Name - Toughest Ice
Date - 11th April 2015
Course Length - 8km across snow, ice + obstacles
Approximate cost - £300 (includes race entry, 2 nights in the iconic Ice Hotel and a post-race party)
Location - Jukkasjarvi, Sweden (within the Arctic Circle)
Website - http://www.toughest.se/en/toughest-ice/
What is Toughest Ice?
The weekend caters to lovers of the extreme, with a challenging obstacle race that has never been created before and a unique environment, the Toughest Ice weekend is truly a one in a lifetime experience.
Based in such a remote location, it's highly likely you'll have to travel some distance to get to the event, personally we travelled from London to Kiruna (the nearest airport) via Stockholm, meaning that it's worth spending an entire weekend at the Ice Hotel which is fortunately included in the hotel package.
- A buff, worn as a bandana
- Long sleeved thermal compression t-shirt
- Long sleeved dry-fit t-shirt
- Thermal compression leggings
- Swimming shorts
- Attachable spikes to attach to my regular running shoes
We were very fortunate with regards to the timing of the race, as it was on April 11th, it was practically the beginning of spring, as such we weren't exposed to the typical winter temperatures of up to -40°C.
Naturally this would require much more thermal based equipment (and a much larger beard) than the climate requires in April, where for us, day temperatures were roughly 1°C, not too cold at all considering we were 200km north of the Arctic circle!
With regards to footwear, this is possibly where there will be the most variance in terms of your performance running on snow and ice.
Pick the right pair and you'll be charging through the pack feeling as if the ice below your shoes was a tartan track.
Pick the wrong grip on your shoes and you're likely to look something similar to Bambi, dancing and slipping on the ice with the chance of injury greatly increased.
For myself and the rest of my team, we opted for additional grips to go on the bottom of our regular running shoes, saving the expense of purchasing shoes that were specifically created for running on ice and therefore would only be used once.
This had its advantages and disadvantages, on the one hand, the grips themselves were really cheap, being maybe £10 for a pair, however, during the race they were fairly flimsy, did not provide sufficient grip at times and resulted in us sitting on the sidelines a few times throughout the race to readjust them.
One of my teammates ended up running half the race with one of these grips half way down towards the arch of his foot as the regular stopping became quite annoying.
If you're fairly money conscious and, like me, feel it's not worthwhile spending upwards of £80 on shoes that are likely to be only worn once, choose the cheap ice grips, making sure you pick ones with specific "spikes" as the coils that are at the bottom of some grips are definitely not sufficient for running on clear ice!
Bear in mind though that you get what you pay for in this respect and going for the cheap option will likely make your time suffer.
Pre Event Training
Having personally never traveled to the Arctic circle before, or indeed, completed an obstacle race made from snow and ice, I made efforts to ensure I was as physically prepared as possible, this involved regular weight training, running, ice baths, giving up drinking and most importantly, growing a powerful beard.
The event was also not too far away from my marathon (about 3 weeks later!) so I slotted in some medium distance running too.
Ice baths were a great addition to training, but don't worry, if you're afraid of being submerged in icy water (note: this event is NOT for you!) then an ice bath is not 100% vital.
What it does do though is massively help with recovery, reducing muscle soreness after a heavy training session.
The icy cold water constricts your blood vessels, when you warm up again, your body gets a rush of "fresh blood", filled with oxygen, this helps your body drain the build up of lactic acid from intense exercise and speeds up your recovery.
The effects on recovery make ice baths worthwhile alone, but ice baths also help prepare you mentally, when you submerge yourself into an icy bath for 10 minutes at a time, you become more comfortable with your body as it reacts to a cold environment. This is definitely a bonus when you're preparing to head to the Arctic circle!
As the beard grew and the number of appreciative nods came as I walked past other bearded gentlemen, the beard became more of a fashion statement and outlet before I entered into a more corporate career.
Personally, if travelling to the Arctic I recommend growing a beard, it's practically a permanent neck warmer and it makes you look pretty cool I'd say.
