2023 NORDIC ISLANDS ADVENTURE RACE: FAROE ISLANDS
I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write a race report for this race. I don’t always write one, and I suspect others on my team may also write something up, which is typically good enough for me. But sometimes a race calls me to write a report, to help me to sift through the details and encode them into my memory.
The months leading up to the Nordic Islands Adventure Race: Faroes Edition were very busy for Cliff and me. My busy-ness began at the end of May with a trip out to British Columbia and the Okanagan Valley for Expedition Canada. I felt well-prepared physically and mentally for this race and really proud of our team’s work on the race course. Good enough to get my 2nd ARWS full course finish. From there, we went into full-on Maine Summer Adventure Race prep mode, and when we crawled out the other side in late July, suddenly the Faroes was right around the corner. Cliff and Wilder get hit hard with a post-MSAR cold while I skimmed over with some mild symptoms. We each had busy weeks at work leading up to our departure. My knee had been sore ever since Canada and I hoped my PT exercises would relieve the pain enough to get me through the Faroes. By the time the week before the race rolled around, I was ready to just get on the plane and drop out of the daily grind for a while.
We arrived in the Faroe Islands to find that our two teammates, Mike Garrison and Glen Lewis, were already waiting for us. The former accidentally booked his flight for a day earlier than planned (fun!) and the latter had spent a week touring/pre-scouting the islands with his family (useful and fun!). In our pre-race meetings and Slack-chatter, we identified our team goals to complete as much of the course as we could, to “race our own race”, and to take opportunities to savor the experience along the way. The pre-race RD communications and race schematic suggested that this could be a wild event, so we prepared mentally for a race that felt more like an adventure than a competition.
We enjoyed our couple of days in Torshavn before the start, with Cliff snagging a few salmon farm interviews for work and all of us stocking up on calories and sorting gear (then re-sorting it based on RD changes to the logistics plan when it became clear that gear limits were too tight for the race). I immediately loved the vibe of the Faroes - with constantly changing weather (misty / sunny / foggy / rainbows) that always hovered around the low 50s and a capitol town that felt like a perfect seaside village with cozy shops and restaurants. We also enjoyed encountering lots of AR friends all over town - including many North American teams that we know and love as well as international teams that we only get to see at these bigger races. We felt relaxed and ready the night before the race… and yet a wave of jetlag hit us with perfect timing so that Cliff and I tossed and turned all night, getting less than 2 hours of sleep before the alarm went off on race morning.
We rode our bikes to the start of the race and staged them at HQ, an event space called Perlan in the center of Torshavn. We received our race maps with 2 hours to review and find routes. Garrison and Glen took the lead with Cliff and I helping where we could and generally trying to wrap our minds around the upcoming task. The maps showed constantly undulating terrain with steep mountains and abundant cliffs rising out of winding waterways - the sea separating islands sometimes by only a couple hundred meters. We spent a little extra time reviewing the stage 7 packraft trek leg - the most anticipated leg of the race - where we would need to carry 30+ hours of food and all of our trekking and packrafting gear across 4 mountainous islands and 4 channels. Eek.
But that was for later. For now, we lined up at the start and took off to hunt down a few dozen prologue checkpoints around downtown Torshavn on foot. Dancing Queen was playing, and it played in my head on and off for the rest of the race. Glen took the nav and guided us smoothly over 2 orienteering maps and about 90 minutes. It was a fun way to see lots of teams and shake out some of our jitters.
Then we jumped on our bikes (okay, we hit the bathrooms… and THEN jumped on our bikes) to start an 80 km and 2800m gain/loss bike stage. I’ve learned that the first 24-36 hours of an expedition race are my most miserable, and that was true in this race as well. My mind and body were struggling to settle into race pace, so I tried to focus on eating when I could and hanging on to the guys, who were making quick work of the mixed terrain riding. We first rode some in-town trails in Torshavn (getting some dirty looks and a talking-to from a Faroese “Karen” - apparently not everyone in the town of 13,000 people had been consulted about the race route) before climbing up to the first of many beautiful ridgelines. The ride was a pleasant mix of ride-able and hike-a-bike-able surfaces with lots of climbing and descending, with a surprisingly low amount of time spent on pavement. In hindsight, I loved the flow of this stage and the work the RDs put into finding an interesting bike route on islands where biking was clearly rare. In the moment, I cursed my sour stomach and tired brain and tried to put my head down and wait for things to get better.
