Perhaps the most memorable section of this entire race was when I approached the crest of a staggering fell and experienced the stunning beauty of snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Getting there after almost not getting there
This past weekend I participated in the Kaldoaivi 57 km Ultra Trail race in northern Finland. In this post I discuss how and why I participated in the race as well as my thoughts and memories related to the adventure. And wow it really was quite the adventure in more than one meaning of the word. From tow trucks, to trains, to river crossings, I won’t soon forget this unique experience.
How did I end up at the 70th parallel north? Well, a few weeks ago my friend Jaakko Lehto (Instagram @lehtojaajaa) persuaded me to join him on his trip to the far north of Finland. It didn’t take much to convince me after I read more about the race and the wilderness in the area. And so we set off Thursday evening, our proverbial compass pointing to the north. Everything thing went swimmingly Thursday evening driving and camping. The next morning we set off around 8.00 am and were scheduled to arrive well before the race check in closed at 21.00 in Utsjoki, Finland. The next image shows how far I was from home.
Little did we know, however, that our car journey to the north would follow the template of an ultra run itself; nothing ever goes as planned and problem solving is the key to a successful expedition. So what happened? Well, as we unwisely followed Google’s suggestions to take a few smaller roads to save time, we found ourselves on dusty rocky dirt roads that were actually quite difficult to navigate safely. At some point during this stroke of ill fortune, the back left tire of the car was punctured and tripped a warning light on the dashboard. I wish I could say that Jaakko was driving his car at this point, but no, ’twas I.
After some debate about what to do, we pulled over, turned off the engine, and heard the tell-tale hissing noise that confirmed our suspicions. At this point the best thing we could do was drive carefully to the nearest outpost of civilization and humanity – a petrol station about 30 minutes south of Rovaniemi. At said station we unsuccessfully tried to fix the tire using the provided puncture kit. No dice. So we ended up waiting for what seemed an eternity for a tow truck to take us to a tire shop in Rovaniemi. I ate a Zorba pizza at Kotipizza while waiting for the tow truck. We knew the tire shop would soon be closing for the evening (and possible weekend) so we worried that we might have to cancel our participation in the event.
Luckily for us, the tow truck soon arrived and we made our way to the tire shop 10 minutes before closing. Unluckily for others, the tire shop guys had to stay late on a Friday evening to help us. Some grumbling was heard. We eventually got the car in working order and continued our journey north. I hope Jaakko tipped the workers well. 🙂
We then drove for many hours to the north. The only other noteworthy event that evening is when we passed a road sign for Murmansk 300 km. Where are you in the world if you are that close to MURMANSK? Well, you are really far north, that’s where.
We finally arrived late in the evening on Friday and after some bumbling around we located a place to pitch our tent. On the way, we had informed the race organizers that we would miss the check in. They were understanding and promised to bring our race numbers (bibs) to the start line in the morning. Bless their hearts for this act of kindness. After a good night’s sleep camping (hard to believe), we ate breakfast and walked a few hundred meters to the designated bust stop for the race. It was early in the morning when we loaded ourselves onto the full race bus with other runners and traveled south to the start line.
The start line is in Mieraslompolo, which is located about 40 kilometers to the south of Utsjoki. If you blink while driving, you would probably miss Mieraslompolo. There is nothing there but an ATV / quad trail. But this trail was of utmost today importance because it is the route that the race follows for nearly 50 kilometers.
I was honestly concerned – at least initially – that the race course would follow an ATV track, because most of us trail runners prefer rustic single track. Fortunately, I was delighted to find that the track itself is actually quite similar to trail running because it was covered in rocks of various sizes, had muddy slow sections, and even crossed multiple rivers. This is not your grandparent’s easy 4-wheeler Sunday track. I mean maybe Napoleon Dynamite‘s Grandma could handle it, but not your average rider.
And so we began our journey at 10:00 in the morning… running up. Yep, the first section of this race is essentially a gentle rising hill that is really quite runnable. So runnable, in fact, that Jaakko and I found ourselves in the lead. I don’t know about Jaakko, but I don’t like to be at the front in the very beginning of an ultra; it’s usually a sign that I have started too fast. But there we were and there we stayed for some time until the eventual race winner passed us and sped off into the horizon; I never saw him again!
The first few kilometers included the above-mentioned gentle hill along with less-than-gentle rocks of various sizes (see image below). After the first 7 kilometers, the path levels out and continues along passing a few wet spots until you reach the first river crossing at about 18 kilometers.
