So after 14 months it came and went in a blink of an eye. Rovaniemi 150 has been on the cards for a long time now. I’d built the event up so much in my own mind that before flying out I wondered if it would even measure up to my expectations. Could it be all it was meant to be or would it be the biggest anti-climax this side of the Northern Hemisphere? Well I’m glad to report that the whole event surpassed all of my expectations in good style. The day before the race was a busy one. It started with a bit of bike fettling before walking into the town centre to meet our fellow racers and board a bus bound for Santa’s Village. Obligatory group photographs with the big fella and beard maintenance discussions aside it was back to the hotel for a bit more bike fettling. The afternoon brought about the mandatory gear check over at the hotel. Survival gear accounted for, all the participants got comfy for what would turn out to be a 3 hour pre-race meeting going through the logistics of the race, how not to get lost (follow the sticks), how to stay alive (follow the sticks) and the area’s of the route that we need to pay attention. As I sat in this room looking around at all the accomplished athletes from all over the globe something suddenly dawned on me. Me and Paul were the only ones in the 70 strong room with a pint of ale in our hands, at least we giving the event due reverence. The morning of the race found everyone in good spirits down on the frozen lake that was to be the start line. I thought I’d have been more nervous but I was just looking forward to getting the wheels spinning. A few handshakes, photos and good luck pats under my belt the horn blew and the race was on. Well for some it was. The racers went off like a rocket and judging by the final results pretty much stayed at that pace for the rest of the day. Within a few minutes I found myself in the middle of an ever expanding field of racers. As everyone stretched out gaps appeared and by the time I rolled in to the first checkpoint the horizon had swallowed up all but a couple of people both in front and behind me. As I rolled out of the first checkpoint little more than 40 minutes into the race a smile spread across my face. I was here. I was keeping a pace that had me well inside the time limits and the pressure of chasing time limits totally disappeared. I could actually start to enjoy it now! Paul must have been a couple of places behind me at this point but I knew we had different strengths so figured I’d be seeing him soon enough. I’d spent so many hours training alone in the past year that the tranquillity of this frozen lake suddenly made me feel totally at home. I was riding on my own into the Arctic Circle with nothing but the sound of snow crunching under my wheels to disturb the serenity. Happy days. As the kilometres rolled under me the trail turned from Frozen lake to snow capped roads before being thrown onto forest trails. The scenery was absolutely stunning and I slowed to take a picture… bang. First lesson of snow club, it might look solid but it isn’t. The winding trails that navigate the forest are about 5 foot wide, compacted to a degree but you’re still riding on top of 4 foot of snow. Step outside of this invisible trail and you standing on 4 foot of fresh powder. Well you’re not actually standing; you’re just lying on your back with a 70lb bike on top of you wondering what happened and how you’re going to get up. That first Kodak moment was a hard first lesson. After swimming back out to the trail like a beached whale and getting back on my bike I must have managed about 10 foot of riding before I was making snow angels again. This experience was not a rare one and as the race continued the continuously varying trail condition kept you guessing and constantly trying to put you on your arse. This was going to be a long race. Checkpoint 2 ticked off and I was soon dragging myself through the long section of 3 foot deep un-rideable powder. We’d been warned about this section and knowing it was going to suck any which way I just soldiered on with the intent of total stubbornness. Maybe my long legs helped but it really wasn’t as bad as was made out. It certainly wasn’t bad for the young man who smashed it past me. On foot and competing in the 66 north he had no mandatory gear and was making the most of running with nothing more than a small backpack on. Before I knew it I was falling out of the wood onto another frozen lake and once again heading north. Trying to make the most of the Sinnetajarvi lake I pushed on enjoying the fast pace it provided whilst trying to catch the young whipper snapper who had raced past so enthusiastically. Considering we were over 20km into the race this lad was going well and it seemed like an eternity before I approached and then finally passed him. The lake once again turned to road and as I day dreamed along Paul, with all the cunning of a fox just graduated from the university of Cunningness, suddenly jumped on my rear wheel like a small child jumping out from behind a tree. Not quite sure how I didn’t see him coming but I think I must have been in my own nirvana. We rode together towards the next checkpoint with me making a little headway on him every time the snow got deeper and my 5” tyres and slender figure danced over the snow leaving him sinking behind. We met once again at checkpoint 3 taking the opportunity to re-fill water and get a little food down our necks before heading off. At this point we were over 44km into the race and feeling okay so didn’t want to loiter too long at check points. The plan was to build some time and have a decent break further down the trail. We left together but once again the varying trail conditions played to our different strengths and weaknesses and I was riding alone once more. One of the other riders Oscar, with an even bigger tyre girth than my own caught and then left me behind feeling like Paul. I was starting to get my head around to the different trail conditions by now and understanding when to push, when to ride and when to fall. My only mantra going