The pressure was on this weekend as JOK had laid down the gauntlet to other British clubs at Jukola, the seven man night relay held in Finland each year. In addition to some familiar faces in the LOK team (mostly from Happy Herts), this had encouraged a team of fresh-faced youngsters from Nottingham to enter. To increase our chances, Jon Cross had done a fantastic job in pulling together three JOK teams plus four women for Venla, the women’s race.
Things didn’t start well – most of our party was travelling out on the BA flight on Friday night but we were on the Finnair flight that was due to leave ten minutes earlier. You’ll note the “due to” – in fact, it left forty minutes late meaning we didn’t arrive in Helsinki until 11:40. It was then an hour and a half’s drive to the town of Salo where we were staying the night on a school floor. (After last year we had decided that two night’s in an army tent was just too much!) If nothing else, this gave us the chance to see just how light it stays during the night.
I slept reasonably well if not for particularly long. We packed our bags the next morning and made the short drive to the event centre on the outskirts of the town. Somehow everyone else seemed to know where to park whereas we ended up in the VIP area where they graciously allowed us to unload on the understanding that we would then move the car on to the correct parking.
By now it was still only about eleven o’clock but with clear blue skies it was already very hot as we headed in to the nearby training area. I followed Christine around for a few controls and then, when she headed back to prepare for her first leg on Venla, took a lap of the woods on my own. As in the past, I had a bit of trouble interpreting the patches of bare rock that provided the more technical parts of the map. I also managed to gouge a lump out of my shin by falling on to the end of a broken branch.
Venla started at two o’clock with the usual mass stampede of over 800 first leg runners. The spectators were unfortunately separated from the action by a large ditch running through the area but we had a good view of the competitors toiling up the hillside opposite to the start control.
Christine started well coming up 98th at the first radio control but as the course progressed she was obviously tiring, dropping to 152nd by the finish. After Nicky King and newcomer Jen Murphy had completed the second and third laps the team was down in 493rd place. However, despite being the victim of a falling rock at one point, Pippa Whitehouse managed to overtake 104 runners (including all of those in front of her on the run-in) to bring the team back up in to the top half in 289th place.
I spent the next few hours lying around in the shade of tent with occasional forays to stuff my face with as much turkey pasta as possible. Come eleven o’clock it was noticeably lighter than last year, mainly due to the cloudless skies though as the countdown to the start of Jukola began, the headlights still came on. As 1300+ runners sprinted out of the field a huge cloud of dust rose.
I stayed around long enough to see our three runners go through the first TV control and then headed off to bed. It was difficulty to sleep with the incessant Finnish commentary and the temperature plummeted as the night wore on. At about six, I decided to get up and watch the winning teams finish. This proved to be well worthwhile as the leading runners were wearing TracTrac devices and I was therefore able to watch the route choices for my lap being played out in front of me. You could also see where the gaffles were although these were fairly easy to predict based on densities of features on the map.
The finish was very exciting with Thierry Gueorgiou chasing down Tero Föhr of Vehkalahden Veikot. Watching the screen it was possible to see Tero fumble the penultimate control but recover just in time to race to the finish before being caught by Thierry.
At this point Steve Wilson had just gone out on the fifth leg for my team so there was plenty of time for me to digest a bowl of porridge. When Graeme Ackland came in to hand over to me we had slowly pulled our way up in to the top three hundred but at 294 I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.
By the third control I had joined up with a small pack only to take them too far past the next control. We were still together when we came to the long leg 9 to 10. From watching the leaders it was clear that we should start out along the track at which point it became clear that I was going to have to work hard to hang on to the group. Those in the lead made the decision to stay on the track all the way to the end and who was I to disagree!
Two kilometres later when we finally reached the control the group had become spread out and, after having drifted too far south on control 12, I found myself on my own. In some ways I enjoyed this experience as I had to work harder to navigate although perhaps it was just because I wasn’t running so hard!
It was only for the last five controls that I once again picked up another couple of runners which kept me going as my legs started to tire. As we hammered down the hill to the finish I pulled out in the lead only to go to the wrong final control (despite checking it out carefully before starting). Fortunately the others followed although I couldn’t hold one of them off on the sprint finish.
As I passed under the finish gantry the counter read 272nd – remarkably, despite my fears and being over 40 minutes slower than the leaders, I had actually continued to pick up places. (The final results show us coming 270th.) With only Duncan being higher placed than our final position it shows the importance of consistency. Most importantly though, we were the first British team home! The other two JOK teams finished successfully in a respectable 567th and 833rd.