Seenländer Ultra on 27 April 2019
What do we say to the god of DNF?
146 kilometres with 1,700 metres of elevation gain through the Franconian lake land.
I first heard about the Seenländer Ultra on Facebook; somebody on my friends’ list marked the event as “interested in” and it showed up in my feed. Of course, I was curious and I was not disappointed: It seemed ideal – not quite 100 miles, relatively flat but still on trails and only 1 hour away from home. It took me a while to convince Patrick to do it with me but then we both signed up.
After Philadelphia marathon in November, I was a bit lazy with my training and then caught a really bad bronchitis early in January, which knocked me out for 3 weeks. After that, training restarted very slowly, I felt out of shape and was worried that I would not get my fitness back in time for the race. But, of course, I had plenty of time and with every week I felt better again. Three weeks before the ultra, I took part in a hilly marathon race and unexpectedly got a very good result – 3:45 hours for a training race – which gave me the final boost of confidence which I needed to enter this ultra with a good feeling.
I did one more long run of 50km two weeks before the race, followed by a 20km run the next day and then – my biggest mistake I think – went bouldering two days afterwards, where I did a really tricky (from my beginner’s perspective) route which completely destroyed my legs. I only noticed afterwards that my legs were shaking. Not ideal... when I tried to run the next day, my legs were completely gone. I instantly noticed that they didn’t feel right, so I called it quits and decided to take a few days off from running altogether, until they would feel normal again. So I tapered hard. Patrick arrived on the Friday before Easter, and we went on a little road trip through Austria and to Slovenia . I tried a run on Easter Sunday, but my legs still did not feel right. Very sore and tired. I got a bit nervous but told myself that I still had one week...
We were back home on Wednesday, that gave us one day to sort our stuff, buy some last- minute supplies and get ready for the big day. And it came quicker than expected! I have done quite a few ultras now, including quite a few long ones, but I will never not get nervous before a race. I tried to stay calm and focus on myself, find my inner strength that would carry me through this race and prevent me from DNFing. DNF. Did Not Finish. The nightmare of every ultrarunner...
In the days before the race, I listened to Laura Jane Grace’s new album a lot, a singer that has gone through some really tough times in her life but still conveys such strength in her songs... I wanted to be like her in the race, I wanted to be like Laura is on stage, powerful, strong and happy. That was my goal for the race. You can now guess whether I managed to be like that or not. Spoiler. I only cried once hehehe
On Friday, we prepared some proper food for our drop bags (gnocchi with tomato sauce) and for our pre-race breakfast (semolina). I had also bought a big box of vegan rice bars that I had tolerated very well in previous races and long runs, plus gels and some sweets, so I felt very well prepared in terms of nutrition. Patrick loaded the GPS track that was provided by the organiser (spoiler: it was from 2011) on our watches, on his phone and on my handheld navigation device. We were ready to go.
The pre-race briefing took place in a fancy hotel, that also served as start and finish of the race. We arrived early and had time to chat to other runners there. I was very happy to see Margit again, the woman with whom I had run the last 30km of the Chiemgauer 100 back in 2016, and I also saw Thorsten, with whom I had worked for Hoka at Challenge Roth in 2017. The ultra world is a village.
Since it was the first time that the Seenländer Ultra took place, every participant was called up to the front and personally handed over their race BIB. The organiser Michael was a very friendly, typical Franconian guy with a broad accent and you could tell that the race was his “baby”. He seemed very enthusiastic and so we forgave him that he forgot to put Patrick on the start list, even though I had sent him numerous emails in advance reminding him of that. Luckily, a few people hadn’t arrived, so we both got our BIBs. Michael gave us some instructions for the race, his main concern was the weather, and he urged us to make sure that we all had warm clothes and rain gear with us. He also very clearly said: “The course is very well marked. There will be signs every 20 metres. Nobody can get lost on this course”. Spoiler: Everybody got lost on this course. After a plate of pasta, we went back to our – less fancy – hotel for an early night in.
