Rovaniemi 150: Racing Above the Arctic Circle (Part 3)

“this is the end, beautiful friend, the end” – The Doors

Seeing as how the 2014 version of the Rovaniemi 150 is taking place this weekend in Finland, I’ve been reminiscing about the time I spent in Lapland last winter.  As usual, it was a fun time plodding around riding (and pushing) my bike through the snow, well at least that’s what I tell myself here from the warm confines of my home.  But I guess the passage of time has diminished the pain a bit which explains why I’m finally writing up the last portion of my experience at the event.  It only took a year, but here goes!  I never claimed to be fast.

When I last wrote about the Rovaniemi race, I was hallucinating in the forest and headed for disaster.  Sleep deprived and dehydrated, I pushed into the Kuusilampi Checkpoint only 79 km into the race.  The previous checkpoints had been but tents in the forest but this checkpoint turned out to be a round hut with a huge central fire roaring in the middle of it, something I wasn’t prepared for as comfort is not always a good thing during an endurance race. A few racers were sleeping in a nearby structure and as I entered the hut and took a seat beside the roaring fire I noticed a Dutch racer I had struck up a friendship with at the prerace briefing.

It felt good to sit down beside a friendly face and take in a little food, dry off some gear and know that I was wasn’t too far behind the other racers.  But however good it felt to sit down it was also dangerous – a body at rest tends to stay at rest when acted upon by pleasant circumstances and I knew from previous experience that if I didn’t get moving soon I would be here for a few hours.  I watched the firelight dance upon the walls.

Within a few minutes the other racers said goodbye and left leaving me sitting in the hut with two of the race volunteers.  I searched deep into the embers of the firepit for understanding while they spoke in Finnish to one another.  Listening to Finnish being spoken aloud is like riding a rollercoaster while occasionally firing an AK-47: the lively staccato bursts of the many rolled rrrrrs contrast sharply with the rhythmic rise and fall of the syllables.  Unlike listening to French or Spanish where I can usually pick out a few words here and there (did somebody say cheese?) with Finnish I had no clue whatsover what they were talking about.  The lively rise and fall of the language also provided a stark contrast to the expressionless faces of the volunteers as they stared into the fire and talked.  Finns are, for all their hospitality, much like myself: they tend to keep their emotions to themselves.  I’m comfortable with that.

Much like basking in the sun, sitting beside an open fire taps into the most ancient reaches of the brain and our reptilian desire for warmth.  When combined with the unintelligible soundtrack of the Finnish chants it began to feel like a moment that could’ve happened to me in a previous life.  I say this because of my own forgotten generations of northern European ancestors and the many nameless people of whom I know nothing about.  Though I was among an unknown tribe (as none of my ancestors are Finnish) I felt a little closer to them when I thought of the shared heritage of the human race that exists when we gather around a fire and talk.  For the briefest moment in time I sorta understood what they were saying.

Lost in my memories, I thought the male volunteer spoke to me so I smiled and replied “excuse me?”  I was met with an emotionless face.  I guess he wasn’t speaking to me, and I don’t think he spoke any English.   I watched for a moment as the creases of his visage danced in the fanning of the flames.  When I realized he wasn’t speaking to me I returned to my own firepit trance.

Knowing that if I waited here too long I would probably never finish within the time cut, I gathered my somewhat dry gear and headed out the door into the night at 1:30AM after a 30 minute break.  The truth is I really wanted to lay down and sleep, but you don’t fly all the way to Finland to race then sleep in a hut and DNF.  In retrospect, I should’ve made some coffee and eaten some more, but my stomach was beginning to shut down and I didn’t want to wait for it to settle.  I was “racing” after all.

I had been under the impression that shortly after this checkpoint the pushing would end as during the prerace briefing notice had been given that from here a plowed logging road would provide some relief.  The reality was that some of the hardest pushing of the race was through this section and I repeatedly sunk up to my thighs in the soft snow.  My tweaked knee had stiffened while I sat in the hut and I began to limp like Quasimodo while hunched over my bike.

After what seemed like an eternity the logging road appeared and I tried to pedal, but my stomach was not having any of it and I began to feel sick.  From past experience I knew that inevitably I was going to puke and there was no fighting it.  All energy had gone out of my body and I could barely push the pedals so I began to walk.  A German racer that had arrived at the previous checkpoint just as I was leaving blew by me on his bike while I walked.  I began to feel disheartened at the worst possible moment: 3AM, the witching hour for endurance racing.  My eyes drooped as a wave of sleep deprivation swept over my body.  I walked slowly and disconsolately through what should’ve been the fastest portion of the race.

Time passed and I puked a few times as I walked.  Some people go their entire race “career” without puking, others (like me) are born to the endless night of a weak stomach.  It was time to throttle back.  Eventually I entered a town and began to look for a place to sleep and let my stomach rest.  The Spanish rider I had traveled with earlier in the race passed me and asked if I was ok.  I waved him on with a smile and looked longingly at the porch of a schoolhouse as a great place to bivy until I considered what might happen if I overslept and children started to arrive the next morning.  It wasn’t a good image.  A Scottish rider passed me and inquired as to my well-being as I really looked like crap at this point.  I learned later, after the race that he had stopped to boil some water and make me some coffee but I was moving so slowly that I didn’t show up in time so he continued on.  I looked that bad.

