The race was the second annual Rovaniemi 150. It takes in a loop through the Lapland forests just inside the Arctic Circle. The trails vary from snowmobile tracks through the forest, long, exposed, lakes and rivers and even some ice roads. I took part last year. Due to terrible conditions only three of us managed to finish. After 32 hours it came down to a near sprint finish. I managed to get second place.
I'm not sure if I made a miscalculation, or was being ambitious but this year I had only allowed myself 27 hours before I would need to leave to catch my flight home. In the lead-up to the race I had my fingers crossed for cold temperatures, which make for fast going. Despite the week before temperatures falling to -25c, it was not to be. In the days before the race it was unseasonably warm and there was some snow fall. While the conditions did not look as bad as last year, they certainly were not good. To add to that, in the days before the race I had some stomach problems, I think as the result of a case of food poisoning. I struggled to hold any food down and was left rather weak. My bike and kit were sorted but there wasn't much I could do other than keep my fingers and legs crossed.
Race day dawned and I was still not feeling great. I dosed up on Imodium, drank some Sprite and headed for the start line. It was great to see so many people at the start, 40 racers and a lot of spectators made for a great atmosphere. I chatted with Brant and Ed for a bit and it was soon time to get underway. I guess, because I was not feeling well, and had no expectations, I wasn't nervous at all. I planned to start and just see what happened. The flag dropped and we all raced off after a snowmobile. Brant took an early lead but was soon reeled in by Jan Kopka, a former winner of the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race to Nome. I moved up in to second. My legs were feeling ok, so I thought I'd try to keep Jan in my sights. Toni caught me at checkpoint one and we rode together for some time.
We rolled off the river and into the forests for the first time. The Fatty was performing brilliantly. The geometry is certainly an improvement on the prototype I used last year. Coupled with new Surly tyres (Big Fat Larry on the back and a Bud on the front) it was a lot easier to hold a line in all conditions. I was able to ride a lot of sections that previously would have had me walking. Approaching the second checkpoint I started to pull away from Toni when I rode sections that had him pushing.
My legs were feeling strong, but my stomach churning. I was extremely nervous about running out of energy so knew I had to take on as many calories as I could. After stomach problems in the Colorado Trail Race, I had managed to recover by drinking a large quantity of energy-high drinks. With this in mind I had packed a lot of energy drink powder and lots of Mule Bar gels. I didn't think I had carried enough calories like this so I had brought a variety of sweet and savoury food with me, to try and top myself up. However I was really struggling to contemplate eating anything. I tried some trail mix but it didn't stay down long. I hoped things would improve.
After the second checkpoint there was no-one in sight as I rode on, making good time up the frozen Lake Sinettäjärvi. Last year we had to take a long slow detour here due to open water. I checked my average speed on my GPS and could tell I was well up on last year, and well inside my time frame for making my flight. I knew conditions could easily change later on, especially if fresh snow was to fall, so I tried to go as fast as I could, but still balancing that against my low energy reserves.
The miles ticked by and I recognised places from last year. I rememberd where I had stopped to turn on my head torch for the first time, but this year it was obvious that I had several hours of daylight left. Normally this would have been reaffirming but I was just filled with a sense of worry. I wasn't scared of hurting myself, and I was confident that I could look after myself, if I needed to. I was just concerned that I was going to run out of energy and suffer the dreaded bonk. I had scheduled my energy drink and gels to have at certain stages of the course I just want confident this was enough to see me through to the finish, especially if the weather or course conditions got worse. Eventually I managed to hold down one block of a Yorkie bar. It didn't feel good, but onwards I went.
The course ran through the, seemingly endless, forests and picturesque villages but I didn't pay much attention. I just worried. Eventually I caught up with Jan, as he checked his GPS. He was convinced he had missed a turn but I assured him he was on course. For a short while we pushed out bikes through a section of waist deep snow in some dense woods. I was annoyed to have caught him this early on as otherwise I would have known how far ahead he was, but he wouldn't know where I was, giving me something of an upper hand. However I wasn't in the mood for talking so was somewhat glad when he started to pull away again.
Soon it was dark so I flicked on my Exposure Joystick and Flare. The dark changes things. The lack of shadows on the trail makes the texture hard to read and traction harder to find. Your attention focuses on the patch of light in front of your bike. A sea of black surrounds you. Occasionally, the snow covered branches, in the peripheries of your vision, become spooky shapes floating in the night waiting to snatch your focus.
At the next checkpoint I learnt I was a long way in front of third place and 20 minutes down on Jan. It was a two horse race. Through the next few checkpoints he stayed the same distance ahead. In an attempt to close the gap I managed to eat the rest of the Yorkie bar.
It took to the penultimate checkpoint for me to finally convince myself I was actually going to make it to the finish. I had plenty of time to get my flight, catching Jan was a different matter. I had less than 40km to close down the 20 minutes. I put the hammer down and headed back into the night. I made good time on the next trails but wondered about the condition of Lake Norvajärvi. Last year it had taken several painful hours to cross, due to deep snow and strong winds. This year it was frozen solid and really fast going. That was until I reached the centre of the lake. My steering started going funny, but it took me a while to work out that I had punctured. I put on the hood on my (excellent) Berghaus Cristallo and pulled the zip up to shelter from the howling wind. Examining the wheel, it was clear that the tyre had rotated on the rim and ripped the valve. I had been unsure about the quality of the old but light rim before I set out, so I kicked myself. I changed the tyre as fast as I could, but it’s never easy in these conditions. It took longer than it should have. When I finally reached the far shore I checked the tyre and saw it had already started to rotate. I pumped it up further.
The final checkpoint is on the river back in to town. With 10km to go I knew only an accident would allow me to catch Jan now. I pushed on anyway, win or lose, I wanted a shower. As I approached Rovaniemi the city lights brightened the sky. I passed under the first power-cables and spotted the road bridges in the distance. Despite having been out for less than a day it was odd to see the city rising up in front of me. I rode up the deserted river bank and towards the hotel that acts as the finish line. A group of drunks were fighting outside so I dragged my bike in to the foyer. Quite a reality shock but I was finished. 18 hours 37 minutes.
I managed to get an, admittedly short, nights sleep before having a couple of breakfast beers with Ed, who had finished third, and Brant, who had pulled out early to have some beers. We watched Jarmo and Toni finish 4th and 5th. Only then did I have to leave to catch my flight.
While things didn't go to plan (do they ever?) I was relived and somewhat shocked to have finished. Winning would have been nice but I'll take this in the knowledge it can have only made me stronger.
Thanks to Toni for the use of his photos.