Spine Flare Race 2019 – 108 miles (178km) from Edale to Hardraw
Part 1 – Before the race
It has taken me more than 6 months to write this report... and in fact, it has taken me more than six months to recover from this race – a race that has given me so much but also has also taken so much out of me. After this race, my season was practically over, I was mentally and physically drained, DNF’d another race and finally took a bit of a break from training. However, with the winter race being on, I am thinking back to the Pennine Way with so many fond memories, and I wish I was there... Here is my report from our summer adventure. I started writing it back in June when my memory was still fresh but then didn’t finish it until today.
The Spine Race has haunted me for a while now. Every year in January, I join in a group of people who practise “dot watching” - following the brave runners who tackle the entire length of the Pennine Way, from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland, via the online tracker.
The Spine ultramarathon series comprises four races:
The Spine Race – 268 miles
Spine Challenger – 108 miles
Spine Fusion – 268 miles
Spine Flare – 108 miles
After watching the race unfold in January 2018, I convinced Paddy that we should do the Spine Challenger, the 108 mile winter race, the following year. It will be fun, I said. We have a whole year to prepare. We can do it.... so we signed up as soon as the registration opened and did not think twice about it.
In the following months, we did a few more races and also ran on the trails in the UK quite regularly, including on the Pennine Way. I struggled with the technical bits and I was always a bit wary of the weather and how exposed the terrain is. After my DNF in the Snowdonia 50 miler in Junen2018, it became clear that the winter race was probably a bit too hard for me. Luckily, the organisers of the Spine race let us transfer our entry to the summer version, the Spine Flare. It would still be hard, 108 miles on technical terrain, but at least it would not be in the snow.
We went to the Peak District a few times to train on the Pennine Way. It was often quite frustrating for me, stumbling along on the technical downhills, trying not to fall, with Paddy having to wait for me at the bottom of each hill. I was not very confident. I did not really want to do the Spine anymore, I felt like it would be too hard for me...
In April, we did the Seenländer Ultra with 146km, which restored my confidence, and I decided that I would give the Spine Flare a try. With 60 hours, the time limit was pretty lenient and we could just treat it as a long weekend of hiking on the Pennine Way. I tried not to think too much about it and just concentrated on my recovery from the Seenländer Ultra. Luckily, Paddy was a bit more concerned with the race and reminded me to get the mandatory kit and organised our stay there.
I did lots of uphill hiking and downhill running, concentrated on spending time on my feet rather than kilometres, and it seemed to pay off. We did a 30km run over the hills of the Thuringian forest, which turned out to be my longest training run for the race, three weeks before. In the week after that, which was supposed to be my peak week of training, I developed a sharp pain in my left forefoot and had to pause because I feared that it was a stress fracture. I saw a few doctors for it and finally, on the Tuesday before the race, had an MRI scan that confirmed that it was in fact not a stress fracture but an inflammation in my foot. However, the doc said that I could run the race if I was pain free. I got a new pair of shoes, new insoles and tested the foot on a short 3km run, my first run in 3 weeks. It felt fine. The race was on.
I had never felt so underprepared before a race. With three days to go, I finally started getting serious about it and put together all the mandatory and additional kit that I would need to carry:
I somehow managed to pack it all in my restricted Ryanair luggage and flew from Frankfurt to Manchester on the Thursday before the race. I was wearing my shiny new Hoka Speedgoats on the flight and felt a bit odd amidst all the business people on the plane.
Paddy and I spent Thursday night in Manchester. On Friday, we tried to sleep as long as possible, then went to Tesco to get all the food we would need for our drop bags and during the race. It looked a bit like we were shopping for a kids birthday party. Instant porridge oats, instant noodles, crisps, crackers, jelly babies, Alpro vanilla custard, bananas, bread, peanut butter, nuts, crackers and, most importantly, coke.
With the car full of gear and food, we then set off to Edale, not without stopping at a pub before to get some more food into our bellies. The strategy of trying to eat as much as possible the day before a long race had paid off in the past, and I knew I would have more energy if I ate as much as I could.
I had been to Edale a few times before, knowing that one day I would be back for the Spine Race. This was the day.
I got quite excited as we entered the parking lot and saw the banners for the race in front of the community house, were the registration and briefing took place. Yippie...
We got our race numbers and had our kit checked by the race officials. It was all approved.
The briefing was quite detailed and, again, I felt very underprepared as I hadn’t really looked much at the race course or the rules. A mistake that I would have to pay for later...
Basically, the race is mainly self-supported. There were only two checkpoints in our race, CP 1 at Hebden Bridge after about 73 km and CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn. CP2 at Hardraw was the finish line for our race, the short version, while those doing the long race would continue for much, much longer after that. Paddy asked the organiser if we would get a warm meal at every checkpoint and they said yes. We were relieved because we would not have to carry all the food all the time then.
Since the weather was supposed to be quite hot on the Saturday, they also said that they would set up some additional water stops along the course, which good to know. I was relieved because it meant that if my foot acted up and I had to stop early, I did not have to go all the way to CP 1.
After the briefing, we headed to our hotel for some more food and an early night’s sleep. I was very nervous now and felt a bit stressed by everything but managed to sleep well. The race started at 8am the next morning so we did not have to get up before 6 am, which is a rare luxury in ultra races.
Part 2 – Edale to CP 1, Hebden Bridge
I felt very good when I woke up, fresh and ready to go.
Back in Edale, we got our GPS trackers taped to our backpacks, so that the race organisers and people back home could follow us and see where we were on the course, which gave us a safe feeling. The tracker also had an emergency button for alerting the rescue services in the event of an emergency but the organisers pointed out that if we pressed that button, it meant that our race was over.
It was already quite warm when we lined up at the start. I was not sure how warm it would be up on the hills, so I decided for a t-shirt and knee-long running tights. The weather was supposed to stay nice until Sunday afternoon but in the UK you can never be sure. We planned to reach the first checkpoint before it got dark so that we could change into warmer clothes for the night there.
Then the race started. The first metres over grass felt quite wobbly with the heavy backpacks on our backs and the field being close together but it soon got better. I knew these first kilometres from a previous run. We ran on a lovely grassy path out of Edale, towards the first big climb of the race, Jacob’s Ladder, leading up to Kinder Scout.
Climbing up the rocky steps of Jacob’s Ladder made me feel quite hill. The sun was burning down and I had clearly eaten too much. My legs felt weak too. Not a good sign when you are less than 5km into a 173km race.
I told Paddy not to wait for me and to keep going. We had not really decided if we would run together or not, but at this stage, I just wanted to go at my own pace without holding him back. We said that we might wait for each other at CP1 so that we could run together through the night but made it dependent on how close we were together.
Then I was on my own. I was quite out of breath when I reached the top of Kinder Scout, I felt hot and a bit nauseous but it soon got better. There was a nice breeze up there. I chatted to a guy from Yorkshire, Richard, who was going at the same pace, for a while. He told me that the terrain was the most technical on the first 15 miles and that it would get easier after that. I was very relieved to hear that.
On the first technical downhill, I rolled my ankle a bit. Luckily it was not too bad. A lot of people passed me there but I did not mind. It was still early in the race and I had no idea how long it would take me to finish. The average finishing time in the previous races was around 44 hours. Considering that time frame, the race had not even really started at this point.
We ran on stone plates through the moor for a while, then crossed the road on Snake Pass, where they had set up a water station. My water bladder and bottle were still full so I went straight through. In the distance I could see Paddy climbing up the hill in front of me but he was too far away for me to reach him.
I met a woman here, Harriet, who was doing the long race, and stayed with her for a while. She was moving really well over the technical terrain and I tried hard to keep up with her. We hiked over a narrow, technical path along the edge of a hill, the views were spectacular and it was a gorgeous day but I had to concentrate hard on the path in front of me. One wrong step and I would faceplant on that path. The wounds from my last fall 3 weeks ago had just healed and I had promised Kati not to come back with any new scars 😉
I don’t remember much of the next section, I was running / walking on my own most of the time, concentrating on the path in front of me and trying not to fall or do anything stupid. It was very hot and I drank a lot. My stomach felt better and I could eat, my legs were no longer feeling weak and my foot did not hurt. Good times...
I had packed some small salt packages that you get in fast food restaurants and took one after a while because of the heat. I remembered how good it had been to get some salt in the Seenländer Ultra and I wanted to prevent my legs from cramping. It seemed to work.
After a while, we reached a lovely little valley, which I remembered from a little hike Paddy and I had done on a Sunday in March, before he was dropping me off at the airport in Manchester. It was nice seeing the area in the green of summer, it looked less dark and wild than it had in March. I also knew that there was a big climb waiting at the end of the valley, so I took a bite of my energy bar before it started.
It was a long, long climb, even longer than I had imagined it. I saw Paddy in the distance again but he was too far away. Once we reached the top, the path went along the edge of a hill again. The views were spectacular but I did not dare to look down into the abyss on my right. It was a long way down.
After that, the path became more runnable again. I did not know how many miles we were in but I assumed that the first tricky 15 miles were over now.
Again, we ran on stone plates over a moor area and I passed a few people there. It felt good. I actually couldn’t believe how good I felt. My legs seemed to have liked the three weeks of rest.
Also, it was much easier than the Seenländer because we did not have to navigate much at this stage, really. The field was still close together and the route was quite straight forward. The landscape and the varying terrain made it much easier mentally, too.
I met a woman from Worcester, who was going really well, and talked to her for a while, until we crossed a road and reached the next water stop (as I am writing this report, she is doing the long winter race!). I saw Paddy running off in the distance but took my time to refill my water bottles and then walked a bit while eating a pack of crisps. It was a lovely section of the path, a beautiful valley, the terrain was fairly easy, the sun was shining. I let it roll....
I was now behind Paddy, I saw him a few times in the distance but was never close enough to catch up with him. The field of the runners had now spread out. I was practically on my own, within sight of others in front of and behind me but the distance between us seemed to increase.
The sun was shining as we crossed another moor, and there was no cloud in the sky but luckily there was a fresh breeze that kept us cool. It was a quite easy section until the next water stop, where I finally caught up with Paddy, who had taken off his shoes and was in the process of ripping off parts of his insoles. I did not know if that was a good idea but I did not question it. He told me to keep going and so I did. He caught up with me a few minutes later.
It got quite hot now, and the water stops did not have enough water to fill up all of our bottles so we got a bit thirsty here. Then there was a woman in a van at the side of the road who was really kind and gave us some water and lemonade, which we shared with Christian, another runner that had caught up with us. He was doing the long race and was carrying a big backpack.
The lemonade was really nice, I had needed the sugar. I could feel that I was getting a bit tired now and was looking forward to the first checkpoint. The idea of having a warm meal sounded very good. At five o clock, I opened the sacred can of coke that I had been carrying with me all day. I had to be careful with coke in this race. There was no coke available at the water stops and I did not want to carry too much. But this can of coke was pure bliss. Sugar and caffeine worked wonders.
We calculated that we had done a bit more than 50 km at that point. It seemed like a long, long time since we had started the race but we were still feeling good. Before the race, we had wondered why it was a relatively slow race, with the course record being 23 hours for the 108 miles and the average finishing time being around 44 hours. It was probably a mixture of the type of terrain we were running on, the fact that it was mostly self-supported and you had to carry a lot of stuff but also the whole nature and feeling of the race. Nobody was in a hurry, nobody seemed overly competitive, people were walking a lot especially those doing the long race. With hindsight, going slow was a very good thing to do considering the length of the race and what was still awaiting us.
There was another water stop where the race organisers themselves handed out water from a van next to a pub, which was sadly closed. We had fantasized about getting a cool drink from the bar and washing our faces in the bathroom but that had to wait until the first checkpoint now. From there, it was only 11 miles to Hebden Bridge, checkpoint 1 - a 3 hour walk, according to one of the organiser guys. We calculated that we would make it there within about 12 hours, which was quite good.
