It has been a couple of months since my last blog post, the race report of Allgäu Panorama Ultratrail. Many things have changed since then… I ended up injured – as it turned out, my twisted ankle caused some more problems, and I was side-lined for almost 8 weeks.
It was ok. As much as we runners suffer when we are unable to run – the rest was good for my body and mind. Meanwhile, I had time to think about the future. My big dream to run the West Highland Way Race in 2017 took more concrete shapes. I found a couple of friends who are willing to crew for me on the 95 mile course. I decided on the races which I wanted to run in 2016 in preparation for the event. And, finally, I signed up for online coaching by Paul Giblin, ultra runner and record winner of the West Highland Way Race, who has helped me immensely with my training by giving it a proper structure and pushing me out of my comfort zone a bit :)
Proper training re-started in November. My weekly mileage steadily increased and I felt good doing 30+ km runs in the middle of winter. The first race of the year was a fast 15km race on asphalt, the Staufstufenlauf in Karlstadt, in mid-January. I managed to improve my previous PR of 1:17 h to 1:13, which was completely unexpected and a huge step for me. The structured training of the weeks before was definitely showing!
In March, 4 weeks before the Bilstein Ultramarathon, I ran the Saaletal Marathon, a hilly course (roughly 500m / 1500 feet elevation gain) with a few trail sections. I finished in 4 hours and 42 seconds and 4th woman overall, which was great considering that I had run 36km on the Sunday before the race and not really had any taper time. Nor did I have a real recovery after the race since the Bilstein Ultramarathon, the first “A race” of the season, was getting closer!
Two weeks before the race, I did a 50.8 km training run with trails and many, many hills on Schwanberg hill and it went really well. I felt strong and confident and knew that I was in top shape for the race…. Until I was struck with a stomach bug 2 days later. Fever and no food was bad news and I literally felt shitty. Luckily, it only lasted 24 hours and I was able to resume training again a few days later. I had another 25km run planned the weekend before the race but I was still feeling weak and had to cut it short to 15km. My confidence was at the bottom again, I felt worse after 12 km than I had after 50km the week before. Clearly not the way things should be one week before an ultra marathon. Luckily, I managed to recover just in time for the big day.
The Bilstein Ultramarathon is 65 km long and had an advertised elevation gain of 1750 m (my watch only showed 1500 m though). In 2016, the event also hosted the German championships in ultra trail running and competition was fierce. I don’t really know why I registered for a race where all the ultra running celebrities started but at least I got a closer look at them :)
I knew that an AG podium place was impossible this time (I had placed 3rd in my age group at the Allgäu Panorama Ultratrail – out of 3 ;)) so I wanted to concentrate on my own race instead. My main goal was to finish happily and strong and not to experience any major crisis along the way. I had to think about a time goal, which was hard, but I hoped to finish in less than 8 hours. My dream goal was to finish with an average pace of 7 minutes per kilometre but I had no idea how realistic this was.
On Saturday afternoon, I arrived in the small town of Witzenhausen in Northern Hesse. The drive had taken almost 4.5 hours after the Autobahn had been closed unexpectedly, my navigation system had failed and I had to drive a long way around. I also got a speed ticket but that is a different story…
The race was scheduled to start at 8 o’clock the next morning, in the small village of Kleinalmerode, which was 6km away from my hotel. I had planned to drive there the evening before to collect my BIB and get everything sorted out but I was just too tired and exhausted from the drive so I stayed in the hotel and relaxed.
Then the big day arrived! I woke up early and energized, had a small breakfast and then headed over to the start. Luckily, it was easy to find and there was still enough space for parking. It was cold and grey and started to rain. I had left my rain jacket in the hotel because the weather forecast predicted sunshine later and I didn’t want to carry it around the whole time. I did regret that decision a bit when I was shivering at the start line and one of the volunteers even talked about snow on the peak of the Bilstein hill, which awaited us at kilometre 52, but it turned out alright.
