My 2016 UTMB Story

So here is the story of my UTMB experience. Let me start by explaining what the UTMB is, or at least how I see it. Describing it as a race would be inaccurate. A race is something you go and execute, then go home and sleep. The UTMB is closer to ‘lifestyle’ than a ‘race’. It  is also, without a doubt, the most prestigious and competitive trail running event in the world, especially the main 170km distance. It does have several other distances also, from 55km OCC to the 5-day 300km PTL team event (on an unmarked course). There are some 8,000-10,000 competitors between these events and with all of the organization, crews and supporters, there are a lot of trail running fanatics in Chamonix and the atmosphere is amazing. To get into the UTMB, a runner first needs to have enough qualification points from other long distance trail races and the minimum number of points must be from a maximum of 3 races within the past 2 years. Runners with enough points can sign up to enter a lottery, where about 50% of the people registered will be lucky to get in. These qualifications mean that pretty much everyone on the line must be an accomplished ultra runner. This is for a good reason, because the race goes through some high mountain areas, has more than 10,000 meters of climbing and conditions can vary from +30 degree heat to ice, snow, thunderstorms, all within a single race. The mandatory equipment list is pretty comprehensive, but now having run the race, I have to agree that every single item in there is included for a good reason.
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The UTMB course
In terms of emotional engagement with a race, this one delivers. Zach Miller, a star US runner and perhaps then #1 favourite for the win commented in an interview that his UTMB experience has already been great, even before the race had even started. The build-up for something like this starts months earlier and grows in intensity as the date gets closer. There’s the training, getting the equipment sorted, making race plans, organizing logistics, getting medical certificates, etc. This is all part of the experience and I would encourage everyone to appreciate all these activities and get a boost by preparing for these events mentally. Talk to your friends, watch race videos, study the course and profile, etc. It’ll help motivate you and appreciate everything a little bit more. I kind of overdid this to some extent with UTMB, to the point where I had hard time sleeping and for the last few nights, had dreams about losing my shoes just before the start and things like that. That one dream was actually a prediction, as you will soon find out …
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Mont Blanc is waiting
The race plan
I wrote something about this already here. One of the important points about a race is to have a clear plan. What do YOU want to get out of a race? For me, it was two things:
1) I wanted to finish
2) I wanted to run well.
What I had to do was to prioritize these and then figure out how to play it. I’m a pretty ambitious person (if you haven’t figure it out yet..) and for me, I wanted most to do the best run I can. That being the priority, I set my sights on a time goal. From previous performances by other runners and an educated guess gave me a window of 25-28 hours. The 25 hour goal is an almost impossible “stretch” goal, but would be something to shoot for if things go exceptionally well. The 28h time would give me the best ever finish time for a Finn, which would have still been a super good achievement. Beyond that, the time didn’t make much of a difference to me and it would be just about finishing the race.
Once you know what you want out of a race, you can figure out how to best do it. For me, I wanted to run by feel and move efficiently. Stick to a comfortable natural pace that feels good to me and this is often also a very efficient way to get through the kilometers. In this race, the #1 priority was always to take care of myself. Basically the plan of action was to run well, eat all the time, drink a lot and if I had any trouble eating, I knew I just need to drink more and if I can’t drink well, I need to slow down a bit until I can. If I felt I needed to take it easier, I did that until I felt like going again. At no point should I try to ‘force’ anything without a very good reason. And no matter how bad I felt, I would need to keep moving. I also wanted to take it easy at the aid stations, eat soup and talk to some people to help with the mental side as well.
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Typical feeding station
This was going to be my first 100+ -miler and I would be running more than twice longer than I had ever before (12h40m). I also did not know the course at all, other than reading about it beforehand. I had done 1km of the course two nights before. I had never even been to Chamonix. This didn’t affect my plan much and didn’t scare me. I took the positive view that every kilometer is going to be new and exciting for me and I was going to enjoy that.
I did have my experienced support crew of Katri and Minja meeting me at 4 or 5 points during the race, helping fix problems and get me ready to face the next section of the race.
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My crew camping out somewhere in the middle of the night. It was not so easy for them either. 
So how did it play out? Let me walk you through it …
Start
 
