I’m lying in the grass, breathing heavily, with my hands covering my face. “What did I just do? What. Did. I. Just. Do?” I can feel a lump in my throat and my eyes watering, but I keep it together, there are lots of people around. My mind is completely blank, or maybe my mind is racing. It’s hard to tell the difference after the hardest, most grueling physical effort of my life.
This is my Bydalsfjällen 50K race report.
When I signed up for this race almost a year ago, I had a single marathon under my belt. I had done very limited hill training, a handful of technical trail runs, and I had absolutely no idea what kind of race I was committing myself to. “It will be my third 50K of the year, I will have some ultra experience. So it’s a bit more elevation, but how bad could it be?” I didn’t think twice about it, the photos and videos from the race looked incredible, and I figured my first two 50Ks would adequately prepare me for the challenge.
With 2900 meters of elevation and a course record of over 5 hours I knew it was going to be a very long day, 7 hours at least. But after a pretty successful run up and down Kebnekaise a month before the race I felt vaguely confident. “Could I go sub 7? I mean, how bad could it really be?”
Chapter 1: Mudslide.
Good thing this footbridge is here, I wouldn’t want to get my feet wet!
I woke up early after a few hours of sleep to the sound of rain smattering on my tent. Choked down a cold, canned meal, brushed my teeth and packed the last few things into my race vest. The pre-race butterflies in my stomach hadn’t woken up yet, as I got on the bus to the start along with the other runners I was feeling calm but excited.
After chatting for a bit wih some guys I had met on the bus from the train station the day before, we all wished each other good luck and got ready at the start line. Still no nervous butterflies. I sort of imagined a fun, long, adventurous day in the mountains, no pressure, and I think that helped. As soon as we were off I was running with a smile on my face, jumping over little streams, trying to stay light on my feet.
The climbing started right away, it wasn’t super steep, and mostly very runnable, but my mantra was “hike early, hike often”. I kept track of the altitude and knew there was a lot of climbing to do, and I didn’t want to exhaust myself right away. When I got above the tree line I had to pause briefly a couple of times to get a few pictures. The sun had come out and the view from halfway up the mountain was incredible.
I stopped again at the summit and took another picture, I shook my arms and legs to get loose and set off down the back of the mountain. I figured the climbs would be long and slow, so I’d better push hard when I could, so I hit the pedal to the metal and flew across the first kilometer or so of runnable downhill single track.
I made sure to stay close to some other runners when the fog thickened and the markings were out of sight, I realized then and there that getting lost up on a mountain in bad weather is a great fear of mine. Luckily we quickly reached the more well-traveled section of the trail, made way too obvious by the ankle deep slosh of a mud bath we had to traverse. I soon realized that trying to stay on the dry, grassy bits was pointless, and the even more pointless footbridges across some sections made me chuckle.
The more daring runners flew past me as I carefully maneuvered across some wet rock. Slipping and falling is also something that frightens me, I’ve had the wind knocked out of me a couple of times and it’s really not enjoyable, I’ll take a slower pace over a scary fall any day.
Eventually the mudslide reached a gravel road that led to the first aid station at 10 km. A quick stop to fill up on water, spit out some gross sports drink they had and grab a piece of an apple cinnamon bar and half of a banana. One fifth done, only four more to go.
Chapter 2: DN-Fuck no!
I’m not so sure about this…
Now I just had to run back up and over the mountain again to reach the next aid station at 22.5 km, and the climbing started right away, this race course was relentless. I kept hiking and tried to move quickly. The second climb wasn’t as high as the first, and it was nice to reach the plateau at the top and be able to run for a few kilometers.
Two weeks before the race I had fallen on a long run and severely over-extended my right hamstring. I was unable to stand up without pain for several days, but I was able to run a 10K race a week later, and I spent the remaining days resting. I hadn’t been too worried about it before the race, but at this point I was starting to feel a twinge in the back of my thigh. I had stretched it out a bit at the aid station and it didn’t seem to be worsening, but there was definitely some worried thoughts in the back of my mind.
I also felt my ankles starting to ache, quite badly actually. On a section of narrow single track I noticed how my right foot always landed near the edge of the trail, striking awkwardly, unevenly leaning inward as if severely overpronating. It made me limp slightly, and forced me to slow down and change how and where on the trail I landed. But it really hurt.
“I don’t think I’m enjoying this very much…” The trail turned muddy and technical again. Pain. My insoles had started to slide around in my shoes. Annoying. Another slight twinge in my hamstring. “Maybe I should… NO! I am NOT dropping!” The thought of calling it a day left my mind as quickly as it had entered it. I was almost at 22.5 km, which meant almost halfway through the race! I just had to get to 25 km and it would be figuratively downhill from there.
