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.

utbcn dorsal.jpg

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!

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.

Vinyols.jpg

Running in Vinyols, photo by Blanca de la Sotilla

Pratdip.jpg

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.

Pratdit2.jpg

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!

Suomi.jpg

 

 

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.
Carte-UTMB--topography.png
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 …
IMG_1929.jpg
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.
IMG_2203.jpg
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.
IMG_2135.jpg
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.
IMG_2075.jpg
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?
packed.jpg
Packed and just tightening the shoes
start.jpg
I’m ready, let’s go!
Km 0 – km 30 Les Contamines
Good start.jpg
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.
34180678.jpg
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.
early.jpg
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.
IMG_2195.jpg
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.
Party UTMB.jpg
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.
34169254.jpg
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.
IMG_2215.jpg
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).
crew quarters.jpg
“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.
courmayer sign.jpg
Finally there 
courmayer aid.jpg
Getting sorted after running through the night
Courmayer out.jpg
… 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.
34176406.jpg
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…
34209683.jpg
Michael sneaking up on me and I’m eating cake
34219607.jpg
We had a chat …
34219608.jpg
… and then he pulled away
34225916.jpg
… 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…
34230116.jpg
We started going downhill
34232561.jpg
34230119.jpg
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.
34225917.jpg
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.
Switzerland.jpg
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.
IMG_2200.jpg
Champex-Lac aid station. Looks like a field hospital in the middle of a war. 
Champex walking.jpg
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.
Champex out.jpg
Leaving Champex – got back to running right after this. 
Pretty swiss.jpg
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”.
Champex lake.jpg
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.
Shoes.jpg
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.
drop.jpg
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.
headlamp.jpg
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.
sky.jpg
Not-so-friendly-looking skies and the night awaits.
rain.jpg
… 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.
IMG_2271.jpg
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.
34235535.jpg
Running with the flag (and proof that I did not walk the entire race 🙂
34235537.jpg
The white wolf and the flag
34235539.jpg
Kneeling at the finish line and happy
34235540.jpg
… 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.
34235542.jpg
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.

The road to UTMB2016

So I guess everyone participating in an event like the UTMB, or any other 100-mile race, especially for the first time is going to write one of these stories about preparation, being ready blah blah blah … and I don’t blame them, it’s an outlet for some of the built-up stress and writing stuff down can be a good way to sort out one’s thoughts. Whether this makes interesting reading to anyone else, that’s up to you to decide, but at least you’ve made it this far 🙂

utmb-logo.jpg

Early Season

The early season really started around christmas holidays. I took some time off running in December and picked things up a little bit during our trip to Andalucia. I did some nice runs / hikes, including a trip to summit Mulhacen (3,479m), the highest peak in the iberian peninsula along with some other peaks in the Sierra Nevada. It was pretty tough conditions with wind, cold and a good experience in dealing with higher mountains. Things went really well from here and training was good and I was pretty fit at the end of Feb. I did a road half marathon as a fitness test and managed a personal best by far of 1:17:03 and the day was very windy and I got injured in the race which also slowed me down. I guess in ideal conditions something starting with 1:15 could have been doable. This is also where my problems started as I hurt my achilles tendon, which took me our of running for at least 2 weeks.

Alpujarra hill.jpg

Big hills in the Alpujarra

Alpujarra.jpg

Winter training with the Andalucian snowman

Training Stats:

Dec – 39 hrs, 220km, 10,658m+

Jan – 35 hrs, 266km, 11,865m+

Feb – 20 hrs, 214km, 5,870,+

Training stats are all just running – this excludes 6-8 hrs / mo of Crossfit during the winter and 4-6h during the summer.

Spring Season

The spring season following the half marathon was a disaster. Once I has somewhat recovered from the achilles problem, I got the flu, which continued to sideline me for another two weeks. Whatever running I managed to do was mostly easy just and I was happy just to be able to get out of the door. At the end of March I did my first ultra of the year, with very little training after all the problems so I knew it wasn’t going to be spectacular. According to my secret “fitness test” routine, I estimated that I’m about 5% off peak fitness compared to last year. It might not sounds like much, but in an 90km ultra that’s a lot of minutes. I finished 7th (I think), with exactly the time I expected to do. I was quite happy with it anyway, considering the circumstances and it wasn’t one of the ‘key’ races for the year.

utmcd climb

Climbing hard at the UTMCD

Then, in the first run after recovering from the ultra I fell really bad and hurt my knee. My plan was to run a downhill section fast after I had done some warmup. I accelerated to a good speed and then pretty soon tripped on a rock at high speed and banged my knee hard. I had trouble walking back home and knew I had to keep moving right away while the knee was still warm. There was almost no running again for the next 2 weeks and it took a long time to be able to run downhill on trails, so I was restricted to some flat running and it really took a while to get training back on track.