The next stretch was a flat fire road. I had to leave Paddy behind because he had some stomach issues but we said that we would see each other again in the checkpoint at the latest. We did not even get that far, about half an hour later I saw him coming over the hill behind me again and waited for him to catch up. We ran down into a valley, across a cow field, and then back up again on the other side. It was hot and muggy, and the grass and other plants were really high in some places, which made it tricky to get through. I was now getting a bit low on energy and really looking forward to the checkpoint. We kept guessing how long it would be. It must be up there, we said. It must be around that corner... it must be down that hill. Of course it was always a much longer way.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the first signs for CP1 in Hebden. We had to go down a very long, steep and slippery hill to a community centre that served as checkpoint 1. It almost felt like crossing the finish line already. People were cheering for us and we each had a personal assistant greeting us with our drop bags. We had to “check in” and were then moved into a small room next to the kitchen, where we could get stuff from our drop bags, some hot food (lentil soup), tea and coffee, and take a shower and get changed.
Getting a shower in the middle of a race sounds weird: This is something I learned in the Hexenstieg Ultra last year though. It can be really helpful and refreshing to take a shower and change clothes. You almost feel like a new person.
A medic came and asked if our feet etc. were ok. We had some more food and repacked our equipment from the drop bags. I did not pack all of the food that I had in the drop bag because checkpoint 1.5 was only 42km away and we would get our drop bags there anyways. Or so I thought...
About 1.5 hours later, Paddy and I were ready to get going again. Our bellies were full of hot food and coffee, we had changed into long sleeves and were ready for the night. It was a good feeling. I had also taken my softshell jacket, which was quite heavy but had helped massively in previous races. I was not sure how cold the night would get here.
Part 3 – Ceckpoint 1 to Checkpoint 1.5 - Malham Tarn
We climbed up and crossed a moor as the sun was setting. It was a beautiful evening, clear skies, away from civilisation, the only sounds coming from the baby lambs in the fields next to us, the frogs and the birds. We took out our head lamps after a while and kept moving, slowly but steadily, running where it was possible and walking the rest. It was trickier to run in the dark because we did not really see the ground and there were random holes here and there. We crossed a bridge over a reservoir and then also noticed that there were many, many little frogs on the path. One jumped against my leg. It was very odd.
Christian, whom we met earlier, was always close to us too at this point but we did not see any other runners. I knew that there would be another water point set up by a local triathlon club not far after CP 1 but we were not sure where exactly that was. We passed a few houses and I kept looking for the water stop but it never came.
Eventually, we left the village again, climbing up to Ickornshaw Moor. I saw a car parked next to the path in the middle of nowhere and found that weird. Shortly after that, we saw a light in the distance coming towards us. I thought it was a runner that had gotten lost or a random person walking at night but it turned out to be a member of that triathlon club with a walkie talkie. He greeted us and said that the aid station was 400 m up the path and asked if we wanted vegan / vegetarian / regular bacon sandwiches, then forwarded our order to the guys at the checkpoint through his walkie talkie. It was very surreal but also very nice.
They had set up a mobile kitchen in the middle of the moor, with a light chain as decoration. We got some nice arm chairs and a blanket, vegan bacon sandwiches and coffee. It was beautiful. What a lovely bunch of people who sacrificed their night of sleep to prepare food in the middle of the night in the middle of the moor for some crazy runners.
After a cup of tea, sandwich and some encouraging words, we continued our way through the dark night, across the moor. I was very glad not to be running along at this point. Finding the path was very hard here, and we stepped into the bog more than once. It seemed to be never ending. Moving forward was very difficult at this point. We had to climb over a dodgy bridge and after a while reached a more runnable path. Together with Christian, who had passed us again, we reached an improvised water stop in a village. A few containers with water, some cookies and wine gums on a table in front of a pub. It was in the middle of the night and no other soul seemed to be around.
I didn’t want to spend too much time there and urged Paddy to keep going. Soon, as we were climbing up another hill out of the village, we could see the first light of the day again... the second day in this race. It was a magical moment, being out there in the early hours of the morning, up on a hill with only sheep as company. It was so quiet and peaceful...
Well, it could have been peaceful if my stomach had not decided to act up. The lentil soup was bothering me quite a bit. Paddy showed great patience, waiting for me while I had to disappear behind a bush more than once.
I don’t remember much of the next part of the race, it is all a bit of a blurry. We somehow had miscalculated how far we had to go and thought the next checkpoint was only 20 km away at this point (it was 50 km in reality). So we kept running, thinking we would be there soon. Running got a bit harder here, my stomach was still acting up and my softshell jacket was really heavy. I had it tied around my waist, which did not help my stomach either. Quite a few runners passed us here, which I found a bit annoying, but I could not move any faster.
Finally, we reached a village. We thought that it was surely the place of the next checkpoint. A guy passed us and we asked him how far it was to the checkpoint. He said something about 15 km. I could not believe my ears... Surely he must have been wrong. I wanted to sit down and cry, while Paddy had a little breakdown too. He sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, tearing off his shoes and said that he could not go on with his blisters. I became a bit worried...
Christian appeared again and said that there would be a shop down the road and advised us to get some supplies. He confirmed that the next check point was still quite a bit away. I now had a little mental breakdown too... So I decided to leave Paddy behind (because he was still sitting on the sidewalk with no intentions to keep moving and I lost my patience). We were in the race for more than 24 hours at this point... so my nerves were a bit raw. Not my proudest moment. I ran for about 1 mile, then came to my senses and turned around. I could not leave Paddy behind.
He didn’t seem to care much that I was back (clearly fighting his own demons), so I went to the small Coop in the village and bought some supplies. The people in the store looked at me strangely as I wandered through the shop like a zombie, wondering what I should buy. I think I got some coke and crisps. Then we were finally ready to continue.
A bit further ahead, we met Lindley from the race organisation team. After speaking to him, it became clear that our tired brains had simply made a calculation error. The distance between checkpoint 1 and checkpoint 1.5 was not 50 km but around 70 km. We were not moving as slowly as we had thought we were... that was a huge relief. Our spirits lifted a bit as we trotted on.
We crossed a huge field with cows in it but they didn’t care. It was a lovely sunny day again and the landscape was really pretty. I enjoyed running again, for a while at least.
A few miles later, we reached the village of Malham. We stopped at a small shop for an ice lolly and coke, then had to climb up an endless amount of steps (400), up to Malham Cove. I lost my nerves a bit again because Paddy kept following another runner, who clearly went the wrong way, while my GPS device said it was the other way. I tried to tell them, but they would not listen (MEN!!). So we had to scramble over the hill until we were on the right track again. Needless to say, my mood was not the best after that. But the spectacular landscape of Malham Cove made up for it.
We saw a few other runners here who were in a different 100 mile race. They looked just as tired as I felt, as we greeted each other with a silent, understanding nod.
Soon, Malham Tarn, CP 1.5 appeared on the horizon. It was located on the grounds of a big old estate, next to a lake. We could see it from the distance and I could not wait to get there. I was getting cold, hungry, and I was very much looking forward to all the goodies in my drop bag.
Part 4 – CP 1.5 Malham Tarn to the Finish in Hardraw
Alas, reality hit us hard when we reached the Malham Tarn. There were no drop bags. We learned that we would only get them at the finish line again... I don’t know how we had missed that crucial information, but it felt like a punch in the guts. For a few minutes, I thought that was it. I had to stop the race. I only had half a pack of crumbled crisps in my bag and a bit of coke, clearly not enough for the hours that we still had to go.
However, the Spine family is truly special. The checkpoint was run by John, a tall local man with a wild grey beard and sparkling eyes, who made sure that we could keep going. He gave us coffee and noodles (“do you want CURRY OR PRAWN?”) and even some spare batteries for my headtorch.
He also said that if we made it to the next village, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, in time, we could go to the pub or a café there and stock up on food. He looked me in the eyes and said: “I tell you what you should have there – MEAT PIES” - I didn’t dare to tell him that I was vegan.
Another very kind runner gave us some muesli bars that his wife had baked for him. He assured us that he had more than enough in his bag. I was really touched by the kindness of all the people there and we were lucky to be able to continue the race despite our mistake. Before we left, however, we had the medics have a look at our feet. Paddy’s blisters were quite bad and I had noticed a few sore spots too. They taped up our feet and it was heaven – we didn’t notice anything afterwards.
After a while, we were ready to get going again. The weather was now turning, the wind was cold and I was glad that I still had my softshell jacket. We would soon have to climb Pen-y-Ghent, a mountain of about 700m , that is part of the famous Yorkshire Three Peaks round and looks quite majestic. I had gone up Pen-y-Ghent twice before and I knew that it was not easy (since I am scared of heights) and even involved some scrambling. It was very exposed too so I was anxious to get there before the rain hit us.
The wind was getting quite strong at this point, and the dark clouds were getting closer. It looked quite threatening as we were approaching Pen-y-Ghent. I was a bit worried so I was in a hurry to get it done... Paddy stayed behind to put on his jacket but told me to get going, so I did. It was quite easy at first, steep, but manageable, until I reached the scrambling bit. The wind was really strong up there, which did not really help my fear of heights. But my bouldering practice seemed to pay off, I put my poles aside, concentrated on where to put my hand and feet, considered each step in advance... and was up there in no time. Phew... I was really glad to have made it before the rain started because the slippery stones would have been no fun. Paddy soon caught up with me and we were ready to get off the mountain again.
Paddy seemed to have some issues so I went ahead why he was fumbling with his clothes and backpack. This was quite rare – usually he is the one waiting for me at the bottom of a steep descent, but this time, it was the other way around. I sat down on a stone, waiting for him. I got a bit worried because I could not see him anymore. What if he had had a fall? But a few minutes later, he appeared from around the corner again and we were ready to get further down, into the village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. It was at this point that I realised that we would finish it. It was only about 30 km to go now and we had plenty of time... more than that. The rest would be a walk in the park.
Of course, the Pennine Way proved me wrong again. It should never be underestimated and it is certainly never a walk in the park.
In Horton, we were lucky enough to make it to a small café just minutes before it closed. We were really hungry. Paddy got himself two slices of cake while I was scanning the shelves for something vegan. Luckily, they had packages of crisps and bars of sugary coconut stuff that were vegan friendly, so we bought these, and some coke, before heading off again. There was also a small water station in the village itself. We chatted to the race marshals there for a bit and then cracked on.
It was ok for a while. But after the effect of the sugar wore off, I somehow fell into a hole of misery. My injured foot started to hurt from the stones on the rough path, the wind was very loud, and I was suddenly feeling very, very sorry for myself. With hindsight, it was no wonder. I had been awake and moving for more than 30 hours at this point, the weather was changing and soon it would be dark again. I had a little cry while trudging through the wind, sobbing and cursing myself and this race. The only thing that helped was the sugar from the coconut candy.
A little while later, I felt better again and my spirits lifted. We were nearly there. Less than 30 km to go. We climbed up a hill again and had some fantastic views. However, we also saw that the bad weather front was now really close. The wind was getting horrible (for me as a German person at least) . It was now Paddy’s turn to have a little meltdown as we were climbing up higher and higher. I forgot what it was about but it was the first time that I actually heard him yell. If you want to see if your relationship is strong enough, do a 100 mile race together. The harder, the better. ;)
The climb seemed endless. It was a fairly smooth path now, with some tarmac sections even, but it was constantly going upwards and the headwind was getting stronger and stronger. We had to stop, shaking from the cold, to put on all the clothes we had. I was wearing my rain trousers over my tights, gloves, a hat, my softshell jacket over a long-sleeved shirt and my rain jacket over that. It was June but temperatures dropped rapidly. We later learned that it was down to 4 degrees Celsius that night.
It was a never-ending fight against the elements. Soon after we had put on our rain gear, the rain started. It was windy, raining, and we couldn’t hear what we were saying anymore. My foot was hurting, the path was getting trickier again, and it was getting dark now. We were up high on a hill, truly exposed. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that the finish line was close. We spent a few hours trudging through the wind and rain up there. I felt like I was losing it a bit at this point. Paddy was losing it too – I caught him yelling at his phone because the alarm rang. It had been ringing for a while. I asked him why he didn’t switch it off instead of yelling at it. Needless to say, we both needed rest at this point.
