Friday, May 25, 2012

Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux 2012 II

Gigondas; it’s still dark at 0430 on Saturday, 19 May 2012…  It’s drizzling and 119 of us kick off to "rescapé" Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux.  As we set out my thoughts are not on this race.  I’m not motivated and allow a lot of negativity to creep in.  I spoke briefly with Geert Ceuppens and focused on getting my head in the game for the first eighteen kilometers of what looks like is going to be a long day.

About twenty minutes into the race I decide to pull off the trail and relieve myself.  As I do so I watch the course of head lights pass and think that I’m still in pretty good standing at mid-pack.  After getting straight I head back out on the trail and find myself alone…  Slowly as the sun creeps into the cracks, canyons and crannies of the Dentelles Montmirail I make out a woman in front of me.  I run behind her for some distance when she asks “Passe Vous”?  I respond in my pigeon French that no, I’m not interested in passing – all is good back here.  She and I get into a groove and come to a forest path where we can run side-by-side.  She introduces herself as Isabelle and kicks up a conversation.  Dear, Isabelle…  She could not speak a word of English and my French is horrible.  Nonetheless, Isabelle goes on and on as we pass over hill and dale.  Seems as if she's sharing her life story and much more...  Suddenly we arrived at a hardball road; there is no trail marking.  GREAT!  This takes me back to 2009 when Dino Verones and I got lost for hours.  Confidently, Isabelle takes off to the left and I follow.

Isabelle and I ran downhill for twenty minutes or so, talking, and I’m thinking none of this looks familiar...  Oh shit!  Do not panic...  OH SHIT!  We’re friggen lost.  We jog on for a bit when her husband shows up in an SUV and asks where we’re going.  Isabelle explains that we are lost and looking for the trail.  He suggests that we turn around and go back to where we last lost the trail which we did.  My mind is racing right along with the clock.  We must be at the check point at Lac du Paty completing the first eighteen kilometer leg by 0800.  This is not good!

We wonder about for what seems like forever and finally come across the dreaded sweeper and his team of trailer cleaners removing trail markings.  Isabelle spoke briefly with them; confirmed our route and we were off again.  This is one of my absolute dreaded points in any trail race.  The sweeper is here and very close to me; time is running out to the make the check point and there will be not time in the check point to drink or eat anything.  This is UTMB 2011 all over again! 

I ran with Isabelle for a while longer and have now found the motivation I was missing when the race started.  I bid Isabelle farewell and took off to attempt to gain some time.  I know this part of the course and know where I can kick it and where I need to take it easy.  Slowly, every so slowly I begin to gain some time back.  I passed one runner after another and have finally got six or eight people behind me when I roll into Lac du Paty.  I greeted everyone in the best Texas accent I could throw out; drank two cups of water; asked one of the race volunteers for a drag from his cigarette (he laughed, but refused) and I roll out of Lac du Paty headed out over the next twelve kilometers to the check point at Curnier where I’ve got to be by 1030.

Getting to Lac du Paty I gained a thirty minute buffer back into my race plan.  I don’t like running this close to the cut off times as the terrain or your physical condition is going to ultimately take a toll and steal it back from you.  This portion of the route to Curnier is good; rolling but good and I continue to gain on runners and the clock.  Prior to bounding into Curnier I meet again with Isabelle’s husband who cheers me on.  I ask about Isabelle and he tells me that she is still in the race.  The check point at Curnier is the last full scale rest stop prior to the assault up Mont Ventoux.  I know this check point well and know that my bags will be checked.  I have gained about a forty-five minute buffer on the time barriers and roll into Curnier with a plan to restock water; eat as much and as quickly as I can while organizing my stuff.  At Curnier I again use a Texas dialect to ensure that the fellas know that they must speak English with me so that we’re clear on what they want to see.  Check out was easy this year; dude asked to see my wind breaker and emergency blanket.  With that completed I blast back out of the check point with apples in hand.  Leaving Curnier I had approximately twenty runners behind me.

The assault on Mont Ventoux is ten kilometers long and moves up a vertical ascent of 1610 meters with an average gradient of 7.5% and a maximum gradient of greater than 12%.  Cut off time to get to the check point on the summit Mont Ventoux as 1415.  I set out to get there around noon in order to take back some more of the time allocated for the time barriers.  I knew that the course after coming off of Ventoux and after Brantes is what I term the doldrums.  The doldrums are long uneventful stretches that although not extremely physically demanding are certainly mentally demanding.

Traveling up Mont Ventoux I was able to pass a number of additional runners.  I think that the majority of those folks I passed were new to the course and relatively new to trail and mountain ultra running.  Many did not have the right equipment or were dragging way too early in this race.  At this point in the course I felt physically and mentally well.  I know the terrain and enjoyed the freedom and beauty of the environment.  On the way up I came across a runner laying on the ground appearing to stretch his quads.  I asked “Ça Va?” and he replied with no – his quads kept tightening up.  So, in broken French and English we worked out me stretching him a bit.  Turns out he and I would cross paths again…

Just prior to moving onto the talus field prior to the final assault on Mont Ventoux the Rotary Club posts a water station just within the last wood line.  Going into this station I planned to drink a couple of cups of water and keep moving.  I was a bit let down to watch and hear two or three runners working with the race volunteers to drop.  Seeing people drop is contagious and I decided to move on without looking back.

Moving up the last approach to the summit of Mont Ventoux as largely uneventful.  Although it was a beautiful day the wind was kicking as I increased my elevation.  My thoughts focused on getting to the summit, my plan for the rest stop (eat) and getting back down off of Mont Ventoux.  I arrived at the check point at about 1210; dropped my pack and immediately put on my jacket and moved into the garage the point was located in.  Although it was freezing on top of Mont Ventoux there were thousands of people there.  Pedestrians, bicyclists and many more were milling about doing whatever Frenchmen do on Mont Ventoux on a lovely spring day.  After restocking my pockets and water and eating a lot of fruit, cheese, chips and three cups of soup I decided to move onward to Brantes.  At this juncture I was about an hour ahead of cut off times and felt good other than freezing my butt off…

Djam and I headed into the check point at Brantes.

