The clock says 01:30. I"ve slept less than three hours but it"s time for us to get up and eat breakfast, check our bags one more time to make sure we don"t forget anything. The bus leaves for Sälen at 03:00 and we have to walk there. It takes us fifteen minutes or so but we"re not worried about it. We"re too sleepy still.
But, when we finally arrive in Sälen around 04:00, when we see the fog, the darkness, the rain hanging in the air, the runners rubbing themselves with tiger balm in the tent and walking around in bin bags to keep themselves dry, it finally hits us: we are about to run Ultravasan 90 km.
The obligatory pre-race visit to the port-a-loo for the obligatory emptying of the bladder. The watch looking for satellites. The speaker interviewing Jonas Buud, one of the elite runners and poster child/ record holder for Ultravasan, who is unfortunately injured and cannot run. The nervous anticipation, the smoke machines tinted red, the steady drizzle a premonition of things to come. The air vibrating with the breaths of a thousand hungry runners. And we"re off with a loud cheer.
I only make it a couple of metres before my Achilles tendon reminds me of its existence. As if I"d had forgotten; it"s been hurting since we ran in Boden, a month and a half ago. I decide that ignoring an injury is the wisest decision and keep climbing the endless hill that comes right after the start. People have started walking already, but I feel strong. I feel so strong, in fact, that when a guy starts talking to me, I realise in the middle of this nice conversation we"re having that I"m running at a 5:30 min/km pace. This will most definitely not do at an ultra, unless your name is Jonas Buud and then you"re running too slow. Still, I feel strong, the way runners who open too fast on their first-ever race feel strong right before they run into a wall.
About 10 km or so later is when it all becomes a blur. We enter the woods on a technical trail. The rain starts picking up until it"s so thick that there can"t possibly be any air left between the raindrops. I am drenched. I bet if I removed by clothes now, fish would fall out. The trail is treacherous, littered with stones and roots at places, covered by slippery planks at others. Soon enough, whatever dirt the path, trail or forest road we run on has turned into mud, and the mud only gets thicker and thicker until we sink to our ankles in it. Mud that hides rocks. Mud that is very slippery itself.
There"s four of us from AIK doing the 90K. There"s several more doing the 45K and three teams of 4 persons each doing the relay. I keep looking for them. I know at least two of the 90K ultrarunners are ahead of me, the 45K ones have not started yet, and the relay teams will fly by at some point at what seems like the speed of light compared to my snail pace. I find J, one of the 90K runners, we exchange a few words about how great this weather is for our morale and then he runs on. I feel the weight of every single drop falling on my shoulders, weighing me further and further down. I want to stop. This is not fun. All I can think about is how not-fun this is. I don"t think about the worries of everyday life, I don"t think of fun days in the sun, I think about how I wish my J was here, or that I were at home with him, where it"s warm and dry.
But something keeps me going. The guy whom I talked to earlier got me thinking about pace and special medals and such. Everyone who finishes the race gets a participation medal, but men who finish the race in under 9,5 hours and women who finish it in under 11 get a special medal, because we"re so very special. This stupid medal keeps me going, because somehow I think this is achievable. So I keep going in the never-ending rain and I"m determined to get that stupid medal like it"s the Holy Grail.
Endless hours pass. When the rain keeps falling like this and everything turns grey, and you have to keep your head down looking at the ground so you don"t trip, it"s as if you"re in a bubble. You have no points of reference in your environment to pin time stamps or experiences on. The aid stations are the only exceptions, the most notable of which is the half-way point and largest aid-station at Evertsberg. A quick stop there to eat and go to the loo leaves me frozen, my fingers stiff and useless, my bones achy. The first AIK relay runner passes me, giving me a much appreciated thumbs up. Right after, I pass this man sitting on his porch and blaring ”Don"t stop me now” by Queen, which becomes a very appropriate soundtrack in my head for the rest of the race.
I follow the stream of runners. I"m never really alone, and even less so now when we"re joined by both 45K and relay runners. More runners mean more feet on the ground, which in its turn means more mud. There"s no trail now, only wide forest roads, otherwise lovely to run on, the ground consisting mostly of nice, soft sand. I have already tripped once on my way to Evertsberg, thankfully saving myself a face plant by using my hands as collateral, so this change of surface is welcome. It"s less muddy and more wet now. Still, time drags on. I think about the stupid medal. I keep calculating in my head how fast I have to run to make it in time. I talk to people. Everyone is so friendly. We"re in this together, ultra runners and long distance runners alike. It"s just that we who are running 90 are in this a little longer.
Once I"ve passed 50K, I start counting down. ”Don"t stop me now” gives way, quite predictably, to ”Final Countdown”, but only for a short while because then I realise I still have 40K left and it"s a ridiculously long way to go, too long to be counting down already. So I switch back to ”Don"t stop me now” and I almost start crying because the next line in the lyrics is ”cause I"m having a good time” and I most definitely am not.
30km left and, well, that"s better! 30km is not that much! I reset the clock in my mind. I pretend that I haven"t just run 60km, oh no. I"m just heading out for my ordinary long run on an ordinary Saturday. It works quite well, mentally. My legs protest, they don"t think this strategy is working quite well at all for them. I find myself walking more and more often, and it gets harder and harder to start running again. I drink the energy drink on offer, warm blueberry ”soup” and water, and eat nothing but a few chips and some pickled cucumbers. Somehow that"s enough, and my stomach manages pretty well to avoid becoming a ticking bomb.
20km left. Less than a half-marathon. That"s nothing! I have more than three hours left to cover this distance. My morale is so low that I start counting how much time I would need to get to the finish line if I walked the rest of the way. But I refuse to give up. I only want to know I have the option, that"s all. Besides, it"d be so boring to walk for such a long time. I walk when I have to and run the rest.
When the 10km sign shows up, I want to kiss it. 10km is a doable distance. By now I have experienced so much pain, moving from my Achilles tendon in my left foot, to my right knee, to my left shoulder, and now finally settling in both of my feet in an almost excruciating way. But 10km is not a distance I"m afraid of. I"m going to make it!
At 5km, a cyclist pulls up next to me, keeping me company and chatting for a while, probably looking for any signs that I might collapse, but oh no. Not today, my friend! 5 km? I can do them with my eyes closed! Hell, I can do them walking backwards with time to spare to that stupid medal!
3 km. Time has slowed down even more and it takes four days to run one kilometre. 2 km. I am in Mora. I am running past buildings I recognise, the lake near our hotel, the camping grounds by the river. I"ve run here before! 1 km left. The sun is out but the wind has picked up. At the bridge right before the last little hill I have to hold on to my cap so that it doesn"t fly away. At the top of that last little hill I see a whole AIK relay team, and they"re standing there screaming my name at the top of their lungs. I have the biggest smile on my face. I run up the hill. Let me repeat that: I"ve just covered 89,5 km and I"m running. Uphill. Their cheers give me strength and I keep that smile on my lips the whole way to the finish line, almost in tears, happy tears, as the crowd applauds and shouts encouraging words, under the arch with the historic lines: ”In our forefathers" footsteps for the victories of tomorrow”.
I am done. I"ve done it. I can stop.
I talk to people I know, people I don"t know. I walk back to the hotel with my friend J, who finished the race 20 minutes before me. My feet hurt and I"m stiff, but it feels pretty ok, all things considered. Later on, I see that I have what looks like a bruise on my right foot and it"s a bit swollen. In the evening, all AIK-runners go out to eat and celebrate what was a successful day for all of us, teams and ultrarunners alike. We go to bed early. We have an early start and a long drive home the next morning.
P.S. Oh yeah. I made it in time for the stupid medal. With time to spare.