A joyful day of pain

This year was the tenth anniversary of the 100k race called Thüringen Ultra ( http://www.thueringenultra.de ), just like five years ago they celebrated by adding a 100 mile Option. The date was fine, I was hungry for a loong race due to several missed ones this year, so I decided: This is the time to go 100 miles.

My preparation lacked quite a bit of miles, I knew. But I was determined, expected a lot of discomfort, a slow time, and wanted to have fun as much as possible. Usually, this approach turns out quite well for me.

The race is rather small, 120 100mile starter, 160 100k starter and some relay teams. It starts and ends in a village of 200 people, and roams the forest roads and trails of the Thüringer Wald, some German mountain range peaking at 900m altitude.

100mile starters had to pick their starting time such that they will reach 71k, the point where the milers reached the 100k route (at their 10k mark) between 4am and 7am, so that the entire field would not spread too much. I planned to leave at 7pm, as I figured 9hours for 70k must be fine. But on site several people told me they decided to go an hour earlier, as they were told that the first part was not as easy as it looked on paper. Also three pretty experienced people were on that wave, my preparation was already done, and I was eager to leave.

With a short intro a pack of about 40 was sent on the way, immediately easing into a slow jog, and out of the small village of Froettstaedt. We rolled through fields, woods, along train rails, over short hills, through open landscape which was kind of a nature’s reserve. Already before the start, I regretted having put some beans in the pre-race millet meal. Some gas did not find the exit, and I suffered more or less constant gut pain. During walking, I could massage it, but the pain stayed. In the week before the race I encountered a new nagging pain: the left adductor or gracilis hurt pretty sharply when running slow (presumably because I have a different gait running that slow). I could stretch the part and go on for another 200m, and had the issue again. This came up pretty quickly in the race too. I tried to change gait, run a little faster, stretched from time to time, and tried to forget about this pain, remembering the saying: ‘If something hurts at the start of an ultra, don’t worry, in the end something else will hurt (more)’.

During the first marathon, until it got dark, I went through all issues I had in the preceding weeks on training runs. They all came and went. Fortunately. All in all I could deal very well with the pain, in the sense that it never slowed me down.

The evening and the coming night were really nice weatherwise. We had sun, but no heat, and a gentle breeze keeping most bugs from us, despite some nasty horse flies, but no windchill. I ran with half length tights, a single thin longsleeve and my pack and was fine for the entire night.

When it got darker, I refused to take out my headlamp, as I so much like the dark woods, but unfortunately my companion at that time and me missed a turn on the perfectly marked course. There simply was no intersection, just two scantlings over a ditch. Someone behind us whistled and flashed his lamp, but stubbornly went on anyway. After 500m, nobody following us, I had a look at my watch’s navigation and saw that we were off track. When we found the improvised brigde (with headlamps the reflecting sprayed arrows were very well visible), we joined a larger pack and walked through the single track trail through something like a swamp. I would have liked to run, but 20+ people in front of me were not passable.

Right after the marathon mark aid station we climbed the peak of a hill leading to a long ridge with an exquisite single track trail. Unfortunately also with a significant number of roots which I had to learn the hard way on the first steps along the ridge. Some cut in the left hand bleeded a bit but I figured it would dry before I finish. One more spot of pain though.
The rigde was a wonderful experience. Just the way I liked running. A winding trail, soft ground, a bit of up and down, sometimes steep off to the sides, sometimes almost overgrown by the surrounding bushes. Every now and then, there was one of the lovely reflective arrows to assure us to be on track. I found my gear and headed off ahead of the big pack, knowing some 5 guys of the six o’clock wave in front of me. Right before getting down the rigde at the other end I passed two guys who started two hours earlier, taking the night easy.

Down in the valley we had to travel an endless bike path along a train track. What a contrast to the earlier trail. At some point I was unsure about the correct way and traveled back a bit until I met someone who assured me to go on. That was where we were passed by the first people from the 7pm start wave. Wow. They already made up an hour. At the next aid station there was a clash of those, the few slower runners we collected on the last mile and the big pack of my wave, who rolled in, when I was getting ready to leave.

