Back in June, Barracuda Kayaks Athlete Kat Bulk lined up at the start of the Åre Extreme Challenge, in Sweden. Despite enduring a reasonably freshly cracked rib, Kat had a fantastic race, finishing 6th Elite Woman. Barracuda Kayaks was stoked to support Kat in her dream of racing internationally.
Words by Kat:
Its hard to believe I am in Sweden. Åre is reminiscent of so many elements of home, mountainous, tall green pine trees, steely lakes, and the quaint resort town vibe, greatly enhanced by the chalet-style apartments. In winter the village is a ski-in-ski-out resort, with chairlifts and cable cars descending directly into the town centre. In winter they get only 4 hours of days light. In summer, the sky never gets dark.
I got my spot at ÅEC through Kathmandu Coast to Coast. I am particularly excited about the river paddle, there are legends about the mountain run being covered in 2m snow drifts, and I have been training like a demon in the hope that there will not be too much embarrassment on the mountain bike.
John Carroll and Alex Hunt, my compatriots from Australia arrive late the same day after a mammoth fly-drive marathon travelling effort. It’s fantastic to be joined by these seriously accomplished athletes. Much craic and camaraderie ensues.
Traveling half way around the world to race is no mean feat. I take so much for granted racing at home, and feel nervous and out of place trying to get my self sorted. The biggest challenge is getting your gear sorted. Being able to hire bikes and boats seems fantastic, but concerns around being able to source appropriate equipment are compounded by staff at hire stores not really caring or understanding that for us, having the right equipment will make or break our race. None of us have come all this way to muck around with average kit.
Lesson #1 - Always take your own bike and as much familiar gear as you can get your hands on, you just can not rely on being able to get what you need in other places.
I am lucky to end up with a boat that suits my skill level and speed requirements, and to be able to borrow paddle gear that works perfectly for me. My bike too, although not what I had initially requested and paid for, ends up being pretty good. Not so much the case for the boys, but I don’t want to steal John’s exceptional yarn of woe!
We do some course recce and race prep together, excitement is high, and the banter is endless. My abs are aching from laughing so hard.
Low water levels in the river has led to the substitution of the river paddle for an 18km flat water kayak leg. It’s disappointing, but the freezing, rough weather gives us high hopes for lake based carnage. The biggest hope is that the cloud shrouding the peak of Åreskutan will clear by the time we reach the run stage. Running off a bluff or getting lost is not a part of the race plan.
Race day. It’s still freezing cold, but forecast to clear. Race clothing strategy is hotly debated. I opt for lighter options. I trust the forecast and know that overheating will be hideous.
It’s cold at the start. The wind is biting and gusting in strongly across the lake, whipping up a bit of a chop and making handling the boat awkward - I still haven’t mastered carrying my ski which is all curves and smooth surfaces.
Onto the water for the mass start and there are a lot of nervous looking paddlers wobbling their way through warm up. I am excited to get going. The start is frantic, but i purposely choose a spot of clear water, figuring that missing a wash at this point will be countered by not being tipped out of the boat by someone else’s exuberance.
4.5km downwind, I paddle high cadence and enjoy picking up a few runs, my technique is ugly, but I am conserving energy and my ribs for the battle back into the wind and chop. I make up places and survive the battle for the inside line at the bottom bouy. Back into the wind. I usually love fighting my way into a gale, but the extra exertion required causes pain to blossom across my chest. Sweeping and support stroking are the worst, but I thrash my core, to get some power:pain balance.
Wash hanging is easier up wind and I hold on to some sterns at the come past. People are tipping out here and there. I calculate my chances of being able to remount my ski, and don’t like the odds. I’m not feeling precarious though, so I curse at those who make me swerve and power on as best I can.
Portage. The wind and volume of my ski conspire against me and I wrestle the blasted thing around the grass chute and back to the water. The spectators are generous with their cries of encouragement, but I see pity in their eyes as they watch me flail at the mercy of my kayak. Shit my ribs are sore.
The second lap is rinse and repeat, but the wind seems to gust with increased enthusiasm as we battle back into it for the final time. I am really looking forward to getting on to the run. I have convinced myself that the kayaking would be the painful part.
I am wrong.
Transition to run goes smoothly despite and hands and feet lacking vital sensation. Into the climb. It’s really gorgeous, fairy tale forest, swampy scrambles, mountain streams and above the tree line, the blue sky is reclaiming it’s hold on the horizon.
I totally loose one of my shoes in the mud and plunge around up to my elbows for a while digging it out. Re-shod I hope that the extra layer of mountain side inside my socks will act more as lubricant than abrasive.
The climb steepens. The tape around my rib cage is stabilising the discomfort but hindering breathing. I gasp away, not really reaching any sort of speed I had hoped for. Scrambling over the bald rocks towards the summit, patches of snow, soggy ground. The summit has cleared in perfect time for me to snatch the most stunning views in every direction. Dark mirror lakes, hillsides bristling with forest, achingly blue skies and snow speckled peaks on the horizon.
