This is a story of a failure, and a success. A race report from the 130km MTB race held in Utsjoki, Finland touring the largest wilderness area in Finland, Kaldoaivi. I will tell you what I did, how it worked, and what I would do differently. I will also discuss how to prepare for and what to expect at the Kaldoaivi Ultra Trail 130km MTB race, something I could have used before the race. I start with my own experiences, so If you feel like just getting the informational part, jump to the end of the article.
How I prepared
It was some time in the autumn of last year that a mountain biking friend (well, we call it terrain biking here in Finland as we are a bit short of mountains) pointed me at the web site of the Kaldoaivi Ultra Trail 130km MTB race. Never one to back away from challenges, I was immediately onboard.
I mean, what could go wrong? I was riding regularily, had almost a year to train and was able to easily arrange days off for the race.
So I sent my registration. And then, I didn’t train. Because I got a flu. And another. In the end, I ended up not riding (or doing other exercise) for most of december and most of january. After that, the MTB fever had cooled off a bit, and I started hitting the gym. I knew I needed to train for the race, but I’ve always been of the opinion that you need to do the exercise and training that you feel like. And I felt like weight lifting.
But, I started running. On the mat. I was losing some weight but still very heavy at around 90kg. But I was running as fast as I had ran a few years back at over 5kgs lighter. So I wasn’t too concerned.
In july, I started doing hill training with my fatbike. It was climbing ok. It was no big effort to rack up 400-500 vertical meters. So I wasn’t too concerned.
But then I started to worry about my average training session length. It was only about 1-1,5h. So I polished off my road (well, triathlon) bike and started hitting the road for longer workouts. Anywhere from 2 to 5 hours. And that’s what I did all june and july.
And I started feeling like I had the endurance to get through the 130km race. And then I started waiting for the race day to come.
There were some dark clouds in my sky at this point, that I was doing my best to ignore them (SMART, yeah?!). After starting my vacation in mid of july, I felt like I was not recovering from my training. I was stressed and slept badly. Oura kept telling me to take it easy, but I felt like I needed to train. And even after I started taking it easy, I was still stressed and still not recovering (according to Oura). So what am I supposed to do? I opted to try and get even more rest and try to get that super compensation going.
So come mid August and I’m leaving for Nuorgam and the race. Last exercise was a 60km road cycling the monday of the race week. Whole week I’m still waking with terrible readiness index (Oura metric for how recovered I am). So I’m a bit worried, but try to shrug it off.
The race morning, still the same. Oura tells me to take it easy. Yeah I’m gonna take it REEAL easy, just a little 130km race in the toughest terrain in Finland.
By this time, I have been eating carbohydrates like crazy for two days. I’ve packed 14 Snickers bars, have a 1.5l hydration pack in my backpack and 0.5l bottle of sports drink. So I have the energy to pull this off. My regular weight was 88kg, so with all the carbohydrates I’ve been pumping into myself, I’m probably weighing 90kg, with equipment making it anywhere between 95-100kg total.
We pull off to the starting line with my two friends. The horn blows, the crowd goes wild and the fast guys jump into the steep climb that starts the race. At the back of the pack, it takes a couple of minutes for me to get to the starting line. And then I’m off. Still pushing the bike because the crowd is tough and the path narrow at this point.
And it feels bad, man. And then we’re off from the path and into an asphalt road. And the climb feels bad, man. Real bad. Hills that I climbed in june for training no problem feel terrible. So I get a bit disheartened but continue, pushing the bike when my quads say they’ve had enough.
This becomes a recurring theme during the race.
The first 20km are road, first asphalt and then gravel. After the initial climb, it’s mostly coasting down until we turn off from the road and head into the wilderness.
Almost immediately we are met with a huge headwind. We follow an old maintenance road that is mostly sand with rocks jutting out everywhere. It’s a constant attack on the hands and bottom. I have high pressure in the tires to make them roll easy for the road, and decide I dare not lessen the pressure, or I will risk a snakebite puncture from the rocks.
The hills are not getting any easier. I tell my friends to ride on without waiting for me, as we are not riding the same speed today. There’s a friendly group (or several groups) of people at the end of the pack and over and over again I end up passing people when they rest, only to be overtaken on the climbs.
And that’s how we carry on until the first cut off / maintenance. Headwind, constant climbing and jarring experience of trying to avoid the largest rock and tolerate getting a barrage of pounding from the ones I have to ride over.
I’m still not riding the larger climbs, I just don’t have the quads for it today. Otherwise it feels ok.
After the first maintenance, the wind eases a bit. The vistas are breathtaking and morale climbs at the same pace as the route.
I’m keeping an eye on the climbing meters, making mental waypoints like one third of the climb (600m of the 1800m), half of the climb, 100km left, half of the race left and so on. Hours run by effortlessly. I eat a snickers bar every hour. Sometimes it feels like: What? I just ate the earlier one and I have to eat again?! Impossible.
At the second cut-off / maintenance I start looking at the clock. I arrive approximately 45min before the cutoff but make only a quick stop so I have time to catch the third cutoff that is the hardest.
Many that linger on the second pit stop do not seem to realize that the 20:30 cut-off at 110km is going to be the hardest to make. And sure enough, they will later pay with DNF. I’m sure some of them had the capacity to make it with a better planning.
At this point, weather has turned positively hot. The year has been dry, so every place is very dry and I’m sure we had like 80% less mud than last year. But the sun and temperatures (probably nearing 20 celsius) that we are now getting is surely something that Kaldoaivi doesn’t receive often, especially at this time of the year.
So I remove my shell jacket and continue on. With some ibuprofen and caffeine, as well as music from my bone conducting earphones, I start getting positively elated. My ass and hands don’t hurt so bad anymore, and the terrain is almost easy. I get 10-20km of very flow like riding.
Then come the crossings. Rivers are running low, so they are easy and refreshing with water coming up to the knee at points but no higher.
After the crossings, the real muddy parts begin. I’m sure they we way WAY worse last year, but they still slow me down.
I’m looking at the clock a bit worried. It looks like I should be hitting the 110km mark soon, but the 20:30 is nearing and I am going slower and slower.
And then I hit the 110km (well, according to my Fenix 5x anyway) and it doesn’t look like I’m anywhere near the cutoff. And I only have a little time left. I push on. Then the clock hits 20:30. I’m still nowhere near the cutoff. I feel dejected but still push on as fast as I can.
After some more mud and climbing I arrive at the 110km cutoff about 20-25 minutes late, with approximately 113-115 km in my Fenix. My name is crossed over from the list of finishers and I have to leave my GPS tracking device and take a road for the last part.
My GPS tracking with the Fenix 5x dies before I reach the the finish, but I end up driving about 136-138km in approximately 15.5 hours, the last 26km by road with a result of DNF (not making the 110km cut-off).
What went wrong?
First of all, I should have kept the hill climbs in the exercise menu. By focusing only on long rides, I had the endurance to get through the race, but not the strength to climb the hills fast enough.
Second, I should have heeded Oura’s warnings. Taken as many days off as it took to get recovered between rides, at least on a weekly basis.
Third, I could have taken the ibuprofen and caffeine earlier and eased the pain, allowing me to go faster.
Fourth I could have not used the smartphone during the ride and saved precious minutes.
I think the problems are listed in the order of importance, with the recovery issues nearly missing the first place.
What went right?
Fueling and endurance. I was riding fresh almost all throughout the race. Of course it took grit, but at no point did I feel like I could not go on. At 70km I felt like I was just getting started. So endurance was on point. But purely focusing on endurance I had completely neglected strength and high intensity training. I never would have guessed how fast I can lose ability in that sector.
How to prepare for the Kaldoaivi Ultra Trail 130km MTB?
