The Ice Ultra, or ‘From the Sofa
to the Arctic Circle’
We were bundled from the finish line to a warm log cabin where the medics fussed around us and wrapped us in heavy coats. They knocked the ice off our snowshoes and opened the frozen buckles. I was spent. Completely feeble. My brain wouldn’t process what was happening anymore and when they tried to tell me where my bed was I couldn’t understand. One of the race team took me by the arm and led me to it. I struggled straight into my night clothes and crawled, shivering, into my sleeping bag on top of a reindeer skin. For the first time that week I left my water bottle in the cold where it froze solid; I didn’t dry my race kit. I didn’t care.
Go back 14 months and you’d find me sitting in the warm comfort of the office facing a laptop with the sign-up page for the Ice Ultra on the screen. I had no place signing up for something like this. I was ‘sturdy’. I had passed my twenties in a blur of lager, cheap vodka and punk gigs. Somewhere in my mid-30s a sudden sense of self-preservation pushed me to take up running but I’d only just got to a point where I could drag myself through the occasional five to 10km jog and I was still fuelled predominantly by late night kebabs.
The Ice Ultra is a 230km foot-race through Swedish Lapland on the other side of the Arctic Circle. This self-supported, multi-stage monster of a race pits a field of 25-30 runners against five days of wind-scoured mountains, snowy pine forests and frozen lakes in temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees. I would have just over a year to change my life. I set aside my tankard and spent the year studying gear reviews, speaking to past runners, marching for long days in the Peak District, lifting weights and running. A lot. In a year I lost 15kg and ran my first half marathon, marathon and competitive ultras. In late February 2017 I flew to Sweden and travelled to the start line in the north of the country with my heart in my mouth.
Stage one began with relatively friendly conditions, a mild breeze and manageable temperatures. As we pottered along the opening 12km of gently undulating tarmac road, the last solid surface, besides the frozen lakes, that we would run on until the finish line, it was easy to believe that this race may not be as hard as we thought.
Around 13km in such thoughts were dispelled. We climbed to an exposed plateau that seemed to go on forever. The howling wind cut to the bone and whipped up the snow, bringing visibility down to little further than the next trail marker. It was the surface of another planet and we were not welcome there.
The wind had pushed the snow into small drifts in places but stripped rocky ground bare in others. The cold had also frozen the buckles on the snowshoes meaning that taking them on and off took a frustrating and possibly hypothermia-inducing time. The going was painfully slow. As a totally green runner you look at the people around you for some stability at a time like that but everywhere I looked people were tense. Hours passed like this before we reached the largest climb of the race lying between the final checkpoint and a warm bunk.
My nerves were jangling and it took very little persuasion from the medics at the final checkpoint to get me to team up with another pair of runners and take on the ascent as a group in the rapidly deteriorating visibility.
An hour later the wind was screaming and I had my shoulder braced against it, laughably attempting to take cover behind a marker post about three inches in diameter. My hands and feet were numb. As the pair behind me fell over in the snow for the dozenth time, I looked at the horizon. Through the furious white-out, I could just make out the jagged outline of distant hills in the final glow of the sunset, could just hear my new friends’ exasperated cries over the howl. It was pure Hollywood. It looked like the end of the world. I imagine most people encountering a warm log cabin at the end of a long Arctic day are relieved but few can have been more so than the group of runners huddling around stoves at the end of that day.
The next day began with a stunning sunrise that painted rainbows in the fine ice crystals whipping around our feet. The mountains, such a source of misery the previous day, provided a beautiful back-drop. We were hiking through the Arctic Circle and it was brilliant. We chatted and smiled and showed serious signs of enjoying ourselves. Some of us even took time to take selfies out on the ice. In the markedly more pleasant conditions I found that my legs were still feeling pretty good and I put in a stretch of running over the last few kilometres which felt fantastic. Something people say a lot about this sort of race is that 90% of what is required is mental toughness. That training alone will not be enough. In many ways, they’re right, however, if you’ve trained enough to keep a good pace going then you can limit the amount of time you are exposed to the elements and maximise your recovery time.
It was only mid-afternoon when I reached the cabin serving as the day’s race HQ at the end of stage two. This left enough time to dry all my clothes, eat a hot meal, take a warm shower, arrange all my kit for the next day, do some stretching, fit in a long nap on a sofa and then pile in another hot meal. This was ideal as later that evening we were evicted from this luxury condo and sent out into our tents to sleep for the night. The temperature fell to minus 22 degrees. We all slept poorly on the cold, uneven ground. Those out on the course until dark got no real rest at all.
