Armed with a sled, 60 earl grey tea bags, and 6 months of preparations, one gentleman decides to seek solitude in the icy heart of Sarek National Park, within the arctic circle. With the mercury dropping below -35oC, only the fluffiest mittens will do.
For me, the worst part of any expedition is, naturally, the life-absorbing amount of training that one needs to do in order not to suffer immensely for the entire time. For my Aconcagua expedition I went from unfit smoker to 6k ‘athlete’ in just 2 months (to be fair, I was pretty puffed out above 6500m, but that was probably more to do with my struggling acclimatisation). However, every single day of my life during those short months revolved around training, and work (one does need to pay for the vast quantities of equipment, afterall). I was doing cross-fit at least twice a week and found this a particularly effective training for core strength, as well as giving my legs some well needed attention. The organized group training element, and the fact that one is paying hard earned money for it, is helpful to prevent slacking with one´s training. Three to four times a week I would go running for around three quarters of an hour; either a straightforward run or an interval training session. Finally, I was just getting started with mountain biking, so this I would do a couple of times a week as well.
“From unfit smoker to 6k ‘athlete’ in just 2 months”
The biking, along with the running, were great for cardio and leg endurance, however, with such frequent training I found that my knees would hurt or that my legs were often ´burned out.´ By this, I mean that I could hop on the bike for a two hour ride and discover to my horror that my thighs were burning like hell after just five minutes. Once with such a leg burning occasion, I went out for a longer mountain bike ride with my neighbour Marnix; unsurprisingly, he´s avoided going with me again. We got back so late that his wife thought we had stopped at the pub! Clearly, I was not adhering to the recommended rest and recovery schedule that is so important for training, but with such a short time to prepare, I felt it was the lesser of two evils. This time I had longer to prepare, which is significantly better for not pushing the body beyond it´s natural limits, but found myself distracted by the indulgement of house redecorating and my partner. Life aside, for the most part I managed to allocate 3-4 days a week for training. Finding myself with a lacking appetite for cross-fit or running, I opted for mountain biking for general fitness, and tyre pulling with ankle weights for some targeted training.
Mountain biking has been the most fun and I truly enjoy all the palaver of sliding round cold muddy corners in Dutch forests, while occasionally being catapulted from my steed. Despite all the knocks and scrapes (more excitement than ability it seems), I relish the thrill and have found genuine pleasure in tracking my improvement through the months. I have become mildly obsessive with beating my timings around the local track and it has been great to help push myself, though somewhat demoralising after Christmas. Certain curiosities, such as finding that I am often faster at night time or that those rides which feel very slow but smooth often turn out to be the fastest, have made for some entertaining post-ride analysis.
Unfortunately, however, it does also appeal to the engineering geek trapped inside of me. This has resulted in numerous hours, and otherwise intended Euros, in tinkering away with the bike in the workshop. There’s always a price for fun, and the price for carbon fibre or shiny aluminium is not especially cheap. Luckily though, I have so far managed to avoid following the Dutch path of spending more than the value of my car on the bicycle. However, my aggressive riding style, which seems to lend itself to having a very tail happy bike which likes to drift around corners, in various states of control, means I have probably spent an unnatural amount of time tinkering with my tyre pressures and configurations.
As with my Aconcagua training, I enlisted the help of one of my best friends for tips with my training and all the usual post-workout natter about lap times, heart rates, gear ratios, and all the other elements which would bore the socks off any sane person. However, sane is not the word often attributed to my friend Ruth; as amateur triathlete, ultra-keen road cyclist, semi-pro ice hockey goal keeper (she´s tough enough to play in the men´s leagues and still kick ass), and fellow engineer, she´s perfectly placed to advise on anything training, fitness or bicycle tech related. However, I get the feeling that I´ve racked up quite the bill in cider for all the advice over the months.
“Tyre pulling surprised me”
Tyre pulling surprised me. More so the locals of course, but it turns out that I have found it unexpectedly fun. Fun is very much a relative thing, but in comparison to infinitely more tedious activities, such as road running, it´s a comparative Friday night out. Perhaps it’s the fact that it got me excited about the trip by the nature of the action, or its simply that it really allowed me to push myself in a way that seemed natural and doesn´t completely bugger my knees. At first, I found many bemused walkers keen to know which prison or asylum I had escaped from, as I dragged my solitary friend ‘Tony’ behind me. One even remarked, with a smile, that she knew another Brit, and they also pulled tyres. Is this something Brits like to do? The small sample size suggested so.
Once Tony gained a friend in tow, Terry, I found myself pulling my two tyres more at night, seemingly in the rain mostly (it is the Netherlands after all). The feeling of dragging a load, alone, in bad weather, felt that little bit closer to the whole point of it, while I also had to pause less frequently to explain my apparent madness. When I started taking Tony and Terry out after my shift at work, it cemented the view with my colleagues that there indeed must be something wrong with me, as long suspected, and that medical help should be sought urgently. However, the speed with which I was now pulling the tyres, in particular when interval training with them, meant that the men in the white coats would not be able to catch me. Is training alone enough for such a challenge though? Of course not; half the battle is preparation and having the right equipment for the job.
Read more about what is required to survive in the Arctic winter in “At -35°C the Right Equipment is Rather Essential” and how this expedition actually panned out in “Sarek Expedition – Part 1”.
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