They say getting to the start line is the hardest part of Adventure Racing. After months of training and preparations, Helly Hansen UK only had the small task of driving to Sweden from Scotland before they could finally get under way in the 2009 Explore Sweden Monster. After four days of driving, Bruce Duncan, John Laughlin and support man Marty Lee rolled into Sundsvall in Mid Sweden, while Nicola MacLeod jetted in from a wedding in South Africa with final team member Nick Gracie and support crew Nicola Wiseman completing the UK posse.
Together at last, we were anxious to see what had been prepared for us, as the only details released beforehand mentioned some of the disciplines and an approximate breakdown in percentages of the time each discipline would take. We were comfortable with the 38% biking and 30% trekking but it was the 6% inline skating that we had our eye on, with an assumption that it would take us far longer than estimated for the native Scandinavians. Once all was revealed we were taken aback. It was definitely a monster of a course, the longest race in the world this year, however, 840km of the total distance was on bike and we were promised the winning team would only take four days to complete the course, so it would be fast progress.
Race Director, Mikael Lindnord, speculated that the race would be extremely technical and our skills would be tested in every single stage, right from the start. “It will be”, he proclaimed, “the shit!”. Of course, the start was just the one we had dreaded; a short run followed by an inline skate up one of the steepest road hills we’d ever seen! After a mass start and the bustle of the first checkpoint where skates were fitted, it suddenly fell quiet as we looked around and realised we were already bringing up the back with the American team Yogaslackers. Thankfully we made it up the hill in one piece and could ditch the skates for the run back down to town. Once there, we quickly donned via-ferrata full body safety harnesses and completed a circuit of a rooftop wire course after which it was back to transition where we collected a map and ditched the skates for 14km of orienteering around Sundsvall. The pace around town was the usual manic style that we all dread in expedition races so we were glad of a little refreshment with a short 150m swim across the harbour. All done and dusted with the short, sharp stages we were glad to get out on the first decent leg, a 120km bike stage.
The stage should have been noted for taking us to the mid-point of Sweden, ‘conveniently’ located at the top of a big hill, but was more notable for the colourful vomit John was projecting after downing too many electrolyte drinks and gels too quickly. Aside from the technicolour masterpiece on show, the associated bout of leg cramps brought the average pace down a few notches until we got sorted and comfortable on the bikes. We were still near the back of the race but feeling buoyant as we began to pass a few teams by riding strongly and navigating smartly.
The end of the bike brought a change back to the dreaded inline skates along a rolling road section with our first taste of extended downhills. Surprisingly, we managed to survive this unscathed with no falls although progress couldn’t be described as rapid! The section finished with a stomp and swim through a filthy marsh in our socks, (everyone else walked around the outside!), then across a warm cleansing river and into a lagoon at the centre of ‘Mid-Adventure’. A low flying helicopter buzzed us as we splashed into shore and set about completing the tasks here to the backdrop of an all-night (though it barely got dark) dance party. A short kayak, run and ropes course followed by a team slide down a water chute and swim were quickly knocked off before getting dried, fed and comfortably clothed for the first major bike of the race.
We set off around midnight for the 250km cycle on a mixture of tarred and gravel roads and had hoped to make the most of the cool night to push hard. However, Bruce was having a hard time with “hollow legs” and generally feeling devoid of energy, so John took his pack and the team worked in a chain gang to give Bruce a rest at the back of the line. Eventually we got a good pace going and caught another team as we rode towards transition at the top of a very long gravel climb. We’d stopped a couple of times on the route for quick cat naps to stave the sleepmonsters off, but in transition we took the opportunity to get into a tent for a good 45 minute doze.
At this point we were all feeling physically and mentally strong, and reasonably fresh for the 60km mountaineering section. This took us, first of all, onto Sweden’s most southerly glacier which we traversed to bag a checkpoint at the foot of a great couloir. Unfortunately, the warm weather had created unfavourable avalanche conditions, so we didn’t get to complete the planned near vertical ice climb and instead had to run the 15km to the next mountain with the added burden of our heavy mountaineering boots in our packs. Many other teams had been made aware that the climb was cancelled and had just brought running shoes, not the stipulated boots, so we felt a little miffed at the extra load, but nonetheless, we managed to catch and pass two teams before we ascended the next mountain. The drawback to this fast progress was the pounding our feet were taking and John began to have blisters that would gradually get worse for the rest of the race. To keep our minds off tiredness and pain, the entire local midge population decided to come out for dinner; the problem being, we were on the menu!
