No Limits

Live your life to the fullest

Sahara Ultra 111 – Part 2: The Hell at Night

IMG_0485_kleinThe depths of the night conquer the desert. I am running in total solitude through the vastness of the Sahara. Above me the starry sky and below absolute darkness. Kilometers in front of me and kilometers behind me not a living soul. I don’t see or hear anybody and only the little reflecting flags arranged every 50 meters mark the track in the light of my head lamp. If just one of them turns over or the battery runs out, I will be lost.

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Sahara Ultra 111 – Part 1: Going Through Hell

small_AA10425The agony starts at 32km. The burning sun of Sahara has sucked all the energy out of me. The feet go numb at every step. The renewed knee injury causes sharp pain and considerably limits it’s mobility, which makes further running like putting a quart into a pint pot. What can I do? 80km more to run in this state? Impossible! Sheer desperation. It’s over. Hundreds of hours of training. Was all this hustle for nothing? Read the rest of this entry »

How to Tell You are Off Limits

Sometimes when we do something extraordinary for a longer period of time it becomes normal for us, even if it is considered extreme or even unimaginable by others. Sometimes only by talking to others you realize how far off the norm your activities are.

And let me tell you this: If what you do brings just terror, fear and pain to the faces of the listeners, then you are definitely off limits.

Let me give you an example to epitomize this:

This story plays a couple of weeks ago in Vienna.

I was on a business trip there and naturally, I had to continue there with my training program. On sunday morning I went for a longer run before breakfast, since I wanted to finish it before the heat strikes in. After the training I was having a drink while lying on a sun-lounger in a small boot hire on the Danube. I was going to hire a boot, go to the middle of the Danube and have a refreshing, relaxing swim there before breakfast. There was a guy there from Greece working for them who spoke me up:

Him: “I noticed your shirt, are you from Greece?”

I was wearing a blue shirt from the Classic Athens Marathon sponsored by the Alpha Bank and also a matching cap from the same event.

Me: “No, I just went for a marathon to Athens.”

Him (with respect): “Really? Wow! I could tell it’s Greek, I know the Alpha Bank. When was it?”

Me: “It was 2010, the race went from the Marathon to Athens”

Him: “How long was the run?”

Me: “Well 42km. This is a standard marathon distance.”

Him (with discomfort in the face): “Really? I can’t imagine how one can run such a distance. I can’t even imagine running one kilometer, I would manage maybe 500 meters.”

Me: “I think you could do it when you prepare yourself accordingly.”

Him (still discomforted): “I think I would die before I reach the finish line. So when is your next marathon?”

Me: “I just had one. Today, before the breakfast. I have just finished it.”

Him (with disbelief and consternation): “You are kidding me. You don’t look tired at all. Is it really true?”

Me: “It is! I got up early and run without the breakfast to save time. I just wanted to avoid the rising heat.”

Him (terror coming to his face): “No! Don’t tell me this. How can you torture yourself like that? Why are you doing this?”

Me: “I am preparing for an ultra marathon”

Him: “What is this, never heard of that. Is it like swimming and biking and so?”

Me: “No, it is just running. A marathon is 42km, an ultra marathon is everything above it, 50km, 80km, 100km, there is no upper limits.”

Him (surprised and disbelieving): “No way! I thought the maximum is a marathon. I didn’t know you could possibly run more than that.”

Me: “Well, you actually can and I did it before. For example 80km in the mountains, last year.”

Him (wondering): “In the mountains? Are you crazy? No! How many days?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Him: “How many days do you have to complete that?”

Me: “You do it in one day, in one piece.”

Him (now pain coming to his face): “No! No breaks? No rests?”

Me: “You can take a rest if you want but the time is running and if you don’t make the cut-off-time you are out of the race.”

Him: “What about the ultra marathon you are preparing for now?”

Me: “It is called Sahara Ultra 111. It’s 111km non stop through the Sahara Desert.”

Him (it is apparently mentally painful for him): “What?!?!? 111km?!?!?!? Through Sahara?!?!?!? In one piece?!?!?! It is hot like hell there!!! Are you serious? No! How are you going to manage this?”

Me: “Well, I have run before in the Sahara and Namib Desert. I have run at 50 degree celsius, so I know how it feels. I prepare accordingly for the distance. I don’t know if I finish, nobody knows for sure in an ultra marathon. This is a difference between a marathon and an ultra. But I will never know if I don’t try.”

Him (his pain increases with every further question): “You are a crazy man! How long do you need for that?”

Me: “I don’t know since I haven’t tried this before. This is first edition of this event. It depends a lot on the topography, the soil, the weather conditions, on your daily form. It may take 12 hours, or 16 hours, but it may also take 20 hours.”

Him (with pain): “20 hours of running? You must be kidding! There used to be a good runner in Greece, what was his name….”

