Info about the race
finally, I got a certificate to call myself ultrarunner, yeah! After two DNS earlier this year due to an urgent surgery and a muscle fiber rupture, things went fine this time and I got to the venue intact and with all my stuff (which means a lot of stuff, I am no light-traveler). I was well prepared, after all I am a theoretician, read a lot about timed events, loop courses and problems that could arise. But even the best planning is likely to be imperfect. I totally forgot about an important aspect, and from the beginning I made a terrible mistake and disregarded an important advice I read numerous times in the preparation.
But let’s begin from the start:
During the last year I more and more enjoyed following timed events and read race reports about those. Not that I would go for a short loop course in the first place, I love scenery, climbs, not so the descents, and I like traveling while running. But I found myself to be more and more interested in the spiritual aspect of distance running, for which a numb course seems to be much better. Beginning with the battle at Across The Years I found the idea of a short loop more and more appealing. Three Days at the Fair, The Six Days in the Dome and the 3100 mile race did their part. Actually, I read about the 24h in Rueningen https://www.facebook.com/events/715513731827574/?ref=22 (which is some part of Braunschweig, a city in northern Germany, quite near to the place I spent my youth) when I first got interested in the term ‘ultra’. It was a blog entry by someone who had been talked into running there by a friend and was just hopping on and off the course, enjoying the party atmosphere and collected 60k in between. At that time I thought those people are crazy. (Now I know they are;-) ) Lateron I became determined to go for longer distance races, followed the ultra list thoroughly and tried to learn as much as I can. I also tried to train as much as I can, with varying success. When my first two ultra-attempts swept away, I remembered the 24h of Rueningen, which I thought was the easiest way to go ultra. A 1k loop on rubber track, grass and cinder, no elevation change (oh, there was one step of about 10cm from cinder to grass niveau, I developed an intimate hate love with during the race). In fact the course was more a cloverleaf than a loop, with one not-so-nasty but nevertheless unnerving 180deg curve. A pretty local race as the results from the last years showed. Usually less than a handful of people above 100 miles. Start was at 3p.m.
My main expectation was to have a 24h meeting with the Blerch http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running , who treated me awfully on several of my long runs. I also expected lots of pain. And I expected some new experiences like the legendary flow, trance-like running and the like. I also expected to be totally wasted after the race, so I arranged that my kids were at my parents the days before, I could rescue my half-dead body there, sleep, and then return home with the kids the following day. What a well thought out plan. I somehow expected to not find some sort of feasting buffet there that other ultras are famous for, even though they promised a well equipped aid station. So I collected all sorts of possible race nutrition in a big box. (In the end I ate exactly the items out of my box that they provided at the aid station, but I had a choice!). On one of the photos from earlier years I saw a camping table with stuff from a runner, just behind the course barrier. What a genius! So I took our camping table. No squatting to get my stuff!
My goals were: – Keep moving for 24 hours (one particular nugget from the ultra list) – Do more than 80k in less than 14 hours (which is the distance and time limit of the first missed ultra http://www.brocken-challenge.de and which would give me an accomplished goal even if I did not survive the night. Let alone that there were 1900 meters of elevation change…) – Get a shirt, which requires 15k between 0 and 4 a.m. – Run during sunrise – Do 100k (because it is such a round number) – Everything above is unrealistic, but still a goal. – oh and one secret goal I will come to later.
Motivationals that I met throughout the preparations and the race: – ‘The one who always does what he already can do, will always stay the one he already is.’ (which is a double translation from ‘nothing venture nothing have’, but I like several aspects of Aschu’s german version better. http://einlauf.blogspot.de/2014/08/tag-der-entscheidung.html ) – ‘That is the test. That is why you are here.’ (distorted quote from Laz from Pat’s VolState race report. http://therunninghacker.blogspot.de/2014/08/vol-state-vignettes.html Great words!) – ‘Greet pain like an old friend who will accompany you on your journey.’ Still some double translation together with my own memory distortion. A quote from Chris McCormack read in the (non-public I guess) UTMB race report from Patrick (not McHenry). – The hundreds of stories from race reports I read over the last year, people recovering from complete breakdown, moving even though they were in the most miserable situation. I so wanted that too. Yes, with the misery! I would be getting it.
