2015 was a wild year in many ways and by far, the most successful in terms of athletics achievements. I did train hard and quite smart, but still some of the results were a big surprise. Below is a brief look back into what happened:
March – Ultra Trail Muntanyes de Costa Daurada, 90km, 4,500m+
This is really a home race for me, with the route passing only some kilometers away from where we live. I train on these trails on a weekly basis. However, this race has always been difficult for me, with some tough grinds to get through even the half distance version of this race. The shorter version of this race was my first mini-ultra distance race (46km) and I really struggled with energy and tough conditions, with vertical snow / sleet higher up during some of the toughest moments of that race. In 2015, despite good preparations, my difficulties continued, this time with rare stomach problems / dehydration. Something unexplained was off right from the start. I fell once before 20km and this was the first real warning sign and then after the first major aid station after 22km or so, I started having real difficulties with not being able to eat or drink and being out of energy. My racing strategy changed here, I expected this to be a normal bad patch that would get better if I just take it a bit easier. That did not really happen and I struggled on, slowly, with not being able to each much and also running out of water. At the half way point, had to sit down for several minutes and try to get some soup into me and this helped things somewhat. I had dropped to something like 14th place, but this didn’t really matter much anymore. I continue on, feeling better and facing the biggest climb in the race. I struggled slightly, but managed to get to the top and felt a bit better in the downhill. Here I had the best moment in the race and actually started passing people. I fought my way into 7th place and probably would have been on the podium if I had managed to continue this. However, I still couldn’t eat much and I started losing energy again. My pace slowed and in the next big climb, I could hardly stay upright and had to stop and sit down several times before I made it to the top and met my support crew again. Here, I tried to eat some pasta, but managed to do so at the rate of about one piece of pasta per minute, despite waiting for 10-15 minutes to try to recover. I had done 65km, with 25 to go and without being able to properly eat, I decided to call it and drop out. Even today, I don’t fully understand what happened.
UTMCD Start – everything was still good
May – IAU Ultra Trail World Championships, Annecy, France. 85km, 5,200m+
This was the main event of the year, representing Finland in the national team with 8 other runners was a big honor and really a highlight of all my running career so far. We’re now in the Alpes, facing a pretty tough course with really long climbs. The race started at 3 AM and we had 1,200 meters to climb over the first 21 kilometers. That means climbing, non-stop, through the first 3 hours or so of the night. When you know that in advance, it’s actually not that bad.
Getting ready for the opening ceremony… which was hilarious, but that’s a long story…
A big question mark going into this race was my fitness / ability / issues … with the previous race ending in a DNF, this was a big thing in my head. Retrospectively, it was much bigger of an issue than I first thought. Rather than to compete at the best of my ability, my race plan was not to end up in a catastrophic failure. The race started at a crazy pace, with people running well under 4-minute pace in the first kilometers. I stayed back with teammate Janne Hietala and we dropped almost into the last positions. I was going a bit WTF at this point. Do I really belong here?
Sometime in the morning, just warming up
The first climb went quite well, I was taking it really easy, but still left Janne behind at some point. I had a silly plan, starting the race with quite minimalistic shoes with the plan to change these at the first aid station at the top of the mountain. First mistake. First of all, I gained nothing with that, second, I lost a of time in this (and Janne, who stopped for about three seconds, went past me and built a gap) and third, my hands were freezing and I struggled to tie my shoelaces properly.
Things got a bit better and I caught up to Janne again, who had gotten slightly lost. We ran together for a little bit, but he was better in the technical downhills. Later on, this man from Finland, who has a highest peak of 60meters to train on, commented that “People here don’t know how to run downhills” .. I don’t know what their secret is, but I couldn’t stay with him.
After this there was a flatter section, which suited me well and I was moving good. I got to the next aid station, where I again spent several minutes, taking a long break to visit the bathroom, etc. I made a comment to the support crew that I feel good and will surely climb up in results from here.
Just rolling through the fields
I continue on, feeling quite ok and just taking it quite easy. I knew the next big climb was ahead and that I’d be climbing for the next 2-3 hours again. This one really challenged me and I struggled towards the end, with energy getting quite low. This extended into the downhill that followed, which I pretty much cruised down at what was quite a comfortable, but pretty slow pace.
