Ice Ultra: The ultimate challenge at -40C

Sky News correspondent Enda Brady had run 36 marathons when he took on the Ice Ultra, and it proved to be the most difficult challenge he has ever faced.

Every February, a group of endurance athletes gathers inside the Arctic Circle for a race that is as beautiful as it is brutal. The Ice Ultra is 230km over five days in northern Sweden and it’s self-sufficient, so each participant must carry their own food and medical kit, plus a few mandatory items, in their rucksack. Mine weighed in at 8kgs.

I’m from County Wexford and I live in rural Oxfordshire, so training for a race in sub-zero temperatures amounted to the usual mix of long runs, gym sessions and cycling. In hindsight, I would have been better off spending time inside a walk-in freezer and getting used to temperatures pushing close to -40c!

Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. I managed to finish one of the stages, while all the other Irish runners (Tom Reynolds, Tom Curran, Olivia Keating and John Belton) completed the five days.

Over the years I had run marathons everywhere from Dublin to Kenya, from London to Russia, from Amsterdam to Australia. But there was something very different about this race and it hit me as soon as I stepped off the train in the remote town of Galivare, from where we would all link up and get a bus to the start line in a national park called Stora Sjofallet. It was SO cold!

Once our kit for the week had been checked, we left the cosy warmth of the mountain centre at Stora Sjofallet and bedded down for the night inside a traditional Sami tipi, with just a reindeer skin each for warmth. It was around -25c and I struggled to drift off, wrapped up in my sleeping bag. Fellow runner Simon Blair was asleep in minutes and didn’t wake until 6am the next morning!

The first stage was 50km over icy roads, frozen lakes, Arctic mountains and tundra. There were four medical checkpoints on the route where runners could top up their (frozen) bottles with hot water and get warm inside a tipi before continuing their run.

I say ‘run’ but it was a mixture of running, hiking, trekking and exploring. At times I was covering 4km per hour, that’s how difficult the mountains were to get up. It looked like a frozen white desert. When we started at 7.30am, the temperature was around -15c, but when we finished 12 hours later it was pushing towards -40c.

Very quickly the field spread out with super-fit athletes like Jon Shields (the eventual winner) disappearing, not to be seen again until later that evening in Atkse, when we reached the relative warmth and safety of a log cabin where everyone would bed down for the night.

The scenery was spectacular and I felt blessed to be there. It was like something out of a film, but I didn’t take my phone out too often for pictures because I didn’t want to run the risk of getting frostbite for a selfie!

I covered the first 10km in 65 minutes and then put on my snowshoes (like a cross between a ski and a tennis racquet) at around 16km when it became clear that progress without them would be impossible. Up and up we went, getting colder all the time. This part of the route was along the famous Kungsleden (King’s trail) that was originally carved out in the 1800s to link the remote north of Sweden with the south.

When I reached the third checkpoint at 32km, I was shocked to see the brilliant Italian trail runner Filippo Rossi inside the tent, wrapped in a survival blanket, suffering from hypothermia. His race was already over and soon a helicopter would appear over the white nothingness and take him to hospital in Gallivare. I later learned that he had missed the first checkpoint and hadn’t topped up his water bottles.

The next 10km to the final checkpoint took forever and the cold was really starting to get to me. I’ll hold my (frozen) hands up now and admit that I cracked. It was just so draining and everything froze, my mind was all over the place and went to some dark places. At that very moment I hated running and couldn’t see how I could manage another 8km.

One of the local Sami guides told me that there were “4 kilometres up, then 4 kilometres down” before the finish line of stage one. I drank a hot chocolate and wolfed down some Italian shortbread biscuits I had bought in Lidl (they don’t freeze), then decided to get a move on.

Ice Ultra – Disaster strikes for Enda Brady

The sun went down around 5pm and I was running with a head torch on, following a white beam. It took FOREVER. Then disaster struck. My glasses froze to my face, I couldn’t see anything and wobbled off the trail. So there I was stuck in snow up to my chest.

Luckily, Simon Blair and David Mohring, two English guys I ran across Kenya with in 2018 in another amazing race organised by Beyond the Ultimate, dragged me out. But my snowshoes had broken; the strap at the back was damaged beyond repair, so Simon carried them for me and gave me his hiking poles.

We reached the log cabin and there and then I knew my adventure was over. The snowshoes couldn’t be fixed and it was impossible to go on without them. I will happily admit that this was a blessing in disguise. The first 6km of stage two were directly up Mount Kabla in sub-zero temperatures and I would have been an accident waiting to happen.

The Sami boys gave all three of us lifts on their snowmobiles to the end of stage two, a holiday village with gorgeous little log cabins in a place called Arrenjarka. There we piled into the restaurant, ate some reindeer burgers and chips, drank lager and listened to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ by ABBA.

Did it feel like failure? Honestly? I felt like the happiest man in the world for those few hours. And I take my hat off to the 10 runners out of 28 who completed all five stages. I was the only Irish person who didn’t make it, so maybe one day I will have to go back, put that right and complete the Ice Ultra.

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