A race through winter wonderland
When I think back to the Jägerstein Ultra, there is one image that got burnt into my mind. It is dark, snowing, we are on a very steep ski slope. Martin is half lying in the snow in front of me with cramps in his legs, unable to move forward. I’m right behind him, using his footsteps in the snow as some sort of climbing aid; I have to concentrate hard. Every false step leads to my leg being stuck in the snow up to my upper thigh. I don’t want to think of the several hundred metres below us… if he falls down, we are both falling down. We will trigger an avalanche. We will get stuck. We will die…. Luckily, he is able to move again and finds a way further up. Of course, with hindsight, it wasn’t that dramatic. But after more than 65km and hours in the cold and the snow, your mind starts to play tricks on you… Spoiler: we made it up there at last. It took forever but we made it.
It has been a while since I last posted a blog post. I did a few races after the West Highland Way Race but none of them was particularly interesting or eventful to write about. However, my training went really well over the summer and autumn so in October, I decided to sign up for one last ultra marathon this year: The Jägerstein Ultra.
There wasn’t really much info about this race. 70km with quite a few hills through the Thuringian Forest in winter. Snow was almost certain on the second half of the race. I thought “Why not” and signed up. A bit naïve, with hindsight…
The race is organised by “Meldeläufer”, a small running event company. I’ve never done any of their races before, so I was curious what to expect. In 2016, about 30 people finished the race, so the field was quite small. It sounded really good.
Then, on the Wednesday before the race, the organiser issued a list with mandatory equipment and I panicked. Two headlamps, yaktraks, a GPS device for navigation. I didn’t have any of that. Moreover, the thought of having to navigate myself on unknown terrain and in the snow was just too much. I emailed the race organiser and asked if I could transfer the start fee to another race; however, that was impossible. Miraculously, friends jumped in and let me borrow all the mandatory equipment. Sebastian even gave me some gaiters for the snow and Jörg some last minute instructions on how to use his fancy GPS device. I was still not 100% convinced that I would make it to the finish line but I felt a bit more confident and decided to give it a go.
Equipment played a major role in this race. As there were no drop bags and only 2 aid stations, and due to the weather (snow and up to -8°C), I had to thoroughly think and plan what to wear and what to carry with me during the race. In the end, I settled for the following gear:
- Long winter running tights
- Long-sleeved winter under shirt, second long sleeved functional shirt as intermediate layer
- Softshell jacket
- Buff around neck
- Woolly hat
- Ski gloves
- Long snow gaiters
- Hoka One One Speedgoat
- GPS navigation device and headlamp
- 2 x 500 ml of water
- 5 energy bars
- 1 gel
- A bag of vegetarian Haribos
- Spare headlamp, spare batteries for the headlamp, spare batteries for the GPS device
- Spare socks
- Spare second long sleeve top
- Spare buff
- Light down jacket
- Emergency blanket
- Mobile phone
There was a bit of a risk involved here since I didn’t have a proper water tight jacket and I wasn’t sure if the winter tights would be enough in the cold. But my backpack was full and I thought that I could always stop at the last aid station (about 49 km in) if things were too tricky.
Travelling to the race on the Friday night was an adventure itself. I chose the train as I wasn’t keen on driving 150km through winter conditions. The further East the train drove, the more wintery the weather got. I changed trains in Gotha, a very ugly, unfriendly, remote train station. An ice cold wind was howling over the platform and it was snowing quite a bit there already. What had I gotten myself into?
Then I arrived in Fröttstädt, a small village in the middle of nowhere, where the race started. I had booked a room there but made the mistake of not really looking at the map and trying to figure out where the place was located before travelling there. I relied on mobile phone navigation. Unfortunately, when I stepped out of the train, the phone signal was dead. I had absolutely no idea where to go. There were no other people around. It was dark, cold, snowing. I felt very lost.
I tried my luck walking through the empty streets in one direction. It really felt like the end of the world. I needed a cash machine and a bakery too but there were no such things here. After about 15 minutes of walking around and
desperately trying to get a phone signal to use google maps, a car stopped. Three guys were sitting inside. Usually, this is where stories get bad – don’t do this at home kids. But the guys were runners in the race too, they had correctly identified me via my Hokas dangling from my backpack and offered me a ride to the race briefing, which took place at a McDonalds a few kilometres outside of the village. I gladly agreed, happy to be out of the cold. Luckily, these runners were also sleeping in the same guest house as me so they offered to take me back too. I was very, very lucky.
