Last year toughest announced the launch of a new kind race in Sweden’s icy north and without hesitation I signed up. A video showing two runners crossing a lake, tackling monkey bars, ice wall climbs and sprinting through the ice hotel. It was shaping up to be one of the highlights of the year and, to cut a long story short, it blew all of our expectations out of the water. Even though the event itself lasted only 40 minutes, the rest of the weekend was equally unbelievable.
Taking off from Heathrow at 7:50 on Friday, Liam and I quickly started spotting other runners, in fact the flight to Kiruna from Stockholm seemed to be an OCR only flight, which was a very exciting experience.
Landing in Kiruna, I was astounded by the snow. Down on the south coast of the UK, where I’m from, we had one day of snow this year and it was gone before I got my student ass out of bed. But Kiruna was practically buried. Mounds of snow a meter tall surrounded the roads, which were completely clear. Houses and parked cars were snowed in with snowmobiles flying around everywhere. What an entrance to a weekend!
We arrived at the Ice Hotel, where we were staying, at around 3pm and dropped our belongings in lockers situated within the warm changing area. Here we would find our bathroom facilities, changing rooms, saunas, sleeping equipment and a chill out zone.
Along with an ever growing group of Brits, I ventured into the ice hotel, scouting the rooms and seeing what obstacles were within the hotel. If you’re unfamiliar, the Ice Hotel is erected in the winter months, built from blocks of solid ice cut from a frozen river.
Outside the hotel we ventured down to the start line to see what we were in for. Among the assortment of obstacles scattered about we were all mostly concerned about one - a hole cut in the frozen lake, which we would be swimming through. Suitably terrified and cold, we wondered to get some grub before our trip to see the northern lights.
At 8pm we were picked up by Emil, our guide for the night. A long running joke had been going around all day about me driving a snow mobile, and what a bad idea it would be… but we soon ended up taking our first lesson before setting off. We spent 4 hours racing round frozen lakes, through narrow woodland paths and down mountains with the occasional stop to admire the magical northern lights.
Half way through we stopped in a wooden cabin, were taught by Emil (the Swedish Bear Grylls) to start fire with a knife, sampled reindeer sausage (Giggles) moose sausage (Giggles) reindeer jerky and heart, made toasties on an open fire and had our minds blown by both Liam’s amazing factual knowledge of the atmosphere composition and by Emil’s twice boiled coffee. I was unable to finish my coffee, as were a few others, so Justin kindly polished them off (ask him how he slept!)
We headed back out on the snow mobiles and Liam and I tried to test each other’s nerves, cracking past speeds of 50-60 and nearly to 70mph across sheet ice. Taking a corner too quickly we ended up on one ski with many expletives being expressed.
The snow mobile tour was the best four hours of my life! Constant fear, great people, interesting food and the most stunning scenery.
Once back at the Ice Hotel, we grabbed our sleeping bags, snow boots and spare pillows, all supplied free of charge by the hotel, and headed down to our -7oc Ice room. Our beds were made of solid ice slabs with ice headboards that had a reindeer fur covering. It was plain in decoration apart from a feature sculpture at the entrance, but it was an extremely beautiful room. I chose to wear my dry robe as well as a tee shirt, shorts and ski socks. I really, really didn’t want to wake up cold in preparation for the race! I shared a room with Liam and Finn, naturally choosing to be middle spoon. All tucked in on our bed of reindeer fur and ice I was actually incredibly comfy, warm and content with how awesome Sweden is!
Saturday morning and its race day!
We were awoken at 7:30am with a hot cup on lingon berry juice. The ice hotel opens in the morning as a museum, so we were cleared out, showered and ready to race by 9. I chose wisely to skip breakfast, as I had dinner the night before, the others however tucked into a feast of fruits, cooked breakfasts and a continental spread.
The biggest question of the day was what to wear? What does someone who get cold in the height of the English summer wear when racing in the artic circle? I picked up a pair of ice bugs from Jonas and his team, a MIT Tough Team compression top from Camilo and went with the old faithful Darn tough socks, Reebok compression leggings and X-racewear shorts, along with the legendary Mudstacle Tee. I’d decided if I was going to be pushing myself to the max I’d probably be warm enough in that.
With a few hours to kill we scouted the start area and chatted with our Scandi friends, wandered around the shops, met Tim and Faye from the Brocket Gear Team before taking our place and getting ready to race.
I was in wave 1 along with Liam and took my place on the second row of the start line. The countdown began after a lengthy warning about the dangers of this course, oh how I should have listened… We sprinted off, the traditional hay bale start line was replaced by chunks of ices, over a snow mound and that’s before we even hit the timing chip starting point!
