First things first:
This race was less of a race than it was an expedition. For starters:
- The temperature when I finished was -16º and it didn’t get warmer than -8º the entire day.
- There were entire sections of the race that I hiked knee deep through snow and some where I stepped all the way up to my hip.
- The aid stations were just a fire and a clipboard to sign in and out of the station. No water. No snacks. No food. Nothing.
- When I drank all the water I was carrying, I had to melt more from the snow…
- …but it was so cold that the water just froze in my bottles a couple miles later…
- So there was a good 10 mile section of the race where I would just scoop up snow to eat and let it melt in my mouth to stay hydrated.
- Also, I thought I broke my toe…but luckily, it just turned out to be a bruise that took over my entire foot.
- It was so cold, the camera I was carrying with me – which had an 8 hour battery life – died immediately.
- And I got lost twice thanks to missing race markers…
Sounds like a fun race, huh?
Here’s how it went down…
The Rovaniemi 66km Race
I ended up booking this race by searching for races in Europe during February. When I re-arranged a bunch of the dates for 777, I knew that most of the mountain ultras in the summer in Europe weren’t going to be an option.
The Rovaniemi 66km popped up, and I pretty much booked it because it worked for the dates I needed before reading anything about it…
I knew I was going to be running in Finland in the winter, but I didn’t immediately realize I was going to be running in the arctic.
Turns out, Finland is cold. And Rovaniemi is colder. If you’re not sure how cold it might get, realize that the town bills itself as the “Official home of Santa Claus” – so if nothing else, it’s Santa Claus level cold.
Anyways…on to the race…
When we got into Rovaniemi, the first thing I did was go for a run to shakeout my legs.
The hard thing about traveling so much while trying to stay in ultra-shape is you can spend a day+ in airports and planes, and unless you have a long layover, you can’t do much to shake out the legs.
I was pretty cold-ready with my gear due to the Antarctica race prep (see my Antarctica packing list here), so I threw on my gear and went out.
It was -5º to -10º and while that is about the same temperature as it was on Union Glacier, it felt colder. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it probably had something to do with it being winter in the arctic versus summer in Antarctica just a few weeks prior.
We went to the mandatory pre-race meeting (I made sure to make this one after getting penalized in my Thailand race for missing it) and it was interesting. The race director was quite the character.
At the mandatory pre-race meeting prepping for our race tomorrow. Director ended the meeting by telling us about a guy 2 years ago that lost 6 toes. 😬 . Note to self: bring a spare set of socks (or two). . . . . . #777project #finland #rovaniemi66 #rovaniemi #ultrarunning #ultramarathon #endurance #athlete #pushyourlimits #dosomethingimpossible
He opened the meeting up talking about how a guy in a previous year lost 6 toes. SIX! Apparently the guy had frost bite and then dunked his feet. The director made the analogy of dropping an ice cube in a pot of boiling water and watching it pop + crack except those pops and cracks are your blood vessels in your feet.
For that reason, he had a hilariously long, long list of things you could do and be disqualified.
- Miss the meeting? Disqualified.
- Share race resources? Disqualified.
- No mandatory gear? Disqualified.
- Miss the checkpoints? Disqualified.
- Bad attitude? You’re disqualified.
You get the picture.
We go over the basics, I go back to my room, lay out my gear and head to bed.
Race start time is at 9am, so I eat a few eggs, pack up my bag.
As I’m packing up my bag, my water bladder for the race just completely bursts (about 20 minutes before the race) all over the kitchen floor. It was too late to fix it or diagnose what happened, so I threw it in the sink and put two water bottles in my pack instead and rolled out.
We headed out to the start line – in the middle of a frozen river – and looked around at the variety of characters taking on this challenge. I would say 40% were fat bikers, 40% were skiers and 20% were runners, with only a hundred or so odd people spread out across the various distances and disciplines (there were a handful of skiers and bikers doing a multi-day 300km race).
