The Sunday Times, December 28, 2014pdf_icon

Feel the burn on the Arctic boot camp

Ice-running is the magic ingredient in a sparkling new polar challenge. Duncan Craig strides out

We’ve been running through the forest for 10 minutes before Staffan mentions casually that it’s full of bears. That they’re hibernating is only partially reassuring. Surely they’re just going to be more angry if disturbed? Staffan’s not listening. He’s bounding on ahead, wild hair swinging, wearing the slightly deranged smile of someone in their element.

“I like running when it’s cold — it’s so refreshing,” he says, swatting a snowy branch with sheer exuberance. “The temperature adds an urgency. You run faster because you’re colder.” You might, mate. I’m struggling here. The snow is ankle-deep and the crisp, cold air alien to my pollution-accustomed lungs. I picture myself falling behind and being gently claimed by the snow. An ignominious end, not least because I’m wearing my wife’s long johns.

I’m in Lapland over Christmas, not to drop off my list to the big man, but to try out a new break offered by the Icehotel. They’re calling it a Wellbeing Escape, but with wilderness running and that notorious heart-pounder, cross-country skiing, on the schedule, it’s the closest thing you get to a polar boot camp.

Staffan — a sort of Bjorn Borg meets Bear Grylls, by way of Nirvana — offers tips on kit. If the temperature is “10” (they drop the minus in parts where it’s a given), he wears two layers. When it hits 20, “maybe three”. I nod, while mentally picking out the six layers I’m going to wear regardless. There are rubberised spikes for me to wear over my trainers, for added grip, and ice claws — short fluorescent spikes with handles, worn around the neck to ensure I don’t end up as part of next year’s Icehotel if I take a tumble through the frozen surface of the lake.

We set off at dawn. Here, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle in midwinter, that’s 10am. We run along the single street of the surrounding village, Jukkasjarvi, past the reindeer camp and 400-year-old wooden church, and out into the icy isolation of the boreal forest.

Rubberised spikes are fitted to my trainers and I’m given ice claws in case I fall through

This landscape definitely passes the enchanted test. Massed ranks of birch and conifer stand crystallised by ice. Fluffy flakes fall in the soundproofed stillness. It’s the prototype for a million crap Christmas grottoes. This is one of the least populated spots on Earth, but it’s far from uninhabited. Golden eagles, moose, lynxes and Arctic foxes frequent these parts. As do wolverines, strategic “sightings” of whose dog-like tracks prove a useful stalling tactic.

We complete a three-mile loop and head down to the frozen Torne river as a salmon sky signals the arrival of dusk. We’ve been running for just under an hour. Or, as I like to call it, “all day”. The ice is coated in snow, through which my spikes make occasional impact, like football boots on tarmac. The expanse is so large and devoid of focal points that I have a sense of running through a cloud not knowing where my foot is going to land. Huskies pass, hauling a group on a sled, the dogs yelping in excitement as we run alongside the train.

The coldness of the air seems to mimic the effect of altitude, making me pant harder for the same return, and causing my throat and lungs to ache. I’m also ravenous, because of the extra energy needed to maintain bodily warmth in subzero temperatures. Dehydrated, too — so Staffan drills a hole in the ice and fills a cup with the chilled water, fresher than anything I’ve tasted. Then we head back to camp for lunch in the Ice restaurant.

Conscious of the “wellbeing” nature of the trip, I try to keep it healthy: warm lingonberry juice, smoked Arctic char, rodbetsbrod (beetroot bread) for energy. But my eye and fork begin to wander. Pretty soon, I’m in the midst of a full-on comfort-food binge, gorging on moose carpaccio, scallops and truffles, then berry crumble.

With a full belly and darkness outside, I feel my resolve weakening, the boot- camp brownie points slipping away. Staffan is not the sergeant-major type — he lets logic do his shouting for him. “To survive up here, you just have to ignore your body’s signals,” he says. “The key is to get outside, stay active. Darkness is just a detail.”

What I think about that is unprintable — but what I do is smile willingly, switch spikes for ski boots and follow him back out onto the frozen lake. Soon I’m sucking in the invigorating air, endorphins flowing, my heart pumping like a weapons-grade pocket warmer.

I’ve never tried cross-country skiing, the full-body workout the Swedes call “swimming standing up”, but gradually I find a rhythm. We reach the opposite shore and enter the forest. At “night” it’s a different beast, ghostly yet somehow more inviting, frosted branches looming out of the monochrome quiet.

At length, we arrive at one of Staffan’s wilderness camps. A fire is lit using birch bark, which bursts into flames with the ease of a firelighter, and coffee is served with homemade energy bars — the perfect alfresco Swedish fika.

There’s a smudge of rusty orange on the horizon, and across the river in the distance, the blue-lit dome of
the Icehotel’s bar is glowing, guests in their Gore-Tex and reindeer jumpers having their neatly wrapped Christmas experience. I feel faintly intrepid, sitting out here in the forest in the polar night, in touch with my inner Sami. Fitter? I don’t know. Certainly smugger.

And, straining my ears, I fancy I can hear the faint sound of bears snoring.

THE BRIEF: Duncan Craig was a guest of Discover the World, which has a three-night Wellbeing Escape, including winter running, cross- country skiing, spa treatments, a night in an Ice Room at the Icehotel and flights. Prices start at £1,260pp (01737 214291, discover-the-world.co.uk).