Oh the lovely fourteen kilometer descent into Brantes.  And, no we didn’t get to take the road – it was all hiking paths for us…  Once you get back down off of what seems like infinite switch backs you head into one of the first portions of this course that I call the doldrums.  The trail consists of logging roads that slowly wind their way down into a valley before heading dramatically back up to Brantes.  It was here that I was to meet Djamel Groiuez (the same guy I stretched out on the way up Mont Ventoux).  For some reason “Djam” and I hit it off immediately and stuck it out with one another through the completion of the race.  As it turns out Djam served twenty-two years with the French paratroopers so we had much to talk about.

From Brantes we traveled along the path of Le Toulourenc and the backbone of the Combe de Réchaume to the check point at Veaux.  Following Brantes Djam’s lovely wife met and cared for us at each following aid station and check point. 

From Veaux I began to have GI issues with a lot of gas and then various bouts of diarrhea.  I’m not certain what brought this distress on, whether it was something I’d eaten, the energy food I was eating or what.  Whatever it was it cursed me and unfortunately I could not express to Djam how much I appreciated him waiting on me each time I had to take a break for a couple of minutes.  Other than my unfolding battle with my gut the trail from Veaux to Le Rissas was relatively uneventful. 

Things again got exciting on our way down from La Rissas to Le Groseau.  You have to love the French and the way they mark trails, or not mark them.  Djam and I were cruising along making good time with lots of daylight and buffer time before the cut off of 2300 at Le Groseau when we ran into Malaucène.  Again, I did not recognize this part of the course, but knew yet again I needed to hit the wood line.  We jogged into town and Djam waved down a passing car.  He spoke with the driver and asked him to go find the check point at Le Groseau which was supposed to be located somewhere on the outskirts of Malaucène.  Unbelievably, the guy agreed to Djam’s demands and sped off.  A few minutes later he returned and told us that the check point was in fact in place; where it was and the distance.  With much joy Djam and I headed back out of town to go find where we’d last seen a race marker and attempt to find the course.  All told I wound up covering 110 – 115 kilometers of 100 kilometer race course.  That dear friends is cool!  (Note heavy sarcasm.) 

We finally closed on Le Groseau with about an hour and a half buffer.  Djam sat down and his wife started caring for us.  I had a cup of soup and told them both that I was off to hit the other side of the trail and the wood line.  I told Djam I’d wait for him there.

By the time Djam came up the trail looking for me darkness had again completely fallen and we started our movement to Saint-Amand with the aid of head lamps.  Movement during this part of the course is deceiving.  Your mind is focused on the fact that you are within twenty kilometers of finishing, the lure of your headlamp and the terrain.  Passing Clairer and Les Gippières you are lulled into thinking that the course is smooth going over undulating forest paths and roads.  And yes, this in fact is the case if you are a normal hiker as there is a straight path to Saint-Amand.  But no, Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux is not for the “normal” or weak of disposition. 

Shortly before arriving at Vallat de la Chaine the course takes an immediate right turn and you abruptly head up hill oriented on Col de la Chaine where you take another abrupt turn left and head directly up and over Dentelles de Montmirail.  When we arrived at the summit the wind was honking and we hurried back down the other side to roll into the rest stop at Saint-Amand and kilometer 91.
The rest stop at Saint-Amand was this year’s highlight for me.  We arrived to the sound of drums, horns, disco lights, “Allez!  Allez!” and a warm blanket.  Saint-Amand was the first check point where anyone offered us cola and Djam and I drank several cups and ate a few snacks.

From Saint-Amand it’s a mere nine kilometers to Gigondas and the finish line.  Fortunately much of this part of the course moves through the Vallat de Fenouillet.  By this time of this year’s race I as burned hard.  I had horrible blisters again on both feet.  Think that they were caused by a combination of wearing shoes that were too large from the outset, gravel in my shoes and the condition of my feet going into this race following the Hexenstieg a few weeks earlier.  I could not keep up with Djam’s stride.  Although we were both moving at the same pace his stride was much longer than mine at this point and we were both getting tired of waiting for me.  As the course progressed he would get way out ahead of me; stop and wait; gather me up and we’d move out again. 

A kilometer or so out of town Djam’s wife and another guy met us in the dark.  It was great to see them!  Djam and I picked up a slow airborne shuffle and made our way over the cobblestones of Gigondas’ main street.  As we ran Catherine surprised me telling me that she’d met my wife.  I asked her where and she told me in Gigondas.  I could not believe my ears.  “Simone is in Gigondas?” I asked.  And she said, “Yes – at the Community Center”.  It was almost 0230 on Sunday morning and Simone as waiting for me...  That my friends was the crowning moment of the entire last twenty-one hours and fifty-six minutes.  

Djam and I finished the 2012 Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux together taking the 73d and 74th places.  Of the original 119 starters 77 were to finish...  Super race.  Beautiful country!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux 2012 I

We’re still recovering after a great long weekend in Provence so this is a quick visit here.  I’ll follow-up with a few more impressions from Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux in the next few days.  For now a bit of an introduction... 

My latest adventure included my third running and the thirteenth edition of Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux 19 – 20 May 2012.  Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux is a 100KM charity trail race coursing primarily along the paths and trails of the Dentelles de Montmirail and the Mont Ventoux Massif.  The Raid International Organization and the Rotary Clubs of Avignon Fontaine de Vaucluse, Avignon Villeneuve, Carpentras, Orange , Orange Arausio host Le Grand Raid Denvelles Ventoux each year.  All registration costs and any donations benefit The Association Francophone des Glycogénoses and research of Glycogénoses. 

The centerpiece of Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux’s 100KM course is a foot assault up the southern approach of Mont Ventoux.   Mont Ventoux is legendary among bicyclists as it is reputed as one of the most grueling climbs of the Tour de France.  Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux’s 100KM route courses over 5167 meters or 16,952 feet of elevation change largely along rock or talus strewn paths.  The semi-self supported course starts and finishes in the lovely village of Gigondas.

Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux is well organized and supported.  Starting with their simple yet effective web site, the Rotary Club and their supporters put together a great event.  Registration was possible on-line and cost 80 Euro (85 Euro after 30 April); the pasta party cost 10 Euro.  Registration costs included a race starter kit, support at the aid stations/check points, a starter and finisher tee-shirt with the later awarded if you “survive” the race’s twenty-four hours.

Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux includes three events – the primary 100KM course; a Raid Course at 56KM and a relay course of 100KM.  Race headquarters is located in the Gigondas Community Center with final race check-in located in the adjacent fire department building.  Race participant billeting is available in an adjacent youth hostel for an additional limited fee.  Final race check in was possible on 18 May, 1400 – 2200 and on 19 May, 0300 – 0400.  I did my final check in on 18 May at 1800.  When checking in be prepared to provide a French Sport License, some form of identification card or provide a 50 Euro deposit.  This “deposit” is linked to your starter number and assures that runners account for themselves throughout the entire event.  Final check in included verification of registration; distribution of the race starter packet; inspection of required equipment and notes on course changes.  All very straight forward and easy even when conducted in broken French and English.  For the 2012 race I did not stick around for the race briefing (it is conducted only in French) or the Pasta Party.

Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux starts at approximately 0430 on Saturday morning providing runners twenty-four hours to complete the course.  The Rotary Club offers a runners’ breakfast starting at 0330 Saturday morning.  I arrived at about 0345 had a couple of cups of coffee; greeted a couple of friends and checked through the starter chutes at 0400.  Final check-in through the starter chutes was somewhat chaotic.  If you’re running the race just line up adjacent to your series of start numbers and walk through.

Following the absolute final check in via the starter chutes the racers all lined up headed up hill (smile) for the start.  The heavens smiled upon 119 of us and shared a bit of rain from 0415 – 0430.  It was nice to get this out of the way as the rest of the day was to prove absolutely stunning with lots of sunshine.

Details of the event and my experiences will be forthcoming in my next post.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hexenstieg Ultra 2012 To Sum it All Up

Michael Frenz, Race Founder and Director put on an amazing event.  The organization, planning, resourcing and execution exceeded my every expectation.  Registration cost 100 Euro which included accommodations at the Harzer-Hof Hotel for the entire weekend, race tee-shirt, completion certificate, and Harzer Hexenstieg Hiking Pin, all of the support at each aid station etc. etc...

One idea I had, and yes, someone always has one even if it’s a perfect event...  I recognize that it is a cost factor, but it would be cool to get a “Challenger” tee-shirt similar to the one we got in 2012 and then if you completed the race within the allotted time limit, a “Finisher” shirt.  Le Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux and UTMB do something very similar which is a cool gesture.  I think I’ll pass this idea back to Micha and give him a bit more work...

The Hexenstieg Race Supporters were the best I have experienced or run with.  TrailRunner Magazine recently ran an article on whole race experiences and how it takes everyone involved in a race to get runners across the finish line.  This was very much the case with the Hexer.  I know that I could not have done it without the support of the superb race volunteers that supported us for over 48 hours!

Stephan Zirbus and the Harzer-Hof Hotel provided first class support for the event.  The rooms, meals and service were perfect.  I endorse the Harzer-Hof and look forward to another visit.

The Hexenstieg is an amazing vacation and hiking destination.  Micha, top notch course selection!  I look forward to the next race you have up your sleeve.

What’s missing from this near perfect ultra mix?  The runners!  What a great group.  28 of us set out to take on the Hexenstieg with 19 finishing.  All participants were top notch.  I appreciate the friendship and camaraderie of the trail.  Hope to see all of you again soon!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hexenstieg Ultra 2012 After Action Review

This portion of the Hexenstieg 2012 race report is focused on after action type thoughts, ideas and issues.  I’m going to bounce around a bit, but want to share these thoughts.

Preparation – Was I prepared for the 200KM of the Hexenstieg?  This is a tough question to answer. My results in finishing indicate that I was in fact at least minimally physically ready.  I do however consider myself a very juvenile 100 miler having only completed two.  I know that I could have and will increase the number of endurance training events I perform.  I am going to continue to extend my shorter runs to a regular minimum of 13KM and tie in at least one four to six hour run per month.  Leading up to the Hexer I only got in two of these if you discount the 2012 Brocken Challenge and the Saaletal Marathons.  I am pleased with the training miles I’ve put in the bank over the past year or so.  I could not have completed the Hexer without them.

There are some wider lessons I’m studying when I compare the Hexer at 200KM and 4,400 meters of elevation change with the UTMB at 166KM and 10,000 meters of elevation change.  The Hexer allowed 48 hours for completion while the UTMB only grants 46.  UTMB check point cut off times were my undoing in 2011; albeit they were compressed because of the late start.  I’m thrilled to get another hundred miler in for the experience, but recognize that I must increase my pace all around in order to work in some sleep and rest periods for the UTMB in 2013.  I think I’ll work to complete one or two additional one hundred milers prior to attempting next year’s UTMB.

Diet and Fueling – I am still refining my running diet.  The week prior to the Hexer I specifically carbo loaded.  Doing so worked well.  During the event I used GU normal and Roctane gels,  a mix of various energy and snickers bars, and the fruits, crackers, and odd meal that were available over the trail.  I had packed tortillas spread with peanut butter and jelly, but did not eat them as I got extremely burned out on sweets.  I’ve got to experiment with some non-sweet food sources, perhaps salty potatoes.  I tried eating a packet of peanut butter and crackers.  I got them down with a bit of difficulty.  With a dry mouth and on the go they are tough to consume.  At about 100KM I was burned out on the energy bars and sweets I had with me and forced myself to choke down gels to keep energy and caffeine in my tank.  A week after the event I still don’t know if I can eat an energy bar or snickers without retching.  I found that my beverage selection worked well during the Hexer.  I used a combination of Gatorade and Hammer Perpetuem Caffé Latte.  I carried the Gatorade in my pack bladder and the Perpetuem in waist bottles.  I mixed up two bottles of Succeed’s Clip 2, but found it hard to get down.  I’m going to give it another go at the Grand Raid Dentelles Ventoux.  Caffeine played a critical role in my fueling strategy.  Its use is something I have to play with a bit.  I overdosed on caffeine at the ThueringenULTRA two years ago and have underdosed during other events.  Going into the Hexer I reduced my caffeine intake a week prior to the race.  Unlike the Brocken Challenge of 2012 I did not eliminate it from my diet the week prior, but cut down to a cup of coffee in the morning each day.  This seemed to work well going in to the Hexer.  I think that the key to caffeine use is gaining a specific understanding of its impact on your body and outlook.  During the Hexer I found that if I used a GU Roctane gel about ever 2.5 to three hours and sipped on the Perpetuem I gained a positive impact from it and could actually feel the waves of “well being” flowing from the caffeine’s use.  I mentioned the Succeed S!Caps I had with me in Part I of this report.  They are a great tool and with the exception of winter events I always carry a packet of them with me.