So I was prepared. Well prepared. I even brought a tennis ball as Pat McHenry distraction device (R). I had to make three tours to get all my stuff from the car to the tent. That and some dense traffic destroyed one of my well planned points: I did not have a lot of time before the race started, about one hour.
But first there was a happy surprise: Aschu and Sanna were there. I did not expect anyone I know on the course, even though it was so close to my former home. I was more the anti-runner at that time… I informed a lot of people beforehand that I want to go to that race, but no one wanted to accompany me. But there they were. A very good omen, as it turned out. They already had their tent put up, relaxed and made fun of all my stuff I brought. (I always had Laz’s words in mind: Take nothing, you will only lose time by fiddling with your stuff.) But they were really happy when I brought my camping table, and we put all our nutrition on it. But, first important mistake: I forgot to put my spare shoes. They were on my list ‘items in the box on the camping table’, but I did not put them. Mostly because of the short time until the start. After pitching my tent I hurried to get in my running clothes and attached the weather-proof hood to my box, and thereby forgot to chose a spare pair of shoes from the (no exaggeration) 10 pair of shoes I brought. A propos shoes: During my stuff sorting I heard a scream from the neighboring tent: Sanna brought two Leguanos for the race, two right ones. As she likes to run barefoot anyway this was more a reason for jokes than a race killer. So her primary goal was to extend the longest distance she ever ran barefoot, which was 56k. Before Saturday.
An aspect that made me worry a lot was the weather. Exactly with the race start a huge thunderstorm was announced by the forecast. Quite some rain, for 6 hours. So I made sure my gear in the box was water sealed, and expected to change my clothes and shoes after the rain. I even brought my surf boots for when the entire place was drowned. That was the main reason (together with short prep time) for my second big mistake: I put on a suboptimal shoes/socks combination. Too thick socks in too narrow shoes as I wanted to save the optimal configuration for the dry time. Desaster was programmed.
With a short pee break at the next bush (and nearly eaten by tons os mosquitos) I arrived at the start two minutes before 3pm. I found Sanna and Aschu and joked around with them. When the race started, I stayed with Sanna to chat, knowing that Aschu will be faster anyway. We talked for some rounds and found our pace to match perfectly. We began to plan walking rounds, bathroom breaks etc. in synchrony. And time passed. And loops passed. I had some trouble when eating milk rice in one of the walking breaks, after that my heart rate shoot up to 160, ouch. Maybe the humid heat did some part to that as well, but Sanna was sure that this was the natural answer of my body to processed food. Not only she runs barefoot, she also eats vegan food and had a nice collection of different fruit and seed pulps for her race nutrition. After that experience I stayed with generic cereal bars for food. Oh, and with the km going by we waited for the rain, which did not come for hours. We saw dark clouds all around us, even some far lightening, but we were in the lucky spot. Only during some 20mins we had very light rain, nah, that is not even enough to be called rain. I was much wetter from sweating. And my feet were hot. Plus the MaxProtection Drymax Socks I wore my orthopedic compression pantyhose which leaves the toes out, but still adds some warmth. I felt from very early on that there was not enough space in my shoes which inexorably led to blisters. I ignored the so often read phrase: ‘treat foot problems very early’. Second big mistake. If I had my spare pair of shoes at the table, maybe I would have changed early enough, but I doubt it. We were on autopilot when we realized that the rain would never come. There I should have dropped my thick socks immediately, do something for my feet. But at that time I already knew there were quite ugly blisters around, one or two even popped during the run, but the pain was sustainable, so we went on. I had quite some fear of getting out of my shoes and face the mess. Another thing that kept me going. Good. In me formed the certainty that when I step off the course, I first had to clean my feet, meet the medics and be most probably out of the race.