Me: “Yiannis Kouros, right? I know about him. He is actually still running. He is 56 now, I think.”

Him: “Right, Yiannis Kouros. Is he good?”

Me: “He is very good and still the best in his age group. He is much better than me.”

Him (seemingly proud): “Does he also run ultra marathons?”

Me: “He definitely does, and much longer distances than me. What distance do you think is possible to be run in 24 hours?”

Him: “I don’t know. 100km? No, wait. 150km?”

Me: “Well, Yiannis Kouros is the only man who managed to run over 300km in 24 hours. Can you imagine this?”

Now, the final state came. In his eyes you could see the plain fear, mixed with confusion and disbelief!

Him: “No! Don’t do it to me! Please! Let’s stop this conversation! No! 300km!?!?!?!? No! Don’t tell me this! This is even more than from Vienna to Budapest, in just one day! Running! Let’s talk about something else. I can’t! I can’t any more…”

Now you understand what I meant with horror, mental pain and fear…

The Secret of my Motivation

People often ask me how I motivate myself for the heavy training in the ultra marathon preparation, for the discipline necessary to sustain the high intensity, for the regularity. Am I a masochist? Do I like to waste myself completely? Do I find satisfaction in overloading my body?

None of it! I am actually a very lazy person like everybody else. I don’t like tiring, I don’t like forcing myself to physical effort, in fact I don’t even like running too much.

So how come I am able to do all of this? Is it stern disciplin or iron, unshakable will?

Not at all! After the event I have a hard time trying to motivate myself to go out and run even a fraction of the disctance I was doing before an ultra on a regular basis. I avoid running and I even put on weight since I am no longer training, for months!

The secret, I found, is the high, outrageous goal you set yourself.
Set yourself a great, incredible challenge, commit to it and look what happens.
When you imagine how great it will be if you achieve this, if you cross another limit, if you prove to yourself you are capable of doing it, if you manage to astound yourself doing it. Imagine how it will feel to see the respect and admiration in the eyes of people you care for, or in the eyes of your anemies or competitors, their confounded, asking looks.
Imagine to do something so unbelievable, people ask for the second time to check if they have heard you right, something so extraordinary they can’t imagine it is possible, something so outrageous they even doubt it is true.
Imagine how it would be to be a person doing it, to enclose this in the range of things you are capable of doing, to be perceived as a person who can do it.
You can also visualize yourself achieving this goal with all the feelings connected to it.

Make a plan, start executing it and see the magic happen.

What I found out is: you discover a vast motivation you were not aware of. Suddenly there is no problem going out and taking on even the hardest training. There is absolutely no problem with that. I am amazed how I can run for hours after setting myself an outrageous goal, even if I was too lazy to even leave my sofa before. The bigger your goal the easier it is to discipline yourself. In fact you don’t need to force yourself at all, it all comes naturally. If it is your own goal, a goal you yourself set, the motivation comes from inside you. You will find it easy to execute your plan (f.e. the training plan).

It sounds either trivial (if you have already experienced it) or implausible (if you haven’t), but believe me, that’s where magic is hidden. Try it and you will be surprised what you are capable of.

Bathing in Antarctica

IMG_2349_klein.jpgBathing in Antarctica? How crazy is this? If you think this is impossible, you definitely should read this article. Either to find out if it really is or to learn about the dangers connected with it.

Several years ago I was on an antarctic expedition. You fly down to the Terra del Fuego, to the very south of South America, to the most southern town in the world. They call it “el fin del mundo”, the end of the world. And then you take an expedition ship to Antarctica, you go, so to say, beyond the end of the world.

Of course you can get through to the antarctic shore only during the summer months in the southern hemisphere (january-february). That’s when the temperature at the shore of the antarctic peninsula varies between summer-like -15 and +5 degrees celsius, the never setting sun lets the pack ice crush, and the streams of the convergence zone let the icebergs travel northwards.

Don’t let yourself be fooled. It is very windy and freezing cold in Antarctica even during the summer, even on the shore. I have never worn so much clothes as I did there. Three pairs of socks and two winter jackets worn simultaneously, one on top of another. The cold is getting deep into your body.

The water temperature varies around zero degrees celsius and even when it gets below zero it still doesn’t freeze due to the salt in it.

If you fall into this water you have maybe 2 minutes to get rescued. First: you get an immediate temperature shock, which takes your breath away and you are lucky if your heart doesn’t stop in this moment. Second: your body, in order to protect your inner organs, draws the blood out of your extremities. As a result, your arms and legs go numb and you completely lose the feeling and the power over your limbs. You can’t move and you just drown like a stone. Even the best swimmer can’t defy the laws of physics.

But we have this crazy idea: Let’s try to take a bath here. We find an island with a snow-free, gravel beach and a flat shore and decide to have our shot there. The air temperature is around minus 10 degrees celsius and a biting wind.

