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At the end of January I received an email with an invitation to be part of an expedition on Svalbard. It came out of the blue but was a surprise that got me really excited!
The email came from Matias, one of the newer instructors at Hurdal Verk Folkehøgskole, the school I attended in Norway in 2005-2006. There were some plans in the works to have one of the future courses take place on Svalbard so as a primer they wanted to open up the opportunity to the alumni for an expedition this summer in August, before the new school year. My year at Hurdal Verk was a turning point for me and carries an abundance of many favourite memories. I often think back to my time as a student there. As Svalbard has always been a dream travel destination of mine, how could I say no?
I already had plans in place to visit Norway this summer but in late May—to attend our 10-year reunion at the school. There was no way I’d be willing to cancel this nor my other plans to return to Canada later in the summer, so for the next six months I really had to stretch my resources to make sure this trip would happen in August.
Svalbard doesn’t show up on many travel itineraries. You might even be asking yourself where it is exactly. Let’s dust off that old globe and take a peek…
Now, if we look for Oslo, Norway, it sits around 59° north latitude and 10° east longitude. Go north from there and you’ll see a marking for the Arctic Circle at 66° north—almost at the top of continental Europe. Keep going. There’s a group of islands between 74° and 81° north & 10° to 35° east; that’s Svalbard. Home to about 2000 people, 3000 polar bears, and 4000 Ski-Doos!
The Svalbard archipelago covers 61,000 km2. To give you some reference, the country of Denmark only covers 43,000 km2. The main settlement is Longyearbyen, situated on the island of Spitsbergen (sometimes spelled “Spitzbergen”.) It’s located at 78° north—2,313 km from Oslo, and only 1,338 km from the North Pole. At such a high latitude, the midnight sun lasts for 99 days and the polar night for 84. Longyearbyen first sees the light at on the 16th of February when the sun pokes his head over the horizon. By April 17th the midnight sun is in town right through until August 24th—but make sure your flashlight batteries are charged by October 26th because that’s when the cold dark winter is in command whether you like it or not.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault
You may have heard about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault before. It made big news when it became operational in 2008. The mission of the vault is "to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks." Great. So what does that mean? Well, it's basically a real "Noah's Ark" for all types of seeds from around the world. But to be more accurate, while popular press has emphasized its possible utility in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe, it will be more frequently accessed when gene banks lose samples due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts, and natural disasters. Believe it or not, these events occur with some regularity. War and civil strife have a history of destroying some gene banks. It's a backup for the world's seed banks and storehouses of agricultural biodiversity, but interestingly, by request of the Norwegian government, no genetically modified seeds are stored in the vault. Sorry, Monsanto, you'll have to wait outside. *door slams*
The vault is built 120 metres inside a sandstone mountain, just like some kind of secret base from a James Bond film. You can actually see the entrance to the vault from the runway of the airport. They chose Spitsbergen as the ideal location because the island lacks tectonic activity and has permafrost which aids preservation. Additionally, the vault's elevation at 130 metres above sea level will keep the site dry even if the ice caps melt. The locally mined coal powers the refrigeration units that keep the seeds cool at -18°C and even if the equipment failed, several weeks could pass before the facility temperatures rose to the surrounding bedrock's temperature of -3°C. Pretty smart, eh? Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist and as of 2015, the vault houses 840,000 types.
Monday, August 1st: Meeting Day
We all arrived at the school on Monday, August 1st. I took the bus in from Gardermoen airport around noon. The others carpooled from Oslo. We were all in time for pizza dinner mid-afternoon. So, who are the others on this expedition? Since I’ve already introduced our guide Matias, that only leaves three fine ladies by the names of Elin, Anne, and Kjersti. When I was back at the school for the reunion in May I got to see Elin again. We attended the same year and had several classes together during that time, so we were friends already. She was enrolled in the Telemark program and their group was often on the same adventures with my Outdoor Life class in the fall and spring. She now lives in Oslo and works as an oceanographer for Nortek. Anne was also an Outdoor Life student. She’s the same age as me & Elin but attended the school three years earlier. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Germany as a post-doc researcher at Potsdam University, helping the world understand language development in children. It had been a while since she last had a chance to use her Norwegian but it all came back to her quickly upon return to Norway. Last but not least there’s Kjersti who joined us from Duisburg, Germany, located just outside of Düsseldorf. She works as a lawyer and attended the school in 2000-2001 as a student of the sports/Telemark skiing program. Although she grew up in Germany she also speaks the Telemark dialect thanks to her Norwegian mother. All together we’re just a group of five—smaller than what we expected but in no way any hindrance.
Tuesday, August 2: Preparation Day
Breakfast was served in the dining hall at 09:00. It’s always a treat to have a Norwegian breakfast. My favourite: fresh bread with brown cheese & strawberry jam. Mmmm! We had half an hour of solitude afterwards to spend however we wanted. I wrote in my journal and arranged some of my luggage. For the remainder of the morning we were in the classroom discussing Svalbard and its history, geography, wildlife, trip plans, safety, and food & supplies. In the afternoon we drove to “downtown” Hurdal to shop for some food and ingredients. We had to pack our bags carefully as we’d have to take all our food (snacks not included) with us on the flight to Svalbard and still be within baggage weight restrictions. With everything we needed we’d be right on the limits!
Back in the classroom we put all of our meals together. Individually we made our own meals, that way we could decide how big our portions were and what they consisted of. Breakfasts were combinations of oats, raisins, cinnamon, sugar, coconut, chocolate, and whatever else could make up a nice oatmeal. Other options were muesli and cereal mixes. Include your powdered milk in the bag then once you add the hot water at camp you find yourself with heaven in a bowl. The lunches? Well, perhaps more exotic but definitely not something I looked forward to with as much delight. It was a mix of Asian instant noodles (beef flavour), couscous, a beef-flavoured bouillon, and Potetmos (dehydrated mashed potatoes). Not something I’d cook up at home but when you’re out in the wilderness burning calories like there’s no tomorrow, any carbs will do. Dinners were a treat. REAL Turmat is the freeze-dried product we had for a meal each night. Mix in the boiling water, let it sit for 8-10 minutes, and voilà!, you’ve got a steaming pouch of gourmet goodness. Chicken curry, spaghetti bolognese, creamed codfish curry, chilli con carne, and kebab stew.
After putting our meals together we headed out to the park to set up our tents. You always want to make sure you know how to put it together before you leave—and that you’ve got all the parts! Matias and I shared a three-man tent and the ladies shared a tent for five.
Once we were all dialled in with the tents we packed up then returned to the classroom to load up our packs and check the weights. They’d be heavy for everyone, no doubt about that. Matias and I were pushing 30kgs each and we still had to get more food and supplies in Longyearbyen!
One last project for the afternoon: homemade brownies. A secret recipe full of lots of butter, sugar, dark chocolate & more dark chocolate! We made a triple batch—enough so that we each could have one square a day. If lunch wasn’t great, one bite of this made up for it. We weren't sure how good they were going to turn out, but everyone was pleasantly surprised.
In the evening we walked to Hurdal to find Anne Marit's new house. Anne Marit is our Norwegian language teacher and she had invited us to her place for a nice meal all together before we left on our trip.
Wednesday, August 3: Departure Day
We started today with a hike up to the top of Rognstadkollen, the nearby mountain in Hurdal that’s a well known destination for a nice view overlooking the valley and Hurdal lake. Every year there’s a race from Hurdal Verk to the viewpoint at the top, roughly 5 km and a vertical gain of 400 m up to an elevation of 610 metres above sea level. We weren’t in any kind of hurry this morning though. It was going to be a big day anyway as we’d be flying to Longyearbyen in the evening. It was my third time up this year as I went up a couple times in May; once hiking with a group of school friends and once running solo. When we were going up there was a lady also on the path to the top. We spoke with her when we got to the lookout just a minute later. She lives in town and tries to go up almost every day. She's been up over a hundred times already! She was kind enough to take our picture at the top too.
When we got back we had just enough time for a cold dip in the river followed by a quick shower, then it was breakfast. Afterwards, we had some time to get everything together and review the plans for our trip and our departure today.