I ended up around 10th but found myself weaving through a few more places. The start pace was nowhere near what were used to seeing here in the UK. We tackled the first obstacle and I watched the few in front of me to judge their technique, both on the obstacle and the ice. First up was Toughest’s log jump where you leap from one log to a higher one, until 4 logs up you start coming down. A few mistimed their jumps and ended up turning back for another go, but I crossed safely and continued.
Next was a similar style obstacle jumping from one low log to another high log that formed an Irish table style. Again a few struggled, me being one but I did make it across. I stopped behind after completing it to help a lad I’d knocked over whilst on top. He was okay, we man hugged and ran on. The next obstacle was a wall and I sped up to make up the places I’d lost picking the lad up.
The tall slanted wall was extremely easy to get up in my Ice-Bugs with their studs gripping the wood perfectly. Coming down however my race changed. Having reached the top I was expecting some ice stairs or something to climb down, I wasn’t expecting a sheer drop or scaffolding poles directly underneath me! I paused and lined up the scaffolding poles whilst all the Scandis ran straight off if without flinching. As I tried to get my first foot onto a pole I took a knock and fell.
I landed with an out-stretched left arm and fractured four carpals in my left wrist, as well as spraining my elbow and jarring my shoulder. My right arm took a beating too. I landed on my right elbow, why my arm was bent I don’t know, I can only imagine my right fore arm and hand instinctively bent up to protect my legendary beard. This left me with a sprained wrist, jarred shoulder and a broken radius. A fairly eventful 300m start to the race, what to do? Drop out of a race I’ve been planning for nearly a year or continue and try to get the top 10 I was hoping for? With 2 broken arms off I ran..
I started battling with a few guys around me and recovered into 6th/7th. Our next obstacle was a crawl through a hole cut into the wall of the ice chapel, hoping between seats inside I made some time up as others climbed over them. Doubling back on ourselves and leaving in a more traditional fashion through the front door. Next a few snow ditches to jump before hitting a cargo net bridge.
I struggled massively here, it was the first time I was testing my arms and I had limited grip, movement, strength and a lot of pain. Thankfully for me it was single file so I couldn’t lose any places, but I probably should have. I chose to roll through the net whilst others in later waves chose to jump the gap, maybe that would have been a smarter idea but we all do stupid things and I chose to copy the lad in front. Cargo net cleared, we had to stay between red paint lines in the snow climbing a high snow ledge before scaling the walls of the infamous ice bar. Another obstacle where your entire body weight was controlled by your arms, my throbbing arms. Brilliant.
Jumping down, we hopped across solid ice blocks of varying heights, from 1-2m. Over this we jumped down a snowly ledge only to be sent straight back up the 2-2.5m wall with the aide of a rope. I lost 3 positions at this point. My grip again failed me, I couldn’t straighten my right elbow to grip higher up the rope and my left arm couldn’t grip at all. It took me 3 attempts to get up the rope, finally reaching the wooden grip ledge at the top. “It’s done” flashed through my mind! Then I realized I basically still had to do a muscle up… Fu!! It hurt.
Sprinting off I slipped into a wall, but thankfully stayed horizontal. I caught up to the others just before we hit the spider wall climb, exactly like you would see on Ninja Warrior, with a twist… The fore-mentioned cargo bridge went over the spider wall so keeping low was essential! I didn’t actually get a chance to tackle it, I arrived second in a group of 4, with the first guy running straight through it so we were called through by the marshals. Good thing really, I defiantly wouldn’t have been able to take it on!
Back into a run, crawling through some construction tunnels with one arm and onto a run before another slanted wall, this one though more traditional and after running straight up I gripped a scaffolding bar and grimaced whilst pulling myself up. Next a log carry through deep snow. For once a log carry made fun-ish! With a very heavy log through 2ft of snow over 150m (naturally I picked the light one and carried it across one elbow and one wrist protecting the other parts.
More long running out onto the lake introduced us to a number of high sloping walls and some standard 10ft walls. Walls hurt allot. I was losing patience with them to be honest.
A sharp slippery turn on the ice brought us back towards the event village. On the way out of the village I’d used a Danish friend as a windbreak. I did overtake him once only to be hammered by the wind, so dropped back behind him. However on the way back in I quickly over heated and we started to chat as we ran back together! Damn it was hot!
The run back consisted of a true Irish table (which I still don’t know how I got over) before hitting some crawls and parallel bars. The crawls were great fun, I chose to penguin slide resting my arms and kicking off walls sliding along the ice, god it was fun! The bars were interesting, well I say bars, as with everything they were slippery blocks of ice… An added challenge to parallel bars, lets make them as slippery as possible! With those crossed we have a low rope crossing which we all conquered by using two ropes each, hands on one an feet on another.
Another run littered with walls and an Irish table came to an end with a log carry before hitting the dragons back - five tall slanted walls that back straight onto each other. The idea is to jump from the top of one to the others. At first it was completely terrifying. My arms were thumping and the thought of jumping and catching a scaffolding bar had me wondering why on earth I was still running on, but I took the plunge and having completed one the second jump was a doddle, if extremely painful.
