Explore Sweden Expedition Race
Kittelfjäll Ski Resort, Northern Sweden
By Grant Sisler
May 24, 2005.
This one is going to be long, I mean really long. If you have a job and you want to keep it, you should probably try and print this out and read it at home. If you are sick of getting these from me and you want to be able to humor me the next time you see me, go to www.exploresweden.se
This web-site will have all of the information on the race and what I was doing for the past four days. If you like reading about my suffering, I think this one is the best one yet :-)
I arrived in Sweden late on Wed. night after a very, very long trip from SF. I had a 12 hour layover in NY (thanks Liza!!!) and then an 8 hour layover in Zurich (cool city, kind of a mix between Boston and Vancouver) before arriving in Stockholm late on Wed. One problem, my luggage did not arrive with me. Now I have no clue how they could have lost my luggage since they had the longest layovers ever to manage to get them to the right spots, but somehow, they lost 2 out of my 3 bags, or basically all of my gear except my ski gear. I asked them where it was, and they didn't know, so that was a bit nerve racking. I took my one bag that I did have, dropped it off for the race organizers to come and pick up and then met up w/ Cary, my teammate, and we grabbed the next flight to Örnsköldsvik.
In Örnsköldsvik we met up w/ Scott, Shibby and Emma (Scott's girlfriend) and hopped onto busses to be sent to the “secret destination” of the start of the race. The race start is kept a secret so that none of the local teams have an advantage and they can’t go ahead and scout out where the race course might be. On the bus was basically a who's who of adventure racing and Team Nomad. Everyone greeted each other like old friends and then gave us a quizzical look of “who are they”? I was sitting in the bus mentally going through in my head who all these people were since I had been reading about all of them for the last 4 years. Imagine your favorite sport and then you get on a bus with 15 of the top 20 teams/people from that sport. Then, you realize that you are not going to watch these incredible athletes play, but you are about to compete against them. That's what we were up against as I debated going around the bus and getting autographs.
We arrived in Kittelfjäll (secret race location) late on Thus. night and woke up early on Friday for breakfast. They have weird breakfast in Sweden. You eat sandwiches w/ meat, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. At the same time they have oatmeal, w- spoiled milk, tons of toast and all sorts of spreads. Weird stuff. Luckily, it all tasted fine to me and we went to get our gear together (those of us who had gear) for registration.
This was the first point where I realized that this was going to be one of those races where Murphy's Law took over. In Stockholm, I had dropped off my ski-bag because the race organizers had offered to shuttle our gear from Stockholm to Örnsköldsvik. We're talking there must have been over 100 bags there. Out of the 100 bags that were dropped off, 1 of them did not make it to Kittelfjäll. Yeah, somehow that one bag was mine. SO, now instead of having one of my three bags, I have none of them and still no news on where my first two bags are. Not good as our team is starting to scramble to try and figure out what gear I might have to be borrowing!
At 4pm on Friday we get the maps and find out what we are in for. Ouch... This is going to be long. (10 km = 6.2 miles. You do the math; I'm still tired from the race).
Section A: Snowshoeing-Ropeworks-Running ... 15km
Section B: Kayaking .... 22km
Section C: Mountainbike ... 100km
Section D: Trekking-Snowshoeing ... 25km
Section E: Kayaking ... 70km
Section F: Mountainbike ... 95km
Section G: Bike and Run ... 10km
Section H: Orienteering ... 31km
Section I: Mountainbike ...127 km
Section J: Mountainbike-cross skiing-ropework-mountaineering ... 92km
Section K: Kickbike ... 30km
Section L: Ropeworks-Mountaineering-Cross Skiing ... 3km
Total Distance was 620km or around 375 miles...
Good news, 2 out of 3 of my bags arrive! It's around 7pm the day before the race and I finally have some of my gear. That's good. Better news is that the rest of my gear should be getting there before midnight. Now, normally you want to be sleeping and getting a good nights rest, but without my gear I can't do that. It finally arrives and we are off to bed, but I was definitely a little nervous that I was going to be racing around in other people's gear!!!
