- Shaun Marsden
Guest blogger Shaun Marsden talks about his epic adventure Ice Ultra. 230km over 5 days in the Arctic Circle. He came 3rd in very tough conditions. Read about his adventure here!
“Want to run a multi-stage ultra through the Arctic Circle?”, “OKAY!” was pretty much the length of conversation between myself and Beyond The Ultimate’s race director, Kris King. Entry was in, confirmed, and I started to announce it to the world, as you do. Then questions started to come back at me like “How cold will it be?”, “Do you need any special kit?”, “Where will you sleep at night?” Well, I, uh… uuuuuuuhhhh. Hmm.
Having done a few multi-stage events I thought I had this licked and could go into the race with a certain degree of confidence that I knew what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’d never even been in this kind of environment before let alone raced in it! The best thing to do if you don’t know is ask. 2014’s winner Stephanie Case was very patient and gave me some handy tips, the most notable being “put your race snacks in the freezer and see which ones are still edible.” Of course! Your food freezes when it’s exposed to temperatures of -20! The next few weeks were spent eating frozen sugary snacks all in the name of research. Frozen biscuits, nuts and high fat chocolate seemed to be par for the course. I won’t bore you with all the details, but give me a shout if you want to know what worked and what didn’t.
I know a grown man getting excited at the sight of snow is ridiculous, but on landing at Lapland Airport I pressed my face to the window of the plane and shouted “SNOW!”. Of course it’s snow you idiot, you’re in the ARCTIC CIRCLE. Even ultra legend Mimi Anderson let out a yelp of joy at our surroundings. So there.
The coach journey from Gallivare to the start was the first time the whole race had been together in one place. The first thing you notice is the absolute masses of kit everyone has. At 10kg I worried that I had overpacked and was a little on the heavy side. There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief when everyone discovered they had similar weighted packs. Race briefings and kit checks done time to hunker down for the night in a tent with 6 other blokes. This first night taught me a valuable lesson - if you don’t want it to freeze it goes in your sleeping bag. Putting on cold clothes and thawing out your trainers isn’t much fun first thing in the morning. Or at any time.
Although still covered in snow the first 8 miles are quite easy because it’s on road (and it’s the first 8 miles). It doesn’t take long until you’re on the soft stuff though. Unusually warm temperatures (-8) meant there had been snowfall overnight. Fresh snow is not the easiest thing to run in, especially when it comes past your knees as you step in it. There comes a point when you have to make the decision to stop sinking up to your junk and bust out the snow shoes. This is not a decision taken lightly as I had only tested them out running on sand, for 4 miles. 4 whole miles and I was absolutely shagged. The entirety of the rest of the race would be spent in these clodhoppers.
There are two notable climbs on Stage 1, both of which bring you out on a high exposed peak. Being high up in this environment is not much fun. That’s where the wind lives. Wind and cold do not mix well together on the human body. When all this is going on it’s easy to lose perspective. During the MdS someone told me to turn my head torch off during the long stage and look up. I’m so glad they did, it was incredible. On this freezing cold windy ridgeline I remembered this, stopped and took stock of where I was. Such a hostile environment but what an absolute stunner! The snow being whipped from the mountain top by the wind and swirling in the sunset; an image that will stay with me forever. The final 4km of this 50km stage is all downhill into the treeline where warmth awaits. 9 hours to get to this point shows just how tough going the course was and my legs were tired but this downhill section felt like I could run forever. A warm cabin and hot food awaits at the bottom.
Stage 2 saw the front four set off 45 minutes after the rest of the field in an effort to bring everyone in closer together. The unstoppable Robbie Britton ran with myself, Austin Jarrett and Mimi Anderson for the first mile then it was obvious he was getting cold and had to speed up. The wind on the open lake was bracing and with visibility down to 30 metres we soon lost sight of him and his footprints. Coming through a wooded section we had our first taste of overflow while crossing another lake. Overflow occurs when the ice on the lakes cracks and water sits on the surface. The water is insulated from freezing by the snow on top. Wet feet in freezing temperatures isn’t much fun. Snow sticks to your trainers building larger blocks of ice on your feet. Melting opportunities wouldn’t be until the next checkpoint 12km away.
Stage 3 and another warm (-10) night meant crossing another sketchy frozen lake. In true Marsden style I managed to put both legs in the water up to my knees. The brilliant crew from Exile Medics were waiting on the other side to check us over but not wanting to stop I ran straight through with10km to the next checkpoint. Everything from the knees down started to freeze. I don’t mean a bit chilly, I mean actually freeze. It was becoming quite painful. No choice for it but to press on and get to the CP as quickly as possible. 90 minutes of being a gibbering wreck and I had never been so pleased to see a Sami, medic and race director. Amazing what a change into dry clothes can do in an environment like that. Just 20km of frozen lake (without overflow - yesss!) remained. Watching the light disappear behind the tree line the landscape completely transformed. Now running in the dark it felt like I was the only person on the planet. It felt incredible. I couldn’t soak it up too much as I felt a bonk coming on. Time to get to the finish.
Stage 4 and the end is in sight. Get through this and there's only 15km to go - I could drag myself through that. The announcement of a shortened stage due to a thawing lake was met with relief and gusto. Signs for Jokkmokk (our final destination) started to appear on windy trails through the trees and even the odd siting of someone not involved in the race! We were getting close now, you could feel it. In all this enthusiasm I forgot to eat. How do you forget to eat?! The start of a very hard bonk was starting to happen. That’ll teach you to forget the fundamentals, Marsden. Some emergency biscuits and I was flying again. By ‘flying’ I mean a 15 minute mile, but it’s all relative.
Overnight the temperature plummeted to -1000 degrees. I know this isn’t possible, but it felt like it. A rough night’s sleep didn’t matter as there was the simple case of 15km to get through. Beer and crisps and warm toes waited at the finish line. That was all the motivation I needed - go get it done. The final km into Jokkmokk was on road. ROAD. Sweet beautiful blissful amazing hard road. Snow shoes in hand the entire Beyond the Ultimate, Exile Medics and Sami team were at the finish line going absolutely nuts to cheer you over the line. The adventure was at an end, but what an adventure!
At the start of all this I felt my experience gained in other races would be enough to carry me through. I made many mistakes along the way which meant I learned many valuable lessons in the process. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, they are inevitable. Take the experience gained in one race into the next. Never stop learning, never stop growing.