Monday, June 29, 2009

Party time!

Claire threw me a great party yesterday. BBQ, Mexican, margaritas, the works. Thanks to her for arranging, and to many friends for stopping by. Lots of folks said they enjoyed getting their daily dose of this blog - it provided me with an invaluable way to reflect and connect to home. I'm just so relieved the story had a happy ending (beautifully recounted in today's Austin American Statesman by Pam LeBlanc - thanks, Pam!).

Now, about that next race...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cankles are back...

Halfway back to the UK yesterday, I noticed that my ankles were starting to do an impersonation of water balloons, and my calves and ankles had once again merged to form "cankles" (see France 2005). By the time I landed in Heathrow, my socks had become as tight as sausage skins, and the pressure got more and more painful. It was a little tricky driving my stick shift rental car and trying to take off my socks simultaneously. I'm glad I don't have to run on them today.

By the way, one thing that many stage runners do is to cut down the front of every pair of socks, to relieve pressure on the front of the ankle. Part of my small but moving final ceremony before leaving Norway was to throw out all my many pairs of used, "restyled" shoes and socks. In the end, I opted to place them all discretely in a garbage can rather than cause a littering spectacle at the North Cape.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The journey home...

I set off for Alta airport by bus at 3am this morning, and we covered two stages of the race (in the opposite direction, of course) in under two hours. We crossed the bleak Sennalandet again in wind and pouring rain, and of course saw reindeer by the thousand.

Since I woke at 2:30am, I just can't stop eating or thinking about food. My brain and body have gone into ravenous overdrive. As I'm spending all day on planes or hanging about in Norwegian airports (Alta, Tromsö and now Oslo), my credit card has been hit with the equivalent of the GDP of a third world country. Happy now, Mastercard?

Mmmm, just spotted a Pizza Hut....lucky I've nearley finished this shrimp baguette.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Final results

Rainer Koch of Germany dominated, and was overall winner, leading Takasumi Senoo (Japan) and René Strosny (Germany) who amazingly finished less than 6 minutes apart.

After Hiroko Okiyama's unfortunate abandon, the women's race was won by another Japanese, Takako Funyama (20th overall). Second place Elke Streicher of Germany was nearly 7 hours behind.

I spent 602 hours crossing Europe, and finished 30th (out of 68 starters), which pleases me given my advanced years and the quality of many of the other runners. Cautious pacing helped me avoid injury.

One competition that I DID win was body fat loss as measured by the MRI docs. I am now officially devoid of all body fat. I solemnly promise that I will never do anything this crazy ever again.

Stage 64 - Nordkapp

Here's me wearing 2 Goretex jackets, a sweatshirt, and 2 other shirts (plus natty homemade legwarmers), and I swear I never broke a sweat. Unbelievably, ski chairlift cold - one guy got frostbite on his nose! I have never experienced such bitter gales.

But the journey is blissfully ended, at the northernmost point in Europe. I feel a little "dazed and confused", but elated at the prospect of not having to tenderize my long-suffering feet again tomorrow.

Celebrations tonight, then a 3:30am departure for the airport. I will be first on that bus.

Finally, a shout-out to two folks who helped me most - my long-suffering wife, who helped me hang in there with daily calls and emails, and Mike, who met me in Sweden with a care package and great messages from Austin.

Oh, and did I mention...I just ran across Europe - WOOHOO!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Before Stage 64...

...just wanted to say...

This has been an amazing 9-week journey which I've been privileged to take. The very best part - the one thing that has kept me going through some very painful and bleak miles - has been the connection to everyone who's been reading this blog.

Every morning, when the 4am alarm goes off, I first turn on my phone and read comments & emails, and on many occasions I swear it has enabled me to face "just one more day" on the road. I didn't want to let you guys down!

So THANK YOU for all the kind words and thoughts, and don't underestimate the power they had over this weary soul.

Gratefully yours, as I head to one last starting line,


Stage 63 - Honningsväg

I can't tell you how good it feels to write 63! Especially after the atrocious day we've just suffered through. Gale force headwinds and rain for most of the day, and even colder temperatures than yesterday. Despite wearing tons of layers, the cold just bit through everything, and then found no body fat resistance. Some aid stations kindly let us inside their vehicles for the first time, but that almost made it harder to return to the Arctic.

Most of the day was spent moving from fjord to fjord. They're beautiful but desolate, and absent sunshine take on a depressing air. We also had to navigate 3 tunnels today, the longest of which was 5 miles long. Very spooky - but at least a break from the wind and rain.

So tomorrow is the final 28 miles. The forecast is for more of the same, but we'll all be relieved to be done by lunchtime. Hallelujah.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Couldn't resist this one...

