Before the race, I was a bit embarrassed when people asked me what my next race was; because when I told them “Hexenstieg Ultra”, the next question was “how far is it?”
I didn’t want to brag and I did not sign up for this distance to impress anyone. I just wanted to do it for myself. So, when I answered “216km”, I guess most people thought that was crazy. Some people, like my parents, who don’t really know what that distance involves, say “great, that will take a long time then”. Others asked, directly or not, what the hell was wrong with me to sign up for such distance. So why did I sign up?
I can’t really answer that. At some point last year, I was looking for races, ideally a bit longer than the West Highland Way Race, and ideally on trails, but not in the Alps, and around April/May 2018. I spent hours looking at potential races, checking the DUV race calendar online, comparing events, but somehow I always ended up looking at this one particular race. The Hexenstieg Ultra.
216 kilometres through the beautiful Harz region in the North of Germany. Endless forests, lakes, the Brocken (the highest peak in Northern Germany with 1100 m), rocks… fire roads, witches… I talked to Patrick about it. He didn’t say no.
Then, I ran the Jägerstein Ultra in December, which went quite well. It was organised by the same event company as the Hexenstieg Ultra, Meldelaeufer, and I really enjoyed it and thought that the organisation was excellent and the whole atmosphere was really nice and familiar… so I put my name down for the Hexenstieg. And so did Patrick (he never really says no to anything I suggest ;)).
Unfortunately, my preparation for the race was not 100% ideal. The first half of January was spent recovering from Christmas, the second half went better, with my first run over 40km. February was quite strong, I signed up for a little private run streak challenge and collected more kilometres in that month than ever before. However, it also burned me out a bit.
Then, in March, Patrick and I ran the Trail du Petit Ballon, a 52km trail race with around 2000m elevation gain in France, a race that I have since decided to forget. I felt weak, had problems breathing going uphill, wanted to stop after the first 10km, but somehow finished it. Immediately after the race, I came down with the flu, which might have been the reason why I felt so shitty during the race. It also meant almost two weeks of rest, two weeks that I would have needed for my preparation for the Hexenstieg to be 100% confident going into the race. However, I still had 2 weeks of training before taper time and my last long run before the race felt quite good, so I somehow regained my confidence for the race. At least I was rested, my legs felt good, and I was very much looking forward to it.
The adventure started on Wednesday, 18 April, when I picked up Patrick at the airport in Stuttgart; we were both very excited about the upcoming adventure. After one night at home, we continued our journey North, to Osterode, on the next day. The 300km drive was quite easy and we arrived in Osterode in the early afternoon on Thursday.
We stayed in a little holiday apartment out of town, surrounded by hills and forests, the perfect headquarters for our adventure. After a bit of rest, we went to town in the evening, to collect our race bibs and attend the briefing and the pasta party, which took place in the “Hotel Harzer Hof” in Osterode, which was also the start and finish line of the race. The hotel owner was very friendly and enthusiastic about the race himself and he helped us download the modified race tracks as gpx-files to our GPS devices.
The organiser, Michael, whom I already knew from the Jägerstein Ultra, kept the race briefing short but gave us all the necessary information. His main concerns were our health and safety. The temperatures for the next day were forecasted to rise up to 30°C in the valleys, which was crazy for the end of April and the hottest day of the year so far. He urged us to carry enough water and to pay attention to signs of heat stroke, such as dizziness, nausea etc. I was not too concerned about the heat myself, at least it was a nice change from my last two ultras, which I had run in the snow and the cold. How naïve I was….
After the briefing, we tried to eat as much pasta as possible and acceptable, then we headed back to our apartment, to arrange the rest of our gear and to get as much rest as possible before the early start the next morning.
The night was over at 4.30am, in the wee hours of the morning, just before the break of dawn. We crept out of our warm beds and quickly put on our running clothes, packed the rest of our stuff, had a brief breakfast consisting of cereals and soy milk, and then drove down to Osterode again.
I had the following gear:
Hoka tank top
Compressport arm sleeves
Hoka Speedgoat 2
Hoka trucker cap
X bionic socks
Salomon hydration vest with 1l of water, a space blanket, light running jacket
Cliff bar, Katjes, some other food,
Garmin GPSmap 64 GPX device
Sunscreen and anti-blister stuff for my feet
For my drop bag, I packed another set of running clothes (long sleeved) and my water-proof jacket, gloves, buffs, socks, Hoka Huakas, food, coke, ginger extract for the stomach, arnica spray for the legs, headlamps, batteries.
