Finally, a proper ultra in my own backyard. As much as I love travelling to these races, it feels good to know that you’ll be able to collapse into your own bed after a competition every once in a while. ecoTrail Oslo is based on a French concept where trail running is combined with urban running, resulting in a highly popular race that has been held in Paris since 2008. The race is CO2-neutral and does it’s best not to leave any trace during or after the race. This novel idea has quickly spread over Europe and as of 2015, Oslo has joined the ecoTrail-family with a race of it’s own. Rumour has it that ecoTrail Oslo 2015 turned into the largest ultra ever in Norway with more than 1000 runners signed up for all three distances (18 km, 45 km and 80 km), with more than 600 of these preparing to run the two ultra distances. That’s more than twice the number of participants any other Norwegian ultra race has ever been able to muster. Not bad for a first edition. My own training had progressed well and after two weeks of tapering, I longed to start my first race of the season!
ecoTrail Oslo started at 10.00 in the morning – later than I usually start my ultras – but it was nice to have a proper sleep-in for once, not having to crawl out of bed at 04.00. I met Andreas – one of my fellow coaches from Urban Tribes – at the start in Vaterlandsparken only a few hundred metres from Oslo Central station, literally in the middle of urban Oslo. Andreas is an accomplished and seasoned ultra runner and has among other races run Swiss Irontrail, Transylvania Trail Traverse and Kullamannen. He is also the author of a very well-written and entertaining running blog: Far From Home, which I can warmly recommend. When the gun started the race the speaker remarked that it was obvious that we were about to run an ultra – everybody took their sweet time to shuffle calmly under the big red balloon arch, nobody in any hurry. We crossed the road and ran along the pretty Akerselva heading due north towards Maridalsvannet. Andreas and I ran next to each other for the first three kilometers until we reached a big patch of grass close to Torshov, where I live. My wife has always complained that whenever she comes and cheers for me during a race, she spends hours travelling to a well-chosen vantage point close to the race track, maneuvering through the crowds with sharp elbows, meticulously preparing her camera, only to see me whizz past in a blur with a short wave and a smile, before I’m off again. “Dad always stops during his races and gives his granddaugther a hug, you dolt. Poor A is always cheering herself hoarse for you. The least you could do is to stop, pose for a photo and say hi.” It’s no use trying to convince the Love of my life that seconds really do matter, and that I can always pose with my medal after the race. But to be fair, in an ultra, seconds don’t really matter. Minutes do, but seconds don’t. Which is why I stopped by the stroller, gave my cheering daughter a big, sweaty kiss on her forehead and dutifully posed for a photo. A’s granddad was there as well, doling out generous support to my fellow runners: “Go on! You’re almost there! Not far to run!”, and was met with loads of good-natured merriment and laughter. Indeed. 3 km down, but 77 to go.
I had sent Andreas ahead with a pat on his back. I don’t have the shadow of a chance against him even on a good day and he would have edged ahead of me soon anyway. The first part of the race was uphill on asphalt and took us along Akerselva all the way to Maridalsvannet where we started up a dirt road on the eastern side of the big lake, glinting sapphire blue in the sunlight. Oslo was really showing herself from her best side in the beautiful weather today after a sorry week full of rain. The first hour passed quickly by and I passed 9,5 km in the first 60 minutes. Uphill. Sondre had given me two goals for the day: try to enjoy the race and keep a steady, pre-determined pace for the entire competition and not start out too fast and collapse during the final third. I had set a time goal of ten hours (and if I managed that, it would still be the fastest ultra I had ever run, even though the elevation wasn’t as monstrous as in the alps) which meant I had to keep an average speed of 8 km per hour. The first checkpoint emerged at the end of the dirt road at 15 km and I filled up my water bottles, grabbed a Red Bull and was quickly on my way through the trees again. The track wasn’t marked too well, flimsy and thin yellow ribbons tied to trees and bushes with regular intervals, easily missed in between the shafts of sunlight and light green leaves. On the other hand, every single kilometer was excellently marked with a big red sign stating the distance left to the finish line by the Opera house as well as the distance left to the next checkpoint. I passed one that said: “Opera 65 km. Holmenkollen 21 km.”
A half-marathon to the next checkpoint? Yep. The single big drawback of this race was the ridiculous distance between the checkpoints. An 80 km ultra with only three water- and food stations, with 21-24 km between them? The rules for this particular race clearly stated that you had to have at least 1000 ml of water with you in your backpack. During a long ultra race, you need to drink around 400 – 500 ml an hour, meaning that I would need 1200 – 1500 ml in the three hours I was planning to spend running between checkpoints two and three. I had an extra 500 ml Salomon rubber bottle with me just to be sure, but the water stations were still way too few. I wrote on the race’s Facebook wall regarding the problem, but didn’t get any reply from the organisation. They must’ve received several complaints though because the day before the race it was announced that an extra water station would be set up by the 50 km-mark in Sørkedalen, roughly two-thirds of the way between checkpoints two and three.