into this race was one of ‘just keep moving’. This turned out to be quite appropriate and I was soon starting to enjoy the change of motion between walking, riding, carrying and pushing. When it got to the point you had to push your legs where ready for a little stroll. A little later they felt better for being on the bike spinning again. En-route to checkpoint 4 my abs and lower back started to feel the strain. I hadn’t really done any real training other than just riding my bike for long hours and I started to realise working on my core strength would have been a massive help. The crumbling trail conditions under your wheels meant you were constantly changing your body position, moving your centre of gravity and shifting your weight in a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place with Indiana Jones crossing an ancient and collapsing stone bridge. This wasn’t just a case of bang it in the easiest gear and twiddling away. When I dropped into checkpoint 4 it couldn’t have come fast enough. I was starting to flag and needed to get some proper food inside me. I was nearly 60km into the race and had so far survived on trail mix and chocolate. As I drew into the checkpoint Oscar was already warming himself by the fire and I pulled up a pew and prepared one of my de-hydrated expedition meals. Simon dropped in a short time after letting me know that Paul wasn’t far behind. These little checkpoints were like social hot spots. You’d been out in the wilderness on your own for hours then bam, you’re sat with fellow riders chatting shit and eating cake. Life was good. Oscar made his way off just as Paul rocked up so I decided to have a longer break and set off with Paul once more. By the time we headed off Simon had already gone and before long we were dragging our bikes through the forest again. After crossing the bridge of doom unscathed we were back dragging through 3 foot of power (We’d been warned about this after a previous competitor a year or two back had slipped and fell into the icy waters and had to be evacuated in a pretty sorry state). Before long Paul need to stop to sort something out and I needed to keep moving to maintain some warmth so I was alone yet again. The dusty single track leading into checkpoint 5 at 69km was a rare and lovely ride. More akin to something you might find in the Peak District. I dropped into checkpoint 5 just after the sun had set and found a fire illuminated Simon keeping warm in the pit. Not wanting to loiter we both decided to push on to checkpoint 6 at 80km. Checkpoint 6 was a small wooden cabin and seemed the ideal place to take an extended break, get some proper food inside you and maybe have a little sleep if needed. It was past the halfway point so it kind of made sense. We’d catch up with Paul there. After a 1km or so I left Simon behind to deal with a call of nature and carried on whooping like a little kid at some of the best riding of the whole race. Proper singletrack, proper fast, downhill, sketchy enough to enjoy it without totally stacking it when you remembered you’re riding a full laden 70lb bike and blasting along with no helmet. I blame that singletrack for my up and up-coming downfall. I passed another rider, Harold, on this fast section and breezed into checkpoint 6 like John Wayne. For the last 5km I’d been hatching a plan. As I was feeling good I didn’t really want to have a big break and certainly didn’t want to sleep. Checkpoint 7 was only 35km further and the biggest gap of the whole race. I figured if I could push on in one hit I could rest there and would have 115km under my belt and be well on the way to finishing the race. I made my way into the cabin with the food I was going to munch through and took a seat by the open fire. This place was too inviting, I could see why so many people succumbed to resting here. I tried to keep jittery so not to get too comfy. Simon walked into the cabin just at the point Oscar started to tell us all about how bad the next section was. I remember the words horrific, awful and painful before I decided not to listen any further. If I didn’t go now I’d be here for hours. Sat by the fire is also when my race head came on. I’d never wanted to race, I just wanted to finish but here in the warmth of the cabin I realised that with the field spread out the chances of catching people on the trail were slim but I could make head way by not resting as much as everyone else. I might not be the fastest but I’m happy to suffer. That was enough motivation as I needed. I stood up and announced I was heading back out, ignoring the looks of bewilderment and turning on my heels with a little smugness about me that I’d just jumped three places up the rankings. Out on the trail Oscar’s premonitions started to come true. It didn’t seem to be long before the trail became un-rideable and I was pushing. The footprints in front of me highlighted the frailty of the path and the fact that most of the riders had been pushing as well. I tried to ride a couple of times but soon realised it took more effort to pick myself up after sinking through the surface than to just keep walking. So keep walking I did. It was around about this point, probably 83km into the race that I realised my mistake. I was that keen to get out of the last checkpoint that I hadn’t replenished my water bottles. Bollocks. I checked the three 700ml bottles to find two totally empty and the last one down to about 500ml. Double bollocks. Swearing at my own stupidity I carried on with the intention of trying to conserve what water I had by limiting my intake. I knew there was quite a big road section before checkpoint 7 so thought how hard can it be? The problem with this terrain is that some sections you can make good head way on and then one 2 km stretch can drag on for hours. That’s what this section was. Except it wasn’t 2km, it was 8km. I was never concerned because I knew I had my stove and the means to melt some snow and make water but I didn’t want to waste time if I didn’t need to. This section seemed to go on for an eternity, I plodded along looking at the