I’ve been running. Not a title I thought I would ever write anything under, but there you are. With a young family, a busy job in which I travel a fair bit, and easily accessible cycling opportunities that don’t really excite me too much; my cycling opportunities are not quite what they used to be. Or maybe I’ve just re-prioritised my life a little. So I’ve been running instead.

I always wanted to complete a marathon. And I’m talking about the 42.195 kilometre variety – I seem to have a memory that in Japan they considered any running event no matter how long a marathon, which feels like cheating a bit. However I had several major hurdles to fulfil that desire. The first being is that I couldn’t run, and the second perhaps more important fact, was that I actually didn’t like running!

The last ‘real’ run I had entered and completed was the Nagoya half marathon over twenty years and nearly half my life ago. I have run one other half marathon when I was 14. And apart from doing reasonable well in school cross country and athletics championships I never really took it seriously. I still have memories of not being able to walk properly for at least a week after. One thing I knew I was good at was pushing myself to my limits and sometimes a little bit beyond; my competitive nature often getting the better of me. I have entered one marathon in my life. I was accepted into the London marathon many moons ago, however was forced to drop out before even getting to the start line due to shin splints and a variety of other niggling feet problems, leg complaints and other assorted injuries.

The last time I did any serious running was in 2002 when in a very brief and rare relapse of being a bit bored of riding my bike I decided to do a half ironman. Of course the half ironman never happened. After spending an absolute fortune on a podiatrist, specially made inserts and latest in running shoe technology, I just couldn’t shake the demoralising injuries. I soon reverted to what my feet knew best – pedalling.

It wasn’t until well over ten years later that I even picked up a pair of running shoes again. I worked with quite a few very keen runners and looking to have something simple, quick and portable (ie. easy to travel with), I asked for advice on what running shoes I should get. The answer surprised me. A simple $100 pair of trail shoes with very little to no foot support. I was dubious at first but with such a small monetary outlay, I didn’t have much to lose.

The shoes didn’t see a lot of use, I was still a cyclist after all. The only time the shoes saw any action was for a quick run to clear the head and get some fresh air when I was overnighting in some hotel with work. I would guess in that first year I used them a grand total of twenty times, hardly awe inspiring stuff. However I didn’t get any injuries, although you could argue I wasn’t really doing anywhere enough miles to get them.

Then we moved to Sweden. The running shoes saw very little use (as usual) as I concentrated my spare time to training for a variety of cyclocross races and exploring the countryside on my road bike. Then in November 2014 another daughter arrived and time available to do everything we wanted to do was squeezed once more.
At first I started running to and from work once a week – a total distance of approximately 8 km (ie- 4 km each way). At first it took me a week for my cyclist legs to recover from each run, but eventually I started doing it twice a week and to mix things up with the occasional weekend run on the local forest paths in Ursvik and around the lakes thrown in for good measure. All the time I waited for the ubiquitous shin/splints and other leg/feet ailments to arrive in my $100 running shoes, but to my surprise they didn’t. On the contrary, my pathetic cyclists ‘core’ strength (ie. my complete lack of it) actually started to see huge benefits and the back problems that have plagued me for decades, slowly started to become less frequent and less severe. Perhaps there was something to this running after all?

Over Christmas in Germany in 2014 I explored the local trails and by then could reasonably comfortably whack out 10 km without losing the ability to walk properly the next day. I was still only a 2 to 3 times a week runner, but that was a significant improvement from several months earlier.

Back in Stockholm it was time for a new pair of shoes. After a bit of research I again went for a relatively cheap and simple trail shoe that provided very little support and one you could feel every rock and root below your feet. Coupled with a kind of strap on crampon, enabling me to run the icy paths and roads, the running slowly started to increase in mileage and enjoyment as we headed into summer. Forest trails in Austria and again Germany where frequented on our summer holiday and when we returned to Stockholm’s balmy August, I ventured on to the ‘Extreme Trail’ at Ursvik, a very hilly 15 km loop with several very steep rocky and rooty climbs that practically requires use of all four appendages to pull yourself up. Located practically at our back door, it was the perfect playground. I ran it in an hour forty, easily the hardest run I had done for one, possibly two decades.