The trail became more runnable and eventually reached another gravel road that took me the last kilometer or so down to the second aid station. I asked about the leaders, had some warm soup, more apple cinnamon bars and potato chips, and accidentally filled one of my bottles with sports drink that luckily tasted better at this aid station. As I sat down and re-tied my shoes and realigned the insoles I talked to an older gentleman about the next section of the race, the steepest climb of the day. He wished me good luck as I set off again, reinvigorated and ready to climb.
Chapter 3: Mommy, help!
Uhm… Did I mention I’m scared of heights?
If I remember the few hundred meters leading to the start of the climb correctly, I didn’t look up to the top once. Thinking back on it now almost makes me feel dizzy. The climb started out on more muddy trails through the thick forest. I was alone for a while, so I started whistling the melody of Maggie Rogers “Alaska”. Whistling or humming or even singing makes me relax while running tough races, it takes the seriousness out of the situation and makes it easier to feel like you’re just having fun.
As I got closer to the tree line I started hearing voices closing in on me. They reached me just as the climbing got much, much steeper, and I let them pass as I didn’t feel comfortable rushing anything on this scary type of climb. From time to time I was standing upright but still had my hands on the ground in front of me. This wasn’t power hiking, this was steep scrambling on a muddy, rocky, technical trail going almost straight up in some sections. Leaning back even an inch was probably life-threateningly risky. I was thinking it was a good thing my mom never got to see any pictures of this section before the race, she might not have let me leave.
Eventually the climb became more hikeable, and flattened out for a bit before going up the last section to the summit. I had moved approximately 2.5 kilometers from the aid station, it had taken me almost an hour. The exhausting and mentally draining climb, the thought of almost being at the top, almost being halfway through the race, and the unbelievably beautiful view of the valleys and the mountains made me suddenly choke up. I didn’t have any other runners nearby at the time so I let out a few tears before refocusing and made the last push to the top.
The descent started out fairly runnable, but a bit too steep and rocky in some sections, I wasn’t exactly flying down the mountain. Before reaching the tree line I could glimpse a massive “crack” in the mountain in the distance, Dromskåran, a rockfall chute cutting almost a kilometer through the mountain. It was the most iconic and anticipated section of the race. I just had to awkwardly climb down the steep, muddy, but luckily roped descent through the trees before starting the tough hike up the narrow trail on the wall of the chute.
Rocks. Rocks everywhere. I really didn’t want to break an ankle so I was very careful climbing over the sea of large rocks and boulders before reaching something more similar to a trail. It was still pretty steep, but with an added scary feature: the drop straight down the side of the trail into the rocks below. I didn’t look anywhere but straight down on the trail in front of me, even when grabbing hold of rocks and tree branches to pull myself up by.
A mother-daughter duo was closing in on me, and I knew it was too risky to have anyone pass me on this narrow trail. So I hurried as fast as my nerves would allow. They caught me as we reached a sudden, steep climb up a keyhole through the rock wall, also luckily roped. I managed to get through the tight opening and turned around to offer the mother a hand to get up. She seemed very grateful and I felt I hade done my good deed for the day. They ran close behind me until we got out of the chute. I stopped for some pictures and they ran ahead.
Just over a kilometer left to the next aid station, I had some extra adrenaline from the scary climb through the chute, so I flew by the mother-daughter duo and headed down the first really runnable section in what felt like two hours. It was actually more like an hour forty-five.
Water, sports drink, soup, chips, sour winegums, realign insoles, go.
Chapter 4: Alone.
I caught one! I caught one!!
Again, the climbing started right after the aid station. Again, there were muddy, technical trails. Again, I was happy to get above the tree line onto more runnable trails. There had been people coming into the aid station as I was there, so I knew there were people behind me, but as I got higher up and started looking down the trail, I couldn’t see anyone. Neither could I see anyone higher up the mountain.
I kept checking up and down the mountain every now and then as I was going up. But aside from a hiker passing me on his way down, there was no one even near me. It felt fun being on my own, like being free from the stresses of racing. I was again thinking about just being on a fun adventure in the mountains.
I spent a few minutes doing some math and calculating paces and possible finish times. Sub 8 would be difficult, 8:30 was possible. Geez, a full workday in the mountains! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my day, though. Underneath the exhaustion and suffering was a feeling of pure joy and love for the mountains.
