Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The anticlimax

It was all going so well that something had to go wrong.

Early October sun on a long run in the forest
After Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, I gave myself time to recover and then busily set about preparing for the final running goal of the season. With the six weeks I had available, I wanted to see how fast I could run at the 10K. Specifically, Hytteplanmila (billed as Norway's fastest 10K) was on October 21.

The training went unbelievably well. My three day sojourn in the Alpes seemed to have kicked me up to a new fitness level, and I was hitting (for me) unheard splits in all of my interval sessions. Although publicly my goal was just to beat my 10K PR (42:58) with as much as possible, privately I was starting to wonder just how close to the 40 minute mark I could get.

Then, on the Wednesday before the race, I woke up with a sore throat. That's OK, I told myself, It should clear up quickly, you never get sick. I went for a short run, and felt awful and sluggish.

The next day I barely left the couch, lying in a delirium of the worst sore throat I've ever had, so sore that it propagated up into my ear and head and made me dizzy every time I stood. Looking back, I don't think I have been this sick since 2012. I began to realize I was not going to being running any 10Ks on Saturday, and frankly, I was deeply disappointed. The ultimate anticlimax: being in great shape, and not begin able to use it.

A week later, I'm still not quite myself. I'm starting to feel like my off-season has kick-started itself. Just like last year, I don't seem to have a choice in the matter. I'm done, on temporary hiatus until I start to feel that indescribable itch to run again.

In the mean time, let's eat apple cinnamon rolls.

Has sickness every gotten in the way of a big goal for you? What other tasty treats should I bake?

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Climbing the tower

There are some offers you can't refuse. As a wannabe-mountaineer, when Vibeke and Hilde, two much stronger climbing friends, call and ask you if you want to climb the northwest ridge of Innerdalstårnet, you say yes.

Innerdalstårnet in morning glory
Even if they want to go midweek so you work all weekend and then spend seven hours each way driving to get to the mountain.

Even though you literally have to dust off your climbing helmet as you pack your gear.

Even after you Google the route they want to climb and find the phrase 'most exposed route in Innerdalen'.

The weather forecast is beautiful, they say, it will be great. Bring your thickest down jacket, in trad climbing we stand around a lot.

I regretted my spontaneously descision the night before the climb as I tossed and turned in my creaky hut bed. Visions of tumbling to my death from a steep rock wall danced through my head. The alarm finally put me out of my misery, and we tumbled out of the hut in darkness for a good old alpine start. Before we could do any rock climbing, we had a three hour hike to the wall.

Vibeke and I enjoy a 5 am breakfast. Photo: Hilde
The trail carried us through an enchanted forest of birches resplendent with bright yellow leaves, almost golden in the headlamp beam. And slowly, magically, the sun rose, illuminating the landscape with a rosy glow, and I began to remember why I do these things.

Sunrise over Snøfjellet

Below Innerdalstårnet at first light. Photo: Hilde
We followed the well-worn path that veered off from the Giklingdalen valley towards the main route up Innerdaltsårnet. The main route up Innerdalstårnet is a steep scramble, passable for anyone without serious fear of heights. We planned to climb a route on the exact opposite side of the tower, and eventually followed a fainter trace towards the little tower below the looming cone of Innerdalstårnet.

Hilde and Vibeke hiking to the base of the climb. The main route goes to the large notch to their left, while we were headed for the smaller notch between the two cones in the far left of the picture.
Although I broke a sweat as we ascended the steep slope, the air temperature remained cold. We were and would remain on the shadow side of the mountain, but at least that meant we could watch a beautiful sunrise on the other side of the valley.

A panorama of the Trolla massif on the opposite side of the valley from Innerdalstårnet. (Click to enlarge)
The terrain grew steeper and steeper until we were full-on scrambling. Hilde said that she thought that moving through steep terrain like this, unroped, was worse than the actual climbing. I was in my element though, looking for the best path up through the ledges that lead to Litletårnet (the little tower).

At the based of the scramble to Litletårnet.

Yeah, I guess it was kind of exposed!
I got nervous again when we finally got to the notch at the base of the wall we were going to climb. To make matters worse, so did my partners.

