“I know that running is all too often seen as an introspective activity, but running breaks down the barriers between what we think is inside us and what we see as being outside. Running unites us with places and creates emotional connections with them in ways that are not easily accounted for.”
Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human by Cregan-Reid (2016)
On June 30, 2022, my friend Jaakko Lehto and I began an epic road trip by car. We traveled all the way from Turku in the south and crossed central Finland on our journey to the northeast edge of Finland to participate in the Kainuu Trail Race‘s second edition in Hossa, Finland’s newest national park (correction, now Salla is the newest national park). I am happy to report that we experienced no flat tires this time as we did last summer. The total travel time was around 11 hours and the only respite we had was a delicious buffet called Herkkuhetki in Orivesi. You see, dear reader, I have learned that traveling with Finns always includes at least one stop for hot food and coffee, regardless of whether the total duration is 90 minutes or 14 hours. I have long since bid adieu to the American style of traveling ‘we have food in the car’ and ‘let’s not stop now so we can get there faster’.
I had previously visited Hossa way back in 2016 as a volunteer with the popular trekking/adventure company Upitrek, but this was Jaakko’s first visit. Speaking of volunteering, I also did a social media takeover for the website RuninFinland‘s as a part of this trip and my participation in the race (see photo below). In the end, all I really did was post a few videos and photos on their Instagram account, which led to a small increase in followers (consider following them!). All photos and videos in this post come from my phone unless otherwise noted.
I must say that if you haven’t yet visited Hossa, I hope you will in the near future because it is a beautiful location that is full of things to do: historical sites, hiking/running opportunities, biking, canoeing, swimming, fishing and more – including the Kainuu Trail Race every July. Moreover, although Hossa covers a large geographical area, it is possible to visit many of the main sites in a short trip.
And so we arrived late in the evening after smooth sailing and traveling all day. We stayed at Camping Hossa Lumo in a tent for the three nights during our trip where we were greeted each day by a group of reindeer. That first night, after pitching the tent, we took a dip in the lake to cool down in the warm weather. The water was refreshing; warm at the top and quite cold about a meter below. The photos and video below show the reindeer, sandy beach, and lake (photo Jaakko).
After the swim, I was cool enough that I could actually fall asleep, even though the sun was up all through the weary night. My Mountain Hardware Mineral King tent worked well, but due to the warm temperature, we couldn’t use the full rain fly, thus more light blanketed our slumber (or attempts at sleeping). Luckily, the oppressive air cooled considerably in the early morning hours and I was able to sleep well for a spell. This was fortunate because the race was two days away and I would need all the rest I could get, especially considering our plans for the next day during which we hoped to spend many hours exploring the national park on bike and on foot.
The day before the race
After my breakfast of champions (instant ramen), we prepared for a day of biking in the forest. But not just any old bike would do: we rented e-fat bikes to save our legs for the race the next day. As it turned out, these e-fat bikes were beasts of machines that were heavy, yet extremely powerful. In fact, unlike other e-bikes I have seen, pedaling wasn’t even required when using the boost function, so this breed kind of worked like electric scooters. I freely admit that I used the boost on almost all the hills! Our original plan was to ride along the whole race route for the 78km event the next day. Jaakko registered for this 78km event, while I opted for the slightly less painful 55km (my kids and I all had sore throats recently so even 55km was a gamble). However, the actual race course only partially follows the bike paths so we didn’t see all the route, though it was an excellent reconnaissance trip that provided valuable intelligence about trail conditions, technicality, and water availability. Many of the trails were smooth and covered in dead pine needles; a dream for biking (and running), yet we also encountered numerous lengthy technical sections of rock and tree route that slowed us considerably. In the end, instead of covering 78km, I think we managed a mere 50km or so. Another reason for not completing the entire distance we had planned was that we actually parked our bikes at Lihapyörre (meat grinder) and hiked/jogged the 7.5 km trail (no bikes allowed) to see the ancient rock paintings at Värikallio. See below for videos and photos of the bike ride and rock paintings.
