Extreme running, why do we do it?

Photo: Sylvain Cavatz

What makes someone volunteer to sign up for an extremely long, hot or cold race?

Why is it becoming increasingly popular to participate in multiday desert races or other extreme stage races?

Races that take place in extreme heat, cold or altitude bring hardship. Participants must fight their way to a finish, managing the oppressive heat, the relentless cold of battle through a jungle where the high humidity feels suffocating and the sound of the jungle’s many insects is deafening.

For me, it has become a little bit of an obsession.

An eternal pursuit of new adventures that can let me push my own boundaries. The kick I get from it, the feeling of personal growth, increased strength both physical and mental and of course the memories I am left.

Whether I have a tough day or a difficult task ahead of me, I will always be able to remind myself that I can do it… I can run 220 kilometers in 5 days in freezing cold temperatures, so a double shift at work isn’t really too bad. I have run 230 kilometers in burning hot heat and high humidity in Costa Rica, so I will survive my 10k training run even though it’s a really hot summer day here at home in Norway…

Photo: Ian Corless

It has become an important part of my life, and even though I do not race all the time, I do similar adventures on my own and with friends; both long and short fastpacking adventures. Either running from cabin to cabin in the wild Norwegian mountains or bringing a tent for a multiday adventure in a forest.

Here are some of my thoughts I wrote down a few days after I had returned home from Beyond the Ultimate Ice Ultra in 2019. My very first multiday stage race. As the first woman to finish and being 4th overall, I had gone way beyond my expectations. I was already dreaming about my next multiday stage race.

What should I do next? Desert? Mountain? Jungle…?

When you have been Beyond the Ultimate

Photo: Mikkel Beisner

About 220 kilometers in 5 days through an Arctic wasteland in Swedish Lapland where the temperature a few days was down to below 35 degrees Celsius. With snowshoes on most of the time and a pack that at the starting line weighed just a little less than 8kg, but still wasn’t close to storing as much food as my body would be in need of the next 5 days.

Photo: Sylvain Cavatz

Sleep depression, extreme cold temperatures and running more than double the distance I had ever run before in 5-days! This was a race that challenged me in so many ways. It was not just about running. It was as much about knowing about my kit, handling the cold environments, eating the right food at the right times, staying on top of my hydration level, managing the loneliness out on the trail and the intimacy on the camp. An adventure like nothing I had experienced before.

Photo: Will Roberts

Loneliness and fellowship

This adventure taught me a lot about myself and about how the body reacts to cold, exhaustion, pain and deficits of nutrition. I’ve seen some absolutely stunning landscapes, crossing white-clad mountains and vast icy lakes that at times made rumbling and terrifying sounds. I have known the loneliness, because for most of the 220 kilometers I ran alone, without seeing either runners in front of me or behind me. The race brought comradeship and a mutual bonding through pain and elation that cannot be replicated. 

And I’m missing it…

I didn’t know any of the runners who attended this race, but during those 5 days I got to know a whole lot about most of them. I remember how strange it was not to have them around afterwards. And even though we had done the race at a different pace, for different reasons and with different abilities, these were the only people who truly knew what I had just been through. We had all done this, individually, but at the same time as a group. Cared for each other and cheered each other on.

Photo: Mikkel Beisner

And some of these people I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget. Andre and  Simon , the two runners who led, and who were the most amazing support when I was on the edge of a mental breakdown after the third stage. The wonderfully funny and always equally happy Irish guys Brian Keane and Simon H. The Sami who provided safety on the race, who I met both on checkpoints and when they passed me on snowmobiles occasionally, all providing encouraging comments. They always made me feel safe, even in the most extreme conditions. I miss meeting with the media team  Mikkel and Ryan who always made me smile because of their endlessly optimistic and happy personalities. And  Will, who would meet me at the finish line and always make me feel as if I had flown like a wind over the snow, even if the reality was that I had been moving through soft snow and areas with surface water for the last 4 hours at a pace that felt like anything but fast.

Even the roar of Kris every morning «Good  morning! Get  your  night bags  ready in 15 minutes” I would love to hear this again. I could continue to mention names for a long time, but I think I’ve made the point; it was a nice and tight-knit group of runners.