As summer turned to winter I continued to plug along at it but never really progressed beyond the 10 to 15 km mark. It wasn’t until the New Year, approximately 14 months since I had started plodding my way to work once a week, that I figured it was time to take a step up and take a plunge… I needed a goal.

The marathon of course seemed the obvious choice seen as how I had always aspired to do on. Although I liked the idea of trying to run a marathon as fast as possible, the reality was that I actually hated running on pavement. So I did some googling and found some links to trail running events and they seemed much more up my alley. There wasn’t much happening in Sweden around the start of the year for obvious climatic reasons and then my eyes fixed on a very familiar name; the ‘Ursvik Ultra’. My local forest hosted one of the first events of the year. Being late March definitely gave it no guarantee of nice weather, quite the opposite in fact, but there were another couple of peculiarities about the event that both put me off and encouraged me at the same time. Firstly was the distance. The Ursvik Ultra was not for beginners, it wasn’t even a marathon, but an Ultra marathon of 75 km, although a reduced ‘easy’ distance of 45 km was available – still qualifying it for Ultra Marathon status. Secondly was the start time. Midnight for the 75 km and 3 am for the 45 km. I’m not making this up! And third and finally, the course consisted of laps of Ursvik’s ‘Extreme Trail’ and it billed itself as Sweden’s hardest trail run.

I hadn’t really made up my mind whether to enter but I started to experiment with some longer runs just as winter temperatures in Stockholm plummeted. I spent the early weekend mornings under lights with spiked shoes, running on ice, in -15 C temperatures. Perhaps it was the challenging conditions that I still – after nearly 3 years in Sweden, find novel, but I actually enjoyed my early morning runs having the whole of Ursvik, bar the deer, to myself.

Then something calamitous happened. I entered. Nervous, I whacked out three 25km + runs in less than two weeks. Then I was in tapering mode as my body recovered from the efforts and as the 19th of March rolled forward, I was committed to at least giving it a go. I wasn’t really too sure if what I was doing was a good idea, but that definitely has never stopped me in the past.

Due to the fairly unsociable starting hours (12 am for the main 75 km event and 3 am for the short sprint (45 km)) participants were given the option of bringing along a sleeping bag and kipping down in the local hall prior to start. Despite being the only non-Swede entered, I probably lived closest to the actual course so I could have had a reasonable comfortable –albeit short sleep at home before heading to the start. However I decided to take them up on the offer feeling it would part of the experience and managed to get a solid three hours sleep on the gym floor with a dozen or so others.


Ultra Marathon Man/Woman Diet

I ventured out to the start line at 2.30 am to find it snowing reasonably heavily. A table under a tent was piled with bananas, hotdogs, lollies and blueberry soup. My forty fellow participants stamped there feet and swung their arms to keep warm waiting for the fun and games to begin. The occasional 75 km runner arrived, grabbed some food from the tent, headed to the pit area in which a smattering of bags and boxes held competitors spare light batteries, clothes and nutrition. I dumped my bag among the masses, decided to wear my spiked shoes over my non-spiked alternatives figuring I could always change them after 15 km, and after the briefest of words from the organisers in a language I still haven’t faintly come close to mastering, we were off.

My pre-race game plan was to simply go easy. I was there to last the distance, not step on the podium. The steep hills were to be walked, the descents were to be ran fast so that gravity could help me out a bit, and everything in between was to be taken at a very steady pace.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one with the same plan as pace up the gentle starting slope was very slow. I tagged onto the back of the lead group of about ten but after a few hundred metres and they increased their pace ever so slightly, I drifted off the back a little repeating to myself over and over ‘run your own race, don’t worry about what anyone else is doing’. And that is pretty much what I did; I never looked behind myself once the entire race.

It always takes me at least half an hour to get into any sort of physical activity, be it cycling, running, or other strenuous pursuits, and this time it was no different. I spent the first half of the first lap trying to get into the rhythm of things. I walked up the long steep rocky sections, as did everyone, and I motored down the descents keeping very alert on the rocks and roots that protruded offering themselves as easy stumbling blocks for the wary runner. In fact, the snow actually helped considerably as it accumulated on the sharp ridges and rises marking out obstacles very clearly under the powerful head lamps we are sported.