On the morning of July 2, 2022, I woke up early with Jaakko so that I could be at the venue to film the beginning of the 78km race at 6.00 (video here). Part of me was jealous of these runners and their selected distance, but another part of me maturely accepted my decision to ‘only’ race 55km today. After the starting stampede and thundering of hooves, I returned to the race centre where I had two hours to prepare for the 55km that would begin at 8.00. I found refuge in the Hossa National Park main building where I had a nice chat with the helpful and friendly volunteers in the race office – including some exchange students from Japan and Nigeria studying business management in Finland. What a great idea to use exchange students for this event that will provide them with organizational/business experience.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my own footage or pictures from the actual 55km race because I was in the event myself. But I do have many recollections as well as some photos from the race’s photographer (see below). Additionally, I took a few photos of the race course while biking the day before (although I am uncertain that the swamp photo was actually on the official race route). However, I am certain that the photos of the stairs and water spring were on the route. By the way, that spring (lähde in Finnish, hete in local dialect) provided freezing cold water that was a welcome relief during the race. The water was so refreshing. Incidentally, most people drink straight from the water sources in this area (Lapland), but I used a filter for extra safety – though I have previously consumed lots of water in Lapland without a filter and have never had any problems.
And so my race began, just like the 78km, with a welcome from the race organizer followed by a rush up a short 200 meter section of asphalt that led directly to the forest (a minor course change from the previous year). Surprisingly, the pace was slower than what I expected, which was just fine with me: Due to my recent sickness and long-term hamstring pain, I planned to begin the race conservatively. Moreover, other than the 7.5km hike/jog to the rock paintings the day before, I hadn’t run for 9 days before this race. In spite of my caution, I nevertheless found myself running comfortably with the lead pack that consisted of the woman who eventually won the women’s race and was second overall, and the man who came in second in the men’s race.
I must admit that during the first hour of the race I was tempted to break away and increase my pace for a time, but then I remembered that I needed to wait to see how my body would react to running in general. Well, my body seemed fine all the way to the first aid station. I actually arrived second at the aid station because the man I mentioned above had taken a wrong turn that cost him a minute or so (luckily for him, the first lady and I yelled to him that he was off course). Interestingly, if you look at the results in the ‘smart follow’ option at the race website, it appears that I arrived in the lead at the first aid station. This is not that case. What happened was that I was the first to leave the aid station and the timing strip (gate?) was actually situated at the exit of the aid station.
I was really hoping to run with the lead woman for more of the race and as we filled our water bottles at that first aid station I whispered to her ‘let’s go’. Unfortunately, she needed more time so I left alone and didn’t see her again until the finish line. You see, running with a fellow competitor in a race can work in your favor because you can push each other and support each other (though it doesn’t always work out well). In longer ultras, I actually prefer to run alone until at least the latter half of the event because I want to run my own race and my own pace (but running with someone at the end of a long event can be beneficial – as happened to me in Nuts Karhunkierros 166km in 2021).
After the first aid station, the course was smooth for some time but then became much more difficult when the route turned north to the sections named Ölkky, a word that assuredly means this in English: rocks, rocks, technical undulations, rocks and more rocks. Nevertheless, this part of the course was exceptionally beautiful as it followed the edge of steep rocky cliffs below that traversed a narrow lake. Eventually, the course came to a spiral staircase made of metal (an aberration in the natural surroundings) that descended tens of meters to a suspension bridge spanning across the ravine (see photo in slideshow below). This was truly an inspiringly scenic section of the course and I encourage the reader to visit at the nearest possible convenience. Because I don’t have any photos from the trails on race day, I will add a few from the race’s website.
All images in the slideshow below are from Kainuu Trail (Photos: Hannu Huttu). The slideshow portrays the suspension bridge and a few scenes from other sections of the race, including a reindeer stable.