The first guy goes only up to the knees into the water. Maybe 3-5 meters into the sea. He manages to stand there for maybe 30 seconds. During his futile tries to convince himself to dive into the water, people are taking pictures of him. After 30 seconds he gives up and wants to get back to the shore. But it turns out to be harder as expected. His legs got numb and he completely lost the feeling in them. He can hardly stand on them. He now walks like on stilts and he makes it to the shore with greatest effort.

Now, it’s my turn. I am not going to do it step by step, hesitate or waver. This would only damper my zeal. I am going to take a run-up and dive into water without thinking.

And this is exactly what I do.

I don’t know if you ever have jumped into water having zero degrees celsius. You feel an instantaneous pain, the skin burns, the legs and arms tingle and you feel a dull ache in your feet and hands, probably as the blood is retreating from them.

But don’t ask me how it feels after that. I just don’t remember because…I got a post shock amnesia. This is probably the moment I got the shock and where the amnesia kicked in. All I describe from now on I know from what the people watching it told me and from what I saw on the pictures they had taken.

IMG_2601_klein.jpgImagine this: Apparently after my short dive I reemerge and I am screaming like a crazy animal, waving my hands in bizarre movements, splashing the water and shouting incomprehensible words mixed with wild howls. It is a matter of seconds. Then I run to the beach again and am rolling in sand and gravel on the shore, apparently in the hope to warm myself up. People watching me in their double winter jackets with hoods and gloves. Then I realize I am pretty dirty now and I have to dive again into water in order to wash down the dirt. After that I finally get back to the beach, run around a little bit and scream til my throat is soar to cool down my emotions, feeling the ice-cold, biting wind burning my skin. Then I dry myself on the towel and get dressed again.

Can you believe I didn’t get sick after that?

What do you think of this? Did you have similar experiences? How did you feel, what did you perceive?

Ultra Lesson 4: winners attack, losers wait

The Crazy Dune3km left to the finish. I am at the foot of this beast. The Crazy Dune, or the Big Daddy as the locals call it, is the highest dune in the world. Around 400 meters of pure sand. Are they serious? They want me to climb it after 100km run through the desert? I am dead tired already, last several kilometers were going across the dunes. Tourists need 2h30min to climb this monster. And the worst thing is Antonella is still running with me so I can’t take it easy if I want to have the chance to defeat her.

Today we have 27km to go, 15km flat and then 12km through the dunes. We start at 6:30, short after sunrise at the foot of the Dune 45. It is maybe 100m high and well frequented by tourists due to the nice, not very steep ascend and the location allowing for sunrise observations. It is the most photographed dune in the world.

Yesterday I made up almost 2min to Antonella and I am only 9 seconds behind her in the general classification. The strategy is to stick to her and then attack on the last 200 meters. I am taller than her, longer legs. I am pretty sure on 200 meters I can make 9sec over her when I sprint. So the focus today is on general classification. I want to finish the 100km of Namib Desert on rank 5 just behind the holy three and Lorenzo, the running machine. I have almost 1h lead over the next behind me so nothing can happen if I don’t get injured. And Lorenzo has over 1h lead over me, no chance to make it up on 27km, unless shit happens again. But it’s out of my control. So I focus on Antonella, on these 9s and general classification and I don’t care about today’s placement.

We start pretty fast. The first 15km are in the valley, flat, relatively hard soil. I decide to keep the speed high, going with 80% my maximal pulse rate. It rounds up to 5:30-5:40min/km. It feels good when I notice this speed is enough for Antonella and I sometimes have the feeling she would like to slow down. The ironman and another italian guy run with us this first. I eat my banana at km 10. Then on km 17, just before the dunes start there is a food station. I refill quickly and take some pieces of water melon. 7 people are before us. Doesn’t matter. They can’t win much.

We enter the dunes. The guys are far behind already and Antonella slows down. I decide to slow down as well and wait for her. The strategy is: I let her stick to me now and later, when she is stronger she will wait for me. We slowly run through the dunes, but they are beating our buttocks never the less. It is just terribly hard to run in the dunes and even worse to do it in this heat. Another italian woman, third in the general women classification, joins us. Now we run faster. All I want is to stick to Antonella until the last 200 meters.

We come to the Crazy Dune. I have greatest respect for it. The thought of climbing the tallest dune in the world overwhelms me. I am wasted already. How am I going to climb it? But I realize it is as hard for the others so if it is gonna kill me, what is it gonna do to the others? I notice Antonella has somehow preserved more energy than me. How to avoid her using this against me on this long, long ascent?

