Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Competing in the Haglöfs Åre Extreme Challenge

"Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes." 

--The Buddha

No it's not a marathon, it's definitely not an Ironman and not a multi-day adventure race but this event draws the attention of those same athletes all over Scandinavia to test themselves in proficiency of paddling, mountain running and cross country mountain biking. I embrace these activities with passion recreationally but can I transition that same intensity, training and competing in the outdoors over to Sweden?

Working a little on the game face...........................On?

The HÅEC in 2014 was the 18th consecutive year this race has been running. It is based in the mountain resort town of Åre, Sweden which hosts many world class competitions and outdoor festivals. The Åre Extreme Challenge is nothing less than world class, taking the racer on an epic journey through some of the most varying back country landscape in the heart of Jämtland. There is an extraordinary amount of work that goes into executing a race covering 75km of back country terrain and well over 600 competitors. The event is so well organized from start to finish that I do not have one complaint or suggestion that could make it better.

The charitable recipient of this years HÅEC was Projekt Åredalen. This volunteer organization is doing some amazing work with the homeless people in Romania to give them a better life and for the children. Over $5,000 was donated from the proceeds generated by racer entry fees which is outstanding. The real winners truly are the families in Romania!

Perfect Race Day

I have never raced at these combined distances and on terrain I have not previously trained would be the two greatest challenges.  How to properly train and condition my body? What gear and equipment would be effective? Kayak? Bike? How would I hydrate and stay fueled? Would my knee hold up? These were all the questions I had coming into the event.

Everyone in Sweden was sick and I was just hoping it would not happen. It did and I caught a cold several days prior.  I shook off a slight fever three nights before the race.  Stuffy nose, sore throat and erratic cough followed. Add one more unexpected challenge and throw a bad nights sleep into the equation.

At 6:00am it was 11C/51F with sunny, blue skies. One more look outside... Ut Oh!  Oh No this can't be... all Swedish and Jämtland flags are pinned in the westerly wind.  Not good... we are paddling east. So much for perfection. This paddle is going to break me.

Several goals remained as I mentally and physically became aware of my capabilities in training:
  1. Finish the race in the top 100.  I started out as racer #204.  I had my work cut out for me!
  2. 7 hours total time on the course.  Execute my game plan!
  3. Remain injury free. Recover gradually over several days following with no acute pain.

Multi-sport has a tendency to get gear intensive!

Enough fuel to keep the fires burning bright race day!

Downriver Paddling - 25 km

The agony and defeat of paddling in very difficult windy conditions in some of the fastest, and likewise unstable racing kayaks was the price many competitors paid. Many did not finish due to frequent swims, loosing boat and/or paddle either in the river rapids or in the lake section with constant headwind, facing consistent chop and unexpectedly getting assaulted by a breaking swell.

I had the pleasure of paddling a rather classy 5m Fiberglass sea kayak. Thanks to Astrid's brother Emil for securing that boat and paddle! Having spent several training sessions I was more than comfortable and ready for race day.  However, on race day it was jaw dropping to see how many of these modern multi-sport kayaks and surf skis I would be going up against.  This leads me to believe that there is no shortage of incredible paddlers here in Sweden. My wife once again reminded me its not the boat its the paddler in it!

Very limited warm-ups with five minutes to start time... typical me!

It was unusually calming as I sat there on the starting line not knowing a single person in the water. The expected race day nerves went away and there were no distractions. I was focused and determined to race against myself that day.  I did not have much time at all to think about it.... Before I knew it the horn sounded and I was immediately surrounded by a pack of surf skis challenging for position.  I was passed by at least 15 boaters within the first 5 minutes.

I latched onto every paddler that passed and drafted as long as I could hang on.  I finally settled into a pack, several groups scattered about nearby and I had locked into the top 25 in this heat. I was hanging onto position now and had to hang on strong to get into Indalsälven, the river portion to make my moves count!

Second heat with lead paddlers out in front.  Lightning fast off the start!

