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Plans for spending a 2nd holiday in Norway were already made in autumn 2017, but it was only in January -when the location of XReid was announced- that I coupled this to a running race.
Despite the suboptimal timing (end of school year), I really wanted to make an effort to register for this race. I was so impressed by the fairly brief visit to Jotunheimen in 2015, running part of the Bessegen trail, that I was convinced that this would be a unique experience.
My training was quite a balancing act with a difficult start of the year and sustained issues with the Achilles tendon. But eventually I managed to complete one of my best training cycles ever for a 100+ race.
I couldn’t quite gather what to expect in terms of racing and terrain. In the participant’s facebook group, the discussions on finishing times and technicality of the terrain ranged from “not technical at all over “Norway is always technical…” Which resulted in my very rough forecast of between 14 and 24h of running to cover the 105 km.
On Thursday morning I have the opportunity to explore the finish kilometers in Beitostølen. The navigation on/along the last descent seems less straightforward than I anticipated. Once I have climbed a few 100 m, the landscape is already breathtakingly beautiful and this part of the route seems fairly runnable (averaging 7,5 min/km on an easy training run). The rest of the day is dedicated to resting, getting my start number and handing in my drop bags -which all goes smooth. The race briefing is even replaced by a simple piece of paper with some points of interest.
Next morning I get on the bus at 7:30 along with some 250 participanten to reach the start location at Turtargø. Here we have 1h time for the last pre-race rituals. The sun is out in full force, but when I remove my pullover it feels rather chilly, so I run arround a little and am eager to start by 12h.
Twenty meters after the start and we already end up on a singletrack, which means it requires a bit of effort to get a place in front. After only a good 100 m, the lead pack already seems to have missed a turn and is crossing low vegetation. The dirt road on which we end up seems some 100 m off in parallel to the GPS route, this looks promising for the navigation… I start the first climb in good spirits, but try to damp my enthusiasm so I don’t go too fast. I have the feeling I am fairly successful in doing so, but if you settle in a 5th position during the climb, this raises some expectations. The trail zigzags upward on more and more rocky terrain. It’s not too hard to go up, but I am starting to wonder what the descent will bring.
After taking in the views on top of Fannaraken, I am slightly overwhelmed with what’s ahead. In contrast to the ascent, the trail isn’t zigzagging, but forms a straight line -admittedly not as steep- on fairly irregular rocks. In itself nothing insurmountable, but it seems I have trouble running smoothly on this type of terrain. By the time I have stored my poles and have taken a picture of the view, I am already overtaken by around 10 runners, and some 10 more will follow in the rest of the descent.
This results in quite a psychological punch, but as the terrain is getting more varied again, I am trying to catch up with a group of runners. Unfortunately, this also proves far from easy, and I am confronted with the fact that I am clearly moving less efficient on every stone field or technical section we cross. Putting in some more effort on the sections in between is not sustainable either on this distance.
After around 25 km I am finally successful in staying around another runner, who is up for his first 100+ km ultra trail. The pace is going slightly up and we are catching up with other runners again, forming a smal train of around 5 runners on the downhill towards Vetti Guard. At this stage I am happy to go a little faster, but it is fairly impossible to pass and I fear I might end up being slower than I’d like to.
At the aid station, it seems my GPS tracker wasn’t funcioning, so I get a new one to attach to my pack. This results in some additional hassle, but I am glad I get help from Tom Andre Henriksen whos’ travel company I joined for the stay in Beitostølen. Besides refilling water, I am questioned by a medical staff. He thinks drinking less than 2L in the last 5,5h is really little, but he doesn’t make an issue out of it when I tell I never drink a lot in ultra’s.
Once I got the OK to leave, I try to spot the runners with whom I entered the aid station, hoping to leave together, but I can’t find them and leave on my own. After a few steady uphill steps I notice something’s not right. I feel rather weak and it seems I got no power left in my legs. The feeling immediately made me think of what I experienced at Lavaredo the year before, with the big difference that my tendons are keeping up this time. It is a mystery to me what’s the matter really, did I drink too little after all and am I experiencing “heat exhaustion”, is my race pack, which is fairly tight after filling the water bladder, causing me trouble or have I -despite the low perceived effort- already seriously worn out my muscles on the technical bits? In any case, the result is that I am going incredibly slow and the heat -which is at its peak around 18h in these regions, something I didn’t factor in at the start- is seriously weighing on me. Meanwhile it seems that the runners with whom I entered the aid station stayed there a little longer. They easily catch up with me, but I fail to stick with them at this point. As I further drop behind in the race over the next kilometers, it’s clear to me I have to give up on my competitive ambitions and mentally prepare for some very long hours to come. Meanwhile the landscape is indescribably beautiful, but still I have a hard time dealing with the fact I am moving this slowly on this terrain and the disappointment that I can’t race on this kind of terrain despite the countless hours in training keeps haunting me.