One of the race photographers was lounging on a plateau near the top of the climb, I waved and tried to smile briefly, but the camera caught me looking more tortured than happy. As soon as I passed him and reached the end of the plateau I let out an audible gasp and put my hand over my mouth as I choked up again and tears filled my eyes. “So. Fucking. Beautiful!” With tears running down my face I was running along the rim of a gigantic valley, with endless green grass, large mountain lakes, with a backdrop of even more mountains way off in the distance. I quickly snapped a few pictures, none of them even remotely close to doing this heaven-on-earth beauty a shred of justice. I felt so lucky to be able to enjoy it in solitude.
Sniffle, wipe tears away, keep going. After reaching the top the trail became enjoyably runnable again, I found some leftover energy and pushed a little harder. I suddenly saw the first runner in almost an hour. I was closing in on him quickly. As I came up behind him he stepped to the side and let me pass, I thanked him and flew by. Rule number 1 when being allowed to pass someone nice enough to step off the trail for you: don’t let them catch you. They went out of their way for you, don’t get in their way! I left him in the dust.
The final aid station was out in the middle of nowhere, I could see it on the next hill a few hundred meters away. I heard the faint sound of voices and saw another runner leave as I got closer. In the back of my mind thoughts about a light in the end of a tunnel started forming.
Water, chips, sour winegu… “They have chocolate balls!” In the end of a tough race, it’s the little things that get you. I enjoyed a couple of these traditional swedish balls of butter, cacao, sugar, oats and coconut flakes before taking off. The man I had just passed as well as the mother-daughter duo from earlier had reached the aid station as I was realigning my insoles again, and I made the decision that I wasn’t going to let them pass me.
Chapter 5: What have I done?
Excuse me, could I have another climb, please?
There was a long section of flat, runnable trail coming up, and the thoughts of that light in the end of that tunnel had started to transform into more vivid images in my mind. “10 km left! That’s nothing! You’re going to do it!” Realizing how little race was left, it also became easier to evaluate how much energy was left, and I dared to push hard.
Being on the home stretch released a lot of pressure, and I felt strong and happy again. This time, I felt a little R&B was fitting, and I spent a few minutes singing Zapp & Roger’s “I want to be your man” and I hoped the sound of my voice didn’t travel too well across the plains.
This was one of the longest sections of reasonably flat, runnable trail of the entire race, and running hard with 40+ kilometers of mountains already in your legs wasn’t easy. I had to take several quick walking breaks, and after a couple of kilometers I was even thinking that another climb would be nice, just so I could walk and catch my breath a little.
I finally got to that long awaited climb. The final big climb of the race. As I got closer to the top I could hear the mother-daughter duo and saw them about a half kilometer down the climb. “Nope!” I started pushing harder again. Coming down the same steep, muddy, but luckily roped section I had gone down earlier I felt slightly stressed, looking up the mountain every now and then to see if anyone was catching me, but it was too steep to see very far behind me.
For a while I had felt an odd sensation in my foot, as if one of my toenails had come completely loose. The 8-something hours of pounding had also caused its fair share of painful throbbing. I reached an ice cold creek and stopped for a few seconds with my feet in the water. Numbing the pain felt wonderful, and I set off up the final, tiny little climb before the finish.
I suddenly heard women’s voices not far behind me. I moved faster, “Nope, nope! Get there! Go!” The trail reached a gravel road I had been on earlier, right before the 30 km aid station. I had been expecting the last kilometer to be a smooth, easy downhill road to the finish. Instead, the course turned straight down the hill underneath the ski lift. It was steep and uneven with loose scree. I was jumping, sliding down on the scree, trying to go as fast as my beat up quads would let me.
I heard a voice coming from the speakers at the finish announcing my impending arrival. I made the final turn around a house and waved to some people sitting on the deck cheering me on. I could see the red carpet leading to the finish line.
I’m lying in the grass, breathing heavily, with my hands covering my face. “What did I just do? What. Did. I. Just. Do?”
This was the most grueling, torturous, awful, incredible, beautiful, amazing challenge of my life. I was severely undertrained for it, and I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. Taking on an 8-and-something hour long run in the mountains was far from what I thought I was capable of. But as long as I can take one more step there really is no limit to how far or high I can go.
I spent the evening eating, drinking and sharing stories from the day with other runners. The most incredible story being the second place overall and first place woman, Jennifer Asp, obliterating the course record and finishing on the heels of the first male in 5:20. Oh and she just ran four tough races a couple of weeks earlier. Oh and one of them was a mountain marathon with 2100 meters of elevation. Oh and this was her first 50K. Yeah.
Today, three days after the race, the post-race disgust for ultras has dissipated and all I can think about is being back in the mountains. I miss them and I will be back next summer, whether to race or just run and have fun I don’t know yet. But I will come back again and again and again!
The worst stiffness has passed, I better get ready for Helsingborg Marathon next week! “Get there! Go!”