But the end seemed to never come. Finally, we could see some lights down in the valley below us. This must be it, we thought. The finish line must be somewhere down there. But first we had to get off that hill, which was not easy. We got a bit lost in the bog here and Paddy stepped into a massive puddle, that was more like a little pond. Luckily, he didn’t get stuck. We somewhere made it down. My feet were now completely soaked too but I did not care too much. We would be there soon.
We finally reached a road that lead into the village. We saw two people coming into our direction – the last person we had seen was in Horton hours before so we thought it must be race officials. But it was just two very drunk teenagers stumbling home to one of the farm houses there. They were only wearing t shirts and looked very young. If I hadn’t been so exhausted myself, I would have worried about them being out there drunk with hardly any clothes in this weather. But at this point, I just assumed they were nearly home.
Like us. Nearly there.
Alas, the finish line was not in Hawes, the village we had just reached, but a few kilometres away, in Hardraw. We stumbled through the village trying to find the right path, having another drunk guy shouting flirty phrases at Paddy, having to cross another field with two young bulls in it, until we were out of the village again. Where was this finish line? It seemed to never come.
Paddy started to doubt my navigation skills and the GPS device and insisted that we were wrong and had to go another way. I had no nerves for discussions at this point and just followed the GPS track. We were trudging along a muddy path in silence, too exhausted to talk, too exhausted to be happy about having nearly made it, when we finally saw two head torches appear in the distance, coming towards us. This time, it was no drunk teenagers. This was it! These people were actual race officials, welcoming us and leading us to the finish line! We had made it!!
39.5 hours after we had started this race in Edale, what seemed like a lifetime ago, we crossed the finish line in Hardraw. I was still shell-shocked from the battle against the elements over the last few hours and could not say much. But I was very very much relieved.
Part 5 – The aftermath
Very kind people helped us take off our shoes and backpacks. They offered us food immediately but I needed to take a hot shower first and I really, really had the urge to brush my teeth.
What a race. What an adventure. Of course, there was no hot water left in the showers so I gritted my teeth and took a cold one, brushed my teeth, put on some real clothes. Put on my shiny new medal. We had done it. What an amazing feeling.
About 20 minutes afterwards, Richard, with whom I had run a bit very early in the race, arrived too. He was in good spirits, while his companion looked quite shattered.
The wonderful kind Spine people gave us shepherd's pie (vegan!) and tea, looked at our feet and cared for us more than I have ever experienced in any other race before.
We got a bunk bed in the hostel that served as CP 2 for those doing the whole distance and as finish line for us but I could not sleep. I was still too excited...
I went downstairs again and spend a few hours watching other people finish the race, while others, those who did the real thing, the full distance, headed out into the night again, among them Christian, whom we had met earlier in the race. He seemed in good spirits. They were all incredibly brave.
A few hours later, somebody gave us a lift to the train station and we went back into civilization again. Back into the real world...
This was it. Our summer Spine experience. It was the hardest but also the best race that I have ever done. Jasmin Paris wrote in her recent blog post about her Spine Race in 2018 that one morning, when she saw the sun rise over hills, she knew that this moment would stay with her forever. And it is like that. It is not about times, it is not about which place you get in the end. It is about the adventure, about things you would not experience, see and feel otherwise. This is why I am doing these races. You put yourself out there and you come back as a different person. The memories of these races will stay with me for the rest of my life.
One of the first things Paddy did after we crossed the finish line was swear that he would never ever in his life do anything like this again. I wholeheartedly agreed. It was too hard.
As I said in the beginning, it took me a long time to recover from it. I was awake for about 50 hours until I finally managed to sleep after the race. In the weeks afterwards, I was still often extremely tired and incredibly hungry. Physically, I seemed to recover normally but mentally, it took much longer.
After a couple of weeks, I really missed running in the English countryside so I signed up for another 100 mile race, the Cotswold Way Century, which I DNFd after about 95 km. My head was just not in it, I did not have the mental strength to pull through another night of wind and rain again.
But now... more than 6 months later... I’m sitting at home, dot watching the winter Spine, the real deal... the fire has come back. And there is a little voice in my head saying maybe... maybe I could give it a try next year.
Below: Eating noodles at Malham Tarn:
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 :)
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 :)
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 :)
Jägerstein Ultra marathon – 70km and 2200 m of elevation gain
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:
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.
West Highland Way Race 2017
Well, this is not my first attempt of writing this blog post… Writing about a race has never been so difficult. Usually, the report is written within a few days after the race. Now it has been three weeks and I’m finally able to try to put things to paper (well, virtual paper in this case). Be warned. It will probably be long :)
Before the race, many people who are experienced in such things have told me that the West Highland Way Race will change my life. Literally. I thought, yes, every race does that. You always learn and grow a bit during a marathon or an ultra, so you are never the same person when you reach the finish line. I thought they were exaggerating a bit.
In fact, they were right, and to an extent I can’t even fully comprehend myself right now. The West Highland Way Race has changed everything, turned my life upside down, liberated me of old structures, taught me more about myself than I ever expected. Most of these things don’t belong in a running blog though but I will try to give a vague explanation.
My previous ultras have taught me humility; each of them showed me where my boundaries lied, which was a good thing at the time. The West Highland Way Race was different. The race stripped me bare, disintegrated me, assembled a new person. It taught me how strong I can be, to go for what I want in life. It took away all my fear.
Well, that sounds dramatic… but it is the truth. But first things first…
My West Highland Way Race Journey started in July 2015.
I was on holiday in Scotland and happened to be in Fort William a few days after the race. I was training for my second ultra back then and had heard of the West Highland Way Race and the crazy people who did that sort of thing. I remember seeing a guy walking down the High Street in Fort William, wearing a WHW race t-shirt and I must have stared in awe at him… Then I passed the Leisure Centre and saw an arrow and “WHW race” sprayed on the sidewalk and I knew that I wanted to do this race.
Then the preparation started… I asked my running friends if anyone of them would be willing to join me in that adventure, as support crew. Quite soon, Dany, Sigi & Moni agreed to come with me, and later Patrick joined the team. Perfect.
I also thought that some structured training would be a good idea, so I contacted Paul Giblin and signed up for his online coaching. That was the best decision I could have made. It wasn’t easy, I often just wanted to stay in bed or spent an evening on the couch instead of going out again, especially in winter. But it was worth every step. My running got better than ever and I really was in the form of my life right in time for the race.
However, one week before the race, my horse got ill and had to go to the veterinary hospital. The race suddenly became less important and there was a chance of me not going at all… it was a stressful time and certainly not what you want to experience a few days before a race like that but luckily, it was not as bad as expected, he did need surgery on his hoof but my sister and mother were there to care for him.
So the days leading up to the race were quite emotional already. We flew to Glasgow on the Wednesday before the race but I didn’t see much of the city as I stayed in the hotel room most of the time, to get as much rest as possible.
On Thursday, we drove to Tesco to buy some supplies for the race, which I later neatly sorted into labelled ziploc bags, one for every checkpoint. The same happened to the mountain of medical equipment and other stuff that I would maybe need during the race. We had to repack our suitcases as space in our rental car was very limited and we had to figure out accurately what to store where. We felt pretty professional about it. However, my support crew later told me in awe how professional other support teams had been :)
On Friday, I woke up relatively early, enjoyed a big breakfast, and then tried to go back to bed and sleep a bit more. Later, Dany and I went to the spa area of the hotel but I was too anxious of getting tired so I only hopped into the jacuzzi for a few minutes.
Then it was almost time to go. Once more I explained the contents of my various bags to Dany, Sigi and Moni, before we went to the airport to meet Patrick and get his rental car. I was already quite nervous at that point in time. Almost there now…
Reality hit me hard again at the airport when I realized I had lost my credit card… shit. I looked everywhere but it was gone. Luckily, the others helped out and we still got our second support crew vehicle. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck.
We made it to Milngavie with enough time to spare. Finally… everything looked totally different than expected but I recognised a few faces which I had previously only seen online. It was like meeting celebrities or something J
I got weighed (all runners get weighed at the start, at two checkpoints during the race and at the finish to make sure that they take in enough fluids and, more importantly, that their kidneys are working properly and no water is retained, which would be bad news), got my chip and the t shirts I had ordered for the crew. Everyone was so friendly and happy, it was an amazing atmosphere. I had to tell myself a few times that this was it, this was really happening now…
Alas, I had to ring the credit card service from the parking lot to block my lost card before the dream could start... Not the type of thing you want to do an hour before the race of your life. But it was successful.
We wandered over to the start line, which is the official start of the West Highland Way, right at Milngavie train station. It was a typical Scottish summer night (I assume), with a fresh breeze, and we were all pretty cold waiting there… and admired the runners who were brave enough to run in short shorts :)
The race briefing was short. The race safety officer said his famous words “There will be weather” and everyone chuckled. Yes. We knew that. I had checked the forecast every hour. Some light rain, some stronger winds. I was prepared. Or so I thought….
Then it really happened, the start of the West Highland Way Race, and now I was right there! One of 211 people of all ages and stages of life who were crazy enough to run 95 miles for fun. The start was pretty spectacular. We ran through the small tunnel first and then through a cheering crowd of people on the other side. I got goose bumps everywhere.
A couple of minutes later, I realized that I wouldn’t need my jacket as it was warmer than expected, so I had to stop to take it off again. Minutes lost, but who cares about minutes when have more than a day to go….
The first kilometres in an ultra are always weird. Hardly anyone talked, everyone was concentrated on the way, the task ahead… We ran out of the city, into the countryside. The route was quite tricky here, lots of stones, roots and holes, so I had to watch my feet all the time. I still haven’t forgotten my little trail accident of September last year, where I stumbled over a tiny stone and broke my elbow.
When I did look up, I saw a seemingly endless line of headlamps in front and behind me, which was pretty special. The first kilometres were quite crowded, I had to adapt my pace to the people running in front and behind me, as the course was quite narrow and it was not always possible to pass others. I was also careful not to go too fast in the beginning…
We passed a few houses here and there, I also saw mini ponies somewhere, probably sheep too. Running through the Scottish night was amazing and, slowly, I started to relax a bit and enjoy the race. Things were looking pretty good.
I ran through the first unofficial checkpoint, Drymen, at around 19km. After that, the landscape got a bit rougher, there was some climbing involved, and the first hills became visible on the horizon. It was already bright enough to switch off the headlamp at 3.30 am, just when Loch Lomond appeared in front of us. A spectacular view. I resisted the temptation to take a picture… you can’t take pictures in a race.
Next, we climbed up Conic Hill. To be honest, I hated this section quite a bit. Throughout the entire race, I had some problems with keeping up a steady energy level even though I was eating and drinking regularly. I got a bit dizzy from climbing up the steps so I was pretty relieved when we reached the top. Again, the views were fantastic. Loch Lomond was covered in mist, which made it even more mystical. Ah. No pictures, Dani…
I’m not a fan of technical downhills… We don’t have many rocky trails where I live, so the climb down Conic Hill was a bit of a challenge for me. Many people passed me here and I apologized often for being in the way. But I told myself that this was good, I would save my legs for later… Then, finally, it was done and I managed to run a bit faster into the first official checkpoint, Balmaha.
Balmaha – 31.6 km – 3:45:35 hours
I held my timing chip against the reading device. Patrick was already waiting there, alone, as the girls had decided to go back to the hotel to get some more sleep before they took over support crew duties. Or that was the plan J
It was good seeing a familiar face again. I still felt good, so I only refilled my water bottles. I may or may not had to ask Patrick to open the wrapper of an energy bar for me, with which I had been fighting in vain for at least half an hour before ;)
After a quick bathroom stop in the pub, I was ready to go again. It seemed like everyone was more relaxed now. I had to laugh at two guys who burped loudly walking out of the checkpoint and didn’t notice me being right behind them. They apologized but hey, that’s ultra running. Things get worse than that…
I really enjoyed the next section of the way, a beautiful, easy path along Loch Lomond. I talked to quite a few people here, I never asked for names unfortunately, but everyone was really friendly. And everyone instantly knew where I came from…
I met one of the two other Germans in the race shortly before Rowardennan and chatted to him for a while, until we reached the checkpoint.
