Tuesday, July 1, 2014

RACE REPORT: Haglöfs Åre Extreme Challenge 2014

Haglöfs Åre Extreme Challenge is Team Form Multisport’s biggest annual competition. It consists of an 18 km kayak paddle on Åre lake, followed by a 15 km trail run up and over Åreskutan (elevation gain 1100 m) and then a 32 km MTB back from the town of Huså to Åre center, crossing several more elevation gains and quite a few bogs. Last year, we entered the competition with a goal to finish. This year, our goal was an improved finish, with a stretch goal to be in the top half of the finishers. We are better trained both physically and mentally than we were in 2013, so with a bit of luck those goals seemed achievable.

Arriving on Thursday in Åre with our wives Camilla and Nina (who were there as our support team in the transitions), we immediately noticed a difference in weather compared to 2013. Whereas a year previous we had sat outside in shorts and T-shirts for lunch, this year we were bundled in jeans, fleeces and occasionally rain coats. The temperatures were well below 15C (60F) and the forecast for Saturday was changing hourly. But one thing was clear—it was going to be colder than the previous year.

Saturday morning, we awoke to mostly sunny skies and temperatures which actually felt quite nice. The forecasts were calling for warming throughout the day and no rain, with max temperatures just around 15C. After a final inventory of options, we dressed in our triathlon shorts and short-sleeved tops from SKINS and complemented those with arm and leg warmers from GripGrab. We each packed light jackets for the run as well as hats and gloves. At around 8:15 AM we carried our kayaks down to the shore and crossed the entry mat at the edge of the beach. Filled with nervous energy, we made final equipment checks and by 8:45 we were in the water, which was starting to get quite choppy. The wind was picking up across Åre Lake and it was blowing directly against the current, which was creating swells that were a challenge to hold your balance against.

At 9:00 AM something sounding like a gun sounded and a few people started to paddle. Others were yelling that that was not the start and there was a minute of mass confusion before a horn sounded and everyone started in earnest. The course across Åre Lake takes you first south to a buoy which everyone must pass on the western side before turning south east and heading for a small peninsula which juts out from the southern shore. It is narrow at the buoy and there is always mass confusion there and a few people falling in the water, but this year it was even more chaotic due to the wind and waves. Lots of people were already in the water by the time we made the turn and we got separated by quite a distance with David ahead by 100 m at times. It was quite difficult to break free from the packs of boats at first and quite dangerous to be looking for your teammate, since every time you turn in the boat you create an instability that could result in a loss of balance.

However, by the turn towards the first portage we had caught up to each other again and neither of us had fallen into the water, despite increasingly stronger winds that were dumping people in less stable kayaks everywhere. Just before the portage, we actually saw a boat get caught in the wind and tumble over the water several times. It looked like tumbleweed in an old western film. At 9:56 we crossed the time mat on the first portage and then it was back into the boats towards Tegeforsen which is located approximately 6 km upstream from the beach where we started. This section of the paddling was upstream, but the wind was at our backs so actually it was quite fun. Waves were building on the lake and you could feel the increase in speed as each wave caught the boat and pushed it forward. We maintained a steady pace until the turn at the waterfall and then felt the wind at our faces as we pushed on towards Åre Beach. By now the wind was blowing hard and we came out of the river and into the lake the waves were incredible—3 feet (1 m) high and crashing against the hull of the kayaks. At this point, all focus was lost on the effort of paddling, or the speed at which we were traveling (4km/hr!); the goal was only to keep the boat upright and not end up in the water. At times it felt like you were not moving at all, just riding up a wave and crashing down on its backside, but eventually we reached the beach and lifted the boats for the run to the depot which lay 250 meters away. Everything was sore now, especially our fingers which had cramped around our paddles due to the force we were exerting to hold our boats into the wind. Stories emerged later that one of the rescue boats had actually started to sink due to the amount of people plucked from the cold lake.

