Beyond the Ultimate Ice Ultra by Jon Shield
I hate tapering, something just doesn’t feel right when I’m doing very little before a race. The excitement and anticipation consume me. I’m obsessive.
Finally, it’s happening. I’m on my way to Manchester airport having had an hour’s sleep ahead of a long day travelling. Three flights later, a stay in a hotel, a three hour train journey and I first meet up with the other runners for the coach journey to the start of the Ice Ultra.
I love the initial meeting, everyone sizing each other up, wondering what each and everyone’s backgrounds are. There are some particularly interesting people in my race this year. All have different reasons for being here, but one common goal is to complete/survive this brutal race devised by Kris King, Race Director of Beyond the Ultimate. Soon the ice is broken, and everyone is chatting away getting to know each other, the only thing to linger is the obvious nerves. However, in these moments I know I have made friends for life.
We arrive at the Mountain Centre in Stora Sjofallets. Rigorous kit checks are carried out ensuring everyone has the correct kit. It would soon become apparent why this is so vital. Our race brief was given, and we settled into our first taste of the Arctic life, eating our freeze-dried meals and then heading for our first night’s sleep. I say sleep but in reality, there was very little sleep. The accommodation was a tepee, I had a reindeer skin for a mattress which was about half my length laid on the snow and I really hoped my sleeping bag was up to the job!
After a truly long night, I was glad to be up and eating breakfast (freeze dried porridge with strawberries) and about to start stage one. Walking up from the tepee to the Mountain centre it became very apparent how cold it was with my hands becoming excruciatingly cold in the five minute walk. Temperatures could range between 0 and minus 40 degrees.
Stage 1 was 50km following some of the famous Kungsleden trail. Initially lulled into a false sense of security with 12km of icy road, progress is fast even when carrying a fully laden backpack. The backpack weighed roughly 9kg with all food, extra warm clothing, and medical kit for the full five days.
It wasn’t long before realising my first issue when the insulated water bottles had frozen so I couldn’t drink until the checkpoints. Not ideal. We then started crossing frozen lakes and the snow underfoot became heavy. Snowshoes needed to be worn and they remained on my feet for the rest of the race. My balaclava had frozen rigid, my eyelashes were freezing, and it was only getting colder with increasing elevation into the remote mountains, temperatures dropped to – 36. It was nice to finish the first stage, reaching a remote hut with no electricity, just a very welcoming stove in the room to keep warm, dry clothes and rehydrate the freeze-dried food for dinner.
It was obvious when other runners started to filter through to the finish that the day had taken its casualties. One runner had succumbed to hypothermia and the medical team decided to have him airlifted to hospital.
Another person had been rescued after pressing their distress signal on the tracker we were required to carry. The local Sami team had reached her within 6 minutes on a skidoo and got her to safety.
Several more dejected looking runners returned completing the stage but obviously broken, the cold and slow-going terrain taking its toll.
Stage two was more of the same, similar elevation but over 43km. There was a particularly aggressive climb for around 8km through deep snow. This was draining, moving slowly, not able to get any forward traction. As I Ieft the tree line and continued to climb, a blizzard hit with high winds. The powdered snow was thrown everywhere, and visibility become incredibly difficult in white out conditions, not being able to see the next marker post just meters away.
I didn’t dare stop; I could feel the cold, although I was comfortable as I had correct clothing and layering. I knew it would be a mistake to even try and take a minute to remove a glove and get some nutrition inside me. If I lost a glove in these conditions, I’d be in real trouble. Pace was slow with conditions under foot so I thought my needs for hydration and nutrition were less than warmth and safety and I could address this at the next checkpoint.
The climb seemed to go on forever but eventually visibility cleared, and the route started to undulate down. Arriving at the checkpoint was a relief, after this it was straight forward through forests gradually descending in a beautiful winter wonderland. This was the last of the mountains but again they took some souls.
Stage three was the shortest stage and what people thought might be a slight break in the brutality of the race. Stage three had other plans. It was a shorter stage just 43km, minimal elevation, easy right – wrong! The relentless interchange of woodlands and lake can become mind numbing. I always preferred the woodlands because they had more interest, twists, turns, some small elevation changes. The lakes were more tedious, feeling like you’re going nowhere fast. The powdered snow was the main protagonist for stage three.
The lakes were hard going, traction was poor and the snowshoes couldn’t cope well and continually sank into the snow at some points knee deep. Hitting the final lake of the day, it was just 21km to go, I’d made good time out front and was hoping I could put my foot down and extend the lead I had over second. I soon realised this wouldn’t be the case. I ran but was hardly moving. Approaching the final checkpoint, I’d been slogging through the powder with minimal effect. After the final checkpoint conditions worsened and it wasn’t even runnable, an awkward hike to the finish with occasional running on better surfaces when possible. Stage three… my hardest stage, done and with a decent lead.
I shared a wooden hut with a wood fired stove that night with the racers in the other top positions. Everyone shattered, but what a bunch of guys they were. Laughing in disbelief at the stage and how hard it was then the occasional reminder from each of us tomorrow is the long 65k stage. We have just been destroyed by 43km, how are we going to deal with that? We all laughed nervously but we knew now that getting through tomorrow meant we should all complete the race with the final stage being a 15km short stage.
Stage 4. I woke feeling great. I had a fire in me. I wanted to go and dictate the day and dominate it. Firstly, I thought lets listen to music for the stage. I put my wireless headphones in, battery fully charged, 8 hours of battery, I thought I might have to go an extra few hours without battery but what the hell, motivational music, get in the zone and smash it. Suddenly before the start of the race, “low battery” then dead. I laughed, let’s do it the hard way Jon. We started and I began to build my lead. Before the first checkpoint I was dropping second overall, and I felt good. Passing through checkpoint one I had built a healthy few minutes. This was it, time to push on. I kept a steady pace running the whole stage.
Underfoot was nowhere near as bad as I expected compared to other stages, so progress was easier and quicker. The weather was also warmer. I kept my nutrition as a priority, drinking calories and eating calories every 20 mins and it worked well, no loss of performance, just relentless, steady forward progression. 9 hours 50 minutes later the stage was done, the easiest and best stage of the event for me solidifying top spot with just the 15km tomorrow. It felt awesome. People steadily came in as darkness had descended. The mood had changed to elation with people knowing whatever happens they’d be able to get through tomorrow.
Stage 5 felt like a carnival atmosphere between myself and my fellow competitors starting in the arctic circle after obligatory photos by the sign.
We had gone through hell to get to this point, and all had to dig deep finding what we were made of. A mere 15km, no one was worried and the thoughts of burgers, beers and an evening meal, a hot shower was more than enough to entice our battered bodies to the end. I ran the stage with second and third place overall and we chatted, having a really nice run to the finish, crossing the line together, a fitting end to an amazing experience.
That evening we enjoyed time with the amazing team who had looked after us throughout from race organisers who did an incredible job, the medics who treated us and the local Sami people who worked tirelessly sometimes 20 hours a day making sure the route was safe and responding rapidly for any potential emergencies on their high-powered skidoos. Without all these people these events simply wouldn’t be possible. They have my utmost respect and gratitude. Should you do an event like this? Absolutely!
Editors note: Jon won the overall Ice Ultra this year. He won in 32 hours 54 mins with Lenka Vacvalova coming in second and Thomas Curran coming in third overall.