It’s just pain – Brocken-Challenge 2023 race report

While ultra running usually requires a lot of sense for your body and being smart about how to stress it, there is an inherent factor of making bad decisions in the sense of a normal person. Who is in for a day of suffering? There is little people around who’d raise their hands to that. You don’t get to the finish line if you don’t grit it out from time to time. Tell your legs to shut up, ignore pain that any normal person would interpret as a sign to immediately stop what you are doing. And of course, there is a rather big possibility that this interpretation is correct. I was very lucky many of times and got away with ignoring the pain, pushing away voices of reason, the blerch, whatnot. Not this time.

I had my calf complaining a lot on Wednesday on a training run. Out of the blue it went stiff and painful. Not immediately like a rupture or so, but over 100meters. I tried to massage it and keep it off load for the three remaining days until the race. And the next day I developed a cold. Running nose, some caugh. Darn! I called in sick for Thursday, and could not really think of anything happening that weekend. But I had a part in the briefing of our race, I had to give the talk about trail etiquette and give directions, explain the conditions we were facing. And they were awful. Not really cold (which is one of the reasons that our race is in February), lots of rain and high winds, especially at the finish, where we will climb the highest peak of northern Germany, which is pretty exposed in the surrounding flats. 

So I pulled myself together and got that briefing done. 

My brother was there too (a tradition) and he said that he did train that little that he would not start as well if I bail out, so I promised to at least start. Saturday morning came and we were off at 6am. 500m in I had the exact same pain in my calf as on Wednesday. Darn! But I decided to go as long as I can. And I am pretty capable of pain management. So I hobbled my way through the plains between Goettingen and the Harz, my brother always waiting for me (which is usually the other way round until I cannot hold it anymore).

At 30k, after an aid station I realized that I can’t even walk straight anymore, pushed him off and wanted to walk to the next aid station and ask Stefanie to rescue me. Then I crossed a sign that I was just a mere kilometer away from the last station and lost all mojo. Hanging shoulders I went back down the track and many kind people had some nice words for me when I crossed their way. Then one of them, Thorsten, turned to the woman next to him: ‘Michaela, Can’t you tape that calf up?’ She directed me to a pile of logs had me open my shoe and dry my leg. I lost my will some time ago, so just did what I was told. Mid conversation, she pulled my foot and said that the ankle had been blocked and is now free again. Ugh? Some tape and I went uphill again with them under supervision as she told me. But pretty soon she said that my sacroiliac joint was blocked too. We found a bench and I was treated, and convinced that this was good. She got me up again and said: That’s it. You can run on. Now it’s just pain. Nothing serious. Just try to run as you always do. 

I walked for a bit until I was convinced that the calf was working again, but very painful. But I had a push off, could walk straight. So I tried running, well, some slow trot, but it worked. This was incredible. And incredibly painful still. So, from then, ‘it’s just pain’ became my mantra.

Next weakest link was my lungs. Whenever I tried to run uphill, they started burning. So I went slowly. And ran more or less no uphill. 

Still, I was decided to quit at the next aid station, Barbis. My angels had pulled away, I was alone and still full of misery, but also surprised to be still on the road. Approaching the next aid station (marathon mark) I realized that Stefanie is not available for rescue yet as she was at the pool in a diving class. And the rain took up. I could retract in a garage at the aid station and put every bit of clothing on that I had in my pack. Ate, drank and found it much too cold to wait for longer. So I decided to go on. Which means 20k more or less uphill with zero car access. I even got out my emergency blanket and knotted it into a nice golden parker. That way I went into the mountains and woods. Knowing that this might take 4 hours in the cold now. 

But on the slight uphills I could trot once in a while, partly to hang onto people or not being overtaken. And the mood got better. Only, it was darn cold. And I could not run as I wanted to. Running fast enough that I remained warm did not work. 

I still had the intent to quit at the next possibility. But when I figured that by then, I would have run 63k already and when I wanted to get to my warm clothes, I had to summit the last 8k on foot anyway as there are no open roads leading to the finish, and I could just spare 12k and buy this with a DNF? No way! I will fight through this. 

About 5k before the end of this remote stretch, my emergency blanket caught a branch and tore. It got so darn cold again. And wet. And the wind got stronger and stronger. I once felt my cap being lifted. And until I lifted my view, it was already 3m in the air and blown into the wall next to the forest road. I had to find a stick to get it back. I could not imagine to climb up there. I made plans how to direct Stefanie to deposit some sort of clothing (I had taken anything. reflective vests of the car, garbage bags, anything) at the second to last aid station before she would start the walk up to the summit. But when I got my phone out, I just received a message that she was already at the next station. 500m in front of me. What a relief! Joy! Not that I started running, it was uphill. But I was so much lighter. Met her, got some warm tea (good green tea / mate mix that she brought for me not the hay like stuff from the aid stations) and two of her jackets. An insulated  and a wind proof one. Wow!

So happy to meet Stefanie and to have made it through the entire Entsafter alive.

Slowly I went on, tried to hang onto other runners in the distance to not lose too much time. And felt quite well moving. When my brother told me he was untrained and how he should approach this 80k, I told him to think about it as the second half of a hundred miler. Everything will hurt and moving will be glacial. But it will end at the finish. He laughed at me. Now this statement haunted me. 

Anyway, the jackets helped, I could stay somewhat warm and move slowly. Only around the last aid station there were many sections of black ice and some streams of ice water through grass. I never fell, but having the feet ice cold again and again was getting to me. I did not bring my spikes. I did not bring a headlamp. Sigh. Lucky, I knew the way a bit. When reaching the Brockenstrasse, 800m before the dry clothes, warm meal, and oh, the finish (I never ever imagined getting this far) I sent a text to Stefanie that she could come out to see me crawling over the finish line. But a few seconds later I found her fighting her own battle up the hill with a huge backpack with all the stuff that I asked her to carry up. Darn, I felt bad. Did I need three liters of tea? Not exactly when I arrive that late. I felt bad as I did not offer to carry the pack. Impossible thought. 

This picture captures both my state and the weather very well.

But at some point, we found the lights of the train station and the last bend, and we were up. Greeted by wind gusts that tried to push us down again. So we skipped the mandatory photo at Brockenstein and were so glad to be able to get into something warm. Take a shower, eat, drink. Phew. There were very many surprised faces as a lot of people witnessed my struggle and saw me quitting. But here I was. Almost three hours later than usual. And behind my brother. But up. And gone all the way. 

After the shower, I found my calf to be swollen to capacity. The skin was tense as a bike tube. Urgs. I had it massaged by Stefanie and later by Rado who treated many many poor legs that day. And so I was made capable of walking the 8k down the mountain again to Stefanie’s car. 

On Monday morning, my calf was still thick, warm, and developed bruises. Walking was very painful after I sat for a bit. Luckily, I remembered my well equipped closet of compression gear. Did not use it for a lot of years now. That helped quite a bit. But even over the next days this did not get any better. So I lost my nerve and asked my Doc. He sent me to get an ultrasound of the calf. Let’s see what this reveals. He is betting on a rupture. I am afraid they find some clogged blood vessel. They will find a calf muscle that is a total mess.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s