The start is a pretty drawn-out event. Many runners go to the start line a couple of hours before the gun goes off to get a good spot. This year the weather was very hot and it was around 25 and sunny for the 18:00 start. I went there early too and was just resting in the shade by the start line. Our bib numbers were organized according to the ITRA ranking system (I think) and I had ranking (and bib number) 222 for the race. I was lucky that I had this ranking, because it also allowed me access to the elite start area which would allow me to walk to the front of the pack. My bib number also attracted one of the race officials to do a spot-check for ALL of my mandatory gear (there is a very long list of items). I had to take everything out of my carefully packed race vest. When he was done, I had to re-pack it all. When I was putting in the last item, my spare water bottle, the now less perfectly packed pack ripped totally. The main compartment fabric was now in pieces and it was 1h to the start. Luckily, we were in Chamonix and there are well stocked running stores everywhere. I went to the nearest one and purchased a new vest. It was a totally different brand and model and also only 5l in size. I didn’t have time to get instructions how to use it and just ran back to the start line and started packing once again. With the help of my crew, I was able to stuff everything into the new vest and headed to the start line.
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Re-packing project
It was still 25 mins until the start and I was standing there, surrounded by all the star runners and trail celebrities. I could see that there are runners from everywhere, some strong looking Asian guys, the high-profile Americans, Luis Alberto, etc. I had time to look at a lot of stuff, how they pack their gear, what do they have on when they start, etc. It also got me thinking that no matter what happens, I already feel like I have arrived somewhere. Somehow, I’ve ended in the elite box of the biggest trail running stage in the world. This is a race that just a couple of year ago I told everyone I would never do. Oh well, never say never?
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Packed and just tightening the shoes
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I’m ready, let’s go!
Km 0 – km 30 Les Contamines
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Start … I think I found myself in there. Photo by iRunFar/Sergi Colomé
The UTMB is notorious for ridiculously fast starts. Lots of very fit people have been tapering and are fresh and charged up for the event. They’ve been waiting for this for months. The race starts with a very fast and easy 8km section of slight downhill. Many people struggle to control their pace in the first quarter of the race. In this years race, I also saw people who were sprinting down the first few hills, breathing like they were in a 5km race. I just went with the flow, wanting to see how the legs feel after a nice 2-week tapering period. The start is great, with thousands of people watching it and people line up the first kilometer and cheer everyone on like crazy. It really feels like a BIG event. It’s no surprise that people go fast here. I was looking forward to the first climb as that kind of sets the stage for how they are likely to go during the day and that finally gets everything warmed up an the machine going. The sun was setting and it was super beautiful and emotional. It was a really happy time in the race.
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Head down, climbing early on
The first slight issues started in the first downhill. These hills really suck, they are very steep, fast grassy downhills. They are not technical, but still steep so they are really tough for the muscles. They did not suit me at all and they didn’t flow very well. I also had some sharp muscle pain in the quad of the right leg that kind of stayed there all the race, but didn’t really bother that much.  At this point it was still a warning signal I was a bit worried about. I thought here already that I will surely be walking downhills later in the race, because this kind of hills tire the muscles very fast.
St Gervais is the first significant aid station and I ate quite a lot here. A couple of cups of coke, bowl of soup, some cake and then grabbed some pieces of banana to go and walked out. I met some team mates here too and it was good to see them and I told them that everything is all right. I was in position 175 or so here.
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Still early and having fun
So taking stock of my condition at this point I didn’t feel super good, which was kind of expected so I focused on some fueling and drinking rather than keeping an amazing pace. Mentally I was now preparing for the long night, which would include big climbs and lots of time in altitude where nothing is for certain.
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My personal aid station ready for service – suncream, spare Suunto watch, new shirt, socks if I need them, recovery drink, salt caps, etc…
The night fell and it was time to dig out the headlamp and then just getting to the Les Contamines aid station, where I would meet my crew (Katri) for the first time and she would help me transition for the night stage. At the aid station, I heard that I’m right on schedule, but Katri wished that I could speed it up a little (this was good advice, I didn’t appreciate that much in the moment, but later on I remembered Katri’s words and put in some good splits in some sections). I ate well again and got out and headed towards the mountains.
Km 30 – km 80 Courmayer
It was now dark and there was a great party going on. This was one of the most fun sections of the race. There were tons of people celebrating out, watching the race, making lots of noise and being a little bit drunk. People were gathered around bonfires, having picnics or just walking down the trail with a bottle of wine. My tip to any UTMB spectator would be to come here for the early race, this is really a great place to watch the event and have fun. Runners will pass through here for hours.
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The first part is one big 30km party
Pretty soon, however, we left the party in town behind and headed up the mountain. There is a very, very long climb here up to Croix de Bonhomme. I was doing well in this climb, some other people were throwing up by the trail. I was now starting to pass people just doing my own easy pace. One of the people I passed quite early on was Rory Bosio, the current women’s course record holder. She wasn’t doing well. There were still lots of people around me and looking around, I still seemed to be in good company. There were a few Salomon -sponsored runners and other people with low bib numbers. I had no idea of my position or time in the race, so just kind of looked around to see what kind of people I’m with. It seemed like I was in a group with a level I was quite happy with.
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Sweating and going up again. I’m very good at sweating, which can be important on a hot day. I don’t usually have issues with heat. 
This climb gave me a good idea of how loooong the climbs are in the UTMB. A climb can last for several hours. It’s very important to get into the right mindset for these. There is no point staring at the top of the hill thinking how far it is. Usually you also don’t even see the top until you get very close. So it’s better to just focus on what’s right in front of you. Now after the race I realize that my mind is a bit blank from these climbs. I get into a bit of a meditative mode, where I just grunt up the hill not thinking about anything and just focus on the tap-tap-tap of my hiking poles. Some of the hills with less grade I would half run and half hike up depending on how I felt.
So I meditated up the big hill and it was kind of fun. It always takes a little out of you and I often have also some mental low spots at a the top of the hills, but it usually goes past quickly when the hill ends. I was in position 133 at the top.
We were now at a high point of the course in the middle of the night. It’s usually always much more technical at high altitudes and that was the case here too. It was just a little more technical, but a lot more fun. I felt really good here and moved like a little ninja in the dark, passing a good number of people now. There was a downhill from here and that too now felt about 10 times better than the first hill. It was more technical, rocky, just the kind of stuff that I’m used to at home. I was taking the hills carefully though and did not want to take any risks with taking a fall in the race. I also hoped to conserve some of my quads for later. Some people had a different strategy …
We went down to another bigger aid station and I fueled well again. My food strategy was to take a lot of gels and eat the organizer’s pasta soup at every aid station. The soup is very salty so it was a good source for sodium. It also went down very well and balanced the disgusting sweet gels. One thing I did notice in the race that after every aid station, I needed about 30 minutes before things started working again and I had to drink a lot. This probably means that I ate a little bit too much at the aid stations, but it was always easy to fix and I started expecting this. At the exit from this aid station there was a gear check and they wanted to check that I have my phone and safety blanket with me. I showed the items and moved on. I was passed a few times in the downhill and was now in pos. 141.
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Soup … yummy
The next section from here was a 5km asphalt road that was slightly rising. This was one part that I knew to expect and I had read from some blogs and also from some of the experienced Finnish runners that this is where most people walk, but that it’s easily runnable and they regretted not having run it in their race. So I wanted to run this if things felt ok. I was all right, so I ran about 70% of this section and only walked the steepest parts. It was just as people had described it to me, most people were walking and I passed quite a few people here.
What I had not really considered that much was that after this easier climb, there is a long and steep death grunt on trail … Here I had to pay back a little because I had spent quite a bit of energy running the previous section. About midway up this hill I bonked a little bit, e.g. had a low-energy patch. I had to slow down, eat more, drink and just wait for better times. A few guys passed me and some asked if I’m ok. I just said I just need a moment to recuperate. I can now say that this kind of moments are very routine to me by now. I don’t even need to think about it, when I feel low in a race I just react automatically and fix it. It’s like putting on a jacket when you feel cold. People new to ultras may often freak out when they feel bad and can just turn negative and collapse. Ultras are about how well you can avoid or fix problems and everyone is going to have them. I really think this is something people must understand before they can become an ultra runner. Based on my experience, I would say the same about start-up companies. Once you understand this, you know what the game is all about. Lecture over … back to the race.
One of the interesting sections at night was just before Courmayer. They had added a new section of ‘trail’ here. The first part was a steep grass hill with no trail. I thought I was already descending into Courmayer, but suddenly the course went up this random hill. The grass then turned into big boulders and some snow too. It was technical and steep, but it was fun to do in the middle of the night. However, on the other side, we had to come down a similar path with large unstable rocks, very narrow / no trail at all. It was far more difficult than anything before in the entire race. During this section when I changed the battery in my headlamp, I noticed that the zipper in my race vest had broken and I had dropped the ziplock bag with my phone, headphones and iPod (later recovered from the race HQ – thank you whoever picked them up).
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“Crew quarters” in Courmayer. This is not Kiki btw. 
We then finally started the path to Coyrmayer and this is where I for the first time thought that I might have a problem with my toes. They kind of started to make their presence known and it was slowing me down in the hill. We were now in Italy and this side of the mountain was quite dry I guess, because the trail had a few centimeters of dust that the runners kicked up into thick clouds. There was just one guy ahead of me, perhaps 1 minute away, but the dust he kicked went into my lungs, face, legs, eyes. It wasn’t ideal, but was still kind of fun to get very dirty.
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Finally there 
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Getting sorted after running through the night
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… and then out again
I had been looking forward to getting to Courmayer all night. I would see my crew again and I’d spend a good amount of time at the aid station and transition from the night to daytime running. I picked up my visor, put on some suncream, had my recovery drink and headed upstairs. The organization served some pasta, so I had a plate of that and then headed out. Exiting the station, I met up with Jussi Kallioniemi and Niko Reinikainen, who told me that I’m doing well and described the next section to come as “röpötystä ylhäällä”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded good.
Courmayer km 80 – Champex Lac km 126km
So I was now able to put my headlamp away and we started yet another climb. We were now climbing up to the ‘other’ Italian side of Mont Blanc. It was a big and tough climb, but I passed a couple of people here. I was spent when I got to the top and needed a couple of minutes at the aid station to drink and get over it. The following section from here was the best I had in the entire race. As soon as we hit the rolling, easy trail (‘röpötys’), I was flying. I passed lots of people and it looked like I was going about twice as fast as they were. It was perfect trail for me and I really enjoyed it. The sunrise perhaps also gave a nice boost, but my split between the two refugees here is probably very good. I did slow down a bit towards the end of this section and controlled my pace a bit more. The downhill started to be a bit more problematic and cost me time there. There clearly was a pattern developing, the downhills didn’t make me feel good, but uphills and anything runnable was great.
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I’m going after it
When I got to the next aid station, I thought I’d need to rest well because I felt a bit weak. I had some soup again and then didn’t feel like just hanging in the aid station so I grabbed some cake and walked out eating it. I kept walking and eating my cake for the next 5 mins or so and then starting running again. Eating had the usual effect of making me feel not so great first, but then getting better after drinking a bit. Another runner come from behind and passed me. I recognized he was one of the guys from the elite box at the start and who I also saw before at night time. Some people passing by recognized him and while they talked, I realized he was Michael Wardian. I know him well from the Internet and I had just looked into him a bit more as he was second in the Cami de Cavalls race I’m perhaps doing in the future. I started talking to him and kept with his pace as I was also starting to feel better now. We went up to Grand Col Ferret with him and talked all the way, although he did then drop me near the top of the climb and I never saw him again. While I was with him, he commented that if we keep going like this, we could hit a 26h finish time. (He would end up finishing 28h+). This is a big climb and when I got to the top, I could see a long, nice rolling downhill and shouted “Downhill, finally!”. In just a couple kilometers, I would ask to take those words back…
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Michael sneaking up on me and I’m eating cake
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We had a chat …
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… and then he pulled away
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… and I felt like this 🙂
