Touted as the world’s toughest ski race where competitors traverse 160km over three days in a magnificent, rugged and unpredictable landscape on the west coast of Greenland. On 31 March 2017, 209-230 brave Nordic skiers took to the start line scheduled from March 31- 2 April, for the 21st running of the event.
Located just above the Arctic Circle, Sisimiut is the second largest town in Greenland next to the capital city of Nuuk.There are no roads connecting them so inhabitants must either fly, snowmobile, or use dog sleds for transport. The ACR are run by volunteers, many of whom spend days out at the camp preparing for the participant’s arrival.
This is as much of a psychological test as it is a physical one. Over the course of the day we ascended over 2,500m (8,200ft) of total climbs, spending a night in a tent with temperatures dropping around -25c to -34c and consumed food in the camp that we had to prepare ourselves.
Each competitor must carry a backpack containing a survival kit – including foil blankets, whistle, first aid kits, warm kit (top, bottoms, hat, gloves etc.)
and 24hour emergency rations. Once the athletes arrive back at the camp after each day their larger luggage is available with various clothing, sleeping bag, food etc that they have packed. The main camp is on a lake about 45-minute snowmobile ride away from the town, and the competitors’ luggage are transported to the camps by a piston bully towing a 20ft trailer.
There are drink stations approximately every 7-11km ‘ ish ‘ along the course where athletes are greeted with cheers, smiles, a warm drink, stickie’s and a check by the doc- in case of frost bite etc.
The outward travel journey.
This is a three-plane journey to reach the town of Sisimiut situated on the south-west coast of Greenland, the starting and finishing point for the Arctic Circle Race.
London >>>> Copenhagen >>>> Kangerlussuaq >>>> Sisiumut
Traveling can be very stressful, perhaps even more than a lot of one’s training. Therefore, it is important to manage this stress and minimize the impact it might have on your performance. Everyone is different but what works for me is to consciously go from “control freak” mode that works well for day-to-day training to a much more relaxed “whatever happens happens” mode whilst traveling. so it is best to concentrate on relaxing as much as possible and making good decisions along the way. So, put some time buffers into the travel schedule, take reading material, some headphones, and take an interest in watching what’s happening around you to make the best of a fundamentally stressful time.
When we arrived we was greeted at the airport by the ACR Team and finally located to our dorm. we had chosen to stay in a student typed accomodation sharing a open plan kitchen and lounge area. We was introduced to a man called Klaus Jeckel whom was also staying in the same block. Turned out this man was a bit of a legend and was on his 16/17th ACR. wowzers.
Build up training
As any experienced endurance athlete will know, developing a robust peaking program for a race is critically important. In-experienced athletes have great difficulty with this because it takes time to discover the type of peaking progression that works best. And “best” is a very individual thing, a thing that requires some experimentation. Having been active in competitive endurance sport for many years, The Dream team and I pretty much figured out what type of peaking program works for us as individuals.
Now arrived in Greenland’ we were on a wind down from training volume and intensities but focusing on acclimatizing to the weather conditions, the cold and elevation of ground. Keeping to slow endurance ski training and maintaining this till our feet were on the start line. I would recommend to stick to easy skiing but this however isn’t the case or an option as we were surrounded by a mountainous land so we had to embark over “some hills” to give our lungs and bodies a taster of what was to come during the next few days. As training draws to a close we spend a lot of time finishing final preparations to kit packing, waxing skis and relaxing.
The Team are a mixed ability and all preparations have now been completed. Tomorrow is the big day and we are all anxious. I feel fit, well rested, and ready to attack the start and accelerate on the climbs- hopefully with good results but more importantly to complete the challenge. Not only was I feeling fit, I was mentally strong. I was ready for this and couldn’t wait to get started. In the back of my mind I knew this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park and You can never under estimate what possibilities could happen out on the ground so I will be chipping away each day to the next.
My plan was to go out steady for the first day to enable me to find a comfortable, sustainable pace in order to survive the following two days.
An early morning start. Nerves soon set in and signs of a harsh beginning with temperatures dropping, fresh snow and high winds setting in. Lasting all day, I must add. with more than 35 different countries competing within the race we was up against some very experienced, professional cross-country champion skiers on an equal footing with amateur skiing enthusiasts. this was going to be interesting.
What a new and exciting experience. The start with a massive countdown before the race begins, along with the masses of cheering locals chanting and singing songs as you pass through a small loop around the main starting area before heading out up in to the mountainous wilderness. this loop having a short steep downhill to aid with some laughter and enjoyment to locals as competitors fall or stumble on the ice-y corners. people are all over the place and the initial roar giving you that initial adrenaline rush. the packed start soon thins out the main field as we encroach on to the beginning of hills and you soon find yourself often on your own as the field spread out or other times when a string of racers trailing on your tracks just behind you. Realisation then hits home that this is serious and this is it, leaving normal civilisation behind. The Arctic Circle Race has begun.
The ski trails were marked with flagged bamboo sticks, and signposts along the route which tell you how many kilometers you still have left to the next drinking station and to the finishing line of each stage.
At the drinking stations competitors' numbers would be registered and noted down. It was recommended that you drink as much fluid as possible at these stations and fill up any other thermos bottles you may be carrying. Don't forget your cup and bottle! – otherwise you won’t be drinking anything, they do not provide cups or throw away containers.