The race started at 7am the next morning. 30 runners (including us 5 women) lined up at the start line, looking more or less tired, all excited and ready to go. The weather seemed ok, contrary to the predictions. It was not raining, the sky looked clear and it was not too cold. Actually, it seemed like ideal running conditions. Then the countdown started and off we went!
Patrick and I had agreed not to run together this time, since we found out in previous races that we have a different rhythm, especially up and down hills. We still ran together for the first 3 km, which were flat along the shores of Brombachsee lake, before we turned into the forest and climbed up a little hill, where I lost sight of him. I was soon running on my own, just how I liked it at that time in the morning. Nothing is worse than having a group of constantly talking runners around you early in a long race like that.
Patrick and I had run the first few kilometres of the course on Christmas day, so I knew what to expect. I had decided to leave my handheld Garmin navigation device in the car, since the organiser had said that it was well signposted and I didn’t want to carry it. I had the track on my watch for rough navigation in the event that I didn’t find the signs. But again, he said it was well marked. I assumed he had checked the course before.
The first check point at 11 km came quickly and I didn’t really stop there. I was a bit worried about how my legs were feeling at this point. I hadn’t run in 1.5 weeks but the back of my legs felt really tight and they were generally not as light and fresh as I had hoped they would be. I somehow knew that it would be a long day...
I knew that I was the first woman, too. The others had been behind me at the start and hadn’t passed me since. I would love to say that I don’t care about rankings but it is not true. I do care and knowing that I am on a podium place in a race does give me an extra push. I cannot help it. I am competitive. I didn’t know how far behind the other women were but I made sure not to waste as much time early on as I did at the Rennsteig Nonstop ultrarace in September.
We ran through villages and over meadows. At some point, a mean little dog was chasing after me. The owner seemed perplex. He probably didn’t expect to see 30 runners that early in the morning. I was glad that I had taken my poles. At least they would help me fight off dogs. And wild boar. Hehehe
About ten minutes later, I was running in a beautiful little forest. I was completely alone now. Just as I turned around the corner, I saw a dog strolling along on the trail in front of me, it looked like a golden Labrador or Retriever, with no owner in sight. I only saw the tail end of the dog until it disappeared in the bushes. Very strange. I stopped and looked but didn’t see the dog again. I was unsure what to do. I am scared of strange dogs, especially alone in the woods. I looked back. Still no other runners behind me. I decided to slowly walk on. No dog in sight, neither in front of me, nor in woods. Was I hallucinating that early in the race already?
Other than that, I really enjoyed this part. It was a nice little single trail and I was in the flow for a short while. Alas it didn’t last long. As soon as I left the forest, I got lost for the first (of many, many times). I had missed a turning point and went up a hill, instead of down. It took me a while until I noticed my mistake. Luckily, I had the track on my watch that helped me navigate back to the route. Just as I came down the hill again, I saw Thorsten and two other runners (I will just call them “the 3 guys” from now on), who had caught up with me. I stayed with them for a while and we chatted a bit but left them behind at the next aid station. And promptly got lost again. I had missed another turn. The signs that marked the way were white but had little, dark blue arrows on their sides that were very easy to miss. Again, it took me a while until I noticed my mistake and had to turn around again. Now the three guys were in front of me again and two other runners had caught up with me – including Paddy. Just as I was running towards him, happy to see him again, a manic dog came running across a field, with a girl screaming and running after him. Paddy told me to keep on running and so I did. Nothing is more motivating than a crazy dog behind you. Then I heard Paddy shout “Stop and walk, Dani”. The crazy dog was now going after me but luckily it stopped as soon as I started walking. Madness.
Paddy and I stayed together for a while, running behind the three guys until we eventually passed them again. I was not feeling too well at that point, my legs were starting to feel tired already (not even a marathon run yet) and I was generally a bit low on energy. We ran through a little forest again, another short but pretty single trail section. I watched Paddy fly over the trail in front of me, while I was already struggling a bit. I missed the hills. This race was clearly too flat.
