Friday, May 31, 2019

NUTS Karhunkierros 83K

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 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.

From Konttainen aid station it was only seven km to the finish line. There were a few steep sections with ropes. I was feeling pretty good, but passing all those runners mixed from all four races proved to be a tiring job. On Valtavaara fell it was foggy and windy, but the course was well marked. I sprinted the last downhill to finish in Ruka with 13 hours 34 minutes - 3rd in my age category. We were served excellent hot soup with oat chips and alcohol-free Karhu beer. Then it was time for a recovery in sauna. On Sunday I'd be already back home, watching Finland win gold. Life couldn't be better than this. I'm already seriously considering NUTS Karhunkierros 2020 - maybe you should too!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Iznik Ultra 2019: 'This Was Harder Than Your Usual Effort'

If I had a euro for every time I thought 'F*CK THIS SH*T', I'd be a millionaire by now. I just failed to reach CP12 by 18:00, resulting in DQ. The winner of Iznik Ultra 100-miler (163 km) has already finished two hours ago. I sit down beside a hot wood burning stove in the middle of the room, slowly sipping a cup of tea in my cold hands, wondering how the hell did this crazy trip happen, and quite possibly resembling Leonardo di Caprio in the final scene of The Revenant.

The race begun in sunny cool weather before sundown on Friday. I was in high spirits and ahead my schedule the first 50K. After that the muddy sections started to slow me down. The mud stuck to my shoes, making them 2x heavier. I encountered a fellow competitor in the middle of the night, struggling through deep mud in his barefoot running shoes, and we both burst out laughing at the absurdity of this all. 

I was determined not to give up. I ran pretty well through a couple of rain showers and a river crossing to CP9 in Sölöz, 89 km. We got our drop bags and I changed my socks. I would have changed my shoes as well, but I didn't bring a spare pair. Iznik Ultra allows crewing at several aid stations, and now I understood pretty well why. I didn't have any crew of course.

Then the hailing and snowing started. It was definitely colder than the average. Then there was another rain shower. In Narlica a friendly volunteer bought me a cup of hot tea. They sent me off at 1:30pm, telling me CP11 was 9 km away, and the cutoff there would be 4pm. In the following sawtooth-profile trails I slipped in a extremely steep downhill. I grabbed a branch with both hands  and it stopped my fall.

I was happy to reach 116 km CP11 at 15:39, dirty and slightly worn out, but unharmed. They informed me that the cutoff was in fact 15:30, but they let me fill my water bottle and continue immediately anyway.

Then the mud got only worse, sucking my shoes like it wanted to swallow them. Probably only in dryer and warmer conditions I might have been able to finish within 30 hours. As warmth returned my battered body, I contemplated no one laying on their death bed wished they'd spent more time in the comfort zone. Certainly they would have chosen to get out there in the wild world and experience it all to the fullest. This experience provided solid training for toughness.

After returning to Istanbul by minibus and ferry, I learned only 21 runners had finished the full distance. Nobody in my 55+ age group finished. The final stage of Tour of Turkey was on TV. I went to see the cyclists finish their 100-miler beside Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. The sun was shining again.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Transgrancanaria 128km Race Report 2019

Transgrancanaria 2019 event was the best ever for three reasons:

1. The weather was sunny, clear and nice 23C all week.

2. I was able to participate with my son - I was able to follow his 17km race on my phone while running in my 128km.

3. We are both now happy Transgrancanaria 2019 finishers!

We picked up our race packets on Wednesday at the Expo Meloneras. Then we just ate well and chilled out at the pool in  H10 Playa Meloneras Palace. This official race hotel was once again filled with elite trailrunners. It was nice to meet Kaytlyn Gerbin there, my favorite in the women's race. I also followed Trans 360, the crazy unmarked adventure run around the island which had started on Wednesday morning.

On Friday evening buses dropped us 128km runners in Las Palmas. We sat down in a cafe and chatted for 90 minutes with other Finnish competitors Vesa, Antti, Jouni, Kati and Jaana. As usual we were sent off from Las Canteras beach at 23:00 with live music, fireworks and huge crowds.

I ran the familiar trails through Arucas (17km, 2:18 elapsed), Teror (27km, 4:20 elapsed) and Fontanales (39km, 6;57 elapsed) in the long queue of headlamps throught the pleasant moonlit night with lots of spectators cheering and faraway dogs barking. Everything went well and climbing up hills felt easy with poles. However I avoided hurry as there is about 6,900m of elevation gain in this technical course.

In the morning the rising sun found me Los Perez (51km, 9:36 elapsed) aid station by by a dam. This is a beautiful area with blooming almond trees and pine forests. It always elevates my spirit to run here, although my legs often start to get tired at this point.

The reception in Artenara (63km, 12:53 elapsed) was cheerful with my usual delicious pasta, crepes and coke breakfast available. It was just before noon and I saw that my son had already finished his 17km race in  2:20. I sent a couple  of messages to make sure he was ok and safely back in the hotel before continuing. My Brit friend Jon sent me a great finisher photo of  my son Jon. 

The scenic route to Tejeda (75km, 15:05 elapsed) was spectacular, but it was getting a bit too sunny and warm for someone coming straight from the dark arctic winter of Finland. For lunch I had my usual Canaria potatos with grilled zucchini and coke. The climb up to Roque Nublo (altitude 1718m, 17:30 elapsed) felt long and hot once again, but finally I arrived in Garanon (86km) after 5pm.. I got my drop bag, changed my socks, shorts and shirt, ate a little and rushed on as I was only a couple of hours away from the cut-off time. 

The new route to Hierbahuerto (101km, 21:56 elapsed) was mostly downhill, but it wasn't as fast as I'd hoped. Dry dust irritated my throat. I seemed to have developed quite a craving for salty potato chips and coke. It was dark again.

The steep newly added technical sections further down to Ayagaures (111km, 24:31 elapsed) went even slower. This place is well-known for good vibes and generous paella dinners. Someone there looked even more tired than me: Luca Papi, who kindly joined our 128km race as a cool down after winning his 265km Trans 360 on Friday. 

The last part of the course was the infamous dry river bed. It is what it is, the same as last year.

The important thing to note is that I didn't fall down and require any bandaids at all during this race - that's quite an achievement, considering my three earlier races (2012, 2015, 2018) on this magnificent island. I had a couple close calls with cactus plants, but was lucky enough to stay unharmed.

I finished just before 3am on Sunday. Official time 27:58:29. My Suunto 9 watch said it was actually 137km. It certainly felt that long!

Thanks to my fellow runners, organizers, volunteers and spectators, and La Sportiva Team Finland. See you in Transgrancanaria 2020. Animo!