“Exit light, enter night, take my hand… off to never-never land” – Metallica, Enter Sandman
I’m a terribly inconsistent blogger, especially when it comes to finishing up this Rovaniemi 150 story. After starting to write this up a few months ago for whatever reason I put it on the back burner to simmer. But lately as I’ve been simmering in the summer heat I’ve been thinking back fondly to the time that I spent in Lapland. So I think it’s time to finally finish this darn story. Where was I? Oh right, it was the night before the bike race and all through the hotel room not a creature was sleeping… they were assembling bicycles.
Once the bike was assembled I sat back on the bed and the reality started to set in. I’d been so preoccupied with getting myself and my gear to Rovaniemi that I had absolutely no race strategy in place other than to “finish”. Usually I at least take a look at the map and try and plan out a little strategy but in this case I hadn’t given much thought to what I’d be eating or drinking or where the checkpoints were. I had packed a bag of race food into the bike box as I knew my time would be short once I arrived in Finland, but didn’t really remember what was in it. I zipped it away into my frame bag. For this race I was pretty much “winging” it for 150 km.
Of course the other problem was also wing-induced: the damned jet lag. My body clock was almost entirely reversed by the 10 hr time difference so the night before the race started I spent another almost completely sleepless evening. Rolling down to the start in the morning from our hotel room in downtown Rovaniemi I tallied on my fingers the number of hours of sleep I had managed to squeeze in the previous 3 nights since leaving California. Less than 10 total… not a great way to prepare for a race that I was hoping would take me about 24 hours (assuming the conditions were good). My brain was very, very tired (and even duller than usual).
As I pedaled to the start line I listened for signs of my bike falling apart and hoped that I had tightened all the bolts securely. I approached the start line all smiles and excitement, but quickly the enormity of the task at hand began to sink in. Was I ready to do another one of these races or had I pushed it a little too far this time by trying to squeeze in a trip so far away from home on top of it? Suddenly I felt a bit naked and exposed – or maybe just too cleanly shaven. (thanks for the great start line photo to my buddy Greg Flood who had joined my wife and I on the trip)
The start of a race like this is always tough as you don’t want to go out too fast, yet you don’t want to get completely left behind either. Even if you’re just “in it to finish it” you’re still out there to push your personal limits. The first few kms followed the frozen Ounasjoki River to the first checkpoint, then turned off onto some secondary roads through what seemed to be a maze of summer camps that were located along the river. The river was fairly well traveled by snowmachines so the riding was good and our pack of cyclists remained pretty much together until the first checkpoint, except for the eventual winner Jan Kopka who had already checked out by then. The bike was holding together and my legs felt decent considering the amount of time I had spent folding my 6’3″ frame into planes the past few days on the trip over to Finland. Everything seemed to be going well, except for one thing kind of unexpected considering we were just south of the Arctic Circle – it was warm!
Warmth is a relative thing, of course. Temperatures were hovering just below freezing but the amount of humidity in the air seemed strange to me – the best way to describe how it felt is “close”. By this I mean with the grayness of the sky and the humidity there was a hemmed-in quality to the immediate atmosphere that seemed downright weird – like wearing a turtleneck sweater to the beach. Maybe it was because I had spent most of my training time for this race in the treeless, wide-open spaces of Eastern California where keeping between the lines is more of a personal choice than a mandate.
Perhaps it was just a consequence of being sleep deprived but something about the day just didn’t feel right to me. If I were an Italian grandmother I would’ve been spitting on the floor, throwing salt and cursing the feeling. Instead, I sweated profusely.
Granted where I currently live is technically a desert, but most of the winter races I have participated in Alaska and Minnesota have involved much colder, drier conditions. The end result here in Lapland was an unconsolidated snowpack that made the biking slow and encouraged lots of sweating even though I was stripped down to basically just my bottom layer of clothing. Having suffered frostbitten toes a few years back I have since switched to some serious footwear to prevent a recurrence and my feet practically swam with moisture in my huge Baffin boots even though I was wearing my thinnest socks. I wish I had room to bring a spare lighter pair of footwear in case of warm temperatures but there just wasn’t room to stick them in my gear for the trip. Passing through the first checkpoint I made a mental note to drink more water than normal, but for some reason didn’t stop to top off my Camelbak with water. Big mistake.
I had forgotten that liquid water would be available at all checkpoints with the exception of the second checkpoint, so as we entered the first prolonged pushing section of the race I immediately began to wonder if my water strategy was going to work. I had only 70 ounces with me as I was trying to travel “light”. True, during winter races you are surrounded by water in the form of snow but stopping to melt it is extremely time consuming. Even though I had brought my stove with me I didn’t want to use it except for an emergency situation – especially since each checkpoint had water available.
