While I was slowly making my way through the Thuringian Forest - step by step, left foot, right foot - feeling the tightness in my legs with every step, I thought of that line of that song (Shadow of the Sun by Kapitan Korsakov) that had been haunting me for a while.
I thought of how, in a few hours, I would be nearly home, nearly crossing the finish line, and I was pretty sure that I would cry like a baby when that moment finally came. The end of this race that had turned out so completely different than expected, much harder, and that was close to breaking me. Nearly home...
As always, the race - the Rennsteig Nonstop with about 168 km and 3,000m of elevation gain - had looked good on paper. After the West Highland Way Race in June 2017, this was my third attempt at running 100 miles or more; lucky number 3... the other two had ended in a DNF / finish of a shorter race distance. The Rennsteig, this beautiful long distance hiking trail in the THuringian Forest in the East of Germany, seemed like the ideal place to try it again.
I knew the place well from previous races, it was quiet and somewhat mysterious, an seemingly endless dark forest, relatively easy trails and not too far away. The preparation for the event had been ok, I had had a bad fall on the trails 3 weeks before where I had to skip one long run but the wounds on my hands, elbows and knees had healed and I had managed to get one last 50km training run in before the race, which had felt pretty good.
Of course, Patrick, who never says No to any races that I suggest, had also signed up for it, and together we drove to Hörschel, where the finish line was, the day before the race. We had a mountain of pizza for dinner and then tried to get in as much sleep as possible, as the race would start at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Before the start
The race was really well organized. A bus brought us participants from Hörschel to Blankenstein, the start of the race. It is a strange sort of people that gathers for this type of event. Based on looks alone, you wouldn't automatically assume that we had met to run 168km, if it hadn't been for the odd finisher shirt, the taped knees, the well filled backpacks, the smell of voltarene and other last minute remedies that were generously spread on legs and other body parts... Everyone seemed to know each other and everyone seemed a bit ... non-conventional. Patrick said to me: "All these people are crazy" and I agreed. We were propbably no exception though.
At the start, we had the opportunity to sort our stuff into drop bags for three drop bag stations that were provided in addition to the 8 aid stations. That was really luxurios. I had prepared spare batteries, spare clothes, spare shoes and a variety of food that I might need later on. And coke. A lot of coke...
The organiser Gunter gave a little briefing and then reminded us to smile... as this was the reason why he did all this. Later, I assumed that he probably also liked seeing us cry and swear.
Paddy and I had decided to run separately for various reasons (different rhythm, me being a bit whiny in races when he is around, mainly my mental breakdown at the Snowdonia 50 miles where I rolled my ankle, became a bit of a drama queen and then had to DNF), so we wished each other good luck and lined up for the start, together with 85 other hopeful runners.
Start to aid station 1 - Brennersgrün, 20km
I didn't feel very good in the beginning. We ran out of Blankenstein on a broad tarmac road, continuously uphill for a while, and I didn't like that at all. My backpack was too full and thus too heavy, I was nervous, and I had trouble finding a rhythm. Was I going too fast? too slow? Should I walk the hill or run it?
Quite a few people were standing in front of their houses and cheered us on. Funnily, these first kilometres were the only point in the race where there were spectators. Given the remoteness of the area, it must have been quite a sight for them. Look at all these crazies, kid...
Eventually, after maybe 4km, we reached the forest, and the route changed from tarmac to trails. I immediately felt much better. I also tried to drink the water from my water bladder to make the backpack lighter. I didn`t really need that much anyway as the first aid station was only 20 km away and it was not very hot.
However, my left knee started to hurt pretty badly on this very early stage of the race already. That was very odd and bad news. It was the one I had fallen on three weeks before and I was very worried about it. If it got worse, it could break my neck in this race... I tried not to think about it too much now. Maybe it would sort itself out.
I was running on my own but other runners were in sight most of the time so I didn't have to look at my GPS device to find the right track. Just follow the pack... we only got lost once briefly but luckily it was only a small detour. I noticed that many runners had people accompanying them on bikes. This was allowed but I had decided against it. I didn't want to bother anyone with cycling with me over that distance and time and there were enough aid stations anyway.
The sun was slowly setting and the views were spectacular, pink clouds over the hills of the Thuringian forest... really pretty. My knee was still hurting quite badly and I was very worried now. If it was like that on the first 20km of the race already, how would I be able to run 168km on it?
However, miracles do happen. I stopped for a few minutes to take out my headlamp and rearrange my backpack and after that, the pain was completely gone. Well, the pain in my knee was gone. Pain in other body parts occurred later ;)
I talked to a guy from Dresden, who had attempted this race 2 times before and DNF'ed two times already. That wasn't very encouraging to hear. He also urged me not to run alone through the night but didn't seem very keen to run with me, either. I decided to wait for Paddy, who I assumed was not far behind me, at the first aid station.
Part 2 - Brennersgrün to Kalte Küche / Tettau 38 km
It was already dark when I arrived at the first aid station. I was happy when I found out that they had real coke there and got a cup immediately, even though I had planned to only start with the coke after 50km. But it was getting dark and cold and I remembered how tired I got during the night at the Hexenstieg Ultra, where I didn't have coke. I also used the proper toilet there as it was probably the last chance to have a real bathroom for a while.
A few minutes later, Paddy appeared in the dark. He seemed a bit surprised that I wanted to run with him but hopefully he was also happy to see me again. I had missed him and it was much nicer running together, talking and joking and singing a bit of Rise Against in the woods. And our witch song that we made up for the Hexenstieg...
I had tried to run as much as I could before it got dark because I was very clumsy on the trails at night, and my fall was still very present in my brain. I did not want to repeat this at all. So we went slowly on the trails that had lots of roots and stones and a bit faster on the easier trails. Unfortunately, Paddy didn't feel very good and had a bit of an upset stomach.
We ran in and out of the forest and generally had a good time. It was nice running under the stars and in the woods at night. I felt relatively good at that point since my knee pain was gone.
The field of participants was still close together and we saw the same runners again and again, passing them and then getting passed by them again. It was easy rolling for a while, almost perfect if it hadn't been for Paddy's stomach.
Part 3 Trettau to Limbach 57 km
After the second aid station, things got a bit worse. Luckily, we ran through a larger town where bars were still open, so we stopped at one and used the bathroom there. It was really strange getting back into civilization after having run for such a long time through the night and the forest already. People were playing darts in that bar and they looked at us curiously. I talked to a few guys while I was waiting there and they couldn't really believe what we were doing. "How many days does that take you?"
I got really cold from standing around and was shivering when we started running again. It also felt like the whole field had passed us in the meantime, and - I won't lie - my competitive nature did not like that at all. But we had to stop again because I got so cold, I had to put on my jacket and a pair of long trousers that I just put over my knee-length tights. Luckily, we were now running on tarmac for a very long time, so could move at a steady pace. I enjoyed that quite a bit, it was a clear night, the stars were out, it was really quiet and we could see well ahead.
I don't know how long this seemingly endless , straight part of the course lasted but it seemed like we had been running on tarmac for hours until we finally went back into the forest again.
We both had a few toilet stops in the woods here, I think. And then my legs started to hurt quite a bit. Shit... they felt like they were constantly cramping. It was really bad, especially mentally. It was still early in the race and my legs were gone already... I tried to hold it together for a while and push on nonetheless but I was always relieved when we had a little walk break.
Until I finally told Paddy and he told me to take off the extra trousers (haha, my boyfriend telling me to take off my trousers in the woods ;) sorry, kids) - and it worked! My legs had just started to seize up because they had gotten too hot. As soon as I had taken them off, I felt much better. What a relief!
Part 4 - Limbach to Dreiherrenstein, km 83
It seemed like a long time until the aid station Limbach at km 57 finally appeared in front of us. It was also the first drop bag station and I was looking forward to that. We spent quite some time there, getting changed, stocking up on food, refilling our water, replacing batteries etc. And all the sudden I got really cold from standing around again. I was shivering and my teeth were chattering. I was close to putting on my trousers again but luckily, there was a big climb right after the aid station that warmed me up again pretty well.
For a while, there were more runners around us again and I got a bit sick from the lights of the people on their bikes because some of them could not keep the front wheel straight on the ascends and the light was wobbling... I tried to stay behind the bikes but it didn't really work.
Other than that, I don't remember much of this section, even though it was quite long. We had a few more toilet stops and I was counting the hours till the sun was rising again. Not long now... My stomach started to rebel against the gels that I had taken so far a bit and I made a mental note to try more real food at the next aid station.
Then, finally, after hours of darkness, it started to get light again. Only those who have run through nights know how magical and special that is. It is like a fresh start... like life coming back to you after the long, dark night.
At some point, the Rennsteig trail and official race course was running more or less parallel to a street and I got a bit annoyed that some other runners just stayed on the road for a long time. It was not only easier on a nice and even tarmac road but also quite a bit shorter, as the trail went in and out of the forest. I was probably a bit frustrated at this point too, as I was getting tired and we were not even at the half way point yet.
My anger only disappeared for a while when we left the forest and saw a beautiful sunrise over the hills in the distance. I told Paddy how beautiful it was... but he wasn't quite as enthuisiastic as me as he still had stomach issues. I suddenly got scared about the time limit and thought that we were probably close to the cut off. I had no idea how far it was until the next aid station since the km counter on my watch was not running. I expected it behind every corner but there was just another piece of forest.
Finally, a biker came towards us and I asked him how far it was to Dreiherrenstein. He said "less than a km" - yippie! And then I could see it, a tent in the middle of the forest. THe first question I asked the woman there was how much time we had left till the cut off because I hadn't looked at the cut off times before. She said, "oh, we are closing down here soon." SOON. I panicked a bit but she couldn't tell me the exact time. Luckily, there was another guy who told me that we still had about 20 minutes till the cut-off. That wasn't much but it wasn't SOON either.
Unfortunately, they didn't have much food left there. I was eager to move on with the cut-off lingering above our heads and had a bit of a low point and Paddy wanted to stay a bit longer so we decided to split ways again. We didn't have the same rhythm (he was running the parts that I would have walked and vice versa) and I felt my inner drama queen appearing again ... so it was best to continue separately. We said a hasty good-bye and off I went again.
Part 5 - Dreiherrenstein to Oberhof , 105 km
It was a bit strange leaving the check point on my own, but I knew that I had reached a stage where I could only focus enough if I was alone and didn't have to worry about slowing anyone down etc. And it went quite well...
I was looking forward to this part of the race since I was almost on familiar ground now. Paddy and I had covered half of this stage on a training run a few weeks back and it was also partially on the course of the 74km Rennsteiglauf Ultra that I had done in May. My legs were lighter again now, the sun was rising and I could also take off my jacket again.
I slowly started to catch up with other runners and passed quite a few of them, among others the guy from Dresden that I had met early in the race. He was walking and we exchanged a few words. I told him "I want to finish this race so badly" and he said "You will if you keep moving" (unfortunately I later found out that he had to DNF the race; I hope he will try it again and finish next time). I also caught up with a woman, Alexandra, and chatted a bit with her, too. She said, we have to finish this race now, we are not enough women anyway and we have to show the men that we can do it! I agreed... if only my legs had felt so good all the time.
I was running along a beautiful single trail through the forest until we had to cross the street and reached the "Mordfleck", a beautiful spot with great views over the surrounding hills. I was glad that we had run on this path before because it was a bit tricky finding the correct route after that.
I was happily climbing up another hill now, when I suddenly saw something standing in the forest that made me stop in my tracks immediately. What was that? It looked like a big dog standing there.. I looked again... oh no, a wild boar... shit.. I looked around me. There were a few runners a few hundred metres behind me, nobody in front of me. I looked again and could swear that the pig turned its head towards me but it didn't move otherwise, it was just standing there. I looked again.. and moved closer. It wasn't a wild boar, it was just a huge tree trunk lying next to the path. This is ultra running for you... you get hallucinations for free hehe
I think it was my eyes adjusting to daylight again. I saw more strange creatures in the forest after that but I knew it was just my eyes playing tricks on me. I passed another runner on the official highest point of the Rennsteig and knew that it was mostly downhill to Oberhof now.
I eventually caught up with a group of 4 guys and ran with them into the next checkpoint. They were in good spirits and it was nice chatting to them for a while.
I had made very good progress on that stage and passed quite a few runners and also gained about 30 minutes to the time limit. Pew... but it wasn't going to get any easier after that.
Part 6 Oberhof to Neue Ausspanne,119km
I made a big mistake in Oberhof (which was a drop bag station) and changed my shoes, from the Hoka Evo Mafate, which had been great, to the Speedgoats. I don't know why I did that because I didn't have any issuees with my feet at that point. But I thought it was a good idea. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
I also took off my buff and put on my cap, which wasn't very clever either as it was quite cold and not really sunny. Oh well... I also tried to eat a bit but they didn't have much left in the checkpoint and the stuff in my drop bag didn't look too good. I just munched a few Katjes gums and moved on.
