Posted by: Bruce Duncan | October 7, 2009

Explore Sweden – The Monster

Here is my un edited report on the Sweden Race we did in July.

1069km of Mountain biking, Inline Skating, Kayaking, Trekking, Orienteering, Swimming, Canoeing, White Water Rafting.

Months ago we decided to race in Explore Sweden, the longest Adventure Race in the world.  It was billing itself as ‘The Monster’ so we knew we were in for a tough ride, but that was all months away, plenty of time to train and prepare, it’ll be fine we thought.

As soon as we knew it, it was on us, breathing down our necks, time had come for us to head out to Sundsvall in North Sweden to take on the race Mikael Nordstrom had set.

First we had to get there, with a lot of kit needed for the event we decided to drive a van out from the UK, John Laughlin (JB), Marty Lee and I took on this task, and over 3 days of driving we made it to the race hotel.  It was a long journey, but we were fresh, could rotate the driving and the roads were clear.  Nicola MacLeod, Nick Gracie and Nicola Wiseman flew out to meet us there.  Being a supported race we had 2 able bodies to look after our every whim, neither Marty nor Nicola W had done anything like this, so they were in for a shock.

Many people ask me why I do these events, and at times its hard to explain, but when you are standing on the start line of a huge race like this, with 80 other top athletes, knowing you are about to race for 5 days non stop with little sleep, to fall asleep on your bike, have your team mates shout at you, be in terrible pain, be very cold and hungry, it kind of feels good.  Where else could you get that feeling, to push yourself to the limit, to see what your body is capable of doing, all the while with 3 great friends, I think that’s why I do it, but I often question myself mid race as to why I’m not sat on a sofa playing computer games!

There were the usual pre race kit checks for all teams, this was carried out in the centre of town under a very hot sun, everyone was worried it would be this hot during the race causing us all to struggle.  The pre race briefing was held and the race director told us we were in for the ride of our lives, it was going to be really tough, he had pulled out all the stops on this one.

Friday was another hot day, and with teams stood around for an hour before the start for the parade and introduction, every bit of shade was being sought.  At 10minutes to go we got the maps for the first section, so after a quick check of what we were doing we were off and running to the first control, and the start of the uphill inline skate section.  Sadly it was mandatory for us to wear the skates all the way up the hill, and due to this we were dead last, not really the start we wanted, but the start we expected.  The Scandinavians were flying up the hill in supreme fashion, and we could only look on in awe as they eased into a big lead.

A short orienteering section followed, getting back to town not quite in last place was good, then it was a roof top traverse, with some great views over the city.  A longer orienteering loop followed heading into some technical terrain, followed by a run to the harbour and swim across the mouth and back to the main transition.  My flippers got broken here, and I handed them over to Marty who did an awesome job of mending them for the next section.

Setting off on the first bike section, a 100km loop we were going well, in touch with a number of teams, but then John was sick, too much fluid consumed in the heat and it all came back, followed by some bad cramp, but then we were off, all feeling ok and getting through the section.  We were still way down the leader board, but feeling not too bad about it, we still had almost 900km to go!

The 2nd inline skate section was a simple mainly downhill road, again we were very slow, with little confidence in our ability, and the knowledge that if we fell we could really hurt ourselves.  With that over it was a short swim across a marsh and river into Mid Adventure, a wee adventure playground type place, with ropes course, water slide, running track and some pumping tunes coming out from the party tent, all in all a pretty cool atmosphere.

With this out of the way it was back onto the bikes for the first Monster Bike 250km on the bike.  The navigation was very easy, and the road surfaces were good, so it was just a case of churning out the distance.  We started the section at midnight, so we had the tiredness feeling of the first nights missed sleep, but we pushed on as hard as we could while it was nice and cool.  We had a few wee rests, 15minutes maximum to get some sleep, but kept the pace going the rest of the time.  Sadly I was having a bad day on the bike, there seemed to be nothing in my legs, I had a hollow feeling and couldn’t seem to put down any power as we rode along.  This was not a good time for this to happen as it made the ride really long.  The ride wasn’t very interesting, we rode past some nice lakes, through a lot of trees, and then at the end we had a lot of climb, it was a tough last few hours, and the transition was at the top of the steepest hill.  It was only when we crested this that we could actually see into the mountains and what lay ahead.

