Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ramble On… 2017 Pfälzer Weinsteig Ultratrail

Leaves are falling all around, it’s time I was on my way
Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay
But now it’s time for me to go.  The autumn moon lights my way…

Ramble On…

Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” provides a perfect introduction for the Pfälzer Weinsteig 100 Mile Ultratrail Race Event.  2017 marked the fourth running of what has become a fall ultratrail classic in the Pfälz in Germany.

This year’s Pfälzer Weinsteig fell on the weekend of 13 October.  The weather here in Germany leading up to the Weinsteig was simply amazing with mild temperatures, lots of sunshine and no rain.  Previous cooler weather and rain provided a beautiful tapestry of fall color.

The Pfälzer Weinsteig Ultratrail takes place in southwestern Germany in the Pfälz, a region known for its vineyards, sandstone mountains and the culinary delicacy “sow stomach”.  A good third of the Pfälz is covered by the Pfälzerwald, Germany’s largest contiguous forested area.  The Pfälzer Weinsteig is in itself a award winning hiking trail that traces the mountainous backbone of the Pfälz.    
The Pfälzer Weinsteig Ultratrail is a one hundred mile invitational trail race.  The race starts at the Deutsches Weintor in Schweigen-Rechtenbach and finishes at the Sport Club in Obersülzen.  The race is open for thirty-four hours with racers further challenged by relatively tight aid station cut offs.  A one hundred mile race poses enough challenges of its own simply given the distance.  What sets the mark here is the combination of the distance and delightful elevation change that occurs over the course.  There are 5,600 meters or 18,372 feet of elevation to climb and descend.  The Pfälzer Weinsteig travels along the sandstone mountain backbone of the central Pfälzerwald.  The course route is marked with red and white hiking trail markings.  These markings are however, a challenge to find and see in the darkness.  The event is semi-antonymous from a support perspective with aid stations situated twenty to thirty kilometers apart.  There are a number of additional unmanned water points and three deliberate check points that ensure that runners remain on course.  Because of my lack of familiarity with the area I was surprised to learn that the combination of the trail, distance, weather, elevation and other environmental factors contribute to a less than fifty-percent finisher rate on the Pfälzer Weinsteig Ultratrail.

(Source: Wikipedia.  Accessed 171022)
I arrived in Obersülzen on Friday afternoon wound up because of work, the horrific traffic conditions on the German roads and this being my first attempt at the Pfälzer Weinsteig.  Greetings from old friends and new ensured that any trepidation was quickly whisked away.

Friday evening we got settled into the Sports Club in Obersülzen where a number of us would attempt to get a few winks of sleep between the inevitable snoring.  After setting up our quarters for the night we drifted to the restaurant and bar area to enjoy a bit of pre-race conversation, find a seat for the race briefing and dinner.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Simon, Elke and Wolfraum whom I’d not seen in what seems like ages.  We had dinner together and talked about the upcoming adventure.  I didn’t hang long Friday evening as I wanted to get a head start on getting my race equipment ready and intuition told me that I would pull the lucky straw and stay awake next to the loudest snorer – fact!  I should buy a lottery ticket with this kind of intuition.

Saturday morning could not have come soon enough…  I was up shortly before 0400 to finalize my equipment and have a bit of breakfast before getting on the bus to travel south to Schweigen-Rechtenbach and our start.  I road the bus to Schweigen-Rechtenbach seated next to and talking with Elke, but was uncertain how I was going approach the next thirty-four hours and with whom I might run.  In the early morning darkness and chasing the need to pee really badly I lost Elke, but found Simon again.  And so…  

The 0700 Pfälzer Weinsteig 100 Mile Ultratrail start found Simon and I running together.  Simon and I had last spent any time together back in 2015 so this was a great opportunity to get caught back up and enjoy the start of a great race weekend.  We got caught up on the last couple of years and talked about loss, family, work, shoes, dream races and all the things that runners talk about when they run.

Simon and I got split up because of one of my many pee breaks – the coffee had made its way through me.  After I stopped for an alcohol free hefeweissen in a beer garden Elke and I teamed up at the second aid station and were to remain together for the remainder of the race.