Noon on Saturday, the race starts. The gun goes off and we quickly settle into last place. In a way it's cool to watch the leads team take off and I think we will be able to tuck in behind them, watch what they do, good learning lesson, that kind of stuff. Nope. Leaving CP2 (CP = checkpoint, a point on the map that you have to hit before continuing. TA = Transition area, where you go from one discipline to another) Cary rolls her ankle. That's not good. We've got about 370 miles left to go and her ankle is starting to swell. She can and does continue on (she's stubborn like that, good thing), but she just has to move a bit slower and is walking gingerly until the weather gets so cold that it goes numb. Definitely an advantage of doing a cold weather race, you don't have to ice or tape anything, it just goes numb!
At CP3 our next mistake occurs as we leave the passport behind. We don't discover this until CP4, so we have to run back to CP3 and gather our passport. The passport is basically your life. If you don't get the passport stamped at the proper locations then there is no proof that you have gone to the right CP’s and your race is over. So here we are, 43 minutes into the race and I'm thinking that our race might already be over. By some miracle (must have been the bike angels Ms. Cole gave us) the passport is just chilling out by CP3 in this ridiculous wind.
First good news we have had!!!
We get to the first jumar section and the wind is howling, but this part is awesome. You climb up a mountain while hooked into a fixed line. On a clear day, you get great views. On a day like today, you put your head down and try not to get blown over. The wind is literally blowing so hard that you lean into it at a 45 degree angle. The one time I fell down was b/c the wind suddenly let up and I was leaning at such an angle that I fell down.
Oh, random side note, I carried a camera with me for the whole race and I got some great photos. If you are not going to win, you might as well get some good photos and enjoy the scenery. It was great! All the wind made my first high mountain jumar a true adventure and a very new experience. You did get some brief views and they were incredible when you stopped to look. You could see all the way down into the valley and miles in every direction. The only thing we could not see was other teams. Oops...
We then came to a Via Ferrata section. This was also very new to me, and also very cool. You are basically rock-climbing clipped into a fixed line at two points. You come to a bolt and you unclip one carabineer, move it to the other side of the bolt and repeat w/ you second carabineer. Again, this section had really great views and was definitely one of the highlight of the race for me. This is exactly why I adventure race. I am in the Laplands (How great is that there is a place called the Laplands???) in Sweden looking at just some incredible views form the top of a mountain. Granted, it's really windy and we are in dead last in a race, but other then that, things are going well :-) We finish the first section in 6 hours and 39 minutes which was estimated to take 3 hours. Hmmm... That's not good. Next up, kayaking.
To start the kayak we have to portage (carry/roll) the boats. That means that we have to lug these boats behind us on kayak wagons until we get to the water and we can paddle. Now, race directors being the sort of evil people that they are, don't have you portage down a nice paved road, but instead over snow, mud, bumpy roads, basically crap you don't want to walk in, forget about dragging a kayak!!!
We get to the put-in and we are off. I'm not the greatest kayaker, but as we travel down the river, I'm getting more and more confident. We have heard of all teams going swimming and so we're feeling dry and feeling good. Such a bad idea!!! I should know by now to NEVER feel good in a kayak. We come to another rapid and follow Scott and Cary down (I thought) but as Shibby and I come hammering down this rapid there is a large rock protruding out of the water. Somehow, neither of us sees this and at the speed we are traveling we launch ourselves up on this rock. We're screwed. We both have a few seconds to try and figure out what next as the rear of the kayak gets hooked by the rapid and we start to spin off the rock. Shibby tries to brace the boat w- his kayak paddle as I get flipped first the back of the boat, I try and stabilize w/ my hips, hoping to avoid an icy swim. No good, we are in the water and we are swimming. This water is cold, and I mean really cold. If you have swum in the SF Bay before, this water is about 20 degrees colder. You know it is cold when you are swimming down the rapid and a pieces of ice you have dislodged come flying by the water with you.
“Lucky” for us, the kayak gets wedged up against a small island and we spend the next 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get our kayak unstuck and keep warm.