The key focus race of the spring season was Transvulcania, in the Canary Islands. I did manage to get over all the problems and at least made a start with proper training again and felt quite positive about upcoming race. I was emotionally invested and really excited to be back on La Palma to do this exciting race. Once we arrived on the island, I went to do an easy run checking out the big descent in the race that is quite technical. It went really well and I felt good both going uphill as well as coming and and I was already thinking in my head what to tell Eetu, en elite Finn also doing the race. While I was having these happy thoughts, I fell really bad again literally just 10 meters before I was going to turn off the trail and go on the road back to our house. This was 3 days before the race and after assessing the damage, I was 90% certain I wasn’t going to be able to even start the event. I was deeply disappointed and really angry with myself for being so sloppy and destroy all the preparation and most of all, eliminate the opportunity to even take part in the event. Well in the end, I did manage to start after some heavy medication and even finished. The knee made downhills impossible to run, but it didn’t bother much in the uphills so I gave my everything in these sections and they felt really good. There was one point in the race where in the uphill portion I overtook 50 runners in a 16km section.

Palma.jpg

Top of La Palma (my favorite island in the world) during Transvulcania 2016

Training stats:

Mar – 20h, 136km, 8,181m+

Apr – 25h, 157km, 7,023m+

May – 35h, 262km, 12,961m+

Summer

Training has been good since Transvulcania. I did one local short race, but wasn’t really very ready for it. I wasn’t that fit and also wasn’t very engaged mentally. I finished something like 11th. The next race was an ad-hoc marathon in the Pyrenees. The plan was to run with Maija Oravamäki and see if she can win the thing. She did. It was a hard 45km, with 3,200m+ in very technical terrain. I think we finished in 7h 20 or so. It felt pretty easy.

CRVA.jpg

CRVA – one of the most fun races I have done

One key point in the summer training season was actually a business trip to the US. I had some time to kill, so I trained a lot at the hotel treadmill and gym. I also did a nice long run on some local trails in North Carolina. I also watched the race coverage for Hardrock 100 online. It kind of woke me up that it’s about time to start adding some volume into my training. I decided to train as much as possible for the next few weeks before taper to the UTMB. The plan was to also include one ‘vertical week’, with a vertical km (1,000m+ ascent)  every day for a week. That’s the project I’m doing right now, but more about that later in another post.

So I’m sitting one month away from the UTMB and I’m pretty happy about where I am. I also did a small 21km 1,200m+ night race and won in 1h 46m. Even better than the position was the way the run went. I chased the leaders aggressively from the start and applied pressure until they faltered and then I got away easily and had a good control for the rest of the race. Good boost for confidence.

win.jpg

Best run of the year

Jun – 26h, 233km, 9,285m+

Jul – will be about 43hrs, 310+km, 18,000m+

So now it’s only about fine-tuning and keeping it all together.

 

Confidence

… or the lack of it. I’m currently sitting at a very low level of confidence, following a crappy injury and the flu. My achilles tendon is still hurt after running a PB at the Mitja de Cambrils. After all this, I would guess that I’m at 80% fitness at the moment and every step still hurts the tendon. Too bad, because training in the beginning of the year was good.

Last year, I had one moment of very low confidence and then another of very high. The low moment was at the Trail World Champhionships, which I was running after a DNF @ Ultra Trail Muntanyes de Costa Daurada (UTMCD). I just wasn’t sure of my abilities or fitness and ran too conservative. It wasn’t a bad time, but I could have done a little better.

A high moment was at the UTSM. I knew I was better than last year and that carried me through the race in good spirits. At 80km, I was quite sure I will win and was just enjoying it. This is the kind of starting point you want to have before a big race.

The first ultra race of the years is next weekend. I have gotten legs to work ok after the injury and illness. I have a chance of finishing and perhaps a shot for top 10? Strategy is to survive until some late moment in the race (Mont-Ral) and then see what can be done about racing other people. This is the “Low confidence strategy”.

ascent

I have managed to run a bit and get some vertical

However, ultimately this next race is a mental training race for the UTMB. Finishing is super important, because otherwise it’ll be a seed of doubt in the head for the main race of the year. Alternatively, finishing well would be a giant boost after some tough times.

2015 Key Races Summary

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

UTMCD Start – everything was still good

Result: DNF

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.

Team Fin

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?

annecy morning

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.

Annecy day

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.

struggles

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

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.

finish

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.

vandekames favoritos

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.

vandefinish

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.

vandeaftermath

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

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.

UTSM gameface

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.

UTSM drink

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 …

UTSM aid

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.

UTSM climb

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.

UTSM Finish

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.

transgavarres

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.