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...

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