the long run: tierra arctic ultra


Distance: 125 km, unsupported
Elevation: +2500m
Route: Kungsleden (the King’s Trail) Nikkaluokta to Abisko with a detour up to Tarfala glacier, northern Sweden
Conditions: Cool and comfortable, sunny spells, occasional drizzle, cold at night.
Rank: 2 Women,  21:18:26   Results here. *Over 24 hours listed as DNF

3am alarm: we took down our tent in the flat, early morning light, made oatmeal, and boarded the bus to travel from Kiruna to the start at Nikkaluokta. I dozed during the hour ride, and before I opened my eyes, I could hear rain on the windshield. Luckily, the drops didn't last long, and by the time we had dropped our bags to be sent ahead to the finish line, the rain had stopped. Cool and cloudy would make comfortable running conditions for our third skyrace in eight days.

We gathered with the other runners in the starting area to fix our numbers, safety tags, and timing chips to our bags and bodies. We chatted and made final adjustments and tried to anticipate what to expect on the trail ahead. Derek and I decided to run together. In all of this season's races, we have been within minutes or seconds of each other crossing the finish line, so we would benefit from the company rather than spend the hours alone. Besides, today was our 11th wedding anniversary, so we would celebrate the whole day together.

We all moved in a loose pack to the start, the countdown, and at 6am, we are running. I have to repeat to myself to stay slow and steady, there is a long trail ahead. The first 18 kilometers, and then the first split of the 100km/120km routes. Our race runs 8km up to the first checkpoint at Tarfala glacier, and retraces it's steps back to the split point to rejoin the route. The trail up and down is muddy and rocky, crosses snow, and scree. It's the type of trail I like, and the majority of our elevation gain. We cheer the lead few men  after they have made the turn around, and soon we are at the checkpoint too. As we return on the same line we cross the other runners on their way up with high fives and encouragement. A helicopter has been following this section, so we wave and jump, and run with better form. I am having so much fun still leading the women's race and feeling strong in my legs and spirit, playing over the rocks. It is much to early to think it, but maybe I can win this one. I won't let myself imagine that with so much still ahead, and the discomfort in my left ankle growing. My concern now is how long I can ignore it, and whether or not I should ignore it. I eat my first peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich as we run along narrow wooden boards and through cheering at the second checkpoint, Kebnekaise.  

Loving the return from Tarfala glacier.

By 40 kilometers, I was debating how long it would take to recover if I continued. At the time, I thought it was related to a recurring Achilles issue, not something I wanted to aggravate, but I am too stubborn to turn around. (Later decided it was a probably a stress fracture). It would have been a long walk back to the start, so it made sense to move in the direction of the finish. I was suddenly overcome with frustration, partly for the day ahead, but mostly for the coming weeks or months. I don't like time off from running, and I started to worry about the runs I knew I was costing myself beyond today. I wanted to run, but couldn't. And so we walked. Rather, I limped. And so we moved forward, knowing we would add hours to our journey. I was down for a while, some long, slow kilometers. It was hard to let go of my projected finish time, of competing, of just running the whole distance. 

Emotionally overcoming the change of plans, we would enjoy this beautiful day in northern Sweden. The sun came out, and revealed mountains hiding in the clouds. The landscape was new and exciting. I had my partner, and we would take one step at a time. I decided we would never arrive at the finish if we continued at my current hobble, so it was time to dig into some intervals. I could run for 1 minute before the pain was too much, so that is what we did. 1 minute run, 1 minute walk. Hours passed with this distraction. 

My watch battery died after 68 kilometers, and so we would go the second half of the race without counting down the distance, knowing we had more hours ahead than we had already done.

We drank from streams, plodded through rivers, over rocks and lots of mud. Took a few stumbles and falls. We ran over endless planks, and kept moving forward, occasionally enjoying leapfrog with other runners. The final course split took the 120km runners up a steep climb, I was relieved, uphill I could handle. We reached the high checkpoint and angled down wild, choosing our own way to rejoin the trail below. We crossed a waterfall and disrupted a wasp nest. Derek was stung twice, but we were in a better stride on this small off-track detour.

The sun was hovering low, casting pink and purple into the sky and reflecting in the water. The landscape was lovely, but I was tiring from the monotony of running planks and stumbling over stones. Planks, stones, mud, and now mosquitoes. I didn't really notice the bites, I had become numb to everything after so many hours, only thinking one step at a time. I tried not to miss the beauty, and our conversation repeated, "Try not to trip, but look at that!"