This is where the previously niggling toe problem became severe. Every step started hurting more and more and this really impacts coordination. I started compensating and running in a funny way and lost confidence. So I kind of started stumbling my way down the 14k downhill section. It was now starting to get quite hot too. Things were still relatively good, but certainly my race was now going downhill along with the course. Towards the end of the descent I also started having my first ‘race hallucinations’. They are just funny things that happen when your tired mind doesn’t process everything it sees all that well. At least that’s my theory. So one of these early ones was a ‘duck family’, which looked like there was a mother duck followed by chicks in the field. In reality they were just flowers, but they kind of moved up and down as I was running so it really looked like a duck family was moving up the hill. This is how I entertain myself in ultras…
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We started going downhill
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This section was FAST. Someone with good legs would do well here. 
In this section the game for the rest of the race became clear. I suck in the downhills, partly because of my toes, but I rock in the runnable sections and uphills. I don’t remember anyone, in the entire race passing me on anything runnable after the first 8k. I picked up most of my positions by running past people. As soon as this downhill ended, I started running and passed all the people that had just passed me in the previous part and I think one or two more and was in 77th place. I got to La Fouly, where I sat down for a bit and had a chat with Bryon Powell. I heard that Zach Miller is leading, but is being chased. I was happy for Zach and it sounded like there was a good race going on up front. I executed my usual strategy of eat-soup-grab-cake-and-walk and was out quite fast. I then took a wrong turn and got ‘lost’ for 10 meters. This is one race where you don’t have to worry about getting lost that much. Bryon had told me that I will catch a lot of people up front if I can just keep moving. That was my plan.
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Just keep moving … and drinking
It was an easy section from here, but I didn’t feel amazing. I started counting kilometers and hours to go, which is not something that you really want to do in ultras this early (112km). When you feel like crap, you don’t want to know that you still have 60 kilometers and 13 hours to go. I shoke myself out of it and started following Bryon’s advise. Just move. It took a few kilometers that were not great, but then things picked up again. I had been feeling sorry for myself for some time and then some guy caught me from behind. That woke me up, my plan was to be the one overtaking and not the one being caught. So I picked it up a bit and moved away from the guy instantly. The trail also turned into a slight easy downhill which was great for me. The legs started turning again and all the calories hit the system. I was able to cool myself with some water and started to pick up runners well now. I  went past a few people that were all moving a lot more slowly than me.
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Good morning Switzerland
I saw some organizers and asked how long until Campex and they said that at least 1 hour. That was far more than I expected. I wanted to get there faster, so I picked up the pace again. Michael Wardian had told me that there is a nasty climb to Champex and that this can be a surprise. When I got to the start of the climb, I saw some runners ahead and wanted to pass them too, so I kept going fast and ran up a lot of this hill. There were some signs to the lake and I always expected it to be just around the corner. I finally asked some hikers how long to the lake and they said 2km… 2km of climbing! I was already quite spent, having run fast for a long time expecting to soon be resting at the aid station. I had to slow down now and take one more gel to have enough energy to go up the rest of the way.
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Champex-Lac aid station. Looks like a field hospital in the middle of a war. 
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Walking it into Champex
When I got to Champex, I was spent. I had been cursing the hill for a while, thinking who the hell decided to put this aid station up here. I was slightly negative when I walked into the aid station tent, but Katri quickly helped me to recuperate. She told me I was right on schedule, which was a bit of a disappointment, because I had been running very well and hoped to be ahead. Looking around the aid station then, I could see runners in pretty bad shape, lying everywhere, someone throwing up into the trash bag in the next table, etc. I needed a bit of time here to refuel and recoup and then out again. The next challenge was going to be the last three climbs and descents, which everyone has been describing as ‘brutal’ or ‘sadistic’. I knew that getting over these peaks was going to be a deciding factor … and I was right.
Champex Lac 126km – Trient 142km
The Lac Champex area is really pretty and it was the favourite for my crew. There were a lot of people out again and the weather was great. I saw some friends again and everything was going pretty well and I was rolling along nicely.
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Leaving Champex – got back to running right after this. 
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Did I already say it was super beautiful? It was. 
All climbs were kind of the same, going up for a very long time and being really spent at the top. That was all ok and I can easily deal with that. The downhill part started to be awful now. There was great pain in the big toenails. Every step hurt and even walking down was very painful. I thought I could deal with it first, but when I got closer to Trient I was sure I couldn’t anymore. I calculated I would still have at least 5,5 hours of descending to do in the race. I couldn’t bear the thought of hammering my toes for another 5,5 hours. Try to imagine bumping your toes against a chair for 5,5 hours and you get the idea how much it hurts. First, I thought I will go and see the medic in Trient and see if he can do anything about it. Soon after, this thought evolved into “I will drop out of the race for sure”.
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Champex lake, nice scenery, easy running.
When I got to Trient, I told my friends I will drop. I don’t think they fully understood the situation. I was looking for Katri so I could get a ride back home, but she wasn’t there. I called her and said that she’s waiting in Vallorcine, in the next aid station after the next big hill. I told her to come pick me up and that I’m dropping. I think she said something along the lines “No you’re not going to fucking drop, we’re all waiting here and everyone is following you.”. I tried to argue with her, but anyone who’s ever argued or arm-wrestled with her knows how that ends. My friends and Trail Tarraco team mates gave me the same message. So I was dragged to the medic and they started figuring out the problem. We finally settled on putting some bandage and tape on the toes and cutting a hole in one of the shoes so that the toe has more room. I also asked how much more Paracetamol I can take and instead of giving me the textbook answer, they asked how much and when I have take them, then discussed and told me that it’s ok if I take one more at the top of the next climb, but then no more in the race. The plan was then to try to make it to Vallorcine and see how it goes there. I knew I was going to make it to Vallorcine, because I had no problems in the climbs and once I was at the top of the climb, I would have to come down anyway, so I could just keep moving to Vallorcine.
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My shoes with the cut-off toe. Notice the different pair too, I tried to use the Inov’s in the other foot, with the hope that it’s more soft and has more space. Didn’t really help. (photo by Joan Carbonell / Naturetime Eventos)
So after 45 minutes of this, I was fueled up and ready to go again. Legs were pretty stiff now after the pause and I had almost fallen asleep on the doctor’s table.
Trient 142km – Vallorcine 153km
The next climb was the same as the rest.. I moved and passed a few of the people that had passed me during the episode in Trient. Then they passed me again in the downhill where I wasn’t really able to move very well with the pain. Legs really felt like crap too, trying to run down sideways. I even though if I could run down backwards, but then looked around at the rocks and realized I would probably fall and hit my head in the first 10 meters. Mentally, however, I was kind of happy too, I had moved past a very dark moment and was actually on my way to finish the race. That was awesome and I have my friends and family to thank for that because I was already walking out to drop.
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That’s it. I’m going to drop!
I did finally make it to Vallorcine and could see my crew again. The shoe fix done in Trient had helped things quite a bit, but I needed to make the hole bigger. I cut away everything in front of the mashed up toe and had my nice yellow sock sticking out of my red shoe for the rest of the race. I fueled up, thanked my crew and said hello to my mother and friends. I was now on my way towards the final climb in the race.
Vallorcine 153km – Chamonix – Finish 170km
While I was in Vallorcine, Mt Blanc once again made it’s presence known. There were two big blasts of thunder echoing from the mountain. They were just two isolated ones and then it was quiet again. Everyone looked around and could see that there were a few strange looking clouds around. On the way out of Vallorcine, I met Antti from the Finnish team. He had done the TDS earlier and had been on a run here. He walked with me for some meters heading to the mountain and we exchanged a few words. It was nice to be able to talk things through with someone and we both wondered if a storm is going to hit.
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On goes the headlamp again …
Then the storm started. There was soon thunder and lightning everywhere and it was raining. The rain wasn’t too bad, it was actually refreshing after all day of running. It was now also dark again, so we were now transitioning from daytime running into a nighttime storm. Oh well, these are mountains and this is what I came here for. My biggest worry was the lightning, because I did not know the route and did not know if we’re going to be exposed up at the top, which would be quite dangerous.
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Not-so-friendly-looking skies and the night awaits.
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… and then full-on rain and thunderstorm
I keep climbing up the last big hill and I feel worried and also a bit tired. The climb goes ok, but when we get to the top, it’s exactly what I was afraid of.. it’s open and exposed and now the storm is right on top of us. Or actually, we are IN the storm, we’re above 2,000m and we’re actually in the clouds. It’s not raining that heavily, but the visibility with the headlamp is only 1,5 meters. The route markings are 50 meters apart and it’s rocky here, so there isn’t much of a trail, it’s more like going over the rocks where it’s easiest. This was quite dangerous, because of the lightning, but also because there were also some cliffs and the bad visibility combined with tired legs and mind is not a great combination. I REALLY wanted to get out of there, so at least this gave me a big adrenaline boost and once we got near to the top, I was moving fast and passing the few people that were also there. The downhill part from there was the worst, it was the most technical section of the entire race and in the bad visibility and now heavier rain, it was hard. I also kept banging my already injured toe into the rocks several times, which was painful, but at least kept me focused and awake. We were still high in the mountain, in complete darkness with no points of reference around us. I had no idea how much longer to the next aid station and what the trail was going to be like. In the profile, this part looked kind of mellow, but it was so technical that it was very hard. I probably moved something like 5 kms in 2 hours.
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This is hail from the storm … the next day!
When I got to the final aid station, I asked them how much more to the finish and when they said 7 kms, I almost lost it. I was in desperately bad mood and really just wanted to get out of there. The aid station people were making a fuss around me, but I just shut them all out for the time being and picked up my phone and called Katri. I cursed the race and said that I hate it and told her to send all my friends away from the finish and that I don’t want to talk to anyone, I just want to shower, eat a pizza and sleep. She again handled it well and said not to worry about them or friends and to just focus on getting down there. Her words and some hot tea and soup calmed me down and I was able to joke with the aid station staff a bit. I thanked them very much and told them the conditions above are very hard and to take good care of people.
I was told the final kilometers are “easy” by the people at the aid station. It was far from easy. It was partially steep, there were rocks and roots everywhere and it was impossible to find any kind of rhythm with the broken toes, tired legs and the now wet and dark trail. I did what I could moving down slowly, dreaming of the finish line. I finally get into the town and know that there is just 1 km left to run around the town. I was still in a bad mood and wasn’t sure if I can really do the final kilometer. About 500m from the finish, I met my team mates and they handed me the Trail Tarraco flag. This was the final turning point and my mood instantly improved and I wanted to finish positive. With the flag on my shoulders, it was now easy to pick up the pace, run around the final block and then a strong sprint to the finish line. People were cheering all over and I could see my friends, many of whom had followed me all race. When I got to the finish line, I laid down the Trail Tarraco flag on the line and went down and kissed it.
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Running with the flag (and proof that I did not walk the entire race 🙂
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The white wolf and the flag
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Kneeling at the finish line and happy
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… and giving credit where it belongs – thank you very much. I was looking forward to this hug. 
This result is dedicated to my support crew and team, without whom I would not have finished the race. It was really an epic adventure and a great specimen of ultra running, where the runner must do their part, but can be greatly supported by the people around them. The sport of ultra running is much more of a community sport than any other form of running that I know of. This is one of the aspects that draws me and many other people to it. This community aspect also extends to my Finnish running mates, who all support each other with advise, logistics and friendship.
In conclusion and after a bit of time to reflect things, I’m extremely happy with the result. My other main objective was to finish and I definitely feel like I did the best run I could. With my friends, I was able to fix a major problem well enough to allow me to finish and in the end, I finished in 79th place out of 2,300 people (out of which about 1,400 finished). This distance is certainly serious business and has my full respect. It’s not a bad result for my first 100-miler and has given me a totally different perspective to this kind of distances. A 100km race certainly doesn’t sound all that long anymore.
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Finisher – after an unbelievable rollercoaster race. 
I want to thank my partners Suunto and Stryd for their support. I also want to thank my Trail Tarraco team mates for their gifts that helped purchase some of the material needed. A lot of friends have reached out via social media and other channels and it’s been my pleasure the share the story with you. Over and out, until next time!
Photo credits: Katri Langel & Flash-Sport, the official race photographers where I purchased a pack of them – except where otherwise mentioned.
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UTMB 2016 Race Plan