Up we headed out of the valley, south back into the woods, up the next hill. With some orientation issues (there was no error for 100m, despite several (admittedly very small) tracks leaving our forest road), there was a longer line of small groups illuminating the forest with their headlamps. Sometimes two, somtimes more, several lonely runners, all heading slowly along their way. A pretty calmful portion of the race. At that point all the ‘we will be too early at the merging point’ chatter was calmed, we would not be there much before 4am, and to me it did not matter anymore. I just wanted to meet the 100k people. And I wanted to get as far as possible before being caught by them

At the merging point, 71k, at about 4:05am, I accessed my drop bag (the second, the first at the marathon mark did not contain anything I needed at that moment. Mostly because I needed no more than what was provided at the aid stations). I drank the beet root, ginger juice with some chia seeds, changed socks and shoes. Airing feet, a wonderful thing. Also, I changed to the very same model and size of shoes, yet they felt significantly different. Like i flattened the sole of the first pair a lot during the first part of the race. The other pair felt much more cushy. And fresh socks!

Also here I could finally hook my watch to a charger. I am a data guy, so having a full track of my run meant a lot to me. And even though I set my watch to a longer GPS polling interval such that it promised to hold for 12 hours, activating the navigation must have undermined that, draining the battery much faster. I could switch mid run to an emergency mode which polls even less often and shut down the navigation that the watch made it to 71k alive and kicking. Still a bummer. I need a new watch. Please Suunto release that Spartan Ultra already! I put the watch and charger in my pack and headed on. Now feeling the break, my fatigue, stiff legs and a bit of tiredness. Acutally, I was not tired the entire night until then, when the sky began to clear up again. Great!

The sunrise left me a bit disappointed. The lack of a clear view east is one of the very few spots the organizers did not plan properly. It just became lighter and ligher and then it was daytime again. This was about where the lead runners from the 100k race caught us. They blasted away like flying. Up a pretty steep slope. (Ok, everything above 3% grade seemed steep to me at that point.) Soon thereafter, I was eating some potatoe chips I got from my last drop bag, someone approached from behind, and without looking I offered some, just to recognize a friend, Falk. He shared a hug and his always supportive grin and went on, commenting my ‘you are among top ten’ with a ‘This is just a training run’. Later Aschu who drove me to the race passed by, again a much appreciated hug and encouraging words, which left my in much better spirit.

Somewhere around 98k I felt a sharp pain under my left foot. Like a pointy stone, which would not move in the shoe. I stopped, took my shoe off and found a blister, thumb sized, under the ball of my left foot. Darn. We already had some light rain, and some grass passages, so my foot was a bit wet too. I went on, not knowing what would be best, but decided to better tape the foot at the next aid station. Why I waited for that one, I don’t know. 2k later, I downed some coke, took a few waffles and another cup of electrolyte drink to a bench and dealt with my foot. Thankfully, Pat’s race report led my to the last minute purchase of baby wipes. They came in pretty handy to clean my feet before taping. I just put a large loop of Leukotape around my entire forefoot, covering the blister. I did not drain it, as my reading of John’s book was already quite a while ago, and I learned from some medic people that leaving a blister intact is the better option infection wise. That I still wanted to pound on it for 60k did not really go through my head then. I also taped the right foot the same way, just to be sure, and because I knew that it looked similar from the not-so-smooth skin under that ball like the left one. Here at this AS, I was passed by Alex and Kathi, who shared a bike on the 100k as a run/bike relay team. More encouraging words, some pityful looks because of my blister, and on they went.

At all aid stations I drank a lot. I do so every day, I figured my metabolism may be used to it, and this came out to be true. I sweated a lot during the night. And I did not pee that often. Usually, I drank half coke, half electrolyte drink, and when available broth, or tea which I mixed with coke to get rid of the gas. I was pretty happy to have the bladder of my race vest filled a bit, because I often had a dry sugary mouth a bit after an aid station. Just like the feeling when I fall asleep with a bonbon in my mouth (did not happen for quite some years now). Flushing the mouth with some water was a big plus.

