“Nine Swedish Miles”

UltraVasan 90

In 1521, Gustav Vasa skied from the village of Mora, fleeing towards the Norwegian border, after having failed to convince the population to join him in an uprising.  But the people of Mora reconsidered, and sent two men to chase down Vasa and bring him back.  The men on skis caught him, and Vasa returned to lead the revolt, defeating the Danes and eventually becoming King of Sweden.

In 1922, the first modern day Vasaloppet ski race was held in honor and remembrance of this historic occurrence.  Today, the winter week of events attract as many as 50,000 or more participants each year.  A summer week of races continues to grow in popularity as well, with mountain bike races, a running relay, and since 2014, a trail ultra.  Aside from the races, the trails are open for use year round, be your preference skiing, biking or hiking.  So everyone may have the opportunity to “follow in the footsteps of our forefathers”.

I’d sat on the hill by the Zorn museum for the better part of 6 hours.  The last bikers of the day had come by just a few minutes before, and now the rain was sprinkling on and off, and on and on.  I considered laying myself down at the base of the tree I was standing under, and resting right there for the night.  But the rain seemed to be at a lull, so I gathered my bags, and set out.  I had about an hour of remaining light, but maybe I’d walk through the night, and find a place to camp and rest come morning.  I was on the trail, and that was what I’d come for.  I felt a soothing rush of exhilaration.  I passed through the large campground that was filled with camper vans, tents, and people milling about.  I walked under a highway bridge, looking at the space underneath and envisioning the bed I could make there.  The sprinkles had resumed, and I might be smart to find cover before long.  The sound of the rushing creek and light sprinkles mixed with the green glow of the forest in the day’s disappearing light created an odd sense of calmness and security within me.  That was what I’d come for.  I was on the trail.  The highway was near, and the whiz of passing cars could be heard, but visible signs of the city were gone.  The drizzle became steady, and I was getting wet.  I reached the top of a hill, and there was a canopy set up for the final water stop, a table and a few chairs.  I would stay there for the night.

It was my 22nd night away from home.  Sleeping on a covered wooden bleacher bench in the open air may be too exotic for some, but it was definitely one of my most comfortable arrangements of the trip.  Having arrived in Salen the day before, I had pitched my tent just on the other side of the soccer field I now overlooked.  Then the heavy rains came, and  I was forced to retreat with all my belongings to the only viable option.  At least I had entertainment.  Early in the day, a busload of schoolchildren arrived for a day of fitness training and playing.  Most of them didn’t seem to care that it was a bit cold and really rainy.  They went swimming in the nearby pool (I’d had a short swim there the evening before), ran around the field playing makeshift soccer games (their favorite seemed to be a rather hilarious game where they would form a line in the goal with their backsides facing out, bend over and wait to see who got drilled in the rear by the kid kicking the ball, (and some of those kids could kick the ball pretty hard), a few misfits were even having some fun with an American football (one of them later approached me and asked “Would you have a hot dog?”  Misunderstanding him I chuckled and replied “No…, I don’t have any hot dogs.”  The boy said “No, would you have a hot dog?  We have hot dogs.”  A few minutes later I was handed two hot dogs, one with ketchup, one without.)  Later that evening, there were kids races that finished on the track right in front of me.  I clapped for the kids as they ran to the finish line.  A woman on microphone commentated the whole event.  Within 45 minutes of the start, the races were complete and the small crowd had dispersed.  I was left alone, and had the stadium to myself.  With a large digital clock affixed to the building across the way, I needn’t worry about an alarm, for I would be keeping a watchful eye on that clock.