Race Day - 8km & 25 Obstacles
With our timing chips securely fastened and a few minutes of jumping up and down to keep warm, our wave (#3) was up.
With the countdown started, our team looked at each other in excitement as we were about to start the world's first sub zero obstacle race.
As the race began we made our way across over the first 2 obstacles before the timing chip even began, a series of ice walls to hurdle over.
The course was centered near the starting arena, similar to a kind of tree shape, with roughly 5 branches spanning out across the frozen lake and the majority of obstacles based in the centre near to all the spectators..
Due to the course design, the race had a nice balance between running and obstacles.
Despite having 25 obstacles fit into an 8km course, the central placement of the majority of obstacles allowed for the majority of running stretches to last roughly 1-2km.
One of the first obstacles was a vertical climb up an icy wall using a rope. Without sufficient grip on your shoes or enough upper body strength this would be fairly difficult.
This required you to place your hands through the given holes and swing your legs across through the footholds below, climbing your way across the outside of the structure.
If you see the image on the right, you'll see an official photo of my team, with myself sporting some rather flashy red compression pants.
To pass this obstacle you needed to press yourself horizontally and shimmy yourself forward without touching the ground beneath you.
As an 85kg man, this was fairly tough.
After this obstacle, we were faced with another stretch of running to along the next "branch" of the course, despite having seen the scenery before, it was difficult not to have our breath taken away by the view.
These runs felt particularly surreal, watching over the natural beauty whislt running on a frozen lake, I thought to myself "this is crazy, I'm in the middle of an obstacle race in the Arctic circle...".
Next for us was a second log carry, fairly straight forward normally, but the density of the snow resulted in it collapsing beneath our feet as we walked. This added a degree of difficulty to the obstacle as we waded through the knee deep snow.
Roughly 75% of the way through the course, the race took itself into the iconic Ice Hotel, running along the central corridor and over an icy altar, before we were met with possibly the longest set of monkey bars I've ever seen.
The bars ran down an entire corridor of the ice hotel and after hoisting yourself over obstacles for roughly an hour already, this was pretty tricky.
Sadly, none of my team managed to make it even half way, resulting in us taking a penalty run to a nearby flag in the snow.
Regardless, we gave it our best attempt, swinging courageously off a trapeze and onto the ring, however after 3 rings and the initial momentum lost, we headed off for our second penalty run of the race.
If you're hoping to complete an obstacle like this one, it might be worth investing in some rock climbing sessions to improve your grip.
This was followed by a run across broken pieces of ice floating in the river (our team got snapped by the official photographers here, resulting in a pretty "cool" photo).
The very last obstacle of the race as a jump into the icy river which one of the guys we met managed to catch on his Go-pro, I think the video tells the story better than I can....
We finished the course in under 1 hour 30 having passed all but 2 obstacles, not bad for the first obstacle course made from ice and snow I'd say.
Post Race Goodies
We also have a team photo taken, were given a protein recovery drink and were encouraged to go and change into our dry clothes (standing around in the Arctic in wet clothes is not recommended apparently, even if you are dancing...).
On the way to collect our bags of dry clothes we had prepared that morning we were given a beef wrap which my team ate in the changing room.
The final obstacle for our team was actually getting out of our wet compression gear! This took us way more than 10 minutes, as if trying to peel away a tight second skin, with the groans you'd expect to hear in the heavy weight section of a crowded bodybuilding gym.
Once suitably de-clothed, we all popped ourselves into the sauna in the changing room before a well deserved, long, warm and relaxing shower.
We'd also been given a Toughest Ice technical t-shirt after the race, which was particularly useful for me having packed very light and starting to run out of fresh clothes.
Post Race Afterparty
With regards to the food for the weekend, everything was all you can eat too, so no worries about starvation here!
It was a great atmosphere to celebrate with all of the other finishers in a huge tent with a DJ and music. We partied till about 1am before heading back to our hotel rooms to crash.
