Wednesday, July 18, 2012

AAUT 2012 .. WOW!


First time I heard about this race was in December 2011. My friend Jacob who is an experienced ultra runner let me know that he planned to run the race and looking at its homepage I quickly wished that it was me. I had dreamed of MDS for some time but this race was much more to my liking with only a small number of runners allowed in. I was in no way able to run such a race though but Jacob told me that he would help me getting in shape. I was on!

I had fallen a few weeks earlier and had broken my arm what I didn't know at the time was the fact that my knee had been injured as well. After the first week of training with Jacob, it became very clear that something was wrong, though. My knee hurt in a strange way and it took 4 months plus a number of visits to doctors and specialists before I was given a clean bill of health and was allowed to train full throttle.

At that point, I was at 30 km per week and by adding the safe 10% each week I quickly reached my target distance of 75-85 km per week. These were a combination of interval training, tempo runs and long slow distance running. On top of that was a great deal of strength training of my core. I felt really great and when I first meet some of the other danish runners I was at least at par with them.

Then came a new injury. I don't know exactly what happened but my right foot started to hurt a lot after running and I decided to give it a 2-week break. Just as I should start running again I was hit by a serious infection which resulted in yet another 14 days without running. Having not run in almost a month I was suddenly put way back in my training. My running partners had been able to train while I was laying still slowly decaying. I could no longer follow them and I was very much in doubt if I could manage to get back into shape in time with only about a month to go. Within two weeks I was back at my target distance but I was clearly much slower than before.

I began to loose my energy and lust for training. I was working late nearly every day and often had to start my training at 9 PM. Strength training was no longer an option. The last 2 weeks before the race Jacob told me to run only a fraction of what I had run so far namely 45 km and 10 km. I trust in Jacob and was happy to have a break from doing nothing but work and running.

I left for Spain early Sunday morning and once I got out of the car at the hotel it became obvious how hard this race was going to be. 1.) The air was extremely hot .. kinda like a hair dryer at medium setting. 2.) The mountain (~1 km) that we should climb during the first 11 km of the first stage was quite viewable from the hotel.

Did a test run that evening and man .. was it hot!

Next morning it was time to run.

Stage 1

39km with 1400m ascent and 990m descent. I had bought a set of poles that I hoped would help me on the inclines (some up to 25 degrees). The race started at 9:30 AM which meant it was still fairly cool compared to the 38C from the evening before. I started out with 2 other Danes but when we hit the mountain (you might call it a hill but any Dane would call it a mountain) I could fairly easy run faster than them and we split up. To run uphill for 8 km is hard to grasp when you come from a flat country as Denmark but that was what we did. It became hotter and hotter and I started to slow down. I was unfamiliar with these conditions and didn't wanna burn out on the first day.

Photographer: Fred Coppens

Before we reached the top in ~1:45 all the Danes was more or less gathered and had done quite well. Now followed a long downhill section. I'm not good at downhills and the heat started getting to me. I had to start walking at times and got pretty dizzy. Strange but I became afraid that any of the others should notice my condition and replied firmly "yes" when the other asked if I was ok. Every time you passed a runner you'd ask if they were ok. It is important in these conditions to watch out for each other. No staff would pass you on a motorbike or in a car unless you had given them a thumbs up. I was passed a lot during the distance from checkpoint 1 to 2. After having been cooled down at checkpoint 2 and having eaten some electrolytes I started to feel a lot better, though.

There was about 10 km between all the checkpoints in the race. The shortest was within 7 km and the longest 14 km.

Shortly after checkpoint 2, I passed an Australian girl and for the rest of the stage, we ran more or less together. At times she was in front at times I was. The last 10 km I was pacing her though since she expressed that she was totally out of energy. When we hit the town in which the finish was located she said that it was ok for me to leave her behind and I ran for the finish line. Paul Bateson who have designed the race likes finishing uphill and this was no exception. On top of a long hill, I was met by clapping, cheering, and music. I had reached the finish line! One of the other Danes had been waiting for me and handed me a nice cool cola :) The finish was located in the town center and there was a small party going on. We snug down and soaked our legs in a fountain. That worked wonders for the tired legs!

We soon left for the location where we were to sleep. Our tents had been placed indoor in a sports hall. Time to hit the showers, get the clothes washed, get some quick food and a massage. Later that evening we had a real meal in the town .. and a beer (by Jacobs order). All my nights ended with me making my gear ready for the next day's stage. Salt tablets, energy gels .. everything needs to be exactly the right amount and place.

Stage 2

48km had 1640m ascent and 1500m descent. I had been in doubt about using the poles but decided to bring them. We were leaving through a gorge and my legs felt awesome. The poles meant that I could keep up speed on the hills were the others had to slow down. The first part was filled with hills some were quite steep so I managed to get a really good placement quite fast. When we hit checkpoint 2 I was probably number 15-17. Then started a very long and very technical uphill section. You ran on loose stones close to the edge.