Rowardennan – ?? km – 5:33:47 hours
Rowardennan was just a small drop back station without support crew. My chip got read by the lovely marshals there, then I quickly went through the contents of my dropbag to see what I wanted to eat. I got a fresh bottle of Irn Bru and off I went.
Another runner actually commented on me being German and drinking Irn Bru. Yes, I like your lemonade. We don’t have it in Germany, so whenever I’m in Scotland, I drink as much as I can ;)
The path got a bit rougher here. I remembered that it was supposed to get rough at the Lochside section, so I wasn’t worried. This was supposed to be the technically most difficult part… or so I thought. I still managed to run most of the time but had to stop more often now when things got too technical. My legs were still feeling fine here, though, and I was enjoying it even.
There was another drop bag station at Inversnaid, where I could stock up on food and water again. I got a bit confused with respect to the route here and thought the most difficult part was over… it hadn’t even started.
Soon after Inversnaid, things got even more technical. Rocks and roots, all wet and slippery, made it quite challenging. I took forever. Whenever I thought I could run a few meters, the next obstacle was just around the corner. At times, I had to scramble over rocks on all four. Or on my bottom… it reminded me of the Chiemgauer 100 last year.
I almost fell into the Loch at one point as I slipped on the wet rocks but managed to hold on to some bushes. My knee and shins suffered a bit, but other than that I was alright… that would have been nasty. There was no soul around who could have rescued me from the icy water … and the fish.
Then, finally, we left the loch side. Yay. Not far now until Beinglas Farm, the next checkpoint, where I would finally see my crew again… and hopefully get some coke. I was so relieved that I didn’t really pay attention to the way. And stepped right into a huge mud hole. Shoes, socks, everything was soaked through with a dark brown, questionable fluid. Ugh…
I managed to get my phone, which was covered in the remains of a scone that I had put back in my backpack without thinking about the possible consequences… nice. I called Dany and told her that I would need a complete change of shoes & socks at Beinglas Farm…
I expected the checkpoint behind every corner and at one point I was sure that I was lost. Luckily, I met some hikers who told me that yes, I was still on the WHW and yes, they had seen other runners. Phew… Literally a minute afterwards, three runners passed me flying by. I hoped they were relay runners, they still seemed so fresh and fast.
Beinglas Farm – 67.6 km – 9:33:13
Then, finally, Beinglas Farm appeared. Sigi, Moni, Dany and Patrick were already waiting, ready to make this a formula-one style pit stop. Shoes off, socks off, fresh shoes, fresh socks, water, foot, sunscreen… sunscreen? That was pretty optimistic.
Before I knew what was happening, I was back on the course again, with a sandwich in my hand. Ok. I talked to another runner, whom I had met a few times already, and he told me that the next section would be much easier. A few rolling hills, etc. That sounded good.
We were also surprised by the first, pretty fast approaching rain shower here. It didn’t last long though. Jacket on, three minutes of rain, jacket off. I didn’t want to keep my jacket on as I was sweating too much in it.
I went through an insanely small little tunnel at one point, then we climbed up a bit again. The landscape was now getting rougher, less trees, more green, more stones, more sheep.
There were quite a few hikers out there now as well. And I really needed a bathroom now…but there wasn’t even a tree in sight.
Something happened to the path here. It slowly turned into one gigantic mud hole and we had to jump from stone to stone to get through it with dry and clean feet. Having just changed my shoes, I couldn’t allow myself to get wet feet again. One Scottish runner next to me explained, with some pride in his voice, that this was the famous “Cow Poo Alley”. I had heard of that, apparently an angry farmer regularly puts some manure on the path to make it extra nasty. It was wilder than in my wildest dreams :)
After cow poo alley, a forest appeared on the horizon. Finally a chance to get a bathroom stop in without exposing myself to everyone. I passed a group of maybe 15 hikers from Iceland, who cheered me on, as I made I a beeline to the forest…
They arrived just as I crawled out of the bushes again. “Did you get lost?” one friendly lady asked me. I told her the truth. She looked a bit embarrassed.
My energy was getting low again, I tried to eat as much as I could as I was hiking up a little hill again now, but it didn’t really help much. I was craving something salty, hearty, but I only had a pack of crisps left somewhere, which were probably dust by now.
One English runner I met here told me that this section was called “rollercoaster”- very fitting. I walked all the uphill and ran all the downhill sections, which was alright.
The next checkpoint, Auchtertyre, appeared soon after that.
Auchtertyre – 82.1 km – 12:05:48
Sigi was already looking for me when I approached the checkpoint. It was so good to see her again! From Auchtertyre onwards, I was allowed to have a support runner on each section, which was a huge relief. I met the rest of the crew, got fresh water and loads of food. I kindly asked them if they could try to get me something salty, like chips or pizza, in Tyndrum for the next checkpoint. Then I got weighed for the first time since the start – 1 kg lost. No drama.
I felt much better leaving the checkpoint with Sigi, after a can of coke and some (fresh) crisps. Sigi was doing a great job pacing me. I told her that I wanted to walk all the uphills and run the rest, which was fine. The route was also quite easy here, nothing really technical, so we moved rather quickly. However, the rain showers were more frequent now and the wind got colder too. I had to put my jacket on and off again. It was still bearable though.
We were chatting happily and time really flew by. We met a group of German hikers and had a wee chat with them. One of them seemed particularly interested in our adventure but sadly declined my generous offer of joining my support crew :)
I couldn’t believe it when the next checkpoint, Bridge of Orchy, already appeared in front of us.
Bridge of Orchy – 96.6 km – 14:19:21
Bridge of Orchy was a bit of a turning point of the race. Everything had gone pretty smoothly until then, I was even still in time for a finish around the 24 hour mark. But in an ultra, you never know what to expect. Things can change dramatically within seconds.
I was happily running into Bridge of Orchy but I noticed that the crew was nowhere in sight. Oh shit. My mind was racing… no crew = no food, no water, no Moni (who was supposed to take over from Sigi here). No food and no water was no problem at all, I still had plenty of water and some food left. But Sigi wasn’t prepared to run another 3 hours with me. I had to go alone…
As I was crossing the street, I caught side of Dany & Moni, who were standing in the parking space in front of the hotel. Then everything happened pretty fast… a bit of shouting, a bit of panic, then Moni was standing next to me, ready to go.
My chip was registered again… I remember that we asked the marshals there which way to go. I remember that they pointed into a vague direction but they were greeted by some friends just in that moment so I didn’t ask again.
Moni was really happy to be running and so was I. We were chatting along nicely, so it took me quite a while until I realised that something was wrong. We were still running on tarmac. There were no other runners in sight. There were no WHW sign posts… Shit. We got lost. There was no other option but to turn around and look for the right path.
After 100km, the realisation that you got lost and ran around 4 extra kilometres is quite devastating. Especially since the weather was now really turning to the worse, it got cold, windy and started to rain again, and I was running out of water and food. We had to go all the way back to the checkpoint to find the entrance to the West Highland Way again. People had parked their vehicles in a not so clever way right in front of the sign posts indicating the WHW, so if you didn’t know the route, it was really hard to find it. Which, at that point, made me quite mad.
But anger is good fuel and I was storming up the hill that followed. Time lost, places lost, energy lost… yadda yadda. Poor Moni had to endure this diva moment and I felt really, really sorry for her afterwards. It was not her fault at all. (sorry Moni). Luckily, the anger resolved as soon as we reached the top. There was nothing I could do now but to accept it.
We were greeted by the famous Murdo on top of Jelly Baby hill. He thought Moni was the runner and me the support crew. After we had clarified that, he offered me a jelly baby and I carefully selected a purple one, as it matched the colour of my jacket. Then he asked me if I was warm enough as the weather would get pretty nasty. I was still warm and relatively dry at that point though, so we said thank you and moved on J
The wind was so strong now, I was seriously concerned that Moni (with her estimated 40kg) would get blown away. I had to resist the temptation to grab her by the arm…
Then the rain got heavier… if Moni had taken a jelly baby, I would have assumed they had been spiked with something. She seemed to really enjoy running in the rain now, spreading her arms and smiling at me J Sadly, I couldn’t enjoy myself so much anymore. My energy level dropped again and, except for some leftover crumbled scones, I didn’t have any food left in my backpack. Moni fed me dried mangos from the pocket of her jacket though, which saved me for a while.
We now ran through a pretty wild, mystic landscape called Rannoch Mor. I would have loved it in any other situation. Right now, I was just looking for Glencoe Ski Resort. I expected it to appear behind every hill that we climbed - but there was only another hill, and another one, and another…
We were still moving at a steady pace though, walking the uphill sections, running the rest. We managed to pass a few runners again. Quite a few support crew members of other runners came running in our direction now, many with energy drinks in their hand, looking for their lost sheep. Another hill and still no end in sight… I got cold and hungry.
Then, miraculously, a familiar figure appeared on the horizon. Patrick came running, looking for us - and he brought pizza! We stopped quickly to get some food but he urged us to keep moving as the weather was getting even worse. More rain, more wind… I asked him how far it was until Glencoe and got no real answer, which was not a good sign. So we tried to move as quickly as possible, down one last big hill. The route was now really wet, the first little streams of water started to appear and, of course, my feet got wet again. The pizza (I only managed to eat a small piece) worked wonders for a little while but I was now pretty much soaked through.
Glencoe Ski Resort, 114.3 km, 17:23:20
Finally, the parking space of Glencoe Ski Resort appeared at the horizon. The crew and the car were waiting but I was too cold to stay out there… I headed straight to the café to get into the warmth.
I went straight to the ladies bathroom and got rid of all my wet clothes. Dany and Moni brought me soup, tea, dry clothes and dry shoes, and with their help, I managed to get changed. I tried to dry the gloves Patrick had given me under the hand dryer but it was pretty much in vain. The dry clothes and the hot drinks were heaven though.
When I was standing outside half a minute later waiting for Patrick to get changed, I suddenly felt really dizzy and little stars appeared in front of my eyes. That must have been my body telling me it was time to stop that running madness.... I tried to gulp down as much coke as I could and it seemed to help. Two minutes later, I was ready to go again.
Dany, Patrick and I ran the next stage to Kinlochleven together. I felt so much better in warm and dry clothes and running got a bit easier too. Talking about bands and music, we ran through the absolutely breath-taking beauty of Glencoe. I even managed to enjoy it a little. It felt like we made good progress on the flat section, passing a few people again. The weather was still pretty wild but it was perfect for the scenery around us.
Then the Devil’s Staircase, a quite impressive climb, appeared in front of us. I tried to make use of the time spent hiking up that beast by eating some more pizza but breathing and chewing and walking and swallowing at the same time was a bit too much for me at that point. Dany and Patrick were hiking in front of me and tried to motivate me to go a bit faster again, as other runners were approaching from behind. But I didn’t care about people passing me anymore. I just wanted to survive this.
The climb made me feel pretty warm again but when we reached the top, the wind got heavier and we didn’t spend much time enjoying the views up there. The downhill section that followed was pretty wild. Pretty wet to be precise. Lots of water to navigate through, more and more streams were now crossing our path. The wind made me shiver in my softshell jacket again and I was eager to keep moving… It was pretty difficult, climbing over wet rocks, but we somehow made it without any major incident. Quite a few runners passed me here and I never saw them again. But I couldn’t move any faster than that. The descent to Kinlochleven seemed to last forever.
Then, finally, we reached a broader, more runnable section. Dany ran ahead to prepare the others for our arrival but she later told us that it was only a few minutes before we arrived in Kinlochleven too.
