Together with my family I spend the good part of April in South Africa. What a trip it has been.
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When I started this cyberspace chronicle back in 2008, my core inspiration was to update my (sport interested) friends about training and racing. I found it tremendously boring to talk about sports while exercising. The geeky conversational side of the endurance sports scene was never something I appreciated in a dialog with training buddies or friends. Nevertheless, I wanted to read about training, racing and endeavors when I desired info & inspo. The internet blog scene back then was exactly this source – Inspirational, independent, informal and fast. I wanted to contribute my slight share to it. A year later I decided to not only write about racing and training and posted running shoe and equipment reviews as there was not that much material available beside mass participation magazines & expert running shops (which were also sporadic at the time or only sold Asics to each and everyone)
14 years later, not much has changed in my essential motivation to release and write. Only the regularity and amount of my posts. I wrote about this earlier and I won’t do it again. Just scroll and you’ll find the info if you need it.
It happened that I had a lot of time on my hands last Saturday. As I was racing the Nordenskiöldsloppet I also thought about this blog and that I should write more again. Nordenskiöldsloppet was a beast of a competition and shattered me in a way nothing else has ever done before. Since I finished the competition, I received a wide range of messages and phone calls from friends & readers. Last weekend’s contest was a remarkable experience for me. Something that will haunt me for quite a while – emotionally and physically. Sitting down and processing this challenge lyrically will unquestionably help to comprehend what just happened up north and it hopefully will provide some source of information, help and entertainment to whoever is interested in it.
The first time I heard about Nordenskiöldsloppet was a few years ago. Back then skiing was an infrequent weekend interest. I never had snow and consequently slopes close to where I was living. When I skied it was only skating technique and not that much. My motivation to pick up skiing was merely based on being able to compete in the German winter triathlon champs. That was a long while back. Nowadays the younger generation doesn’t even know that such a sport exists. When I moved to Sweden skiing was a valid training option during winter. Vasaloppet has been a competition that I had been eyeing for quite a while and in the first year living in Sweden I did the race on little training and skiing experience. Still, the Nordenskiöldsloppet had been stuck in the back of my mind. Something about this race fascinated me. It was one of those things, that I was planning to do one day. That day came quicker then I thought.
On the ferry back to Stockholm from last year’s Ötillö, Jonathan and I had a loose chat about races that we would like to do one day. Nordenskiöldsloppet came up quick for the two of us. I did not really recall our conversation for too long. But then, some day in October last year, Jonathan texted me out of the blue – a already sold out Nordenskiöldsloppet had opened some slots. He was up for it; I was up for it and what happened then was amazing. Within half of a day, we had another three friends hyped and signed up – Dreamlike.
So, it happened that I jumped into specific Nordic skiing training back in November last year and quickly found a good routine and a lot of inspiration to ramp up the miles. Particularly David and Marcus became reliable and cherished training allies. It was so good to share the anticipation, train and race together. Even the simple fact to have buddies that are willing to wake up at 5 a.m. to go skiing for a few hours is a true gift and something that I highly appreciate. It undoubtedly made the build-up even more enjoyable. Not to mention the whole trip up north. Thanks guys, what a few days we had.
It was time to cash in on all these countless training hours that we had ramped up in the last few months. Some days before the race, the course got alerted to 200 kilometer due to the weather situation up in Lapland (More Info). When we got ready in Jokkmokk the day before the race it started snowing. Something that is not really cherished in Nordic skiing as new snow does make the tracks slow. The snowfall did last during the night and when we made our way to the start line at 03:30 a.m. it was still snowing. As soon as the sun came out the whiteout stopped. Prestart tensions were high as we all grouped in a characteristic Sami marquee by the start line. One of the shuttle busses had been gone off road and the start moved to 05:30 a.m. Together we had lined up in the middle of the field and despite little rush and tension everything went quite smooth. At least ’til Marcus had fixed his ski boot in the binding.
It turned out to be a picture-perfect day. The clouds swiftly moved away and made space for the sun to shine. Before the competition I had gotten some treasured tips from friend Staffan Björklund who had done Nordenskiöldsloppet a few years ago. Unlike other ski races, the tracks were not really arranged or not there at all. As I roughly knew what was coming, it was not a major surprise. But having trained on well set artificial snow tracks for the last few months, it took little time to get used to normal snow and slothful spurs. I also decided to double-pole the whole race using skate skies. I never got contented with classic skies and raced this years Vasaloppet double-poling. That went OK for me. I knew that there was some climbing involved in Nordenskiöldsloppet but I was excited to compete with the equipment I knew.
As a group we had the naïve strategy to stay together as long as possible. This approach got altered pretty much 2 minutes in. The 500+ field spread out quickly and it was David and me who stayed together for the first part. After the first long uphill stretch, I had to let David go and I was by myself. It seems to be a prominent justification amongst skiers to have bad skies. I don’t want to go down that argumentation line, but I even had to push on the downhills. There was not much glide in my skies and that was mentally challenging until I simply accepted it for what it was. But it certainly is something that I need to investigate for next season. The title of this blog quickly came into my head as I got passed by plenty of fellow competitors on a long downhill section after about 2-3 hours. Slow snow, surging topography, fresh snow, slow skies – no gifts were given.
There was not such thing as easing into this one. I focused on constant movement and a good regular food intake. A mix of Maurten gel, Vegetable broth and a popular energy drink brand from Austria was the only thing I took in. To entertain me through the final hours I tried to estimate how much Red Bull I had been drinking. Close to 5 liters was the digit I came up with – Certainly not healthy. I started to eat proper food after about 11 hours when it got cooler and darker. I’m not known to have the best stomach, but I had zero issues with my intake. The aid stations were positioned between 6 and 14 kilometers from each other and I made good use of them. I always stopped and filled up properly. Looking back, that undoubtedly made a massive difference as I passed plenty of people in the last two hours.
To describe the course as challenging is an understatement. Mostly the way out to the turnaround point at 90 kilometer was something else. A long uphill that seemed to never end mixed with technical terrain. Luckily, the weather was picture perfect and it made this part at least a bit enjoyable. When I double poled up the mountain, the leaders were already on their way back. It was kind of comforting to see them struggling with the track as much as I did.
The day went on and ultimately it got darker and colder. At the 140-kilometer checkpoint I changed all my upper body wear to prepare for what I thought was the real horrible part of this race. I catched up with a small group shortly after this checkpoint and together we voyaged into the darkness. About an hour later I lost them on a long uphill and could not catch them again. I was on my own in the middle of the rugged Swedish north. My headlamp worked fine but I developed a certain fear that the batteries might lose their energy. I switched of the lamp off and got a glimpse of the dark. My head now circled around this possible scenario for the next hour. Paired with the lonesomeness of skiing on a frozen lake that was repetitively cracking, it was something else. I surely enjoy it more now, writing about it, then i did back then.
Eventually the 2nd last checkpoint came. I was happy go get some warm food in as I felt super down and empty. With additional energy and a little more rest, I felt ready to tackle the closing 20 kilometers up to Jokkmokk and the finish line. Not only did I receive new battery energy (thanks so the lovely people at the aid station) I also re-claimed enthusiasm and a certain will to life. I never looked back, enjoyed the long uphill that was coming and took the challenging downhill part with a certain portion of comedy. What a crazy race, what a crazy day.
Jokkmokk came and the finish line was clearly perceptible. But still about 5 kilometers away. The last stretch felt unreal, and the finish was as uneventful as it could get. Somebody helped me to take off the skies. I sat down by the fire, grabbed a blanket and my last can of Red Bull and appreciated the quiet and peaceful atmosphere. 17:53:59 later I was done. Done by any means.
In late 2019 I signed up for the introductory Ironman in Nur-Sultan. What happened in the meanwhile is well known. The 2020 competition got withdrawn and the 2021 version was a write-off as well. For security motives I had been swayed by dear friend Rob Cummins to sign up for the fabled Hardman Triathlon in the south of Ireland. A race that I have been following since a while in an area that I was training and racing in while living on the emerald island. As I organized my travels, I found out that a trip to Ireland is not possible without the second shot. A shot that I hadn’t been given back then. I wanted to race but i was not keen on travelling far, so that left me with three probable race-picks close to home – Tallinn, Copenhagen or Gdynia. The polish coastal city of Gdynia rapidly became the preferred destination due to the easy approachability from Stockholm. Four weeks prior to the competition I further ramped up the training and got myself physically and mentally polished up (…nice wordplay, right?!)
It is nice to have big Ironman events in a smallish towns like Gdynia. The entire place seemed to be behind the event and with some other races during Friday, Saturday and Sunday it was a great vibe in the whole city. The weather prediction looked wonderful. Rain and slight winds were on the outlook. Conditions that I prefer over warmth and sun. Sunday came and so did the race start by the local sand beach.
