The power of company. And patience. And joy.

[Rueningen 24h   2017  race report]

I did not want to run that race. Last year was a desaster, I went out with confidence, traded places with the big guys, and ran myself to pieces after the night. Holding on to my plan of getting onto the podium, no longer able to enjoy, or even think clear enough to adjust for my devastated state. I still made it to 155k, but I was kind of broken. So this year? No. The race was the weekend after my son turned 11 years. So it was preoccupied by a possible birthday party anyway.
Then I told him. He (and the two girls) were with me last year. Stayed at my parents place, ran a bit (OK, he ran 21k which was pretty impressive, as well as his soreness the next day as he is not used to running). He wanted to run that race again. And exceed his mark. So did the girls. Also Tom would be allowed to camp at the race and stay the night. And my two newborn nephews were to visit nearby too… Everybody was excited (my wife should at least get a weekend off), except me. But I signed up us four. And informed my parents about their duty that weekend. It was a tradition after all. We already did this last year.

The week before the race, everything turned 180deg. First, Ronja got an invitation to the birthday party of her best friend. On saturday. And a second one of two other friends. (directly after the first party…). Then Tom was invited for a birthday party on Sunday. That left Jule and me. She was overly excited to have a weekend with the grandparents all on her own. Two days before the weekend she got sick.
That left me in the miserable situation to leave Ilka with the three kids alone for the weekend, one of which was sick and two of them more than excited for their parties. But cancel the race? And miss out on my nephews? Not really. Everything was packed and planned.

So I went alone. I had some remorse. But not for long. An adventure was ahead of me!
After a visit at my sister’s, holding one of the twins for a while, admiring that featherlight and fragile life, I got to the race site, pitched my tent (in the definite intent to not use it, only as storage for my after-race clothes and shower kit). In a quick routine I arranged my aid station: a camping table with a big, water proof box of food, first aid, tech equipment on top, a box with a lot of drinks (green tea, organic coke and beet root juice being the most important ones) a water tight duffle bag with my spare shoes and clothes, nicely organized in plastic bags, and finally the folding chair for shoe changes, this year with a garbage bag as rain cover.

Around here I met the first known face: Steffen who chased me off the third place in our age group last year. With his new beard, I had never recognized him, gladly he recognized me. His goal was 200k, holy smokes. After running his first ultra a year ago. Admittedly, pretty well.
One more reason to remember my mantra for this year: I don’t want to place. I only want my 100 miles plus a tad, to go further than I ever did. No chasing the quick ones, no downturn by looking at people running at 5:30min/k after 20 hours. No, this race is for me.

Some changing, reapplication of Mink’s oil, a bathroom stop, and all was set for the start. I failed to find Steffen in the (rather small) crowd, saw a few faces I recognized, but somehow felt pretty alone. Groups of people chatting pushed that feeling further. A hello here and there, but that was about it. So I circled the cloverleaf in my own thoughts, when I was asked from behind if Hecke was my real name. OK, I told that story already a million times, but was happy to get out of my solitude. And the conversation with Ilka (not my wife, but the one ‘only 30k, I just had severe knee problems’, then going 40, running the night to get the precious night runner shirt (at least 15k between 0000 and 0400), running the half marathon (a somehow weird event within the 24h. A bunch of runners (most of which were running the 24h anyway) start to run loops together at 10am and their time at 21k was taken. Similarly, a 10k was held at the evening) and placing second…) held for quite some time until I had to let her go as she was too fast for me.

Somehow after this experience, I had more and more people to run and chat with. This seemed to be an self-amplifying effect. I chat with someone, a third person knows either of us, and so more possible conversation partners came about. I even dared to start conversations more and more easily. So the feeling from being alone turned entirely into some group feeling. Carrying and being carried. Caring and being cared about.