Looking at the elevation profile of the race, I was always anxious of the part that laid directly ahead of me. A steep drop of about 400m, immediatlely followed by a climb of that same height. Running downhill was no longer fun (it has not been for some hours already). So I waited for the painful part. But it did not come. I went down gradually, more and more, but mostly on 3-4% grades. All runnable, for me in my current state. Only, I did not allow myself to walk, when it was neither to steep down, or up. So I ran for pretty long periods without stopping, which hurt in its own special way after some time. The blister was there, but seemed to be tamed a bit by the tape. And as we went down and down, eventually reaching an old railway track which was a tarmac bike path now, heading gently down into the valley, I realized that I was about to get that nasty looking downhill part done. This felt great. Despite the pain my legs were in for the extended periods of running. I threw in some Morton Stretches, which hurt like hell, stretching my quads, but I felt a bit looser after.

Reaching the downmost aid station was a relief and burden at once. I had to deal with my drop bag. Here I put my thick cushioned Torin, big enough for swollen feet (thanks, Cherie!), also I had to adjust to the weather. The nastiest rain seemed to be over though, so I did not change much. I also was in a very indifferent state. This was the point, at about 120k, where I just wanted this whole damn thing to be over. Good for my race, that the quickest way was to get moving and drag me to that finish line. That’s what I did.

Going into the 400m climb (now knowing that it won’t be steeper than 4% most of the way) it began to rain. And rain some more. And still. It was no big downpour, but a steady drizzle, getting into everything, and, even worse, constantly cooling me out. I had a hard time to run hard enough uphill to generate sufficient heat after I sat for 10 minutes at the aid station. This is where I lost the fun. It came back for small visits when people of the 100k crowd passed me and commented on how well I was moving. But mostly I was cold, drained, wet, tired, and in large pain. Speaking of pain (again), somewhere pretty early (50k, perhaps) I realized that the Butt Shield did not work as intended and I was getting the dreaded butt chafing. I got it from walking, and it hurt during walking. Not so much while running. So, just for the sake of pain relief, my walking breaks became much and much shorter. My running became much and much slower too.

One of the aims of this endeavor was to have spiritual epiphanies. I was pretty disappointed to stay pretty strongly connected to reality, for which I blame all the pain. When I looked for weird stuff in my perception, I found myself seeing animals all over the place. Horses behind a tree or bush, smaller things on the ground which turned out to be roots or fallen branches. At one point, I definitely saw a young boar, but strangely in this glow-in-the-dark yellowish-green. I rechecked and was sure that someone put a wooden figure of this boar there like there are wooden signs showing playing children in many villages to keep car drivers going slow. The thing was there. As I reached it (already checking for the neon-boar mother), it turned out a big rock with moss, mimicking the signing of a young boar. Well played. As this was the most significant kind-of hallunication, I decided to take the boar (maybe young) as my spirit animal.

During the last quarter, I got really tired from time to time. Never enough for my eyes to close automatically, but the urge to find a bench and wrap in my emergency blanket was there. Also, the pain and the senselessness of all this was getting to me. I was about to stop, and start sobbing every moment. Several times when this came up more strongly, I took this as an emotional and open moment, and directed my attention to the nice things aroung me. And surprisingly it worked. This emotional guy could as well get emotional over the beauty of rock formations, flowers, plants, running water, and whatnot.

I had some fun with Alex and his (shift working) bike crew, who were about the speed as me. And apparently, his buddies did not really think through what they had gotten themselves into agreeing to crew a runner for half a hundred mile race. The trail being as it was, they had a hard job to keep up on the uphills, and had to concentrate a lot on the downhills. Getting a sore butt, stiff hands. Being out there all night, or in the rain. All on the serve for a cranky runner. They had several louder arguings, but seemed to still like each other. This scenario cheered my up quite a bit. The crew mentioned that Alex promised to give them beer. And they laughed, when I told them, that this was a bad idea: They would be dead if they drank as much beer as they deserved for their ordeal.