Gear – Like just about every other race I’ve participated in I carried way too much gear during the Hexer.  My Nathan HPL 579 pack which was discontinued by Nathan is a great, well fitting pack.  Its downside is that it affords the opportunity to carry way too much stuff.  I plan to work on cutting back what I’m carrying with me especially since I’ll likely be forced to go to a smaller pack when this one falls apart.  I followed Micha’s advice leading up the Hexer and started out with the UTMB packing list.  Given that aid stations were anywhere from 20 – 38KM apart during the Hexer I carried at least eight energy bars, eight servings of drink mix and other assorted foods.  At our first drop bag I dropped off the pair of long running tights I carried, the extra tee-shirt and watch cap.  I maintained my trekking poles, gloves, North Face jacket, gloves, sunglasses and first aid kit throughout the race.  I used all of these over various portions of the route and feel that they are a must particularly when running in the Harz or over similar terrain. 

Foot Care/Blister Management – Wow!  This is a tough one as I’m still feeling their impact.  I’m going to have to do some further experimentation on this topic.  I don’t think that the blisters I gained were a result of my shoes, North Face Single Tracks, as I had worn them during training, and the Saaletal Marathon.  I wore a pair of CEP compression socks for the first time during an actual event; had worn them a couple of times in training with no issues.  I do however think that the blisters I gained were caused by my socks.  Andrea Möhr recommended short socks with tube style compression sleeves.  I’ve used that combination before with a pair of compression tubes I made myself and will revert back to this practice for my next event.  Over the course of the Hexer I treated my feet with Moleskin on two occasions.  While working on the blisters I did not think that they were in a condition where I should lance, drain and bandage them.  This occurred much later.  I probably should have stopped and drained them when they had fully formed rather than continuing to run on them.  Tough call – blisters won’t kill you, but they sure can help your mind wonder to places you definitely should not go when running an endurance event.  If you are managing blisters or other irritating injuries you’ve got to make a decision on what to do with them.  For me it took a deliberate decision to recognize them, but set them aside as something that was not going to be a factor in any decisions to withdraw from the race.

Mental Anchors
– There is absolute truth in this statement:  “Mental fortitude is more important than physical endurance”.  If you’re going to run out beyond the marathon distance you need to recognize that; embrace it; meditate on it; fully comprehend it.  That is probably the greatest lesson I learned while running the Hexenstieg Ultra.  The other ultra events I’ve participated in to this point have not taken me to the limits of my mental fortitude.  Yes, they have tested my physical endurance, but the Hexer truly tested my mental fortitude.  I think keys to success here rest in making the decision; you’re either going to run the race, or not.  I found tricks in maintaining my forward movement by framing different legs of the event (OK, the next leg is 38KM – Let me break that down into bite sized junks and I can certainly do this!  When is the next aid station?  What terrain features are between us and its location?  Ten kilometers of climbing and then coasting downhill…).  George Sheehan’s thought rings true yet again, “It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners.  Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hexenstieg Ultra 2012 Part IV

After passing through the finish line Andrea and Norbert Möhr passed us off to the medics that were on site.  Micha you thought of everything!  Although I could not complain about my health condition, other than wanting someone to drain my blisters it was nice to go through this formality.  The lead medic briefed us on our post-race medical requirements; they would check our vitals, once now and then thirty minutes later; and address any medical issues we had.  Temperature, blood pressure and heart rate were all in order; and I grabbed a beer and headed up to take a shower.

I have an issue that I want to speak with a doctor about to gain some advice and insight on.  Don’t know if anyone else experiences this sensation, but I’ve found nothing on it in my readings and study of ultrarunning.  This effect generally occurs after running 100 or more kilometers.  When I arrived in my room at the Harzer-Hof I dropped my race pack, had a long draw on my beer and began to come down.  As I came down I experienced a bone shaking chill where my entire body went into the shakes.  I jumped in the shower and cranked it as hot as it would go.  I got my shakes under control; got dressed and went down to have my vitals taken again and my blisters worked on.  I’ll come back to my issue of chills in a minute.

After having my vitals checked again, which were normal.  I talked with a couple of folks and passed on having any dinner.  Stephan had again set up another super meal for us.  I told Micha that I was going to bed and went back upstairs.  It didn’t take me long to get under the sheets or fall asleep, but as I did I recognized the second phase of the sensation I have following an ultra – my temperature seemed to sky rocket.

My face was flushed and I appeared to have a fever only in the upper part of my body.  My body swung between a burning flush and deep chills.  I ignored both and fell into a deep sleep.  An hour or two later I woke up fully bathed in sweat with my tee-shirt soaked through.  Fortunately I had another tee-shirt to sleep in and switched shirts at about 2330.  After changing shirts and going to the bathroom I returned to bed and slept in a deep, dark sleep until my alarm went off at 0625.

I got up on Monday morning feeling refreshed from the sleep, but deeply tired; packed my things and went down to have breakfast.  Again Stephan took care of us with a wonderful breakfast buffet.  It was super to chat with the other runners and be back within the lifecycle of the rest of the world.
Following breakfast Micha conducted an informal awards ceremony which I almost missed as I was outside talking.  After the awards ceremony it was time to say farewell and make my way back home.  What a fantastic weekend and race!  Count me in for 2013!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hexenstieg Ultra 2012 Part III

We departed Königshütte sometime between 2100 Saturday night and about 0330 Sunday morning.  I realize that it wasn’t that late and that, that is a wide window, I just don’t recall the specific time.  The night was dark and do had settled on the ground.  The world was asleep.

