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ecoTrail Oslo, 1st edition

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!

Climbing up along Akerselva in Grünerløkka.

Climbing up along Akerselva in Grünerløkka. Photo by K O Melaug.

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.

3k down and 77k to go. Andreas is pushing ahead, at the far right.

3k down and 77k to go. Andreas is pushing ahead, at the far right.

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 km-marker in Sørkedalen.

A km-marker in Sørkedalen.

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.

Checkpoint 2 at Holmenkollen (35 km). Photo by K O Melaug.

Checkpoint 2 at Holmenkollen (35 km). Photo by K O Melaug.

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.

The view from the serpentine next to Wyllerløypa with the valley Sørkedalen in all its glory.

The view from the serpentine next to Wyllerløypa with the valley Sørkedalen in all its glory.

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.

Runners passing Rådhusplassen, only 2 km from the finish line.

Runners passing Rådhusplassen, only 2 km from the finish line. Photo by K O Melaug.

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!

The women's 18 km podium, Hedda on the far right with her trophy :D Photo by

The women’s 18 km podium, Hedda on the far right with her trophy :D Photo by

Emmanuel Gault winning ecoTrail Oslo 2015. Photo by K O Melaug.

Emmanuel Gault winning ecoTrail Oslo 2015. Photo by K O Melaug.

The Two Titans

If you would compare Usain Bolt to Björn Sunesson, chances are that you would come up with many more painfully obvious differences than striking similarities. The showy superstar from Jamaica is not only the fastest man who has ever run down a 100 m-track, but also one of the most sought-after and popular athletes on the planet. He is adored by fans and media alike and can have his pick among any sponsor he chooses to support. If Usain Bolt is larger than life, Björn Sunesson must be his polar opposite. The diminutive Swede was humble, unassuming and soft-spoken when I had the pleasure to chat with him during a coffee-break at an ultrarunning seminar at Bislett Stadion a few weeks ago. Bislett International Endurance Festival (BIIEF) – the organisation behind the popular race Bislett 24-hours, an indoor-ultra race at Bislett Stadion – had invited to a seminar with two Swedish titans, or nestors if you will, of the ultra community: Björn Sunesson and Rune Larsson.

For once, I had slipped away early from work in order to squeeze in 11 km of running before the seminar that was scheduled for 17.00 in the afternoon. After a quick shower at the gym, I jogged the few hundred metres to the beautiful Olympic Stadium, where I arrived to find one of the conference rooms bustling with people of a certain, shall we say, ultrarunning quality. Ultrarunners are a breed unto themselves, but more regarding attitude and charisma than a certain body type. To be sure, ultrarunners come in many shapes and sizes; from the thinnest beanstalks you have ever met to more heavy-set fellows with tattoos decorating their forearms. I grabbed a cup of coffee and managed to snatch a seat in the front row just in time to hear Björn being introduced by a bearded veteran from BIIEF.

Chatting with Björn Sunesson during a coffee break.

Chatting with Björn Sunesson during a coffee break.

Björn Sunesson is a 67-year-old runner who has run coast-to-coast across the US no less than FOUR times, a distinction he shares with an American who, by comparison, had a follow-car trailing him on all four occasions. Björn has run solo across the continent every single time. Not only has he run the distance four times, but his first time was in 2007, i.e. at an age of 59 years. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. (You can find his blog right here, by the way.) You can see for yourselves on the map below the routes he has taken every time. The USA is about 5000 km from west to east (which happens to be the direction in which you always run, because of the wind, apparently), and the classic route is from Los Angeles to New York, a distance of 4860 km and which Björn completed last summer in 100 days. He told us that when he runs across the US, he always aims for 50 km a day without any rest days, and that he has always used a babyjogger for his gear. His first ultrarun on American soil was between Chicago and New Orleans, a ”test-run” of around 1600 km to see if he was ready to run the entire distance across the continent. That time he chose a backpack to run with, a decision he bitterly got to regret thanks to the many chafings he got in the hot Southern states during the final legs of his run. Which is why he has always preferred a babyjogger (specifically the 25 Jubilee edition) since then. In contrast to Darren Wendell, a 33 year-old American who completed his own coast-to-coast race in April 2015 and who apparently wore out 30 pairs of running shoes, Björn has always been content to change between two pairs every day (one pair for the morning leg, and another for the afternoon leg) and wore out only five pairs during his last run. One of the keys to running across the US is apparently also to avoid the big cities as they tend to be difficult to run through due to heavy traffic. Björn has always preferred to run on highways with traffic not bothering him too much since there is so little of it outside the huge metropolises of the country. During the coffee break after his own seminar, I went up to him for a little chat and asked him to fill in a few blanks for me, mainly about the practicalities of arranging such an adventure. I’ll spare you the majority of the tidbits I learned – call them trade secrets if you will – but I can tell you that his babyjogger was loaded with around 10 kg of gear, and that to arrange a trip like this comes down to around 70-80 USD a day, the lion sum paying for the motels. He smiled and told me that it could probably have been done a bit cheaper, but he likes to stay at the better kind of motels during his runs, the better to reward himself after a long day of running, and also because he loves the contrasts of these transamerican adventures: a tiny old man running along dusty highways all day long and come afternoon to check-in to a motel and finally get to rest his legs on a soft bed in the evening.