You really had to concentrate. I had never run on anything like it. It seemed to go on and on and on. I was passed by 5-7 people on this part who was more technical runners than I. It is very hard to explain the mixed nature of this part but it left you in awe. After having finally reached the top a much simpler downhill started and a few kilometers later I reached checkpoint 3.

At checkpoint 3 another runner was sitting already and was really pale and mute. I asked him how he was doing and he replied that he was struggling with the hills. When I left he was still sitting there and I later heard that he had gotten worse and had had 3 portions liquid in a drop before he was okay again.

Having left checkpoint 3 I started a long speed downhill. I managed to overtake a French runner that had left checkpoint 3 before me. When the downhill section finally ended a long dusty road reached for the horizon.

I was quite hot and had to walk again. The French runner reached me and we ran like this for the next 4-6 km. Shortly before checkpoint 4, we had to cross water and hence get wet feet/shoes. This was a welcome feeling though one might fear for blisters afterward. The French runner had left me since I had run out of water and had chosen to walk to conserve energy and not to overheat. At checkpoint 4 I had all my containers filled up with water and left the checkpoint with a Czech runner. He was running on empty and a 3km uphill run meant I soon left him behind. I didn't see him again until shortly before the finish. I had taken a wrong turn and when I finally realized this and got back on the track he was in front of me again. Having lots of energy I made a sprint of it and took back my position as number 22 within a few hundred meters and soon after reached the finish.

We had dinner in a local village that night but the food wasn't all that great and all I could think about was getting home and prepare for the next day before it got dark. My fellow Danes were worried for me and asked if I had gotten all my electrolytes that day, but all that was going on was me focusing on the race and what needed to be done.

Stage 3

39km with 980m ascent and 1035n descent. The stage started with a long stretch of running on a tar road. Everybody was running quite fast and my cannon ball strategy from the day before didn't really give me the edge that I had hoped for. I saw people out running me at full speed on downhill sections where I would have stumbled if I tried to run any faster than I already did. I knew then that I need to train downhill running.

Once we reached checkpoint 1 the tar running was over and soon after started an uphill section. As with all uphill sections in this race, it was long and steep. I was glad I had decided to bring my poles once again. When we finally reached the top I had overtaken quite a few but not as many as the day before. Checkpoint 2 was waiting for us at the top. I sat down and used my time at the checkpoint. This was a little luxury I had allowed myself after checkpoint 3 on day 2 and a thing I did on nearly all checkpoints for the rest of the race. Once I left the checkpoint quite a few people had passed me but I didn't really care at that point. It was hot and I was feeling more tired than I had hoped for on what was meant to be an easy day before the 'long one'.

I managed to overtake a few of the runners that had passed me while I was sitting at checkpoint 2 but soon after started a long downhill section. I probably hadn't run more than a few kilometers downhill before my feet started to burn. I didn't want a blister so I sat down and took off my shoe, socks (wearing 2 on each foot) and put some anti hot spot lotion on my foot. While doing this a runner from Saudi Arabia passed me and asked if I was ok, "yes" I replied! The lotion helped for a few hundred meters but after that, I had to walk. I wanted to do everything possible to avoid having blisters. Blisters were my number 1 fear in this race.

Before the downhill was done I was overtaken by 2 more runners an UK runner and a Spanish runner. I was very angry with my lack of downhill skills so when the next uphill section started a few hundred meters later I ran past them while they were walking. On top of the hill, I reached checkpoint 3. Not sure how many they had seen that day coming running up that hill but I kept that strategy the rest of the race, if I couldn't run downhill I had to run uphill instead (as much as I possibly could).

Both the UK and the Spanish runner passed me at checkpoint 3 but straight after checkpoint 3 was another uphill section and the UK runner was soon behind me again. It wasn't until the top that I saw the Spanish runner again, though. She was on her way downhill when I saw her. I found out that running on the rocks reduced the burning beneath my feet so I started doing so and every time she ran I ran and when she stopped I stopped. I quickly gained on her and within 1 or 2 km I had passed her. I thought myself flying now but then another Spanish runner came running past me cheering me on to run faster we had only 3 km till the finish. I tried to follow him but had to let him go. I desperately waited for the last uphill to show up letting me possibly pass him again. The last uphill came too late for that though and was a very technical single track where I was close to falling many times.

When I finally reached the finish I was really really tired and my feet hurt.

That night some locals came and made paella for us but personally my mind was on the nearly 70km stage coming the next day.

Stage 4

67km with 2031m ascent and 2083m descent. I used the same cannon ball strategy as stage 2 and 3 and since we had been split up into two groups with the slower half starting first I had the lead for the first two checkpoints. The Czech runner was the one closest to me and it wasn't until a steep downhill at about 25km he passed me. Soon after was a really impressive uphill section where everyone had to walk except perhaps the top 3-4 runners. I had hurt my left foot 2-3 times during the first 20km on rocks and when we reached the top on the hill and checkpoint 3 I had to take off my shoe and numb my foot with ice. Quite a few runners passed me while sitting there. When I left I was close to a UK runner who I followed all the way to checkpoint 4 and 5. This stage had some of the most impressive uphill and downhill sections you can imagine. I'll never forget the feeling of going uphill for checkpoint 5 leaving it and then keep going uphill for checkpoint 6.

