Finland, my Love
Rovaniemi bridge. Monday 20.02. 5pm. I had dreamt of that moment for months. The moment I would walk under the famous Rovaniemi Bridge, on my way to the second half of the Rovaniemi 300! The moment I could decide to stop and head for a warm and comforting bed in town. The moment I could decide to keep on. And make it. And it was just some hundred meters away now…
On that morning, I have been on the race for nearly two days already. Two year after entering for the first time what seems the craziest and coldest competition of my entire life, the Rovaniemi 150, here am I again. But this time, I have taken it to the next level: running the Rovaniemi 300.
Well it didn’t happen overnight. A year ago, one of the Rovaniemi 2015 challenged me to enter the Rov300. I laugh about it, made some jokes. And it stopped there. Later on, I heard that TyreLady, my fantastic yet crazy Singaporean friend, was coming back to complete the 150. And many of those I had met during the 2015 edition were participating in the Rovaniemi 300, most on the fat bike. So when a French runner challenged me to enter it with him early December 2016… I couldn’t resist long! All my fears and made-up excuses were pushed aside rather quickly and within a couple of days I had written to Àlex Casanovas, the organiser, and booked my flights to Santa Claus home town! When shortly after, TyreLady told me she had rented a flat and there was room for me, I knew it would definitely be a great edition! Unfortunately, my French contact didn’t make it. So I will have to run it for him too!
What a pleasure to meet again with “old” friends back in Rovaniemi! Racers, organisers but also people I got to know during my several past trips in this city. And new faces too. I really enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of this type of event. I feel it even stronger on the Rovaniemi 300. No newbies there. People who know what they talk about, many who have been there already or participated in even tougher races or expeditions. No useless bragging. Just easy, authentic and friendly guys.
The pre-race meeting finished rather late on Friday evening, as Àlex wanted to make things perfectly clear before letting us on our own out there. Temperatures were meant to drop, which would help a lot with the track… but would also mean extra care would be needed to handle the cold. Just before leaving Pojhanovi Hotel, I came across my little “Czech sister”, Markéta and her boyfriend. This year, they would try for the second time to complete the Lapland Challenge …
The 150 loop
Saturday morning. 8.45 am. I can’t believe Rima (TyreLady) and I managed to packed our pulkas!! The flat was in absolute shambles last night! But eventually, probably with help of elves and fairies, we made it on time. And here we are a few minutes from the start. It’s pure magic to be here again. The rising sun illuminates with bright orange the nearby buildings. Participants on fatbikes, skis and on foot are slowly gathering on the starting line, taking pictures or warming up – probably those running the 66!
9pm. Here we go! Yes, Rachel, I told myself, there you go again, enjoy it, have fun, take it all in!!
|CP1 - Rovaniemi 150|
The first 10k to the first checkpoint went smoothly. The weather is clear, with mild temperatures. I run nice and easy on the frozen river. The pulka is clearly heavier with its 20-22kg but remains very easy to pull. Very soon I lose track of others participants. The fatbikers are soon far off, those doing the 66 too. I briefly met with the French TV guys at checkpoint 1 – it seems pretty unreal to chat for the TV out there! I keep on to Checkpoint 2, soon leaving the Ounasjoki for small roads and forest tracks. I remember all this very well from the first participation. I feel good and happy and decide not to take too much into account the heaviness and tiredness in my legs (ladies, check the “not for men’s ears” post for further info!) – this too shall pass!
Waypoint 2 arrives in what seems a very short time, just as I remembered: in the middle of nowhere! Then comes the forest section. As last time, I unfasten the stretchers to make the pulka handier to cross the woods. Wahoo what a difference with last time! Hard-packed snow. Much easier. Much faster. Even a bit icy and slippery at some points. I briefly meet with three English and Canadian runners. And here we are, out of the forest and on the Sinettajarvi, the 10k-long frozen lake. I pushed on, walking and running alternatively. I want to make the most of this first part of the race to have sufficient time to rest when the night comes. I know I need sleep to be efficient. So I need to be fast when awake J.
