Arschkalt, Knallhart, Wunderschön – vBC 2021 race report

(disclaimer: in case you find overly enthusiastic words about my shoes this run, be aware, I got them for free. Click on the team red logo to your right for further info)

I dislike virtual races. Why, oh why, should I sign up somewere, to be on some list and maybe get a medal by post, to finally run in my backyard as I do all days? I see that some people rely on race goals to keep them motivated. This is the same with me. When I have a hundred miler on the horizon, I better get my ass out the door. But, virtual race? Where’s the fun in that? I have so many ideas for journey runs in my drawer and just need to make time for them. No, virtual races don’t cut it for me.

Then came fall 2020 and the ASFM had to decide about the fate of the Brocken Challenge 2021. We checked hygiene plans, asked about regulations and stuff, how we need to alter the concept to be allowed to hold the BC anyway. There were many good ideas, like holding the briefing on the outdoor soccer fields with a roof. Picture that. Friday night, 18:00, -12 degC, sitting on a soccer field, an even spacing of 2m between each runner… In the end, all we got from authorities was that no one could foresee how the Covid-situation will be in Feb 2021. So we called it quits and decided to announce a virtual BC with some signup page and a big shoutout to give donations anyway and maybe run around your house. Because donations is what the BC is about. Yes, it is a very well organized winter ultra. But it’s main purpose is to generate donations to local initiatives, usually in the order of 30.000 Euros each year. We did not want to let those down, as money is pretty tight these days when everybody just stays home.

Somehow, I was convinced that from those people I face in the auditorium each year, a significant portion would run the route anyway because of tradition. So would I. Maybe it is just a handfull, but I imagined around 30 people on the way. But asking around it became obvious that its just me. I pondered a bit with the nagging thought that we cannot tell everybody to run at home and then run the route anyway. But that was an easy fix. I actually ran at home. Started the watch at my door, and 2k later passed the start line. The BC is at home. I had to get my logistics fixed, and was lucky: Kathrin would sacrifice her Saturday afternoon to get me back home safely after giving company to the summit and back to Oderbrueck to the car. And Michael promised to have some warm water at his car in Barbis for me as he wanted to run up and down the second half of the BC route. 40k on a single fill of my race vest, easy. another 30k with 2l of new water, no problem. Eating nut and fruit bars all day would give me anough condensed energy. Salt pills. The plan was ready.

Then came the snow. I loved it. For cross country skiing. But when I scouted the first few km of the race route, I found it covered with knee deep fresh snow. I tried to lay tracks. Running was hardly possible as my heart rate shot through the roof if I tried to keep that up for longer. This for 80k? No way. But I got Kathrin covering me, she would get me wherever I decided to quit.
But it was not only snow. With it came the cold. I did not really believe the forecast. Catastrophies usually only happen in the forecast and on the very day, the weather usually decides to go moderate. Not this time. The almost -20degC in the nights came. Saturday was supposed to start out at -18, fog in the valleys that I had to travel, lateron in the afternoon moderate -5degC and sun. But up in the higher regions there was supposed to be wind. Cold management was the order of the hour. In the week before I tried many combinations. Whatever made it into the final list got washed over and over from one trial to the next.

The final combination was: Odlo Boxer Shorts, mid length Bergans merino boxer, nike winter running isolation tights, nike normal tights. Injinji trail socks crew length, DryMax calf length thick winter socks, Altra KingMT (if they would produce it with spikes and a thicker upper material, it would be the perfect winter shoe. see?), Gore runing winter gaiters, calf length Outdoor Equipment GoreTex hiking gaiters. Campagnolo turtle neck base long sleeve, WAA running TShirt, SuperNatural thick merino long sleeve, Salomon thin fleece long sleeve, selfmade PowerStretch mini skirt to be used for kidney or balls warming, Odlo stretch jacket with kind of a membrane in the wind exposed areas, covering both me and my running vest. One Buff around the neck (and for face protection) two as a beany and another beany (hello, Bilstein-Team, I need a new one some day, the stretch wears out) and my Lupine Blika on top of that heap. Campagnolo acryl gloves and Innov8 smartphone gloves on top. Quite a lump of fabric. But worth every square inch.