After our brief pause in the Community Center in Königshütte I had cooled down and heading back out into the night it was downright cold.  We were however headed back to Osterode, at this point in the race it seemed unreal to think that we were going to travel that far.  The next leg to the aid station at Torfhaus was 38KM and passed through Elend, Braunlage, the Wendeltreppe (Rinderstall) and St. Andreasberg.  We’ll come to a couple of points about the later in a few, but I want to pause and talk with you about Elend and how appropriate and ironic passing through this village is while running the Hexenstieg.

This photo was stolen from Thomas Ehmke.  Thomas I hope you don’t mind too awful much!

The term “Elend” comes from the Middle High German word Ellende which relates to ignorance or wildness.  Elend describes the conditions of poverty and abject helplessness.  The word Elend may be used as an adjective or noun and in current use provides a complete description of the worst possible circumstances.  In psychology Elend describes deep depression, listlessness and disinterest in anything positive.  In the physical realm Elend is not used to describe a precise diagnosis of sensation or feeling, but describes that feeling associated with perhaps a fish poisoning, having eaten foul eggs, a long bout of diarrhea, or a series of horrible migraine headaches.  The term is also used to describe a pessimistic, disinterested and exhausted condition.  Elend is also used in the social sciences and the weather.  I think that the description above characterizes the term Elend in its current form and use.  Why a village in Middle Germany would be named Elend is beyond me, but its location along our journey is both appropriate and ironic.

When we arrived in Elend it was relatively late and quite.  We passed several houses and stopped to take a short break on the steps of the third or fourth.  Günter and I flopped down, he on the steps and I on the sidewalk.  Matthias sat on the steps and stared into space.  Günter and I were asleep within minutes and stayed that way until a passing car who thought we were drunks honked and woke us.  After being so rudely awoken from our slumber we realized that we were freezing and needed to get moving.  Elend had set in upon us. 

We didn’t make it far.  There were a group of women out in front of a pub enjoying the evening and drinks.  We decided to slip into the pub for a quick drink and warm up.  Matthias treated us to a round of Sprite.  Thomas Ehmke had joined us and was his usual jovial self.  I never was a big Sprite fan (it contains no caffeine), but this was the best Sprite I’d ever had.  I assume that it was the intense sugar kick that got me going again, or maybe the smoke filled bar room (I thought that smoking in clubs had been outlawed in Germany years ago).  The bar patrons who seemed very much like regulars and who also seemed like they’d enjoyed the bar’s wares for most of the evening could not fathom what we were doing.

Feeling more than a little Elend we headed out for Braunlage and more adventure.  During this phase I often thought of Kevin Sayers thoughts on ultra running:  “Common sense is necessary… more so than high tech.  Race to the finish not race from the start…  walk when you need to, run when you can, eat, drink and be merry…”
We did a lot of walking between Braunlage over to the Wendeltreppe and Rinderstall.  The Wendeltreppe was a nice climb taking us up almost 900 meters of elevation.  Once above the Wendeltreppe the trailer has a simply fantastic view of the Brocken from the Brocken panoramic stop.  Crossing several high fields we made our way to the Oderteiche and Märchenweg.  The Oderteiche are something else to see.  These series of historical artificial lakes are approximately seven kilometers long.  Construction on the Oderteiche started in 1715 lasting until 1722.  They were until the end of the nineteenth century the largest artificial lakes in Germany. 

The Märchenweg is a ten kilometer hiking and trekking path that courses alongside the Oderteiche for much of its route.  The unique thing about the Märchenweg particularly along the Oderteiche is that it passes over a wooden deck-like path as the area is very marshy.  On any other day this would have been just super.  Feet would have stayed dry and there are a lot of benches and places to sit down and enjoy the scenery.  That was not to be on this overcast Sunday.  The combination of the mixed deck-like and wood chip path was kicking my feet and blisters ass!  My thoughts were, “Seriously, this friggen path goes on forever!  I’ve never seen a path developed like this anywhere and this downright sucks!”  I popped a GU Roctane and had a bit of caffeinated gum in the hopes of raising my spirits a bit.  (Have I mentioned that caffeine rocks!)

Finally…  We passed over the Märchenweg and approached Torfhaus and our next aid station.  That 38KM passage was a long one friends.  In retrospect I was thrilled when the sun came back up.  That Big Orange Ball (BOB) even if he’s not shining brightly is a life saver.  Your perspectives change and your mind seems to function much better than when confined to the scope of the light provided by a head lamp.

So, here we are at Torfhaus and the place is packed with hikers, site seers and many, many others, but where is the aid station?  Walk over here a minute, nope!  Walk over there a minute, nope!  Time to call Micha…  Hans-Dieter and his camper were definitely here.  Micha seemed to think that he is parked in the parking lot near the ski lift.  OK…  Time to find that darn ski lift!  After trying almost all of the cardinal directions we head off down a road as it’s our last option.  YES!!!  There is a big white camper (the only one in the parking lot)!  YES!!!

As we approach the aid station at Torfhaus we are overwhelmed by the volunteers.  Everyone is in high spirits and excited to see us.  They quickly ushered us to chairs around a table set with place settings and flowers.  Hans-Dieter wearing an apron stuck his head out of his camper and greeted us in high spirits.  I have to pause here a minute to speak briefly about what I know so far about Hans-Dieter.

Micha introduced Hans-Dieter on Friday evening during the race briefing.  Hans-Dieter is an older gentleman with white hair and short white beard (His last name is Weisshaar, rather fitting!).  Micha introduced Hans-Dieter as having completed 130 one hundred mile races.  Hans-Dieter reacted without presumption or fanfare and said that if he were not outside his camper we should simply knock on the door as he would be sleeping and he would take care of us.  More on Hans-Dieter in a bit…

From his perch in the doorway of his camper Hans-Dieter graciously asked each of us what we would like to eat; fried eggs, bacon and potatoes; goulash soup; potatoes with sauce; a soup…  A bit overwhelmed, Matthias and I split a bowl of goulash soup and potatoes.  Delicious!  We dined and drank for about half an hour being waited on hand and foot.  This was an aid station I did not want to leave.  But after eating my fill and having had a cup of coffee and glass of cola it was time to be off.

