Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The 2012 Rallarvegsløpet, Norway

Friday - The day before
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).

The view across the lake to the Hardangerjøkulen Glacier. Feeling optimistic with the blue skies around:

Just before midday all the runners assembled outside the hotel and on the Finse station platform. We would take the train to Myrdal, disembark, and all walk together to the 19km point in the race at Vatnahalsen station. Then we would take the Flåmsbana to Flåm, as well as leaving a drop bag for later. From a logistical point of view this all sounds terribly complicated and a race director's nightmare! In reality though, it just brought all the runners closer together. We shared stories on the train, as well as packed sandwiches. We collectively became more excited as the time passed, anticipating the race start. We saw the weather and terrain change through the train window, getting a feel for what was to come.

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.

The outskirts of Flåm, looking towards Flåmsdalen, the valley we will run through:

Running through Flåmsdalen, an abundance of water and lush plant-life:

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:

A huge thank you to Lars Gilberg for the invitation to adventure, and to Runar and Jan, two fantastic and dedicated race directors. Thank you as well to Runar Gilberg, Espen Ringom, and Tommy Stoa for the beautiful photos I was able to share in this report.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Journeys: From here (Germany) to here (Norway).

I'm travelling light this time. I've been in Germany visiting some dear friends of mine, to enjoy sunshine and wine, and to run amongst the vineyards. 

Amidst the vines of Weingut Dautermann on my last visit in 2009:

From Germany, I am flying to Norway. YES! Last year, racing at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, I met a Norwegian runner and journalist who invited me to come to his country, and to race in a small race with a big heart. 

The Rallarvegen (Image courtesy of Daniel Novello):

The Rallarsvegslopet is a 2-day mountain race that immediately captivated me. The race is centered around the station town of Finse, a small collection of weathered buildings that can only be accessed by rail. The runners all stay together in the same hotel, Hotel Finse 1222 (a reference to the elevation of the train station), and run a cumulative distance just over 80km on the famous Rallarvegen, a construction road that was used to haul the materials needed to build the Bergen Railway line. 

Hotel Finse 1222 (Photo courtesy of Kim Mallady):

Now, over a 100 years later, the road attracts over 20,000 cyclists in the summer, and even more importantly, acts as a means to transport people through the most beautiful, rugged and mythical landscapes. Imagine running, surrounded by a unique alpine climate (home to Europe's largest reindeer stock), ancient geology, mountains reflecting the movement of ice millions of years ago, wild valleys, waterfalls, and glaciers. 

An alpine wonderland (Image courtesy of Michael Mortensen):

Following my race in Italy I have been resting and relaxing, more than running. I have found the change of pace nice, to listen to my body (and my blackened toe nails) telling me to take it easy. The race on the weekend will be one for enjoying the views, enjoying the company of the other runners, and for testing how well I have recovered following my adventures in the Dolomites

Day 1 (Flaam - Finse) profile:

Day 2 (Finse- Haugastol) profile:

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 Ultra Trail Lavaredo

Everything about Italy warmed me: the intense heat of the midday sun, the incredibly beautiful mountains around me, the flavorsome food, the people I met. I am not sure if it was this Italian effect, but going into this year's Ultra Trail Lavaredo, I felt so relaxed, so comfortable, so at ease. I was camping about 2km out of town, meaning I was away from the build up and increased hype that goes along with race day. I had no internet, no phone contact. I spent the day lazing under a tree enjoying the simplicity of pre-race resting. 

Familiarization with the route:

When the sun finally dropped behind the mountains, it was time to walk to Cortina. I dressed for the race fairly lightly as it was a balmy evening. I hoped this warmth was an indicator of the temperatures up through the mountain passes we would cross during the night. In town there was barely time for a quick espresso and head torch double-check before runners were summoned to the starting line. As with the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, there was a certain solemness pre-race. Beautiful operatic music played, runners stilled and focused on the immense task ahead, and then we started.

Starting line (Photo courtesy of 

I must admit that the whole race is a blur, and only certain parts really stand out. From the beginning I was running very conservatively. I knew the elevation I had to cover (5740m), I knew the terrain would be technical, I knew I had a day of running through 30 degrees +. As we ran through the town of Cortina towards the first trail, I let some of the women go ahead of me. I kept my pace steady and controlled. 