Based on my experience, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
First, if you are slow, then the third cut-off is by far the hardest. You should arrive at the second cut-off at least one hour, preferably 1.5h before cut-off to make it to the third one.
Second, it will be rocky going. Practice technical riding and increase your tolerance for pain. Also, have a suspension of some kind. Lower pressure on fatbike would probably work ok, if you can rock it without punctures. A trail oriented full suspension is what I would choose. A Bluto fork with 100mm travel did help, but was not enough to keep my hands from hurting like hell.
Third, don’t worry about the crossings. They are doable. It was so warm I did not follow my original plan, but I still feel like it was a sound one. My plan was to ride the first part with only merino socks. After the three larger crossing, I was going to switch on dry socks and over them Gore-tex socks (anything waterproof: Sealskinz etc.) so the wet shoes would not get them wet.
Fourth, practice climbing on the bike. At 1800m vertical, the climbing (and rocks) are what defines the route. Also take into consideration that you will be carrying water and energy as well as extra clothes so you will be packing more weight than during a training session.
What equipment to take
If you are a good driver, you can manage with any bike but ideally you would want to have have some kind of suspension (proper suspension or plus or fat tyre with a little lower pressure). Don’t pick your narrowest tyres. There were lots of fatbikes, quite some full suspensions. I’m sure a wetter year would have favored the fatbikes more.
Weather was of course fantastic (other than the hellish headwinds) this year, but prepare for anything. From hypothermia to heatwave. My choice of clothing: winter bibs, shorts and a shell jacket (plus neoprene gloves, extra merino shirt, socks and long thicker shorts with some insulation) was solid. It worked in the upper range of temperatures, but I’m quite sure it would have been ok in the lower temperatures as well.
About the route
The terrain goes roughly like this:
- Long climb, starting with a gravel chute that you will have to push the bike if you’re not in the very front of the pack. After that climb continues with asphalt road.
- 20km roads until Pulmankijärvi, where route turns to the fjells.
- Dry but rocky, old ATV maintenance route, steadily climbing until 30km
- At some point there’s a section not on the road, just riding the fjell side so you have more vegetation etc.
- After second maintenance at 70km, the terrain is easier, you have some fast sections. Make most of these.
- After the first large river crossing, it gets more boggy and muddy with rocky path sections interspersed.
- The terrain gets harder and harder as you approach the 110km cut off, plan for this in your schedules.
- There are three major river crossings. Just keep a cool head and don’t worry about these. Don’t bother to change clothing unless your health dependes on it.
- The worst bogs are before the climb to the 110km checkpoint.
- After 110km checkpoint, you only have a little climbing left and then it’s all downhill from there.
- The downhill is long and steep, don’t boil your hydraulic brake oil. Don’t drag the brakes, make short firm braking motions.
The organization of the race was excellent. Everything worked. The fueling stations at checkpoints were excellent. People were out with a sense of humour and never failed to cheer you on. Everything worked like it was organized by a huge professional organization, but felt like it was a small caring team. This alone makes the race worth racing.
How hard is the race? Well it’s tough. If you think you can do it, you probably can. If you think you cannot do it, it’s very possible that you’re fit enough but you need to develop the grit and courage first.
I was of course disappointed as hell for getting DNF’d at 110km. The insult of getting to ride the longer (albeit surely easier) road to finish helped not one bit here. But I knew what I was up against, I knew the third cut-off is the hardest. I thought I had it together, almost up to the very moment the clock hit 20:30. But I didn’t, and I failed.
But overall, after a fews days of thinking about this, I can feel good about my performance. The route is surely one of the hardest you can find in Finland. Riding over 15 hours, I never felt like I could not go on. I trained my mind and my body followed, at no point did my heart and my mind have to carry my body because my limbs would have been too weak.
So we’ll see. Maybe next year, I will be better prepared physically and take revenge on the route that defeated me this year.