But seriously - note the orange arrow on the pole - those are what have guided our way across nearly 3,000 miles of Europe.

View of the Sennalandet

Early this morning, before the sun disappeared and the wind began to howl.

Stage 62 - Olderfjord

Our very own fjord tonight! But getting here was a brutal journey. It was 2 marathons plus 5 miles long, on weary legs. The narrow road had plenty of traffic, and rose and fell between sea level and 1000'. And lastly, it was bitterly cold - below freezing with windchill - and the headwind was horrendous. Thirteen hours I'm going to put in the "not fun" column, despite scenery that would've been superb on a sunny day.

But we're here. A salmon dinner was on hand as we finished, and with 2 stages of 50 and 28 miles left, optimism is high. I will be one happy camper on Sunday night.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stage 61 - Rafsbotn (near Alta)

Despite the length of the stage (over 53 miles), and some nasty truck and trailer traffic from time to time, this was absolutely the best day of the whole journey - I'll try to explain why.

It started with sunshine, nice running temps, and gentle breezes. Unlike other previous more changeable days, that lasted all day. The run started out along a beautiful, wide river with barren, stony, snow-covered hills beyond. We encountered several herd of reindeer, one of which decided to run alongside us for a while. Then the river (and our road) headed down a steep gorge for many spectacular kilometers, and we got to watch the white water do its thing.

But as we approached Alta after about 30 miles, things started to change. Pine trees reappeared, farms sprung up, and the microclimate suddenly became alpine (from the Gulf Stream effect, I'm guessing). Flowers and the smell of mown grass. Running comfortably in shorts and T-shirt. And beyond the fairly sizeable town, in the distance, the Norwegian Sea, with fabulous, massive, ice-covered fjords beyond. Even the Norwegians in the group were blown away - it was spectacular.

Our accommodations tonight are good - hot showers and very good food. Two long, hard days still loom ahead, but we're hoping that the good weather holds, because that makes it all much more endurable.

P.S. Marit - thanks for the invite in Alta - no time unfortunately this time, but maybe I'll come back? J-B - seriously, only 5 other ultras!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Norway - birch trees & rivers...

A nice start to the day...

The sky isn't blue much...but the road does go on forever.

Stage 60 - Máze

Just four days left. Today was my 100th Ultra - small potatoes for some of the hardcore folks here, but still a decent count. Or crazy, depending on your point of view.

The day started sunny and pleasant for a change, and stayed that way for a couple of very good hours. Then, despite clouds and cold, we didn't get rained on, and the scenery became quite impressive (I'll post a separate photo). In all, a good day with a finish time for me just after 2pm.

Bridget Jones bit: wildlife - absolutely zero; herring - pickled in mustard sauce; drugs - ran out of calcium, two NSAIDs (sorry kidneys & liver).

The next three days are all over 50 miles - a very long slog, but we've come this far. No whining ... but can't wait to be done.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lapp dancing... the gym tonight? (Couldn't resist that one.) Not quite - right now, these two delightful young ladies are "yoikking", which is pretty cool traditional Norwegian singing / drumming / chanting.

Stage 59 - Kautokeino

Finland's done, and now we're in Norway, our last country. Today was 51 miles of fierce, very cold northerly headwinds accompanied from time to time by heavy rain. Lucky for us it's summertime, eh? It was one of those "I just want to be done" days.

One thing I noticed when we got to Norway - no more pine trees, just sparse woods of silver birch. The landscape is becoming more mountainous and rugged as we move towards fjord country. Rivers are slowly taking the place of lakes in the scenery. I feel there are some hills ahead.

My "Bridget Jones Diary" moment for today: Wildlife - no reindeer, but one husky who ran 5 miles with me; Cigarettes - none; Alcohol - one alcohol-free beer to wash down my jar of pickled herring at the finish (protein, you know).

A slightly shorter 39-mile day tomorrow, followed by something of a gruesome "grand finale" of three days over 50 miles, before the 29-mile jog to the North Cape on Sunday. Feet don't fail me now!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Stage 58 - Enontekiö

Ah, Finland! Home of Nokia and, well, Finns. Mike from Austin is right - they manage to string together more letters than any other nation on earth here. Spelling tests in school must consume reams of paper...but anyhow, I digress.

The day started inauspicious with heavy rain as we were eating breakfast. We started the race on
the Swedish side of a river, and crossed directly into Finland. The rain poured, the wind howled, thunder and lightning boomed. Everyone was cold and drenched - sheer bloody misery for the first two hours.