My race vest included: a space blanket, an emergency bivouac sack, the usual first aid kit (Mullbinde, Tape, Skalpell, Pinzette, Asthma Spray), bag balm, Cellphone, charger cable and adapter for the Lupine accu, tissues, emergency gloves (freezer bags and rubber bands), two replacement buffs and two different pairs of socks in case my sock setup would not work, ID, bank card, health insurance card, Organspendeausweis, some cash, and an action cam I wanted to use to take short videos of the interesting parts for next years briefing, 2l of water in a bladder with insulated tube, salt caps, 8 fruit and nut bars, a giant almond cookie. I did not weigh it, but I assure you, the entire thing felt heavy.

My aim was to pass the starting line around 6 am, but as I did not have any appointment so I took it easy and left home around five to six. Worked my way up the hill in very cold and really dry air. The snow felt like it was dry frozen. There is a certain sound to that which I usually like. That morning, it was pretty frightening. I went the usual way to the start and refused to light up my headlamp, only to make a serious missstep and roll my ankle. In the way I did half a year back and had serious trouble with. Oh no. Let’s not stop this adventure 1k out. I simply continued and tried to not bother too much and to my surprise the pain faded quickly and never came back the entire day. I might have woken up some people with my angry scream whan it happened though. Up at Kehr, I was happy to meet a person with a sled. It was Markus who showed up at 5:45 in case some weirdos would be there. But nobody came. Except me, a few minutes too late. We exchanged some words and he even got up the stone for me. What an honor. But I could also feel how much this meant to him. To send at least one person on the way. It felt weird that he did not jump off the stone and ran with me, but just waited until I turned a corner. His active BC days are over. This made me sad.

I crossed the Kerstlingeroeder Feld. No torches to lighten the way. Just a small orange band behind the woods. Was I that late? well, February 13th is quite late for a second Saturday of the month, still, I felt like I lost too much time. The way over the field was as I remembered, although some more poor souls had left their traces it was not really runnable. Well, I wanted to see how far I can get in this weather anyway. No idea what the route would throw at me. What a relief that after the field, the forest road was cleared of deep snow. Yeah, proper running where I almost despaired a few days ago. At Mackenroeder Spitze I could already turn off my headlamp and was greeted with a majestic sight. The Harz in the very distance, very clear in front of a dawning day, still a thin band of orange, but already showing the power of the sun. All valleys packed in dense low fog. The heights peeking out of the fog leaving land marks to me where I will go to reach that point on the horizon where there were some spikes on the biggest hill.

See the Brocken? I do!

I worked my way down and through Mackenrode. Into the cozy valley to Landolfshausen. Here again running was not so easy as tractor tracks frozen, concretelike made it hard to find a good footing. I later learned that the profile of agrculture tractors are much better suited for my shoe size and step length then the harvesters of the foresters. Those things were a mess to not roll my ankle. A bit sad from the missing aid station and pushed by the more and more prominent dawn I passed Landolfshausen and crossed the Seulinger Warte and dropped down in really dense fog towards the Seeburger See. I imagined people here who have no real grip on the route. The zigzagging is obvious if you can see. But if you don’t it’s easy to get lost there. Along the lake I started feeling bad for birds that took off for me. Hey, I won’t do you no harm, trust me! In the fog the sun coming up had no meaning to the temperature. The cold creeped into the tiniest gap in my layering. I had to keep running to stay warm. Luckily I had no problem to run longer stretches at once even though my legs were quite heavy from the start. Maybe tapering has some meaning? I should again read into that. When I left Bernshausen, right before the weirdest front yard of the region, I spotted a dead bird in the street. Apparently run over by a car, but after he froze. With sadness I turned my head onwards only to see a frozen dead fish in the middle of the street. Totally surreal. I stumbled on, wondering what encouter this was.