In the afternoon we had lunch then at 14:00 we walked with all our stuff to the bus stop just a couple of minutes away from the main gate of the school grounds. We rode the bus in to Gardermoen and got checked in for our flight at 17:25.
We arrived at Svalbard airport at 20:25. Once we had all our bags we walked out to the parking lot where there was a rental van waiting for us with the key inside. There aren't any locked vehicles in Longyearbyen. People just respect the law. They wouldn't get very far anyway!
I read somewhere that Svalbard has four hotels, three hostels, and seventeen restaurants. Whether or not those numbers are still accurate I can at least tell you that we stayed at one of them. It was the Coal Miners’ Cabin. We drove there from the airport and found our rooms in Cabin #5. The "cabins" are essentially large dormitories. There's a custom in Svalbard that you take your footwear off at the door (in almost all buildings.) It's a rule that started back in the early days of the coal miners. To save them making a mess of the place with their sooty boots they would take their boots off at the entrance and eventually it became a general rule for everyone. You don't have to do it in the grocery store or such places but most other establishments have a shoe rack at the door.
After we got checked in we ate dinner at the lodge's restaurant. We all had burgers. They were fantastic.
Longyearbyen got its name from the American businessman John Munroe Longyear (1850-1922) a noted developer of timber and mineral lands in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was the central figure behind the Arctic Coal Company which surveyed and mined coalfields on Svalbard from 1905 to 1916. The mining operations took place in the community of the private "company town" then known as Longyear City. Later the name was changed to the Norwegian "Longyearbyen".
There are still some mines in the area. With our rental van we drove to the outskirts of town in Adventdalen to visit some of the retired mines. It was really interesting to look around. I'm not one to be buying tacky souvenirs on my travels but instead like to collect rocks from time to time, so I picked up a lump of coal to take home. I was always too good as a boy growing up so never got any from Santa in my stocking. He probably gets it from Svalbard anyway.
The Polar Bears
When you walk in the airport to collect your luggage you’re greeted by a large polar bear
There are approximately 3000-3500 polar bears living on Svalbard. Males can weigh up to 800 kg and females up to 300 kg. Polar bears rarely reach more than 25 years of age.
The bears feed mainly on seals. A polar bear needs approximately 50-75 seals a year to survive. They can also eat white whales, carrion, birds, and eggs. When meat is scarce they can feed on moss, kelp, or other plants. Meat-free Mondays, anyone?
But what would you do if you encountered a bear in the wild? After first soiling your pants, retreat calmly and slowly. If the bear has seen you and approaches, you want to make noise, jump and wave your arms and try to scare it away immediately. If that doesn’t do it, fire a shot with a flare gun or a warning shot with a rifle. You have the right to shoot in self-defence, but all shots against a polar bear must be reported to the Governor of Svalbard and will be investigated. A high-powered hunting rifle is an appropriate weapon of defence against the bears. We used Ruger 30.06 rifles. If you have to shoot a polar bear, shoot to kill and aim for the heart or the lung region. Take that mofo down.
Basically, it’s important you stay alert, be aware of your surroundings and keep to open areas. If you're in the wilderness on Svalbard it's mandatory to have a rifle with you.
Politics of Svalbard
Since the 1600's several nations have carried out various activities on Svalbard, ranging from hunting & trapping, to mining, research, and tourism. For a long time the region didn't belong to any state, it was a kind of international common land. This meant there were no laws or regulations, nor courts to settle disputes. In the earlier days before mining came into play, having no regulations was no issue, but the mining industry created the need for changes. It was important to have sole rights to land and mineral deposits, and there became a need for legislation and courts. So in 1920, an agreement was made on The Svalbard Treaty. This treaty recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard, however this is subject to certain stipulations and not all Norwegian law applies. Taxes are allowed to be collected but only enough to support Svalbard and the Svalbard government. This makes for lower taxes than mainland Norway and duty-free shopping in many outlets on the islands. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favour any residents of any given nationality. The treaty also states that Norway must respect and preserve the Svalbard environment, and naval bases and fortifications are prohibited, along with the use of Svalbard for war purposes.
On Svalbard, the Norwegian government is represented as "Sysselmannen", the Governor of Svalbard. They are not exactly police, although they do handle law enforcement, they also maintain all Norwegian interests in environmental protection, civil matters, and good working relations with the Russian community in Barentsburg.
Okay, enough politics. Let's get back to the story...
Thursday, August 4
Today we started with a nice breakfast at the lodge—bread with cheese, hard-boiled eggs, muesli, yogurt, cereal, etc. Afterwards, we drove to "downtown" Longyearbyen. The ladies went to go browse some shops while Matias & I went to his storage container out at the edge of town by the airport. We had to grab a few supplies, equipment, and ammo. Then we drove back to town to join the girls in shopping for the last of our needs and snack desires.
Following that, Matias had to sort out some things of his own so the four of us walked to the museum at the base of town. It's a great place to visit and very interesting to learn about so many aspects of the place.
After the museum we met up with Matias again for lunch at a nice café restaurant then headed back the lodge to check out and fire up our Primus stoves to test they proper functionality before we're out in the boonies with no way to boil water. It's imperative you boil your drinking water out in the wilderness. Not that you can't find clean sources of water but a long time ago there were some rats that probably hitched a free ride on a ship from mainland Europe. If the disease-toting critters expired in the water there's a risk that drinking the water could result in upset stomach or a case of eczema (no, thanks.)
A friend of Matias's also works as a guide up on Svalbard. She was able to drive us out in the rental van to drop us off at the edge of Bjørndalen, our starting point for the trek. At 16:00 we said our farewell and she drove off to return our van to the airport.
We started with only a short hike—only about three kilometres into the valley. There, we found a good place to set up camp and then had dinner. We made a plan for our Bear Watch schedule; we would take 90-minute shifts starting at 22:00 and finishing at 07:00. With five of us this meant one person would have a double-shift, starting and finishing the night.
Anne came to wake me when it was my shift at 02:30. For some reason, as soon as I was awake I had the song "Eye of the Tiger" playing in my head. Yeah, I'm a dork that way. No bears in sight though. Just a few reindeer wandering in the distance.
The Svalbard Reindeer
The Svalbard reindeer are a little different from other wild reindeer (on continental Europe.) For starters they don’t move in herds. They operate in small groups of 2-6 or sometimes even alone. Physically the Svalbard reindeer are small too. They have relatively small, rounder heads, and festively short legs. During the winter they have a long thick winter coat that makes them look short and fat. I don’t imagine the long darkness of winter helps much with their self-esteem either. They typically only live for 9-10 years. However, this short life span is often linked with starvation. Svalbard is only about 10% vegetation. No bountiful bushes or lush grass for these rangifers to feed on. Sadly, they’re stuck munching on barren plants so low to the ground they end up chewing bits of earth and sand that wear their teeth down over the years to the point where they can no longer eat. At least they can be thankful they don’t have to be on the watch for polar bears or other predators. Arctic foxes will come to eat them only after they’ve kicked the bucket. The reindeer graze almost constantly during the summers in order to build up their fat reserves for the winter. Sometimes the winter rains and wind can pack the snow on the ground with a hard plating of ice, making it impossible for the reindeer to reach the plants. Many reindeer die during such winter conditions and many of the does will not calve in the spring. This leads to big fluctuations in Svalbard’s reindeer population from year to year. The reindeer are quite tame so it’s easy to get fairly close to them. I managed to get about 10 metres away from one but you’ve got to be patient with them before they lift their head up from the ground for a photo!
Friday, August 5
We started the day with breakfast then got packed up to continue the journey southwest. This would be a reasonably tough day and it started with a steep ascent up Pilarberget. We zigzagged our way up the scree from Bjørndalen going 30 minutes in a stretch with a five minute rest in between. Once we got to the top it was mostly a plateau so we continued with our regular routine of 50 minutes hiking and 10 minutes resting. We crossed Fuglefjella toward Grønberget and found a spot for lunch on the lee side. The noodle/couscous/potato blend actually wasn't that bad, it's just when the noodles don't soften it has an unpleasant crunchy consistency. Lesson learned: next time take a bowl with a lid so the noodles soften properly and stay warm. Or just leave the noodles out and enjoy your couscous & Potetmos!
