Fire in the eyes

With any competition, whether it’s running, running a business or cooking, I believe it is absolutely vital to have great motivation and determination to do something great. I call this “Fire in the eyes” and I first thought about it after my first win at the UTSM, when a team member told me that when he saw me in the route around km50, he said that I had fire in my eyes and he knew from it that I was on my way to so something special. I remember the moment well, it was at the top of a quite big climb, but I was getting into very good flow. In these moments, I’m usually 100% focused on the trail and the race, often not seeing much around me. A bit after this I heard that I was in 3rd place, which was a surprise and at the next point, I heard that I’m also catching up with the lead. I could smell blood, which just pushed me on even more.

I love racing and these moments are some of the defining factors for me and key reason why I do trail races. Some people say that they do that because they “enjoy the trail / mountains”. At least in key races, I don’t do that. I usually don’t really remember much about the places we’ve gone through. I don’t stop to take selfies. I’ve done all that in training. It’s like a karateka saying that they do karate competitions because they like to get punched / punch people in the face (I guess some people might like that too). It’s about the preparation and then doing your best against the course / opponents. After the race, you shake hands and are the best friends, but during the race I want to hunt down each one of them.

You don’t get this fire going every time. Emotional engagement with the particular competition is very important for me. I think about the event much in advance, preparing that fire for the right moment. It’s not possible to do this too often and not all races are like that. Some ones are special where I might do the mental build up for months in advance. Some I go to ad-hoc just to go have some fun and in these I usually have a pretty average performance. One of these was Vandekames a week ago, where I lost 5th (last podium) place just 2kms before the finish when I was overtaken. I just looked at the guy go and thought that I have nothing in me to fight for that spot and just kept on doing my own thing. In a “Fire in the eyes” moment I probably could have switched on the turbo.

I had a “Fire moment” yesterday in a VK race. It wasn’t a big and popular race, but it was organized by our club and the route was special, going up a very steep and technical way up the Montsant mountain and that was special for me. I had done some scouting in advance and had an idea of the time I thought I could do. Already in the warm-up, I felt very good, everything just responded much better than before when I had done my scouting. I had a bit of a break between my warm-up and the start of the race and kind of felt that my legs had gone to sleep a bit. A lot of people always have this kind of little doubts before races, despite everything supposedly being perfect. You never know until the race starts.

When my turn to start came, things kicked off pretty well and I was moving up the mountain, breathing hard, but had pretty good control of my feet and an effort I thought I can keep up consistently. I then thought I was catching up to the runner who had started 2 mins before me, first from the sounds of the volunteers helping him through some tough spots, then I could see him up ahead and minute-by-minute, I knew I was catching him. Because of all the fire in my eyes, I didn’t really see anything around me. There were probably around 10-15 volunteers on the route and they were all cheering as I went by, but I literally did’t see any of them. I didn’t even recognize their voices, I was just staring ahead, picking my route and tracking the distance to the runner ahead. Only after I had touched the rock at the top of the mountain, I came out of it and could focus on what’s going around me. It was probably a perfect race from me, finishing in 17min 12 s, more than 1,5mins faster than I thought I could do it. I was kind of glowing for the rest of the evening too.

fire eyes

Is that fire in the eyes? 

Range

There is at least one great benefit for being an ultrarunner. When going on holiday adventures, we have great range to explore a lot. We just spent a few days in the Pyreness in the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park. I was pretty much able to explore the whole place and run through all the major trails and sights.

Having the ability to run easily for 10 hours and 40+ kilometers without having to really think about it too seriously helps keep things flexible. So I had an open plan going there, with a vague idea of what I wanted to do. This is how it shaped up.

Day 1 – check in

We drove to this place in Aragon about 3hrs from home. We left right after work and the trip was smooth. We checked in and had a nice dinner at the hotel. Several nice vegan or vegetarian options in addition to the usual ones. Then just get the gear ready for the next day and go to bed. After a bottle of wine, of course.

Day 2 – Getting a feel

So the plan for the first day was to go hit the bases of the key high peaks, but not go all the way up and just scout stuff and plan for a nice fast trip for the next day. I still wanted to do a good amount of kms and vertical, so wanted to go to 3,000m+. I especially wanted to check out one of the peaks where it was said that it’s not doable without ropes. (I thought it looked doable, but difficult and not something to try alone).

This is the difficult peak … but this is not the route that looked doable. The path to the left from here looked easier.

Ok not quite 3000m, but close enough 🙂

It was a good day, I made good time up the mountain and it was beautiful. I did feel a bit dizzy when powering up after 2,500m and had to slow down and even stop a few times to get rid of it. It was good to know for the next day. Some of the sections above 2,200m started to get quite technical and slow too. Went up to 3,000m, stopped where the sign said “dangerous path” (which didn’t look too dangerous). Then turned around and went back down before this big group of teenage explorers coming down the  mountain …

Looking down into the Ordesa Valley

Closer to the valley

Probably the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen

But really there were waterfalls everywhere

It ended up being 32km or so and 1,800m+. Mission accomplished and I had a plan for the next day.

Day 3 – Monte Perdido

So now I knew how to get to the top of the big mountain, Monte Perdido, the third highest in the Pyrenees at 3,355m. I didn’t expect any challenges with it, but knew the final climbs would be hard based on the previous days experience. I wanted to take it easy, but still made it to the refugi in 2,200m in exactly the same time as the previous day. It was explained for not stopping to take any photos and speaking to Katri for 10 minutes…

Marmots started making an appearance above 2,000m+

Glacier going up to Perdido

The higher sections went a lot better than the first day and overall I was feeling great, much better than the first day. The final climb was fun, it was super steep 45 degree climb in loose rock, so it was 1 step up, 1/2 steps back. Some other groups were having tough time getting up there and I was gliding past everyone … Great views at the top, where I enjoyed my picnic. There was a family with some very brave little kids of maybe 8-10 years old that had made it up also and looked like they do that every day …

Perdido Summit

It was a glorious bright day

Coming down was the highlight of the day… the steep rock downhill was great, I was sliding on the rocks, past all the people going up or down and made super fast time down and hit the glacier below. The glacier was also 45+ degree angle and coated with nice soft snow.. I could see some tracks on the snow and jumped in there and slid down some 400 meters and 150 vertical in about 30 seconds. It was great, went so fast that had do slow down with the shoes and this shot up tons of snow. People probably though I was a bit mad. Nobody else took this route… 🙂

Here’s a bonus, my conversation with a marmot

I then met Katri a bit below. We had kept contact all day with our radios, which worked great in the mountains. Even though we were at times 7 or so kilometers apart, me at the top of the mountain, Katri somewhere in the middle, we were able to talk all day. I had been encouraging her to make her way with the dogs up to the refugi at 2,200m. We finally made it there both at the same time and had a bit of lunch together. I wanted to get some more kilometers, so I went exploring one part of the mountain that looked interesting and did a couple more kilometers and an extra hour and then ran back down to meet Katri down the mountain. We then walked back to the parking lot together, which took absolutely forever and the day ended up being 8h 23 min and 37,5km and 2,300m+.