Gradually it eased up, and as we left the main highway to cross a mountain range via a smaller road, the skies turned blue and the sun put in a welcome appearance. My running felt good today, helped in part by the knowledge that we only had 40 miles to cover, but also thanks to less painful feet.

Today's bombshell is that women's race leader Hiroko from Japan abandonned. (She also had to abandon after 44 days in the last 2003 edition of this race.) She has had bad leg problems for days, and finally was forced to quit. Again, this is so late in the game to have to drop out - very unfortunate. She's being a trooper, but is clearly very upset, especially because she was holding a huge lead over second place on time.

So, just 6 days to go for the rest of us, but 4 of them very long. Norway tomorrow, hopefully with kinder weather? But I'm less than hopeful - it's just started to rain again outside.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reindeer lasagne

When I saw dinner set out tonight, I jokingly said: "Looks like we're having reindeer lasagne." It was in fact just that. And delicious. The rich meat and carbs were appreciated all round - the perfect multiday running food.

The food and the people in Sweden have been great. But the dismal weather, absence of wildlife (except mosquitoes), and the apparent lack of anything much to see or do has left it low on my list of "places I want to go back to". My expectations for Finland and Norway are not set any higher, but I will be delighted to see them both.

Stage 57 - Karesauno

After 24 days, we finally got to the end of Sweden today, with a shorter 34-mile stage to this border town. Next, a single stage through Finland, and then 6 quite lengthy days in Norway.

Finishing is not guaranteed, even this late into the race. Jurg König apparently had heart problems early in today's stage, and had to abandon. So sad and disappointing, with so much distance travelled.

I ran much of today with Christian Marti. Things started well, but we got dismally soaked for the last 10 miles, and I became quite hypothermic. The great news is that his wife Orsele met us at the finish line, and drove us to their hotel, where I was able to get a room for the night. The hot shower I just took was luxury, as was the jumbo-sized bag of potato chips I just ate. Now it's naptime in clean sheets....aaaaaah!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Stage 56 - Övre Soppero

Another "day at the office" completed - it really is beginning to feel like work! Weekend days like today are great - almost no traffic - and no rain either, so just cold headwinds, but much better than yesterday's trifecta of all three.

Fifty more miles disposed of, and nothing more than sore feet to complain about. Not too hilly either. I've opted to camp in the cold tonight, as the gym is cramped and therefore noisy. I'll take my chance with the Himalaya sleeping bag I purloined from my son, Tom (thanks, bud!)

Tomorrow is our last day in Sweden, before a brief sojourn through Finland. I suspect it'll be hard to tell the difference, with almost nothing but trees, lakes, and a two-lane highway. My reindeer count was one today, so no high marks for wildlife thus far.

A quick update on the French runner Fabrice Viaud I posted about yesterday. The staph infection in his hand was very serious. He immediately had one surgery in Gällivare, and will have another tomorrow to remove antibiotic implants. I understand they had to cut away small parts of his finger - a day or two's delay could've been much more serious. I heard he'll be in hospital for several more days. Best wishes to him for a speedy recovery.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stage 55 - Svappavaara

Svappavaara - see what I mean about Scrabble hands? - and that doesn't even include the Lapp version of the name which is usually a few syllables longer!

Today's 47 miles is followed by yet another 50 miler tomorrow. Everyone's decidedly worn out, physically and mentally. It rained, and a strong, cold headwind kicked in for most of the day. Even traffic was surprisingly heavy. But only 9 more days to go!

The bad news is that two more folks had to abandon today. Mike Friedl had fought leg injuries since we arrived in Sweden, and finally couldn't continue. And Fabrice Viaud developed a bad infection in his hand, and has been hospitalized. Very bad for these guys after making it so far. Now 47 of the original 68 are still in the race - but this is a much lower dropout rate than I'd estimated.

And finally, today's wildlife count: zero.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Stage 54 - Gällivare

Another 13 hour funfest just completed, and we're now in the town of Gällivare. This is an iron mining center which had a huge collapse a few years back, right under a section of town. What has been put in its place since is not prepossessing.

In our 60 mile journey today on the E45, we passed through only one small town. That was it. This really is "the back of beyond". The day started with plenty of rain, then heavy, grey skies, and finally a huge downpour to suck any fun out of the last hour.

At the risk of turning into Bridget Jones' Diary ... I saw only one reindeer today, but he was a majestic beauty.