“In the village I learned the temperature was fifty-two degrees below zero.  In a way I was relieved.  I was not turning into a lightweight after all-my misery had been for real.”  Libby Riddles “Race Across Alaska”

I nearly finished the book that night under cover of the canopy, saved but a chapter or two.  While it didn’t get down near to the temperatures Riddles and her dogs endured in 1985, I was stretched pretty well to the limits of my preparation.  Being August, I expected warmth, but late summer in Sweden can be cool.  In speaking with a man who was setting up sound systems for the bike race, I learned that the temperature early that morning had dipped to a mere 2 degrees Celsius.  After having lost comfort sitting upright in the plastic chair with my feet stretched out to a second, I laid my plastic garbage bag on the dirt, and rested in my sleeping bag atop of it.  I was up and off before first light.  With just 4 km traveled the previous night, that morning I made about 16, to the village of Hokberg.  Activity had begun, getting set up for the day, the first 90k bikers were set to be coming soon.  So this would be as far as I’d go, not a bad spot to spend the day.  I set down my bags and sat down for some lunch.  Within minutes, the lead riders flew by.  Hokberg was a picturesque little village, bustling with activity on this day.  After hiking around the nearby trails, I decided on a camping spot for the night, complete with a bench, fire ring, and dead branches to burn.

I slept comfortably on the wide wooden bench.  My towel and shorts still hung trying to dry on the rafters above.  My tent and most of my other belongings were packed away in my bag.  I just had to change into my race attire, pack my sleeping bag and pillow, and make my way down a few hundred meters to the starting place.  I got down there about 3:30, with over an hour to spare, time to get some breakfast (I had a sandwich and coffee).  I made my apologies to the volunteer who hoisted my still overloaded backpack into the truck for return to Mora.  I explained to him that I was carrying my house for the past 3 weeks.  It had rained both cats and dogs much of the previous day.  Somehow, the soccer field and dirt track remained without puddles, and the trail, too, while wet, was not in any way washed out or turned to mud.  The drizzle was still present on this morning and the temperature was hovering around 12 degrees, a little cool but very comfortable for running.  As the start time grew nearer, the excitement grew as well, crowds of runners now gathering, announcements over the speakers first in Swedish, French, then English.  The start chute was opened and the runners lined the street, anticipation teeming.  Just in front of me was a piece of tape separating the elite field from the general population, including the only previous winner, Mora native Jonas Buud.  Final announcements made, the gun sounded, and it was a race.

Tying one end of the rain-fly to a tree, I was able to make up for the broken frame of the tent.  It had been kicked and snapped by a British guy in the early morning on the final day of the European Juggling Convention in Almere.  I then stayed an extra day there to help with some cleanup and took the liberty of spending that night under cover of one of the empty circus tents, but that’s a whole other story.  After the present night of a nice fire and a few Swedish beers to lighten my load, I was back on the trail, though a rather late start, it was 11:30 before I set out.  I passed through Gopshus Garden and on to Oxberg before stopping for lunch.  After a passing storm in which I took cover under the canopies and chatted with a local who was doing some work at the station, I proceeded to the overnight cabin at Axikojan.  It was a quaint spot set next to a passing stream and an old mill.  It was nice to have a break from making camp in wet weather.

The summer Olympics were taking place during this week, across the ocean in Brazil.  But there was no place I wanted to be than here in Sweden for UltraVasan.  Since I learned of this race I felt it was for me.  I wanted to represent the sister city proudly in form and results.  I went out with the pack running hard and strong along the steady uphill of the first few kilometers, taking a different course than the way I hiked in.  The run course followed much of the hiking trail from which I had come, as well as some portions of connecting roads.  We entered the single track and I felt in my element.  There was no reason I couldn’t run with these Europeans.  But with all the excitement I went out too hot, by 15k I was feeling some tweaks in my hams, and by 40k was warding off complete muscle seizures in the backsides of my legs.

A refreshingly restful night behind me, I set out from Axikojan at 8:30.  By 11:00, I had reached Evertsberg and the midpoint of the Vasaloppet trail.  Having traveled with a bag full of dried goods and food from tubes, I was looking forward to a hot meal at the restaurant in Evertsberg.  Unfortunately, it was Monday and the restaurant was closed.  So my time was merely spent passing through.  Evertsberg is one of the larger villages along the trail route.  I got a little turned around with the signage and ended up making a circle and retracing a couple of kilometers.  But soon I found myself on Erikvagen Road and I knew I must be heading in the right direction.  I had regained the trail, and was on my way to Lake Mellansjon and a lakeside cafe where I would eat what I believe to be the best burger of my life.  Who’d have known I’d have to go to Sweden for that?  That night I half regretted not having had a second, but the one gave me a much needed boost after 3 long days of hiking and trail food.  I was rejuvenated for the remainder of that day’s hike to my destination at SundetKojan, my second stay at one of the overnight cabins along the trail, accommodations available exclusively to “Vasaloppsleden wanderers”.  The cabins sleep anywhere from 4 to 12 people, however I had no company for any of my stays.  It seems my trip came just after the Swedish vacation season, during which the cabins may see greater use.  Sweden takes very kindly to wanderers and travelers.  It is a matter of both culture and public policy to make land and nature available for all to use.  The “Swedish Right of Public Access” allows a person to travel over and camp on lands, public or private, pick berries,mushrooms, flowers.  It basically says use good judgment, do not disturb, do not destroy.  Very different from the standards we are used to in America, “the land of the free”.  Having arrived in early afternoon with a nice summer evening to come, I went for a run further up the trail, hoping to get things in tune for the upcoming race.  45 minutes out, I was running hard and fast, my intention to make the return trip that fast or better.  But I kind of burnt up out there, it was hot, and I must have been a little dehydrated from the extensive hiking of the past days.  Walking the last few kilometers back to the lake cabin, I began to reassess my goals and intentions for the race that weekend.

I ran down Erikvagen near the marathon mark of the race and my left hamstring clenched, bringing me to a halt and then a walk.  I still had a long way to go, and my muscles felt like they were on the brink of blowing out.  I stopped and tried to stretch out.  My legs were so tight,  I had to keep moving forward.  And so I did.  It was during this portion that I had the most interesting running hallucinations, or daydreams might be a more accurate description.  I was brought back in my mind to a year earlier.  I was in Leadville, unquestionably one of the true ultra running meccas.  Race founder Ken Chlouber inspired hundreds of us who filled the gym that Friday during the race meeting with his legendary words of encouragement and inspirational figure.   Now, a year later and on the other side of the world, Mr. Chlouber made camp on my left shoulder, inspiring for the time just me.  “What, are you gonna quit?  You didn’t come here to quit.  Yeah, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but you just put your head down and grind to that next aid station.  Dig deep!  There is an untapped well of potential within each and every one of us.  Tap into yours.”  I rode along high on Ken’s words having overtaken my brain, still fighting cramps with every step, but doing so with a half conscious smile pasted on my face instead of a wince.  “Conscience Ken” was helping me through some tough stretches when who popped up on my opposite shoulder but Rocksteady Running race director John Storkamp, just as in a classic Tom and Jerry cartoon.  “Don’t blow it, now.  Superior is no joke, you know.  Do you really want to jeopardize what you worked so hard for back home?”  With Superior set to go in three weeks, it was much on my mind to be healthy coming out of this race.  But I was still trying to perform.  I thought back a few days to the goals I set for this run.      1. Do no damage.  Apply the principles of Sweden’s Right of Public Access to your race.  Run as hard as you wish, but don’t disturb or destroy the machine that’s brought you this far.  There is important work to be done back home in the near future.    2.  Finish the race.  First and foremost.   3.  Medal time.  9 1/2 hours was the stated “medal” time for men in the 90k race.  At the very least I wanted to make that standard.    4.  Break 8 hours.  This might have been a stretch, but I figured it was close to, if not within the range of possibility.  5.  Top 20 finish.  This was most certainly out of my reach, taking into account the strong field of runners, but a guy can’t help from dreaming of a great race.  I would be happy to achieve 3 of the 5 goals, and I was still on track to do that, though it was not going to be real pretty.  “Conscience Ken” and “Conscience John” continued to entertain my mind for the next few kilometers with opposing words of advice; unhindered optimism vs. deliberate caution, overwhelming glory vs. measured respect.  The combination of the two characters helped to find a balance that allowed me to again assume the task on my own.  After they left, I further imagined what their words for me would be come the finish line in Mora; Ken would say, I knew you could do it!, a grin shining across his large face while he gives me a slap on the back, while John would shake his head and say, good job, you might have gotten away with one here, but don’t think that strategy will work at Superior, if I see you anywhere near the front of the pack in Gooseberry Falls….  My mind trailed back to reality.

After another 12 hour sleep I was ready for today’s shorter hike to Tennang.  Making good time and an early arrival, I had some time to relax and enjoy, this being the cream of the cabins, a beautiful wood finished cottage located on a most serene section of the trail.   The blueberry picking was tougher here, as the berries were mostly red.  It wasn’t until the following day that I learned those reds were lingonberries and that the locals actually prefer them over the blues.  After that I picked mostly reds.  My body was tired, and it felt good to have an early finish to the day in a comfortable spot.

We were now past the midpoint of the course, and began to intermix with runners from the 45k race.  I was soon able to fit in better with the pace of those around me.  People were finally walking the uphills, thank goodness, though they were walking upright while I was bent sharply at the waist like a kid in front of a soccer net.  I got along for some time chatting with a Swede named Nicklas.  After a few times back and forth, we eventually parted.  I continued to toe the line of blowout, but the now steady downhill nature of the track allowed me to relax and persevere.  I received a little boost each time I recognized a landmark from my hike.  I felt a special connection to this trail and these places now, something nobody before me has quite exactly experienced.  This was my home.  This race, as it was, was not the one I’d intended to run, but it was mine.

I caught a glimpsing view of a fox crossing the trail 200 yards ahead, shortly after I left the nicest accommodation of my entire trip, save maybe the circus tent.  It was a beautiful morning.  I picked a few wildflowers and pressed them in my Lonely Planet.  Those flowers might have been the only things I failed to divulge to  U.S. customs upon reentry.  Whoops. :O   I felt well rested and ready for a big hike.  The days of backpacking were adding, and I was at my strongest.  It was going to be a great day.  I arrived at Risberg for a rather early lunch.  And good thing because I’d run a little short on water after the previous night.  Water is available at many points along the trail, but the pump at Tennang was not yielding.  It was worth the wait though, because the water at Risberg was Pre-Mi-Um, without a doubt the best on the trail.   I hiked purposefully through Mangsbodarna and on to Smagan.  I stopped to eat outside the overnight cabin there, located along a dirt road with several other cabins that surrounded the lake.  I took a brief peek inside, but it didn’t compare to the last.  I was actually eyeing the yard to possibly set up tent, but I felt overall at an unease.  Thick clouds were moving in as I walked away.  I skipped a startled step as a small snake hissed on the dirt road beneath my feet.  I was unsure about leaving the cabin, but it was in my gut.  Before leaving on this trip, advice given to me by my mother, “if something seems a little off or you’re ever not quite sure about something, just go with your gut” was my mom’s advice.  I thought of this as I walked away from Smagan.  I hiked as far as I could before dark.  Though it looked like it might start raining that whole time, it never did.  I came to the last grilling shelter on the trail.  Besides the overnight cabins, there were also a number of grilling and picnic shelters.  I headed uphill a ways from the shelter and found a spot to pitch tent.

