Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hexenstieg Ultra 2015

2015 saw the fourth running of the Hexenstieg Ultra.  The Hexenstieg Ultra Race Director, Michael Frenz, has established a phenomenal event that generally follows the course of the Harzer Hexenstieg Hiking Trail.  The race course begins and ends in Osterode am Harz; traveling through the Harz National Park and Harz Mountains.  For the casual hiker this course ends in Thale.  For participants in the Hexenstieg Ultra, Thale marks the 112KM aid station and turn around point facilitating an actual course distance of 216KM or approximately 135 miles.  The race opens on Friday morning at 0600 and closes on Sunday morning at 0600 limiting the course cut off time to 48 hours.

So let’s step back for a minute…  A go at a distance of 216KM is a challenge; clearly an ultra-distance.  But dear reader, like a number of other uniquely challenging events, it is not the distance alone that makes the Hexenstieg Ultra one of a kind.  Adding to “the sweetness” of this ultra are a number of other dynamic factors.  In addition to the distance runners face 4,500 meters or 14,764 feet of elevation change including summiting the Brocken.  Late April weather conditions in the Harz are best described as dramatically unpredictable.  2015 conditions included sunshine, blue skies and mild temperatures on Friday, 24 April.  Friday night was cool and relatively clear.  Saturday and early Sunday morning included low temperatures, rain, sleet and snow and very high wind at elevation.  Harzer weather conditions were to come back to haunt me later in my 2015 attempt.  More on that later…  Oh, we can’t also lose sight of the distance between aid stations (sometimes up to 30KM) and the roughness of some of the trails (when there was a trail). 

As the old saying goes, no good plan survives initial contact…  In this case my plans going into the Hexenstieg 2015 did not survey my work issues three weeks prior to the event.  I had initially planned to take Thursday, 23 April off in order to leisurely travel to Osterode to take part in pre-race activities.  Instead, I faced either not starting at all or traveling after a full work day Thursday evening.  After talking with Micha and Lutz, my running partner, I decided to give the journey a go.  I finally got out of Stuttgart and into classic German traffic jams at 1800 Thursday evening.  The trip to Osterode took me until about 2215.  My reception by Coni, Stefan and Micha that evening was simply fantastic and a clear reminder why I prefer running these small, friendly venues.  Coni had my starter kit set up, Stefan offered me dinner and Micha provided a personal brief on the course and event.  I remain very appreciative for Lutz’s gracious attitude in our hotel room.  He allowed me to keep him awake until 2300 organizing my running kit and getting caught up with him.   

Friday morning came much too early with the only saving grace being the great breakfast spread that Stefan and his team at the Hotel Harzer Hof provided for us.  I can’t say enough about Stefan and the Hotel Harzer Hof crew.  Annually, Stefan turns the Harzer Hof into the headquarters for the Hexenstieg Event days and all that comes with them.  Many thanks Stefan! 

After gathering in front of the hotel for a short final briefing and a couple of pictures we set out for a group run to the start of the Hexenstieg trail.  From the trail head Simon Gfeller and Michael Wagner led early and would dominate the race over the next thirty-plus hours.  Simone and Michael tied the finish with a new course record in 31:24.  Steffi Praher had am an amazing race finishing for the ladies in 41:55.  Lutz and I had planned a slow deliberate approach to the next couple of days.  Our investment in patience paid dividends for us over the long run.

Friday was simply amazing with blue skies and ideal running temperatures.  Watching the barometer and the weather over the course of the day it was hard to imagine anything but a wonderful event.

Lutz and I coursed over the route with few worries until we departed the Goetheweg to the west of the Brocken Mountain and got onto the track along the Eckar stream.  From here we were challenged by a good bit of deadfall and extremely wet surface conditions caused by snow melt.  My thinking at the time…  “It’s not an ultra unless you have wet, trashed feet!”  Passing the Eckartalsperre it was great to look south and know that the Brocken loomed out there.

Highpoints of my 2015 Hexenstieg included a number of different locations and experiences starting with the Brocken.  The Brocken is a magical mountain.  Yep, it takes some time to get there on foot, particularly if you leave the Goetheweg and head off in the opposite direction to the Eckartalsperre.  The approach to the summit up the old Kolonnenweg is in and of itself a gut check.  Upon finally arriving, Lutz introduced me to the Brocken Bahnhof Gastaette which was a real treat.  A bowl of pea stew never tasted better!

From the Brocken we traveled 26KM to Ruebeland and the aid station within the Gasthaus, Tannengrund another of my highlights.  It was here that I discovered the joy associated with drinking an alcohol free Hefeweissen in 2014.  I enjoyed the same again this year with some of the open faced sandwiches that were on hand for our culinary delight.  Evening and darkness were approaching as we left the warmth of the Tannengrund.  Our next aid station objective was the Hotel Bodeblick in Treseburg.
Unlike 2014 I was not hurting as badly as I had in the past when coursing to the Hotel Bodeblick.  The course travels 21KM from Ruebeland to Thale and the turnaround point.  This year I was more anxious than not to pass through Treseburg and close on Thale and an opportunity to reset for my approach to the second half. 

Die Sonne versinkt,                           The sun goes down,
der Himmel wird Pink.                        the sky turns pink.
Die Nacht beginnt,                             The night begins,
dein Leben macht wieder Sinn.          your life makes sense again.
-Seeed Molotov                                -Seeed Molotov

The aid station in Thale run by Gabi, Simone and Simone’s husband was phenomenal!  Here we had the opportunity to shower, switch out or take on additional gear/clothing, sleep and eat.  I took advantage of the station and did some preventative maintenance on my feet, changed tee-shirts and ate.  I did not sleep.  I also committed my largest mistake of the 2015 Hexenstieg by not picking up my Gore-Tex jacket and rain pants.  Looking back this was a distinctly amateur mistake having now hiked and run in the Harz for going on six years.

From the aid station at Thale Lutz and I headed up to the Hexentanzplatz enroute to the aid station at Treseburg.  Going back out we didn’t spend much time at the Hotel Bodeblick only enough to check in, grab a bite and a drink and we were on our way through the night to Hasselfelde.  Oh the night…  It’s funny what happens within the orb of light cast by a headlamp.  I can’t say that I experienced any hallucinations this first night, but do recall going deep within and very nearly, if not actually sleeping while we moved.

Saturday morning we arrived in Hasselfelde and instead of visiting the Total Gas Station we stopped at a bakery and had a fantastic breakfast – probably the best coffee I had all weekend!  From breakfast we faced another 20KM trek to Mandelholz and the Hotel Gruene Tanne.  We arrived in Mandelholz in time for lunch – my tanks definitely needed a fill up prior to the 19KM stretch to our second drop bag at Saint Andreasberg

The stretch between Mandelholz and Saint Andreasberg was one of the most challenging for me mentally.  The Wendeltreppe just to the west of the Rinderstall and just shy of the aid station was physically challenging, but not the cause of my difficulty.  Moving into Saint Andreasberg I was mentally spent and having sever motivation issues.  Adding to my difficulties was the fact that it had started raining and was not to stop doing so for much of the remainder of the race.

The aid station at Saint Andreasberg afforded me an opportunity to again maintain my feet, eat and restock from my second drop bag.  Lutz and I did not remain long in order to work through the remaining 41KMs left on the course.  The rain, exhaustion and cold really began to take a toll on me at this point.  With our pace I was unable to gain or retain any warmth.  I cursed myself for not packing or wearing my Gore-Tex kit.  While transiting the alternate route around the Oderteich I told Lutz that I would either need to drop from the race or dramatically increase our pace.  He told me to take off on my own, which although unhappy about leaving Lutz, I did.

The approach up the Bruchberg and Wolfswarter provided me the ideal opportunity to gain some heat as it was steep and rough, following the course of a creek bed.  My movement to the Wolfswarter was relatively uneventful until I arrived at the summit.  Lovely Harzer weather brought in very strong winds which were pushing sleet and snow almost horizontally.  The hiking stamp station on the Wolfswarter was one of our check points and required either a stamp or a photo of the stamp station.  In 2014 we searched to no end to locate the stamp station.  With the weather closing in and getting worse I decided to simply take a picture of the Wolfswarter summit and move back down as quickly as I could.  Picture taken I began my decent down the Oberer Bruchbergweg to the next aid station at Altenau.  The transit down the Oberer Bruchbergweg was eerie as about half way through the fog moved in and rapidly reduced my scope of vision.

Rolling into Altenau and the self-serve aid station at the Hotel Sachsenross I was filled with a bit of trepidation knowing what awaited me over the course and the night itself.  Locating the Sachsenross was no issue.  In 2014 Lutz, Andreas and I spent literally hours wondering around Altenau attempting to locate the street that took us to the 7Km long old rail line that runs between Altenau and Clausthal-Zellerfeld.  As I left the aid station I was keenly focused on staying on track to avoid 2014’s frustration.  Although I initially missed the sharp left hand turn in Altenau (ran 100 meters past it), I quickly doubled back, found the right path and headed out.

The old rail line is known within Hexenstieg circles as the “Bahndamms das grauens” or “Rail Line of Misery”.  The path is seven kilometers of almost straight going with an ever so slight incline.  On any other day it represents an easy run between the two towns.  After completing nearly 195KM of movement it represents a significant physical and mental challenge.  As I began my movement along it significant fog began to move in closing my visible world in around me even tighter.  Going over things in my mind…  I had not slept in a darn long time, I was cold, and now I could not see anything but my feet in front of me.  “What to do?”  MUSIC!  I’d carried by IPod with me the entire time and not yet used it.  I was alone, in the fog and coursing over the Hexenstieg through the night.  Not much of a better opportunity to “Turn on, Tune in and Drop out”!  I can’t say that my music shortened the transit along the “Bahndamms das grauens”, but it sure did make it more interesting.  And I can tell you that Timothy Leary would have approved of my state of mind. 

I didn’t stay long at Jens’ in Clausthal-Zellerfeld.  I saw Jens, Micha and a couple of other race supporters, but no runners.  I had a cup of coffee, dumped my trash and headed out to finish up the last 14KM of the race.  The going was foggy and slow getting to Buntenbock because of the fog.  I stopped for a BIO call just prior to the village and saw someone coming down off of the ridge line I’d just left.  When they got down to where I was standing we greeted one another and much to my surprise it was Lutz!  Our reunion was perfectly timed to head into Freiheit and Osterode together.

My 2015 take-aways...  (These are presented now after having had the opportunity to consider the Hexenstieg experience for a couple of weeks.  Just long enough not to have the pain and bad memories escape me.)  Do the Hexenstieg in 2016!  I know, I told myself, Lutz and a couple of others that I would take a break from the Hexenstieg.  However, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary AND the Hexenstieg is simply an amazing adventure.  Don’t ever consider the finish of an endurance event until you have one aid station between you and it.  I was able to manage time, distance and exhaustion by breaking the race down into the current aid station leg I was on.  Nutrition!  Nutrition!  Nutrition!  Food is fuel; you’ve got to have it to keep going physically and for me it is essential to my positive motivational wellbeing.  In an endurance event like the Hexenstieg you require both early, consistently and over the long haul.  Before attempting one of Michael Frenz’s or a similar event that includes a course that is not marked, know and understand your GPS.  Lutz and I discovered some quality features associated with our GPS that ensured we didn’t stray too far off of the race course.  Weather happens – it is neither good nor bad, it just is.  Waste little time and energy lamenting about this and instead focus on aspects within your control such as suitable clothing and gear.

The 2015 Hexenstieg was a phenomenal event!  It represents one of Europe’s toughest endurance events with a small, familiar starting field, super organization and volunteer support.  Count me in for 2016!