Day 4 – “Rest Day”

As an old man, I wanted to take it easy and not break myself by playing in the mountains too hard. I wanted to have an easy day and then another bigger day. So the previous day I came across another “dangerous trail” that I had planned to take. It also said not to start if after 15:00 in the afternoon. I was a bit tired the previous day and decided not to go there that day as I didn’t really have a clue what I’d encounter, but of course it sounded interesting. So today I wanted to explore that section. It started with a 650m climb in 2,5km. My plan was to go easy, but I felt quite good and once I got started with the climb, my speed just accelerated. At some point I thought that this climb is probably a Strava segment, so I wanted to try to rank a good time (I ended up 4th ranked time overall in that climb). The trail was absolutely great, really nice views, fun trail to run in and far less people than in many other parts of the park. There wasn’t anything dangerous, although the trail is a bit difficult in the other direction with the big downhill which was slightly technical. I ran up to the nicest waterfall in the park, had quick snack and ran back the other side of the valley. Otherwise the day was great, but the downhill was getting a bit boring and legs didn’t feel that great at the end. 20km and 823m+.

Day 5 – Round Trip

I had planned to do a long day and had scouted a route of 55km and 5,000m+. In the end, looking at the route more closely, it had a few parts that looked quite hard and I didn’t want to go into the unknown and try to bite too much in terrain that I don’t know that well. So I decided to cut it a bit.. Katri gave me a ride to a trailhead that allowed me to cut a few kms from the beginning and start with a big 1,500m+ climb. I also cut two round trips to some high peaks, one which I had done already.

Easy part of the 1st climb

The first climb went really well, it was long but it felt easy and nice. The path crossed into France and on the french side, there was a parking lot close by in around 2,000 meters and quite a lot of people were coming from there. The path went quite high for a long time and the views were great and the trail was fun. It was pretty crowded so where I could, I climbed up different sections from everyone else and at one point climbed a big waterfall which was fun. The trail went to another refugi, which was in a magical valley with a great waterfall at the other end and a big glacier at the other.

Nice valley, with the waterfall that’s hard to see

The path then crossed over to the Spanish side, over the highest ridge where all of the french hikers stayed for their picnics.

Up another glacier

I was the only one who crossed to the other side, where there were no real paths, big rocks, very technical. The next couple of kilometers, although downhill, took me probably around 20 mins / km and I wasn’t trying to be slow. In this whole 10km section I encountered 3 other people. The area was like a big open desert in the middle of the big mountains. Very tough, rugged and empty. It was great,  just me and the marmots.

Yeah, that’s a my kind of place

Soon I saw the refugi where I had met Katri earlier the other day and knew exactly where I was again. I now decided to take the “dangerous path” and do it in the other direction and face the hard downhill. It was hard and I felt a bit like in an ultra trail race. I now only had an easy section along the canyon with easy trail and really amazing waterfalls. Towards the end I started to feel like I was bonking a bit (running out of energy) and realized I had not eaten anything in 3 hours and 20 kms and even then my snack had been two oreo cookies and two fruit loops. No wonder I felt a bit weak. In the end it was 7 hours, 36kms and 2,000m+.

So …

Trail running didn’t seem to be a big thing in this place. I just wonder why … with running, you can see so much more. I also took a lot of time to just chill, walk around and stare at the mountains, have snacks in great places and really get a very good picture of a place by just running around everywhere. Most people like to hike around and they cover a fraction of the place like that. A good plan is to just run sections that are not so interesting, then take it easier when it’s great. Then you can start linking together peaks, valleys, waterfalls etc. And when you are in shape, all the exercise feels great and not so hard that some people might expect from the numbers. After the trip, with so many kilometers and hours, my legs and body didn’t really feel tired at all. Highly recommended.

My unusual plan for the UTBCN 101km

So what do you do when you get injured before a key race and are just barely able to start. Go aggressively for the win, of course. Crazy, you think? Well, hear me out.

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So only yesterday, I was very unsure whether I would be able to even start the race. I was in a very foul mood (just ask Katri). Ultra trail racing is a sport of consistency and long term planning. This adds a tremendous amount of mental influence as well. This next race is something I have already been planning and preparing for months. After a perfect training block for two hand a half months, the thought of not being able to even start really hurt.

I have actually been following advise from Jason Koop, a top ultra coach. He says that people should pick races that they feel inspired about. Sometimes inspiration happens unexpectedly. For me, this actually started sometime after the UTMB. While I can get very excited about races, big events like the UTMB can also mean that there is a mental hangover. After a big party like that can kind of drain motivation. After such an event, it was a bit hard to find the drive to train really well or be inspired about racing. I recognized that and just took things off after the trail world champs in Portugal. My plan was not to run at all, until I really felt like running again. That all kicked in around December and I just started running a ton and started thinking about races I could do.

After not running for a bit, I felt like I want to do a faster ultra race, rather that something super difficult and slow. I had done the UTBCN marathon distance before and knew there would be quite a bit of easier running. This race course isn’t really very spectacular in any way and kind of has a bit of a bad reputation. I didn’t have a great experience last time, but still, after this break, it really started feeling like the race to do. I started thinking about it more and more, adding race-specific training to my routine and really became committed to train to do well there.

So I have definitely been quite emotionally engaged with this event for a long time now. I think I had a great big training block in the beginning of the year. I just finished that and started my 3-week tapering for the race. Just then I realized I have a serious problem in my ankle. I had a badly swollen ankle after doing 27k of the race course in advance and it really hurt to walk. It’s a bit of a mystery injury, I’m not sure if it’s a stress fracture, or if I banged the ankle on something. It’s the inside ankle bone of my left foot, the one that always gets hits by rolling rocks on downhills. I don’t remember any particular big hit, but it gets banged up all the time. Anyway, the result was a lot of pain and inability to run for 3 weeks. Now I’ve managed to do a couple of 5k runs without too much trouble, although I can always still feel it a bit afterwards.

So why do I have this strange plan? Well, all the training and planning was because I wanted to be competitive here. I still want to do that and that’s the biggest motivator for me. I want to have a little battle at the front of the race, get a feeling for the other runners, their strength and weaknesses. Hang out with them and see if I feel like I belong to the same party. It’s probably very unrealistic to think that I will win the race, be on the podium or even finish it, but I want to get a feeling of what I could perhaps have done if everything had gone well. So I want to stay in some contact with the lead group for as long as I can and it makes sense. When things get too hard, I will hold back and just carry on doing my own race and try to finish with the best results possible while doing the least amount of damage to myself.

We’ll see how things turn out, but I can already tell that I’m a lot damn happier now that I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to line up at the start and have a go.

See you on the trails!

Running Projects

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of running to places from my front door. I’ve been doing it too and the longer the better. Now in Alforja, I live in 480m of altitude at the intersection of two mountain ranges, so I have endless places to go to. I’ve been planning to run from home to a friends house in L’Ametlla del Mar. I knew parts of the way from running in these mountains before, but had to figure out perhaps 60% of the route. I patched it together by scanning routes in WikiLoc and my experience. The original idea was to run the last part with my friend, so that he could guide the final kms near his house. In the end he didn’t feel like it, so I was on my own. I already planned to do only part of the route and play it safe and stop before the final 28km or so. That idea sounded pretty lame, so just a day before the run I thought I should just push all the way and do the planned 65km or so. I put it the unknown parts of the route together in my Suunto Spartan Ultra and had a bunch of separate routes loaded, which should help me navigate all the way.

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All ready, clean and optimistic

I still had a bail-out point in the last village before the final 23km stretch that has no roads or villages. I told Katri that I will try to go all the way, but to watch her phone in case I need a ride out. I also told my friend I’ll be trying to do the whole thing.