As my body was clearing itself of alcohol rather than using the protein to repair my muscles through the night, I woke up feeling as stiff and creaky as a tin man.
Not the wisest move in terms of recovery ever, but how many times do you get to party in the Arctic circle?
Staying at the Ice Hotel & Activities
The Ice Hotel is built up every year, with the old Ice Hotel melting in the Spring time, meaning that when you visit, it's a completely unique structure.
The Ice Hotel itself is very impressive and is made up of several frosty corridors containing sculpted rooms (with many rooms being designed by talented artists), which is kept at roughly -4°C.
The Ice Hotel is then connected to the warm area, containing a dressing room, help-desk , toilets, sauna and showers, so no need to get stuck to an icy toilet seat for those who are curious!
The "warm rooms" (in contrast to the "cold rooms within the actual Ice Hotel), were simple chalets, with a TV, kettle, bathroom and beds.
Sleeping in the Ice Hotel itself was fairly straight forward, although we were given a very descriptive safety briefing about how to sleep in a cold room effectively.
We were given sleeping bags for the night and some gems of advice such as where to go if there's a fire alarm, "make sure you remember to breath out of the hole in the sleeping bag" and "remember to go to the toilet before you go to bed so you don't have to get up in the middle of the night".
Surprisingly, it was only my team who thought so, maybe the other guests weren't aware they needed to breathe during the night? Who knows.
In terms of temperature whilst sleeping, you get given seriously heavy duty sleeping bags.
The kind of sleeping bags that are made for -25°C, despite being told to wear a pair of thermals and a hat whilst sleeping, I found the sleeping bag to be more than enough and went down to just boxers to sleep.
At roughly 7:30 the next day, you are woken up by staff at the Ice Hotel who present you with a cup of hot lingonberry juice. Not sure whether there is any scientific reasoning for lingonberry specifically, but it was lovely to be able to sip warm juice in a frosty room all the same.
Note: If you have the choice between a cold room and a warm room, choose the cold room on the day you're not drinking.
If you're drinking, not only do you want to stay in bed past 07:30, but you don't want the hassle of wrapping up in a heavy duty sleeping bag whilst drunk in the early hours of the morning.
Fortunately our team had a cold room the day before the race and a warm room the next night, allowing us to enjoy the experience of sleeping in the Ice Hotel whilst also having a well deserved sleep in after the party.
For those looking to cross it off their list, the actual location is said to be prime territory for seeing the Northern Lights.
Sadly we didn't see them ourselves during the weekend but prime time is said to be between September and March.
As such, you might be wondering what there is to do during the day if you're there for an entire weekend. For a price, Ice Hotel provides a wide range of local activities, such as dog sledding, trips on a ski-mobile, ice sculpting etc.
As my team had traveled from London, having previously purchased race entry, equipment and food along the journey, we started to feel our wallets becoming increasingly light, as such we decided to not take part in the additional activities, which were priced at upwards of 400 SEK (or £30).
I've included a snapshot of the leaflet we were sent so you can see a couple of activities that were available:
The race itself was well organised, the atmosphere was fantastic and post race recovery and amenities couldn't have been improved by much (Protein shake, beef wrap and sauna anyone?).
The only possible advice I'd give to race organizers would be some sort of sports drink half way through the course, apart from that it's very difficult to identify any other ways in which the race day or weekend could have been improved.
For those wanting to take part in Toughest Ice if it runs in 2016 (I expect it will). I'd begin putting some funds aside earlier rather than later, with the race and hotel package costing a cool £300, once you add in food, transport to the Arctic and suitable equipment, we're talking way in excess of £500, unless of course you live in the Nordic region and have a pair of ice-ready running shoes already.
Despite the price and the travel to and from the event, I'd thoroughly recommend this event if you're looking for something that bit different and aren't scared of a little bit of cold.
Or maybe is curious about staying in the ice hotel?
Potentially you know someone who found Tough Mudder too easy?
Then why not share this post on Facebook? :)