I was out nearly 11 hours for this stage and was many times in tears. The pain in my feet was immense and was part caused by blisters blacked nails and me failing to realize that my feet was swollen and therefore need to untie my shoes a little. Some of the late downhills sections had me reduced to a crawl going slower downhill that I could walk uphill.

Especially the last 2-3 hours was hard. I felt so extremely tired. Km by km went by without me taking notice. Once in a while, there was a checkpoint or a support car with cola that could wake you up a little but most of the time you were a mere zombie putting one leg in front of the other without giving it any thought.

When I finally reached the finish together with the Saudi Arabian runner I was in tears and completely drained physically and mentally.

As soon as I got to my senses I had the doctor check out my feet. They were bad. Especially a blister on the big toe was big, bloody and painful. 8 blisters, 3 bloody nails (one of which had been kicked further into the toe) and generally swollen sensitive feet.

Dinner was short, sparse and chaotic. I don't know what went wrong but for some reason, there wasn't enough food for us at the place where we were going to eat and after running 70km runners need food. Michelle the female staff member #1 reacted quickly and brought us some of the most delicious takeaway food I have ever seen.

That night I sat in the dark and prepared my gear for the next day. It had become so late so I gave up on washing my stuff. I would run in some of the spare gear instead.

Stage 5

37km with 1120m ascent and 1500m descent. Woke up and had my feet race prepared by the doctors. Used the same cannon ball strategy as day 2, 3 and 4. I saw no one until 15km in were a US runner passed me, shouting "I can't stop I have to keep running" :) At that point there were some heavy downhill sections going on and I had slowed to a walk. My legs were too heavy to run uphill and my feet hurt too much to run downhill.

Midway between checkpoint 1 and 2 I ran out of water and had to drink the 300ml water I had brought with me for cooling down the head. 300ml for 4km isn't a lot in that heat and I sought shadow where I could find it.

My setup had from day one been 1.5liter drinking water in my backpack and a 750ml bottle on my front for cooling down the head and other parts of the body.

Every time a runner passed me I was confronted with the question "Are you okay" and every time I answered, "yes, it is just my feet that are killing me". Was walking 40-50% of stage 5.

Checkpoint 2 came and runner upon runner passed me. 10km later came checkpoint 3 and from there on it was to the finish.

Downhill nearly all the way .. couldn't run had to walk. About 3-4 km before the finish I reached a small town. Jacob had told me to always bring some money to be able to buy some cold cola. I passed a bar that was open and thought it was now or never. So I went in and said "Cola!". The bar owner was surprised and talked to me in Spanish not sure what I meant. But when I managed to find the money he was all with me. He ran to the back and brought out a cola with glass, lemon, ice and all. It went down in 10 secs and I thanked him and gave him 5 euro to keep. He was very happy and when I tried to leave he came running with yet another cola which I drank straight from the bottle even though he tried to serve me up with a fresh glass of ice and lemon.

That was just what I needed and I ran the next 2 km feeling refreshed. Then came an uphill section and I had to slow to a walk. That day was hotter than the rest. 42C in the shadow, sadly there was no shadow and with me having had to walk a lot I was out there far longer than I should have been. The water I had in my backpack was now too hot to drink and my cooling water was all gone. I tried to cool down in whatever shadow I could find but there was very little. Luckily the runner who had had a bad time on stage 2 passed me and asked if I need anything. I told him that if he had any fairly cold water it would be great. He had a spare bottle which he poured into mine. Now I was able to get out of the shadow and head for the finish.

My fellow runner from Saudi Arabia ran/walked with me until I left him about 1 km from the finishing line. The heat was immense but the sight of the finish line and the sound of the people around it was even greater. Just a few meters before the finish line I looked at our photographer counted to 3 and jumped. This was something we had done all week and there are more picture of me flying than running from this race :)

Photographer: James Goldsmith

After the finish line

During this race, I meet some of the most inspiring people I've ever meet. I have left out the names of all unofficials but you know who you are. We didn't talk a lot but we shared an extreme adventure and most of the time we only need to look at each other to know what was going through the head of the other. We watched out for each other. We helped each other. We cared! What we did was so out of this world that if I had stopped to think about it I would have said I couldn't do it. If Jacob hadn't trusted in me it would have taken years before I would have tried on my own.

*disclaimer* This was all written from memory!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Leaving tomorrow

Tomorrow I continues a journey that started last year in December. AAUT 2012. It has been 7 months of disbelief, training and injuries. I'm in awe. 

Tomorrow I leave my house and will not return as the same man. Stronger, in pieces or not at all.