We felt ready to go.
We arrived at the Hotel Harzer Hof about half an hour before the race start at 6 am, had a lovely cup of coffee and then had a little chat with Michael about the Spine Race (we may or may not have signed up for the Spine Challenger 2019). Two very friendly and helpful guys then taped the trackers for the live tracking to our backpacks and we were ready to go.
Michael gave a little speech, repeating warnings about fallen trees and the heat and the necessity to stay on the official race track, which was slightly different from the marked Hexenstieg long distance hiking trail.
Then everyone counted down and off we went. As in most small ultra races, the start was very quiet and non-spectacular. We were about 32 people who started the race, 3 of which (including me) were women. I had met one of the other women, Anke, at the briefing the day before. She was small a
nd fierce and I instantly knew that she was tough as nails.
Nobody was in a hurry at the start. We easily jogged through the park, then walked up a hill, slowly leaving the town behind us. It was a special feeling, everyone was hesitant of going too fast, nobody knew what to expect and what the next 48 hours (the time limit) would bring.
It was already very warm when we started and I soon had to get rid of my arm sleeves. An early indication of what the day would bring… Patrick and I had decided to run this race together, happily chatted along, walked the uphill bits and tried to hold back on the downhills, to save our legs. He had to remind me a few times to go slowly, as I got carried away by my enthusiasm a few times.
It turned out that the race track was a bit tricky sometimes and we went in some places but luckily, we were still running in a large group and could counter-check. Patrick and I mostly kept to ourselves though, probably because we were speaking English and because we hadn’t seen each other since Easter and had to make up for the time not spent together. Then I heard that somebody in the group behind us mentioned the West Highland Way… and caught my attention. It was Andreas from the Black Forest, with whom we chatted for a while, until we took another wrong turn and the whole group got mixed up again.
We let ourselves fall back a bit since the pace of the group was too fast at this stage. I unpacked my cliff bar and ate it while walking upwards in the forest. Soon, we also had to use our poles for the first time going up a steeper hill… It was a lovely, warm morning in the forest.
After a while, the first aid station at 21km appeared. We refilled our water bottles and then went on. We had agreed to try to keep the time spent in aid stations as short as possible and to keep moving as long as we could. Relentless forward progress.
We ran along a lovely little stream in the forest for a while, then climbed higher up. It was quite hot already and I had to be careful with my water. One section of the trail through the forest was a bit tricky, with fallen trees all over the place, some of which blocked our way and we had to climb around and over them. The winter storm Frederieke had caused huge damage in the Harz area last year.
A few kilometres before the second aid station, Michael came running towards us, happily taking pictures. I remembered that he had done the same thing in the Jägerstein Ultra, when Martin and I were climbing up the ski slope in the knee-deep snow. Oh, how different this race in the heat was… I would have loved some snow at that point.
A few minutes later, we did find some left-over patches of snow in the forest, slowly melting in the sun and turning the path into a bit of a swamp… lovely. Then, finally, the forest cleared and we arrived at the second aid station at 35 km, in Torfhaus, which seemed to consist of a handful of hotels and “chalets” on a main road only. It was strange being back in civilisation after hours on forest roads and trails. The aid station had fresh orange slices, which were the absolute dream. We refilled our bottles, grabbed some cookies and more orange slices and then walked off eating the rest of the food on the way.
There were quite a few tourists here, as it was close to the Brocken, but we didn’t take the direct route up the mountain and kept following the Hexenstieg route. Patrick and I felt quite good after the aid station and were joking a bit running through the forest… and immediately went the wrong way, luckily I checked my GPS device and noticed that we were off the track quite a bit, so we had to turn around and find the right path again. It was easy to overlook, as it went directly into the woods, downhill, and didn’t look like a trail at all. It was the first technical section and a few runners passed us here, among others one happy chap from Austria, with whom we chatted for a while. He asked where Patrick and I had met… Tinder or College? No, ultramarathon runners don’t need dating apps ;)
A couple of minutes later, the first runner of the 100km race to Thale, which had started an hour after us, passed us. We exchanged a few words, he seemed happy and was moving quickly, and we didn’t see the second runner for a long time after that.