On this part of the route I am all by myself for what navigation is concerned. By combining map and GPS, this seems to go fairly well, but on some sections I don’t have to be too strict on the GPS and just trust I need to keep following the (marked) trail. In that case it is a matter of seeing the trail and the markings. Where these consist of poles or heaps of stones (“cairns”), it is generally possible to spot a marker from 50-100 m away, but even then I sometimes manage to miss them and seeing the trail itself can be equally challenging. While the trail is fairly unclear in a lot of places, it is still quite a bit more efficient to run on it rather than having to balance on stones a few meters away. On one occasion I am screwing up the navigation as I fail to see the next marker and I am putting (too much) trust in my GPS which seems to tell me the trail is 100 m off and down a steep slope. I run in circles for a bit, looking where I might have gone wrong. But as I am fairly mid-pack in the race it doesn’t take long for a few runners -who do manage to find the next marker- to catch up with me. Again I try to stay with them for a bit, but again this only works until we meet the next stone field, which never takes very long.
After 11h of running, my GPS-watch tells me I have covered 60 kea and I am reaching the 2nd aid station in Tyinholmen. As I manage to get some running in again over the dirt road towards the post (which works fairly well), my spirit is lifting up again, but to my surprise, the medical check brings a cold shower. After indicating again that I (only) drank about 2 liters on this section, the medic is suspecting dehydration as my pulse seems fairly week, but relatively quick (I wonder whether the latter hasn’t more to do with the fact that I am getting cold after sitting for a few minutes). This means I can’t exit the aid station before having a few cups of soup and drinks. I don’t mind the soup, which tastes delicious at this point. Because of the long break I am getting really cold though, even after getting on a long sleeved T-shirt and warm jacket. And as I am starting on the drinks, I am protesting that I really want to leave soon, for which I eventually get the green ligt after another cup of soft drink and having spent some 30 minutes in total at the aid station.
Preferably I would have liked some company upon leaving the aid station to cover the next section which partly deviates from the marked trail. But to avoid further cooling down, I leave on my own, but intentionally keep the pace fairly low so it doesn’t take too long for someone to catch up with me. Fortunately I manage to keep up, so we chat a bit and enjoy the full moon on top of Utsikten. I am tagging along and not paying close attention to the navigation, trusting we’re on track as we pass the lake as I remember from the route description. Further on we have to descend along a mountain ridge until we reach the marked trail again. Unfortunately it seems we deviated a bit too far east and are faced with a fairly steep rock cliff. Together with another runner who caught up, my running companions decide to descend here “as further on it’s getting even steeper”. I am way out of my comfort zone and the fact I still have my poles in hand makes me feel rather clumsy as I am scrambling down. I am still shuffling halfway down the cliff while the others have already reached the bottom. I am really glad they’re waiting for me at this stage, but shortly after we reach the marked trail again, I am on my own again.
While climbing down I switched on my headlamp. Meanwhile it is after midnight and the sun set roughly an hour ago. It isn’t really dark, so the lamp barely helps, but on this section I prefer to be seen in case I run into trouble. Most of the night I move over almost flat rugged terrain. I haven’t been running for a while now and feel I need to do so to keep sane. The last kilometers took me 15 to 17 min/km walking, I manage to get to 12 min/km putting in some good effort while switching between running, balancing on stones, looking for the next cairn, the trail or looking at the GPS. It seems ridiculous to put in that much effort to barely reach a walking pace, so my enthusiasm to do so is limited.
Sunrise, casting its glow on the mountains a bit before 4, brings some new courage. By early morning, on the descent towards the Yksnin Lake, I get company from other runners again. Once at the lowest point, I manage to do a bit of running again on the grassy trail. It takes quite some energy but I seem to take some distance again which I keep during the next climb, but get well behind again when we cross the rocky terrain along the lakes. It is only when the eastern part of Lake Bygdin comes into view, and I am closing in on checkpoint 3 that I manage to find a good running rhythm again.
At Bygdinveien I have covered 101 km (officially 89 km) and am feeling great, those last 16 km won’t stop me from finishing this race. Passing through the aid station goes swiftly and before I know I am at the foot of the Bitihorn. With empty (climbing)legs this is bound to be a climb on character, and I apply the target to ascent 100 m within 10 minutes as a mental trick (which is what I also did during my last climb in the TDS). It’s a slow target, and initially I don’t have too much trouble to reach it, but as the ascent proceeds it still requires a bit of pushing to get there. After a lousy selfie at the top and a short descent, we are faced with a fairly strange section of the course along Velumskardet. This section is marked with Norwegian flags, but these are put on the highest bits of the rock which are intersected by some steep cracks. I am not quite sure how to run here and end up zigzagging up and down to keep close to the flags. Only after storing my poles (which I should have done earlier) and some down climbing I manage a good pace again.
Meanwhile there’s a small group of runners in view for some time now, with whom I catch up on a runnable section. But since I (still) seem to have other running qualities at this stage, this results in some yo-yoing when they take some distance on me in the climbs and more technical section. In these last kilometers I do no longer mind to put in some more effort in on those sections I can actually run to catch up again. Once I reach the section I reccied, my pace goes up again, I manage to get those legs running on the ski slope and am accelerating on the flat dirt road towards the finish, thereby taking over a few runners. It makes no sense in this kind of race, but it is stronger than myself to push out a final sprint before settling in a chair and uttering “this is the only bit of running I did”. But. What. A. Journey! I couldn’t imagine a better quote than: “Comfort is the enemy of achievement” – Farrah Gray for the finisher T-shirt!