"It's so steep!" exclaimed Hilde, craning her neck to look at the endless expansing of rock above us.

Despite obvious misgivings, we were here to climb up and up we would go. Vibeke racked up to climb the first pitch, and I took the opportunity to snack and put on warming clothes.

Hilde and Vibeke rack up at the base of the climb.
As Hilde belayed Vibeke on the first pitch, I grew colder and colder. The wind was whistling through the notch we were standing and seemed to penetrate even my thick down jacket.

As far as I could see the first pitch looked doable and I was excited when Vibeke finally shouted down that we could head up.

Vibeke leads the first pitch. You can see the whole route above her.
Halfway through the pitch I started to fumble around, and was unable to figure out how to proceed. Luckily Hilde was behind me, climbing at the same time on the second of the two ropes Vibeke had put up. With a few encouraging words on where to place my feet, I made it up the first pitch. 

It was less windy on the wall, and Vibeke and I sat on a wide ledge with a beautiful view as Hilde lead the next, more difficult pitch. Hilde seemed to have trouble getting around an overhanging block, cursing and muttering to herself as she climbed. I was a little worried, but reasoned that with the rope above me I would make it up somehow.

I made it around the overhanging block, and followed what look like the easiest route up the pitch, a little ways away from Hilde's line. All of the sudden, the climbing wasn't so easy, and I looked up to see my rope snagged on a rock far away. If I fell now, I would pendulum away from where I wanted to go and it would be difficult to proceed. I communicated this to Vibeke, and we decided she would climb up and unsnag my rope before I proceeded. 

So I stood there, on a ledge barely large enough to hang my toes on. Although I tried to remain calm, I felt helpless and the long drop to the valley floor below seemed to be growing. I began to shake involuntarily. I turn my head towards the rock wall and placed my hands on it, feeling its solidness, reminding myself that everything would be OK. Then I began to plan my next sequence of moves, rehearsing them in my mind.

Finally Vibeke unsnagged my rope and I could move again.

"1-2-3!" I shouted at the tower, and pulled myself up on the rock. Forward progress was so much better than standing still. I climbed the last part of the pitch with a vengeance. Two down, three to go. How we I be able to make it?

Hilde sets out on the steep third pitch.
The next anchor only had a tiny ledge, and I stood so that Vibeke could sit as she belayed. I shifted from one foot to the other constantly, trying to alleviate the pain in my toes from the time spent in my tight climbing shoes. I was still shivering, and I could only stop if I actively relaxed.

The next pitch was as difficult as the previous, but I felt like I was able to approach it like a puzzle, and solving the sequence of moves. I was starting to get tired though, and had to take a short rest. Luckily the final two pitches would be easier.

Near the top of the third pitch. "Can you hang on there while I take your picture?" said Hilde. "No!" I said. But I did.
The belay area for the fourth pitch was so tiny neither I or Vibeke could take off our backpacks. This pitch was easier though, and Hilde completed it more quickly than the previous two. 

As the wall grew less steep, my shivering finally started to subside and I began to believe that we would reach the top.

Vibeke takes a selfie of me belaying Hilde on the fourth pitch.
Vibeke lead the final pitch up a series of mossy ledges. Hilde and I followed to find her belaying us in the sun on a anchor attached to the enormous summit cairn.

Summit anchor! Photo: Hilde

Group photo on the top!

We descended the main route, which was spicy enough for a non-climbing route - I wouldn't want to do this if it was wet!

Hilde descending.
On the hike down we finally got to spend some time in the sun, although the day was drawing to a close and the sun eventually disappeared behind the mountains.

Vibeke soaking in the last rays of sun.
I didn't realized how tired I was until I literally stepped off the trail and fell on my face. I was fine, but ate a Snickers and very carefully placed my feet for the rest of the hike out.

The next day was just as beautiful as the first, and we got in a short hike up to Bjøråskardet pass before heading out for the long drive home. 