Kinlochleven, 128.5km, 21:02:54
The checkpoint Kinlochleven was located indoors, in a school I think. I didn’t want to stay in there too long as it was pretty warm compared to outside and I was starting to sweat under my clothes. My chip was read again and I got weighed (weight was alright). Then Sigi and Moni refilled my bottles and food and it was time to leave again.
In theory, it was almost done now. I was sure I was going to finish this thing. Just one last climb, a few kilometres through the forest, then down to Fort William. That didn’t sound too bad. I don’t know if I would have continued had I known what awaited me there.
The climb started alright. Patrick and I were alone now as Dany had left us in Kinlochleven, and we were walking up the hill, chatting. The temperatures were alright and I think the rain and wind had even stopped for a while at that point. I was already looking forward to the finish line now.
Then we left the forest and things got worse again. Rain, wind, water… lots of stones… We had to switch on our head lamps there again as it got dark. And with the darkness came the weather… More wind and rain, more water. At some point, the whole path turned into a river.
At first, I was careful not to get wet feet since it was still a long time to go until Fort William and I didn’t want to ruin my feet. But then I didn’t care anymore, it was impossible to stay dry.
We didn’t see much of the landscape around us. Just darkness… Wind, darkness, rain, the dim light of our headlamps, water, stones. That’s what hell must be like. Every meter looked the same, it felt as if we were making no progress at all. A hamster wheel. I may or may not have cursed Scotland a bit here…
We sometimes saw a dim light in the distance, the headlamp of other runners, but that was all. No other sign of life out there. At one point, I got numb. I no longer felt the cold, the wind, the rain… I knew it was still there but I no longer felt anything. Which wasn’t too bad, just completely crazy. I think I would have gone mad had I been alone out there.
Then, suddenly, a white van appeared in front of us, two brave souls waiting for us runners, offering drinks and words of encouragement. The friendly man even told us to line up for a picture, before we moved on, back into our tunnel of darkness, wind and water.
It seemed to last days but it was only a few hours until we reached Lundavra, the last little checkpoint before Fort William.
Lundavra, ca. 140 km, 23:37:24
Reading all the previous race reports of the past few years, I had always imagined Lundavra being a wild party around a huge camp fire. There was no fire and no party in these conditions of course, just some music blasting from a car and a guy reading my chip and offering coke, for which I was eternally grateful. A few words of encouragement, then we were going again. Not long now.
I think I lost it at some point here. My eyes were playing tricks on me. I saw a cat sitting in the middle of the path in front of us but it was only a stone. A bush looked like a monstrous version of Kermit the frog. I didn’t recognize the path anymore although it was right in front of me. I do remember that Patrick asked me about my favourite childhood cartoons here and I thought of the Gummy Bears. Some magic juice and I would be jumping down to Fort William… yes. Also, communicating in English suddenly became quite difficult as the oxygen was steadily withdrawn from my brain.
There was a lot of climbing on this last section. Forestry work had destroyed the path and there was not much running. There was also a huge mud hole through which we had to navigate, which was almost impossible. I was pretty sure I would have lost my shoes in there but with some team work we got through it.
I noticed that my left hand started to hurt a bit now. My hands had been swollen for a while now, I wasn’t too worried about it as it had happened before in a race. But this time, it was more severe. I have a big scar running over the back of my left hand and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure there. Patrick told me to remove my glove and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I quickly put the glove on again. I then tried to keep my left hand elevated above my heart so that the swelling could go back but it didn’t help much.
Then, finally, we reached the highest point and I suddenly recognized the way and knew it was all only downhill from here. Funnily enough, my legs were fine with some downhill running…It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty (my tights somehow didn’t fit anymore and I had to pull them up every 3 metres.. quite embarrassing) but we got it done. And then we reached the road crossing. There were no arrows and no signs here but I remembered that Fort William was to our left. I’m glad that my brain was working correctly right there. We soon saw the first street lamp. Almost there now!
It still took forever until the first houses appeared of Fort William appeared.
I had dreamed of this moment for almost two years, over and over again. I had imagined how overjoyed I would feel, happy tears and all that, on every long run I did. But in reality, I was too exhausted to feel much other than an endless relief that it was over.
Fort William - 153km - 25:37:38
I managed to speed up a bit on the last meters up to the Leisure Centre, where the finish line of the race was located. It was like in the dozens of youtube videos of the race I had watched. With the only exception, this time, it was me running up there, having my chip read one last time. Done! To say it was a surreal experience would be an understatement. It was done!
A group hug with the crew, some pictures, then we went inside. I still couldn’t believe it was done. Everything that followed was a bit of a blur. I remembered that I got weighed one last time, I tried to eat a cookie but it made me sick. Then I went to see the medical crew because of my hands which were swollen to almost double their size. Not a pretty view.
They race doc checked them briefly but said it was alright. I had to sit down for a while since I felt a bit dizzy. Then I went back to the crew and sat down again. There was a debate going on whether I should take a shower in our B&B or right there at the Leisure Centre since apparently there was no hot water in the B&B so I agreed to shower there. I was beyond making decisions for myself…
I dreaded the moment where I had to take off my shoes and socks, I expected the worst. But they were alright, only one small blister on top of my toe, no major damage. After a bit of an improvised shower (no towel and no hair dryer.. ahem), we finally went to the B&B, to bed, which felt like heaven.
The awards ceremony took place at noon the next day. It was a great event where every finisher of the West Highland Way Race got their goblet. My hardest earned race trophy so far….It was nice to see all the other runners, soak in the happy atmosphere, talk through the events of the previous day again. In the evening, we went to the pub to celebrate and to drink whiskey from the goblet, of course. Then it was done. The West Highland Way Race experience was over.
After the race, many people asked me if I was happy about my result, if it was the finish time I had expected etc. Yes, yes, of course, all of that. But the West Highland Way Race was so much more than just a time on a piece of paer. It changed everything… it changed me. When I came back, nothing in my life was like it had been before. I’m still processing the impacts of it all and yes, I’m aware how dramatic that sounds. But it’s true. And I’m happy with it.
Well if you’re still reading this, you must be either very bored or you are considering running the race yourself now….
Thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey. It would have been impossible without the help, the motivation and inspiration of you amazing people…thank you to my support crew Dany, Sigi, Moni and Patrick, it would have been less fun without you, thank you for being there for me and for enduring all this for me, for the laughter and the tears J I owe you a lot… to coach Paul for the amazing training and for making sure I get to the start line in the best possible shape… to my international online support crew Emma, Stella, Leah, Stacy & Deirdre (much love to you)… to Anja, Ute, Irmi, Karin, Marion, Norbert for accompanying me on endless runs through the forest and hill repeats on end…. To my family for their support and motivation before, during and after the race… and to everyone else for the kind messages of support and good luck wishes. It made me feel really special :)
And last but not least to Hoka One One for the great shoes… I don’t know how many pairs I destroyed during my preparation for this race so it was a great help :)
And yes, there are new adventures on the horizon ….
Race Report – 6 hour race for World Down Syndrome Day 2017, Fürth
After my 24 hour race in October, people often asked me if running in circles for hours wasn’t boring, commenting that they “couldn’t do it”. The answer is no, these timed races are far from boring. Like every marathon or ultramarathon, they are a journey… to what is inside of you.
Therefore, I decided to sign up for a six hour race. The race in Fürth on the occasion of the World Down Syndrome Day seemed perfect – it was not too close to the West Highland Way Race calendar-wise and also just an hour away from home, so no extensive (and expensive) travelling was required. The World Down Syndrome Day also has a personal meaning to me – last year I got paired with a sweet little girl with Down syndrome, named Emberly via an organisation called “I Run For Michael”, which partners runners with children and adults with disability. I run for Emberly.
After some weeks off due to sickness in December/January, training went really well in February and early March. Additionally, I haven’t touched any chocolate/sweets nor (much) alcohol since early December (since I learned that I had a place in the WHW race) and I feel that this has had a massive favourable effect on my training too (I can’t wait for that post race pint in June though!! ;)). All in all, I was quite confident going into this race. It was my first road ultra so I was a bit unsure which pace I should aim for. Finally, since my goal were 60 km, my coach suggested that I should try to run the first 30km in around 2:45h, which would provide me with enough buffer for the second 30km. Sounded good to me J
The week before the race was a tiny bit stressful with lots of work and a slightly sick horse. In addition to that, my GI tract wasn’t very cooperative on the day before the race … I already thought about a DNS. But I managed to eat a huge plate of pasta in the evening without any problems so crisis averted.
Race morning! Some last minute packing and off I went. The drive to Fürth was quite relaxed and I had no problems finding the race location even without navigation system or the help of Google maps. It was still very early when I got there so I collected my BIB and went back into the warmth of the car. I like to have some time for myself before a race. Also, I had to tape off my big toes, which showed some leftovers of huge blisters from my last long run…. Of course, just as I was applying the Compeed pads, some nosy people walked by, with looks of disgust on their faces when they realised what I was doing in the privacy of my car. Oh Well. I hoped they wouldn’t recognize me later in full running gear.
It was hard to decide what to wear. It was around 10°C, which is usually the shorts threshold temperature for me, but there was rain and some wind, so I decided for a pair of long tights, a long sleeved shirt and another t shirt on top of that. No trucker hat this time, I was afraid that the wind would blow it away. Since my little finger showed first signs of Raynaud’s phenomenon again, I also put on my gloves. Then it was almost time to go.
As I was waiting for the start, a very lovely lady greeted me as if she had known me for ages. She asked me if we knew each other from the Rennsteiglauf. I said that I had only run the half marathon there, not the ultra. Later, it turned out that she was the one who gave me my medal after my very first ultra, Maintal Ultratrail, in 2014! She is part of the organisation team and she did remember me. What a coincidence J
Then we, in that case the ultra runners and marathoners, started the race. Later, we would be joined by the half marathon and 10k runners – all on a 2km round course! The thought of several hundred runners spread on 2km had made a bit nervous in the days before. How crowded would it be? Would it be possible to pass people at all? But it turned out ok. There were a few narrow sections but everyone was polite and considerate so no bumping into each other or major accidents on the course.
The course itself was not boring at all. The 2km lap included the tartan track in the stadium, two larger sections on a sidewalk along the road outside of the stadium, a few hundred metres on a tricky forest road, some steps and one mean little hill, which we had to go up and down on each lap (my quads were not happy about that later in the race…).
From the very beginning, I noticed another woman running directly behind or next to me. I had previously identified her as a pro, based on her very athletic figure and her effortless running style. She didn’t pass me though, which made me a bit nervous. Her boyfriend/husband was strategically placed on one point on the course and gave her information about the distance towards the leading woman and her round times etc. whenever we passed him. I was clearly running too fast, this wasn’t my part of the pack, I was clearly a mid-pack runner. I had never heard talk like that during a race!
After 3 rounds of synchronous running, I decided to talk to her. If we were running together, we might as well chat a little. Conny was really nice and very modest, she said she also wanted to run around 60km so we ran together a bit more. The time and laps were flying suddenly, everything is so much easier when you have someone to talk to. Conny told me that she was running to collect money for an Alzheimer charity since her father suffered from dementia, which I found very impressive (if you read this, Conny, it was an honour to run with you for a while! J)
We were clearly going too fast. After two hours, my watch showed an average pace of 5:25 min/km. I couldn’t go any slower though. My legs were complaining a bit already and my stomach wasn’t too happy either, especially since eating and drinking at that pace was a bit of a challenge for my clumsy self. Half an hour later, I told Conny that I had to change my strategy and had to let her go, she was clearly in a much better shape than me (and she later won the women’s race, totally deserved!!). From now on, I decided to walk a bit everytime I passed the aid station in order to get enough water and fuel in. This would also allow my legs to recover a bit and to maintain a steady pace for the rest of the lap.
It worked well, my legs and stomach never fully recovered but also didn’t deteriorate. I managed to maintain a decent pace… however, the bargaining in my head started. “If you increase the pace a bit, you can run a new marathon PR and stop then… you could stop after 50k… you could definitely stop at 60k and then walk the rest”… and so on.