After a while, the route became easier again and we let it roll through the forest, before stopping at a little mountain hut that sold drinks and refreshments. It was our last toilet and water stop before the climb up the Brocken. There were quite a few mountain bikers around and many asked what we were doing. They couldn’t believe when we told them. I couldn’t believe it either… best not think about the distance that we still had to cover.
The climb up the Brocken mountain was long, steep and hot. The sun was burning down mercilessly here and I was happy that there were more snow patches. I grabbed a handful of icy snow and rubbed it on my arms… it was heaven. Fantasies about coke and alcohol-free beer that awaited us on top of the Brocken kept us going, and soon the peak with its huge antennae was in sight.
The Brocken is known for its wild weather, and it is the place where, according to old German legends and myths, witches gather to dance. When we reached the top, however, it was still hot and there was only a mild breeze cooling us down. No storm and no witches…. Together with Alfred, another runner from Austria, and the Tinder guy, we went to the café there and Patrick and I got coke and ice lollies before moving on.
Getting the legs moving again after the long climb up and the little rest was a bit tricky at first but soon we were rolling down the road on the other side of the Brocken again, passing hikers, bikers, a horse carriage and two people on unicycles, who were going upwards. The sugar from the coke and the ice lollies kicked in and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. After a while, we left the road and turned into the forest again, following the sign of the witch indicating the Hexenstieg trail. We had to climb over a few fallen trees here but it still felt good.
Alfred caught up with us at some point and we ran into the next aid station, Drei Annen Hohe at km 60, together. The two young guys, who were running the aid station, were extremely friendly and helpful. We refilled our water supplies, grabbed some food and talked a bit to another young runner who was sitting in chair there and looked miserable. He said he was suffering from the heat and didn’t feel very well (spoiler: he kept moving and recovered well and happily finished the 104km to Thale, the longest distance ever for him). I ate a few pieces of cucumber with salt since I had been sweating massively too, before we left the aid station again, walking and eating the cake and cookies we had taken with us from there.
I still felt ok considering the distance and the heat but a few minutes later I got distracted and fell over a root in the forest. I’m sure it didn’t look very graceful either. It was a hard fall, on my left arm and elbow, which I had broken in exactly the same manner in 2016. I lost my hat and some items from my backpack and the water bottles pressed hard into my ribs. Ouch.
Patrick advised me to not get up immediately, so I sat there for a while, trying to rearrange my stuff and figuring out if I had injured myself. Luckily, my arm and elbow felt alright, I was just a bit shaken. I got up again and we walked a bit until my legs didn’t feel like jelly anymore. With hindsight, this was a bit of a turning point in the race for me. Before that, things were going well but after the fall, I couldn’t find my rhythm again.
We soon left the forest and it got even hotter, now that we were down in the valley again. My stomach started to rumble and I suddenly really needed a bathroom. Or a bush. We were running through a village but all the restaurants seemed to be closed. It was a nightmare… I had to walk and hold my stomach until we were back in the woods and I found a tree.
I managed to run again after that little stop but my stomach still felt queasy. We moved upwards, through the forest, and passed the same two guys several times. Then I got terrible side stitches and had to walk again… I felt bad for Patrick, who had to wait for me and watch my misery. After a while, I realized that the side stitches were probably caused by my water bottle pressing into my ribs, which were sore after the fall, so I took it out and emptied out half of it. It was a terrible waste of water on this very hot section but it was the only way for me to keep going again. And it helped! The side stitch disappeared and I could run again.
We left the forest again and ran through a valley, on a lovely trail next to a rock wall. However, the sun was reflecting on the rocks and it felt like running in an oven. Phew… Luckily, the next aid station, a restaurant in the small village of Rübeland at km 74, was not too far away.
A few other runners were sitting there when we arrived, Anke and Alfred among them. It was nice being inside in the cool and dark guest house. I had coke, wild garlic soup with lots of salt and a small cheese sandwich and a few pieces of water melon…. The dream.
After a while, we felt sufficiently restored again and left the place in high spirits, even though the heat hit us hard when we got out into the sun again. We ran through a few villages, then the trail became narrower and turned into a lovely single trail. We had to cross a little stream, ended up on the wrong track a few times, but it was still quite nice there. There was a lovely little river running through the forest, it was very peaceful and scenic and I thoroughly enjoyed this part.
