A Calling to the Arctic, part 2
We see snowmobiles in the darkness, parked off the trail, and then head torches suddenly blind my poor night vision. Check point 5: the furthest point from the start line. We are over half way and every pedal stroke is a step closer to home. I sign in and head to the wooden hut; this is the only check point with a hut big enough to sleep in if you choose to. Many a racer has sat down at this point in the past and not got up again to finish. It’s where we catch the guy in front who is racing the 300: he is sitting in front of the roaring fire, and in the dim light I see he looks tired. I probably look the same. I ask him how he is, and in his European English, he tells me he is fine; he will rest here for fifteen minutes then carry on. As I fill my water bottle, I tell him he is a hero for riding the three hundred, and then I turn and leave, wasting no time. I find out the following day that the tired figure in the cabin I met never left. He retired from the race, too exhausted to continue.
I look at my Garmin cycling computer and it tells me we have been on the move for thirteen hours. With the conditions as they are, I ask Ibrahim how he’s feeling and he replies“fine - tired but okay.”We are flying on a road section of the course which is mostly downhill. This is where my tyre pressure is helping rather than hindering. We ride side by side, chatting about how the race has gone and what’s still to come, trapped in a time warp of trees and snow and snow and trees. I wonder how far back the second rider is and how he is feeling. Is he stronger than us? Will he come flying past and leave us for dead? I know I have it in me to finish this race.
A moment of panic snatches me from my hazy thinking: a flash of my Exposure helmet light means the battery is running low. Not having light would bring us to a cripplingly-slow speed. I still have my backup light.We stop for a moment while I change the lights and get going again.
It feels like we need to hurry now - if this light runs out, we are in big trouble. My tired mind is playing tricks on me: I know this light will have hours left in it, but I can’t help but think about trying to ride these trails in the dark. My mind is put at ease when we descend back down onto the river we started on. I know we only have just over thirteen kilometres to go. I stop and drop the air pressure in my back tyre. It’s worth the risk now as we must have a good lead over the rider in second place. We have been relentless with our attitude to stopping and pushing and I’m sure it has paid off. As we ride down the river on our way to the final check point, I turn my head to see if anyone is behind us, my neck muscles hurting as my head torch is lost in the darkness. No one is there. We arrive at the final check point where two men await us. I sign in and out for the last time, filling my water bottle by the fire. As the smoke burns my tired eyes, I’m thankful it will be for the last time.
I have read a lot of blogs about this race and watched many videos, and all of them say this is the worst section of the race. There is some tricky navigation and – to make matters worse - you can see the lights of Rovaniemi’s amazing bridge in the distance which never seem to get closer. Maybe after reading all of that, I was mentally prepared for this last section, and with low pressure in my tyres we flew over the rough snowy surface carved up by snowmobiles going back and forwards during the day, a standard form of transport during winter here in Finland. I look at my Garmin for the last time but can’t read what it says. My eyes have gone blurry and I struggle to make out any of the details on my handle bars. I look up and realise Ibrahim riding in front of me is just a blur as well. Even with my light shining on his back, there are no clean lines around his body, only hazy ones. I try not to panic and tell myself “relax, I’m sure they will be fine.”I am hoping I am right
After thirty minutes, as the lights of the bridge grow bigger, I ask Ibrahim to stop for a second. We stand over our bikes, smiles on our faces, and bump fists. We know it’s in the bag now, we have done it. We take some time to enjoy this moment, with just the two of us, before we get back, cross the finish line and face the cameras.
“Let’s finish this”Ibrahim says into the silence, and we carry on riding. A year in the making, and we have done it. As complete Arctic endurance racing novices, we ride into town and up the ramp into the final check point and the finish. The clock is stopped. We have been on the move for seventeen hours and thirty-five minutes. We are told we have a big lead over second place, and half of the field have dropped out due to the challenging conditions. My eyes burn in the bright lights and I struggle to focus. All I want is to get back on my bike, ride back to our hostel and get in the shower. The adventure has been everything I’d hoped for, but as always, it has left me wanting much, much more.
Dark Sky Media followed our race, filming us as we went along. Their film about the event, Focus, is due for release later in the year, so keep an eye out for that. A huge thanks to Alpkit and Sonder bikes for supporting me, also to Dirty Dog Eyewear and 17 Management.