The rolling beach start is amazing: The first time that I experienced something like this. It took away a lot of stress and assisted me to a good start. I swam fairly hard until the first buoy that was placed about 400 meters out in the sea. Waves, little wind and slight rain weren’t too bad for me and my swimming capabilities. Also, the Australian exit after about 1.500 meter was enjoyable with the crowds lining up at the shore. Virtually all the course I swam by myself. When I finally exited the water, they told me that I’m 5th in my age group and 30th overall. As swimming is undoubtedly not my strongest part, I was highly stunned by myself. Hearing my actual swim time of little over 1 hour made it pretty apparent that the course was longer than the classic 3,8 kilometers. I played it cool and took my time in the transition zone. As more rain and heavier wind came up, I decided to go with a bike jersey and long gloves. Riding out of town I was by myself. One or two guys overtook me after a couple of minutes but then I was all by myself on the bike course.
Some really nice, newly paved roads and a couple of really bouncy polish country roads later, it began. Pulks of fellow triathletes overtook me. A lot of people had warned me, but to see it firsthand was quite unsatisfying. The drafting and group riding were intense, and I was astounded by all the activities. Swimming fast in an Ironman surely does not help when you ride a bike like I did. And that is the assumption from the second discipline of the day. I must ride harder and faster or stop swimming. I tried to stay optimistic, took in my nutrition and made sure to ride on. I was looking forward to the marathon and tried to use the gathered annoyance for the forthcoming marathon.
When I came back into Gdynia, the sun was out, and I was really looking forward to assembling the Gruppetto. Transition was unspectacular and the legs felt good. I tried to relax myself and find my rhythm. This went well until about kilometer 10. When I tried to take in another gel, my stomach closed down and cramped. I continued to fuel it, but I had to alter to walking mode. I entered the local park for a quick number two stop, but my stomach didn’t like that either. I jogwalked until the half marathon mark but when I couldn’t stand up anymore and I didn’t have the mental strength to walk home a marathon.
The race doctor was stunned by the severeness of my cramps and had to use two doses of drips to loosen up my lower body. It took me quite a while to get over this DNF. Not the first one due to stomach contractions. I felt like a fool after all the training and groundwork that I had been putting into this one.
This Ironman taught me many valuable lessons but primarily I need to get my stomach in check before I can plan on the next adventure.
Tune of the day: Baba Ali – Got An Idea
Sometimes it gives the impression that not too much has happened this last year. Notwithstanding, the time undoubtedly passed away quickly. Though I hate the term “the new normal”, it feels strange that in comparably monotonous times, the time is essentially moving pretty fast. At least that is what it feels like to me. And so, it did since the last time I sat down to reassess the past twelve months. Despite the fact that the Corona ponderings are not getting quieter, I’m certainly over it.
That doesn’t mean that I do not respect and treat it seriously, I mean it is more important than ever to continue and focus on what’s right in front. And whereas a lot of people seem to fight with a limited lifestyle we still have to retell ourselves that the most people who read this chunk of internet, are in a fortunate position and probably haven’t had to deal with much restrictiveness in life. Essentially that is a good thing and somewhat that we need to retell ourselves and focus on positives. Although it now and then seems to hard to find, it is still there. That doesn’t mean that I do not respect and treat it seriously, I mean it is more important than ever to continue and focus on what’s right in front. And whereas a lot of people seem to fight with a limited lifestyle we still have to retell ourselves that the most people who read this chunk of internet, are in a fortunate position and probably haven’t had to deal with much restrictiveness in life. Essentially that is a good thing and somewhat that we need to retell ourselves and focus on positives. Although it now and then seems to hard to find, it is still there.
To reflect and prompt myself on what has occurred I try to reflect on my sporting happenings once a year. Like inscribed previously, I used to do that recurrently but with less time on hand one post per year need to do. And this is the one.
Number 1 – ÖTILLÖ SwimRun Catalina
Earlier than ever I got sucked into the racing spell with the first ÖtillÖ competition in America on Catalina Island. What feels like luck now, was just one big coincidence. I wrote a bigger blog about the race in California which can be found HERE. My family and I were fortunate to get one of the last planes out of Los Angeles before the first big shut down set in. Robin and I couldn’t take part in the Ötillö World Champs for apparent reasons. The week after she knew that it is impossible to travel over to Sweden from the US, the competition got cancelled. First time in history.