The way to CP3 is long. It seems as if the forest tracks would never end… I get there at the end of the afternoon. My stomach starts feeling funny. I cannot eat as much as before, start feeling slightly sick. “No way. This will not happen this time again! I told myself. Last time I had been sick and completed the 150 without any food for more than 100k… But it definitely wasn’t an option this time. So I pushed on to CP 4, slowing down a bit and deciding to get some rest at CP 5 Peujärvi, and get back on track. It seemed like a very long way to cover the 20 something kilometres to CP 5. Luckily the track was really good and I could walk fast, without using the snowshoes. I forced myself to gulp down some liquid but felt everything was really at stake… I felt really poorly and was so focused on “walk, walk, walk” that I missed the only Aurora Borealis, these stunning green Northern Lights, of the entire race!!!
But eventually the lights of CP5 fire appeared in the distance. Heaven! I checked in and announced my “rest in” to the organisers, set up my bivy under the plain shed and fell asleep for a good three-four hour. It was more than initially planned in my race strategy but I didn’t care: I knew that I needed to get my stomach back on track to stay in the race, so a few extra hours didn’t matter at all. I woke up feeling clearly better. I managed to drink some soup, sent the “rest out” message and set off onto CP6, the famous Kuusilampi hut. I knew many participants had passed me, I even had heard Rima’s clear voice while sleeping.
I feel much lighter, the “race start” pressure is now gone. I am back to my usual self, more confident and calm. I am wearing 6 layers to keep warm. The night is clear and cold. So beautiful. So quiet. I walk fast to CP 6. The busy place is quite a contrast to the peaceful surroundings. People chatting, warming up in the tiny and (so!!!) warm hut. Tyre Lady is here along with a few others, some looking desperate, tired, cold... I hear some stories about frozen food, frozen bottles, hypothermia... It all seems so unreal to me: well, of course, it’s an Arctic winter race… what else did you expect? I don’t talk much with people, preferring to stay in what I call my “bubble”. I fill in my Thermoses, grab some food and leave, feeling stronger now. I know what is now waiting for me: 36k on forest tracks and hilly roads to Toramokivalo. Compared to 2015, the trail is much easier. I walk at a brisk pace, quickly catching up with Laurenzo, the Italian guy doing the Rov300 on skis. It’s nice to walk together for a few kilometres. Nice guy. Nice chat in half English- half Italian. Shortly before reaching the crossroad, Laurenzo stopped to get some sleep and I kept on. I won’t see him for the rest of the race. This stretch where we pass near a reindeer farm, a small town, and the bridge over the Ounasjoki is one of my favourite. Then on the long and hilly road, Harold the Friendly Giant on his Fatbike passed me. He had been really sick last night and took some good rest to get back on track. I wish him luck and there he goes. Shortly after a Finnish runner doing his Sunday morning jog passed me. We chatted briefly, he took some pictures. So funny and friendly! This brief encounter cheered my already good mood and gave me wings to push on to Toramokivalo.
It’s a very long way to it. The last 8km of forest keep on and on. One curve. And other. Uphill. Curve. Downhill. Curve. 8k that seem like 20k. All of sudden, the CP is there with its welcoming tents and fire. As a participant in the Rovaniemi 300, I am to be fully self-supported. So any extra, from a fire to some hot water feels like luxury! What a treat! The volunteers are so kind to me! We exchange some Finnish-English words. Ludovic the French runner is here too; a surprise as I thought he was far ahead of me. I warm up some of my frozen dried-freeze food, eat and rest for 30 minutes before setting off again. If I stay here too long… I might well fell asleep on one of the reindeer skins under the shelter!
