Who put the F in the Big G?
Are you Tough Enough?
It had been a long time coming and some preparation. One year to be precise and some 2500km skiing/rollerskiing in which 37000 m had been climbed and 166000 calories burned. So this week wasn’t really the time to chicken out of what is the worlds toughest ski race, the 90km Grenaderen. Mentally and physically there had been doubts. VMjarl had once again stiffed the weather prediction forecasting -18 to -15C, enough to put severe doubts into the minds of most but the toughest/stupidest of skiers. Furthermore the body was dredging up ailments and complaints from yesteryear. The thigh strain gained from fell running in October was mysteriously back, rollerski elbow was playing up (blunt poles on tarmac) and the meniscus in my right knee was suddenly giving me some serious jip, enough for Mrs Engelski to ask why I was limping. Although my body was doing it’s best to mentally wreck my goal it was also exhibiting bipolar tendencies. Subconsiously brain had instructed stomach to eat like a horse all week, just in case the body couldn’t force me to wimp out.
In Fear of Fear
I wasn’t the only one umming and erring about starting. A number of my comrades were experiencing similar quandaries. Elvis had been muttering something about a sore throat and was in two minds whether to sign up at the last minute. I bumped into him in Milslukern as I was registering for the race with barely a couple of hours to go before the registration deadline expired. He’d done well last year in extreme conditions, but appeared scarred after making his own tracks in a blizzard and being close to frost bite. VMjarls’ weather forecast was hardly a help as it presumably afforded flashbacks. I registered, left Elvis to it and disappeared home to prep skis, not really sure whether he was going to bite the bullet or not.
The Grenader is a 90 km XC ski race from Hakadal, North of Oslo, to Asker, way out West of Oslo.
It is known as the worlds hardest XC ski race with some 1900m of incline to be conquered. So just why would mad Norwegians and 1 stupid Brit want to put themselves through such an ordeal to get from Hakadal to Asker, a trip which would normally take 50 min by car?
A Historical Perspective
In 1716 Karl XII of Sweden was on a rampant march through Norway. His army had set up base camp at Hakadal. A local worker overheard the Swedish army’s plans to march forth to Lier and do over the Norwegians at the Gjellebeck defence. A soldier (Grenader) was sent from Hakadal with the task of getting to Lier to alert the Norwegian troops and prepare them for impending battle. Without prepared tracks, V30 ski wax, Cera F glider and coffee/cola, the brave Grenader made the 90km trip to tip off the Norwegian troops so that they could ward off and stop the advancement of the 1000 Swedish troops. The soldier completed the trip in a time of 27 hours. In his honour the Grenaderløp ski race was inaugurated in 1969 encountering pretty much the same route. As the race roll-call tends to show, it attracts only the hard-knocks of the skiing world, the calibre of which is extremely high.
Preparations in the immediate advance of big races are far from straight forward. On Tuesday I finally discovered why my stash of energy bars had been continuously disappearing when I found a mound of wrappers hidden not so discretely behind the fish tank. It transpired that my oldest son had been having a little 500 calorie glucose snack every day on getting home from school. At least this explained the lack of homework and why he had been bouncing off the walls. With that I could also cancel the prescription for Ritalin & stock up on more energy bar supplies. At least this trauma was resolved on time, unlike the time when the Polish cleaner mistakenly used my ski wax iron to iron my work shirts! I’m sure my work colleagues must have been impressed with shirts prepped with LF6 possessing a particular gloss to them being remarkably water repellant and wrinkle free. Please note the Polish cleaner is no more.
Early to Rise Early to Shine
Skis had been prepped (cheapskate LF6 glider, V30 wax) and at least conditions would be stable so that wouldn’t be an issue.
However, there was the problem of getting from home to Hakadal, and then from Asker to home after the race. I opted to drive and park my car at Asker and take the bus from Asker to Hakadal. However, this meant getting up at an unfeasibly ridiculous time. I thought rather optimistically that with eye blinds and ear protection I’d be able to get some shut-eye on the bus on the way to Hakadal. However, one rather adrenalin fuelled skier couldn’t resist informing his comrade, and indeed the whole bus, of his earlier Grenader exploits. We arrived in Hakadal at sometime around 6 am with tails of the 1975 Grenader race still ringing in my ears.
The temp was a stable -13C and I was fortunate to be on the first bus in. This meant a comfy spot in the waiting room at Hakadal train station and avoidance of a long wait in the queue for the solitary loo before all the other buses came in. It also gave an opportunity to tuck into some serious calories without losing any heat. 3 packets of Quakers porridge (“Your hearts desire”) & 1000 calories was my recipe for slow release carbs.
Whilst in the waiting room I met up with some of the Bakery Boys, Remi, Andre, Marius & Mr Kondis. Since, I last trained with them team 2 must have really ramped it up a notch. Many of them are in training for Norseman (jump from a ferry into a cold fjord at 3 am, swim 4km, get on a bike cycle 180 km, then run a marathon uphill escalating 1900 m!) so were taking the Grenader as a gentle warm up. Like myself Andre was a Grenader virgin whilst remi & Marius(?) had completed the race once earlier. They were in good spirits and I left them in the queue for the loos to go and check out the start area and test skis.
On your Marks…
A nice atmospheric walk had been prepared up to the starting zone by Nittedal Banquet Racers & co. The organising committee had done a great job in marking out the path by candle light in the dark, and were also doing a stupendous job over the tannoy in pissing off the neighbours expecting a lie in on the first day of Winter vacation.
I looked around for knowns in the starting committee & starting field, but found none. Maybe Christian had slept in (unlikely with the tannoy blaring at 110 decibels). Perhaps Elvis and Rode-Grim had bottled it and chickened out at the last minute. I tested my skis and was reasonably satisified. Glide wasn’t great, but it was -12c after all. I could have done with another thin layer of grip wax, but opted to focus on technique and retain whatever glide I had. So with that I chucked my bag in the truck to be transported to the finish and made my way to the start just as dawn was about to break.
Three waves of skiers were lined up on the plain before the starting line. With 90km and 1900m of incline to be conquered it was going to be difficult to predict how the body was going to react. My plan was to open carefully, refuel aplenty and to focus on technique and economy. This meant blocking out the other runners & riders and I opted to start from the back of wave 3, not a smart move in retrospect. When the time came to start nothing happened. I checked my GPS for the time, yet still no starting pistol. After waiting what seemed like ages the earie silence was pierced by a slow shuffling sound and I could see in the distance a wave of skiers moving off. “No starting pistol?” I thought slowly advancing to the starting line. However, the clock was ticking and without a starting mat to trigger automatic time keeping the 40 seconds that it took to get there was going to cost me dear.
The Grenader Trail
It is said that anyone that wants to be a serious skier should do the Grenader. I would also state that anyone that is glad in the great outdoors and has a love of fantastic scenery should also do it, with or without the stopwatch. The Grenader trail brings out Nordmarka at its best. The terrain is varied with some vast lakes spanning out and down into valleys below. There are some great view points offering magnificent views over the forest and valleys along the way. Furthermore, en-route one passes through the famous old cabins still in service today, Kikut & Løvlia being the most famous situated at the highest points in Nordmarka. For ski afficionados the route takes in the old Holmenkollmarsjen trase, the new Holmenkollen skimarathon (sic) route, Vestergyllen, Tolver’n and Vestmarkrunden and is a great way to take in the challenges of the terrain with some steep gradients and tight bends. For Vasaloppet (Sweden)/Marcialonga (Italy) fans there isn’t a lot of double poling to be done on the Grenader trail, sufficient to give rise to it being the hardest XC ski race on the planet.
The opening 10 km turned out to be a long procession. With only 3 tracks to squeeze in 750 skiers it was always going to be a crush. The pace was frustratingly slow, but I knew that I had to keep control of the urge to race up to Trehørningen. I was with Mr TUB2 for the opening couple of km. He was also taking it easy and we chatted about the Vasa and other stuff whilst our pulses remained low. Eventually Andre’s patience subsided and he made a break through the masses. I didn’t see Andre again for another 8 hours by which time we had opposing experiences to share.
