Wednesday 8 August 2018

Tromsø Skyrace

The chilled-out fjord and mountainscape around Tromsø

It's been a few years since I've done one, but in many respects it was like being back at a village fell race in the north of England! An all-round no nonsense, no faff, no frills, low-key event! Down by the waterfront at the Edge hotel you pick up a number, four safety pins and a box of tea, and that's it - you're ready to go! At the prize giving late on Saturday afternoon the top three men and women climb onto the wooden podium, and Kilian hands out beer mats with drawings of moose on them. And then off you go for a pizza and a few beers. The job's a good one! There's nothing complicated going on at the Tromsø Skyrace, - you're here to run over some quite spectacular mountains, and the focus is 100% on the enjoyment of that experience. You choose your own gear, you drink out of streams, and you look after yourself as you would on any other long day in the hills. Out on the course the terrain reminds me of some of the wilder spots in Scotland. Ruggedly beautiful. And made doubly atmospheric by the fact that you are only afforded a limited number of glimpses at the surroundings, at what lays ahead, what’s above or below. It was claggy! And as we ran through the low cloud you'd spot the odd grouse, a mouse, some rocks, some water and some more rocks.

Striding down the easy early grassy slopes

I ran with Jon Albon up to the top of the first summit, Tromsdalstinden. It was actually pretty easy running all the way up there (for real!), but the descent off its back side was less so! Closer to vertical than flat. Again, much more akin to fell running than the world of French trail running that I frequent these days. The approximate direction we were to take (straight) down the mountainside was outlined by a few small red and yellow flags. The exact line you take is each runner's call to make - there's certainly nothing resembling a path down there. Perfect - no annoying switchbacks!

The surprisingly steep first downhill

I was feeling pretty good running and chatting with Jon up to this first summit, but it turned out that I wasn't in the perfect descending mindset. There are days and times when I'm more willing to throw myself down a hillside than others. My eyes clouded up with water, blurring my vision, and my head wasn't properly focused on the task ahead, and as such Jon quickly left me behind and a couple of other runners also caught me as we ran, slid and skidded down the slippery south-eastern slope of Tromsdalstinden.

In comes the clagg, out comes the jacket

1200 vertical meters later and we were at the bottom of the other side of the first big hill, through an aid station and ready to run (walk) up the next one. Cody's dad, Paul, handed me a couple of gels, some energy drink and a snickers bar, and off we headed, up the other side of the valley. It's easy to measure the time gaps to the runners ahead when you're going up, using landmarks like large boulders, or.. large boulders, of which there was no shortage! And I was happy to see that despite my seemingly disastrous first descent, I wasn't actually too far off the pace. I was running in fourth position, about five minutes behind Jon and two minutes behind Pere and Dimitry. I thought I climbed pretty fast up to the ridge, but according to my "precise" boulder-stone timing, I didn't manage to gain any ground on the guys in front on that stretch. And by the time we got up onto the infamous ridge the clagg was down again, to the extent that you could only see a few hundred yards ahead. Shame really - the views we missed are quite sublime, - from what I've seen in photos from previous years! Instead we'd have to make the most of the cloud-shrouded ambiance! It's not every day that I run through these kinds of landscapes and I have to say that I really do enjoy it, which is of course the reason for partaking in this sport in the first place. If you're not enjoying your chosen activity, it's generally a good idea to go do something else. Right! And I'm also convinced that the more you enjoy running across rocks and ridges the faster you can do it. So, smiling is a key ingredient to speed, ok!

Smile, it makes you go faster

After last year's accident on this slim stretch of ridge, the organisers had installed a few sections of rope, including for the last scramble up to Hamperokken summit (1404m). Here I encountered the front runners on their way down, and again counted that Jon now had ten minutes on me and the other two were just a couple of minutes in front.

The Hamperokken ridge

Now, normally the next bit of the course is basically a big snow-slide down the gully to the ice-blue lake at the bottom, which would have been pretty cool and advantageous for me given the context (I still wasn't in a "downhill day"). Instead, where the snow normally lies we were confronted with the underlying hard stuff, of a much more jaggedy nature. It's a bit like being offered a nice big vanilla ice-cream with an overly generous Chantilly topping, only to be told, "sorry, it's all melted", and the porcelain plate it was to be served on was all shattered and broken into spikey bits; "you can lick that if you like?" So, lick the boulder field we did! It wasn't fast going, and it probably wasn't too pretty to watch. There's a species of penguins I've seen in South America called rockhopper penguins - they'd have made a much better job of this bit of the race than I was doing! So anyhow, I did another below-par downhill, and again got caught by some more runners. By the time we were back down at the valley floor and returning through the same aid station I was back in sixth position and wondering whether that wasn't going to be where I'd stay, unless I could get my act together! But I'd been feeling good on the climbs all morning, so I was still confident of having something left in the tank and hoping to dish that out on the last 1200m uphill assault. I'm sure my in-form climbing was down to the monstrously hilly workouts put in recently at Monte Rosa and subsequently Pierra Menta, - that and the fact that unlike most of the other runners out there I didn't have poles in my hands to slow me down!! No poles, no problem!

Like a fell race!

I was in sixth at the bottom of what is best described as "a beast of a climb". My American teammate Cody was just ahead and running really well, looking good. Just ahead of him was the Spaniard Eric Moya. He had poles and was looking less good. A little further up the hill was Dimitry (the powerful Russian runner). Ahead of him the front two runners were totally out of sight, so presumably had a comfortable enough lead? All in all I thought that if I could nail this climb, I could potentially crawl (literally) my way back up into third spot. So the goal was set: "nail this climb", right! Dimitry had a three-minute lead on me at the bottom and I thought I was going pretty quickly up there, but I didn't catch him until 50 metres after the summit! He was obviously not giving in easily and was apparently as determined to step on the podium as I'd now persuaded myself to be. On the way up, I was telling myself that when I caught him there would be no more fluffy down-hilling skills! I made up my mind that I was not going to be hanging around on this last descent. And hence the 15km battle for third position commenced! And it was full-on until we were back in Tromsø harbour and under that finish arch! On the lower, grassy slopes of Tromsdalstinden I finally got ahead of Dimitry and felt I was building up a bit of a lead, but then there were a few kilometres of gentle incline, gaining a total of about 300m. This is the kind of slope that runners absolutely despise at the end of a long race. The sort of slope where you know you should be running, but you're wasted, your legs are screaming, and you just want to walk it in, please! I couldn't allow myself that option though, - whenever I dared glance behind me, the muscly man and his orange vest was ever present, just a couple of hundred meters behind! To cut it short, I grit my teeth and legged it as hard as I felt I could for those remaining miles, including a short and steep 400m downhill and then two miles of road over the sea bridge and back past the boats and the cruise ship to the more-than-welcome finish-line.

Happy to be back in town

I'm chuffed with the result, - the looong trip to the Arctic Circle had been worth it! This race represents my first return to international competition after my operation in February and a lengthy period off running before and after that. I've been training for about seven weeks now, and niggle free for much less than that. So hopefully with a bit more running in my legs and some regained descending confidence the rest of the season can go from here. It’s great to be back running Sky races too, after a venture into the world of ultra over the last couple of years. I have to say that races like this really do sum up why I run - to spend time exploring wild and wonderful scenery, on foot, at speed.

Tromsø harbour

Thanks to Kilian and Emilie for pulling this race together. There aren't many as good as this. Good job! ;-)

Next stop Kima!

Finish-line podium photo

Top 10 - all results here

Kilian handing out the winners' beer mats
- just need a beer to put on it now!

The race video

PHOTO CREDITS : yourepics / skyrunner world series

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