Skyracing in Tromso, Norway
On Friday morning, August 2nd, I woke up and immediately regretted last night. I hadn’t been out partying or anything, I had just done my first VK (vertical kilometer) race. I had come to Tromso, Norway for the Hamperokken Skyrace that Saturday and figured why not tack on the Blamann Sea to Summit, an uphill race of 1044m in 2.8km mostly on steep, scrambly rock 36 hours before. My extremely sore/tired quads told me why not. The VK had gone fine as I tried not to go too hard but that’s impossible, it’s a very tough race. It would be a tough hike even if you’re not racing it. I had an arbitrary goal of breaking an hour and I finished in 57:32 so that was good. Once the race is over you have to go back down and even hiking down that elevation will make you feel it.
After breakfast on Friday, my wife Tara and I walked the first part of the Skyrace. We went over the bridge and instead of the first 400m climb we took a cable car up to Fjellheisen. We then hiked up to Floya (671m), the first of many minor summits on the race course. My legs felt better after walking for a couple hours but I’d see tomorrow if I really made a mistake.
Saturday morning went well. The 8:00 start was perfect for me, as I’m not a morning person, and soon I was waiting with around 200 other runners for the start. In typical European fashion most runners went out fast! I can’t understand sprinting the first mile of an ultramarathon so I started near the middle and was soon being passed by dozens of runners as we crossed the bridge out of town and ran pavement for the first couple miles. We entered onto a nice dirt trail that started to climb quickly. Without really pushing too hard I was passing a number of runners that had whizzed by me on the streets, I know my strengths and just need to be patient. In the blink of an eye I was at the first aid station at the top of the cable car and then back up at Floya. As I looked ahead of me, I could see the lead runners way in the distance already.
Another short climb up to Bontuva (776m) led us to a good downhill to our first unofficial water stop of the day. One of the neat things about running in northern Norway is the stream water is 100% drinkable without treatment. I guess a combination of cold temps and the low population of people and animals keep the bacteria levels down. The water was cold and delicious and after filling up I heading into the days first real climb up Tromdalstind (1238m). It went from steep and smooth to steep and rocky. The climb took a while and I passed a few more people to summit after 2:37 in 16.5km.
In the pre-race meeting they had told us about the snowfield on Tromdalstind. It didn’t look that bad until I got there. It was a 45-degree slope that looked like it went off a cliff. A hundred pair of feet had worn two deep grooves in the snow that I started to slide down as slow as possible. The snow then steepened but the race organizers had a couple of posts with a rope to help us on the last little bit. Once past the snow I got to deal with the steepest sustained downhill I have ever seen. This off trail section goes down around 750m in 1.75km. If you are not good with the conversions, that’s 2500 ft. in about 1.1 miles!
The course got more runnable as it continued to drop into the Breivikeidet valley and aid station number 2. I ate a bunch of orange slices and headed off to the meat of this race. When we were up high on Tromdalstind, you can see this jagged ridgeline in the distance and you think to yourself, that can’t be it, it’s way too far away. But yes, that is it, Hamperokken.
A short runnable bit through birch trees led me to a ridge that got steeper and rockier as I climbed. Soon the peak was in view. I love technical ridges so I wasn’t worried at all about this one but this is where Hillary Allen from CO fell about 150 feet two years ago and nearly died, so it definitely keeps your attention. The rock is a super solid white granite, very reminiscent of the White Mountains of NH, and mostly easy to hike. Once on the ridge I did zero running for about 1.8km (1mi) and eventually got up to the summit cone that involved a short section of 4th class climbing to the top of Hamperokken (1404m) in 5:56. The race organizers had strung up some safety ropes to help with the last bit of the climb.
The views from the summit were unbelievable. The race had apparently never had weather conditions as perfect as we were being treated to. It was perfectly clear and sunny and the temperatures stayed in the 50’s all day.
I was at the 30km mark, basically the halfway point of the race in terms of distance, and I had done probably 60% of the climbing. If I kept moving, I thought a 12-hour finish was possible. I felt great, the descent off Hamperokken did not. It was again off trail, and the first 700m down was all steep loose rock/dirt/boulders. I took one fall during the race and it was here. My feet slipped out on marble sized rocks and I scratched up my arm and both legs pretty good. There was so much blood on my legs, medical personnel in the US would’ve stopped me to take a look but they’re a little more nonchalant in Europe it seems. No one even mentioned it.
Eventually we reached a boulder field that led us to a beautiful mountain lake and some ice-cold water. The lake was actually still partially covered in ice. A bit of running brought me back to Breivikeidet where I spent 5 minutes or more eating all of their food. I had gotten really hungry and the cheese and sausage hit the spot. I was also likely procrastinating since I knew what lie ahead, the return climb up Tromdalstind.
It was as rough as I expected, climbed a vertical half mile, and I thought it would never end. Somehow, I passed people but I still felt like I was dragging pretty hard. The relief I got at the top of that last climb, having completed 42 out of 57km, was euphoric.
The descent was on a different ridge than the two we had already climbed and it consisted of large boulders for a while. Eventually after a sizable descent of about 1000m, myself and an Italian runner made it into a nice valley where we chatted while jogging along. We passed a couple of kids playing in a stream and I wanted to stop and join them. We made a left-hand turn to start the last climb of the race on a long and gently rolling uphill. I ate a gel and a pack of honey stinger gummies, put my head down and ran.
Soon I had lost my Italian friend. I wanted to be done. I had been out for 10 ½ hours and was exhausted, but I kept reminding myself, the more you run the faster you’re done. I ran every step I could, even up some hills. It actually felt good to run after a long day of power hiking and speed checking steep descents. Picking my way through rocky terrain is fun, but it’s not running. Thanks to this my legs had a little life in them. I wasn’t flying but I was moving.
When I got back to Fjellheisen, the last aid station of the race, I ran right through it. One of the volunteers yelled “do you need anything?”. I said “I need to go down” and down I went. I ran two 10 minute miles on the steep smooth downhill dropping 400m back to the pavement. From there I sped up. Dropping into high 8 minute pace over the bridge and then into low 8 minute pace for the section through Tromso to the finish line. I finished in 11:43, which was good enough for 74th of 126 finishers. I’m not exactly sure how many starters there were (about 190?) because if you missed the first cut-off you could get a finish time for the shorter Tromsdalstind race happening the same day.
This was a really awesome experience. As a Skyrace, this one is one of the hardest out there. The race management was top notch with a very well-marked course and tight cut-offs. The terrain was extremely challenging but especially beautiful. My fitness was not what I wanted it to be heading into this, as I’ve been dealing with an ankle issue, so I decided to enjoy myself as much as possible. Mission accomplished. I felt good all day, took lots of pictures, and smiled the whole time. Unlike when I raced the (UTMB) TDS in 2015, runners were very friendly and I engaged in many conversations throughout the day. After a couple of rest days Tara and I traveled to southern Norway where we did some sightseeing, hiking, glacier walking, and a couple of via ferrata routes. Norway really is an outdoor person’s dream.