August 17, 2019
43 km, 2100 m gain
Södra Årefjällen, Sweden
(Maybe more for those of you not familiar with the race)
KIA Fjällmaraton 43k has to be called the most prestigious of the mountain races in Sweden – it’s been around for 10 years (an eternity in this context) and consistently attracts very accomplished runners, not to mention the fact that it takes place in one of the more well-known parts of the Swedish mountain range, just a stone’s throw away from the town of Åre. It’s an A-to-B kind of race, starting in Vålådalen and ending in Trillevallen, after traversing three peaks: Ottfjället, Hållfjället and Välliste.
We’ve been suffering from legit fomo previous summers, when witnessing the ongoings through social media, and decided this summer, we’d join in. The 43k distance acts as the grande finale after a whole week of other races, this year offered as a Tour concept, with added up times and an overall male/female winner at the end. We were indeed a little bit tempted to sign up for the whole tour, but considering the fact that we had Ultravasan 90k just 2 weeks later, we opted out. We did, however, meet and hear of some runners doing both – extra kudos to all of you!
A short recap of the training leading up to race day would look something like this: steady, solid training all of winter, spring and early summer. A few weeks of cross country skiing broke up the monotony in February and March, and some minor aches and pains had us throw in some easier weeks in late spring. We’ve been very consistent with our long runs, never letting a single week go by without at least 1 session of 30 or more kilometers. We threw in a 45k training run in February, did Aros Marathon 50k in the beginning of May, ran Jättelångt 70k mid-June and did a 45-50k training run weekly for a month after that. All this long-distance focus was maybe more a product of preparing for Ultravasan than Fjällmaraton, but hey – it wouldn’t hurt there either. It has worked wonders with our mental and physical ability to handle extended time on our feet – our joints aren’t hurting at all now (and neither were they after UV), which is a massive difference from last year, and our minds aren’t getting overwhelmed in the same way as they used to. We thank the long run consistency for all of this!
Getting lots of elevation in is tricky for us, because we live in a pretty flat place, so we typically manage to get around 1500-2000 meters of gain per week. Peanuts to some, a lot to others. Everyone just has to work with what they have on hand – and with a touch of creativity, you can chase your meters almost anywhere! If you, like us, have to do repeats a lot – remember how much this will strengthen your mind. Repeats up and down small hills aren’t fun. At all. Going through with them anyway is where it’s at. For Stockholm based runners, we’d highly recommend hitting up the Stockholm EcoTrail 45k course for an unusually hilly long run. It packs 1000+ meters of gain (easily upped even more if you do for example the Haga hill multiple times), and we do at least parts of the course almost every time we have business in the city. That’s probably enough as far as the training. Did we call this a short recap? Oh boy.
We took the train up to Åre on Thursday (race Saturday) and had plenty of time to settle into our little place we rented (Airbnb, close to the church in town) and even watch the sprint event that same afternoon. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, with balmy winds, clear blue skies and 19-20 degrees C. However, we ran into trouble in the evening, when Mike discovered a big red rash around a tick bite. After a quick consultation with Sophia’s mom (who’s a registered nurse), Mike did the video chat with a doctor-thing and got a prescription for antibiotics immediately. There was apparently no question this was a likely case of Lyme disease. Alright – off to the pharmacy we went to pick up the pills, and we couldn’t help but to laugh at ourselves. I (Sophia) had been struggling with bad back issues the whole week leading up to the trip, and now this. Our team (as we had signed up as a mixed duo for the race) certainly didn’t look too strong.
We decided to keep our spirits high anyway, and ended up having both a lovely evening and a great day all of Friday. Again, beautiful weather. We went for a nice 30-min shake out run in the morning, had ice cream with and got a huge boost of energy from friends, cooked dinner and watched a movie. Oh, and somewhere in here we picked up bibs, prepped our packs for the race and did all of that. Mike wasn’t really feeling sick at all, and the back issues at least weren’t getting worse, so we never contemplated not racing. We had just adjusted our expectations.
The next morning, we got up fairly early to have time to have a relaxed breakfast before leaving to take the organized bus transfer from Åre to Vålådalen, where the start of the race is. When we got there, we went through the now normal but still awful onset of race nerves, did some warm up and stretches… and then, off we went.
The race starts off on this old track, and it felt like a relief to finally be running. The air was a little cold and humid, due to fog, but no colder than shorts and tank feeling just right. Stretching out the legs was amazing – after all the drama in the past few days, the nightmare scenarios you play in your head, the worries about our respective physical conditions, it was so nice to just run. It didn’t take long before most of those negative thoughts had been left behind, and we both pushed onwards at a good pace. After half a lap on the track, you start to go up. After a few kilometers of road (which is nice and wide, so it’s easy passing if need be), the course turns into narrow and technical trails, continuing up until you reach the top of Ottfjället (8k into the race). We could tell we were making quite good time here, and no back issues were making themselves felt. I was, in other words, in heaven. As per usual, we’re stronger uphill than downhill, so as soon as the long descent towards Nordbottnen started, we were passed by a few men. But – since we were running as a duo and technically only competed against other duo teams, we felt very relaxed as far as positions and what others were doing. For the first time in a while, our focus was where it should always be but has trouble staying: on our own race.