It is UTMB time. This is by far the biggest athletic challenge of my life. Even in the best case scenario, I will be running about twice as long as I have ever done. So it’ll be a journey to the unknown. It’s not exactly easy to plan for that, so I’m going to keep it pretty simple.

The going in position is very good. Training since May has been good and there are no significant problems and I should be and feel fit. Mentally things are also very good, I have a positive outlook into the race and confidence is quite high. I have been racing very little this year, but my last (night) race I won and it was all good.

So my race outcome objectives are really to go and run a good race and try for a good time. My plan A is to loosely target a time in the 25-28 h range. 25h would be an amazing time. I think the best Finnish time is just under 28 hours. I’m not going into the race to slow myself down and with the attitude ‘to just finish’. I want to run efficiently and will try to be smooth and consistent. Surely there will be low moments in the race and these I will treat with humility, respecting the course and will use whatever time it takes to fuel and fix whatever problems come up.

There are a few challenges I can foresee that I try to account for:

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  • The first part is very easy, I have no concerns about that. I was lucky to get into the elite starting area with my ITRA ranking points, so I will go with the flow and run at a nice, efficient pace. Many people go very fast here, too fast.
  • The first 31k are really easy. Then at around midnight, we start the long climb quite high up. I’ll meet my crew in Les Contamines at km 30 and they’ll help me get ready for the night.
  • Night-time strategy is usually the same for me… take it easy, don’t do anything silly and just get into the rhythm. I love nighttime racing, so I don’t have any concerns about it.
  • The concern with the night part is that it is very long. I’ll probably be out there for 7 hours and it’s difficult to carry enough calories with my setup for that long. There is a lot of mandatory gear, so my pack is really full. I will need to have the patience to fuel well at the aid stations during the night.
  • In the morning, I’ll see my family again in Courmayer. Many people take a lot of time at this aid station to transition from night running to the day. I’ll need to do the same, put on suncream etc. I would like to be out in 15 minutes or so, but will take the time I need.
  • After Courmayer, there is a big climb and then a flattish section in altitude. This is probably going to be quite hard, after running so long. Important to fuel well in Courmayer.
  • The previous section is followed by another climb, even higher, to the highest point in the race. I could envision this to be one of the most difficult moments in the race.
  • There is a long downhill from here that is most likely going to destroy whatever is left of my quads.
  • The aid station following this downhill where I see my crew is probably going to be important to regroup, fuel up and get ready to face the remaining distance.
  • The last three climbs are going to be hard. I’m not sure which I’m more concerned about, the uphill or the down. We’ll see.
  • In addition to the course challenges, I will probably have some trouble with my shoes. I’ve made some sizing mistakes and don’t really have an ideal race shoe. I will go with the Salomon S-Lab wings normal, not the soft-ground version. This is likely going to be slippery in any mud, but otherwise a nice fast shoe. All my other alternatives have some kind of compromises for this kind of a race, so I’ll just have to deal with it.
  • Nutrition will be really key. I will go mostly with gels during the run and try to consume soup and other real food at the aid stations. Need to drink loads, all the time. If my ‘running time’ is 25 hours and I take 3 gels per hour, that’s 75 gels. Disgusting…

Now that you know my plan, feel free to show your support. The race will start at 18:00 on Friday evening and there is likely going to be a system that posts  progress on Facebook. You can also follow the race on http://utmbmontblanc.com/. I think there will be a continuous online broadcast of things. My bib number is 222. You can send me messages via FB messenger, whatsapp, text and I will check these out every time I meet my crew. Any info about the race situation, encouragement, whatever is always welcome. There is still one more week to go before the race and the first objective is always to get to the start line. From there, I hope to be able to tell you the full story about how all of this will really play out in reality.