We transitioned to stage 2 with Rib Mountain and Rootstock, which perked me up and reassured me that we hadn’t lost much time to my early race misery on the first stage. Stage 2 was a 24-hour trekking leg that we expected to be the 2nd hardest stage of the race at 87km with about 5000m of gain/loss. This was an interesting stage in many ways. We were still settling into the race and the Faroese terrain. Right away we climbed out of the TA on a steep ascent up to a knife’s edge ridgeline with blowing wind and cloudy mist. Okay, so this is how it is. After a few short bouts of vertigo, I got my mountain legs under me and moved on. Steep ups and down, loose rocks (including one big one that I nearly took out Garrison with), and decreasing visibility. As the sun went down, our pace slowed. We were trying to follow trails marked by large rocky cairns (which we amusingly referred to as more “Karens”), but we quickly learned that the Faroes are covered in dense fog most nights, making cairns difficult to find.
We abandoned trail-finding in favor of following a bearing, and thanks to some diligent nav by Garrison we picked our way through until the morning.
The 2nd day in an expedition race is the worst. We didn’t plan to sleep until that night, so we were pretty tired and hadn’t fully settled into the team vibe and roles yet. That meant a few short, tense moments, though always with an acknowledgement that we knew this would get better soon. I hold several short memories of the 2nd day - mostly of climbing and descending (duh!) but also of spending a couple great hours trekking with Rootstock and reminding ourselves not to get too down on day 2 - it would get better. Sometime in the morning we crossed a short channel via packraft.
After getting the 1st of 2 pro points on this stage, we decided to trek along a road instead of up and over another mountain range. We settled into a brisk shuffle and set our intentions on reaching a trailhead we had passed earlier and needed to go by again - a quiet place outside of town where we thought we could pitch our tent for our first sleep. On the way, a car of Faroese people stopped to cheer us on and give us 4 not-quite-ripe bananas and a bag of salty crackers. We passed the crackers around and saved the bananas for breakfast. When we got to our campsite, we quickly set up the tent and laid out our sleeping pads and lightweight but luxe sleeping bags - we decided to prioritize good sleep this race even if it meant carrying a few extra ounces. Glen set the kitchen timer - a new piece of team gear we invested in after some over-sleeps in previous races - and we planned to wake in 3 hours. When the alarm went off, we all agreed this was the BEST expedition sleep we’d ever had!
Which was useful because the stage wasn’t over yet and we had more mountains to climb, and these ones were windy, foggy, and steep. We headed up to the 2nd pro point of the stage and heard the voices of Rootstock in the distance (or perhaps sheep, we had some trouble distinguishing between Mark Lattanzi’s voice and the bleating of the thousands of sheep we passed). The wind was whipping and visibility was poor as we passed Rootstock and they informed us that they were skipping the pro point due to the sketchy conditions and concern about making the cut off for starting stage 7. Their choice shook us a bit, but we ultimately decided to continue on and turn back if we felt that conditions were unpassable. We stopped to put on all of our layers then struck out in the cold, wind, and wet to the CP. After side-hilling for an eternity and gripping our ice-axes in case of a slide down the grassy slope, we hit our intended flattened spur and trudged out to the checkpoint, grateful we had gone for it, then made our way out of the angry cloud we had climbed into and down into the picturesque village of Tjornuvik, the end of the long trekking stage and the start of the long paddle.