Following our lunch break we dropped our packs to detour down Grumantdalen, the valley leading to Grumantbyen—an old Soviet settlement that was abandoned in 1962. The first settlements were built in the Grumant area in 1910. Coal mining was carried out in the valley for many years and before that the area was used for whaling operations. It was very interesting to explore the forlorn buildings, imagining what they must have been like when in use.
From Grumantbyen, we headed 2.5 km back up the valley to collect our packs and cross the opposite ridge of the valley to find a spot to camp below Kolberget, a 485 metre high mountain. We had a nice flat spot with a beautiful view of Russedalen, a valley to the southwest draining into the sea south of Grumant.
This evening we did a test firing of the flare gun. We all knew how to use it in theory but it's always a good idea to see how it really functions so you know what to expect if you're pulling the trigger against an approaching bear.
By the end of the day we had hiked about 17 km and 1200 m in vertical gain, half of which was done with our heavy packs. We're all getting fitter & stronger. Yeahh!
In addition to the polar bears and reindeer, Svalbard is home to around 20 types of mammals including whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, and arctic foxes. 135 species of birds live on the islands as well. These include Atlantic puffins, arctic terns, ptarmigans, sandpipers, skuas, owls, and several types of geese just to name a few. Though we didn't see any live bears on our trip we did spot many of the birds, a couple foxes, a seal, and plenty of reindeer.
Approximately 60% of Svalbard’s landmass is covered by ice. That’s roughly 7000 km2 of glaciers, the largest being situated on the islands Edgeøya, Barentsøya, and Nordaustlandet. On these islands the temperatures tend to be somewhat lower than on Spitsbergen and there’s more precipitation (in the form of snow) thanks to evaporation from the Barents Sea. It is the balance between the summer temperatures and the winter precipitation that decides whether glaciers advance or retreat.
Svalbard is also composed of 30% barren rock. The geological exploration of Svalbard is an ongoing activity. In no other place are so many geological periods conserved in rock. Svalbard's climate allows for an unusual amount of exposed rock with little soil or vegetation cover, therefore allowing the rock to be studied uninterrupted over long periods of time.
For most of Svalbard's geological history, the land was submerged, so sand, gravel, mud, and lime, etc, were continuously altered into bedrock. Svalbard is one of the few places in the world that reveals representations of most of earth's geological history.
Saturday, August 6: A Wet Day In Coles Bay
I was on bear watch from 04:00 to 05:30 this morning. Not much on the horizon aside from a lone reindeer. It didn’t come too near though. I took some time to write in my journal and walk around to warm up again before it was time to hand over watch duty to Matias. There was a light rain on and off throughout the night so with wet boots and socks I was a little cold in the toes after an hour. However, I managed to get a decent sleep when it was time to get tucked into my sleeping bag again.
Today was a tough day with a lot of distance to cover. Coming down the valley side from Lindströmfjellet was no easy task with the weight we were carrying. It’s tough on the knees. My blisters were bothering me today too so it was nice to be able to have a bit of sunshine at lunchtime when we could take our boots off and let our feet breath as we ate. Everyone enjoyed a nice little nap after lunch too.
We dropped our packs at the corner of the bay and just went with cameras, snacks, and rifles to the old Colesbukta settlement area. There was an old Russian explorer’s cabin and more abandoned buildings similar to Grumant.
Perhaps the most challenging section of the day was crossing the marshland of Colesdalen. The base of the valley was about three kilometres of soggy marsh. With a heavy pack it is a slow traverse and every step takes extra energy as you have to pull your feet out of the mush as you move forward. Three-quarters of the way across the valley we were faced with a choice of fording the river. If we chose to go around it could add another 10km of marsh walking without any guarantee of finding a narrow spot to cross. Or we could just cross it like the tough bunch we are! It was time to go Lars Monsen-style and strip down to our underwear and walk through the ice cold, knee-deep water. Everyone managed to cross without falling in, so we were thankful for that. We all shared a laugh about the event and carried on with a shiver and a smile!
When we arrived in Lailadalen we had difficulties finding a suitable place to camp. There were some areas that were relatively flat and dry but were all too far from sources of drinking water. We decided to continue on a little further as the map was indicating there should be another stream a few hundred metres to the west. We were glad we did because we came to a nice spot near the beach where we could pitch the tents and have a campfire.
It’s not often one can have a campfire on Svalbard as there’s not much wood to be found when there are no trees on the islands. There is plenty of old wood scattered around in some areas that could be burned easily but if it’s from some kind of man-made structure that used to exist there, it technically classifies as a cultural memory piece and is not allowed to be destroyed. So we wandered the beach to find actual driftwood that was dry enough to burn. We had more than enough for a nice fire all through the night.
Tonight was my turn for the double-shift on watch. It was raining throughout the night but having the fire made up for that. I was really hungry when I awoke this morning. During my morning watch I got the water boiling for everyones’ breakfasts. My oatmeal tasted better than anything else yet.
Sunday, August 7: Another Wet Day
Another wet day! It was drizzling rain on and off most of the time. I didn’t even take my camera out until we arrived at camp around 17:00. We’re all feeling our shoulders and feet from bearing all this weight such long distances each day. My heel blisters aren’t too bad. As long as I keep them taped up and as dry as possible they don’t weaken, but it’s usually not until bedtime that I can actually get properly dry feet, wearing my socks in my sleeping bag. Whenever we take breaks it’s good to rest our shoulders and backs, dropping our bags for ten minutes is a relief. I’ve been really impressed how well everyone is handling the challenges of the trip. We're averaging 15-20 km per day, managing blisters, cool conditions, and wet socks, but no complaints from anyone! :)
On our way to Hollendarbukta we followed the coast from Lailadalen around Colesbukta to Kapp Laila. Along the coast in Nordhallet we spotted a seal out in the water with the binoculars. Upon arrival in Hollendarbukta we found a spot not far from the sea to set up camp. We were all glad to have another campfire tonight so once we were set up with the tents we all went out collecting driftwood to burn. Everyone was happy to get a little warmer as we sat around the fire eating dinner and talking until it was time to sleep. The weather didn’t look like it was going to improve at all until late in the evening when there seemed to be some clearer skies in the distance moving our direction.
Monday, August 8: A Rest Day
Today we took a rest day. When I say rest day I don’t mean we lazed around doing nothing, just that we didn’t move the camp. We did however hike up the nearby mountain called Oppkuven. Its peak is at 398 metres so as long as you have clear weather there’s a nice view. Our weather today was mostly wet and cloudy but as the day went on the ceiling lifted. Finally by the time we returned to camp it cleared off enough that we could warm ourselves in the sun.
I took some time to explore the beach and take photos. One interesting thing about the geology of Svalbard is that many of the rocks you find are relatively “young”. This means that they haven't had the time to compress to the degree of older, more solid rocks. These young rocks you can just pick up and they will crumble in your hands. I got the idea it would interesting to see if I could capture images of these fragile rocks breaking into pieces. Matias helped cast the rocks down against the more solid ones on the ground while I did my best to time the shutter just right. It took quite a few tries but in the end we were able to get a few of the kind of pictures I was aiming for. We had fun.
On watch tonight the sun illuminated the beautiful scenery around us. It was nice to be near the shore, admiring the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and life.
Tuesday, August 9: Barentsburg From Above
Today we arrived at Selisbukta where we set up camp around noon. After lunch we departed on a day hike south towards the Russian settlement of Barentsburg. There’s a 230 metre high mountain called Bykollen just to the north that we summited for a great view over the town and surrounding area. From the top we could see some shapes in the water of the fjord—a large herd of whales we determined to be belugas.
We were back at camp by the early evening so could relax with our gourmet dinner. No campfire tonight though. It was a chilly night as there was a steady wind coming off the ocean the whole time. However, it was clear weather so made for plenty of sunshine. I watched the flocks of seagulls pass by the cliffs as I patrolled the camp on my watch.
