Thursday, 22 January 2015

No backing out

Today the official confirmation arrived. I have already paid, booked the flights and everything else, so there is no backing out.

This set me thinking why I do it. It is simple - every year I ski the RR, it is another year I can avoid thinking of myself as "old". They say that age is a state of mind. It is also a "state of body" and so anyone who can ski 450km in 7 days is not old, regardless of the age on their papers!

Next week I am training in Norway and I will be looking at skis. This was prompted by someone asking my advice. When I was skiing the RR for the first time, I went into the ski shop in Kuusamo and told them what I was doing, that I was not very good, and they sold me skis. A couple of years later I bought a similar pair in Helsinki. But prompted by the question, I began to wonder a bit more about skis. Am I really skiing on the best skis? So I looked them up and found that both are racing skis for up to intermediate skiers. Thus, they are narrow and parallel. This means they glide well. But also they are probably intended for well (heavy machine) groomed tracks.

This set me thinking. At times, because I am heavy, I feel the tracks sinking below me. Much of the RR is prepared by snowmobile rather than the heavy machines, and is prepare for the first time, compared to being groomed on a regular basis over the winter and thus well compacted. Also, not having much opportunity to train, I do have a bit of a problem with lateral stability with the ankles, especially on the sections with soft snow and, as Jon described it last year, "skiing over a ploughed field".

So when I am in Norway, I am going to look into whether I might do better with a slightly wider ski, with a modest waist - thus spreading my weight better, better lateral stability and a slight amount of flex for turning more easily. The downside may be that they are slightly slower, but I guess there is only one way to find out.

There is always the option of renting a pair as an experiment, to at least confirm the principles of what I am looking for.

Monday, 12 January 2015

RR1 2015 getting closer and maps of Finland

I am definitely stupid. This Saturday, as I set off for my run, I sort of jumped over a rock at the end of my drive, like I have done for nearly 20 years, except this time a sudden gust of wind (we had extremely strong winds at the moment in the UK) knocked me off balance and I caught my foot and went headfirst down the pavement and into the gutter. Thankfully I only took the skin off my knees and hands and no muscle damage.

A quick dash back inside to clean the dirt out of the wounds and back out to try for my 16km run. This is my normal Saturday run, expect of course whilst I have been recovering from my ankle injury, I have not been up to long runs, and this was my first attempt back at the distance.

In order to be ready for March, I am training on the treadmill, out on a run, or on the rowing machine most days. The main objectives are to build up endurance and lose at least some of the weight gained by being injured. I even drank very little alcohol over Christmas to avoid weight gain. As work is not too hectic, I also booked myself a week on a last minute trip to Beitostolen in Norway for a week of training. The plan is to spend the two weeks until then just rebuilding ankle strength and general fitness, and then use Norway to get my skiing into gear. I will then have a month back to keep fitness up before 4 days in Kuusamo training prior to RR1.

After spending a long time last year trying to find out if the Garmin detailed maps of Finland would work on my Garmin handheld, a question no-one appeared to be able to answer, I had given up. But then late last year, I discovered that in Finland, map data had been released publicly, and as Finland is at the leading edge of a lot of software development, some public spirited guys there had converted them to work.

The site is and is in Finnish. But with a bit of knowledge and Google Translate, I managed to get them into Garmin Mapsource. They do not show any detail in Mapsource until you zoom in to detail of 7 mile (10km) resolution or better.

I have identified the set that covers the RR route and a short distance either side (in case you get lost). These are

MTK-S423        MTK Suomi v2.1b        3.80 MB
MTK-S424        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.11 MB
MTK-S434        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.29 MB
MTK-S441        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.87 MB
MTK-S442        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.35 MB
MTK-S443        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.54 MB
MTK-S444        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.53 MB
MTK-S511        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.08 MB
MTK-S512        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.97 MB
MTK-S514        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.66 MB
MTK-S521        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.54 MB
MTK-S522        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.42 MB
MTK-S523        MTK Suomi v2.1b        6.06 MB
MTK-S524        MTK Suomi v2.1b        6.19 MB
MTK-S541        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.70 MB
MTK-S542        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.19 MB
MTK-T411        MTK Suomi v2.1b        511 KB
MTK-T413        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.58 MB
MTK-T414        MTK Suomi v2.1b        4.72 MB
MTK-T431        MTK Suomi v2.1b        5.28 MB
MTK-T513        MTK Suomi v2.1b        6.58 MB

MTK-T531        MTK Suomi v2.1b        3.78 MB

I probably hold the record for deviating from the planned route - last year it was when I was at the back and snowmobile tracks had obliterated the ski trail and I tried to follow the route as much as I could from memory. Except that last year, it had been changed at that point because the lake was not frozen. The previous year, I had got caught at the same point in a whiteout as dusk was falling and so with a headtorch could not see anything. The GPS (without detailed maps) proved my saviour as I was able to use it to navigate using the waypoints I had entered.

On the subject of maps, Nokia always had the best maps for a phone because you could download a whole country in advance. But Nokia's maps have now been relaunched as "Here" as a beta which can be downloaded, and is well worth it as a backup.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

And now for RR 2015 ...