Björn's four Coast-to-Coast runs across the US.

Björn’s four Coast-to-Coast runs across the US.

Björn told us that he doesn’t consider himself an ultrarunner since he has never actually run an official ultrarace with a numbertag on his chest. Rune Larsson, on the other hand, has competed in several ultras, most notably Spartathlon which he has won three times. The thing that makes Spartathlon one of the toughest ultraraces in the world is not only it’s distance (245 km between Athens and Sparta), but also it’s severe cutoff-times and weather conditions. Two-thirds of runners never make it to the finish line. In this race, every finisher is literally a winner. When people ask him at what time he adjusted his diet in order to become a better runner, Rune normally replies: ”When I stopped breast-feeding.” In other words, he has been running since he started to walk. He ran his first marathon as a 16-year old (3:04) and has every single run he has ever made since 1973 written down in notebooks that are indexed and kept safe. How many kilometers? As New Year’s Eve 2014 he’s run 237 880 km and counting. That’s more than 60% of the distance to the moon, ladies and gentlemen. Where Björn had had us paying attention through his soft voice and stories about exciting encounters on the highways of the US, Rune was playing his audience like a master violinist. He changed his voice from a hush to loud cries, when illustrating conversations, and he told frequent and funny jokes, mainly on his own expense. He invited us to see and understand running from his point of view, which I would say is a pure joy of all forms of running. Or happy running, if you will. His philosophy to become a better runner is cemented by the fact that you have to love running, both the training and the competitions. In the course of his seminar, he mentioned several other important basic components, such as the will to fight, running economy, to build yourself a body that can withstand severe battering and to train your gut to absorb any kind of food stuff while on the run. Not regarding purely running-related trouble with muscles, ligaments and tendons, the most common problem for any runner (including myself, unfortunately) is the stomach. The man or woman who could invent a solution to runner’s belly, or whatever it’s called, would become so rich he or she would never have to work for a living again. Rune told us that he used to train this particular characteristic by eating an enormous portion of pasta and then without delay head straight out for a run. And when he needs to build muscle for strength, he never hits the gym as the rest of us do. Instead he loads a backpack with around 20% of his body-weight (I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I guess he weighs around 80 kg, meaning he packs it with 16 kg of weight) and then goes out for a terrain run. No better way to train your abs, back and upper torso, apparently. Another little jewel of information he regaled us with was that every kind of runner has trouble with deficiencies. The sprinters and middle-distance runners have to battle oxygen deficiency, as it is their main barrier towards a good result in a race. The long-distance runners, i.e. the marathoners, mainly have to worry about their glycogen stores, not only having to fill up their stores prior to a race, but also maintaining an intake of calories during the race. Ultrarunner, in comparison, have it easy. They are deficient in EVERYTHING. Oxygen, glycogen, salts, common sense; you name it and they don’t have it. As illustrated by the fact that out of ten starts at Spartahlon, Rune has ended up in hospital a total of eight times. But not before finishing every single race within the time limit. Which brings us back to the body’s ability to withstand pain and a proper battering.

The photo shows Rune congratulating the winner of the 1985 Spartathlon, Patrick Macke, after both of them had ended up in hospital immediately after the race. Rune finished fourth.

The photo shows Rune congratulating the winner of the 1985 Spartathlon, Patrick Macke, after both of them had ended up in hospital immediately after the race. Rune finished fourth.

I could write on and on about Björn’s and Rune’s anecdotes and races, but I’ll leave you with a simple, but very illustrative, picture of how you compare sprinters to ultrarunners. I hope Rune will forgive me for so cheekily relaying the story, but it is Rune’s own, after all. You know the gesture Usain Bolt does after winning his races? Where he strikes a pose and aims for the sky? Do you know what he wants to tell us?

”Look up there! That’s Rune Larsson, running to the moon!”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05:  Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates winning gold in the Men’s 100m Final on Day 9 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 5, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 05: Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates winning gold in the Men’s 100m Final on Day 9 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Oh, and here’s my training during the last two weeks, for those of you that are interested.

Monday         13 km, calm tempo

Tuesday         12 km, progressive increase

Wednesday   9,5 km, restitution

Thursday       11 km, marathon tempo

Friday             20 km, proper trails with a backpack, water and chocolate together with a friend

Sunday           8 km, restitution

Total               73,5 km

Monday         17 km, interval training coaching Urban Tribes, including back and forth from home

Tuesday         11 km, progressive increase

Wednesday   10 km, calm tempo

Thursday       12 km, progressive increase

Friday             30 km, wonderful trails and gravel roads with a backpack in Nordmarka

Sunday           8 km, restitution

Total               88 km