Vibeke on the climb to Bjøråskardet, with Skarsfjellet in the background.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A season of uphill racing

Fall light at Trollvann. Photo: Audun

Uphill races really do highlight the pointlessness of recreation running. We pay money to put ourselves through a large amount of pain, with little to no reward. Still, I find uphill racing ineffably beautiful. All of the complexities of life are stripped to a singular goal of reaching the top, and real obstacles like rocks, roots and fallen trees block your way. All you can do is push as hard as your searing muscles and maxed-out lungs will allow. I achieve a zen-like flow state of being entirely in the moment, as the moment entirely consumes me.

On the first Tuesday of every month from June to October, an assorted group of runners meets at varied locations on the outskirts of Oslo to run up a different hills. The Maridalen Uphill Races are low key, short (the longest is 5.6K), and provide a lot of pain for very little money. I committed to running the entire series this year. Here's how it went.

Rett til værs (June)

27:38, 5th female

Celebrating on top of Mellomkollen

I wrote a little about Rett til værs here, and last year's event here. I was super happy to set a course PR this year, despite pretty wet conditions. I love that this race ends with a sprint across a bog. You think to yourself, "finally, it's flat!", and then you flail around in the mire at a glacier pace despite your best efforts to spring.

My friend Urd on the home stretch. I convinced her to try uphill racing, she might have regretted leaving the flats behind.

Fagervann opp (July)

17:29, 3rd female

Dueling with Guro, the eventual 2nd place finisher, on the way up to Fagervann. Photo: Audun
I often refer to Fagervann as my favorite hill in Oslo. Fagervann means 'Beautiful Lake', and the race ends at a small lake that definitely deserves that name. Since I often run this hill in training I know the course pretty well - it's good to know that the final few hundred meters are actually downhill for example! I ran my own race, I was pleased to set another course PR and come in 3rd place. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we celebrated with a dip in the lake after the race.

Post-race swim in Fagervann

Sellanrå opp (August)

20:46, 4th female

The view of Øyungen Lake from Sellanrå.
I was glad I had previewed the course, because I knew about the steep, downhill section right in the middle of the course. The downhill may have allowed my heart rate to drop, but climbing over several logs and trying to run along slick, steeply off-camber trail certainly wasn't easy.

By now I recognized some of my closest competitors in the previous races. I was able to latch on to Guro, who had just edged me out in the last two races, and hang on the finish, finishing only 10s behind her.

Gaupekollen opp (September)

23:53, 4th Female

This race was only three days after I completed Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. If you think this sounds like a bad idea, you would be right.

It had rained a lot leading up to the race, and the trails were incredibly wet. While warming up on the course, I realized there was no way I would get out of this with dry feet. So instead of avoid puddles and streams I started to charge right through them, reasoning it was better to get my feet wet right away so I wouldn't hesitate during the race!

Although my legs felt pretty good, mentally I was exhausted and look at my watch constantly as I ran. The trail just seemed to get steeper and steeper and gnarlier and gnarlier. Despite my fatigue I managed a respectable time, although I paid for it in the days afterwards. I couldn't seem to sleep enough, and I was tired and unfocused at work.

Skjennungstua opp (October)

29:41, 8th female

Gasping for air on the way up to Skjennungstua. Photo: Audun

The last race in the series is quite different from the others, since it is on dirt roads rather than trails. I was chatting with Guro, who was my closest competitor in all the races, and was surprised when the race suddenly started. I was way further back in the field than I should have been, and spent the first kilometer passing people.

Gradually I found my place in the field. It was easy to find a steady rhythm on the dirt road, and my breath fell in sync with my footsteps. I felt in control and powerful. I could see Guro and one other woman not far ahead of me.

Here we go again, I thought. I'll probably finish 10 or 15 seconds behind them. Then I started to wonder if I was limiting myself simply by assuming they would beat me. What if I instead assumed that I could pass them? With 1.5K to go, I surged passed and didn't look back, convinced they would catch me. They didn't, and I sailed to the finish in just under 30 min.

After the race, there was a dinner and prize ceremony. I placed 3rd female in the race series and won a gift card at Löpelabbet, a high end running store. So there was a reward after all!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, September 17, 2017

UTMR Day 3: Power

Read about UTMR Day 1 here and Day 2 here.