We transitioned slowly to the stage 3 packraft, happy to be out of the elements and inside a warm building with hot water for rehydrating food. We enjoyed a chat with the Dark Zone team while we tended to our cold bodies and took in as many calories as we could. The packraft started a few road-miles away so we packed up as best we could and set out with paddle gear flapping around and falling out of our busted up ARWS paddle bag (may she RIP). Along the route, we lost Cliff for a few minutes to a fish farm operation - salmon from the hatchery were being flushed into their new North Atlantic home via a funky system of tubes. Journalistic endeavor complete, we carried on to the beach put-in where we inflated our rafts, donned our drysuits, and set off. This next section was awesome. Our packrafts reached their max speeds as we paddled southeast with the current and a strong wind behind us through a narrow fjord. Along the way, we paddled under a bridge we had trekked by the night before. The currents were converging here and Cliff and I saw a huge school of fish hanging out in a large eddy to the side of the bridge. As we paddled by, we noticed the fish beneath our packraft getting bigger and bigger. Until the shadows were larger than the raft itself, and we occasionally felt the push of a large swimming creature under the raft or against our paddles. Whales! We shrieked in sleep-deprived glee, terrifying Glen and Garrison in the other raft who clearly thought we were hallucinating, but this time we weren’t!
Eventually our luck turned as did our boats, northwest and into the head wind. The final kms of this leg were a slog against the wind, and we ran out of 90s songs to sing or awkward dating stories to share. But we eventually pulled into the much-anticipated gas station at TA 3, a haven of Faroese hot dogs and machine-drawn lattes. Our transition was slowed by the need to again warm up and refuel before heading out onto our next bike leg.
Stage 4 began after dark but was mercifully brief. A 20km shuttle (420m gain/loss) from TA 3 to the stage 4 cliff jump and mountain trek. We climbed on steep pavement and enjoyed the view of some ancient runes placed on high ledges overlooking the sea. I marveled at the human power it must have taken to place those massive stones.
When we arrived at TA 4, after 2 a.m., we entered a confusing scene. The volunteers were pretty sleepy after 24+ hours of pushing racers off a cliff into the sea (or something like that) and we were pretty tired ourselves, ready to set up the tent for our next planned sleep after Glen and Cliff took the plunge. Eventually we all made it to our respective positions and Garrison and I watched as Cliff and then Glen jumped about 10m into a kelp forest, then dove down a couple of meters to gather metal hooks from 2 underwater CPs. Luckily there were hot showers available for them while I set up the tent on a nearby grassy platform. We agreed on 2.5 hours of sleep this time to make sure we would arrive at the stage 7 packraft with time to transition before 8:00 the following evening, which was the cutoff for starting that stage.
We woke up to our trusty but insistent alarm, feeling a little groggy, and started on the next section of stage 5: an 11km trek with 1000m of elevation gain and 600m of loss… STEEP! We started uphill immediately and continued climbing over saddles and across steep sidehills then through a rocky mountain pass up to the highest point in the Faroe Islands. The clouds cleared from time to time, affording us beautiful views of the surrounding sea and glimpses of the climbing left to do. The RDs printed 3D wooden maps that we used to navigate for this section, which was a cool feature and a fun souvenir to take home after the race. After reaching the highpoint, fully in the clouds, we descended on a popular hiking route to a parking lot where race staff had transported our bikes. We lost the remaining vertical gain on bike over the next 57km bike stage (along with 600m of gain) as we traversed to the town of Klaksvik and TA 5.
We had made it to TA 5 with about 4 hours to spare before the cut off, though learned once we got there that there had been several course changes including that the cut off for leaving TA 5 was now 10:00 the following morning, 1 mountain climb/sea paddle section of stage 7 had been removed due to “deteriorating conditions'' (though rumor suggests that landowner issues may have also impacted the decision), and stage 11 (a 14km trek with 1000m of gain/loss) had been canceled altogether. I think we all felt some relief that the packraft/trek was shortened. We expected this might happen given the ambitious nature of the planned race course and the likelihood of poor weather. We did feel a bit disappointed that the final trek was canceled since we were feeling strong and ready to clear the full planned course, but clearing the remaining course seemed like a fine plan too.
For stage 7, we decided to bring our comfortable sleep systems (i.e., ultralight down sleeping bags + sleeping pads) so that we could break up this long leg with a good quality sleep. Along with the usual mandatory gear (i.e., Goretex layers, base and midweight clothing layers, tent, med kit, ice axes, etc.), for this stage we had to carry our 2 packrafts, 4 paddles, 4 drysuits, and 4 PFDs. We started in our rafts and pushed out into the long sunset of the Klaksvik harbor, with a mix of excitement and nervousness about what it would take to complete this much-anticipated stage.