As it became dark we already passed our first goals, my unpronounced goal to become an ultrarunner had been checked, Sannas longest barefoot distance grew and grew. We received quite some encouragement from other runners. OK, especially her. Many were astounded to see her still cycling the loop without shoes. And then Aschu told us after taking the time to read the leaderboard that Sanna was second female, and pointed out the first, who was aiming at a Spartathlon qualification. We saw her moving mostly at our pace, then taking more and more breaks and eventually Sanna was first female. Wow. Suddenly I had an important job to do: accompanying the first lady on place. I thought of myself as a pacer and recalled internally the pacing discussion on the ultra-list. Then I smiled, how can a noob like me pace her, the experienced one of us two. Wasn’t it more the other way round? The leading position kept her going also much further than she thought. In the beginning she said that she has serious problems with sleep deprivation and wanted to go to bed early, get up in the night and do the 15k to get a shirt and go back to bed. Not now, we were on a mission.
Somehow after midnight, she got a bit slower than me (even more than me to say), long after Aschu had given up to the horrible playlist of 8 different German beat-music songs vaguely relating to running, and gone to sleep. She decided to leave the course as well. After travelling 81k barefoot. And me travelling the 81k as well. In under 10 hours. Incredible. Second achievement unlocked. I was so happy. and still totally afraid to look into my shoes, or even worse show my feet to the medics. So I asked Sanna to put my Merrells at our table. I never ran more than 10k in them as they have no cushioning at all. But they have a wide toe-box which I expected to house also my blisters. She greeted me on her way to the shower and said the shoes were there. Great! What a huge disappointment when I arrived at the table. Wrong shoes. OK, I should have been more specific, with three pairs of Merrells between the 10 pair of shoes in my tent, and considering Sannas exhaustion. It was not her fault. I thought my race over. It took me quite some overcoming to drop my niceness when I met her again after her shower and told her that those were the wrong shoes. I felt bad to tell her as she was so nice before. But after the next circle: there were the right shoes, what a relief. It took me another lap to get the strength to change the shoes. And I was lucky to be handed a chair inside the course to do the change. No wet butt, the grass has gotten quite humid. And no getting up from the floor. Uff. The light was not very good there, so I was lucky to only get a glimpse of the thumb-thick extensions that extruded from at least three of my toes. I was lucky to get the thin socks on and did not have to look at that for too long. Maybe another mistake, to not treat the blisters here, but I had no equipment at the table, and was not able to do the surgery on my own at that point in the race. I carefully put on the Merrells and was really happy to feel no narrowness around my toes, just wide open space. I got up and immediately had another nugget from ultra-list wisdom brought back to my mind: ‘beware of the chair’. Wow, my circulation had gotten so much down when I sat, that i could barely stand, I was really dizzy. Fortunately, there was the course barrier to hold onto. And I went a few steps, put together my determination and ran again. without pressure on the toes.
I could go for my next goal, that kept me from leaving the course when Sanna did: I wanted the shirt. That meant going to 91k. That is what I thought. After the 91 round I was done, wanted to be handed the shirt and go to bed. Whatever. But I saw on the leaderboard that I needed another lap. What is that? So I got back into my slow steady jogging mode and finished that round. But the look to the leaderboard also revealed: I was fourth overall by that time. What? Me? Not possible! I checked the other runners on the course, there were not many of them who went from the very beginning without break, maybe I was lucky that all the pros had gone to bed. And also, the next goal, 100k was quite close. I did not go get the shirt, but kept on. And went to 100 laps. What a feeling. I also realized that I was on the course for how many hours? 11 or 12? Incredible. Going to bed now did not really matter any more. also the next goal was colliding with that: I wanted to be out on the course when the day began. So I went on. Those three hours until ‘sunrise’ (it was entirely foggy due to the near lake and cloudy from the top, it just got less and less dark until the flood light was turned off.) passed in total silence in my head, just me and the course and eventually some other runners on cruise control.
