2013 has been a year of ultrarunning for me, and I have a feeling my last ultra, Rallarvegslopet, will become an annual fixture in my race calendar.
Some background information:
Rallarvegslopet is a two day race following a road called Rallarvegen from Flam by the Sognefjord across the mountain plateau Hardangervidda. Rallarvegen was built in the 1890s by Swedish workers, called Rallare, for transporting materials for the railway line between Bergen and Oslo. The road was opened for cyclists in the 1970s, and today thousands of people cycle Rallarvegen each year. In 2001 a group of friends decided to run the length of the road. They started in Flam and ran 54 km to Finse the first day, and then the next day they ran the remaining 27 km to Haugastol. In 2003 the first race was organized, and it has grown in popularity year by year since then. This year the race was booked to capacity for the first time.
July 19th the runners gathered at the historic Fretheim Hotel in Flam for a pasta party, pre race briefing an a good night’s sleep. I had told the hotel that a group of Vegan Runners were coming, and they provided two vegan pasta dishes and a bean salad on Friday, and dairyfree oatmeal, bread and peanut butter for breakfast. After breakfast we congregated in the hotel bar, drinking coffee and chatting to the other runners. We all tried to enjoy the beauiful surroundings and gorgeous summer weather, and to not think too much about the fact that an hour later we would be running up a narrow road to the top of the imposing mountains behind us.
Day 1, Flam to Finse:
54 km, from 0 to 1222 meters above the sea. The highest point is at 1343 meters, 10 km from the finish. However, most of the ascent takes place within the first 20k.
It was already hot when we started, making me slightly worried, but I reminded myself that it would get cooler higher up. After a lap of honour in Flam we followed the road towards the end of the valley and the mountains. The first 10k or so are on tarmac and the gradient is quite gentle, the going was surprisingly easy. Probably because the sceney is so stunning, with lush green vegetation, rivers of clear green glacial water, huge water falls, and picturesque farms and houses. Or maybe I was too busy chatting with the other runners in my group to notice the time passing – the first hour of running felt more like 10 minutes.
When Rallarvegen proper starts the tarmac gives way to gravel. The road is maintained regularly using the same materials as when it was built. After 20k and 2 hours of running we reached Vatnahalsen, 800 meters above the fjord. Or rather, 2 hours of running and some walking. The last couple of kilometers before Vatnahalsen is the steepest section, the road making 21 hairpin bends in the mountain side. Walking this section had been encouraged in the briefing.
If you wish you can send a drop bag up to Vatnahalsen. Most of the runners elected to send their whole pack, allowing them to run the first 20k carrying only a water bottle. I was a little bit envious, why hadn’t I thought of that?
The group I had been running with had been reduced to a trio by the time the course levelled out. We had tried to run conservatively, and had expected to overtake quite a few of those in front of us. Surely their extremely fast opening pace could not be sustained? As it turned out it could, whereas the two guys I was running with lagged behind. Maybe our pace was not as conservative as we thought? From 25 k to the finish I mostly ran alone. However, there were plenty of cyclists coming the other way, and they did an extremely good job of cheering and encouraging us runners.
After the first uphill half mara the course profile is more varied, changing between flat and uphill sections. The landscape is more barren, but still captivating. Water is everywhere in the form of lakes, rivers, streams and snow. Some years stretches of the road might still be under the snow, but this year there was only one small patch to traverse. Almost a shame, since snow patches provide a nice opportunity to cool down. In stead of snow I used water from the many streams and rivers along the road to avoid overheating. The streams also function as roadside drinks stations as the organizers provide no food or drink along the way. That is, until you are at the highest point 10k from the finish. Here several crates of cola had been placed by the road, a note attached saying we could pay for the drinks upon arrival at Finse.
Fuelled by sugar and caffeine I commenced the last flat(ish) section. Finally I spotted the glacier Hardangerjokullen and knew I was nearly there. Apparently, a tailwind had been pushing us gently along all day. Coming around a bend into a headwind 2km from the finish the wind was suddenly very noticable. My intended sprint to the finsh was reduced to a mere jog, but the main thing was that I had reached the finish, after 5 hours and 24 minutes. One of the first persons I chatted to was the race leader, and as he had finished in a record 3 hours 55 minutes he had already showered and changed clothes.
Most of the runners chose to hang around in the finish area (on the train platform just outside the hotel entrance), chatting and basking in the sun. This meant that the slower you had been running the more you were cheered on to the finish. When the last two runners crossed the finish line, just before dinner was served, all the runners went outside to welcome them.
Finse 1222, the hotel, also provided us with a nice vegan dinner: potatoes, pasta, bread, salad, tomato soup, tofu burgers and fresh fruit. At breakfast there were plenty of fresh fruit, bread, jam, baked beans and oatmeal. After filling our bellies and caffeinating appropriately we were ready for…
Day 2, Finse to Haugastol
27 km, starting at 1222 meters above sea and finishing at 1000m.
Once again it was a beautiful, warm day when 80 scantily clad runners set off from Finse, most carrying only a water bottle and some gels.
I set off at a comfortable pace, my race plan simply to enjoy myself. Although I ran alone for most of the race I could see runners in front of me almost the whole time.
Some runners had been worried about the combination of tired legs and downhill running, needlessly so as it turned out. The downhills were not very steep or long, and a couple of short uphill sections provided variation. This section of Rallarvegen runs parallell to the railway tracks, but as the trains are quite infrequent it still felt remote and wild. As we lost altitude trees made a comeback and the heat increased. I had never been to Haugastol before so I had no landmarks to refer to, and as my Garmin was playing up I was unsure of the distance remaining. Suddenly one of the runners who had retired from the race after day one appeared on a bike and shouted that it was just over 2k left. (This was another great thing about this race, the retirees did not just pack their bags and go home, they took it upon themselves to be race photographers, cheer leaders at the finish line etc.) A sneaky uphill delayed my sprint, but when I saw the banners marking the finish line I went all out (onlookers might disagree with this description), coming in at 2.08 and placing 4th among the ladies. The (male)winner overall set a course record for the 2nd leg too, with an amazing total time of 5 hours 33 minutes.
No one left until the last runner had been cheered across the finish line. The last stretch of Rallarvegen followed the shore of a lake, so while we waited for the slower runners and our trains most of us had a refreshing bath. Then the train journey back to Flam gave us the chance to relive the course. The last section from Myrdal to Flam, with a maximum gradient of 55°, made it apparent what a great achievement it is merely to finish this race.
It is not just the beautiful scenery, the distance, the difference in altitude, or history of Rallarvegen that makes this race so unique, it is also the fact the the runners spend two days in each others’ company, making it as much a social event as a race. Put Rallarvegslopet on your bucket list now!
Q & A:
Q: How do I book a place?
A: http://www.ringsport.no/rallarvegslopet. Bookings for next year will probably open in March 2014.
Q: How do you get there?
A: Fly to Bergen or Oslo, then catch a train to Flam.
Q: Is accommodation organized by the race organizers?
A: No, you have to book accommodation yourself, but contact details to the hotels are provided by the organizers. At Finse three or four runners share a room.
Q: How much does it cost?
A: The race fee is NOK 400 (£40). The biggest cost is accommodation, if you stay in Fretheim Hotel in Flam and Finse 1222 at Finse this will amount to NOK 2500 for a shared room (dinner and breakfast included). If you want to reduce costs there is a hostel (Brekke Gard) approx 1/2 mile from the hotel in Flam and a campsite across the road. At Finse there is a tourist cabin where you can pay for a bed in a room (be prepared to share with strangers) or for a mattress in a dorm (remember to bring earplugs). The train journey from Oslo will cost approximately NOK 800 (£80), return will be cheaper as it is a shorter journey. For train timetables and to book online og to www.nsb.no
Q: What surfaces do you run on?
A: Tarmac for the first 9km, then gravel and maybe snow. The road is in good contition for the most part, but some sections are quite rocky due to the surface being washed away in flash floods.
Q: Are there any traffic on the road?
A: Mainly cyclists and hikers, but the property owners in the area have the right to use motorized vehicles to access their properties. I think I met three cars and one ATV the first day, and maybe 5 cars on day 2. You also cross the train lines twice the first day.
Q: What kind of shoes and equipment do I need?
A: Road or hybrid shoes are best, just make sure they are comfortable. Surprisingy, there is no compulsory kit list for this race. Since there are no aid stations along the way and only occasionally a mobile phone signal I would say that common sense dictates that you should bring first a aid kit, maybe an emergency blanket, gloves, buff and a wind- and waterproof jacket (even though the forecast is good conditions may change very quickly in the mountains, and blizzards are not uncommon even in summer).
Q: What about food?
A: There are no food or drinks stations on the way, and the race rules state that you will be disqualified if you take food or drink from other persons along the route, so during the race you have to be self sufficient. It is safe to drink the water in the rivers and streams along the way. Being a vegan can be a challenge in Norway, but the hotels in Flam and Finse are used to accommodating different dietary needs. Just make sure to give them a heads up when you book.
Q: Are there any prizes or souvenir t-shirts?
A: There are prizes for the overall top 3 men and women as well as age category winners. And of course you get a t-shirt, with the race profile printed on the front.
Q: What if you have to retire from the race?
A: Bring money or credit cards, as you will probably need to jump on a train or hire a bike if you can’t complete the race on foot. If you injure yourself or become ill between two train stops you might have to walk quite a few kilometers. If you retire from the race between day 1 and 2 you can make your way to the finish by bike (can be hired at Finse) or by train.
Q: Do you have to carry all your luggage yourself during the race?
A: The organizers send the luggage by train from Flam to Finse and from Finse to Haugastol. Max 1 bag/suitcase per person.
Q: Are all the participants young and fit?
A: The 70+ age categories are the most crowded and competetive. There is a gang of grandmothers who run every year to escape baby sitting duties – they say that running 81k is less exhausting than looking after their grandchildren.
Any other questions? Just ask, and I will do my best to find the answer.