After some more up and down through the woods, the route got to open fields, and it became clear that we approached the finish. It was still 20k ahead, but hey, 20k is an extended evening run. But usually, those hurt less. I let quite some people pass, fully settled into my shuffle, just focussed to keep moving. At one aid station, they had a barrow with a cozy blanket, and as I joked with the ladies running the aid station, that this is pretty appealing, I felt the urge to lay down there rising quickly, so I hastily got away.

During the cold, wet, windy hours, I refused twice to take a spare shirt of someone, just to ask the one guy a mile later, to lend it to me. Fortunately, the rain stopped quickly after and it got warmer. When we left the woods, the sun came out, and it became really warm. I met the guy again, who had shin issues, asking for ice at an aid station, and handed the shirt back. One thing less to worry about.

Soon thereafter I had a sharp pain in my left foot, it felt like running with bare flesh on rocks. The blister finally popped. 12k to the finish. I could not get much cheering out of the fact that my taping held up that long, but just gritted my teeth and stumbled on, waiting for the nerves to shut down, as I refused to listen. It somehow worked, but every now and then, especially on downhills, they fired up again. Making me wish for the finish line even more.

5k to the finish was kind of the party aid station. Run by a communal raido station, they asked for songs, the runners wanted to hear, and someone stood on a scaffolding tower with binoculars and checked the bib numbers. They announced every runner by name, saying some nice words, playing their songs. They even had some background info like how often the people already ran this race, how their finish times of the previous year was and so on. Reading about that circus beforehand, I was not sure, if I really would like it. But rolling into the AS, being announced, getting warm words, beeing cheered by a team of women with pom-poms was a great feeling, which lifted me up for another 800 meters or so. I was happy, even ran a bit faster after downing more coke.

But this high faded much earlier than I hoped for. The finish was so near, I could already see the landmarks, but the distance would not shrink. That the last part went through an industrial area did not help much after all the nice forest we roamed. About 4k to the finish, my legs decided that it is time to stop. I got cramps under my right foot, which I could only resolve by stepping on the egde on the sidewalk, pushing quite hard. Every 200 meters. I threw in some more Morton Stretches, but was about to cry every step. I did not, but stumbled on. And on and on. I was eagerly watching the distance on my watch grow, but it did not. Three or four people passed me in that last section, but I did not have anything left to clinch to them. No way. With all I was, I wanted to reach that finish line, and break down in tears. The last km-sign. Reaching Froettstaedt. Stumbling through small roads, around one last corner. Entering the finish area, seeing the arch. I was so relieved. Maybe happiness. Defintely pain. But also joy. The permission to stop. No more step to take. I flew over the finish line, somehow stopped. Got my medal and a milestone (the award for 100mile finishers) from the two little girls who handled the finish ceremony apparently autonomously, and they did it well and professionally. With my medal I stepped back , and got down to kiss the finish line, the most appropriate way to worship a place I so much longed for. After stepping aside for the next finisher, I already got a printout of my splits. Wow.

To get to an end of this report I spare the description of the painful shower, the delirium I was in on our way home, and the thankfulness I felt that Aschu drove me right home and I did not have to get my stuff by bike over the hill between his place and mine.

This was the singlemost painful thing I ever did voluntarily. Until now. But I did it. And survived. Again? Ask me in a week.

The data: movescount

A few words two days after: I am very surprised to regenerate that well. The blister still bugs me, but the butt was calm after some wound cream. I can, and could yesterday, walk down stairs, foward, without holding the handrail. I could even do this with a 30kg kid in my arms. I had no cravings whatsoever, after the race, the next day or now. I seem to have lost 1.5kg of body fat, which is in line with my expectation. I had no headache I have after a hard underwaterrugby tournament. I was a bit tired on Sunday, slept until 9am, slept an hour at noon, and half an hour in the afternoon. That is it. OK. my coworkers tell me I walk funnily, but this is because of the blister, and ‘some’ soreness mostly in the hips. And I love my compression pantyhose. Without it, my ankles were double the size. Maybe it also helps holding together the rest of my legs too. Still, my expectations were to crawl around for a week, requesting a wheelchair. This is so much better. So, maybe I do belong.

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