Wednesday, August 10: Welcome to Баренцбург
Entering Barentsburg is almost like something out of a strange dream. It’s a slightly eerie feeling to all of a sudden feel like you’ve come to Russia… 20 years ago. The place has a set system of blocks of flats and streets. Many of the newer buildings are surprisingly colourful but still maintain a distinct Soviet-flavoured design. Beside the town square they even have an old bust of Lenin. There’s also a sign further behind it that reads “Communism is our purpose!” I think they just leave it up for the tourists.
It’s such a fascinating place. Walking into town you pass by the old cow sheds, a soccer field, and different sorts of buildings up on the hillside, one of them being the Russian consulate; apparently the northernmost diplomatic mission of any kind in the world. The town relies on mainland Russia for food. There have been instances in which not enough food was sent and aid packages had to be provided by Longyearbyen. In the centre of town you find the entrance to the mine, the coal storage area, and the shipping quay down by the water. There’s also a souvenir shop, sports hall, medical centre, and school. The settlement is also home to a research station for archaeologists, geophysicists, glaciologists, and meteorologists. Barentsburg is about 55 km away from Longyearbyen but there are no roads connecting them. Most contact between the settlements is by boat, snowmobile, or helicopter. The heliport is four kilometres north of Barentsburg. We saw the Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter flying to and from the base a few times.
There is cellular phone service provided by both Norwegian and Russian operators, so sometimes after arriving in Barentsburg your phone will show the “enjoy your stay in Russia” text message. It just adds to the experience of feeling like you’re actually in the Mother Russia and not Norway.
Answers differ depending on which source you ask, but I've gathered the community has a population of around 450-600 residents; a mix of Russians and Ukrainians. The population peaked during the 1970’s with around 1000 citizens when the mine was in its heyday.
Barentsburg, named after the Dutch explorer Willem Barents, started as a Dutch mining town in the 1920’s but was sold in 1932 to the Russian state-owned Arktikugol Trust. The company carries out the mining activities, providing coal for local power and export to Northern European buyers. I imagine that’s a declining market...
We walked through town to the hotel, passing by some of the locals on the way. They all kept to themselves but I managed to get a “hi” response from a few. Arriving to the hotel felt a little strange—after a week in the great outdoors we had come back to civilization! (sort of) It seemed odd to have a toilet to use, a sink to wash your hands, and a light switch on the wall. The hotel staff were welcoming. There was a pretty girl working at the front desk and they allowed us to store our bags in the office and we put the rifles in a locker. When we came back from the restaurant the packs had been moved to another room—they probably gave off an unpleasant odour! In the restaurant we all ordered coffee and tea. There’s also a little souvenir shop and post office in the hotel. Kjersti and I went in to look around. She bought some post cards and I talked with the man working there. He was my age and had been there a couple of years. He enjoys living and working in Barentsburg because he said he earns good money (there’s extra pay being stationed in the arctic) and he doesn’t have to live with all the political troubles they have back home in Russia. If he wants to do something fun for the weekend he can take the boat to Longyearbyen free of charge then find his way to the pub or cinema.
Afterwards we gathered up our things and hiked back through town and down to the quay where Matias would stay with our stuff and the four of us could explore the place some more.
It was really interesting just to walk around the little industrial town, to pass the people on the streets, and to enter some of the buildings. We stopped in the tiny little church for a quick photo and had a visit to the main souvenir shop when it opened around midday. I’m sure the lady working there had the heat cranked up to 30°C. We didn’t stay too long! We've gotten quite used to our daily average of 3°C.
I was also curious to take a look in the sports hall. It was a big facility and Matias told us that they have a swimming pool there that when he saw it last time the water was green! Well, my visit there was no disappointment! The swimming pool’s water is now black, no exaggeration! I have my doubts as to whether people actually use the place, it’s all so disgustingly dirty. However, in research after returning home to write this blog I found there’s a film called “Dream Town”, which is part-documentary and part-fiction, that was made by some Americans in 2014. I watched the trailer for the film and there’s a very short cut of some people in a pool. It could be the lighting but the water looks black… and the people are bathing in it! I could be wrong but I don’t imagine there are any other pools in town.
They also have an old gymnasium, some billiard tables upstairs and even a lounge area with chess tables. Downstairs on the main level there's a weight room. It’s old and dingy but I liked it—the kind of gym where it’s not about making a fashion statement, only the hard work you’re there for. There were some tough-guy locals in there working out; Marilyn Manson blasting on the stereo.
As I was putting my boots on to leave there was a Russian guy who works as a guide in the area that had come into the lobby. He had arrived to Barentsburg the day before and had kayaked from Longyearbyen. He said it took him eight hours. I don’t imagine it was an easy paddle. On this trip we also learned that there was a group of people who once kayaked around all of Svalbard; that trip took an impressive 81 days!
We went back down to the quay to meet up with Matias and board our ship to Longyearbyen. It was leaving mid-afternoon and would get us there for the early evening. It's about a three-hour journey. Once we got onboard it was time for hot chocolate and waffles. We all felt so tired. Elin & Matias both nodded off but Anne, Kjersti, and I managed to stay awake. It wasn’t easy though. It's a tempting invitation with that afternoon sun coming in the window, the gentle rocking of the boat, and steady murmur of the diesel engine below—a pleasant nap is almost a guarantee. The only thing to save me was when we came upon Grumantbyen, I wanted to get out on deck to see the landscape from the sea. Anne & Kjersti joined me to take in the amazing scenery and get some photos. We turned into popsicles standing out there but I couldn’t help but stay out on deck for the rest of the voyage back.
After landing in Longyearbyen, a tourist bus took us back to Coal Miners Cabin. We were all looking forward to a good, hot shower. Unfortunately for us, it seemed all the hot water had already been used up by other guests of the lodge! Even though it was chilly it still felt nice to rinse off after six days without a shower. We dressed into some clean clothes and drove to a restaurant in town for delicious pizza, celebrating our successful return to Longyearbyen.
After our well-deserved supper we drove around town to see a few more areas and also take some equipment back to Matias’s storage container. Back at the hotel we packed up for the flight home. I had enough time for a half hour rest before we drove to the airport at midnight.
I was lucky to get a window seat for the flight to Oslo. It gave me a chance to see the landscape from above before we made our way south and into the darkness of night. Our flight departed at 02:35am. I tried sleeping on the flight but didn’t get any quality rest. I had an earache that worsened during the descent. Normally, it’s not a problem for me to swallow and relieve the pressure change on the way down but this just wasn’t releasing. It was quite painful. I did have a bit of a cold, just from the last 24 hours of near constant cold wind and chill, but once we landed on the ground I was able to clear the blockage and feel at little more at ease. We collected our bags and were met at the airport by the school’s caretaker, Atle. He lives nearby so was able to pick us up on his way to work around 06:30am.
We got back to the school and all crashed in our beds. It was nice to get a few hours of sleep in. It was also a pleasant feeling to be back at the school. Here we could actually get a hot shower too! It was a nice way to start the day. We spent the morning sorting & tidying the equipment, visiting with the school staff who were happy to have us back, and then after lunch, finished off with a short course in river kayaking. Matias is an experienced kayaker so was able to give us a run down on the basics. My kayaking experience is limited to the ocean, so there were some new skills for me to learn. Unfortunately for me, I took a fall and injured my shoulder. I was able to keep going for the day but I think I tore something because here I am three weeks later and it’s still not back to 100%. It’s getting there, I just have to be patient and give it the rest it needs. Injuries aside, we had fun and after packing up and getting warm & dry again we finished off with a barbecue. Elin, Matias, and Kjersti drove back to Oslo together in the evening and Anne & I stayed for one more night. We played a round of frisbee golf in the evening then I played the school's grand piano in Hvitesalen one more time. The next day, Bodil, our music teacher invited us to her house in Hurdal for lunch so we spent the afternoon with her then got a ride to Gardermoen with Atle on his way home. Anne flew home to Germany and I went to Bjørkelangen for another day before returning to Oslo and later Gardermoen for my flight back to Dubai.
