It was nearly all over before it began. Setting off on Easter Monday I knew I needed to leave a little extra time to get to Heathrow. Just 7 miles from home, crossing the bridge over the M5, was stationary traffic as far as the eye could see. The radio confirmed my worst fear, 10 miles of tail backs and an hour’s delay to travel just 3 junctions. A swift U turn and a stressful journey through Bristol and I was on the M4. Late but at least I was moving. With skis and bags slung over my shoulders I managed to persuade and battle my way to the front of check in and I’d made it onto the first leg of my journey, Heathrow to Copenhagen.
The following morning after a late arrival and an early start I was already feeling the tension.
At check in it was clear who the other racers were, apart from the obvious tell tale signs; skis, arctic jackets and boots, there was a sense of camaraderie.People introducing themselves to one another and sizing each other up at the same time. Had you done the Arctic Circle Race before, where had you travelled from and were you alone or part of a group.
Some had taken part previously and seemed relaxed and looking forward to it, others were clearly first timers like myself and had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.
This next leg, a 4.5hr flight,took me directly over Iceland and on to Kangerlussuaq, an ex-American military base (cold-war) 20 km from the famous Greenland Icecap. From there an 8 seater to Sisimiut, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s west coast.
On our approach the pilot drew our attention to a small camp in the mountains.
This was going to be our base during the race and suddenly it all felt very real. High up in the mountains we could just make out a collection of 2-man tents, a start finish area and the eating and drying tents.
Landing on the most spectacular airstrip I’ve ever seen, mere feet from the freezing water’s edge I could make out the tiny fishing town of Sisimiut.
Surrounded on one side by towering mountains and the other by the sea it was hard to make out amongst the spectacular scenery. Small as it was this is Greenland’s second largest “city”.
2 days of training, registrations and safety briefings passed with one looming question still to be answered.
Was it to be the 100km or full 160km race distance. Training had gone well, the injury picked up in Norway did not seem to be giving me any issues and the knowledge I’d only be there once left me with no option. The 160km race is ranked in the Top 5 of the world’s toughest endurance races and certainly the worlds hardest cross country ski marathon. The race organisers had already informed us it would be the toughest course set in the 17 years of the event history but I had to see if I could do it. Normally the race is set in the foothills, along the edges of the lakes and over the frozen fjords. However, due to unseasonably warm weather throughout March the frozen surfaces were started to give way and the snow in the valleys could not be guaranteed for the duration of the race. The decision had therefore been taken to set the race up in the mountains. The camp had been relocated from the valley floor to where we’d seen it on our approach high up above sea level.
Day 1 started in the centre of the city.
This was really to give all the locals the chance to see the racers off, and they hoped crash as we were sent around a city loop up and down and around corners, not easy on cross country skis. Thankfully I remained upright, at least at this point. Several crashes were to follow.
58.8km of endurance racing, over 1.4km of vertical ascent and this was just day 1.
We’d encountered slopes so steep we couldn’t even herring bone up them on skis. Of the nearly 60km skied that day we’d climbed, skis off and over our shoulders, for at least 6km. I’d taken on more than 5 litres of fluid and “skied” for over 7.5 hours but I felt strong. One third of the way there and nothing was hurting.
Finally we made camp.
Bags unpacked and sleeping bag rolled out in my tent, food, as much as you can get in you and then wax the skis. More food and warm soup before getting my head down about 10pm.
Day 2 began at 6.30am.
Struggling from my tent to once again try and get more fuel inside me before the racing began, check the kit for the day ahead and apply the last layer of waxes. This was to be the shortest day , just 44.5km, but the hardest climbs lay ahead. From camp the first stage took us 10km back down to sea level before climbing to the highest point in the races history at nearly 800m. The reward was the most incredible view I’ve ever seen; more than 75km in every direction, over the Greenlandic mountains and as far as the Icecap itself. 6 hours 40 minutes after setting off I was back in camp for the second time. By way of celebration for getting through day 2 we were treated to local crab, whale and seal meat, dried local fish and other delicacies I couldn’t identify. Provided by the race organisers they were a welcome addition to the standard expedition rations I’d taken with me. Don’t get the wrong impression, this wasn’t gourmet dining, more grabbed on the hoof between drying kit and re-waxing the skis for day 3.
Day 3 was an earlier start, after all we had another 60km left to ski before getting back to the finish line. It was colder than previous days, around -6 to -8 degrees and people were starting to feel the effects of 2 days racing but everyone knew they only had to get through one more and they’d have done it. A frantic decent and a tough climb at the start separated the field very quickly.
Feeling strong and skiing well I got my head down and focused, I was on cloud 9, I knew I could finish. Mid morning, after 2 hours skiing I was on for a good time, no sign of the skiers I’d been amongst earlier in the day and I’d made it to the first drinks station.
Just as I came to leave and head off on the next stage I asked how far I had to go. It was then that I realised I’d made a terrible mistake. At some point in the first stage I’d missed the split where 100km racers go one way and 160km racers go another. I had strayed onto the 100km route. Was all the work I’d done on days 1 and 2 going to go to waste, was I going to be kicked off the 160 and have to settle for the 100 after so much hard work. With a sense of panic and desperation setting in, not to mention huge disappointment looming we managed to get the race Jury on the radio. A ski-do ride back to “split” and I was delivered at the back of the field. I was back in the race but had subjected myself to an additional 10km on the longest day.
By 2pm I’d caught up with and rejoined the skiers I’d started the day with. Giving up all hope of a fast time I settled in to enjoy the ski home, the camaraderie and sense of achievement. At 5.30 (ish) 4 of us crossed the finish line hand in hand.
Before I’d had a chance to catch my breath the compare entertaining the crowd had sought me out, with microphone in hand asked the obvious; “Would I do it again?” Then I heard my own voice over the PA system; “Possibly.”
For 36 hours after the race I couldn’t get enough liquids on board. I wanted to drink and eat continuously, I knew I should sleep but found it hard. The mind and body still racing from the experience. Lying in my hotel room unable to sleep I realised what I’d achieved. I had just cross country skied the equivalent of Beaconsfield to Oxford, Burnham on Sea to Frome or Bodmin to Okehampton each day, and en route climbed higher than Ben Nevis on all three days. As the merchandise says in the ACR race office “I did it!” and trust me it is the toughest cross country ski marathon in the world but I loved every minute of it, truly.
I’d like to thank everyone who supported Myeloma UK and Amalie’s Fight with their donations and also everyone that helped me prepare, you all know who you are. Lastly I’d like to thank the fellow racers and most importantly the organisers and their incredible team of volunteers for putting on this amazing event each year.
I DID IT!