animal footprints and wondering what wildlife was just off the trail looking bewildered at some randomer pushing a bike through the middle of nowhere. Eventually the trail opened up on to the road and I was once again making good headway. At this point I should have got the pump out and increased the pressure in my tyres to drop the rolling resistance and increase the speed. In my sleep depraved and malnourished body I decided it was too much effort. It’s funny how your mind works when you’re goosed. Eventually the road turned to forest trail and I knew I was on the home stretch to the next checkpoint. The next 5km were probably the hardest of the entire race. I was dehydrated and hungry as I’d stopped eating in an attempt to not dry my mouth any further. When I dropped into the checkpoint I was gone. I pulled my bottles from the bike along with a load of food and sat down by the fire shaking and hungry next to another rider from Catalonia. Enric by comparison looked fine as he chopped his Chorizo and had a smoke. He might as well have been having a picnic.
After drinking a couple of litres of water and consuming a good amount of food I realised I was just not warming up. I couldn’t stop shaking and I had a decision to make. It was time to get the sleeping bag out, warm up and have a rest. Once again with my brain not firing on all cylinders I instead came to the conclusion that it was better to just carry on. I was only 35km from the finish and there was two big lake sections to go along with a bit of back country road so I knew the pace would be ok. I’d just warm up out on the trail. Enric and I left together and within a few 100 meters the trail broke down and I was riding where Enric started to sink. I praised my big tyres and checking he was ok carried on spinning out in an attempt to warm up. Within a few minutes the warmth returned to my bones, the food hit my belly and water nourished me and I was feeling on form again. Well as on form as you can be after 15 + hours of riding. The next 25km seemed to fly by with Enric and I constantly playing cat and mouse. I’d take him on the rough sections only for him to catch me on the lake or road again and power away. The last trail section was absolutely beautiful like a little present dropped in front of you to not forget this place and come back soon. By the time I finished the last section I crested the hill looking down on the frozen lake that was the only thing between myself and the finish line. Looking back I could see Enric’s light in the distance growing. I knew he’d have caught me on the lake anyway so enjoyed the moment and waited for my new comrade to join me. We dropped on to the lake together and rolled into the final checkpoint just 11km from the finish. A quick water refuel and we were away. We kept pace together with him just a few meters ahead goading me as I knew I just didn’t have any power left in the legs to go past him. The decision to stay together came to fruition as half way down the lake Enric’s light broke down and left him darkness. Luckily I had a spare light with me so we were soon rolling again. The lights of Rovaniemi seemed to tease us for ages with a determination to stay in the distance. Looking down at my GPS I knew we were on for a sub 20 hour race if we could just keep pace. I must have decided it was achievable then not about 20 time before rolling under the bridge near the hotel at 04:40 and the realisation that we’d done it sank in. We stopped before coming off the lake to congratulate each other and rolled up to the hotel in tandem. Riding through the hotel lobby seemed surreal after being out in the wilderness for so long but here we were. We both stopped at the door to the hotel meeting room, the official finish line of the Rovaniemi 150 race, and as true sportsmen neither of us wanted to cross the threshold. After you, no after you, no really I insist, no go on, you first… I had no intention of taking a place in front of him as he’d have taken me on the lake if we raced so eventually he stepped into the room with my right behind him to finish in equal time. 19 hour and 45 minutes. Job done. After staying and chatting for a bit I headed back to the hotel, grabbed three showers (yes, I was that bad) and came downstairs at 06.30 just as they started serving breakfast. Throwing a host of meatballs down my throat I strolled back into the darkness with one of the biggest apples you’ve ever seen. After eating chocolate and energy gels for 20 hours you crave something healthy! I walked back over to the hotel and race HQ to try and find out where Paul might be. I wanted to catch him at the finish if I could but wasn’t sure if he’d stopped to rest somewhere on the trail. Race HQ told me he’d left the final checkpoint over an hour before so he should be finishing any time soon. I headed back into the lobby and sank in to a comfy settee and waited for the big man to fall through the door. I didn’t have to wait long and at 06:54 he emerged from the darkness and crossed the line with a finish time of 21 hours and 54 minutes. Total respect. The race is one of the best things I’ve ever done on a bike. Certainly the most challenging and a year ago, hell even a week ago I’d have questioned if I could even achieve finishing within the 42 hour time limit. But finish I did. I’m always my own biggest critic and I have a way of rationalising things and making things out to be less of an achievement. This does kind of feel like an achievement but the hard work, pain, wonder & fear disappear as soon as I’ve accomplished something. That’s what I thrive on. That’s what pushes me to achieve things in the first place. On that long stretch of frozen lake to the finish I was already thinking about what comes next. What’s harder, what’s longer, I want more suffering! What I do know is that I want to keep the momentum going, this last year has been great and I’ve done some truly amazing rides and in a lot of ways have seen as much in the training as I did on the race. So for now I’m plotting, always hatching a plan, always dreaming of what’s to come.