattened. The third kilometer seemed to take forever, and I guess compared to my pace on road races it basically did!

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A technical section of the course, taken during the jog down from the top.

Kilometer 4 (8:35, HR 188): Although I was still reeling in racers, I was starting to feel the effect of nearly 20 minutes on or near my lactate threshold. The trail grew increasingly technical, alternating betweens jumbled rock gardens and dropping steeply to small creek crossings that had to be leaped. Watch the ground, stay on your feet! I told myself. I was having a little trouble breathing, coughing as I overtook a man in a grey t-shirt. I glanced at I my watch, noting that the finish line was only three hundred meters away. The trail was suddenly a steep wall of slippery rock, and I grimaced, putting everything I had into powering over the rocks. As I rounded a bend to the final stretch to the top, the grey t-shirt man caught me again in his finish sprint. Laughably, the final 100 meters were across a bog which sucked you ankle deep into the peat. 

Rett til værs finishline

Finish sprint. Photo by Stian S. Møller for Kondis.no

I crossed the finish line in 28:44, elated to have had such a successful race. I loved the ridiculousness of the course; it just kept getting harder and harder, and I hope I come back next year to throw myself at Mellomkollen again.

Results here. Strava here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk