Staffan Björklund is the course designer (and race organiser) of the Nordic Islands Adventure Race, to be held between mainland Sweden, the Aland Islands, and Finland in August 2018. As well as designing courses he knows the sport from the inside, having had podium finishes in the AR World Series and in the European Championships. He continues to race at the highest level. Over the years he has designed many short (5-10 hour) adventure race courses, in Sweden, Turkey and the Canary Islands, as well as swim-run races.
Here he talks about creating Nordic Islands Adventure Race 2018, his longest race as a course designer. The course is a secret until late July, but he has revealed that 65% of the Nordic Islands Adventure race 2018 will be on land and 35% on water.
What brief did you set yourself when designing this course?
I want to create a race that is for racers, a point to point journey without dark zones or tricksy challenges and which takes place in a spectacular environment. Races have happened in deserts, jungles and mountains, but never before in an archipelago. There are literally 100,000 islands between Sweden and Finland and this makes the area unique.
A second reason is that we are celebrating the 380th anniversary of the creation of the postal service between Sweden and Finland, under Swedish Queen Cristina, linking Stockholm in Sweden and Turku in Finland, so we will be following the route that these pioneers followed nearly four centuries ago. Also we will be passing through some of the oldest Viking settlements.
There are five or six spectacular moments on the course. For instance I think it is the first time that an adventure race has crossed a time zone, and it is first time that the sports of Swim-Run has been introduced into an adventure race as well.
I was talking to Craig Bycroft, Director of the Adventure Race World Series, and he asked if I knew anyone who might be able to design a course in Sweden because he’d like to set up a race there within the ARWS. I mentioned a few people, but then he asked ‘What about me?’ At first I said no, but a couple of weeks later I thought maybe I should. This was in February 2017, 18 months ago. I realised I would like to do something in the sport in Scandinavia.
How many ‘authorities’ (national parks, land-owners etc) have you had to deal with?
It must be thousands. It is different in the two countries, too. In Sweden we have a thing called Allemansrätten, a sort of right to roam, which means that you can enter any land, even pitch a tent, as long as you respect the landowner by asking permission or camping more than 300 metres from any house that is occupied.
I have lost count of the number of time that I have explained what Adventure Racing is to people who don’t know the sport and then I have said: ‘they might pass through your land’.
Of course, among the racers there will be a code that they will pay as much respect to the land as they can and that they will leave no mark of their presence.
What is the biggest logistical challenge?
The biggest challenge has been around safety, as you would expect, with so much of the course involving water. Everyone is concerned about it and we have paid it a lot attention – to the point where I think that NIAR will be safest adventure race ever held. The standard is that teams should be able to look after themselves for three hours after an incident: here we can get a helicopter to them within 90 minutes. Two doctors will be travelling with the teams as the organisation moves forward along the course, and there are safety boats and staff on the course – though hopefully the racers won’t notice.
Sourcing boats has also been a challenge.
What effect have the long hours of daylight had on your planning ?
Well, it means I can work 20 hours a day…
It gives us the chance to have a course with lots of water but no dark zones. The only section we need to be careful of is the long open-water crossing from the Swedish mainland to the Aland Islands, and we have designed things so that people will cross this in the daylight.
Teams that come to a swim-run section during darkness may find this a challenge
How do you test the course? Do you do it personally?
We have tested every section of the course personally, often several times – even now, a month before the race, we have kept some sections of the course flexible.
How accurate can you be over timings? Is there a reduction in speed resulting from exhaustion?
It’s not so much a reduction of speed over time as after the first day. People move very quickly on Day 1 but they slow down a bit on Day 2 and from then on they tend to move at the same speed until the end of the course. I reckon I can predict the winning team’s time within 30 minutes.
Are the things you have learned not to do?
There are some ideas we have considered but which we have given up on quite quickly, usually because they will turn out to be too expensive or too time-consuming to organise. We would love to have had a section of roof-run in Stockholm – it might have been 2km long – but it would have taken too long and been too difficult to organise, so we dropped that pretty quickly.
I have designed the course three times now. The first course had too much logistics. The second was too hard and I think only 5 teams would have finished.
On the course we have now, of the 22 teams I think that between 15 and 20 teams will get there. We don’t have a cut off; there is a pick-up zone for an early finish, but teams can continue till the end if they wish. That said, it’ll be a tough course. There are a lot of big seas and no race has been done in an area like this before. One big concern is hypothermia. It can get really cold out there, even in August.
Is it a better course if some people don’t make it?
I believe we need levels of races in AR. The ARWS championship should test the best teams in the world and there should be a handful of races of this level. However, I think we need other races that are at other levels too, to help the sport grow.
What is a successful course?
A successful course a non-stop journey on a point to point course with no dark zones, with a good mix of long sections and shorter, faster elements: it should be testing for racers, but surprising and satisfying for them too. And it should be beautiful, of course.
Also, it should also be entertaining for observers. Adventure Racing needs to create a new audience, re-activating people’s interest from the early days of the sport 20 years ago, and then drawing in younger viewers as well. A huge number of people express interest in the sport, but so far nobody has been that successful at spreading the message.
There are so many stories to be told out there. We just need to find a way to tell them.
See more about the Nordic Islands Adventure Race.