Next was the intimidating combo rig they had assembled. It was easily one of the coolest obstacle out there. You swung down on a trapeze like bar, grasping next on to 6 rings and finishing with some small grip balls, 5 I believe. I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t make it past the first ring, the transition from the bar to rings was extremely painful and I dropped - deciding to take the deep snow forfeit run.
After a 2m wall we headed into the ice hotel, the wing in which I slept, strangely enough. Along the top was a series of monkey bars that I failed epically, dropping off again save the grimacing. I had covered a fair distance but when the lad in front of me dropped I felt no need to push that pain barrier any longer. Another forfeit snow run for me and those behind me were seriously starting to catch up!
The finish was close, but first I had to climb a snow mountain that is used for snowmobile tricks. I look back and wonder why I didn’t run straight up it? I guess my arms were a factor, there weren’t many foot holes at this point, maybe I’d had enough, I don’t know but I climbed more sideways in my quest to go up, but still, I got it done. Running down this I had two unders and two overs to complete, again made purely of ice and at 1m thick there nothing to grip your hands on, not that I had any grip left. At this stage Camilo of MIT Tough Team caught up with me. We tackled the slanted ice walls together, along with the floating ice islands before I gently edged my way around the icy hole in the river, while Camilo crazily decided to bomb in! That’s nuts!
I struggled to get out of the lake, losing another 2/3 places, before walking across the finish line in 11th place. I collected my medal, tee, had another beautiful glass of lingon berry juice before having a few snaps and wandering up to get changed.
Struggling out of my MIT Tough Team compression top I wondered into a hot shower whilst the others hit up the sauna and hot tubs with a few beers. Changed and freshened up I dropped my kit off in my room and headed to find medical assistance.
I guess the next 6 hours aren’t as interesting but here’s the low down. Taxi, waiting, triage, waiting, X-rays, waiting, surgeons - discussions, waiting, language barriers, waiting, some cracking drugs, angry taxi drivers and learning ice hockey, myself and the other race casualties (ALL ENGLISH! CONSPIRACY? Or maybe we’re soft?) headed back to the event site and straight to the bar!
The official ice bar had collapsed in on itself so a temporary one had been constructed within the tepee’s in the event village. Inside we had a buffet with the most amazing reindeer steak, beer and baileys/mint hot chocolate! All drinks were served from ice glasses (irritatingly hard to pick up) excluding the hot chocolate. The food was amazing, Scandis are insane and the night was epic! Unfortunately I called it early at around 22:30 to go and find some more magical pills and rest before the next day.
The party went on until the early hours with the English being heavily involved in the crazy antics from what I hear – including dance offs against the one legged warrior!
The next morning I was awake by 4:30, so got up and ready early, well it did take me over an hour to shower and get dressed now my joints had seized. I wandered to breakfast and chatted with all the guys from the day before. FYI lots of yellow snow Sunday morning…
The weekend was immense. I have only one gripe which I’ll get to at the end but at no point would I have changed anything. The company was perfect, snow mobiling was the best four hours of my life, the race was incredibly well planned and executed with precision like nothing I’ve seen before. The after party was everything I had hoped for, even if I only had 5 hours there. We need Toughest UK. They seriously are a game changer, or at least Toughest Ice was.
My only gripe. I booked this as a romantic weekend away for me and my now ex (to me a weekend away watching me race is romantic okay…) but when we arrived we found out all rooms were shared. Thankfully she wasn’t there so it didn’t matter, but had we been together we would have liked a room to ourselves, which is exactly what I thought we booked. That’s my only gripe, and as she wasn’t there I have nothing to moan about!
Gear wise I got it right and there was only one winner out there. Everyone had Ice Bugs Zeals and I learnt why. People wearing rival brands were rare but those wearing Salomon Spikecross, Inov8 Orcs or clip on’s seemed to have inferior grip on at least one of the terrains faced. Other than one occasion when I tried to corner too fast, my Ice Bugs and their superior stud count (17 studs per shoe) were 100% flawless. They gripped everything I came across, snow, ice, wood, nets everything! My feet were warm and supported in every way. They don’t have a rear plastic arch instead they have a raised plastic support on the both sides of the foot, which I valued on choppy sharp ice that tried to turn my ankles more time than I could recall! Top shoe and in my short 8km review, in their natural environment, I give them a 10/10! As do most of the others out there. I foresee an Ice Bug take over in the UK, I’ll be on the bandwagon.
Clothing wise I got it spot on too, if anything I was too hot. On a number of occasions I was covering my face in snow to try and cool down, but with the wind I wouldn’t have changed a thing!
Find out more about future Toughest events here: www.toughest.se