I tell Ibrahim to turn on the GoPro, and I turn my head and watch bikes, skiers and runners disappearing past us up the frozen river in the flat white light. Not the start that I wanted, but one that I now have to deal with. I lay my bike on the snow, take a deep breath and watch it condense as I exhale in the freezing temperatures. I remind myself not to panic. We are two kilometres into this 150 kilometre race, and I have a flat tyre. I know I’m losing time, but I make sure I’m slow and methodical. I’ve fixed punctures hundreds of times, but I need to get it this one right. I’ve chosen to carry only one spare tube and some repair patches, but I don’t know in this cold weather whether the glue will actually set. I pump air into the inflating tube making sure it seats properly on the bead, my eyes flicking back and forwards from the wheel in front of me to the racers passing us and disappearing into the distance. I can tell Ibrahim (my sight guide) is getting worried: reading his body language, he’s willing me to pump faster, and I tell him to relax. I surprise myself how quickly the four point eight inch tyre is inflated and ready to go. The pressure is far greater than I would like, maybe ten psi which will make my progress much less efficient, but I can’t risk another flat. I pick up my bike and struggle to put the wheel back into the drop-outs. After fifteen minutes, we are back riding. I look up and focus on the bike in front, and I drive my legs hard, much harder than I would like to this early in the race. I’m breathing hard as we fly past the first cyclist. Then another, and another.
The Rovaniemi 150 is an adventure race in the north of Finland, lying just inside the Arctic Circle. It has three distances you can compete in: a 66km, a 150km, and last, but very far from least, a 300km (in which you can only race if you have previously completed the 150). All distances can be run, skied or cycled. Just like most other races, the route is a large lap, and the first across the line is the winner. Due to the unpredictable conditions in this hostile environment, it is mandatory for racers to carry an arctic-rated sleeping bag and a sleeping mat for safety. It is the seventh time the event has been run, experiencing a wide range of conditions over the years, and during the race briefing on Friday lunch time, we are told by Alex the race organiser that conditions are bad this year. Not terrible, just bad. The warmer weather and wind has made it hell for them trying to prepare the trail, so he tells us fat bikers that there will be a lot of pushing. When he say’s “warmer weather”, he means about minus three to minus five degrees celsius rather than the usual minus 15.
We ride into the first check point and there are bikes, pulks and people all over the place. I ask where the sign-in point is, and a woman comes up to me with a clip board. She writes my race number down (101) and my check-in time, then hands me the pen. I scribble something that looks like Steve in the ‘in box’ then the same in the ‘out box’. The women looks at me strangely as I grab my bike and start heading back to the race: she is surprised I’m not stopping by the fire to warm up. The truth is I’m not cold: my layering system is perfect through lots of research and trial and error. A thin base layer, windproof top and a gilet is all I’m wearing; bib tights on the bottom covered with a thin soft-shell trouser. I’m back in the hunt with Ibrahim glued to my wheel. The next hour is a blur. I crash a lot on the single track: my front wheel washing out forces me to fall into the fluffy white powder, sometimes sinking up to my knees when I try to stand. I’m always in a rush to get back on my bike and get riding. I’m trying to get back to the head of the race, to see who is looking strong, who our competition is. Check point two appears, this time smaller than the first, no-one around beside the two volunteers. They take my number, I sign both boxes and we are gone.
