3 years ago, I toed the start line of Tromsø Skyrace for the first time. During that race I wore myself to the bone eventually crossing the line in first to take my inaugural skyrunning World Series event win.
3 years later I have much more skyracing experience but possibly less youthful exuberance and willingness to completely destroy my body in the pursuit of victory. I would soon put the ‘possibly’ to the test, as there is no better way to find out what you are made of than to take on a skyrace; especially one measuring 58km with 4600m of ascent.
There are many reasons I love this course in Northern Norway. One of the main ones is because of the no-fuss straight lines marked by race organisers Kilian Jornet and Emilie Forsberg. Another is the Hamperokken ridge; 5km of exposed ridge running leading to the 1400m top of Hamperokken, the highest point of the course. These two, coupled with the ability to drink from rivers and streams as you go, makes it an idyllic event.
Being a race, it is also important to consider the competitive aspect. Having bonus points means this year’s race was a key event in my skyracing season. Having missed the first skyrunning Extreme World Series event also left no room for error here. The winner of that race was in attendance in Tromsø in the form of Bhim Gurung, an extremely talented athlete from Nepal. The long travel seemed to have been detrimental to his legs but I wasn’t without my own problems. A tummy bug two weeks earlier saw me loose three kilograms in weight and allowed for zero exercising for a week. In fact, it was only two days before the race that I managed to go for a run without stopping to go to the toilet three times!
I was well rested from the illness but I had to hope that my legs would withstand the battering. As a pre-emptive strike, I did some hard downhill running four days before the event hoping this would condition them slightly.
Once in Tromsø and on my last ‘loosener’ run (where I finally didn’t need to look for patches of moss and a big enough bush to crouch behind) I got the dreaded feeling of my quads seizing up from the breaking motion when opening up on a downhill. I tried to see this as a good thing and I figured it was better that they hurt then than in the race. The next day I just hiked to watch the VK and found watching this competition made me look forward to pushing my own limits the next day.
There were some other top racers in attendance but I tried to block these from my mind (as well as my toilet troubles). If I race happy and at my own speed I will perform the best I can, so thinking about competition tends to be counterproductive.
The first climb of the race is drawn out with several minor descents. Usually this is pretty uneventful as everyone is just trying to cruise through the opening hours saving some gas for the return journey. Running alongside a herd of reindeer did spice things up a little though. Seeing them running in the snow alongside us definitely did raise my mood which was already pretty good. I felt as if I was keeping up to the front with minimal effort which I was sure I could sustain for the entire race.
Things only got really interesting as we made the turn from the first top (Tromsdalstind). Zaid Ait Malek suddenly took of gaining about a minute over just 600m of descent! ‘O shit’ I thought, not panicking I gave chase now in fourth but this turn of speed certainly split up the group of 10 that we were at the top.
Hitting the valley, I was in second and after 2km on the flat I was just behind Zaid.
Still knowing it was far too early to make a move I tucked in behind him content with letting him pace up what is the biggest climb of 1400m.
After a few hundred meters of climb I started to realise that the plan may not work. We were going slow, real slow. I looked at my watch and noted my heartrate was at 165, 8 beats below what I figured was ok. It wasn’t long before other runners had caught us up and we were now 5 together again. Still not wanting to make a break I decided to climb with a little more effort but still less than I would normally and just see what happened. This saw me open a minor 30m lead up to the ridge, this I maintained all the way to the top.
Taking my time on the first part of the technical descent I was still amazed that I had this small lead. Some rather sketchy descending on a long snowfield actually gained me some time and it was fun to see that this is where my heartrate peaked for the entire race.
Two out of three major climbs done and halfway back down to the valley I knew I could make a move. It would be risky but the race is decided on the next 1200m climb and I wasn’t in any mood to start this alongside someone else. By the bottom I had opened up a 45 second lead but knew this was tiny considering the amount of course that was left. I would have to smash the next climb, by this I mean painfully grind out an hour of hiking as fast as possible up 1200m.
It began well and my legs responded but I was dismayed to look back to see someone not too far back, this wasn’t going to be easy. Looking forward I could see a dark cloud over the mountain and welcomed some rain to cool me of and give me and my VJ Irocks an advantage grip wise.
About halfway up I was starting to feel the effort. The cold and fatigue seemed to be getting into my bones and I was now struggling to keep my heart rate up! Clawing my way up endless steep muddy mountainside and snowfields I started to hope the climb would be over soon.
On finally reaching the top I was relieved but knew the effort had taken more out of me than I would have like.
Another scary thought was that Bhim, who I was sure was in second, is known for catching up massive deficits on the last descents of races to go on to win, so although I was on top first this wouldn’t be over for another 14km when we were back in the city centre.
Fighting my way through the shorter skyrace competitors on the now wet technical rocky descent wasn’t much fun but once a bit lower and on muddier trails it became easier. It was now 5km left with 300m of climb before the final descent and 3km of road to the finish.
I met Stian Angermund-Vik who said I had a 13 minute lead at the top of the mountain. I knew this couldn’t be right and asked where Bhim was, he said that Bhim hadn’t come through. I was then sure that Bhim’s number hadn’t registered, so he was somewhere within the 13 minutes between me and third…but where? Now checking over my shoulder every so often I kept my pace up but hoped I was leaving enough for some final effort if needed.
Eventually crossing the bridge into Tromsø and following the waterside for the final kilometre I crossed the line still in first having led for the last four and a half hours. Bhim came over 8 minutes later with the both of us having opened a large lead on the rest of the field. I then had a Norwegian “bolle” before Emelie and a local journalist convinced me to go for a swim in the fjord (I’ll be pretty disappointed if I don’t make the paper).
Taking part in a World Series skyrace is a unique experience, mainly due to the international field with racers from across the world. Being based in Bergen, Tromsø’s climate and terrain suits me but this won’t be the case in three weeks time when I will once again be taking part in the Matterhorn Ultraks skyrace, check back to see how I get on.
Trainers – VJ Sport Irock 2
Clothes – GORE FUSION SPLIT SHORTS, GORE ESSENTIAL BASE LAYER SHIRT, GORE ONE GORE-TEX® ACTIVE RUN JACKET
Pack – S-LAB SENSE ULTRA 8
Nutrition – 1 x Clif bar, 10 x High5 gels, 500ml High5 sports drink, water
Watch – Garmin Fenix 3
Great photos by Ian Corless, Iosu Juaristi and Albert Jorquera.