Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Race report: Tromsø Skyrace Hamperokken

I heard the chop-chop of the helicopter ascending from the valley long before I saw it. When the day-glo yellow chopper finally crested the ridge above me, my heart skipped a beat. This was a medical helicopter - someone was about to get evacuated off the mountain I was headed up. In that instant, my priorities went from ‘racing’ to ‘getting off this mountain on my own two legs'.

The helicopter drops a paramedic on the slopes below Hamperokken.
Soon after, I reached the final checkpoint before the technical ridge to Hamperokken summit. I chatted briefly with the volunteers at the checkpoint, and ascertained that a woman (who I later learned was pro runner Hillary Allen) had fallen nearly 50 meters off the ridge I was about to scramble. She was conscious, they said, but they didn’t know anything more.

I briefly considered quitting. Was it worth risking life and limb to finish a silly race? But there is always risk in travelling through the mountains, and if you are careful and lucky you will be fine. I would climb the ridge slowly, making sure of every hand and foot placement.

The summit of Hamperokken looms as runners traverse the technical ridge. Photo by Elizaveta Ershova

So I continued up the ridge, trying to control the fear that rose in me as the helicopter evacuation took place below me. I listened to the paramedics stabilizing Hillary as I clambered up the same rocks she had fallen from. Just focus on placing your hands and feet, I reminded myself, one step at a time. It doesn’t have to be fast. 

Scrambling to the summit of Hamperokken.
Once the helicopter left, my nerves subsided quite a bit and I began to enjoy the scramble. It was relatively dry, and the puzzle of making my way up the steep rocks was actually pretty fun. The final scramble to the top was nearly vertical, and the race organizers had set up a rope you could use to make your way to the top. I skirted around it and popped up on the summit, next to two volunteers who were recording the arrival of the racers.

On the summit of Hamperokken, the ridge I traversed behind me.

I gave a whoop of joy. I had made it up Hamperokken, the highest point on the course. Only 28 kilometers in brutally steep terrain to go.

The dream of completing Tromsø Skyrace has been growing inside me for a long time. After completing the ‘mini’ skyrace (only 32K!) last year, I went home determined to go big this year. So I signed up in February, and spent the spring trying to combine bike training for Jotunheimen Rundt with enough running to keep my legs in shape for Tromsø Skyrace. Still, I went into the race feeling slightly undertrained. I hadn’t had nearly as many long runs as before the OCC last year for example, and only a couple of days training in steep, technical terrain.

At the start line with Vibeke.

Not only would I be racing a notorious difficult course with 4800 vertical meters over 55K, but I would racing the elite of the sport - Megan Kimmel, Nuria Picas, Hillary Allen and Maite Mayora among others. I had no business competing with any of these women; my main goal was to enjoy a beautiful day in the mountains.

I was elated when the early morning fog lifted and the skies cleared around before the race began. We ran pavement for the first 3K, across the bridge from the island where Tromsø is situated to the mainland. Then began the first climb of the day, up to Fjellheisen on a beautiful trail garnished with wood cranesbill.

The lush trail on the climb to Fjellheisen.
The early kilometers of the race felt familiar, since they are the same as the mini skyrace, but I had to remind myself that I was climbing three mountains, not one like last year. The terrain opened up to spectacular views and we climbed over several rolling hills before reaching the final long ascent to Tromsdalstind. My hamstrings were feeling a little tight, and a voice inside of me started to whisper ‘maybe this is not your day. Maybe you will fail’. Shut up, I told the voice, It’s a long race, it doesn’t matter how you feel now. I reached the summit about 10 minutes slower than last year, which I deemed prudent.

On the ascent of Tromsdalstind (the first time)
“Be careful on the steep snow on the next section!” warned a volunteer on the summit.

Into the unknown, I thought as I proceeded down the backside of Tromsdalstind, slipping and sliding on the steep ramp of snow. Over the next hour, I lost nearly all of the elevation I had gained since leaving Tromsø over the course of relatively few kilometers. The descent was so steep that the only way descend efficiently was to sit back like there was a chair behind you, and kick out your legs in front to move downhill. This technique work well, and I passed several more cautious runners.

Just above tree line, the route passed over a flat shelf in the terrain where we crossed several rivers, some of them rushing to over my knees. I joked with a woman nearby about ice baths being beneficial for recovery. There was certainly no way to keep your feet dry!

The final portion of the descent through the forest was just as steep as the upper part, but muddier and overgrown with vegetation. I was glad when the path flattened out for the final kilometers to Breivikeidet and I could actually run for the first time in hours.

