Tuesday, November 24, 2015

11/24/15: The Real Kick Ultramarathon Race Report

My success in ultramarathons seems to be inversely related with my preparation and sanity.  Run on my own in the Swiss Alps for 29 hours through murderous terrain?  No problem.  Sign up for a tough mountain 100 2 weeks before?  No problem.  Train for a race for 6 months and plan everything meticulously?  Probably a DNF.

The Real Kick Ultramarathon was perhaps the pinnacle in my lack of preparation and sanity.  Here is what that meant for this race:
  • 75+ miles with 14,000+ feet of climbing
  •  In the five days leading up to the race I would be in five countries
  • I was on a 1.5 week business trip with carry-on luggage, seriously limiting what gear I could bring
  • I had no knowledge of the terrain, venue, logistics, etc.
  • I’d be very tired and jet lagged
  • Right after the race I’d have to hop on a flight to Turkey and then on to Paris, on to London, and back to the US
Clearly a recipe for success, I arrived in the Frankfurt airport on Friday evening with low hopes and plenty of self-doubt. 

Pre-Race Comedy

The race briefing and dinner started at 6pm.  I flew in from Stockholm and drove about 1.5 hours towards the race start.  I had lots of trouble finding the place, finally found what I thought was the right spot, found the door locked, got out google maps and drove around for 30 minutes, finally came back to the same spot, and broke in through a side door around 7:30pm. 

I came to a room with a long banquet table filled with ultrarunners having a bit of beer and going through the pre-race briefing.  I walked in with my rolling suitcase wearing a suit and you could hear a pin drop.  “Hello, I’m the American.  Sorry I am late.  Please carry on with your race briefing in German.  Oh, I missed almost all of it?  No worries, I couldn’t understand it anyway.”

Since I missed dinner I headed out to McDonald’s, also hoping for some Wifi so I could download the course GPS onto my watch since there were no course markings (more on this later).  I brought along my new best friend who also arrived late and was from China working in Germany.  I finally managed to get my act together, get the GPS course, let Jen know I was ok, and get my gear (meager as it was) sorted out.

We all turned in and woke up early for breakfast before the start.  Then we gathered with our drop bags, which were important since there was minimal support on the course.  Most racers had drop bags that  looked as if they would suffice for an expedition to Everest or possibly a mission to the moon.  I literally had a plastic baggie with a couple of things stuffed in it.  They all saw this and instantly burst out laughing.  I was also told that my shorts were “not running shorts”, I should have brought trekking poles, and I would probably freeze on the course at night.  Truthfully though everyone was incredibly nice and very accommodating with speaking English.  I really enjoyed talking to folks from different countries and hearing about awesome races they had run like the Tor Des Geants.

We got in the shuttle bus and drove to the start (it was point to point).  Smart money was with the American not surviving the race, and if I would have made that bet too.

Start to Checkpoint 2

It was a marathon to checkpoint 2 with just a water / soda drop station inbetween.   

The race started near a nice lake and climbed in quickly in the hills.  I found the course much more scenic than I had expected and was having a most excellent time.  I was with a pack of runners and rolling along very easily.  Before too long we came upon a huge castle in the middle of nowhere. I love a country where a castle is just in the middle of the woods with virtually no one around.  It is like a scene out of Disney movie.

Soon enough I took my first of many wrong turns.  There were two trails that just barely diverged, and it was pretty much impossible to tell which one was right on the GPS until you had gone too far.  Then down the trail we came to a road that did not look right and had no clear indication of where to go.  As near as we could tell the track was telling us to go straight up an impossibly steep overgrown side of a hill that had very clearly never in the history of earth had a trail on it.  After much wasted time we bushwhacked and scrambled our way up, eventually finding what in fact seemed to be the right trail.  Good times.

A bit later we hit our second amazing castle that was even bigger than the first one.  I took a wrong turn again and racked up more bonus miles, but soon enough we were back on trail and rolling along some nice single track through the forest.  Shortly before the unmanned aid station there was a bottle with a sign in sheet to mark we had been through.  Trouble was that it was supposed to be “a bit off the main path.”