Then we had to climb up another steep hill and it took a great deal of my re-gained energy. It was already late in the afternoon/early evening, but the sweat was running down my forehead. The salty soup and coke had made me very thirsty, too, and I was running out of water again… and it was still a long way to go until the next aid station. I felt a bit dizzy and low on energy but tried to run most of the sections because Patrick still seemed to be running well and I didn’t want to slow him down even more.
We soon saw the impressive Rappbodetalsperre dam below us and ran across it soon afterwards. The landscape was breath-taking but I was too occupied with my own struggles and couldn’t really soak in the beauty around me at that point. Luckily, Patrick spotted a public toilet on the other side of the dam, where I could wash the salt and grime off my face and refill my water bottles again. This felt good and, for a while, running was ok again. We made good progress until the next aid station in Treseburg at km 92.
We had met and passed Anke and Alfred and the two other guys again at some point on the route and were the first of our little group to arrive in the aid station, which was located in a hotel in Treseburg. Unfortunately, their “vegetarian” vegetable soup had bacon in it so I couldn’t eat it. Other than the soup, they only offered apples and bananas and some weird muesli bars of a brand I had never heard of. I was low on energy so I had no other choice but to eat a banana and two of these muesli bars. I also gulped down some mint tea with lots of sugar, hoping that it would settle my stomach. I used the bathroom there and suddenly felt dizzy and tired. I looked in the mirror and my face was grey. Lovely. We hadn’t even covered half of the distance we wanted to do yet and I was shattered.
I knew that the next aid station was in Thale, our drop bags were waiting there and we had planned a longer rest, change of clothes, etc. there. But I also knew that it was the finish line of the Hexenritt Ultra, the first half of the race, and there were beds in a youth hostel… an easy option to DNF the race. Slowly, the thought of stopping crept into my head.
We left the aid station again and all I could think of was stopping in Thale. I was tired and exhausted. The heat of the day had taken more out of me than I had expected. I felt dizzy and queasy and I was slowing Patrick down… He could have gone much faster than me and he could definitely make it to the finish line without me…..
The last 10km to Thale were quite tough, the toughest of the race for me. The light of the day faded but I was still sweating. The trail was narrow and rocky and I had problems with my vision in the twilight, I couldn’t see the path very clear and was too scared to run again. The muesli bars in my stomach were revolting, too. I put my headlamp on after a while but something was wrong… it kept switching off.
The other four runners that we had left behind at the last aid station passed us again. My headlamp was now gone completely. Patrick gave me his and we both had spare ones in our drop bag but it was just another blow to my morals and I knew that I would have to DNF the race in Thale. There was now way that I could continue in the state that I was in. I told Patrick my decision and he accepted it. There was nothing to discuss really.
We climbed down over a steep and rocky section in the dark. The Bodetal is a truly magical place and I would love to come back and see it in daylight one day. The air was hot and humid between the rocks and there were bats flying about… strange and mystic and out of this world.
Then we turned around a corner and saw the little wooden bridge, which was crowned by an ugly devil mask high above it. We had seen a picture of the bridge before and I was happy that I got to see it in real life. Hello Devil, you got me this time… hehehe
This last bit of the run was very surreal… It was dark and humid and suddenly, we turned around the corner and saw lights… a house first, then dim orange street lamps… in the forest…. We moved on, step by step back to civilisation, to Thale. There was a loud stream running down the valley to our left and I knew that we had to run one last 3km round through town. There were colourful lights and music and more bats… it felt like another world… what was this place…. I was probably delirious at that point, too.
Then finally, we were on the last metres through a weird park with drunk teenagers blasting hip hop music from their phones… and then we arrived at the finish line of the Hexenritt 104km ultra and Thale aid station.
As soon as we entered the small room, I told the lovely, friendly marshals there that I would stop the race. They tried to convince me otherwise but there was no way that I could keep going. I was shattered. They accepted it and switched off my tracker. Done. The Hexenstieg Ultra was now definitely over for me. Patrick said he needed some time to think if he wanted to keep going or not. I wanted him to keep going because I knew that he was still running strong and that he could make it.