Extremely sore feet today, but they only have to hang on for ten more days. The MRI machine travelling with us has diagnosed them as "very inflamed but no structural damage". But seriously - ouch!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Aid stations

These little setups occur about every 6 miles. Each one feels like you've made good progress. The volunteers are marvellous, drinks are plentiful, but the food has become a little repetitive and uninspiring. Without refrigeration, I find the perishables by now pretty dubious, so to get the calories I need stick mainly to cookies, chocolate and cake. Not too balanced, and after this many days, it's really not as tempting as it might sound!

The race

Here's the incredible 29 year old race leader Rainer Koch from Germany blasting past me on the E45. He's a 2hr38 marathoner; here, he has averaged 3hr30 marathon pace the entire way. He is friendly and modest, and a deserving champion.

Hiroko Yohihama is still leading the women's race, but is struggling with bad leg injuries. It is painful to see her hobbled each day now.

I've moved up to 32nd place overall, which is where I'll likely remain if I'm lucky and have no big problems. This minor improvement is unfortunately not due to another gear I've found, but rather to injury problems of others who were once faster than me.

Stage 53 - Jokkmokk

About 5 miles before today's finish in Jokkmokk, we crossed the Arctic Circle. A Scotsman asked me to take his photo, and then reciprocated. The irony in the photo is the singlet I'm wearing. After freezing further south, we suddenly hit nice temperatures in the Arctic today! Mosquitoes were out in force too, but my repellent is thankfully working well.

Tomorrow is another daunting 60-miler to Gållivare; once we're past that, the last 10 day countdown begins. I confess that I'm ready to be done, as is everyone else I speak to. There are too many hours alone on the road each day when your mind turns to missed loved ones and creature comforts.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Stage 52 - Kåbladis

Well, that was a killer day. 95K - over 60 miles - in a little under 13 hours. Rain at the start, then lots of sun, then heavy rain and hail to finish off the day. I've learned to never hand over my Goretex at aid stations just because the sky is currently blue.

There are some very tired people in the gym tonight - and that doesn't include the slower runners who are still out on the road. The scenery is very fine here, and traffic much reduced. Despite that, there are some very long, straight grinds along the E45 - miles long at times - which are hard on the brain.

We saw more reindeer today. I will take my camera phone tomorrow, as we cross the Arctic Circle about 10K before the finish, and I want to record the moment. Hopefully I'll get to snap some reindeer too. I used mosquito repellent for the first time today, as they're just coming to life big time.

So twelve days to go - five more in Sweden, one in Finland, then six in Norway to the finish. Even though I'm desperately weary, and my feet are tenderized and sore beyond belief, my chances of making it to the North Cape improve with each passing day. Thanks again for all the support and good wishes - it has motivated me, and made a huge difference.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Stage 51 - Arvidsjaur

I slept badly last night due to raging heartburn, which lasted well into the first half of today's 53 mile stage. I've since discovered a couple of other folks complaining of similar symptoms, so maybe it was something in last night's dinner? That's always a very real fear, that some nasty bug will run amok through our weakened immune systems.

But otherwise, the miles ticked off quite well, and I was done in a shade over 11 hours. After aid station #1, I didn't see another runner all day, things have become so spaced out. What I did see though was my first herd of reindeer, about 100 yards off the road. Quite a thrill. The landscape has become more dramatic and interesting - implying, of course, hillier - but with reasonable weather like we had today (no snow!), it was nice to gaze upon.

Tomorrow's stage is an ungodly 60 miles, but at least everything's working for me. A 13-hour sufferfest, with the Arctic Circle crossing to look forward to the following day.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Stage 50 - Sorsele

Today's 45 miles will now be followed by two even longer stages of 53 and 60 miles. These are hellacious distances on fresh legs - in our weary state, they are really daunting.

I ran most of today's stage with my Dutch friend Ubel. He's a former 24-hour champion of Holland, so I have to work a bit too hard to keep up. We were mourning the abandoning yesterday of Jenni de Groot, who had developed a really serious and painful stress fracture in her hip socket. She is a very strong lady, and it was very sad that she was forced to stop after so long.

Like most of us, I'm hanging in there. "Only two weeks to go" sounds much easier than the reality of the distance and conditions ahead ... but the problem has to be tackled one day at a time.

Today's black humor - "How do you know it's summertime in Lappland? It only snows once a day." Yes, snow again - but little rain and less headwinds at least.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Stage 49 - Storuman

Seven weeks done - 15 stages left (7 of them over 50 miles). Today's 42 mile stage became 44 miles, because of a last minute change of accommodation, but worth it because ... it's a hotel! Only 3 of us sharing a room with a shower and toilet. Luxury.