After all the problems with injury last year, I carefully paced myself through the summer and had just got back to full fitness by the end of September ...

and then ...

... did a stupid thing - did not notice an uneven pavement in Brussels and turned my ankle over, went flying head first, rucksack flying over my head. The good news - I didn't break anything - I believe that because I am not very good at skiing, I have learnt to fall forwards safely, and so just ripped clothes and a few grazes. However, I did badly twist my ankle and walking hard for best part of a month and even now I still can't run.

Still, as I learned from last year, I still have time to recover and get back in shape. I just hope is not as bad as when I did 17 years ago, also in Brussels, when it was many months and the best part of a year to full recovery (if it ever did, because that is the ankle that usually swells a little when skiing anyway).

I will just have to improve upper body strength more so that I can double pole better! Where there's a will, there's a way!

It is a small world. In a week in Brussels, I met the PhD supervisor for one of this year's RR1 skiers from the US and a Finn who used to work for one of the RR1 regulars. It never ceases to amaze me how closely connected we all are.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The RR story, as it might have been told by Hans Christian Anderson

At the end of the RR, each nationality group contributes a sketch, song, story etc to a cabaret/revue after the final dinner. This was the Danish/British contribution on RR1.

Many, many years ago, there were some special people. They looked the same as ordinary people, but had a special ability - they could put planks on their feet to go rapidly across snow. Over time, these people were scattered far and wide - to England, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Russia, Japan, the USA and many countries across the world - even some without snow.

People were worried that this special power would be lost, so in 1984 they decreed that once per year these special people must come to Finland and ski all the way from Russia in the east to Sweden in the west.

Father Winter and Mother Earth put many obstacles in their way. Father Winter freezes their fingers and toes. Mother Earth sends warmth to make skiing more difficult, melting the rivers and lakes and snow.

But the devil helps the skiers - he makes a magic substance called klister, which the skiers put on the bottom of their skis so they can ski on the melting snow, and an army of helpers shovel snow onto the tracks and even make bridges so they skiers can continue.

Some skiers fall by the wayside , but eventually most will reach Tornio. They have a special ceremony where they sing songs and tell stories about their trip. Only then can the spring in the north begin.

The skiers than go back to their homes and pass the legend on. Many will come back again, so that the world can be kept in balance, and continue to live in peace and harmony.

Naturally the story could have been much longer, but a short bad story is always better than a long bad story! But the bit about klister raised a laugh - it really is stuff from the devil - for those who don't know it, it is a sort of glue you put on your skis instead of wax for warm (above 0C) temperatures, but it not only sticks to the snow, but you, your clothes, everything, and it takes several washes to get it out of your clothes.

Although I do this for fun, I also do it to raise money for charity - Sports Relief - which raises a large amount of money, much of which is spent on sustainable projects in Africa. So if you have enjoyed my story, please donate at - no matter how small, a large number of small donations add up to a lot, and a big difference especially to the children of Africa, for whom I wrote story above.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

RR Day 7 - the last day

None of the normal route for today is skiable, Instead, it has been arranged that we will ski from Kalle - our normal lunch stop at the ski centre out to a café inland and back - 23.5km each way. This track is part of the ski centre network and is groomed throughout the winter with one of the big trail machines, which means that there is a good hard packed base.

I notice when we get there, there is a banner up for a race along that trail in 10 days time. Without a drop in temperature and some fresh snow, this may be hopeful.

The trail is gently uphill and nice and fast when we start out; there are some patches of ice where the bogs have thawed and frozen again. I use the trail to build on the fact that I can sustain double poling to get to grips with the double pole/single kick - a technique I have known for years, but never been strong enough to sustain. The difference now that I can keep these techniques going is significant.  I am able to get and sustain a 20% increase in speed, although until I have finished studying the heart rate data, I won't know how much more effort it is taking, and thus whether it is actually more efficient overall in terms of economy.

The track was a bit thin in places, and at one point volunteers were shovelling snow onto the track. On the return trip, the temperature had made it harder to glide, and some of the bog ice simply could not support the weight of skiers by the time we got to the end, and many of us failed in our attempts to cross it without wet boots. These included picking our way gingerly around or across to, I believe, and attempt to jump it, which didn't work either. Still it provides a good test of the properties of ski socks, and within about twenty minutes, mine no longer felt cold and soggy in my boots.

And so we come to the end. We have skied across Finland from border to border, at least where conditions and safety permitted. We have coped with (as Jonathan describes) "interesting" conditions (where "interesting" has different nuances in English).

I have been tracking the merits of the "zero" skis - skis designed to operate without wax only in conditions around 0C. Some people love them, some hate them; at +5C even the proponents resorted to waxed skis and klister. On the injury count, it is a draw - one all ( 1 - 1) - one injury due to a zero ski suddenly gripping when the skier didn't expect it and the same happening to a traditional ski with klister. Both happened at low speed, on the level - this sort of thing happens to me all the time - sufficiently so that maybe I am so used to being caught out and falling in these circumstances that I have perfected the art of falling. Many people have told me that indeed these is an art to falling, so perhaps I have found something I am good at!

