The Morning before the Storm
3:45 a.m. a familiar ” beep ” wakes me up. Without hesitation, I get out of my bed. Shortly after water for a morning coffee starts boiling. My abstinence was not so consistent this time, but after one week with just only one cup of coffee, I am craving for this one mug.
With the anticipated effort in mind, my breakfast of one warm bowl of porridge and some peanut butter raspberry toast feels small. Knowing my sensible stomach, I do not dare to eat more.
Some stretching followed by black roll treatment, a shower, oil for the machine and I am ready to jump into my race gear.
I am mixing carbohydrate gels with coconut water for one and salt and minerals with coconut water for the other soft flask. I fill my back hydration pack with mineral water. Then I finish packing the rest of my gear, prepared the night before, my Black Diamond trekking poles on the back of my race Salomon race belt, my ultra running vest packed with leg warmers, arm warmers, hat, scarf, gloves, rain jacket, rain pants, headlamp, first aid kit, power bank, gels, power bars, map, phone, gimbal, GoPro, replacement batteries for the headlamp and GoPro, SDcard, whistle…
Damn it! This is a lot of stuff to carry, but there was no sherpa around at the check-in I could have asked to move my things to the summit.
My cap, sunglasses and a smile and I am ready to go!
Last meters to the starting line
5 a.m. a cab is waiting outside for me to get me from Garmisch-Patenkirchen to Grainau. I had planned to use public service, but since the race start was preponed from 10 to 8 a.m. because of the weather forecast and the shuttle bus therefore to 6 a.m., there was no public service available.
After a short chat, I arrive in Grainau and join the nervous athletes scatted all over the streets.
After a few minutes of waiting and fiddling around at my vest and gear, the first shuttle bus picks us up and 45 minutes later lets us deploys us in Leutsch, at the start for the Supertrail distance with 64 km and 3000 m of elevation of the Zugspitz Ultratrail.
I am on the very first bus, and there are many more to come. Everyone disembarks, and after a few moments of orientation, long lanes in front of the toilet houses are organized. Everyone wants to discharge unnecessary weight.
6:45 a.m. I am getting my equipment check. I am complete though I forgot to mark my power bars and gels with my starting number 2021. This shall help to identify athletes guilty of littering. No problem, there is even a pen in my vest… the moment I tell this the race staff, I am wondering about myself and what I have packed.
I am in the starting block, and it is one more hour left to the start. The 100 km and 80 km distance are cancelled for safety reasons of the athletes because of the severe weather forecast. Pouring rain and thunderstorm mixed with exhaustion, dehydration and not existing alpine experience of many athletes is a recipe for disaster and could be lethal. No easy decision for an event organizer but in this case right and responsible. Thank you.
Because of this decision 1700 carbohydrate and adrenaline loaded smiling athletes in colourful and functional futuristic appearing outfits are pouring into the start block.
Something cold and wet is running over my butt. My back hydration pack is dripping. Replugging the hose does not help, the connecting mechanism seems to leak. A deep breath… some anti-blister tape shall seal it.
Am I nervous? Hell yes, I am, but in the right way.
The mood in the starting block is mostly relaxed, and trail runners seem to be way more communicative than triathletes before a race.
3-2-1- PENG! GO!
Yes, we go, we walk one next to the other. It takes a few moments until we have enough space to actually jog and eventually get into an effortless run pace. Imagine the stream of 1700 athletes pouring down the road along the mountainside.
Just after a few minutes, we hit the first ascent. The path, washed out by melting streams, is getting steeper and steeper with every step we do. Loose ground, rocks and tree roots cover the ground. One athlete after the other in two to three lanes, we are pulling us up with our trekking poles.
We leave the tree line behind, but the ascent continues. On a single trail up a beautiful green hillside covered with thousands of yellow buttercup dots. We are surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks, and the heat of the sun is seizing us. One athlete walks behind the next forming an unbroken chain over thousands of meters up the slope.
A few desperate to keep a kind of running form and pace, are trying to cut corners but cannot withstand the disgrace for long.
From single trail to off trail we go half walking and half crawling an even steeper hillside.
Up we must!
We reach the first summit. What a view! Big snowfields right in front of us. Right on the path, we should start to descent.
The eyes wide, the rational doubts about the safety of the passage in front superseded by the joy of my inner child yelling to surge! I go, I leap into the deep snow, my feet disappear, I tumble, I jump, I slip and balance again and again. This is madness!