Waypoint 8 is 24.5km away. I plan to get some food and rest there, the last CP before the second loop, before entering the wild… I now feel really good, stronger than ever and so motivated to make it! My stomach is still a bit funny but nothing serious anymore. My legs are back to their usual self, yes! I know the way to CP 8 is long: forest and snowmobile tracks, the frozen lake, more forest and snowmobile track before connecting with the Ounasjoki for the final 2k to the CP. I passed a runner who seems tired not long after leaving Toramokivalo. Then meet the French TV guys as I existed the frozen lake. Nice to see them there and have a little chat! But I don’t really stop, as I know the last stretch is long. Well, I didn’t remember how really long and boring it was.. There, it is all in the mind: Walk. Fast. No slowing down. I passed another runner. Walk. Walk. This too shall pass. And finally, the lights. The small houses on the river. The road crossing. The river. Shortly after I caught up with Sue, the untiring English woman who ran the Rovaniemi 150 4 or 5 times! She is unsure of the road, so I tell her that the CP is another kilometre away and we kept on. I got to CP 8 at about 8pm on Sunday evening, placed my food to defrost close to the fire and set up my bed to get my long-sleeves and socks changed and get some sleep.
I am pretty happy of these first two days. My stomach is now fixed. I am HUNGRY actually!! One of my knee hurts so I do some of my “magic” on it to get it back on track for my early start, I call home to give Marc some fresh news. After 3 hours’ sleep, I woke up and changed my contact lenses. It’s bitterly cold outside. Every move needs to be done quickly. The cold doesn’t leave much chance to one’s fingers…! I set off at 3 am, in the cold night. Some 10k to Rovaniemi Bridge and the end of the first “easy” part.
Àlexander riding the snowmobile meets me on the ice shortly before the bridge. He tells me that the first 300 Fatbikers are expected in Rovaniemi in a few hours only! Wahoo, impressive! I am happy they didn’t pass me before Rovaniemi – it would have been pretty depressing J
Into the wild
I am aware that I am now entering the heart of the Rovaniemi 300. This second 160k loop is very different than the first 150. More remote. No checkpoint. No marking. Use of the GPS. And I am excited. This is my thing. This is what I like doing. I am also a bit nervous as I am not 100% sure of the GPS map I have on my InReach Delorme Sat device and hope I will be ok. I am so use to work with paper maps on my long expedition…
Never let doubt sink in. Fix it. Or it will always prove right.
I passed under the Rovaniemi beautiful bridge on the left side of the Kemijoki, by the sauna and summer campground and soon am back on the river. I keep looking for the snowmobile marking. Then I got to a crossing on the river. And there stands… a drunken man! I am trying to check my InReach for direction and this guy is buzzing around me. I start off, on the right… and soon reach the shore again…Hum. Soon I must admit this is not the right road. Damn! I checked my watch which got all the mandatory waypoint and as I am some 2.5k from the next waypoint, I decided to follow the direction on my watch with my usual “Universe show me the way, I want to go back on the track”. So I walk. Through the city. With my pulka. 2km. Going through parking lots, a cemetery(!), large roundabouts… 1.5km Keep on. I know that I am going to find my way back on the river. 1km…800m. There it is: the Kemijoki!! The waypoint is just a few meters on the left!! Wahoo, huge relief. I’ve made it and without losing too much time.
Once at the waypoint, I check the InReach to see how I got it wrong. And it still doesn’t make any sense. Map is too poor. Well, girl, you must to do with what you have, now. No choice. No point in complaining.
I set off again on the river and it wasn’t long before I come across a man. The drunken man! I cannot believe it! How come? What the hell is he doing here again? The absurdity of the situation made me chuckle. I walked on and soon left the city lights behind. The sunrise casts new colours on the surrounding landscapes. In what seems such a short time I reached the Laavu, where stands the next waypoint. And there I met Fraser, the most laid-back fatbiker I ever met! He told me about the technical issues he had with his tires from the start and that now, he was going to complete the 300 but at his own pace, having decided to make the most of these 5 days out there. We chat a bit and then I set off again. Apparently, there are two runners ahead of me. Oh well. I just keep at my own pace and let’s see what happen next.