I took a quick trip to the sports shop to see if there were any end of season bargains (cross country equipment is nearly impossible to buy in the UK) but the zero skis were not on offer. I suppose it avoids the comment when I get home of "why do you need yet another pair of skis" from someone who has nearly as many horse saddles as I have skis.

There is the RR tradition of each nationality providing some form of entertainment after dinner on the final evening - a sort of revue/cabaret. Those of us who are alone as a nationality can join another group. This year, having grown up in what was a Danish village twelve centuries ago, and having shared rooms with the Danes, I join them. Our theme was "The RR story as it might have been written by Hans Christian Anderson".  As it has been requested, I provide the story at the end.

This year it was the turn of the Kuusamo municipality to provide the souvenir (the six municipalities the RR passes through take it in turns). It is a lovely handmade ceramic votive from the pottery in Kuusamo (run, according to my source on the first RR, by a Brit).

Many friendships develop over the course of the RR. It also throws up coincidences - two of those from the US are actually fellow Brits and it turns out that for two years, the three of us were at the same university, but in different departments all of fifty metres apart.

During the RR, we have normally been in bed and asleep not long after 9pm, but the last night is when we catch up on fun. There is a 24 hour bar across the street from the hotel, which is how I find myself playing bingo in Finnish - with some help on the numbers as I only know about half a dozen of them. It is mostly the same people each year - those who like to work hard and play hard. Most of this hard core group of us will be back next year. We were comparing notes on what we do for a living, and concluded that a high proportion of us work either in healthcare or IT, and many of our reasons for doing the RR are similar - physical exercise and away from the stress of modern work, the RR provides many of us with a week of "active meditation"; some of us (i.e. me) are so tuned out that we take wrong turns. In the evening entertainment, someone described it like "kindergarten for adults" - we are told when to get up, eat, which bus to catch, when to go to sleep. For those of us who have (or are expected) to be in control all the time, this release and letting someone else organise and take charge is what we need once in a while.

Finally the weather has one last trick up its sleeve - as I come out of the bar sometime after 1am, I look up to catch a few minutes of the Northern Lights. This is the first time in many trips to Finland I have seen them, and it makes a magical note on which to finish.

And in the words of a famous Austrian,  I know that  "I'll be back"!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

RR Day 6

Today I have to pay tribute to the people who make the tracks for us. At one point today, they had to chop down trees, build a bridge and pile snow on top of it to allow us to cross a fast running stream. The lack of snow shows - at times we are skiing through the tops of small trees and bushes that would normally be buried.

The first stretch in the morning is fast, and double poling most of the way I cover 20km in a couple of hours - a great improvement for me, as I have never sustained above 10km/hr for any length of time.

This day is mostly flat in the sense that it doesn't have many hills. However, we are often on ground that undulates - a bit like a ploughed field where the furrows are about a metre deep. This type of skiing keeps me on my toes, but having mastered double poling, I find that this means my skis only need to be steered, and not providing propulsion at the same time.

Double poling is the answer (for me) to icy roads and tracks - previously one of the difficulties I had.

RR Day 5 - the shortest day

Well this year's RR is turning out to be quite a different experience.

This morning there is not enough snow for us to ski safely (or unsafely). Instead, a visit has been arranged to Ranua Zoo. Normally we ski past this a couple of kilometres after we set off, and I have always wanted to visit it. Why? Well it specialises in Artic animals, and so you are seeing them in a similar habitat to their natural one.

We know it is warm because the bear was already out of hibernation - on my first RR the bear woke up the night we stayed in Ranua. I know from previous visits and talking to  a guide that there are a few in the wild east of Kuusamo - this was why I did not want to be the slowest skier this year!
Today is normally our shortest day. Those who wanted to keep up their distances skied both ways between the two places our accommodation is split across; some did it there, back and there again. For myself, I took the opportunity of the shorter distance to allow my leg injuries to recover.

 Today we also saw at least one more person depart through injury. So far, the ones I know about are all their skis catching and gripping suddenly - the sort of thing that normally happens to me ten times a day, usually in front of the largest number of people. Today was the first day I didn't fall; unlike day 2 where I fell getting off the bus before I had even got my skis on.

It seems like this blog is read by my people than I thought before coming on the RR - it seems I am not the only non-expert skier after all.

I discovered last night that a fellow skier has been doing for years what I have tried on this trip - wearing compression running socks under ski socks. I can report that in my case, my right leg normally swells up a bit on every previous RR. This year, using compression socks because of injury, I have not had this, and had no problems with my shins so far. The twinges in my knees are simply due to age, and there isn't anything I can do about that.

Each year I discover new things that make it easier as I get older - so far, the improvements I discover each year outweigh the what I lose on age. It effectively sets me a challenge - how long can I keep improving? Another decade? I have a particular target of another six years - when you have completed 10 RRs, you receive a master skier award. This is not an award for style, skill or competence - just the ability to ski from Russia to Sweden ten times.