The race briefing was interesting. The organiser Michael explained some tricky spots on the course and also some alternative routes on the last section. The official route followed a technical single trail there and the last bit was up a ski slope… yikes. He said that there was an alternative route if we decided that it would be too much. We were running this race at our own risk, after all. Double yikes.
I secretly decided to take the road up the Schmücke guest house, where the finish line was, it sounded like a good idea.
After the briefing, I went into the adjacent petrol station to get cash and some food for breakfast, before we headed back into the village and out of civilisation again. The room in the guest house was a pleasant surprise, warm and friendly. After a hot shower, I arranged my stuff for the next morning and then went to bed early to get as much sleep as possible.
Since the race start had been postponed to 7 am, I really did get enough sleep. Unfortunately, there was no chance to get coffee in the morning so I wasn’t in the best mood when I climbed out of bed, into my clothes, down the stairs and out of the door. It was dark, cold, windy, and snowy outside. What was I doing here again? Why had I paid an incredible amount of hard earned money to treat myself to a day of suffering in the cold?
We were 13 runners in the race in total. The race start was on parking space in the middle of the village. Michael gave us our runners card (a laminated bib with the elevation profile and his phone number printed on) and wished us best of luck. Then we headed off, into the dark and cold morning. We all ran closely together for the first couple of kilometres. The route was pretty tricky here and nobody was keen on getting lost that early already. The more experienced runners who had done the race before took the lead and I followed willingly. I chatted a bit to Sandra, the only other woman in the race, who came from Berlin.
The first bit was on asphalt. I soon ran in the lead with the guys who had given me a ride the day before. They were a group of 4 in total and planned to run the whole race together. They seemed to have a lot of fun there. Me and another runner were following them. The pace was a tiny bit too fast for me wearing all the clothes and my backpack; after the first climb up the hill in Waltershausen, I was sweating already and told them to keep going. I had the GPS device and could navigate myself if need be. Of course, I got lost straight away. When I noticed my mistake and turned around, I met the group of runners who had been behind us and continued to run with them. They clearly knew their way.
It was a really beautiful morning. We ran through the forest, the trees were covered in a light dusting of snow, the sky above us was clear and pink in the first light of the morning. A really special moment. Where else do you get that?
A runner named Martin and me started to run a bit faster than the rest of the group and were soon on our own. We saw the leading guys in front of us every once in a while but where never close enough to catch them. Not that we wanted anyways. It was still pretty early in the race and the whole field would be stretched further apart soon. Little did we know that we would stay together for the entire race now.
The early kilometres were quite easy. The snow was still alright, not very deep, most of it was runnable. The wind got a bit mean at some point and I noticed that the buff around my neck and my undershirt were wet already and got a bit uncomfortable. I made a mental note to change that at the first aid station.
This aid station at km 28 appeared pretty soon. It was a bakery in a large supermarket, quite handy. Martin and I had agreed not to stay too long there, so I quickly drank a bottle of coke, ate some pastry (which was excellent), took of my sweaty intermediate layer shirt and buff, and was ready to go again. The leading group was still sitting there & drinking coffee so Martin and I were in the lead when we left the bakery. We were joking a bit about being the leading couple, and leader shirts, and all that. I thought it was funny. I had often dreamed about being first in a race but I thought this was out of reach. Now, this was only a very small race with a very non-competitive character, but still… it felt good. But we both expected the others to appear behind us any minute.
We ran out of the town on snow covered roads and back into the forest. The higher up we got, the more snow there was and the trails got a bit more difficult too. I didn’t really have to use my GPS device at all, just a few times to double check if we were still on the route. Martin had done the race 4 times already, so he knew the way… which was brilliant. I’m sure that I would have gotten lost and never found my way out of these woods again.
We soon started to climb up a pretty steep hill in the forest, to an impressive rock formation in the shape of a door. Apparently it was quite famous. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any pics, it was too cold and I was afraid that my mobile phone battery would die if I took it out and you never know if you urgently need it later in the race.
After that climb, I looked down and saw the group of the 4 guys following us. They were only a few minutes behind, so good-bye to our lead. However, they didn’t get any closer at that point. The snow was now really deep and made it quite hard to move so it was more of a mixture of running and speed hiking here. Then, the first really grim section of the way appeared in front of us, a steep and rocky trail covered in almost knee high snow. It was brutal.
I just followed Martin and stepped into his footprints. This made it a bit easier but I still slipped often and had to pull my leg out of the snow again. The gaiters saved me here. I didn’t get any wet feet at all. Additionally, the profile of the Hoka Speedgoats was enough to run safely on the snow, there was not much ice, so I didn’t have to use the yaktraks at all.