I decide to go first. You climb along the crest. You do a step forward and then you slip down 80% of your step. It is an arduous, exhausting, sweaty work. My pulse jumps to over 90% immediately. I come out of breath. I find out it is easier to use the footprints left by the predecessors. We go single file. I at the front, giving the rhythm and so keeping the girls from going too fast. The uphill crest has several turns. The ascend is getting harder and harder with every turn. I push my thighs with my arms. My speed gets ridiculously low.

Climbing the Crazy DuneThe girls are smaller, have smaller steps and higher rhythm. The footprints are in short distance. Long steps don’t help, but if you can go higher frequency it helps a lot. This is good for the girls, not so good for me. My strategy of going first, keeping girls down and dictating my slower rhythm works until 2/3 of the slope. Then Antonella starts clapping on my bottom trying to speed me up, then pushing me and complaining. I finally go to the side and let her go. She goes up much faster and wins some distance. Arrives at the top and goes down immediately. I follow 1-2 minute behind her.

It is a crazy descent. Very, very steep. You run like crazy, swirling up clouds of sand. I can see her arriving down at the dry lake (dead vlei). She sits down, takes her shoes off and removes the sand from them. I am down and pass her. I have special gaiters protecting me from sand, so I can run immediately. I am pretty wasted and looking for an excuse not to run. And I find one: my strategy is to stick to her until the last 200 meters and then sprint.

So I run very slowly waiting for Antonella and her friend to join me. The tourists need 2h30min for the ascent. I just went up and down in 35 minutes. We run together through the dry lake, firm soil, beautiful views. White background of the lake, black dead trees standing around, then the intense orange color of the dunes rising around the valley. But I don’t have time to enjoy it and I don’t feel like it at all. I realize I haven’t really looked around being up the Crazy Dune, the race absorbed me completely.

Dead Vlei

But there is one more section of dunes left. And here the girls go fast, too fast for me. I can’t keep up their rhythm. I lose distance, I lose time. And when the dunes are over and 500m to go they have 200m lead. I run as fast as possible but I have no chance catching them. I loose in the fight for the 5th rank in general classification. I finish the stage and the race happy but also disappointed. I congratulate the ones before me and wait for the runners behind me. The total distance added up to 103 kilometers. “Quite an accomplishment”, I think to myself. 6th in the general classification.

I think I was 10th today. Short look at the result table. What? 8th? Why? There were 7 people before us, then Antonella and Cristiana, then me: 10th. There is something wrong.

What did I learn from this defeat?

I realized I had at least two chances to attack, demoralize Antonella and possibly win with her. First when we entered the dunes and she slowed down. I could go faster but waited for her. Second, after the crazy dune when she cleared her shoes from sand. There, I should have just run as quick as possible in this flat, firm section in order to win as much distance as possible and not wait to the very end hoping I would be stronger than her at the finish. Yes, I was dead tired, but it was also fear. I was afraid to attack. But if you want to win you have to attack. You have to use your chances. You have to attack if only the chance to win appears. Life is generous to the ones who catch opportunities and capitalize on them. Winners attack, losers wait til it is too late. This is maybe the most important lesson I have taken from this competition. And I really want to learn from this defeat.


It turns out two of the guys running before me got lost in the dunes. It was Martin and the guy I caught just before the finish line on the 2nd stage. They just missed the marker and went another way round. They run short of water and made 33km instead of 27. They came 1h after me from the other side and finished in the opposite direction. The worst thing is they run further, needed longer and in spite of it they didn’t experience the Big Daddy. What a shame! That’s why I was 8th and not 10th as expected.

Ultra Lesson 3: just keep on running

The heat is killing me. Will my water be enough till the finish? I feel like I were on another planet, somewhere on mars or on the moon. The desert has a very bright, deep horizon, but the heat makes it narrow, it presses on your senses. You feel like you were in a tunnel.

I have around 40km behind me today. We started at 5:30 in the morning. It was dark. Running with headlights at the beginning. We know the sun rises around 6:10 and from 7am it starts to get hotter with every minute.

We agreed with Jack to go with 6min/km speed the first half of the marathon till the dunes start. The first part is a flat sandy road, good to run. He stays on my heels.

The three top runners are up and away from the very beginning. Then Lorenzo and the ambitious Cristian pass me and then Antonella. I could go with her pace, but again I know it is a marathon distance and the second 21km are dunes. And dunes are much, much harder than just sandy road. So I keep going my pace, which is good enough to get rid of all the competition, except of Martin, and Jack, who reminds me not to speed up. We slowly but surely lose sight contact with Antonella.

It is a good run. I feel fresh. I even eat a power bar at km 10. The food station comes around 19km. Just before it I force a banana into me. We refill water very quickly, I take some pieces of water melon and we are up and away. I rush Jack not to stand and drink at the station. Why lose time? We can drink while running. Martin gets lost here. He needs much longer than we do or maybe he needs several moments of rest. There are 2km left before the dunes start.