After leaving the boats we continued to run (with our lifevests, per the competition rules) to the transition zone near Åre Preschool. Nina and Camilla were great and helped us get on our running shoes, water packs and jackets. Poles in hands, we crossed the transition mat at 12:00 and started the climb up towards Åreskutan. The first part of the course takes you to a metal staircase by Hotel Tott which puts you under a ski lift on a trail so steep that as you place your poles ahead of you, their tops are at your eye level. Running here is not an option—it is just a steady climb up 800 m before some sections start to level out and where you can make short stints at a jogging pace. We were eating PowerGels every 30 minutes or so and drinking regularly which was important considering the amount of energy we had spent during the kayaking. We shed our jackets at some point because it was warm in the sun, but just shy of the top we made the smart decision to put our jackets back on. This turned out to be brilliant, because 100 m farther on the trail we were completely exposed to the winds at the top and they were whipping across the face of the mountain. We quickly ran past the top hut, grabbed a banana from the volunteer manning the refreshment station, and headed down the back side.

The ascent had taken us 1:30 (so it was 1:30 PM) and we were feeling quite good. The initial stages down are quite technical with lots of rocks and small jumps to maneuver, but eventually the trail gets a bit more defined and we had started to jog a bit more regularly. There is a snow field on that side of the mountain which David rode down on his butt like a kid on a sled—a brilliant tactic for speed that we can definitely recommend to others. We then crossed into the bogs which exist on the lower side of the mountain and eventually entered the gravel road which leads towards Huså. This is a rather monotonous section that last year felt like it lasted forever, but this year passed quickly and as we entered the ski slope which descends to the final transition we were running like crazy.

Once again, Nina and Camilla greeted us and helped us to change and fuel before the mountain bike leg. We had 15 minutes before the closing of Huså, having completed the decent in 1 hour and 15 minutes. (You are disqualified if you don’t cross the transition mat by 3 PM.) So it was onto the bikes and away we went, with new hydration packs filled and new sets of gloves from GripGrab. The start of the bike route covers a long gravel road, and this was a good chance for us to spin out our legs before entering the forest and some of the smaller (and wetter) trails.

We crossed a few very muddy bogs where the only option was to lead the bike—in some places we were up to our knees in mud. But we kept reminding each other that every step was another step closer to the finish and we were still averaging between 10 and 22 km/hr. Then, 5 km into the bike a near disaster struck when Jon’s chain broke on an uphill climb. But it was only a near disaster as we kept our heads about us, pulled a chain tool out of the tool bag and managed to repair the damage. At this point we decided to take it easy in order to minimize the stress on the chain. (We really wanted to finish without any of the mechanical heroics that were required for Jon to finish Lindingö MTB.) Still, with speeds as high as 22 km/hr we pushed forward, at one point meeting our Twitter friend MarkuuMellanen for the first time face to face in the middle of the forest, and crossing the timing mat in Björnen at 16:42. (Camilla and Nina were waiting at the road crossing to cheer us along!)

Back into the woods again and over numerous bogs, ascents and descents, and in what felt like no time we were back at Tott where we had run earlier in the day. Now we followed the steep climb up to the top of Getrappet, a very technical downhill switchback trail which descends the face of Åreskutan towards Åre center. 

Fortunately, David had had the brilliant idea to practice this the day before, so we knew where all of the tricky turns were and managed to descend without event, arriving at the bottom of the ski lift with just 2 minutes left to 18:03, our finish time from 2013. Should we go for it? We decided to push, but Jon’s chain wasn’t having any of it and kept jumping on the rear cassette, so we had to take it easy to cross the finish together as the rules require. At 18:03:17 we crossed the finish line, just 12 seconds longer than the previous year.

Reflecting on the day, we had to be flexible with our goals. We finished 37th of 57 teams that started, so not far from our stretch goal of top 50%. We didn’t finish faster than last year, but we ran and biked faster, and managed to perform some heroic bicycle repairs in the process. And we paddled an extremely difficult kayak section which was far more challenging than that we did in 2013. So did we achieve our goals? No, not technically speaking. But were we happy with our performance? Absolutely. And in the end, that is all that matters. :-) 


  1. Great report! Happy to hear that you was able to repair the chain and finish the race! We was beside you when it broke, few kilometers later, with quite some pain, we asked our self why we didn't gave up our bikes to you... /#657

    1. LOL! Glad you didn't and that we all made it to the finish! /Jon