The race was run on quite a contorted and convoluted series of tracks that looped back upon each other continually. Despite running the 15 km trail several times before, I never realised how close outward and homeward parts of the routes were. At night, with everyone under lights I was surprised to find lights heading in the opposite direction only 10 or so metres from me in the forest at several locations throughout the course. I realised how easy it would be to cheat, although what satisfaction one would get from doing that I don’t know… surprisingly I wasn’t tempted.

After 10 or so kilometres I was starting to feel pretty confident. OK, well I still had a whopping 35 kilometres to go, five more than I have ever run before, but I was feeling good, pacing myself well, and enjoying the experience in the middle of the night in temperatures hovering just below freezing. Then, relaxing my mind, my left foot snagged a protruding root, it wrenched painfully to the left, I limped for more than I would have liked and I promised myself not to be so complacent and lose my wandering mind with confidence so early on.


1 lap down, scanning the food table.

Five kilometres later I was back at the start finish. I dibbed my transponder in the portal, quickly scanned the food table for options, shoved a banana and a small cup of blueberry soup down, strolled over to my bag to top up my supplies with another homemade muesli bar, and several minutes after arriving, I was off again for lap two.
As dawn broke half way through the second lap, the birds greeted the halt to the snow with some singing and several deer watched me bounce past their morning daze with bemusement. It felt a little bit unfair to be passing 75 kilometre runners at speed when they had been on the tracks three hours longer than me, but I also started picking up fast starters in the 45 km section which felt pretty good. By the time I had reached the half way mark I had to keep reminding myself that I was only half way. My mind was telling me I was nearly there and my body was coping fine. I slowly increased my pace but was careful to temper the increase with caution and save as much energy as I could for the final lap.

At end of lap two, I looked at the clock for the first time. I had run bang on 3 hours for the first 30 km. My aim of 4.5 hours was in sight. However, it took several minutes to dump my light, grab some nutrition and water and head onto the trail; I knew that I had to put in a fast one to make it.

I started running up most of the hills and continued to pick up stragglers from both the 45 and 75 km events. In the light it was a like a different track and I enjoyed being able to see more than just a white dot of illuminated forest track in front of me, but the white shrouded forest branches, the green evergreen pine forest and the odd red squirrel busily going about his daily business.

Finishing now was not just a goal but a reality and I pushed my body hard to make my targeted four and half hours. I didn’t carry a watch but knew by the speed I was covering the ground, I would surely make the cut off. Besides a watch would have just been a distraction, I listened to my body instead and pushed everything out of it.
I wasn’t a fan of the final three kilometres of the course. It was on the main walking trail, a four metre wide, well graded and gently sloping and curving circular trail. I actually found it quite dull and without the need to concentrate fully while jumping over roots and rocks and other obstacles, weaving in and out of trees at will, and no longer needing to use just as much mental energy as physical energy in order to stay upwards, all I could feel then was the pain.


Among the crowds, not really the most popular running event in Sweden.

My sprint to the line was more of a stagger and a stumble and I placed my transponder in the portal to record a time of 4.27.23. A year and a half ago I couldn’t even run a couple of kilometres without feeling like utter death and was sure my cycling adapted body simply could never cope with something as long and as strenuous as a marathon. I had just run a hilly off-road Ultra Marathon in a reasonably respectable time, I was stoked.

The first port of call was the blueberry wine and then the bowl of lollies for the all-important sugar rush. After five minutes of battling very cold fingers to remove very muddy shoes, I slipped off my damp smelly socks and my feet into my nice comfortable and warm woollen lined winter boots. Argghhh! I then witnessed the women’s 45 km winner arrive. She subsequently collapsed in a heap on the snow, only managing to stand up several minutes later with the help of some reasonably unconcerned looking officials… obviously a common thing at these sorts of events!

Prize giving was at 8am sharp, never mind that half the field was still out running. Some competitors, in between laps, even stopped to observe and cheer the respective winners. I was amazed when people happily jogged up to collect their winnings, even the woman who had collapsed on the finish line only 20 minutes or so earlier. I grabbed myself a sausage off the barbeque, unlocked my bike and gingerly rode home, my thighs in absolute agony!

It took me three days to be able to walk properly, somethings never change I guess. Now, a week later, my left knee still feels a bit tender so I have yet to return to the trails. I will that is for certain. I’m not too sure if I am hooked, however I’m definitely keen for more!