Back to basics

But what I miss the most, is how easy life felt. It may sound strange when I say that running 220 kilometers in 5 days through a freezing cold arctic landscape is easy, but life was reduced to a few simple tasks. In the evenings we were sometimes in cabins without electricity. There was not always phone connection, and the battery had to be saved anyway. All I had to do was make sure to keep the fire in the wood stove going, dry my clothes, eat, drink, go to the bathroom, treat my feet, get everything ready for the next day and sleep. And in the morning, get dressed, eat, get my night bag ready, go to the bathroom and then embark on the next stage.

Photo: Mikkel Beisner

Everything else became unimportant. Back to basics. I managed to log off completely and just live in the present without thinking about the outside world and the everyday worries one likes to go and ponder.

More of this

I loved the experience and as soon as I had recovered from this race, I started doing my own adventures because I needed more of the same… I found that fastpacking was in many ways similar to the multi-day stage race experience, but at the same time different. When I fastpacked, life became simple. I got to experience some truly amazing places and I got the “back to basic” feeling. And since I didn’t race, I was in no rush and I could enjoy my time on the trails more.

Photo: Ian Corless

But I didn’t get that community feeling and the roughness that I loved when I raced. The feeling of having pushed and really gone beyond what I believed was my limits.

I did The Coastal Challenge (TCC), Costa Rica in February 2020, I couldn’t have found a race that was more different to the Ice Ultra. Costa Rica was the complete opposite when it came to temperatures. We had temperatures around +35 degrees and with a humidity of more than 75% – it is all about finding ways to keeps the body temperature down. At the same time, this is similar to Ice Ultra. Because it makes the race something more than just running. You have to think tactical all the time. You need to know how the body works and what to do to regulate your body temperature.

Photo: Ian Corless

At TCC, I didn’t need to bring a big pack when running as the race was not self-sufficient. TCC, on reflection, felt like a running holiday, it combined the best of both worlds; hard racing and wonderful relaxation. It felt like an all-inclusive running holiday where you get food and drinks at camp, 3x a day and snacks at the aid stations when running. My tent and camp bag were transported from camp to camp every day. So, I could eat as much as I wanted, bring as many clothes as I wanted…. Yes, a real luxury stage race experience.

But the similarity of both events is the group feeling and the simplicity of life.

Preparing and training

Extreme races take a toll and I think one, maybe two per year is enough. It takes a lot to prepare for a race like this and extreme adventure should feel unique and special, not commonplace. When fastpacking, I think about it as a way to prepare myself for my next extreme race experience. It is the perfect way of training; being out, doing something fun, but without pushing the body so that it will need a long time for recovery afterwards. By doing this, I am well prepared to do multiday stage races, both the self-sufficient ones and the ones that are more like TCC. I teach my body to be out running and carrying my stuff many days in a row. I learn the tips and tricks on what makes the pack lighter, what I need and don’t need, what my comfort levels are and how my body reacts to being on the move multiple days with dried food and food I normally don’t eat when home. I learn to be comfortable sleeping outdoor and to handle the weather.

And no matter what, my next multi-stage race will be, mountain, desert, snow, ice, cold or hot; I know that I will be prepared and that I will love it.

Photo: Sylvain Cavatz

Because this is my thing.

Is multiday stage racing your thing?

If you are now thinking that, “wow, I wish I could do the same”, then take away the words I wish, because yes, you CAN do the same. These extreme races ae not just for the top elite runners who have been running for years. You don’t need to be a sub 3-hour marathon runner to complete one of these crazy races. The main goal is to finish the race, run if you can, walk when you need and crawl if you must. This is the multi-day life. Enjoy the surroundings and the time out on the trails, this is a truly wonderful way to race.

Photo: Ian Corless

Worried that you are not good enough?

In January 2021, I’ll be one of the guides at ‘Training Camp’ in Lanzarote specifically for multi-day running.  Head coach is 2x Marathon des Sables champion, Elisabet Barnes! Running Marathon des Sables, The Coastal Challenge, Everest Trail Race or other similar events, this is the camp to join and gain experience! Why not join me in Lanzarote from the 7th – 14th January 2021. You can find more information about the camp here.

If you are more interested in doing the Ice Ultra, but haven’t tried running in snow and cold environments, or if you want to test out your kit before the race, I also do private tours in Norway during winter. Feel free to contact me if this is of any interest.

Photo: Ian Corless

Published by abelonelyng

Abelone from Oslo, Norway. I am a trail and ultra-runner who loves to adventure in the mountains. I am an ambassador for inov-8, Arla and Firepot foods. I am a blogger, writer and regular contributor for Runners World Norway.

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