This too long for you and you will not read this. This is about the inaugural Blacklake Xtreme Triathlon in Montenegro. This is no review, this is not even an objective account of the course of the race. This might even spoil you some wonderful surprises of your race day. If you are afraid, this is not for you. Blacklake is not for you. This is my story, the subjective tale of my experience how I remember it clouded and delusional by fatigue and how I want to remember it. You are ready? Think again!
means “Thank you!”, and I have to start with it this time.
This would not have been possible without the selfless support of my Coach Vladimir Savic and my team around him, Vlada, Ivan Stevic and Zoran! My story would sound quite different without them.
Once upon a time, there was an artist mind in a plant-based athletes body looking for an adventure and he found in…
2019 the inaugural BlackLake Xtreme Triathlon in Montenegro!
and so it begins…
BlackLakeXtri – Race morning
1:50 a.m. – BeepBeep…BeepBeep…CLICK!
1:55 a.m. – BeepBeep… My nostril widens, a steady “shhh” sounds while my chest grows bigger…Beep…CLICK! My eyes open wide, a second deep breath through the mouth makes me taste the cold morning air charged with the flavour of the now long-cold fire that heated our mountain cabin located in Zabljak the night before.
I stretch once, my muscles are tensing up, it feels like I could break my own bones if I keep driving them more.
My naked feet touch the cold wooden floor.
1:59:59 a.m. – Simultaneously with the first “Beep” of my Coaches alarm I open the door to the kitchen and living room, where he was sleeping.
A routine of cooked oats, toast with peanut butter and raspberry marmalade, another one with chocolate cream, freshly brewed coffee, bathroom, ginger tea, toast again, electrolytes, mixing my race carbohydrate beverage, Maurten this time, bathroom again, packing the car and listening to my race playlist….
BlackLakeXtri – Zbljak to T1 at Blacklake
3:45 a.m. – We can see our breath in the car. It is heating up fast while we ride down empty roads lit by the yellowish light of the street-lamps. We meet only a few cars and some wild dogs on our way to the Blacklake parking lot.
The teams of supporters of the about 40 starting athletes are filling up the whole place. Team cars with huge yellow stickers with race numbers are pointed to turn the cars in race direction by the road marshals.
We are walking down the tarmac road through the black forest towards the mountain lake. It is cold, just about freezing temperature. I am not sure about my actual expression but on my inside is already smiling.
BlackLake Xtreme triathlon T1
A long queue of bike racks is waiting behind a small tent manned by a small group of surly tired but smiling volunteers. They must have got up at the same time as we did. They hand me a GPS tracker, a buoy and wish me all the best. We are free to choose our spot in T1 and there is plenty of space. Luxurious. We set up my “Bird” close to the lake as possible and put all the clothes into the box.
I somehow forget to check gears, fill the front tank or check anything. My mind has already left. I have given all responsibility for organisation and my safety to my team. I am not sure if they are aware but I fully trust every single one of them. My mind is already in the race.
Entering the BlackLake “Tavern”
I open the door to the restaurant at the lake, followed by my Coach Vladimir Savic, Ivan, Vlada and Zoran!
Confidence behind a big smile enters the room. The warmth of the fire in the oven welcomes us, wraps around us and invites us into this cosy place. There is tension in the air. Most eyes I meet are in deep focus, some seem to be puzzled by my overwhelming relaxed and celebrational mood.
Like a squad of fierce decorated warriors with weathered faces entering a local tavern, grinning madly in anticipation to step on a battlefield promising the ascent to Valhalla. I look deep into their eyes knowing my brothers are right behind me, having my back.
25 minutes to race start I begin slipping into my Roka Maverick wetsuit. I never put on this supertight neoprene suit that quick neither did I ever had so many hands helping with it. Hands of athletes which know exactly how, where and when they have to grab, pull and push.
After we left the “backstage room” we adjust the last parts of my costume before I am ready to step on the stage. In my mind… the second line has already assembled and started to play for us to elevate my mood even further.
Blacklake I am ready for you!
I walk down through a corridor of light and large banners gently moving in the wind. The local dogs are watching every step but our appearance seems to alienate them. The huge treants, about 3 men heigh, are pointing us towards the lake. A path lit by torches leads us down to the everything swallowing darkness of the Blacklake.
Some artificial lights on the shore reveal a glance of the icy deep ahead. Just a few meters until a dense heavy curtain of fog and the peaceful black of the night blocks our view.
They read out the manuscript in a language foreign to my ears as the beautiful landscape to my eyes. I perform a bumbling “Haka” in the dark, it does not fail, the hairs under my neoprene skin stand up.
I can hear, somehow distant, my team is sending me some last good wishes, my mind has already embarked on the journey ahead.
After a few steps into the cold water, my feet sink into the soft muddy ground halfway to my knees. We line up at hip-high water and wait. Only a few light beams cutting through our lines painting abstract patterns on the water in front of us. A seemingly small light source somewhere in the blackness ahead indicates the directions we have to go. The neoprene cap and swim cap make it hard to hear anything.
BlackLake Xtri – SWIM into the darkness
Nowhere is very close if it is dark enough. Nowhere lies right in front of us.
We wait for the signal. Then I can hear all the people behind us jelling, clapping and making a lot of noise. Is that the signal? I hesitate. The guys next to me jump forward. Then I leap forward too, imagining a humpback whale displacing the water when he lands after he launched out of the water.
The icy water bites my skin. I propel forward. A green blinking light left of me. The gloom of a fluorescent stick on my right.
My breathing is way too fast. My heart is racing. I can feel the blood pumping through my veins, every heartbeat. After a few minutes I am out of breath. My arms keep rotating. Pull! Push! Fly! I am gasping for air. “Calm boy. Calm down! Breath out. Rotate. Relax into the stroke. Breathe in. Three strokes and repeat! Breath in!” I am talking to my self. Calming me down. Forcing myself to establish my rhythm, while I keep propelling through the water.
I can not see anyone in front of me. I look around. Left? Nobody there. Right? Nothing. Oh no! What the… I stop, look back but I can not see anyone either.
Am I on course? Have I lost the course while calming myself? Where are all the others? Whatever! Keep going!
Swim, that is the only way to find out! and I swim following the vague bright spot somewhere in front of me, like a nuance of white paint on a black primed canvas.
How could I lose them? How fast are they?!… The bright spot in front of me grows bigger. The light starts modelling rough rocks on the soft fine mud below of me. Emerging out of the water I am blinded by the brightness as from a stadium floodlight and greeted by euphoric volunteers. I tumble out of the water on the red carpet on my way to the second lake. “Where are all the others?” I ask. “You are the first!” Did they say first? I run into the water. “I can not see anything, where is the buoy?!” “Go, just swim!” they say. I launch forward and swim.
A few minutes later I corner the first buoy. I am following the leader Kanu. They are flashing their bluish light from time to time to point me in the right direction. I am so grateful, to have them. They are the only sign that I am not completely lost and alone.
I swim with my head down. It is all black, perfect darkness. Rotating my head to breath, I can see a greyish tint of light penetrating the surface of the water. Right on top of the water, another grey line of dense fog before everything turns black again. Enveloped in perfect darkness, up and down is defined by the elements only.
One I breathe in, within the other I breathe out.
I corner the second buoy. A few moments later an arm appears out of the dark on my left. We are getting closer. We have the exact same stroke rate. For a brief moment, we look into each other face each time we take a breath. No word is spoken. No emotion is visible. Like two whales next to each other starring into the deep of their eyes. He disappears on my left. Little later I corner the third buoy of the second lake.
After some few hundred meters I leave the water right behind Petr Vabrousek. “Seb!!” Coach and Vlada are calling me. I can hardly see my team, blinded by the sudden light or hear because of the neoprene cap but my team must have run around the lake. Coach runs on my site. “Crack!” I can hear and feel a sudden pain shooting up from my big left toe. “Coach, did you hear this? That was my toe!” “Are you okay?” “Yeah…””Keep going!”
Back in the water, my toe hurts with every kick of my legs. At least my toe gets well cooled I think.
Some minutes later I can see the top of the treeline against the sky sprinkled with stars and a light at the shoreline.
One, no two! There are four!
Oh, which one should I follow? One is moving. It must be my team running back through the forest. But what the other three. One the finish line, one the buoy and one the leader Kanu. But which one is which?!
