If you asked me what the tastiest dish was I have ever been served, I would answer: “A roll with jam in Smerek food station, at the kilometer 56 of the Butcher’s Race.” Read the rest of this entry »
“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.” Read the rest of this entry »
I have been planning to compete in the Spartan Race for some time. It is kind of an obstacle run with many walls to be jumped over, many hills, ropes and rope ladders to be climbed, ditches and rivers to be crossed and other more and less treacherous obstructions to be overcome. After running several ultra marathons I felt I needed another challenge, which would make it necessary for me to do more strength workout instead of losing more and more muscle substance with long distance running only. After some time of “getting used to the idea”, the choice fell on the Spartan Race in Spain, Saint Augustin near Madrid.
I have to confess: I wasn’t prepared nearly as good as I was for my ultra marathons in the past. Due to numerous (mainly health related) problems in the preceding period, I actually wasn’t able to do any of the needed strength workout and I only sporadically could do running training. You can see it in my “curves” on the video below. Maybe I didn’t take the competition too seriously, since it definitely looked less serious to me than any of my ultra marathons, although some of the participants told me completing Spartan Race was the greatest achievement of their lives.
The moment of truth came in May 2016. The fate made me a surprise in order to toughen it up a little bit. Read the rest of this entry »
If somebody had told me 3 years ago I would become an ultra marathon runner, I would have declared them insane. Fact is, now, 3 years later, I have run 4 ultra marathons, one in the mountains and 3 in the hottest deserts on earth. Sometimes I wonder how it is possible. How was it possible for me to come so far? How did it all happen? And it happened as follows…
I wonder how this article inspired you. Share your impressions, remarks, conclusions with me and other readers in the comments below. I will also happily answer your questions.
The 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.
The 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 »
3km 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.
The 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.
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.
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!”
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.