It all started with missing Hornindal Rundt. I had been looking forward to doing a race in the beautiful Norwegian mountains. The day before the race I was packed and ready to go, but then Audun suddenly got sick, and not only did I not want to leave him alone for the weekend, I also didn’t want to do the 7 hour drive to Hornindal on my own. So my race at Hornindal Rundt ended before it even started.
So last Sunday I was toodling around on the computer and I realized that Tromsø Skyrace, which has also been on my bucket list for a while, was one week away. Then I realized there were still available places for the ‘mini’ (only 28K!) Skyrace. Before I knew it I had signed up and bought plane tickets to Tromsø. At two and a half weeks out from the OCC, this was the perfect opportunity to get in a final long, hard run and test how my training was working.
I didn’t taper leading up to Tromsø Skyrace, just did a regular training week and then took a rest day on Friday. On Thursday, the day after a particular nasty hill interval workout, I started to develop a sore throat. Oh no. I am NOT getting sick! I told myself. Not this weekend! Races breed hypochondria though, and by Friday night I was sure I would wake up with a fever on race morning. There was nothing I could do about, so I went to bed crossing my fingers that my usually stellar immune system would pull me through. Saturday morning came, and although the itch in my throat hadn’t gone away completely, I definitely wasn’t sick.
After I picked up my bib, I milled around the hotel where the race start and finish was, nervously eyeing other runners. As it always the case, I was sure everyone looked fitter and more experience than me. My friend Solenne, who was also racing, showed up and we discussed gear choices and race expectations. I didn’t get race nerves as bad as I sometimes do; I had very little goals for the race other than to enjoy it, practice eating while racing and run smart.
Me and Solenne just before the start of the race.
Soon enough we were lining up for the 11 o’clock start. A cheer rippled through the crowd of racers as the 10 second countdown began. We set off, and I try to settle into a comfortable pace for the first, flat kilometers across the bridge from the island that makes up Tromsø city to the mainland, where we would climb Tromsdalstind.
I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor, mostly because my strap has been acting up lately. I also thought it would be good to ‘run by feel'. Can I sustain this for five hours? I kept asked myself. I thought maybe I had started a little fast, but knew that the pace would change as soon as we hit the first climb, so I rolled with it. Cars flew by us and sections of the bridge vibrated in time with my footsteps, sapping the energy out of my stride.
Racers crossing the bridge at the start of the race.
After the initial fast kilometers, the little yellow course marking flags lead the pack of races to a trail. The grade steepened, and I quickly transitioned into an efficient power hike. I was amazed to see how many people were still trying to run, even though I was going just was fast as them by power hiking. The trail climbed steadily through the spring-green forest, with stands of lush purple monkshood flowers dotting the trail. Passing people was hard on the single track, so once I found the back of a group going at a good pace, I concentrated on staying on their heels.
As the trail steepened, I started to think about the carbon fiber trekking poles strapped to my pack. I’ve been practicing with them on my long runs lately, and they have proved useful on sustained uphills and technical downhills. No one around me was using trekking poles, was it not appropriate? I felt my glutes stinging as I was forced to take big steps up the rocky trail. This is ridiculous, I’m certainly not going to carrying my trekking poles for the whole race! I thought, and whipped them out. They proved to be a godsend, and I found myself passing people on the final stretch to the aid station at Fjellheisen.
Singletrack on the way up the first climb to Fjellheisen.
I snacked on a Clif Blok at the aid station, and grabbed a couple of Clif Bars to go. I ripped open a Cherry Chia as I continued up to the hill towards Fløya, determined to view this race as an eating contest and practice chewing on the go. The combination of trekking poles and Clif bar proved awkward, so I manoeuvred both trekking poles into one hand as I chewed. I could see the trail up to Fløya snaking above me, dotting with racers. As I climbed, I was incredibly happy to be there, just doing it. This is my element, I thought, moving through the mountains. Road racing is a fun challenge, but this is really what I’m good at.
After topping out at Fløya, the race course rolling along a ridge, and I could see Tromsdalstind, the peak of the race, in the distance. Rather, I couldn’t see the top, as this was shrouded in clouds, but I could see the tell-tale curve of the mountain, a behemoth waiting for my arrival. Spread out below me was the fjord and distance mountains on Kvaløya island. Despite the rather grey weather, it was breathtaking. Many hikers were spread out along the trail, ringing cowbells and cheering for the runners. I tried to smile and thank all of them.
The view from Fløya.
After a second small top at Bønntuva, the trail descended on well-groomed trail. I let my legs go, but without really pushing the pace, and I soon found myself being passed by several racers. I felt out of practice on this sort of rolling, fast downhill. I’ve been mostly training on very technical terrain lately, where leg speed doesn’t matter nearly so much as balance and choosing the right line. Let them go, I thought, Save it for the climb. You are going fast enough.
Racers descending from Bønntuva on smooth singletrack
Sure enough, soon we were climbing again, and I found myself catching all of the men and women who had blow passed me on the downhill. We were now on the start of the real climb to Tromsdalstind, and looking down I could see many racers spread out behind me. I spotted a familiar Salomon skirt a little ways down the hill and wondered if it could be Solenne, who I hadn’t seen since the first flat kilometers of the race. It took me a couple of backwards glances to verify that this was indeed Solenne; there were a lot of people decked out in Salomon on the mountain!
The woman just ahead of me had a Salomon racing vest, with a patch proclaiming her to be from Scotland sewn on the back. She was holding a good clip uphill, and I decided to let her set the pace up the hill. I kept thinking I should talk to her, given that I was hard on her heels, but all the words just stayed in my head for some reason. “You know, this reminds me of the hill race I did in Scotland last year!” I wanted to say. Instead, I gnawed on my second Clif bar, realizing I would need all of my hands and my wits about me for the impending descent.
