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

 

 

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.

What I do on Friday evevenings

Someone at work asked me how I have the time to do all this. I work quite a lot of hours, so it is sometimes difficult to fit in everything. To be honest, I have very little life outside some daily routines, like work, train, sleep.

So how do I fit it in? One of the workouts I have been planning to do for some time, in preparation for the UTMB was to do a long night run from our cabin to the highest point in Montsant (Roca Corbatera, 1,160m). I estimated it to be around 50km and 2,000 meters of vertical gain. It would take me about 6 hours to do it. I did not want to ‘waste’ a weekend night for this, so I thought that Friday after work would be the best time to do this run.

11313612_134352460260798_1950567462_n(1).jpg

Montsant, near the highest point, on another day (photo by Katri)

So, last Friday, I exited the house at 6:14 PM (about the same time as UTMB start), while there was still some light outside and I was hoping I could make it to the first village over the first set of mountains I had to cross. I didn’t quite make it there as there was a bit of trail in the forest and that was just a bit too dark to run in already. I had my first little break watching the final rays of the sun set behind the mountains. This is also where I stopped using my headphones as there are lots of wild boar around and I wanted to be able to hear them in the dark.

IMG_5777.jpg

Sunset … time to put on the headlamp

My plan was to run pretty slow and easy, take breaks and have fun. This was actually quite difficult and running slowly felt quite clumsy. In the first bigger downhill I almost fell twice and I had to stay very focused. In a race, this kind of clumsiness is usually the first warning sign that things are not going so great. Well, I was finally down the first hill and had another break here, at one of my favorite spots and I was here now at night for the first time.

IMG_5779.jpg

Chilling at my favorite waterfall

Next was a big long climb into Cornudella de Montsant and then up the steepest (and very technical) climb in Tarragona. When I got into the village, I had the hardest climb ahead of me and had spent something like 2hours and 20 minutes so far. Quick math told me that finishing in 6 hours would be a stretch, so I started planning a more efficient return route to win some time. I didn’t want to spend the entire night in the mountain and still wanted to go into the sauna before bed. The sauna was a big motivator here… 🙂

1538507_517426615089999_1586114751_n.jpg

Our sauna was calling me … (Photo by Katri)

My first headlamp gave away during the first climb, maybe 2hrs 40 minutes into the run. I had it in full setting, but still the battery life was a disappointment. I needed to stop and swap in the replacement battery and then carry on. I was a bit worried now, with no more battery reserves, so I kept the light at the minimum setting (which was perfectly fine).

It was quite a cold night, below 0 temperature and some wind at the top. I was running in full length pants the whole time and had my jacket on here and warm gloves. Still, I only spent a few seconds at the top and wanted to drop down away from the wind. I chose an easier, but much longer route down from the mountain as I didn’t want to face the technical descent in the dark being already a little tired. I think my elapsed time was something around 3:35.

IMG_5781.jpg

Ok, mandatory photo done, now back down!

The easier route was much more pleasant to run. It was very cool to look around, on a clear night with almost full moonlight. The mountains and the villages looked very pretty. There was a bit of pain in the knees and legs in the downhill, so at the bottom I took one painkiller just for convenience and to be able to run a little faster for the rest of the way (sauna was waiting).

I took a faster route back that had a nice, long continuous climb on an easy road so I could just clip away with my hiking poles. It felt like really good practice, really pushing with the sticks and keeping a good rhythm. I kept quite good pace all the way to the end really.

My final time was around 6 hrs 20 minutes, so I was home well before 1 AM and still had time to have a good sauna and relax. What was really promising was that the run didn’t feel that difficult at any point and when I got home, I wasn’t really very tired or weak. I had eaten minimally, perhaps 1 gel / bar per hour and probably spent something like 3,500-4,000 calories. I just ate enough not to totally bonk and this worked fine (take one gel / bar whenever you feel weak… you’ll first feel it in the brain, then 10 minutes later you’ll be fine again).

Here is a nice Suunto Movie about the run

Ok so I don’t spend ALL my Friday evenings this way. I have had to run a few times from the cabin to the coast (28km) because my wife had taken the car. It must be convenient to have a partner who is an ultrarunner as you can just dump them anywhere and know that they’ll find their way. Really usually on Fridays, we go out for a dinner or drinks to wrap up the week and they are dedicated to switching from work-mode to weekend-mode.

Run stats

 

 

 

 

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.