Vertical Week

I experimented with a new kind of a training block for me. For some time I have been thinking that doing a vertical km, or 1,000m+ of ascent every day for a week and see how I feel about that. Well, that about the perfect kind of training for the upcoming UTMB (with 10,000m+ of climbing in the race). Another part of good timing was that I had an upcoming trip go Malaga to go to a wedding, which meant that I would be training less, so that was good for recovery.

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So I did this 2 weeks ago and wanted to document the process and what I think about it.

Training 1 – medium steep, soft ground repeats

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I started my vertical week with just 1 day of rest after a hard 21km night race with 1,200m+ of climb. My recovery day was a BBQ at a friends house and during this training, I realized I had only eaten 1 potato and some nachos the previous day (plus some protein, beer and wine, of course). I had eaten minimal carbs. My plan was to climb to the local high point, then run back down and do another run up, but avoid the end that had a couple of flatter sections. I then cut back even more and did only the steepest part of the climb.

I was starting to bonk during the second climb and felt low energy and power. A silly food mistake in training and this was a hard, hard session … I was starting to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into for the week.

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Profile. This was on some local trails, in a forest trail that is quite soft.. but the grade is something like 30%.

Training 2 – semi-hard grade, long climbs

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This one is a bit short, I did get 1,000m+ because I rode my bike to do this training and then walked the road up home, which is 100m vert. Legs felt pretty tired, but this was a better run than yesterday. This is one of the best runs around here, going up a steep and quite technical section and then down a nice rocky downhill. The rocks are solid, so it’s nice coming dancing down them.

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Nice about 600m+ steady climb to warm things up.

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Also had this nice bonus of above-clouds views that day.

Training 3 – diverse repeats

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This was a fun one, four repeats on a very nearby trail. It starts with a nice pretty steep narrow trail, then joins with a steep dirt road, then goes on a little trail again, which then turns into a very technical and super steep section that I have cleared for myself for training on exactly this kind of terrain. This one is also fun downhill. Very diverse and enjoyable trail. I was now starting to feel like I had recovered a bit from the race and legs started to work again and got better as the session continued. It’s still damn hard to run 1,000m+.

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The grade at the end is 40%+. This was the shortest distance where I was able to achieve 1,000m+ during the week.

Training 4 – fast, short repeats

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This one was about improving the motor. This was mostly cement / dirt road, but in very bad shape so there was a little bit of technical twist. Mostly it was just an aerobic push. It was a bit different, so it was kind of fun. I ran light with my water bottle stacked by the road. This was by far the fastest 1,000m+ during the week.

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Training 5 – long hard climbs

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This is the longest climb I have very nearby. It’s also technical at the end and very slow. It goes to the highest point in the mountains that we see from the house, so it’s nice and quite fresh at the top. Things kind of sucked at the top of the first climb. I was quite dazed and slow. Things improved a little, but it still felt like a pretty hard session.

Training 6 – long run

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We had plans to go have lunch in a restaurant in the mountains, so of course I would run there. It was a very hot day. It had nice water spots on the way, so I was able to swim in a stream twice, which totally saved the day. It was a really nice run, feeling quite good all the way, except that I was hot, out of energy and a bit irritated (poor Katri) when I got to the end. I only had 1 gel during the day (and spent 2,300 calories according to Strava). Quick garden hose shower, new clothes and a beer quickly fixed things though. A nice day out in the mountains.

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Training 7 – usual route with some repeats

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So this was a run on my usual trails. Legs felt the best all week and I was able to keep a nice pace. I could have cut it short since I already had well over 7,000m+ for the week and thats what I had in mind when I set out. It was so nice and I was feeling good that I decided to do the full 1,000m+ again. I just did some repeats at the end to get the meters. You can see I didn’t feel like doing much extra, so 1,001 was enough.

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For the week: Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 10.25.55 PM.png

So was this good training? 

I think it was. In the beginning of the week, I was thinking that this is silly. The first days were hard, which made it also more difficult mentally. Things improved every day however. Also what was really significant was that every day was +30 degrees and many of these days I was running in full sun. I needed a lot of water so was also running with a backpack most of the time.

The recovery week was good. I did run about 40km in Malaga, some flat stuff, but also trails. Things felt pretty good and also flat pace was decent. When I got back home, I went for a little walk with the dogs and legs felt really good. Just the kind of feeling you want before a race. Today I did a good longish run of nearly 20km with some long tempo sections in it and it was a good run. Uphills felt good, downhills were a bit sluggish.

Top tips

If I was to repeat this, I would try to:

  • Start the week very fresh, not after a race
  • Keep an arsenal of different trainings and routes and pick the most suitable one for each day and decide this each day based on feeling (I did this)
  • Consider energy use… perhaps have one bottle of sport drink or take gels. I took one gel all week.
  • Remember to eat well and focus on good recovery between races. Always take in carbs within 30 minutes of each workout. Forget weight control and things like that – eat and drink to maximize performance in the next workout.
  • Avoid, or properly prepare for hot weather
  • The objective is to get the vertical meters. Speed,  terrain, etc doesn’t really matter so don’t worry about anything else. This helps mentally when you can just do what you want as long as you get the meters in the end.
  • Schedule this in some good times in the training calendar. I think it was a good training for the UTMB and not too hard for me. Some people can do more, some probably less, so plan according to your level and race objectives.

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 🙂

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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.

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Big hills in the Alpujarra

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Transvulcania Ultramarathon

Transvulcania is not really just a race. It’s a phenomenon. Here’s what makes it so special:

Location on the tiny island of La Palma in the middle of the atlantic. There are only 86,000 people on the island and it’s quite remote. There are no big hotels or mass tourism. The island is just simply amazing, with the southern part being basically desert with volcanic black sand, which makes for totally surreal landscapes. When you climb up, usually you have a sea of clouds on the other side of the island and perfect sunshine on the other. In the middle of the island, there is an enormous caldera that rises from the sea to nearly 2,500 meter. The northern side of the island is lush rainforest. In the middle, there are beautiful pine forests and smooth trails. The race goes through most of this. It’s really breathtakingly beautiful and there really are moments that even in the middle of the race make you stop and dig out your phone to take some photos.

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True skyrunning. Photo by Jordi Saragossa. 

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Sample of palma greenery from the north. Photo by Katri. 

