A year ago I heard about a mountain run in the fjords of Norway. Considering myself a good technical runner, I signed up right away.
A year later I have just returned from the Tromsø SkyRace®. And I got to eat the proverbial “humble pie” among this crew of Skyrunners, north of the Arctic Circle. I wasn’t the hotshot I thought I was when running over boulders, exposed ridges, and steep descents.
While the course stretched 45 km last year, they said it was closer to 53 km this year. In reality, it was closer to 60 km. The course takes runners over 3 major peaks — each of which individually would qualify as a solid training day. In total, we climbed 4,600 meters (15,000 feet). The Hamperokken Skyrace looked like this:
The winner took 6 hrs last year. Not realizing how much longer it was this year, I thought I could do it in 8 hours, but it took me 10. Approximately 215 people signed up and 137 finished (some didn’t start), with the last few coming in after 15 hrs. I found myself running between 30th to 40th place during most of the race before finishing in 43rd, together with my multisport buddy Simon Niemi.
The slide show the night before showed the route. Simple enough: down from this big hill (Tromsdalstinden) and over to the other one (Hamperokken). Then back again.
What I will remember most:
Even better than the pictures…
The promo films, the pictures and the reputations of the race directors (elite runners themselves) suggested that this race would maximize Norway’s scenic appeal. The course didn’t disappoint. I’ll let the photographers do the talking … (Ian Corless, an ultra runner and photographer has some great additional images here)
Clouds on the ridge. The weather forecast was sun all week, but we got clouds. (Photo: Ian Corless)
Green was a theme in Norway (Photo: Daniel Lilleeng)
Some people used poles. I didn’t. A clear trade-off with weight and risk of injuring your wrists if you’re not used to all the pushing. (Photo: Daniel Lilleeng)
Local Eirik Haugsnes descending from Hamperokken. The volunteers (pictured) were amazing in this race. Full of spirit despite the cold temps and hard work to get to their stations. (Photo: Kilian Jornet)
I had a fun exchange with one volunteer on the top of the last peak:
- Volunteer (sitting “on top of the world” among the clouds): “It’s mostly downhill from here.”
- Me (laying down with cramps): “No shit — how could it be anything but down from here?!”
I got a round of laughs from the other volunteers, which then earned me a glorious second cup of “sugar and caffeine” (a.k.a Coke). The volunteer had carried several bottles for hours uphill just for us racers!
I’m an endurance athlete and I know what to expect in these races. Nonetheless, I was pushed to my limits with this one — and not just physically. This was NOT a “one foot in front of the other” type of race.
Even my buddy Simon, who got a last second entry to the race and who has his own resume of long distance adventure races (together with a dog named Arthur…) admitted that this was one of his toughest races.
And it wasn’t just the legs. On the last climb (a 40% grade?!) I found it more efficient to crawl than walk. I used my arms to pull myself up rather than burn energy trying to balance on two feet over steep uneven terrain. Thanks to Emil Eklöv and his MovNat training for showing me this trick.
Mediocrity isn’t that bad
Endurance was only half the equation. This race demanded skills. I thought I was comfortable enough to run fast on exposed ridges and to slide, glide, and fall when necessary.
But I was in another league in this race. If I was a well-trained mountain goat, my competitors were born goats!
The competitors came from over 20 different countries (with 8 represented in the top 20). I was simply mediocre in this field. And while this was admittedly a blow to the ego, it also inspired me: Who says you can’t improve at age 39? I’m keen to become a faster mountain goat !
Self sufficiency and teamwork
This was not a race for beginners. With only 4 aid stations — and 2 of them very close to the start and finish — each competitor was on his/her own.
But it required, ironically enough, both teamwork and cooperation.
Climbing the first ridge with limited visibility I ran in a pack together with 5 runners. We spread out to help each other find the yellow flags marking the course. I also ran with a Finnish guy who had the GPS route in his watch. He gave a warning if we strayed too far from correct route (The race directors suggested that all competitors download the GPS route, which was a good idea).
Me finding the best route upward … where is the next yellow flag? (Photo: Ian Corless)
On the steep descent from the Hamperokken peak I found myself 20 meters behind a German guy. I screamed at him to wait. When I caught up I said “You are free to run as fast as you want, but … it might be safer to stay together? If I release a rock 2 meters above you, it won’t gather much speed. But if I release it 20 meters above you, you’re screwed.” He quickly agreed and I promised to keep up with him. It turns out German goats are fast (!).
None of this is surprising given that last year the top competitors made a mutual agreement in the midst of the race to “help each other and NOT compete” during the technical ridge section. The conditions last year were wet and slippery. This year they were dry, thank god.
Why it worked and didn’t hurt
My blog readers know that I’m going through a transition to a new running technique. I’m learning to run without cushioned shoes and relying instead on my human spring: the achilles heal. But doing so requires strong and flexible feet. I was anxious because I didn’t know if my feet were ready for the distance and the pounding on technical rocky terrain.
It turns out my anxiety was mis-placed. My feet were stronger than I thought. My foot strengthening program has worked: less sitting and more standing, while also activating and spreading the big toe. I’m also a frequent squatter these days to improve flexibility and to “release my spring.”
Less cushioning in the shoes forced me to use my feet to absorb the shock of running, which also gives a natural “spring” return. Interestingly, I found it relatively easier for me now to jog uphill with a high cadence than to take slow walking steps.
I used a prototype shoe from Vivobarefoot, which will be available in the Fall 2016. The shoes have rubber soles to protect against sharp rocks and good drainage for this kind of wet course. It was a great shoe, but it requires some feet training first.
Would I recommend this race?
Well, sort of. But not if you’re scared of heights, an occasional runner or enjoy asphalt. Anybody else should consider the challenge — but don’t take it lightly!
Thanks to Emelie and Kilian for their passion for this race.
PS. My Suunto watch had less endurance than me. The battery died after 7 hours and this move only captured the first 42 km …
PPS. Full results here