Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dancing with Witches - Hexentanz 2016

April 2016 found me running another event in the Hexenstieg series of ultra/endurance events.  After completing the 216KM Hexenstieg after a number of previous runnings in 2015 I decided to give the Hexenstieg’s little brother, the Hexentanz or Witch’s Dance a go this year.  A 100KM distance is a good building block as you into the running season – you would think.

Yes, you would think…  What’s 100KM?  It’s 61 miles.  Comparing it to other 100KMs events that I’ve participated in one would think that, although certainly not a give away or a speed event, it would be one that “would be a good training event along the way”.  Surprise!  We should have known better.  Michael Frenz (RD) always has something up his sleeve during each of the fantastic events he hosts throughout the year, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On 22 April I traveled to Osterode am Harz.  With a quick stop in Goettingen at the Anstalt for a coffee and surprise starter bag the trip was fun and easy.  I got into Osterode in the early evening and joined my roommate and running partner Lutz.  As in past years, the headquarters for the Hexen Events was located at the Hotel Harzer Hof.  The Hotel Harzer Hof is rated as a simple three star location.  In my mind, Stephan, the owner/operator and his team merit five stars.  The entire Harzer Hof team bent over backwards to cater to this series of events and their guests.  Top notch! 

Race check in was well organized, quick and easy.  After getting checked in I spent some time catching up with Lutz and organized my kit for the race the following morning.  That evening Stephan served a delicious buffet meal catering to vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters alike. 

Saturday morning arrived overcast and slightly cooler compared to the previous beautiful spring day on Friday.  At about eight we boarded a bus to make the trip to the Sport Center in Thale from where we were to start.  When we arrived in Thale thirty-six of us lined up, had a quick photo made and then headed off for our adventure into the Harz.

Lutz and I had decided to “go easy” at this ultra and to use it as a training event.  Like in so many races the herd is nervous and racers shot past us.  No real worries there from my side as we’d see many of them again over the course of the next twenty or so hours.

The first leg of the Hexentanz took us up and over the Hexenztanzplatz.  From here we coursed back down into the Bode Gorge and our first aid station (VP) in Treseburg at 11KM.

Lutz grabbed an apple and we were on our way again to the town of Hasselfelde.  Over the last couple of years we have made a bakery in a grocery store our VP.  Saturday morning we stopped and had a sandwich and coffee.  Our race was largely uneventful from Hasselfelde to Koenigshuette.  It was not until slightly after Koenigshuette that I made our first orienteering error.  Oh, have I not mentioned that the races courses of the Hexen series are not marked?  You are required to make your way using either a map and compass or GPS.  By and large the course is relatively easy to follow as 80 – 90% of it follows the Hexenstieg Hiking Trail which is very well marked.

It’s the other 10-20% that is challenging and you had better be paying attention.  My trouble on Saturday was that I was following an old track from the previous year’s event on my GPS.  The trail split in three directions at one point and without really looking I put us on the wrong route headed into the Sachshau.  Lutz and I remained comfortable as we’d run here on three previous occasions.  It wasn’t long though that he got concerned.  Following the old track I was convinced that we were traveling in the right direction.  Lutz was less certain, but was somehow certain that his GPS was in error to the point that he stopped and started it a couple of times and even changed the batteries.  After a kilometer or so we decided to double back and retrace our route to the intersection where fortunately I found my error and we got back onto the right track.  After coursing for about 46KM we arrived at the Hotel Grüne Tanne VP where we both re-stocked our water supply and had a plate of pasta.

A curious thing occurred at the Hotel Grüne Tanne VP.  We arrived to find a large group of runners that were not in front of us previously.  I certainly don’t want to accuse anyone of cheating, but we were not misoriented to the point that we were actually in the last position of the racing field.  All I’ll say is that there are opportunities to cut the course short particularly between Koenigshuette and the Hotel Grüne Tanne.  There are signs that direct you in that direction…  This would not be the last time that we’d experience some apparent short cuts taken by multiple other runners.

