You can probably guess by the rather unnatural looking -30 degree tulips that Penguin made it. All that gives away the previous 200km of torment is the slightly mad expression, my very relieved wife and brother… oh and the block of ice for a face. Phew, that was tough.
I crossed the finish line in the dark after skating for 9hours 27minutes, a Penguin world record. I also came both first and last amongst humans, the 200km race having been lessened to 140km due to poor conditions making the circuit around the frozen Lake Kallavesi shorter than usual. The race organisers however said I must do the full 200km on my own if I wanted some Tulips. No, they let me attempt it because of the cause. I said I couldn’t hold my head up high in Great Ormond Street Hospital if I hadn’t tried the 200km… it was on race day that I realised I might not be able to hold my head up at all when it duly turned to ice within 5 minutes.
The start was delayed until 9 a.m. (normal time being 7 am.) due to the arctic temperatures – It may well have been pushing -30, but add windchill to that and you’re looking at -50/60. When I saw the Finns complaining about the cold and covering their faces with insulating tape I started to get worried. Rather than starting with the bang of a gun, Timo simply said something along the lines of “ok, you go can now;” typical Finnish understatement.
At the beginning of the race I managed to stay with a medium fast peloton for the first couple of hours, a peloton being a group of skaters. The great benefit of this is that one is almost pulled along – wind resistance nil. The downside is that one’s main view is of the next skater’s derrier and not of the ice cracks. A few people had gone down before I too caught an edge and unceremoniously stacked it. After sliding a few meters on my belly, Penguin style, and having checked everything was in one piece I caught up with the group – no one stops for you here. Once a group of skaters gets even 100m ahead there’s no catching them. This happened when I had to change my goggles which had frozen up. That’s when things started to go downhill. I tried to fit in with another peloton but it was hard finding people who were going at the right speed. In the end Penguin went solo, the positive to this was that I had a better view of the cracks, the downside being that with wind resistance I was putting in an extra 30% effort to keep the same speed, let alone body warmth.
After 80km I genuinely thought I wouldn’t make it. I was exhausted. I thought this might happen at 140km, not this early. This despondency turned to near depression when after 4 hours I decided to take a wee break at the farthest point of the course. For the next 5 minutes I fumbled with my gloves and 6 layers of clothing to Free Willy. My hands weren’t functioning. You know those brain teaser Christmas presents where you have to figure out how to free some piece of wood from a block? Well it was like that. But a bit harder. It must have been really quite funny if it wasn’t so serious. By the time it was over, I had no feeling in my right hand, and my mindset for the next 3 hours was not good.
I should point out that whilst I was playing at brain teasers, Ela, Angus, Dad and cameraman Ed were dutifully waving me on and offering much needed encouragement. The temperature peaked at a balmy -20 at midday. And although the sun was shining God knows how they managed to avoid frostbite as they basically stood there waiting for me to come round again. Ela was particularly tested when the area around my mouth froze over. My hands being immobile meant ela had to feed me. Wedges of Soreen cake and flapjack were force fed through an ice tunnel before entering my mouth, or often just into my beard. At least this led to a useful emergency food storage area for later on.
Another unexpected effect of the cold was the ice. In Britain, ice is ice. The idea that you get cold ice simply doesn’t register in our warm, naive brains. Of course all Scandinavians know that at -20 and below, crystals form on the ice. The effect being that it feels like your skating on sandpaper… a lot less slidey.
I think it was around the 140km mark, when everyone else was ending their race, that I started to see a glimmer of hope. Surprisingly my speed was still pretty constant – about 22kph – and the ice crack crashes had not completely written me off. This slight reversal in mindset had a huge impact. When your body has nothing left in it, keeping going becomes a mind game.
Having that bit of hope really helped. And I needed it because by now the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping with it. There were a few kick-sledgers still on the lake track but apart from them it was pretty empty. The quiet, epic landscape was glowing red in the dusk and if it hadn’t been so bloody cold I think I would have got my camera out. I was all alone in the arctic wilderness. As it was, I just kept focusing on the cracks – this was the same throughout the race. If I looked away for a moment, I was down. If I thought about someone’s nicely knitted Moomin scarf. Down. Cracks really did keep one’s mind focused.
By the time it was dark Timo had got into his 4×4 and was chaperoning one pretty chilly Penguin with the car headlights. Also in the car was a paramedic in case things went wrong. It is quite an experience skating on natural, cracked ice at the best of times. Doing it in -28 degrees by the light of a car is more interesting. Even more exciting is when the car stops because Timo needed to tell someone something and I carried on into the darkness. I wasn’t sure whether to post this video clip due to Ela’s use of my nickname and the fact that many strangers will probably be watching this. However I feel satisfied that my embarrassment is worth the joy it may bring to others. And I if there’s one thing wearing a penguin suit on Finnish National news teaches you it is that nothing else can hurt you.
After that incident the car didn’t leave me alone. The last 15km’s were pretty emotional. As I crossed the finish line to the deafening cheers of, oh, about 10 very brave people, I swear I would have cried if my tear ducts hadn’t been frozen. It was all very Hollywood as we hugged and I was over indulged with compliments. When a Finn says you’ve done well, you take it as a compliment. And I did. Frozen tulips and all.
Just like to say thanks to everyone in Finland. You’re a very special bunch, all the more so for taking a stranded Penguin to your hearts. Timo, Arri, Apa, Ekko, and Kaija in particular. I can’t recommend a trip to this awesome country enough…go,go,go.
Thanks too for everyone’s wonderful donations to Headlines and Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. It will mean so much to them. We are nearly there with the fundraising. So please chip in if you’d like to help.
And to my friends and family who have supported, inspired and been bled dry by me. And lastly to Ela who as you can imagine has put up with a lot of antisocial behaviour these last few months. x.
I had many strange and wonderful experiences in the run up to the event, but I’m keen to get this post on the blog today. I will hopefully put together something for the Guardian shortly (Copy and paste?) which will have some of the classic moments, including the ferrero rocher moment with the Ambassador, as well as Penguin’s brief foray into Finnish television. Watch this space. Now i’ve just got to get some minor frostbite of the chin sorted out. So much for the beard.
I’ll leave you with a very special moment.