The entry was in, the training had been done, now here we were in a hotel room in Rovaniemi, in Finnish Lapland, looking at all the bags and boxes that travelled with us from the UK. Having been here in 2012 for the very first edition of the Rov150, we had taken note of the things that proved difficult last time and had packed appropriately, including bring our pulks with us.
One thing that we learned from our previous visit was that this is a very different race and environment from the YAU; this was echoed on the race website giving a different focus and a different challenge for competitors.
The new race that had been introduced last year, the Rov300, looked like a challenging option for us. The trail does not follow any dog sled race (unlike the YAU and ITI), it follows snow mobile routes which may be used for recreation to a greater or lesser degree and the route is marked only by the standard snow mobile trail markers, so GPS is essential especially as the checkpoints on the second half of the route are noted only by their co-ordinates and not by any marker or landmark. Racers must carry a satellite tracker and check in at each checkpoint to evidence that they have visited all 31.
The first half of the route is the same as for the 150k race and therefore this section of the trail is groomed by Alex and his team in advance of the race and the route is marked with steaks and reflectors throughout. The eight check points on this section each have a fire and access to water and are manned by the fantastic race crew. 300k racers are able to take advantage of the fire and water if they reach the checkpoints before they close (the 150k race has cut-offs for each check point after which it closes, while the 300k does not).
As always we spent some time in the run up to the race deciding on kit and sled set up as well as training for the event. Some weeks before the race the temperatures had plummeted in Finland and Rovaniemi was showing temperatures of -30C and colder – this was really positive for us as it meant that the trail was likely to be firm and kit decisions would be very similar to the YAU we had previously taken part in on several occasions. However, as the race drew close, the temperatures started to rise and now we had arrived in temperatures of -1C with snow falling steadily.
Last minute preparations for the race went smoothly as Rovaneimi has an abundance of useful shops both in the town and just outside. We had given ourselves plenty of time to prepare, enabling a few coffee and cake stops in the town as additional preparation for the race ahead.
The race briefing and kit check also went well, with Alex being very positive about the trail and the challenge ahead (there were a lot of questions about the check points and the use of the SPOT etc, most of which were covered in the information on the website). Following the race briefing it was time to pack and get ready for the start in the morning.
Once signed in at race HQ, everyone made their way to the river for the 9am start, where we were aware of some very small and light sleds compared with the gear we were pulling, we concluded that these must be people tackling the shorter distances as we felt we had only the essentials necessary to stay safe on our sleds… and off we go! The race sets off up the river on a well-used trail, however, even this was fairly soft with the warmer temperatures. At the first checkpoint, just over 10k in, it was a straight in and out doing the first check-in with the satellite tracker.
As the day went on the trail became softer and it was apparent that snow shoes were essential to pull the sleds up the hills, then it became apparent that snowshoes were necessary for almost all of the trail which was soft with feet sinking and sliding with every step.
For anyone who has taken part in the YAU I would describe the trail as having sections like the pull up to Rivendell, but that go on for longer and also sections like the trail from Braeburn lake to the lodge. All the river and lake sections were softer than I have ever come across in the YAU.
As we progressed, it had quickly become apparent that we needed to adjust our pace to avoid exhausting ourselves early on as snowshoeing uses more energy and is more aerobic. Along the way we came across a lot of people who were saying how energy sapping the conditions were and they were not making the progress planned.
As we arrived at checkpoint 3 we did our usual routine of checking in with the satellite tracker and heading on – this checkpoint was at the side of a ‘road’ and we were directed over a pile of snow and onto a narrow trail through the woods. This was a fun section – it twisted and turned and went up and down, the sleds wrapping around the tree trunks and getting stuck and caught up. We had to un-hitch and detangle on multiple occasions, helping each other where we could.
At one point we came down to a wooden bridge over flowing water the angle and steepness of the approach making it impossible to control the sled and there being a high risk of the sled ending up in the water. Again we unhitched and helped each other down and over the bridge, then on winding through the trees.
Eventually we came down to the long lake section, no opportunity to remove snowshoes as the trail on the lake was just as soft as it had been in the forest. This lake went on and on and we eventually had a short stop for a cup of coffee and a piece of pizza. We were very determined to eat well and drink plenty along the race in order not to run out of energy too soon.