Hopping on the bike again upon reaching a rideable section of trail, I pedaled through the second checkpoint then negotiated a tough hiking section that had only been set down with snowshoes before the passage of the race. I sunk into the deep snow to my thighs in many spots while pushing my bike through the thick trees of this section, then suddenly everything opened up as the route exited onto Sinettäjärvi Lake.
I once read a magazine article about one of the pioneers of off road ultra endurance, John Stamstad, wherein he described that when was able to ride his bike on a trainer for 6 or more hours with no external stimulation or music while staring at a blank wall he knew he was mentally ready for Iditabike. Perhaps I need to adopt this training technique as riding on frozen lakes is not my forte. Mentally I can be weak. The thought of fighting gravity on my way up to the top of a mountain appeals to me; toiling across flat, open expanses where the horizon never seems to change does not. On paper, as a larger than normal cyclist I should be good at powering across flats like this but the truth is I tend to lose focus, my mind begins to wander and eventually it beats me up like a dray horse being driven mercilessly to plough rocky farmland by a sadistic son of a bitch of a farmer. It hurts.
And so it was as almost 10km of riding in the flat light across Sinettäjärvi Lake, through a narrows then on to Lehtojärvi Lake began to play tricks with my mind. At the far reaches of my visibility I could just make out figures on bikes ahead of me and slowly reeled them in, carefully negotiating the patches of overflow that lay on the surface of the ice in a few spots. At least I think there were people out there ahead of me on bikes. Maybe this was the first sign that the sleep deprivation was beginning to catch up with me.
Shedding my sea-legs as I pedaled off the lakes onto terra firma again the snow eventually softened and the pushing began in earnest. Hours of it interrupted only for short stretches of rideable conditions. There was even some of the worst of all: downhill pushing. Thankfully some snow squalls blew through to break up the monotony, though the light dusting of snow they left behind only increased the pushing misery. A hill noted on the map as the “Reindeer Farm” provided some inspiration for a while as I rounded a bend to see a lonely figure pushing his bike just ahead of me. I stopped for a moment to rest and take a hit of water, only to find my reservoir had already gone dry. I packed snow into it hoping that the prodigious amounts of heat being produced by my body in these warm conditions would produce some water as there was still a ways to go before the next checkpoint.
I never caught the lonely figure and the snow in my reservoir never did melt beyond a viscous, slushy state that refused to be sucked up through the hose of my hydration pack without threatening to rip the fillings from my teeth. Instead I trudged into the third checkpoint solo with my mouth parched. Water, water everywhere and I had not stopped to melt a drop to drink. The seeds of my impending dehydration had been planted in the lonely furrows my tires were leaving behind for others to follow in the snow. I had brought some instant coffee with me and mixed a quick cup with cocoa for some energy before leaving the checkpoint during the most intense snow squall of the race. The falling snow felt good on my face. My pace quickened and I soon caught a Spanish rider. He wasn’t a figment of my imagination after all!
He seemed a little surprised to see me at first but we soon fell into a trudging rhythm as this part of the course was also impossible to ride so we pushed along, each of us happy to have a partner to spur the other on. It felt strange to be plodding along in the wilds of northern Finland trying to remember my high school Spanish. Needless to say, the conversation was sparse as there’s only so many times you can nod in agreement to the words “mucho trabajo, poca velocidad”. Muy doloroso indeed. (Note – after the race was over we ran into each other at the hotel breakfast bar again and according to my wife I introduced her to him as “my husband” so I’m sure the conversation was even more painful than I remembered!)
We continued onward together for a stretch until a plowed section of road where I surged ahead. The caffeine had done the trick. I had lost track of time as the sun set somewhere behind the mantle of gloomy clouds. As if to mock me, a cheerful red farmhouse appeared around a bend in the road with its warm, incandescent lights of humanity glowing softly around the edges of the windows as yellow and fuzzy as they can only appear to a sleep-addled brain after hours of being surrounded by shades of gray. Across the road from the house reindeer peered from beneath the slats of the fence of their enclosure. Is this where the real Santa Claus lives out beyond the prying eyes of the tourists? A cursory glance at the herd revealed no glowing red noses on any of them so probably not. I switched on my headlamp and rode into the gathering darkness – Doughboy with your lamp so bright, won’t you guide my bike tonight? I practically shouted out with glee…
Checkpoints came and went in the darkness. A really tough, tight section of woods had to be negotiated in order to get to the next road section and I entered it ahead of the Spanish rider. This section quickly became my undoing as I wallowed into the hip deep snow as I punctured the packed top layer with my weight. It was very unpredictable, like skiing across a slope in avalanche terrain hearing that terrifying WHOOOMPF beneath your skis and hoping the slope doesn’t break loose.
