Tromsø Skyrace 2015

2nd Aug 2015


Without doubt the roughest, toughest, most serious race I have ever done. I am confident that many runners would consider the majority of the course to be completely unrunable and the seriousness of the terrain completely unjustifiable…


Heather and I departed from Manchester airport for a long day of traveling, knowing that we would be breaking one our race rules, of avoiding events that require more travel time than race time. However, we agreed that a trip into the Arctic Circle in northern Norway and a race with such a big reputation was worth the compromise. To make the most of the experience, we had a day before and day after the race to relax and explore Tromsø.


This year the Tromsø Skyrace actually consisted of three races; a Vertical Kilometre (VK) on the Friday evening, followed by the Hamperokken and Tromsdalstind races on the Sunday.


The Hamperokken race is 46km with 4,000m of ascent, and was part of the Skyrunning World Series in 2015, so we were expecting a stacked field. The Tromsdalstind race is 19km with 1,600m of ascent and avoids all the serious ground that has given the ‘Tromsø Skyrace’ (technically, the Hamperokken Skyrace) its big reputation.


To set the scene, the weather on race day, and for our entire visit, was poor, with low cloud, mist and drizzle. No views…but all the more atmospheric.


Both the Hamperokken and Tromsdalstind races started at the same time so it was difficult to gauge how you were doing compared to the rest of the field, but there were at least 100 runners in front of me within 5 minutes of starting. I wasn’t too bothered, as I had decided to run this race for the experience, so I settled into a steady and enjoyable pace.


Above: Shane Ohly at around 1100m at the start of the  famous Hamperokken ridge. © Ian Corless


Reaching the first summit of Tromsdalstind, the Tromsdalstind runners turned left and started their return loop, while the Hamperokken runners turned sharp right and dropped down an incredibly steep snow slope protected with a rope – this was a taste of things to come and the start of the much more serious terrain. After the snow slope there was a further 400m of descent down a very steep mud, scree and grass slope. It was intimidating, with occasional missiles of loose rock dislodged by runners from above, whizzing by before disappearing into the mist below. At the bottom of the steep slope I caught Alex Collins and Shane Donnelly and we ran together for a few kilometres chatting and enjoying the fast decent. Then Shane fell and hurt his knee; after checking he was ok, Alex and I continued until we reached the start of the climb up Hamperokken, when Alex started to pull away from me.


At this point, I had a decision to make. I could engage my race head and make a real effort to stay with Alex, or let him go. In reality this decision had already been made (after months of little training) so I let Alex pull away without a fight and was relaxed about being passed by other runners on the grinding 1400m of ascent.


At about 1100m the famous Hamperokken ridge starts. This is like a combination of the Aonach Eagach and Crib Goch ridges but with no escape paths. It is solid grade II scrambling for long sections, with a few short sections of grade III with rope handrails to protect these during the race. The mist was swirling around and visibility was less than 50m so I didn’t really get a true sense of the exposure, but many competitors were clearly imagining the worst and really slowed down.


Above: Heather Ohly climbing up the initial slopes of Hamperokken. © Ian Corless


The rock was very slippery from the damp weather conditions and progress was slow. However, as a climber the technicality was easy for me and I began to pass many other competitors. I was really enjoying myself, but also being careful as clearly a slip or trip in the wrong place would be fatal.


The decent from Hamperokken was very steep again with lots of loose, wet and slippery rock. There were fewer runners here and it felt much safer than the earlier decent off Tromsdalstind as a result. [Not for Heather, who later on was almost hit by a cow bell – let go during vigorous ringing efforts – on this section!]


Soon a long (400m) tongue of snow appeared, which we had been warned about in the race briefing as it ends abruptly in a boulder field. I glissaded down on my feet (well, mostly on my feet!) with Malena Haukøy from Norway who I was with at the time.


As the steep decent began to ease, the ‘route’ entered a huge glacial boulder field, which continued for many kilometres. This is the hardest ground I have ever had the pleasure to ‘run’ through and it was very difficult in the damp conditions. I met Killian Jornet (the race organiser) here, who had arrived to take photographs. I stopped and introduced myself as the organiser of the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline and he replied, “So you are the one”. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad!


Malena continued ahead of us and gave a master class of rock hopping agility, the like of which I have rarely seen even from the best British fell runners. She quickly pulled away as I chatted away with Killian.


By now, I was really enjoying myself. The race was delivering totally on my expectations of serious and challenging terrain and I had met Killian Jornet!


During the long descent back to the support point in the valley, the changes in the terrain were really pronounced. Almost at sea level, we were back into lush, tree-scattered wilderness. At the support point, I demolished an orange quarter, which tasted fantastic and chatted with Lucy Bartholomew from Team Salomon Australia. She was incredibly enthusiastic saying, “Well done, you are having a great race!” and offering to help fill my hydration system.


I said, “Thanks, but I am fine. I think I’ll just have another orange”.


“Don’t you want to get going?” she replied.


“No, I’m just here to enjoy myself and I am having a great day. No need to rush”, I replied.


“Well, you very relaxed!” she exclaimed. 


Above: Shane Ohly at around 1100m at the start of the  famous Hamperokken ridge. © Ian Corless


The route continued through more incredible birch forest, before starting the final 1200m slog back to the top of Tromsdalstind, reversing our route from earlier.


Again, I decided to adopt the ‘take it steady’ pace for this ascent and stopped to top-up my hydration bladder, eat more food, then plodded upwards with little sense of purpose. The metres ticked past slowly as I counted them down on my altimeter and I was caught and passed by about half a dozen more runners.


However, I was in for a shock…


About two thirds of the way up Tromsdalstind, I passed a marshal point and I heard the usual cheers and encouragement, but then someone said, “Well done, you are 29th!”


BOOM! Reality check… I though I was more like 129th! Now I understand why my lack of urgency at the support point seemed so strange!


Oh no, this means I have been slacking big time. Oh no, I should have been taking this more seriously… I’ve probably let at least dozen people pass me just by being a slack ass! Oh no, just a little more effort and I’d probably be 50% better placed….


All of a sudden I was fired up, finishing in the top 30th was achievable. Right! I start plodding a little faster, with a renewed sense of purpose, and on reaching the summit of Tromsdalstind could see a runner in front: Prey.


This time, I started running properly. Race head was ON! I slowly caught him on the joke of a trail, which was just a flagged route through technical scree, and slowly pulled away. However, my right knee had starting hurting just as I pushed the effort level into race mode, which was clearly the penalty for the complete lack of training for such a big race. Fortunately, the scree began to thin and after 400m of vertical descent I was back on fast runable trails, which were kinder to my knee and continued all the way to the finish.


Now, I dug into the reserve I usually save for the run in. Albeit this was a 15km run in. My regular mountain marathon partners – Jim Mann and Duncan Archer – will tell you that my finish spurts tend to start a long way out! I was now running hard and wondering whether I would be able to catch any of the runners ahead of me. That was not to be, but I finished the race with 90 minutes of hard effort.


Above: Shane Ohly. All smiles are 8 hours of superb mountain 'running'. © Ian Corless


Final result: 28th overall / 23rd Male / 8h05m.


Heather finished near the back of the field, but given that only two thirds of starters completed the course within the cut offs, it was a great effort just to finish in one piece with a smile on her face!