People are special here. They are some of the kindest people I’ve seen. They will always greet you when you walk by, with a smile on their face and they will always help you out no matter what you need. Out of the 86,000 people living here, probably half of them work as volunteers during the race. This event is really important to them and they are really excited about it. Anyone participating in the race is a hero in their eyes and the elite runners are superstars. We rented a small mountain house for the race and the owners were thrilled to have someone running the race staying in their house. I’ve never seen such support and participation from spectators. In the first town the race goes through, just before 7 AM on Saturday, there are thousands of people lining the streets, singing and clapping like crazy. During the race, there are spectators everywhere and they are not just sitting there watching, they are really supporting you and if you just smile, maybe wave a hiking pole or say anything to them, they’ll go twice as crazy. My arm literally got tired of waving at them. It’s great. When you run in the final straight, it’s not just the kids that want to high 5 you, it’s also the adults. The bars lining the street have big speakers and their own announcers explaining what’s going on.

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View from our terrace. I guess living in a place like this helps you be nice. Photo by Katri. 

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This is from the north … Even the donkey is happy, running alone and free, going who knows where. Photo by Katri. 

Organization of the race is excellent. They do an excellent job of creating a great atmosphere for the race. In the local radio, the race is the only thing they talk about. The water bottles are branded with the race logos. They attract top runners from the world, the line-up here is simply amazing every time. The elites also keep coming back, for all these same reasons. There are thousands of people working to make the race happen and most things are perfect. The aid stations during the race are staffed by 30 super excited volunteers and are the best I have seen anywhere. When you arrive into a station, there is usually a little kid that runs to you and asks what you need. They will then grab your water bottle from the pack, run to fill it or deal with whatever other needs you might have. They have constructed makeshift showers in the middle of the mountaintop, who knows how. When you exit the station, they all cheer you on. There are some 4,000 or so people racing in the events, so it’s a big job to handle and it’s done really well. There are some little issues of course, like the 4 toilets set up in the start line. That’s about 1 toilet per 500 people in the ultra and I’m not sure who did that math…

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Transvulcania water. Makes you run faster? 

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Nice touch from the organizers – “The victory wall”, with the winners and ALL of the times from the previous results, including my problematic time of 10:32 from 2014. Photo by Katri. 

So how did my event play out? Well, the going-in position wasn’t that great, as you can read from here.

Start of the Ultramarathon is at 06:00 from the Fuencaliente lighthouse. We had to get up at 02:15 to make it to the organization bus that took us there. The start itself is very complicated, with 1,700 runners starting at the same time and going around the lighthouse and then into a narrow, about 2 meters wide trail that goes uphill in the heavy volcanic sand. So everyone will sprint to the start of the trail, where there will be massive traffic jam and everyone who is not in the first 50 people, will get stuck for a long time. We planned the start well with Eetu and decided to get into the start line at the very last minute. We just walked into the elite area at the front, where all the pro runners were. I think everyone just assumed we’re also pros. We started right next to the stars, Sage Canaday, Luis Alberto Hernando, Miguel Heras, Anna Frost, etc. We sprinted with them and were in the elite pack and got excellent positions on the trail. My knees worked well here, the uphill was not a problem at all. However, I did not really want to keep going at the elite pack pace, so once we were on our way on the trail, I backed off and people started passing me. Eetu on the other hand continued with the elites all the way into the first aid station at 7kms. He eventually finished 33rd, an excellent result in this field. My left knee, which I had hurt a couple of days before the race was quite full of fluid and it left like it was sloshing and I went very easy, prioritizing trying to save the knee and I had no idea whether it will hold up all the way. It wasn’t too bad in the uphill though and everything was going quite well.

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There are loads of great pics from the start. I can’t decide which one I like more. You decide. Photos by Jordi Saragossa. 

Mid-race was strong, considering my circumstances. I had taken the beginning very easy, just conserving my knees and holding back in all the fast slightly downhill sections. My time in El Pilar, at 24km was 3:10 and this was after a lot of slow climbing (1,900m+), so I was quite happy with that. I was thinking that maybe I could somehow do close to 9 hrs overall. From El Pilar, there is a bit of a boring section of quite flat dirt road, until we start climbing again to Roque de Los Muchachos, the highest point in the race. The flat sections were ok, I was staying in the group I was with, but it certainly wasn’t fast. Things started looking better when we started climbing and I started passing people. In fact, I felt very strong in the climbs, using my poles hard and legs were responding fine. I thought that a lot of people went out very hard in the beginning while I was going easy. I was now catching all these people and I actually went from position 136 to 82 in the 16km section. That’s 54 people! All this gave me quite a confidence boost too and I kept attacking. All was going very well until Pico de la Nieve, which was the beginning of some harder times. There is a hard climb coming out of the Pico aid station and I started to realize I had not been taking in enough energy. This was after 6+ hours of running. The underlying reason for this was that since I didn’t have a support crew (Katri was also running), I only had 1 500ml bottle filled with gels. This was now almost gone and while I was carrying some extra gels, they were in the backpack and not easily accessible. I was going with a good flow, so I never bothered to stop and sort out easy access to energy. I really started to feel this towards the end of this section before Roque de Los Muchachos, at 2,400m+ of altitude where I was getting really dizzy and the strong climbing was just a distant memory. Once I got to Roque, which is a big mid-way aid station, I could hardly stand up. I needed to stop for 15-20 minutes, I ate two plates of pasta, some coke and candy and just had to wait for a bit for it all to get into my bloodstream so that I had energy to stay focused in the massive and complicated downhill to come. I had now dropped from 82 to 107th position. Lesson: Energy needs to be easily accessible and must be a priority.

I stopped just before Roque, took out my phone from the backpack and shot these photos. In reality, they don’t tell even 1/10th of the story, with the 1000m cliffs dropping straight down with clouds far below us … but it was still a great excuse to stop for a little bit to recover some energy 🙂

THE downhill from Roque to Puerto Tazacorte is of enormous importance in this race. I’m not aware of any ultra in the world that has anything similar. The route drops from 2,423 meters to zero in 18 kms. It’s also mostly very technical. This is where the race is won or lost almost every year, as happened this year as well. Sage Canaday, a very fast american trail runner had been leading the race all the way here, but he lost 15 minutes in this hill to the eventual winner Luis Alberto. In the end, Luis won by 10 minutes over Sage, who actually ended up dropping into third. In 2014, I had a fabulous moment in this hill and flew down like crazy fueled by a massive runner’s high. I overtook lots of people, but then took a very hard fall that destroyed my race and I ended up in the hospital. I had already fallen once in the same hill on this trip and banged up my knee. I knew this was going to be the hardest part of the race with my knees only semi-functional and also very little downhill training in my legs in general. It did turn out like a bad dream and I was slow beyond belief and suffering. Runners were passing me left and right and there was nothing I could do. My agility and confidence totally shredded into bits, I just kept hopping on like wounded rabbit. To put it into perspective, the winner only needed about 1h 20 min for this section, but for me it took 2h 15 min. It was also very painful (and not just to my ego), but this is where my knees took the worst beating and I wasn’t sure if they’ll hold up until about half way. This is also where all my hopes about a good time evaporated and I was starting to have some dark thoughts. I entertained myself by starting to come up with curse words to describe this hill. I won’t repeat them here. I wasn’t the only one having trouble here, there were a couple of people being bandaged after taking a fall, one girl was being carried on a stretcher wrapped in a space blanket and crying hard and another guy who was holding his chest / stomach and the firemen were going up the hill probably going to pick him up. I could hear the race announcers down in Tazacorte from far away and this helped mentally and I just kept going, repeating my race mantra “Stop thinking and dance”, that I used every now and then to get my focus back on trail when my mind started wandering.

palma downhill

Part of the endless downhill. It would actually be fun to run, if it wasn’t infinitely long and with properly functioning legs. Photo by Katri. 