A few moments later, I throw my legs up the air and land on my but. Down I go like on a sledge, just without a sledge, laughing and saving my ankles lots of stress. This forward movement becomes fast hard to control and therefore, to stop at the right moment to exit the snowfield at the intended position. But up I jump back on my feet and continue the run.
A landscape out of this world
The spectacle repeats but the risk of going down the hill too far is always looming over us. I manage and back on my feet I continue my descent on partly grass, and often slippery mud covered ground with big stone blocks shaping a curvy trail. The landscape reminds me of some fantasy epos, and there are some so well trained athlete dancing and floating with their magic feet with elvish elegance over the ground. I am in awe. My self perceived form of movement mirrors a shiftless heavy-handed beast rushing through the field like a brakeless train.
My mind has now left everything behind. There is nothing left troubling me. I am free.
This was the most beautiful passage of the race to me. Filled with power, full of anticipation, free of exhaustion moving through such an incredible out of this (my) world landscape.
I do not even feel disturbed by the pain in my knees, my painfully stretched hip flexors, my right shoulder complaining and feeling rigid, my thumb completely numb by hitting some stone or being hit by some pole, I cannot tell. My spirits are high.
Into the dark
We leave this magic ground by diving down into the dark. The forest embarks us with a completely different atmosphere, light, colours and soil. A winding down a gnarly trail covered with loose stones leads us deeper down.
Descending down, every step feels like a shock running from the bottom of my feet through my leg. I did never run down such ground or anything like that so far.
Having competed in the Challenge Heilbronn just 4 weeks prior to this, my specific preparation for my first Ultra trail run was kind of short. Back home if I ride two train stations, I can manage up to 300m of elevation in a one hour run. But the hills are not as steep, the ascent not as long and the ground not even close to being that challenging. This is all new havoc to my legs and feet.
My trail shoes give me enough grip to stay in control of my pace. They are thin and light, something I usually appreciate, but they offer little protection, and my feet are getting shredded.
First aid station – this is not a triathlon
We reach the first aid station after 15 km. I am confused. The food station is filled with people, standing, drinking and eating. Some are refilling their flasks, others are chatting. This is not what I am used too. This is the opposite of Patrick Lange moving through an aid station at the Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii. I have to adjust.
The next 10 km are on wide paths with little up and down. In a relaxed running pace, actual running, we fly by the beautiful scenery. We chat, and I get to know new people I will see again and again later in the race.
I am in a damn good mood. Usually, I am not the most accessible, but now I am joking with athletes, spectators and their kids. Cheering on this little boy doing his first walk. Who of you made his first steps with ultra runners passing by. He deserved to be cheered on by us!
Making other people smile, winning the sympathy for us runners from the passing by spectators or pulling athletes out of their deep dark caves, got a big part mentally and gave me a lot of drive.
Second aid station – “Venga! Venga!”
they cheer me on. I got a flashback to my first full Ironman in Barcelona last year. I give them what they are asking for, jumping, dancing and leaping forward over the trail and earn another applause just before the next aid station. My legs are in pain, but my heart fills with joy, and a huge smile covers my sweaty face.
26 km done, I enjoy cold tea, which is superb delicious after hours of drinking different kinds of sugar solution. I fill up my front flasks (not my back hydration pack) with water, diluting the rest of the tacky carbohydrate slag. Off I go into the forest on to a very light ascent on soft ground with a spacious path. It is like a recovery part in between, a welcome break of the so challenging grounds already covered.
Third aid station – an invitation
About 30 km into the race just before the third aid station lies a green turquoise jewel in front of us, framed by dark green pines and reflections dancing on his surface.
It took me three minutes of contemplating about race times, race integrity and such until I loosen the straps of my vest and in second everything is falling on the white pebble ground. A few steps into the mountain lake and I dive into the crystal clear and pleasingly cold water. My fellow athletes had mixed opinions written bluntly in their faces while running by. MY taunting could not change their minds. I well understand their determination, and so am I, determined to enjoy this day as much as possible. This would be the last mountain lake for me to swim in until, if all goes well, October when I touch the soil in Durmitor Montenegro.
So I took the chance, and my system appreciated the cooldown. After probably the fastest transition since I am measuring the time of it, I continue around the lake a few hundred meters until the food station.
My spirits are high, my body feels so good after the little swim I had. I am charged, and I am making my first mistake in this race. I grab a cup of water and leave the place without filling up my flask or back reservoir.
