Friday morning the 3rd of July I am wide awake at 6 o’clock after a decent nights’ sleep. Any attempt to sleep any longer is in vein. In one and a half hour I am taking the bus from Gaustablick – close to the finish, where I am staying at the Youth Hostel with wife and kids – to Ustaoset. After some dozing and breakfast on the bus, the race stress is rising.
Well in time, around 130 participants arrive at the start, while temperatures are clearly rising above 20 degrees and the sun is getting stronger. With one minute to go, I grab my cap from my backpack. At noon we “shoot away”. The track immediately rises for 300m, so most participants start walking. Although I absolutely want to start slowly, I try to head to the front of the pack to get my legs rolling a bit. In doing so I join 3 Norwegian runners (Ivar Haugen, Thomas Mittun-Kjos, Rolf Skotheim), apparently with only 3 other runners in front of us. During the climb, my legs seem to melt away in my black shorts, so I am happy the temperature drops a bit and we get to cool down during the water and snow crossings – snow which apparently is exceptionally abundant this summer. The wide views are really jawdropping and experiencing this under these perfect warm conditions only adds to the magic. Meanwhile it becomes clear what kind of terrain we’ll face during the race. Although the trails are relatively flat, stones, peaty mud, water and snow make it rather challenging. At certain places the trail is extremely small and lined with short harsh vegetation. Scratching your legs is unavoidable and I have never bumped the (sharp) side of my soles against my legs this much…
After 35km, we’re still in a group of 3 guys when arriving at the first checkpoint in Rauhellern. Ivar, Thomas and myself. Rolf left us behind a while ago and Erlend Haugstad overtook us earlier, running to a 4rd position. I take my time to refill my soft flasks, which we can also perfectly do at the numerous streams along the way, and take a few pictures. About 1 km further I am leading the group, but in a brief moment of distraction it seems that I should not have followed the marked path and missed a small (barely visible) one. The 2 guys behind me notice this and are soon back on track, while I am plodding through the vegetation to cross towards the correct trail. Together with Ivar, and with a bit of slalom, we manage to reconstruct the course of the trail, which re-joins the marked trail again. A few kilometers later I have to let Ivar go as I am starting to struggle, despite the rather smooth ascent. At this stage, about 40km in the race, I already ate 5 muesli/energy bars, initially without any apparent difficulty… But now, my stomach is heavily protesting, which seems to impact on the willingness of my (brain to tell my) legs to keep rolling. I am really struggling through the next few kilometers, but in afterthought these were the only real tough ones (!).
With more walking than running I manage to keep moving at a reasonable pace. Once the storm in my stomach is settling down, and the heaviest hill (which I would under normal circumstances easily “hop up”) is behind me, I start to pick up the tempo again. It’s going well! I am running again, fantastic! While I am getting the hang of it again, my thoughts wander of to my wife and kids, who can follow on-line from the Youth Hostel. A few seconds later I feel a clear rush of hormones (which I like to call the ‘real’ runners high), and am completely overwhelmed by emotion. I love them so much! It’s so strong I am crying out loud for minutes. Here in this magnificent, vast environment, I just give in to it.
As I am approaching Mårbu I am fully focussed on running again, but plan to call Hadewich after the checkpoint. I switch on my phone, but don’t get reception. While I am running on I hear the sound of a text coming in, so I briefly stop to make a phonecall. The reception seems quite bad, but I am glad the most important message: “I love you” has been received. Meanwhile I try to eat a Journeybar (a salty meal bar). While these bars go down easily in general, my whole system seems to protest against eating it, and after a few bites I spit out the content of my mouth with a sip of water. As I only have 4 other Journeyers in my backpack, and have no intention of even trying them, I am left without food until the next checkpoint. This fuss creates another knot in my stomach, but luckily the off moment is limited and the lack off food does not seem to negatively impact my performance, on the contrary even. The sight of Gaustatoppen (where the finish lies) 75 km in the race (with a good 50 km to go) gives a decent boost. In the short descent towards the checkpoint Kalhovd I even seem to fly.
