The Butcher’s Race
“Somebody behind me is gasping wheezily. The branches are beating my calves and face, the stones splattering from under my shoes. I hear the voice of tens of feet. Around me the woods and the darkness. High in the beech branches, the flashing moon.
I stumble – hands forwards, face up. Falling down for a moment, the jump to my feet immediately, for I hear a scurry of feet behind me. How many are they? I don’t know. I dash to escape them. It is too narrow to look back. The light of the headlamp barely diffuses through the dusk.
Faster, faster. You can’t stop now. Ahead still 70 kilometers to run.”
This is the beginning of the press article Jack sends me with a comment: “how do you like that?”. I am in my preparation for 100km del Sahara, my first ultramarathon, a desert foot race in stages I have described here. The article describes the Polish ultra running community from a perspective of its iconic ultra race. If Jack wanted to scary me, he has achieved what he wanted. If he wanted to intimidate me or deterr from the set goal, he has failed.
The article tells the story of the author’s experience with Butcher’s Race, an 80km mountain trail run, the hardest ultra run in Poland at that time. It clarifies what the fatigue during such a run means for the human body: failing intestines, aching lungs, feet, shoulders, the blood splashing in the shoes being some of the consequences. It scares a shit of me. But Thomas, my mentor, reassures me everything is going to be alright during our run in Sahara. I am even more so in awe for the performance of ultra runners.
The Butcher’s Race is organized in veneration of Klaus Czech, a legendary trainer of the Polish trail running team, called the Butcher. Why this nickname? Klaus is known for his grueling training methods and he regularly “butchers” his trainees during his training units. Despite that, even now, 40 years after beginning of his training career, his popularity among the young runners is still unbroken. Reason: his methods have produced several world and olympic champions. Some of the fellow-sufferers, after ending their active careers, have organized themselves in a club and named it OTK (Polish: “Ofiarom Trenera Klausa”), which means “to the victims of the trainer Klaus”. It shows which significance Klaus has in the Polish running community and which impact he has on the lives of his trainees. Exactly that club is the organizer of the Butcher’s Race, to the glory of their former trainer.
The route of the race marks the red trail in the mountains of Bieszczady, going along their ridge and passing all the major summits. It consists of 5 sections, with over 10 summits, usually hiked by backpackers in 5 days. Many years ago two friends from OTK stroke a bet if they manage to run the 5-day trail in just one single day. In 2004, ten daredevils tried their luck and 6 of them actually managed to successfully complete the challenge. Since then, every year more and more competitors participate in this crazy ultra run.
It is unimaginable for me, absolutely incomprehensible how anybody can run such distances, in one piece, and on top of this in the mountains. It is out of question for me to even dream of taking that challenge myself. 5-day 80km mountain trail in one day? They must be crazy!
Fast forward, several months later:
The 100km del Sahara turns out well for me. I finish in the Top20 of the field, which I consider a good result for a first time competitor. It is end of March 2013. I am still boiling with adrenaline, two weeks after my feat. Nothing seems impossible. And I feel a kind of void after the excitement of this adventure. Feeling uneasy, restless, gasping for another, bigger challenge.
That’s when I stumble over this article again. And an interesting thing happens. I notice a perspective change. What seemed outrageous and insane several months earlier, doesn’t seem off the limits any more. I am in the peak of my form. Why waste it? Why not try to do something really crazy? (As if running 100km through the Sahara desert wasn’t crazy enough.) If there is anything like a right time for me to take on the Butcher’s Race, this time would be now. Why not give it a shot?
Do you know this feeling when something has been stimulating your imagination but at the some time scaring you for a long time and then you suddenly realize: “I could actually do it! I could pull it off! This is actually something for me.”? It is an extremely uplifting, inspiring realization, giving your life a new direction, a new goal, another sparkle of passion.
There are but two problems:
1. The butcher’s race is run in the wilderness of a national park, in forest covered mountains. Away from any roads, there is no possibility for any emergency vehicle to come through and even for a helicopter to land. That’s why the race is run in pairs. The partners have to run close together, and in case of injury or accident, you are obligated to bring your partner to the closest checkpoint, situated between the sections. Registrations are accepted only in groups of two or more. So I need a partner, a partner on similar level so we can keep together during the run.
2. Due to the narrow trail, there is only space for 300 pairs of runners and the tickets are sold out usually within 30 minutes of the opening. Unfortunately they were sold out already in January for this year’s race.
First problem gives me the opportunity to involve Jack, my best friend into ultra running. I can see he needs a challenge in his life. He keeps telling stories about our marathon run which dates three years back and in my mind almost fades into oblivion compared with what I have experienced and learned in the Sahara desert.
Remember? I urged him to participate in 100km del Sahara. He didn’t want to. Then I tried to convince him by threatening, that if he doesn’t, I will register with my Polish ID and I, not him, will be the first Polish person to finish this race. This didn’t change his mind, so I registered as Polish, just like I said and now I am telling people I am the first and only Polish person who finished this race. I confess: I am doing it to irk Jack a little, to make him regret he didn’t take up the challenge, and I can see he is a little bit envious about this experience of mine.
Now, he could use a new impulse, some new material to talk about, a new challenge. This is just the perfect caliber to give him a huge push forwards. And having missed the Sahara opportunity he could be susceptible to this.
I write him: “We are going to run the Butcher’s Race.”
Reply: “Are you nuts?!?!?”
Me: “I am serious. I need a partner for it. It’s doable. The race is on May 31st. We have 2 months to prepare. You will manage. Are you up for the challenge?”
He, calls me after several hours: “How much time do I have to decide? When is the registration deadline?”
Me: “It’s over. They are sold out.” I can literally hear his relief.
He: “So how do you want us to participate?”
Me: “Don’t worry about this. Leave it to me. You just prepare. I will take care of it.”
I can see his attitude changes. It’s always a good sign when he puts his mind to a new project. And he does. I prepare a training plan for us. He researches forums and blogs for reports and all the information he can put his hands on. Then he starts gathering various supplements and strangest equipment, as he always does. It somehow makes it more fun for him. He gets really in the process.
The registration issue isn’t easy to solve. We start training with the training plan without knowing whether we can actually participate, but there is no time to lose, especially for Jack.
Also, an ultra race and the preparation for it is taxed with many uncertainties. Injuries can happen. You can get sick just before the race. And there are dozens other things which can ruin your plans of participation. In this race the risk is even higher, since you can’t start when something happens to you or when something happens to your partner. You are not allowed to run alone.
So I need to secure the option in case Jack won’t be able to participate, or finds an excuse not to participate. I don’t quite trust his commitment at that moment yet and after his light marathon preparation I don’t trust his training discipline either. By the way many consider it impossible to prepare for this 80km mountain run in just two months, especially given the fact that Jack hasn’t been running since our marathon 3 years ago. So to count on his participation is more than risky. I don’t want to find myself in a situation without partner having invested several months of preparation and heavy training. So I contact Thomas Wittek, my mentor who helped me with the preparation for 100km del Sahara. I ask him to join my team in case Jack would be unable to participate. He is a much better long distance runner than me. He won the 100km del Sahara three times in a row. After hesitation he agrees to join me for the race if this emergency really happens.
So I have secured the partner issue. But this brings me to the idea how I could solve the other problem. There are tickets for 300 teams sold. Surely some of these 600 people will be unable to come or run for whatever reason. And if somebody’s partner can’t participate, most people don’t want to run in a team with some stranger. So tickets for their team become unused. What happens to them? I would buy them. But where and how? I contact the organizing team. They direct me to the Butcher’s Race forum. I publish my offer to buy tickets for a team. No reaction. But lo and behold, there are several posts of people offering their tickets to sell. They have been posted several days ago. Are they still available? I contact all of them and get the info they sold already. One guy doesn’t answer. I try calling him several times. At last he picks up and I can buy his tickets! The second problem is solved! Let’s hope now the training goes well and nothing unexpected happens.
