After a long journey from Oslo, our train pulled in to Finse station, a small collection of weathered buildings situated in the most pristine location. To the east of the hotel was the calm body of the Finsevatnet Lake, and beyond, the sleek form of the Hardangerjøkulen Glacier flowing down the bare, rocky mountainscape. This world of ice, snow, and rock felt foreign. It felt mythical, and tomorrow I would be crossing it on foot.
Rallarvegsløpet is a 2-day mountain race on the Rallarvegen, the old road used by labourers as they constructed the Bergen Railway. At all stages of the race, the railway intertwined in a beautiful relationship with the trail, crisscrossing and moving through the mountains together. The trail is hard-packed and very smooth, meaning runners accustomed to road-running would also feel at ease
This year was the 10th edition of the race and had a record number of entrants at around 70 participants. Amongst these runners I would meet some very special people, with even more inspiring stories to tell. The beauty of the race was that the runners stayed at the same hotel over the race weekend. We would come together for meals: sharing, commiserating and laughing together as we experienced all the race would give us.
Friday night we were treated to a decadent 4 course meal over candlelight, and spent the time getting to know the other runners. The race briefing in Norwegian was translated to me. All I needed to understand was that it would be fairly cold (between 3-10 degrees), and that we would have about 6km of snow to run through towards the end of the first day.
View over Finsevatnet Lake towards the mountains we will be running through on race day:
Hotel Finse 1222, overlooking a world of ice, snow and water:
Runar Gilberg, the race director, giving runners the race briefing over desert:
Saturday - Race Day #1 (Flåm - Finse 54km)
Race day came, arriving with blue sky. All the runners came together for an incredible buffet breakfast. Imagine long stretches of every cheese imaginable, fruit, house-baked bread, cereals, and COFFEE! We had time in the morning to relax, to plan and prepare our drop bags, and to make final alterations to race gear. I planned to run light with only a hand-held bottle and rain jacket. I felt confident that I would not get cold as long as I had some gloves and long sleeves (I love using the arm warmers for this purpose).
On the train with my friend Lars:
Walking to Vatnahalsen station where we would leave our drop bags. The mist started to set in, adding a real sense of myth and mystery:
Feeling good and enjoying a little snack, 1 hour before the race start:
With Lars who is about to run the race for the 10th time:
The race start was without ceremony in Flåm, a beautiful little town located on the edge of the Aurlanfjord. We would start at sea level, and over the course of the race we would climb up to 1344m. The runners were twitching and eager to get started on the journey back to Finse where a buffet dinner and sauna awaited. In the photo below you can see one of the heroes from the weekend: a lady called Oline who is 70 and running the race for the 5th time. I never stop being amazed and inspired when attending these events.
The first 10km of the race was run on asphalt, and I took it at a faster pace than I normally would run. I am not fast and rarely run on the road, so I took this opportunity to "train" this weakness. I also had to switch off the endurance part of my brain that kept telling me to "slow down," since I wouldn't be racing as far as I normally do.
A long stretch of tunnel we encountered early on during the race, where running became instinctual and sensory all at once:
The trail slowly gained elevation as we travelled up the valley, with just enough incline to make the heart beat a faster rhythm. At the end of the valley we hit the start of the Myrdal switchbacks, a point where the trail bends 21 times as it climbs up a steep wall towards the drop bags at Vatnahalsen (at 812m elevation). I took this change in elevation to slow down and hike, and to pace out the climb without pushing too hard.
The Myrdal switchbacks:
At the drop bags I only grabbed my rain jacket, a pair of gloves and a fresh bottle filled with premixed Infinit nutrition. From here the trail crossed the Hardangervidda plateau, steadily rolling with the undulating terrain, surrounded by a wonderful alpine environment. This plateau is incredibly special as it is the home to Europe's largest Reindeer stock. It is remote, wild, and I felt privileged to see it.
The mythical atmosphere surrounding the race: hidden streams and lakes circled by snowy mountains:
This was taken around the 23km mark, by which time I was starting to feel pretty relaxed and steady in my pace:
The further we ventured into the mountains, the deeper the mist , and the more still and silent the air. From the 35km point we started to encounter sections of snow that covered the trail. Since living in Canada, I have come to love the crunch of snow underfoot, the occasional icy cold finger of ice that enters the shoe, and the unpredictable slip and slide of your stride as you navigate your way across. This was no different, and I really felt my spirit lift once I entered this true mountain climate. This whole time I remained alone, with only the faint figure of a runner discernible in the mist behind me.
The Rallarvegen alongside the Bergen Railway line, snow all around:
Mountain running doesn't feel complete without plenty of snow:
Arriving at Finse ready for a warm shower, sauna, and a buffet dinner with all the runners:
I finished the first day happy. I was a little slower than I had expected (5:50hr), but completely normal considering all the snow. The great thing was we finished right back at Hotel Finse 1222, so we could immediately head into the cosy atmosphere inside and chat with the other finishers. My chocolate milk went down a treat, and I immediately sought out the sauna in the basement. Sunday would be another tough day, so rest and some recovery was essential.
Sunday - Race Day #2 (Finse -Haugastøl 27km)
The early start runners setting off on a cold, 5 degree, mountain morning:
The next day we ran from Finse in the other direction, 27km further along the Rallarvegen to Haugastøl. The trail sloped gently down, dropping about 200m in elevation. As my friend Lars described it, we would encounter undulating terrain alongside a lake, before dropping down to the next lake, with this pattern continuing all the way to the finish.
I thought I was in 4th place beforehand, with not much chance to improve my placing. Thus my aim for the race was to run as fast as possible, and to have a steady, comfortable run. I started feeling fantastic, all the tightness in my hip-flexors disappearing. I ran the first 10km at around 4:30/km pace - very fast for me! From here I slowed to just under 5:00/km pace and kept this constant the whole way to the finish. The whole journey to the finish I had a man running just behind me, close enough to hear his breath and feet create a rhythmic soundtrack. At the finish I slowed so we could cross the line together, grateful for his omniscient presence. Sometimes, without knowing, people have the power to really influence your success.
Arriving at the finish in Haugastøl:
I was super, super happy to run the 27km in 2:13hr. I also found out I was 3rd female! On the train journey home I couldn't shake a sense of both bewilderment and nostalgia. I felt like I was waking from an amazing dream, re-entering a duller reality, and not quite remembering all the details of the magical world I had left behind. This was truely more than a race. It was an incredibly tough run, but more than that, it was a shared experience with some wonderful people. It was also a glimpse into a fairytale, a world where you feel that if you look hard enough, you will see magic.
At the presentation of the woman's class, with the female winner Gloria: