Steve Platt is a familiar, smiling face out on course and always keen for shennanigans and a challenge. So it should come as no surprise that he found himself on a snow filled startline in Finland last week.
One of the great things about the OCR community on social media is that something you never knew existed can pop up right in front of you and set you off on your next challenge. So when a Facebook post in mid-2018 mentioned an OCR in northern Finland, billed as the toughest OCR above the arctic circle, the cold lover in me immediately thought "I like the sound of that," and the journey to Winter Warrior began.
Some people may be wary of signing up for an overseas event, especially in these troubled European times, but I have to say that registration and communications with the team were as easy and seamless as for any race I've run in the UK. With Kittila airport only 45 minutes from the race venue travel also appeared to be pretty straightforward. So with flights and accommodation booked all that remained was to train and prepare!
In the months leading up to the event my cold-water acclimatisation was, let's say patchy, and I've not previously appreciated how little snow we get in my part of England. In an effort to train for a race where running through knee/thigh/hip deep snow is to be expected I tried everything from running in waist deep water to hitting sandy beaches, which while they were nice variations never really felt like they hit the mark. Was it enough? More on this later.
With a couple of weeks to go kit was gathered (listed below) and the Winter Warrior social media presence ramped up. Pre-race emails were helpfully provided in English, the last of which included the fantastic line "the forecast predicts pathetically easy near-zero weather". Neoprene it is then! Bags were packed and we were off to a hotel in Akaslompolo only a mile down the road from the start line.
Running through the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park in western Lapland the Winter Warrior course starts and ends at the Kellokas nature centre where the organisers made good use of the heated lecture theatre to give the pre-race briefing. When a safety briefing includes warnings about avalanches, hypothermia, holes in a frozen lake and an angry capercaillie you know you're in for a good time. Given the potential conditions safety messages were constantly, and good-naturedly, reinforced and while there were plenty of medics and rescue people in evidence on race day I don't believe they had any issues to deal with. The capercaillie is worth a mention in its own right. This bird, the biggest member of the grouse family, has territory in the area of the race and it's reported that last year it chased a couple of runners when they got a bit too close. This year the Winter Warrior team altered the course specifically to avoid the area the bird protects, but even then race director Simo got chased after stopping to take a pic of the magnificent beast.
Race day: Fifty-one people from twelve different countries lined up outside the nature centre, stamping feet and slapping hands in temperatures hovering around zero degrees, in an effort to warm up for the next 13 kilometres of snow and ice. Simo and his volunteers led us through the last few bars of a great Finnish metal track before dropping the flags and letting us loose... I think I managed to run about 30 metres before I sank into the snow up to my thigh, then again 2 metres later, then again 5 metres after that. It suddenly dawned on me that there was no way anyone was going to be running all of this course and that 13 kilometres now sounded like long, long way.
Thisis the beauty of Winter Warrior. Although there aren't many traditional obstacles the terrain provides its own unique and almost continuous challenge. Working out where to put your feet is a real skill that thankfully improves over the course of the race. Is that ice, snow or rocks coming up? How thick is that snow crust? Will that shallow footprint hold my weight? The answer to the last question was usually "No", evidenced by another plop into snow up to the knee. It was a blessed relief to come to some of the maintained paths that meander through the national park.
The first part of the race took us through forests and across pathways to Kellostapuli fell. The course up this 503metre high hill wound around and back up gradual inclines, becoming more exposed as we passed the treeline, until we were running along the ridge of the fell. The view was breathtaking. In the sunlight and crystal clear air the entire valley was laid out below, making the trek up the fell seem like a small price to pay. Charging back down to the valley I tumbled on some slick ice and slid for a good 50metres on my butt. No damage sustained but it was a warning not to take silly risks, and a reminder that sliding is often faster than running. After a few more, intentional, slides I reached the base of the fell and the frozen surface of lake Kesankijarvi.
Four sections had been cut out of the lakes surface, three relatively small waist deep affairs and one chest deep section with three logs suspended at water height. Oh yes, these ice holes were filled with water and we were going in and going under. It's a personal choice as to how much you strip off before getting wet, with some guys going topless, some in just their shorts and the lady in front of me choosing only sports bra, pants and socks. I dumped my trainers and windcheater, and grabbed a neoprene beanie hat that's served me well on this sort of thing before and jumped in. The water didn't feel too cold, even during the full immersions under the logs, but once I was out in the air again the chill crept in rapidly. Racers were provided with drop bags at registration so that you could have dry gear waiting at the water obstacles and I took full advantage, changing my compression top and getting fresh socks on before heading out for the next leg.
After the water Warrior and Race squad runners were directed to a pile of ice blocks and told to take one to the top of the hill. The hill was Kesanki fell, 535m high, and this time the route was neither winding nor gradual. The course was almost directly up the fell, with alternating snow, ice and rocks underfoot. Nothing ever felt dangerous, but you needed to keep your wits about you for foot placement and don't drop the ice! The thought of having to chase a skidding block back down that slope was not something I wanted to become a reality. Thanks to good kit selection the ice block carry was the only time my fingers felt cold in the entire race. Half an hour later the climb was over I dropped my block and paused to take in yet another amazing view. The first half of the trip down the fell was another great combination of butt sliding and jogging with only occasional snow slips reminding of the mass of frozen water that was upslope. Then came the treeline and along with it approximately a mile of the most irregular, deep and crusty snow in the whole race. Every third step broke through to shin, knee or thigh deep. Crawling or rolling became the only way to progress, with regular breaks to lie back and gaze up through the tree canopy. This was best described by a Dutch runner I met in this section who said that "every metre feels like 5 metres", and by the fact that it took just as long to get back down Kesanki fell as it did to get up it.
At the bottom of the fell we hit the lake again but this time were given hot fruit juice rather than water dunks, with directions to follow the course across the frozen lake. This lead to more forests, deep snow and pristine pathways, as well as a cluster of man made obstacles including rope traverses, a log wall and a vertical rope-to-rope transition. All had burpee penalties scaled for partial success and I'm happy to have done my five snow burpees after coming off of the transition in the final rope traverse.
The last kilometre or so of the course was all on maintained snow paths leading back to the nature centre and it was in the last 200metres where Winter Warrior gems shone. At this point the organisers have stuck flags into the snow, one for each nationality taking part. If you are the first of your nation to reach your flag you pick it up and carry it forward, if you're overtaken by a fellow countryman/woman they get the flag. A nice touch, expecially for the majority Finnish contingent, and while there might have been only one other Brit I did finish with the Union Flag in my hand. 50 metres from the end there is an ice wall. Not quite Game of Thrones size but at six feet high and three feet deep it needed the irregular pattern of the composing blocks to give runners any chance of getting over single-handed. I later heard from a marshal that 80% managed it solo. Finally the finish line was less of a line and more of a log. A log buried in the snow that is. The task was to dig out snow from under the log and get your whole body through the hole. This made for some tense finishes between competing diggers and more than few hilarious moments as people got stuck and had to be pulled out before trying again... Yes, including me.
The Winter Warrior crew go on to invite all runners to a prize giving ceremony and dinner at a local hotel, which was a nice opportunity to discuss the race with fellow runners and support crew. They also arrange trips to local attractions the day after the race, check out their website for more details. The Finns are wonderful people, everyone is really friendly and speaks excellent English, however there is one Finnish word I would recommend you learn for your trip, kiitos (thank you). Kiitos Winter Warrior for an amazing experience.
Kit: Bottom to top, inner to outer
Darn tough merino socks
Decathlon neoprene socks
Salomon Speedcross 4 trainers
Sub Sports Dual compression shorts
Sub Sports Dual compression leggings
Patrick rugby shorts
Sub Sports Dual compression long sleeve top (swapped for Sub Sports Cold compression long sleeved top after water immersion)
Cheap zip up windcheater from Go Outdoors
Mudstacle race vest
0.5mm latex/rubber gloves
3mm TWF neoprene gloves (latex/rubber keeps sweat/heat in, neoprene keeps most of the cold/water out)
Mudstacle wrag (swapped for 3mm NCW Cornwall neoprene beanie hat during water immersion)
Photo credits: Winter Warrior & @onevisionfi & Clare Wend-Hansen