At these drinking stations, energy drinks, biscuits, chocolate and an encouraging word awaits you by cheering Volunteers.
Day one was an eye opener and being caught in a storm most of the day wasn’t what I was expecting. A heavy wind picks up making everything harder for every skier, visibility is low and makes it hard to breathe properly. A struggled plod up a lot of steep mountainous terrain meant that technique soon went out the window. I adopted the regular herringbone slog up very steep climbs, which allowed us to cover these areas effectively. At some point I lose sight of the markers as wind blows snow in to my face, making the flags hard to see. I steer off course slightly downhill and notice as I rectify my route but find myself falling into deep snow. I shake myself off quickly but this still freezes my jacket within minutes, limiting my movements for a while until I build my rhythm up once again. Conditions are tough!
When you get to a certain level of fitness, it can be very enjoyable but nothing prepares you for the extreme weather conditions. Fitness robustness can only carry you so much, but mental strength will get you through. I knew my body was fresh and we had only scratched the surface to what was to come. Even if your body is whining but determined to push on through discomfort, sometimes a distraction can work wonders on the mind.
Race Day 2
The legs are tired and its a cold morning, knowing what lies ahead for another gruelling day.
First part of the day was a battle. Not only had we Woken up to temperatures that had plummeted to -34C, I seemed to not be gliding far and with other competitors passing me with such ease I was “working my arse off” to keep a reasonable pace. I couldn’t keep it for much longer, I was drained and it took a lot out of me. I found my-self at the back of the pack. I was so frustrated as I had no glide or much stick. That’s Not what you want. I kept going as I thought my technique may have been poor due to fatigue so id focused on my weight transfer but nothing helped. Enough was enough, I spat my dummy out and finally remembered I kept a lucky (-32) Klister spray for emergencies. A thin application of this bad boy and I was away. With all the work I had been putting in during the morning and not getting far, I can now feel the power driving me forward. Still the glide was pants but I wasn’t going to complain as I was away and in a happier place.
Probably one of the only “flat-ish” areas of the course was down along a shaded valley, of which was very cold. The snow made it tough going and I felt like I was hardly moving. At one point my eyelashes started to freeze badly that it is was a massive effort to keep my eyes open. Let alone wearing a face visor and buff to take the chilly wind off my face, I ended up blinking excessively to prevent my eyelashes freezing up.
A lot of the time you are on your own and you think about a lot of things, riding the train of thought. Times when its only you and your thoughts – thinking about family, friends, mundane things, reviewing situations, focusing on the finish line and trying not to dwell on the extreme conditions and what your putting your body through. I continued to chip away at parts of the course, mainly focusing on one feed station to the next. Breaking the overall distance into manageable chunks and with natures views are a happy distraction making me forget about the tired body for a short while.
On-route of the final 15k was a 10 kilometre ski around the frozen lake where a last checkpoint awaits you just before the dreaded “Killer Hill” (Ironically actually named Killer hill, due to previous deaths) and a 5k route towards the finish line. The long steep slog up this mountain side was a gruelling one. I was focused and pin pointed some fellow skiers in the distance and I hounded down the next as I pass them on the way up. Some have given up or have taken off skies to walk up the 65%+ graded slope. I feel strong and keep powering on past others with minimal participants coming down the route I had just done. I was greeted by a fellow team member only to discover he and a lot of others had been pulled off from the race. I panicked and the thought of being pulled off throws me mentally. I feel for the others as it’s a big kick in the teeth to put your body through these harsh extreme conditions to be pulled up so close to the finish line.
“Think positive thoughts” a positive mantra can help. By repeating “I can do this” changes the way I was thinking, repeating it to myself to build my self-confidence to drive myself back on track, focusing on the race.
The finish-line greeted us with a big spread of local delicacies, from dried Caplin and codfish to whale blubber, smoked musk ox and whale meat. An un-usual post-endurance protein munch from my normal choices but a well-earned and refreshing treat.
Race Day 3 (last day of the race)
With two days of racing leaving the whole-body sore and with heavy legs, although everyone is tired there is no holding back on the last day. This is the final push.
51k to go to finally complete the 3day challenge, this was the day where it emotionally and mentally hit home that “I’ve done it”. Although still in a race and to keep pushing but to remind myself where I was and to take in the amazing sceneries and mountain ranges. I realise what we have put ourselves through and managed to achieve. It brings a smile to my face.
Hearing the crowds from a distance uplifts you as we start to see the odd house/cabin and civilisation, echoing within the valley alongside the mountain. The tease of thinking the finish line was just round the corner to find out a loop backed on itself and carried on a further 15 kilometres. A pain in the arse but I didn’t mind, the end was so close now and the roar of locals cheering competitors gives you a big boost of energy/ fuzzy feeling as you descend down from the last hill and reach the last long stretch over the finish line. It’s very overwhelming being greeted by so many.
I had done it.
Greenland is a remarkable place and yet little have witnessed the beautiful landscapes. Although in a race id have to remind myself to take in the surroundings, mountain ranges and views as we went along rather than head down and go for it. This had been a very exciting adventure and remarkable journey Physically and mentally. I have met some amazing and interesting people, creating some great friendships. Who knows when I would be out here again to witness this great country.
You should want to get out there and take on a tough challenge.
When was the last time you did something you thought you couldn't?