After this, one more aid station and the final climb and downhill. Here I started to struggle quite a bit. The uphill wasn’t too bad, I was feeling rough, but I was passing people and nobody passed be here. After 70kms of running, it’s normal to feel a bit beat up. Once I got to the top, I really struggled to keep my balance and was very weak. I was really leaning into my poles and without them, probably would have fallen down the cliff. The final long downhill really, really sucked and I felt I was slower than a turtle. Some people passed me, but later I realized they were the leaders of the open race, who started on the same course a little bit after the competitors in the world champs.
Struggling at the top of the final climb. The race went around the beautiful Lake Annecy in the background.
Final stretch into the finish line and I pretty much collapsed on the ground and stayed there for 20 minutes, just eating chips, cheese and whatever other goodies I grabbed from the aid station. I was literally laying down next to the finish line with a pile of chips next to me when another runner, a female Pro from team USA also finished, collapsed next to me saying that this looks very inviting and we shared my pile of chips together. This was really a golden moment 🙂
Almost there … somehow I managed to not look as bad as I felt
I finished in 112th position, with time of 11:07, which isn’t too bad, but I could have done better. I was running too conservative, I had an idiotic plan for the aid stations and I still didn’t manage my nutrition right. I had confidence issues from the previous race and without these, I think I would have approached the race differently. Live and learn.
Get OUT of my way, I want to finish!
Result: 112th, 11:07
June: Reus-Prades-Reus, 55km, 2,500m+
This is actually not a competitive race, it’s something called a ‘caminada’ … weird concept where people hike this sort of distances, taking forever. There are always a handful of competitive runners in this event also. There are 600 participants or so, so it’s quite a big event. This was only 2 weeks after Annecy and I decided to run this the evening before and signed up the morning of the race. Annecy left me feeling a bit dissatisfied, feeling that I had left something in the tank. Not something you want to do when you’re supposed to represent your country. I almost felt like I needed to punish myself and go out and run really hard. My ‘strategy’ for this race was to really step on it from the beginning and do what I felt I should have done in Annecy. I did just that and was leading from the first moments and running really pleasingly well, despite the +30 degree heat and full sun. I was moving so fast that I surprised a couple of the aid stations by showing up so early. I was pretty confident I had built up a bit of a lead, but just kept my foot down all the way to the finish. I finished with a good time of 5:05 or so, 17 minutes ahead of the second place runner, who is a 2:40 marathoner so against that benchmark, it was a stellar result. I did exactly what I wanted to do and got a bit of a confidence boost and left the Annecy issues behind.
Result: 1st place, 5:05
August: Ultra Vandekames, 85km, 5,200m+
This race wasn’t in my plan initially. Then the president of our running club, C.E. Trail Tarraco asked me “Kai, are you doing this race” and I surprised myself too by saying “Yes”. This race has a very technical, rugged course that doesn’t really suit me at all, but is something I want to improve in. The other reason was that it started at midnight and I really like running at night. Anyway, I find myself at the start line without much preparation for this one. My only plan going into the race was to take it easy, knowing it’s a really difficult route and I wanted to for once really focus on enjoying the race without having to worry about competing. The race started in very humid and foggy, hot conditions. I started according to plan and just hung behind the leading pack of runners. I wanted to stick with them, gaining a bit of help from not having to follow the course markings and just stay with the headlamps in front of me. We got to the top of the initial climb and I was maybe in 5-6 position at the start of the downhill section. A couple of the runners were really too slow here and after staying with them for a little bit, I lost patience and went past them. I ended up in second place, with the leader not in sight. I was a bit worried that I’m going too fast because I was in such a position unexpectedly, but I was running at the pace I wanted to run, so I just kept going and expected the other guys to catch up at some point later on, which was fine for me.
Before the race, someone made a post about the favorites. I was surprised, but pleased to be named among them, but really went into the race with zero expectations.
Maybe one third into the race, before a medium-sized climb I heard from the race director that the leader was just some minutes ahead of me. I told him that this is fine, I’m not really in a hurry and just stuck with my pace and plan. Not very long into this climb, I heard some huffing and puffing ahead and I could see that the guy in the lead was really struggling. I actually felt bad for the guy, he looked so rough and I was in great spirits, the dark, foggy night was really my element. I was now in the lead, but still kept going at my own easy pace. I did start doing things a bit more tactically though. For example, I wanted to make sure the runners behind me will not benefit from being able to just follow my light so I built a gap. Route finding was really difficult at the top of the mountains, where the fog was the worst and visibility only a couple of meters and sparse route markings and no visible trail (it was all rock). Other than this, I was just rolling through the kilometers and still not really competing.