The first 10k of the race was on a frozen river. I thought it’d be super slippery, but there was a good 18-24 inches of packed snow on top of the ice, so it was nice, flat running conditions. I liked running on it more than I thought I would.
After about 10-12km, we turned left and started climbing into some snowmobile trails.
I thought these would be some nice rolling hills, but they turned out to be steep, snowy paths that were unpacked and I’d often stick my foot through the snowpack a full 6 inches or more.
After about 20k, we turned down this winding path which the race director lovingly referred to as the “pain in the ass” section of the race.
It was a winding section that just went between trees. There was no path, just a series of yellow flags attached to trees telling you which trees to aim for. The sticks and the forest made it so there was no running this part. No matter how skilled you were – you couldn’t move quickly at all.
The path spat us out onto a frozen lake – which seemed nice – until you realized it was the never-ending lake. Despite being super flat, there was section after section where the lake narrowed and you thought the section would end, only to open back up and keep going.
After about 35km, I was completely out out of water. I stopped at checkpoint 3 or 4 and stole a pan, scooped up a ton of snow from the side of the path. It added about 15 minutes to that mile’s time, but it was worth it…
I drank a good amount of it, but after a couple miles, the water had frozen solid again.
About 10k later, the path split into about 3 paths with no markings on which one to take. One direction, I was 100% confident was not the right way to go. The second path was the snowmobile path (which was paved, but seemed to be going in the wrong direction). The third path looked like other paths we had run on previously – marked, but not super packed down. However, it was going in the direction I needed to go – directly to the river – so I decided to try it tout.
In other words, as the classic story goes, 2 forks diverged in a wood, and I …I took the path less traveled…and….it was a terrible decision.
I started down the path and stuck a foot in about 6 inches of snow. Annoying, but not unusual – this had happened plenty of times this race.
I took another step, this time I went down about 12 inches, to my mid-shin level in snow.
But I’m not a quitter, so I took another step and went straight up to my crotch in snow.
At this point, I realized pretty quickly that:
- This couldn’t be the right path and…
- Even if it was, there was no way I was going to do another mile like this…
So I turned around and headed back to where I had come from, but along the way, I kept stepping in pockets of unpacked snow and suddenly be thigh-deep in a snow bank. I tried to move quickly before the snow would swallow me like quicksand and my run turned into a version of the “floor-is-lava” game you played as a kid on the living furniture – frantically trying not to sink into the snow.
Finally, I landed back on the well paved, if unmarked path and sure enough, a half mile later, I saw our trusty yellow flags.
I kept running and scooping snow off of trees – thanks to my half-filled, 100% frozen water bottle.
I hit checkpoint #5 and met a guy dropping out – a science teacher from the UK. He told me that in his class they taught that bubble wrapped around a bottle helps keep the water from freezing.
I called BS, but he pulled out 2 bottles he had been carrying with him and sure enough, the normal one was frozen solid and the bubble-wrapped one was cold, but liquid. #science
Since he was dropping out, he offered me his bottle, which I accepted and took off.
But due to my excitement of my latest scientific discovery, I made a crucial error.
As I ran out of the checkpoint, I knew there was a section of the race where we’d have to switch from running on the right side of the river to the left side due to “thin ice.”
As I ran out of the checkpoint, after about 1/4 mile, the path started curving left and I assumed that this was the section they were talking about. As I followed it to the other side of the river, it turned again, so I was facing the wrong direction. I was a little confused, but there seemed to be a crook in the path up ahead that continued in the right direction, so I thought that maybe this was an elaborate path around the thin ice.
You can probably guess what happened next…
Turns out, the turn I thought would take me to the other side just did a little sidestep and kept going in the wrong direction.
By the time I realized what was happening, I was already half way around. Yes, some smartass paved a gigantic circle in the middle of the lake and I ran a mile loop in the middle of an ultra marathon for funsies.
As I finished the loop, I saw the checkpoint person waving at me and I let them know that I knew I had screwed up. Apparently several people had fallen for it and run an extra loop – so I felt just slightly less stupid than I would have otherwise.