The good news is that with the kayak stuck the way that it is, it takes quite a lot of work and we are able to stay warm while trying to remove the kayak from the water. We accomplish both (staying warm and removing the kayak) and continue down the river, shaken, but still moving forward. The bad new out of all of this is that when Shibby tried to brace the boat, he shattered his fiberglass paddle. Luckily, Scott knows that I'm useless on a river and predicts that something will go wrong so he has brought an extra paddle. That could have been really, really bad. Paddling w/ our hands would not have been efficient.
At the end of the kayak we have a very cool portage across a lake, literally. We are moving across a frozen lake dragging the kayaks behind us. (I got some great photos of this). Now, this is very cool until we get to the end of the lake where things are not quite as frozen. Scott up in front goes crashing through the ice and immediately pops himself out on the ice and says we should probably portage the boats.
Now at this point a rational person (clearly not me) would go running off the ice and say great idea. I however felt like Frodo in Lord of the Rings when he is in the swamp staring at the dead people. I am inexplicably drawn further forward staring at the dark water of the lake until I too go crashing into the lake. Brrr... That's cold. Now Scott had the kayak with him so he was able to use that to pop back out. I have nothing but my own stupidity to help me out. I try a couple of times to pull myself out unsuccessfully and I stare at my ice claws that I'm wearing around my neck and figure I will give it one more try before I bust out the ice-claws. I blatantly remember thinking, "hmmm... good thing I have these on, hope I don't have to use them" Sure enough, I make it out, roll several times and quickly scamper off to the stability of the land. Scott said he could see the wheels spinning in my head as I looked at my ice-claws before popping myself out of the water. Not my brightest moment, but then again, it was still early in the race :-) Amazingly, w- all of the swimming that we did, we finished this section in 5 hours, or just on time.
Next up is the mountain bike and this is a section that we are all looking forward to. We took a calculated risk and decided to put slicks on our tires (that means that on paved roads or hard dirt we move faster then people who have knobby tires. The reverse is true on soft roads of bad conditions).
This turns out to be a great call by Scott as over 80% of the time we were on roads that were well suited for these tires. We head out on the road and it is not long before Scott realizes that there is something wrong w/ his pedal.
When we put our bikes together, Scott had not quite screwed his pedal all the way in. The problem is that Scott likes to move fast, and make sure that everyone else is moving fast, so while he was racing around helping all of us get ready, he did not quite screw his in all the way. The result of this is that when he was applying pressure to the pedal, he is gradually stripping the pedal at the same time. 20 km into the ride, Scott has ripped his pedal out of the crank and we are in trouble. We still have 80km to ride and no way to reattach the pedal since the crank has been stripped.
So, for the next 80 km. Scott and I rotate riding the bike w- one leg (Shibby and Cary have different pedals) while Shibby, Scott or I tow the one legged rider trying to make us move as fast as we can as a team. Man, this sucked. What we imagined to be a team strength was now a weakness. 4 riders and 7 pedals is not a good combo. We take nearly 11 hours to finish a section that was estimated to take only 6. Again, good news, my left quad is now strong enough to lift a small elephant.
We get off the bikes and head off for a trekking-snowshoe section that is thankfully uneventful! Go us! This section is through some great terrain, around lakes, up mountains and we're just happy to be off the bikes and on our feet. We all have 2 feet, so there is no need to drag anyone and that is nice. We finish the section in 9 hours, only 2 hours behind the estimated time.
Unfortunately we're not going to be uneventful for long as the next section is back in the kayaks and it is starting to get dark. Sweden at this time of year is great. It stays light for about 20 out of 24 hours and in those 4 hours of darkness, you can still see a little. Definitely a cool experience.
Even though there is still some light, you can't quite see enough to make out all the lines that you should be taking as you go down the river. We are making great time in the boats and then disaster hits for us. At around 2am we hit one of the last big rapids before the final portage and we flip the boats. There is no one out there and it is even colder then the first time since it is late and dark. Once again, it is Shibby and I going swimming and we manage to pull ourselves and the boat to shore. I lose my paddle (mental note, hold onto paddle next time), but luckily we find it in an eddy and we quickly strip off our clothes and toss on everything warm that we have. An adventure race always has a list of mandatory gear and this one was no different. With all the extra gear that we have, Shibby and I mange to stay warm despite the fact that the water is around 32 degrees and the temperature outside is colder then that. It is so cold out that after we take off our jerseys, we can't put them back on because they have frozen solid!!! Imagine holding a t-shirt in a vertical position and that is what we can do (again, I have photo proof).