The GPS track again took us up a steep hillside.  We made our way up and eventually it pointed us towards the world’s thickest briar patch.  Sigh.  I eventually crawled on my knees and elbows through it until finally popping out on a real trail (and with visible disappointment seeing that an actual trail would have taken us to the same place with a detour of all of 100 feet).  Well I signed that damn sheet and bolted down to the first aid. 

I was a bit fired up about the bottle incident and moved through aid quickly and then started to run a bit faster on the next stretch.  We had a very nice long section here that meandered through the woods but on generally good trail, and I was having a very good time.

We hit another “bushwhacking turnoff”, but I navigated this one quite smoothly.  Next up was a series of switchbacks which caused my GPS to complete freak out.  I lost track of where I was and took another few long detours.  The bright side was that I ended up running into one person ahead of me and one person behind caught up.  The German guy I caught up with was thrilled to see us and exclaimed “I’m so lost and lonely!”  So our merry pack of three proceeded along.  This section varied between traversing the woods on barely existing trails and running along fields through farms, but with our powers combined we navigated decently well.

Finally we got to the village and ran through on our way to aid station # 2.  We hit the marathon mark in about 5:20, which I thought was quite good given the tricky navigating, tough terrain, and significant diversions.  I loaded up on a bunch of food at the aid station, grabbed some food to go, and got back on the trail.  We had about a 9 miles loop before heading back to the same aid station.

Aid station 2-3 (Miles 27-36)

I took off fast and got lost instantly.  The main trail went up a hill but apparently we were supposed to take some non-existent side route that stayed flat for a bit.  A few miles down the trail I caught my two buddies who had left after me at the last aid station but managed to avoid my navigational challenges.  We ran the rest of this loop together, which was much fun.   The navigating wasn’t easy, but we again had three of us which helped tremendously. 

I realized that most everyone else had full GPS devices that were much more helpful in navigating this terrain than my watch.  Good to know for the future, but not much I could do about it at the time!
The miles passed quickly, and soon enough we were back to the next aid station.  I fueled up again and quickly was ready to go.  We’d have a 12 mile loop before coming back to the same aid station.  I took off down the trail and figured my new friends would catch me once I inevitably got lost.

Aid station 3-4  (Miles 37-47.5)

Well I inevitably got lost.  Twice.  Very quickly.  The guys caught up to me and we started the steep climb on this section.

I was feeling way too good and quickly put a big gap on them.  Fortunately navigation got a bit easier for a while, and I kept rolling along.  Night was falling, but it was a beautiful and serene evening.   I came across a cow pasture and the cows playfully started running alongside me.  It was a cool scene and with all the cows I have run by, I have never seen any running alongside me.  Did you know cows are very fast?

Things were going smoothly and I hit the third and final castle.  It was dark at this point, but the ancient castle was even cooler in the dark night with the lights of the city down below.  Unfortunately at this point it started raining and my flashlight batteries died.   Seriously?  The batteries were fresh and are supposed to last for 20+ hours; they had been on for about 20 minutes.  This was a major problem as I do not like running at night without two light sources.  And with the rain and fog the flashlight is especially helpful and headlamp especially useless.  Suddenly this dark castle became very ominous and seemed more like a scene out of a Roger Moore Bond Movie with Jaws about to pop out.

But what can you do?  I navigated on and slowly adjusted to only having the headlamp.  It was tough on the technical & overgrown trails but not so bad on the clearer, wider trails.

I was also starting to get cold with the rain, wind, and low temperatures.  Fortunately the rain started to let up, and I arrived back at the aid station soaked but in pretty good spirits.  The next stretch was supposed to be 50km with no aid other than an unmarked water drop.  That is fearsome stuff at the end of an ultra and requires some serious self-sufficiency, especially when you are navigating on your own!  My aid stations stops had so far been extremely short, but I decided to take some time to make sure I was ready for the rest of this beast.