This climb seemed to last forever but eventually we reached the top, where a flatter, more runnable section awaited us. It was on the Rennsteig, a famous long distance hiking path in the Thuringian Forest (with an ultramarathon of its own, the Rennsteiglauf). There were quite a few cross country skier there and they looked surprised when they saw us. Running there was not as hard as the path had less snow, it had probably been prepared for the cross country skiers. It was a good section to relax and recover a bit, before things got trickier again.
We left the Rennsteig after a while and the snow got deeper again. Running was tough, we had to power hike most of it here. After that, we were now running down the hill again, with less snow. I remember that the light was very special on that section. It was almost like a spotlight behind us, probably the silver reflection of the sunlight in the snow. A very beautiful moment. What a day to be alive…
As were running further down the hill, we saw a figure in the distance running towards us. It was Michael, the race organiser. He confirmed that we were still the first runners in the race and that the second check point wasn’t far now. That was good news. The mean and steep hill which we had to climb to reach that checkpoint was bad news.
Somehow we made it up there without the runners behind us catching up. The second aid station/checkpoint was a very old guest house in the middle of the forest. Michael had organised pea soup and drinks for us but Martin and I had agreed again that we only wanted to drink something, change some clothes and then keep going to cover most of the remaining 20km in daylight.
The soup wasn’t vegetarian anyway so I wasn’t very sad about missing it. I changed my head and put on my spare long sleeved top as second layer since the weather would get a bit rougher now. We would climb up higher and the trail was pretty much exposed there, according to Martin. It was a real benefit having such an experienced runner on my side. I quickly ate a last handful of veggie Haribos, then we were off again. Just as we were about to leave, the group of runners behind us appeared at the aid station, which meant that we had about 10 minutes lead on them.
I tried not to get too excited about being in the lead. Things could still get wrong. Martin and I talked about it. He said they might take a longer break than we had. They might get lost again. We now had a chance of winning this race.
I was a bit too excited about that, trying to push the pace as we were running down the hill again. And immediately fell down. Luckily, the snow was very, very soft ;)
The others had told me that the last bit of this race was the toughest. And it was true. It was ok at first, we got a bit lost, but with the help of the GPS we found the right track again. There were still no other runners in sight.
We then had to cross a railway track running through the forest. The organiser had told us the day before to be careful here as there were trains running quite frequently and they were fast. We crossed the tracks and followed a narrow path into the woods again.
This is where things got a bit ugly again. I am not very comfortable on technical trails; especially not in the snow. I am a real chicken when it comes to heights. This path had all of it. I tried not to be ridiculous and not to show how scared I was on that nasty trail. It was a very narrow single trail with a steep slope on the right hand side. It was secured by an iron chain and parts of it were very slippery. I grasped the chain as if my life depended on it (it did ….) and just tried to move forward as quickly as I could. It seemed to take forever but finally, it was over. Or so I thought. I was glad that we had covered this part of the way in daylight.
However, the narrow single trail continued. I tried to concentrate very much on the footsteps in front of me and not to look down into the abyss on my right. Martin didn’t seem to bother and moved quickly, even ran. I tried hard to keep up. There was no time to rest. I wanted to get away from this trail as long as there was still some daylight left. After ages, the path got a bit broader again. The woods around us got thicker and darker. It smelled like wild boar. I had caught up with Martin and we decided that it was time to put our headlamps on and eat a bit more. I checked my watch. Almost 60km done now. It couldn’t be far now.
It still was. It didn’t get any easier either. We ran/hiked down into the last village before the finish line. It really felt like the end of the world here. A few houses, streets covered in snow, a dog barking. Orange street lights. No soul around. Still, passing these empty streets at night and in the snow had something magical. It was the last really runnable bit until the summit of the Schneekopf.
The next section going out of the village was relatively flat but the snow was so deep that we didn’t even see a path there. I had a bit of a low here, moving in the deep snow got a bit tough now and I was tired. I was secretly hoping that we would skip the ski slope as Michael had suggested in the meeting the night before. We then got into the forest again, another narrow trail. I now didn’t care anymore, I was too exhausted to be scared and had to move quickly to keep up with Martin. We had to climb over a few fallen trees here too.
At last, the path got a bit broader again. We were climbing up now but it was alright. Fire roads are my terrain. We heard an animal make noises in the woods. I have to admit that my brain suffered from the lack of oxygen at this point… I asked if it had been a wolf. Of course not. It was an owl… Martin said that, according to old stories, if you hear that owl calling you at night, someone in your village will die. Yikes.