The sun set beautifully as we climbed onto the ridge and we roped up for the extended knife-edge arete that straddled the Norwegian border and ascended to our final summit. The ambient light barely dimmed before the sun was back above the horizon again and we had completed the most technical ridge we’d ever encountered in an adventure race. Race Director Mikael’s prediction of high technical difficulty was holding true on this section at least, but we were comfortable with the exposure but once we’d completed the final fixed rope jumar to the summit we were keen to get down as quickly as possible. The map said this would be a long tricky descent down a ridge, but common sense said we should follow the tracks in the snow slope beside the ridge. So with ice axes ready we jumped over the side and slid about 150m down on slushy snow, closely followed by photographer Wouter Kingma with thousands of pounds of cameras swinging from his neck! The 20km trek out that followed was slowed by John’s struggle with blisters and overheating but Bruce was able to tow to repay the help he’d received earlier. After what seemed like an eternity, transition was reached, a quick cooling shower was had and the team remounted their bikes and sped off on rough gravel towards the first of the watersports with John feeling much better.
The watersports consisted of Nicola and John kayaking down a Grade 3 white water river while Bruce and Nick riverboarded. Unfortunately, for John and Nicola, hoping to have a nice rest in the boats, the river turned out to be quite flat for the first 4km meaning they had to tow the lads to speed things up. This was hard work but was well worth it once we reached the whitewater which brought massive smiles all round.
After a short ride into the lakeside mountain resort of Åre, we headed off in the early evening sun for our favourite activity – inline skating. Once again this was up a massive hill, but not before a short downhill to the lakeside road that Nick split into small sections by falling on his backside twice, making the rest of us wince and fear for his coccyx. He bounced well for the old man of the team and thankfully showed no ill effects. It didn’t take long for common sense to prevail and we took the skates off and walked up the steep hill in a heavy rain shower that we decided had very handily made the road too slippery to skate.
Eventually, we dropped the skates with Nicola W and trekked off into the mountains, Bruce picking a great route that avoided major climbs and took us past one team and within sight of another. Reaching the top of the mountain we were excited at what lay ahead. Strapping on body armour, full face helmets and ‘No Fear’ attitudes we grabbed hired downhill bikes and sped off down the mountain trail, becoming very quickly aware that the brakes were set up ‘euro’ style, the opposite of what we are used to.Within ten minutes of starting, the excitement ramped up several notches when a heavy thunderstorm swept into the valley and emptied its contents on us. Thunder crashed, lightning flashed, hair stood on end and stinging rain pummelled our scantily dressed bodies. The spray from our front wheels was like being shotblasted and before long we had lost each other and the right way down. Bruce ended up 2km past town, John and Nicola finished by the lakeside but Nick, the most anxious at the top of the hill, was the only one who managed to find their way into transition correctly!
The next stage was a Canadian Canoeing leg on an open lake, which was looking quite dangerous with all the lightning, so our ever-attentive support crew pulled off a master stroke by setting up camp with two tents in an outdoor shop’s doorway. Marty and Nicola W were really proving to be the best support crew we could have wished for with psychic ability to think ahead about what we might need or just be dreaming of. Nick’s requests for food types were getting stranger as the race went on, but somehow Nicola kept managing to produce the goods in the most far-flung reaches of Sweden!
A brief sleep later, we portaged the canoes across the town’s railway station and into the lake that we paddled to its river outflow. The river, featuring grade 2 rapids, was a great thrill in a canoe and we managed to pass another Swedish team who’d capsized. We were grateful to stay upright after spending a while getting dry and warm following the downhill biking; another unexpected soaking was the last thing we wanted right now.
Passing another team in transition, we were really moving up the race order and spirits were high as we had a feeling that we were getting faster while other teams were slowing. Of course, we’d like to say we’d planned this all along, but the reality was that our inline skating was the discipline keeping us back in the rankings! Completing another linking bike stage we could see we were only minutes behind another two teams, so completed our quickest transition of the race and ran off after them for 3km to the start of the whitewater rafting. We’d been really looking forward to this section and once we’d changed into wetsuits, met our guide, defeated the best efforts of the worst midges in history, carried our boat to the river and jumped aboard, we were totally pumped up! We set off to chase another team one minute ahead of us and enjoyed the thrill of the race, combined with the rush of paddling the grade 4 river, the steepest in Sweden. After a series of waterfalls and mandatory portages, the river shallowed and our guide left us to paddle out across a lake to the next transition.