Then suddenly, I spotted two familiar faces on the side of the road, cheering me on, Frank and Martina. Frank is a well-known runner and photographer in our region and his wife Martina is a member in our running club. It was nice to see them there (Frank was running the 10k race and ended up 3rd place!) and it gave me a little boost again, even though the next time I passed them, Frank asked with a bit of concern in his voice “Aren’t you going a bit too fast for a 6 hour race?” I answered Yes, definitely. But I couldn’t go slower either (he didn’t know that I was walking at the aid station though).
My legs were really tight now. I don’t know why I had been so arrogant to think that a flat 6 hour race wouldn’t hurt. It did hurt! I wanted to stop so badly, the mean hill and the steps made it particularly hard. But I just kept going, it was like my legs didn’t listen to my brain anymore.
The other runners were great by the way. Many of them were smiling at the turning points, there was a relay team dressed up like Star Wars figures, and the participants with Down syndrome were a particular inspiration, one of them always had a few encouraging words for Conny and me when we passed him early in the race and later high-fived me. They were on the course the whole time. Simply amazing!
I didn’t really have time to look at the monitor to see where I was rank-wise but I had been 4th woman overall for a long time until I must have passed someone (I didn’t realize that) because at one point I saw that I was now in 3rd position of the women’s field. Yay! That was the final boost that I needed. Things went a bit better from there on, I even started to high-five the kids on the course again and did a little cheer for the guy with the megaphone who was motivating us from the beginning to the very end and called out my name on almost every lap.
But boy was I looking forward to stopping. I began to calculate. I could stop at 60km and then just walk for the rest of the time. But then, about 58km in, I passed one woman who had been in front of us the whole time, she looked super strong and I almost felt sorry for passing her, clearly something must have gone wrong in her race. But that meant that I was second now! I couldn’t believe it, I had never been second in any race ever!
I didn’t dare to look back, I never saw the woman again so I didn’t know how far she was behind me. It meant that I had to keep going until the very end though. One more lap to go.
I heard bagpipes. What was going on, surely you can’t have hallucinations in a six hour race? But then I remembered that I had seen a guy in full Scottish attire earlier. Maybe he was the piper. Nothing was surprising anymore.
Then, last full round done, about 8 minutes to go. I really picked up the pace once again. 5 minutes to go, 3… one last bend, when are we supposed to stop? I was breathing like a walrus. I don’t remember what the stop signal was but suddenly everyone stopped right in their place and yelled “STOP” so I supposed it was the end. I stopped. Done and second place!!
My watch told me that I had run 63.4 km in 6 hours (the official result was 1km less due to me not running the ideal line ;)) . Phew… My blood pressure wasn’t too happy about the sudden stop though, I had to sit down on the wet asphalt for a while. I actually wanted to lie down but could contain myself enough not to do so. We now had to wait for the guys with the little metering wheel who would record the residual metres we had run on this last lap. It took a looong time. It was cold and wet.
The men’s winner walked by, apparently his metering was done already. He had passed my countless times on the course, a small and athletic guy, incredibly fast and light. Someone asked him how many kilometres he had ran. He said he only spoke Spanish. My brain was too slow to react, bummer. Would have been a good opportunity to practice the street style Espanol Angel has taught me.
Then, suddenly, I heard bagpipes again. And really, there was a full Scottish pipes and drums band marching along the course, playing “Scotland the Brave”. I got a wee bit emotional here as if they were playing just for me and my upcoming WHW adventure J From previous experience I know that crying a wee bit after an ultra leads to hyperventilation so I pulled myself together until the guys with the metering wheel came and pulled me up again.
Then it was done. Second place yay!
The prize giving was fantastic. My second podium ever (in the second ultra in a row), it felt quite surreal. I’m a mid-pack runner at best. This was a dream!
We got some nice presents, among others a pineapple, then it was time to leave. When I left the building, I saw the Scottish band again. Turned out they weren’t really Scottish but Franconian. I told them how much I had liked their performance and how much it meant to me. Not sure they understood but they seemed happy and wished me all the best for my “Great Highland Way” Race :)
The drive home is a different story. Post-ultra brain and navigating through Middle Franconian villages is not a good combination. But I made it home.
This race was a fantastic event, a great start to my race season and an enormous boost for my motivation. The hard work finally seems to be paying off.
I’m starting to really like these timed races. Maybe I’ll do some more in the future, but for now, all roads lead to the West Highland Way Race in June. Finally. :)
Thank you for reading!
Traildorado 2016 – Race Report
A few days have passed since the Traildorado 24 hour race, I’m back home, back at work. It almost feels like this weekend has never happened… if it weren’t for the sweet pain in my legs which, every time I try to get up from my office chair or walk down the stairs, reminds me of the day I spent in the forest. I’m back in the real world but this feeling remains…
An ultra race is like an escape into another world. You leave behind your day-to-day life, your work, your worries, duties, family and friends, to dive into a place where there is only you and the trail. Or maybe you, the pain, and the trail ;)
So I left the real world on Friday, 7th of October, and took a train to wonderland …. or rather, Arnsberg, a not very idyllic town somewhere in the North-West, in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. 4 hours on the train were plenty to think about the task ahead.
It did sound simple: run on a 4km lap through the forest as often as possible within 24 hours. No time limit this time, no hurrying from check point to check point, wondering if you’ll make the next cut-off. Despite the 110 m of ascend which each lap had to offer, the race sounded very relaxed to me. A perfect opportunity to finally get 100km under the belt.
Of course, there were a few things which could go wrong. You never know what is going to happen in a long race like that, some points remain uncertain… but I narrowed the possible difficulties which could occur down to the following:
I booked into a hotel in the town centre of Arnsberg. This was also part of the strategy – the race location was connected to a youth hostel, where participants could book a bed for the night. I did not as I would probably have given in to the temptation.
I tried to sleep in as long as possible on Saturday morning but was wide awake at 7 am. I enjoyed the luxury of a long breakfast and having plenty of time to prepare myself for the race. Around 10 o’clock I walked the 2km to the start.
There was a check-in where we participants got our bibs and bracelets with chips which we had to hold against a scanner after each lap. This way, we would be able to get updates on our position, kilometres ran etc. during the race, which was pretty cool.
The organiser’s race briefing was fun and relaxed. Everyone seemed to be happy to be there and be part of this event. Then, finally, at 12 o clock, we started, after having been pressured into a dance to “I like to move it move it” by the race director ;)
So it began. The lap was better than expected, far away from flat and boring. From the hostel, we ran right into the forest, where the big climb of the race awaited us already. It was really steep and a bit slippery with the wet leaves but not too terrible and also not too long. Then there was a nice technical single trail section, with lots of roots and stones, which could become quite tricky, especially in the dark. After that, there was another climb up to the highest point of the race, where a nice downhill path started, which also had a few roots and stones so paying attention to the underground was absolutely necessary here. Then there was a good flat runnable section, a broad path which lead out of the forest and – surprise! – passed a horse pasture. I had secretly hoped for horses so I was happy and surprised to see them standing there J The path then turned into a parking lot, which we crossed, before running down the only tarmac section with a length of approx. 200 m. Then we turned into the forest again, a tricky little path through a mud hole, which got worse and worse later on in the race, and then on an easier way again back to the starting point, where the scanner, the aid station, the tent with our bags, toilets etc. were located.
I was pleasantly surprised, this wouldn’t get boring at all. The climb was a bit mean but I had brought my poles for later in the race. So we ran one lap after another. I met Thomas, whom I had met on Instagram a few weeks earlier, and chatted with him for a bit. Other than that, I didn’t talk much this time. I was really focused on myself, trying to preserve as much energy as possible.
Time passed really quickly. However, after 3-4 hours, my legs started to feel tired already. It was quite a shock to me… I had walked about 2 km with my heavy backpack on the day before plus additional 5 km to and from the race location… maybe it had been too much? Surely not. Even in the Chiemgauer 100 my legs had felt fresher…. Why? Because I had walked a greater part of the course back then.
I had a bit of a low point there, trying to keep up with other runners in front of me… how on earth should I be able to do this for another 20 hours? Things went dark very quickly… I wasn’t meant for long distances like that… I would never sign up for a stupid race like that again… I could forget about the West Highland Way Race because I sucked.
I realized that I had to change my strategy or things would go really bad. I decided to now power-hike the first half of the course until the highest point and then run the rest of it. This would allow me to safe my legs and still make good progress. Good! I grabbed my poles and they really were a relief. It hurt my ego quite a bit to see all the other runners pass me while I was walking but I knew that it would pay off in the end.
Around 5 p.m. it got quite cold and I had to stop to put on my jacket and a buff around my neck and another one on my head. My legs felt better with the hiking now but my head was still in a bad place. What was I doing here? It wasn’t even dark yet and I already had enough. I scanned my chip to see where I was – only the top 5 men and women were displayed on the large monitor. I was in 9th place of the women’s field. Good job, someone told me. Blah, I thought.
Then it got dark. Running in the forest in the dark, alone most of the time, was a totally new experience for me. I realized that training TRAIL running in the dark would have been a good idea too, as it was quite different from the streets of Kitzingen, where I usually run at night. I had to pay close attention to the path ahead, I couldn’t risk a fall or another broken bone even. The air got colder and more humid and I had to stop again to put on the softshell jacket and the extra pair of trousers.
Then something happened which changed my outlook in the race completely. I hadn’t checked the ranking for a while and when I took another look, my name suddenly appeared on the big monitor. I was 4th lady now! Yay! I even shouted a little yay and some men gave me a weird look. Hehehe :)
From then on, things went really well. The game was on! 4th woman was better than expected and boy did I want to keep that place! For a while, it felt like flying. All pain was forgotten. I walked the first part and ran the second, counting the laps… I needed 25 to make 100km and it looked like it wouldn’t take too long to achieve this.
However, at some point between 1 and 2 a.m., my headlamp died. I knew this was about to happen as it only had a restricted battery life and had brought a spare lamp – but the latter was in my bag in the tent, about 2km away from this place in the middle of the forest where I was standing now. I had no other choice but to wait for the next runner behind me. I had met a few guys walking earlier, maybe I could walk with them until the lap was finished. Luckily, out of nowhere, a woman appeared who carried a headlamp and a torch. I asked her if I could borrow her torch and she agreed. I was so relieved and grateful! I couldn’t run with the torch but at least I had a light as it was pitch black out there.
When I put on the spare headlamp Dany had given me (thank you J) I realized that it was by no means bright enough for the trail, where I had to see every root and every stone to prevent a fall. I was quite devastated. My run-walk mix had been good so far but now I was reduced to more walking on the tricky downhill and on the last section of the trail where I didn’t see anything. In fact, there was only a short section of around 1km until the end of the horse pasture / asphalt part which I could still run as it was quite even and I didn’t remember any stones or roots on it. Ok. This was clearly an unexpected problem, something I hadn’t thought about before the race, but nothing I could change now. I tried to make the best of it, hiked as fast as I could with my bad night vision. I tripped over quite a few roots and stones but only fell once on the steep uphill section and it wasn’t bad. Phew…
I kept up my hike/run ratio as best as I could and then, around 3 o’clock, I passed the 3rd woman on the part of the trail where I could run. I didn’t realize that I was now third until I saw it on the monitor. OMG!!
I tried not to get too excited about it. I had never been on the podium before in a race so this was a completely new experience. Instead of running a relaxed race, I now had to fight! It wasn’t easy… I never really knew how far behind me she was. I didn’t dare to stay long at the aid station, I didn’t dare to go to the bathroom, I tried to hike up the hill as fast as I could. Nobody was going to steal this third place from me!
This went on for a few hours. At one point I passed the magic 100km mark and got a bit emotional – 100km done, finally!