The long road in Rollshausen was annoying as ever, even without the food stop before. Oh, food. I realized that I drank, and especially ate too little. I was not hungry, but I knew I needed to keep up the input from early on in order to stay able to eat later. The aid stations help really well with this. Of course I do not eat on runs shorter than three hours. And I don’t need to drink too. But after these three hours, I was home and could refill with whatever I want. Not here. I needed to eat, even though the bars were hard like stone and I needed to drink even though this meant fiddling the tube out of my armour, drinking through the first icy sips until nicely body warm fluid came, and in the end blowing the water back in the tube so the tube and valve did not freeze. Although under my outer layer, pretty near to my body, the tube once froze and I was about to panic because I could not imagine eating snow for water, as I needed every calory of warmth inside my body. I worked the tube, broke the ice into pieces and sucked the fluid water up into the icy spots. I think it took five minutes to get this resolved.

The freezing hydration and the creeping cold made for some really existential fear. This is not the weather a human being is supposed to be outdoors and survive. This is hostile. There is a chance of survival with good planning, good gear, proper shape and a portion of luck. This was one of the rare occasions that I was glad I put on some weight over the last year and had some additional bioprene that a runner usually dreads. Of course I could have found a house to ask for help in case things would go down the drain completely, but ultra running relies quite a bit on neglecting such easy ways out. I really felt humbled by the elements. Got a good taste that I am in fact a very fragile being. I had to get out of my jacket at one point to take off my vest to reorganize. The outer layer was frozen solid and on the second layer I had loads of snow. Condensated sweat inside my jacket. Crazy stuff. From time to time my head would hurt from the cold reaching through the (admittedly wet) hat layers.

Leaving Rollshausen, I saw what must have been a prank by someone: The entire bike path from the village to the big road was hip deep full of snow from the plowing. Only when the path crossed the small bridge, someone shoveled away the snow that one person could have walked the bridge. But there was no gap to enter or leave the way. It was a small channel in a sea of snow without entrance or exit. Crazy thing. I so wanted to take a photo for the next briefing, but could not for the life of me take off the jacket to reach my phone (the action cam died already shortly after Mackenrode. I was pissed, but also happy that I no longer had to deal with it.) Bummer.

I was expecting some rough footing when crossing the Hellberg. But when I reached the intersection I was still shocked to see a single trace of foot steps climbing over the snow dam to the side of the road up ahead towards the Tilly Eiche. Yes, some deer tracks merged that trace later on, but I just had the choice to step into that persons steps or work my own way through the deep snow. I chose the former but could not run a single step. What a big relief when I reached the forest road and it was cleared. Yej! Only to find the way down after the summit to be completely virgin. Argh! OK, more deer traces, and they combined to a 10cm wide string of packed snow, but running on that stuff was also not possible, as I slid off the packed part into the deep snow anyway. So, my favourite part in the first half of BC, bombing down Hellberg, turned out to be hard work. After some loud shout of relief, I realised two people with a dog nearby the foot of the hill. Ooops.

I almost missed the famous corner and ate quite a bit on the way up to the Kapelle, to be greeted by the sun up on the hill. Whoa. This felt great. Still freezing cold, but the sun warmed my heart and got my mind out of the dark spots it circled before. I also felt the biorythm to get to senses. This is a proper day now. What struck me already earlier was that stretches that I rememberd taking forever now just slipped away under my feet. It was a bit like in the Momo story. If you wish it to be over and rush, the end will not come. If you take your time and don’t think about the next corner it will come much earlier. That way, I was pleased how ‘fast’ I went through many stretches of the BC that got me eagerly waiting for the end in the last years. But I ran slowly. All the time. I never really got out of my comfort zone with running. Cold management it was. And taking on what the way threw at me. And Kathrin would start only after I crossed Lausebuche, so no need to hurry. On the long bike path towars Rhumspringe, I felt my hands getting more and more cold. I did not want to reach into my vest to get the emergency gloves, as this would require taking off the jacket again. Not here, not now. But I figured, I do not need the long gaiters on the calves as the two socks and two tights did a good job keeping my lower legs warm. So I took off the gaiters and put them over my under arms, so I could hide my hands a bit in them. This worked. Not immediatly, but step by step my stinging hands warmed up and around Rhumequelle I had feeling in all fingers again and the pain was gone.

The Rhumequelle in all its beauty.

Rhumspringe came much earlier too. But the Tiefpunkt was again a low in temperature as I dipped in fog again ofter rolling down the hill from the Kapelle. I very much enjoied the snow around me now. Beautiful trees, bushes fields. The spring unfolded its special athmosphere for me and I took a short break for photos. Upon self inspection, err, a selfie, I found my head full of snow. What? It did not snow at all that day. It must have been frozen condesated sweat again. Wow. What is hardly visible on the picture is the state of the buff that I most of the time had in front of my mouth to warm the air as my lungs stung pretty sharp when I inhaled the air directly. Of course moisture from my breath made it wet and whenever I did not breathe into it, that water was immediately frozen. So, taking the buff down for a few seconds meant blowing on it to get it stretchy enough to go into position again. Then, I could no longer lift the buff up completely, as the lower part froze to my beard. Ouch. But when I did not try to get it off, there was no problem, so I left it. Later that day, I decided to get it replaced by a dry one and found a lump of ice frozen to my beard of the size of an egg. All moisture from my breath. Impressive.

Why does the back of my head feel so cold?

The way through the woods after Rhumspringe was again a mistery as I took my time, worked a lot every minute, but they passed kind of effortlessly. I was out the woods in no (felt) time and ran, again happily in the sun, towards the turn to the Einsiedelei. The more I approached it, the more I looked frantically for the turn in the road, for some dent in the wall of snow. Well. Apparently, that road was not important to anyone but me. And a few deer. Whoa.

Follow the white rabbit, err, the deer tracks.

This was again unrunnable. I stumbled along the tracks, working through hip deep snow banks. Only when the slope was a bit steeper I could just run through the deep snow. Easy is different. I wondered more than once if Flo had to run over such surfaces in all that years. Laying the tracks for others to follow. But I figured he does barely hit the ground and must just fly over it.

Nice, eh?

Reaching the houses, there was a clear road again, and I could resume running until the corner. The famous corner I always promise myself to run to before walking again. Yes, at this point, my urge to walk is always high, even without snow, even when running is so much easier. It is OK that my legs are tired. I will reach the marathon point soon. And so it was. I shuffeled on, and looked again into my mail for the license plate of Steffen who promised to put some stuff for other runners in the trunk of his car at Barbis. I was so glad to reach this magic point. Even though I was the only person here, the warm water from Michael and the open trunk of Steffen’s car carried much of the warmth of this place. The cheering crowds were here in my head as the volunteers, the other runners, passing by, chatting, eating, drinking. All a bit knocked on already, but eager to go on and reach the Brocken.

Not that I needed a sign, but I loved seeing this.

I took my time. Figured out how the water container worked by flushing half a cup on my right shoe. Well, now the water ist warm. But later this would fire back with stings of cold. Took a banana, a Weizenbier and coke from Steffens aid station and reshuffeld my equipment. When I reached Barbis, the sun was cozily warm. But when I took of my jacket and vest to reorganize, the sun hid behind some clouds for a few minutes and I immediately felt the cold creeping in again. The everpresent enemy. So I finished my drinks, thanked the donors a lot in my head, and got both the big cookie that I planned to eat on my way up to the Bundesstrasse, and the emergency gloves out of my vest to have them at hand. As the cookie was in a very same bag, I had some fun fiddling with plastic bags, rubber bands, and my pockets. but finally, I had two bags over my double gloves, nicely secured by a rubber band, and a cookie in one hand. I appreciated both a lot. Something different to eat than the bars I had before (and would have since the end of this…) and really warm hands.

No, we don’t step in ski tracks. Only if others did before. Or if the rest of the way is deep snow :-/

Entering the Harz was tedious, but doable. Some skiers, some hikers pathed the snow down in a track wide enoug to run in. Only the ground was still very uneven and had to watch every step. From the famous left-right-left combination to the Wasserscheide the road was free again and I could again witness how quickly this passes if I just do one step after the next. The way down Steinaer Tal had been used once by a harvester. This was ugly footing. I could almost step into the thread pattern, but not land entirely on one of the bumps, and the distance was totally odd for my step length. I managed somehow to tip-toe my way down without rolling an ankle.

The Steinaer Tal in all its beauty. Sun on my ass and a clear road. Yeah!

I feared the Steinaer Tal, as I figured it might have been left out by the foresters. And it was darn cold compared to the rest of the way in the last years. But happily, I found it clear of snow and the sun peeked around the hills after every second corner. Pretty early I met a runner coming down the valley. We exchanged a few words and discovered that we are both ASFM people. But a beard on my side and the balaclava on his head disguised us pretty well. Dirk went on, but before, he warned me that the Entsafter part 2 would be no fun. He tried it for a few meters and returned. He also asked me if I still plan to get on the Brocken, given the time. This made me wonder. Was I really that late? Yes, I took my time. But hey, it is still around lunchtime, no? I took a while to really look at the time on my phone and do the math. Yes, I was much slower than last years. But not that slow, eh? Anyway, it might get dark on the way down Brocken. Darn, I hoped I can drop my headlamp in Oderbrueck. Ha!

Entsafter part 2 begins with some nasty harvester tracks.

Before reaching Jadgkopf I made sure I ate an entire bar, drank well and had a salt pill. Entered Ensafter 2 and found the same, unrunnable harvester tracks. All over the place. Argh. I hopped from left to right and back, always concentrated to not misstep. It struck me when the tracks suddenly vanished. And a single line of footsteps and ski tracks emerged. Darn. Not that again. But it was worse than anything I encountered that day. One skier and maybe four people went here before me since it snowed the last time. I never broke in to the very ground, but I am sure the snow was hip deep. It was compressable in the way that former foot steps gave some support if I hit them in the right way. And those steps were not in a pattern that I run. I could walk it a bit. But sumpled more than I walked straight. I tried running from time to time. But missed the pattern and ended in deep snow or hit the steps in a wrong way that made my foot slip sidewards into the deep snow. It was a mess.

But the tracks vanished quickly and it becomes obvious that only a handful of people have been here before me. One on skis.

I was so much looking forward to the spot where we merged to the Suedharzloipe. They must have paved it. I hoped. The spot came and nothing. No car, no other vehicle. Just the skier and the four guys in front of me. Ah, no. At some point, weird tracks merged our path, that I identified as a snow shoer. Only, he did not compress the snow enough for me to even walk on. We now entered the first section known as the dreaded Beachvolleyball fields of BC. The entire Entsafter 2 was such a thing today. I knew that there would come a spot where we would merge to a larger forest road which might have gotten ski tracks, but was big enough to be used by forest vehicles. I so hoped.

See the finish already? Just some long left curve to stay on level and a short up and I’m there!

The road was cleared. Uff. I again shouted loudly from relief. Now, stuff would finally get better, I lost so much time and daylight to the bad track. Still, my legs were quite dead. I could run slowly, but not for too long. I took every meter of ascent as an excuse to walk. Since a while I came to a pattern to run through shade and walk only in the sun. An adoption of the summer rule to always run through sunny patches on very hot days. This gave some guidance and the grit to run for a bit longer than I wanted. I spotted a skier in front of me, looking a bit lost. When I came nearer, he somehow made a weird turn and went on. Reaching his spot I found out why. There was a tree laying in the middle of the road and he circled it like everybody else. Everybody but the snow plow. Nooooo. After just a very short break the bad footing was back. I was about to cry. Also because I knew that Lausebuche ist still a long stretch. And it became colder. The sun was obviously getting to the horizon. This was not good.

More of the same shit. Just longer shadows.

In the planning, Michael asked me about my expected finish time so he could figure out where we would meet. So I had in mind that he was already on his way down. And in the beginning of the Harz I feared him behind every corner showing me how slowly I was. But he did not come. Now, in this mess, I was sure, I will not meet him, because who would enter this hell knowingly? I’d gone a different way down, be it B27. Not again in that stuff. But when I finally dropped out of the mess onto Lausebuche there was a runner entering the path and we exchanged a few words. Got off our face masks and there he was, Michael. That was a nice moment. Exchanging a few words. And learning that the rest would be runnable. Well, mostly. Also, he said that he did not go through the second common beachvolleyball field but took the short detour to avoid more of the deep snow running. After a short while I began to shiver and we parted.

This again, or a 1k detour? The detour it was. For sure.