The support guys had setup our tents again and we got our heads down for two hours to recharge our brains before taking on the longest single stage of the race – a 270km mountain bike leg to Solleftea. Getting comfy in the saddle, we made steady progress and passed another weary looking team and arrived at a ferry to find we’d caught up Team Explore, one of the best teams in the race. They’d been having a poor race, but we’d had our own troubles, so were glad to be getting towards the sharp end of the race. Once on the ferry we had left the team we’d overtaken behind, gaining at least 30 minutes while they waited for the next ferry. The ferry took us to a small island which we had to cross to another ferry to get us back onto the mainland. Team Explore had already figured out that to make the next ferry we would have to time trial at maximum effort across the island and cover the 2.5km in about five minutes. This seemed like an ambitious plan, but when they decided to attempt it we had to follow suit. The sprint across the island must be up there with being one of the fastest sprints ever in an expedition race and it was a successful one! We all collapsed on the ferry and agreed to work together for the rest of the stage at a much more reasonable pace.
Soon after leaving the ferry we passed an excited woman at the side of the road, whom Fredrik in the Explore team announced to be his mother. Not long later we passed an excited man who turned out to be his father. Soon we passed another stationary car where Fredrik’s cousin was yelling encouragement at us! It was a really fun period and eventually we stopped for a break, some photos and a chat with his cousin. After a long spell of riding we all realised we were running short of Clif Bars and set our sights on finding some food in the town of Hammarstrand. However, on arrival we found everything closed and the only food available were a tray of chocolates handed out by a kind lady filling up in the petrol station. Another man said he ran the burger restaurant but had closed for the night, yet he said we should keep on riding and he would bring us some food en-route! Ten minutes later a van sped past us and he jumped out to hand us cold hot dogs fresh from the packet! It was the tastiest nondescript meat product we’d had in several hours…
The long bike seemed to be nearing an end when we sped past a rapidly slowing Norwegian team, but at the same instant John’s brain decided to go to sleep and he began to suffer a serious dose of the sleep-monsters. The rest of the team had to shout, swear, and scream to keep him awake and riding upright while he was off in a dream world of safari animals for the remaining 30km of the ride. The weather was incessant drizzle and stopping for a sleep would have been a cold waste of time, so we had to push on despite John’s constant falling asleep at speeds of up to 50km/hr. Thankfully, a huge team effort got everyone to the next obstacle in one piece and after a coke and some singletrack riding John perked up. We then had to contend with a rather convoluted double crossing of a river on a wooden raft with some hike a bike thrown in for good measure. To further drag out the stage we had to find some orienteering checkpoints, which to Bruce’s clear frustration weren’t accurately described but we had to remind him how important it was to remain positive that we’d done so well so far and were still going strong.
On entering transition in Solleftea we were given a one hour mandatory rest, which we slept most of and used the rest to patch up blisters and saddle sores. Typically, when the time came for us to set off on the inline skating ascent of another big hill, the heavens opened and streams were flowing down the roads. This wasn’t slowing down Team Explore who came flying down the hill into transition at breakneck speed but perfectly in control! As was our more relaxed style we soon ditched the skates when the climb steepened up and jogged around the orienteering controls we had to collect, making up some time lost on the skates with Bruce’s efficient navigation. Back at transition we were able to leave the skates and headed off on foot for another foot orienteering section encompassing a climbing wall challenge that was completed with more brute force and ignorance than skill and grace. The navigation on the loop was probably the most technical of the race, but Bruce did a great job and we were soon facing our final control, on an island in the middle of a very fast flowing river. Local fishermen were proudly displaying some massive salmon they’d caught at the same spot so we took inspiration and swam for all our worth to avoid being swept downstream.
Once the orienteering was complete we were mentally beginning to feel on the home stretch, with a relatively short ride through the forest taking us to a beautiful Thai Pavilion and the start of the sailing leg. We were lucky to have Marty, a sailor, in the support team and Nicola, a sailing instructor, in the race team, so by the time we had arrived Marty had prepared the boat, Nicola Wiseman had prepared a lot of food and drink and Nicola MacLeod had figured out how to sail our dinghy as fast as possible. With 56km to cover we were lucky to be sailing in a wide river with a tail wind and immediately Nicola’s sailing skill was obvious as she positioned us in the boat for the best trim and we began to really move. By halfway we had made up about 90 minutes on Team Explore in front and were close to catching them, but the wind that had been so good simply disappeared and we slowed to a crawl. Determined to sail and not paddle, we moved slowly for many more hours and watched as Explore paddled away and Team Finland approached us from behind. We knew that both teams would be much faster than us on the final inline skating so we had no reason to rush and enjoyed the opportunity to sleep in the boat and be carried by the current. Eventually, we succumbed to the inevitable and began to paddle to keep warm, with transition finally appearing after 16 hours in our little ‘Fisher Price’ dinghy. It was fun, but it was cramped for four adults and not a place designed to spend such a long period of time, so we were glad to see the back of it!