I stop in the middle of the lake and yell as loud as I can”Where do I need to go? Which light is the buoy?” I yell again. Then I hear something. I yell again. “You are right! Keep going straight!” At least this is what I think I heard from the shoreline far away or from the volunteers in the boat. I do not know. Then again I could hardly hear someone standing right next to me before…
I swim. Three stroke rhythm to make the distance, a few one strokes one-sided breathing for navigation. I eventually corner the buoy and start to accelerate. I have to cross the big lake on his longest diagonal. How many people overtook me when I was lost? Though I did not see anyone. But they must be here. Somewhere. I will pick you up on the bike! I will pick you up! and I swim. I corner the last buoy and push forward on to the last stretch.
A dark tentacle…
Left, right, left, right, left…A dark tentacle wraps around my left arm with force, stopping my movement immediately in the air. A big soft warm body with slippery skin presses from beneath against my chest. I can sense some tense muscles under the soft thick skin trying to give me some resistance. I push my self gently out of its grab and with one more powerful stroke I glide over the slippery freaking big fish.
Before I have even fully processed my last encounter I crash into a somewhat bigger fish. But this is one is polite and a “Sorry!” sounds out of the dark splash of water. Have I lost my route again? Maybe they have lost the course? The shore and swim exit come to my sight just when another one hits me…or I hit “it”, as I accelerated insight of my current goal, I swim straight over the obstacle.
Swallowed and spit out again!
The volunteers, supporters and my team are cheering loud when I am stepping out of the water with wobbly legs. I am stepping on another stone, tumble and fall. Get back up again but I am blinded by the light. After being devoured by the Blacklake and spewed out again everything feels very bright. Now out of the dark, I feel disoriented but Vlada sends me to our Coach. I am running up the rocky path in his Crocks with him on my right. I am so happy to not bump my toe against these rocks anymore.
I take off my goggles and pull down my neoprene balaclava. My Coach Vladimir Savic removes each glove with one determined pull. Seconds later I am fully naked next to my bike between my team, volunteers and media team. A dog is making up his own story, watching me getting dressed up again. I can not remember the last time I got dressed by someone else. I do not feel the cold. I am enthusiastic. Suddenly my prerace self-talk turned true. I am overwhelmed by emotions.
BlackLakeXtri – Bike through Durmitor Nationalpark
I am just about to put my helmet on when Petr passes me in T1 pushing his horse to the mounting line. “Well done!” he says, “Thank you! See you later!” I answer without having a clue to what calibre of athlete I am taunting here. My confidence reached the same level as my naivety.
I mount my bike at the last breath of the night in full armour, tri suit, legwarmers, arm warmers, long socks, isolating vest, race jacket, scarf, gloves and helmet.
Another applause and my team are cheering me on while I push down the pedals with strength. After a few lonely moments in the forest and on the sparely lit road of Zabljak under the watch of the local street dogs, the race marshalls are pointing me my way, passing by our house. After a few hundred meters I leave the highway just when the violet and virgin red dawn starts to paint the horizon-line of the Durmitor mountain peaks against the sky.
The road curves over softly rounded hills, gently covered by fog like a silk cover curved by female shapes of a sleeping woman. The valleys are filled with clouds of fog and some patches of dark forest trees are scattered over the plane. Despite a few small houses here and there with ascending pillars of smoke from the fires within the land seems mostly untouched.
I am closing in on a red bright spot. Petr’s backlight. I start following him and Goran with a fifty to hundred-meter distance. Petr is faster in the corners and also on the soft ascents. I need to push a bit harder than I should to stay in sight of him but every descend I have to break in order to not get too close. I want to stay way out of drafting range. He seems to be lighter than I am and from the way he rides, he must have way more experience in technical courses like this.
The road surface is not what I am used to but having some history of cycling in and around Belgrade it is no trouble for me. But I have never experienced such corners, and surely never tried to get through them on a 50+km/h speed. So far I never dared to try. I could try to overtake Petr, but I decide against it. I want to read his line and follow his movement. It works. I am improving curve by curve, corner by corner I learn how to take them better while riding them one by one, building my confidence as I go.
Guillaume’s support team is passing by me with their van. They take my time I have on their protégé exactly but they also encourage me, cheer and smile. I find comfort in seeing them again and again. I am not worried. I do not turn around. I have no time to. I am holding to my aero bars at 60 to 70 km/h while descending on Balkan roads. My triceps are hurting. After every corner, a new stunning view seems to wait. but also a new ascent and soon a technical focus requiring road surface on the descent.