Another very cold day, with rain, sleet and snow thrown in from time to time. Between my circulation problems and my now total absence of body fat, I'm really struggling with the cold. Despite being heavily dressed, I just can't manage to warm up. Even running harder doesn't make me warm. So I grit my teeth and push on. I've heard that the weather should improve in upcoming days, but I'll wait and see. "Arctic Circle" and "heatwave" seldom appear together.

Two things I've seen loads of here in Sweden - vintage American cars in wonderful condition, and trampolines (there's one in almost every other yard). It's odd what you notice when you have plenty of time to reflect.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Stage 48 - Vilhelmina

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this running thing! I made good time today, and had very few problems with my feet, legs and back. I guess all this practice is beginning to pay off?

The day started calm and sunny (by the way, the local paper said that sunrise today was at 2:31am!), but Sweden no longer fools me, so I retained all my warm gear. I was right. Within twenty minutes, the sky had turned dark and the wind started to howl down from the north-east again. There were huge rains all around, but I was lucky and managed to miss a soaking. I ran all day in ski gloves and liners, ski hat, and many layers, and never broke a sweat. The positive thing about this unusual cold spell is that it's delaying the onset of mosquito season, a miserable time especially for me who seems particularly attractive to the little monsters.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Impact on footware...

I said a while back that I'd refrain from posting ghoulish toenail / blister shots. Shoes and socks take a real pounding too. I can't wait to get back to wearing something other than cut up sneakers and vaseline soaked socks.

Stage 47 - Dorotea

Just before the finish of today's 46-mile stage, we officially entered Lappland. No reindeer or people in funny outfits, but at least there was a really big carved sign. Now it truly feels like we're way up north!

To give you a sense of how cold the weather has become, one aid station today was festooned with Christmas decorations - a nice touch! - and snow is apparently in the forecast.

The heavens opened as we went to breakfast this morning, but the rain slowly backed off after a soggy 6am start. As the day progressed, the bitter headwind became stronger and more blustery. Even running on occasional flat bits of road became very challenging. Most people who've finished agree that today's was the hardest stage so far. Tomorrow's stage is a little shorter, but weather is proving to be as important a factor as the number of kilometers.

A number of serious injuries are starting to surface, even this late into the race. Two of the top five in the women's race had terrible days yesterday, and they're not yet finished today. It's so hard to know what to say to them, after they've worked so hard and come all this way.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Stage 46 - Strömsund

Well, that was a very long, cold 50-mile stage we just completed. I layered up and even wore Goretex ski gloves, but biting northerly headwinds, hail and even a little snow made for a very testing and at times bitterly cold day. (One of the Japanese guys ran in a T-shirt - I was almost hypothermic - I just don't get it!) As I've done a lot recently, I ran most of the stage with Christian Marti from Switzerland. We finished in a little over 10 hours, and were quite pleased with our pace.

Last night in Lit was music filled. While we ate dinner, kids from the school performed on a stage - they were really quite good. Then, as we got ready for bed in the gym, a relative of one of the Norwegian runners started playing guitar and singing folk songs...and then switched to belting out some great Janis Joplin. It almost felt like Austin.

Only 7 days to the Arctic Circle! And no, passports aren't required to be shown as we cross European borders (per the Schengen agreement). Very civilized...and reasonable.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Stage 45 - Lit

Today's stage to Lit was a good one for me. The route took us off the E45 for most of the day, and instead we passed alongside a gorgeous lake with snow-capped mountains beyond. Finally we crossed the lake by bridge, to the town of Östersund, the geographic center of Sweden. We are now officially in the north.

The weather is as Mark Twain described New England's - if you don't like it, wait an hour! We had biting headwinds, strong tailwinds, sun, rain, hail, clouds, everything but snow.

The school we're staying at tonight has been very hospitable. I was invited to speak to an English class with a cool teacher, which was fun. One of the students, Richard, proved to be a very accomplished juggler, who entertained us in the gym.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Hackas - the view from our school

Lakes and snow-capped mountains in the distance - but not sure how well they show in the photo. It's beautiful here when the sun shines, but I can only imagine how long and cold the winters are.

I awoke at midnight last night, and it was still light. And we're still a long way from the Arctic Circle.

Stage 44 - Hackas

During today's stage we passed the 3,000 kilometer mark (1,860 miles) - a long way to travel on foot in 6 weeks. Balloons and the mayor of the Kommun were there to mark the occasion - after a quick break, we were soon back to work.

The road was not too hilly, and the sun not too strong; blustery headwinds were the only negative. Off in the distance to the west we could see snow-capped mountains again.

I was done with the 36 miles by 1:30pm. The gym's OK and the showers are hot. It's June finally, tomorrow's stage isn't too terribly long either, and now it's naptime - so life doesn't get any better!