“Are you sure that you want to continue this race? You still have 50 kilometres to go, young Lady!”
I looked into the bearded face of the paramedic, who stared back at me with a mixture of disbelief and slight irritation. Luckily, his attention was then caught by another runner, who had also rolled his ankle on the same section and he looked much worse than me.
I was on the verge of tears. The race had just started, we were only 20 kilometres in, it was too early to stop, I had trained so hard for this, I couldn’t stop…
The longer I waited on the side of the trail with the paramedics, mentally going through the pros and cons of stopping here, the more runners passed me. One after another ran by, some smiling sympathetically… I knew there weren’t many left. Time was ticking, I had to make a decision immediately. And so I hobbled on, to continue the adventure that was not supposed to be over yet.
The ultra race started at 6 a.m. I had travelled the roughly 270 kilometres to the town of Sonthofen the day before, together with Anja, who was doing the half marathon on the same day and who was still sound asleep in the hotel. I had taken a taxi to the start, much too early as always, and was now shivering in the cold and dark. One after another, the other ultra runners arrived, together with a few family members. The atmosphere was calm and solemn, no music, no loud-speakers, no cheering fans, no red carpet. A dim light, coffee in paper cups, quiet conversations. Five minutes before the start, the race organiser had to call for the runners to finally line up at the start line, because we had a race to run J
There was no real starting sign. I lined up in the middle of the field of the around 270 runners because it was the warmest place and just started to move with everyone else. The runners cheered and clapped, excited to finally start this race. And so it began. Contrary to other races, I didn’t feel much euphoria. I was nervous and anxious due to the first cut-off being pretty tight – at 19 kilometres, roughly 1200 m (3937 feet) and 3 hours + 15 minutes. With hindsight, this tight cut-off makes a lot of sense but it put us back-of-the-pack runners under a bit of stress in the beginning.
We ran straight out of the town of Sonthofen. The first 2 km were pretty flat, I don’t remember much other than trying to find my place and pace in the field, trying not to run over other runners, avoiding getting poked by poles etc. At one point, we passed a beautiful little lake with the fog of the night rising, a really pretty picture, but there was no time to stop and enjoy the beauty around us. The first climb started soon. We were rising together with the sun, higher and higher into the mountains. I was running the climbs at first but soon had to walk like everyone else. The air was cold and humid and my lungs were burning soon due to the high tempo.
To be honest, my mood was pretty bad on those first kilometres. My breathing was heavy and so were my legs, I felt a bit dizzy and generally weak. And we had only ran 5 kilometres… DNFing seemed likely, I was pretty beaten up already. Looking back, other than my ankle disaster, this early stage was my lowest point in the entire race. The further we went, the better I felt mentally.
We climbed over cow pastures, through the forest, on technical trails full of rocks and roots, which were quite tricky already. We don’t have trails like this on Schwanberg hill J
I didn’t care much about the time limit at this point, I just wanted to move forwards as fast as possible. Then, finally, the first ascent was over and we ran into the first check point / aid station, which came sooner than expected. The sound of the timing maps beeping was the sweetest thing I had heard in a while. The first cut-off was done, now I could relax a little.
I grabbed some coke and water melon, eager to leave the aid station early again, when I looked into the face of a fellow runner who seemed vaguely familiar. He seemed to recognize me, too, and asked me whether I had run the Maintal Ultratrail the year before. Yes, I remembered him! We had met on the course back then and had talked a bit in the finishing area. I was so happy to see a familiar face at this point! When I left the aid station, I told him that we would surely see each other again soon on the course. Oh yes, sooner than expected.
Things looked quite rosy for about 1 kilometre. I was running easily, moving fast on the downhills, enjoying the beautiful landscape around me, when, suddenly bam… I rolled my ankle on one of the not so terribly technical trails. I immediately felt that it was not one of these “easier” ankle rolls but quite bad. I stopped, unable to put weight on my foot at first, cursing, but then managed to slowly walk a few steps… and then a few more… and then even run a bit. It didn’t hurt much but if felt weird, unstable. Luckily, two paramedics and a few volunteers were waiting about 200 metres away. I asked them for ice spray but they didn’t have any and immediately assumed that I would stop. No!!
I know that it would have probably wiser to have stopped at this point, health-wise. Today, two days after, my ankle doesn’t look pretty. But what is a couple of weeks rest compared to the huge disappointment, the months and kilometres of training wasted due to such a stupid mistake? I just had to continue.
I told the paramedics that I would run until the next full aid station, which was 6 kilometres to go, and then decide whether or not to drop out of the race. They probably thought I was nuts and warned me that it wouldn’t be easy but I had made my mind.
So I hobbled on, munching a hand full of “Fred Ferkel” (vegan jelly candy ;)) until I was able to run again. I even passed a few people again until… the downhill of hell started. Loose gravel and rocks at first, roots, loose soil and really, really steep sections later. I was anxious to hurt my ankle more or to fall, so I climbed down painfully slowly and let others pass me. It was a nightmare and it seemed to last forever.
Finally, I reached the water station at the foot of the hill. I must have been pretty close to last place here and my spirits were low but the man at the aid station assured me that the section behind me was probably the worst downhill in the race and things would be easier for a while now. Ok, that was good to hear. I drank some more coke and moved on. It went surprisingly well from there on. I passed one woman again and then saw a few more runners in front of me, slowly getting closer. I caught up with them and passed one after another, maybe 10 in total. It lifted my mood, seeing that I was able to run where others were walking….
The first hikers and mountain bikers were out and cheering us on now, which was a nice distraction. We crossed the border to Austria and ran into the beautiful “Kleinwalsertal” valley, which was a stunning sight. My mood brightened with every step and when I reached the aid station shortly after the border at km 35, I was convinced that I would keep going. Again, I tried not to waste too much time here, drank some coke, exchanged a few words with the really friendly volunteers and then continued to run down into the valley. The sun was shining, everyone smiled at us, the mountains were beautiful, life was good J
I passed a few more runners, including two guys around my age, here, before the next big climb began on the other side of the valley. It went well at first until I climbed over a couple of steps and my right thigh started to cramp. Well, that was another first. I had never had cramps in my legs before in a race. It got better after a while though, waking helped. The two guys behind me caught up with me again and we ran together for a few kilometres. One of them had run Würzburg marathon in May where I had volunteered… the ultra running world is a village J
I left the pair at the next water station, knowing that they would catch up with me again soon. A marathon was done now. Considering the circumstances, I felt pretty good still, I was able to run the not so technical downhills and flat sections and hiked up the climbs.
Then, back in Germany, the descent down to Oberstdorf started. It was slippery, steep and tricky, and I lost a lot of time again on my miserable stumble down there. A few other runners passed me and the pair of friends from earlier appeared again, too. I was still able to joke though, a good sign, even though I felt really miserable being so slow.
Finally, the climb was over and Oberstdorf appeared. I caught up with most of the runners again and was quite happy when I ran into the next check point / cut-off station right next to the big ski jumping arena. I met my two new friends again and left the aid station before them, telling them that we would soon meet again on the course, not knowing that I would only see them again behind the finish line.
Everyone had warned me that the last big climb up to the summit of the Sonnenkopf mountain, roughly 1000 metres / 3280 feet, would be tough. But 50 kilometres were done now, only 20 kilometres to go, I was still feeling relatively good and ready to tackle this beast. Seriously, how bad could it possibly be? After all the obstacles I had overcome so far, could it really be so tough? Sadly, the answer was yes: In front of me waited the most brutal 20 kilometres of my “running career”. Luckily, I was completely unaware of it. It was ok at first, I was still passing a runner here and there, getting passed by one or two others. There was another aid station halfway up and things looked good. I refuelled and left it quickly, eager to get over with it…. and ran straight into hell ;) The path was now a rocky and wet trail, before turning into a horrible narrow single trail full of roots and rocks, with a deep slope on one side. Did I mention that I am not comfortable with heights? I was alone now, it got darker and cooler. I moved forwards at snail speed. One step at a time, concentrate, don’t look down….