Walking and jogging gingerly on very hot blisters we set out for Clausthal Zellerfeld, “The Wall” and the next aid station.  Tennessee Williams’ thought on time “Time is the longest distance between two places” describes my comprehension of this measurement tool during much of this period of the Hexensteig.  Our GPS went down during this leg and we were forced to navigate by the map, the terrain and markings for the trails 18H, 18C-B.  It was an interesting period.  In Altenau we were given bad information by fella enjoying a beer and headed out in the wrong direction.  (I’m not sure what it is about the locals and their orientation, but all that we asked gave bad advice.)  Finally, we made it out of Altenau and onto the longest seven kilometers I’ve ever passed over, the Alter Bahndamm.  The old rail line seemed to go on, and on, and on.  It alone directed the measurement of time ticking away the moments.

Finally in Clausthal Zellerfeld we approached what we thought was “The Wall”.  The Wall is a street with almost a 35% incline that in the winter time is shut off to allow the local children to sled down it.  Up we went to rest on a short plateau that greeted another hill of the same nature.  Thanks Micha!  In Clausthal Zellerfeld we arrived at kilometer 185 of the course and the Adrenalin Tours aid station. 
Don’t know how many of you have been to Austin Texas, but the Adrenalin Tours aid station looked as if it had been picked up from one of the neighborhoods off of South Congress.  The aid station was set up in a tent behind what I assumed was the Adrenalin Tours’ owner/operators house.  Picture a large backyard; a fire is going in the drive way where someone has been grilling wurst and burgers; around the corner is a dog pen with at least a half-dozen Huskies in it; and then there is a second guest house out back that serves as a club house/party house.  The people of Adrenalin Tours also appeared as if they did not belong in Clausthal Zellerfeld, but had been plucked lock, stock and barrel with their house from Austin.  A cool place!

So, we mossy into the Adrenalin Tours aid station with smoke wafting in the air from the open fire and someone quickly asks what we’d like to eat.  Matthias and Günter are not too enthusiastic about eating, but I’m starved again and ask for a plate of noodles which I am promptly served.  I ate about half the huge plate of noodles I was served and drank about four glasses of cola.  Cola rocks! 

While enjoying the meal and the ambiance of the aid station we’re all chatting in German and Hans-Dieter who was also there having a bowl of noodles looks over and asks me in an English with no accent where I’m from.  He and I kick up a conversation and as it turns out he has lived in Austin and been all over Texas.  Check out the Hans 100 List for the races he’s run in Texas.  Hans-Dieter holds an age group record for Rocky Raccoon and a number of other significant 100 Milers.

After a bit of great conversation with Hans-Dieter and others we decide to pack up and kick out on the last leg of the Hexenstieg.  The distance of which no one can really tell us (Is it seven or eighteen kilometers?  No one knew…).  With a full belly of noodles and cola and the prospect of finishing this witch of a race I’m excited to get moving again.  The route course from Clausthal Zellerfeld through Lerbach towards Osterode was relatively uneventful.  Our spirits were relatively good and we were filled with anticipation of arriving back at the Harzer-Hof.  On the way down from Lerbach the path rapidly lost elevation which was kicking my ass (literally my feet and blisters).  We transitioned from hiking path and trail to hard ball road which was a little easier on the feet, but harder on the mind as the road to Osterode seemed as if it would never end.

In the forty-fourth hour of our journey we approached the Harzer-Hof Hotel and were greeted by Andrea Möhr who brought water and great spirits!  Andrea was one of the great supporters of the event – she was there all the way.

We arrived at the finish line at the Harzer-Hof in 44:31.  Tired…, worn…, elend but extremely pleased with our adventure.  Words fail me that describe the emotion the sloshed over me as our photos were taken and we were congratulated for our achievement.  I could not have accomplished this bewitched adventure without the help of the Brandenburger.  Matthias and Günter, you guys simply ROCK!  Thanks for having me along as your “Klette”.  It was a great ride!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hexenstieg Ultra 2012 Part II

After about an hour’s break Günter, Matthias and I set off without Nic for the Hexentanzplatz a much celebrated place located on the top of a lovely little hill.  The Hexentanzplatz (Witches’ Dance Floor) rests on a plateau at 454M above the Bode Gorge.  As legend has it, the Hexentanzplatz was the site of old Saxon Cult celebrations of the Forest and Mountain Goddesses.  Following the taming of the region by Christian Franks the area became known as the Hexentanzplatz.  The legend also holds that the dance floor was guarded by Frank soldiers who were chased off by Saxons dressed as witches and riding on broomsticks.  This Saxon victory over the Franks is celebrated to this day on and around the first of May.  In fact, 10,000 visitors were expected on the Hexentanzplatz on 1 May 2012.

As you can tell by the Hexentanzplatz link above normal people travel to the Hexentanzplatz via cable car to view the panoramic views and the Bode Gorge.  Thanks to Micha this was not in our cards this evening although we did have a brief opportunity to enjoy the view at the White Deer stamp station before making our way down to Treseburg and back into the Bode Gorge.

Our path into the Bode Gorge saw us rapidly losing any remaining daylight on a long hot Saturday.  While in the Gorge we got to again enjoy the frequent ups and downs of the trail and a slow ascent back up to our next rest stop at Königshütte.  Although we were slowly gaining elevation I was not feeling the elation of doing so.  This phase of the event probably saw me at my lowest point mentally during the entire race.  I was burned out from the heat of the day; had now been running for more than twenty-four hours with no sleep; and my tank was running very low on food.  The Brandenburgers and I had spent most of the day talking and enjoying the event.  At this point everyone was worn and very quite – we were running yet sleeping on our feet.  So, picture if you will three dudes running through the deep of the night.  It was very quite…  I began to hear something rustling to our right about ten meters from our path.  It seemed that whatever was making this noise was moving along with us.  I pictured Indians riding along side waiting to ride in for the kill.  “Wow”, I thought, whatever that is, it is not breaking contact with us – it continues to run alongside.  I asked Matthias and Günter what they thought it was and we were interrupted with a very loud and ugly sounding “SNORT”.  Blood now rushing; kick up the adrenaline.  That is a fooging boar!  Matthias shouted “RUN” and we took off at a sprint.  I shined my hand held flashlight over to where I thought the wild pigs were moving and caught several piglets in its beam. 