After I left checkpoint one I was struggling on the steep, uphill trail. I normally love to run uphill but my lack of specific trail training during the winter started to manifest itself in heavy legs and a panting breath. The trail was lovely and I tried to keep up with a Swedish girl with a curly pony tail whom I had been keeping a steady pace with, but I had to let her slip away just as I caught sight of the lake Skjærsjøen while cresting a particularly nasty hilltop. Annoyingly, I wasn’t in any mood to enjoy the fabulous scenery. It’s been a cold and rainy spring here in Oslo and sunny days have been few and far between, but today the clouds were nowhere to be seen and the sun was treating us to a lovely day. I started to recognize certain parts of the forest around us and sure enough, we were running on the same trails and gravel roads that the final part of Nordmarkstravern makes use of before dipping down to Sognsvann on a more easterly route, i.e. straight down on our left into the forest after crossing the dam at the mouth of Skjærsjøen. ecoTrail took us a bit further up before depositing us on the gravel road just a few hundred metres below Ullevålssæter. Now this was familiar ground! My strength returned and I took advantage of my detailed knowledge of the route and tried to make up for lost time during the forest climbs earlier on. I ran alone along the western shore of the familiar little lake Sognsvann, zig-zagging between curious onlookers before ducking into the woods again, heading up towards checkpoint two at Holmenkollen. An older fellow ahead of me struck up a conversation and luckily for me he distracted me from my aching legs during the long climb. Again I was sweating like a pig, even feeling a little nauseous. Too little food? By God, there would be no DNF today! I gritted my teeth and continued up the trail. We caught up with a woman wearing a tiara who had passed me several kilometers back in a furious pace downhill. At the time, I had been impressed at her good spirits and speed. As we caught up with her, she started talking to us in an EXTREMELY LOUD VOICE. My new companion and I passed her as she started limping a bit, but I was pulled up short by a blood-curdling scream after only thirty seconds or so. The woman had started to moan and scream and hop on one leg, complaining about a hellish cramp in her calf. The way she went on, you would have thought a bear had tore a chunk out of her leg. I hesitated for a microsecond but then got a nudge from my new-found friend who murmured: “Just keep walking. She’ll survive.” Leaving miss Drama Queen behind, we continued our sweaty climb until we reached Frognerseteren where we started to run towards Holmenkollen a kilometer down the road. It turned out to be three times that distance however, since the pisteurs had pulled the track in a cruel loop around a steep hill before letting us run across the twin time-mats at checkpoint two (35 km) just next to the Holmenkollen ski jumping slope.
For a resident Osloite, Holmenkollen becomes a bit bland after a while, but standing there in the shadow of the tower I had to give the race organizers a thumbs-up for placing one of the checkpoints in such a perfect spot. I sucked on a few pieces of orange and swallowed a cheese sandwich whole, but r chose to pass on the hot dogs and hamburgers at the end of the table. After resting a minute I continued around the bushes and up an asphalt road towards the highest point of the race; the TV-tower Tryvannstårnet at the top of the ski slope Wyllerløypa where Oslos Bratteste is run every September. Again, I was hit over the head with a hammer and was in pain during the entire climb, passing by the houses of the mega-rich and beautiful in a daze. I had actually started to feel queasy and felt like throwing up. What the heck was happening? I had just stopped for water, Red Bull and a sandwich, but felt like I was on the verge of collapse. I forced down a Bounty bar and trudged on. When I reached the halfway point of the race at 40 km, the timer had almost ticked to five hours meaning I was right on time, but at this stage I didn’t have much hope of managing to finish the race in under ten hours. If indeed I would manage to finish at all. I took a deep breath and started down the steep and serpentine gravel road that would take us down to the bottom of Wyllerløypa. A breeze picked up and my head cleared. The road was steep and my thighs were taking a beating but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. After passing a marathon, I actuallt felt invigorated, even though I grumbled quite audibly when Drama Queen, a.k.a. Tiara Woman passed me in a frenzy, chattering LOUDLY all the way down into Sørkedalen with anyone who cared to listen. When the slope flattened out I carried on for a bit, enjoying the fantastic view and feeling the sun warm my back.