At around 10k, though, Mike hit a rough patch. He lost all his energy and felt a little sick. We both got scared it had something to do with the Lyme disease, and slowed down significantly. The problems continued all the way down to the 16k aid station (Nordbottnen), and didn’t seem to want to go away at all. We chugged onwards, slowly, and after a half hour or so, started talking about a potential drop out for Mike. I was feeling very good and would continue, but at this point, it just seemed the rest of the race would be a very long and quite painful journey to the finish line for Mike. We glanced at the course map (neatly printed on the bibs) and concluded there was an aid station (Ottsjö) at 28k, where Mike could probably quite easily get a ride from by someone. That became the plan – just make it to Ottsjö and then let’s call it. We chugged on and on, as we were moving through beautiful forests and then up towards the tree line again and the Hållfjället peak thereafter. Some parts were not runnable here due to incline, so we did a good portion of power hiking, but most was still very inviting to run. Dry for the most part as well, making it easy to move smoothly. Gorgeous views all around us and much clearer weather as we reached the top, but in all honesty – we were mostly focused on getting to Ottsjö here. The second long descent of the race was very runnable and kinder on the legs than the first one.
And then we finally came into Ottsjö. Wow. The atmosphere here was nothing short of phenomenal. There were so many people out, busy clapping and cheering and saying “heja heja” as we made our way up the killer hill (no, we didn’t know about that one!) that eventually gets you to the tent with the food and drinks. We felt like superstars there, pushing with our hands on our thighs and breathing heavily, and got such a massive injection of energy we can’t thank you all enough. It was incredible. And something all of a sudden shifted in Mike. It was quite amazing to witness the change that took place in him there and then, both mentally and physically. I was ready to find him someone who could care for him and then take off, but instead, Mike glances at his watch and says “give me 1 minute. I really want that medal”. Somehow, we were still within the men’s medal time of 5 h 30 min, and it seemed Mike didn’t want to throw in the towel just yet. He downed an impressive amount of liquids, put everything he could find in his mouth, wiped some sweat from his face and said “let’s do it”. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. You want to continue? Indeed he did. So off we went, and the slow poking from earlier was nowhere to be seen. We trotted on at a good pace along the road up from the aid station, and quickly found a nice rhythm when the course dove into the woods again. Slowly, it started to go uphill, we felt strong enough to push past some other runners, and maintained a steady pace along the technical and very pretty trails taking us up to the 34k aid station at Ytterstvallen. Here, we both went for a handful of potato chips and then back to it. As we reached the tree line for the third and final time, we were in race heaven. Clear blue skies, a beaming sun, unbelievably beautiful surroundings. Awesome runnable trails, despite it still being uphill, and a good feeling in all of our legs.
Once you have less than 10k to go, doesn’t it just make it feel so doable? The single digits really propel you forwards, wouldn’t you agree? We could both enjoy ourselves so much here, when making it down a very steep passage before the last hard push up to the last peak: Välliste. Here, a wonderful man greeted us with chocolate balls (which we actually said yes to – talk about living on the edge for us picky race-eaters!) and then, well, then it was time to just let the legs fly down the last descent to the finish line in Trillevallen. Now, we thought we were legit flying and clocking such fast times – turns out that wasn’t really the case, but hey – what can you do. Your brain is a bit mushy at this point. We had almost made it all the way down when I did a classic ”Sophia” by taking an epic fall. Full throttle ahead, still a little downhill, and then a typical trip-on-my-own-ankles type of deal and through the air I flew. Landed in what must have been a very interesting and quite demanding position, judging by the placement of the scrapes and cuts, but I was back up in literally a second – Mike never even had to stop, coming from behind – which can be equally explained by severe calf cramping (you just have to put your feet down!) and eagerness to get to the finish line. The last 2k after that took what felt like forever, as the course snakes its way through the woods and you can hear the festivities and the speaker, but not see them. When we went through the pre-chip-reading-thing, the speaker announced – to our immediate surprise and joy – that we were first duo team! Ha, we didn’t see that one coming but yay, so much fun! We crossed the finish line hand in hand after 5 h and 14 min, getting those precious medals after much battling along the way. We were handed some nice chocolate truffles as a prize, and went to the medical tent for some patching up thereafter. Food, drinks, some interactions with very nice people (thank you so much to those of you who said hi after seeing the Live Slow Run Far name on our bibs – you made us infinitely happy) and then… well, it was time to head back to Åre. We got a ride from KIA, the main sponsor of the race, which had provided electric cars for shuttle purposes.
First, a note on Mike’s condition: what we believe happened, had nothing to do with Lyme disease. We think that we pushed (for us) hard on the first climb, and that Mike went a little too far over his limits right there and then. Instead of combating that in the normal way – by replenishing fluids, calories and just gathering yourself – he (and I) got scared and turned passive. He didn’t take anything in, more or less, until the massive refill in Ottsjö, which – of course – would make most people feel like they’re going to crumble up and pass out. Considering that he bounced back so quickly and has felt no symptoms ever since, we’ve concluded that the Lyme disease probably had very little to do with his physical condition. Possibly, it lowered his exertion tolerance that day – but the biggest impact from it most likely came in the shape of the mental stress it caused.
With all of our ups and downs and considering everything, we are beyond stoked that we could make it to Trillevallen together, and even get those medals around our necks. Winning a race together was also a first, and something we’re of course thrilled about (but hey Fjällmaraton, why aren’t you doing podiums for the duo categories? We’d like to argue it takes a lot to run together, since you have to deal with double the dips!). Overall, it’s a wonderful race. The course is magnificent, it gets you up to the mountains in the summertime, the organization impeccably professional. The offerings at the aid stations were generous, the food at the finish delicious. We only have good things to say. The only comment would be… when do you introduce a longer distance? We’d be the first ones to sign up. If you haven’t tried mountain running yet, maybe consider it. We promise you’ll never regret it. (And if you do, please feel free to blame us.)