Unfortunately, the shoe change had taken some time and the Speedgoat, whichusually love, felt really hard after 100km in the Evo Mafate... but I didn't have much time to think about that as the cut off was still pressing...
I suddenly wished that I had enough time to just walk the rest of the race but it was impossible. I still had a long way to go and not enough time for walking. I felt a bit sorry for myself here... and I also felt a bit deflated now. I had pushed quite hard on the last stage and was paying for that. My legs were getting tired again and I didn't have much energy in me.
In hindsight, this was probably the slowest and worst stage for me. I tried to run as much as I could but had to walk even some easier parts. I also lost one of my gloves and hoped that it wouldn't get too cold later, in the second night. I also didn't see any other runner here, only a few hikers and mountainbikers.
It was one of the prettiest parts of the race but I didn't have eyes for that now. All I could think of was the time limit. I started calculating in my head... something that would keep me occupied for the rest of the race...
I think it was on that stage that I passed a group of hikers and an elderly man was walking behind me. He saw my bib that was fixed on the back of my backpack and apparently googled my number. "Go, Daniela Auer from Kitzingen!" I walked with him for a few minutes because I was tired and needed some encouragement. He said that I would make the time limit if I kept moving at 5km per hour. I know, that sounds slow, but it seemed very fast for me at this point because I thought that I would also spent at least 5-10 minutes at each aid station to refill my water and change clothes, batteries, etc. But he said that there were some easier, runnable paths after the Inselberg, so it wasn't too bad.
After a while, I was able to run again and said goodbye to him. I'm not sure if he believed that I would make it. I hope he googled the results list later and saw my name on it. He had helped me quite a bit there.
Then, finally, the next check point appeared at the horizon.
Part 7 Neue Ausspanne to Inselsberg, 134 km
My goal was not to waste too much time at the checkpoint here but it took a while till they had filled up my water. I grabbed some potatoes and asked them if they had any info about Paddy, whether he had stopped in Oberhof or not. The guy there had a list of runners' bibs who had stopped in Oberhof but Paddy wasn't among them. Good...
I ate a bit more and left the aid station again after a few minutes. Physically, I was feeling better now but running away from the cut-off drained me mentally...
Plus, this was not an easy stage... I only knew that the next check point was called "Inselberg" but I didn't really know what to expect and it seemed to take ages. I knew it was somewhere on a hill and there were many hills, steep hills, but whenever I got to the top of one of them, another one was just behind it.
I got really tired here... my legs started to feel exhausted again and I was constantly calculating the cut-off in my head. I knew that the time limit for the next checkpoint after Inselberg was really strict and I wanted to move faster to get a bigger cushion for this one but it seemed impossible with all the hills.
Then finally, according to the signs, it was only 1.8km to go... I had about 40 minutes to the cut-off at this point - but where was that checkpoint?
I met a woman on the bike again who was accompanying Alexandra. I asked her where the Inselberg was and she pointed to one big mountain right in front of me. Up there, she said. That is the next check point.
Well, that was it. I knew the race was over for me now. Even if I would make it up this monster hill before the cut off, my legs would be completely gone. And then I only had 2.5 hours for the next 18 (!!) kilometres. That doesn't sound too bad but at that point, at km 134 in a race with tired legs and not much left in the tank, it seemed like an impossible task to me.
I wanted to cry... but I had to get up to that hill first so that I could stop there and people could hopefully drive me somewhere. My third attempt at 100 miles and my third DNF... why did I keep signing up for these stupid races.. I no longer had it in me. I wasn't made for these distances...
All these thoughts were creeping through my head as I was creeping up the really, really steep road ahead of me. I stopped every now and then to catch my breath and as I turned around, I saw Alexandra and another guy coming up the hill behind me. They passed me and Alexandra said,"Come on , keep going, we are almost there". I told her that I would DNF on top of the hill but she was having none of that. "Of course you won't stop. We have to keep going. You can't stop now... we have to give it a try at least."
I wanted to cry but I was also relieved to hear that. She gave me the motivation I needed and together we climbed up the last steep bit of the hill and finally reached that dreaded check point.
