The alphabet soup of my endurance comeback: ÅEC, AXA, TSR. Here come a few reflections on language barriers while mountain biking, the effect of helicopters on heart rate, and how NOT to slip on a wet bridge.
Åre Extreme Challenge (ÅEC)
Four weeks ago I got ‘back on the horse’ at the Åre Extreme Challenge (ÅEC), competing for the first time in 18 months. My goal was to feel strong to the end. Placement mattered little.
Nonetheless, I found myself in the top 10 at the last transition area and feeling great. If it weren’t for a little bad luck with the bike, I might have surprised myself at the finish. Luckily, the race was a test of my health and not my bike (which clearly failed).
While I didn’t have that ”5th” gear — that ability to push into the pain zone to ’catch up to’ or ’get away from’ other competitors – I still had a rhythm that made me realize that my body was back.
But this was more than a racing weekend. I also made the announcement, together with Henrik Weiler, that we would now be taking over the Åre Extreme Challenge race. Standing up on the scene and expressing my passion for this race — and what Henrik and I want to do with the event — was clearly the high point of the day.
By the way … Henrik and I want to know what you guys think. Please fill out this survey to tell us how we can make this amazing event even better. Survey link.
Lost in translation …
During the bike leg I had to stop 5 times to fix a slow-leak in my tire. I was starting to feel indifferent about my race result, when a fast biker flew past me and stopped at the next corner with a flat tire. I recognized him as the biker on the team that had won the ”RELAY” class several years in a row. I knew he was a super strong biker from Norway.
As I approached he screamed out in Norwegian ”Do you have an extra tube?!” I had nothing else to prove and was satisfied with my effort that day, so I responded (in Swedish):
”Sure, you can have my tube. And here’s my pump too.”
(Side note: I accidently offered him my ”pumpkin” instead of my ”bike pump” — the difference being a single letter ”a” in the Swedish language. He gave a strange look, but understood. He fixed the flat and raced off.)
But 10 min later I saw him again, still with a flat. It turns out that my tube had a hole in it (!) and my pump didn’t work (maybe a pumpkin would have been better?). But since then another biker had lent me his CO2 cartridge, so I now lent that on to this Norwegian biker.
We exchanged words in ”Swedish-Norwegian” as the languages are very similar. But then he said (in perfect American-accented English):
Biker: Where are you from?
Me: California. You?
Me: But I thought you were Norwegian?
Biker: I just live there.
Me: Well, I guess we can stop speaking Scandinavian.
Biker: Yeah, true. But your CO2 cartridge doesn’t work either.
Me: Yeah I’m pretty useless, sorry man. [still not realizing that I had tried to lend him a pumpkin earlier]
Biker: I’m out of here.
And with that, he rode all the way to the finish with a flat tire and still won the Team Mixed class !
AXA half marathon
This past weekend I laced up my zero-drop Vivobarefoot shoes and competed in the longest and hardest running race since both (1) my comeback to endurance sports and (2) my transition to ”minimalist shoes” The results were surprising.
The AXA mountain marathon week is that (short) time of year when the Swedish mountains are snow-free and soft narrow trails in tree-less terrain lure me into the hills to run.
As always the start is dramatic. Seconds before the start I turned to my friend Martin and showed him my heart rate monitor. My pulse was 30 beats higher than normal (and I was standing still!). I blamed 15 extra beats on the pre-race excitement and 15 on the helicopter swooping overhead. Let’s do this …
I started slow and had a plan: Keep my cadence high and save my energy for the downhills. After cresting the first hill, the field was spread out far in front of me under the grey sky. I could see all the way to the final peak, which I would reach in about 90 min. I found my rhythm and flew through the much-dreaded swamp and caught up with a group of runners. I screamed at Staffan, a fellow Åre Extreme Challenge competitor: ”at least we don’t have to carry our bikes through this bog!”
On the last climb, I heard another runner (who I had been chasing all day) say ”Good to see you making a comeback, Scott.” I didn’t know who he was, but his words inspired. I pushed even harder over the top and into the last descent. This was my reward.
I created a gap with that runner as I chose a straight-line descent in the grass, parallel to the trail (which was too wet to get any grip). I trusted my feet and my feel, as I couldn’t see the rocks and holes under the grass. But thoughts about foot landing, body position and cadence were unnecessary in this type of zone. I just ran. And fast.
Andre Jonsson, the winner with a new course record, took the same approach on the last descent, choosing the off-road grass rather than the slippery trail. But he was in the jacuzzi already by the time i got here …
Sadly, such zones are temporary and soon ”gravity’s bonus” ended: the trail started up again and I was out of gas. The runner who had encouraged me at the top had now caught up again and was breathing down my neck. Feeling the pressure and the fatigue I landed on a wet bridge and slipped. Instead of ”going in for the kill” just minutes from the finish line, the other runner grabbed my shoulders and yanked me up. He wanted a fair race to the finish. But I had nothing to contribute so I screamed ”Let me go – You finish strong!” He disappeared and we re-united on the other side of the finish line.
It made me think: what motivated this runner? For me, these events are un-deniably about competition, but also about the freedom of the hills. This runner clearly had a competitive streak in him – otherwise he wouldn’t have been pushing that hard all day to finish in the top 20 – but clearly there was something more driving him. The camaraderie from sharing the mountain with other runners? The discovery of new trails, new endurance limits (his own or somebody else’s)? Or simply crossing the finish line after a good fight. Whatever it is people are looking for, this race tends to deliver it.
So why did I slip on the wet bridge?
It occurred to me only later that I hadn’t slipped on any other bridge during the race, despite a lot of rain, a high tempo, and no metal spikes on my shoes. I used to slip a lot in the past, what’s different now?
That’s when I realized that it was likely a consequence of my new running style. Previously, I landed with my foot out in front of me – the classic ”over-stride” which often results in a ”heel-landing.” Now, unless it’s really steep, I’m able to land under my body, tapping the ground quick with a high cadence.*
And that’s the difference. It’s simple physics: if you stabilize your body weight ABOVE your foot (instead of in front or behind it) and spend less time on the ground, you’re less likely to slip.
My technique training has paid off, but I have to accept that I return to my old habits when fatigue catches up to me.
(*My moves count data show an average cadence of 82, not bad for a hilly course with soft trails).
The next test: Tromsø Sky Race (TSR)
This weekend I will miss the 42 km AXA marathon and fly instead to Tromsø, Norway, to compete in a 50 km mountain run.
The course takes racers from the ocean to high ridges. It requires balance, endurance, and a love of heights. The course includes non-runnable technical scrambles like the one in the picture below. It’s exactly the kind of adventure run I love.
This race is the brainchild of Emelie Forsberg, an extraordinary and talented mountain runner from Sweden. Check this 2 minute trailer if you want to be inspired ….
Race report coming next week …
PS Interested in a more efficient run technique? Check this new film I just created about my own conversion to natural runner.