“It doesn’t get any better than this.” I told myself that after awakening in my down sleeping bag in the last stage of the Montane Lapland Arctic Ultra at 5:30 am on the last day about 25 miles from the finish of the 300 mile/500 km event. Twenty feet away laid my new best friend, Marios Giannakou, a Greek countryman who was still fast asleep in his tent in preparation for the push to the finish. We were in the deep back woods of Northern Sweden.
Twilight was on the horizon. Stillness filled the crisp Nordic air. Not a sound could be heard. I had rested well. Now, all I had left a was a “Victory Lap” of about a marathon distance to the end of this epic event. I experienced yet another moment of true Nirvana. To an ultrarunner, this was true perfect happiness in an idyllic environment.
I had prepared myself perfectly for the race, especially after having not finished the Yukon Arctic Ultra one month ago. Only 55 miles in at Yukon, I made an emotional decision (wimped out!) to quit due to a number of negative circumstances. I had to prove to myself, (oblivious to what others thought about me) that I had the mental toughness to finish one of the world’s hardest races in the most extreme conditions.
Consisting of ten roughly 30-mile sections between checkpoints, I decided to really focus on each individual segment instead of the totality of the distance. Moreso, I broke them down even smaller.
I had been talking about race logistics and strategy with my friend JJ, from Estonia, in the previous months. He picked me from the Lulea airport, 90 minutes away from the race start town of Overkalix, Sweden. We spent the few days before the race, going over everything. We ate all our meals together. He even convinced me to jump in the ice-cold water of the Overkalix river, something I hate tremendously. I'm glad I did because it felt great. It also empowered me in that I directly faced one of my great fears head on.
At the race check in, I met up with some friends from Europe that I had met from earlier Arctic ultras (this world is pretty small as one can imagine!) I also met Marios in person for the first time. With his 6’6” frame along with his “entourage” of family, friends and a film crew, he really stood out. After testing out his newly rented race sled in the parking lot, I jumped on it and had him tow me around like he was a sled dog and I was the musher, immediately laying the groundwork for a fun and positive relationship. The cell phones came out in droves to record the lighthearted moment.
I later found out that Mario was a true stud back in Greece. The equivalent to a US Navy Seal, he served two years in the Greek Special Forces as a Frogman. He had also carried on his back a paraplegic woman to the summit of Mount Olympus. Additionally, he has finished several hard-core extreme ultras across the world. I was becoming a little intimidated by his resume.
That night, JJ and I joined the Swiss contingent of Herve’, Patrick, Victor and Michaela in their cabin for a night of fun, frivolity and laughs. I love these guys! They make me want to move to Switzerland.
At the pre-race dinner, there were at least three separate film crews milling about, filming documentaries. I thought, “What the hell have I got myself into?!” So much fanfare.
Come race morning, I enjoyed breakfast in the hotel with JJ and Tibi Useriu. A Romanian and perhaps the top winter ultra-racer in the world, he would be the eventual race winner. We then headed to the start line down on the riverbanks for photos and last-minute instructions. The time had come. No more planning. TIME FOR EXECUTION.
JJ and I had planned on sticking together as much as possible. But he took off ahead at a pace I didn’t feel was comfortable for me. In Ultra’s, one must do their own thing otherwise problems will invariably develop.
About two miles in, Marios and I noticed that we were in perfect chemistry, energy-wise and pace-wise. We started chatting and developing a nice rapport. Not to be cute but it was obvious that we were meant to be together at this time and place.
Arriving at the first checkpoint, we suggested to each other that we stick together for a while since things were going so well. The long, never-ending climb to this point tested us early. We knew though that the hardest part was at the beginning, bringing us great relief. I had to be careful not to overheat while exerting so much energy on this ascent. In the Arctic, perspiration causing wet clothes can lead to hypothermia with the potential to end one’s race.
Probably TMI, but at the first medical check for frostbite by race staff at the CP (checkpoint), I noticed my feet had become exceedingly wet. I was using Sealskinz waterproof socks for the first time. The conditions were too warm and not appropriate for them. I had to fix this problem, or I would develop blisters. I ended up using plastic bags on my feet thinking at the time that water had entered through my waterproof On brand boots and Sealskinz socks when that wasn’t the case. Several checkpoints later, I would figure this out. Later I ditched the plastic bags which had only made the situation worse. Good old thin wool Injinji toe socks with another layer wool sock fixed the problem.
I made good progress over the next 48 km/30 miles to Jockfall CP where I enjoyed a longer break, taking time to fuel up and change socks. From there I would go 31 km/19 miles to the unstaffed Polar Circle cabin.