Indalsälven was awesome.  The first rapid was longest, about 6 long swooping turns in the river. I was concerned there would be many rocks and technical.  Not at all. This was wide, big water Class II with lots of wave trains, wide eddy lines trying to grab your bow and yank you off your line, several holes thrown in to keep you honest.

Immediately entered the river following alongside a surf ski.  He swam within seconds of entering the current.... I passed so many boaters I lost count and easily moved well into the top 10 of this heat of more than 65 boaters.  Most paddlers were taking sneak routes in the secondary currents where I chose the true path the entire way.  There was one point before the second rapid, smaller stretch perhaps 2 big turns in the river. A pack caught back up to me here and briefly passed on the sneak route.  I went wide right into the main flow and cut them all off putting a good distance.  The entire lot of them had to play catch up again.

There were two portages/lifts which turned out to be a key portion of the race not to mess up, trip up loose position.  The best you can do here is hold position.  This is also where I refueled using Cliff Bar Shot Block Energy Chews sucking down a package per portage.  I had a water bladder with 3 tablets in 50ozs water Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes Fizz in the kayak and routed the tube between the skirt and base layer to prevent chaffing.  This worked great and kept me hydrated in preparation for the mountain.

Crossing the first checkpoint in 76th overall place at 1:32:12.

I had positioned myself in the top 100 for the day.... "its not the boat its the paddler in it!"  Now I just have to hold steady and maintain position.  Something unexpected happened in the first portage which was approximately 150m distance but lost three spots due to a rudder that fell off the stern.

Passed by another three in the next 30 minute stretch of water. The next lengthy portage twice as long, the rudder fell off the stern again. Passed by another three paddlers. What I did not learn during training was that you have to pull up the rudder in order to secure it.  The rudder was always pulled up when transporting or carrying the boat during training.  I had a mental lapse in race mode and forgot to pull it up.  This cost me several spots having to stop and untangle the lines in order to freely insert back it back into the stern.

Paddlers chasing and gaining ground fast after a lengthy first section of rapids where I made my moves!

The final stretch of paddling into the lake with the resort town of Are in the distance. I grabbed onto the first group that tried to pass, determined to lock horns with them right until the end.  The paddler in the Mazu surf ski #177 was right out in front with another group of 3 paddlers. The group ahead separated from us but I did not have enough to pursue.  Good thing! Their lead paddler flipped, swam and the group got hung up with his boat turning broadside into them. We moved passed no problem!

Paddling Åresjön.  Drafting #177 just ahead of me making our way to the beachhead  and final lift to transition. 

#177 was strong, efficient and I drafted him right until reaching the beachhead for that final lift into the kayak drop off zone and half kilometer jog to Åre Kyrka to meet up with Astrid and support team in transition. An efficient transition with Astrid doing everything she does best.  She had all my gear, sports drink and snacks ready and waiting for me.  The cheering Kristiansson family helped keep morale up too!

Leaving the transition I moved into 73rd place with a time of 2:30:17. 

Mountain Trail Running - 15 km

Åreskutan is the lone mountain rising 1420 meters coming in and out of view during most of the paddle leg. Its hard to miss and knowing that is where the course heading. Leaving the transition, running through Åre Centrum and the tunnel passing the Tott Hotel, up a steep flight of stairs by Tottliften and begin ascending Tottbacken to the pistes above.   The sustained wind kept things cool enough not to overheat so that was welcomed, now used to the advantage.

The vertical hits you quickly and you just had to commit yourself to the climb and mission to get to the top.  Pushing a solid pace I started picking people off one by one. The effort was harder than originally anticipated. The degree of these steeper ski slopes puts your calf's and Achilles under strain, stressing to the max which was of immediate concern and had to pull back the pace a little. Working my way above treeline, up and over this prolonged continuous ascent to Sadlen and the start of the next section.

Cresting onto a mountain plateau, the trail was varying between smooth slab and a well worn, defined path which made for a speedy pace. I would soon be entering the snow line keeping the false summit of Lillskutan to the right of the climber some 700m above the lake and approaching ever closer to the summit. The 300m vertical push to the summit was a boulder strewn scree path in which one racer passed me whom I latched onto as far up this final long climb as possible.

