September 7, 2019
43 km, 1700 m gain
Höga Kusten, Sweden
Höga Kusten (High coast) Trail 43k takes place in and around the Skuleberget National Park, located between Härnösand and Örnsköldsvik along the Swedish mid-north coast. The race offers up a very technical and demanding course, including two climbs of 250 meters of vertical gain each up Skuleberget (The Skule Mountain) in the final 7k of the race. Nevertheless, it attracts runners from all over, and the starting spots typically sell out in just a matter of hours every year. Needless to say, we were very excited as we arrived late Thursday evening. We hadn’t really heard too much about this race until we were tipped off by a new friend of ours after Fjällmaraton (it’s remains unclear how we had missed it), but we got hooked immediately. After watching the videos on the race website, we made up our minds, and managed to lay our hands on starting spots shortly after, from two people who, unfortunately, had to throw in the towel.
The epicenter for the whole weekend (which also includes a 25k race, called “Twin Peaks”, on Friday afternoon) is Friluftsbyn (The Outdoor Village). Friluftsbyn is a brilliant combination of an outdoor activity center, cabins to rent, camp site, open-air lounge/restaurant space etc. situated at the foot of the impressive Skuleberget and inviting anyone and everyone to lace up their shoes and go explore. Due to our late sign up, the accommodation was fully booked here, so we rented an airbnb about 30 min away by car. On Friday – after exploring some of the High Coast by ourselves – we picked up our bibs, watched the front runners finish Twin Peaks and hung out for a while, before heading “home” to eat, prepare and get some sleep. The weather forecast showed a cloudy morning followed by rain from midday and onwards, but temperatures around 12-15ºC so not too cold. Shorts and t-shirt was therefore an easy decision.
For the training season January-July, check out the initial part of this KIA Fjällmaraton Race Report (as well as some notes in the Ultravasan 90 Race Report). The recovery/training after Ultravasan and before HKT looked something like this: the first week after saw rest incl. long walk Monday, Tuesday 17k bike ride, Wednesday 10k run, Thursday 53k bike ride, Friday rest, Saturday 10k run, Sunday 19k bike ride. The following week, we got in 65k running, 30k biking and 20k kayaking, and the week leading up to the race saw 25k until the day before the race. It probably seems obsessive and quite nerdy to list all of this, but we know that there are many people curious about this kind of nitty-gritty stuff. Sharing is caring, and all of that!
Buses will take you from Friluftsbyn to the start of the race, and no cars can be brought to the start. We didn’t get on the first round of buses but instead arrived to the start with about 30 min until the gun would go off, which still meant plenty of time to warm up and get ready. Jerry Engström, the head of the race organization and founder of Friluftsbyn, got everyone pumped up for the race with about 10 min to go, and then boom – off we went. The course starts off on gravel road, mildly uphill, for a few kilometers. We started almost at the very front of the whole pack, which actually felt pretty good. We clocked about a 4:30 min/k pace until we left the gravel road behind and went into the woods (and we wouldn’t see much of paces like that for the remains of the race). We started off running with our newfound friend Mike (yes, another one – we’ll call him Mike II), and without intending to, ended up spending more or less the whole race in the vicinity of each other. That was fun, and chatting with another person from time to time was very nice and distracting.
Essentially, the first 24k of the race are very, very technical. The course alternates between flat-ish (but slippery) rock faces with no actual “trail” (however course markers) and trails with massive roots and rocks, smaller and rounder rocks and… well, everything in between. It makes for a mentally challenging and absolutely amazing experience. When you have to think about where your foot is going next constantly for hours and hours, your brain really zones out, in a way, and you can’t help but just be in the moment. (Something many of us have a hard time with in our day-to-day life.) Going down from Stamberget was tricky because of the steepness, and Mike took a tumble here. According to himself, he did a combination of a 360º and a somersault and it “looked like something out of circus and was very impressive” (those are indeed his own words). However, based on the reactions of the guy behind him, it must have looked pretty cool – unfortunately I, Sophia, was ahead and missed the show. Anyway, coming up to Slåttdalsberget the first time was incredible, but there wasn’t too much attention being paid to the views as we were busy pushing the pace and keeping ourselves from tripping. After Slåttdalsberget, you have to carefully make your way down a short scramble section until you reach Slåttdalsskrevan, the most captivating and mystical sight of the whole race. A narrow canyon, with steep and almost perfectly vertical rock faces rising on both side and sharp rocks covering the entire ground. I smacked the inside of my ankle into one of those (to confirm the sharpness) and it did indeed hurt like nothing else. My whole leg froze for a few seconds, before we continued our journey, tip-toeing/jumping/maneuvering the terrain as best as we could.