The trees are painted in fancy colours. The fresh wide green is broken up by an array of yellows and reds like painted by one of the Peredwischniki. The ascents are getting longer and longer after each turn of the road. I am passing by unserviced old vehicles next to cows with huge horns which are walking along the road freely. I am already feeling my legs, coming up another climb and I find Petr taking a break at the shoulder of the road.
I sensed how much stronger he is. It feels outrageous to me to pass him at this moment. But I continue, fully confident that he will pick me up a few minutes along the way.
He does proof me right earlier than I hoped but because of an old Volvo car polluting the air with a visible cloud of particles with two even older pals sitting in it dragging a trailer overloaded with loose trash and firewood behind them and blocking my way while going half of our speed. I am not sure if they are seeing me. Each time I try to overtake them, they do another dodge sideways to the steep hillside. Suddenly Petr pulls by yelling at them and we get our moment to pass them while they seem puzzled by the view of us.
Petr passes and this is the end of my short-lasting lead on the bike course. We are back to our roles, but as much as I have no clew who I am trying to race here, Petr also seems either wondering who dares or just concerned if that young horse following him is still alive. I am not sure how to interpret his constant looking back, but maybe he also found comfort to not be all alone out here, waiting for me to catch up to have a chat.
The ascents are getting longer, the leaves of the trees painted in more varieties of autumn honey. There are no more houses. There is no traffic. I only see three cars from time to time, my team, Goran and Guillaume’s supporters. There is a rhythm to it already. The occasional descents are getting faster and I am drawn between excitement and the mind wracking required focus holding on to my aero bars, avoiding warps in the road, doing bunnyhops over potholes at 60 km/h and anticipating what might be waiting after the next corner. The neverending canyon is incredibly beautiful.
While the ascent getting longer the descents are getting more and rarer. I am surely climbing up something. But I am also seeing Petr less and less. Just when I have decided to calm things down as I can feel my legs not even halfway into the course my team pulls by around kilometre seventy yelling out of the window while overtaking me “Do your own race! He is a Pro!”. I have to fight myself to not speed up again by hearing these words.
I just keep riding for a while longer alone. I have left the canyon and for the first time, there is some traffic next to me. I had no issues with eating and drinking so far but now my stomach starts to turn on me. I keep riding, replacing my fluid carbohydrate intake with gels. The road follows a slight ongoing descent but I am steadily losing power. I am leaving the aero position every now and then to not squeeze my belly so much. But it does not help much. I keep going like this for another 30 km until I am willing to sacrifice some time to find relive. I feel embarrassed. Not because of having a break in front of my team but because it is my first time in a race I need a toilet break.
The growing watts on my Garmin prove my decision to be right and just in time as the course starting to ascent even more. While the elevation profile shows some more descents before the last big climb, I am not able to recall them now. Race marshalls are at every crossing where the course is not a hundred per cent clear and they are passing by on their motorbikes in regular intervals, they also always wave friendly and I do not feel checked but looked after by them.
I have a huge rocky wall on my left, while the course is slowly but surely winding its way up. Up somewhere. I am fighting. I am slow. I try to keep going steadily. The traffic is picking up. Again I am reminded of my time in Belgrade. Most drivers do not see me and are relatively close when overtaking me. But this also means they do not mind me being on the road and are not trying to get me off the road like I experienced it in Berlin daily. The galleries and tunnels have been relatively short so far, but now they are getting longer, some are bent. It is perfectly dark for some moments, only the beam of my light. I always hope to see my team at the end of it, waiting for me.
All my focus is on riding a straight line on the shoulder of the road. On my left is the traffic. On my right a beautiful view of the canyon and the mountains of Durmitor. But right next to my wheel, like 1 m away, there is this ridge of the hill and little vegetation to catch me after.
Suddenly I can see the infamous Tara bridge and a few minutes later I can hear spectators, volunteers and my team cheering for me as I turn on to the bridge. I have to avoid some tourist changing sides of the bridge in a carefree manner. But how can I blame them, the view is spectacular. I fly over the bridge in aero position, just to be slowed by another ascent. Guillaume Boisgontier appears suddenly on my left he greets me I think he says “Thank you for pulling me up.” and pulls away with smooth pedal strokes in an even rhythm. I feel hypnotized by his big calves and muscular legs for a moment, searching for some spare watts in myself, while he surely energized by the moment leaves no room for hope. One last time I see him as he turns back to the bridge “Bon Journé!” I think, hoping I might catch him on the descent but I never see him again.
