Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How can DNFing be so much fun!?! Or, A Race Report on the 2013 Hexenstieg Ultra


A bit of background in a frequently asked questions (FAQ) format:

- What was the distance of the 2013 Hexenstieg Ultra?  216KM Plus!
- What is the Ultra course?  It generally travels along the Hexenstieg Hiking Trail from Osterode am Harz over the Brocken summit to Thale and return. 
- What is the course like?  The Hexenstieg Ultra course is made up of 65% hiking trail, 25% single track and 10% gravel or asphalt surfaced paths or road.  The course had 4,500 meters of elevation change.  For a perspective on this elevation its approximately equivalent to running up and down the Empire State Building ten times.  The highest point of the course is at the Brocken Summit at 1141 meters or 3743 feet. 
- How many runners participated?  31 started
- How many runners finished?  13 finished
- How hard is the Hexenstieg Ultra?  With no race specific marked trails, a limited number of check points or rest stops, no pacers, no medical support and the environment of the Harz National Park, simply stated this is a very difficult event.  I do not recommend it as a first, second or even third 100 mile ultra event.  Run several 100 milers prior to attempting!
- Are there cut off times and a maximum number of hours available to spend on the course?  Yes, cut off times were established at Thale (117KM, 20 hours), Waldgaststätte Rinderstall (170KM, 38 hours), and Osterode (216KM, 48 hours).  During this year’s event Michael Frenz, the Race Director (RD), extended the cut off times two hours because of the weather for a total run time of 50 hours.
- How many drop bags were allowed?  A total of three.
- How many aid stations were available?  A total of twelve manned and unmanned stations with a varying fare of different beverages and food.  One unmanned check point at the Eckertalsperre where you had to stamp your starter number with the trail marking stamp to ensure that you approached the Brocken from the old convoy route versus following the shorter “ramp” route.
- Was there a packing list?  There was no specified packing list.  The RD did however recommend a packing list similar to that used in the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc which included a pack, a stock of water, two headlamps with spare batteries, survival blanket, whistle, first aid kit, food reserve, protective wind and rain jacket, running trousers or leggings, spare shirt, gloves, and hat.
- How many nights of sleep did you miss out on?  Two.  The race started on Friday morning at 0800 and you had to complete by Sunday at 0800.

My training for the Hexenstieg Ultra was on track until about a month prior to the event.  I came down with a butt kicking infection that laid me out for about four days.  This set back slowed down my ramp up to the event and cast doubt on my ability to participate.  As it turns out many of the runners that I spoke with prior to the event indicated that they had experienced the same.  I got a 21.4 KM run on 21 April which was my last long run prior to the main event.

Packing for the event I framed my list around what I could carry with me and those things I could place into each of the three drop bags and where they would be located.  After running the Hexenstieg in 2012 I packed for spring weather versus the icy winter conditions that were to unfold.  My drop bags included short sleeve shirts, one set of long running leggings, additional food and beverage mix and a shower kit for use at the turn around point in Thale. 

I left home on Thursday morning, 25 April to get to Osterode am Harz that afternoon.  Like 2012, race headquarters, billeting and meals were served through the Hotel Harzer Hof.  Stephen Zirbus and his staff afford the ideal location and environment for a race of this nature.  They catered to our every need with the hotel providing rooms, food and the race headquarters all in one location.  A super set-up!

The evening of 25 April was spent socializing with other runners, getting in-processed, settled in the hotel, participating in the race briefing and dinner.  I shared a room with Peter Kaminsky.  We all rose early on 26 April to enjoy a buffet breakfast in the hotel at 0530 and a 0740 group run to the Hexenstieg starting point.

The Race

At 0800 on Friday morning under blue skies, sunshine and mild spring temperatures thirty-one of us set off on an adventure through the Harz.  

The early part of the course was over hard surface paths and trail.  The first aid station was located in Clausthal Zellerfeld at Adrenalin Tours, 16KM.  Jens runs a first class aid station serving BBQ, beverages and various other snacks.  From Clausthal Zellerfeld we navigated over to Torfhaus where the crew served us out of the back of Stephan’s van.  

From here the distance opened way up between aid stations with the next available on the Brocken summit.   Up there…

Micha established a circuitous route to the Brocken summit which is well laid out in the next series of pictures.  It included super single track trail that if you weren’t carefully navigating over you were going to get your butt lost (speaking from experience).  

One of the highlights of running an event of this nature is the people that you can spend time with.  It’s up to you, you can chat for a while and move on, or you can join up with someone and spend the day getting to know them.  I was thrilled to link up with Gunter Rothe an old acquaintance and the RD of the ThüringenULTRA.  As it turned out, he and I share many of the same interests and he makes a great Ultra running partner.  

Brocken Summit

As we approached the Brocken I began to watch the barometer on my watch as the weather forecast had called for rain.  Climbing the old convoy road up the Brocken you could actually feel the front moving in.  At the time we did not recognize the severity of the change that was about to take place.

We arrived at the Brocken Summit at approximatly 1705.  This aid station was only scheduled to be open until 1700 as it was tied to the operating hours of the Brockenwirt.  Without this aid station we were faced with another 26KM to the next opportunity to refuel and restock our water supplies.  Fortunately, Gunter bumped into a friend that was on the Summit.  This friend knows the owner of the Brockenwirt and called him.  Within a few minutes the snack bar was opened up again and we were afforded the opportunity to purchase beverages at horribly outrageous prices (I paid 5 Euro for a liter of water.  For that price I could have purchased three cases or 36 liters of water at home!.)  Anyway - Micha indicated later that he would correct this shortfall with an additional aid station in 2014. 

We spent about twenty minutes using the facilities at the Brockenwirt, drinking something and having a bite to eat from what we were carrying.  You can imagine our surprise and concern as we watchted the weather roll in on us.  In about twenty minutes we were enshrouded in fog, wind and rain.  Gunter and I decided to leave the rest of the group and get a start on heading down.  

Looking back at the Brocken summit!

As we left the shelter of the Brockenwirt we were assaulted by winds raging on the Beaufort Scale at 11, or 103 – 117KPH, (The Beaufort Scale characterizes these winds as a hurricane like storm.).  We were definitely rocken the Brocken.  Weather conditions continued to deterioriate with rain, fog, sleet, snow and temperatures bouncing around at freezing.  It was definitely time to get down off of the Brocken and back into the shelter of the forest to cover the next 26KM to the Tannengrund in Rübeland where a warm soup and a drop bag awaited us.  

Gunter and I sucked it up and moved with the motivation that we could change clothes in Rübeland.  We rolled into the Tannengrund at about 2130 Friday evening soaked through.  After changing, restocking packs and getting warm we headed back out into the storm on our way to Treseburg a movement of seventeen kilometers over single track trails and what was to prove no trail at all.  By the time we arrived in Treseburg I was feeling the depth of the cold that had moved in on us.  

In Treseburg we were able to briefly warm up with another bowl of soup in the Hotel Bodeblick.  It took a great deal of will power not to ask for a room to get a shower and relax for the evening there in the hotel.  After about a half hour we headed back out into the night and the depths of its cold, wind and rain for a ten kilometer move to Thale and the turn around point. 

Our move to Thale took us almost two hours.  During this time I was unsuccessful at getting warm and felt my core slowly succumbing to the cold.  I became concerned that with no medical assistance available on the course and the distance, time and energy it would take to return to Osterode over the next twenty-four plus hours I could run problem.  At the same time Gunter had developed a sever case of shin splints and indicated that he was not going to go beyond Thale.  As we made our way into town I too confirmed my decision to withdraw from the race.

When we finally arrived at the multipurpose center in Thale we walked into the building to applause and pleasant faces.  Gunter and I announced that we were not going in.  Ronald Musil, one of the aid station leaders announced “DNF" which briefly kicked me where it hurt.  I thought of the Barkley Marathon and how it must feel coming off of one of the loops. 

After dropping, things seemed to speed up.  I was slightly concerned about doing so, but chalked that up to ego.  After getting back to the Harzer Hof I got a room, a shower, a bite to eat and slept…  When I went down to the reception area late that afternoon I was surprised to see so many of the racers that I respect and admire had also withdrawn.  We spent the afternoon and early evening talking about our experiences and the impact of the crazy storm that had moved in on us.  As things turned out, temperatures continued to drop, the rain turned to snow and ice and it was a miserable event.   

My hat is off to those that were able to gut it out and finish.  Well done – a Herculean effort!

Breakdown of the 2013 Hexenstieg Ultra Finishers:

Lars Donath, 31:40 – Men’s Winner
Petra Rösler, 42:58 – Women’s Winner
Eugeni Roselló Solé, 33:28
Peter Kaminsky, 33:28
Joel Jou, 36:50
Stefan Beckmann, 38:36
Sven Winkelmann, 38:36
Volker Krause, 40:42
Eckhardt Seher, 40:42
Ralf Lohrke, 42:56
Frank Nicklisch, 46:10
Stephen Hloucal, 46:10
Marcus Reiter, 46:10

So where does this leave me?  

Will I be back for another taste of what Michael Frenz (Der Hexer) can dream up for us?  You bet I will.  Running the Hexenstieg Ultra is an amazing experience filled with adventure and friendship.  Micha – it’s great that the field remains so small and so personal.

Many thanks to the volunteers that made this year’s Hexenstieg Ultra possible.   They are made up of family, friends and the curious.  Without you all this event would not be possible.

DNF or Finish – the Hexenstieg Ultra is a great event.  It’s been three days since it came to a close and I already yearn to go again.