This part of the race took us along flat gravel roads and it was pretty easy going all the way north and then west into the heart of Sørkedalen where we hit asphalt again right in front of a red-painted and sweet little country shop. I ran over to a group of teenage girls who were manning the water station and asked for help topping up my water bottles. There was no food at this checkpoint, but I didn’t mind as I rummaged around in my pack for another Kexchoklad. This was the 50 km-mark and I was well inside my time limit having run for six hours. After only a few hundred metres, the yellow garlands marking the race track took me left and I walked over a dirt football field, the same one in fact, where the lovely race Sørkedalsløpet starts every year in the middle of August. It seemed that we were passing the venues of every race I had run in Oslo. At this point, the little trail by the football field turned into a gravel road that went steeply uphill for the next three kilometres. Instead of feeling exhausted and despondent though, I felt my energy coming back. I sped up and kept a brisk pace up the winding road, trying to catch up with a fellow with a backpack further up. I reached him just as the road but as I prepared to overtake him I stopped short and cursed. The forest path ahead of us was drenched in mud and as I lifted my eyes I could see that the trail would take us right through a soggy mire made even wetter by the preceding week of continuous rain. I banged my head several times against a willowy birch, composed myself and started walking. You couldn’t run in this even if you tried. Squish. Squish. Squish. Squish. Ploomph (sinking down to my knee in mud). Squish. Squish. Squish. Ploomph. Lovely. After a few kilometers, the ground became firmer and I picked up the pace across a granite slab of rock across the path. Suddenly I heard a scream I knew well. It seemed like Tiara Woman had succumbed to another one of her cramps. I wondered if they could hear her in the neighbouring city of Drammen? I waved shamelessly at her with a smile as I whizzed past and wished her luck, ignoring her detailed descriptions of her cramps. I joined another grizzled oldtimer (why are they always ahead of me in these races?!?) and had a pleasant conversation in a normal tone of voice all the way down to checkpoint four at 61 km at Fossum athletic park. Among other things he enlightened me on the subject of the trail markings, which I had suggested should be bright red and therefore very visible. “Well, not for the colourblind”, retorted my fellow runner. Guess I hadn’t thought of that.
I consulted my Suunto at Fossum and saw that I had run for 7 h 45 min, meaning that if I could only keep my pace up as I had so far, I would just manage to squeeze in under ten hours. As I crunched away happily on a fistful of potato chips, I was told by crew members that Emmanuel Gault had crushed the opposition and won the race in 6 h 30 min. Un. Be. Lievable. I headed off again and soon found myself running along Lysakerelva, a meandering river with sheer cliff-faces of dirt flanking it, a trail caressing the top of the little gorge and diving up and down among the tress with a small and not-too-sturdy-looking handrail the only thing keeping you from careening down the hillside into the river. To my annoyance, I was once again passed by Tiara Woman (despite her vocal shortcomings and non-existent grasp of the finer points of tactics during an ultra race, she was obviously a pretty skilled runner), but no more than five minutes later I heard the familiar howl further down the trail. When I came closer I saw that no less than three (!) runners had taken pity on the theatrical woman. I skipped over her legs and was off again. I was really determined not to let her past me before the finish line. The final 9 km of the race were on flat asphalt from Lysaker all the way to the Opera house, hugging the Southern shoreline of Oslofjorden. I had an hour and ten minutes to finish and bar a serious injury, nothing seemed likely stop me. I relaxed, smiled and enjoyed the long home stretch and even managed to increase my speed resulting in what I believe was my first negative ultra split (running the second part of the race faster than the first part). I passed the small boats in Bestumkilen – the harbour at Skøyen – tried to avoid being hit by cyclists along Frognerkilen and finally entered the thick throng of people on Aker Brygge, the main see-and-be-seen-spot in central Oslo during the summer months. Here I collided heavily with a young, burly man from the Balkans. He looked surprised for half a second before he instinctively puffed up his chest and took a threatening step forward but by then I had sidestepped past him into the busy square in front of Rådhuset. Luckily for me, he didn’t give chase. I wouldn’t have been able to outsprint a forest mouse at this point. My legs were longing for a short rest but with 2 km to go my head refused to let them stop and so I soldiered on along Akershus castle and on toward the beautiful Oslo Opera house which I ran around in order to sprint the final 300 metres towards the finish line on the quay Sukkerbiten. As always, I sprinted the final 100 m and crossed the finish line in 9 h 49 mins. Smiling and with tired legs and feet, I received my medal and race shirt before I slumped down in a heap on the grass.
Even though the race was tougher than I had expected, and even though I struggled severely during several uphill trail stretches, I am very happy with how I managed to stick to my race plan. A bit surprising was the fact that I had felt better the further the race had gone on. All in all a very good day.
Finally, an enormous congratulatory hug to Hedda who finished third (!!!) in the women’s category and 12th overall at the 18 km race from Fossum to the Opera house. Hedda, you are awesome!