We break out the cell phone and call the race director to get some information on the rest of the river before the portage. At this point, we are still racing and we still want to continue, we will just be cold. The fear is that if we go swimming again we will then be out of warm clothes, our race will be over and we will run the risk of hypothermia. That's bad.
We call Mikael and he tells us that the rest of the river is very smooth, no rapids... Well he forgot about 3 of them, but we are able to portage around all of them and we get to the take-out point and find a fire waiting there for us with volunteers.
The volunteers in this race rocked. Hands down these were my favorite volunteers in any of the races that I have done. If I was a volunteer and I had to sit out in the cold, I'd be a little bummed. Add to that the fact that I have to wait even longer for ONE TEAM and I think I would yell at them when they did finally arrive. Luckily, that's why I race and I don't volunteer b/c they were always friendly and wishing us the best of luck. Either that or they were curious to see who the hell was that stupid to still be racing that far behind everyone else??? I like to think they were being nice.
We warm up by the fire and head off for the 14km portage through town to avoid any more paddling. This is where our first sleep monster hits, and it hits bad. Scott can't function and is literally going in and out of reality and dream world. One second he knows that he is in a race and needs to keep on going and the next second he is talking to Shibby about packing and being worried that he forgot his underwear. He can't tell what a dream is and what is reality, but we keep on moving forward at the best pace we can. It is amazing what your body can do and it's amazing to see how your body reacts to a lack of sleep. Scott and Cary don't get hit very often, but when they do, they can't function, they are out. Shibby and I get hit more often, but we can keep going and tend to be able to power through. No idea why/how there is a difference, but in our weird little adventure racing world, it's interesting to see.
We decide to put Scott down to sleep for 5 minutes and see if that works. Sure enough, after a really quick nap, he is up and ready to go. We finally make it into town after a nightmare of a 14.5 hour kayak-portage. Expected time, 9 hours...
Finally, we grab our first sleep of the race. A quick one hour nap 42.5 hours (this was not the sleep strategy we had planned, but we also hadn't planned on a lot of things) into the race and we are off on our bikes again.
We asked Mikael the race director about another bike and luckily we were allowed to use one. We grabbed Emma's bike, which was smaller then us, but we didn't care, it had 2 pedals and that was all that really mattered. We had a brief stop off into a bike store to do a quick fix on Shibby's bike but luckily nothing big. This was a cool mountain biking section and we spotted our first reindeer and have some good single track. Unfortunately, we also pick to go over a section of bridge that no longer existed. This is the bummer of adventure racing, you get old maps. Scott sent us exactly where we wanted to go, but since the maps were old, it turned out there the bridge was not there. The result of this was extra time on the bikes, but we were still moving forward and at least I was not swimming. Total time, 12 hours.
Next up was a quick bike and run where you have 2 bikes for 4 team members. (Two people bike ahead, drop the bike and take of running. The other two teammates who were running reach the bikes and they then take of biking. Repeat process). Really straightforward and we finished it off in just under 2 hours. It would be nice if more sections were like that :-)
It was now 10:30pm on Monday night as we headed off for the orienteering section of the race. This was a part that Mikael was very excited about and he was hoping to have the teams show up when it was dark to make it a bit more difficult. There were no glow sticks at the points we had to get, no reflective tape, nothing. If you missed it, tough luck. Well, we missed.
It took us 2+ hours to find the first checkpoint in a section that was supposed to take a total of 6 hours. The first point was on the side of a small rock and they were not kidding when they said it was a small rock. We went flying right by it the first time and it took us a while to figure out what was going on. Scott did a great job of finally figuring out a known point and then shooting a bearing from there at which point we found the rock.
Unfortunately, this was only the first of 6 CP's that we had to get and the next one was across a swamp and more water. Yeah, you're right; more water means that I'm going for a swim. Weebles wobble and Grant falls in.