This entire climb from reaching the plateau is just the way I remember the highest mountains in New England.
I felt very much at home here on the Svenska Fjällen, especially when the snow flurries began to fall.

Moving and grooving across the plateau for final push over the summit.

Photo by Jakob Edholm
I crested the summit checkpoint in my highest position 69th place with a total time of 3:42:02.  

The trail system on the North side of Åreskutan is considerably more primitive. I started getting picked off on the decent.  I pursued and gave chase.  As you move faster route finding becomes more difficult.  Following people allowed me to concentrate more on the varying degree of terrain and trusting that my competition was on the correct path. A quite strong looking duo team passed me and they were just floating on rocks! It is very impressive to watch the competitors in the duo division sharing every leg of the adventure with a teammate and friend. 

On the route down Åreskutan my right knee would challenge my every movement.  Momentum is your friend but I must be careful as the impact will surely throw off placement of the knee. As pain creeps I back off the pace to reduce impact.  When it subsides I can pick it back up again.  Constant struggle but I persevered!

For most of the entire descent you could see the village of Huså by the lakeside in the distance. This is the next transition site and where I would reconnect with my support team. Moving across ridge lines, scurrying across soft, muddy tundra, galloping over boulder strewn paths and traversing a large snowfield, slipping and sliding with every other foothold across its length. This was the definition of freedom.

Dropping below treeline, navigating some sharp twists and turns in a meandering, raw and extremely muddy foot path and out onto snowmobile tracks then finally out onto a dirt road... I was passed by a group of 5 runner all pacing themselves evenly to each other. I latched onto them for a while and had to back off a little with my goal to maintain sight of them for as long as possible.

Running down the piste into the village of Huså!

Entering the transition area in Huså I heard a voice cry out to me, "Ahhh Mark! We have been waiting here for hours!"  That little voice echoed through my brain over and over was correct. My run over the mountain was 9.5 miles in 2:14 minutes.  I did not think that was too terribly slow :-)

Astrid was well prepared in the confines of the transition area.  Bike and gear, sports and energy snacks were all waiting for me. This should have been a quick transition but I was having too much fun taking photos with Astrid and hugging all the warmth out of her as my body started cooling.  Astrid's parents were an amazing support team with Alf taking photos and Christina on the video camera.

Leaving the transition loosing three spots and back in 73rd place with a time 4:48:56.

Cross Country Mountain Biking - 32 km

This leg is an element of execution that is very hard to train for.... when your already beat up and tired. Your body is on fumes and you better have executed a good nutrition and hydration plan or your going to commit your muscles to cramping and utter agony for some 32kms ahead.  Still within my goal of a 7 hour finish... Everything had to go right on the bike leg though....right???

Here is where I tell you things did not go as planned.  Not that it was terribly difficult or that I horribly bonked and could not turn the muscles over. The problem was just not knowing the course and that challenge smacked me right in the face over and over again.

Mud..... More deep, sopping wet mud than I could have ever dreamed of on a bike course. It dragged the life out of me and I could not find a tempo.  Cramps started to root themselves in between all the stopping... one really deep in the inner left thigh... I had to back off slightly and tap the leg until the tremors subsided.

Looking at my watch as I trudged through swampy, muddy wetland and knowing in the first 30 minutes that there was no way I was going to break 7 hours.

Stream crossings..... many of those which are just obstacle ditches.... down and up the other side.  At least 7 were significant along the course of which 5 of them I had to walk out of.

Coming around this corner I could not believe I was still on the bike in all this mud!

Photo by Jakob Edholm
#177.....  Come to find out I put 10 minutes on the paddler in the Mazu surf ski coming over the summit and checking out of Huså.  He caught up and passed me about 75 minutes into the mountain bike!  I matched his speed for a short bit and noticed it was the surf ski dude! Had a short conversation and reminded him it was me in the sea kayak that was drafting him 4 hours ago.... hahahaha :-)

Nonetheless, this was a defining moment.  I could not let off the gas.  I was racing I had to push onward and not let anyone else catch me.