As I ran on the river, my pace was able to pick up slightly. It was a lot easier running on the frozen ice & packed snow.
I hit another checkpoint, refilled my now-working-science-class-waterbottle (this was the only refill station on the course) and kept going. As I got about 2 miles away from the finish, I took a break to catch a sip of water, looked around and was surprised to see a flash of green in the sky.
After wondering why it was so light out, I realized what I was looking at – The Northern Lights!
Surprisingly, it wasn’t completely obvious to me at first, but even though I should have been kicking it to finish strong, I took a few minutes to take in the views.
As I passed under the bridge about a mile from the finish line, I picked it up.
I ran past the start line and into town. Unlike any other race I’ve ever run, the finish for this race was INSIDE the hotel where we did the pre-race briefing. Apparently, the race staff didn’t like the idea of waiting outside in -15º weather for anywhere between 12 and 36 hours for the different finishers to come in, so the final checkpoint was in the middle of town and inside a conference room at the hotel.
I made my way up out of the river and across the icy sidewalks in town that were not really cleared well enough to run on. I ran into the lobby where some finishers were having coffee and into the conference room.. Weirdest. Finish. Line. Ever.
this is my post-race happy face
Overall, I felt like this was an expedition more than an ultra. As the 4th race in 6 weeks, I could tell that my legs were feeling it, but even so running in the arctic was surprisingly fun (unmarked paths and frozen water-bottle withstanding).
As I finished the race, I thought I actually had broken a couple bones in my foot. When I took my shoe off, I found out just how bad it was. LUCKILY, I got to experience the Finnish hospital system, got an x-ray and found out that nothing was actually broken. However, it did not look good.
WARNING – GROSS FOOT PHOTO COMING UP
Despite how it looks, the x-ray came back clear. Nothing broken just (according to my Finnish doctor) "too much work." . Who would have thought 4 ultras in 6 weeks would qualify as too much work? . Swelling is going down but I'll give it a week or so before testing it again. . Hopefully I'm not speaking too soon, but I should be able to leave Finland with all my toes 🤞🏼😬🤞🏼
Despite all that. Race #6 is in the books & DONE. BOOM
Only one more to go.
Two Oceans, Capetown, South Africa is coming up in April.
Let’s do this.
p.s. I did go to check out Santa’s official village, but it turned out to be a hell-hole of crying children and parents with a look of dire look of regret in their eyes. Also, it was unsettling that all around Santa’s supposed “home”, he’s got a bunch of statues of himself. Who does that?
The 777 Project
The 777 Project is an endurance, adventure and philanthropic initiative by Joel Runyon & IMPOSSIBLE to run 7 ultra marathons on 7 continents in order to raise money & awareness to build 7 schools with Pencils of Promise and provide opportunities to those for whom a basic education can be impossible.
As of this post, I’ve run 6 ultra marathons on 6 continents and we’ve collectively raised $126,692 – enough to build 5 schools – and counting! You can see previous races recaps + videos below.
I am matching all donations through IMPOSSIBLE through the end of the project. If you’d like to get involved, you can donate here and 2x your donation automatically.
Previous 777 Race Recaps
- #1 – Patagonia International Marathon
- #2 – Chicago Ultra 50k
- #3 – The Narrabeen All Nighter
- #4 – The Ice Marathon 100k
- #5 – The North Face Thailand 50k
Previous 777 Race Shorts
Sid Savara says
Slightly disappointed in overselling of “gross foot” pic. Hopefully you get enough rest before you head down to Cape Town.
Joel Runyon says
Ha – it was definitely grosser in person 🙂
Stan Church says
Great job. Entertaining and informative writing. How’s the foot now? Are you recuperating in Bali?
Awesome job! Great photos and post too. And bubble wrap, who knew??! I’ll be looking forward to more updates.
Chris Reynolds says
Great write up Joel…I really enjoyed reading this one.
John Mason says
I have been to Finland and yes it is an amazing place. keep up the good work.