I passed by beautiful private houses, small cabins, barges left on the shore. And eventually reached the forest leaving the Kemijoki behind for good. The temperatures are slightly milder and I swap the very large Salewa down jacket for the lighter North Face 800 Summit. I feel good, walk at a brisk pace and enter the forest section in good spirit. The track is pretty good, no need for snowshoes which is luxury! It is a long way to the next waypoint. The distance on my watch seems to remain the same as I walk up and downhill and wander in this endless forest. Eventually, after a curve, the khota, the typical Finnish wood hut, stands there next to the track. I make a long stop here as I need to boil water to refill both my thermoses and get some proper food. I restart the fire in the hut to warm up the place. About an hour later, as I was nearly done with cooking and eating, Fraser arrives on his bike. I pack all my gear again and soon set off for some more hours on my feet. I would like to go up to Purolan cabin crossing before taking some rest if I can.
Some 5 more kilometres of forest track and then I reached a lake and not long after the frozen river. Fraser had overtaken me not long ago and I can spot him in the far distance. It is getting dark and harder to distinguish the tire tracks on the ground. I need to check the route on my GPS. And here the fun starts again. It is so unclear on my tiny screen! I check and double-check, try to make my way using both the direction on my watch and the red line on my screen. I walk slowly, stopping often. I lose time. And then I go under a bridge and another one... Àlex talked about one bridge only, am I right? Is that the one? I feel I am on the right track but it is really difficult to say. Hard to distinguish anything even though it isn’t night yet. Man, my GPS track takes me right through bushes!! No that’s not the way, definitely not! I need help. There is a solution. I need help, I keep repeating. I turn and go back on my steps and there… comes John! Wahoo, I am so happy to see him there!!! It means I am on the right track! And it also means I must have been terribly slow in the last couple of hours! John has the very regular pace, he is really good and strong. Soon we reached the forest again. John stopped to change the battery in his device. I pushed on, feeling suddenly tired. I guess these messy last 2 hours drained my energy. I passed the waypoint just before Purolan crossing and walk on for another 10k. But I am slow, tired. The last 2 kilometres seem endless… At the waypoint 16 I decided to stop and rest. Just as I was setting up my bivy, John arrived. He is feeling all right and will push on. Should I do the same? Eat and then go? No, I need rest. And food. So I grab a couple of bars, lie down, take off my shoes and fall asleep within minutes.
1.30am. Tuesday morning. I woke up, feeling refreshed and so motivated to go! I packed quickly, everything is frozen and my fingers feel stiff in seconds. I put all my layers on, 2 pairs of mitts and resumed with my walking in the cold night. I like this, walking alone, in the peace and quiet of the night, surrounded by nothing but nature. By 6.30, the light starts to change, from pitch black to dark orange and… blue. For long minutes I was surrounded by an amazing blue colour! The sky, the trees, the snow, everything is blue. Truly magical
It is freezing cold, though. I walk, fast, even running at a slow pace. The track is better now, nice and wide. One of my best memories of the entire race. I go from waypoint to waypoint, kilometres after kilometres. It is long but I don’t let myself start thinking of it. Waypoint. Walk. Look around. Beauty. Walk. Fast. The day goes really fast. I reach the lakes and hills section. A nice and flat lake followed by hills. Up and down. And another lake. More hills. It is less remote now, more little houses, a few small villages, reindeer farms, meeting some snowmobiles on the tracks…
The track goes up and down and I start running, slowly but feeling good and strong. 7k to go… I reach a crossing and decide to check the route on the GPS... Well, it is not in the side pocket? I unlock my harness and double-checked. Triple-checked. Searched all my pockets, the pulka, everywhere. It is not there. It must have felt. I have lost it. I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been, acting precipitously as I so wanted to finish that night! I feel hopeless. Need to get a grip. I give Marc, my husband, a call. Hearing his voice cheers me up. He tells me that the tracker sent the last signal about 100 meters after waypoint 29, nearly 5k away… I want to return right now, to walk those 5k, get the tracker and go. But I start feeling cold, and tired. A voice in my head tells me to get warm first, rest and eat and then go back. Yes, wiser. So I run back to my pulka which I had left at the crossing and set up the bivy. It was really getting cold and everything needed to be done quickly. I hadn’t plan to sleep another night so hadn’t packed my bivy as carefully. Anyway I managed to inflate the mat, get into my sleeping bag and light the stove from there, despite the terrible quality of the matches. I will make it. I will make it. It is going to work.
