Words by Abi Butcher | Photos by IGO Adventures
It’s 6.30am and bitterly cold. The sun is still hovering beneath the horizon, seemingly as reluctant as I was to get out of bed an hour ago, when I had to line up for a marathon across the mountains of Norway. This is day four of the IGO Adventures N60 Challenge, a quadrathlon that’s had me ski-touring, cross-country skiing, fat biking and now running my way from Hemsedal to Geilo, on plateaus more often used by the British military to train special forces. Seventeen of us have been camping at night and increasingly exhausting ourselves beyond all reason by day.
It’s the first event IGO Adventures has staged. Founder Bobby Melville devised the idea while rowing across the Atlantic in 2014. During the 48-day race, which his team won despite having no previous ocean experience, Bobby decided he wanted to give “real adventure" to folk who couldn’t disappear off grid for months at a time.
"[The founder] wanted to give “real adventure" to folk who couldn’t disappear off grid for months at a time…"
I’m a ski and adventure travel journalist with a reputation for taking on physical challenges, and so it was that I found myself in Norway having had just 10 days to prepare thanks to a last-minute invitation to compete. Because I hadn’t trained properly, and have had an ACL reconstruction and several other operations on my left knee, I planned to walk this last stage, not run. But things had gone surprisingly well throughout and I’d finished day three, the cross-country ski, in sixth place and knew that I had more in me.
I’ve long been hooked on pushing my own personal boundaries, excited and strangely curious at how I can use my mind to will my body through extraordinary physical barriers. It started nine years ago, when I entered a horse race at Goodwood for charity. My fitness reached a level I’d never attained before, thanks to twice-weekly sessions with a sports scientist and honing my skills on the racecourse several times a week.
I then turned my attention to sailing. I began offshore yacht racing in 2011 and a year later raced across the North Atlantic, a storm-ridden, hellish journey that took 15 days and during which I feared for my life on more than one occasion. There followed ski mountaineering races, cycling challenges and training for an ironman that I sadly never managed to start due to injury.
"My cold and tired hip flexors, quads and calves screamed with every step to the point I could barely pick up my feet…"
And so here I was on the start line of a marathon, three days into my first multi-day endurance event, which was far tougher than anything I’d ever experienced before. After yet another night of sleep broken by piercing chill, we’d risen at 5am: excitement in our voices as the camp stirred into life in semi-darkness. There was sadness that the adventure was nearly over, but excitement that a warm bed and hot shower would be waiting for us at the end, rather than another wet wipe wash.
I’d prepared my race pack the night before, having learnt on day one that trying to fill water containers and mix in hydration powder, measure out my home-made trail mix and count out energy gels is hard when delirious with sleep deprivation, fatigue and cold. I shuffled around camp mixing warm water with my expedition ration breakfast of porridge and hot chocolate, my cold and tired hip flexors, quads and calves screamed with every step to the point I could barely pick up my feet.
I washed down a couple of ibuprofen with a Berocca while the camp physio, Mark Reid, loosened up my legs and hips, and strapped up my knee. Having planned to walk the marathon, I had only a pair of Merrell Capra walking boots, designed for scrambling, but Mark was here for mental support, as well as physical. “What do you mean you’re not going to run?" he countered when I’d announced the night before that my race was over. He pressed the right button, but ten minutes into the marathon, over 40km of ice and snow from our campsite in Myrland to the Vestlia Hotel in Geilo to go, I didn’t think I could jog one more step.
I wasn’t alone; everyone was suffering. The expedition medics accompanying us spent every night lancing blisters, patching hips and shoulders, with three of our group carrying serious injuries. While I wasn’t racing hard, as a ski journalist my winter spent in the mountains had stood me in good stead against my fellow, mainly desk-bound, participants, who had, by now, become family.
"“What do you mean you’re not going to run?"…he'd pressed the right button…"
I winced with pain, completely unable to summon any energy. What were my options, I asked myself? 1. Give up altogether 2. Start walking (which would only prolong the pain) or 3. Shut the noise out and get on with it. There was no option: I picked up the pace, pressed play on my iTunes and started to really run.
Soon, I found myself beside a lake, with half the field ahead of me, and half behind, when IGO founder Bobby Melville chugged up alongside me. We stopped briefly to take photographs in the still of the morning, silvery birch trees lining the frozen expanse of water, the pink sun finally warming the sky over the distant mountain peaks. “Come on!" he said cheeringly, with his custom grin: “I’ve never run a marathon in my life either!"
An hour in, what had begun as a personal hell had transformed to a heaven. As I passed the paramedic checkpoint at the entrance to Hallingskarvet National Park, in which government permission would have to be sought for a motorised rescue, I knew I was completely alone save for a GPS that showed race organisers my whereabouts and allowed me to make an emergency “red button" call should the worst happen.
The sun, by now high in the sky, warmed the air though it was also fast melting the ice causing it to give way perilously. Every few metres I fell through the snow crust, up to my knee or sometimes thigh, and I’d have to waste even more precious energy picking myself back up.