The new school year at Hurdal started up on August 20th. This year, Matias is one of the instructors for the “Explore South America” program—a “holiday” class as his wife likes to refer to it! I’m sure they’ll all have a great time. For more info on the school, you can visit http://hvf.no
Do you enjoy my writing? Just keep an eye on this blog. When I get time to write I’ll share it here. Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave comments below and have yourself a great day!
On Friday morning I took part in the "Around The World" Charity Paddle, an annual event put on by The Surf House. This year the charity supported the UAE Red Crescent. The challenge begins on Jumeirah Beach where the route heads straight out to the Nakheel World Islands. The course is approximately 28 kilometres and finishes at Sunset Beach near the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel.
The night before I didn't get to bed until around midnight then was up at 04:30 to have some breakfast, grab my gear, and drive the pleasantly vacant streets to the beach. The event was scheduled to start at 06:00 but we had to be patient and wait in the cold darkness for all participants to arrive, then we set out in the water at 06:38. It was around 16°C in the morning and didn't really warm up until about 08:30. I made it to the entrance of the archipelago in 50 minutes. The water was fairly calm, with just a bit of swell to make balance tricky. I kept my jacket on for the crossing but plenty warm by time I made it inside the breakwater. The water inside is a lot calmer so made it easy to stop and pack away my jacket and take a couple of quick photos. My pack is very simple; just a Camelbak with two litres of water plus a half litre bottle of emergency reserve, a couple of energy bars, my jacket, extra sunscreen, and my GoPro camera. I also made sure to have a hat and sunglasses!
Last year I used an 11-foot board but this time opted for a shorter, narrower 10’2” board, trading up stability for agility. It did feel quicker but I certainly noticed the reduction in stability for the crossings. After exiting the breakwater there was a fair bit of ocean swell and boat wakes to deal with. I got knocked off a couple of times about 4 km back from the finish. I didn’t mind though, it felt refreshing!
None of the islands have been developed except for one that is owned by Nakheel and has been used to build model villas. It's complete with plenty of vegetation and a helicopter landing pad. There was a super-yacht parked out front too. The only other island that has been developed is "Lebanon" which as a club on it for private events. From a distance it looks like there's also an island near the centre with a cement plant on it.
I managed to complete the paddle in five hours. The previous year I took nearly six and a half! I guess I'm in a little better shape this time around ;)
This year we had a fantastic turnout of around 90 paddlers. Though most of the participants were using stand-up paddleboards, the event was open to any kind of paddle craft, including kayaks, rowboats, and prone boards. Though it's not a race, it's not a challenge to be underestimated. We had two safety boats with us for the day that make sure everyone stays safe.
Though it's very physically challenging and requires getting up at an ungodly hour, there's the payoff of personal achievement along with supporting a good cause with a positive community of people. Not to mention being able to appreciate a gorgeous sunrise!
In the end of December 2014, I had been reading some posts on Reddit where people were talking about their New Year's resolutions. One of the individuals wrote about their journey of aiming to read a book a week for the entire year. They succeeded too! This really resonated, not only because I love reading good books but also because I have stack of them that seems to grow faster than I can get through it. In order to get through it I would have to have a challenge such as this in place. And so I decided in that moment that I would challenge myself to get through a book a week for all of 2015. That would get me through 52 books but could I really get that much reading done?
Well, the year went by and I have to admit I failed the challenge but am not disappointed at getting through 41 books in total. I learned a lot through the experience, not only from the content of the books, but also about how to manage a goal such as this.
There were times I had planned to get lots of reading done, such as my summer holidays, but I barely got any reading done then—only one book over the course of a month. I was too busy sailing and exploring Italian & Greek villages (not that I minded that!) The key to getting through so many books is reading every day. If you read five pages a day then in a year you’ll have read 1825 pages. How many books is that? A lot. It’s 1825 pages 99% of people won’t ever read. Most people don’t pick up a book after age 20. It’s also important to focus on reading books. It’s so easy to get caught up reading junk on the Internet…this blog doesn’t count ;) So stay focused and read quality writing worth your time rather than something that hasn’t even been met by an editor. If you want a place to start just pick up one of the “classics” you’ve heard about. There’s a reason they stand the test of time.
Most of what I read is non-fiction. Throughout the year I read seven fiction books. There were also a handful of audiobooks that I “read”. Most of them were quite enjoyable and helped pass the many hours I spent on the treadmill while training for my ultramarathon that I ran in October. Additionally there were six books that I started but never finished, either because I lost interest or priorities changed. I intend to finish some of them. The others will be forgotten and I'm okay with that.
I kept a record of all the books I read on a spreadsheet. I gave the books all ratings on a scale of 10 and usually included a few notes about the books and why I chose to read them. This felt like a tedious process most of the time but it was good to have for reference afterwards.
I’m not going to post the entire list of books here but if you’re interested to know more about what I read then feel free to ask me. I will share a few of my favourites though…
My favourite fiction book was The Martian by Andy Weir. I had heard all kinds of great things about this book and listened to some podcast interviews with the author beforehand. I had high expectations for the book and it fulfilled them. I read the book at the end of March. I was looking forward to the movie that came out later in the year but was really disappointed. If you haven’t seen it yet then save yourself a couple of hours and read the book instead. If you like science and adventure with a bit of humour thrown in it will be a pleasure.
My favourite non-fiction was An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything by Chris Hadfield. This was the second book of the year I read and was a Christmas gift from my parents who got to see Chris’s public presentation, meet him afterwards and get me a signed copy! How lucky I am! He’s one of my personal heroes and an all-around incredible guy. I would recommend this book to anybody.
Another book that I would recommend to anybody is Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life - Living the Wisdom of the Tao by Wayne Dyer. This one I took my time to read, as suggested by the author, reading one chapter a day for each of the 81 verses they focus on. Most books on religion bore the hell out of me (pun intended) and while this book isn’t “religious” it is completely spiritually-oriented. That’s a genre one has to be wary of but I can tell you that Wayne Dyer is one of the authors that really can be trusted. During the time I was reading this book Wayne Dyer passed away and the world lost a great human being. If more people read this book the world would be a better, kinder place.
I also really enjoyed reading The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques Cousteau. It was published in 1953 and is a fantastic telling of how Cousteau and his comrades developed the aqualung and other advancements in scuba diving, discovering the incredible world below the surface of our oceans.
My favourite audiobook was Revolution by Russell Brand. As I listened to this running on the treadmill in the gym it had me laughing out loud and I’m sure the people around me thought I was crazy. I didn’t care though, I was enjoying Russell’s comical telling of how the system isn’t working and the corrupt governments behind it. This is one of those books where the audiobook is better than the written version because you get to experience the comedic voice of the author himself. My second favourite audiobook would have to be Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know. It’s the autobiography of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, one of the great world explorers who is still alive. The adventures he tells of and even his current challenges he undertakes in his 70’s will inspire you to never stop. Age is just a number.
One last book I’d like to include is the one I finished the year with; The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process by Thomas Sterner. I’m always trying to improve my discipline and focus and this book is full of great advice on how to change your outlook for your benefit and achieve mastery. Recommended for anyone interested in self-development.
So this year I’m tackling the challenge again. So far the books I’m reading are amazing and I look forward to successfully completing the challenge! If you have any amazing books you'd like to recommend, please let me know. :)
Marie Pierre drove me to the airport in the late morning. The week had gone by so quickly and it felt strange to be leaving already. Ahead of me I had the short flight to Mauritius, then a couple of hours at the airport there before continuing the six and a half hour flight back to Dubai. I'd then get back home around midnight and have to get straight back to work on the projects I left behind a week ago.
While checking in for my flight I was surprised to see Richard & Tamar, the friendly couple I met on my flight to Reunion a week earlier. We were on the same flight back too! So while waiting to board the aircraft we were able to catch up on each others' stories from the week on the island and, of course, details from the race! They were both running the Trail de Bourbon race, and Tamar was writing about her experience for a women's health & fitness magazine back home in South Africa. They also had an incredible week on the island and a memorable experience in the race. It's great to connect with other runners like them.