So I set out in the morning just after 10 AM. It was pretty foggy and even misty, but a beautiful quiet morning to go running. I enjoyed the first 40 mins climb up to the Hermita de Puigcerver where I was planning to have my second breakfast, hobbit style. I had another coffee and half bocadillo con queso. From here I continued at a quiet pace through the foggy high parts of our mountain. It was all very pleasant and interesting with all the fog. After all the coffees and drinking, I had to pee all the time. I had to stop 6 times before the first 9 kms. It was crazy.

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Early fog

I had a tiny mishap in a new part of the mountain, just past the point where the Rally de Catalunya ends, going up to another pretty steep ridge. The trail was pretty non-existent in the side of the rocky mountain and I got lost a tiny bit. I had to track back up the mountain to find the trail, but the Suunto did a great job getting me back on the map. Running by the ridge was great, there were straight drop-offs of 200 meters and it was all very dramatic with the clouds, wind, misty rain. It felt like high mountains, although it was not. I was well prepared with clothes and gear, but didn’t have to put anything extra on, other than using my Buff as a hat.

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These scene was amazing.. the best part of the fog cloud had passed by the time I found my phone

I kept up a nice, consistent pace with no stops almost all the way to Colldejou, where I stopped to grab a Nutella sandwich from my backpack and walking a bit while eating it. In Colldejou, km 22 or so, I filled my water bottles and stopped down for a couple of minutes to activate the next part of the route in my watch. I had some trouble with the route, because after switching it, it was just showing the same route I had just done. I thought there was something wrong with the Suunto, so I tried stopping the run, re-starting and trying again. Still the same route. After some messing around, I realized I had screwed up myself and loaded the same route twice. I now had to run the next 10km blind. Crap. The only way from Colldejou to Pratdip I knew for sure was a dirt road. The best plan of action I had was to follow that. I texted my wife and friend with a status update, telling them that everything was looking good and I was moving on. Just before arriving at the dirt road, I came across a trail sign by chance and was happy to see it was pointing to Pratdip, where I was going. Ok, change of plans, I will take the trail and hope it’s well marked. It was and pretty soon I came across parts that I had ran before and I knew pretty well where I was. The trail was beautiful, running through the forest and it was pretty easy with just some moderate climbing. I soon arrived in Pratdip where for the first time I thought I can now feel the run in my legs, after km 32 or so. I had high confidence I can make it all the way, so  it was time for a brief stop to refuel and then move on.

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This flag has the best views

In 7km or so, I arrived in Masboquera, the final bail-out point, after which the trail would just be high ridges, no villages or accessible roads. All was good, so I ate my last Nutella sandwich, texted Katri and friend again that I will go for the final stretch, 23kms or so, ETA in 3-4 hours and that I would be following the GR-192. Things were actually feeling pretty good and I was happy and pushing a little bit in the next big climb to the ridge. It was great going up with the running poles, trying to jog along strong, but not redlining it. At the top, it was pretty technical for a bit, but then opened up on some dirt roads, which were great as I could feel I’m making nice headway and the next kilometers flew by.

sea.jpg

I could now see the sea and the sun was out, as was the wind and I was just about to find out about that

I was pretty high again and closing in on the sea side of the mountains. This was great because I could see beautiful views, with the afternoon sun shining over the sea. The downside was also that I was now very exposed to the wind, which the peaks funneled into these crazy wind tunnels that made running on the technical rocks very hard. I was leaning to the wind and running at an angle, but every now and then the wind suddenly stopped when I turned a corner and it was hard. Fighting the wind and balancing every second was also a very good full body exercise and probably burned a lot of energy. The final part of the ridge was the hardest, the trail disappeared completely and it was just rocks, bush and wind. I kept following the line my Suunto was showing me and made my way down the mountain. I was soon in a canyon and protected from the wind, which was a big relief.

Coming down the mountain was very hard, but it also allowed my system to rest a bit. When I got to the canyon, I was actually feeling great. All of the pain and stiffness that I had felt earlier was gone and I was flying. This was the runner’s high, the feeling that only happens in long efforts and that you’ll want to cherish and make it last. I could have gone very fast, but pulled it in a little bit and kept drinking etc, knowing that there would still be a few more km’s to go. Pretty soon I hit a dirt road and I knew the rest of the way would just be like that with a brief stretch of asphalt. The final part was a bit confusing, it was now dark and I was running with my headlamp and had to navigate through some olive tree groves to find the way that would lead me to the urbanizacion where my friend lived. Again, the Suunto did a good job and I found my way with no issues. The final challenge was to find the exact house of my friend from his giant complex of houses. I needed to resort to the map on my iPhone and when I put in the address, I was pretty happy to see I was just around the corner and actually just looking to my left, I could see the party lights on in his garden. Yay.

jps house.jpg

A bit more dirty and bruised than in the morning, but otherwise quite ok

My route was a bit shorter than the expected 65kms. I was able to navigate the route very efficiently (thanks Suunto) and some of the paths were shorter than what the GPS tracks showed. The total stats were 58km and 2,800m+ and it took me 7h 50 min. I did the run with my new Topo Athletic Terraventure shoes, which was half a size too big, but otherwise they performed very well.

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Beer & cooking calcots

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Bon Profit!

Katri and my friends were already waiting and finishing their cooking. They expected me to be shattered when I arrived, but I was feeling pretty all right, but very dirty. After a nice hot shower, it was great to be with good friends, with a beer in my hand and good food waiting in the table. It was a really beautiful journey with a great ending.

The Art of Failure

Not everything always goes according to the plan … many would say this is the norm rather than the exception. Sometimes we feel bad about our failures, so they might not be the most publicized stories, especially in sports. However, there are usually really important lessons in almost any failure, so there is value in sharing them. Here are some of my favourite errors.

utsm2015.jpg

One of my favourite race photos (by Jordi Santacana) and I remember this moment well. I was taking a moment to take care of myself and loved it. 

HTMCD 2013 – Energy. This was my first ‘ultra’. It wasn’t a long race, only 47km or so, but 2,800m+ climbing. I did a number of mistakes, but the biggest one was that I had no idea how to fuel for an ultra. My experience was from road marathons, so the plan was to have a couple of gels and pick up some stuff from the aid stations. I was bonking crazy hard by half way point and then finally figured I need to eat lots, so I gorged on some Nutella croissants and other crazy stuff, until I felt really sick. It took a long time before any of that helped and I was in the high point of the race, in a snowstorm with sleet raining in my face vertically. I have never felt so weak and I had to put on ALL the mandatory gear I was carrying and was very happy that I had it. I had been joking with several people about the ridiculous list of stuff we had to carry when it’s +15 and sunny (at the start). I decided to drop out of the race as soon as I possibly can, but still had to make my way to the next aid station. Several people stopped and asked me if I’m ok. I told them I’ll survive and I’m just walking to the next point to drop out. After maybe 1hr, the food kicked in and I felt all right again … once I actually got to the aid station, I saw no reason to quit and just carried on and finished. That was my first experience of getting over a serious bonk, really getting back into the race from a very deep, miserable state. It was important.

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Broken … but still determined to get up. Kiki looks worried. 

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Dehydration looks like this

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And can easily lead into this

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… and then it’s hard to get up

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But if you do, you can still get the job done!

