Karhunkierros is a popular 83 km trail with 1,800 m elevation gain in Kuusamo, Finland. Backpackers hike it in a week or so. I have never done it before Thanks to NUTS (Northern Ultra Trail Service), it has grown to huge 3000-runner ultra trail event nutskarhunkierros.fi. Consisting of 166, 83, 55 and 34 km races, NUTS Karhunkierros is the UTMB of Northern Finland.
All distances finish in Ruka Village by midnight on Saturday. I signed in for the 166 km out-and-back course in September, but changed it for the 83 km distance after getting a chance to do the legendary Western States 100-miler just a month later. I decided to focus on Western States this summer, as I can do NUTS Karhunkierros 100-miler next year.
NUTS Karhunkierros is the biggest ultra trail run in Northern Europe. However it's not as big as Ice Hockey World Championships, which Finland happened to win the same weekend. On Thursday, when I travelled to Ruka, we all watched on TV Finland beat Sweden. At Friday Noon was the hundred miler start in sunny but cool conditions. Luckily there wasn't a Finland hockey match, so I got a good night's sleep.
We were served an excellent buffet breakfast at 5am on Saturday. Then NUTS buses took us to Hautajärvi, the Northern trail head of Karhunkierros. Unfortunately the weather had turned cold +2C, with drizzling rain forecast all day long. I wore La Sportiva rain jacket, knee-length tights and gloves the whole race, and never felt too warm.
We started at 7am. The first 28 km leg to Oulanka was crowded. Whenever there were obstacles like swamp crossings on wood planks, or hanging bridges across rivers, queues formed. That may have been a blessing in disguise, as I tend to start my ultras way too fast. It was my intention to reach Oulanka before the 55 km start at 10 am, but it took me somewhat longer. The two 400 ml bottles of water in my Sky Vest front pockets lasted easily, as the weather was so cold I wasn't losing much sweat. I didn't have to eat a lot either thanks to big breakfast, just some Clif gels and Blok Shots.
In Oulanka we got our drop bags. Instead of taking more supplies, I left all my bars in the bag, as I found them tough to bite in the cold. I just filled my stomach with potato chips, cookies, bananas, mandarins, pickled cucumbers, hot veggie soup, and coke. I refilled my water bottles and hurried to the longest 32 km leg to Juuma. Other competitors told me they have refilled their bottles directly from the river without any stomach consequences. I believe the rivers are clean around here, but I had no need to try it this time.
The first part was relatively flat and fast section high above the river. It was very scenic as well and now I understood why this trail is so loved by backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Then I passed a competitor wrapped in a space blanket and lying down, but he was being helped by two volunteers already. Soon after another runner with a bloody face walked back towards Oulanka with a lady helping him get there. As the trail went down to the river it got increasingly technical with roots and rocks. I was able to get to Juuma Basecamp without any troubles worth mentioning.
After a brief refill I continued to the last aid station only 17 km away. The first km was on a dirt road and I managed to face plant while looking at my Suunto 9 watch. I was offered help, and tried my best to convince everyone I was ok, while spitting dirt between sentences. The rest of the way was hilly and muddy, but we were listening to the Russia - Finland afternoon hockey thriller while plodding on. When Finland scored and won 0-1, there was a loud roar all around the fells.