The front of the field set out fast, too fast, and my legs burned with effort as I struggled to keep up on the first few hundred meters of pavement. Soon enough everyone was walking as we hit the climb. It take us 1500 meters up in 6 kilometers, to Monte Moro pass on the Italian-Swiss border. I had latched on to Elise and Christian, a Norwegian couple who had run a faster than me in the previous two stages.

A little quartet of Christian, Elise, myself and Jodie formed, following switchbacks up through the dark forest. Soon the headlamps of the fastest runners disappeared above us, but the next headlamps were at least one switchback below us. We were climbing at a much harder pace than I had dared the first two days.

Once again I reminded myself to eat, and I took tiny bits of Snickers, letting them melting on my tongue. I was working too hard to spare breath to chew.

We ascended into the mist, and I could see very little as the beam of my headlamp bounced off the water droplets. Halfway up the climb we passed out the mist and suddenly it felt light out.

It was a very long climb. Quiet piano music played in my head, which was devoid of thoughts other than a complete focus on uphill motion. I kept hoping Christian and Elise wouldn't accelerate anymore, as I simple couldn't climb any faster sustainably. We had dropped Jodie, but were in turn caught by a couple of racers. 

The weather forecast had been for rain, so I had suited up in long tights, wool shirt, gloves and buff. I was almost too warm until we approached the top of the climb and entered the chilly fog and wind.

Reaching the Monte Moro checkpoint. Photo: Zoe

Zoe was at the checkpoint, scanning the wrists of runners who came through. I passed through quickly, absorbed in my quest of forward movement. From the checkpoint, the route climbed a little more to the top of the pass, where a giant gold Madonna loomed out of the fog. Welcome to Switzerland, I thought as I scrambled up the wet rock.

The Madonna on Monte Moro pass.

The descent was wondrously technical, and I passed numerous racers including Elise and Christian, thanking them for pulling me up the pass. Eventually I found a woman who was going at just the right speed, and latched on to her. As we rounded a switchback, I saw a deer-sized animal with curved antlers in the distance.

"Mountain goat!" I yelled as it ran away. "Or something!" We never did figure out what it was.

Descending from Monte Moro, with Mattmark dam in the distance.
I wasn't feeling quite so fast on the dirt road along the grey-blue Mattmark dam, and soon I lost the woman in front of me. I could see a woman in white gradually reeling me in from behind. She caught me on the technical single track that descended from Mattmark dam towards Saas Almgell. I saw from her race bib that she was running the 3 stage race as well. I couldn't figure out who she was, but later realized it was Maggy, a German woman who came in second overall.

A break in the clouds reveals the mountains above Mattmark dam.

After bottoming out in Saas Almgell, the road climbed gently towards Saas Fee and the next checkpoint. I could still see Maggy ahead of me, and alternating jogged and hiked up the grade, determined to keep her in sight.

Entering Saas Fee was breathtaking. I have been there before on skis, but then I descended from the glaciers. This time I was ascending and the cascading glaciers appeared from above, awe-inspiringly huge and chaotic. There were non-runners wandering around Saas Fee. Some seemed to know what was going on and cheered, while others seemed clueless about the sweaty runners suddenly dashing through the streets.

I saw Maggy in the aid station, and consequently spent as little as time there as possible. I stalked her out of Saas Fee, running when she ran, and walking when she walked. I noticed we had another shadow, a girl in pink (Katrin, the German woman who came in 3rd place overall). I was sure I would be caught, but I certainly wasn't going to make it easy. I was tired, so tired, and my legs ached.

To my surprise, it was I who eventually caught Maggy. 

"Where were you the first two days?" she asked.

"Saving my legs, I guess, kind of in the mid pack," I answered. "I just wanted to run hard today and see if I could leave everything on the course."

"Then go! Run! Today is your day!" she exclaimed, "I think you are in 2nd place now!"

My legs immediately stopped aching, and I shot off. I would defend my place at all costs.

The trail climbed gradually, occasionally flattening out and descending some. I had to switch between running and walking, I was never able to find a steady rhythm.

The valley walls steepened and it became inadvisable to fall off the trail. I was a little bit nauseous from the hard effort, and stopped eating solid food. Keep taking gels, I reminded myself, don't become the woman who was one bonk away from 2nd place.