We ascended into the layer fog that lay on top of Tromsdalstind. It grew colder, and several people around me stopped to put on jackets. I didn’t want to spend time putting on a jacket just to stop and take it out later, though, so I resisted. For the first time I was glad I was racing in long tights rather than shorts. I think the tights kept me just warm enough not to have to put on a jacket. Still, I wondered if I was being stupid, obstinently refusing to wear a jacket.
On the rocky climb to Tromsdalstid
The trail flattened out as we approved the top, although it was so rock-strewn most people choose to walk. There was a steep drop into a foggy abyss on our right side. Soon I saw volunteers in the distance. I had this idea I would stop on top and take in the mountain, but the volunteers were yelling, “Go! Go! You guys are doing great!” The loud cheering filled me with a rush of adrenaline, and I bolt from the summit like I was Kilian Jornet himself.
The upper part of the descent was super technical, and I was glad to have my trekking poles. I used them like extended arms, placing them below me and jumping from rock to rock. I passed several people, but I could hear one guy and his set of trekking poles click behind me.
“Don’t break a leg here!” I joked to my male shadow.
“I’ll try not to break a leg anywhere,” he countered. Rule #1, I reminded myself, is never fall on the descents!
We were some of the faster downhillers, so I was surprised when I heard a British voice saying “Excuse me!”. I turned around, and a man in Salomon gear flew by my like I was standing still. My jaw dropped; how could anyone go that fast on this terrain? I did some math and realized that this must be the frontrunner of the full length, Hamperokken skyrace. Soon enough, another couple guys flew down the mountain in chase mode.
The trail continued to drop steeply on loose grave interspersed with boulders. I soon out ran the guy behind me, and continued down at full tilt, determined to pass more people. As I neared the bottom of the descent, I spotted one more girl I thought I could catch, and focused on speed up just a bit more. I had started to reel her in when I slide and then stumbled, rolling my ankle.
A rush of adrenaline shot up my ankle, reminding me momentarily of the feeling I had when I broke that same ankle in 2008. Expletives flashed through my mind. I never fall on descents! That is Rule #1! Stupid, stupid! I thought for a moment my race might be over, but waited to assess the damage until the mask of adrenaline peeled away. I waited for pounding pain to come, but it never did. Gingerly, I put pressure on my right foot.
Hmm. I could walk at least. I began walking down the hill, and discovered that my ankle was actually fine as long as I landed with my foot pretty straight. If I landed sideways on a rock, the supporting tendons grumbled disapprovingly. But absolutely, under no circumstances, could I afford to make the same mistake again. Luckily I was at the bottom of the technical part of the descent, and soon enough trail traversed a blessedly soft grassy valley below Tromsdalstind.
Testing out my foot in the valley below Tromsdalstind. Photo by Dominik Briselat.
I began to jog carefully, watching each and every foot placement. I was getting passed again, but at least I was moving forward. I would finish this race. A couple of people asked if I was OK. One girl told me how amazing she thought my descent of the technical section was. “It was like you were flying!” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, well that was until I rolled my ankle because I was going stupid fast!” I told her, with just a tinge of bitterness in my voice.
We were below the ridge we had ascended and below the fog, and the scenery was absolutely stunning. A whole rainbow of greens made up the landscape: the pale yellow green of lichen, the rich green of moss, the leafy green of grass and the shimmering green of stunted birch trees. Veins of rich exposed brown followed the curves of the ridge above us, the most colorful two-tone landscape I’ve ever seen.
Amazing landscape descending from Tromsdalstind. Photo by Daniel Lilleeng for Tromsø Skyrace.
We dropped onto muddy doubletrack, and the markings abruptly leads us steeply upwards for the ultimate climb back to Fjellheisen. I looked at my watch, and ascertained that if the race was 28 kilometers long, at it was 5 kilometers from Fjellheisen to the finish, we could only have 1 kilometer left before we got to Fjellheisen. Then I started to look at the time. Holy crap! I thought. At this rate I’m going to be finishing closer to 4 hours than 5!
The race was not, however, 28K as advertised. The muddy doubletrack oscillated its way uphill for another 4 kilometer. Most people around be looked pretty tired, but I felt pretty strong. My long days hiking in steep mountains this summer were paying off. I passed a number of people on the climb. Two girls whom I had chatted with earlier remained elusively in the distance, going just as fast as me.
There were dozens of people milling around the aid station at Fjellheisen. I took one look at it, and decided that the eating contest was over for the day. I blew threw the aid station, determined to finish the last 5 kilometers strong. I ran down the descent, taking small light steps and extra care to place my feet just so. I kept expecting someone to come and pass me, but I was all alone for the whole descent. Near the bottom, I fold and stashed my trekking poles as fast as I could. They had served me well for twenty-odd kilometers; now it was time to run.
Arriving on the pavement was harsh after so many beautiful trail kilometers. Still, it was easier on my rolled ankle because I didn’t have to watch my footing. I followed the course markings to the bridge, put my head down and dug deep for the last remnants of speed. After the bridge, I weaved through flocks of oblivious tourists crowding the docks before I could finally see the red arch of the finish line. And there he was! The Kilian Jornet! He had a camera out, and was taking my picture! I sprinted and jumped over the finish line, smiling at what had been a grand day out.
Finish line photo with Kilian Jornet. My fancy tights rocked the race.
I finished in 4:23:36, 12th out of 99 female finishers (results here), absolutely thrilled with my performance. I talked to a physiotherapist at the finish line, and she bandaged up my ankle and predicted a full recovery for my race at the OCC in three weeks. Two days later, the ankle is looking pretty good. I’m ready to race strong in Chamonix (and next time I won’t fall!).
- The Wild Bazilchuk