Watsons Rovaniemi 150

Rovaniemi is a city in northern Finland that sits on the arctic circle. Every February there is a series of races that start on the frozen river in the city. The races are varying distances of 66, 150 and 300 km and you can compete on fat bike, ski or foot. It’s a similar format to more famous races in North America like the Iditarod Trail Invitational and the Yukon Arctic Ultra. The Rovaniemi races however are more accessible, cheaper and relatively safer, and as far as I am aware the only such races in Europe.

I have long taken an interest in races such as the Yukon, so was keen to enter the Rovaniemi 150 when the opportunity arose. To enter the 300 km race, you must have winter arctic experience, unfortunately the Spine race doesn’t count. It cost 300 euros with another 30 euro to hire a pulka, which is a small sledge that you pull behind you with all your kit in. You can put your kit in a backpack, but this makes you heavy and more likely to sink in soft snow, it also makes your back sweat, which then freezes and causes problems. I had contacted lots of people that have experience in these sorts of races and moisture management is a key consideration. The average low temp on previous races has been about minus 20 to 25 but the record low in Rovaniemi was minus 45. There is a bare minimum of mandatory gear, just lights and sleeping system., but your sleeping bag must be on their approved list. I spent the summer buying cold weather gear and training for pulling a pulka. I pulled an old car tyre round a 10-mile circuit between Hardcastle crags and Walshaw dean reservoir, which ended up being quite realistic training and hilarious to anybody who saw me.

I flew from Manchester on the Thursday before the race. John Minta was supposed to come too but he was still injured after putting his all into finishing the Spine in 5th place. It was minus 28 the Thursday night, unfortunately the race weekend was forecast to be warm. It was the weekend in Feb when the jet stream bathed Europe in warm air from the Azores. The race brief on the Friday made a lot about the weather and how it would make the underfoot conditions soft and difficult and would increase the chances of overflow. (when water from the lake or river your running on comes to the surface and turns it to slush, in cold weather it freezes before this happens).

The race started on the Saturday morning. It was a clear with bright sunshine, it looked fantastic. Everybody starts at the same time, so it was crowded, there were more entries this year than ever. The First 10 km great, snow was still frozen but as the day warmed up the snow got soft. The fat bikers ,who shot off at the start, were struggling most with the soft snow as they have to get off and push. Everybody struggled on the first lake as there was lots of overflow. I was keeping pace with a Spanish 66km runner, and decided to give snow shoes a try. Never used them before and I don’t think they helped, probably only of benefit if its soft powder that you sink in. The Spanish runner had pulled away so I took them off after an hour, never used them again.. They daytime temp got up to about plus 2, I was in shorts and long sleeved top. I had a windproof jacket that I put on and off to regulate my temp. On my feet I had a pair of goretex trainers with metal spikes in the bottom, over the calf sealskinz and mini gators, my feet stayed warm and dry. After a great sunset the temp dropped but it only got down to minus 8. I just put on a pair of windproof trousers and wool hat and gloves which was just enough.

The route follows a big loop through the forest north of the city. It starts and finishes on the river, and goes over numerous lakes. There’s plenty of forest tracks that become endless tree tunnels at night by headtorch. These also a 20km ice road section, I was glad for the spike on my trainers. The check points have a fire pit and water and not much else. Some have a lean to for sleeping and the one at halfway is in a log cabin. I didn’t stop much, only to take on water and rearrange kit. I took some cheese and ham sandwiches wrapped in foil that I would warm by the fires and then eat on the go (great tip). I carried water in flasks, there was plenty of hot water at check points. I ran most of it alone but kept passing the same 2 runners at the check points, a Finn and an American. They were faster than me but stopped for much longer. I did run with an Italian 300km runner for a bit who looked very strong, the 300km racers does the same 150km as I did then go off on a different 150km loop. I passed her at the last checkpoint, she was taking advantage of the fire, as the second 150 loop has no checkpoints and is totally unsupported. The Finn had passed me on the last lake and the American lady passed me on the last 10km stretch of river, by which time I had no running left in my legs (running on soft snow aint easy). I finished in 29 hours 37 mins in 7th place, which I was more than happy with. The first runners came in on 23;15. And the first fat biker did just under 12 hours. The Italian was first runner in the 300 km.

Great race, well organised with the minimum of mollycoddling, it was just so different to anything I had done before, I was just hoping for much colder weather. The landscape is beautiful, especially at night, the locals are friendly in their own “to the point” way. Including flights and accommodation it probably cost the same as a Spine entry. I am hoping to go back and do the 300 km in 2021.

:Johnie Watson