The entry to the shorter path in the above image is a bit misleading as it looks quite nice from the warmth of my office chair. Be aware that the steps stop and turn right after a few meters but the route goes on straight. No way for me. I worked my way around the detour which was nicely cleared. Met two people with Bilstein beanies like me, but was not in the mood for talking, but just shouted ‘nice beanie’ and went on. Entering the Nationalpark came the next bad surprise. There were official ski tracks and the forest road was compressed a bit. But not enough for my weight. I sunk in a few cm, sometimes ten, with every step. Erratically. This was too much for my head. I resolved to an angry walk. It was uphill anyway. But even in the level stretches running was hardly an option for me. And the sun set and the cold was again coming full force. I was exhausted, cold, disappointed, frustrated. And it became obvious that it will be dark even before I meet Kathrin. It became more and more obvious that I am too afraid of the cold to make it further than Oderbrueck. Letting her down became one more voice in the orchestra in my head. She went all the way, and even though she assured me multiple times that its no problem if I drop at any point and she had to collect the pieces, I felt sorry for taking away the adventure of summitting the Brocken.

The aim of our dreams comes in reach. But the sun fades already.

I worked my way up the wavey hills before Koenigskrug, at first on the firm road, then after a fallen tree alongside the ski tracks in this unreliable mess of semi-hard snow, then again on the road, but realizing that I needed all my mental strength to keep my stumble-shuffle up for more than a few hundred meters. Hard work. People that I met looked at me with that funny uncertainty not knowing to approach me friendly or better stay off. Most of the time they stopped their scan at my plastic-bag-hands and decided to give me room and not interfere with that crazy guy. Funnily, condensation turned into ice in the bags and made for some nice percussion to my running rhythm. Mind that I wore my buff up to the eyes, and had some blinds of icicles before my eyes, the vest with crammed chest pockets poked through my outer jacket. Must have been quite some sight.

The ascent after Koenigskrug was again a pure walk. And my motivation faded further. It became more and more dark. And even reaching the level part did just show me that I am done. Running a few steps but having to stop again, panting from all the slipping to the sides, cracking into the snow, desperately trying to find firm and runnable ground. Not possible. The one positive thing was again that I did not press. The corners came surprisingly fast. So did the left turn, downhill to Oderbrueck. Downhill running went extremely well. the unfirm ground rather helped my knees with decelerating. Only when I had to navigate uneven parts or the little stream, I again realized my status. I wrote Kathrin, that I most probably will stop in Oderbrueck and she replied to first reach her than decide how to go on. This held me upright. If downhill running went so well, I maybe should not be so much afraid of the return down from Brocken. Just the uphill part will be a slow walk. Well, this means two hours of slow climbing? In wind and -20degC? With my hands freezing again? Better not. There it was again, the existential fear. Better listen to it.

But that is not how ultra running works. Of course you listen to the body. And resolve anything that might point to a showstopper. But all to the aim of relentlessly progressing to your goal. That is undebatable. So I stumbled across the parking place of Oderbrueck, the light was almost gone, car lights becoming the main light sources, hoping to see Kathrin’s car quickly. I spotted her before I saw the car, she was apparently returning to the car after watching out for me in the cold. Big relief to meet her. In my mind I was still pondering whether to go on or not. I dropped into the passenger seat and tried to order the correct stuff from my bags. I definitely needed to change. And tried to figure out how to add layers to be isolated enough. And then it became clear that I did not want to go out there again. For the life of me. Letting go of my pushing on felt great. I could sink in the chair, get out of this cold mess of wet clothes (oh god, the smell…) and put on dry ones. Kathrin pulled out the gems, warm pasta with broth and a thick jumpsuit to be worn under a drysuit for ice diving. And loads of these heat generating hand warmers. I stuck them everywhere. Especially my feet were extremely grateful for the warm floor. A radler, tea and good company and I was in heaven.

Remorse got me every now and then, but I resolved in telling my adventures of the day and past BCs. Reliving the run was great. It helped that Kathrin did not know the stories already. The afterglow on the way back was nice as ever when I warmed up after a long run. Back home I was happy to find a relaxed family, reading Harry potter after having crepes for dinner. I got out of the warm suit and could not express my gratitude to Kathrin enough for giving me backup this day, so I could go out in those hostile conditions and still feel safe. I wish we had summitted Brocken though. One day…