Then the big Corona break set in. Not so much in Sweden as the country chose to take a more liberal take on the whole thing. But still most races got cancelled and that meant that there was a lot of training on the schedule. That wasn’t too bad, and it appears that I never really lost inspiration. We organized some unsanctioned 5.000 and 10.000 club champs on the local track to keep things candid and daily training went on as normal.
Number 2 – YO Super Sprint Triathlon
As a group we even managed to get some triathlon action going. On a gorgeous summer evening in Stockholm we went back to the triathlon origins and organized a fun little encounter. Great fun with a pleasant hang out afterwards. Some images by Henrik Kindgren can be found HERE.
Number 3 – Langholmen Swimrun
With an inventive and senseful concept, it was one of my favorite races that managed to get a permission to go ahead. Creativity harmonizing with some eagerness goes a long way and a brilliant race was set up. While the long-distance event had to be annulled the sprint distance was set. I raced two heats with Ebba and Johan, and it was remarkable to put on a bib and have fun. Some more words and pictures can be seen HERE.
Number 4 – Åre Fjällmaraton
With the summer sun serving to keep the Corona spread to a minimum and one more creative race organizer another iconic competition in the Swedish calendar was about to go ahead. What seemed to be a bit of a mystery show before the race, played out to be a wonderful day up in Åre with a bunch of great friends. My boludo Mauri made sure we all got a slot for this one and we certainly enjoyed this trail rollercoaster around Jämtland.
Number 5 – YO DIY Half Marathon
It all started with a hasty conversation during a training jog. Now and then you just need to set up your own reality and, in our case, that was some sort of contest. It doesn’t take much, but it takes some keen people and power to organize something like this. Hallbäck scouted a flat loop and we organized what needed to be prepared. Set up three start groups to keep it Covid safe and gave our people a clear goal in the calendar. A half marathon at the start of December. It turned out to be a heck of an happening that left some informal PBs and keenness to continue with self-made racing.
Number 6 – Stockholm Virtual Rogaining
Looking back this was a super fun day out with Fredrik Axegård. But we need to confess that both of us are no orienteers and we also do not like to read a race manual. Still some fun to try something new and get the hands on an orienteering map for a long and sluggish day on good-looking trails around South Stockholm!
All over this ambiguous year the sport gave me so much and I’m completely grateful for that. No lack of motivation and plenty of inspiration through friends or simply checking Strava made sure that I kept grinding. Looking back, this makes me happy and just shows me how much this simple endurance sport bustle means to me.
After years of running and swimrunning, I wanted to take on the Ironman distance once more in 2020. I signed up for the inaugural Ironman in Kazakhstan in November last year but the competition as most of the other races got annulled. When the organizers finally called it a day, I didn’t feel any disappointment and happily took the slot for the 2021 race on the 15th of August. I still enjoy the process of getting fitter and heathier. Will there be a race in Nur Sultan next year? Who knows? Will there be plenty of training and adventures. That’s for sure. Its nice to keep and build fitness. Though it is nice to have a goal to train for it is also enjoyable to just advance and learn on a daily basis. That is what this year showed me straight forward.
Onto the next one.
It is the end of a weird and uncommon year.
A lot has transformed and things possibly won’t be the same again. Well, some things undoubtedly do never change. It’s exercise in fresh air alone or with good friends. At least in the last couple of demanding months, this has been a life saver to some. Also, for me.
Crushing and chatting away on my childhood paths in southern Germany feels virtuous and at least it is some sort of consistency in these December times.
Stay healthy, stay sane!
When German Triathlon legend Timo Bracht initiated to link some of the finest local trails, nobody could tell how fast this little project would catch the attention of hikers, bikers and runners alike. A 126 kilometer footpath with an elevation of 3.127 meters that follows the river Neckar through the southern foothills of the hilly Odenwald area, was what got plotted out and marked accordingly. Since then the Neckarsteig trail is known locally and nationwide. In 2018 the trail got promoted to “most beautiful hiking trail in Germany”.
This part of the Neckar gorge is frankly unique and the waterway curves nicely through this romantic part of the vale. Historic castles and timeworn villages plaster the way amongst pristine trails in the dense and lust woodland. A wide-ranging path where I personally spend a lot of hours running and biking.
The Neckarsteig trail is laid out to be nine stages long, constantly linking to local train stations to create user-friendliness. Until now, the track has seen some proper runs but just recently 27 years old Frenchman Pierre-Emmanuel Alexandre crushed the exiting FKT (Fastest Known Time) down to an unbelievable 12:05:51 Minutes when he undertook the trail from Bad Wimpfen back to the iconic Heidelberg Castle.