The organisers gave a short speech and then the gun went off – and off we went! I tried to run as conservatively as possible on these first metres but the pace of the approximately 250 ultra runners was high as we moved out of the village and into the fields. There wasn’t much space on the narrow path and I was already looking forward to being on my own later in the race. I ran behind a group of guys, one of which had a dog, a Jack Russel Terrier, with him, who was also running the whole ultra (finishing in less than 8 hours). The dog was sweet but apparently didn’t know much about trail etiquette – running back and forth, to the left and to the right, sniffing, peeing and pooing on the path :) It was a bit dangerous on the downhill sections, too, when he got almost run over a few times.
Luckily, the distances between the runners or groups of runners grew with the kilometres. We ran right into the woods and soon the first bigger ascents were in sight. The pace was still insanely fast but I felt good and just went with it. Running and pumping up the hills, flying on the downhills… I should have known better!
The scenery didn’t change much on these first kilometres. We ran on a broad forest road with not much to see until we finally left the woods again and ran down into a valley, passing beautiful old farm houses in green meadows. The weather had gotten better and the rain had stopped by then luckily. We soon ran on a pretty single trail, passing a few hikers, until the course took a sudden turn to the left and went up again. Due to the massive rain in the days before, the ground was really muddy in most places. It was hard work moving up that dirt hill without slipping backwards again. But soon there were a few steps, which made climbing easier until we had reached the top. This section had been quite tough and I could feel my legs. I checked my watch; the first 10 k were done and I needed some energy, so I stopped to take a gel and let a few runners pass. Running on the flat again felt tougher than it should have been at this early stage of the race – a gentle reminder that it was time to take it a bit easier.
After 12 kilometres, we were back in Kleinalmerode. Luckily, I could resist the temptation to hop into my car when I passed it J Two horses were standing on a pasture next to the course, watching us with curiosity. Naturally, I had to stop and say hi to them. This was about having fun, after all. A realization which – luckily - came early in the race and marked a bit of a turning point. I no longer tried to keep up with other runners (some of whom I would pass later on anyway) but concentrated more on myself, finding my own rhythm, and enjoying myself out there. This was good!
My legs recovered soon, right in time for the first of the two major climbs in the race. Until km 20, we moved upwards. It was a not very steep but steady climb. I ran most of it and only walked a few times to save energy. The ways on this section were pretty much destroyed from ongoing building work for a wind park which was being erected on top of the hill. The downside of green energies - but still better than a nuclear power plant, in my opinion.
Running on these uneven paths was not easy though and I was happy when we moved onto a pretty little single trail and downwards again. The trail had suffered a bit from all the other runners who had passed it before and calling it muddy would be an understatement. But I don’t have any problems with mud as long as I can keep my shoes on, so it was ok. Two other runners were right in front of me and I just followed their steps. We had to concentrate a lot here in order not to trip over stones or roots and were relieved when we finally arrived on a broader, more runnable way again.
I was now running with a group of ca. 7 runners, still downwards, and took over the lead of this small group for maybe one kilometre until the course took another turn and we were presented with a quite unexpected and STEEP hill at kilometre 32. Phew. Slowly, one step after another, I moved up this little monster of a hill. I had to let go of the other runners in front of me here. I always kept an eye on my average pace though. I had the secret goal of maintaining a pace of 7 minutes per kilometre on average. I had so far managed to make up for most of the walking on the subsequent downhills again but longer sections of walking were not good for my pace goal. Luckily, the steep section was over soon; we were still moving upwards but the climb was moderate and runnable again.
We moved into the forest once more, onto another single trail covered with mud holes and big roots. I walked for a little while here in order to save energy. A group of runners passed me and one of the guys asked if I was ok. That is what I love about trail and ultra running. We care for each other. After a couple of hours, people have a word or a smile for everyone they pass.