Climbing.....  Hills, hills, so many hills... so much climbing!  Never ending sets of slight to moderate and one helluva hill climb up to Björnen and held strong, for a long consistent push to the top. The worst hill yet to come....

Crossing the checkpoint before the hill climb up Björnen I was in 77th position with a time of 6:16:45.

Was I really only one position off the first checkpoint 4 hours earlier!!!!  This tells me one thing, even in the face of much mud, difficult ditches and helluva hills I was actually still racing my race.  I had held my position in the top 100 with roughly 12-13-km's remaining.  I have not lost anything at all!

Specialized Stumpjumper and brand spanking new Bontrager Mud X Tires in action!

Photo by Jakob Edholm

Getting my wind back.........  After the climb up Björnen, there was a flowy stretch of single track through a Birch Forest and gave me the chance to cool down from the previous long climb. It was so amazingly beautiful, something special happened here.  Here is where I got my first wind on the bike and found my tempo. So much so that I caught several bikers towards the end of a long muddy flat wetland.  I continued to turn it on.....  Passing more bikers on the next sets of small hills.  Another biker whipping on and off dirt roads in between a small village. Several bikers on another stretch of single track who foot downed on a moderate climb and could not recover.  Coming back down the other side picking up the pace again I downshifted with unexpected timing to catch another two on a 90 degree turn up a short steep gravel road that spat you into the outskirts of town and busting open some serious cadence.  Passing another two on the road I was quite literally on fire.

Coming upon the final hill climb, well over 1km to the top of the downhill course broke me.  I had to get off the bike and walked it 2/3 of the way.  So sad after all that effort getting my wind back to get passed by 9 competitors here.  In the back of my mind I went too hard, too soon and should have pulled back once I got onto the paved road.  I also knew that getting to the top, red lining would not help in the downhill tracks.

The downhill was classic awesomeness from Åre which is the top 10 in all of Europe for downhill biking. Trust me... This course had dozens of burmed up, banked turns as you switch backed your way down the mountain. It was a gritty roller coaster ride.  Passing another two bikers who went off course, I was on my game again and did not get passed the rest of the way.

Finish Line - Åre Centrum!

Crossing the line in 78th place for a 07:20:31 finish!

Photo by Jakob Edholm

Chatting it up with Johan #177 who finished 74th place 5 minutes ahead of me!

Someone is really excited!

When I think back to the decision to plan our time in Sweden around this race about 5 months ago, the training, planning and preparations, my personal commitment and all the time and energy invested.  It was truly most successful race I have ever competed from start to finish.  It was all about personal achievement, fueled by a passion for the outdoors.

To have the unconditional support of my sweet wife Astrid who kept reminding me to just let it ride and be myself out there. The entire Kristiansson Family came out race day and I cannot explain how lucky I am having been given this opportunity to share this little adventure with them. It was a great surprise to see them scattered around the transitions and on the race course.  Paddling downriver in a huge mass start, multiple portages, scrambling and running down a mountain then mountain bike back up, down and all the way around again.

Check out this support team!  Nils, Margareta, Christina and Alf....

Now questions shift in the other direction as I evaluate execution and performance.  The "would of, could of, should of" of racing and in hindsight. Should I have rented that Sisson Centrix multi-sport racing kayak? Could I spend less time in the transitions? Would a 29er have been a better choice of mountain bike?

I would not have done anything different.  My final goal was reached, walking away uninjured and free from any ongoing, lingering acute physical pains.  I had a complete recovery in three days time though I have not been able to push top end in the weeks following, as I was still pretty burnt out.

Last but certainly not least..........JAG ÄLSKAR DIG Astrid!

Perhaps now I can officially call myself a multi-sport athlete. It only took me 10 years to figure it out! Looking very forward to adding one more to the support team and I promise to be back in 2016 for the 20th anniversary!

Work Hard, Train Hard, Play Harder!


  1. Nice commentary, felt like I was racing with you.

  2. Hi Marc, fantastic writeup on what to expect in Are and really helpful for this other foreigner who will know no-one at the startline. How would you have felt in a surfski unter those conditions?