Finish was very good for me. The positive outcome of not being able to run the downhill properly meant that physically I had recovered and had a lot in reserve for the final 4,5km or so section from Tazacorte to the finish. There is still 350m of climbing left and I remember that in 2014 it felt very hard. I was so pissed off from the downhill that I could not wait for the flatter / uphill section to be able to push again. There is a big aid station in Tazacorte and a lot of people stop here for final fueling and rest, but I surprised the volunteers by just sprinting through the station telling them I’m fine and I have a race to finish. I also checked the clock here and realized I have 37 minutes until 10hr race time, which means that with the climb and the difficult terrain, I would have to run hard to make it. I got down to it and the legs moving again. The first part was in a very technical and annoying riverbed, which didn’t go all that well, but I was certainly still catching everyone else. Then I got into the uphills, which I pushed hard, running up most of the hills and if not running, I was powerhiking with the poles as hard as I could. It felt really good to really put everything I had down on the trail. I passed and surprised a lot of people by running hard up these hills. All these people had just passed me in a sad state in the downhill and probably didn’t expect to see me back. I made it up the hills and into the long final straight, about 1km long with 5 min or so to spare. I wasn’t sure exactly how long it was to the finish, so I hard to keep going hard. I was pushing with my poles, running in the flat asphalt and still putting in everything I had to make it. I told all the runners I passed that we all have a chance to finish under 10 hrs and I tried to cheer them on to also push. The finish line is really fun, there’s loads of people that all want to high5 you, but I didn’t have the time for that, plus I was going hard with my poles so I had no hands to do that anyway. I made it to the orange carpet before the finish in good time and saw that I had made it, with still about 1 minute left in reserve. I made a nice sprint through the carpet and then just collapsed in the finish. There was a lot of cheering going on, but I was pretty dazed so most of that escaped me.

sage finish

Since I don’t have any photos of my finish yet, here’s one of Sage Canaday, 3rd place. Photo by iRunFar. 

In the end, my experience of the Transvulcania felt like a really good one. Three days before I told Katri and Eetu that my chances of even starting were probably 10%. My race execution was good, I did the best I could with what I had to play on that day. Of course it would have been great to really compete and see what I can do in this race, but my biggest worry was not being able to complete the route. I wanted to experience the route and FEEL Transvulcania and you can’t really do that from the sidelines. I certainly met this objective and really, I’m very happy with the outcome.

palma tree

Giving my love to La Palma. These trees are amazing btw, they have very thick bark that makes them resistant to forest fires. 

I really, really highly recommend this event to everyone. La Palma is also amazing and is now officially my favourite island in the world. I encourage you to visit, but please do not ruin it.

Focus

I’m writing this post 2 days before the other big focus race of the year – Transvulcania Ultramarathon in the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands. However, my race is already over.

People say that you learn most from your mistakes, not from your successes. I’m pretty hard headed and sometimes it takes a few beatings for me to learn my lessons. I believe I have now learned one.

So what happened? Back in 2014, I did the same race and fell very badly in the gigantic downhill that drops down 2,500 meters in 18 kilometers. It’s the longest downhill in any race that I’m aware of. It’s fast and it’s technical and I love it. So on the first day on the island, I go for a nice little shakeout run to test the legs and I was lucky enough that we’re staying just 1km away from access to this massive hill. The run goes great, legs feel strong going up and my knee that was injured seems to be good and I feel agile. I’m dancing on the rocks, taking it easy and avoiding any falls. It goes so well I start to think about what to tell my friend Eetu, who is also racing. I’m thinking how well this hill suits my abilities and how him and myself probably have an advantage over most other runners in this hill. I’m kind of lost in my thoughts and take a wrong turn. I notice this quickly and trace back. I’m almost at the end, happy as ever to be back in La Palma and enjoying the beautiful trails on a great day. Then I fall down, hard.

I quickly see there is damage everywhere. Hands, elbows, both knees. I curse loudly. I’m 20 meters away from the end of the trail where the asphalt road begins. I limp back into the house and tell Katri that I fell again and I’m very angry at myself. After some time, it turns out the other damage is superficial, but I have banged up my left knee very bad and it’s swollen to the size of a tennis ball. After a couple of hours, it becomes pretty clear that it’s in no shape for racing on a course like this.

polvi

The knee, about 2 hrs after the incident

So what’s the lesson I learned? Well, I have been very worried lately because I have been taking lots of falls. My other knee just got better after a similar fall about three weeks ago. In the last ultra, I fell twice. I’ve fallen a couple of times in easy training runs. ALL of these falls have happened in easy sections of the trail. I NEVER fall in the hard parts. Now I think I know why. Whats common to pretty much all of these falls is that in the easy sections, my mind easily starts to wander and I start to think about irrelevant stuff like what will I do when I get home, some work issues, etc. I’m no longer present in the trail, not giving it the respect it deserves, lacking focus.

easy trails

Sample of some of the easier La Palma trails. Dangerous stuff. 

So from now on, when I’m on the trail, I’ll take care to make sure my mind is also with me.

palma katri

It can be easy to be distracted in a beautiful place like this

And the plan for Transvulcania? The knee is a little better and I have been able to do some easy hiking today. Downhills hurt, uphill is ok. I will start the race and see how it goes at the first checkpoint. I can then decide to drop, continue or wait for Katri and run the rest of the half marathon race with her. Any serious racing is not going to happen, which is a damn shame because things were finally starting to look good after all the problems so far this early season.

roque

People sitting well above the clouds at the 2,500m peak, Roque de Los Muchachos, watching the race in 2014. 

tazacorte

Puerto de Tazacorte, at the bottom of the monster 2,500m- hill. Probably won’t get to see it again in the 2016 race …

2015 race video.

2016 race preview.

Ultra Trail Muntanyes de Costa Daurada (UTMCD) Race Report

I have lots of experience with the UTMCD course and it’s been a bit of a nemesis for me. I have finished the half twice, the first one being my first ‘ultra’ trail distance where I struggled massively with energy and learned the importance of proper race fueling. There were some rough moments in hypoglycemic stupor with high wind and vertical sleet coming in my face at higher altitudes. That race also taught me some respect for the mandatory gear in these races and I was very happy that the organization had added some extra gear due to the difficult conditions. At the start line, I was still thinking it’s ridiculous that you have to run with all this stuff when it’s nice and warm. The second finish of the half race was when I had injured my ankle and somehow struggled to the finish. Last year was my first attempt at the main 90km, 4,500m+ distance, which ended in Mont-Ral at km 68 after stomach problems that had prevented eating and drinking properly from very early on. I also completed the course over three days last year with a Finnish friend and there were some challenging moments running at night in freezing rain …

In reality, the course is really not that hard as long as you are prepared and don’t do silly mistakes.

utmcd getting ready

Getting ready before the race. Photo by Jordi Santacana. 

The going-in position this year was also a bit tough. I have been injured since the Cambrils half marathon, where I did do my personal best time of 1:17:03, but destroyed my achilles tendon in the process (might have been the last road half I do…). Just when I got back to some light running, I got sick with the flu and all this combined meant that there was almost no running for three weeks. I then had one proper training week before this race and just wanted to get the legs back to it and focused on getting some kilometers and vertical in at low intensity. Finally, 3 days before the race I did a “fitness check”, running my usual route from the house to the Hermita de Puigcerver, exactly 5kms and 470m climb or so. I was 1 min 15 sec off my record from last year, which is about 4%. This, in a 11h ultra race would mean a loss of about 26 minutes. Last year’s winning time was 10:57, so I calculated I could maybe manage 11:23 .. the ballpark I had in mind was that I’d finish between 11 and 12 hours. The main objective was to finish the race and time and position were completely secondary.

Start

I started the race nice and slow running and chatting with Gerard Anton. We were quite far back in positions and just kept going at a consistent and conservative pace. This was really pleasant time and the first 30km flew by fast. There were some other runners with us every now and then and I thought that some of the group was going a bit fast for me and I held back a bit and focused on eating and drinking. I felt like I was struggling more than the others in the climb to Siurana and I was worried the group might completely drop me. Things changed in the next downhill, where I was a bit faster than some of the others and lost contact with Gerard.

utmcd start

Start, Gerard Anton on my right. Photo by Blanca de la Sotilla. 

