After a hard race in America it was now time to head off to Finland to compete in Rovaniemi 150. This is a 150km arctic winter race run in the wilderness surrounding the City of Rovaniemi. The course is a mixture of frozen rivers, tracks, forest roads and frozen lakes.
My preparation for this race was less than ideal having only returned from America two weeks before and my husband Andy having to endure eight days in hospital for treatment of his frostbitten foot. Even until the day before we were due to fly out I was not entirely sure if we were actually going. There was no way Andy could race and this had a huge emotional impact on all of us. There was nothing I could do or say to make him feel better and I just felt guilty and tried to avoid the subject of the Finnish race, which is difficult when you are busy packing your winter gear and fatbike!
We had a very good journey up to the Rovaniemi and because we had taken Andy’s parents with us we treated ourselves to a nice hotel. The Porohovi was also where the race event centre was. This was very useful for pre-race brief, kit check and the start and finish of the race. Our room was huge which was very useful for sorting out my kit and building my bike.
The Friday before the race was due to start was fairly hectic as we had a scheduled visit to see Santa and I really wanted to go and have a ride on the river to see what the snow conditions were like.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can never fail to be excited about visiting the real Santa in Lapland. After some photos he wished us all good luck and sent us on our way. I suppose he’s a very busy man. We still had some time before the bus was due to take us back to the hotel so we took the opportunity to go on a reindeer sled ride through the forest. It was a very civilized way to travel and I was starting to wonder why on earth I was embarking on another crazy long distance snow race. I think I need my own reindeer!
All too soon I was stood on the frozen river waiting to get going. I was fairly nervous but I also really wanted to get this race done so I was fired up. The temperatures were warm at about -1oC so I had altered my clothing that I had worn for Arrowhead.
Ready, steady, go! As ever, the pace was fast but the river was riding really well and it soon became apparent my tyre pressures were too low. I did have a little practice ride the day before but now with my bike fully loaded I needed more air. I was so cross with myself and unsure what to do because I had locked horns with an Alaskan lady and I didn’t want to pull over and pump up my tyres. The checkpoints on this race are fairly frequent and I had altered my Garmin to kilometres so we soon reached Checkpoint 1 at the 10km mark, but yet I pushed on.
I tried to hold her wheel but she was so strong and I was starting to overheat. I had already removed my hat and buff and unzipped my jacket. This was a long race and I wasn’t planning on stopping so I decided just to ease off slightly, but it was awful watching her pull away from me.
After the river we ended up on a forest track where the snow was much softer. For once I was glad I had not stopped and added more air to my tyres as my bike snaked and squirmed beneath me. I just kept telling myself to relax and pedal smoothly and I was soon overtaking a lot of the men who were also struggling with the snow conditions. Before I knew it I had reached the second checkpoint. I was actually making really good progress, which did loads for my morale.
The next section I was dreading. During the brief, Alex’s words were, “This bit will be shit for the bikes.” It was a section of steep, winding singletrack that eventually dropped onto the lake. I was still feeling upbeat as I thought, ‘Come on. It’s the same for everyone. I bet the Alaskan is not crying about it.’ It was tricky and sometimes the snow was up to the top of my thigh. I had decided to take a gamble on my kit because of the warm conditions and as a result my bike was so much lighter than in previous races. This certainly paid off through the woods because I was fairly nimble with the bike and could easily pick it up to get round the narrow trees. I took a few tumbles, but there was no real drama, and I soon reached the shores of the Lake Sinettajarvi .
The lake rode really well and I still perhaps should have stopped and pumped up my tyres but I was now riding with some of the Italian racers and we were trying to figure out a song we all knew so we could have a sing-along. The atmosphere at all of these races is just phenomenal and even with language barriers you still come away with lifelong friends who will always have a special place in your heart.
The lake was about 11km long but we soon were riding past the ice hotel and had reached the far shore where much to my delight Andy and his parents were along with many other race supports. It was here I eventually decided to pump up my tyres. Andy stood over me with his hands firmly jammed inside of his pockets as no outside help is aloud whatsoever. I was so happy to see him enjoying himself. He had built a fire in the shelter and was cooking reindeer sausages and warming hot juice on the fire. It was quite a little party with many nationalities such as French, Dutch, Spanish, and Finnish there, supporting their riders.
After a big hug it was time to get moving again. My heart felt a little lighter seeing Andy with a smile on his face. Over the next hours I rode and pushed my bike through various terrain. The scenery was just stunning and with the different conditions rarely did it become monotonous and some of the descents were huge fun, if a little scary in places. The volunteers at checkpoints were so friendly even though not much English was spoken. One chap tried to make me sit by the fire and eat some reindeer sausage. It was tricky trying to explain I was racing and didn’t want to stop, though my body would have appreciated a sit down by the fire.
