Wednesday, 18 March 2015

RR day 7 - making it to the end

This year we have a new route for the last day. The first part is the same route we had to use last  year, due to lack of snow, but they have now added 34km beyond this to take us down to the Tornio river some 35km north of Tornio.

My plan is to take the bus to the first bus rendezvous point - I have skied that bit before, and see if I can very gently ski the remainder with my leg strapped up. At least this way, I should not keep everyone waiting at the end, as the buses will wait, rather than do a shuttle back and forwards to the hotel.

First the bus drops our bags off at the hotel. Super Liisa cannot ski today - she put her shoulder joint out whist doing a warm up exercise and it took several people to put it back in and strap it up. I walk quickly to the Apoteek (chemist) to see if I can get strapping for my thigh. No, they don't have anything that big, but send me on to the physio centre round the corner. They do not have anything that big.

In the end, I manage to improvise by using a calf strap. A bit tight, but it works. I also discover now why my ski trousers zip all the way up or down the sides - so you can get at strapping easily. It is a beautiful day for skiing - nice conditions, blue skies. At one point after adjusting the strapping, I suddenly find I have much more control of my skis again - clearly that muscle has been weak all along.

It is a beautiful day

Keen to welcome us, at one rest stop they have erected covered shelter and have benches for us to sit on whilst we eat.

Alongside these trails in various locations are new wooden huts - some are in clusters and are a lean-to type shelter with fire area in front - presumably in the summer for sleeping out overnight, or even in the winter if you have a good sleeping bag. I am not quite sure of the purpose of these huts.

I have seen similar ones housing ecologically sound toilets, but this one is a bit larger.

Another couple of good lessons - find suitable thigh strapping (I have various ankle straps, knee straps and a calf strap - almost all actually unused, but just in case) and find exercises to strengthen the muscle. Also, take care to allow longer to come back from injury.

Today's trail:

The grey line running down the river is the border between Sweden (on the left) and Finland (on the right).

So I have completed it again, and at least finished on a high. Injury and lack of daylight caused me to lose about 50km, which was very frustrating. But looking back there were a lot of people who skipped more because of the conditions.

And for anyone who is interested in the effort it takes:

This shows the training around Kuusamo, and allowing for some recovery before starting the RR. But after that it is off the scale and it also shows it takes a week afterwards to fully recover just from the physical effort. In theory, I need to get myself significantly fitter in order that this level of effort is not so hard and does not go off the scale.

RR day 6 - disaster strikes

Everyone is so keen that some of them ski off before the trail is set. Here you can see the snowmobile and sledge used to set the trail at Hosio - at the bottom of the bank is a frozen river.

The morning goes well and I manage quite a good speed. It is a long 20km or so to our first stop. Shortly after leaving this stop, it starts snowing, and after a couple of kilometers I start to feel pain across the front of my right thigh. I switch to double poling to rest it and then wonder if maybe it is some muscle cramp, so stop for energy gel and a sugary snack. This eases it a bit. I am concerned that  despite all the people at the rest behind me, no-one has caught me up and passed me, especially on the icy dips and bumps over the tree roots where I usually slow down noticeably.

The snow gets thicker, and eventually I have the problem with the skis icing. I stop and clear them several times and eventually Eric (the pilot) passes me and I notice the snowmobile. This means that everyone else has quit on this section and I am now last. When I get to the next rest stop, the snowmobile pulls in and I ask for a lift, as having skied on a bad leg for at least 10km I don't really want to make it worse.

It is decided that the rest stop guys will give me a lift to the next point where the bus is. After they pack up, we drive 10km down a narrow lane with the snow ploughed to both sides, occasionally having to pull laden branches out of the way. The driver tells me that the road was only cleared yesterday, specially for them to get access to provide our rest stop. It is little bits of information like this that show you how much goes on behind the scenes to make the Rajalte Rajalla Hiihto possible, and how much of the communities along the way are behind us.

This is the first time in five times that I have had to miss a few kilometres through injury, and another little indication that I am not getting any younger. Looking on the bright side, I can at least look for exercises to strengthen those particular muscles for next year.

Today's shortened track i.e. what I actually skied:

RR day 5 - the "shortest" day

Well the shortest day is only some 49km. We start this day with a group photo outside the hotel before skiing off. Our usual route takes us up alongside the zoo. Today is gale force winds and at times we are exposed for a kilometre or two and you really do start to get the impression of how bleak and isolated it is. I live in Somerset, one of the largest and least populated counties in England. Ranua commune is about the same size, but has about 1% of the population - about twice the population of my village (Brent Knoll).

Today's skiing is about covering the distance with minimum effort to allow the body to recover as much as possible.

The friendly polar bear is at Ruona (the upward kink in the track on the map above). Half of us are bused back to the village hall there and the rest of us stay in the old school at Hosio. Sleeping bags are the order of the day (or should I say night) here.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

RR day 4 - the longest day

Again, the conditions were changeable - ice, snow, sleet, rain. I made it down the narrow steep slope with only a very minor fall, and was well pleased with myself. However, I really do need to work on my technical skiing - mostly to get the leg and ankle muscles to control the skis better - probably some skating would help - it would certainly improve my balance.

Between the two rest stops with the coaches, I did not see a single skier - the few slower ones behind me were left behind, or took the coach, and the faster ones were all well in front. It was slower and harder going than I had hoped. The general consensus was that the second rest stop had to be cleared by 2pm if you wanted to pass the last stop/checkpoint before the course was closed for safety as night falls. I did make it through here just by that time - the hot soup was definitely a nice reviver.