I continued to alternate between walking and pedaling but knew I was losing massive amounts of time to the other riders in this section.  The Italian skiers schussed by me and as I walked near the outskirts of the town an older gentleman appeared walking the other direction.  I’m not sure what he was doing out there in the middle of the night (although he could ask the same of me) and he spoke no English so I tried to explain I was going to Rovaniemi.  He looked at me and motioned in the opposite direction in which I was traveling, trying to show me the short way back to town.  I tried to explain I was following a race course.  He pointed the other way, this time with more animated gesticulations and way too many syllables.  Eventually he threw his hands up in the air and gave up trying to understand exactly what it was that I was doing wandering though his town in the wee hours of morning.  As he walked away I considered abandoning and heading in the direction he had pointed.  At least these fleeting moments of human contact had silenced the mild hallucinations I had been dealing with before the last checkpoint, but my world existed only in shades of gray.

Sometimes when the wheels start to come off they fly off without notice, like an earthquake in the night. After you’re thrown out of bed by the shaking, wake up on the floor and realize you’re not going to die, all you can do is laugh and laughing is exactly what I started to do when my head hit the snowbank.  Why had my head hit the snowbank? I had fallen asleep while riding and had veered off to the side of the plowed road I was riding on and collapsed, waking up to the sound of my body crumpling into the snowbank and the sharp thud of my pointy head piercing the crust in the snow.  I was awake and laughing before I stopped sliding, having enjoyed my brief 5 second nap on my way from upright to fallen.

I laid in the snow beside the road and stared at the gray sky of approaching day while giggling like my nephew watching Wreck-It-Ralph.  I considered making a snow angel before I got up as somehow the idea of a fallen snow angel seemed funny, like Keanu Reeves trying to be a serious actor. NOW we’re starting to have fun!  At least the sun was beginning to rise.  I struggled to my feet, checked for broken bike components and laughed at the squiggly evidence the tracks my tires had left behind during their death auger into the sitzmark I had left in the snow.  I decided that I needed to eat something.

I had brought along one substantial freeze dried meal in case of emergency so I broke out my stove and boiled some water, standing around beside the road waiting for a Finnish rally driver wannabe to come over the brow of the hill ahead of me at full-tilt and obliterate me.  Luckily, he never came.  Once the meal rehydrated I ate as much as I could stomach and started moving down the road again.  Luckily, the food stayed down.

I was so tired at this point that I caught myself falling asleep a few more times but at least I kept myself upright.  Eventually the food entered my bloodstream and I began to feel more lucid, but not before I missed a turn and lost about 20 minutes backtracking.  I was so fatigued from the jetlag I couldn’t follow my gps properly.

When circumstances go sour I always try and change the reality of the situation and look for a way to turn it into something good, or at least change my mood.  After all, when your brain begins to work against you and you fall into the deep hole you are well and truly screwed. Seeing as how my body was already half-gone my brain was all I could fall back on, which isn’t always a good thing.  But since my race had gone awry and a high finish was now out of the question, I needed to do something different.  I started looking for photo opportunities.

Finding beauty in the world is a noble pursuit, especially when you’ve been dragging your camera around for an entire day and had only taken a few foggy photos.  When was the next time I’d be back in Lapland? Probably never.  Soon images began to appear out of the gray, and not all of them were hallucinations.

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At first the world was gray.  There hadn’t been much elevation change during the race but now the route climbed up a small ridge.  Eventually it descended down the other side onto yet another lake.  Unfortunately there was still a ways to go (more than 25 km like the sign said as the route headed the opposite direction) but at least I was starting to feel better.  I knew that if I kept moving I would eventually finish within the time cut.  With this new goal in mind and armed with renewed energy from the freeze-dried meal coursing through my veins I marched onward like the day toward dusk.


My mood began to shift and with it so did the clouds.  The weather during the entire race up until now had been overcast and dreary, but as the temperature began to drop with a shift in the weather pattern the track became rideable again in spots.  I started having fun again and the scenery mirrored my newfound enthusiasm in an explosion of color.  I rode off into the light in the distance, and this time I didn’t fall asleep.

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Before long I found myself back on the Ounasjoki River and at the final checkpoint.  The workers at the checkpoint cheered and yelled as I entered as they knew I only had a few more kilometers of river riding to go before I finished.  They smacked me on the back, filled my water carrier one last time and then sent me on my way as the sun began to set on the river.  The temperature quickly dropped even more as the cold, dry air began to settle into the valley.  I blew vapor rings into the air in an innocent display of enthusiasm.

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The riding was much easier here and I began to see a blinking red light of one of the other riders ahead of me in the distance.  The racer in the back of my brain thought about tracking him down in a final dash to the finish, but that’s when I noticed a strange light begin to dance in the sky behind me.  I stopped to stare as the aurora borealis appeared, even before the sun had completely set.  I had never seen it so vivid and tried to watch it as I rode but soon realized that I need to concentrate in order to maintain any forward progress.  At one point I stopped to try and get a photo of the aurora but they unfortunately didn’t turn out that great.  Maybe it’s best that way as my memory is that much more cherished.

Within an hour I bid farewell to the aurora as it was drown out by the lights of Rovaniemi After riding beneath the two bridges that span the river near downtown it took me a while to find the entrance to the race headquarters, but when I did my wife was there waiting to congratulate me.  Alex, the race coordinator, presented me with my finishers medal and gave me a big congratulatory hug.  His race, as well as mine, had been a success.  34 hours and 47 minutes of almost constant movement and zero sleep, a personal record for me.  It was now time to start vacation.

I can only hope that all the entrants to this year’s race have as great of time as I did last year.  It’s a memory I will always cherish and I hope to return some day.  For anyone in Europe (or Americans who enjoy traveling) the Rovaniemi 150 is a race not to be missed.

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