During the first three hours Andre, whom I chased through the night at my first time here, asked me about my goals, looked at my pace, and said the wise words: “If you want to go 160k, it is 40k every six hours. Nothing faster.” And definitely not what I was doing, running more than 10k per hour. As I did last year, with the known outcome.
So it was clear to me I had to slow down. Significantly. Only, I had so much fun. And would miss people to talk to who ran faster than me. During the third hour I took a longer break at my table and chatted with the relay team members left and right to my spot. This started my quest to slow down. And I did. Not by much, but by enough. Still enough people to share the loop with.
I had the phrase in my head (some ultra wisdom): “Run at a pace that feels like you can run it forever. Because that is basically what you will do.” How true. I found that pace, and felt great.

Some side stories that do not go well in the timeline:

Breaks. I had several potty breaks. The week prior to the race was already a test to my digestive system. No idea why, but I had problems all along. Usually when I run, I either have one stop pretty soon and am set afterwards, or the gut draws enough water that I have no problems at all. Not this time. Still this was only a tiny bit annoying. I could always grin about my ingenious ziplock bag with plush toilet paper, wet wipes and buttshield for reapplication. Why didn’t I think of this the years before? Anyway, something will be learned every year. This was one of the gems of this years preparation.
In the beginning I drank a big lot. At some point I had to pee every now and then, so decided to drink a bit less not to waterlog myself. (Another wise word from Andre made me aware of this).

Watches. The 24h on a 1k loop is an event where a fancy sports watch is pretty superfluous. Still I am a data geek. And I talked Toni from Suunto to give me a Spartan Trainer for long term testing here. So I had a 24h sports mode on my Spartans (of course one watch is not enough, where should the comparison come from?) with no GPS polling to survive the 24 hours, knowing the twisted loop would not be accurately mapped anyway. So, heart rate comparison it was. As I wore the long sleeve ASFM team shirt against possible sun and arm pit chafing (it fits pretty snug everywhere) The two watches with optical heart rate reading were hidden, and I worked with the Spartan Ultra, reading HR from the chest strap, giving manual laps every loop, so I did not have to read the quite confusing leaderboard for my lap count. OK, the board is fine, but as it shifts lines with every runner crossing the mat, I had problems reading it while just running by. So I had km splits on the lap table, very nice! And I had another reward every loop, that I was allowed to press the watch for another count up. On the Spartan Sport, I forgot to disable the 1k autolap, so I could appreciate a vibration every now and then, but at those weird short stepped 24h pace, the distance estimation from cadence was way off, at approximately 750m i had another 1k beep. On the trainer I began to click marathon splits. OK, the split for the first marathon. But this got funny over time, so my goal shifted from 162k to 169k, the quadruple marathon. Even if it was only for that one click.

Clothes. As I said, I wore a long sleeve. The only one on the entire course. And it was warm. Luckily this shirt cools very well when wet. And I was wet. I also wore my beloved compression pantyhose. Not this fancy Skins-orhowtheyarecalled sports compression, but good old fashioned prescription compression gear from the orthopedics shop. At least one advantage of my vein problems. So, long shirt, long pants, well pantyhose, and a shorts on top. Gaiters. I never go without them. And people were emptying their shoes quite a lot during that day. The cinder did a good job entering any shoe and puncturing foot soles. Not mine. The Mink’s oils together with plush Injinji socks, the pantyhose and the gaiters made for pretty warm feet too. But it was a sustainable heat. No real overheating. Thankfully, the sun did not come out much.

Competition. As I said, I was not in competitive mode. And talked myself out of it pretty strongly. One aspect that had me off this track pretty early was the announcement that three really fast guys, the national ultramarathon team from Cape Verde, were running Rueningen. I could not really see why, but the moderator explained it during the race: They wanted to run the world championship in Belfast, but got in visa trouble. So they backed off, and their coach, an Italian, heard from a friend, another Italian, who won Rueningen several years back, that this is a nice location to try 24h. At least those guys never ran more than 100k before. So, there was a chance of crash and burn for them, but still, it was enough that I let loose any hopes of placement. All the more as they were all my age group. Those three guys played the Kenian marathon runners for about 10 hours. Circling the course with blazing speed (sub 5min/km, I guess) in the group of three.
Their coach and his wife were amazing. Constantly mixing drinks, preparing food, combining supplements. They had a chair for every of the three runners at the barrier with their fuel for the next loop. The guys ran by, grabbed it and ran on.
After 10 hours, everybody on course could witness that those three were humans after all. They began to walk, one was having stomach problems, and they stopped longer and longer at their coaches pavillion. Complaining about cramps, fatigue, I duuno.
The coach did an amazing job of keeping them on course. He was supportive, when necessary, and absolutely merciless from time to time. I don’t speak Italian, but I am pretty sure that he did not use fine language when they were walking too much.
The three adapted. They ran whenever he was in sight, and walked when around the corner. Stopped for pee breaks at the bushes in the dark of the cinder loop, stretched in the outer corner of the field.
When the coach found out, he began hopping the sports ground, appearing here and there, shouting from unexpected points. Had his eyes everywhere. Poor guys. They were defintely not having fun. But they added loop after loop. Really impressive how they gutted it out.

Back on track: As night fell, I had my rythm, cruised the course. Had two or three emotional moments: The moon showed very early in the night. dark orange crescent. Wow. Around 9pm we had some rain. There was lightning all around for some time beforehand, but nothing reached us. Then the drops fell. Big, warm drops. In the beginning they were sparse, a splot here and there, then some hitting me, massive, but soft. The flood light made for a impressive visual effect. We could see the sky falling. Every big drop fell as fast as the others. No side wind. Just this ensemble of matter falling towards the ground. I expected to be drenched immediately, but it was not that much water coming down. Or not where I ran. This went on for about 20 minutes. Funny times. Then the rain decided to get us wet at last. It intensified, and soon thereafter my feet were wet, my shirt was soaked and the cinder ground began to form a swamp. Suddenly, the rain was over again. Two heroes of the volunteers began getting the water and mud off the cinder ground. We were refreshed, only my feet were wet. But I wanted to wait until the course was dry again before changing into dry socks and shoes.

Oh, this year, the region around Rueningen is pested by moskitos. Some runners were even attacked while running. I saw a lot of speckled calves. I had the wrong smell for them, so I was only under attack when I stopped, another thing that kept me moving
But the rain washed all moskitos from the air. Good stuff. Exactly in the time of the race where I expected them to become a major problem. Phew.
Another gift of the rain was my personal sink. I had the folding chair covered under a garbage bag, and it caught quite a deal of water. Yeah, now I had fresh water to wash my face and sticky hands from eating fruit (banana, water melon) or eneergy bars from the aid station.

I ran until 100k before changing shoes. Just because. Only to see that my dear Injinjis turned against me. I had several small blisters at the tips of my toes, and an ugly blister between my big and second toe. Good that I don’t wear flipflops. So I did not pull the fresh socks as tightly over the toes as I usually do. And changed from my Superior 2.0 (trail shoes, I know, but the sole is already pretty worn) to the new Escalantes. Starting to run, I felt the toe box too small, and the shoe too warm. Dang. Should I change again? I had both thin socks and my roomy Torin in my duffle bag (besides tons of other stuff of course). But another stop? No.

Around that time (2am) I got a bit chilly, maybe because of the stop, maybe because of the rain several hours ago. While running this was no problem, while walking I was too cold. Avoiding diving in my bag again, I decided to run in the moonlight runner shirt, was a bit disappointed when at my first attempt of collecting it, I was told that I need another loop, but this was easily done, and I had a T-Shirt to wear over the long sleeve. Problem solved.
Also wearing this shirt made me somehow running in stealth mode. It seems to be quite common that all people who get out of their tents at midnight to run the 15k don’t stop then, but run on in their new shirts. So about one third of the runners wore the same shirt. Pink paint on dark blue ground. Really good choice, I love it.
As the three Capeverdians were in a bad spot during the night, their coach was looking out for opponents chasing them. I was one of the people he had a closer look on, everytime I happily plodded by their station when his guys were trying to escape the circle of doom, as it seems to feel for them.
Not after I pulled on the shirt. I was one of many, and not being so closely watched felt great. Although it gave me some boost to see that I am somehow a threat to him.