After the afore-mentioned rocky section (Ölkky), the race course followed multiple lakes and streams. The running was mostly comfortable at this point, other than a few sections of lowland boggy areas with tight turns and dreadful tree/bush roots that seemed to try to trip me from time to time. The advantage, however, of such lowland running, was the plethora of opportunities to cool one’s torso/head in the natural bodies of water. I frequently splashed my head, filled my hat and dumped its contents on myself, and once even removed my shirt and submerged it before re-upholstering my torso with wet fabric. After the race I heard many runners talking about how they ‘went swimming’ at least ten times during the day.
Toward the end of the race I knew I was in the lead and had a good chance of winning the 55km event, but I didn’t slow my pace because I have been passed in the last kilometer previously. Oh, and have you heard about what happened once at the end of the Western States 100 miler event (Google: The last mile Kaytlyn Gerbin)? Additionally, I was trying to beat my friend Esa’s time at this same race from the previous year (something I failed to accomplish). Never slow down until you cross the finish line.
Every race has its own challenges, regardless of the distance. This 55km race was not easy and I had to walk a few times up steep, but short, ascents. I also walked a few times to cool down and ingest salt to replace excessive loss of electrolytes and fluid. I am happy to report that I never really ‘hit a wall’ in this event, at least not the kind that makes me slow down because I feel like dying; or worse – vomiting. The nearest experience to the proverbial wall I had, was when I thought I had passed the 40 km mark but a glance at my watch showed that I had covered only 37km. The despair! Sometimes 3 kilometers can seem like an eternity!
And so I managed alone for the remainder of the day, a lone runner in the 55km race. In reality, though, I actually did occasionally pass a few runners from other distances (Kainuu Trail offers the following distances: 10, 21, 38, 55, 78). The last few kilometers felt like a sprint, though they were not significantly faster, because I knew that to arrive under six hours, I would need to put the pedal to the metal.
After 5 hours and 58 minutes, somehow, for the first time in my life, I crossed the finish line of an ultra trail race as the winner. I smiled. I drank liquid profusely. I sat down on the ground and enjoyed the atmosphere. It’s a feeling I may never have again, and that’s okay. I don’t run races to win. I run races to test the theory and practice behind my physical training. I run to see new parts of the world. I run to be a part of something bigger than me. I have some noble thoughts, yes, but I also train to improve myself and I want to get better.
Post race and kotimatka
After the race, I filmed a few of the top runners from other distances (see RuninFinland’s IG) and I waited for my friend Jaakko to finish the 78km (which he did and got 4th place!). After a shower and some food, we returned to the camp site and slept one more night before the long drive back to Turku.
I can honestly say that the race was well organized and the course was well marked. The aid stations were located frequently enough to avoid the need to carry an extensive amount of water (I personally carried 1 or 1.5 liters between aid stations). In fact, due to the heat, the race organizers decided to add two un-humaned ‘pop up’ aid stations containing water jugs at strategic locations that would help the runners. This was a great idea and I salute the organizers for adjusting the number of aid stations based on the conditions.
My only feedback to the organizers would be: 1) If the race continues to grow, the multiple distances you offer will be fine. But if the number of runners decreases or plateaus, you might consider removing/combining one or more of the distances on offer. But I hope the race will grow! 2) You need a human at the loop turning point after Kokalmus for the 78km race or you will have (more) runners skipping the first loop (was that by accident ???). 3) Maybe get some chairs/couches outside near the finish line for runners to rest on and watch the race.
Overall, this race is very well organized. Well done!
- Full results and GPS tracking here.
- For a race report of the Kainuu Trail 55km in Finnish (Suomeksi), you can read this post from my friend Esa.
- In return for this race report, I received a free entry in Kainuu Trail.
- Special thanks to Jukka Liuha (in photo below) for his cooperation and his desire to develop and improve the event.