I roll down to the bridge like a thunder, my wheels are roaring and I feel like a Chinese dragon floating down the hillside. I fly over the Tara bridge a second time. Not long after there is nothing mystical anymore. I am climbing again. While big trucks loaded with huge piles of wood chattering down the road. I climb sitting then standing and sitting again.
I am wondering how much the total ascent of the bike leg was. I am deep in denial. I am ready, ready to accept any lie, thinking it must be 2700m but maybe it was 2800? I am watching the numbers on my Garmin climb even slower than I feel possible. After every hundred meters covered I make a new estimate of what the total ascent must be. Yes somewhere in the back of my head I know better but I am exhausted I want to believe I am close to the top. My team is waiting for me. I feel sorry, they have to be really patient with me right now. They do not show any boredom with my progress but it must have been hilarious to watch me crawling up.
It feels like it an eternity. I have no doubt. No second-guessing. Only realizing slowly how long 3500 meters of ascent can feel like. I reach the flag, marking the end of the support stretch. I can see a few more support cars. Did they pickup? Maybe they are right behind. A soft descent and the road points to Zabljak. I find some of my power back and try to get up to a decent speed level. Didn’t coach say something of Zabljak is on the high ground? And with this thought, the last ascent towards Zabljak starts and my euphoria turns into disbelief.
The distance on my Garmin though tells me that I am not suffering under hallucinations, I am closing in on T2. I am going to run very soon. Only a marathon through the beautiful mountains, the picture is uplifting my spirits again, my anticipation is rising, my adrenaline too. I drive through the village, follow the marshall’s directions, pass by some kind of wild horses feeding along the road freely and then I reach T2 at the Ski Center of Savin Kuk.
T2 is perfectly empty, no bikes, but the volunteers and my team. While Coach catches my bike and runs with me into transition, I try to get my consciousness back into the real world. For a moment it feels kind of hard to see who is in front of me, to realize everyone. I was alone out there for quite some time, deeply involved in conversations with my self, my mind has travelled far and now it needs to come back right here.
The Blacklake Xtreme Triathlon Marathon – Durmitor – Bobotov Kuk – Savin Kuk
Both arms stretched wide open with a big smile on my face I am hugging the world, my team, the volunteers and this moment. I am ready to go.
Zoran is running with me. We start at an easy pace. My legs feel heavy, my lower back is somewhat stiff, my knees are in pain, my arms are exhausted and my latissimus dorsi is cramping.
The road curves over a few soft rounded hills and a light cold headwind blows into my smiling face.
I am chatting with Zoran, trying to keep his pace and my breath while explaining to him how I got to triathlon, about my short-lived attempt at the Transcontinental Race and about how my race plan this season was crafted to build up for this day.
I am euphoric. I am happy. I am in third place of a race succeeding all of my wildest expectations. I am running. Nothing will stop me now. Nothing. Nothing? Little did we know what was waiting still ahead of us.
My watch has a hickup. After some fiddling, I am giving in and decide I will be able to pace my self even without all the metrics. I will follow the flow. I will be alright. The tarmac road starts to bend around some corners and is now ascending towards the Durmitor. Everywhere I look I see huge rock giants sleeping under a thin cover of grass.
Zoran is clearly pushing the pace beyond what feels comfortable to me. It is a race, of course, it hurts! How it hurts! I tell Zoran “Please let us not aim for a faster pace than a 7 min/km!” And he answers “Yeah no problem, so far we are doing well. We have a 5:30 average!” and keeps running without a change in pace. Whaaat did I miss here? but I am too weak to argue with him.
It must be Coach. Coach must have told him what pace to run. Coach has a plan. So…trust Coach, keep pushing!…and with that, the topic was closed for me.
The wind turns up and brings snow flakes down from the greyish sky. I am freezing. Zoran is a bit ahead. I have to yell, so he can here me. He stops. I need to change clothing, adding some long-sleeved waterproof layer. I try to use the short break to recover a little.
Back on my feet, I try to look up as much as possible. Inhaling the view, a surreal landscape I have never seen before. I am thinking of epic fantasy worlds I have read about and watched in movies. I come to the conclusion that this landscape was probably drawn by J. G. Möbius. I am not aware that my appearance is actually fitting right in this theme as a character looking like Starwatcher.