I occasionally caught up a Finnish lady skiing ahead of me - she would be pulling out of a rest stop as I arrived, but eventually she was out of reach. Suddenly as the temperature dropped as the sun was lowering late afternoon, the track got icy and I found I was able to double pole along at some 12-13km and sustain it for a long time. I overhauled the deficit to the lady in front and passed her, but she then caught on to the same trick and followed me closely all the way into the final checkpoint. However, with the sun having gone below the horizon (it takes about an hour and a half before it is dark at this latitude and time of year), we were too late to be let through for the final few kilometres.

Today's track:

The real finish point is just above the "n" in Ranua.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

RR day 3 - even more challenging conditions.

A good an uneventful moring, except for having to ski with my older, shorter (145cm) poles. Even though I only changed back up to 150cm poles after 3 years with shorter poles, it goes to show that the shorter poles did the job of getting me to hold them better and not getting tangled up in them, but 150cm is definitely the right length, and I could finally see how much more I am getting out of that extra length.

A little after the lunch stop, the sky turned dark, the wind picked up and it began to snow. Before long, the track was hard to find - even obliterated in places. Sometimes, you were skiing by trying to feel for the tracks (something I have had experience of before).

Towards the end, my skis started to ice up. The first time, I just scraped the ice off the skintec kick zone. Later on, the whole skis felt leaden and stuck to the ground. Checking the skis, even the glide zone was sticking. So to make the last couple of kilometers, drastic measures were called for. Knowing that I have a brand new set of the two stripe skintec modules (carried with me now, after yesterday's incident), and that these have some mileage on the clock (400km), I decided to experiment, and after clearing the snow and as much of the ice as I could, put a layer of liquid glide wax from end to end of the skis, including on the skintec grip zone. The skis were completely transformed, not only gliding well, but also the kick performing well. It was good to get good glide and predictable behaviour Just in time, as the final part of the day is to use the drag lift to get to the centre on the top of the mountain.

This provided some useful learning.
  1. I did not expect the glide zone to ice up. But if faced with these conditions again after skiing some distance, I will be quicker to brush on some liquid glide wax.
  2. I will track down some proper anti-icing for the waxless skis. But in the meantime, I now know that liquid glide wax is at least a potential problem solver in extreme conditions.
  3. In these extreme conditions, it makes sense to periodically check the skintec modules for icing. Also, test out if anti-icing will keep the keyhole free of ice to be able to quickly change modules.
I will have to investigate other means of de-icing - will some of these thermal hand warmers provide a means of thawing them out? If the air temperature is above zero, then swapping the modules out with spares from time to time would allow the modules not in contact with the tracks to thaw out.

Here is today's route:

RR day 2 -some challenging skiing conditions.

On the bus to the starting point, a friend asked me if magnets were strong enough to hold the modules in place on the skintecs. At this point, I had never had any problems, but this would come back to haunt me before the day was out.

The first half of the day is 30km mostly along an old railway track. Without pushing too hard, I did this in record time - about three and a half hours, arriving just before midday. It gives me a bit of confidence that despite a drop off on my balance and technical skiing, never good at the best of times (and redeemed a bit later in the day on some tricky steep slopes), I can at least pound out the kilometers on the more gentle parts of the course.

However, around the three quarter point, I was having a bit of trouble with the skis sticking, so stopped to check them before a steep descent. Horror, of horrors - one skintec module was missing. I let people at the back know to keep an eye open for it, but a kind skier had found it and caught me up just before the finish to reunite me with it. Fortunately, I had been carrying the better grip modules as spares.

It highlights a couple of interesting points. Firstly, how did it come to be lost? On examination when I found I had lost it, the other module had some icing. I suspect there is a point where a module ices up and the grip of the ice to the snow/ice below is greater than the attraction between the magnets. But it also shows that under some circumstances, the snow packing into the cavity left when a module is removed can provide decent grip, if slightly sticky and unpredictable. This does at least give an option to try in tricky conditions when all else has failed.

The conditions this happened in was freshly falling snow, just above zero, perhaps just below as the point at which it happened was on a climb.

A nice gentle day, except for the hills at the end.

RR day 1 the tortoise and the hare or to wax or not to wax!

For my first RR back in 2010 I arrived in Kuusamo with a single pair of traditional waxless skis. Or rather I arrived 24 hours before my skis. So I spent the first day on rented waxed skis. Testing back to back convinced me at that time that the extra effort required of waxless skis on an endurance event was too high a price to pay.

Since then, I have on tricky occasions on subsequent RRs tried waxless again but never found the advantages to outweigh the disadvantages.

So despite testing it was with great trepidation that I stood at the start of the RR on waxless skis. The first few kilometres were exciting but that was down to a lack of technical skills  on my part and a recovering ankle.

The skintecs worked well. Frequently people would pass me only to stop and re wax skis trying to find something that worked.

After the soup stop in early afternoon, I swapped out the double strip (better glide and less kick) for the full width single strip (more kick/grip and less glide). I did find a minor problem when trying to change - the little hole for the key gets filled with ice and it takes a while to prise the ice out to be able to get the key in to swap.

But all in all, they cope very well with changing conditions from below zero to above zero, from loose fresh snow to pack ice in the tracks.

Today was a total of 61.65km according to the GPS - from close to the Russian border through to the top end of the city of Kuusamo - as shown on the map.

As can be seen from the picture of me at the start, I am not very good at selfies, especially with gloves and with by breath fogging it up.

I arrived in Kuusamo at 5.30pm - about the time I normally arrive. But I took it steady today in order to save energy. The mistake I made in my first year was to put too much effort into the first day. This is not a mistake I have ever made again. For someone with my level of fitness, conservation of energy is important if I am to make it through the week.