The Expedition Amundsen Series: Part 7
Race Recap: The Struggle and the Sunrise
Kick, glide, kick, glide, kick, glide. My skis sliced neatly through the fresh snow and a dark fog swirled around as my headlamp beam penetrated only the first few meters in front of me. The sled bounced along behind me, Dan, my husband, had the GPS out as we skied through the dense darkness, occasionally telling me to veer left or right to keep us on track. The billowing fog surged enough in one lonely spot on the vast horizon to reveal the crescent moon for a fleeting instant, gold and ghostly before it was swallowed up again by the mist.
We were out in front, breaking trail during Expedition Amundsen, the 62-mile Nordic ski race we’d spent the winter training for. We couldn’t believe we were in the lead. It felt like a mistake, and sure enough, it was. Somehow, we had missed the small detail stating that all participants were required to take a total of eight hours of rest at the three checkpoints (Hellevassbu, Litlos, and Viersla) during the race. Racers were to arrive at each checkpoint, receive a stamp and have their rest time recorded in hour-long increments with a requirement that four hours of rest be done at the last checkpoint, Viersla. This meant we should have budgeted some of our rest time at the first checkpoint, Hellevassbu, but we hadn’t, we had taken off shortly after arriving there, excited to keep moving. This left us breaking trail, exhausting ourselves, before the top men’s team came ripping past us at an astonishing speed. We now realized we would need to budget our rest time with four hours at Litlos and the final four hours at Viersla.
Time buckled and waved; after what sometimes felt like great mountains of time and at others little dollops, we arrived at Litlos. I checked in and we started putting up the tent. It was here we discovered another element of our inefficiency: most competitors used sled bags and arctic bedding, gear that as Americans, we knew nothing of beforehand. The sled bag is a system that allows your tent to be carried in your sled mostly set up. Arctic bedding is a long, waterproof bag that sits on top of your sled with your mattress, sleeping bag, and other essentials like stove and food. Once you’ve set up your tent in record time with the sled bag, you throw the arctic bedding in, and BAM! You’re in camp. Simple and efficient. Dan and I were not “BAM!” efficient. After being sick before the race, Dan had few internal reserves left, and was shaking badly, so he hunkered down inside his great puffy sleeping bag while I got food going.
All in all, our approach lost us another hour at Litlos, as it took us five hours to set up camp, cook, melt snow, eat, drink, and take then down camp. Now we had spent too much rest time, and still had to fulfill the required 4 hours at the final checkpoint, Viersla. Time management at these checkpoints was an art, and we were far from mastering it.
There was no time to worry about time, and so we set off with our sleds again. It was that time of night where the body is yelling, Why? This is totally ridiculous. This is the time to be asleep. I clearly didn't have a good grasp on reality. After the race, other participants talked about how this section was all uphill. In my own sleep deprived state, I was convinced we were going downhill.
We are designed to appreciate natural beauty and to celebrate a physical challenge and when we are given the opportunity to experience both gifts simultaneously, our souls rejoice.
Anyone who has raced through the night knows the blessing that is the sunrise. At first, you’re not sure it’s happening. You tell yourself your eyes are playing tricks on you. Then you can no longer deny that one horizon has a definite lighter tinge—more like dark grey rather than pitch black. And then the magic begins. Great masses emerge from the depths of the night. Mountains you’ve been skiing by, valleys in the distance that you missed, the rolls and dips and undulations of the earth that had been absorbed into the oblivion that is night emerge, shaking off the shadows and blanketing themselves instead in great sweeping robes of rose gold, scarlet, and deep violet as the sun peeks over the horizon in the distance. And then the sky erupts in fire, glowing brilliantly, raging orange, gold, and red across the clouds and sending those waves of fire cascading across the vast plateau.
Several moments from the race stand out in my memory. One is the sliver of moon emerging momentarily from the fog while we held the lead, skiing alone between Hellevasbu and Litlos. Forever burned into my heart is the magic of that drifting, haunting moment, with nothing but the vast Hardangervidda and the two of us. Another is the sunrise as we reached Viersla. Moments like this, I told myself as we glided along, these moments are why we are alive.
Dan and I dedicated our winter to training for this race and people would often ask, “How can you do something that you know will be a miserable experience?” I know firsthand that at the heart of endeavors like Expedition Amundsen is a thick layer of suffering. But I also know people still do these things, and some people do them repeatedly. I think humans have evolved to be tough, yet modern conveniences have made life easy, perhaps too easy, and now we must seek out these challenges ourselves. We are designed to appreciate natural beauty and to celebrate a physical challenge and when we are given the opportunity to experience both gifts simultaneously, our souls rejoice.
After a challenging descent into the town of Maurset and on towards the finish line, I felt my heart soaring with a great sense of pride. Tears stung my eyes and my chest heaved with more than exhaustion as I hugged Dan after crossing the Expedition Amundsen finish line at 27 hours and 49 minutes—putting us second in the Co-ed Division, a first ever non-Norwegian podium in the history of the race. I then hugged Kathinka, the Norwegian badass who had set the bar high at the race’s check-in, and accepted a bottle of coke from her. Despite choking repeatedly on the carbonation, I've never drank anything so satisfying.
Dan and Elaine Vardamis are self-proclaimed “Nordic nerds” living nearly off-the-grid in Eldora, Colorado. They were married at the top of Loveland Ski Area in 2010, have skied at least one day 75 months in a row, have podiumed in races like the Grand Traverse and obviously like to go on really long adventures. This series will follow their preparation and execution of The Expedition Amundsen. You can track their training on Instagram: @nomadwolf360 and @elainevardamis.