Adrenaline kicks are great in the short term.  They do however leave you wasted over time.  After running down from Boar Hill approaching the aid station at Treseburg I slipped back into a deeper rut.  I was burned out and the single blister I had identified at Thale seemed as if it was growing and was shooting sharp signals up my leg.  My focus and commitment to complete the Hexenstieg began to slip anchor and quickly drift…

After what seemed an eternity we finally made it to the aid station at Altenbrak.  I moved beyond the refreshment area and went immediately to work on the blister on my left foot.  Micha (I don’t know how he managed to be at virtually every aid station.) came over to check on me.  I told him that all was good (I lied) and that you don’t die from blisters.  After getting bandaged up again we set out into the night for Königshütte.  Curses!  

The next 24 odd kilometers are a deep dark blur for me.  The devil got on my back and road me; spinning things in my head.  I slipped into a deep pool of self-pity and bad decision making.  As we coursed ever upwards towards Königshütte I cursed myself for signing up for this race.  No, blisters won’t kill you, but they certainly provide a great opportunity to dwell on your misery.  While focused on the one on my left foot a new one developed in the same location on my right.  Matthias began to hallucinate and told us that a lighted long jump ski ramp was coming up on our right.  It was actually the moon shining through the clouds.  I really began to shut down on Matthias and Günter not talking with either.

Dick Collins advice, “Decide before the race the conditions that will cause you to stop and drop out.  You don’t want to be out there saying, “Well gee, my leg hurts, I’m a little dehydrated, I’m sleepy, I’m tired, and it’s cold and windy,” and talk yourself into quitting.  If you are making a decision based on how you feel at that moment, you will probably make the wrong decision” is spot on.  I had read and considered this passage many times.  I had not considered the fact that running an ultra like the Hexenstieg takes a very solid personal commitment to this principal.  In fact, I’d never been to this point in my thinking before.  Sure, other races have sucked, but never like this. 

Between Altenbrak and Königshütte I abandoned all principals and commitment to finishing the Hexenstieg and decided to quit, or at least go down for a while and sleep.  That’s what my mind told me, but the devil that was now riding me like a cheap circus ride told me that it was “OK to tell the Brandenburger that you are going to get some sleep.”  Once they’re gone you can sleep some more and drop because you know that there are no vehicles scheduled to leave Königshütte unless it’s an emergency, you take a cab, or you wait it out until the morning by which time you will have missed every opportunity to finish.  So quit.  It’s all good!  This ultra racing thing is stupid anyway.  You don’t need to prove that you can do this to anyone.” 

We each rolled into Königshütte in dark spirits.  When we got into the community building there were people crashed and sleeping everywhere.  “This is what I’m talking about!”  The race volunteers were again superb.  As we sat down at the first table in sight there were several of them asking what food and drink they could bring us?  I had an alcohol free beer and a cup of coffee at the same time; I don’t recall what plate (noodles or potatoes) I ate.  Günter fell asleep eating his meal while Matthias rummaged through his drop bag and then fell asleep.  My tee-shirt was soaked from sweating and by now I was wearing a wind breaker; I figured what the hell and also went to sleep.  In the back of my mind I was looking to drop and hoping that Günter and Matthias would go down for a while then I could reconsider everything.

After twenty minutes or so Matthias asked us if we were ready to go.  Sluggishly Günter wondered off to the bathroom.  It was here that I told Matthias that I was going to drop.  My hope was that he would encourage me not to; I was prepared with a number of good solid arguments; instead he simply asked if my blisters were going to be a real issue.  Günter came back and I told him while Matthias was away from the table.  He told me that I was not going to drop and that I needed to get myself together.  Period – easy as that.  I wondered off to the bathroom to actually test my feet and gather my thoughts.  While sitting in the bathroom I thought about Dick Collins’ advice and decided to head back out, “Shit this is going to suck!”.  I made my way back to our table and told the Brandenburgers that I was back in the game, but that before I made my final decision I wanted their assurance that I would not be a burden to them, nor hold them back from finishing.  Great guys!  They told me that we were in this thing together and we were going to finish it together no matter what.  This commitment to one another, to this event blew me away.  This is what ultrarunning is about.

With that and a final slug of coffee and a GU we headed out in the night towards Torfhaus...   

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hexenstieg Ultra 2012 Part I

This tough 200KM trail race took place along the famous or infamous Harzer-Hexenstieg (Harz Witch’s Trail) in the Harz Mountains of Central Germany from 28  - 29 April 2012.  The route passed from Osterode over the Brocken to Thale and back via a circuitous route home to Osterode.  The Hexenstieg contains significant elevation change of 4000 meters traveling through deep forests and into sub-alpine zones near the Brocken.  The Hexenstieg courses over well developed hiking trails (65%) and single track (25%) with the remaining 10% of the course traveling along farm or other low use roads and paths.  Navigation over the course was facilitated by hiking trail marking, GPS, maps and the road book.  There were almost no race specific markings.  Weather conditions on race weekend were as anticipated mixed with rain Saturday night, an icy wind on the Brocken and very hot (38C/100F) weather Saturday afternoon.

Nine months after my first 100 miler I felt nervous, but ready to take on what was to prove to be an exceptionally challenging, yet rewarding 125 mile ultra.

After getting up at 0600 on Friday morning, having breakfast with the girls and making final arrangements I left for the Hotel Harzer Hof in Osterode at about 0830.  I was pleasantly surprised at the arrangements Michael Frenz had made for us with Stephan Zirbus at the Harzer Hof – we had the whole place to ourselves and it was to serve as race headquarters and home away from home for the next couple of days.

Micha exceeded my wildest expectations in the set up he had developed leading up the race – a private event became a professional affair.  He had established a race headquarters with maps, instructions, sign in rosters and a super drop bag with special goodies from a number of great sponsors including WAT Läuft (Thanks Rolli!).  At 1600 Stephan and his crew served a delicious vegan or meat eater meal of which I had two portions of the vegan pasta.  Like military clockwork Micha had us in our places at 1700 for an in-depth race briefing which included a discussion of how he saw the race unfolding, a detailed description of the course and safety issues.  During this briefing he introduced the medical and massage teams that were on tap to support us.  First class pre-race affairs!  

