I felt like I was running through Christmas. The pine trees lining the forest trail curved over me in a protective arch, weighed down by mounds of snow perching on their branches. I tried to pay attention where I was going, but I kept getting distracted by falling snowflakes glittering under the light of my headtorch. If you stared at them too closely, they looked like strings of tiny pearls dancing in all directions, which was mesmerizing to say the least. If it wasn’t for the steam rising from my arms and chest, I would have forgotten entirely that I actually existed in the midst of this winter wonderland. It was too magical, too other-worldly, too intoxicating for human consumption. So this is the Arctic, I thought, as I tried to propel my body forward faster than my ice-laden snowshoes would allow. This is actually kind of fun.
I’ve always hated the cold. Nothing about running noses, frozen toes, and chapped lips has ever really appealed to me. But when an opportunity came up to compete in Beyond the Ultimate’s ICE Ultra, I knew I had to do it. Having conquered mountain and desert ultras, I knew that cold weather races would have to be my next big challenge… as much as I wished to avoid them.
The ICE Ultra is a 4 stage, 230 km ultra stage race across UNESCO World Heritage sites, Swedish Lapland and the Arctic Circle. The course crosses through terrain ranging from ice forests to frozen lakes and snowfields. It is one of the few multi-stage, self-supported Arctic footraces in the world with temperatures normally reaching -30C. The ICE Ultra is just one of four races in Beyond the Ultimate’s complete ultra series. It differs from the others mainly in terms of the amount of gear required to withstand the brutal temperatures. While competitors must carry all of the clothing they need for racing, their food, and their medical equipment, the organizers transport the heavy-duty items – such as sleeping bag and warm camp clothing – in between campsites.
This year was the first year the ICE Ultra has taken place, which meant that there were bound to be a few surprises for racers and organizers alike. And there were. Temperatures were unseasonably – freakishly – warm for this time of year in Sweden, ranging from -10C to just below freezing, which caused a number of logistical challenges. Initially, I was celebrating the warmer weather as I thought it would mean a better chance of keeping all of my fingers and toes. However, as I soon discovered, warm weather was actually much worse for a couple of reasons. First, it made the snow really sticky and clumpy, which meant that snowshoes were a MUST. None of us had planned to run the whole 230 km in snowshoes, so it was quite a shock to our legs and feet! Second, there was a higher chance that we would sweat in these warmer conditions, which can be quite dangerous in the Arctic. Sure, you can last an hour or two in the cold wearing sweaty clothes, but once you hit three, four, seven hours, damp clothes can lead to hypothermia easily and quickly. In the cold weather, it is much easier to cool down and let the sweat evaporate quickly, which allows you to stay warmer over the long run.
Day one began with a race briefing and a gear check. It was organized chaos as we all tried to figure out what to bring with us in our backpack (apart from our mandatory gear) and what to leave in our camp bags. The trouble was that once something went in the camp bag, it was off limits for the rest of the race (during the racing portions of the day). We all nervously hopped between rooms in the cabin, comparing kit and seeking last-minute advice from the few individuals who were experienced Arctic racers. Before we knew it, it was noon and time to start.
Stage one came as a bit of a shock to all of us, but especially to those who were new to multi-stage racing. None of us expected to have to rely on snowshoes and it was tough going for the full 46 km over snowy trails and slushy frozen lakes. After too many hours, we limped in one by one to the first campsite, dreading our first night shivering and cold in our reindeer decorated teepees. Much to our delight, the race organizers decided to forgo the tents for proper wood cabins so that we could have a chance to dry our clothes and sleep before the next day’s stage. And thank goodness they did. In my cabin alone, two of the racers were throwing up in the night in truly epic fashion, which certainly added some drama to the event. As I looked around the room during ‘dinner’ time, I saw the same expression staring back at me through flickering candle light: it’s going to be a long four days.
Given the conditions, stage two had to be rerouted at the last minute. Instead of climbing up and over a mountain, which would have been next to impossible in our snowshoes, we ran another 40 km through the forest to the second campsite. The last 8 km were blissfully on road, giving us the only section of the entire race where it was possible to run in just our shoes. I can’t tell you how liberating it was to unstrap myself from my modern tennis rackets and bolt down the street – I felt like superwoman! Until the Arctic air caught up with me, that is, and sent me into a coughing spasm…
The camaraderie during these first two stages was fantastic. I was typically in about 6th to 8th place in the field of 20+ runners, trailing British Ed in the lead and then the uber-fit Spanish contingent behind him. I have to say, following a group of Spaniards has to be about the best place to be in any race. They are always smiling, ready to lend a hand (or a pole to clean off your snowshoes), and quick to cheer you on at checkpoints. There were a number of times I would stagger into a checkpoint, only to be greeted by my own personal cheering squad. “EEEEEEEH STEPHANIE!!” It put a smile on my face every time and I would end up leaving the checkpoint a little quicker than I had arrived.
Stage three was my low point and my toughest day by far. From an objective point of view, it was the least interesting stage of the race. For much of it, we were running across an endless, flat frozen lake, so there was nothing really to distract us from the cold in our feet or the pain in our legs. The runners ahead disappeared into the midst, which was a constant reminder of how much further there was to go. My head wasn’t really in the game yet to begin with, and the monotony of the course made things worse. I suppose in my efforts to just push through the day, I didn’t pay enough attention to my hydration, and before I knew it I was starting to feel the effects. My mood started to wane and my emotions started to seep out every pore. I kept moving, of course, but every part of me wanted to give up and go home to my family (more on that later). When I got to one of the last checkpoints, Brett and Louise, two members of the medical team, asked how I was doing and I started to choke back the tears. They encouraged me to just let it out and I took them up on their offer, letting out one of the most pathetic whimpers I’ve had in a long while. I didn’t dare shed a tear in front of the local Swedish Samis (hard as nails they are!!!), but I figured I was safe to let my guard down in front of the medics.