Luckily, they had coke at the next aid station. I took one sip and it went straight into my blood stream. Caffeine and sugar. The dream. Just what I needed to get me going again. I carried the bottle with me, knowing that there would be more at the next aid stations. Paddy took a bit longer to refill his water etc. and told me to go on. And so I did... It was a nice little downhill section through the woods that lead into a village. I was very lucky to find the right turn here, there were no signs saying turn left, I just happened to take the right turn by accident. The next section of the race was the prettiest: a lovely trail through flat, sandy woods, followed by meadows, an old mill, more woods and meadows... It felt like time had stopped in this place. Straight out of a fairy tale. Or maybe I was just high on sugar and caffeine at this point....
A while later, I reached a point where the signs were pointing into two directions and I had no idea which way to go. I checked my watch and saw that this was the point where we were supposed to run a 10km loop and in that very moment, the two leading guys were coming out of the woods from the opposite direction. They quickly confirmed that I was going into the right direction. Phew... I passed another check point (that I would pass again at the end of the loop), then ran along the Rothsee lake for a while. Here, the signs got a bit confusing and I had to stop and check my watch quite often to make sure that I was still on the right track. The weather had been nice, even sunny, all day but now I could see some fast- approaching dark clouds. It soon started to rain. I stopped and put on my rain jacket. It was a proper rain shower, which soaked my shoes and tights but luckily didn’t last very long. Soon I could take off my jacket again.
I ran along the river for a bit, then a long stretch on tarmac followed, right through a village. Signs were hard to find here because of parked cars or construction fences. I was relieved to be back in the woods again, to be done with the loop. When I passed the check point again, I also passed two guys that had been in front of me. We had done about 55 km at this point and I was still the leading woman, hadn’t seen any other woman at all, my legs were still feeling ok but I could tell that the cold rain shower earlier had taken some energy out of them. I tried to keep eating and drinking. As I was running through the woods again, I thought that the path in front of me looked strangely familiar. Wasn’t that the same path that I had come from the other way earlier? Was I running in the wrong direction? I panicked a bit and decided to turn around to see if there was anyone else coming this way. After about 500 metres, I saw another runner coming my way, one of the guys that I had passed earlier. He confirmed that this was the right direction. I was relieved.
Things started to get worse here. My legs were getting a bit tired and I had to stop and walk every once in a while – mainly to eat and drink but also to give my legs a little break from the monotonous flat running. I passed a big road construction site and got lost there again. My watch told me that I was far away from the track again. I saw a runner in front of me who was on the phone with Michael, the race organiser. He told us to go back and go through the tunnel. I had passed a tunnel earlier but hadn’t seen a sign. Oh well. Through the tunnel we went... The two guys behind us caught up and we sort of ran together into the next aid station. After eating sugary stuff all day, I was craving salt. The only non-sweet food they offered at all aid stations was eggs – not ideal if you are vegan. Luckily, one of the runners, Sepp, gave me a small package of salt. He had collected these small salt packages that you get at McDonalds or Burger King and carried a few with him. Very smart idea. I will remember that.
The salt seemed to help loosen up my legs again and I managed to run quite well for a while after that, leaving the guys behind. I had to stop and check my watch for the track every so often, though. The signs were quite bad now. It was annoying because all the stopping and going again was really exhausting. My legs were not happy. After a while, it started raining again, too, quite heavily this time. I put on my jacket and hoped that it would not be too bad. As I climbed up a hill about 65 km into the race, a group of young people were partying in a garden on the side of the road. They had abandoned their beer tables in the rain and were standing under a roof, cheering me on. They even offered me some beer. I would have loved a beer. But I still had a looong way to go. I didn’t want to think about how long I still had to go.
The rain stopped and Paddy caught up with me while I was taking off my rain jacket. I was happy to see him. He still seemed pretty fresh and easy on his legs and I told him to keep going without me but we stayed together for a while. It was nice catching up with him and hearing how his race had gone so far. We shortly parted ways again at the next aid station but he soon caught up with me again. We had just run through the nice old town of Spalt, which had been tricky to navigate, and were approaching the only section now that allegedly had some “real” trail in it. It was maybe 20 metres long. We had some issues navigating here again. I was getting a bit tired of it. Why had they not put up any signs at crossings? It became clear that the organiser surely had not checked the course before as he claimed, let alone even added extra markings. It was frustrating...