One of my mantras during the alone-time was “I don’t care, I don’t wanna know” concerning my feet, other runners, music, weather, but also concerning my running watch, for which I really carefully designed a sports mode for that event, programmed a motivation app that showed graphically how many of my goals I already accomplished. Didn’t matter on my way. Maybe the watch dies from short battery, for which I wanted to monitor the battery and had a recharger ready in my box, I wanted to carry for some rounds until the watch was happy again. ‘I don’t care’. How true that was. And it felt great! That state resembled the most of what I was seeking spiritually. A happy void, all things from the normal world were so unimportant. I did not care. I just went on. and on. and on.
In the meantime another surprise happened: I became third overall and eventually second. What an energy boost. Around six a.m. Aschu was up again, told me how wasted Sanna was, and showed me who had the lead. Some pretty experienced guy, but it turned out, he was circling with the same speed as me, just taking different walking breaks. But he was out of reach by nine loops. Still it was a big motivation to see the leader not hopping around the course like a young deer, but also struggling. I did get a bit competitive with him, but realized pretty soon that with more than 7 hours to go, I would be suicide to ramp up my pace. Keep to what is working, it will lead you to great results. During the night I realized that my absolute secret goal, on which I wished to many shooting stars wishes, to reach a hundred miles within the 24 hours, I never dared to tell anyone, even tried to keep it secret from myself not to be totally demotivated when this fantasy goal got out of reach, became possible. I just had to go on like I did. There might even be some time left. Comparing with former results from that race, I should be totally amongst the first three with such mileage. Me. Wow. I also remembered the list-quote that a sub-24h 100 miler is easy in a timed race, but hey, we are not talking about a real ultrarunner, we are talking me now. Overwhelming. Motivation came also from a relay runner, whose base was just next to my table. At one of my feeding breaks he stood there and just asked: ‘individual starter?’ ‘yes.’ ‘stupid!’ ‘Maybe true’. But this little conversation made him a fan of mine, he encouraged me multiple times, when I was at my table, when he passed me on his turn to fly around the course. Thanks!
I knew that running in the Merrells might cause some more severe damage, especially to my arch. So I paid a lot of attention to my foot placement, to keep the cadence high (that one is easy in those shoes, but not after 17 hours of moving). Still I had more and more problems in my walking breaks. I got into a 5k-1k pattern somewhere in the dark hours which contained a little trick that also kept me going: The food table was 100meters downstream from the start/mat. So I began my walking breaks at the table: did a Morton stretch http://fellrnr.com/wiki/Morton_Stretch looked into my box what might match my taste (which was either a banana or a cereal bar) grabbed a bottle and went on. Stopping to run was a relief. The stretch made some funny noise, but felt good also, only walking became more and more painful, particularly in my right knee. When the walking round was three fourths done, I became afraid of starting to run again. This was the single most painful thing of the entire race. I had lots of thoughts to drop during walking, made stories why it is totally reasonable to stop here. But then came the rewarding beep, sometimes I stopped to look at the leaderboard to see who’s after me, and refill the bottle with some electrolyte drink which changed with the hours, and I went another 100 meters to my table, doing another Morton Stretch. But I was already a hundred meters into the course. No way I would turn back. I had to complete the loop. And It was running time. OK, creeping time. So I pulled myself together, took a few deep breaths, screamed a little and shuffled down the course. That hurt. When I hit the cinder, I already got a good gait, but still a lot of pain. When I turned onto the rubber track the pain had faded significantly and I was moving what I imagined could have been called ‘strong’. And I knew from the previous running phase that it would get even better. Round three was the best, mostly pain free and pretty fast. For me. After 17 hours. In round four my core muscles became crampy, running lost it’s fun, but knowing that there would be no severe cramp, and walking would hurt worse, I banked another lap making it 5k of running, before I tried another walking lap. This continued without end as it seemed.