At Trehørningen I was taken down by Mr Wipeout. Wipeout mysteriously collapsed in front of me. My momentum forced me to run over him with me cursing and doing my best not to impale him with my poles. Not a word, nor apology was received and I could count myself lucky that I hadn’t bust a pole on the prone Mr Wipeout’s cranium. After a climb of 220m, at Gørja the traffic started to ease as the skiers started to group and stretch out. Gørja is the first of an important milestone, the 10 km mark. The Grenaderen differs from all other ski races in counting distance in blocks of 10 km, whilst all other races gingerly count down in 1,2 or 5 km. Only 80 km to go, just under two marathons. From Gørja a gentle descent, a quick hello and whizz by to Mr Kondis, and then onto Helgeren and Bjørnsjøen before the first refuelling stop at Kikut. I checked the GPS. 1h 45m for the first 17km, albeit much uphill, was not going to set the world alight now was it.
I had opted to eat and drink at every opportunity and also gone for a belt and braces approach. With only two layers (super thermals & racing suit) I’d opted to ski with a now, for the first time in the Grenaders’ 35 years, voluntary lightweight ruck sack. The ruck sack was stuffed to the hilt with spare training attire, gloves, mittens, sandwiches, energy gels, waxes and all other kinds of unnecessary junk in case of a blizzard. With no sign of a storm in sight and no need to baton down the hatches, the ruck sack was superfluous for all but the regular glucose top up from the energy gels. Going thin on the clothing front was probably not such a wise move in minus double digit Celsius and this was demonstrated by regular stops for incontinence at each pit stop.
Out of Kikut the trail continued through Fyllingen, past the 20km mark, and onto Langlia. Flashbacks were present as disturbing images were recalled from the Holmenkollen skimarathon (sic). As I’d crossed Langlia in the opposite direction my mood had ebbed and flowed as left brain (logic) had battled with right brain (awareness) in a stop-go-stop-go-stop physical and mental breakdown. Kveldsrostjern to Langlia in this direction is a breeze and some downhill afforded a chance for a brief respite before the long climb to Løvlia. It also afforded a glimpse of some spectacular scenery down the Langlia valley, but only a glimpse mind as speed begins to pick up on the downhill stretch. From here 170m of incline was negotiated and the 30km mark reached. Pit stop nummer two at Storflåtan was just round the corner and with 33 km breached, only the equivalent of the new Holmenkollen skimarathon (57km) remained. Piece of cake. However, I’d taken almost 3 hours to get this far.
Milliarium Aureum or all Roads Lead to Løvlia
Since Gørja their had been regular signpostings for Løvlia and an unofficial countdown of distance to the golden milestone. Whilst Løvlia is not quite half-way it represents the highest point of the Grenader race. However, the signposts were beginning to get rather annoying as instead of counting down they would occasionally stick at the same distance or even increase distance to Løvlia instead of reducing. Obviously there were many routes to Løvlia, but it appeared that we were taking the most laborious. Another 130m of incline past Bleiksjøen and Atjern meant that the final stretch to Løvlia was in sight. However, at regular intervals their were signposts stipulating that Løvlia was only 4.5km away. No matter how close we got to the immediate target the distance remained the same. This also held true for some time after having passed Løvlia. Weird!
From Storflåtan onwards I’d managed to check in with a group around my pace. The group composed of the Lady in Red, the Grape (woman in purple), an annoying bearded clacker (descriptive of really bad timing on technique), Wipeout and Beret, a professorial looking geezer with a maroon hat. On the uphill stretches it was no problem to keep apace with the group. However, on the flat or slight ascents I would accelerate away with double pole/kick to build a commanding lead. This lead never lasted long during the duration of the race as numerous incontinence stops or de-icing stops, to remove ice from the base of my poles after crossing lakes, held me back. Løvlia was reached in a time of 3h 40m. There was much work to do if I was to break through my pre-race goal of 7h 30min.
A quick sandwich at the Løvlia pit stop and within a couple of km we had reached the 40km mark. Only 50km to go! From 41km, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy on the descent to Fjellsetra and beyond. This stretch was just what the doctor ordered as many skiers started to struggle from Løvlia onwards. I was doing fine and in no fear of hitting the wall.
The 50km mark brought with it a savage short climb. Time to sort out the wheat from the chaff. 3 more clicks and we rolled into Kleivstua with the possibility of some warm shelter if required. Kleivstua was reached in a time of approx 5h, leaving an almost impossible task to meet the goal of 7.5h for the race. What the hell! Time for some coffee/cola mix (as recommended by 8 out of 10 private dentists) to pep things up a bit.