Part 8 - Inselberg to Hohe Sonne, km 153
The people running the Inselberg check point were so friendly that I almost cried. I got some coke and food, got a fresh buff and my second head lamp out of my drop bag and was ready to go again. 2.5 hours for 18 km. "We can do it."
Alexandra caught up with me soon after the check point. She was running down the hills like crazy and told me to run with her. I thougth she was mad... my legs couldn't do downhills anymore. "Come on, you are still young!" she said. I wanted to cry but I obeyed. It was really really hard but I knew that she was right. If we wanted to finish this one, we would have to run as much as we could. And there would be more hills where we woudld have to walk.
I didn't want to fight anymore, I was tired, my legs hurt.. but I also didn't want to DNF... it was so so hard. I literally had to grit my teeth and run. I don't know how I did it but I managed to keep going. Nearly home...
I don't remember anything else about this stage other than Alexandra and I passed each other again and again and I tried to run as much as I could and not to think too much about the time limit. Alexandra had told me that they would probably let us keep going even if we didn't make the cut-off there since, after that, we would have about 3 hours for the last 12km. Plenty of time...
I ran/walked as if I was in trance. One step after the other... keep going... I also passed a Dutch guy here and talked to him for a bit but he had to slow down because of a bad cut on his knee.
Part 9 - Hohe Sonne to Hörschel - the finish line 168km
Then, finally, I could hear the last check point. They were playing music and cheering for Alexandra, who had reached it a minute before me. I made it there with about 5 minutes to spare. I don't know how I did it... but now I was sure that I would make it to the finish line no matter what.
I got some more water there and also grabbed a piece of water melon (the lady there sort of forced me take some... she must have realized that I was beyond making decisions for myself). I put my headlamp on since it was not long now until it was getting dark again and then left the checkpoint with Alexandra and another guy.
The other guy was called Sven-Eric, orginally from the Netherlands, and he said that he would run with me since the last bit was supposed to be really tricky in terms of navigation. He also said "Now comes the worst part of the race", and I almost fainted hearing that. I asked him why, and he said it was because of running in the dark again, not because of the trail there. I was relieved... I could handle darkness. I could not handle any technical trails in the dark now. He knew what he was talking about as he had finished the race two times before.
It was really helpful running the last bit with Sven-Eric. Not only because he knew the way but also because he kept talking and it took my mind of things, and time passed quickly. I even managed to speak a bit of Dutch to him. No idea where that came from after 26 hours in this race... I guess my brain was beyond tiredness now.
The sun disappeared behind the hills and it was time to switch on the headlamp again... the second night. Thanks to the masses of coke that I had had during the race, I didn't feel sleepy at all. Now, all I could think of was that finish line... and being able to stop and rest. Not long now...
I am pretty sure that I would have gotten lost on my own on that last bit, it was really tricky and the way was not very well marked here. But at one point, Sven-Eric said "only 3km to go" and I told him that this was the best thing that I had heard all day.
Then, finally, the lights of Hörschel appeared in front of us. We had been power-hiking most of the way on the last section but started running again now. We passed the first house and a guy who was standing there, turned around the corner, ran along the street and finally... the finish line!!
I saw Paddy in the corner of my eye and shouted his name, happy to finally see him again.. then I crossed the finish line. Done... I was beyond relief.
It had taken me 28 hours and 9 minutes to get from Blankenstein to Hörschel, much longer than expected but I was still more than happy with that after everything that had happened before. I was so happy to have finished.
Everything after that was a bit of a blur. The organiser congratulated me and gave me my certificate and medal and a t-shirt and Paddy came over and everyone was talking ... and I was just happy that it was over now.
I said thank you to Alexandra and Sven-Eric for pushing and pulling me along on the last two stages... I wouldn't have finished without them.
Paddy unfortunately had to stop at Inselberg because of some misunderstanding that caused him sitting at the checkpoint for 30 minutes before he realized that he could keep going. Luckily, we had a nice long holiday together after that to recover from all of that.
Overall, 55 people of the 85 who started finished the race, only 5 women. I ended up in place 45, I didn't think that there were still 10 runners behind me so that was a surprise.
A big thank you to everyone who supported me in training and preparation for the race and send kind messages before and after the race. It really means a lot...
It has taken me four weeks to write this report and almost as much time to recover from the race. Now, my legs and my head are finally back in the running game and new races are planned :)