I was now at the highest point of the race and approaching the halfway checkpoint. For the bikes this is the slowest section of the course as it is very high up and the snow tends to blow, covering the track and making this a bit of a slog. It was just starting to get dark but I could see that everyone had been pushing their bikes, and I knew that the middle checkpoint would be a refuge with a fire. This is the only checkpoint throughout the entire race where you can get inside and escape the elements. I had already decided that unless I was actually on my knees I wasn’t going to stop. I was hoping that the Alaskan racer had stopped and was perhaps slowing down a little.
The refuge looked amazing, so warm and cozy with a big fire roaring in the centre of the cabin. I think the lady thought I was totally crazy when I checked in and out at the same time. I knew had I stopped it would have cost me at least an hour. It was now totally dark and I was plodding on looking at the beam of light cast in front of me from my head torch. The next section was slow going, but I knew there was a fast section of road coming up. Just keep it moving, every step was a step in the right direction, and I had passed halfway.
I was getting a bit lonely out there and it felt like it was midnight even though it was only about 8pm. Then I heard voices coming out of the darkness. It was Andy, Maria, and some of the other supporters. Hooray, at last I had reached the road. I stopped to eat, drink, and add some air to my tyres. I had been pre-warned that this section was quick so make the most of it.
After a big group hug, it was time to get back on it and I was actually riding my bike very quickly. I was very aware of my lack of helmet as I flew up and down ice-covered roads but I was making progress so that was worth celebrating. The van full of the race supports pulled alongside with lots of cheers and whoops then all too soon it pulled away and I was alone just surrounded by darkness and my own thoughts.
My Garmin clicked over 100km so to celebrate I stopped to have a caffeine gel and a big drink. I also treated my backside to some chamois cream. It’s all about little treats to keep you going. The road section was all too soon over and I was back pushing my bike through soft snow. I am normally absolutely fine on my own in the dark, but I started to see things and a couple of strange shapes in the trees made me jump. I had been on my own for hours and I was tired and could feel my tempo slowing down. I don’t normally wear an iPod but I knew some of the terrain would be very testing so I had shoved my Shuffle into my pocket. I am too ashamed to admit to the cheesy rubbish I listened to, but it helped pick me up and push on again. After what seemed like a like a lifetime I had reached the next checkpoint.
There was just 25km to go to reach the river. I was starting to believe I could do it and with a mixture of pushing, riding, and falling off I was finally heading downhill to the river. I knew once I was on the river it would be flat but I may have a headwind. So close, but so far away; the amount of snowmobile traffic on the river during the day had turned it into mashed potatoes. It was awful to ride on and the headwind was testing too. For a moment I just wanted to curl up and have a little cry but that wouldn’t get me closer to home. ‘Come on, Jane! Quit your moaning and get this done.’
Eventually I could see the final checkpoint. They had done a wonderful job of making it welcoming with a big fire and candles in the snow. ‘Just 10km left now! Let’s go!’ It was a slog and at one point I got so disorientated I almost went down the wrong fork in the river. I had to use the last of my strength to concentrate and soon I could see the lights on the bridge and Rovaniemi in the background. It was like Elephant Lake in Northern Minnesota all over again with the lights never getting any closer! At last I was scrambling up the snowy riverbank because I didn’t have the energy to ride it.
I had made it! My eyes struggled to focus in the harsh light of the hotel foyer. My family had waited up until stupid o’clock to see me home. It had taken me just over 18 hours to get round. I never did manage to catch the Alaskan lady so I had to settle for second place again. She was so strong and I think doing Arrowhead only two weeks previous was a bit ambitious.
I know many are curious how the Rovaniemi 150 compares to the Arrowhead 135. Though they are both winter ultras, Rovaniemi is a very different beast to the Arrowhead. Although historically the Arrowhead is a much colder race, you have the nice warm checkpoints to look forward to and your drop bag. For me personally, I broke Arrowhead down into small chunks, checkpoint to checkpoint, and also managed to carry a smaller amount of food with me. In the Rovaniemi, you don’t have your drop bag to look forward too or grilled cheese and soup at the halfway point. You are out there for the entire race and have to carry all of your food, but the distance is shorter.
Neither race is easier than the other. They both have massive challenges you have to overcome. But what is the same is the power of the human spirit, whether it’s other racers, family, or the army of volunteers that make these races what they are. Yes, I did hurt out there, but I have come away with some amazing memories and friends for life that nobody can take away from me.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER
Jane Chadwick rides a Beargrease and works at All Terrain Cycles in the United Kingdom. She and her husband Andy have been known to take some pretty terrific cycling road trips.
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