I was so relieved when the trail turned into a meadow again, out of the forest, a few metres up again and there it was! A cross appeared in front of me, huge and beautiful! Was this the summit already? Well, it hadn’t been so tough after all - Boy, I was wrong. I asked the two runners, who had been a couple of metres behind me, if this was the summit… I’m an idiot. Of course, this wasn’t the summit. It was still 4km to go until the summit, upwards.
I somehow managed to leave the pair behind again, ran on an easier section for a while, into another aid station. There I asked another runner where exactly the summit was. He pointed at one of the peaks above us, so high above us, and told me: “2 kilometres to go, mostly vertical”. Ugh…
He was right of course. The worst section of the entire race awaited us. Mostly vertical indeed and terribly technical. I was so grateful for my poles, which I could bore deep into the muddy ground and lift me up with. One step after another, meter after meter, roots and soil, roots and soil… after each turn, I expected to see the summit but only saw more roots and soil, roots and soil… The last kilometre up to the summit took me 33 minutes, 33 f***** minutes! Finally, reaching the top of this stupid mountain, in this stupid race that I was stupid enough to participate in, was pure deliverance.
I thanked the three volunteers, who were waiting up there in this unreal, cold and windy place, for having carried up all the water and coke by foot. Ahhh…
Now, the hardest part was over. I got a bit of a heart attack when I checked my watch for the first time in ages. 10 hours and 45 minutes had passed already. I had expected to finish around 11 hours but I still had 9 kilometres to go, which were downhill but not easy at all. Again I had to walk (or rather crawl) down the first section because it was so steep and technical, I was tired and scared to make a wrong step and fall down or roll my ankle again. It took forever until the trail became a more runnable gravel path and then a broader military road, which was runnable again. Well, as much running as my legs allowed at that point. I alternated between running and walking, slowly realizing that the finish line was within reach!
5 kilometres to go, 4 kilometres to go… I exchanged a few words with every runner I passed or who was passing me. We were all in the same boat now, one big family, the back of the pack… Exhausted but happy!
2 kilometres to go. A marshal on a bike handed me the last cup of water. We ran through a sweet village, then on a gravel path next to a pretty little stream… 1 kilometre to go.. where is that finish line?
Then, finally, I was in Sonthofen. I crossed the street and there it was! I saw Anja, who was waiting for me, cheering me on, taking pictures. Hooray! I even managed to “sprint” over the red carpet with a big smile!!
12 hours and 12 minutes after the start in the morning, which seemed a lifetime ago, I crossed the finish line, exhausted but happy! No tears this time just pure joy J
Anja was the perfect support, organizing pizza, while I was trying to take a shower. After 12 hours of running, the easiest things can become a challenge. The task of finding the shower and organising my backpack, clothes, etc, finding my locker again… were a big mental challenge J
I met all the lovely people again that I had gotten to know on the course, chatted a bit with them… I even got a price for placing 3rd in my age group. Out of three of course J
We spent the rest of the evening in the hotel, eating pizza and drinking a bit of sparkling wine. Anja had smashed the half marathon with 200 metres elevation gain in a fantastic time, and we had a lot to discuss J
I slept surprisingly good that night, woke up to a swollen but pain-free ankle, and had some more pizza and a hot bath to start the day. Another surprise waited at the breakfast table – the hotel owners had seated all runners together at one big table. There was a man around 60, from Eisenach, who looked familiar too. He had run the half marathon the day before and after talking to him for a while, it turned out that I had met and run for a while with him at the Altmühltrail Race in 2014. Once again, the running world is a village!
Now, two days have passed and I am still overwhelmed by this race. I don’t know if I am going to do this again. These mountains are too tough for me… I think I will rather concentrate on distance than on elevation gains in the future J But asked me again in a couple of days…
Thank you everyone who supported me in the past couple of weeks, thank you for running with me, whether in spirit or in person, for listening to my rambles, for sending messages of support and little surprises and accompanying me on the journey to Sonthofen – you know who you are! I owe this race to you! <3