For the flight back I had another Japanese runner seated beside me, he had done the Diagonale des Fous, and it took him 52 hours. He's a semi-professional ultradistance runner so wasn't quite as beat up as me, but he was still tired! There were quite a few athletes on their way back home on the flight, most of them moving slowly, just like me.
A warm thank you to my wonderful hosts Marie Pierre, Sébastien, & Louis, for my week on Reunion Island. It has been an incredible week of adventure, challenge, and fun! It was a fantastic experience to be able to meet a pen-pal of five years and be treated to such kind hospitality, delicious food, fun excursions, and language exchange. Merci beaucoup pour les expériences à La Réunion!
The morning was action-packed with paragliding but there was more adventure to come for the afternoon—a trek through the mountain trails on horseback.
It was my first time to ride a horse. It's easier than riding a camel, but you still end up with a sore derrière after three hours on the saddle!
We had rainy weather for most of the ride but it was very refreshing and something I miss on occasion in Dubai.
A guide took us out on the trails that led up to a lake in one of the valleys. My horse's name was Brel. He might have been named after Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer/actor. He's the only "Brel" I know of. Marie Pierre got a horse named Appy. That's French for "Happy". ;)
Before mounting the horses we had to put on a hairnet and pick out a helmet. The helmet selection was pretty gross and I was glad to wear the hairnet, as dorky as it looked.
We had to cross a main road to get to the trails just outside of the stables. Thankfully, Brel understood what I wanted him to do. It was kind of that same feeling you get when learning to drive a manual transmission car over the train tracks for the first time, hoping the car's not going to stall. Along the trails, Brel was pretty well behaved, though he was voraciously eager to eat grass and leaves any chance he could get.
Getting off of the horse at the end was probably the hardest part, considering how my body was already feeling from the stress of the race two days ago. It was nice to get back home and get showered up after an afternoon in the rain.
For the evening we would all have dinner together at the house, but as they don't have their oven yet, Marie Pierre's mother was glad to prepare us a nice Créole meal—Cabri Masalé et pois du cap avec riz pilaf (Masala goat stew with cape peas and rice pilaf.)
Prior to my trip to Réunion I was reading up on different activities on the island. One of the most popular is paragliding. I've never really felt inclined to do any skydiving but paragliding was something I could consider. With the island's geographical features and climate, it's an ideal place for paragliding almost every day of the year. So I had the idea that to finish off my trip on the island I would give it a try.
There are several companies for paragliding on the island but I got booked in with one called Parapente Réunion. They're based on the west side of the island in a place called Saint Leu. A group of us climbed into a van and they drove us up a hill where there's a small plateau at 800 metres. The clouds were a little low today so we were limited to going any higher. My flight ended up being about 17 minutes long. My guide, Philippe, was from France and has been involved with paragliding for 20+ years, half of which has been in the French Alps.
On the plateau you get suited up in the harness, then together run down the hill. Within about 10 seconds the kite has caught the lift of the air and your feet are off the ground. It's a very similar feeling to being on a big swing, being sat there in a kind of seat, feeling the forward movement, and seeing the ground below. It's very quiet, just the noise of wind in your ears.
Once we had passed over the town and were approaching the beach, Philippe let me take control and steer us around. It was easy—pull on whichever side you want to turn. The hardest part for me was the running at the start. I could barely hobble up and down stairs, and getting in an out of the van was really "uncomfortable", but I could bear the pain for a few metres of running to get us going. Landing was pretty simple, it was actually very similar to landing a helicopter in an autorotation procedure—come in with some speed, flare a safe distance above ground, then run on the landing. Before you know it you're standing there on the beach thinking "It's already over? That was short!" My tour was actually supposed to be about 10 minutes longer but due to the lack of winds we couldn't get enough lift to keep us going longer.
On the southeastern side of the island, there are some villages closer to the volcano and are at risk of being in the path of future lava flow. During past eruptions over the years there has been significant lava flow in these areas. We drove there in the afternoon and got to see some of the areas where the lava had crossed the highway and oozed down into the sea. The highway has been re-built, but there are wide lava fields on either side of it.
In some areas there are caves that have formed and tours of the caves are offered by local guides. It might have been an option for my trip if I had more time. Getting around on the fields wasn't very easy for me either. My legs were in pretty rough shape!
It was really interesting to see the fields of black volcanic rock. New plants can still grow in the cracks!
In 1977, lava flow destroyed many parts of the village of Sainte Rose. The local catholic church was nearly destroyed but the lava only reached the entrance of the church. After the lava had cooled it was left as is, with only a staircase built to access the entry.
I didn't sleep great, but I slept enough that I could at least feel a little recovery from the extreme fatigue I had been feeling from being awake for two days and running for over half of one of those!
I was looking forward to breakfast—my first meal in three months where I wouldn't have to think about controlling my portions of carbohydrates. Bring on the croissants and sweet fruit! :D
After breakfast we all drove around the coast to St. Gilles for the dolphin & whale-watching tour. We were a couple of minutes late arriving for the tour and the employee from the tour company wasn't interested in accommodating us, so we got bumped to another tour an hour later. To pass the time we walked around the nearby area of the village. It was a beautiful morning and the heat of the summer was fully present.
Our boat arrived and took us six kilometres out to sea where we got to see plenty of dolphins swimming, but no whales. On our way back when we were coming in over the reef we kept an eye out for turtles but didn't see any today. I haven't included any photos of dolphins. Without a zoom lens they're just specks in the photograph.
After getting back to the house from the race I had enough time to shower and have a quick snack before we had to be on our way to the nearby sugar factory. It was the only chance I would have on the trip to visit, so although I was completely exhausted I chose to continue with the tour.
Cameras were only allowed on the tour if it had a neck strap as all items must be emptied from the pockets. Alas, I wasn't able to take any photos to share, but I can tell you a little about it...
All over the island you see bright green fields of sugarcane like in the photo above. Sugarcane was first imported to Reunion Island during the 18th century and it has been the island's primary crop for more than a century. The plantations now occupy 26,500 hectares, covering 54% of the island's agricultural land. Currently there are two mills on the island that process the sugar and produce an approximate annual output of 200,000 tons. The processed sugar accounts for 90% of the island's exports. It's not only your typical sacs of table sugar for the kitchen that is the end result of processing, but other by-products include molasses, filter cake (fertilizer), bagasse (for energy production), and alcohol. Every year seven million litres of rum is distilled, 75% of which is also exported. Sugarcane provides 22% of the island's electricity, this is produced by burning the bagasse (the dry pulpy residue left over after juice is extracted from the sugarcane.) The harvesting season for sugarcane runs from mid-June to December. There are several weigh stations around the island which you can see big dumptrucks off-loading sugarcane to where it is then sampled and weighed, then transferred on to the mills.
We took the evening tour of the factory and got to see the different stages of the process, and also sample the end results. At this mill they had white sugar, about three different types of brown sugar, a couple different syrups, then all kinds of sweets, jams, and drinks the gift shop provided.
I'm glad we took the tour, but by the end of it I was ready to call it a day. My body just needed some rest!
As I had written in an earlier post, running this race was something that started as an idea in my head about five years ago. The challenge of running an ultramarathon appealed to me, and as I've kept up with my running over the years and seen my own improvements I felt ready to commit to doing it, and all the training and preparation involved. I considered doing it last year, but that was about halfway through the year and registration for the race was already closed. So I decided this year, that if I was really going to do it, I wasn't going to miss out. It sells out fast every year so I had the date marked in my calendar when registration opened in February, and I signed up within a couple of hours. I paid the entry fee and had my name on the list, but there was still a lot ahead of me to figure out.
One of the requirements to receive your confirmation and race bib is to have a form signed off by a physician to say you're healthy enough to take part in the event and your heart isn't going to quit in the middle of it. So I had to make a trip to the hospital and pay a bunch of money to have a group of doctors and nurses hook me up to the electrodes and watch me run on the treadmill, confusedly asking me why I was there. I guess they're all too used to having sad cases come through their door, not fit athletes wanting a stamp and a signature.