    1. I purchased a used Fenn Millennium surf ski at a great price and despite stability being a little too sensitive or twitchy for moving water rivers, I am able to paddle it with confidence keeping me competitive at local off road triathlons when the conditions range from low to moderate, variable head and cross winds. I am not paddling it in open water as there is too much risk in capsizing in adverse conditions.

      Hopefully you secure the rental of a surfski that is similar specifications to something you have been training and have experience, some confidence already on moving water. Constantly making forward stroke corrections to stay upright will reduce your potential to achieve maximum hull speed. Speed is the sacrifice for stability but you can paddle a more stable boat with a powerful, efficient stroke will serve you better on a bad day on the “sea.” Definitely make certain plans in your schedule to get fitted and dialed into the boat on the lake when you arrive. One good 30 minute session should get you comfortable and acquainted.

      I chose to paddle a sea kayak in 2014 Are Challenge to reduce risk and the fact one was readily available to train with prior to the event. It was also nice to stay toasty warm within the confines of a cockpit covered in a skirt. I also have a solid combat roll, though has been known to evade me in downriver racing before… tired and out of breathe does not help you roll easily! If necessary, rolling the kayak was always an option if I capsized.

    2. Paddling the whitewater on Indalsalven is pretty well defined. Making moves early was fair to straightforward to put you on a true path in the speedy laminar flow of the river at low risk. You will have to face inevitable wave trains and strong eddy lines, the occasional turbulent hole and perhaps more rocks depending on river level. I was able to shoot some of the tougher, steeper lines in the kayak versus taking longer, wider sneak routes on the outside lines. This gave me an advantage on several occasions and it was quite fun to challenge some of the faster boats out there. They caught me in the flats but I am certain I got a few odd looks in that yellow banana of a sea kayak hahaha!

      You can typically associate faster times with a higher river levels but 2014 had a strong headwind and slowed everyone down significantly in the flat water sections. In difficult conditions, sometimes the more stable boat can once again be an effective asset as many people who survived the river, did not survive the onslaught of headwind on Aresjon, Lake Are.

      Hopefully you got a chance to check out my video from a first person perspective of the river. Since you’re going to be paddling the course blind as I did, it’s worth the view. As you know it was the first time I had ever paddled this stretch of river. Judging by how many rocks were exposed, I would consider the volume of flow to be moderate plus but cannot say with certainty if there will be more rocks in a given year and which lines would be more difficult or more technical if lower levels.

      There is one demanding move at the end of the lengthy mile long stretch of rapids, where a strong eddy line on river left and 90% of the flow going up against a narrow channel of moving water with refractory waves off a small cliff. The flow is moving river left to center to right. This one area is the site of many capsizes and swims. Even if I was paddling a surf ski I believe I would challenge the line hugging the outside edge, keeping the eddy line on the left but staying in the river right current approaching the cliffs and driving through the oncoming refractory waves with powerful forward strokes. Not sure what else you could do, possibly sneak into that eddy but it’s a strong, turbulent eddy line. I saw a few paddlers struggling to get out of that strong eddy pool as I slipped downstream. At least I know it was possible to get in there… getting out will just take some extra work.

      My suggestion is to tuck into a group and draft as much as possible. I was pretty much solo, breaking free in most of the rapid sections pushing ahead alone. Though the river has long horizon lines, using paddlers in the distance as your guide to locating where you will eventually need to be in position. It was not until the longest flat-water section I was able to drop into a solid group to get that much needed draft and hold position. Though a strong final portage at Are Strand (beach) to the drop area got me into even better position.

      I will return to the Are Challenge someday and when I do, will guarantee I am paddling a faster boat and 29er mountain bike. My runs have vastly improved in the competitions following the 2014 Are Challenge and will certainly capitalize on that effort as well. Likely, renting all gear so will budget accordingly in advance. The first time was for fun. This next effort will be at my personal best!

      Areskutan looming above, making appearances during the paddle leg is sight to see. Look forward to the opportunity to experience that again on race day. Up, Down and Around!

      My best to you and good luck on your training and travels!


    3. Mark, fantastic - thanks so much! Where would I find that POV video you mentioned?