Take to the trails – winter running at Icehotel
Running in the snow: rejuvenating or a recipe for trouble? We sent acclaimed travel journalist (and keen runner) Paul Bloomfield to the Icehotel to take to the winter jogging trails on our Wellbeing Escape.
‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the house… there was a strong sense of guilt. We’d let ourselves go a bit. You know the feeling: overindulgence at seasonal get-togethers, a couple of weeks of frantic pre-Yule preparation, plus a reluctance to get out and exercise in the cold, dark evenings. Result: an expanding waistline and stressed-out lethargy.
You might be forgiven for thinking that an even colder spot – the Icehotel, far north of the Arctic Circle in the cute village of Jukkasjärvi – would hardly be the ideal destination for a fitness break. But you’d be wrong, as I discovered when I got the chance to test-drive the new Wellbeing Escape – a holiday designed to boost fitness, albeit in a form that’s less barking-drill-sergeant bootcamp and more indulgent holistic retreat.
It incorporates an array of fitness and health activities newly introduced for winter 2014/15 to keep visitors glowing in health as well as spirit. At its heart are two big boons of the Icehotel: the clean winter air of Swedish Lapland, and the natural and artistic beauty of the extraordinary snow palace alongside the pristine Torne River.
I’m ashamed to admit that my good intentions for an Arctic health fix stumbled at the first hurdle. I’d not long sat down on the comfortable Discover the World charter flight to Kiruna when I was approached by a wily temptress (read: genial cabin attendant).
“Would you like a drink before lunch?” she smiled.
Er… tomato juice?
“A bloody mary?” she winked – “Of course” – and handed me a can of Big Tom and a vodka.
Never mind – there would be plenty of time to make amends.
Ready to run
We met our guide, Staffan, a little trepidatious – more about our garb than the prospect of a run in the snow. Let’s face it, at home we just don’t go running through snow at temperatures of -15C, because… well, it just doesn’t get down to -15C. Fortunately, Staffan is imbued with enough of that Swedish insouciance to soothe any fears. With long hair, beard and infectious smile, he looked the part of a mountain man (which he is). Checking we weren’t under- or over-dressed, he led us outside, scampering through the half-dark morning and into the powder.
Staffan has marked a series of running trails of different lengths through the Poikki woods – you can cover 2.5km, 5km and 10km. Bullishly, we opted for the 10km trail, not counting on the extra exertion required to traverse soft snow – like running on dry sand. The first 20 minutes or so were easy enough: just the gentle crunch of our trainers, the soft light of an ‘early’ winter morning (it was just getting properly light at 10am), and animal tracks leading off into the woods.
But then we hit the first real hill, and the fitness benefits of this trail kicked in. Testing enough in summer, snow doubled the effort required, and as we turned off the main tracks the drifts deepened, the incline got steeper and the breathing heavier. Soon we were lunging knee-deep through powder, picking our way around tree boughs bent double with the weight of white stuff.
As we crested the ridge and started trotting once more, a Narnia-like clearing opened up to reveal heart-stopping views down to Jukkasjärvi
It’s wonderfully disorientating in the snow-clad woods. An army of firs and spruces look similar enough in summer, but when sounds are deadened and everything is covered in a wan blanket, it’s surreally difficult to spot landmarks. Without Staffan and the trail markings (red for 10km circuit, blue for 5km) I would have been lost in seconds.
But the wooded hill was alive with its own special magic. As we crested the ridge and started trotting once more, a Narnia-like clearing opened up to reveal heart-stopping views down to Jukkasjärvi and the wide Torne River, with snowmobiles just visible zipping across its frozen edge.
“I like to think this is a suitable treat for the effort to get here,” grinned Staffan. Running can be rewarding in itself, but pay-offs like this boost the endorphins even further.
The return leg
Soon we started to descend, Making short hops and lifting knees high to clear the snow and stay steady. The snow softened the impact – a boon for those (like me) whose knees have suffered from too many hard downhills. Staffan darted ahead and gave himself a ‘tree shower’, gleefully shaking the end of a bough and standing underneath as it shed its white load on his head.
Reaching the valley floor we skirted through the open expanse of what (Staffan told us) is a swamp in summer. Soon enough we emerged onto the snowmobile track and ducked onto the road into the Icehotel. And yes – believe it or not, despite the ice cracking in my beard, I’d worked up a sweat. I could almost taste the endorphins surging.
How best to soothe those tested muscles? The new Aurora Spa at Camp Ripan (Swedish for ‘ptarmigan’), a 15-minute drive away in Kiruna, offered an afternoon of post-run relaxation – and despite being a spa-shy kind of man, I was quickly convinced. Handed a robe, a towel and a bucket of treatments as we stepped inside, within minutes I was inhaling piney steam in a sauna, then scrubbing my face with coffee grounds before experiencing the thrilling jolt of the ‘Torne Valley Shower’ – tipping a bucket of icy, pure river water over my head.
A footbath with juniper berries and salts eased the pins, then we gingerly padded through the snow to the outdoor hot-tub, steam rising around our faces as we gazed up at the star-studded canopy above. No northern lights, sadly, but they weren’t needed – instead, we savoured an inner glow that comes only from exercising in the greatest outdoors.