I got out of my wet shorts and put on tights and pulled on an extra top layer.  I ate tons of food here and stocked my bag with lots more to carry me through 30+ miles of running.  The race director couldn’t impress upon me enough that I had a very long way to go that would probably require 8+ hours on my own.  He kept asking whether I was sure I wanted to continue and gave me the “please don’t die on our trails look” that I know very well from my European racing.  Clearly I had yet to shed my “American likely to perish” status.  But no matter I was off into the night to finish this adventure.

Aid station 4 to finish (miles 47.5-79)

A little over 15 minutes out of the aid station I came across my two friends, meaning I was up by 30 minutes or a bit more.  They asked me if I was sure I knew what I was doing given my earlier navigation challenges.  They said farewell and I think assumed they would never see me again.

The next bit is a bit of a blur, but I was feeling good and moving very well.  When there was something resembling a trail, I was running quite fast and dropping my average pace for the race.  I was slowly getting better at navigating with my watch and at least minimized my off route adventures.  There were still plenty of tricky sections though as we hopped over cow fences, ducked onto off-route trails, bushwhacked through random sections of the woods, and took meandering routes through farm fields.  There were also a few good, stout climbs along this stretch.  But the climbing legs were good, so this wasn’t a problem at all.

We came down to a road and past a beautiful old inn along the side of a river.  After a nice, big climb the GPS track again dove straight into the unnavigable briar patch up a steep hillside.  After wasting a bunch of time here I figured it just couldn’t be the right way and continued on the main path.  Fortunately this was the correct route and merged back soon with the GPS track, but it was a scary moment of being off course.

We passed the last unmanned water / soda drop, and I pushed on quickly.  I was feeling WAY too good at this point given I was over 60 miles in.  I was continuing to speed up at this point and running very quickly whenever navigation allowed for it.  I had high hopes of beating the 8 hour expected finish split for the last 50km.

I kept powering through and soon enough was on the long circumnavigation around the lake.  This section was just brutally difficult to navigate.  There were tons of trails to take, and half the time we weren’t even on a trail and cut through the woods.  I was also starting to have serious concerns about my GPS watch battery.  I was extremely worried it would cut out leaving me in a very difficult position.  I had my phone and a good general sense of where I was so I felt I could still make my way to the finish, but I would not have been happy at not finishing the actual course.

I ran along and click off a few very fast miles.  The race was supposed to be 74.3 miles, but I figured for me it would be 76 given my detours.  I got to 75 and thought I was on the home stretch.  Then we hit a hilariously steep 40 degree plus hill that cut straight upwards.  But the bigger problem was that after the hill I couldn’t find the track.  I spent probably 20 minutes wandering around hopelessly and finally found the right course.  I was 76.5 miles in at this point.

The good news is that I came upon the race director who was hiking back to meet up with the runners (god bless his soul).  The bad news was that I had another 2.5 miles to go and another “tricky navigation section.”  But I was close to being done and soldiered on.  My headlamp batteries died about a mile later, so I wasted more time changing them out.  I wanted this thing done. 

After a bit more bushwhacking it was on to the finish.  I ran strong at the end and crossed the finish line in 16:53 for 79+ miles, 14K of climbing, and lots of navigational challenges.  Despite the dire warnings and getting lost multiple times, I ran the last section well under 7 hours.  It would also turn out that I won by over 2.5 hours.

I really couldn’t believe how well the race went.  I was negative splitting in the last 50K and felt like I could run forever.  It was just one of those days where “I had it.”  I never felt bad, my legs were great through the end, I was able to eat tons throughout the race, and I just had tons of energy.  Strange considering the circumstances leading up to the race. 

I got to bed and slept uncomfortably and fitfully for maybe a few hours.  It was fun seeing everyone the next morning and swapping our war stories.  Everyone really didn’t know what to make of me at this point but offered hearty congratulations and many kind words.  They were a very gracious and hospitable lot.

Thanks to all my German, Belgian, and Chinese friends.  The race director was also the man.  The highest compliment I can give is that his race had the feel of a VHTRC event with a European flair.   Lesson learned here is to not plan too much, take chances, and do things out of the ordinary.  I could have done a bit of sightseeing in some city over the weekend and played the tourist, but instead I got an amazing and unforgettable experience along with a nice sense of accomplishment.  Here’s to the next adventure!