2019 NIAR, PART ONE
One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Dinotopia, a fantasy about dinosaurs and humans living in harmony in a beautiful, hidden country at the end of the earth.
Defined by steep mountains and pristine rivers, it was the place itself, as much as the aspirational portrayal of a diverse, peaceful society, that captured my imagination. But even as a child, I knew that visiting such a place would be impossible; that it only existed in the pages of a book, and in the intangible dreams of a naïve boy.
As I got older, the vivid images of this special place faded, overwhelmed by the reality of my day-to-day existence, of growing up in a world where everyone seemed out for themselves, where seemingly nobody got along, and where people regularly mistreated, maimed, and destroyed the earth’s special places.
It may be a stretch to compare Scandinavia – and especially Norway – to the imaginary land I had created in my head as a child, but after spending the past 10 days hiking, biking, and paddling through its mountains, rivers, and fjords, I can assert that at the least, my long-dormant visions of a peaceful utopia with otherworldly scenery have been vividly revived.
Chaos Machine Adventure Racing, comprised of my wife, Kate and myself, plus Evan Moreshead and Rick Keilty, chose the 2019 Nordic Islands Adventure Race as its premier race of the season because of its reputation as a well-organized race that prioritized racer experience over an old-school mentality that ARs should be sufferfests with impossible cutoffs. In its inaugural edition, racers traversed the Baltic Sea from Sweden to Finland, completing an urban navigation and Red Bull-style obstacle course, a long open water crossing to the fabled Aland Islands, a remote swim-run, and fun-looking biking on well-maintained forest roads. They were put up in style at swank hotels in Stockholm and Turku and enjoyed a literal cruise back from Finland to Sweden after the race.
Three weeks before the race, which had been locked on our calendar for the better part of a year, Rick –the team’s lead navigator – got scary news that his pregnant wife had to stay on 24-hour bedrest until the baby was delivered. Rick was out. We sent out a flurry of emails in a panic, desperately looking for a last-minute replacement. Fortunately, we found Kit Vreeland, a tough racer from Vermont with impeccable navigational skills. Despite it being only her second expedition race, Kit jumped in with eagerness that manifested throughout the race as a selfless, open-minded willingness to put the team first.
With only a few weeks between adding Kit and our flights to Europe, the team was relying heavily on the two full days to be spent in Are, Sweden before the race to sort out team roles and discuss organization, logistics, and strategy. However, our pre-race experience was to be a stressful one, as our bikes were delayed for more than 30 hours by SAS, who seemed to have a very laissez-faire attitude about delivering them despite increasingly urgent calls from the very helpful race staff, led by the indomitable Sara.
Our pre-race prep was hindered by both a lack of gear and by the mental distraction of constantly keeping eyes on the hotel’s lobby for the arrival of our bikes. Finally, at 9:30 p.m. the night before the race, we got word the boxes had arrived at the airport, so Kate and I borrowed a race vehicle and drove an hour each way to pick them up. Getting back to the hotel, we were greeted by whoops of joy from Evan and Kit, and we furiously set to unpacking, bike set-up, and a late-night gear-check from race referee Igor.
The morning of the race was stressful for a different reason, with pre-race jitters setting in and lots of time to kill checking and re-checking gear until the 6 p.m. start. At 4:30 p.m., we paraded through the town of Are to the ski tram, had a fun ride up – including a view of the rappel awaiting us halfway down – and hung out in the summit house until around 10 minutes left until race start. Then we lined up under the Red Bull race arch (sadly, only 36 of us athletes, making it a pretty small-feeling field) and waited for the word go.
Starting at the top of a ski mountain was a fun and unique way to begin a race, but it was about the worst thing that could have happened to Kate, who gets terrible shin and foot pain when running down steeps. We immediately fell to the back of the pack, cautiously picking our way down the rocky trail. After about 20-30 minutes, we reached the top of the rappel, and there were still a few teams there finishing up. After our descent, we picked up a few more points through a zipline and then an urban orienteering section in the town of Are – complete with a screaming crowd – then made our way to the Holiday Club Are, the hotel where we had spent the last few days. It was a lively scene as we arrived, with a hundred or so spectators in the lobby, plus lots of cameras and a video live feed. Kate went over to the Tyrolean traverse, while Kit, Evan and I prepped for a short rappel down to the lobby floor. We gave the audience their money’s worth; Within minutes of our arrival, we had achieved 1) loud applause (for Kate completing the Tyrolean), 2) confused gasps as Evan accidentally crushed the ropes safety guy’s hand after being given the go-ahead to rappel, 3) complete silence as Evan and I both punched large holes in the stark white drywalls while swinging our feet around on our descents; 4) more confusion as we ran out of the lobby with our bikes, only to turn around a moment later as I discovered my tire was completely flat, 5) frightened screams as I opened the CO2 cartridge and the tire rim popped into place with the sound of a pistol shot, 6) relieved smattering of applause as we finally took off on Leg 2, a 40-kilometer bike leg.