Imagine walking across really hairy heads (Sideshow Bob comes to mind) through a swamp and that is what we were doing. Only problem is that these heads had limp necks and you had to be careful when you walked on them. We came to a river and did not seem to find a place to cross so I decided I would try and jump. Lesson #1. Test the depth of the water where you are going to jump. Lesson #2. Take off you pack before you jump. Lesson #3 remove you head from your ass and realize that if it looks like a difficult jump if you were fresh, there is no way in hell that you will make it when you are dog tired wearing a pack and jumping of a limp necked head!!!
Results... Lesson #1, deep water. Lesson #2, wet pack and lesson number 3, I didn't make it. The good news is that I was then able to toss a small birch tree across the river and Shibby found a walking stick to balance across the wobbling weebles and no one else got wet. Lesson #4, don't be the first person to try the jump.
Next up was a point on top of a peak. For the life of us, we could not find the right peak. We were running all over the place and about to give up when Scott finally found it. From there we headed back towards town to grab the final 3 checkpoints, but not before Shibby and Cary had Sleep Monsters of their own. Shibby's was brief and w- a tow he was able to function. Cary's was at the Scott level and we had to stop and take a nap in town. Naps are fun normally (think hot chocolate, warm bed, pillows, etc). Naps when it is freezing outside and you are sleeping on cement, not as much fun. Just a FYI.
After Cary woke up we frantically ran back and forth across town getting the final three checkpoints and into the next TA for the coldest mountain bike section ever!!! The orienteering had taken us 11.5 hours and was expected to take 6. We were late and starting to run up against our cutoff time of 8pm on Tuesday to arrive at TA5.
Mountain biking is fun. Mountain biking in a blizzard is not fun. While the lead teams struggled w- the blizzard at the top of the mountain and skiing, we got hit full on while on our bikes. It was hard for us even to see as we were biking forward. You had two choices, you could bike w- glasses on that would immediately fog and fill w- snow, or you could squint your eyes as much as possible and hope that through the remaining slits you would be able to see what was going on. Not very good options.
About 4 hours into the riding the snow started to let up and we started to make good time. Cary yelled at us all to pick up the pace as we were going to have to get moving if we wanted to make the cutoff and even have a chance of continuing on. This motivated us, but not nearly as much as the gas station where we bought over $70 worth of food. Well, not really food, but candy. Next time you are in a gas station, look around and see how difficult it would be to spend $70 on what they have in there. Not only did we do it, but we managed to eat it all as well. The poor manager of the station thought we were crazy for sure and even more so when Scott failed to clip out of his bike in time and fell off his bike, knocking on the door w/ his head. Smooth.
Properly fueled up by candy, we were cruising along when we came across a herd of reindeer. There is no way in hell that reindeer get us all our presents on Christmas. These animals are dumb. They will run and run and run in one direction if there is someone behind them. Well here we are on our bikes and we know the direction we are supposed to go and the reindeer just keep on going. Herding reindeer, yup, I've done that :-) 8.5 hours of biking and we arrive and finally get some good sleep.
We get to the TA with 35 minutes to spare and are informed that IF we can finish, due to attrition on the race course, we will come in 7th place. We now have a mandatory 5 hour break where we eat and get some much needed rest. At this point, aside from a one hour nap, the only sleep we have gotten is when someone has had an attack of the sleep monster!!! Not only that, but not everyone gets to sleep because we need to make sure we wake up and that the person sleeping does not get too cold. So, we are 79 hours into the race and we have slept for an hour and a half, at the most. Not good sleep management.
We barely manage to make it out of the TA in time. Of course, in our interest to always keep it interesting we manage to wake up a bit late and get out of the TA at 12:55am. If we had not managed to leave by 1am, the race would have been over and we would have been kicking ourselves for oversleeping. We would have been well rested but off.
Now we are on our bikes wearing everything that we had to bring to the race plus all of our gear. It must have looked ridiculous riding down the road wearing a 30 lbs pack w- skis coming out the back. Not only did it look ridiculous, but man did it hurt after that long on a bike to have that much pressure pushing down. Ouch...