Race profile: 

The first climb to Col Rosa (about 500m+) allowed me to settle in to a pace where I passed a few of the women. I really tried not to make this the focus though, and instead just kept a steady rhythm, watched my HR, and enjoyed! The downhill that followed really allowed me to stretch the legs a little, and to settle into a pattern that would continue for the whole race: up-down-up-down. At this stage of the race I was using primarily liquid nutrition (produced by Infinit Nutrition)

At various points during the night I ran with a few groups, usually for a few minutes, and then either they would pick up the pace, or I would. Camraderie was high! I remember arriving at Lake Misurina, the mist hanging heavily onto the water in the pre-dawn light. I remember the slow lightening of the sky as I started the climb to the 48km checkpoint at Refugio Auronzo, located just below the fabled Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The climb passed through lush green meadows tucked between the rocky shoulders of the surrounding mountains. At this stage I was alone, and it was eerie to be in these misty valleys, early in the morning, alone with my thoughts and breath. 

Morning Approaching:

Refugio Auronzo at 48km, Tre Cimes di Lavaredo behind:

Drop bags:

My transition at the checkpoint was fast: I grabbed some more liquid nutrition (pre-mixed into a bottle), picked up some gels and honeystinger wafers, ate some soup and continued on. My highlight was when the startled volunteers asked me "you are running in a skirt?" I found out later at the presentation that the volunteers were all very appreciative of the fact that I was running in a skirt. It was so "feminine."

Running around the flank of the Tre cimes:

Famous view of the Tre Cimes di Lavaredo:

The descent into the Val Della Rienza:

The next section was a blur. I just remember the final flat dirt road that seemed to go on forever to the aid station at Cimabanche. 

From Cimabanche there was another 500m+ climb through the Val de Gotres to Forc Lerosa, a mountain pass at 2000m. By this stage the day was warming, and I was making use of all the little streams to refill my water bottle or simply to wash my face and wet the top of my head. 

My memory sharpens for the monstrous climb through the Val Travenanzes up to the Forcella Col dei Bos (a climb of almost 1000m). The terrain was beautiful. A glacial formed valley, blindingly white rocks forming the path (but also reflecting the heat), lush alpine meadows filled with bright flowers in other sections. We were literally following the path of an ancient glacier up into the mountains. This section was tough. I was hot, by now my feet were aching from the constant harassment of rocky terrain, the climbed seemed to go on forever.

View down the valley:

View back to Forcella Col Dei Bos (we crossed through the pass between the rocks):

The descent down to the aid station at 94km was a clear example of how much energy and inspiration people give you. By now I was the only woman around, and the field had spread so that there were not many men around either. I was hurting, and a french man picked me up, encouraged me to run with him down to the aid station, and by following his steps, focusing on breathing, rather than pain, I arrived stronger because of his energy.

Descent down to the aid station at Pian dei Menis (94km):

The next 25km hurt. It was a section of deceptively steep ascents and descents that tested the legs, heart, mind and spirit. Each ascent I just focused on the fact that I could do it, that I was doing it, and that I was closer to finishing. I took in a lot of water with nuun ( the ginger flavour was so, so, so tasty at this point), as well as red bull and coke. I enjoyed the company of the 50km runners out on the trail as well, passing me most of the time, but encouraged by their enthusiasm.

One of the small pitches up that tested mind and body:

Spectacular day, a small refuge hidden below the mountains:

One of the refuges below the Cinque Torri (another famous attraction in the Dolomites):

I ran the last 10km with 2 wonderful Italians, Gabriele and Simonetta. They were racing the 50km, but pretty much paced me to the finish, down the tricky 1000m descent resembling a ski-run to the finish line at Cortina. Again, running with these guys exemplified the spirit and camraderie of trail running, and why it is such a special sport.

Gabriele and myself (photos courtesy of Simonetta Lazzarotto):

I finished the race behind some super strong female runners, inspired by their strength. I finished in 4th place, in 19:18hrs.

Female 120km presentation:

Female Top 5 podium:

Photos courtesy of Alessandro Regnano (sourced here).