My thoughts are drifting. I try to keep my nutrition on track. It is more being thirsty what makes me constantly get some energy into the system as all my flasks are charged with Maurten. My team drives by, checking on me, shortly before heading to the entry of the mountain.
A while after, we also arrive at the mountain entry checkpoint. Ivan and Vlada are cheering for me like I would be arriving at the finish line. I think they are worried. I am not looking great and feeling worse. I am shivering. I asked for oranges when they passed by.
Please give me the oranges.
Of course, they got oranges for me. They work like a charm, my second secret weapon right after my ginger Curcuma green tea to reset my taste buds. I think oranges taste best in cold snowy mountain conditions. I get off my waterproof clothes to get on another longsleeved warm layer just to get real cold first. The wind is blowing harshly, with some snowflakes in the air. I am in a deep hole, my body is suffering right now but somehow I feel happy, I regard myself very lucky to be right here and incredibly fortunate to be in time to now enter the mountain.
Until now I was afraid to miss the cutoff. Not having my watch running I have clearly lost my feeling for the time a while ago.
A few hundred meters we walk towards the high rough rocky mountains. I feel fortunate to be guarded by my brothers. We are armed to the teeth, all flasks filled, hydration system too and charged with carbohydrates, my vest is full of gels, another layer of clothing, first aid kit, head torches and whistles. Ready to request the mountains consent to less us pass.
Vladimir and Vlada continue with me. They know how I feel. They let me rest. They allow me to go slow. They ask me in what position I want to be, if they should go in front of me or behind me. They do not want to put me under pressure. But it is hard to think. It feels hard to make a decision and it does not matter, I am happy, they are with me that is what counts.
We follow a beaten track. Green fresh untouched grassland next to it, broken up by rough rocks of various sizes. I do not look up often. I am in thoughts, my thoughts are deep, deep in another realm.
The path comes to a sudden end. I am standing in front of a rocky wall. Left of me is a steep hillslope going down with loose ground for a couple hundred meters the rocky wall on my right close to vertical. I turn around and look back into my friend’s faces, with some uncertain tone in my voice I ask…
“Are we really supposed to climb up here?”
Maybe we lost the track, maybe… a dry “Looks like it!”
I am looking up to the mountain ahead, sizing it. Then I laugh out loud thinking This is madness! I grab the fixed rope, twist it around my arm and pull myself up. I try to find hold with my feet. The icy rain got the rocks wet. I slip. The firm grip of my arm safes me from falling. I keep climbing up first, then turn around to watch Coach and Vlada following me. What did I drag you into? Thank you for coming with me.
I turn around and then smile. All will be good. You are looking after me. I am surrendering all my worries and concerns to them, they do not know and I am not really conscious about it either. But somehow I know I am safe. You are with me.
Our path is cluttered with rocks. Each time I put my foot on a rock I check if it is stable or loose then how slippery it is. We move slowly over the challenging terrain, only broken up occasionally with some real climbing passages, then we get even slower. We talk less We all must focus. Coach “We are now one hour into the mountain!”, “How far did we get I ask as I am not recording, “One and a half kilometre. ” Silence.
We agree to go as fast we can and I will compensate by doing some faster pace as soon the ground is runnable. Once the course gets runnable. Once …
We find a small mountain pond. Despite the pain in my lower back and my crampy latissimus dorsi, I am in a good mood. We are joking. Though I do not feel like taking a dive here. Little snowflakes float in the wind. There is no noise, no sounds, no birds, only us and the wind whispering through the grass. The only signs of humanity are the marks for the course every now and then.
We are leaving the small waterhole with its icy blue shades, turn around some rocks only to see the course markers pointing towards another steep hillslope covered with loose boulders and debris.
After winding our way up slowly we are closing in on the mountain ridge of Bobotov Kuk. The moment I glimpse over the ridge a strong wind with snowflakes hits my face bites my skin and takes my sight.
I lean against him and move slowly with sedate steps. I feel all the muscles in my body aching but his ice-cold grip will not make me stop. With the smile of an explorer suddenly recovering the promised lands and the confidence of a conquerer, nothing can stop me now.
We enjoy the view for a brief moment. It is vast. Epic. Looking down though we discover a lose the steep descent covered with loose rocks, nothing promising to be fast or gentle. With all my focus to not slip and roll down the slope, it does not take long until I do and fall on my back, once and again and again.
