The Swedish Armed Forces Adventure Team showed they are as fast and capable at sea as they are on land when winning the Nordic Islands Adventure Race. They are unbeaten in all 4 editions of the race and beat 3 teams above them in the top 10 of the world rankings, when they crossed the finish line in Stockholm after 73 hours and 59 minutes of racing. They’d not slept in that time and had completed a course of 541 km, spending 1460 minutes in their kayaks as they paddled through the Swedish archipelago. (That’s just over 24 hours of paddling!)
The race, organised by Staffan Björklund and his team, had many innovative elements, incorporating a 24 hour race, which was partly urban adventure racing, and some unique mapping. There was plenty of Swedish flair and style in the race presentation, and the course showcased both downtown Stockholm and the unique and beautiful archipelago, visiting some of its 30,000 islands, islets and skerries.
“I planned the 24h race so teams who dream about racing in the ARWS could stand side by side with world class teams on the start line, and race together with them for 24 hours.“ Said Björklund.
“We have started and finished a lot of races in Stockholm, but have never had a pure archipelago race, so that was the plan for NIAR600k. I wanted to show off this beautiful and totally unique part of Sweden and the course visited some of my favourite islands.
“We gave the maps a lot of love on this race, creating the ‘cube map’, and the super-long map for the kayak leg. That map was 3.9 meters long and teams are saying we have the best maps in the ARWS. They loved the restart concept after the 24 hour race, and the fast boat ride out to the archipelago to begin the expedition part of the race, and everyone was amazed by the huge kayak leg and loved it.”
The race began in the stripped down, ‘industrial chique’ setting of an old slaughterhouse near the famous Globen centre in Southern Stockholm and the early part of the 24 hour race took place in the surrounding streets and buildings before moving out countryside. There were many special challenges, including the map in the shape of a cube, a slackline, abseiling off a building and one where teams had to carry a jerry can full of water.
This was to raise awareness and funds for the charity Wateraid, and water was very much a theme of the race. One of the top teams was sponsored by Orbital water systems and they are campaigning for more efficient water usage, and a lot of the race was to be spent on the water!
The Orbital AR team were in second place for most of the 24 hour stage, following Estonian ACE Adventure/La Sportiva, who won that race in 17 hours 55 minutes, taking a 58 minute lead into the expedition stage from the restart. There was another consequence for Orbital AR after a caving challenge which had a very narrow squeeze, one which was too narrow for Robert Lindberg as he emerged with some painful, bruised and possibly broken, ribs.
“After that our ‘big engine’ was underpowered,” said team captain Björn Rydvall. “Our team work was good, but instead of powering us at the front in the kayaks, as he normally would, Robert was in the second boat on a tow line.”
Even so, they closed the gap on the Estonian team during the monster kayak stage, which stopped at several islands for trekking and orienteering stages, and by the middle of the stage on the island of Utö the Swedish Armed Forces Adventure Team has also caught up, so the top 3 were together. World #1 ranked Raid 400 Team of France, who had a new, young, team member in Gratloup Adrien, were further back, lacking the kayaking power to keep up with the Scandinavians. (They are stronger in the mountains!)
Utö was an island familiar to the new team member of Orbital AR, Kristin Larsson, a former SwimRun World Champ, but with most of the island activity on orienteering maps with fine detail, any local knowledge wasn’t really helpful to find the checkpoints. Rydvall said, “Kristin had a really strong race and at this time all 3 of us guys were struggling so she was carrying 2 packs.” (Her last big adventure race was the 2012 AR World Champs with Team FJS.)
Leaving the island SAFAT took the lead and on the next kayak, crossing open water, that lead was significant. Up to then the seas had been calm and the weather very hot, but now a front with strong head winds suddenly swept in. The leaders got into more sheltered conditions just before it hit, but Orbital AR and Estonian ACE Adventure/La Sportiva were not so lucky, and the lead gap opened significantly.
It opened even more when SAFAT came ashore for the final stages and decided to push on to the finish with no sleep. They still had some orienteering and a long bike ride ahead of them, so it was a bold move. Rydvall said, “We were very cold and shivering at the end of the kayak, so we had to sleep, and so did the Estonians. I was impressed SAFAT were strong enough to go into the last night with no sleep.”
John Karlsson of SAFAT said, “Our game plan was made before the race with different options depending on the outcome, and the sleeping plan was to go all the way to the last two stages to avoid losing transition time.
“There is always a risk in not sleeping. It is super difficult to do double nights without sleep, but we had the opportunity to stop for a power nap.”
In the end they won by 3 hours from Estonian ACE Adventure/La Sportiva, and were perhaps lucky the final bike ride had been shortened, though it was still 165km! Had Orbital AR not spent a couple of hours looking for a checkpoint just 10k from the finish the Estonian team would not have passed them and they might have been much closer to SAFAT. Rydvall said ruefully, “We made the classic mistake of thinking about the finish line and not the checkpoint we were looking for!”
After their victory Karlsson said, “I think the main reason we won was a combination of navigation and tactics. This was only the 4th AR competition for our navigator Oskar, and I think he has already proven to be one of the sport’s best navigators. When we were in the lead, we did not want to invite any other team into the final fight, so we took the risk and chose not to sleep.”
The winning team was the same as in 2019: Karlsson, Oskar Svärd, Malin Hjalmarsson and Emil Dahlqvist and they are now looking forward to going to the AR World Champs in Spain in October. (Svärd is another Swedish racer who came from another sport. He is best known in Sweden as a world class cross-country skier and 3x winner of the Vasaloppet race, but has also raced at a national elite level in orienteering.)
Before the World Champs comes around SAFAT may move up from their 10th place in the rankings as a result of this win, and they will race against Orbital AR, Estonian ACE Adventure/La Sportiva and Raid 400 Team again in Spain, on a very different course.
The next race in the AR World Series is Expedition Guaraní, which will take place in Paraguay from July 9th.