We arrived at the next checkpoint at about 10pm and while some people decided to bivvy here, we decided to have a hot meal and move on. We stayed at the checkpoint longer than planned while I boiled water for the expedition meal and Mike got over a bout of nausea. By this point it was snowing again and as we sat around the fire the snow melted as it landed on us, so when we moved off I changed in to the waterproof jacket that I had packed at the last minute and was now very pleased to have access to.
We snow-shoed on to the next checkpoint – as we arrived a number of fat-bikers were leaving after a rest under the canvas shelter. We decided to take advantage of the shelter and get four hours sleep. When we rose the checkpoint had closed and everyone was gone… we had also missed the last opportunity for water, so we started to melt snow to fill up our flasks on a regular basis.
From here the snow continued and the wind picked up, the horizon was foggy, so we didn’t get much in the way of scenery and views and it became a bit of a trudge up and down, heading for the next checkpoint which we knew would be closed. Along the way we met one of the race crew on his snow machine – each time he passed he stopped and talked and it became a bit of a highlight when we heard him approaching! At the point the checkpoint had been we melted snow, filled the flasks and made a hot breakfast, sheltering as best we could from the snow to eat.
Off again – we knew that in about 10k we would meet a ‘road’ and this was something we were looking forward to as we would be able to take off the snowshoes for a little while. There was some disappointment when we eventually met the road and found that the fresh snow had made this soft and deep – we removed snowshoes anyway, just for a break, though it was no advantage. When our friend from the crew came along, he leapt of the snow machine and kicked the snow to show us that there really was a road under all the snow!
On we trudged, with snow bowing at us as it fell. As we were now behind the 150 race most of the trail markers had been removed, however a few had been left just to give us an indication where the trail turned or was completely blow-in. We had an idea where we wanted to get to before we stopped for another sleep and on the way there we met the checkpoint crew on snow machines coming out, as usual they were very friendly and stopped to talk to us. They were very apologetic about the weather conditions and warned us that as we got closer to the valley and the big lake the wind would get stronger and there was quite a storm out on the lake.
Sure enough as we moved on the wind picked up and by the time we reached the checkpoint it was howling and blowing with some force. Two small tents had been left at the checkpoint, so we decided to take advantage and get out of the wind and wet snow and get a couple of hours sleep… first though we had to ask another competitor who was resting to shuffle up so that we could get inside!
By the time we decided to get up and move on the wind had dropped and it had, temporarily stopped snowing. I decided to re-light the fire while I was melting snow for food for now and to fill the flasks. This gave us a very comfortable little time to sort out and take stock. It was 4am when we sat round the fire eating a Goulash expedition meal and it was thoroughly enjoyed!
On leaving the checkpoint, it wasn’t long before the snow started once again and the wind picked up. By the time we made it to the lake there was no sign of the trail except for the markers on the way across. A combination of blown and fresh snow meant it was extremely soft and deep and even with snow shoes we were sinking in to the trail and dragging the sleds through the snow rather than them gliding over it, progress across the lake was slow, but eventually we made it to the other side and beyond.
Soon after this we knew that we would soon join the river and head back towards Rovaniemi and off on the second 150k of the race. We spent some time discussing our approach, we knew we were tighter for time than we had hoped, but we also knew that as long as we were under the river bridge by 3pm we could still complete the race in the time allowed. At this point we had intention at all of not attempting to complete the 300k, we were feeling good and apart from the slow going, we had no problems. We were aware that the conditions may be tougher on the second half with little used trails, less race traffic and even more snow so our back up plan was to continue for another 24hours by which time it would be clear if it was possible for us to complete in the time and if not we could head back to Rovaniemi using the roads shown on the map.
On the river a couple of kilometres from Roveniemi Alex, the race organiser, came out to meet us. As usual he was very upbeat and positive, but he told us that there was half a meter of fresh snow on the forest trails and on the lakes there was a high risk of water – both between the deep snow and the ice and also thin ice. He also told us that only one foot racer had gone on, all the others had scratched. We couldn’t make a decision there and then having earlier made a plan, but once Alex left and we continued on the river, we started discussing again and with Alex words ‘you can go on but its your risk’ in our heads we reluctantly decided the risk was too great at this time and we took the route in to the town where our race finished.