Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Essence of Life

“There is nothing quite so gentle, deep and irrational as running – and nothing quite so savage, so wild.”  - Bernd Heinrich

So I have to admit…  I’ve been thinking about my race report for the 2015 Brocken-Challenge (BC) since I headed to Göttingen the morning of 13 February.  Going into the 2015 BC I had run this superlative event six times and enjoyed each occasion immensely.  So my thoughts have been, “where do you go with this report after the seventh turn?  What more can I add other than a summary of the event and perhaps some statistics on the winners and finishers?”  As I sit here and type I continue to struggle with where this report is going to go.  If you care to; let’s wander a bit…

Going into the 2015 BC I was not prepared to run.  As I mentioned in an earlier post I am suffering from an insertional Achilles tendinopathy injury.  Work and life in general has been a bear since I ran my last ultra in December.  I organized my kit for the BC two weekends prior to the event as I would have no time or mental capacity to do so at the last minute.   Given the Achilles niggle I have and my inability to relax and focus on the BC I seriously considered not starting.  If you’ve read any of my previous BC reports that would come as a surprise as the BC is on my list of “Must Do” events each year.  I made my final decision to run Friday morning committing to myself as I got in the car that I would unwind from the rest of my life as soon as we started running Saturday morning.

“Movement is the essence of life.” - Heinrich

In 2015 I arrived in Göttingen much earlier than in previous years to meet with Aschu who was kind enough to put me up for a night or two.  This early arrival enabled the opportunity to also arrive at the Check-in/Briefing site way ahead of schedule.  After feebly “helping” out a bit I adjourned to a seating area in the foyer of the hall where we were located.  This area in which ultimately found a rather large group of us sitting became referred to as the “BC Lounge”.  We were all sitting facing the stairwell where everyone had to enter to get checked in and it became a place to reunite, chill, talk about things runners talk about (shoes, equipment, physical well being, race plans, etc.) and share many laughs.  Following the race briefing which introduced the event, the organization, beneficiaries, and a Carnival like run down of the race itself, Aschu and I headed back to his place.

Thankfully, Friday evening included a simple, but delicious (seriously) dinner and much delightful discussion with Aschu.  We collectively went through our gear one last time and braced for a restless pre-race evening.  Saturday morning I was relieved that I had gotten a good night’s sleep on Thursday night as I was hyped up and did not sleep well Friday.  We had set alarms for 0400, but I think that both of us were awake and ready to go well before the alarm rang.  After a few cups of Yogi tea and a banana to knock the remnants of the night we set out for the BC start.

We arrived at the old Dance Hall at Kehr and the start location as breakfast was cranking up and runners were signing in.  Over the past seven years I’ve admired the volunteers and runners that brave the cold of this old Dance Hall (It’s really more like a barn.), particularly the volunteers led by Juliette Mallison.  2015’s breakfast layout was exceptional.  We were even treated to portable heaters which drew crowds of runners to them much like bar patrons to bistro tables with dishes of peanuts.  The breakfast buffet was second to none with my favorite including the fresh fruit salad and cereal.  Breakfast was another opportunity to connect with friends and acquaintances.  It was great to see Michael, Sabine, Uli, Werner and many others.  Werner, you’re insane running the BC on Valentines Day and your anniversary to boot!  Gutsy my friend.  Very gutsy!  Before I knew it, it was time to head outside to assemble to get ready for the 0600 start.

Photo courtesy of Ralph Benz

I think that many people, particularly the BC uninitiated, run the BC and other events of this nature as purely athletic events that offer an extreme test of endurance.  The draw to the distance and the challenge of a winter ultra were without a doubt the reason I signed up for my first BCs in 2009 and 2010. The BC is certainly that, but there’s more.  I view ultrarunning as a shift in paradigms that affords an opportunity to experience the wild, tribal and ascetic way of life we have generally become numb to in our “modern” world.  Endurance running is one of the few remaining doors through which we can step and embrace risk in the raw.  It is as the great Alpinist, Lionel Terray once wrote, “… these are moments of exultation and bliss, which in the monotonous, materialistic existence of modern times nothing else can approach…”
Photo courtesy of Michael Hartmann
Terray’s words rang true throughout my 2015 BC experience.  Unlike previous years, I can’t say that I had to fight through any particular low points of pain, suffering or mental anguish.  Yes, there were low points...

The section from Wasserheide along the Steinaer Bach leading up to the wonderful aid station at Jagkopf.  But these periods were off set by the incredible weather and the opportunity to spend some time alone and with friends like Rolli.

During my last few running seasons I have learned much about myself, running and life for that matter.  Key truths for me include:

-  Never attempt an ultra as a whole.  Instead, you must view it in its parts or elements, thinking only as far ahead as the next aid station.  Doing so allows you to manage the whole without being overcome by the WHOLE.