At this time, early in the year, I was in shape and fit to run, but I wasn't in the kind of shape I felt I had to be in for such a mammoth race as this. I wanted to find some people who could give me some advice to guide me along the way. Thanks to a post I saw on Instagram about a few guys here in Dubai preparing to run the Marathon des Sables multi-day ultramarathon in the Sahara desert, I knew I had my first lead. I got in touch with Tom and he got me connected with Marcus, who he was running it with, who operates the Inner Fight gym here in Dubai. Eventually I met with just the right man to talk to, my soon to be endurance coach, Neil. Sure, I could have attempted this race all on my own, but I was going into a lot of unknown territory here. Looking back on it now, I don't think I'd have gotten very far without Neil's help.
My training started in May with an AeroScan test to measure how my body was working when I run. This was much more sophisticated and useful than the silly tests the doctors had me do. Over the course of the summer and leading all the way up to the race, Neil helped me completely changed my performance and how my body was using energy. He wrote an excellent article on my training and how much I improved over the the course of the training program, and if you're interested to know more, I highly recommend reading it.
There were two things in particular which made my training here in Dubai all the more challenging. There are no hills here, and over the summer it's dangerously hot outside. The only reasonable solution: running indoors on the treadmill, with the incline ramped up to the max. Thank goodness for audiobooks & podcasts to help me through the stationary running. I'm sure it contributed to my mental preparation as well. It's often said that running an ultramarathon is 90% mental. Some people think the other 10% is mental too.
Below is a course profile outlining the elevation changes of the race, along with indications of where there are checkpoints, water, food, and medical help. They might look like little green hills, but I can assure you they're all monsters.
I've also taken a couple of screen captures from Google Earth which show the course on the terrain of the island:
It was certainly a breathtaking course (bad pun!) that was full of spectacular scenery in every direction. I was serious about racing so wasn't about to stop for any photo ops. Instead I found a few images online of areas of the course, for you to get an idea of what I mean:
In my search for some photos to show the landscape that the race course took me through, I came across this video which does a great job of showcasing many highlights of the island, as well as the incredible terrain:
Check-in for the race was at midnight and the race was scheduled to start at 03:00 Thursday morning. On Wednesday evening I ate dinner around 6:30pm then was in bed by 7:30pm, attempting to sleep but never really succeeding. My alarm went off at 10:30pm and I got dressed in my racing gear, did a triple-check that I had everything I needed, then Marie Pierre kindly drove me to Grand Ilet, the start location, about an hour away from Sainte Suzanne.
At check-in they scan your bib & timing chips to make sure they're working, and they also inspect your bag and equipment. It's mandatory to carry a headlamp with spare batteries, some food, a minimum of one litre of water, a drinking cup, a medical kit containing bandages, blister patches, and tensor bandages, you also need a safety whistle, one synthetic warm layer of clothing, and one wet-weather layer of clothing. I had all of this with enough food to get me through the race. For the first third of the race I only ate sources of fat, low in carbs and sugar; packets of almond butter & coconut butter. For the rest of the race I survived on Pro Bars, only grabbing a handful of apples or raisins from the aid stations in the last few hours of the race. They had plenty of other food there like sandwiches, chocolate, and other fruit. But I hadn't eaten any of that in months, so I wasn't going to start unless I felt my body was really craving it. I aimed to eat once an hour, whether I felt hungry or not. For those of you who are curious, yes there were port-a-potties at all of the aid stations. Surprisingly, I never had any urges for a "number 2" during the entire course, and I just stopped to relieve myself in the bush when necessary. I tried to stay as well hydrated as possible throughout the race and I was making sure to consume salt and minerals so that my electrolyte levels stayed in balance. I had capsules for this that I took every hour for the last third of the race. I ran out of water three or four times which wasn't fun, I just had to keep pushing on to the next station to fill up my two litre reservoir again.
Waiting around at the beginning was pretty boring. I never like standing around in the cold, I just wanted to get going with the race. I stayed close to the front of the gate the whole time because I wanted to be nearer the front of the pack. I expected that I might get pre-race butterflies, especially in the final minutes before the start, but I was totally relaxed. My heart rate was down in the mid-50's until the last minute. Perhaps because I felt ready and not nervous, or maybe it's because my body thought it should be sleeping at that hour!
There's a video from the start of the race from the news channel here:
Out of the gate we had a few kilometres of single-lane road to ascend before we hit the trails, which were single-track most of the course. On this race, the competition didn't thin out much. We were usually in a stead train of people for the entirety, unlike other races I've done where you can end up with some fairly large gaps between runners.
At Sentier Scout, the first checkpoint, I had plenty of water and didn't need food, so didn't bother stopping. This allowed me to pass about 40 people. I continued to make pretty good headway, passing many other runners, but things started to fall apart for me near the bottom of the first long descent. In the end, it was the downhills that really beat me up. Not being able to train for descents at all gave my knees a lot of stress during the race, and by the 25 km mark around four hours into the race I was feeling the pain, and I'm not talking about the kind of pain you can just ignore and carry on with it, but the kind of pain where I knew I'd have to be careful for the remainder of the race. At the bottom of the valley we got a bit of a break with some relatively flat terrain. We had a couple of rivers to cross, which all had stones to step across, so we didn't have to get wet (unless someone actually fell in.) Then it felt like a relief to get the next uphill after the end of the descent. That feeling stayed for a couple of hours until it was replaced with thoughts of "is this climb ever going to end?!" There were sections where it was so steep we had to hold on to the cable attached to the rock wall, to pull ourselves up. Even two very steep sections had ladders to climb up.
We were running in darkness with our headlamps on until around 06:00 or 06:30 when it was light enough to switch it off. The morning was quite pleasant but it got pretty warm around midday, somewhere in the high 20's I think. The afternoon was a little humid and muggy and part of the reason I had to drink more water that what I expected.
I paid close attention to my thoughts throughout the race and the way I felt along the way. Running this race I was going into a lot of unknown territory. I had never run more than about three and a half hours at a time before, had never run a marathon distance (42.2 km)—I've only done half marathons, and I was in a completely new place. During my final "hell week" of training leading up to the race, the most Neil put me through was four back-to-back days of 2.5 hour runs. It was enough to give my body a sense of what it would feel like to keep going without full recovery. However, we could only do so much to prepare, and the rest would be experienced on race day. I felt great for the first few hours of the race and was really positive about the way the race was going for me. After the knee pain crept in a quarter of the way in, I was faced with knowing things were going to be a lot harder.
By the half-way mark I had a much better appreciation of the challenge ahead. At no point during the race did I doubt that I could finish. They had cut-off times at the checkpoints, but I was well enough ahead of those and I had estimated I still held a decent position in the race. Even though the race got progressively harder as it went on and the pain in my legs was exacerbated with every descent, I remained determined to finish, no matter what. I didn't put in all the time and effort to prepare for this and come all this way to forfeit. However, beyond 40 km (about 10 hours) I was focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and soldiering on to the finish line.
Around 50 km though was when I started feeling disappointed with myself. All of the hard running I had done to stay on pace, and now I was feeling so rough that I couldn't keep up the pace I wanted to. I felt like my body had the conditioning to do it, but my legs just couldn't keep up. When other competitors that you remember from further back on the course start passing you, it doesn't help self-esteem. This was a hard thing for me to ignore—I wasn't concerned with beating everybody else, I was in it just to do my absolute best, but when these feelings take hold of the steering wheel of your thoughts it takes a lot of concentration to break free from it. This is when I was realizing how mentally challenging a course of this magnitude is.
By 55 km I think any emotion of "fun" had dissolved and I wondered why I was doing this. At 60 km there was almost light at the end of the tunnel but the last 5 km felt like it would never end and I remained in felt angry most of the time.
On the final descent, I was in agony, having to use my hands at every corner of the switchbacks to help myself down the steep slope. I had to stay focused not to trip on any rocks or roots throughout the course but it was particularly hard after 13 hours to not feel a bit clumsy!