After a while, I noticed that it was getting quite dark again, and it became very windy all the sudden. And then there was this noise, really loud... I realised that the noise was RAIN and it was coming into our direction. FU*K. I hurried to put on my rain jacket again, just in time before the rain hit us. The storm came first. We were in the woods and I was not keen of getting hit by a tree so we hurried to get out there again. The open field was worse. The rain now hit us with full force. The worst 30 minutes of the race started right there. We were in an open field in a violent rain storm, I got soaked within minutes and we got lost. There were no signs whatsoever and we were running / walking in circles for at least 20 minutes. I had water in my shoes from walking through grass. I got so cold that I couldn’t stop shaking and my teeth were chattering. I started to panic as we couldn’t find the route. This was madness... I couldn’t stop shaking, I couldn’t breathe properly anymore. The rain was merciless and I got very, very cold. I thought we had to call the organiser now to pick us up, or better, an ambulance, as I was sure I would die of hypothermia if we were standing around for much longer. Finally, after an eternity, we found the right track again. At least we knew where to go now. I used up all the energy that I still had in me to keep running, in order to stay warm. It is very hard running against the rain and the wind when you don’t have much left in the tank and your whole body is shaking from the cold, but I knew that the next check point at km 95 was not far away. Our drop bags were waiting there with dry clothes and a warm jacket. If only we got there in time...At some point, Paddy was stopping to find the right track again, and I just burst out in tears. This was not what I had expected. I was so cold, tired, running low on energy and I couldn’t even do what we came here for – run a race - because the organiser had failed to deliver what he promised, simple course markings. Finally, I saw a building in the distance that looked like a cow stable. I anxiously asked Paddy if he thought this was the check point. He wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure if I could carry on if it wasn’t the check point. But then we saw some other runners standing there and a guy waving at us. We had made it.
A cow stable is not really an ideal drop bag station when you are cold and wet and want to get changed. The guy who ran it was the friendliest marshall that I had ever met in a race, he was so happy and enthusiastic and very helpful but I was cold and my body was shaking and I would have loved a quiet and warm place to change into my dry clothes. Instead, I had to undress in between a hay ball and the cows; I ended up not changing my underwear (which was soaked from the rain too) because I didn’t fancy stripping in front of all these guys, so I just put on a new shirt, long tights and a softshell jacket (that saved me later on) and tried to eat as much as I could, while Paddy was getting ready. He was not in a hurry. It was still pissing down in buckets outside and we could not risk getting soaked again. We still had more than 50 km to go and no dry clothes to change into again now, getting wet again would have been the end of our race. What kept me going was knowing that I was still the leading woman in the race and that we had hours until the cut-off. I knew we would make it to the finish line if we stayed dry and warm. Meanwhile, the three guys from earlier and a few others had arrived at the checkpoint too. They looked how I felt. Shattered.
Finally, the rain stopped and we could leave the cow stable. I felt a bit better in my warm and dry clothes. We hiked for a while until our legs had warmed up again and we could run again. I made a big mistake here. During the race briefing, the organiser had said that the last 50km were practically flat and that we could use road shoes after the drop bag station. I believed him and changed from my Hoka Evo Mafate into the Hoka Clifton. One kilometre later, my feet were soaked from the wet grass and I was stumbling over uneven forest tracks in my Cliftons. Beautiful....
I was forever waiting for that long last flat section. It never came. It got dark and with the darkness came even more disorientation. Luckily, Paddy never left my side again, even though he could have finished much quicker than me. I wouldn’t have made the last bit without him and his navigation skills. Even though I questioned it every single time. I don’t know how often I asked “Are you sure that this is the right way?”. Poor Paddy got a bit grumpy too. At one point, we were standing in the darkness in the middle of a field with no signs whatsoever and all we had was the phone with its fading battery to give us direction. We lost so much time and energy trying to navigate and trying to find the right track. It was hilarious. The last bit was a bit of a blur, as I was mainly stumbling behind Paddy, trying not to fall over in my Cliftons. My feet hurt, my legs hurt. We got lost and had to go off trail in the woods for a while to get back on the right track. We ended up on the wrong side of a small stream and were extremely lucky to find a bridge. Paddy wanted to stop 16 kilometres before the finish, at the last check point.