Maybe some mountain goat runner trained on such terrain would enjoy a reckless descent. The playground where I trained back in north Germany, is flat and the ground more like a soft, clean and even forest ground, a charm for the joints but hell not preparing for this battleground.
(The thin line in the middle is our trail out of the mountain.)
This is not what I asked for. No! It is exceeding all my wildest expectations in a positive way. A feeling of accomplishment and gratefulness is carrying me. I can hardly remember having so many first times in one day…ever.
Some of the crashes hurt and after a couple of them, they must have “destroyed” my GPS tracker. While I am looking forward to some more runnable course section, it actually gets somewhat easier after the descent but my legs are tired.
Our path is still technical but probably for some more experienced runner with fresher legs runnable, though not for me. Not right now. Still, I jog and run whenever I can, doing short dashes when possible. But I am also out of breath easily.
Not sure if it is thin air or maybe I am a bit exhausted? No! Must be thin air!
I think I am talking a lot but it is possible that my thoughts are very loud.
As the view widens again and reveals our trail bending around the hillside until the horizon, eventually leaving the mountain, we spot someone behind us. Closing in fast and just a few moments later Misha Boyko emerges on my right “Now you are fourth!” and leaps away. He dances like a mystic Shaolin from rock to rock. There seems to be little weight in his steps so easy does he moves over this trail. I do not feel mad being passed even being expelled by him from the podium. I am in awe by the view of his gently forward movement, and so he disappears hovering from rock to rock.
The vegetation picks up again. We follow through on the narrow rocky path to eventually leave the mountain and seemingly seamless transition to the most gnarly roots and loose rock clustered path I have ever encountered. This makes the Zugspitz Ultratrail look like a stadium track for runners.
Everything is wet. The chaotic mosaic of roots growing out of the ground as they had problems defining the up and down in the darkness as I had on my swim. The rocks between them leave barely room for the muddy forest ground.
…light switch wents off...
Entering the shadow of the first trees, Vlada asks if we should put on our head torches. We stop, everyone is rummaging around in his backpack and the moment we get up again, it is dark. Right before the sun started to hide behind the mountain peaks we have entered the forest. It feels like a light switch went off.
Coach said somewhere on the way that I will have to do an under 6 min pace as soon as we leave the mountains. Not sure how to fulfil this “order”, my mind made it sound like one, on this ground, but we take off trying to run, constantly bumping my painful toe against some rock or root and then we stop again to find the next waymarker. It is really hard to see anything in this dark forest. Why is my head torch so low? I turn it off and on and by fiddling around I realize, I forgot to take off my sunglasses when I put the torch on. We laugh and keep running.
Coach seems to have a problem with his torch and our little squad starts to stretch. As we planned for him to cut the course short at Blacklake towards the restaurant while I run the extra circle, I tell Vlada to check with him and pick me up again. We agreed earlier that I keep moving whatever happens, as they are much fresher and able to pick me up on the way.
Where is Vlada? – Where is Seb?
I keep running and the less I can see the ground the easier it is to ignore it and actually to run, fast. Short steps, high cadence, when I slip, impact or stumble with one foot the other one must already be ready to catch my weight! Move fast, move light, move effortless! and I do. As I start to get into my flow I wonder why Vlada is not coming back. Should I wait? No. Keep running, under 6 min/km! that is what Coach said! I put on my headphones, somehow assuming, that I will keep running alone for a while. But at least I am running now after all.
It feels like running a maze. I have no idea where I am or where I am on the course. No idea how much time has passed, no idea how much time I have left to reach the Cutoff for the last ascent. I am in nowhere, only following the track markers. Somehow I must have abandoned my fear of darkness. Now running as hard as I still can.
Suddenly out of nowhere a dog jumps out of the dark right onto my chest. Something brown-black, I think Transylvanian Hound barking at me. I yell at him under shock and he dugs his head down silently, moving left and right in front of me but not leaving me out of his sight. A bit surprised how this encounter developed I decide to keep moving again. I am even more surprised as the dog decides to run alongside me. Like they usually would do with their owner. At first, I am unsure about how I feel about it, but soon I decide that this dog is no threat and I welcome him as my companion.