Mid-Race

After Siurana, there is quite a long uphill, not too steep, but tactically challenging as the gradient is not clearly one that you’d run up or walk. So I did a bit of both while some other folks around me mostly ran. I didn’t really lose that much time and by the time we got to the aid station at the top, the two guys I was in contact with were there and I actually passed them after filling my water bottle a bit faster. There was a longish downhill after this and after 20 seconds of the downhill I didn’t hear them behind me anymore and did not see these guys for the rest of the race. This was around km 36 or so and the start of the ‘high moment’ of the race, where I was feeling very good and was catching up with other runners. There was a small strategic section after this with a dirt road of slight uphill for several kilometers where I knew that a strong runner could make up a lot of time, so I used the good feeling I had and kept a good pace. I passed two more runners, before starting the downhill to the big aid station half way into the race. I arrived at the aid station about the same time as last year and almost exactly at the time I had expected. I was still in good shape, so I thought the race was going quite well. I was somewhere near top 10 at this point.

utmcd Siurana

One of the most beautiful parts of the race early on, close to Siurana. Photo by Jordi Santacana. 

I had a drop bag at the aid station, with my special salmon soup which I gulped down hungrily. I also added the extra mandatory shirt into my pack and left my gloves (mistake). I also changed shoes here, from Salomons to Inov 8’s, hoping to get a bit more extra space for my swelling feet (another mistake).

utmcd vilaplana

Fooling around, just arriving to the half-way aid station in Vilaplana. Photo by Blanca de la Sotilla. 

The hardest climb of the race was next, with 650m+ in 3,5 kms. However, I live 6km from this place, so I have done this climb a million times and know that you just need to be patient and take it easy. It was time to put on some music and just keep going. The uphill went well and I passed another runner. The sun was now out in full and I did notice that I was quite dehydrated. I drank my main 600ml water bottle in the first km after the aid station and soon had to stop and take out my backup from the backpack. This one also was gone in the next few mins and I had to stop eating anything until I get more water. There was an aid station at the top, where I drank another full 600ml bottle. I drank about 1,5 liters in that 3,5km section. It helped though and I was soon able to eat well again and the worst thirst was gone. I knew I was still dehydrated, so I paid a bit more attention to drinking and also stopping to cool down in the streams and fountains that I saw. In the next downhill, I passed this one guy that I had already passed once in the previous downhill, but he was faster through the aid station. I didn’t expect to see him again in the race.

utmcd climb

Climbing … and feeling it. Photo by eSportFoto

Final kms

Some problems started before the next aid station. I fell pretty hard on an easy part of the trail and landed on my running poles. I heard a little crunch and was afraid that I had broken a pole once again. I also got a massive cramp in my left calf and it took a while to get rid of it. At this point, the runner I had passed in the downhill caught up to me and saw me lying on the ground with my calf cramping rock hard. He asked if I broke my leg :). I told him I’m fine, it’s just muscle and that he should keep going. He took off and my cramp also cleared quickly and I was able to continue. I wasn’t feeling weak or anything, so I wasn’t sure why I even fell. Then I fell again, hard once more only 500m after the first place. This is usually a bad sign and I was getting quite pissed off at myself for not paying attention. It was again on a very easy trail, where I stumbled on the only root or rock that there was… Anyway, on we must go.

 

It’s always great to have so much support on the trail. I’m quite well known here after some good results and probably also because I stand out from everyone else and have a unusual name. So at every aid station or where there are spectators, they are always shouting my name and giving me support. It must be annoying for people that run with me, but it always gives me a bit of a boost and a reason to put on a smile. This is especially the case with the team C.E. Trail Tarraco and the “manada”. They are often staffing aid stations and it’s a big help. The biggest supporter of all is Vicenz Laiz Marin, who shouts “Come on Kai” about a kilometer away every time he sees me :).

So I get a bit of a boost from an aid station where I see lots of friends and also see the guy I had already passed twice and now did it for the third time. There was again a downhill where I knew I was faster and I was thinking that I really don’t want to see the guy again before the finish. Just to be sure, I put in a bit extra to put some distance between us. There was again a long easy downhill, which can be a bit tough for the legs though because it’s the same kind of movement for many km’s and this can stress the muscles a bit. I started doing some math in my head here, I was about at km 60 so 2/3 of the race was done and I thought that was good. I then looked at the race time, which was something like 7 hours. That meant that I still had 4-5 hours of racing to do. At this point I decided it’s better to stop thinking about such silly things and focus on getting to the next aid station and just worry about each stage at a time. This can be quite an important factor in ultra racing, because the distances and times can sometimes feel intimidating, so it’s better not to think about it.

So I focused on the next challenge which was the second toughest climb in the race and perhaps the hardest, because it is so late in the race. It’s also very long. I have always struggled with this part, so I was a little afraid of how it would go. It started well and I was able to run the mellow uphills in the beginning and passed one runner who had dropped out here and was heading back to the previous aid station. I then caught up to another, who is a friend Eloi Ortiz and I stayed with him for a bit. He was walking quite a lot, so soon I told him I’d move on and kept moving a bit faster. In this hill, I did realize that my pole had indeed broken when I had fallen and the stick was now half useless. I was happy that I had a spare pair in my race bag and Katri was waiting with it at the top of the hill, so no big deal. The rest of the hill went quite well and I was able to sit down a bit at the aid station and eat. The race doctor warned me about the dropping temperatures and it did indeed feel a bit chilly. I was starting to wonder how smart it was to leave my gloves at the half way point …

utmcd tired

In the final third of the race… and you can see it. Still going ok! Photo by Jordi Santacana

As I left the aid station, THAT GUY that I had passed three times already came in. I really did not want to see him again. The next section was again quite technical, so I expected to be faster there, so again I pushed a little bit to make sure he doesn’t creep up on me again. There were quite a lot of runners from the half distance and I scared a lot of them by flying past quite a lot faster than some of them. Sorry.

I now had to start dealing with a new problem … I have a problem with my hands that they get very cold very easily and it was now getting quite cold in the higher altitudes and I was worrying about the sun going down too fast. The parts of the trail that did not get sunlight anymore were already very cold and I had no gloves. I did have a buff, so I wrapped that over one hand and my running poles, so at least one of my hands was warm. This solution was ok, I kept switching the buff between my hands every now and then and that worked well enough for now.

I was quite happy, I had already told Katri at the previous aid station that everything is going well and that I am very likely to finish. I was thinking that I could perhaps also catch some more positions in the end since I had been running quite conservatively. It really had been a very pleasing race, with no big problems and no desperation and dark thoughts like I sometimes may have at the end of a long race. I went through the last bigger aid station and had a little chat with the race referees there and then went on my way, hoping to finish before the dark and cold really hit. I still had the highest point in the race to go through and was a bit worried that it would be ridiculously cold there. There was one more climb to do, but compared to the previous ones, it hardly counts as a climb. When I got to the top, the organizers told me I was in sixth position (this wasn’t true). It was hard to keep track of positions because there were now runners from three different distances mixed in the same trail. From this point on, it was 10kms to the finish line, which in an ultra like this is really almost nothing.

The final section consists of a rolling dirt road, with a couple of slightly bigger climbs and semi-technical descent from the highest point into the Prades village and the finish line. I felt good at the finish and did a nice sprint, only to find out I was going the wrong way. They had changed the finish line from last year 🙂

utmcd meta

Happy and dazed at the finish line. Photo by Katri (I think)

What was really interesting was that I had estimated my finishing time exactly to the minute based on my test run a few days before. I wasn’t watching my time at all in the race, but hit the exact time last year’s winning time was, but deducting my 5% lack of fitness from it.

All in all, I finished in good spirits and was happy with the result, considering the circumstances.