Waffle City not! Kleivstua-Sollihøgda
Vestmarka is an area that I am particularly fond of. It’s generally a guarantee for snow early on in the season and the first month of training generally takes place out here. On reaching Kleivstua this felt like home territory. It really makes a big mental difference when you feel you know the terrain. Sørstra was reached in what seemed no time and the treck onward to Sollihøgda and past the 60k mark was straightforward, double poling with kick doing the business to keep up the pace. Sollihøgda should have really been waffle city. Much had been made of the fact that the penultimate pit stop had a waffle iron in continuous production for ravenous, burnt-out skiers. However, it had transpired that Elvis had hit the wall an hour or so earlier and totally cleaned out the pit stop of waffles. I made do with some energy gel and coffee/cola mix to reinvigorate me for the last 24k. Time at Sollihøgda: 6h 08min and time to get the skates on. There was now a real danger that I might not even break through the 8 hour mark.
It wasn’t just the waffles that were rapidly disappearing from Sollihøgda onwards. The km were also getting eaten up too. 70km was attained before the last serious challenge of Haveråsen. We were now in Vestergyllen/Vestmarkrunden territory and Mikkelsbonn was welcomed via Burås like an old friend.
The incline of Haveråsen didn’t prove to be so problematic and some sporadic downhill meant that a good pace was kept when needed. I was still going to have to go some to break the 8 hour mark, but fortunately there appeared to be reserves in supply. The final pit stop at Sandungen was reached with the clock registering 7h 23m. There was no time to wait. The last 10km had to be gunned in 36m to break the 8 hour barriers.
All the stops were pulled out during the last 10km. A 250m descent was a big help and I double poled like a mad man. I called to a young lad, nicknamed by me as Alpaca (c’os he had a funny hat made from llamas), for help as we left Sandungen. I said that we had to break the 8h mark and that we had to gun it. Obligingly we alternated leading the way, gradually increasing the pace towards the 85km mark. We were now approaching civilisation after almost 8 hours in the wilderness in temperatures below minus double digits. Almost 7000 calories had been burnt, but yet still there was more fuel in the tank for the final push. At 85km the time read 7h 43min. Shit! 17 min for the last 5k seemed unrealistic. More encouragement was given to Alpaca to bust a gut. As we reached Semsvannet I realised that the lake could be the final spanner in the works. Warnings in advance of water on the surface had proved to be negative, however there was always the danger of more icing problems on the poles. Fortunately this didn’t prove to be the case and I double poled like Northug in the final 250m of a World Cup sprint across Semsvannet. Alpaca was left well and truly parked, or so I thought. With 1km the final hill stood in our way. Alpaca battled back and did for me on the hill. Not too worry. With 500m left I still had 2 min in the bank, although panic began to set in. The finishing line was in sight, Alpaca was already there, and I had to dig out the last of my reserves in the final 200m. I let out a huge roar and received substantial support from the flocking masses (yeh right!) as I crossed the finishing line. A brief glance at the GPS: 7h 59m 54s. A couple of old timers gathered round and congratulated me on my performance and on breaking through the 8h barrier. What perfect timing…..or so I thought.
A Royal Welcome…Not
The finishing post was at Jansløkka, school of Princess Ingrid Aleksandra. After having reconstructed the 1716 Grenader I’d hoped her mum, Princess Mette Marit would be on hand to cheer me in and hand over the prestigious Grenader medal. After all this was no mean feat, it’s not everyday that one gets to save the local population from 1000 marauding Swedes. Disappointingly she stood me up.
In the changing rooms I met up with Bakery Boys, Remi, Andre and Marius. Marius and Remi had had a good race and were in spritely form. I had a surprising amount of energy remaining and was actually a little disappointed that I hadn’t been able to take out everything. Marius rubbed it in, correctly pointing out that one hadn’t really been in a race if one hadn’t puked or at least wretched at the finishing line. Checking my pulse stats, I’d hardly gotten above zone 3! Maybe he was right.
On the other hand Andre had had a tough time. On reaching Løvlia he’d hit the wall with still more than 5okm to go. With his head full of negative thoughts for the remainder of the journey, he’d done a commendable job to get to the finish. No doubt great preparation for the Norseman I should think.