We finally get off the bikes for the last time and now we head out for the long x-country ski section. The weather looks awesome so we are excited to be warm again!!! I get to my gear and my trekking pole is broken. That's not good. Luckily there is another teams gear there and they have dropped out of the race so I "borrow" their pole and I am able to continue.
The skiing, mountaineering, and ropework section is the greatest and most frustrating section all at once. The views from the tops of the mountains and climbing up them w/ our skis and skins were unforgettable. The iced over snow and horrible skiing conditions made going down them in our cross country skis nearly impossible and not fun at all. Now, it's not the falling that sucks, but having to get back up all the time!!! So tiring.
Not only that, but after complaining about the cold, it is now so hot that I think I might actually be in hell. We all fashion creative headwear to do everything that we can to keep the sun off of our heads. At one point, I can't recognize Shibby and I'm very confused by whom this person is who is now skiing behind me and what/where have they done w/Shibby. We all need sleep.
We have another jumar section that is the highlight of the race. You are out there in the mountains and this time you are climbing to the top with all of you gear on your back! You have the most spectacular 360 degree views and we all take a moment to check it out. From hear, it is just more and more skiing as we battle against the final cutoff.
We all think that we have a chance to make the 10pm finish time, but it soon becomes clear that we are not going to make it. As we come off the last peak and head to the kickbikes we realize that we are going to miss the cutoff, but we have heard that Mikael might reopen the finish and allow us to have an official finish time. Excited by this thought, we continue on, but make a mistake due to melting rivers and lakes and on the way down turn a final quick decent into an ordeal of hopping reindeer fences while wearing skis, not fun. Along one of these descents, I fall for about the millionth time and manage to break the pole that I am borrowing. That's great, more money to spend on gear and I don't even get to keep it this time!!!
We finally end up on an elusive ski trail that we have been looking for and as we come to the end, Emma and some other volunteers who have been sent out to look for us come running towards us. Scott, nearing his second sleep monster turns to us to ask if Emma is real. Luckily she is and we are all headed in the right direction.
Kickbikes are evil inventions. Kickbikes at the end of a long race when your feet are mush are an evil race director. It is hard to describe a kick-bike, but imagine a small razor scooter on steroids. It has a big front wheel and a small back wheel and you scoot yourself along it. Before we could head off though I had to create a bit of a panic as I had managed to misplace my race jersey. The race jersey is mandatory gear so if you don't have that you are in trouble. Luckily, after unpacking my entire pack, I found it stuffed in the bottom. Brilliant.
Fully packed up and on the kick-bikes, we headed off for the second to last section. The sleep monster though was not going to allow us to finish quickly. Even after drinking a Red Bull, Scott once again succumbed to the sleep monster and we had to stop for two quick naps in the hopes of waking him. We had only managed to travel 7km in 2 hours and we had to go 25km!!!
Shibby soon had his second sleep monster so Cary and I were each responsible for yelling at one of them any time their eyes closed. Unfortunately for me, I also had a bit of a sleep monster and at one point I distinctly remember turning left off the course to pick up some computer paper that I needed in my dream, don't ask.
Somehow we make it through, but it really is all a blur. We have to now repeat the first via-ferrata section that we did, only this time with skis on our backs and wearing our ski boots. Not fun. Luckily there is not wind and the weather is great and our only real concern is will breakfast be available when we finish!!!
Finally, and I do mean finally, after 115 hours (including 5 hours of sleep) we cross the finish line to applause from Mikael, his wife Helena and some brave volunteers who once again were willing to wait for us to finally finish.
The race was an incredible experience. All of the ups and downs, the views, the people and just everyone really wanting us to finish made it an incredible experience. The course was incredibly hard, but it was supposed to be because of the quality of the teams that were there. Our only goal was to finish, and somehow, we pulled it off. Shibby did an awesome job in his first expedition race ever, Cary led the way w/ a huge smile (so great to race w/ someone who is always smiling) and Cole as always, was HardCole, leading the charge and making sure we got to where we wanted to go. Me, well I fell into rivers and made sure that I was not the only one swimming.
We all have our roles :-)
Thanks to Grant Sisler for sending in this great story! The entire original story can be found on the Team Nomadsite at: