When heading out to Rovaniemi 150 I already knew I needed to be prepared for pretty much anything. I had spent countless hours on my bike and believed myself to be in best biking form ever. My gear had been tested with long rides in -27c and I was stocked up with energy and motivation. The only thing I really wasn´t prepared for was pushing the bike through soft snow for 100k out of the 150k race – and that´s exactly what happened.
Turned out to be the hardest thing I´ve ever done.
Rovaniemi 150 is an arctic winter race taking place in the Finnish Lapland. There are three distances to choose from (66k, 150k and 300k) and you can race in three categories – on foot, on skis or with a fatbike. The race starts at 9AM on Saturday morning and the 150k cut off time is set to Monday at 3AM.
Race briefing on Friday started with the check of mandatory kit everyone needed to carry through the race. Biggest required item was a sleeping bag good enough for sleeping out in the snow or waiting for evacuation in case of emergency.
At the biefing we learned one of the last years racers had suffered frostbite on both legs. Vivid description of the consequences including photos of different phases of the “healing process” made it sure that I for sure wasn´t going to try it out myself. Nervously, I complemented my race gear with a pair of extra socks and plastic bags for the case of wetting my feet when crossing the lakes.
It appeared us finns were representing a minority among the races and the competitors had come from all around the world to test themselves out in the Finnish winter conditions. Also the age spectrum was pretty wide ranging from 20ish up to 60+ from the looks of the participants.
At the start line I peered curiously at other competitors and their racing setups. I had equipped my Mondraker Panzer with Alpkit bikepacking gear and also decided to go for their Arctic Dream 1400 sleeping bag. Both turned out to be excellent choises as I had no gear-related mishaps during the race.
Also, the last minute adjustments on riding position by the helpful guys at Hi5 Bikes seemed to do the trick on the short rideable sections.
When the race was set off with a horn, the 66k competitors sprinted out on the Ounasjoki ice while us on the 150k and 300k distances kept the pace more moderate pedaling off in one long queue followed by skiers and runners.
We had a fast start having wind behind our backs and the first checkpoint at 11k was reached in less than an hour. Soon after, the trail turned off the Ounasjoki ice up towards the forest and we were forced to get off the bikes and started pushing our way through the soft snow.
I saw my friend doing the 66k at the first checkpoint and we pushed together for a while chatting with a Czech guy going for the 300k distance. He was prepared to stay on the trail for quite a while (the cut off time for 300k was set to 9AM next thursday) and he was stocked up with 4kg of sausages among other sources of energy to keep him moving.
After an hour of pushing we arrived to Sinettäjärvi lake which was barely rideable and I pulled off leaving my friend behind. Later I heard he finished the 66k race at 10h+ hours after pushing the bike for more than 40k.
After crossing the lake the 66k racers turned back towards Ounasjoki river and the rest of us headed out the other way. The trail was getting softer again and soon enough the nature of this year´s race started to dawn to me.
While the lake had been barely rideable, the following forest section appeared to force us off the bikes and start pushing. Our progress slowed down to less than 3,5km / hour and I was beginning to question wether I´d be able to make it to the next checkpoint at 44k, let alone to the finish line.
I had already been passed by the first skier at 15k and found the first runner going past me at around 40k while I was slowly pushing my bike through the slush.
Luckily, I was accompanied by another biker and we pushed on together chatting along the way. When we finally approached the third checkpoint Viittavaara at 44k we had been racing for 6,5 hours and I was running seriously low on water.
Cold creeped in quickly as soon as we stopped and I wanted to keep moving while there was still daylight available. After filling up our water bladders and signing ourselves in and out Viittavaara checkpoint we quickly headed off back to the soft forest trail continuing our march.
We agreed on a rhythm of pushing for an hour at a time before briefly stopping for a minute or two for energy and drinking. With this pace it took us roughly 3 hours to cover 10k in the snowy forest and the chatter slowly quieted down as fatigue settled in.
When we arrived to the next checkpoint at Morajärvi lake (58k) it was already pitch dark. We had been racing for 9,5 hours and I was starting to seriously question how this race would end up for me.
After Morajärvi I can´t recall much else than quietly marching in darkness with my newfound friend taking turns in setting the pace. Hour of pushing – energy bar and drink – another hour – repeat. Slowly we were covering the distance in silence hoping for a short section to be rideable somewhere along the way.
When approaching the Kuusijärvi checkpoint at around halfway through the race I had been walking silently in the lead for the last hour. When I stopped for energy and looked behind me I realized the headlight of my companion for the last 10ish hours had somehow vanished. I figured he must have fallen off the pace during the last kilometers and decided to wait for him at the next checkpoint knowing it was the only one with a warm shelter available.
At Kuusijärvi I took the longest rest of the whole race sitting tight for a full 15mins munching through energy bars and drinking while enjoying the warmth of the small hut. Right when I was about to head back out, my fellow biker walked in announcing he´ll be dropping off the race.
I needed to practice Yedi-class mental powers to push myself out the door towards the dark forest and not taking the option of a snowmobile ride with my newfound friend back to the cosy hotel. Eventually we bid farewell and I headed out alone pushing my bike with my head full of dark thoughts of the remaining 75k ahead.
I was heading to the longest stretch between two checkpoints in the whole race the next one being a whopping 37k away. At the time, the 37k ahead seemed like an eternity.
I had learned that about 20k of the 37k should be rideable but I´d first need to push through a 10k forest section and after the 20k of riding I´d face another 7k of pushing before eventually reaching the checkpoint at Torimokivalo.
The race had continued for more than 15 hours and it was already past midnight.
It started to snow and the wind was picking up so the conditions weren´t getting any better. The first 10k of pushing seemed to continue endlessly and when I finally reached the rideable forest road I needed to practice quite a bit of acrobatics to get my tired feet lifted on the bike pedals.
Luckily, my biking muscles were still pretty much untouched and the 20k of road was the easiest part of the race! I caught up with a couple of runners who had passed me earlier and stopped for a short chat. It felt good to get some company even for a while after hours of being alone in the dark. We cheered each other to push onward.
Eventually, the fun ride had to end as the trail headed back to forest turning to soft slush and forcing me off the bike.
Afer 20+ hours of non-stop racing my mind was starting to play tricks on me. I somehow managed to convince myself I had passed the Torimokivalo checkpoint without noticing it in the dark. After a while of pondering my options while marching onward I decided to leave the bike on the side of the trail, walk back to the checkpoint to avoid being disqualified and then walk back to the bike and continue ahead.
As I was setting my bike leaning on a tree on the trailside I saw a ray of light approaching from behind. It appeared to belong to a runner who had caught up with me. Delighted to see another person I gladly greeted him and started questioning how far behind the Torimokivalo checkpoint was.
The puzzled runner, being tired himself, tried to convince me the next checkpoint is still ahead of us and when he realized I wasn´t about to give up on my opinion he just continued his march onward in slight frustration. In confusion, I took a moment to ponder my options and finally decided to follow his footsteps.
Lucky I did – I finally arrived at Torimokivalo checkpoint early Sunday morning after 23 hours of racing. I was greeted with the news of 16 participants who had decided to pull out of the race due to the extreme conditions.
After Torimokivalo I was facing another 25k of soft trail to reach the last checkpoint Porohovi by Ounasjoki river. I prepared for the march by stocking up with enough water for 6-8 hours. The snowfall was getting worse but at the same time the finish line started to get within my reach. I exited Torimokivalo and set my sights towards Porohovi 25k ahead.
At around 125k, after 27 hours racing I was approaching lake Norvajärvi. Due to soft trail I hadn´t been able to ride my bike for more than about 40k during the whole race. I was really having high hopes of reaching the lake hoping it to be hard enough to ride on allowing me to recover my walking muscles for a change.
As soon as I stepped out of the forest on the open ice I realized the toughest part of the race was yet to come. I immediately sank to a knee deep snow and had to half carry my bike to be able to move ahead. The trail markings were barely visible through the snowstorm and the cold wind made it impossible to stop for energy or drink.
I slowly carried my bike towards the direction where I believed the trail should be heading trying to get a glimpse of how far ahead the other shore would be.
It took me roughly two hours to get accross the lake. When I eventually reached the other shore I stopped in exhaustion, munched through another energy bar and started the last push towards Porohovi. It was already past mid-day on Sunday and I started to see locals and tourists cheering me on as I kept pushing.
Eventually, after 30 hours of racing I arrived to the last checkpoint Porohovi located 11k from the finish line. I skipped re-fueling and quickly signed in and out continuing my way towards Rovaniemi on Ounasjoki ice.
Luckily, the ice was mostly rideable regardless of the continuous wind and snowfall and I crossed the last 11k stretch in about 1,5h hours arriving to Rovaniemi just before dusk at 4:30PM on Sunday.
When approaching the finish line at Pohjanhovi hotel, people stopped to cheer me on as I was pedaling the last meters of the 150k journey that had taken me two days to finish. Finally, I stepped in Pohjanhovi hotel and signed in at the finish line with the total race time of 31,5 hours. To my great surprise I also learned I was the 6th biker to finish the race!
A mix of emotions rolled through my mind as the hours of exhaustion and uncertainty of finishing were suddenly replaced by news of actually placing well in the race! I sat down in the hotel lobby barely able to keep my eyes open munching through the sandwitch provided by the organizers and contemplating on the last two days of adventure.
Getting through Rovaniemi 150 was definitely the toughest thing I´ve ever pulled myself trough both physically and mentally. Many people have since asked me if there was any sense in doing it in the first place and if it was worth it.
Without a doubt, I can honestly say the journey was well worth every soft snowy meter spent out there in the woods! Can´t think of a better way to spend a weekend!