The training plan I prepared goes quickly from 50km a week up to 100km in the peak two weeks of preparation.
Butcher’s race is also technically a challenge. You can get lost on the trail. There are many demanding climbs and treacherous descents where you can get hurt. If you are serious about finishing, you should know exactly what expects you on this trail. I haven’t even been to these mountains before. The due diligence makes us decide to go for a final test there just two weeks before the event, at the peak of the preparation phase. I am planing to run the 5 original sections in two stages: 50km and 30km, as a good simulation of the competition run in one piece. But Thomas advises me against it. He says, it would tire us too much too close to the event. He advises to split it up in test in 3 stages: 32km, 37km and 11km.
Jack finds a contact to a former Butcher’s Race participant, an accomplished ultra runner, who is willing to give us some advice regarding the specificity of the race, as well as the preparation and the equipment details. He lives in Jack’s home town.
I arrive to Warsaw by plane and we drive to the Bieszczady mountains in Jack’s car visiting his parents on the way and also Waldek, the ultra runner. We have a long list of questions. He welcomes us in his new house and gives us a brief introduction to the race, tells us how he trains, what equipment is needed, how to eat and drink during the run, what we should be cautious of and so on.
I can see the rising fear in the eyes of Jack’s girlfriend, who accompanies us. She asks suddenly: “But you are safe there, aren’t you? You can’t hurt yourself or anything?”
His answer astounds us:
“No, no worries! Just the usual stuff. People get their bones broken, their joints twisted, some suffer circulatory collapse. Just the standard stuff. Nothing extraordinary, nothing to worry about.”
This is the testimony of his extreme psyche. It reminds us once again the run we are talking about is far from ordinary. It is the hardest run in Poland. You need to have a certain perspective, certain perception of reality in order to be able to face that challenge. And only this kind of people have the chance of completing it. These are the people we will get in touch at and around the Butcher’s Race.
I speak up my Sahara experience. Waldek had some experience with a marathon in the dunes and he admires people who are able to run even longer distances in these conditions. I have his respect for running 100km in the desert. It gives me the faith, also Butcher’s Race could be manageable for me. But I am more worried about Jack. And his preparation is the thing I want to focus on.
We are warned of rainy weather. It turns the creeks into rivers you have to ford wetting your shoes – a recipe for blisters and skin abrasion. The clay soil turns into mud, which depending on the humidity either is so sticky your shoes stay in the mud while your bare feet run further which makes running a torture, or as slippery as ice making the running feel like balancing on a circus line.
But the weather during the test, although chilly, stays dry.
The trail turns out to be a total wilderness. It is difficult not to get lost and in fact we get lost several times during the test. Jack has seemingly trouble with the mountains, especially the descents. He hasn’t been training in the mountains much and the only time he was, he overdid it and needed to pause. Now he tries his alternative descent strategies (sideward, with the toes outside, etc.) which bear high risk of injury and some of his ligaments and joints get overtaxed during the long and hasty descents.
At the beginning of the second day during one of the climbs, we are passed by two runners from the Local Mountain Rescue Service. They literally jump the hill up like chamois. They will be competing against us. If I thought of myself as coming to the event with some form, this experience persuaded me out of it. I am apparently way below these type of people.
We are not hurrying and we are taking it easy. The goal is to get to know the trail and we need to pay attention that we don’t get any injury or don’t overtax our bodies. It should be relaxing. The distance and intensity of the ascents is enough and there are only two weeks left before the race. We need to be rested for the main event.
Nevertheless, especially the last stage wears us off and Jack is very pessimistic as to whether he will be able to run this distance in one piece in just two weeks.
But there are still two weeks left and I believe he will manage this.
In the next article I will describe my experiences at the Butcher’s Race.
I wonder how this story inspired you. Please share your impressions, remarks, conclusions with me and other readers in the comments below. I will also happily answer your questions.