We heard that, together with the three guys who passed us there, we were the last runners left in the race. Everyone behind us had stopped or got timed out. I was the only woman left. I needed to finish this. Luckily, Paddy did not quit despite the prospect of having to endure me and my moaning for another few hours.
The last 16 km seemed like an eternity. We gave up trying to find any signs and just followed the GPS track. I had lost all sense of orientation, I was just stumbling along, I kept telling Paddy to run ahead because I knew that I was slowing him down but he refused to leave me. I was secretly relieved because I got scared of wild boar at that point, too. At one point, we left a forest and could switch off our headlamps again. It was almost morning now. I saw a sign that said that we still had 6 km to go and wanted to cry. I couldn’t run anymore, all the stopping and going and stopping and going had completely destroyed my legs. I had never felt so bad in a race ever before. It was ridiculous.
Finally, Michael, the race organiser, appeared on a bike in front of us. He said it was only 1800 m to go now. I thought Paddy might hit him. Luckily he didn’t. He must have realised that we were not exactly in the mood for chit chat so he left us alone again, riding his bike within a distance in front of us so to make sure that we don’t get lost again on the last kilometre.
I also had to throw up a bit on the last kilometre. Beautiful.
Then, finally, the hotel appeared in sight. Just a few more metres, up the terrace and through the swing door and we had made it. Finished. I never felt so old.
Inside the hotel lobby, we were greeted by a few brave people from the organisation team who had stayed up all night to welcome us runners. It was almost 6am in the morning. Our official time was 22 hours 53 minutes, we still had more than 3 hours until the cut-off at 9 am but were the last ones to finish. Of the 30 runners that had started the race, only 17 had reached the finish line. After everything we had gone through this did not surprise me at all.
We got a chäir and warm vegetable broth and I even got a blanket to warm up a bit. Then a kind woman accompanied me downstairs, to the wellness area of the hotel (which they had kept open all night just for us runners) and helped me get out of my shoes. It was not a pretty sight.
We spent a few hours trying to sleep in the wellness area and then on one of the stretchers the kind hotel people had put up for us but after 4 litres of coke and with my aching legs, I couldn’t really sleep. We got up again at 8, had breakfast and then chatted with other runners. It was nice hearing their stories, whether DNF or not, they all had had an adventurous time out there. The sense of community was strong.
And slowly, we started to cheer up a bit and feel better again. We had done it. We had finished this beast of a race against all odds.
What do we say to the God of DNF? Not today 😉
I got a price for finishing as first lady overall, a free start for the marathon in December that is organised by Michael, too (hopefully with better course markings...) and a night in the very nice hotel that hosted the race. So I will return for the marathon but I can say for sure that I will never run the Seenländer Ultra again. I have had enough.
All in all, it was still a great experience. With hindsight, it always is. As one of the ultrarunners in the Barkley Marathon movie said, you need to force yourself to go through a bit of pain every once in a while, to appreciate the simple things in life again. Dry clothes, a warm jacket, a hot soup and a nice and cosy blanket.
So I will concentrate on the good things. The start and finish of the race in the hotel were perfect. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, letting us use the hotel facilities for free. That was the best treatment after an ultra that I have ever experienced. It was a very nice and familiar atmosphere and I appreciate that the organiser wants to keep it that way. The landscape had some nice parts. I learned many things from this race, once again. I am not Laura Jane Grace. I do cry. I am not always strong.
During and immediately after the race, we said that we would never run such distance again. Never ever. Of course, that has changed and we have signed up for another 100 mile race in June.
Thank you Paddy, for not leaving me on the trail when things got ugly; I couldn’t have done it without you.
Thank you for reading :)