The next section of 70 km/43 miles seemed to take three days! It took us back to Overkalix, ending the first loop. We could see the lights of town from miles away, but the CP seemed to be moving away from us. It was the local ice arena. Upstairs. And we would find out after taking off our socks and boots and getting comfortable for a nice break that to sleep we would have to go back outside to another building a few hundred meters away! Ugh. None of us were happy. Why couldn’t we just sleep at the damn checkpoint itself? We were weary after a long, cold, very hard stretch. And now we had to trudge back out into the nighttime to go sleep in a gymnasium? Where’s the love? We ultrarunners can be pretty high-maintenance sometimes!
After an attempt at sleep, Marios and I headed back out to start the first section of loop two, 57km/35 miles. By now, the sleep deprivation really had caught up to me. I was a-hurtin'. I was overusing caffeine which only helped for a few hours at a time. Fitness-wise things were going great. Mechanically, I had no issues except for having twisted my left ankle very forcefully after stepping into a deep post hole from someone’s else foot having punched through the snow. I had injured my left peroneus brevis tendon. I would be ok as long as I didn’t allow my foot to twist inward again.
The next segment was absolutely brutal—75 long slow kilometers with a ridiculous final 3 km seemingly all uphill. Then when we arrived at the “village”, it was yet another kilometer to the actual CP. Despite the difficulty, I repeated to myself “You will not be broken!” I had prepared for these situations, and it was paying off. With each step, I empowered myself. I sure struggled though. At some points, I had to “crash” by catching a cat nap on top of my sled. Instead of climbing in my sleeping bag, I just put on my expedition parka which kept me warm enough to catch some Z’s for 20 minutes at a time. I remember once when we were trying so hard to make it 12 more km to the next CP, I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was wobbling like a drunk man, drifting occasionally off the hard pack trail, causing me to plunge into waist deep slow. Not fun when it happens one time. After 20 times, it becomes friggin’ annoying! I wanted to release a cathartic primal scream but instead kept my cool.
People so often ask me why I subject myself to this relative torture. I don’t have a nice concise answer. I just refuse to accept limits. Once I reach a goal, I must seek a higher one. I’m just not satisfied with mediocrity. I cherish the pursuit of improvement. Knowing it inspires and entertains others is a bonus. Also, the delayed gratification and sense of satisfaction upon completion cannot be quantified. I love David Goggins quote of “I’m not crazy. I’m just not you.” I feel the exact same way.
We were held from leaving the Leipojarvi CP for a few painful hours as the race director cleared up a situation with Marios and his friends from Greece who came with him. We finally headed out early in the morning for a fairly short 50 km/31 mile push to Nattavaara CP. By now, he and I had become very close. We had developed a special bond. Though we came from hugely different situations, we were unified and driven by a common goal--to finish this race so as to inspire others to strive to accomplish their personal life goals. We came from different countries and spoke different languages. He was young and tall and not yet with a family. I was old, short and married with kids. But despite that, we were warriors fighting in the same Army with a shared purpose. (I know. That's a little over the top!)
Here we saw Robert, the Race Director. He offered some sage and extremely valuable advice: rest and sleep more and don’t push things. What a great reminder. I told myself to “Chill the F$%K out, Russ!”
I am a results-oriented person. I need to “Go Zen” more (in all other aspects of my life too). If I could just relax in my ultra’s, I’d probably be much more successful. Pro tip: Instead of trying to MAKE things happen, a lot of times it’s better to just LET things happen. I recently read two books by Ryan Holiday which I highly recommend: Stillness is the Key and The Obstacle is the Way. These demonstrate basic Stoicism of which I’ve become a HUGE fan.
I was able to get a decent sleep and put in some valuable calories. The sleeping area was actually a bedroom in a local villager’s house. Marios came and woke me from a deep slumber and said in his thick Greek accent, “Let’s go, Russ.” I wanted so badly to sleep more but I knew I had work to do. I very reluctantly forced myself from under a blanket to re-engage in the fight.
With the bulk of the miles behind us, our spirits climbed. Marios and I had been executing a fantastic race. Things were shaping up nicely for a strong finish.
We had so many fun moments along the way. I teased Marios once when he handed me his Thermos that was frozen shut. I popped it open, handed it back to him and said, “Are you sure you were in the Special Forces? You don’t seem to be so tough to me, big guy!”
We slept about an hour in the wee hours one night in an unmanned cabin at the Polar Circle. Judith, a German runner had arrived 30 minutes earlier and was deep asleep, not allowing the loud squeaking of the cabin door to wake her.
