On Saturday I will race in the 20th edition of the Åre Extreme Challenge (ÅEC). After missing the race last year, this “second chance” has inspired me to reflect on what the race means for me. Four themes have emerged: Nature. People. Extreme. Unknown.
Mother nature provides an amazing course, starting with the powerful and spectacular Tännforsen waterfall. The week after midsummer, Nature’s climax is fantastically green, if “temporary” at these northern latitudes. Every year it leaves an indelible mark on my experience.
In fact, the race course matches the Jämtland landscape so well that the unique “paddle-run-bike” combination has remained unchanged for 20 years — a sign that James Venimore and Erik Ahlström got it right when they organized the first Åre Extreme Challenge in 1996.
Although the race is often blessed with sun, it doesn’t mean that mother nature is kind. A quick look at the lack of vegetation on the mountain gives you an idea of what participants face. Hence, theme “#4 Extreme” – see below.
#2 The people.
The race is nothing without competitors, traveling from far and wide, all of whom compete on the same course, irrespective of whether they’re elite (seeking a course record) or recreational (checking off a “bucket list” adventure).
I love the atmosphere at the finish line (Åretorget). Competitors are collapsing in exhaustion – completing something that an hour or two earlier seemed impossible – but they are simultaneously creating an energy that fills the town square and inspires support crew and spectators alike to start a winter training program for next year’s race.
I love how the feeling of nervous-ness at Tännforsen — where everybody gathers to put their boat in for the start – is replaced by camaraderie and bonding at the banquett 12 hours later, when people realize that their physical and mental limits weren’t as ”un-reachable” as they had thought. The accomplishment is visible on everybody’s face as we all get to ”re-live” the experience through a fantastic film.
Last, I love the chance to meet competitors from other countries who come to experience the race – something I hope to see more of in the near future.
There’s something in that name … It’s not only extremely difficult from a physical and mental perspective, but it’s also a race of extreme contrasts.
The most obvious are, of course, the ice cold water in the rapids and baking-hot temperatures on the steep climb; the arduous headwinds that test your determination and the tailwinds that challenge your balance.
But there’s something unique about the contrast between competition and teamwork. Many of the solo competitors “call a truce” and rely on each other to help carry the kayaks during the mandatory portage. Other solo competitors that race on a multisport team find themselves in a strange situation: rather than doing everything to help their teammates move faster – as they would in a team adventure race – they find themselves racing against each other in a battle of pride. I’ll never forget the unique dynamic between my teammate John Karlsson and I when we raced against each other on Team AXA-addidas in 2011 and 2012.
#4 The unknown
Multisport is not like triathlon (though I often use it as a comparison that people can easily understand). We may use three modes of transportation, but the course has a different temperament and character every year. There’s no predictable asphalt at ÅEC.
Mother Nature does her best to keep me on my toes. More than once I’ve mis-judged a rapid and found myself “in the drink.” Another year, a moose jumped out and swam through the rapids in front of me, causing me to swerve quickly, but carefully. What will happen this year?
The uncertainty of the race has caused me to train in a very specific way, working to become comfortable paddling whitewater, learning to run uphill despite stiff legs from the kayak, teaching myself to relax on steep and technical running descents, developing an efficient pedal stroke, and finding a flow on technical mountain bike descents. Seven years of competing in ÅEC has helped me to master the course. As a bonus, it has also given me an endurance base to explore “the unknown” in other races around the world.
Exploring the unknown in China in a race with teammates John Karlsson and Simone Maier (another New Zealander who will be competing at ÅEC this weekend)
In an effort to conquer the unknown, I’ve been known to”over-plan” my race strategy. But this year, I’m ditching the 10 page memo for my support crew. After 17 years I’ve learned that basic planning is important, but excess planning can hinder me from feeling and reacting to the unexpected.
On Saturday I’m headed out to enjoy Jämtland’s finest rapids, mountains and trails. My goal is not to stand on the podium but to climb back into the sport I love; to enjoy the chance to do something that seemed impossible 5 months ago; and to engage myself in nature, adventure, and, of course, some healthy competition.
Chances are my performance will surprise me, in part because it’s much less on my mind.
Here’s to another 20 years of future ÅEC races!
PS In a sign of my relaxed preparation for the race, I did a 10 hr ”bike and hike” adventure last weekend (not ideal from a tapering perspective). Sylarna Traverse was fantastic, technical and beautiful, but … I broke my carbon fibre bike frame (!). Luckly a new one arrived today from Switzerland. Thanks Open Cycles for their great help !
Running Sylarna Traverse (from instagram)