Saturday, May 3, 2014

Hexenstieg Ultra 2014 – Heaven and Hell

The lover of life’s not a sinner
The ending is just a beginning
The closer you get to the meaning
The sooner you’ll know that you’re dreaming
So it’s on and on and on, oh it’ on and on and on
It goes on and on and on, Heaven and Hell…
Black Sabbath – Ronnie James Dio

The Hexenstieg Ultra is the brain child of Michael Frenz (Der Hexer) and generally follows the course of the Hexenstieg (Witch’s Trail or in German the Harzer Hexenstieg) hiking trail.  The trail runs from Osterode through the Harz Mountains, over its highest peak, the Brocken, to Thale and back to Osterode.  For casual hikers the trail is approximately 100km in length ending in Thale.  For the Hexenstieg Ultra runners the trail turns around at Thale and courses back to Osterode for a total of 216km or 135 miles.

From Osterode to Clausthal-Zellerfeld the Hexenstieg courses along the Upper Harz Ponds.  The ponds are part of a cultural monument of the former mining industry of the Harz, known as the Upper Harz Water Regale.  The Regale is a system of dams, reservoirs, ditches and other structures, much of which were built from the 16th to 19th centuries to divert and store water that drove the water wheels of the mines in the Upper Harz region of Germany.  The Upper Harz Water Regale is one of the largest and most important historic mining water management systems in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  As you might imagine, a tremendous trail system that is the perfect setting for an ultra!

25 April 2014, marked the third annual Hexenstieg.  This ultra is designed to challenge runners with its distance over a broad mix of hiking trails, single track, and farm roads that traverse a wide range of terrain.  In addition to the distance and terrain the Upper Harz is known for its unstable and harsh weather conditions.  In April the weather can typically range from spring and summer temperatures to winter weather with snow, wind and rain.  Mother Nature smiled on the Hexenstieg runners in 2014 gracing us with mild temperatures, sunshine, several hours of light spring rain and wind and cool temperatures at night with lows around 3C.

Friday morning we started with forty runners.  Stefan Beckmann, Oliver Schoiber, and Michael Wagner led early and would dominate the race throughout the next thirty-plus hours.  Over the course of the event we lost eleven runners to various issues and at various distances, although thankfully there were no serious injuries or accidents.  Stefan and Oliver finished the race together for a tied first place in 31:39.  The women’s winner was Bianka Schwede who finished in 41:42.  Bianka’s amazing accomplishment is further highlighted by her women’s win of the Jurastieg Ultra (230KM) two weeks prior in 40:42! 

As the bit of Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” highlights above my race was just that…  Heaven and Hell.  The Hexenstieg and Harz region are two of my favorite locales in Germany.  The Brocken and the surrounding environs are magical to travel through.  In my mind this area is much like what I imagine Tolkien’s Middle Earth to be like.  Running along the Upper Harz Water Regale you expect to bump into a group of Dwarves finishing up a days work below in the mines.

This year I started my race intentionally at a very slow pace.  216-plus kilometers are a long way to go in one running…  I spent most, if not all of the race running with Lutz Kalitzsch.  Lutz and I have known and raced with one another for several years.  Joining us over the next couple of days were Ulrich Faust, Andreas Rumpelt and a couple of others.  Unfortunately, Ulrich had a tough time with GI issues and was forced to drop about half way into the race.  Andreas was to finish with Lutz and I.  Although an ultra undertaking is a singularly personal experience and endeavor, it’s always nice to work through the inevitable challenges in a group.  We agreed to go the distance together and enjoyed many laughs, getting to know one another and the other emotions and challenges that go along with crossing Heaven and Hell.

Highpoints of my race included a number of different locations and experiences.  Jens Habich and his crew from Adrenalintours in Clausthal-Zellerfeld (First and last Aid Station) were simply fantastic.  The single track course near the Wolfswarte and the valley to the east of Quitschenberg is a trail runners paradise!  The Brocken!  One word:  Magical.  Ruebelad, the Gasthaus, Tannegrund – An alcohol free Hefeweizen never tasted better!  The “High Moor” that surrounds the area around the Oderteich is simply a dreamscape.

And yes…  There were low points.  The night, no moon, a headlamp and kilometers and kilometers to go…  The little arch of light that a headlamp makes in front of an ultra runner can hypnotically narrow your world and thoughts in the deep of the night.  The challenge at this point is to avoid any negative thoughts.  For me, the simplest negativity can lead to a rapid slide into a dark morass that is hard to get back out of particularly if sunrise is a long way off.  I also learned that I can’t allow myself to think about the finish until I’ve gone through the last aid station and am headed in.  To consider it any earlier leads to frustration.  Follow me for a minute…

“When I finish I’m going to take a shower and get that massage.  I’ll drink a beer and sleep…  There are only XXkm left until then – you got this.  Shit, how many kilometers are left?  My knee hurts…  If I could get a message now my knee would stop hurting and I could get something to eat.  And, go to sleep…  This sucks.  This is hell.  Why am I doing this?  I have nothing to prove to anyone.  Damn I’m cold…  I could drop at the next aid station and get back before everyone else to get a shower and something to eat.  (Stop!  Focus on your mantra.  Screw that mantra!  It’s stupid anyway.)  I’ve got to catch a train tomorrow morning at 1100 which means if I dropped now I could get at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep.  Damn I’m tired.  I wish these guys would stop talking to me…  I don’t want to talk.  Don’t they know I’m damn tired?  These guys don’t care if I drop at the next aid station; they’d be rid of me and I could sleep!  (What was your mantra?  I don’t remember.  It was stupid anyway…)”
DON’T CONSIDER THE FINISH until you’re headed there after the last aid station.  I was able to manage the time, distance and sleeplessness by breaking the race down into whichever current leg we were on, running aid station to aid station, breaking the event down into manageable portions.

And in the end.  After 46:45…  I applied a bit of sound advice from an old friend.  Nothing beats a Hefeweizen and a dribble of a fine spirit to crown the event.  

Race headquarters in 2014 was again located at Stefan Zirbus’ Hotel Harzer Hof in Osterode.  Stefan and his team bent over backwards to accommodate the wants and needs of the Hexenstieg event.  A big thanks for all of your support Stefan!  I hope to get back out to the Harzer Hof again in the not too distant future.

Race support was generated solely by race volunteers.  In this case they are all friends of the event, family members and friends of runners.  This group demonstrated the true nature of “volunteerism” as they too were connected with the event.  I appreciate each and everyone one of the supporters and could not have finished without them.  

I’ve written and said this before…  Each event I’ve run in that was hosted by Michael Frenz has been a challenging yet rewarding success.  As time and experience unfold each subsequent event gets better – the 2014 Hexenstieg Ultra was no exception.  Micha’s events are minimally supported.  Although you are outfitted with a GPS track, road book and map there are no specific route markings and the distance between aid stations can be very challenging.  I strongly recommend Micha’s events, but you should go into them knowing that you will be running on your previous training and experience.  It’s a very singular experience. 

The Hexenstieg Ultra 2014 was a super event.  Nothing failed on organization, volunteers, friends, challenges and fun.  Count me in for 2015!