Here we are again. This report covers my 5th NUTS Karhunkierros 100 miler finish in northern Finland. Before reading further, I suggest having a look at this short video (2 min) from the race organizers this year to get a feel for the terrain on which I have spent many, many hours.
Background in 2021
With that terrain in mind, let’s have a look at what happened this year in the NUTS Karhunkierros 100 miler (166 kilometers). This year’s race has been a long in the making. In fact, the whole event was cancelled in 2020 due to the Corona pandemic. This 2021 edition was not even a sure thing until only a few weeks before it actually took place. Fortunately, the organizers eventually received permission from the local authorities to host the event. With that good news, many runners registered and later flocked to the Ruka area for the race. Welcome to northern Finland; as in welcome to the Arctic Circle. In fact, this race is so far north that the birch trees only have small buds on their branches, while the same type of trees in southern Finland are already in full bloom. Traveling to the north of Finland is like reversing nature’s clock by about 3-4 weeks.
This year I once again participated in the 100 miler (166 km) event, though the organizers do offer other distances including 83km, 55km and 34km. I have to mention that the 166km event should actually be called the 168km event because the course does add some distance to the traditional Karhunkierros, resulting in an extra 2 kilometers near Base Camp. As for the total distance and vertical gain I covered – after syncing my Garmin Fenix 6 (S) watch in Strava, the stats revealed a total of 167.9 kilometers with an elevation gain of 4,407 meters. I wonder how accurate that vertical gain is because online I have seen the number 3,800+ meters for this event. Perhaps my running form is so bad that every step includes unnecessary lift that resulted in an extra 600 meters? Possible, but unlikely.
This year included a few changes to the event in general. For example, because of the pandemic and the need to spread out runners along the trail, this year the race began at 8:00 in the morning as opposed to 12:00 noon in my previous four experiences. Additionally, the start of the event was moved from the centre of Ruka village to the nearby ski stadium, thereby adding about 500 meters to the overall distance each direction.
The statistics from this event are fascinating and really demonstrate the difficulty therein. Interestingly, 133 runners toed the line (113 males and 20 females) although only 71 actually arrived at the finish line (62 males and 9 females). This is a 53% finish rate. How is this possible? I’m unsure, but I think the technical terrain is part of the reason. Conditions were quite good but perhaps the strong(ish) cold wind and wet sections created more difficulty than expected. Or maybe some of the runners were trying something new and hadn’t done quite enough training?
By the way, my report has been delayed due to a head cold and chest congestion. I went for a COVID test on the Tuesday after the race – negative. I usually don’t get sick after these events, but it does occasionally happen. I am certain my immune system was fairly vulnerable after the long race.
I am happy to report that this year was my fastest result on the course and I ended with an official time of 23 hours 45 minutes and 37 seconds arriving at the finish line shoulder to shoulder with 5th place, but somehow I officially got 6th place. This is nearly two hours faster than my previous record.
First half of the race
This photo above, from Rami Valonen, was taken in the mountainous area near the start (and finish) of the race course. The 100 miler event is an out-and-back so we cover the same terrain twice, once in each direction. Readers may know that the first and last 15 kilometers of this race involve the most elevation gain and loss, which usually means the slowest kilometers of the entire event. I have to say that it is psychologically draining to remember that the most difficult part of the race is at the very end. In this race, there is no smooth sailing / cruising to the finish line. If you want to make it to the end, you will have greatly suffer and be prepared to fight tooth and nail. Now to the race…
The beginning of my race went fairly smoothly and I was relaxed as I had planned. On some easier sections, I did speed up, though overall I reined in my proverbial horse and remained patient; the real game doesn’t begin until the second half.
In my opinion, some of the 100 mile runners were a bit too excited and “took the bait”, meaning that they essentially sprinted from the start line to stay close to the leaders. Many of those runners dropped out of the race (DNF’ed) or dropped far behind later. Never take that bait in a 100 miler. Unfortunately, I did once take that bait and it resulted in my own personal hell and DNF – see the autopsy report here.
The three amazing pictures from Jenna Koivu above were all taken on my way north to the turnaround point, meaning during the first half of the race. The picture on the far left shows one of the distinctive suspension bridges in the area. I recall that I crossed five such bridges on my way north. The middle photo shows me filling a soft flask straight from the river – YES! in northern Finland it is (usually) safe to drink unfiltered water from lakes and rivers. The event organizers make sure to let the runners know that doing so is at your own risk; my first few years in this event and I was scared to drink the water, but not anymore. The rightmost photo shows a pensive Jeremy, enjoying the moment and trying to save energy for later.