Feeling the burn above Saas Fee.
Signs warning about falling rocks had been placed along the trail, and I crossed a large boulder field. I was cautious, not wanting to roll an ankle at this point either.

It was a long, lonely climb. To guts, glory and a red dawn! I thought dramatically to myself. I passed several back-of-the-pack 170K runners (who now had been racing for nearly 3 days), and several indicated that they were entertained by my tights.

Looking up at the source of a potential rock fall. Steep!
I met a flock of enormous sheep on a narrow stretch of trail. It was incredibly steep on both sides of the trail, so there really was no were for them to go. 

"Shoo!" I cried in exasperation, "I'm racing here!" I pushed passed them, too tired to be cautious.

With the shadow of the German women chasing me, I mashed up the final climbs so hard I grew dizzy. Finally - finally! - the check point at Hannigalp appeared. I barely broke stride; there was only 3 km to go, and it was all downhill.

I pounded down the hill, going absolutely as fast as I could. Signs indicated the distance left were placed along the course every 100 meters for the last kilometer. I realized that the German women weren't going to catch me, I had held on.

I had gone absolutely as fast as I could all day, and I sprinted across the finish line in a mess of sweat and tears.

"Are those happy tears?" Lizzy Hawker, race director and ultra runner extraordinaire, asked as she hugged me at the finish line.

They were.

Me and Lizzy Hawker at the finish of UTMR in Grächen.

Stats Day 3:

Distance: 43.9 km
Elevation gain: 3444 m
Time: 7h26min
Rank: 2/18 female, 6/51 overall

Results here.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

UTMR Day 2: Persistence

Read about UTMR Day 1 here.

I couldn't understand how the other racers could eat so much at 4:30 am. I nibbled at a croissant with jam, a little cheese and figs and a cup of coffee. Not enough calories for the big day ahead, I knew, but I was starting to feel queasy and wanted the little I had eaten to stay in my stomach!

It was dark at the 6 am start, but at least it wasn't as cold as the previous day. The volunteers around the start told us that there had been a thunderstorm the night before, and snow over Passo di Salati, our first big pass of the day. The ultra race (170 km, insane stuff!) had actually been paused during the night to keep the runners safe.

Our ranks had swelled, as the three day stage race was now running parallel to the four day stage race. Nearly 200 runners took off from pre-dawn Gressoney, and headlamps soon snaked up the steep grassy slope ahead of me. Gondola chairs loomed overhead, reminding us of the irony that we were climbing a slope that could be ascended mechanically.

Runners leave Gressoney on Day 2 of UTMR. Photo: Zoe
I had started in the middle of the field, and the pace was leisurely. The trail was very narrow for the first half of the climb, making it difficult to pass. I spent the time making up for my meager breakfast, gnawing on Snickers and nuts as I walked uphill. I passed several 170 km ultra runners, who looked like zombies compared to us carefree stage racers.

After about an hour of hiking, it was light enough to turn off my headlamps. I chatted with a Swede, Ebba, then Jamie, a British man whose wife was riding in Zoe's rental car around the mountain due to an injury, and finally Charlie, a younger woman who was braving her way through the four day stage race. But my legs had awoken, and I gradually pulled away from my new-found friends. We were at nearly 3000 meters again, and my lungs seemed to have adjusted to the altitude.

In the fog, near the summit of Passo dei Salati.
It was cold and foggy on top of Passo dei Salati, where a warm hut greeted us. I was grateful to be inside, but wary of staying too long. A volunteer gave me some hot tea that I dumped into one of my water bottles. Then I pulled on my rain jacket and high-tailed it out of there.

I positively flew down the 11 km descent to Alagna, passing runner after runner. Below the thick fog capping the mountains, muted views of steep green mountain slopes appeared. My quads were starting to turn to jelly as I bombed the final section of steep trail through the forest.

Steep hillsides appear out of the fog on the descent to Alagna.

I stopped briefly at the big aid station in Alagna, filling my bottles and reacquainting myself with profile for the rest of the course for the day. Another big climb, another big descent. The path out of Alagna weaved through old wooden Waliser houses before climbing gently along a river. 