I catched up with Pierre-Emmanuel to find out more about himself and this effort.
Q: Give us a little rundown on your sporting career and how you ended up running off-road?
Quite early on I started playing football with my brother. We played in our garden and with a small team in our village. I played football with this club until I was 15 years old.
After that I discovered cross-country running as I watching my brother during some competitions. He inspired me, so I tested and I started to run alone at the start. At that point I joined an athletic club in Angers, in the west of France. I started with the traditional stuff that you do in an athletic club. That meant that I was racing 1500, 3000, Cross country etc. It happened that I won the French high school championships in the 3000 steeplechase.
With 20 I moved to Strasbourg to study chemistry at an engineering school and I think in 2015 I ran my first 9 km trail race in the Vosges mountains. Then I moved to Frankfurt and spend my time running in the Taunus region. Eventually I started to run longer. I made some private excursions as I wanted to discover new places as fast as possible.
My first noteworthy victory was at the Trail Marathon in Heidelberg in 2017. It was also my very first race over that distance. I had an amazing day and managed to beat the highly decorated runner Flo Neuschwander… Pouahh.
Then I ran more and more trail competitions and won some races around Heidelberg and in the French Vosges area (Trail du Haut-Koenigsburg, Joker trail, ZUT basetrail XL) and some more… This helped me to score a Salomon Germany sponsorship deal in 2020.
Q: When was the first time you heard about the Neckarsteig Trail?
I think in autumn 2017. Some months after I arrived in Heidelberg. But at that point I never had plans on running this trail. With my girlfriend I hiked the first part of the trail from Heidelberg to Ziegelhausen. At that time ultra-running was a complete new world to me. The longest I had ran was the Heidelberg trail marathon that same year.
Q: You set an remarkable new FKT on the Bad Wimpfen to Heidelberg direction. What was the reason to run this way and will you try to approach the FKT correspondingly in the other direction? In your opinion, what is the quicker route?
I wanted to finish in Heidelberg. This city means a lot to me. I spent the last 3,5 years in Heidelberg working on my PhD. I really fell in love with the city and the forest around the old town. Moreover I knew that I could get more support if I finished in Heidelberg because most of my friends live there and it was easier for them to join me on the route rather than travelling to Bad Wimpfen.
On the Bad Wimpfen to Heidelberg direction you get most of the altitude meters at the end. I think there are 1000m+ during the last 20k. At first you would think that it is harder to run in this direction. Most of the hiking groups in fact start from Heidelberg. But I am happy with my choice. I don’t think I would have been much faster on the other way. Somehow I managed to save my energy on the first part of the track and kept something in the tank for the most beautiful part, from my point of view. Even if there are plenty of beautiful places on the first part, for example the Margarethenschlucht.
Q: In the preparation of the FKT attempt, how much time did you put into the logistical preparation and specific training on the course?
Quite a lot actually. I spend a lot of time organizing my food, checking where I can plan the water stations. I checked the track mostly on a GPS app because I didn’t have the time to run all the parts. I knew the last 20k but that was it. I didn’t train more than usually. I might have done some longer and slower runs but I still only ran 80k a weeks in average.
Q: Which part of the route is the toughest in your opinion?
The long loop between Neckargerach and Neunkirchen was quite unpleasant for me because this part is flat and kind of boring. Moreover I ran this part before my first big break (~10min). With 19k this was the longest part without an aid-station. When I approached this part the sun was quite strong and there was not much shadow where I could hide.
Q: Besides the obvious challenges (distances and climbing) what were the biggest difficulties for you along the way?
Definitely the heat. But this is always my problem. I have to drink a lot and get enough electrolytes to avoid cramps.
Q: What material did you use and why? How often did you change shoes?
As an Salomon athlete I only used their products and I love them. I wore a Slab T-shirt and shorts. The Sense Ride 3 was my shoe for the first 60k and the Slab Ultra 2 for the second part. I only changed my shoe once but I would do it more often if I run another Ultra. Furthermore I used the Leki Micro RCM poles.
Q: MC Solaar, Suprême NTM or IAM?
Haha actually I don’t listen to this kind of music. Paul K, Klingande or Petit Biscuit is more my style. I think I was also too young when they were popular. But if I had to choose I would say IAM – Petit Frère 😉