I hit another gnarly root with my bad toe, unable to catch myself I fall flat face on to the ground. He waits for me to get back up again. Everything hurts anyway. Not my first fall, it will not be my last. At some point Vlada calls me on my mobile, to check where I am and if I am okay. “I am okay. I am not alone, a dog is running with me!”…
“A DOG is running with you?!? What dog….”
I think this information was not helping him to feel better about the current situation…
After a felt eternity I reach the restaurant. Coach and Zoran are waiting for me, as some of the volunteer women. I turn around. The dog is gone. He must have smelled the stray dogs who annexed the area around the restaurant as their territory. Two of them are huge, one white wolve and a bulky Rottweiler. I would not want to mess with them either.
I drink something and Coach tells me I am well in time. I could go easy, 7:30 min per km would be enough and lets me know that I am in the third position again. Zoran leads me to the forest, but as he has no torch on him. He leaves me disappearing in the darkness again, alone.
7:30 would be a relaxed pace. The height profile looked flat for this last stretch before the checkpoint for the cutoff. Flat is relative if you have Bobotov Kuk and Savin Kuk in the profile, flat can actually be quite hilly. Soon I am going up a hill again at 12:30 pace. Afraid to miss the cutoff I keep pushing as much I can. After running for a while on pleasant ground I am wondering where the race track marks are, but judging on the freshly destroyed fly agaric field, somebody must have run through here lately. Well as I learned later I detoured exactly where Petr detoured, luckily I realized it after running 5 minutes without markings, got back, found the track again and I also found my missed waypoint.
A cheering swarm of bright lights closes in on me. I am blinded my team and a group of volunteers are welcoming my arrival, all pointing their torches on me. Coach “Don’t look at him!” For a moment I wonder if I look really that gross, until I realize what he means.
8:20 p.m. … Ivan, Zoran, Vlada and Coach are taking me in their midst and we start the last ascent. We are walking and as I pushed for the last few hours hard I welcome the break. After a few minutes the slope picks up in grade and the comfortable ground turns into loose debris. It feels like the stones are rolling me back down a bit after each step. My team is chatting, but I have a hard time following the conversation. Again there is a strange distance to the outside world.
Then I turn around. There is a light. I can see a torch behind us. Misha must have made the cutoff after all. He will easily outrun me now. I have to go faster. I do not say anything. My team must know. But they probably do not want to panic me. I must look bad. They are afraid to push me over the edge. But I have to hurry. He is coming up. I try to keep my pace, I try to push myself. I can hear the sound of the ski lift.
I am feeling dizzy.
Everything hurts, my hands are swollen. I turn around, I can not see his torch anymore. Everything starts spinning around me. My vision blurs. “I need to stop for a second please, I am getting dizzy!”. “Sure, sit down, take it easy, we have time!”…are they lying to me? But maybe they are right, I am close to my edge… Everyone gets off his backpack and is trying to find a place to sit.”Sit down Seb!”… “No, I can stand.”
I breathe in and out deeply three times. “Okay, I am good, let us go!”. I can not allow losing more time! He must be right behind us. But he must be in pain too, maybe I have a chance. Maybe I will be third! “What, but…” Vlada asks as he did not even sit down properly. But I am already moving again.
“Sebastian! What took you so long!?!?” I hear Igor. Everyone is cheering. I am getting emotional. But then I turn around where is he? I try to run and stumble over some rocks. I see the light. There is the finish line. Do they play music? I have to run! I fall and get back up again. My heart is pumping like crazy. I run-up to the finish line. I grab the banner.
Where is my team? Right behind me. I wait, I wave them up. We hold the banner together. We have done it.
They put a heavy warm cover over me and pull me into the heated mountain cabin. Guillaume is still there. “Petr was eager to wait, but he was getting cold so they went just a short while ago,” Igor says. The torch behind us, it was Petr Vabrousek going down from the finish with the ski lift… Ivan reaches me his self brewed Rakija.
I am here, feeling nothing and an empty mind. No desire and no fear. I am. That is all…
My athletic journey
I am thinking about how to connect my athletic endeavours with a more direct purpose, supporting courses I believe are important for the well being of our planet and its inhabitants. I am looking for people with experience how to connect seemingly crazy ideas with a purpose to create a positive impact.
Do you want to invite me to your race? Do you want to give me a hand? Please get in touch with me!
Thank you Portrait of an Athlete for you pictures, as well as my Team for documenting my story!