At this checkpoint I get a “special needs bag” in which I put new, warm clothes (just-in-case) and energy gels. I don’t see any need to changes clothes, but the gels are more than welcome. Maybe this is mostly mental, but it is reassuring to have something in my backpack again that will (hopefully) go down without any trouble. While I am running from the checkpoint I switch on my phone again to wish Hadewich a good night – meanwhile it is 22h- reassure her everything is going well and that tell her I should finish after around 20h of running. The next 10 run over a dirt road and my legs seem to be “fresh” enough to cover this stretch in about 1h. Before the route runs over a single track again, I am stopped by someone from the organisation who tells me that “runners have taken a shortcut here”. It is not entirely clear to me whether they are supposed to, but to me it sounds rather not. I set off in the indicated direction, but as this does not seem to match the GPS-track I return soon after. I show my GPS and am told the two routes join each other further down the road and that I am free to follow my GPS, I’ll see this for myself. My understanding is that these roads join in a matter of a 100m or so, but I don’t seem to notice anything as I move on. Soon enough the trail becomes rather unclear and I am wandering around again to find supposed trails, follow the GPS-track and cross an indentation of the lake which is entirely covered in stones. Luckily I find the marked trail again and notice some footprints of a fellow runner soon after. While dusk is falling, I am not entirely at ease about the chosen route though. I have never ran more “in the middle of nowhere” than this, and this uncertainty doesn’t really help to keep the running smooth. The contrast with the previous 10km couldn’t be bigger.
Once it gets really dark, I find it a bit harder to find the trail after each mud, water or snow crossing but eventually I am approaching checkpoint Helberghytta. With less than 1 km to go my and my GPS’ navigation are completely off again. For starters I am puzzled because I see a runner on a trail that seems parallel with the one I am running on. And while I am nicely following the marked trail, my GPS all over a sudden indicates that I am 200m off the track. As I am unsure where I could have missed I try to get on track through the vegetation, but meanwhile my GPS is showing a big black border around the map, which is hiding the arrow a little later. Luckily this issue is resolved after restarting the device. As I am stuck I just return to the marked trail, which this seems to match the GPS-track again at this point… Anyhow, a bit further on I meet someone from the checkpoint (who probably noticed I was making strange circles), who accompanies me on the side-road towards the hut (the runner in front of me had apparently skipped this checkpoint). Given the chillier temperature at night, I happily accept a plate of warm soup. The night is at its darkest with the full moon creating a marvellous spectacle over the stretches of snow. My running is still not very smooth due to the constant searching for the trail, but gradually I get closer to the ridge of the plateau, ready to dive down towards Rjukan. I am briefly puzzled about the start of the descent, but once I am launched on the road down with numerous hairpins, I am happily surprised this long descent does not cause any trouble this deep in the race. My feet are rolling well during the climb over the road towards Vemork – a hydropower plant with an interesting history. I clearly have a lot of energy left and am eager to attack the final climb. But first I put on a new set of clothes and shoes and adjust the poles I have in my special needs bag for this checkpoint. In afterthought changing clothes was a bit of overkill, especially as I dressed way to warm.
I start the climb, a set of zig-zags along the pipelines, full of courage. Using poles feels a bit strange, but I seem to be moving well and before I am at the top of this part of the climb I caught up with Erlend, who seems to be limping after a fall. I am now running in 6th position and try to maintain a decent pace. At the checkpoint I was told to first of all keep an eye on the trail marks and the Norwegian flags. In the beginning these flags are sparsely placed, so I am not alarmed when I don’t immediately see another one, I check my GPS and I am on track. Allas, afterwards it seems the recommended route did not match the GPS-track for this part of the route, and must have missed a turn. Unknowingly I continue until I am no longer able to distinguish a clear trail. Guided by the GPS-track, I try to find a trail that heads in the right direction, but I end up running in circles. After several failed attempts to find anything that resembles a trail – now already taking up about 1h – I am out of ideas and decide to run back towards the last flag I had seen, hoping that this would get me on track again. As I am heading back I bump into Erlend, who seemingly made the same mistake as I did. He convinces me to keep looking for the track. We end up going “across everything” after all, but thanks to Erlend, we’re back on track at around 8 o’clock, ready to start the final climb.
Initially the route leads over a forested trail which is winding up and is intersected with rocky stretches. I had expected harder terrain, but with a few kilometers to go, there we have it; an impressive mountain of stones we have to conquer before reaching the finish. It is not exactly the kind of terrain on which you can move quickly, but I notice it seems to help if you choose the best ‘line’ as the first team of runners overtake me. I attempt to get my legs rolling a bit in the last tens of meters, but given the terrain and tiredness of my legs, this doesn’t get me really far, so I just keep on walking.
After a good 21h I conclude this magnificent adventure at the hut on top of Gaustatoppen. It seems I still have some energy left and briefly contemplate to continue to the actual summit.
Clearly I had imagined the last leg of this race quite differently, but looking back I mostly remember this race as a magnificent experience, during which I fully enjoyed the wide open nature and landscapes, the silence and solitude. When covering these kind of distances, you are somehow prepared to experience off moments, but my tendons kept surprisingly well and those few kilometers with protesting stomach were all worth it.
Have a look at my Facebook-album for more pictures.