Following dinner and the race briefing we took a quick group photo and then Micha released us to go prepare and rest prior to the midnight kickoff.  After completing the final preparation of my run kit I found it impossible to sleep during our down time.  Things were simply too loud around the hotel and I was too excited about the race.  If you’re a racer you know the deal.  Your nerves are on edge; you worry about your training and health leading up to the event; and doubt begins to creep in.  I meditated a bit and tried to relax.

At 0000 on 28 April the Hexenstieg Ultra kicked off from the Hotel Harzer Hof with twenty-eight runners.  Nineteen of this group would finish the course.

From Osterode we traveled through the night to the first rest stop at Torfhaus (33KM).  Although the elevation change was not sharp during this period it was there over the long run.  The trails were extremely dark and a light rain was falling on us most of the night.  My mind often wondered to J.R.R. Tolkien and his portrayal of many of the scenes within his stories.  It was dark (I turned off my headlamp for short period and could not see my hand in front of my face) and it was spooky.  During this leg of the race the pack of runners had spread out as it inevitably does.  Fortunately I had settled into a pace with a couple of other people including Jorg Finkbeiner.  Jorg and I had met at final registration; he is from the area where I live so we had some things in common and wound up running together to the Brocken Ramp.  At one point Jorg and I were moving over a shoulder width path that had boulders, stones, and moss all over it.  The rain had made the area extremely slippery.  I slipped and fell backwards landing on my back.  With a loud "Fook" and a short moment to regroup;  I quickly gathered my lamp and senses and was thankful that I had not injured myself this early in the race.

Following a quick break at Torfhaus our path led us higher quickly moving to the unique Brocken environment.  For a Texan it was unusual to see patches of snow on the ground this late in the spring.  I got lost in the beauty of the environment listening to the forest awake; wondering about wild boar and looking forward to my second visit to the Brocken this year.  After a brief break on the way up the Brocken Ramp to answer the call of nature I was excited to arrive on the summit (42KM or the first marathon distance of several for the day) at 0630.  The timing was perfect for an early breakfast and again Micha had taken care of everything having coordinated to have the Brocken Wirt open and ready with hot coffee and pastries.

Jorg and I split paths at the Brocken Summit as I wanted to get back out on the trail.  I wrapped up breakfast; refilled water bottles and shifted my load around a bit.  As I was getting ready to leave another group of three were setting out and tentatively welcomed me into their group.  Because of the lack of race trail marking I felt it critical to run with a partner or group.  This group “The Brandenburgers” were to be my traveling partners for the next day and a half.

Over the course of the next 158 kilometers I was to get to know and come to depend upon this merry band of Brandenburgers.  The group was made up of Günter Janiszewski, Matthias Muhs and Nic Rohman.  Unfortunately, Nic was not to finish the Hexenstieg.  Before I go on let me tell you briefly about the term Brandenburgers.  The Brandenburgers refers to the region where this group is from, Brandenburg.  They too are a world and culture unto themselves (smile).  Although at first we weighed one another out as most competitors do and there was not a lot of talking at least with me because I was an outsider to this tight group of friends, we slowly warmed to one another and spent hours talking about, well..., everything!  That, is but one thing that makes a race of this nature so incredibly wonderful.  (I’m usually a runner that has his iPod on the entire course of an event.  I didn’t use either of the two I brought with me.)  

From the Brocken Summit we set out for the next aid station at Königshütte at Kilometer 66.  As I mentioned above the day started out overcast, windy, and cold.  This was to rapidly change as we traveled with the sun coming out and basting us for hours.  I was glad to have had the foresight to have carried some Succeed tablets with me.  Succeed S!Caps are the shit when you’re running in hot weather.  They assist in the prevention of both dehydration and cramping.  And no, that was not a paid endorsement.  They are simply good stuff! 

Over the route to Königshütte we crossed the course of the Harzquerung.  It was fun to pass through this area as one of the Harzquerung aid stations was setting up as we passed and wondered what in the heck runners were doing out so early.  Like many others over the weekend, they too were a bit surprised to hear that we were running a round trip of the Hexenstieg.  Our course took us onwards to the aid station at Rübeland, through the Bode Valley and onward to the half-way point and aid station in the Sport Center in Thale.  The toughest part of the outbound course was between Treseburg and Teufelsbrücke.  Although “only” six kilometers this portion of the route was characterized by a path that went up and down (constantly), was strewn with rocks and talus and contained the pleasant surprise shown below.  Great stuff Micha!!!

At the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge) we made our way to Thale and the half way point.  If you’re ever in Thale don’t ask for instructions to the Community Sport Center or anything else for that matter.  No one knows anything in this town that time seems to have gotten stuck in time immediately following the German Reunification.  It looks very much like what I recall the rest of the region looking like in 1990.  Very odd...

It was great to finally land at the Sport Center in Thale.  It was as if a weight had been taken off of my shoulders.  We had just traveled 100KM in the blazing sun; I had had it with the energy drinks, gels and bars I was carrying and was looking forward to something decent to eat, a chance to take off my shoes and relax a bit.

I want to pause a moment in this chronology and specifically talk about the race volunteers that supported this race.  This was the most amazing group of volunteers I’ve ever run with.  They truly made this race happen often staying up as long as we did and catering to our every need.  The group was made up of family members and friends of runners that were on the course.  When you arrived at an aid station you were treated like family and a VIP.  I could not have completed this race without your support.

In the Bode Valley Nic had run out a bit in front of us so he arrived in Thale somewhat earlier than Matthias, Günter and I.  At Thale we each had access to a second drop bag which was a huge factor for all.   In hindsight I wish I had packed a towel like everyone else because there were showers available which most folks took advantage of.  While in Thale I enjoyed a plate of pasta a whole lot of juice, water, and cola.  After eating a bit and restocking my running pack I took time to bandage up the first of what were to become five significant blisters.  Although in Thale my blister was causing me no real issues it was a warning of things to come...