After having some food and rest, I felt much better, calmer and walking back these extra kilometres didn’t feel as bad. Of course, I feel frustrated and disappointed to have lost that precious time. But the most important at the end of the day is to finish, to make it to the finish line. And with such low temperatures, I couldn’t have taken it lightly. Early morning I walked all the way back. And at 100 meters from waypoint 29, my InReach laid in the snow, untouched, undamaged. Another huge relief! I took a few bites of an energy bar and run back to the pulka, some 5 k away. I texted the organisation to tell them that everything is sorted and that I am back in the race. I got to the Ounasjoki an hour or so later, on my final 20k to Rovaniemi.
I passed Sinetta Laavu, waypoint 30, and started running gently to soothe my legs. Then I spoted Àlex Casanovas arriving on his snowmobile. How nice to see someone! We chatted a bit about last-night adventures, about the other people left on the track and I pushed on. An hour later, he came back and took pictures of me running. That cheered me up! It made thing a bit funnier on this long and straight icy section. I kept walking and running. I want to be fast. No stopping, no slowing down. Waypoint 31. Last one. Walk. Run. Walk. Run. Then in the distance I saw a strange person dancing on the river. Is she/he dancing? Is it a dog with he/her?... I came closer and laughed when I recognised my friend Rima,TyreLady, dancing on the ice! She is there to meet me with Lumi, the Finnish Tyre! We walked the last 5 kilometres together, her telling me about the lastest events, me explaining her my GPS divorce and other issues. Girls, even when fighting exhaustion, will never ever stop chatting!
I want to thank Àlex Casanovas and his team for organising Arctic winter races in Europe. It is a great opportunity to train and get prepared for the famous tough Canadian and Alaskan ones.
A winter race is nothing like another race. I love them. It forces us to be true to ourselves. One cannot cheat out there. Nature dictates its way and we must do with it: cold or mild temperatures, soft or hard-packed snow, always changing weather conditions… One can come with competition in their mind. But in this end, nature will decide. I have learnt a lot. On gear, on handling such cold temperatures, on myself. I’ve done many mistakes and I’ve done many good things too. I can say I am proud of myself and the way I’ve copped with the different issues met on the way. It might not have been the perfect race, but I’ve had so much fun most of the way! For a first in these conditions, I am truly happy. And I am back with all my toes and fingers, which is quite an achievement!
For those who are thinking of entering the Rovaniemi150 or 300, please remember it is not something to take lightly. It is really different from other ultras or trail running competitions, marking is kept to a minimum and expect to be on your own, completely alone for many hours. I need to say that because I’ve heard people complaining about both the marking and being by yourself for so long. I think that the organisation here is true luxury compared to similar Arctic or survival races. There is often hot water on the 150 at the checkpoints! And tents or shelters! We are spoilt, let me tell you! So please, if you feel like coming and running or cycling the Rov150, keep this in mind: it is a race for people who are not afraid to take their own responsibilities and want to experience minimal support. If you are ready for this, then you will have the time of your life! The scenery is impressive, the track amazing and people are so authentic and friendly.
I am the first woman to have completed the Rovaniemi 300. I hope that it will inspire more women to come and enter this fantastic race. Come on Ladies, it is all yours now!!
Rovaniemi 300. My different approach to Finnish Lapland.
To follow: post on gear and a FR version