We arrive at check point three after a long section riding along a frozen lake; it’s so hard with the extra pressure in my back tyre. Instead of floating over the snowy surface like the others around me, I cut deep tracks, not as efficient as I should be, however I press on. I head over to the fire to find the water. It’s been a couple of hours since I’ve had a drink and I can feel my muscles getting sticky, that familiar feeling telling me that cramp is not far away. The smoke stings my eyes as I look around for the volunteer to sign in and out. There is only one name on the sheet when I look, and that rider has just left. I realise we are second at this point. Our hard riding has paid off, but I was hoping there would be a few more riders to share the load of breaking the trail. We still have over one hundred kilometres to go, and it’s a bit early for a heroic break. Not long down the trail we past the race leader. It’s our race to lose now. We press on to extend our lead. We are fast on the road sections, but I slow Ibrahim down on the single track sections, unable to gather the purchase from my rear tyre. Often, I jump off my bike and run up slopes. This is more efficient for me than trying to ride and burn a lot of energy. In a race like this, it is all about being as efficient as possible. I know the people behind us will be able to ride these sections, so I never stop for a rest. My muscles burn, but I can’t stop, I just keep going step after step until it feels firm enough under my feet to jump back on and try riding again.
We notice there is one tyre track in front of us, but we can’t work out why: are we not in the lead? Is there someone else that I missed on the sign in sheet? After a couple of hours, we realise that it’s one of the guys riding the 300. I’m impressed that he is leading the race, but think to myself that he has pushed himself far too hard too early on. I lose track of which check points are which, signing in and out, filling water and drinking as much as I can while I’m there. My bottle is freezing up in the cold conditions, and sometimes I go for a couple of hours without water. We arrive at ‘the bridge of doom’, a narrow bridge crossing above a flowing crystal clear river. It is less than a metre wide, and you can see through the timber strides down to the icy waters, which will catch a fall should you slip. I step off my bike and slowly make my way across the creaky wooden structure, holding my breath as I go. Sure-footed, I reach the other side. It’s then a twisty narrow tight section through the trees. Unable to be packed down by a snowmobile, we sink deep into the soft snow. Pushing our bikes, Ibrahim guides me through the maze, warning me of branches at face height and big holes where our friend in front has fallen up to his waist. It seems to last forever, and we speak about how bad this will be for the runners, towing their pulks behind them. I feel grateful for pushing my bike. As dusk arrives, it changes the game for me. This is the bit that I’d worried about; this is the bit where I knew I would learn about myself in these conditions. This is the reason I’m here, to fight the darkness, to struggle, to ask myself questions. My helmet light makes reading the trail easier than the flat white light during the day time, and I scan back and forwards, trying to find the best line through the snowy single track. My eyes work overtime trying to stay focused, but I don’t realise how hard this is for them until much later. We ride and we push, we push more and we ride. I fall off a lot, but the landings are always soft. Sometimes I get a leg down, but it disappears in the soft snow up to my thigh, the bike falling on top of me and trapping me for a few seconds until I wriggle myself free. I try and stay calm, but I know that speed is of the essence.
We see snowmobiles in the darkness, parked off the trail, and then head torches suddenly blind my poor night vision. We have reached check point five: the furthest point on the course from the start line. We are over half way; every pedal stroke and every step pushing is now a step closer to home. I sign in and head to the wooden hut; this is the only check point with a hut big enough to sleep in if you choose to. Many a racer has sat down at this point in the past and not got up again to finish. It’s where we catch the guy in front who is racing the 300: he is sitting in front of the roaring fire, and in the dim light I see he looks tired. I probably look the same. I ask him how he is, and in his European English, he tell’s me he is fine; he will rest here for fifteen minutes then carry on. As I fill my water bottle, I tell him he is a hero for riding the three hundred, and then I turn and leave, wasting no time, not wanting to sit and enjoy the comfort. I hit my helmet on the low door as I exit the smoke-filled wooden cabin, and am shocked as the cold air hits my face. I find out the following day that the tired figure in the cabin I met never left. He retired from the race at that point, too exhausted to continue.
I look at my Garmin cycling computer and it tells me we have been on the move for thirteen hours. With the conditions as they are, I ask ibrahim how he’s feeling, and he replies “fine. Tired but okay.” We are flying on a road section of the course which is mostly downhill. This is where my tyre pressure is helping rather than hindering me. We ride side by side, chatting about how the race has gone and what is still to come. I’m trapped in a time warp of trees and snow, and snow and trees. We are leading the race with no tracks in front of us, just ours left behind for others to follow. I wonder how far back the second rider is and how he is feeling. Is he stronger than us? Will he come flying past and leave us for dead? I know I have it in me to finish this race: years of battling Scottish winter elements while out climbing has forged a toughness in me, a grit. I like to battle against mother nature, never beating her, just surviving. It’s almost how I dreamed this race would unfold with two thirds of the way gone: Ibrahim and myself out on our own out in front, making it hard for the others to chase us.
In the darkness there is a moment of worry that snatches me out of my hazy thinking: it’s a flash of my Exposure helmet light, meaning the battery is running low. It sends a shot of adrenaline through my veins: not having light would bring us to a cripplingly-slow speed. I realise I still have my back up light, an Exposure Joystick. We stop for a moment while I change the lights and get going again. I think to myself that we have to hurry now: if this light runs out, we are in big trouble. My tired mind is playing tricks on me: I know this light will have hours left in it, but I can’t help but think about trying to ride these trails in the dark. My mind is put at ease when we descend back down onto the river we started on. I know we only have just over thirteen kilometres to go. I stop and drop the air pressure in my back tyre. It’s worth the risk now as we must have a good lead over the rider in second place. We have been relentless with our attitude to stopping and pushing and I’m sure it has paid off. As we ride down the river on our way to the final check point, I turn my head to see if anyone is behind us, my neck muscles hurting as my head torch is lost in the darkness. No one is there. We arrive at the final check point where two men await us. I sign in and out for the last time, filling my water bottle by the fire. As the smoke burns my tired eyes, I’m thankful it will be for the last time. The two men seem upset we are not staying to talk about the race as we thank them for their help and ride off into the night with ten kilometres to go.
I have read a lot of blogs about this race and watched many videos, and all of them say this is the worst section of the race. There is some tricky navigation to do to ensure you don’t end up riding up another river wasting valuable time. Probably worst of all, you can see the lights of Rovaniemi’s amazing bridge in the distance which never seem to get closer. Maybe after reading all of that, I was mentally prepared for this last section, but with low pressure in my tyres, we flew over the rough snowy surface carved up by snowmobiles going back and forwards during the day, a standard form of transport during winter here in Finland. I look at my Garmin for the last time, but this time can’t read what it says. My eyes have gone blurry and I struggle to make out any of the details on my handle bars. I look up and realise Ibrahim riding in front of me is just a blur as well. Even with my light shining on his back, there are no clean lines around his body, only hazy ones. I try not to panic and tell myself “relax, I’m sure they will be fine.” I am hoping I am right.
After thirty minutes, as the lights of the bridge grow bigger, I ask Ibrahim to stop for a second. We stand over our bikes, smiles on our faces and bump fists. We know it’s in the bag now, we have done it. We take some time to enjoy this moment, with just the two of us, before we get back, cross the finish line and have to face the cameras. I look back up the river and it’s still pitch black. I take a deep breath in and watch a white cloud fill the sky as I breathe out. “Let’s finish this” Ibrahim says into the silence, and we carry on riding. In those final few kilometres, we talk about what went well, our equipment choices and how they worked for us. A year in the making, and we have done it. As complete Arctic endurance racing novices, we ride into town and up the ramp into the final check point and the finish. The clock is stopped. We have been on the move for seventeen hours and thirty five minutes. We are told we have a big lead over second place, and half of the field have dropped out due to the challenging conditions. My eyes burn in the bright lights and I struggle to focus. All I want is to get back on my bike, ride back to our hostel and get in the shower. The adventure has been everything I’d hoped for, but as always, it has left me wanting much, much more.
Dark Sky Media followed our race, filming us as we went along. We will be producing a film called Focus about the race, which is due for release later in the year, so keep an eye out for that. Finally, a huge thanks to Alpkit and Sonder bikes for supporting me. Also to Dirty Dog Eyewear and 17 Management.