Later, the sun rose. Moving in daylight again was such a relief! I was in good spirits… only a few more hours! Then, all the sudden, woman no. 4 sprinted past me – yes, she sprinted! It was a shock to me, I had thought that I had left her behind for good. But she looked so fresh! Oh well. 4th rank then. At least I wouldn’t have to wait for the price giving then and could go straight to the hotel… maybe even just run a few more laps and then finish early. That would be nice. But I couldn’t hide my disappointment.
However, when I took a look at the monitor, I was still in third place. It looked like the woman had taken a break and was now 2 laps behind me. Phew… but still, she had been flying down the trail earlier! Was she planning on closing in on me?
It was a bit of a nightmare. I was now quite exhausted and wanted to stop so badly after 31 laps but I didn’t know if it was enough. Would she manage to pass me again? Twice? I calculated and calculated but my brain just didn’t work properly anymore. I just had to move… relentless forward progress. Lap 31 was very painful and I was reduced to slow walking. Impossible to do another lap! When I arrived at the aid station again, I asked some people there if I had to do another lap in order to stay third. With hindsight, it would have been enough, but they sent me out for another lap. (Only full laps were counted towards the overall result so it made no sense starting another lap after more than 23 hours / 15 minutes for instance). The last lap was very, very painful. I just managed to put one foot in front of the other. The woman who later won the race passed me, she was flying down the trail without any effort, it was simply amazing and left me in awe.
Then, the finish line got closer… I scanned my chip one last time and done!! Third place! 131.5 kilometres with 4125 metres of ascend in 23 hours and 9 minutes. Yay!
They now had a celebratory chocolate well at the aid station but all I could think of was getting out of my clothes, a hot shower and a place to rest. I had to wait until 1.30 p.m. for the prize giving now but that didn’t matter anymore. I think the happy grin never left my face after that J
And that was it. The rest was all a bit of a blur. Taking a cold shower, talking to many people, drinking coffee, waiting… The prize giving was another amazing experience, a totally impressive performance by everyone!
A very nice couple offered me to take me back to the hotel in their car. Thank you! J
I even managed to climb up to the second floor where my room was…
And now it is over… After a weekend playing in the woods, I’m back in the civilization, back in real life where kilometres run or elevation gains don’t matter. But the Traildorado has won a big place in my heart! It was an incredible experience, an adventure that I haven’t fully processed yet. I’m pretty sure that I will come back next year! J
Once again, I have to thank everyone who has supported me in the weeks leading up to the race. And a big heartfelt thank you to all of you who donated for my Tuares fundraising project!
Except for one small fun race which I will do on the 22nd, my running season is almost over now. And what an amazing year it has been! I am truly blessed that I have such a great network of family and friends around me and a fantastic coach without whom this would have never ever been possible!
Mein Spendenprojekt anlässlich des Traildorado 24-Stunden-Laufs
die Tage werden kürzer und mein letztes großes Saisonhighlight, der Traildorado 24 Stunden Lauf, rückt immer näher.
Meine Freundin Martina arbeitet für die TuaRes-Stiftung und hat mich schon vor einiger Zeit gefragt, ob ich nicht Lust hätte, einen Charity-Lauf für die Stiftung zu starten.
Ich sah mir die Organisation an und war von der Idee sofort angetan. Die Bildung von Mädchen in Entwicklungsländern liegt mir persönlich sehr am Herzen, unter anderem unterstütze ich selbst ein Patenkind in Guatemala. Deswegen fiel mir die Entscheidung leicht.
Martina schreibt über ihre Arbeit:
„Ich habe mich immer schon gerne für soziale Projekte engagiert und habe mich sehr gefreut, letztes Jahr bei der TuaRes Stiftung eine neue Aufgabe gefunden zu haben.
Im Juli diesen Jahres war ich das erste Mal selbst vor Ort und konnte im Rahmen des jährlichen TuaRes Sommercamps auch endlich unser Team in Burkina – und, noch viel wichtiger, 120 der von uns unterstützten Mädchen, kennenlernen.
Ich habe mir schon oft vorgestellt, nicht das Glück gehabt zu haben, in Deutschland geboren worden zu sein, sondern zum Beispiel in Burkina. Eines dieser armen Mädchen zu sein – ohne Aussicht auf ein selbstbestimmtes Leben – und ich weiß, dass es wichtig ist, diese Mädchen zu unterstützen, ihnen ihre Chancen aufzuzeigen, ihnen Schulbildung zu ermöglichen und sie auf Ihrem Weg in ein freies, unabhängiges Leben zu begleiten – ein Leben, das für uns so selbstverständlich ist.
Während meines Aufenthaltes in Burkina habe ich dort viel Armut gesehen, schlimme Geschichten von Zwangsehen, Verstümmelungen, Prügel, Missbrauch etc. gehört, und war sehr bewegt.
Was mich aber noch viel mehr bewegt hat, war die Herzlichkeit, Dankbarkeit und positive Lebenseinstellung der Menschen vor Ort, trotz all dieser Armut und Schicksale.
Ich stehe fest hinter der Überzeugung von TuaRes, dass wir mit unseren Beiträgen helfen, den Menschen dort, insbesondere diesen Mädchen, durch Bildung eine bessere Zukunft zu ermöglichen. Und letztendlich ist das auch der erste Schritt zu einer besseren Zukunft für das ganze Land!“
Auch ich möchte einen Teil dazu beitragen. Das Laufen bedeutet mir sehr viel und hat mir unzählige wunderschöne Momente beschert, ich habe tolle Leute kennengelernt und genieße es, das tun zu können, was ich liebe. Daher möchte ich etwas zurück geben.
Die 24 Stunden werden hart werden. Ihr könnt mich dabei unterstützen! Jeder Euro ist eine extra Portion Motivation für mich… oder wie wäre es damit: Ihr wettet im Vorfeld, wie viele Km ich schaffen werde, und spendet einen kleinen Betrag pro Kilometer. Ich selbst werde mit gutem Beispiel voran gehen und selbst € 1 pro Kilometer spenden.. Und es werden hoffentlich ganz viele werden!
(Hier muss ich allerdings anmerken, dass es keine leichte Strecke ist, mit ordentlich Höhenmetern und profilierten Wegen :))
Spenden könnt ihr ganz einfach auf der folgenden Website, die garantiert sicher und vertrauenswürdig ist:
Vielen Dank an alle bisherigen Spender!
Falls ihr noch Fragen habt, meldet euch einfach!
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear”
Chiemgauer100 – Race Report
After the fun times I had at the Bilstein Ultramarathon and Rennsteiglauf earlier this year, it was time to tackle my biggest race yet – the Chiemgauer100 – 100 km through the Alps in the beautiful Chiemgau region in Southern Bavaria.
Initially, I had picked another race for my first attempt at 100km, the Thüringen Ultra, which would have been a bit easier, I guess. But sometimes, things happen for a reason.
I thought that I had signed up for the Thüringen Ultra but somehow my registration did not go through... I then talked to a friend who had done the Chiemgauer100 two times before and somehow planted the idea in my head that I should give this race a try instead. I gave it a week to consider and finally signed up for it. I’m easy to convince apparently :) Thanks Paul W. !
Training went quite well, with the exception of a completely unexpected DNF at Würzburg Marathon in June, where I stopped after the half marathon mark, having enough of running on tarmac.
Two weeks before the Chiemgauer100, I did my final long run, a 50km training run on the flat asphalt bike path along the river, with Dany accompanying me on the bike. It went really well, I managed to run at a relatively relaxed pace and was pleased with the outcome.
I don’t know if it was “taperitis” or a real issue but, typically, the week before the race, I experienced a weird pain in my left upper leg / hip area that did not go away, so I was forced to rest in the days leading up to the race, hoping that it would sort itself out. I tried not to worry too much about it but it was still noticeable when I was walking.
My journey started on Friday morning, with a relaxed and uneventful 4.5 hour train ride to Ruhpolding. It is a typical idyllic Bavarian village surrounded by beautiful mountains, which is particularly famous for winter sports like biathlon and bob sleigh. There, I checked into the hotel and tried to relax a bit.
In the late afternoon, I walked the 2km to the stadium which was the start and finish point and the headquarters of the race. It was a nice place, outside of town and in the shadow of an impressive mountain. Not many people were there, the race registration was a simple bench and table with two friendly women handing out the bibs and everyone seemed pretty relaxed. The friendly, familiar atmosphere of the race was already noticeable here.
The first real challenge of the weekend was the race map. There was a huge poster with the race course on the wall and we were told to copy it into our own respective maps. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds and a friendly gentleman, who was part of the organisation team, tried to help me but I was a quite hopeless case. I gave up and hoped that I wouldn’t need it.
The pasta party started at 5.30 p.m. and it felt more like a family dinner than the pasta parties I have experienced before. I didn’t know anyone but was soon surrounded by other runners, all more or less nervously chatting about the upcoming race. Shoes, poles, food, the race course etc
We saw a few 100 mile runners start their race during this time, too. As of 2.00 p.m., they were free to start every full hour. Two guys choose the 5.00 p.m. start and one guy the 6.00 p.m. start. I watched them in awe – I still cannot wrap my head around how someone can run 100 miles through night and day on a gruelling course like that. These people must be superhuman!
Then the race briefing started, which didn’t hold any big surprises. The organiser explained the race course, check points, general rules of behaviour etc. and then wished us all the best.
After the briefing, I was eager to return to the hotel quickly, to get as much rest as possible because the next day would call for an early start. I bought some snacks and water at Aldi and then spend the rest of the evening in bed.
The night was over at 3.00 a.m. I had managed a few hours of good sleep and didn’t feel tired at all. I had a quick breakfast with instant coffee and bread rolls and then got dressed, prepared my race kit and drop bags and was ready to go.
A took a taxi to the stadium because I didn’t feel like walking the 2km in the dark. A good decision, as it turned out – there was a spot on the street marked with colour spray and the taxi driver told me that somebody had been fatally hit by a car on that spot only few hours before…
Surprisingly, there was hardly anyone there when I arrived at the stadium. I saw another guy in race kit filling his water bottles at the water tap and assumed he was a fellow 100km racer - before he turned around and set off again into the dark. A 100 mile runner apparently, who had just passed the stadium checkpoint. He still looked very fresh.
I sat down on a bench until the guy who had helped me with the map the evening before appeared and told me to go inside as it was warmer there. I didn’t feel cold but obeyed and went into the small stadium bistro. I had another cup of coffee and a wee chat with two other runners before it was time to hand over my drop bags and move to the start line.
The start was very relaxed and very unspectacular. No music, no shouting, just a little countdown and off we went. I have never been so calm at a race start, it was almost surreal. I switched on my headlamp as we ran over the tartan track for the first couple of metres before heading out of the stadium and onto a gravel path.
I don’t remember much about the first few kilometres. My left upper leg still felt tight and the pain was still there when running, despite all the rest. It was bearable though and I hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse throughout the race. I just tried not to think too much about it.
As always, it took a while until I found a rhythm and my position in the race. With less than 100 runners in total, the field soon split up and I was running alone, with a few others still in sight. It was beautiful – the sun was rising while the fields were still covered in fog and few sleepy cows watched us pass. Humidity was quite high at this point, too.
There were a few spectacular views already but I didn’t have time to stop and admire them or even take photographs. After about 10km I realized that I didn’t notice my leg at all anymore – the pain was gone!
We soon headed into the forest. Here, one section which I had dreaded quite a bit started – a narrow path covered with rocks and roots, with the mountain on one side and big slope on the other side. Did I mention that I am not a fan of heights? One false step and I would be sailing down that slope. Luckily, there was an iron rope on the worst sections and I had to concentrate so much on placing every step that I didn’t have much time to think about what could happen. Whenever I heard another runner approaching me from behind, I let them pass on the next possible location.
This was where I met Paddy from England. We started to chat a bit about England and the races we had done before and it helped me a lot to get through this terrible section. It seemed to take forever but eventually, the path got broader again. Unfortunately, I suddenly felt dizzy and had to slow down a bit for some water and a piece of cereal bar until I felt better.