The next 14 km offer various terrain and often exposed to the burning down sun. The ground and grade are well runnable, but after 4 km, I am running out of water. I move on. Another 2 km covered and I am thirsty. My stomach is lightly upset. 8 more km until the next food station and no natural supply of water along the way.
Up and down, again and again, on forest paths and flower sparkled grassland and forest. I can not tell much about it. I need my full mental capacity to focus on the task at hand. Keep going!
Another long descent. I am a bit dizzy, my vision narrow. I am slowing down.
Fourth aid station – pure exhaustion
At the bottom, 2 km before the next aid station relieve waiting. A mountain lifeguard post offer water from an outside tab of an alpine hut with a restaurant.
“Sebastian! Are you okay?” he yells. What a good guy! If I were not wearing my mirrored glasses, he would have spotted me lying instantly.
“I am great! Just thirsty!” I reply, and he asks disbelievingly “Why?!” and he is right. The food stations were well placed, and it was my own fault, my ignorance that led to the situation. Ignoring his question, I fill my flasks and afraid to puke if I drink more, I only drink one cup of water.
Again I am underestimating the next 2 kilometres until the actual aid station. 2 km of distance with pretty steep 700 m elevation to cover. Maybe my second mistake. I climb up the washed out trail covered with gnarly roots. It felt forever, but I eventually arrived. Despite the apparent level of exhaustion, I refill all my flasks and reservoir, eat and drink and continue my ascent as fast as possible. Actually, it was not so, but I did my best to not unnecessary prolong my stay.
“Where is up?”
“Where is up?” is echoing in my head again and again. I follow a single trail washed deep into the ground with sharp blocks of rock at its bottom and green grass next to the height of the knees. Half a meter high steps make my legs ache. This 5km long and approximately 700 m in height passage took me about 50 min, I felt like puking of exhaustion at times paired with light dizzyness I probably did not recover ever fully again in the race from my hydration disaster.
“I keep going. I do not stop. Anything. Ever!”
Fifth aid station – I have lost my stomach but I am still smiling…
At km 53, I arrive at the fifth food station, and my stomach needs a break. After my digestion system is calmed, I try to revive myself with some hot salty soup paired with sweet energy drinks. Exposed on the mountainside, I am shivering. The wind blows cold, and the sun is covered in dark clouds looming over us. I dress up only to get off the extra layer min later when I start sweating again climbing up the “last” ascent. Snow, slippery rocks and some incredible views are my company, paired with the large cloud formation long overdue to break out with storm and thunder. I am lucky, even though I was praying for the rain at times.
Replacing my battery pack of my GoPro to capture the view, I meet some more athletes climbing up behind me. All of us exhausted but not shy to joke and fall into laughter.
After a few more snow and icy passages, I reach the highest point of the race catching up with the just met crowd of athletes and two mountain lifeguards. They are waiting for me, paying me back by cheering me on and making me run uphill with a huge smile once again.
I ask the mountain guard “Is this UP?” they laugh and give me the cheeky promise that there is no higher point to come. We shake hands, I thank them for freezing their butts off and looking after us and start my descent.
I run down along large rock walls, blocks and fields of ice enjoying an endless view, stunned by the beauty of the landscape even in the grey tinted monochrome palette. I am close to tears, grateful to be allowed to have this experience.
Last meters to the Finish Line
10 km to go, my watch explains to me its battery is dying, as my backlight was on all the time. I can not change anything about it, and it does not matter now. I am not dying, and I do need to be paced or measure any distance anymore.
The 1200 elevation loss long descent though had enough to offer to make me suffer once more, slip on muddy wood steps, catch some bruises, squeeze my feet and toes between rocks and make them cry, do havoc to my knees before leaving me to the last two flat kilometers running into Grainau, over the finish line of my first Ultra Trail run.
64 km (actually I think it was 4 more km for me, not sure where I picked them up) and 3000 meters of elevation ( first up and then down, the latter did hurt even more).
A few minutes, I am searching for familiar faces, wondering about the lack of warm food and the absence of vegan option before leaving with the next bus to Garmisch – Patenkirchen. Luckily as I meet this charismatic guy again, I already saw before the race but could not talk to as the bus was packed to its full capacity. I am instantly attracted by his aura of warm energy and the glow in his eyes. He is one of them, and I am grateful for receiving another unexpected gift. Hopefully, I will see you soon again.
After some warm food, unfortunately not the best choice, but the options have been limited and some ice cream I am walking back to the apartment. After a shower, I start cleaning the apartment and packing my bags.
Then I lay down and listen to all the beautiful, aching sensations in my body while I fall asleep.