Above latitude 68 – NUTS Pallas 2015 review

By John Ryan

I have always been fascinated with the Arctic Circle and what it is like in the extreme days they experience – from days of darkness to nothing but daylight. Fortunately I got the opportunity to experience this first hand on the Nuts Pallas 125km Ultra in July 2015 and find out if my mind would be either powered by 24 hour sunlight or exhausted by it.

John Ryan Photo by Aapo Laiho 900 px

Before Sunset (Photo by Aapo Laiho – link to his great Flickr album of the race)

Getting there

The race is located just above the Arctic Circle with a number of airports nearby. If you are travelling with others, hiring a car is a great option, as the roads are good and there aren’t many of them, so it’s hard to get lost. I was travelling solo, so I flew to Kittilla airport and took a taxi (approx. €70) to the starting line in the town of Äkaslompolo. With the finishing point in Hetta, there was a bus from Hetta to Kittilä airport at around 07:30 on the Sunday morning, which got me back to the airport hours before my flight – just make sure you finish the race in time! There are many accommodation options, and I stayed in a ski hotel that is part of the Lapland Hotels in Äkaslompolo. The staff were friendly, the rooms were simple and clean, there was wifi everywhere and the food was excellent.

The difference between daytime and night-time

The difference between daytime and night-time can be seen in the photos below, taken at 1pm and 1am, which gives you an idea of the change in light. At no stage during the race did I need a head lamp, but if the weather turns on you or you get injured and need to signal for help, you will find out too late why it is still a requirement!

Photo 1 by John Ryan

1pm and 1am (Photos by John Ryan)

Race format

The race format is interesting, as the start time is midnight, so I had all day Friday to try and sleep, eat and get ready. Instead of a hearty breakfast before the race, I had a delicious reindeer stew with chips!

You can register for the race at race HQ at the finish line in Hetta or at the start line in Äkaslompolo. The start line is in the town, so you can park close to it and sort out final preparations and cheer on the finishers of the 23 km race. There are no public toilets at the start line, but there is a bar/restaurant. You can drop your bag at either Hetta or, if you prefer, at the start line and it will be delivered to the mid-point (Pallas Hotel) and the finishing line in Hetta.

The race manual provided is very good and provides a lot of useful information, including GPX files for watches.

Online GPS tracking is provided, which is great for those supporting you back home. I didn’t realise that I had to turn it on until half-way through the race, so mine lasted to the end, unlike other runners’ units, which died near the end and created a bit of confusion with people calling and asking why the runners had stopped for the last hour!

The race follows paths through the national park, and the navigation was very good – I took only one minor wrong turn in the entire race. Some single file-tracks started off the race and this very quickly spread out the group, so within 5-10km you were running in smaller groups of people.

Terrain

Mosquitoes are everywhere!

I thought people were joking – why would mosquitoes be this far north, so far away from anything edible? For some unknown reason, the place is infested with them, and you can’t stop for more than 30 seconds before they start swarming around you looking for blood. Sit for 10 minutes and they will probably suck you dry – the Piranhas of the North! You really do need to have a good spray with you; I bought some of the local stuff, which worked well, but as you are sweating a lot, you need to keep re-spraying.

The First 70km

This was probably the toughest race I have ever done from a technical point of view. The park paths had not been maintained in years, which meant you had to concentrate hard if you were not used to ducking, diving, and weaving around/over/under/through trees, branches, rocks and reindeer! I love running through forests in these conditions, but I don’t have the technical skill or the ability to concentrate for this distance to keep up my target pace. So, it was pretty tough going and required much more concentration than the simple trail runs I have done in the past – the photo below hopefully gives you an idea of the difficultly involved (the rocky bit is the path).

Photo 4 by John Ryan

The rocky bit is the path (Photo by John Ryan)

Having said that, it was indeed beautiful, and the place is stunning – below you can see the sunset (taken at 00:30), where the sun dips just below the horizon, and sunrise (at 02:15-ish). The park is raw in its natural beauty and you can see a lot of this in Aapo’s photos.

Photo 5-6 by John Ryan

Sunset and Sunrise (Photos by John Ryan)

Aid Stations & checkpoints

Checkpoints do not have any aid, so you have to plan on getting through these unaided, which, with planning, was easy to achieve.

Aid stations had chocolates, crisps and water but no toilet facilities. At all points, the organisers were very friendly and helpful and gave good advice on the terrain ahead. One thing to note is the location of the checkpoints – if you decide to drop out in the later stages, you could be looking at a 10km+ walk to the nearest road where you will be collected – this was helpful as it was sometimes a shorter walk/run to get to the next checkpoint than drop out, so you were more inclined to keep going!

For support crews, this makes meeting you at the points very difficult, and with patchy internet connections you could easily make a 4-hour round trip to make it to a checkpoint, only to miss your runner. Most of the earlier checkpoints are easily accessible.

Mid-point

The mid-point had all of the aid station items plus energy drinks, warm drinks, pot noodles and more chocolate, including Toblerone bars! I had planned my race around being self-sufficient, but the additional hot food was a great help to get me going again, and the advice from the crew here was invaluable in understanding the complete change in terrain going forward. This is the location of the only cut-off point in the race: 15 hours.

The last 55km

The mid-point serves as the start line for the Buff 55km run, which, sadly I didn’t arrive on time to see start or be able to run with – something I had hoped to do, as it would have given me a welcome boost to the finish line.