I have been looking forward to the descent, figuring I will be breathing more easily and making better progress. Ironically the downhill run ends up being the hardest part of the day for me. Picking good lines and avoiding leaping down drops fails me, and my chest aches away as I have to use my arms and core.
Athletes barrel past, flying over the technical terrain. There are dark moments where I feel hopeless and cross that I am slow and hurting, but I know from experience that floundering in self pity will ruin the race, so I ignore my ego and try to focus on fast feet and not falling into the swamps.
There is a slippery traverse across steep snow, and scrambling scurrying over rocky fejls. Despite my discomfort and frustration, the glorious and spectacular nature of the run course is not lost on me.
The final kilometres into the final transition are on a dirt road, and exceptionally runnable. I can see the trail widening, and just as I am about to plunge onto it, I manage a spectacular face plant into the swamp. Things crunch on my insides and I curse like a sailor.
On the hard packed dirt my stubby wee legs tick over at a good pace and I feel good, I pick up a few places and my ego dusts itself off.
Onto the bike. It’s important to note, that before this race, I had sworn off mountain biking. I love riding road and have never put in enough time or energy into getting good enough at technical riding to enjoy it. All of this had to change if I was going to to survive the mountain bike without embarrassing myself, or breaking bones.
So I have spent the last two months exercising my mountain bike demons. Countless hours on the downhill trails around Queenstown and tireless patience and coaching from superhero’s Natalie Jakobs, Sarah Moreton and Gordon Robinson. I can’t recall how many times I sweated my way up Hammys in the snow, or forced myself out of bed at 5am to ride 7 Mile in the freezing mists. Turns out every second of that winter training paid off. I rode the hell out of the mountain bike course!
Flying through idyllic Swedish rural landscapes-Sound of Music on steroids, the sun howling down on me, I start to feel really good. My mood is somehow bolstered further by wrestling my bike through waist deep swamp. It’s not until you’re in waist deep mud that it’s true adventure.
Loads of technical climbing, head up and pedal, I ride it all, passing people the whole way. I feel like a rockstar, I know that a few weeks ago, a lot of this terrrain would have had me walking.
Flowing roads and trails lead back around to Åre. I am running out of food and water, the heat and the furious peddling take their toll, and the cramp sets in. I end up cramping so badly when I have to hop off the bike that my legs lock up! I spend several valuable minutes howling on the side of the trail, the pain is ghastly, how the hell will I finish this? Close to tears, I slap at my quads, come on, come on, come on!
Back on the bike. More climbing. Water gone. Food gone. Push carefully. Keep the cramp at bay. I am pushing at the edge of myself now. Hurting in the best possible way. Survive. Push. Survive. Head down. Eyes down. Push. Push. You’re good at this. You know how to hurt on the bike. You know how to find a little more when you have gone beyond having nothing left. God I love hurting on the bike. The masochist beast is satiated.
The final hill. I can’t ride all of it. But if I don’t look it in the eye, I can force the bike up most of it. It’s endless and hot and dusty and further than seems strictly necessary.
Now the flowing downhill. It’s probably glorious. It’s probably harder than what I am comfortable with. I hit it hard. I am too tired and too empty to care. Riders ahead of me dismount to negotiate drops. I’m not stopping for anything but the finish. Exhaustion catalyses the best riding technique of my life. Im loose. I flow. I look ahead. I trust the bike. I smash that downhill. Natalie and Sarah you would have been so proud.
A furious pedal to the finish. Or a survival pedal. At this stage I am no longer sure. A rider comes past, yelling Swedish-I guess he is telling me to get on his wheel, but he would equally be cursing me out of his way. I take the wheel option.
The final short hill. Finishing chute. My excitement at getting to stop overwhelms me briefly. So good to see the boys. They of course have both smashed it - so proud.
I don’t really think about how I have placed. I am so proud of myself for racing well and hard and for not giving up on myself even when the ribs were at their most tender (Gordon, you’re words inspiring tenacity are etched into my head). So it is icing on the cake to make it into the podium as a top 10 finisher in the elite women’s field.
This funny little kiwi came across the world to race, and she did pretty bloody well!
To all my friends and family back in NZ who stayed up to watch me, for your support and generosity in helping me to live this dream - thank you! (Especially Katy, Nat, and Alex for organising the raffle)
To my athletes, thanks for the training, advice, missions and inspiration!
John and Alex, was an awesome privilege to share this adventure with you you! Learned a lot, have laughed my way to better abdominal strength and am stoked for your results!
Cheers to Scott Cole and the team from @åreextremchallege, thank you for putting on such a gorgeous event - I loved this course, utterly stunning!
And of course, a massive thank you to Barracuda Kayaks for helping live my international racing dream - here is to more adventure and increased osteo-integrity!