Next came some climbing, and soon we were finally running down a broad gravel forest road again. It went really well. My legs were fresh, I passed a few people, and just enjoyed being out there. Until the two guys who were a few metres in front of me suddenly stopped. It was a dead end, the path just stopped in the middle of the forest with no markings or anything to indicate that we were still on the race course…. And there were no runners behind us anymore. Gritting our teeth, we turned around and climbed up again, until we found the arrow on the ground that indicated where we should have turned left. A kilometre added and a few places lost but nothing too bad.
After 26 kilometres, we were back in the stadium. I refilled my water bottles at the aid station there, ate some food and then headed back out again. I was only around 20 minutes within the time limit and I didn’t want to waste any more time there.
Another runner had told me before that this was where the race really started. I ran out of the stadium, crossed the street and soon found myself on another steep climb up a cow pasture. The sun was burning quite merciless already. I hit a little low point here… and promptly took a wrong turn again. It took a while until I realized that I was no longer on the race course. Once again, I had to turn around and look for the course marking. Ugh. Another kilometre added, more time and places lost. I was disheartened.
As I trotted on, I was also sure that I was in the last place now. Only a few people had been behind me after the stadium and these must have passed me while I got lost. Ugh. I was in a bad mood. The extremely steep climb up a ski slope that followed didn’t help much. I looked up and saw a few runners further up. Very much further up. All the way up there? This was the first but not the last time in this race that I thought this…
I somehow managed to scramble up the ski slope and was able to run again for a while. I passed another runner, Oliver, before heading further up and into a forest. There was another muddy, steep and difficult section here and after a while, I began to wonder I was still on the right path, as it seemed to be a dead end with only a weird-looking path going up. I hadn’t seen any course markers for a while, so I turned around again, assuming that I had managed to get lost again. After a while, however, Oliver came down the same path and he assured me that it was still the right one. We indeed had to go up that weird path. We ran together for a while. I moaned a bit about the trail being terrible with all the rocks and roots and mud – he laughed and said that this was an “Autobahn” compared to the descent from the Hörndlwand. I didn’t want to hear that for sure ;)
He had done the race before and gave me the precious advice to refill my water bottles at a well because the next aid station would be on top of the Hörndlwand – the biggest climb, which we had to make in the blazing sun. It started moderately through the forest, where we passed two Australian guys, with whom we chatted a bit. We were soon out of the forest again, slowly making our way upwards, over rocks and gravel. I didn’t dare to look down but the area around me was breath-taking. The Hörndlwand in front of me looked majestic in the bright summer sun.
Many hikers were coming down our way and they all had a friendly smile and a few words of encouragement for me. Many commented on my BIB number (#1) and how fresh I looked. Hahaha ;)
Oliver was soon out of sight but I passed three more runners on the way up, all of them sitting on a rock and looking down. I asked each of them if they were ok and they all assured me that they were fine.
Finally, I reached the top. A couple of brave volunteers had carried canisters full of water and sports drink up there, only for us. I was deeply grateful for the water I got there. I was still within the time limit but with only a few minutes to spare now and I had already realized that finishing the 100km was out of question. Finishing the 80km seemed quite a challenge already, with the tight cut-off times and the rest of the course ahead of us. I was pretty convinced that I wouldn’t make the next cut-off, which was an hour later and only a few kilometres away but down in the valley, with the monstrous descent in between. I was hoping that I would make it somehow.
And now, the descent started. In my race report of the Allgäu Panorama Ultratrail last year, I wrote that the climb up the last mountain was the most gruelling thing that I had ever done in my running career. Well, the climb UP Hörndlwand had been a whole new level of gruelling. And nothing compared to the way DOWN.
It was ok at first, you had to be cautious not trip over a stone, and I rolled my ankle quite a few times there but it was still ok. I thought that it wasn’t too bad after all. Soon, I was down on tree level again. This was where the fun started. There was no real path anymore, just rocks and trees. I had to think about every step. I put down my poles first, then followed with one foot and then with another. It was painfully slow. The sweat was running down my face. One false step and I would break my neck. I had to get down on all fours and slide over a rock on my butt a few times and also fell on my butt twice. The Australian guys passed me again but they had problems, too. One guy kept falling down and I felt really sorry for them. Soon, two other runners were behind me but they didn’t want to pass and assured me that they were fine following my lead. Hahaha. It took forever. More than an hour for this short section, it was insane.
But then, eventually, we were down on even ground again. I was beyond relief. And also beyond the time limit. Shit, shit, shit…. The next cut-off / aid station was 1 km away and I knew that I wouldn’t make it until 1.30 p.m…. Was this the end of the race for me? One of the guys commented that there was an easy 13 km way back to Ruhpolding. Or maybe the volunteers would take us there with the bus. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe that the race was probably over for me after 43 km already. On the other hand, I was relieved that it was over. I could sit back and relax and then go back to the hotel and have a shower. And lie down… but I wanted the finisher shirt! I didn’t want to disappoint all the people thinking of me….
I was four minutes beyond the cut-off when I reached the aid station. I anxiously asked the lady there if I had to stop. She laughed and said no, they surely weren’t that strict. But did I really want to carry on? The two guys behind me sat down and quit. One of them said that there was another awful climb coming up. But I had made up my mind. I wanted to carry on. I asked the others to come with me but they said that they needed some rest first and would then decide. Ok.
Euphorically, I ran out of the aid station. My legs felt surprisingly good now and I was in good spirits. I thought that now I was last for sure and giggled a bit at the thought of it. I think that I even told hikers that I was the last one. I found it hilarious… until I realized that I had forgotten to refill my water bottles but luckily, the next aid station was only an hour away.
I managed to run a bigger part of the moderate uphill section that followed, until it got steeper and steeper and I was soon climbing up a pasture again. The next aid station came and I got some water and food. The ladies there also told me that I wasn’t last, five others were still behind me. Apparently, the cut-off times were not that strict now. Phew.
I climbed further up, over a cow pasture, and was in a very good mood. Now I was sure that I would finish the 80 km at least. I was finally starting to have a bit of fun.
On top of that climb, I passed another runner whom I hadn’t met before. He commented something and his dialect sounded familiar. A fellow Franconian, as it turned out. We chatted a bit about races and cars… until he got an electric shock from a fence and that killed the mood a bit … ;))
He told me to carry on and so I did. I spotted Oliver down in the distance and also Margit, the woman who had been sitting on my table during the pasta party the night before. I waved and she waved back but was too far away for me to reach her. Until she jumped out of the bushes a while later… Together we ran down a very smooth and runnable downhill section, exchanging our experience in the race so far. We both agreed that the Hörndlwand had been the most brutal thing that we had ever done.
I let her go a few kilometres after that because I needed to stop and eat something from my backpack, unaware that the next aid station at 51 kilometres was just around the corner. When I got there, Margit and Oliver were waiting there, together with a few others who looked like they had dropped out. A very friendly guy helped me fill up my water bottles. I also got some coke and my first alcohol-free beer of the day, I didn’t really have any desire for food here. My drop bag containing my rain jacket and my Hoka Speedgoats was also waiting at this aid station but I couldn’t be bothered to sit down and change shoes. Instead, I only grabbed the can of coke and my ultra sports gel chips and soon left with Oliver and Margit.
After a couple of metres, I found myself facing another steep climb. I let the others pass since I knew it was going to take me a while to get up there. It was also a ski slope, it didn’t look too long but was almost vertical, and in the blazing sun. Temperatures must have been around 25 – 30 degrees and this was the first spot where I really started to suffer from the heat a bit. Sweat was running down my face and it seemed to last forever. I think I experienced my first proper hallucination from running there. When I was almost on top, I saw a black folding chair standing in the grass right on top of the climb. I thought that I would probably sit down and rest there for a while. But when I looked up next, it wasn’t there anymore…
I was pretty much wiped out when I reached the top but luckily, the route led into the nice and cool shadowy forest now, still going upwards but only moderately. To my surprise, Oliver was sitting on a log on the side of the road there. He was just as wiped out as I was. I sat down next to him and opened my can of coke. It was pure bliss ;)
We then caught up with Margit again and ran together for a while, passed another aid station, and chatted about races and such. The worst was over, and now it was only about reaching the finish line. Oliver fell behind and soon it was only Margit and me running, with about 20 km to go.
It still got pretty technical in some places and there were still quite a few hills to climb but we managed to keep up a good pace on these last kilometres, alternating between walking and running, while chatting about anything and everything. The time and kilometres passed really quickly!
We managed to pass a few people on this last section, too. I was feeling considerably good and jokingly suggested that we should finish the 100km by running laps on the track in the stadium ;)
Shortly before the very last aid station at 75km, things turned a bit to the worse though. My right upper leg started to cramp a bit and being on the move for almost 16 hours now took its toll on me. Even the coke and the friendly people at the aid station didn’t help much. The woman there promised that it was only downhill now. No more climbs. Yippie!
Ha! We left the aid station and took a sharp turn to the left – right into the forest. Here, another very mean, very steep and slippery climb down awaited us. It was unbelievable. If I had been alone, I would probably have cried a bit. Or cursed. Or both. Margit must have felt the same but we both didn’t want to be weak in front of the other at this point.
Then, it was only four kilometres to go… only three… Margit kept pushing and I forgot to feel sorry about myself. 2.. 1.. then the stadium appeared to our right. Almost there now!
We took a turn to the right and a woman, Miriam, appeared behind us. I remembered that I had seen her very early in the race, when she was flying by with a very efficient looking running style. She just finished the 100km in the same time we had needed for the 80km – simply amazing!
Then it was our time to cross the finish line. It was quite unspectacular compared to other races where I had finished in tears or been close to a collapse. It was just as relaxed as the start had been :)
And then it was done! I think I hugged a few people there, ate some water melon and talked to a few more people: Margit, her friend Gerd, who had had to drop out of the race and waited for her to finish, Miriam, Paddy, Oliver.
It was all a bit of a blur. My legs started to hurt quite a bit as I was standing around and I got cold too. Luckily, Gerd and his wife agreed to give us a lift to the town so I didn’t have to walk the 2km back to the hotel.
After an ultra race, even the simplest tasks become quite difficult. Walking up the stairs, getting your clothes off, getting in the shower, brushing your teeth… I was glad when I was finally able to lie in bed.
Sadly, I missed the price giving ceremony the next morning. For some reason, my oxygen-deprived brain thought it was at 12.00 but it started at 10.00 a.m. already. So I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Margit and thank her for her support once again, which was a bit sad. I saw a few others again though, managed to collect my drop bag and headed back.
I met Paddy again at the train station and we had a lovely chat while waiting for the train and on the train ride to Traunstein… which ended a bit chaotic, as someone had apparently killed themselves on the track and caused a massive delay in all the trains there. My brain was still not functioning properly and I had a hard time to comprehend what was going on… which didn’t help much. I made it home in the end though ;)
Two days have passed since. As usual, initially, I was absolutely sure that I would neither run this race nor any other race in the Alps ever again. Oh well. Maybe, if I don’t get a place in the WHW race next year… :)
It was a wonderful event. I am not disappointed at all, I’m more than happy with having finished the 80km! I learned so much during and from this race, it was a fantastic experience. The race organisation was excellent, the whole atmosphere was nice and relaxed. It is a race made by an ultra runner for ultra runners and that fact was noticeable in every aspect. It felt like a big family gathering. I now understand why people come back every year to do this race. I might become one of them ;)
I didn’t know anyone when I arrived, I was nervous, I was scared… and I met so many wonderful people and had such a great time, it was totally worth every step. Sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone to experience the extraordinary, I guess J
A big thank you to everyone who has supported me during the last few months, especially to my coach Paul G. without whom this wouldn’t have been possible, to Dany for accompanying me on the bike and the motivation, to my real-life running friends Ute, Anja, Irmi, Anja, Moni… for running up and down Schwanberg hill with me without ever getting tired, my DM friends, and, last but not least, Paul W. and Lena S. for making sure that I signed up for this race! J
Emma, Stella, Stacy, Deirdre and Leah, this is for you! <3
All the love