Later we would take a lunch break at another shelter cabin overlooking a lake. We started a fire and enjoyed a warm camp meal while being interviewed by the race film crew. Marios and I took time to really appreciate this time together. Exhausted and weary physically, we both were on top of the world despite this. The scenery was perfect. The shared energy between us was palpable. We were absolutely thriving. I didn’t want to be anywhere else at that moment. I “Was in my element.”
Marios did an Instagram Live post which was viewed by thousands of his followers back home. Soon we were on our way.
The 44 km/27 mile segment to the last CP, Rikti Dokkas was my favorite. Mostly downhill and on pretty good, fast trail, the landscape couldn’t have been more beautiful. This was Swedish Lapland at its finest. Despite several ridiculously long and straight climbs, I remained powerful in mind and body. We minimized our stay at this last CP, sleeping only about two hours by a warm fire with Marios and I sharing a solitary cot in a “69” position. (Sorry about that reference, but we did!)
Leaving the CP, Marios said for what seemed to be the 50th time, “We’re almost there!” After 12 km, Mario wanted to sleep again, and his film crew wanted to get some shots of him by a fire in his tent with the spectacular Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights in the moonlit sky. I didn’t want to stop at all. But it was hard not to take advantage of the perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity in this setting. We ended up sleeping for six hours (!). I awoke to twilight. I wanted to wake Marios and finish off the race. Instead, I just chilled out, taking it all in. I’m so glad I did. I left several hours “on the table” by waiting. I didn’t care. The overall experience mattered far more to me than my place in the standings.
Once up and at it, we maintained our fastest pace. Crossing a road, about 12 miles from the finish, we were met up with a local couple who we had met two days before the start. They had been following our tracker and wanted to see us out on the course in action. We thought that was so cool of them. I really enjoyed connecting with local Swedish people. After the race, they even invited JJ and I to their house for dinner. I had to painfully decline because I didn’t have enough time, considering my plane would be leaving at 6 am the next morning. I very much would have enjoyed that. I wish I had more flexibility in my schedule but I had to get back to work in the Emergency Department back in the US.
Marios became a freak from here to the finish. He was a man possessed. He had hundreds of thousands (that is not a typo!) of Greeks tracking him closely from back home and they were awaiting his finish through social media. I stopped to pee once and Marios told me to hurry up. I told him to tell them all, “The Americano has to pee!” He didn’t find it funny.
Some spectators, JJ and Iida (the hotel manager) and the film crew came out on snowmobiles to follow us in the last few miles. My spirits couldn’t be higher. Now, we really were “almost done” as Marios had said.
We could see the finish line down the river from miles away. Instead of heading straight towards it, the lovely race organizers made us make a wide arc on the river adding on another half mile or so. How nice of them!
Marios and I crossed the finish together with hands raised and fists pumpin’. We kicked ass. We both could have gone faster the last few days, but we didn’t care. We had successfully accomplished our goal and very pleasurably so.
Robert, the race director, placed our coveted finisher’s medal over our heads. And to boot, the local mayor was there to greet us and to give us a nice gift bag. She and her staff had been tracking us as well. I felt so honored.
I would retire to my warm Grand Arctic Hotel room where I collapsed on my bed and just stared at the ceiling. The sense of relief, satisfaction and accomplishment can’t be put into words. After a delightful warm shower, I got dressed then I took an intoxicating 30-minute nap. I went back to the lobby to guzzle a local Swedish IPA (After only half of it, I got immediately super buzzed and euphoric) then devoured a moose cheeseburger and a pile of fries. I finished it off with two orders of local chocolate desserts, still hungry for more.
Other racers joined in for an informal party. I loved hanging out with my Swiss friends again. We congratulated other finishers as they came in off the course.
These moments were some of the happiest of my life: I was with like-minded friends from all over the globe. I had finished another really tough Arctic Ultra (I finished the 330 Mile Iditarod Trail Invitational last year.) This race brought me tremendous pleasure. The totality of the experience athletically, socially and culturally will be hard to beat.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been asked what’s next? In July, I’m going for my fifth (and last) finisher’s buckle at the Badwater Ultramarathon. After that, I don't know. Any suggestions?
P.s. As I write this one week post-race, my appetite has been voracious. Also, I’ve been battling severe insomnia. I’ve not been able to get long periods of restful sleep. This may be from the nine-hour time difference between California and Sweden. It might also be from having only slept about 30 hours over eight days in the race.
When I ran my usual seven-mile loop yesterday, I felt super short of breath climbing a hill and actually had to walk! I felt like there was a seat belt around my chest. My huge foot and ankle swelling just subsided two days ago. (Maybe I need to pick up some other hobby!)
Photos courtesy of Marios Giannakou, Emmanouel Armotakis, Linnea Isaksson/www.followthesun.photography and myself.