All the same…  After enjoying a bit of pasta Lutz and I headed back out onto the course and a track that we had not run in previous years.  From the Hotel Grüne Tanne the course bears down on Elend.  Oh Elend…  Like so many words “Elend” means so many things.  On the surface it’s a village in Saxon-Anhalt.  On the other side it actually means misery and that was just where we were headed.
From Elend we began our trek up.  First up and over the mysterious Mauseklippe.  And then gradually towards the Wurmberg.  My hat’s off to Michael and this new leg of the course.  It was as Tim Scott would say, “very runnable”.
I had seen the Wurmberg from the Brocken on a number of occasions, but did not really have a view to how impressive it really is.  Coursing out from the woods we arrived at the base of the Wurmberg and stopped in our tracks.  That damn Michael!  This is the treat he had waiting for us.
From the Wurmberg we made our way to Braunlage.  Trekking this portion of the route was relatively straight forward as we moved over ski runs and forest trails.  At Sankt Andreasberg it began to ever so slightly snow on us.  Evening was setting in and the Harz was certain not to disappoint.
From Sankt Andreasberg we made our way to one of my favorite places along this course, the Oderteiche.  This year the lakes had been drained as one of the dams had a gap in it and this hole had been recently replaced.  From the Oderteiche we coursed back up again to the Wolfswarte.  The Wolfswarte holds a special place in my spirit. First, it is such a badass name for a place and second, it’s actually a badass place at 918m.  Here your mind wanders and leads you down dark paths to things old and pagan.  Given it’s environs you can feel a deep draw to something darker.  A perfect place to celebrate Walpurgisnacht.   

On the Wolfswarte we met up with Wolfgang who was curiously climbing around in the dark on the very top of the Wolfswarte.  Although there is no VP here, racers must find and use the Hexenstieg Hiking Trail stamp to confirm that you were actually here.

Wolfgang’s battery had died on his GPS and he did not have a compass or map and was slightly misoriented.  He asked if he could tag along with us over the remainder of the course and with no objections from Lutz or I our racing party grew to three.

On the backside of the Wolfswarte we were able to pick up our pace on the trail that runs like an autobahn and gained almost an hour ahead of our estimated time of arrival in Altenau Bergstadt.  In Altenau we stopped at the VP to re-supply drinks and pleasantly surprised to find some open faced sandwiches and other delicious goodies.

If you’ve followed my previous reports on the Hexenstieg you know what comes after Altenau and that’s the long (7 KM) VERY straight and very mentally challenging ghost rail line to Claustal-Zellerfeld.  I was glad to travel along this route with Lutz and Wolfgang as our conversations kept my mind awake and active.

We paused only briefly in Claustal-Zellerfeld and Jens’ VP.  Long enough to have a cup of coffee and then to head back out into the cold of a early Sunday morning.  We were able to again gain some time by running between Claustal-Zellerfeld and Kuckholzklippe.  After coming off of the Kuckholzklippe we again got very misoriented, first by running down a couple of hundred meters of elevation while following the hiking trail and then by going back up past where we should have made a left hand turn.  Damn GPS!  We made this time back up again running along the ridgeline of the Langenberg.  At about kilometer 105 (the Hexentanz is actually measured at 109KM for a 100KM event) we knew that we had this dance in the bag.  From here it was easy going through Freiheit into Osterode and the finish line.  At the finish a quick check of my GPS revealed that instead of 100KM Lutz and I actually covered 112KM.  What’s a few additional kilometers?

My 2016 Hexentanz take-aways…  Michael – I’ll be back.  Michael Frenz puts on superb events.  The starting field for the Hexenstieg and Hexentanz was made up of 28 and 36 starters.  A small, friendly group.  Of the 36 Hexentanz runners that started 31 finished.  A pretty darn good finishing average.  Key factors for a finish for an event like this are patience, hydration, nutrition and being able to orient over the long-haul.  Unlike previous years I feel like my nutrition was dialed in.  My choice of equipment and kit was spot on this year as well.  The weather was forecasted to be cold with rain.  Instead it was very cold with snow.  As I’ve said before, weather happens – it is neither good nor bad, it just is.  Waste no time and energy on lamenting about this and instead focus your energy on the aspects you can control like your clothes and gear.  The Harz is an amazing place filled with beautiful forests, mystery and folklore.  I’ll be back.

My race reports are not complete without a word about the volunteers and supporters.  As I mentioned above Stephan and his team at the Hotel Harzerhof are fantastic.  The volunteers that started and in some cases moved to a different/later VP were great.  Running an event like this would be much more difficult without you.  And, certainly, last but not least, a big thanks to my running partner Lutz.  You kept me moving forward.  I look forward to our next adventure.