We started off with a head of steam, aiming to speed through this section as quickly as possible. The two CPs, both located early in the leg, gave us a little trouble as we were moving faster than we expected on the 1:50,000 maps. But we found each without too much trouble, including CP 10, which was at a monument to a Swedish army that had perished in the harsh winter conditions of central Sweden after being pursued by the Norwegians during one of their internecine Scando fights. After those points, the trail turned into asphalt and we made good time riding in a paceline. We found ourselves biking near the women of Holiday Club Are and ended up chatting with them for a bit until we reached the TA, in a parking lot of a commercial farm, at around 11 p.m.
We made a steady transition, figuring out for the first time how to fit our bikes in our boxes in the quickest and most efficient way. We set out on the trek at a brisk pace, with a camera crew, composed of Marika and cameraman Otto, following us. Eventually they peeled away and we continued up what was marked as a snowmobile track, steadily gaining altitude. We would end up staying on that snowmobile track for 25-30 kilometers, walking over increasingly wet, open terrain. As it got later, it became dusky but never dark, and with the wide open countryside, we never needed our headlights. In the “darkest” part of the night, we turned off-trail and used a compass bearing and step-counting to find CP 11 without too much difficulty at the top of a large hill. We roughly retraced our steps back to the snowmobile trail and continued onwards.
The terrain which we crossed, and which we would continue to encounter through the stage and at many points through the race, was saturated grass, crossing into outright bog at frequent intervals. It provided few obstacles to walking in whatever direction you wanted to go, but moving at more than a slow walk was difficult, and we couldn’t imagine how the top teams were managing to move any faster.
Eventually, we descended down to the edge of a large lake, where we stopped for water at a bizarre pink hacienda placed on the lake’s edge. We came up with a few comically dark theories as to what this elaborate, impeccable mansion was doing in the middle of the blank expanse of the Swedish tundra. Moving on, we took a cross-country route that included some snowfields and then found ourselves on a high plain, where we saw our checkpoint on a mountaintop three miles or so ahead. It was daylight but overcast and cold as we worked our way higher, trudging slowly through the barren, wet terrain. As we got close to the CP, we saw a team emerge from the shelter, about 200 vertical feet and about 20 minute walk ahead of us. It turned out to be the Australian team Hard Days Night, though we didn’t know that until we got a peek at the tracker following the race. They took off downhill and when we got to the shelter, we took a five minute break, giving the team ahead of us a gap. It was the last ranked team we saw for the entire competition. With the exception of about 10 hours with the Holiday Club Are team the next day, we would spend most of the next six days entirely alone, with the exception of the race staff that met us in transition areas.
We descended off the mountain on a few ski trails, and passed race referee Igor before seeing a few race staff hanging around a town at the bottom of the mountain. The race rules explicitly stated we could not cross train tracks except at designated crossings, so we began to work our way around the town, adding a few extra kilometers to the trek. Later, we found out we were the only team to do this. On the way, we passed a Coop supermarket, and Kate took the opportunity to refill her supplies here. We made our way along a paved road up to another trailhead, which we followed along a bog and up a few hills, inching our way closer to the border with Norway. It was still bleak here, but rockier and with a bit more topography. The going was quiet; we were focused on getting miles done. The final 20k of the stage took us down from the mountains of the border through Norwegian farmland, then back up again to high country for a beautiful checkpoint by a lake, and finally down what felt like an interminable descent to the TA. The last 5k involved some tears and some slow walking on very sore feet.
The tracker shows we arrived at the TA not long after the Kuwaiti and Australian teams left it, but we felt far behind the rest of the field. It was a feeling that sunk in more and more into our team identity as the race went on. We built up our bikes and ate some hot food, then made the tactical decision to swap out our bothy bag for our Hyperlite tent with a plan to camp out further along the course. This was going to be a huge ride, with 237k of distance and 5,000 meters of vertical gain. By this point, the women of Holiday Club Are had arrived after being transported by car, and we left TA together just as the light of the day was fading into the duller light of the “night.” We cruised down forest roads and a steep downhill into a town, then climbed several hundred meters up a forest road until we reached a critical trail junction that appeared to be mismarked on the map. The trail we wanted led up a mountain to a CP on a high alpine lake. At the intersection, both trails led uphill roughly in the right direction; we explored for 30 minutes without figuring out the correct trail, so we decided to bed down for the night with a plan to attack fresh after a few hours’ sleep. We got extremely fortunate in that the Holiday Club women elected to push on, and tried the one trail that looked right, only to swing back 40 minutes later to let us know that it was the wrong trail. Meanwhile, our team had crawled into bivvies, with the exception of Kit, who had brought a full sleep pad and sleeping bag. That was the correct decision, as I woke up after an hour or so of rest, shivering uncontrollably. Kate and Evan moved me between them and spooned me back to warmth. However, by that time, we were all awake and so we decided to pack up camp and start our ascent.