Things changed at the halfway aid station. It was now the morning and I got better updates about the racing situation. I heard I had about 15 minutes lead. I made a proper stop at the aid station, eating some pasta, sitting around drinking and chatting with the staff for a bit. When I left, I was thinking that I’m somehow managed to work up to this lead, so it would be silly to mess that up now. This is when my plan changed from just enjoying the race to actually winning it. There was a big climb ahead and I powered into this quite hard, wanting to extend my lead to something I could then just manage for the rest of the race. When I got over the mountains and into the next town, I heard that my lead was now about 45 minutes. It’s funny how the mind works, I felt that my shoelaces were tied a bit too tight, but I also thought that I can’t afford the time to fix them and just went on with some pain in the feet.
So with 45 minutes in hand, I felt I can pretty much do what I want and even I can’t mess up that kind of a lead. I took the next section really easy, there were some really annoying thorny plants and other crap I didn’t like so I just walked a lot. At the next station, I heard that my lead is now only 25 minutes, so I panicked and picked up my pace for the next section. I knew the runner behind me well and knew that he’s a really solid, consistent runner, but that as long as I don’t melt down, I can manage the lead in my favor. “Don’t melt down” was the plan I then followed until the end.
I managed a good sprint through the finish line
I don’t want this to sound too easy, the race was a really tough technical one and I had to dig deep to get through it. The technical downhills at the end really challenged me. I fell once, was saved by my hiking pole, which unfortunately snapped in two, but I guess that is better than falling on my face.
I did feel pretty rough
In the end, I was really proud to win this technical race and this was a very big surprise as the terrain here doesn’t suit me at all. Some of the top racers also not starting for various reasons made it just a little bit easier to be at the top.
Result: 1st place, 12:51 (the longest race in time that I have ever done, says something about the technicality of the course)
October: Ultra Trail Serra de Montsant (UTSM), 101km, 4,200m+
Despite some really pleasant results, I actually didn’t feel that any of the ultra victories I had managed until this point were really deserved and were because of my own abilities or execution of a race. There were always some external factors, like extreme heat, top competitors dropping out, etc that left some doubts. I had won the UTSM in 2014, but this was a race with 30+ degree heat and with more than half of the competition dropping out. I felt that I was basically the fastest person who didn’t screw up their race. Not screwing up is a big part of ultra racing, so I’m happy to accept such a result, but I’d rather feel like I also deserved it because of my own abilities. So, despite the win in 2014, I felt I had something to prove to myself. I had several goals for the race, but the main one was to go under 12 hours (2014 time was 12:19), secondary goal was to just improve my time from last year and only then I would start worrying about my position in the race.
UTSM – Getting ready and in good spirits
I started executing my plan very well, really just sticking to my own race and time, chasing the splits I had set to myself. A bunch of runners were well ahead of me early on. At the first aid station, I was slightly ahead of my planned times and everything was good. If I remember right, I was somewhere around 5-8 position, but I really didn’t care about that. I was very pleased with myself for mentally being able to focus on the main priority of executing my race plan and not chasing anyone or getting stressed about the position.
The UTSM course is quite strategic, relatively early on there is a 25km section of beautiful, slightly rolling downhill in a canyon next to a river. For an ultra-trail runner I’m pretty fast in this kind of sections, so I wanted to use this to my advantage and try to keep up a nice pace. I tried to do this now also, but didn’t actually feel that I was moving that fast, although I felt quite good.
Execution Mode: ON!
I had learned from Annecy that aid station strategy is really important, thanks to Janne’s 3-second stops. I really kept things simple and managed to execute my stops pretty much Formula 1 style (thanks also to Katri for managing things so well). After this 25km section, I was still within the times I had set for myself, although there was some confusion about the splits I had calculated (in reality, I was well ahead, but I did not know it at the time). I was slightly disappointed for not having done better as I thought I had ran faster than the year before. Slightly after an aid station, I noticed that I had dropped a glove and cursed myself for it. Just a couple of minutes after this, another runner surprised me by going past and handing me my lost glove… Again, this created some doubts in my mind .. what’s going on, I feel like I’m going fast, but my time is not so good and I have runners passing me. Anyway, I soon dropped the friendly, glove-saving guy in the next uphill.