I stopped at the highest point, 1,200m, to take a selfie in the endless white desert, causing my iPhone to die in the cold. Irritated to be without stimulating music I battled on in eerie but beautiful silence. How was I feeling? Utterly euphoric: I felt I could run forever.
By now, I knew how to break barriers and turn adversity to my favour. After day one’s 1000m ascent in a 14km ski touring race, I’d slept not a jot, shivering uncontrollably, fully clothed in my four-season sleeping bag, when the camp fire went out. We slept in traditional Norwegian Lavuu tents (much like a tipi) but the wood provided for the fires inside was kiln-dried, so logs burned out within 30 minutes. The subsequent nights I set an hourly alarm to remind me to fuel the fire.
"How was I feeling? Utterly euphoric: I felt I could run forever."
Day two was fat biking, and a stage that nearly broke every single one of us. With two transatlantic rowers, one regular marathon runner, one keen cyclist, a former professional squash player and a polo player in our midst, as well as entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, risk managers and a top orthodontist, we were all accomplished sports men and women and driven characters. But five hours spent alternately pushing up, and sliding down, 35km of warm, slushy mountains, was hell on earth. Brake at the wrong time and you are catapulted over the handlebars, swiftly followed by a 15kg lump of metal hammering you, quite literally, into the ground.
Pre-race, N60 route planner Rune Abrahamsen had described the terrain as “undulating" but it felt more like mountain after mountain, with each corner exposing not the welcome sight of lavuu tents and wisps of smoke from a camp fire but yet another vast swathe of white wilderness punctuated by peaks to climb.
The cross-country ski race on day three was shortened to 30km on account of our extreme fatigue and lack of technique: most competitors (including me) had done little more cross-country skiing than an hour’s practice the day before the N60 Challenge began. It was here that I sustained serious tears in my hip flexors, but again my time in the mountains proved an advantage, as did my love of Falke socks, while everyone compared blisters each night in camp, my feet were remarkably unscathed.
As I hit the road 5km from the final finish line in Geilo, I glanced at my watch, suddenly aware that if I kept up the pace I could finish my first ever marathon, over snowy mountains after three previous days of marathon-distance events, in less than five hours. Cursing the fact I’d stopped to take pictures I pounded on, spurred on by an encouraging text from a friend at home watching my progress on the race tracker.
"It was here that I sustained serious tears in my hip flexors…"
Thirty minutes later I climbed over the finish line, arms aloft, euphoric to the extreme. I could barely walk, but I’d made it, maintaining my sixth place overall and landing me first place in the women’s division by nearly two hours. Every competitor finished bar one poor chap who was withdrawn by doctors for a serious issue on with his hip. To say he was disappointed would be an understatement.
The race was a life-changing experience but pushing myself to the edge very nearly broke me. For weeks afterwards I suffered serious fatigue, my body warning me that I’d overstepped the mark expecting it perform to the max with such little training. I struggled to walk up the stairs and no amount of sleep, caffeine or food would give me any kind of lift. It did eventually pass, but it’s a lesson I won’t forget in a hurry. In fact I’m already preparing for my next race, the 60km Elk Mountain Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen in Colorado in March 2017. And nothing, this time, is going to hold me back.
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The N60 2017 Challenge takes place 12-18 March, visit igoadventures.com
Abi’s Kit Tips
Helmet — Rather than take separate ski and bike helmets, I used the super-lightweight, breathable Salomon MTN Lab Helmet (salomon.com)
Merrell Capra boots — waterproof walking boots that fit like a trainer, these are designed for scrambling, and saw me through a marathon in the mountains as well as keeping my feet warm and dry around camp (merrell.com)
Backpack — the Salomon Agile 12L was the perfect size as a day-pack, with an in-built water reservoir (crucially, with insulation) and a stretch fit specifically for running (salomon.com)
Compression clothing — I never exercise without this now, and found it an absolute essential for a multi-day endurance event in the cold, to support tired muscles, joints and minimise injury. I used Skins A400 for running and cycling (under padded shorts!), Skins DNAmic Thermals for ski touring and cross-country skiing and Skins Recovery tights every night (skins.net)
Expedition-weight gloves — North Face Nuptse Mitts keep out serious cold, (thenorthface.co.uk)
Sports-specific socks, two pairs for each day — my feet stayed blister-free throughout the entire race and I credit Falke’s quick-wicking and ergonomic cushioning ski touring, cycling, running and cross-country ski socks (falke.com)
The warmest coat you can find — my Canada Goose parka doubled up as a spare blanket at night and kept me warm pre and post-race. (canadagoose.com)
Lightweight, windproof shell — North Face’s new Fuseform Cesium Anorak was the ideal layer, scrunching into nothing at the bottom of my pack (thenorthface.co.uk)
Nutrition — I can’t stomach any artificial goos and gels, which makes taking on 4,000 calories a day while racing hard. I couldn’t do any of my races without the all-natural Shake33 Chia Energy Gels (33shake.com) or Skratch Labs exercise hydration mix (wiggle.co.uk)