It took me just over 10 hours to reach the turnaround point (Hautajärvi / Napapiiri). Before arrival, I had hoped to enter the aid station, simply refill my water / food stores, and immediately return to the trail heading south. Unfortunately, my ham strings and calf muscles were pulsing in pain, so I took a 15 min rest. I think this was a wise decision because I felt refreshed when I started again. Some warm drinks really hit the spot.
Second half of the race
For this section of my report, I will paste the text from my Facebook post after the race, though I will add some additional commentary. Here it is, with emojis and all:
I just finished the 166 km karhunkierros “bear round” race in 23 hours and 45 minutes, which is my first time under 24 hours out of 5 attempts and 5 finishes. They gave me a karhu (bear beer) at the end, but don’t worry Mom, it’s nonalcoholic. Weather was fairly cold and windy and the trails had some wet sections, but not super bad. Small amount of snow on ground and 10-15 minutes of hail from the sky. By the way, in the middle of the night I saw a large mother bear with two cubs cross the trail in front of me (maybe 30 meters away). I slowly turned around and walked back to the next runner. I want to find that on my gps – because normally no one ever walks back! We shouted together and made lots of noise and then continued on. Results say I was 6th place, but the guy who got 5th place and I decided to cross the finish line together because we had run many hours in close proximity. I guess his electronic chip was slightly ahead, by one second. thanks Eetu Pekkanen!
So how did I manage a personal best by nearly 1.5 hours? I have to attribute the success, at least initially, to the following:
- Improved cardio vascular fitness thanks to weekly training sessions with Lari Koivu and Esa Juhani. I actually reduced my overall mileage, but the increased intensity paid off. In our training sessions, we pushed hard and really raised our speed threshold, which in turn raised our easier (forever) paces to be much faster. I’m sorry Lari had stomach trouble today. He was ahead of me for the first 110 km or more. Next time, Lari. Next time.
- Reading Training Essentials book from Jason Koop in which I learned the importance of focusing on certain skills for weeks or more at a time, rather than mixing a bit of everything together during a normal running week. Read my book review here.
- Finding the right shoe for my feet. Altra Olympus 4 shoes that fit my feet really well and 1000 mile dual layer socks. I have almost no blisters, which for me is amazing, as many of you know. I used to only use Hoka shoes, which I still like, but I often got blisters in hokas when running on technical trails. And karhunkierros is highly technical.
- I am finally gaining some control over my digestion during endurance events. I am learning to fine tune the type of food and drink my stomach will accept. This still a work in progress, but Tailwind plus Nosht ginger chews worked well for my stomach today. I also used the race provided Chimpanzee sports drink quite a bit, but the mix was weaker than what I would do on my own with tailwind. Thanks Jari Tomppo for importing tailwind to Finland!
- I believe in strength training (but not at the expense of any time spent running). Strength training, in my opinion, is extremely important to build a strong core and stronger body overall. I do this about twice a week. Nothing crazy. Nothing that disrupts running. Note that my thoughts about strength training contradict some of the advice in the excellent Training Essentials book I mentioned above. In my defense, I have certainly noticed more running posts and articles in the last year or two about the importance of strength training for long distance runners. I think the science is beginning to support this importance. Time will tell. For me, at least anecdotally, I tend to experience fewer injuries and increased endurance when I combine strength workouts with running.
My Facebook post also included the following: Thanks to Eero Lumme for the fantastic organization and event. Thanks for the many nice comments. I have a great family and friends. That’s the most important.
Random student in the forest
Another completely unexpected incident took place during the second half of the race, just a few hours before the bear sighting. I can’t believe it but I actually ran into one of my former students who was hiking along the trail and about to make camp for the night! Bridget and I often play a game where we see who gets more ‘points’ for seeing our students around town on any given outing. But I now wear the crown for random student sightings! I won’t write the student’s name, but I did chat with him for a while and jokingly asked if he could make me a sausage. Don’t worry, he didn’t (race rules forbid outside help… and I wasn’t going to sit and wait around either).
About the bear
Did I really see a bear? Several of my friends have jokingly asked me if perhaps I simply hallucinated and didn’t actually see a bear. While this is fairly annoying, I imagine I would probably respond similarly in such a situation. But if my friends can joke with me about this, how many people who don’t know me question whether I really saw a bear? I feel 99.9% certain that I did see mama bear and cubs, but I must allow a .1% chance of hallucination. So the best I can do is offer the following information about my bear experience. In the end, you will have to decide yourself whether I really saw something.