I made it to the first river crossing in third place, just behind second place. The river flowed quickly but was shallow enough that crossing it was uneventful, though best done at a walking pace (see video below). This crossing actually rejuvenated my energy and served as a memorable and positive experience. I remember crossing a wide river three times and few smaller streams throughout the event. The fact that the water is clean enough to drink straight from nature is astounding and blows my mind. And I did drink from the rivers!
Having made it to the other side, I followed second place past a race marking flag to two and continued east on the north edge of the river. Unfortunately, however, that’s when things started to go wrong. Although we had passed at least one orange flag marking the path, we failed to notice that the proper trail turned left (north) while we continued east. Thankfully, after a few minutes my ‘spidey senses’ kicked in and I slowed to check my surroundings. I yelled to second place and we both stopped and looked around. I explained that we needed to return to the last confirmed point of reference, so we slowly turned and headed back. It wasn’t long before we found the correct trail and continued our journey (10 minutes total lost time).
And thus second and third place became fifth and sixth. In this situation, you can really learn a lot about yourself. Are you the kind of person that allows such a misfortune to demotivate you so that you give up trying your best? Or are you the kind of person that redouble’s their efforts to make up for lost time? Well, it turns out that I am actually both of those options. I must admit that I did deliberately slow down for some time and sulked in my ill-humor. But this self pity lasted but a few kilometers and then I decided to take the opposite approach; I deliberately tried to go faster to make up for lost time. Let this be a lesson to us all: Remember to upload the GPX file to your watch before the race! I should have done this. I made up enough time to pass a few runners before the finish line and arrived in the fourth position. Since I run for health, exercise, and fun, it is no major loss to miss the podium. My heart goes out to the professional athletes who have trained for so long and end up in this situation (thinking of the recent Olympics).
After I regained my mental and physical composure, I soon began to enjoy the scenery and the experience. The track covers magnificent terrain that includes tunturi birch trees, fells, swamps, creeks, rivers and more. Perhaps the most memorable section of this entire race was when I approached the crest of a staggering fell and experienced the stunning beauty of snow-capped mountains in the distance. This view is a rarity in Finland and one that won’t soon leave my consciousness. The next photo doesn’t show these mountains but it does offer a glimpse of the track and terrain. Thank you to Maarit Timonen for sharing!
The race organizers provide only one aid station, which sounds problematic, but when you consider the amount of natural and clean water sources along the trail, it makes sense. I had briefly studied the route before the race and knew that a good place to replenish my water bottles would be at the first water crossing at 18 kilometers. I figured that I would only need two bottles (500 ml each) to make it that far. Had the weather been warmer, I would have started with more.
Toward the latter half of the race I finally arrived at the aid station where I refilled my bottles (3 this time) with sports drink and enjoyed half of a banana. I really didn’t eat much during the whole race. Other than the banana, I ate three marmalades, and that’s it! I know that some runners try to eat on a schedule, but that doesn’t work well for me – and yes I have tried. Some of the best advice on this topic, in my opinion, is from the elite runner Travis Macy, whom I met at an event way back in 2015, when he said “drink to thirst and eat to hunger”. I agree, though I do try to take regular and frequent sips of sports drink rather than big gulps less often. As for eating, I don’t eat until I am hungry!
Special mention should be made to the end of the race track. Although the last few kilometers are on asphalt, the previous few kilometers follow a steep decline from the fells to the valley floor(see image below). I am not known as a fast downhill runner, so this section did take me longer than I had hoped.
At the finish line we enjoyed showers, sauna, and warm food. I love the feeling of fresh clean clothes and skin after a long race in wet and mud. Relaxing after a long run floods the body with endorphins and satisfaction. I love sitting around and watching other racers finish, chatting with the organizers and spectators, and taking in the beautiful surroundings.
The return trip home was uneventful but did involve a train sleep. With no kids to look after, train rides are actually fairly comfortable!
I highly recommend this event to my fellow runners. The distance and amount of climbing in this event are really quite manageable, the terrain is beautiful, and the wilderness area in general is altogether unique in Finland.
I would like to thank Simo and Lauri for a great job organizing this event and I hope they continue to do so for a long time. I really look forward to returning and trying to beat my time from this year. If I don’t get lost and conditions are similar, I should be at least 10 minutes faster!
Here are the results from the Kaldoaivi 57 km Ultra Trail Run: https://my.raceresult.com/159359/registration?lang=fi
*Note that I received a preferential price in return for (1) editing the English text of the Kaldoaivi event website and (2) agreeing to write a race report for publishing online at RuninFinland.fi.
Official race video (inlcudes MTB races, road cycling, and trail run)
Another river crossing from Peetu Saukkia