-  To manage an ultra in its parts is to remain in the present.  This presence of mind allows me to slip out of the monotony of life and into the bliss that Terray so aptly described from his experiences in the mountains.

-  Negativity breeds negativity in both the psychological and physical sense.  For me, even the smallest, most quaint negative thought streams impact my well being.  I actually work to cast negative thoughts from my mind like little clouds.  I attempt to accept them for what they are and move on.  Only so am I able to remain focused on my goal and the presence of the moment.

-  I have found that my mental and physical state are driven by the energy in my tank.  During an ultra I require a steady intake of both fluids and fuel.  Although the BC offers a delightful variety of organic, vegan fare, I found that I could not get what was offered in 2015 to either fuel me, much less stay down.  I literally blew up at the half way point.  I felt like a new man after emptying my gut.  From Barbis forward I stuck with my own gels and energy bars and drank the bouillon soup and ate apples over the course of the rest of the race. 

My final push from Oderbrueck (72.4KM) to the Brocken summit was dedicated to James Sedberry.  James was a lifelong friend that lived through an eternity of life with multiple sclerosis.  He passed away on 7 January 2015.  James’ childhood nickname was “Happy” as he was never without a smile.  Happy was in his element outside.  I think he would have enjoyed the Harz much like I do if not more.  The memory of his smile carried me the last 7.5 kilometers to the finish line.

The 2015 Race…
Registration for the 2015 BC opened in early November 2014 via a lottery.  Application to the lottery was submitted via the BC web site.  Results of this lottery were published on the first of December 2014.

Weather conditions leading up to the 2015 were promising with a good bit of snow in late December into January.  Low temperatures were consistent almost up to the week prior to the BC.  A warming trend occurred this last week before the event causing significant snow melt below 300 meters.  The snow and ice line retreated primarily into the Harz National Park after the mid-point aid station.  On race day temperatures hovered just at freezing with slightly colder temperatures beyond Jagkopf.  Blue skies and sunshine were to rule the day on the 14th.

Photo courtesy of Martin Woitynek

On 14 February 2015 170 BC starters lined up at Hainholzhof (Kehr) in Göttingen to give the course a go; 160 runners finished!  Antje Mueller of Rötha won the women’s category with a blistering 8:52 finish.  Florian Reichert of Göttingen set a new men’s course record in 6:33!  I had a sensational day besting my 2013 time by 32 minutes in 11:21.

Considering Running?
The Brocken-Challenge is a winter charity ultramarathon of approximately 80 – 85KM with a positive change of 1900 meters in altitude that takes place over a mixed surface course between the city of Göttingen and the finish on the Brocken Summit (1142m) in the Harz. All donations for the BC benefit a number of local, regional and international organizations details of which can be found here.

The BC route travels over farm roads, forest, hiking and cross-country ski trails.  The route varies each year based on the amount of snow in the Harz National Park.  The course originates in Göttingen and passes checkpoints/aid stations at Landolfshausen (10.9KM), Rollshausen (21.8KM), Rhumequelle (30.7KM) and Barbis (Dreymanns Muehle) (42.5KM) over what is a large bowl like terrain feature.  The ULTRA in the BC begins at Barbis where the course enters the Harz National Park passing through aid stations at Jagkopf (53.8KM), Lausebuche (63.1KM), Koenigskrug (68.5KM), Oderbrueck (72.4KM) before proceeding to the finish line on the summit of the Brocken.  The leg between Barbis – Jagkopf – Lausebuche is best characterized as the Gut Check of the entire course as the Jagkopf is only accessable by foot with no opportunity to drop at this aid station if you were to become so inclined.

The Brocken, the easternmost mountain in Northern Germany is surrounded by the Harz National Park.  The mountain illustrates a unique terrain feature in that it is completely exposed to the North German Plain.  Largely based on this exporsure its microclimate resembles that of mountains of 2,000 meters or higher.  The Brocken rises above the tree line and experiences extreme temperature and climate impacts.  The highest recorded temperature was 28.2C on 12 AUG 2003 and the lowest temperature was recorded on 1 FEB 1956 at -28.4C.  In 1973 the summit was covered in snow for 205 days of the year.    The Brocken was ensrowded in fog for 330 days in 1958.  Traveling along a straight line east, the next prominent geographic elevation change is in the Ural Mountains!  (WIKI URL)
BC organization, volunteer support and aid stations are simply among the best I’ve experienced particularly when you consider that all of this is accomplished via volunteers and donations.  Aid stations are second to none and have been characterized as the Longest Organic Food Convention in the World.
The 2016 Brocken Challenge date is set for 13 FEB 2016.  My calendar is marked and I’m watching for when applications for the 2015 lottery will be taken.  Count me in!

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