UTMCD 2015 – stomach / water – Still not 100% sure what happened here. I started the race conservatively, but didn’t feel that great from the start. I fell at km16 or so, in a very easy part, which was the first warning sign. My fueling plan was a weird mix of all kinds of stuff, which probably wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t feel any better after the first aid point and things just slowly kept getting worse. I was going pretty slow, but it felt hard and I couldn’t figure out why. I usually did far better in training, but now everything was just hard. I realized I was having dehydration issues and then ran out of water. I drank a lot at the next aid station, but perhaps it was too late. I struggled on, made it to the half way point and sat down properly until I could eat something again. I got some stuff down, but it was very hard to eat or drink and just felt pretty bad. After spending quite a bit of time at the aid station, I moved on and felt a little bit better. After the next big climb, I had a nice good moment in the race and picked up lots of places and was getting near to the top 10 again. It was still hard to eat and drink and I was running on fumes. The next big climb then got me and a lot of the people I just passed flew by while I was having hard time just staying up. Once I made the aid station, I tried to eat a bit, but after 15 minutes or so, managing to get 1 piece of pasta down per minute and still 25km to go in the race and still at 0 energy, I decided to call it quits. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was dehydrated from the start and ate too much too early and didn’t drink enough water. The proper solution would have been to stop eating and just drink pure water. Again, I learned something that has helped me since then.

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In one race, I had so bad cramps I could not change my shoes, so I had to take 5 minutes of massage. I still won in the end. 

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Nuuksio, Finland. In a race where I think I fell down 4 times. 

Transvulcania 2014 (and 2016) – stupid falls. I experienced a proper runner’s high for the first time in Transvulcania. I had gotten over a low point in the race and was back with tons of energy, heightened senses and strong legs at km 55k… the start of the legendary monster downhill (21km and -2,500m or so). I was flying past people, yelling and feeling invincible. Then I fell in a soft spot and had a bit of a WTF moment … but I still felt great and figured I’m still a superman and can just keep going at close to autobahn speed. Then I fell really bad on some sharp volcanic rocks in full downhill speed. I instantly knew things were pretty bad with blood everywhere (chest, knees, hands, arms..). After taking an inventory of my body, I realized I was bleeding pretty hard, but that my knees and legs were still ok. I was in 1,900m altitude still in the middle of the forest with several kilometers until the next aid station. The only option was to keep moving and to my surprise, I still felt great and could move pretty fast. I was still passing some people, while being pretty much completely covered in blood and I though it was pretty comical. I was probably giggling as I went past these people. I made it to the aid station and was immediately taken to the first aid tent and was attended by 4 doctors / nurses simultaneously, who did a super job of cleaning everything up and bandaging it. We were still in 1,200 meters and the nearest hospital was sill 9 or so km away. They asked if there is any way I can continue going down. I was thrilled, I just wanted to finish the race and was pretty happy that they would let me continue. They fixed me up as well as they could and got the bleeding more or less stopped and then let me go again. It was +30 degrees hot and full sun and I had stopped to eat an drink since the fall and I kind of forgot to start that again. I made it to the coast, but was now totally out of my mind from dehydration, shock, low energy, but it was such a great race that I was still having a good experience. I grabbed some watermelon and water from the next station, but otherwise just ran through .. people were shocked to see this bloody, giggling guy still continuing.

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In the hospital, about to get stitched up. 

Trail world championships (2016) – logistics / water issues

This is a very humiliating story. The race in Portugal started well and I was well positioned at km30. Katri, my wife and our team aid station manager tried to hurry me through the aid station quickly (as was her job). I wanted to hear who’s leading, how the other Finns are doing etc, so it was quiet a chaotic pit stop. Just 5 minutes after I moved on, I realized I had forgot to fill my other water bottle. I remembered that there is a stream that the course crosses some distance ahead, so I planned to just fill my bottle there. This little snafu was the beginning of a race-ending disaster. I proceeded to fill the bottle as planned, but was a bit worried because there was cow shit all around the fields nearby, so I wasn’t 100% sure about the water quality. I thought I would replace all the water I now had in the next village if I could see a water source. Arriving into the village, I spotted a water fountain with some tourists around it, so I went there, poured all the water I had on my head and went to fill the bottles. The tourists tried to help me, but it turned out the fountain didn’t work at all. I cursed, having just poured all my water away. The only thing I could do was to take some water from a not-very-clean looking pond. I had to move on and face the biggest climb of the race in the full sun with no drinkable water. I was looking for water everywhere, houses, people, but nobody had any. I begged water from the organizers, who were very reluctant to give me any because of penalties in the rules. I told them I don’t care, I’m not sure if will get to the next aid station at all. I got a couple of sips from them (and was never reported). I dreamily looked at mud ponds, wanting to go see if I could drink that somehow. I stumbled on for kilometers and kilometers and it felt like a desperate life-and-death battle. When I finally reached the next aid station, I had to stop and drink and eat for 10 minutes. All this made me very sick and for the rest of the race, I could hardly walk straight and had to finally drop at km65 and quickly fell asleep in the sun in one of the villages. This was a really a freak incident and shows how a series of small errors can lead into a total catastrophe.

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In Portugal, shortly after finally finding water again. I would drop an hour or so later …

I like to have a positive viewpoint to most things and the silver lining with all of these has been that each failure has made me a better runner. I’ve learned from these far more than from the smooth races. And in ultra mountain trail racing, avoiding problems is often the most important thing and I’ve become much better at it.

IAU Trail World Championships, Portugal

If all things go as planned, I will be running in the Finland team for the second time and competing at a top international level. What sets these championships apart is that the average level of the runners is very, very high. The top competition is the same as in many big international races and I have been in races with the very best before. Getting even into the top 50% is not a walk in the park (for me, at least).

Things have been a bit weird since the UTMB. It certainly took something out of me. Especially mentally, it was such a huge engagement that the tank has been empty. I entertained myself during the last kilometers of the UTMB by thinking how I will immediately cancel all of my upcoming races because I hate running so much. Especially this one marathon relay race I had signed up for. Well, I didn’t do that, of course. Just 2 weeks later, I ran the race and did surprisingly well, keeping a 3:41 pace for my 10,5km leg in a pretty slow course snaking through a village. I also did a 25km, 1,500m+ super hard mountain race where I had a good fight for 3rd position and until half way in, I was quite sure I would get it at the end, but then calf cramps got me and I had to hold back. While these were both good results, I didn’t feel all that good during the races and I had to dig quite deep. I had no superman-like moments in there.

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Running in Vinyols, photo by Blanca de la Sotilla

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Trail ‘running’, Pratdip style, photo by Miguel Sanchez

A few days ago I also had a disastrous training run, where I could hardly walk a 6,5k route and was really trashed at the end. Last weekend I did a 31km, 1,600m+ training run, having lunch in the middle and then turning back. While there were some nice moments in there, a lot of the run was a bit of a struggle, especially coming back. It just feels a bit like the fall is coming and there isn’t that much energy around. Some little things, like the fact that my toes are still mashed into pulp and I have lost four toenails and they hurt can be a bigger deal than it is. Physically, it hasn’t helped that I started Crossfit again after the summer break and really jammed up my legs and glutes. It felt like all the power had gone from the legs.