The aid stations were plenty and offered a great variety of food and drinks. Water, coke, energy drink, gels, bars, cookies, waffles, chocolate, salt prezls etc. and friendly banter by the volunteers :) I drank half a cup of coke mixed with half a cup of water on every aid station and tried to eat a bite of the food offered there too. In total, I also ate 1.5 Taxofit cereal bars and 2 gels during the race and drank around 700 ml of water from my soft flasks.
My plan of walking a bit here and there in order to preserve energy while trying to keep an eye on the overall pace turned out really well. From kilometre 38 to kilometre 46, we ran down a seemingly endless forest road and I felt really good. I was mostly alone and out of sight of other runners on this section. At some point, I met a jogger, who was not a participant, and talked to her for a while. Then our paths separated again and I had to cross a small stream before the next aid station.
Directly after this aid station, the long and long feared climb up to the summit of Bilstein hill awaited us. I didn’t know what to expect of these last 20 kilometres. I still felt relatively good though.
In the beginning, the climb was moderate and runnable but then it got steeper. I decided to apply an old tactic, which I had trained many times last summer when preparing for the Allgäu Panorama Ultratrail: alternating between running for 100 steps and walking for 50 steps. I had been unable to do this during the Allgäu ultra due to the steepness of the climbs there but here it seemed ok. And I made good progress with it, slowly and steadily passing one runner after the other – which undeniably gave me a boost. Additionally, counting the steps kept my mind busy and I had no time to feel sorry for myself. Another aid station appeared on the horizon and the guys told us that it was not long now until the “summit”. It did seem like a long way though and I had to walk the last 300 metres up to the top. To our surprise, a marching band played up there, just for us. I clapped my hands and smiled at them but I was also anxious to keep going as it was quite cold up there indeed.
13 kilometres to go and now we went down again! On a narrow and rocky single trail at first and then on a nice broad forest road. My legs were alright and I could just let it roll. Perfect :)
Here, I met another runner with whom I had exchanged a few words before and we ran together from there on. He was a real ultra veteran, keeping me entertained with stories of previous races. I was really grateful for that as time and kilometres were just flying by!
Finally, we only had 5 kilometres to go. Sadly, the long downhill section was now over. I knew that there were a few minor hills on the last kilometres. But with our now tired legs, these hills seemed enormous and never ending. Another turn, another hill…. where was that finish line? I took a look back over my shoulder at one point and saw that another woman was really close behind me. I didn’t want to let her pass so I had to push forward… 1 kilometre to go and another climb… then, finally, we could hear the loudspeakers. A short descend, one last curve … and there it was!!
With a big smile on my face, I crossed the finish line. I could hardly believe what I saw when I stopped my watch: 7:26:13 h on 65.6 km and an elevation gain of 1500 m! I would have never dreamt of a result like this! And, even better, I had finished with a smile, without any major low points, pain or injuries along the way!
I got my medal, an alcohol-free beer and sat down on a bench, trying to wrap my head around the past 7.5 hours. There were sweaty, smiling and exhausted faces all around me. I congratulated Michael, who had indeed crossed the finish line with me, and the woman who had been running behind me and then tried to think of what to do next. The funny thing about ultras is that you run for hours and could probably run a few hours more but as soon as you stop and sit down, you cannot even walk a single step.
On their website, the race organisation had long advertised their cake buffet, which was waiting for us runners behind the finish line. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have any. I forced down a pretzel, got my certificate and then slowly walked back to the car. On my way there, I met the guy again who had asked if I was alright earlier. He told me that he had finished 9th in his age group – M60(!) – way before me. We said “see you at the next ultra” before parting ways :)
In the end, I ranked 7th out of 8 in my age group and 136 of 233 participants – a completely unexpected result. Even better, my average pace was around 6:48 minutes per kilometre and thus even faster than my secret pace goal!
Almost a week has passed since. My legs have recovered, I have eaten all the food and also got a nasty little cold but I will run again soon.
A big thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey! :)
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this report. It might not be as dramatic as the previous one… what can I say. If all goes well, there will be more adventures for me this year! Until then… keep on running!