A guy in flowery board shorts whom I had leapfrogged with was ahead of me, and Tina, a Swede whom I had passed on the descent, was behind but quickly caught and passed me. I let them both go, jogging slowly as I munched on a tuna sandwich and tried to gather strength for the gargantuan ascent to Col de Turlo.

Moving along the river, I was suddenly struck with a paranoid thought that wouldn't shake loose. The previous day, Zoe had swerved to avoid a bus on a hairpin turn when driving from the start to the finish of the stage and scraped a hub cap. What if she were in an accident today? What if she was in the hospital right now? It would all be my fault, since this was all my stupid idea! I almost began hyperventilating, and decided to call Audun. He calmly reminded me to focus on the race, and reassured me that Zoe was fine. 

Once I had collected the scattered pieces of my irrational brain and refocused on moving uphill, the calories I had eaten kicked in and I started moving at a fair clip. I was further motivated by the appearance of two more racers chasing me, and I caught Mr. Flowery Board Shorts. My chasers soon caught me however, and I chatted briefly with Jodie as she powered past.

The trail up to Col de Turlo was built like a narrow road of rocks, and graded nicely. Still, it was a long, lonely slog. Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" played on repeat in my head. If I could fall into the sky, do you think time would pass me by? 

Finally, the last rocky section up to the Col appeared. I passed a woman who was stopping frequently for breaks. She said she was "just tired". Aren't we all, I thought. I wouldn't stop. Persistent, constant forward motion was the name of this game.

The top of Col de Turlo appears.

Descending off of Col de Turlo was pure joy. The trails were nicely graded and well-built with solid footing. I soon passed all of the runners who had overtaken me on the ascent, and was virtually alone on the mountain.

It was a monster descent, and I began to watch the numbers tick down on my altimeter, wondering when I would get to the final aid station at Quarazza and the last easy 5K to the finish.

The descent towards Quarazza.
The route flattened and turned into a technical trail following the river through a valley. According to the distance on my watch, the Quarazza aid station should be anytime now. Almost there!

The aid station came nearly 2 km after my watch said it should, and I passed another woman, Eilidh, just before it. Feeling competitive now, I only stopped at the aid station to note the profile for the final 5 km - mostly downhill but slightly uphill for the last kilometer! - before leaving.

I ran steadily on the dirt road leading to Macugnaga, ready to get this long day over with. The final, uphill kilometer was pure torture, but I passed a couple more guys running the 170 ultra and reminded myself that I couldn't complain. I was, after all, doing the easy race.

Forcing a smile on the final stretch to the finish of stage 2 in Macugnaga. Photo: Zoe
Finally - finally! - I crossed the finish line, feeling worked. Zoe met me with an Orangina and shepherded me to our hotel where I stretched, ate and prepared for doing it all over again tomorrow. Tomorrow was the last day, and there would be nothing to save energy for. I planned to race hard, to summon everything I had left and find out what I was made of.

Recovering like a pro.

Stats Day 2:

Distance: 46.5 km
Elevation gain: 3392 m
Time: 8h25min
Rank: 5/22 female, 15/62 overall

Monday, September 11, 2017

UTMR Day 1: Patience

The sun illuminated the steep, angular sides of the Matterhorn. It hadn't yet reached the narrow streets of Cervinia when a man in glasses shouted "GO!". Seventy-two runners were corralled in a tiny start pen, and somehow I had ended up at the very front. I began to run, then realized I had started too fast.

The start of the UTMR three day stage race. Photo: Zoe
My competitive self reared its ugly head as I let eager racers fly past me. I wanted to latch on, to stay with the front pack and race hard. But this race would last for three days and over 116 km, and I needed a strong body on the start line every day. Patience. 

Racers below the Matterhorn.
The first 6 kilometers consisted of a long climb up the ski slopes behind Cervinia village. It was a chilly morning, and I regretted not wearing gloves as my fingers went numb. I climb at a steady but leisurely pace, stopping frequently to photograph the photogenic Matterhorn. I reminded myself to eat, snacking on Snickers and nuts.