If there is anything I regret I didn’t do that day it is I didn’t take the picture of Jack before the dunes. The high speed, the long distance and the merciless heat has worn him out. He literally looks like on mescaline, like the guy on mescaline in the movie Fear and Loathing in Lasvegas: sweaty, red, open mouth, grasping for air, some uncontrollable movements. Later he tells me, he was constantly running with 100% of his maximal pulse rate during these first 21km.

Then the dunes come. The first ascend, there are several to come. Jack gives up and starts walking. I continue up the hill, deep in sand in a slower running pace. Soon enough I catch up on Cristian. He is pretty wasted. The dunes have killed him. No chance to follow me. When I arrive at the second water station, Antonella is just leaving it. I get only some pieces of water melon and pineapple, no refilling. I try to follow her, hoping I am better in the dunes, but again, with every minute the distance is getting bigger and bigger. But also the distance behind me is growing.

The heat gets even worse as well as my condition. The sun makes me feel like I were on another planet. This strange narrow feeling in spite of being on a lonely desert with broad view and horizon. I wear long sleeve and a cap with a flap, but it doesn’t help any more. After km 30 I try to eat something. Get a power gel out, rip it open. But the thought of eating it make my hair stand up already and my stomach contract. I feel like vomiting by mere thinking of eating this gel. No use eating it. Even if I manage to eat it, I will throw it up sooner or later. I hold the bag for several minutes and then throw it away as soon as I realize how futile it is.

Will I manage the full 42km in this crazy heat? Will I menage to run it all or will I have to walk at the end? I meet the organizers, they tell me 7km to go. No way I will give up. It is still the dune, but now it is slightly down the hill. I will make it.

I can’t see anybody in front of me. There is at least 1-2km to the next turn. Maybe 3km to the finish. I am on rank 6 at the moment. No chance I can improve. Looking back I see somebody in a 1km distance. He can’t catch me any more, even if I walk now. Why this torture? I could slow down, I could walk, this wouldn’t change anything. Shall I?

I decide to keep my pace at least until the moment I can see the finish. Since it is pretty flat I should see it hopefully from 1km before the end, maybe earlier. I can see something from a distance, close to the turn. It looks like a finish line but it isn’t. Coming closer I realize it is the organizers’ car with its broad shadow giving roof. But why is it standing? Now it moves. Coming in my direction. Behind it appears Antonella, walking slowly.

What happened, what is going on? The car comes to me. I shout from the distance: “How far to go?”. They: “Are you ok?” I again: “How far?”. They say 1km. I say, I am tired, by I feel good. Now even better seeing the chance to catch on Antonella.

I run up to her. “Are you ok? Do you need water, energy?”. She: “I am sick. I had to vomit. I think it was the pineapple.” I: “Shall I help you to the finish line.” She: “No, I will make it. Thank you. Don’t wait for me, just go”. I think it wasn’t the pineapple, it was the sunstroke.

So I run and finish the marathon stage on the amazing rank 5. Only the holy three and Lorenzo came before me. Of course Antonella is better than me, but sometimes being better is just not enough to beat somebody. I am tired to death. There is a mattress under a sunshade in the finish area. I lie down for several minutes with legs up on a chair to let the blood flow out of them. I drink some coke, which I do only after the heaviest runs.

This was probably the hardest run, up to now. Certainly the hardest marathon.

What I learned from this stage?

Just keep on running, never give up, never slow down. Don’t diminish your efforts even if it seems not to matter, even if it looks like it won’t change anything. Shit happens. And it can happen to you as well as to your competitors. There are outer circumstances which can appear. You never know. They are not in anybody’s control. And if they do, a new chance, new opportunity to win may come. You want to be best prepared for it.


I am lying in an air-conditioned room, after the pool and shower, regenerating from this deadly marathon. Jack finally comes in. “Massacre”, he goes. “It was a massacre. Do you know what temperature it was?”. I: “No, but it was really hot, I think, over 30 for sure.”. He: “I asked the doctor at the finish line. He measured it in the shade. It was 49 degrees celsius in the shade! But there was no shade when we were running, there was only sun. I don’t want to think how hot it was in the sun. It should be 70, maybe 80 degrees. But it is impossible. We would be cooked alive since proteins coagulate at 70 degrees.”

It had to be really hot, for the pulse meter of one of the competitors temporarily stopped working because it overheated.

Jack got so dehydrated, his legs got swollen so much, he didn’t fit into his shoes any more and could neither run nor walk, but couldn’t walk barefoot since he would have got burned. The sand’s temperature was 80 degrees. Then his arms and hands got swollen so extreme, that he couldn’t close his hands.

The competitor second to finish got a circulation system collapse. And one participant had to give up at km 40. Practically every runner suffered from some minor ailments.