Thale aid station was a nice and warm place. A few runners were lying in the adjacent room where our drop bags were, resting, some were sitting around a table eating pasta, all in a more or less exhausted state. They had showers in the hostel next door and quite a few runners took a shower before they kept going. I took off my shoes and put my feet up. Neither my legs nor my feet did hurt or were particularly sore… I was just grilled.
Patrick ate some pasta and repacked his stuff. He took a long time to decide what he should do. I meanwhile organised a bed in the hostel and a bus ride back to Osterode for the next day. All sorted….
Then Anke returned from her shower, fresh as a daisy, and asked if anyone was about to leave now. Andreas, the guy from the Black Forest, was going with her…. And so was Patrick. I was relieved that he kept going and that he wasn’t on his own but I was also a bit sad to let him go. I would have loved to come with him but I just didn’t have anything left in me to do that.
I spend a few more minutes in the aid station, talking to runners (some of them stopped, some of them had signed up for the 100km only), before walking over to the hostel. I was lucky because I only had 21€ on me, the exact price for the bed per night. I hadn’t planned to sleep there so I didn’t have any shower stuff or pyjamas or anything. Luckily, the aid station staff gave me a towel and there was soap in the showers so I didn’t have to sleep sweaty and smelly as I was. When I was lying in bed, rested and clean, I thought that I felt much better and could actually run again at that point. But I didn’t. Patrick was long gone and there was no sense in trying it on my own. Later that night, I was shivering and sweating at the same time, a sign of heat stroke. My shoulders and face were hot and burning from a sunburn, too. It had been too much….
I managed to sleep a bit and checked my phone from time to time for updates from Patrick. I woke up to a morning message from him, saying that the night had been very, very cold and tough and that he would decide what to do once he reached the next aid station. It was hard to imagine that he and the others had kept going, while I had had a shower, a few hours of sleep, and woke up fresh as a daisy.
I dressed in my spare running clothes from my drop back and went to have breakfast in the hostel, which was luckily included in the price since I had no money left on me.
Michael, the race organiser, and the lovely couple who ran the aid station in Thale (which had closed at 6 am) and their kids were sitting at breakfast, together with a handful of other runners who had either quit the race like me (14 runners DNF’ed in the Hexenstieg race in total) or signed up for the 100km race to Thale. After a coffee and a bit of chatting, my spirits were back and I was looking forward to supporting Patrick during the rest of the day. I texted him again and he said that he was struggling a bit, sitting at the aid station in Mandelholz at km 145. I said that I would meet him at km 175 with the car.
After breakfast, a shuttle bus took us back to Osterode. I chatted a bit to a guy from Frankfurt, who had done the West Highland Way Race in the past, too (he even recognised my tattoo), and knew the Hexenstieg. He said that Patrick would have to cross another huge hill, the Wurmberg, and come down the ski slope on the other side, before I could meet him at 175km…
I checked back with him. He had turned around and was back in Mandelholz, ready to DNF. I told him to wait there. I would come and get him.
However, I got sick on the bus ride back and it took me a while and a bit of fresh air until I was ready to figure out a) where Mandelholz was and b) how to drive there. Driving in an unknown area with post-ultra brain and a queasy stomach due to eating the leftover contents of your dropbag on a 1.5 hour bus ride and with 20% battery left on your phone is not advisable. However, I somehow made it there and I was relieved to see that Patrick was feeling better and not too unhappy about his DNF.
We spent the rest of the day eating pizza, drinking beer and watching the first runners of the Hexenstieg finish. Luckily, due to the heat, Michael agreed to officially include all 14 runners who had to DNF the Hexenstieg race in or after Thale in the results of the 104km race so that we got a medal and a certificate and official result. With 5th overall and 1st female (out of 3), mine wasn’t too bad either and I managed to make peace with the race.
Just. However… I am hungry for more. Patrick and I are hungry for more. We will be back next year and we will try it again. We know what we did wrong, we know what to expect and how to better prepare for it. We want to finish it next year…. (even though, immediately after the race, we said “no more of these long distances for us”)
Thank you to everyone who followed the life tracking, for your messages of support during and after the race, it means a lot to me. Thank you to coach Paul for coaching me again and for not calling me crazy for attempting this race; and, last but not least, thank you to Paddy for everything you have done…. Running with you was the dream :)