I can’t remember when Henning and I synchronized. It must have been a bit after the shirt chase. He slept for an hour, came on course fresh and relaxed, and joined me. After another potty break on my part, we were at the same number of loops.
In principle, he is the faster guy. Sub 3h marathoner. Ran the Brocken Challenge this year over an hour faster than me. But he never ran over 50 miles. Yet. His goal was 150k. We chatted, and realized that our speed matched perfectly. So did our desire to take walking breaks and food stops.
Somewhen at night I settled into a rythm (keeping in mind that three years ago, I went along happily with a pattern of 5k run 1k walk) of feeding at the aid station, right behind the mat, walking to my table to eat/drink some more, do a morton stretch, walk another 150m to the cinder ground and run again for this and another three loops. Well, jog. He was fine with that too, so that is what we did. On end. Running was really fun. And actually walking was the non-trained part, so why bother. We usually ran the loop in 6:20 to 6:40, which is not really fast, but after 20 hours, it is. A solid pace, making up for the sometimes longer stops to chat and refuel.
We were right on track for any goal we set so far. 150k? No big deal. 100 miles? Easy. Four marathons? Doable if nothing crashes in that currently stable system. We had seven hours for the last marathon. Thus, no pressure, just keep on. Chatting, or in silence, but always in a good mood. We had quite a big deal of supporters by then. The Capeverdians had a lead of over 30k, and we had crept to a combined fourth place behind them. Many people who knew us, or with whom we spent some loops in the last day were cheering for us, a smile, a thumbs up, some kind words. It was a feeling of being home. Amongst my own tribe. How I loved that feeling, and felt it carrying my around the course.

The way to third place was too far. No way to catch up, as the three were still moving. But we passed them every now and then. Be it ten times? Or only five? I didn’t count. But it was obvious, we had the better pacing strategy. Every now and then we would hit a spot of painful running, or wandering off in our thoughts how long this would be sustainable. The slow rise of quitting feelings. But always one got the other out of these spots. Easily. Some story, or celebrating “Only four hours of running and we are allowed to stop”.
Then came the time for real celebrations. We made it to Henning’s 150k. We crossed 100 miles with 90 minutes to spare. It was an easy decision that we wont ruin the mood by pushing us to some other arbitrary goal, but rather we would stick together until 170k, the four marathons and a victory lap, and try to hop over the mat simultaneously. We had plenty of time. Chatted with his father who visited us briefly, with my mother who arrived shortly before the end in order to pick up my pieces and drive me home. She was pretty impressed to see us two in such a good mood, and still running strongly.
Half an hour before the end we sacked the fourth marathon, another celebration. Ate and drank as it was that time of the circle. And walked a final lap. Crossed the mat together for beep number 170, and ended that endeavour for good. Of course we had time for another two loops. But, why? There was nothing to gain from it. No placement, no other urge had to be chased. We were satisfied. So we sat in the finish area, eating ice cream (thanks Astrid!) and watching the relay teams set a new course record and then make a last lap in group, see the volunteers do a lap on that course of which they only saw a tiny part for the last 24 hours, see the winner run (really run!) his 200th lap and bursting into tears in the arms of his coach. Good times.

So, now that I cracked the code, I’d say too “100 miles in a 24h is easy” as I read on the ultra list a long while back. Checked that off the list. What’s next? Exceeding this experience would take another perfect day, perfect shape, perfect company, perfect patience and perfect joy. I doubt this will happen anytime soon. But Henning and I already started to make plans to run together again.

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