On the website, this is the one that is featured in the promo video for the races and it gives you a good impression of what is ahead: open, barren, raw, beautiful landscape, and with the summer sun (after it stopped raining), it was a big change from the previous 70km.

The narrow paths turned to open tracks with uneven ground but it was far easier to maintain a more constant speed. The best thing about this section was no mosquitoes due to the exposed nature of the hills and a light breeze, so I thankfully didn’t see them again!

Photo 7 by John Ryan

The path ~20km from one of the last hills looking back over the course around 11:30pm (Photo by John Ryan)

My race

Jouko, the race organiser, was very helpful with all my queries. As I was going solo with no support crew or people I knew, I had a few more questions to make sure I had all the details I needed to plan the run.

Gear

Watch – My watch was the Garmin Fenix 2 watch. It had a lot of problems with the route. When I uploaded it, the unit crashed a few times at the start of the race, possibly because of the amount of data a track of 125km has, and it was very slow to change screens, but after a full restart 30km in, it worked correctly for the remainder of the race.

This is something I have had problems with in the past, but in a recent 100-mile run I just pressed start and let it get started before I started checking maps and different screens, so perhaps it just needs some time to get itself up and running.

The battery lasted 15 hours with smart data recording, and after that point I used a small charger that charged it to the end of the race and on the plane home.

Shoes – Inov8 Trailroc 235 zero drop trail shoes. The terrain was very rough and as a lot of my training is on flat surfaces, I used Sole Armor to cushion the blows, which worked well in training runs and started well, but the rock protector in my left foot (1/2 a size bigger than my right foot) caused it to go numb, and this spread to my lower leg, so I had to stop and take the protector out. Once that was done, my foot came back to life and I was able to continue.

By the end of the race, my left foot was more beaten up than my right foot, so the protectors are a good product, but just be sure you have the spare room for them in your shoe. The shoes had good grip, plenty of space for swelling, and they were more comfortable and more protective than the Vibram 5 Fingers I train in, but for longer runs of 170km+, I feel that there isn’t enough protection in them for my soft feet!

Food – I brought as much as I could myself and my go-to food for this race was the Trek Wheat & Gluten-Free Cocoa & Oat Flapjack and diary-free chocolate covered raisins, Body Volt Aquabolt sports drink tablets for minerals and vitamins, as well as Sun Warrior soya protein + BCAA amino acid supplements for recovery.

I had a cheat sheet for each stage in the race, telling me what I should be eating and when, and for the most part it provided a good guide but I didn’t follow it exactly, and by the end of the race I relied more on eating when I started feeling tired or was running out of energy.

My recovery time was very fast for this race, but I could have taken iron, cod liver oil and vitamin supplements to aid the recovery, as I felt burnt out for 2 weeks post-race.

The technical aspect of the run meant I couldn’t get into any rhythm along the first section, and it frustrated me that I did not have the ability to keep up with the rest of the people. I just wasn’t happy with trying to move faster than I was capable of doing and risk injuring myself, so I re-planned to get to the finish before the cut-off rather than beat myself up about falling behind my target time.

Thankfully, the second half was much better and I was able to keep a constant pace moving forward and running where it was possible, but my energy levels were dropping at this stage and my pace was low enough for the organisers to get worried and call me to see if I was ok, and I was also met by a medical person who quickly realised I was in great shape and was on target to finish a few hours before the cut-off.

At this stage, I met another runner who had been slowly catching up to me over the previous few hours. We decided to team up for the remainder of the race, and it was great to have someone else to run with.

Day light – I think having done a few ultras you start to get used to night running, but sunset is a clear indicator that a long night is about to start and you may not see the sun again for 10+ hours, and with the night, the cold and tunnel vision with head torches play tricks with your mind.

On this race it was a strange sensation; you just didn’t really notice the night-time creeping up on you, and by the time you did, it was already 3am.

As the sun is very low in the sky over night, the temp does drop, and just like in Ireland, it was cold between 2-8am and only started to warm up by 9am, so warm layers for the night-time are a must, as the midnight sun won’t keep you warm, especially if the weather is not as good as we had it this year.

It was great to be able to run through the night without a head torch, and the midnight sun made it psychologically easier to run through the night and to the finish line

Finish Line

With a time of 27:50:13 (the race cut-off is 30 hours), we ended up being the last people to cross the finish line to a round of applause from the race team, and we were treated to the best bowl of soup ever in the hotel. We said our goodnights/good mornings, and I went to bed for a few hours, only to rise at 06:30 to hobble across the road to the bus back to the airport, sadly missing breakfast with the other runners and race organisers.

Afterthoughts

Would I do it again? Yes, I would do this again. That’s the short answer, and I would recommend it as a challenging race to those who like this kind of terrain and the idea of running in such a remote and beautiful part of the world in constant day-light.

What was helpful? Mosquitoes! Yes, I know they were out to kill me, but without them I would be still running the race or being eaten alive! I couldn’t stop for more than 30 seconds, which meant I had to be quick and not lazy with my water/food/toilet breaks.

What wasn’t helpful? I suppose access to the checkpoints for support crew could be an issue for some. If you do drop out, it is not a simple case of just hopping on a bus and going back to a warm hotel, but this just adds to the mental difficulty of this event and made it more challenging.

NUTS Pallas on 14-15 July 2017