The Sun!
What a glorious day! The sun's rays eventually hit the runners, and warmed my cold hands as well as the frosty grass around us. I watched the numbers on my altimeter tick upwards, drawing closer to 3000 meters. I was breathing more heavily than I thought I should given my speed - maybe the altitude was slowing me down?

Near the top of the first pass.
I crested the top of the pass, and a new vista opened up ahead. I followed two racers ahead of me down hill. It was steep and rocky, and my legs felt slow and unresponsive. I reminded myself to let gravity do the work, and to flow like a drop of water, always finding the path of least resistance. I tried not to mind when the Spainard just ahead of me pull away. Patience.

Towards the bottom of the downhill I was caught by a group of three racers. I later realized they were running the four-day stage race, and were thus actually in a different race than me. Still, when they pulled by I hung on and used their momentum to run the downhills a bit faster.

Finally we were at the bottom of the descent - I had been descending for nearly an hour! The course looped around a bucolic meadow and heading uphill. I kept up with my gruppetto until we reached the first aid station at Refugio Ferraro, 1 km into our second climb of the day.

Following some four day stage racers at the bottom of the descent
The aid station was sparse, offering only cookies, juice and water. I was glad I had decided to carry enough food to be self-sufficient. I filled the two water bottles in the front of my race vest, but, noting there was only 12 km to go, decided to dump the extra weight of my third water bottle.

This turned out to be a mistake. The final climb of the day, although shorter than the first, turned out to be an absolute beast. It grew steeper and more rocky with every step, and the sun beat down. It was hotter than I had anticipated. I felt dizzy and weak. My only consolation was that the racers I saw ahead of me weren't moving any faster.

The rewards of a long climb.
At the top of the climb, a brand new view of the tumbling glaciers and Monte Rosa herself appeared. Gressoney, my goal for the day, was at my feet, one thousand meters below. I flew down the descent, passing several runners, I ran out of water on the final kilometers. When I crossed the finish line in Gressoney, my legs still felt pretty fresh but I was definitely dehydrated.

Nearing the finish line in Gressoney. Photo: Zoe.
My sister Zoe was at the finish line, busily snapping photos and volunteering at the check point. She brought me an Orangina, and I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and recovering. I even had time to take a little nap before dinner! I was happy to have run so patiently - the next two days would be much more challenging.

Stats Day 1:

Distance: 28.6 km
Elevation gain: 1953 m
Time: 4h51min
Rank: 7/28 female, 18/72 overall

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ultra Tour Monte Rosa: Pre-race thoughts (and tracking links!)

Tomorrow is the start of the 3-day stage race Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, which is the culmination of my running season. I vacillate between excitement (running! in mountains! for three days!) and terror (the race lasts for THREE DAYS!). I'm trying to think of it as an extra long hike.

Mountainous training on the way up Bispen
I have no idea if I'm prepared for UTMR, since I've never a race over several days before. Due to my foray in to road biking, I've run fewer kilometers this year than at the same time last year. I definitely wish I had a few more long runs under my belt. However, I know I am fit, healthy and mentally prepared to get the job done. My main priority is finishing, and I will take it easy and converse energy on the first two stages to try and finish strong on the final stage.

As always, I will write a race report, but there also are two ways to track me live during during the race:

1) The official race time points
2) The GPS tracker provided by the race organizers.

In both cases my bib number is 704. I'll be starting at 8 am on September 7, and 6 am on September 8 and 9, central European time.

Send some happy thoughts my way!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Honeymoon adventures part 2

Audun and I got married - read part 1 of our honeymoon adventures in Norway here!

It was the gentle east wind that greeted us on the narrow ridge leading to Sjurvarden, a completely different world from the mountain we had been blown off three years ago. The steepness of the tractor road hadn't changed though, nor had spectacular view out to sea.

Ridge riding, right near where the wind threw us both off of our bikes a couple of years ago!
At the end of the narrow ridge, the trail divides, leading to two different peaks. We went up Sjurvarden first, and enjoyed a windy lunch at the top before riding back down to the saddle to take in Melen, a next door peak. Sheep grazed in the grassy terrain high on the mountain as we whizzed by. Plots of farmland were wedged into the flat area of land far below us, using every available piece of land.