I was playing a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with another female runner, as we took turns being 2nd and 3rd woman, throughout the majority of the race. She (Sandra Rahimi) was insanely quick and smooth over the extremely technical bits and would leave us in the dust there, whereas we would put some distance on her every time we hit an uphill. Needless to say, she passed us in the Slåttdalsskrevan, and we caught up with her around the 16k aid station, which is located at Tärnättholmarna, which you reach after a quicker, flatter section along the water. Here, you turn around and go back the same way, meaning you get to see and cheer on some oncoming traffic for a while. This was a whole lot more fun than we had expected – people were so nice and encouraging, and even stood to the side around narrow passages, allowing us to go through first. After a long uphill chug, we entered the canyon again (from the opposite end) and got to repeat the dance across the wild-looking rocks, before tackling that scramble section once more (this time from below) and then making it all the way up Slåttdalsberget a second time. Here, we both managed to take in the views. Absolutely breathtaking. Why aren’t more people choosing to explore the High Coast? How am I 32 years old and this was my first time? I spent about 1 min pondering the fact that more Swedes have probably been to New York or Thailand, than this place. That’s nuts. Then it was time to start descending again, and there was no room for pondering anymore. Just full focus on foot placement, one by one.
The last part of that downhill goes across boardwalks, and these had gotten slippery due to the rain that had started dripping. We managed to stay upright, but definitely held back our pace significantly here. After you pop out of the woods, you enter a gravel road that is flat at first and then starts to go up. At the top, you’ll have reached Entré Syd, or “The South Entrance” (to the national park, that is). Here, at 25k, we stopped for refills the first time. We both filled up our bottles (700 ml total per person lasted us roughly 22k, so we were thirsty for sure) and got going. We came in together with Sandra here, and we left together as well. However, in the hilly but non-technical section that followed, we could pull away and create a little bit of a buffer. At 28-29k, a sharp cramp on the inside of my thigh hit just as we were going down a steep hill. We had to come to a complete stop, and I almost thought my race was over. But by giving it a light stretch and then holding back the pace over the next few kilometers, it seemed I’d be able to keep it at bay (I also had some salt tablets, which seemed to work).
As we passed the 30k mark, we all (including Mike II, who we were still with) definitely got a little tired. Another kilometer or so later, I just glanced over my shoulder – and hey, saw another female runner! That was super strong Karin Lundin, who came on light feet and at an impressive pace, waking us all up from our little daze. We ran together into the 35k aid station, where Karin got what she needed fast and managed to leave a bit ahead. She put another 50 m on us in the mild uphill leading from the aid station to the foot of Skuleberget and the start of the first of the two massive climbs, so it was with her back in the somewhat close distance we entered the woods, the technical trails and the beginning of the ascent up Skuleberget. Here, Mike and I had agreed that we’d part ways if I was feeling strong and he wasn’t. As the trails started to go uphill, Mike said “go ahead, I’ll catch you on the downhill”, so I did. Now, this might seem the most natural thing in the world. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Well, as some of you already know, I’m terrified of the competition aspect of racing. I get to the start line completely bundled up in nerves, but manage to enjoy it because I’m next to Mike. And once we’re at the finish line, it’s all worth it and I can’t wait to do it again. Going without Mike, however, is a different beast to me. So this was a first for both of us, as I continued to push and stare at the elusive back of Karin in 2nd place, which I only seemed able to catch a few metres on and then lose them just as quickly.