- The GPS in the image above shows a deliberate reversal of direction. At no other point or time in the entire 23 hours and 45 minutes during the 168 kilometers did I backtrack for any reason – you can check my GPS tracks here. I saw the bear and two cubs at about kilometer 119.76 (121.5 km on my watch). The time was 00:10 in the night. I slowly stopped moving forward and turned around to find the nearest runner behind me.
- I am confident Eetu Pekkanen believed the frightened look on my face as I explained what had happened. We almost immediately called the race organizers. I even called Lari Koivu 8 minutes later because we had passed him only a short time before.
- Someone on Facebook made a comment about how surprised they were to hear that I saw a bear in a high traffic area. Well, this area is actually void of all traffic at 00:10 in the morning; the few hikers on the trail had set up camp long before in a totally different area. Only a few 100 miler runners were ahead of me at this point; the nearest being about 4 kilometers ahead (20-30 minutes). Moreover, the runners from the 55km race had already passed this point nearly 4 hours earlier.
Due to the early race start (because of the pandemic) and my fastest finishing time, I was fortunate to be able to rest all day on Saturday. In my previous races here, I would usually return home in the late afternoon and stay awake until bed time. Note in the picture above that I am sleeping on the couch. Why am I not in my bed? Well, my friend Jouni “accidentally” (or was it his secret plan?) reserved a mökki (cottage) with a ladder to the upstairs beds. Before the race I threw down my sheets and pillow because I knew it would be impossible to climb the ladder after the race. I added a photo of the ladder below.
I slept many hours on Saturday and then almost all night long. The 12 hour return trip to Turku on Sunday was painful, but could have been worse. I have done that drive before with the whole family including kids who need lots of food and bathroom breaks.
During the trip this year in 2021, we were all quite tired and our legs in serious pain all day on Saturday. Surprisingly, however, Sunday morning I my legs felt better than they ever have before (post 100 miles). I attribute this to the fact that I had many more hours on Saturday to rest. It is also probable that my body is stronger this year thanks to hard speed workouts and strength training. Even as I write this report nearly 9 days after finishing the race, I must admit that my legs have hurt much less (after Saturday) this year than before. Unfortunately, I have a slight chest cold so I am still lazing about waiting to recover.
Will I do this again? Whenever I finish the NUTS Karhunkierros 100 mile race, I experience a few days during which I tell myself that I don’t ever want to do that again. After a week or two, however, I consider it again. After a few months have passed, along with all memory of the intense pain, I usually want to go another round. Time will tell what happens next year.
Feedback for organizers
I am extremely grateful to the organizers who spend countless hours in preparation for this event (and after, I am sure!). I am also impressed that they always ask for feedback, which is a sign of maturity and desire to improve. I will copy paste the feedback I gave them below, after which I will add a few more thoughts. I hope my experience and feedback can help everyone improve whether it is in running or race organization. I’m approaching this from the position of someone who frequently participates in endurance events, reads about training and related issues, and someone who thinks about race planning and logistics (especially team dynamics and navigation in Rogaining). As a related side note – and apologies for the self promotion – before coming to Finland, I used to work as the director of a language learning study abroad program for adult learners. I have spent many hours with budgets, schedules, travel arrangements, teacher training, conflict resolution, illnesses and many other issues that may lend some credibility to me to be able to think like an organizer. I just want to help. I do not want to complain without offering suggestions.
First, allow me to give a bit of praise. The NUTS Organization does an excellent job communicating, promoting, and executing their events. If you register for a NUTS event, you can be sure that it will be top quality across the board. The aid station workers go out of their way to assist the runners and they are always willing to put down whatever they are doing to help out – I write this from personal experience. Moreover, I have had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with the main organizer, Eero, who is really kind and interested in helping others achieve their goals and develop as athletes. He is really quite the nature lover who wants to share the beauty of Lapland with others. He probably gets tired of my many questions I send him. He always replies. So now let’s move on to my feedback.
Below is the feedback (with some additions) I sent to the race organizers in their post-race feedback survey (thanks for asking us!):
I am very grateful for your work. Thank you so much for organizing this and other events. In general you do an EXCELLENT job in everything. Please know that I am 99% satisfied with the event, but here are some suggestions that I hope you will consider. 🙂
1) For the safety of the runners, you MUST make another aid station between Base Camp and Oulanka. On the 166km return trip, I found another runner wandering around aimlessly in his space blanket. It is not safe to be so far away from either station in such a condition (BTW, yes I helped the runner and offered to stay with him). I saw laavut in the area so there should be some access roads. In my opinion, this is no longer a convenience issue, but rather a safety issue.