Having sat on our backsides for so long, it was like watching four young deer on ice as we left the transition on inline skates. Co-ordination and balance had deserted us and we weren’t helped by the increasing traffic flow on the road. Once we’d summitted the first and, thankfully, only hill, we felt better and began to enjoy the long gradual downhills, even picking up some speed and letting ourselves go, all the way down into Sundsvall. Despite this, it still took us twice as long as most of the teams in front of us, so it was driven home again just how much we need to improve for future races.
Our final watersports stage was a very tame, relaxed and enjoyable rafting section on a flatwater canal for 7km, taking about an hour and bringing us into the heart of Sundsvall. From here we had a very quick transition to put some cycling kit on and jumped on our bikes for one last time, to ride through town and up, up, up the switchback climb to our hotel and the finish line!
We crossed the line in a time of 121 hours and 39 minutes, giving us 8th place, behind winners Lundhags, which we were pretty satisfied with. We’d traversed Sweden and back again, in the process riding more kilometres than in the first five days of the 2009 Tour de France! Our support crew had been fantastic and a vital part of our race, so it was great to have them there at the finish line to celebrate with the obligatory champagne spraying. Marty and Nicola had never done anything like this before so they performed above and beyond what we’d hoped for and we owe them a great deal. They were always in the right place at the right time, with the right kit and just the right food, drink and encouragement. They looked after us like children and with the mess we made in every transition it was no wonder they described us as ‘four toddlers’! Thanks Mum and Dad, Nicola and Marty!
The race was a spectacular success as always for Mikael Lindnord, despite being involved in a car accident himself mid-race (he’s fine now), and we felt proud to have completed his ‘Monster’. Everything was top class: the variety of activities; the terrain; the adrenaline and excitement of the discplines; the quality of maps and transitions; and the race hotel headquarters.
We have to thank our sponsors for making our great adventures possible, so thank you to Helly Hansen, Nuun, Paramo, 2 Pure/Clif Bar, Marin Bikes. OMM, Exposure Lights, For Goodness Shakes, Nordenmark and Willow, for the loan of our support van. We use our sponsor’s products because we believe they are the best available and we feel we are lucky to work with such great companies..
As soon as I heard about Explore Sweden I knew it was a race I had to do at some point. Race Director Mikael Nordstrom has a great reputation for organising exciting, adventurous and interesting courses with one of his last offerings, the 2006 AR World Championships, being hailed by great racers such as Ian Adamson as the greatest race course of all time. With this near guarantee of quality, we knew that travelling all the way to Sweden would at least give us a great race experience regardless of our performance.
Over the months leading up to the race we changed team members a few times and lost our main sponsor Aberdeen Asset Management. Thankfully we got a settled team together and some help from interim sponsor Helly Hansen, however, it was still a tough call for me to commit to such a huge race and financial commitment with current personal circumstances. However, the opportunity was too good to miss and my chances of getting away to major expedition races in the next 4 years look to be few and far between so this was a last chance to lay it all on the line.
It was everything it was billed to be and the only thing I could say it was lacking was technical mountain biking. We spent a long time on roads and gravel tracks but a tiny amount of time on technically challenging and fun mountain biking. This was made up for though by the awesome variety of activities we completed including some exposed mountaineering, whitewater rafting on a grade 4 river, white water kayaking on a grade 3 river, canadian canoeing on a grade 2 river and a lot of inline skating! I’ve written a full race report that will be published in either the UK Adventure Sports Magazine or Sleepmonsters, I’ll post it here too when I know.
The race went pretty well for us and my only personal problems were my feet blisters sustained on the 60km mountaineering section and a bit of overheating on the same section. I did fall asleep a bit dramatically and get a serious dose of the sleepmonsters on the long 270km bike leg. I was seeing all sorts of safari animals, though was lucid enough to tell teammate Bruce Duncan that I realised he probably couldn’t see them. Still, didn’t stop me ’sprinting’ when he shouted that they were charging after us! We finished 8th in the end and were satisfied with this. We lost maybe 4 or 5 hours on the inline skating compared to the Scandinavian teams ahead of us, so potentially we could have been nearer the top 5, but for now it just gives us another discipline to work on and bring up to par with the rest.
It sure as hell was fun and I did what I went there to do – give it my all. It was hard work and very painful at times and 2 weeks later I’m still suffering with tendonitis and am on antibiotics for infected blisters and a haematoma I developed, but that’s what adventure racing is about for me – seeing how much I can push my body and mind through and this time it was pretty far!