As it turns out, I didn’t have nearly as bad of a day as one of the other competitors. Mike, a cheerful German runner who lives in the mountains, collapsed at one of the checkpoints with a combination of dehydration and hypothermia, giving everyone quite a scare. His heart actually stopped for a few moments, and as a result, he was helicoptered out from the course and taken immediately to the closest hospital. Luckily, he was okay, but it certainly gave us all pause. This race was no joke and even the most experienced competitors were at risk of succumbing to the elements.
I can honestly say that when I woke up on the morning of the long stage, I was actually scared of what was to come. What the heck was I doing out there miles from civilization, running around in sub-zero temperatures on snowshoes, while others were collapsing in tents with heart failure?? Perhaps I had done it. Perhaps I had finally crossed over the ‘crazy line’. As I sat around waiting for my start time, biting the ends of my frozen fingernails, I contemplated pulling the plug right then and there. I fantasized about burying my snowshoes under a mound of white powder and riding to the finish line in Jokkmokk on the back of a snowmobile….
I am not sure what happened. But that last stage turned out to be the most enjoyable. It was as if on that last day something clicked and I finally got my head in the game. I stopped caring about all of the things that could go wrong and started noticing all of the things that were pretty damn amazing. I was running through the Arctic Circle for goodness sake. How many times would I ever get to experience that?! The checkpoints went by with relative ease and I diligently kept up with my hydration. In fact, I did a little too well on that front and ended up overhydrating, resulting in rather hysterical-looking man-sized paws for hands, which raised a few eyebrows from the medics.
The scenery on that last day was simply stunning. We ran through watercolour paintings of slate greys, navy blues, pale yellows and purple-tinted whites. The sun poked through the clouds for the first time in days, giving us a sense that there was something to look forward to on the horizon. I loved every minute. Perhaps because I knew it was my last chance to experience this part of the world, I savoured the seconds and even took the occasional pause to stop and stare at the sky in silence.
By the time I finished the stage, I was elated – and starving. Despite not being a red meat eater (ever), I scarfed down three pieces of questionable-looking reindeer pizza at the finish line, along with enough cookies and cakes to feed a small army. I had done it. I had survived the Arctic!
I wound up in 1st female position and 6th overall. It was a small women’s field, but each of the other female competitors were truly incredible in their own right. Camilla, a Danish runner who teaches outdoor survival and adventure racing, had won previous Beyond the Ultimate events and finished the Grand Slam at the ICE Ultra. Sally was a world record holder from the UK, having smashed the record for fastest cumulative ten marathons in ten days for women. And finally, there was my dear friend Belinda, whom I’ve raced with in Namibia, Nepal and the Alps, to name a few. I could go on for pages about the incredible talents of this woman – not only does she have three kids, but also a six pack under her shirt and an ironman or three under her belt. It was such an honour to run with these ladies!
No race report would be complete without mention of the after party… However, between the Sami moose calls, the bear-straddling, and the questionable shot combinations at the bar, all I can say is what happens in Jokkmokk, stays in Jokkmokk. Best post-race party I think I’ve ever had. Enough said.
The race organizers had a tough event to run in terms of logistics and there were certainly a few hiccups, but all in all, I’d say they fared pretty well. And it can only get better from here as they run more events. Would I do it again? Hard to say. I still hate the cold and I’m happy to have ticked the box… but I’ve learned never to say never. I have a sinking suspicion there are more cold weather races for me in store. Sigh, it’s a disease, isn’t it?
And now for my next adventure: South Sudan. In a couple of days, I will be moving to Awerial, South Sudan, to live in a tent for at least six months. I will be taking the position as Emergency Protection Manager for the International Rescue Committee, assisting the 75000+ internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled (and are still fleeing) the conflict in Bor. I only found out about the post on the morning of my flight to the Arctic, which perhaps explains why I had trouble concentrating during the race! I am nervous and, okay, a bit scared of what is to come. It is going to be an incredible challenge. Not only will it be emotionally taxing, but it is sure to be physically tough. Packing alone has been a nightmare as I will only get a break every three months from Awerial. How does one estimate what one will need living in a tent for three months at a time without access to stores or modern amenities? Will I be safe in a tent in the middle of a camp for IDPs? Will I be terribly lonely? How will I find food if even the World Food Program has problems of access to the area? These are all questions swimming through my head, to which I will find no answers until I arrive…
…but I’m ready for the challenge. After a long 4+ months of searching, I finally am employed again. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but perhaps it is what was supposed to happen. Perhaps this was all a part of the plan. The open circle created by my breakup last fall has finally closed and I have moved on with new friends, incredible memories, and renewed strength to follow my dreams and passions. I am apprehensive, excited, and overwhelmed by the challenge ahead… but I will take it on as I take on any ultra. One step at a time.
And as scary as it is, I know I can say at least I’m not walking.
Please continue to message, comment and follow along as I will be blogging and emailing as much as I can from the field. I hope to keep you informed about what is going on, just as much as I do about running…. And your support will be very much appreciated. See you on the flipside!