I arrived in Hokberg to another stacked aid station.  The station fare and setup throughout the race was perhaps the most impressive I’ve seen.  With nearly 100 years experience supporting one of the world’s largest ski races, these people know how to support their racers.  The village is surely a sight to behold on any day of the year, but it truly shines on race day.  Shortly after leaving Hokberg was the photography point with a video camera set up with a trellis and vine covered bridge to run over.  The video is probably the coolest digital race swag ever.    I still felt totaled, and badly wanted the experience to be over, I was contemplating going to the airport that night and trying to get an earlier flight.  I was ready to go home.  At least I now was on the homestretch of the race course, as well as my trip.  I began thinking more realistically about the night to come.  My flight was not for another day and a half.  I still had a full day in Mora.  As the kilometers became fewer, I began looking for camping spots on the early part of the trail.  I passed under the highway bridge, again giving consideration to that as an overnight option.  It would be an interesting way to cap off the trip.  So far I’d spent nights on an airplane, tenting at EJC in Holland, under a circus tent, at Amsterdam Central Station, on a night train from Malmo to Stockholm, at a hostel next to the Vasaloppet finish line, in the Swedish woodlands, in cabins along the trail, on a bleacher bench, why not under a bridge.  It had been a slog to get this far, but now I sensed the finish.  My body loosened up and picked up steam, ready to use what was left.

Sleeping with just a thin layer of tent fabric between the ground and my sleeping bag led to some nights of searching for that comfortable position.  At the EJC I battled lumpy sand, excessive moisture, and crying Italian babies.  In other places, pine cones, acorns, and tree roots have been a pain in the rear.  In this present location however, the thick vegetative undergrowth created a billowy mattress.  It almost provided a feeling of weightlessness, as I was held above the ground by layers of bushes and moss.  I awoke early, eager to reach the trail’s beginning.  The grilling shelter was now inhabited by two men, sound asleep in their bags on the ground beneath the shelter.  I passed quietly by them back onto the trail.  The single track was now Superioresque in nature, covered with rocks and roots, accentuated by sharp ups and downs.  Before long though, the trail opened up and I could see down into the wide valley below, where Salen must lie.  Within the hour, I passed by the soccer field and on just further to the trail’s endpoint.  I visited the Vasaloppethuis in Berga and paid for my cabin stays.  Still very early in the day, I then ventured the 5 kilometers further to the town of Salen for shopping, food and drink.

I ran strong now, if still somewhat beaten.  Muscle memory took over as a dose of adrenaline coursed through my veins.  I passed through the campground and continued in full stride up the last few inclines of the day.  I remembered seeing bikers struggle up that last hill in front of the Zorn Museum the week before.  Now on the streets of Mora, only blocks from the finish, I passed by the historic bell tower and large church.  As I hit the final straightaway, I peeked over each of my shoulders, looking for Ken and John.  But they were gone, only ever present in my imagination, and I had since returned to reality.  After post-race Swedish meatballs with traditional fixings and a well-deserved shower, I collected my backpack and set off to the train station.  After purchasing a ticket for the next day, I found my way just across the street to Kristineberg Hotel.  I rented for the night one bunk in a room of eight; all the others in my room had run the race too, with the exception of one Polish worker who I never did meet.  After settling my things, I trekked back across town with my new friend Jan Espen, a Norwegian from Denmark, to the Irish sports bar for more food and libations.

Not normally a fan of sleeping in close proximity to many others, I rested very well that night, too tired not to.  As I left Mora that day on the train en route to Stockholm Arlanda, I was flooded with a sense of accomplishment, of purpose, of fullness.  I was leaving this beautiful, foreign, yet familiar place.  I survived the three weeks away from home.  I got to experience a small slice of life on the other side of the world, and that’s a neat feeling.  I did what I came here to do, and in the process expanded my view of the world and of life.  It was a truly self-enriching experience, however, it wasn’t quite over yet.  Still to come was the endurance battle of travel.  I would arrive to the airport that evening, but my flight from Stockholm-Arlanda to Keflavik was not until the next morning.  So a night in the airport, then fly to Iceland, layover there all day before flying home to MSP.  I was going to finish this thing.