Also, my vision started to get a bit funny here. The same thing had happened in the second night during the West Highland Way Race so I wasn’t concerned. Just the brain unable to process the information sent from the eyes correctly. There were no actual lynxes, bicycles etc. on the trail ...
I was still hoping that we would skip the ski slope. But no. There it was… practically a wall on our right. How on earth were we supposed to get up there? I desperately unpacked an energy bar to mobilise some last reserves. But there was no time for a long break. Up we went.
Martin did all the hard work here. I just followed him closely. I wouldn’t have been able to get up there, having to pull my leg out of the knee deep snow with every step, carefully trying to find a route up in this madness. I felt sorry for him having to do it all on his own with me just following him. I would have been completely lost there.
We slowly made our way up there, carefully evaluating every step. I tried to get some hold with my poles first, then my legs followed. Step by step… relentless forward progress.
Then we reached the top, a hiking path. But no, we weren’t there yet. The fun continued on the other side of the path. Another section of the ski slope to hike up. I didn’t see the top at all this time. I didn’t dare to look down either. It was very steep.
Martin had problems moving forward here and I was scared that we were stuck in the snow…. On a hill. With no help in sight. I tried hard to concentrate and not to panic. Panic was not allowed… Finally, we made it… I don’t know how long it took us but we reached the top at one point. The real top.
The path got broader here again and I falsely thought that we were almost there now. My watch said we were almost there now. But there is one thing I have learned during any ultra: never trust your watch. We saw colourful lights in the distance. It was Michael coming down the hill in front of us with some sort of Christmas decoration lights in his hands. We stopped and exchanged a few words with him and he happily told us that he had run down the “Hölle” (Engl.: Hell) path for us and we could use his footsteps to climb up. Oh right. Hölle. Hell. The others had talked about it before the race but I had somehow forgotten about that part. Apparently it was just as bad as the ski slope.
Well it wasn’t as bad as the ski slope with respect to the actual inclination. But it took forever … and the snow wasn’t as compact as on the slope, so it was tricky. I misplaced my steps quite a few times here and had to pull my legs out of the snow. Like literally pull them out… It was extremely tiring.
I wanted to cry a bit here. I had to remind myself that I did this for fun. I had paid for that. We were in the lead. We were almost there.
Then, finally, we had reached the top. Almost there now! Martin stopped at the Jägerstein, a small stone monument commemorating a huntsman who got murdered there in the 19th century. He touched it but I was too exhausted to walk over there. I silently gave a nod to the ghost of the huntsman and on we went. There was a house in the distance. I falsely believed that was the finish and got excited. But no… Martin said something about only 1.7 km to go. I had to ask him to repeat that. 1.7km. WTF.
Luckily, the path was quite runnable and flat. I tried to push the pace a bit since I was still scared that the other runners would appear behind us any minute. That would have been bitter. But whenever I glanced back, there was only darkness.
Then, finally, we reached the road leading to the Schmücke guest house, the finish of the race. Almost there! We had done it! First place! In reality, Martin deserved the first place all to himself as he had done all the hard work of going first in the deep snow and I would have gotten lost a few times without his navigation.
We arrived at the guest house. I remembered it from the Rennsteiglauf in May 2016, where we had passed this place. How different it looked in winter, at night.
There was nobody there to greet us. No actual finish line. We stepped into the guest house. There was a piece of paper on the table in which we had to enter our finish times. 11 hours and 50 minutes. What a race!
We waited a bit until the woman working there appeared and gave us our keys. The overnight stay in the guest house was included in the race fee, as was the bus transfer back to the start the next morning. Since we were only 2 women in the race, we shared a double room.
After a not so hot shower, I went back down into the guest room. Meanwhile, the group behind us had arrived (about 20 minutes after us) and everyone seemed pretty happy about having finished this race.
The rest of the runners dropped in in the course of the evening. We all had food and a few drinks together and it was a lovely atmosphere, a perfect end to a perfect running adventure.
The Jägerstein Ultra was definitely worth all the hardship … it is a very unique race, in a beautiful landscape, with quite extreme conditions (although there was less snow in the previous years). It was hard to imagine how it would be like before the race, but now, afterwards, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any beautiful horrible minute of it.
It is always hard to explain what a race like that does to you. I can only say it does SOMETHING to you. You take something out of it, strength, energy, confidence… but I also feel like I left a small part of me out there, in the Thuringian forest, which makes me want to go back and run these trails again so badly :)
Thank you for reading.