The Lysefjord in Norway stretches for 42 kilometers, making it literally the ideal place for a race over the classic marathon distance. Ideal, yes, but also a little obvious. A place as tough to reach as this deserves to host not a “boring old marathon” but one of the world’s most exciting ultra-races. Cue the Lysefjorden Inn – 62 km, mostly over challenging terrain.
The first 25 kilometers are the toughest. Following a short opening section over asphalt that stirs false expectations, the competitors embark on an exhausting exploration of Norway’s abundant wild side. Trodden paths are thin on the ground as the route first climbs incessantly then drops abruptly, over rugged rock formations and through thick vegetation. Here, speed is less important than making it safely to the first refreshment stop. One misplaced step could mean race over. The first breather comes at 25 km; a sliver of time to refresh lungs and water bottles alike. Yes, 25 km of hard yards covered and this is the first drinks break. The thing is, though, this being the land of waterfalls – a.k.a. natural fountains if you’re a runner – the next one is unlikely to be far away. Waterfalls, say the locals, are actually trolls relieving themselves from the mountain tops (!). Not that you’ll care if you’re competing in one of Scandinavia’s most thrilling ultra-races through these intoxicating landscapes; the here and now trumps the ancient world of folktales.
“Lysefjorden Inn” as this particular ultramarathon is called, leads along the banks of the Lysefjord, perhaps Norway’s most inaccessible and visually arresting waterway. The 62-km route incorporates 2,500 meters of elevation change. The time limit for the event is 14 hours 30 minutes. And there is precious little by way of infrastructure in the shape of roads and resupply camps.
The race is run along the northern shore of the Lysefjord, some 40 km from Stavanger (Norway’s fourth-largest city) in the south west of the country. The fjord is known in particular for the spectacular Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), which the runners encounter – towering up into what is surprisingly frequently a blue sky – at roughly half distance. Formed in the ice age, this platform of rock 600 m above sea level ranks as Norway’s most famous mountain. Around 200,000 visitors make the pilgrimage here every year, driven by a desire to soak up the incredible vista from the top. These trekkers approach Pulpit Rock from the rear, though, rather than the inaccessible fjord side.
The Lysefjord runners’ journey begins with a ferry ride to Oanes, at the entry to the fjord. From there, they set out on their adventure over a short stretch of blacktop, before the rough stuff kicks in through the cliff-lined landscape, over mile after mile of ever-changing terrain. Robert Ekehaug, a Norwegian ultra-racer from Ganddal (near Stavanger) has run the Lysefjorden Inn many times. “The first time I did it, I took two different pairs of shoes with me,” he recalls. “One for asphalt and one for the trails.” By the end of the race, the second pair were exhibiting much the greater wear and tear. Since there are barely any roads in this part of Norway, the competitors can only count on two refreshment stations – after 25 and 49 km – in addition to the one at the finish. “But that’s not an issue,” says Ekehaug. “There are so many waterfalls here, the guys can just fill up as they go along. And that water is much fresher than the bottled stuff anyway.”
Another highlight of the route is the village of Flørli, which the runners pass around the 47 km mark. From there, a wooden stairway – at 4,444 steps the world’s longest – heads from a disused hydroelectric plant up into the soaring cliffs. For those who fancy a quick dash up here as an optional extra, the event organizers have a second competition up their sleeves: the Flørlitrappne Opp – essentially the challenge of taming this maddest of staircases. A 50 percent gradient, 1,470 m of pure distance and 741 m of elevation await.
The finish line for the Lysefjord ultra-race is Lysebotn. It wasn’t until 1984 that a road was built to this remote village, and for safety reasons it is only open in summer. From sea level, the road snakes its way through 27 hairpins to an elevation of 600 m, making it one of Norway’s most uncompromising mountain roads. Previously, boats were the principal means of transport in the region. Which is one reason why the run usually takes place in early June, when the snow is gone and temperatures are mild.
The 2018 winner? Norway’s Tom Erik Halvorsen – in an astonishingly quick 5 hours 47 minutes. Next man home, three-quarters of an hour later, was Halvorsen’s compatriot Knut-Magne Hauhe.