So it seems this wasn’t the easiest run. Only me and the winner were running the entire distance.

After the shower Jack says: “You will never guess, where I got rubbed today.” I know he wasn’t talking about the blisters. This is normal, nothing to talk about. Event blisters under your toenails aren’t worth mentioning. You lose some toenails after every ultra marathon. “I think I know what you mean, I wondered today what was this burning under my sack. Now I know.”. He: “You got it!”

Ultra lesson 2: Fight to the very end

The heat is melting me. The sun is merciless. I wonder what temperature the asphalt is. No way I could go faster. 1km to go. The guy in front of me leads by 300m. No way to catch him. The one behind me is 200m back. I could slow down a little bit, ease this agony a little bit. Should I? What sense does it make to torture myself that hard?

The second stage through the Namib Desert starts at sunrise around 6:30. We want to avoid the heat as much as possible. We have 21km to go. At first flat through a sandy road, then through a canyon paved with big, round stones and deep sand, then 3km along a gravel road and at the end 3km on an asphalt road back to the lodge.

After 3km I am around position 10. The marathoners got rolling on the flat track and I don’t want to invest too much energy too early. I know it’s gonna get hard at the end. I can feel the heat at 7am already. As soon as the sun rises it burns you like crazy, the heat goes up like hell. Good to have a hat with a flap and long sleeves in order to avoid direct sun exposition.

I know my time will come in the canyon. With the deep sand, the technically difficult round stones paving the track and the changing slope I can play my strengths. I have trained in the dunes. I am prepared for that. It is hard, but it is even harder for the others. And indeed! At the food station and in the canyon I can catch and pass several runners. At the final ascent in the canyon I pass also at the first woman, Antonella, being on the rank 5 at the moment. To the rank 4, the short and strong Lorenzo I have only 50m when we finally leave the canyon.

But now the last flat 6km start, when the fast rolling marathoners, running with constant rhythm have their advantage. Lorenzo, with his fast, short steps, runs further and further away. The others pass me one by one. We get to the asphalt street. I am on position 8. The heat is unbearable. It is no fun to run in that heat. It drains your energy, it takes you all your power and motivation to fight. I am stuck in a situation where there is no way forward. These people just passed me and they are running faster, getting further and further away. I am pretty safe at my back.

1km left. The heat is melting me. The sun is merciless. I wonder what temperature the asphalt is. No way I could go faster. The guy in front of me leads by 300m. No way to catch him. The one behind me is 200m back. I could slow down a little bit, ease this agony a little bit. Should I? What sense does it make to torture myself that hard?

Just in case I am keeping the pace. The route turns left, to the lodge and then around it to the finish line. I guess I am 200m behind the rank 7, maybe 500m to go. No way to change anything about my position. I get finally to the turn and notice the runner before me slowing down. Maybe there is still a chance to catch him? I speed up a little bit. The route goes around the houses. I could start finishing hidden from his eyes and if he slows down to much feeling himself too safe, maybe I will manage to reduce the distance considerably and then do my best at the finish line.

I start finishing the moment he disappears behind a house, going like crazy with my last breath. Then getting to the finish line, maybe 100m left. Lo and behold! I see him 50m before me. The people at the finish line are cheering us on freneticaly. He thinks it is just for him, not noticing and not hearing me coming from behind. He just feels too safe not being able to imagine me having made up so much distance. He is enjoying his supposedly lonely finish. When he notices the danger it is too late. I have much higher speed and with ease pass him around 10m before the finish line.

I took rank 7. I am on rank 6 in the general classification having around 2 minutes to Antonella, the best woman.

What did I learn that day?

You fight to the very end. Those who give up or slack off cause they feel safe end up as losers. Those who don’t give up and keep going until the race is over end up as winners.

What do you think? What are you observations, ideas, opinions? Comments are welcome.

Ultra Lesson 1: You can much more than you think

I am on a desert, spurting like crazy, much faster, much further that I thought possible for me. They can catch me in a second if I only slow down for a moment. My right side aches like hell. I could vomit any time. I hardly get any air. I feel like I could fall dead any moment. I am looking at my watch every couple of seconds to check my alarmingly high pulse. I just can’t give up now, I will run till I drop dead.

What happened?

I am on the stage 1 of my ultra running challenge: 100km of Namib Desert. It is a stage of 15km which we run just before the sunset in the evening heat. On the first stage you don’t really know who is who. The optics can be very deceiving. At the first glance I and a friend of mine have found only one person who can be worse than we. But the run will unveil the appearances.

You can feel the nervousness before the start. At first we go up a steady slope, the track covered with soft, light sand. The people run like hell. My pulse jumps up over 90%, but I feel good. I made a 4 day regeneration break before the competition. After 2km I am around the position 10, but I feel I can overtake some people in front of me. The first half goes up the hill on a soft soil and I can see the marathon runners getting tired, unaccustomed with these conditions. So I take them over being on rank 6 at the moment.

Then there is the short, muscular italian in front of me. My pulse jumps to over 95%. I am wondering how far I can go under this load. The soil changes. Sharp, loose, slag rocks pave the track. Very difficult to run. You can sprain your ankle any second. The italian goes like a running machine with short steps and a very high rhythm. I can’t get closer to him. But, just before the summit, his battery goes off for a moment and he does several steps walking. This is a sure indicator for his energy being drained. I use the moment to catch and pass him.

Then I realize I have overtaken everybody in the sight distance. I am fifth. The one running before me I can’t even see any more, nothing to win forwards. But there are several people in my neck. I can see them, they can see me. There is a lot to lose backwards. I am still before the half distance and have been running over 90% of my pulse up to now. Usually you can run maybe 5 minutes with that load. I have 45 minutes behind me.

The food and water station. I pass it without stopping. Now it goes down the hill, light, long, steady slope.What to do? I can’t catch up anybody in front of me, they are gone and away. But I should at least try to keep my position.

It is much, much harder as it sounds. I have exhausted my power in order to reach this position and I am running at my maximum speed 5:10 up to 5:30 min/km. My pulse is 92-95%. I didn’t even know I am able to run with this speed such long distances. I feel like a haunted animal. The people behind me can catch me any second if I am inattentive. I can’t allow myself to slow down even for a moment.

I have to somehow manage the remaining 7km. But the situation gets worse. They are getting closer every minute. The marathoners can roll very good, achieving high speed. The sloping track favors them. I am spurting like crazy. I am looking back every minute. I want to defend myself, to somehow run away, but I can’t. I can feel a sharp pain in my liver, paralysing my entire right side. I could vomit any time. I hardly get any air. I feel like I could fall dead any moment. I am looking at my watch every couple of seconds to check my alarmingly high pulse. It is at 95% now. I am at my maximum speed, surprised I could run so fast so far. How long can I endure this torture? It is going to be a long agony.

It is about 3km left. One of the followers gets as far as 2m behind me. I can hear him breathing. His steps are closer and closer. If I now give up then all this suffering was futile. What can I do? He just is faster than me. Even if I manage to keep his pace now, how am I going to manage to survive the remaining 3km and finish before him?

With the last bit of energy I speed up to 4:20 min/km (later it turns out my max speed was even higher: 3:89 min/km). This is crazy. It is as if was finishing a 1000m run, but I am on kilometer 12. Of course I can’t run like this to the finish, but I am speculating on the psychological effect. It is only to show the follower I could run faster and there is no sense in trying to pass me, I would stick and prevail on the finish anyway. My strategy shows results: The follower falls behind. I slow down after 200m and never tries again to overtake me. But he stays in striking distance to me.

It’s getting darker after the sunset. I can see the blinking lights marking the route. There is no time to get out my headlight. I am running in dark. Maybe 500m to the finish we abandon the sandy road and run cross-country through the thorny weeds around the lodge to the finish. With the last scrap of strength I finally reach the finish line. One hour thirty, I made 24 seconds over my most persistent follower. I am tired to death, but unbelievable happy.

I am much better than I thought I am. Much faster than I thought possible for me. I was in such a situation for the first time in my life and I am amazed by the effects. And most happy I am because of the fact I left the fastest woman behind me. On the other hand it costed me much energy. I am completely exhausted, but this is just the beginning of the race. We still have 85km to run. I am afraid I will have to pay an expensive price for this during the next days of the race. What if I have massive sour muscles tomorrow and no will to run?

What have I learned this day?

You can much more than you think you can. If put in a precarious situation, and if you are convinced there is no choice, no way out, you will achieve the unbelievable. You can do wonders if you have to. Your body and mind can do much more than you are used to under normal conditions. Leave your comfort zone and find out how much. You will be surprised!

Taking on the marathon (Part 4)

We get up, eat some pasta and before sunrise we get to the gathering point in front of the parliament. From there the buses take us to the town of Marathon, to the local olympic stadium. I drink some tea in a small café before I enter the overcrowded stadium.

We are in the very last starting block. That is because we didn’t have any reference time from a previous marathon in order to be sorted into one of the blocks closer to the starting line. There is a colorful variety of people around us from all over the world, from apparently well-trained to people from presumably Weight Watchers, where you wonder how they are going to finish.

Jack has over half a kilo of sports food taped to his arms and legs, since he doesn’t have any pockets. He is prepared for all contingencies. I only have 2 or 3 power gels and aspirin in the back pocket of my shorts. We finish the drinks we took with us and go for the last time to the restroom. Nobody wants to lose time on physiological necessities during the run.