We had been racing for over 24hours at this point, so we quickly put our heads down for 45mins of sleep, slightly refreshed we donned mountain kit and heavy bags and yomped off into the 60km mountain stage, glad to not be sitting down!

The sun was beating down on us, and with no shade it was going to be a tough section.  A wee rest at the Helags Hytte almost saw me stop, they were serving an amazing buffet, and I was very tempted!  But we pushed on up the mountain, not taking the best route sadly as I misinterpreted where the checkpoint had moved to.  We were due to do an ice climb up a gully, but it had been cancelled due to rock falls minutes before Lundhags had been due to ascend, a very close call.

The wee glacier walk we did have was fun, but turned out we didn’t really need our big boots, and as a consequence of everyone else doing it in trainers we were a bit slower, and had to carry them the whole way too.  After the glacier we ran well to the next cp, overtaking a number of teams, this is where our race really got going, sitting in 17th place we steadily overtook teams for the next few days.

Climbing up to the next ridge was tough going and the mosquitos were incessant, but once up onto the snow it was ok.  The sun had set and the sky was amazing, (light really wasn’t an issue in this race, I think I used my head torch once in 5 days), and as we reached the next cp we were told to rope up for a long ridge line section, it was a tough climb but then the views we were rewarded with were simply stunning, soon after the clouds rolled in, making navigation tricky on a ridge line with many spurs leading off, but when the clouds cleared we were given even more stunning views.

After a number of hours of the ridge, we had to drop back to the valley, this was either to be tip toeing over many rocks, or sitting on bums and sliding down a huge snow bowl and using our ice axe as a brake!

A long trek to transition followed; with the sun still beating down it toasted John, who had to call in the favour of pushing me the day before, so with JB on tow we pushed out of the stage to get to cool water as soon as possible.

The cycle stage from here was really rough, small fist sized gravel made for tricky riding, and drafting, flicking stones up into following faces.  After 10km the gravel turned into brand new tarmac, the smoothest road in the whole race, for a fantastic downhill clocking a speed of 65km/h.

We pushed hard on this stage as we knew we had a sleep card of 8hours coming up at the next transition.  Our superb support crew already had the tents up ready for us, so with the sleep card handed in we grabbed a few hours sleep, thankfully out of the awful midges.  After the rest we jumped into nice and damp wetsuits, body armour and fins, and jumped into a lake. There followed a few kilometres of flat water, during which Nick and myself were towed behind JB and Nicola, a tougher ride for them than they expected.

The rapids we finally hit were awesome fun, zooming down over big waves, the odd crunch on a rock, and fast flowing water.  JB had a huge smile at the end of the section; he’d loved the boating down the river.

It was back onto bikes again, with a transition next to a main road, many drivers got to see more then they bargained for, Marty told us that a previous team had stripped naked and wondered around for a minute or 2, causing a slightly slower queue of traffic!

Another blast along a road, to get to Åre, with simple navigation it was a case of peddling in a nice line and moving as smoothly as we could.  For this ride we were almost wanting to cycle backwards as we knew there was another inline skate section coming up.  The transition was in the centre of Åre, bringing some interest from passers by wondering what all the commotion was about.   This transition was used later, so we saw a few teams coming down off the mountain on their downhill bikes, it looked great fun and we couldn’t wait to get onto them.

The inline skates beckoned first, and with a tricky downhill bumpy start road, Nick had a coming together with the road after clearing most of the obstacles, but he quickly brushed himself off and carried on.  Most of the section was uphill however, so we soon ditched the skates and set off walking, this made even more sense when the heavens opened on us.

Dropping the skates off at the gear zone we carried on running into the hills, this was to be the 2nd and only other trekking section, it was only short, but had a lot of climb in it.  We took a great route choice missing out the biggest hill and coming yup the valley, slightly off the best line, but we still caught 1 team up, and almost another.  With a final scramble over some snow and a steep climb we arrived at the top of the cable car for the final section of the Åre loop, a downhill mountain bike.  900m of vertical descent separated us from the town, and we were looking forward to getting down the mountain.  As we got our kit ready a huge storm was moving in, stunning lightning and thunder was crashing around us, we wanted off the mountain.  The top section was great fun, some good jumps and berms, but with brakes on the bikes set the Euro way you had to really concentrate (or just not brake!)

Nicola had a wee fall, and struggled to get the bike off her leg, JB was on hand to help.  We had hired full on downhill bikes for this section, to great relief seeing the course, but none of us were used to the weight of them, we gradually warmed to them with JB having the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face.  Sadly the storm caught us, and halfway down we hit cloud and couldn’t see a thing, then the rain came, it was like buckets being poured over our heads, and we were totally drenched, then with fast sections down gravel roads we became covered in mud, our eyes stinging with the pain of rain and stones being flung into them.  Keeping together was very tricky, and with the lightning cracking overhead we were briefly lit up, but otherwise it was very dark.  I managed to miss the turn into town, and had a 2km ride added on to get back to the centre.

Once we were all back, soaking wet, but happy we decided we needed to seek some shelter, an open canoe section followed, and we didn’t want to be on a lake in the lightning, so Nicola found an outdoor shop with a porch and balcony, so our super support crew put our tents out, and we crashed for a few hours, waking up to good dry conditions.

We got ready and carried out boats to the lake, I don’t think we took the best route, as we ended up crossing the trainline at the station, but soon we were in the water and away in the fast canoes we had.

It was a beautiful morning, nice and fresh, and perfect for a fast paddle.  We had about 20km to go with a few sections of rapids.  JB was helming our boat, with Nick and Nicola in the other.  Hitting the first set of rapids, just grade 1, we had a great time, JB was doing really well, and we looked forward to the grade 2 section.  As we hurtled down the next rapids, we crunched onto a rock, but it caused no problems, and we were very glad to get through it, passing a team at the side getting changed after an early morning swim!

Marty was on hand with instructions at the end, and was we carried the boats to the transition he filled us in with what lay ahead.  A quick change to bike kit and climbing kit ready for a traverse across the huge waterfall in the river followed, but as we approached the staff they told us the crossing was closed due to the weather, maybe a blessing in disguise as they are tough work, but it looked pretty cool.

We jumped onto the bikes and headed 4km round on the road, and climbed a large hill heading for the white water raft, we didn’t expect too big a climb, but the river turned out to be the steepest runnable river in Sweden, so it was hard work on the bike.  A super fast transition to paddle kit, aided by millions of midges saw us almost catch 2 other teams.  As we ran along the road to the put in, we were reeling them in.  We changed into wetsuits, doing so very quickly in a midge infested forest, a short safety briefing followed, then it was into the water.  We had a guide, but he would only paddle in the white water, and couldn’t help carry the boat.
Once on the river it was welcome relief from bugs, and as we approached the first rapid we were getting excited, the rapids were big, but the river is a spring melt river, so we were about a month too late for perfect conditions.

After an hour of great paddling our guide leapt out of the boat and we were on our own for the final few km, this was a tricky shallow river with lots of rocks to hinder our progress, followed by 2km of a lake.  White water rafts are not designed to for this and it was tough work getting it back to the end of the section.

At this transition we had to wait out our remaining sleep card allocation of 8hours, we had about 2 left, so it was straight to sleep for a bit and recharge out batteries for the longest section of the race, a 270km bike stage to Solefteå.

Jumping on the bikes again was tough, knowing we’d be on them for such a long time, but we started out well, sitting tightly together for most of the first section, and with just 1 wee route error we overtook one very tired looking team and raced on to catch up Team Explore, a very good team having a bad race.  We caught them at a ferry crossing, one of 2 we had to get, a 10 minute crossing to an island, then a timetrial 3km to get to the other side of the island for the next ferry, Nick managed to hang onto the fast Swedes and held the ferry up so we could all get on.  I think it must be one of the fastest bike sections of any expedition race.

Once off the ferries it was a further 160km to the end of the stage, so we chatted to Team Explore for a while, then set up a rolling line so we could take it in turns at the front, this meant we were both a lot faster than we would have been, and it was great to ride with other people, we had some great banter, some interesting singing, with the Swedes putting out their National Anthem in euphoric style.

Frederik from Team Explore was from the area we were riding through, and his mum, dad and cousin were all out at the road side cheering us on, it was brilliant, so good to have support from new friends.

Stopping at a petrol station our hopes for some food were dashed when we discovered it was an automatic petrol only stop!  A kind lady filling her car did give us some chocolates, and we met the local burger bar owner, who had sadly closed for the night.  He told us it would take too long to open up, but he’d pop home, grab us some hot dogs and catch us up.  15 minutes later he pulled up alongside us and handed us some cold ‘hotdog’ sausages, and boy were they tasty.

Riding uphill forever it seemed we reached the only CP on the whole stage, and as we did this we caught a glimpse of the Norwegian team a few hundred metres ahead of us.  Team Explore thought we’d drop them as Rick was suffering with a strained knee, but sadly JB’s brain decided it was time for a break, and shutdown, leaving us with 30km to the end, a lot of fast down hill, and drizzle to contend with while trying to keep him awake.  This is certainly one of the toughest things in a long race, managing your tiredness, we knew we had to rest, but if we’d have stopped here we would all get cold and wet and struggle to get going again.  So for the best part of an hour, Nick, Nicola and myself shouted at the top of our voices and beasted JB to keep him on the road, at times he came close to going off the edge, and at speeds of up to 50km/h this would have been a clear race stopper for us.  To keep him engaged I had him describing all he could see, at one point this was some elephants, giraffes and rhinos, he was lucid enough to say that I probably couldn’t see them however, but it didn’t stop him putting his foot down when I told him they were stampeding!

Nicola and Marty had left us some food and drink at the next gear pick up, where we grabbed our canoe paddles, jumped onto a raft and paddled across the river, pushed our bikes along the far bank, and then paddled back.  JB had woken up again after a can of coke and some single-track riding.  I was starting to get very tired though; 13hours of riding was taking its toll.  The navigation on this section was annoying, and I let it wind me up, getting more and more frustrated as we went, finally getting into town and an hour of mandatory rest, bliss.

Going straight to sleep in a big dry tent was great, but when we woke after what seemed like 30seconds my knees had solidified it felt, and I was feeling very low.  With heavy rain outside, and inline skate section coming up and my knees hurting it was that point I wanted to crawl back into my sleeping bag and forget it all.  Nick JB and Nicola had other ideas, gave me no sympathy and told me to man up, which I did with a couple of strong painkillers and telling from Doc Nic.

The rain was lashing down and we had an uphill inline skate, not what we really fancied doing at 5am on a set Tuesday morning.  As we set out up the hill Team Explore came hurtling down the road, we had lost an hour to them with JB falling asleep and the nav issues after the rafts.

The skates were off again soon after, and we walked to the top of the hill and started the orienteering section, this was some of the trickiest nav in the race, and I was very pleased to hit everything very smoothly.  Getting back into town we put the skates back on and got the final checkpoint before doing a fast transition and heading out on the next orienteering loop.  This included a tough climbing wall that 2 people had to complete.  I went first, knowing I only had 1 chance before my arms gave up and ran up the wall with JB pulling the slack rope in as fast as he could, which meant running back a fair way.  The same technique was applied to get Nick up the wall, and soon we were on our way again.

The navigation was tricky again with across slope controls, but we managed to get them all pretty cleanly, and felt we had pushed well on this section forgetting the issues we’d had the previous night.

Back on the bikes we headed to the sailing.  The trails were tricky to follow on this leg with many teams falling foul of a wrong turn, we somehow missed a left turn and added 10mins onto our time, but we still took time out of Team Explore and overtook the Finns for the first time.

We had ridden hard on this stage, and caught Marty and Nicola out, but within seconds they had the situation in hand again and guided us safely through transition and into our ‘Fisher Price’ sailing boats.  The river we were heading down had some good flow, which was useful as the wind was poor, but it soon picked up and Nicola, our supreme sailor, set about catching up the teams ahead.  By halfway we had taken 50minutes out of Team Explore and things were looking good.  We had a wee portage around a bridge, and when we put back in again the wind had gone.   We were disappointed with this, but Nicola kept managing to find a few wee gusts, but then it became aware we would have to use the paddles.

We had had some good rest and food, but the Finns seemed to be on a mission, and they soon caught us and passed us, and knowing there was an inline skate section ahead we didn’t push too hard as they would destroy us on that section anyway.

The paddle seemed to last a lifetime, and then finally the end came into sight, and that great sight of Nicola and Marty greeted us once again.  Once out of the boat we carried it up the slope to transition, and we were all happy to never see it again, it had done us well, but was incredibly cramped for 4 big people.

A leisurely transition followed, we knew we couldn’t catch the Finns ahead, and that we had a large gap behind us.  It was also an inline skate section, so none of us were rushing to get going on it.  After getting warm dry kit on, and once again leaving Marty and Nicola the job of cleaning up after 4 toddlers, we set off across the bridge then up a big climb.  It was a busy road which wasn’t overly nice to skate on with the control we had, but after the climb was completed it was mainly downhill to the next transition.

We took 2 hours for this section, an hour behind the fastest teams; this is something we really need to work on if we are to race on skates again.  I quite enjoyed it, and intend to practice more to get to a reasonable level on them.

Coming into the penultimate transition we started to feel like we were almost there, we could see the finish hotel up on the hill, and had a short pack raft to take us into town, which was very uneventful, and then a climb on the bikes to the finish.

240m of climb lay ahead, but it was all on tarmac, so a gentle pace was set as we rode to the end of Explore Sweden.  We finished in a time of 121hr 39minutes, about 18hours behind the leaders, but happy in 8th place after a great race.  We had had a few issues, but nothing too major, we had all had fun and enjoyed everything that the race had thrown at us.

It had been a long race, and we were all pretty shattered, totalling about 10hours of sleep we crawled into the hotel and jumped into a shower before heading into town to grab a well deserved steak for lunch.

The race was epic, so much stuff thrown into one race, some of the longest stages ever in a race, and some of the most fun.  We all really enjoyed it, but none of us would have been able to race if it wasn’t for the fantastic support that we had from Marty Lee and Nicola Wiseman.  They had never done a supported race, but right from the start they were world class, catering to our every whim, always ready for us with a smile, a cup of tea, some lovely food and great banter.  I think they had about as much sleep as we did, and drove a few thousand kilometres packing and unpacking the van umpteen times.

So thank you to you both from the whole team.

We’d also like to thank Helly Hansen for the support, 2Pure, Nuun, Paramo, Salewa, Schwalbe, Willow for the loan of his van,

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  1. […] You find the original post here bruceduncan.wordpres … | bdunx […]

  2. […] Here is my un edited inform upon a Sweden Race you did in July. 1069km of Mountain biking, Inline Skating, Kayaking, Trekking, Orienteering, Swimming, Canoeing, White Water Rafting. Months ago you motionless to competition in Explore Sweden, a longest Adventure Race in a world. It was billing itself as ‘The … Blog Source […]


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