Note: I added the following paragraph to this website post; it was not in my original feedback. Please note that I mention this simply as a talking/discussion point, rather than as a diatribe! Here it is:
I think the distance and terrain should be the main challenges for the runners in the Karhunkierros 166km race, not so much the lack of available food and drink. This comment probably also applies to the upcoming inaugural NUTS 330km (200 miles) in July – let the distance be the challenge, not lack of support. I think they will have something like only 6 or 7 aid stations with 3 sleep stations. Hopefully some day I will toe that line! 🙂 For purposes of comparison, the Tor des Geants 330km in Italy has 43 aid stations and 7 life base camps. The Cocodona 250 (miles) in Arizona has 21 aid stations including 7 sleep stations. I’ll stop here. 🙂 The exception to this point would be certain multi-day events in which carrying everything is part of the deal – for example, the Lapland Wilderness Challenge. “The deal is the deal” – Kaz. Now back to the feedback I did send…
2) In Oulanka, please place a tent with an electric or gas heater. It was freezing cold this year with no protection from strong winds. I know that this year we have a pandemic, but still, please provide warmth and protection in Oulanka. – And we were allowed inside in Hautajärvi, so why not Oulanka?
3) Please adopt age group awards. I am almost 45 and I will never beat someone like the winner. But I have trained really hard and I think people in my situation should be recognized. I am sorry if that sounds immodest, but many other races (like UTMB) offer age group awards to celebrate runners of all ages. For example, look at the results for Eoin Keith from Ireland, who is over 50 years old: https://eoinkeith.wordpress.com/the-trophy-cabinet/. His results show that he has won many M50 categories. Why not try to motivate and recognize older runners?
4) The winners of the race receive so much attention after the race. This is a good thing and they deserve it, but perhaps you could sometimes publish stories about runners in the middle and back of the pack? I am not talking about myself, but please try to include more people in the spotlight.
The photo above shows me with Matti Virtanen and Lari Koivu before the race – we all finished! The photo below was taken during the second half of the race. I was so tired that I’m not sure I even noticed the photographer.
And that is my report on the wonderful 166km Karhunkierros epic trail race in northern Finland in May 2021. Thank you for reading. Thank you to the organizers for their experience and skill in providing safe and fun events. Thank you to the local/regional authorities for allowing this event to happen so we could see your beautiful corner of the country.
And that is all I want to say….
Except for one more small thing that I soon hope to forget and never worry about again…
A small festering wound / Pikku avoin haava
I am embarrassed to mention this, but I feel like doing so might benefit someone somewhere in the future. Before you read below, please know that I am 99% satisfied in the NUTS organizing team. Please also know that I have no delusions of grandeur about my own potential as a runner: I will never ever be an elite runner and I lose exactly zero sleep thinking about this because it will never happen. But there is just this one little thing… I promise to let this pass and I have no plans to let this influence my comments or feelings about NUTS in the future. So what is this one little thing that is bothering me? Here it is:
I was awarded 6th place this year (PB!) but I arrived shoulder to shoulder (almost hand in hand) at the finish line with the 5th place runner. We were together for hours and hours throughout the grueling event. We helped each other in difficult times. We sweat together. We died a little inside together. We crossed the finish line together. As you can see in first photo below, our times were both exactly 23:45:37. In reality, one of our electronic chips was assuredly ahead of the other at the finish, or one of us likely crossed the timing device at the start of the race before the other, thus gaining a second or two. I understand and accept this.
However, if you look at the second photo of the UTMB 2019 results, you will see that the same situation happened twice among the top 10 runners. The difference here, is that the UTMB organization awarded the runners with the exact same time AND POSITION, while skipping one position thereafter. If you have seen the narrow corral of the UTMB start line, you will know that it is virtually impossible that these runners crossed it at the exact same moment. What happened, I presume (and please correct me if I am wrong), is that these runners ran together at the end of the race and deliberately decided to cross the finish line at the same time – even though one of their electronic timing chips was certainly slightly ahead of the other. However, in the end, UTMB decided to award them with the same position in the results. I think this honors the spirit of team work and I think NUTS should adopt a like policy, at least for the top 10 runners. I love you, NUTS. I also realize that I may misunderstand how timing works, and I am willing to be corrected. (insert heart emoji here).
Would I write about this issue if I had received 5th and the other person 6th? I hope that the answer would be yes.
A few more photos
Good bye and thank you for reading!
URL to the website with results, photos, and videos: https://nutskarhunkierros.fi/fi/historia/2021-2/