But then today, things felt good again. I could feel that when just warming up and taking the dogs for a little run. I was dancing down the trail again. Training after that felt good and I was powering up my usual hills very well again. I did a silly mistake and left my headlamp home and ended up in the dark, but that didn’t really bother me. It feels like the run today changed my whole perspective. UTMB is now in the history books and it’s time to tackle the challenge in Portugal. We’ll be facing 85km and 5,000m+ climbing. The profile and terrain seem very similar to what we have at home, so that sounds quite good. The Finland team is strong, we finished 4th last year and I know the top runners in the team have improved.

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Feeling good again here, photo by Blanca

I guess my lesson is that no matter how crappy things might feel every now and then, it’s all likely to pass. No need to panic, or force things if the motivation isn’t there 100% of the time. Things have a tendency to fall into place, so what is to be, will be.

Happy trails and wish us swift legs for Portugal!

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My 2016 UTMB Story

So here is the story of my UTMB experience. Let me start by explaining what the UTMB is, or at least how I see it. Describing it as a race would be inaccurate. A race is something you go and execute, then go home and sleep. The UTMB is closer to ‘lifestyle’ than a ‘race’. It  is also, without a doubt, the most prestigious and competitive trail running event in the world, especially the main 170km distance. It does have several other distances also, from 55km OCC to the 5-day 300km PTL team event (on an unmarked course). There are some 8,000-10,000 competitors between these events and with all of the organization, crews and supporters, there are a lot of trail running fanatics in Chamonix and the atmosphere is amazing. To get into the UTMB, a runner first needs to have enough qualification points from other long distance trail races and the minimum number of points must be from a maximum of 3 races within the past 2 years. Runners with enough points can sign up to enter a lottery, where about 50% of the people registered will be lucky to get in. These qualifications mean that pretty much everyone on the line must be an accomplished ultra runner. This is for a good reason, because the race goes through some high mountain areas, has more than 10,000 meters of climbing and conditions can vary from +30 degree heat to ice, snow, thunderstorms, all within a single race. The mandatory equipment list is pretty comprehensive, but now having run the race, I have to agree that every single item in there is included for a good reason.
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The UTMB course
In terms of emotional engagement with a race, this one delivers. Zach Miller, a star US runner and perhaps then #1 favourite for the win commented in an interview that his UTMB experience has already been great, even before the race had even started. The build-up for something like this starts months earlier and grows in intensity as the date gets closer. There’s the training, getting the equipment sorted, making race plans, organizing logistics, getting medical certificates, etc. This is all part of the experience and I would encourage everyone to appreciate all these activities and get a boost by preparing for these events mentally. Talk to your friends, watch race videos, study the course and profile, etc. It’ll help motivate you and appreciate everything a little bit more. I kind of overdid this to some extent with UTMB, to the point where I had hard time sleeping and for the last few nights, had dreams about losing my shoes just before the start and things like that. That one dream was actually a prediction, as you will soon find out …
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Mont Blanc is waiting
The race plan
I wrote something about this already here. One of the important points about a race is to have a clear plan. What do YOU want to get out of a race? For me, it was two things:
1) I wanted to finish
2) I wanted to run well.
What I had to do was to prioritize these and then figure out how to play it. I’m a pretty ambitious person (if you haven’t figure it out yet..) and for me, I wanted most to do the best run I can. That being the priority, I set my sights on a time goal. From previous performances by other runners and an educated guess gave me a window of 25-28 hours. The 25 hour goal is an almost impossible “stretch” goal, but would be something to shoot for if things go exceptionally well. The 28h time would give me the best ever finish time for a Finn, which would have still been a super good achievement. Beyond that, the time didn’t make much of a difference to me and it would be just about finishing the race.
Once you know what you want out of a race, you can figure out how to best do it. For me, I wanted to run by feel and move efficiently. Stick to a comfortable natural pace that feels good to me and this is often also a very efficient way to get through the kilometers. In this race, the #1 priority was always to take care of myself. Basically the plan of action was to run well, eat all the time, drink a lot and if I had any trouble eating, I knew I just need to drink more and if I can’t drink well, I need to slow down a bit until I can. If I felt I needed to take it easier, I did that until I felt like going again. At no point should I try to ‘force’ anything without a very good reason. And no matter how bad I felt, I would need to keep moving. I also wanted to take it easy at the aid stations, eat soup and talk to some people to help with the mental side as well.
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Typical feeding station
This was going to be my first 100+ -miler and I would be running more than twice longer than I had ever before (12h40m). I also did not know the course at all, other than reading about it beforehand. I had done 1km of the course two nights before. I had never even been to Chamonix. This didn’t affect my plan much and didn’t scare me. I took the positive view that every kilometer is going to be new and exciting for me and I was going to enjoy that.
I did have my experienced support crew of Katri and Minja meeting me at 4 or 5 points during the race, helping fix problems and get me ready to face the next section of the race.
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My crew camping out somewhere in the middle of the night. It was not so easy for them either. 
So how did it play out? Let me walk you through it …
Start
 