Finally, the trail led onto the road and the corner of the stadium was in sight. After rounding the corner and getting onto the track I turned on the jets and went as hard as I could for the last 100 metres of the course. I crossed the finish line at 13 hours 38 minutes and 33 seconds. I placed 328th overall and 162nd in the men's category. There were 1806 runners registered for the race and 1201 finishers. The fastest time was 07:55:36 and the slowest was 19:11:00. The total distance was 64.8 kilometres with a cumulative elevation gain of 3922 metres.
After crossing the finish line I felt a great sense of relief, although it took a while before my accomplishment really sunk in. I was proud to receive my medal.
When in the check-in line before the race, I chatted briefly to some of the guys around me, one of whom was Loic. He started the race a little ahead of me and throughout the course we passed each other a couple of times. There was a few hour gap where we hadn't seen each other for a while then he appeared closer to the end again. He ended up finishing only two minutes ahead of me in 322nd place. It was funny to see each other again at the finish so we took a photo together. He's a local on the island and runs the event every year.
And so finally after a long, long day, I could sit down and give my body a break!
Thank you to everyone that supported me on the race and throughout my training. You helped me cross that finish line!
The plan for the day was to just take things pretty easy; to stay well rested before the race. I just went on a very short run to shake things loose—only twelve hours to go until the race. For the late afternoon we visited Provanille.
Provanille is a cooperative made up of 120 vanilla producers based in the eastern part of the island. It was first established in 1968 and continues to be active in all things involved in the farming and processing of local vanilla. The organization provides guided tours of the vanilla garden and workshops. Most of the vanilla available for sale in stores on the island is actually from Madagascar, so the local vanilla is better valued. The vanilla plants are grown in the island's forests, on unspoiled volcanic lava flow fields—a process that has been handed down from generation to generation.
During the tour, our guide explained to us how the vanilla is planted, how the pods mature, and are processed in the workshops.
If you want to see more, check out the company's website here.
After lunch in Saint Pierre, we headed northeast back up the hill to La Plaine des Cafres to visit La Cité du Volcan, the volcano museum. It's newly renovated and they have some really interesting exhibits about the history of the island and its geological development. After a couple of hours there we followed the roads even higher, towards Piton de la Fournaise ("Peak of the Furnace"), the island's active volcano. The switchbacks keep going up and up; driving through clouds & fog, we reached the top where the landscape seemed to resemble the moon more than earth. Barren of trees and lacking much vegetation, the area is a stark contrast to the lush greenery of the rest of the island. The other difference you notice immediately is the drop in temperature. We stopped in a couple of places to hike a little and take some photos, and it was a good thing we brought jackets along. Pants and toques would have been welcomed as well! Up above 2300 metres elevation it certainly wasn't summer! Sure it was cold, but the air was so fresh and nice to breathe.
After freezing our butts off at the top it was nice to get into the car and warm up as we descended the mountain roads, continuing back north to Sainte Suzanne, where Sébastien, a skilled chef, was preparing us a nice, hot meal.
Day two started with another road trip, this time to the southwestern part of the island to a place called Saint Pierre. The race package pick-up was happening here in the park in front of the old town hall. It took about an hour and a half to progress through the long line-ups of racers. It was a beautiful day though with blue skies, warm sun, and a nice breeze from the ocean.
After I got my race jersey and bag of freebies it was time for some lunch. Louis has the week off school and Marie Pierre had taken work holidays so we were able to make the trips together and they could take me around to these places on the island, which I really appreciated. Sébastien was busy working during the week but would be able to join us on the weekend. For lunch we went to a place on the waterfront. I tried "un filet dorade coryphène avec sauce vanille" a fillet of fish with vanilla sauce. I had never had vanilla with fish before, but it was an interesting taste and I liked it.
After Marie Pierre and her son Louis picked me up at the airport last night, we drove to their new place in Sainte-Suzanne. Her husband Sébastien was already asleep on the couch, so I didn't get to meet him until today, but I met their dog, Icare. I was pretty tired from my long day of travel and so after getting my bed sorted out, crashed for the night. They recently moved to a different house as their previous house had so many issues. Things are still pretty hectic around the new house though as it's a lot smaller than their last place and not everything is ready, including the kitchen. The spare bedroom which I would have been able to stay in and sleep on the air mattress, is the temporary storage room while they slowly find a place for everything. I had a bed of my own but had to share the room with Louis. He didn't snore too much, but it was the neighbourhood animals that got me up early in the morning. Roosters, hens, geese, dogs, birds, insects; you name it, if it was outside, it was making a sound from about 2am onwards. That old story about the rooster that wakes the farmer up at the crack of dawn is just a myth. A rooster has no idea what the sun is, and doesn't care what time it starts making noise or whether you'd like to sleep or not.
When I got out of bed for the day I had eggs and smoked ham for breakfast, and Marie Pierre offered to make me sweet potatoes on the side that I ate together with some strawberries.
Later in the morning we drove through town and they took me to a place nearby the sea on the north coast where I could run on a trail and loosen up my legs. It was so nice to get the fresh ocean breeze and greenery on my run after so many months cooped up in the gym on the treadmill for my training runs! There were a few other runners out that morning, getting ready for the big day ahead.
In the afternoon we all drove to the west side of the island visit a beach and met Corinne & her family, a long-time friend of Marie Pierre's. We packed a picnic for lunch, consisting of potato & ham gratin (made by Marie Pierre's mother) and a lettuce salad. The drive was about 50 minutes to St. Gilles & Ermitages des Bains. It was nice just to relax at the beach and eat a simple lunch. I had felt so hungry and tired. It was good to have a nap afterwards too. The beach was a busy place but I didn't go swimming in the water. For the past several years Reunion Island has had a real problem with sharks. The authorities have had to build a special protection reef to keep the sharks out but the risk is relatively high. I don't feel like losing any limbs or other appendages. I've been training hard for this race, I can't have a curious shark nibble off one of my precious toes!
After the beach we drove to the marina at St. Gilles (or "St. Chill" as it's hillside graffiti refers to it) and looked into options of dolphin & whale-watching tours. The soonest we could book for was Saturday morning so we planned for that. With the aquarium just nearby we went in for a look around. It was fairly interesting with plenty of sea creatures to discover.
I rested on the drive back home then we all had dinner together (vegetable stew & fried beef patties). It was nice to sit and talk with the family and get to know them more. All the French was giving my brain a workout and I was feeling pretty tired so slept fast when my head hit the pillow!
The flight to Reunion from Mauritius felt so easy. 35 minutes in the air. I tried to nap for the flight but didn't quite fall asleep before we got the message from the captain that we were already preparing to land.
One seat over from me on the flight was a man from Japan who had come to run the Diagonale des Fous race. With the language barrier between us we couldn't have a very detailed conversation but we exchanged contact details and wished each other luck on our respective races. He looked to be in his mid-50's and certainly wasn't making any excuses about his age stopping him from running. Read that last sentence again.
The three-letter ICAO airport identifier for Reunion Island's airport is "RUN". It could be a considered a coincidence or an omen. Upon arrival proceeding through the border control the agent stamps your passport and kindly wishes "bon courage". None of us runners have to explain why we've come to the country, they already know the reason and are glad to have us there.
Though the departure from Dubai was delayed by about a half hour, the flight landed close to its scheduled time at Mauritius airport.
When I walked out of the airport I was greeted by fresh air and a beautiful sunset but also a swarm of taxi drivers eager to pick up a fare. I really didn't feel like getting scammed right off the bat and was keen to stretch my legs and walk a bit. I didn't get very far before another taxi driver chased me up. Considering my lack of time I decided I'd take a short drive with this guy just to see a bit of the surrounding area rather than sit at the airport and stare at a screen.
Mauritius really reminded me of Sri Lanka, just cleaner and wealthier. It shared many similarities to the clusters of shops, the people about, and the chaotic driving practices, among other things.
It would have been nice to spend some more time in Mauritius, but I had other things on my mind, and was eager to get to Reunion Island.