Enjoying the descent from Sjurvarden.
The climb up to Melen was gruelling, and I push my bike up the long final section. The trail followed an old stone wall, now crumbled to a line in the earth where a wall used to be. The hill grew steeper, but the wall persisted. I kept thinking to myself, "I'm not going to ride any of this downhill, why should I bother to push my bike up it?"

Push bike up Melen. Sjurvarden, the first peak we went up, is just behind my head. 
I was pleasantly surprised to be able to ride most of the descent, although certain sections were too steep and rocky for me. Audun didn't have that problem.

Audun on the descent.
The weather forecast was for sun on the coast the next day, so we drove north to Tustna. Audun was ready for a rest, while I was ready for a day running in the mountains. The idea of traversing the entire horseshoe-shaped ring of mountains that encircles Gullstein valley on Tustna has appealed to me since we first visited the island.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and I set out from Gullsteinvollen hut to run a couple of flat kilometers to the road before the first big climb to Knubben. My legs were feeling pretty flat, and I started to wonder if this wasn't such a good idea after all.

So I put on a podcast, put my head down and ground up the hill. As I rose above the trees, the views grew and my motivation grew with them. By the time I reached Knubben, I didn't need my headphones anymore. It was just me and the mountains.

Mountains beyonds mountains near the top of Knubben.
After Knubben, I followed the trail along the ridge, with a steep drop on my left and a mellow grassy slope on my right. The trail was mostly runnable and I felt sky-high as I frolicked all alone in the mountains.

I crested Jørgenvågsalen, the second peak, and stopped on the top just long enough to write my name in the book before charging down the steep rocky descent.

Descending Jørgenvågsalen, with Skarven, the last peak, in the left half of the photo.

I reached the saddle, from where I could easily have bailed back down to the hut. But nothing would stop me now, and I charged up towards Skarven. There were delicious blueberries among the rocks which I snacked on as I ascended. The path was steep and rocky, and required the occasional scramble.

I met two women hiking up towards Skarven, and as we chatted, a wispy cloud settled on the peak above us. I passed them and ascended towards the cloud. Miraculously, the cloud had settled on one side of the ridge, while the other side was completely in the clear. I followed the path on top of the ridge, on the knife edge between cloud and sun, for some ways.

Then there was a long descent, rocky and first and then boggy and muddy, befor the final few kilometers on a tractor road to back to Gullsteinvollen hut. The traverse took me just over 4 hours {Strava here}. I was happy to relax for the rest of the day as Audun and I drove towards the Valdres region, the only bright spot in the otherwise dismal weather forecast for the weekend.

We pitch at tent near the road part way through the drive, and continued driving the next day through heavy rain. Just as predicted, the rain let up as we neared our destination. Based on some recommendations online, we decided to ride our bikes on Jomfruslettfjell.

Beautiful high mountain trail on Jomfruslettfjell
We did a loop around Jomfruslettfjell with trails of variable enjoyment. The very best were open mountain paths, while the worst were overgrown, wet and virtually unridable. The final descent to the car brought the fun-o-meter back up again though.

Audun on the descent from Jomfruslettfjell
For our last day, we rode up Spåtind, a 1400 meter peak. I was starting to feel pretty tired after 7 challenging days. I grew increasingly frustrated at not being able to climb what looks like simple trails on my bike. I threw myself into the uphill, my heart rate peaking at 195 as I desperately tried to stay on my bike for as long as possible. I couldn't keep that up for long though, and soon was pushing my bike up steep sections.

After the first long climb, the trail flattened out and provided fun riding in open terrain up to the mountain peak.

When the trail go rideable on Spåtind.
I felt nearly invincible on the descent, riding down rocky sections that I am sure I would have walked on some days. I know that my mind is what limits me when riding a mountain bike. Some days I am filled with an ineffable panic on difficult sections, whereas other days I am just able to relax, ride and see what happens. If I fall, I fall. It really shouldn't be that scary. I wish I knew what switches on the bad days, and I think I'm not alone. 

Descending Spåtind.

- The Wild Bazilchuk