Stage three began in similarly sunny conditions and I headed out at my top military marching pace expecting a repeat of the previous day. From the middle of the stage onwards we were on a frozen lake that stretched further than the eye could see. It was broken in the middle by a checkpoint but appeared to be an endless sheet of ice. This made any sense of scale and distance impossible. After walking for a while I looked around and realised that I still couldn’t see the other side of the lake. A short while later I looked up again and realised the checkpoint behind me didn’t seem any further away. I kept my head down a little longer before looking around again only to find that the mountains to my left and right looked exactly the same as before. I forced my head down, fighting the urge to take in my surroundings, and made lists in my head of things I would do when I got back, keeping my brain busy. I looked around – I hadn’t moved. Someone had put me on a treadmill in the middle of the arctic and I couldn’t get off. A very jittery version of myself crossed the line that night, feeling physically strong but mentally starting to wear.
Sleep deprivation and calorie deficit have a profound effect on you. Sitting on the floor in the corner of temporary race HQ on the morning of stage four I could attest to this. My mind went back to the overwrought state I had got myself into on the lakes the day before and to the runners I had seen suffering with hypothermia and frostbite and I suddenly couldn’t get out of my own head. My mood had dropped through the floor and I found myself afraid at the start of the longest stage. I had tears in my eyes as another kind runner talked me back round to sanity.
I buddied up with another runner early on. Maritz and I had shared accommodation the night before and we both seemed to need a little company. We dug in for 64km in snowy conditions. From the start to the 50th kilometre was a cycle repeated between checkpoints. We would leave a checkpoint buoyed by a couple of hundred calories in snacks and march off at a storming pace, chatting and telling stories. Somewhere around half way to the next checkpoint our tanks would run dry again and it would take some concentration to keep the pace up. Maritz and I would then take it in taking turns leading the other. By the last kilometre before the next checkpoint we were back to marching quickly, determined to get to the next source of warm water and to take in some more food.
From CP5 we entered an undulating, twisting trail through pine forest and hit softer, deeper snow that robbed us of all our momentum. Darkness fell, our pace dropped and frustration levels grew. Finally, we emerged, shattered, from those woods and stood at the edge of the final lake crossing. It was only 500m but we’d been warned that there were patches of standing water on top of the ice. When temperatures have fluctuated, the solid ice can be covered with a layer of melt-water. As snow falls on top you get a thick freezing slush hiding under inches of white powder. It was like entering a mine field.
The first time my snowshoe broke through into the icy sludge I snapped my foot up out of it so quickly I almost fell in. The slush froze immediately on contact with air, dragging the now much heavier appendage straight back into the mire. An age passed like this and the head torches of the race team at the finish line swept around us watching our painstaking progress. Cut back to the start of this article for the bit where I had to be helped from the finish line to my bed. Even in the heated tepee that night, wearing all my clothes, I shivered in my sleeping bag.
I’d held a romantic notion from the beginning that Stage Five would be a victory lap. A showboating opportunity. It was only 15km after all. But I was spent. My food supply was gone as was my energy. Four of us teamed up and limped along together nursing swollen ankles, gammy knees and sore hips. It took over three hours to come in sight of the finish line.
In the last 100 metres the whole race fell away. The frustration, fear, howling wind, endless ice all began to break loose and evaporate. Adrenaline coursed through me and I broke into a run, crossing the line and falling straight into a bear hug from race director Kris King, the sadist who put me up to this challenge in the first place. I was handed a beer and ate a whole rotisserie chicken with my bare hands in the small square in the centre of the small town of Jokkmokk. People strolled by going about their day-to-day business casting an occasional glance at the hobbling, Lycra-attired strangers laughing around a roaring fire in the middle of their Tuesday.
I came sixth and was first Brit over the line. I’d done what I set out to do and much more. The Ice Ultra was an incredible race in an area of stunning natural beauty and, despite the intensely hostile conditions the race team made us all feel well looked after. Even at the hardest times I still felt lucky to be in that place. Still, despite the medal and the photos I keep seeing of me out in the snow, I’m still struggling to remember exactly what it felt like to be out there; totally exhausted and exhilarated. So much so that, even as my body complains about what I made it do, I am planning the next adventure.
If there’s one thing I have taken from this journey it is a total certainty that all people are capable of awesome things. I am not unusual or brave or naturally strong or anything other than an average man and I had an adventure in the arctic. As far as I’m concerned that opens this sort of thing up to anybody. We can all do anything we want.