Actual running through the forest towards Breivikeidet

I met my friend David at the aid station in Breivikeidet, and asked how Vibeke was doing. She had started the race despite knee issues, and was worried about making the cut-offs. “Great!” he answered, “She was only 5 minutes behind you on Tromsdalstind!” My goal of getting in and out of aid quickly was aided by the masses of mosquitos that swarmed as soon as I stopped. David helped refilled my bottles as I munched on cookies and stuffed some candy into my running vest before taking off up the hill.

I felt strong on the first part of the climb, so I whipped out my poles and climbed hard. I duelled for a bit with a little black haired woman who smelled so strongly of laundry detergent that I wondered how bad I smelled. It reminded me of hiking the JMT. The longer we were backpacking for, the more the day hikers smelled like soap!

Soon I was clambering the ridge to Hamperokken, and my race was turned upside down as I watched Hillary Allen being evacuated.

My knees started to hurt a little on the steep descent off of Hamperokken, and I hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse. I hit the steep ramp of snow that Kilian had described during the race briefing the day before. “You can go really fast here if you want,” he had said, “But be careful of the rocks at the bottom.” I opted for the safer descent next to the snow, although the loose rocks and sand there were nearly as slippery as the snow!

The course passed on snow past a turquoise alpine lake, and I passed one more runner before finding myself in an odd void. For the first time all day, I was completely alone. The sun was out, and I sang softly to myself as I jumped between boulders and then charged through the forest. I met David again part way down, who told me I was in 13th place, and that Vibeke had made it up Hamperokken as well. I was elated; maybe Vibeke was going to pull this off as well!

The alpine lake below Hamperokken
I ran the rest of the descent to Breivikeidet at fairly suicidal pace, startling several hikers as I bounded downhill hill on the soft, boggy ground. The course does a loop over Hamperokken, before doubling back through the Breivikeidet aid station and reversing the descent up to Tromsdalstind. I could see Tromsdalstind looming ahead as I stopped at the aid station for more candy and water. I’m coming for you! I thought.

Tromsdalstind beckons for the second time in one day.

I did my best to run the flats through the forest before I hit the final big climb. The climb up Tromsdalstind was so steep that I felt I was barely moving at all. Still, I resolved not to stop, to just keep moving forward. As I slogged through the forest, a guy in race kit came bounding down towards me. I looked at him, confused.

“I give up,” he said, “This is enough for me!"

“You are so close!” I exclaimed, “How can you quit? Keep going!” He wouldn’t, though. I couldn’t imagine quitting now, 2 1/2 mountains into the race. I would see this through.

After reaching treeline, I waded through the same rivers and continued uphill, leaning into my hiking poles and sucking on small squares of chocolate. Despite what I felt was a glacial pace, I passed two men on the ascent. They both stopped for breaks, which I was resolved not to do.

On the final few hundred meters of the climb, I started to see the outline of what must be another woman. I didn’t have any strength to go faster than the crawl I was ascending at, but she was going even slower, stopping every 10 steps or so. It was a race at a snail’s pace. I caught her at the top of Tromsdalstind, and we started chatting. Her name was Liza, and she knew Hillary Allen, the woman who had been choppered off Hamperokken. After the accident, she said, her race was basically over and she struggled with motivation to continue.

We continued to chat as we descended Tromsdalstind at a leisurely pace. I was resolved not to go at break-neck speed and sprain my ankle like last year. Having someone to talk to began to lift my fatigue, and I felt better and better for the company.

In the valley below Tromsdalstind, we met David and I got another update on Vibeke. She had come through Breivikeidet the second time 3 minutes behind the cut off, and had her bib removed. In anger, she had decided to continue and finish without a bib. David was headed up to meet her on Tromsdalstind. Wow, I thought, I wouldn’t have the tenacity to finish the race if I had been cut!

Liza and I continued up the tractor road to the final checkpoint at Fjellheisen, and it was then I realized that the only correct thing would be for us to finish together. We had bolstered one another, making the final kilometers go so much easier. We cruised the final descent on trails before hitting the pavement and bridge to the finish. I felt strong now, and was resolved to run hard to the finish. We pressed through the final K in 4:33, before crossing the finish stride for stride, tied for 11th place in 11 hours 22 minutes. I knew I had made a good friend.

So stoked to have made it! At the finish line with Liza.
Vibeke finished several hours later, still angry at having been cut off but elated to finish the route on her own terms.

Forty-five women started the race, and only twenty-one finished. Tromsø Skyrace is a race against the course, and above all against yourself. In that respect, I feel like a winner.

Check out a recap with beautiful pictures from the front end of the race here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

2 comments:

  1. Wow, that lake! All the scenery looks incredible. Congrats on a great race!

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    1. It was a amazing race, although I definitely ran the gamut emotionwise.

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