Friday, August 19, 2016

Tromso Skyrace

I didn’t know much about Tromso except that it was quite far north. Having now been, I know that it is far enough north to be very much like Scotland, at least the kind of Scotland you get in spring or autumn. The other thing I knew, or at least had heard, was that the Skyrace put on by Emelie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet was something special. Talk last year was of a soaring ridge to rival, in terms of technical racing terrain, any other. Having now run the race I can confirm that despite the long journey it is well worth the effort.

Having secured a starting place, in itself no mean feat after the hype of last year, Konrad and I decided we would make it into a mini-holiday with a couple of days of walking after the race. So as to not waste any days off we decided to fly in on Friday for the Saturday race. As it turned out this nearly resulted in disaster as we made it to Tromso on Friday afternoon… alas our luggage did not, having been left stranded in Oslo airport en-route. Cue some frantic running around for the rest of the day trying to borrow a full set of race kit including shoes. Much to our relief the bags finally turned up at the airport at 10pm and Konrad was saved from having to run in a t-shirt with Murray Strain’s face plastered over his chest.

The Tromso series of Skyraces included a vertical kilometre (Blamann Vertical), a shorter Skyrace (Tromsdalstind), and the opening race in the 2016 ‘Extreme Skyracing’ series, Hamperokken, which is the race Konrad and I had come to run. The Hamperokken Skyrace consisted of 53km and 4600m of a ‘V technical level’, taking in 2 summits (Tromsdalstinden 1238m and Hamperokken 1404m), the latter being located at the end of the technical ridge that the race has come to be associated with.

Race day dawned rather cloudy, but dry. At the time, I was under the impression that we could have been luckier (i.e. some sunshine and better views), but if the weather we experienced over the entirety of our stay was representative of Tromso in August, I now appreciate that conditions were really rather pleasant.

The race started from the centre of Tromso, so the first (and last) 3 kilometres were on tarmac, crossing the bridge to the mainland and passing through the outskirts of town until we reached the base of the first climb. As the gradient increased I felt my legs start to protest, reminding me of my efforts at the Buff Epic Trail race two weeks earlier. I tried not to worry as I watched Konrad and Jim disappear into the distance, and I let runners pass me until I’d dropped back to a group whose pace I could just about match. We passed the first of the two food stations (5km into the race), and entered into thick cloud. The fog was so dense that we struggled to follow the frequent yellow flags marking the route. Thankfully we suffered no major mishaps in reaching the summit of the first climb, Tromsdalstinden, where we were greeted with cheers of support and ringing of cowbells. The terrain up to this point had been very runnable, mainly short grass with occasional rocks, but nothing technical. Things got more interesting on the descent of Tromsdalstinden, which was not only steep and stoney, but also rather loose, making me appreciate the fact that I didn’t have anyone directly behind me. Emelie was strategically placed at the base of this section, and gave us an encouraging shout as we ran past her and onto the steep snowfields, which Killian had mentioned to us in the race briefing. I ran onto the first of these fully intending to glissade gracefully to the base, but instead I slipped immediately, and made a very rapid descent on my bottom, desperately trying to slow the speed with which I was approaching the oncoming boulders. With bum cheeks still stinging, I stepped onto the second snow field determined to remain upright, but once again fell over immediately, and slid down in much the same way as before, although at least I didn’t go head first, unlike a certain person I know .

After a gentle grassy traverse we descended a steep narrow path between bushes and small trees, which is where I passed Jim, who wasn’t having a great day. After two kilometers of easy flat running in the valley we came to the second food station, manned by volunteers as well as Mr Yogi Tea with his portable stove. I started the climb of Hamperokken, and managed to latch onto the back of a Japanese runner. Conversation was pretty limited, but it was good to have company, and as we gained in height I realised we were also gaining on the runners in front. Feeling good, I pushed on, and by the time I’d reached the ridge I’d gained 4 or 5 places, and had spotted Konrad on the skyline in front of me. The Hamperokken ridge was great, technical scrambling with a bit of exposure, but nothing so serious as to detract from the delight. Exhilarated, I made rapid progress to the summit, where Killian was waiting with his camera, scampering up and down the steep final section like a mountain goat.

The descent of Hamperokken was probably the trickiest part of the race, with a mixture of steep slabs, scree and larger loose rocks forcing careful foot placement. There followed a few kilometres of boulder hopping down a gentle valley, and then a descent back to the second food station. At this point I asked how far in front of the next lady I’d been on the way out (I’d seen no one, so had no idea), and the reply was ’10 minutes to second, 20 minutes to third’, which was good for my morale as I started the return journey, retracing the outward route to the summit of Tromsdalstind. From that point we descended via a rocky trail (different to the route on the outward leg), and started to pass runners on the shorter Tromsdalstind Skyrace (which had started a few hours later). For the remainder of the race, the terrain was straightforward and beautifully runnable, in particular the gently sloping springy trods through the blueberries. I felt reasonably good, and was able to run most of the final easy 300m climb along tracks to the first food station, which I passed through without stopping, knowing I didn’t have far to go. After running alone for much of the day it was bizarre to be escorted by a motorcycle through the final sections in town, which left me to sprint (or not) for the finishing line when the final banner came into view.

The race overall was won by Tom Owens in a fantastic time of 6:45:15, after what had clearly been a great battle with two other British runners, Jonathan Albon (6:53:25) and Finlay Wild (6:55:03). I finished 18th overall and first lady, in a time of 8:43:53, and was delighted to receive a selection of prizes that included a special Alpina watch, and a box of the famous Yogi Tea. We celebrated that night with juice (we discovered that, licencing laws mean one can’t buy beer after 6pm in Norway!), and Jim’s excellent fish risotto 

After the race Konrad made a further discovery, the great joy of staying in Norway’s huts (DNT). These huts work on a basis of co-operation and trust, and you are relied upon to make a payment (which is very reasonable), and to leave things as they were found when you leave. The huts we stayed in were fantastic, beautiful (almost everything is made of wood), comfortable (happy Konrad in his armchair by the fire), well equipped (cooking pasta and pesto seemed rather unambitious, given the facilities at our disposal), and warm (firewood aplenty to be used, and an excellent stove in each).

Thus we spent 3 days ambling through the Norwegian mountains, sleeping for 12 hours a night (in spite of it never getting dark!), swimming in freezing lakes, and picking blueberries to supplement our provisions.

Emelie had told us when we arrived ‘Coming to Tromso will touch your soul’. She was right. I can’t wait to go back and do it all again.


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