The start is a pretty drawn-out event. Many runners go to the start line a couple of hours before the gun goes off to get a good spot. This year the weather was very hot and it was around 25 and sunny for the 18:00 start. I went there early too and was just resting in the shade by the start line. Our bib numbers were organized according to the ITRA ranking system (I think) and I had ranking (and bib number) 222 for the race. I was lucky that I had this ranking, because it also allowed me access to the elite start area which would allow me to walk to the front of the pack. My bib number also attracted one of the race officials to do a spot-check for ALL of my mandatory gear (there is a very long list of items). I had to take everything out of my carefully packed race vest. When he was done, I had to re-pack it all. When I was putting in the last item, my spare water bottle, the now less perfectly packed pack ripped totally. The main compartment fabric was now in pieces and it was 1h to the start. Luckily, we were in Chamonix and there are well stocked running stores everywhere. I went to the nearest one and purchased a new vest. It was a totally different brand and model and also only 5l in size. I didn’t have time to get instructions how to use it and just ran back to the start line and started packing once again. With the help of my crew, I was able to stuff everything into the new vest and headed to the start line.
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Re-packing project
It was still 25 mins until the start and I was standing there, surrounded by all the star runners and trail celebrities. I could see that there are runners from everywhere, some strong looking Asian guys, the high-profile Americans, Luis Alberto, etc. I had time to look at a lot of stuff, how they pack their gear, what do they have on when they start, etc. It also got me thinking that no matter what happens, I already feel like I have arrived somewhere. Somehow, I’ve ended in the elite box of the biggest trail running stage in the world. This is a race that just a couple of year ago I told everyone I would never do. Oh well, never say never?
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Packed and just tightening the shoes
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I’m ready, let’s go!
Km 0 – km 30 Les Contamines
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Start … I think I found myself in there. Photo by iRunFar/Sergi Colomé
The UTMB is notorious for ridiculously fast starts. Lots of very fit people have been tapering and are fresh and charged up for the event. They’ve been waiting for this for months. The race starts with a very fast and easy 8km section of slight downhill. Many people struggle to control their pace in the first quarter of the race. In this years race, I also saw people who were sprinting down the first few hills, breathing like they were in a 5km race. I just went with the flow, wanting to see how the legs feel after a nice 2-week tapering period. The start is great, with thousands of people watching it and people line up the first kilometer and cheer everyone on like crazy. It really feels like a BIG event. It’s no surprise that people go fast here. I was looking forward to the first climb as that kind of sets the stage for how they are likely to go during the day and that finally gets everything warmed up an the machine going. The sun was setting and it was super beautiful and emotional. It was a really happy time in the race.
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Head down, climbing early on
The first slight issues started in the first downhill. These hills really suck, they are very steep, fast grassy downhills. They are not technical, but still steep so they are really tough for the muscles. They did not suit me at all and they didn’t flow very well. I also had some sharp muscle pain in the quad of the right leg that kind of stayed there all the race, but didn’t really bother that much.  At this point it was still a warning signal I was a bit worried about. I thought here already that I will surely be walking downhills later in the race, because this kind of hills tire the muscles very fast.
St Gervais is the first significant aid station and I ate quite a lot here. A couple of cups of coke, bowl of soup, some cake and then grabbed some pieces of banana to go and walked out. I met some team mates here too and it was good to see them and I told them that everything is all right. I was in position 175 or so here.
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Still early and having fun
So taking stock of my condition at this point I didn’t feel super good, which was kind of expected so I focused on some fueling and drinking rather than keeping an amazing pace. Mentally I was now preparing for the long night, which would include big climbs and lots of time in altitude where nothing is for certain.
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My personal aid station ready for service – suncream, spare Suunto watch, new shirt, socks if I need them, recovery drink, salt caps, etc…
The night fell and it was time to dig out the headlamp and then just getting to the Les Contamines aid station, where I would meet my crew (Katri) for the first time and she would help me transition for the night stage. At the aid station, I heard that I’m right on schedule, but Katri wished that I could speed it up a little (this was good advice, I didn’t appreciate that much in the moment, but later on I remembered Katri’s words and put in some good splits in some sections). I ate well again and got out and headed towards the mountains.
Km 30 – km 80 Courmayer
It was now dark and there was a great party going on. This was one of the most fun sections of the race. There were tons of people celebrating out, watching the race, making lots of noise and being a little bit drunk. People were gathered around bonfires, having picnics or just walking down the trail with a bottle of wine. My tip to any UTMB spectator would be to come here for the early race, this is really a great place to watch the event and have fun. Runners will pass through here for hours.
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The first part is one big 30km party
Pretty soon, however, we left the party in town behind and headed up the mountain. There is a very, very long climb here up to Croix de Bonhomme. I was doing well in this climb, some other people were throwing up by the trail. I was now starting to pass people just doing my own easy pace. One of the people I passed quite early on was Rory Bosio, the current women’s course record holder. She wasn’t doing well. There were still lots of people around me and looking around, I still seemed to be in good company. There were a few Salomon -sponsored runners and other people with low bib numbers. I had no idea of my position or time in the race, so just kind of looked around to see what kind of people I’m with. It seemed like I was in a group with a level I was quite happy with.
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Sweating and going up again. I’m very good at sweating, which can be important on a hot day. I don’t usually have issues with heat. 
This climb gave me a good idea of how loooong the climbs are in the UTMB. A climb can last for several hours. It’s very important to get into the right mindset for these. There is no point staring at the top of the hill thinking how far it is. Usually you also don’t even see the top until you get very close. So it’s better to just focus on what’s right in front of you. Now after the race I realize that my mind is a bit blank from these climbs. I get into a bit of a meditative mode, where I just grunt up the hill not thinking about anything and just focus on the tap-tap-tap of my hiking poles. Some of the hills with less grade I would half run and half hike up depending on how I felt.
So I meditated up the big hill and it was kind of fun. It always takes a little out of you and I often have also some mental low spots at a the top of the hills, but it usually goes past quickly when the hill ends. I was in position 133 at the top.
We were now at a high point of the course in the middle of the night. It’s usually always much more technical at high altitudes and that was the case here too. It was just a little more technical, but a lot more fun. I felt really good here and moved like a little ninja in the dark, passing a good number of people now. There was a downhill from here and that too now felt about 10 times better than the first hill. It was more technical, rocky, just the kind of stuff that I’m used to at home. I was taking the hills carefully though and did not want to take any risks with taking a fall in the race. I also hoped to conserve some of my quads for later. Some people had a different strategy …
We went down to another bigger aid station and I fueled well again. My food strategy was to take a lot of gels and eat the organizer’s pasta soup at every aid station. The soup is very salty so it was a good source for sodium. It also went down very well and balanced the disgusting sweet gels. One thing I did notice in the race that after every aid station, I needed about 30 minutes before things started working again and I had to drink a lot. This probably means that I ate a little bit too much at the aid stations, but it was always easy to fix and I started expecting this. At the exit from this aid station there was a gear check and they wanted to check that I have my phone and safety blanket with me. I showed the items and moved on. I was passed a few times in the downhill and was now in pos. 141.
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Soup … yummy
The next section from here was a 5km asphalt road that was slightly rising. This was one part that I knew to expect and I had read from some blogs and also from some of the experienced Finnish runners that this is where most people walk, but that it’s easily runnable and they regretted not having run it in their race. So I wanted to run this if things felt ok. I was all right, so I ran about 70% of this section and only walked the steepest parts. It was just as people had described it to me, most people were walking and I passed quite a few people here.
What I had not really considered that much was that after this easier climb, there is a long and steep death grunt on trail … Here I had to pay back a little because I had spent quite a bit of energy running the previous section. About midway up this hill I bonked a little bit, e.g. had a low-energy patch. I had to slow down, eat more, drink and just wait for better times. A few guys passed me and some asked if I’m ok. I just said I just need a moment to recuperate. I can now say that this kind of moments are very routine to me by now. I don’t even need to think about it, when I feel low in a race I just react automatically and fix it. It’s like putting on a jacket when you feel cold. People new to ultras may often freak out when they feel bad and can just turn negative and collapse. Ultras are about how well you can avoid or fix problems and everyone is going to have them. I really think this is something people must understand before they can become an ultra runner. Based on my experience, I would say the same about start-up companies. Once you understand this, you know what the game is all about. Lecture over … back to the race.