Our luck started out strong. Soon after the first mandatory waypoint where we had to take out and pack up our paddling gear, we came upon a lovely, unlocked, unoccupied hiker’s hut with bunk beds, a table and chairs, and a full camp kitchen. It was good timing for a sleep so we decided to stay for 5 hours (probably 4+ hours of actual sleep). The wind howled and fog swirled outside while we slumbered deeply and took in several hours of wonderful recovery. When our alarm went off, we packed up and made our way out into the mist, beginning with a steep ascent to the first checkpoint of the stage, atop a rocky ridgeline with steep drop-offs on all sides. As we climbed, we heard and then spotted a helicopter - flying over the ridge and then dropping ominously off the other side to hover for a few minutes before gaining altitude again and flying with purpose back towards Klaksvik. Eeek. We thought about our friends on Rootstock, Rib Mountain, Pioneers Svexa, and Renegades that we knew to be in the general vicinity and hoped that all was well.
The ridgeline was a magical landscape with whipping winds, swirling fog, and the occasional stunning view over rocky precipices where the sun burned away the clouds. After navigating smoothly to the checkpoint, the clouds cleared and we took in the view, including a view of the upcoming descent through a steep scree field. Not my favorite. We hoisted our heavy packs and picked our way carefully down through the scree. Near the bottom, we looked out over the vast rocky bowl and saw East Wind… hiking up? We were confused. The intended route was clearly to hike up and over the other side of the ridge from the waypoint then descend down this side to the next waypoint / paddle put in. We later discovered that East Wind had taken out at the wrong place the night before and wandered onto an unmapped, very dangerous ridgeline, requiring race staff to find them and help them descend down the safest route. They only got a 1 hour penalty, which seemed strange given that they both missed the mandatory waypoint and received outside navigation support (though unsolicited). Nevertheless, we were impressed that despite some obvious issues, they were climbing back up to get the checkpoint. As they told us, “we never stop!”. Minutes later, we looked back up the scree field to see the billygoats of Svexa Pioneers leaping down the loose rocks and boulders in record time. We felt like total flatlanders, though welcomed their news that the helicopter had been sent to help the Faroese team who had a member with a twisted ankle but no other serious injuries. Phew.
So we continued on, descending to the put-in near a small fishing town, where we saw Kirsten Oliver for a fun photoshoot and RD Micke, who told us of the travails of East Wind. Sounds like this stage was shaping up to be quite eventful for others, though thankfully very smooth for us. We made quick work of the next paddle crossing (though I struggled with a sleepy and cold low on the crossing - thankfully Cliff powered me through) and the next trek, up and over another, lower and less sketchy ridgeline, then across another channel. As we packed up at the final paddle takeout, we marveled at how enjoyable, and even easy, this section had been. Not easy easy, but easier than we had expected. We entered a very special part of the race on this stage. Our surroundings were dreamlike - untouched mountain passes, dramatic descents into the sea, small villages that were barely inhabited, swirling currents and views of the vast, uninterrupted open ocean. Our team was working smoothly - roles were clear, we found an efficient and steady moving pace, and we had lost all inhibitions - seamlessly moving between fits of hilarity, statements of the absurd, existential observations, and deep revelations. We vowed to tell no one about these conversations, certain that they wouldn’t translate outside of the race context. I can’t remember a race where I had this much fun.
As we crested the final ridge and walked through the notch to punch the last checkpoint of the stage (delivered to us on foot by race staff who had accidentally cleared the CP too early, ha!), I couldn’t help but feel sad. We found several race staff and the wonderful Kirsten Oliver here for another photoshoot. Our stage bubble had burst and it was time to enter back into the race scene. The stage we worried about most ended up being our favorite by far, and all we had left now was 125km of biking and one last trek until the finish line.