This climb is intense, but it’s also incredible. You’re just in your own head, breathing heard and listening to your own heart beat, pushing with your hands on your thighs and trying to find the quickest route through the terrain. And despite it being hard, it’s almost as if you get into a state of autopilot. Because really, what’s the alternative? You can’t stop here. You better just keep moving. After a few (or maybe 10?) minutes, it all of a sudden got lighter, as the dense woods gave way to a rockier and more open landscape. Once you’re at the top, you follow a tricky (for tired legs, at least) trail that literally passes a few meters away from the finish line. Here, we could both hear the cow bells as well as the cheering – but not see, because of the fog – and it goes without saying it felt a touch rough to continue past the festivities, down a steep and slippery descent all the way to Friluftsbyn and the last aid station and then start the final climb up the Slalombacken (the slalom hill) to the finish. Karin held on to her 100 meter-ish lead and I just couldn’t do anything about it. I pushed as hard as I could along the paved road section between the aid station and the start of the climb, but didn’t manage to get closer. The gap stayed about the same from the base to the top, and after another round of hard breathing and hand pushing off against the thighs, I reached the top at 4:58. Jerry, the aforementioned brains behind the race, high fives every single runner crossing the finish line. That passion was nothing short of tangible in the last one hundred meters of the race, as Jerry was ringing his cow bell – hey, I even ran, after only power hiking from the base of the hill – and it was an awesome feeling to fall across the finish line (I actually laid down right there in the mud, because my cramps had been asking for my attention for about 1-2 hrs). Karin finished 1 min 20 sec ahead, and brilliant Stina Höglund (2nd at Ultravasan 90k this year) had gotten in 19 min before that.
After getting up, I was so excited to greet Mike. It didn’t take long before I could see his white t-shirt through the low clouds, and he came in at an amazing 5:07. He had gotten cramps too, in the first climb, and had had a tough last section. We made our way into the warming hut right next to the finish line, where we met up with Mike II, who had come in at 5:01. We all put on the few pieces of clothes we had in our mandatory kits (hint to those planning on running in the future: read up on the mandatory gear well in advance, in case there’s anything you’ll need to get) and started the last challenge of the day: the way down. There’s simply nothing to think about – you just got to get going. We started jogging almost immediately, since we got so cold, and made it down to Friluftsbyn pretty quickly. We had great company, both in the shape and form of other runners on their way up that we got to cheer on and Mike II and Maja, another new friend we’ve made in this community. Once in Friluftsbyn, we showered, got changed, ate hummus sandwiches we had prepared beforehand and just hung out, waiting for the award ceremony. Unfortunately, there was some miscommunication so we ended up missing it, but had a really nice evening with vegan burgers, live music and, again, nice company. Mike and I are both so happy that we have met such nice, warm and like-minded people through our running (both via social media and in real life). We’re not the ones to surround ourselves with a lot of people, and often feel like there aren’t that many we can spend an extended period of time with before we start to crave alone-time, but in the trail running community, we’ve found quite awesome people in whose company we both thrive. There’s something so unifying in battling the challenges of a trail race together, and the nature of the sport certainly brings people with plenty of things in common – the love for nature, above all.
We had an amazing time. Period. The course is by far the toughest we’ve run so far, and the feeling crossing that finish line and being greeted by Jerry’s incredible energy was unbeatable. The conditions – with the rain and fog – kind of just added to the whole experience, in all honesty, and didn’t bother us one bit. The views are extraordinary, Friluftsbyn a great place… we only have good things to say. Well, except the different times for the award ceremony posted to the website, but that’s no big deal. All in all, we definitely want to come back – and we’re wondering what in the world the people saying that Fjällmaraton is harder than this were thinking. Now, we’ve recovered and are ready to rack up the training for a few weeks, before heading up north for a final set of trail races this season: Åre Trail Tour. Come join and help spread the word – this is a wonderful way of spending time in the mountains as the trees turn color and paint the landscape yellow, orange and red. The El Kott twins co-organize the race and will be there from start to finish, Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. It’ll be great!