One of the interesting sections at night was just before Courmayer. They had added a new section of ‘trail’ here. The first part was a steep grass hill with no trail. I thought I was already descending into Courmayer, but suddenly the course went up this random hill. The grass then turned into big boulders and some snow too. It was technical and steep, but it was fun to do in the middle of the night. However, on the other side, we had to come down a similar path with large unstable rocks, very narrow / no trail at all. It was far more difficult than anything before in the entire race. During this section when I changed the battery in my headlamp, I noticed that the zipper in my race vest had broken and I had dropped the ziplock bag with my phone, headphones and iPod (later recovered from the race HQ – thank you whoever picked them up).
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“Crew quarters” in Courmayer. This is not Kiki btw. 
We then finally started the path to Coyrmayer and this is where I for the first time thought that I might have a problem with my toes. They kind of started to make their presence known and it was slowing me down in the hill. We were now in Italy and this side of the mountain was quite dry I guess, because the trail had a few centimeters of dust that the runners kicked up into thick clouds. There was just one guy ahead of me, perhaps 1 minute away, but the dust he kicked went into my lungs, face, legs, eyes. It wasn’t ideal, but was still kind of fun to get very dirty.
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Finally there 
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Getting sorted after running through the night
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… and then out again
I had been looking forward to getting to Courmayer all night. I would see my crew again and I’d spend a good amount of time at the aid station and transition from the night to daytime running. I picked up my visor, put on some suncream, had my recovery drink and headed upstairs. The organization served some pasta, so I had a plate of that and then headed out. Exiting the station, I met up with Jussi Kallioniemi and Niko Reinikainen, who told me that I’m doing well and described the next section to come as “röpötystä ylhäällä”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded good.
Courmayer km 80 – Champex Lac km 126km
So I was now able to put my headlamp away and we started yet another climb. We were now climbing up to the ‘other’ Italian side of Mont Blanc. It was a big and tough climb, but I passed a couple of people here. I was spent when I got to the top and needed a couple of minutes at the aid station to drink and get over it. The following section from here was the best I had in the entire race. As soon as we hit the rolling, easy trail (‘röpötys’), I was flying. I passed lots of people and it looked like I was going about twice as fast as they were. It was perfect trail for me and I really enjoyed it. The sunrise perhaps also gave a nice boost, but my split between the two refugees here is probably very good. I did slow down a bit towards the end of this section and controlled my pace a bit more. The downhill started to be a bit more problematic and cost me time there. There clearly was a pattern developing, the downhills didn’t make me feel good, but uphills and anything runnable was great.
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I’m going after it
When I got to the next aid station, I thought I’d need to rest well because I felt a bit weak. I had some soup again and then didn’t feel like just hanging in the aid station so I grabbed some cake and walked out eating it. I kept walking and eating my cake for the next 5 mins or so and then starting running again. Eating had the usual effect of making me feel not so great first, but then getting better after drinking a bit. Another runner come from behind and passed me. I recognized he was one of the guys from the elite box at the start and who I also saw before at night time. Some people passing by recognized him and while they talked, I realized he was Michael Wardian. I know him well from the Internet and I had just looked into him a bit more as he was second in the Cami de Cavalls race I’m perhaps doing in the future. I started talking to him and kept with his pace as I was also starting to feel better now. We went up to Grand Col Ferret with him and talked all the way, although he did then drop me near the top of the climb and I never saw him again. While I was with him, he commented that if we keep going like this, we could hit a 26h finish time. (He would end up finishing 28h+). This is a big climb and when I got to the top, I could see a long, nice rolling downhill and shouted “Downhill, finally!”. In just a couple kilometers, I would ask to take those words back…
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Michael sneaking up on me and I’m eating cake
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We had a chat …
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… and then he pulled away
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… and I felt like this 🙂
This is where the previously niggling toe problem became severe. Every step started hurting more and more and this really impacts coordination. I started compensating and running in a funny way and lost confidence. So I kind of started stumbling my way down the 14k downhill section. It was now starting to get quite hot too. Things were still relatively good, but certainly my race was now going downhill along with the course. Towards the end of the descent I also started having my first ‘race hallucinations’. They are just funny things that happen when your tired mind doesn’t process everything it sees all that well. At least that’s my theory. So one of these early ones was a ‘duck family’, which looked like there was a mother duck followed by chicks in the field. In reality they were just flowers, but they kind of moved up and down as I was running so it really looked like a duck family was moving up the hill. This is how I entertain myself in ultras…
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We started going downhill
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This section was FAST. Someone with good legs would do well here. 
In this section the game for the rest of the race became clear. I suck in the downhills, partly because of my toes, but I rock in the runnable sections and uphills. I don’t remember anyone, in the entire race passing me on anything runnable after the first 8k. I picked up most of my positions by running past people. As soon as this downhill ended, I started running and passed all the people that had just passed me in the previous part and I think one or two more and was in 77th place. I got to La Fouly, where I sat down for a bit and had a chat with Bryon Powell. I heard that Zach Miller is leading, but is being chased. I was happy for Zach and it sounded like there was a good race going on up front. I executed my usual strategy of eat-soup-grab-cake-and-walk and was out quite fast. I then took a wrong turn and got ‘lost’ for 10 meters. This is one race where you don’t have to worry about getting lost that much. Bryon had told me that I will catch a lot of people up front if I can just keep moving. That was my plan.
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Just keep moving … and drinking
It was an easy section from here, but I didn’t feel amazing. I started counting kilometers and hours to go, which is not something that you really want to do in ultras this early (112km). When you feel like crap, you don’t want to know that you still have 60 kilometers and 13 hours to go. I shoke myself out of it and started following Bryon’s advise. Just move. It took a few kilometers that were not great, but then things picked up again. I had been feeling sorry for myself for some time and then some guy caught me from behind. That woke me up, my plan was to be the one overtaking and not the one being caught. So I picked it up a bit and moved away from the guy instantly. The trail also turned into a slight easy downhill which was great for me. The legs started turning again and all the calories hit the system. I was able to cool myself with some water and started to pick up runners well now. I  went past a few people that were all moving a lot more slowly than me.
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Good morning Switzerland
I saw some organizers and asked how long until Campex and they said that at least 1 hour. That was far more than I expected. I wanted to get there faster, so I picked up the pace again. Michael Wardian had told me that there is a nasty climb to Champex and that this can be a surprise. When I got to the start of the climb, I saw some runners ahead and wanted to pass them too, so I kept going fast and ran up a lot of this hill. There were some signs to the lake and I always expected it to be just around the corner. I finally asked some hikers how long to the lake and they said 2km… 2km of climbing! I was already quite spent, having run fast for a long time expecting to soon be resting at the aid station. I had to slow down now and take one more gel to have enough energy to go up the rest of the way.
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Champex-Lac aid station. Looks like a field hospital in the middle of a war. 
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Walking it into Champex
When I got to Champex, I was spent. I had been cursing the hill for a while, thinking who the hell decided to put this aid station up here. I was slightly negative when I walked into the aid station tent, but Katri quickly helped me to recuperate. She told me I was right on schedule, which was a bit of a disappointment, because I had been running very well and hoped to be ahead. Looking around the aid station then, I could see runners in pretty bad shape, lying everywhere, someone throwing up into the trash bag in the next table, etc. I needed a bit of time here to refuel and recoup and then out again. The next challenge was going to be the last three climbs and descents, which everyone has been describing as ‘brutal’ or ‘sadistic’. I knew that getting over these peaks was going to be a deciding factor … and I was right.
Champex Lac 126km – Trient 142km
The Lac Champex area is really pretty and it was the favourite for my crew. There were a lot of people out again and the weather was great. I saw some friends again and everything was going pretty well and I was rolling along nicely.
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Leaving Champex – got back to running right after this. 
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Did I already say it was super beautiful? It was. 