In one very painful walking break, I saw Sanna who just got up, and went to the side of the track to chat a few words with her. After some compliments that I was still going, she asked me if everything was OK and looked quite worried. Sure everything hurt, that was what I expected. But somehow that made me do a quick self-inventory and I took a closer look at my knee for the first time. Reality hit hard. It was entirely bloated. I really was afraid to have done some permanent damage to it. This was no longer something to ignore like the blisters, about which I totally forgot in my trance. I must have looked awful. Totally exhausted, limping. I somehow decided that ruining my knee is not an option and that this is a good hint to stop my experiment. At the moment of writing this I wondered why I did not feel any regrets to drop my precious goals at that time. But I did not. It was totally clear to me that my journey was over. Maybe I already waited for longer that someone else gave me a signal to stop. Here it was. I banked my last lap. 135k. 18 hours 18 minutes. My first ultra. What an accomplishment.
And then reality hit even harder. How the hell could I forgot something so important in all my planning: I deliberately turned myself into a vegetable, and had no idea how I would get to my tent, let alone the shower and the medics. No way I would be able to get all my stuff back to the car, even with the five hours I still got for regeneration until the event was over. Darn. I crawled off the course, after a longer look at the leaderboard, a last time admiring the 2. in front of my name. What a glory. Then with tiny, painful steps, I reached my tent, had a hard time to get a towel, dry clothes and some shampoo. On my snail-way to the shower I crossed the ambulance with the medics waiting. They already wanted to keep me, but I said that I will stop here on my way back. Getting out of my clothes was a challenge. But opening my shoes was the real horror. The Merrels really have a huge toe box. They can easily host a sixth toe, or it’s equivalent in a blister. On both my big toes and the left little one. Extending to under the nail. Nooooo. The shower was no fun then. But when I finally got into my dry clothes, clean now, things were getting a bit better. At least the collapse of my circulations I expected after the end of the exertion of the race did not take place. After an eternity and quite some concerned looks from random people, I got back to the medics asking for foot help. And they refused. What? I thought those guys’ job was to stitch my feet to get me ready to go on. Apparently not. Good that I did not know that in the night. That way I still thought to have an option. So I asked them to hand me a sterile needle and some cloth. When I sat down to take care of my feet alone, one of them got cooperative and handed me some bandage and tape. And also some ice for my knee. So I retracted into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep for some time to get back to strength to get my stuff together once the race came to an end.
Sleeping was not really possible. No position that did not hurt badly, and much too hot, now the sun had come out a bit. And the music kept offending my ears. After two such hours I got up again and began slowly getting my stuff together. Funnily carrying heavy things was no problem. Back and arms were fine. But placing a foot? Horrible! By the end of the race I not only got my gear together, my tent put down, but also figured that I would be able to drive my car on the site. Which I did, and ate a bit after putting everything inside. I took the salty cashews that looked terrible during the night but were wonderful now and a bottle to attend the race ending and watch the awards ceremony. I found my former competitor, the leader, sitting on the ground, totally wasted, congratulated him and exchanged a few words. A nice guy, who was happy to reach his personal goal of 180k. We shared the Cashews and I fetched him something to drink and he got back to be able to stand up again. Unfortunately, ten minutes after the race ended it began to rain and my energy faded. So I decided to get to my parents, meet my kids without a trophy. But I would be their hero anyway, they cannot help, I am their dad. It is always embarrassing when they praise me in front of other people, therefore I would have been so happy to achieve something that was really extraordinary like being on the podium. But wasn’t the 135k already so incredibly extraordinary? I think so. Even if everyone I tell about that tells me I am crazy. Hell yeah! I am. And it feels good.
Now, two days later, I still cannot walk pain free, mostly because of the blisters. The knee is near the normal size but putting weight on it (or a kid) is still not the thing I like to do. I fear to lose one or two toenails. Slowly the numbness from my left foot goes away. Funnily, I have nearly no soreness, besides in the arches of my feet. At least no soreness that exceeds the pain from the blisters and the knee. I got some headache the next day as I did not drink enough the afternoon I got to my parents but that could be solved easily.
I am an ultrarunner now. And I was on course to be on a race podium. And I covered 135k. Me. Just incredible.