Having a little drink from the fountain (Photo by Jordi Santacana / Naturetime Events)
I remember from 2014 that my race really started at around the half way point. There is a little spring / checkpoint just before this and this is where in 2014 I learned that I was in 3rd and this year, I was in the same exact position. I heard that I was 10 minutes from the lead.
When I got to the halfway point, my friend and the aid station manager told me that I arrived at the exact same time as last year and that the leader is 10 minutes ahead of me. This was again a slight disappointment, as it confirmed that I was behind my planned times and also showed me that I’m not catching up the leader either. Again, in reality, this information was wrong and I was well ahead of my time …
I really like this photo… Ultra racing is not just running. (Photo by Jordi Santacana / Naturetime Events)
One very positive sign that gave me a boost was that I felt a lot better than the year before. There was a semi-big climb after the aid station, where I had really struggled in 2014, but this time I went through this smoothly. I wanted to try to secure my secondary goal of improving my time, so I tried to keep up a good pace. I had pretty much waved goodbye to my sub-12h goal.
At every checkpoint, I heard that I was the same, frustrating 10 minutes behind the lead. I didn’t worry about that much, just tried to do what I can to catch some time to make sure I can at least finish with a better time than the year before. Then, really out of nowhere, I see a runner ahead of me. I’m wondering if he’s from a different race, or what’s going on. It turned out that he was the leader and when I got to him, I saw that he was destroyed. I felt a bit bad for him, so I gave him a little pat on the shoulder and some comforting words. After this, I turned on the turbo and sprinted past him, up the hill in the village just to make sure to send a message to him that there is no point in trying to follow. This was a great racing moment, it happened in the middle of a village and there were some spectators that took photos of it that then were spread in social media providing people watching the race a glimpse of actual racing.
Near the top of the final climb, this photo was in the newspapers the next day (Photo by Jordi Santacana / Naturetime Events)
Getting into the lead then definitely gave me a big moral boost after earlier disappointments about the time. I definitely wanted to secure the lead and around km 65-70, I really felt great and ran really well for 10 or so kilometers. I then started feeling slight cramps and actually called Katri to ask for a race update. She went to work trying to figure out what kind of gap I have. I soon heard that I have at least 17 minutes of lead. This allowed me to slow down a little and manage myself a little better. The execution was really very similar to what happened in 2014, except that I was feeling a whole lot better.
I started catching up to some runners that were running some of the other distances in the same event and when most of these realized that I’m the leader of the main ultra distance, I got a lot of encouragement from everyone. In one hill, a couple of girls from Mallorca wanted to take selfies with me and they were thrilled about this. These were really great moments in the race, I was smiling a lot and had surprisingly lots of energy and this showed. One of the spectators commented in the live feeds that I just went past full of confidence of victory, with still 20kms to go. I have to say it was true, it was one of the real “runner’s high” moments.
Really one of the top moments in my life really … it was magic
The rest of the race was really just race management. Crossing the finish line was really a magical moment, I managed to do an amazing sprint with a final jump over the finish line, which ended up on a great video:
I had screwed up the split calculations and was actually well ahead of my split goals all day and tried to catch up to them. In the end, I improved my time almost 40 minutes, finishing in 11:40:20. This time, the race was also competitive and the main competitors stayed in the race and for the first time, it felt like a fully deserved victory.
Result: 1st place, 11:40:20.
November: Transgavarres, 52km, 2,500m+ (or so)
UTSM was such a great experience that I felt like doing one more ultra this year. This one was only 2 weeks after UTSM, which didn’t leave much time to recover. However, I had done really well in the Reus-Prades-Reus with also just 2 weeks of recovery, so I thought I could pull it off. Also the route seemed really favorable for me, being quite fast and no tough climbs.
The trails were great, my race was not
Well, my legs were not there this day and my strategy was off again. I was in the lead until km 10 or so and actually pulled ahead of the main pack with another runner, who then told me that we should take it easy and that these guys will run very fast in the second half of the race. They did exactly this and by km 15, I could no longer follow them and by km 25, I was in total survival mode and was planning on just cruising to the finish and enjoy the trail. Even that didn’t help and I just felt like crap for the rest of the race. I did not really enjoy this experience, but I guess I must have learned something from it.
Result: 10th place, 5:25:21
That’s it for 2015. Time to take a break from training and focus on other activities and charge all systems for 2016.