All climbs were kind of the same, going up for a very long time and being really spent at the top. That was all ok and I can easily deal with that. The downhill part started to be awful now. There was great pain in the big toenails. Every step hurt and even walking down was very painful. I thought I could deal with it first, but when I got closer to Trient I was sure I couldn’t anymore. I calculated I would still have at least 5,5 hours of descending to do in the race. I couldn’t bear the thought of hammering my toes for another 5,5 hours. Try to imagine bumping your toes against a chair for 5,5 hours and you get the idea how much it hurts. First, I thought I will go and see the medic in Trient and see if he can do anything about it. Soon after, this thought evolved into “I will drop out of the race for sure”.
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Champex lake, nice scenery, easy running.
When I got to Trient, I told my friends I will drop. I don’t think they fully understood the situation. I was looking for Katri so I could get a ride back home, but she wasn’t there. I called her and said that she’s waiting in Vallorcine, in the next aid station after the next big hill. I told her to come pick me up and that I’m dropping. I think she said something along the lines “No you’re not going to fucking drop, we’re all waiting here and everyone is following you.”. I tried to argue with her, but anyone who’s ever argued or arm-wrestled with her knows how that ends. My friends and Trail Tarraco team mates gave me the same message. So I was dragged to the medic and they started figuring out the problem. We finally settled on putting some bandage and tape on the toes and cutting a hole in one of the shoes so that the toe has more room. I also asked how much more Paracetamol I can take and instead of giving me the textbook answer, they asked how much and when I have take them, then discussed and told me that it’s ok if I take one more at the top of the next climb, but then no more in the race. The plan was then to try to make it to Vallorcine and see how it goes there. I knew I was going to make it to Vallorcine, because I had no problems in the climbs and once I was at the top of the climb, I would have to come down anyway, so I could just keep moving to Vallorcine.
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My shoes with the cut-off toe. Notice the different pair too, I tried to use the Inov’s in the other foot, with the hope that it’s more soft and has more space. Didn’t really help. (photo by Joan Carbonell / Naturetime Eventos)
So after 45 minutes of this, I was fueled up and ready to go again. Legs were pretty stiff now after the pause and I had almost fallen asleep on the doctor’s table.
Trient 142km – Vallorcine 153km
The next climb was the same as the rest.. I moved and passed a few of the people that had passed me during the episode in Trient. Then they passed me again in the downhill where I wasn’t really able to move very well with the pain. Legs really felt like crap too, trying to run down sideways. I even though if I could run down backwards, but then looked around at the rocks and realized I would probably fall and hit my head in the first 10 meters. Mentally, however, I was kind of happy too, I had moved past a very dark moment and was actually on my way to finish the race. That was awesome and I have my friends and family to thank for that because I was already walking out to drop.
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That’s it. I’m going to drop!
I did finally make it to Vallorcine and could see my crew again. The shoe fix done in Trient had helped things quite a bit, but I needed to make the hole bigger. I cut away everything in front of the mashed up toe and had my nice yellow sock sticking out of my red shoe for the rest of the race. I fueled up, thanked my crew and said hello to my mother and friends. I was now on my way towards the final climb in the race.
Vallorcine 153km – Chamonix – Finish 170km
While I was in Vallorcine, Mt Blanc once again made it’s presence known. There were two big blasts of thunder echoing from the mountain. They were just two isolated ones and then it was quiet again. Everyone looked around and could see that there were a few strange looking clouds around. On the way out of Vallorcine, I met Antti from the Finnish team. He had done the TDS earlier and had been on a run here. He walked with me for some meters heading to the mountain and we exchanged a few words. It was nice to be able to talk things through with someone and we both wondered if a storm is going to hit.
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On goes the headlamp again …
Then the storm started. There was soon thunder and lightning everywhere and it was raining. The rain wasn’t too bad, it was actually refreshing after all day of running. It was now also dark again, so we were now transitioning from daytime running into a nighttime storm. Oh well, these are mountains and this is what I came here for. My biggest worry was the lightning, because I did not know the route and did not know if we’re going to be exposed up at the top, which would be quite dangerous.
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Not-so-friendly-looking skies and the night awaits.
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… and then full-on rain and thunderstorm
I keep climbing up the last big hill and I feel worried and also a bit tired. The climb goes ok, but when we get to the top, it’s exactly what I was afraid of.. it’s open and exposed and now the storm is right on top of us. Or actually, we are IN the storm, we’re above 2,000m and we’re actually in the clouds. It’s not raining that heavily, but the visibility with the headlamp is only 1,5 meters. The route markings are 50 meters apart and it’s rocky here, so there isn’t much of a trail, it’s more like going over the rocks where it’s easiest. This was quite dangerous, because of the lightning, but also because there were also some cliffs and the bad visibility combined with tired legs and mind is not a great combination. I REALLY wanted to get out of there, so at least this gave me a big adrenaline boost and once we got near to the top, I was moving fast and passing the few people that were also there. The downhill part from there was the worst, it was the most technical section of the entire race and in the bad visibility and now heavier rain, it was hard. I also kept banging my already injured toe into the rocks several times, which was painful, but at least kept me focused and awake. We were still high in the mountain, in complete darkness with no points of reference around us. I had no idea how much longer to the next aid station and what the trail was going to be like. In the profile, this part looked kind of mellow, but it was so technical that it was very hard. I probably moved something like 5 kms in 2 hours.
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This is hail from the storm … the next day!
When I got to the final aid station, I asked them how much more to the finish and when they said 7 kms, I almost lost it. I was in desperately bad mood and really just wanted to get out of there. The aid station people were making a fuss around me, but I just shut them all out for the time being and picked up my phone and called Katri. I cursed the race and said that I hate it and told her to send all my friends away from the finish and that I don’t want to talk to anyone, I just want to shower, eat a pizza and sleep. She again handled it well and said not to worry about them or friends and to just focus on getting down there. Her words and some hot tea and soup calmed me down and I was able to joke with the aid station staff a bit. I thanked them very much and told them the conditions above are very hard and to take good care of people.
I was told the final kilometers are “easy” by the people at the aid station. It was far from easy. It was partially steep, there were rocks and roots everywhere and it was impossible to find any kind of rhythm with the broken toes, tired legs and the now wet and dark trail. I did what I could moving down slowly, dreaming of the finish line. I finally get into the town and know that there is just 1 km left to run around the town. I was still in a bad mood and wasn’t sure if I can really do the final kilometer. About 500m from the finish, I met my team mates and they handed me the Trail Tarraco flag. This was the final turning point and my mood instantly improved and I wanted to finish positive. With the flag on my shoulders, it was now easy to pick up the pace, run around the final block and then a strong sprint to the finish line. People were cheering all over and I could see my friends, many of whom had followed me all race. When I got to the finish line, I laid down the Trail Tarraco flag on the line and went down and kissed it.
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Running with the flag (and proof that I did not walk the entire race 🙂
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The white wolf and the flag
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Kneeling at the finish line and happy
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… and giving credit where it belongs – thank you very much. I was looking forward to this hug. 
This result is dedicated to my support crew and team, without whom I would not have finished the race. It was really an epic adventure and a great specimen of ultra running, where the runner must do their part, but can be greatly supported by the people around them. The sport of ultra running is much more of a community sport than any other form of running that I know of. This is one of the aspects that draws me and many other people to it. This community aspect also extends to my Finnish running mates, who all support each other with advise, logistics and friendship.
In conclusion and after a bit of time to reflect things, I’m extremely happy with the result. My other main objective was to finish and I definitely feel like I did the best run I could. With my friends, I was able to fix a major problem well enough to allow me to finish and in the end, I finished in 79th place out of 2,300 people (out of which about 1,400 finished). This distance is certainly serious business and has my full respect. It’s not a bad result for my first 100-miler and has given me a totally different perspective to this kind of distances. A 100km race certainly doesn’t sound all that long anymore.
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Finisher – after an unbelievable rollercoaster race. 
I want to thank my partners Suunto and Stryd for their support. I also want to thank my Trail Tarraco team mates for their gifts that helped purchase some of the material needed. A lot of friends have reached out via social media and other channels and it’s been my pleasure the share the story with you. Over and out, until next time!
Photo credits: Katri Langel & Flash-Sport, the official race photographers where I purchased a pack of them – except where otherwise mentioned.