For hours, we made our way towards the mountains that separated us from the finish at Abisko, we took the pass and waded through the boggy forest. I imagine we are close, and I start watching for the archway signaling the exit of the Kungsleden. It has become dark in the woods, but we see smoke and a tent. It is the seventh and final checkpoint. They recorded our bib numbers and tell us there are only 17 kilometers to the finish. Only? At our current pace, this meant more hours than I thought I could handle. (But I also thought that half the day ago). I had been cold for a while, but didn't have the energy to open my race sack, finally I have to put on my jacket and mittens. Derek has already added his jacket and pants- mostly to try to keep the mosquitoes off his legs. Now it is dark, drizzling a bit, and we weren't as close to the finish as I thought.   

The sensation of movement feels strange, my steps are slow and small, shuffling. I feel the night, and cold. What I am doing out here? Someone is holding my hand and coaxing me forward. My whole body jolts back into consciousness, and that nearly causes me to fall from the narrow planks we are walking across. I have been sleep walking, despite using everything in me to keep awake. My eyes are just too heavy. Sometimes, I notice that I have staggered a few steps from the trail. It all seems to stop, the pain, the tiredness, and then I suddenly gasp from this comfortable nothingness into a moving body, and that body stumbles. 

Runner after runner passes us in the night, in the distance of only 10 kilometers, an endlessness. Throughout this day, we have not sat down or stood still, but I ask to sleep, I ask for ten seconds to sleep, standing upright on the trail. Derek says it isn't time to sleep yet, not even the ten seconds I claim to need. I am so afraid I will fall to the ground before the next time I wake from my sleep walking. 

We see the first kilometer marking on the course: 6.5 km to go. I sprint. What just happened? There is a little light in the sky, maybe that helped to stay awake, maybe it was entirely the reassurance that we could arrive. The final 6.5 flew by. We ran on strangely fresh legs. For the first time I felt like racing, not the cautious start to conserve energy, or the 80km of limping, or the exhausted sleepwalk. I woke up, and started to run fast over the final portion of trail, startling the runners who had passed us in the last few hours, continuing at the steady paces they had been able to maintain. The damage had already been done to my ankle, it was 3am, and I needed to fly. We laughed and smiled and sped toward the finish. 

The endlessness suddenly, abruptly, quietly, ended. We found the showers, and fell asleep beside other runners sitting up in chairs and against the walls. The only thing I felt in that moment was tired. I wouldn't really appreciate the whole journey until weeks later, looking back, analyzing, and realizing that I need to try again. 

Check out this awesome video from the course and just a taste of the beautiful landscape along the Tierra Arctic Ultra:

A few aspects of this race made it a new type of challenge for me:

- First, the race was unsupported. Each runner was responsible for anything they might need during their entire time on the course, and it was disallowed to accept any outside  assistance. We needed to estimate and carry the proper amount of nutrition for the hours, but we needed to carry very little water since there were frequent streams. This kept our pack weight low. I carried only a 500ml flask, which was plenty to last between refilling from the cold, rushing sources.

- I love the feeling of running totally alone in the world, and this trail is especially remote. In the Alps, we pass through occasional villages, but running in northern Sweden, we felt a truly vast wilderness with no option for abandonment. After we begin, we must put one foot in front of the other until we arrive at the finish.

- This was the first time I underestimated the difficulty of a race. I was the second of only three women to complete the course under the 24 hour time limit, but several hours after my projected finish. The trail was flatter than I am used to running - only 2500 meters of elevation gain over 125 kilometers sounded easy considering we often make the same gain in a 25 kilometer race. I expected to move quickly on a flatter course, but the rocky terrain slowed us more than I anticipated. I love running rocky trails up and down mountains, but found myself cursing the rocks as I grew tired of trying not to misstep. This difficulty might have been exaggerated by the pain in my ankle. I probably would love the rocks on a normal day. I can't really blame the trail for that, but it was tough.

- Derek and I chose to stay together (mostly to share our anniversary). We both assumed I would have the advantage of endurance, but he was the strength of Team Strom all day. I really needed the companionship for the long hours. I am grateful he waited for me so we could enjoy the journey in stride.