I would take two steps then break right through the crust. As I tired my ability to hold back my weight was reduced and I began to stumble when it happened. Digging myself out again and again I stepped forward until WHOOOMPF I broke through in a painfully contorted fashion hyperextending my knee. I swore aloud into the Finnish night having aggravated an old cartilage issue in my knee. After what seemed like an eternity this section ended on an unrideable, but at least more compacted forest track. I licked my wounds for second or two then hobbled on.
That section had taken a lot out of me and I was worried the knee would begin to swell so I walked slowly for a while and collected myself. As I walked I ran down the endurance racer’s mental checklist of self-condition:
Knee: tweaked but I can walk, tally-ho!
Hydration: marginal but catching up
Fueling: low but plenty of bodyfat to burn
Brain: running on empty due to lack of sleep but digging the surroundings, HOLY CRAP IT’S THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AND I’M IN LAPLAND!
Feet: blistered from too much walking, I’m a biker not a hiker!
From behind me in the woods a faint sound began to catch my ear: SHUUK Suhh, SHUUK Suhh, SHUUK Suhh. I looked behind me but saw no lights of any other racers. A few moments later I heard it again SHUUK Suhh. What the hell is that? SHUUK Suhh, SHUUK Suhh, SHUUK Suhh again and again until an Italian skier blasted by me without saying a word, all flailing arms and ski poles beneath a dancing headlamp like a Nordic headless horseman. A minute later his compatriot passed me.
I thought to myself “Dammit, I’m losing ground here as I walk along”. After a few more moments of walking a plowed road appeared on the fringes of the light of my headlamp. Halleluiah! Time to ride. As I slung my leg over my bike and started pedaling the racer in me resurfaced. I had to catch those skiers! It felt good after so much walking to feel the wind rush over my body as I pedaled again. The familiar rumble of fat tires on hardpack filled my ears and within minutes I caught the first skier. Moments later the next… wooohoo! I was getting somewhere again. I forgot about my injured knee as the exhilaration of the moment swept over me.
It was to be short-lived. The course took a turn onto a ridge and began to climb a track with the familiar unconsolidated snow. The skiers caught me and left me behind. The wind began to blow once up on the exposed ridge and it cut right through my sweaty clothes. In a way it felt good, but of course this is how hypothermia can gain a foothold in your body. During the encounter with the Italian skiers I had forgotten how dark the night had become as the companionship of other racers had been a boost to my tired brain. So as the ridgeline walk continued my brain decided to create it’s own companions.
Though it had never happened to me, I had heard other racers tell stories of hallucinations that sometimes occur during long efforts through the night. I had always wondered about some of these stories. Not knowing any of these people personally they seemed at times to be embellishments – myths told in hushed tones by one member of the tribe who sat at the center of the ring while the others remained on the fringes of the light, their stories dancing in the firelit creases of the assembled faces. Perhaps I had never pushed myself far enough to gain entrance to the center of the ring.
This far north with the slightest gain in elevation trees begin to vanish quickly. The ones that do inhabit the ridges are hardy, low slung and become encrusted with ice by the wind. All of that humidity that I was sensing in the atmosphere is driven by the relentless wind and coats the trees that are brave enough to withstand the realm of the high ground in icy tombs for the duration of the winter.
Entombed within it though they may be, the ice also gives them life. As I trudged along the ridge forms began to reveal themselves from the darkness. Some of them began to move – a head turned toward me and smiled. Another bowed in some sort of prayer movement. I blinked my eyes not wanting to believe what I was seeing and the trees reappeared, only to be replaced for a split second by a frozen terracotta warrior horde as I rounded a corner and looked out over a flattened portion of the landscape. Laughter danced on the wind. Things quieted down as I stopped to take a sip of water and snapped a picture, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of Myth as I stood silently and took in the wonders of the Finnish night.
I can sit here now and rationalize away what was happening to me: I was overtired, dehydrated and in unfamiliar surroundings. I can come up with lots of scenarios as to why I was seeing inanimate objects come to life. But I also have to wonder if this is how myths developed during times when humans had a more intimate relationship with the greater world around them? Did members of older societies, when tired and cold, fill in the dark spaces that occasionally manifested in their worldview with moments like this and create fantastic worlds in which to escape? For companionship on a long hunt? For someone to talk to and gain strength from when they didn’t feel like going forward into the night? I wasn’t quite talking to myself yet, but this moment reinforced how refreshing it is to get out into different places in the world and see what happens when you push yourself to your limits – even better if it’s done via bike.
I heard laughter again and decided I needed to get moving before they started laughing at me rather than with me. I’m sure the camel-like beast that I had seen earlier followed along for a while behind me, but eventually I left him behind and continued on toward the next checkpoint. Headlamps of other racers were dancing along the ridge behind me, and as I had seen earlier with my encounter with the skiers being overtaken always sucks. Must keep moving… I may not be a world-class racer but I’m a racer nonetheless.
It had been dark for many hours now, but my descent into the abyss had just begun… Part 3 up next!