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‘Helvede I Nord’ – ‘Hell in the North’ – 24th March 2008

January 17, 2013

Helvede i Nord back in 2008 was my first trail run – a half marathon on Easter Monday, which I have done every year since, though never in such wintry conditions. Here’s the write up from the time.

As the train went north from Copenhagen it became clear that this was not going to be an ordinary half marathon. In town, the mercury had crept above 0 overnight – however north of about Lyngby, the ground whitened and by the time we arrived at Hillerød – the end of the line – snow was lying deep and crisp and even. Taking the small local train from there through the forest to just short of Tisvileje, the scene was just how you’d expect a Scandinavian winter scene to look – snow all over the place, coating each branch and the forest floor. I arrived at the start, 1 and a half hours north of Copenhagen, with 40 minutes to go and lots of heavily clad runners were wondering how long they could keep as much of their cladding on as possible.

The start itself was a few hundred metres from the meeting point, at the entry into the forest. I took a short jog along a main-ish looking path – it was slippery and covered in hard packed snow as everyone else had been trying out along that path too. It was clear that there would be an advantage to be near the front, where it would be possible to run on fresh snow. I lined up pretty well at the front row, though with some reservations – having never run a half marathon ‘off road’ before, I was not sure whether my usual pace – or whatever its equivalent was – would hold. I need not have worried.

We were off – along a gentle downhill single track road to lull everyone into a false sense of security. The first KM was a fast 3:48 – to finish in an hour and a half you need to average 4:16. 4:00 in the second KM, all seemed fine.

Somewhere around that point we were thrown at the first hill. Hills in Denmark are not very big – the country’s highest point is somewhere around the 150m mark – but they can be steep. The course was partly on ‘roads’ – single track forest roads, with 3 – 4 inches of snow on top of loose sand. One of the trickier surfaces to run on and I was glad to be near the front – I estimated somewhere in the top 30 or so. From about 2km onwards the ‘roads’ alternated with sections of path – in places reasonably defined and in others totally off all usual tracks. A favourite of the organisers seemed to have been that, in places where the path followed the bottom of a valley, to lead you straight up the side and along the rather more undulating ridge, before plunging down again and having to take a 90 degree bend at the bottom as you hurtled down between the trees on a snow-covered track wide enough for one person. It was massively entertaining.

The tracks brought us right into the forest and over several small, steep hills. By about the 7km mark I was running at the back of a group of 4 – well a strung-out-over-50-metres group of 4. I’d looked at the very vague map beforehand and it seemed as though the second half should be somewhat easier in terms of gradient, apart from a couple of long hills at 16km and just before19km. I overtook the 3rd in the group and caught the 2nd, then the first – though I hadn’t had them as targets, rather they seemed to just fall away quietly. I didn’t see any of the 4 until the finish, and from 10km onwards ran in pretty well glorious solitude through the monochrome world of the forest under snow. The paths were marked in places with arrows on A4 sized yellow boards, and more frequently with red and white plastic tape tied around trees. From time to time there would be someone standing at an intersection, particularly where one of the ‘main roads’ was left or arrived at, or at some of the places where the forest paths were truly indistinct. I guessed I was somewhere in the top 20 or so, and not having too many footprints to follow was grateful for one particular ‘usher,’ who directed me down a very concealed path to the left.

With footsteps deadened by snow and no other runners in sight it was a delightful race. From time to time when on a wider or straighter path, you could see the runner in front, maybe 200 metres -. Then a few minutes later you’d see him again – 50 metres in front. The next time 100 metres. We were chasing each other over snow-covered hillocks on a long-distance cross country run, fleetingly visible to each other. Ducking under low branches, vaulting over fallen trees. At 14km we came to the beach and ran up and down along the dunes; one runner overtook me here and I had no idea where he came from – I hadn’t seen anyone beyond me for a couple of kilometres. Just after 15km onto the beach itself – running in heavy snowfall along the narrow strip of clear sand by the water. 2 or 3 runners were visible through misty light, a couple of dog-walkers, and the small group of officials showing the way off the beach just prior to the 16km mark.

Off the beach, past a photographer, and up a steep hill where a small group of spectators were on hand to encourage you up the last bit. The hill was so steep it had steps – though these were of course totally obscured by the snow, so I just kept going as best I could. Not many footprints in the snow – I was somewhere in the top 20 for sure. From around here I was playing cat and mouse with a ‘Sparta’ runner who had followed me along the beach. At the top of the ‘16km hill’ he was right behind me, I could hear his breathing. It seemed that he was a good climber, though whenever we were on a downhill or level stretch I would pull away. I did that up to KM 17 – where for a few hundred metres the path merged with the ’10.8km route’ – and the stragglers from that course. It was good that this merging of courses only lasted a few hundred metres as it was not so pleasant running on paths that were either getting slushy or hard-packed with snow. It was uphill and I enjoyed flying past the tail-enders, up a steep section, until finally the 21km course curved away down a glade to the right. I drew well ahead of the Sparta runner, though he closed the gap on the ‘19km hill’ – of which I had overheard a couple of people speaking before the race. We overtook 2 people on the way up, though I was not sure if they were in the race or not, and by the time we reached the top, and were directed down a steep hill to the left, he was again on my tail. Down we went – I opened out and hurtled down the narrow path until a point where I slid on something (snow presumably?) and went flying head first down the path – the landing was luckily quite soft, I jumped to my feet and, finding myself still a good 10 metres in front of the Sparta guy, took off again, taking the steep right hand corner at the 20km mark and the last km turned out to be my fastest by a wide margin – fairly level and ending with a few hundred metres on tarmac into town. Another runner was making a fast finish and he overtook, though I myself caught the runner who had overtaken me just before the beach and managed something approaching a sprint finish. I shook hands with the Sparta runner, who finished about 10 seconds behind, and after taking on some water headed straight for the coffee and hotdogs. It was still snowing – my first off-road, snow bound half marathon finished in 1 hour 34 minutes and 27 seconds, and I later found out I was 12th out of 393. Pretty respectable!

Split times on the next page, also compared to my best over this distance which was last September – on a flat course I’d be about the same now as I was then. Whereas on my best run I managed between 3:41 and 3:57 per KM, here I did between 3:35 and 5:45 per KM – and did not stop to walk at any point! The effect of the hills pretty clear…

It was good to see my fastest km by some margin was the last one.

Split times

Record Sept 2007 This run
KM1 3:41 3:48
KM2 3:54 4:00
KM3 3:50 4:16
KM4 3:53 5:34
KM5 3:49 4:40
KM6 3:55 4:08
KM7 3:52 4:38
KM8 3:52 4:21
KM9 3:46 4:20
KM10 3:48 3:54
KM11 3:50 4:51
KM12 3:47 3:59
KM13 3:49 4:10
KM14 3:55 4:51
KM15 3:50 4:18
KM16 3:55 5:43
KM17 3:55 4:16
KM18 3:57 5:45
KM19 3:53 4:06
KM20 3:52 4:44
KM21 3:50 3:35
Last 97m 0:21 0:22

Fastest 3:41 3:35
Slowest 3:57 5:45

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