We realized upon arriving at the TA that the “race” portion of our experience was locked in at this point. We were the lanterne rouge on the full course, and we needed one more sleep to make it safely to the finish line. We decided to go full luxury. Before the race we had agreed that if we found a hotel to sleep in one night then we would go for it. We heard that other racers had stayed at the Hotel Klaksvik, so we transitioned to bikes and rode over to grab some rooms. As the guys went in to inquire about rooms, I stayed outside for a few minutes locking up our bikes next to the 4 bikes of Rootstock. When I entered the lobby, Garrison and Glen were looking at me with wide eyes and concerned glances, then looking back at Cliff who was talking to the guy at reception. I heard Cliff saying, “Is Abby Perkiss staying here?? We’ll have what she’s having.” Cliff looked exhausted and when we made eye contact, I saw him begin to say “I got this”, then his face fell as he instead said…”I don’t got this”. Okay, sleep time for sure! The reception guy was quite confused and tried to give us keys to the Rootstock rooms, maybe to join them?! Just then, Brent emerged from the closest room, awoken by our hullabaloo, and we chatted for a bit about our amusing situation while I booked 2 rooms for us to catch 4 hours of sleep.
When we woke, we got on our bikes and sleepily began pedaling the relatively flat 22km to the final trekking stage. On the way, we passed a small town with probably 40 pilot whales laying out on the pavement by their harbor; we passed them again many hours later, carved up and being distributed to the many locals clearly excited to be receiving fresh whale meat. We went through 3 busy tunnels to reach the next TA and felt good about our choice to prioritize making it through these tunnels overnight. We had gone through many tunnels by this point and the initial novel excitement had quickly worn off. The tunnels could be harrowing, with cars whizzing by, exhaust filling our lungs, and traffic sounds ricocheting loudly off the walls. They were much more pleasant when empty.
Soon we made it to stage 9, starting from a school in the small town of Vidareidi. Our final climb of the race. Again, I felt a little sad. My climbing legs were ready to keep going and I was enjoying the technical ascents and descents more than ever. This time we climbed the highest sea cliff in the world, up 1200m of gain. As we climbed, the sun rose and quickly burned off the fog, delivering incredible views of the alpenglow over the surrounding mountains. The top of the cliff was still in the fog, though clear enough to see some of the surrounding jagged peaks and huge cairns and runestones brought there by past inhabitants of the islands.
Back on our bikes again, we set out to finish the race. 100km on roads with 1200m of gain and loss between us and the finish line. This ride felt long. It started with a few of the more stressful tunnel crossings, 2 with traffic lights and one-way traffic that meant we had to power paceline ourselves through before oncoming traffic came upon us, and another through the long crossing back to the main set of islands. I was grateful for my teammates in these tunnels as we had settled into a very effective team strategy to help each other safely through. The roads weren’t much better though. The wind was gusting, at times threatening to knock us over, and big trucks passed - sucking us into their slipstream then roughly spitting us back out into the wind. We stopped for a final gas station hot dog to let our heart rates decrease then kept going. We passed thousands of sheep and I appreciated their three sounds - “baaaa” “mehhhh” and the occasional - and my favorite - “yeahhhh”.
Finally, we crested the hill into the town of Torshavn. As we descended on familiar streets to the finish line in the center of the old town, we began our celebration and anticipated the hot food and cold beers we would devour soon. When we turned onto the final street, it seemed that everyone from the race was there. We were the last team to cross the finish line, in 127 hours and 10 minutes, so all of the race staff and many teams - including our friends from the North American crew - were cheering for us. It was a great finish to an incredible race - one that will go down in my memory as one of the best!
We finished in 12th place out of 23 teams that finished (26 that started) the race, the final team on the modified full course. Only 3 teams were permitted to do the full stage 7 packraft trek. I’m so proud of our team for our performance on this course, physically and mentally. We worked together well and took good care of ourselves - so much so that we all remarked at the excellent shape our feet were in ( +1 for AOS Skin Doctor) and our lack of any major pains or ailments.
Thank you to my wonderful, supportive parents for taking care of Wilder during our trip. It was the first expedition race that Cliff and I had been able to do together since Eco Challenge Fiji and we savored every moment. Thanks also to our other Strong Machine teammates - we are finally figuring this adventure racing thing out! And thanks to our friends, family, and fans far and wide who cheer us on for these crazy adventures. We feel your love!