The atmosphere gets hot with every minute and finally the blocks are starting one after another. At 9:15 our last block comes to start and up we go. The pulse goes up immediately after so much waiting and excitement, but we stabilize quickly and have trouble keeping down our speed to 6min/km, as we assumed to run. We go down to 5:40, sometimes 5:20 in the first kilometers, carried on the wings of freshness, on the wave of the adrenaline push. From the very beginning we take over hundreds and hundreds of people. We chat with each other, we chat with people around.

There is an endless stream of people to be taken over. We run like on a fast lane with 6min/km, apparently much faster than most of the people around us. This gives us a good feeling and additional power. Only a few pass by us. We drink on every food station and eat according to our plan using our own food and the food provided by the organizer.

The Athens classic marathon is feared by its profile. It’s pretty hilly which it keeps it from appearing in the finishing time comparisons for normal marathons. There is a long ascent between km 17 and km 32 with several short but sharp valleys in-between. Our speed drops to 7min/km and more but we are overtaking people by hundreds all the time. We reach half-distance (21km) in very good shape. Apparently too good for Jack, since he decides to speed up a little bit. I decide to keep the pace since there are 21km to go. In my final test I have run 32km and I know you can break in suddenly after 25km so it’s better to save your energy for the last 10km. Jack has done maximum of 25km in his preparation so he is lacking the experience (or maybe the imagination) to be wary about this problem.

I lost him from the sight for a while but I catch him up around km 28. He is seemingly worn out, I slow down and we keep going together. There is only 4 km left to the hill summit. We keep observing our speed, and looking more and more intensively for the distance flags, which mark the course every kilometer. Our speed drops to 7:30km/h at that point. We start to feel our muscles and Jack starts complaining about a blister.

Finally we reach the summit at km 32 and the descent begins. Jack says with a smile: “only 10km to go, just one hour and we are home”. My answer: “If I had told you 3 months ago that you will say this to me on km32, you would call me crazy”. Jack laughs with understanding. This situation seemed so unrealistic just 90 days ago. 3 months of preparation and there we are. We have changed our reality, our perception of the world.

Now the seemingly easy part, gentle descent to the finish in Athens. We speed up. We know, if we can keep the speed for the last 10km, we will reach our time goal. No stress, just keep going. Only an injury or collapse can stop us now. We are running through the suburbs, masses of people on the street side. Emotions rising with every minute. I feel like in a trance, with a tunnel vision directed to the front, towards an imaginative finish. I start to feel dull pain in the ankles, knees and also hips but the fresh adrenaline I am showered with allows me to ignore the pain graciously. I also ignore the view of injured or stretching runners at the street side, runners who gave up or are taken care of by the medical stuff.

On km 42 I see a well-trained runner with a circulatory collapse lying on the crossing. A tragic view. 2 km prior to the finish he fall out. But we keep going. Time for the energy gum, which dissolves in the mouth getting the energy directly through the mucous membrane into the blood. The final energy push for the finish. I promised Jack to keep his slower speed until the stadium, since he is limping a little bit due to his huge blister. The last street down the hill before the stadium and we are there. I start to sprint setting myself off from Jack and overtaking several runners on the very last meters.

We are there, finishing time 4:28. What a feeling! We get the finisher medal and move to the resting are. We are in the legendary marble stadium built for the first olympic games of the new era. It has a form of a horseshoe and is filled with thousands of frenzy applauding people. What a moving moment!

I notice Jack turning his back to me. I think maybe he is offended because I sprinted, but we agreed on sprinting in the stadium. He turns back with tears in his eyes. He is crying with happiness and he feels ashamed of crying in front of me. This is definitely a major achievement in our lives. Maybe the first on our conscious quest to excellence.

We take some pictures, eat and drink something in the catering area and proceed to the changing area. Jack is completely wasted so he takes a rest. I go to get our changing sacks.

When I come back I can see Jack lying on the grass, eyes closed and a smile of endless happiness like a buddha. The day before we were visiting the museum of marathon. And there was a picture of the first marathon winner, radiant with happiness after his victory. This guy looked in comparison to Jack as if a person nearest to him just died.

Jack was so wasted he had trouble to descend the curb. He needed half a minute to find a way to do it avoiding pain as much as possible.

The biggest lesson I have learned that day: In July 2010 running a marathon was impossible for me. It wasn’t just a limit of my mind. It was objectively impossible for my body at that time. But I learned that, after 3 months of preparation, an impossible thing can become not only possible, but even absolutely doable. This rule applies to all the aspects for our lives and will guide me for the rest of my life. With enough time and preparation we can achieve much more we think is possible and certainly more than it is possible for us now.

Some of you may say: “yes, with enough time”. But let us the necessity of time investment not stop us from achieving our dreams. The time will pass anyway, the only difference is, if we will have the result achieved at the end or not.

What do you think about it? Your comments are welcome.

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