 Elke and I shared a tremendous adventure as the kilometers and unfolded under foot.  Athletes like she and Karen who sometimes trailed us, but generally led us, blow me away.  Elke and I made a terrific team that I hope to one day match back up again.  Although, she never admitted it, I hope that I was never rude or super negative.  Elke, if you’re reading this – please forgive me again for my propensity to “luft”.  There are things that happen on the trail that should stay out there on the trail (smile).

A hundred miles is a fickle playmate.  Running a hundred miles is joyful; peaceful; powerful; and at times, simple bliss…  In the blink of an eye the magic of 100 miles will shift and become pain; stress; sadness; darkness…  My darkness usually occurs, well, in the dark.  It’s in the hours after two in the morning that I slip into headlamp hypnosis and go to my deep dark place.  It’s here that I battle with suffering and frankly, the edge of sanity.  (Elke, forgive me again if I was talking in my sleep.  Although you and I were physically alone, I swear that there was a third runner with us that drifted in and out of my reality.)

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that suffering brings about understanding and compassion, which are the true foundations of happiness.  For me this thought embodies part of the magic of trail running and pushing out to one hundred miles and beyond.
(Photo:  Christine Bruhn)
Sunday morning’s dawn saw the departure of my additional running mate and the passing of darkness.  As dawn approached we found ourselves shy of Deidesheim and running into a dense fog that effectively denied us the sun.  This was not necessarily a bad thing as it motivated us to return to elevation and the sun.

My outlook improved dramatically after we put Deidesheim and Bad Durkheim behind us.  I don’t know where it came from, but this is where I caught my second wind.  Aid station five was a wonderful stop.  I don’t know if I’ve ever been that completely pampered in an aid station.  Many thanks to the gentlemen that made me multiple sandwiches (bread, lots of butter, salt, meat spread and pickles.  Fantastic!) and the alcohol free hefeweissen for breakfast!  Oh – And the heated toilet paper was pure bliss!  Frank and his volunteer teammates in aid station six were also fantastic.  I wish that we could have stayed longer, but Elke and I had a rendezvous with a finish.

The last ten kilometers…  All down hill!  Wait…  No, the distance of ten kilometers in Pfalz is actually known as thirteen kilometers with hills elsewhere in the world.  All good…

Rolling into the stadium in Obersülzen was fantastic.  Günther greeted us like royalty and ran the final loop around the football field with us oblivious to the football game that was playing out its final few minutes.
(Photo:  Jürgen Baumann)
In 2017 Max Kirschbaum and Bianca Logé rocked the Pfälzer Weinsteig finishing in 20:52 and 22:58.  Simply phenomenal performances over this challenging, yet obviously, very runnable course.  Elke and I finished in a very proud 33:42! 

The Pfälzer Weinsteig Ultratrail is a truly amazing event.  I am deeply impressed by its warm and friendly atmosphere.  Günther and Christine Bruhn are the hosts, race directors, logisticians, coaches, volunteer coordinators and just down right wonderful people.  One of my favorite things about running trail and endurance events is being among the other runners on the same journey.  Many thanks to all of the people that made the Pfälzer Weinsteig Ultratrail possible.  Race volunteers and people that work aid stations blow me away.  To see you working a station for twelve – twenty-four hours is incredible.  Chapeau!

(Photo:  Jürgen Baumann)

Got no time for spreadin’ roots, the time has come to be gone
And to our health we drank a thousand times, it’s time to ramble on…

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Three Point Five

While the glow remains I hope to capture some of my impressions from the 2017 WiBoLT in this post.  This year has proven very busy outside of my running life and limited my ability to come here and share my life on the trail.  In the interest of time and to avoid a drawn out story I intend to concentrate on some things I learned along the way framing this story in a series of personal lessons.  In so doing I hope you will gain an appreciation of the WiBoLT and the Rheinsteig.

Let me start by introducing the WiBoLT (an acronym) or the Wiesbaden to Bonn Lauf Trail.  The WiBoLT represents Germany’s longest non-stop race.  The race starts at Schloss Biebrich in downtown Wiesbaden; traverses 320KM or 200 miles and 11700HM or 38385 feet of positive elevation change along the Rheinsteig Hiking Trail; ending at the Marktplatz in Bonn.  Start is typically on Wednesday evening at 1800 with the race closing on Sunday at 1200 in Bonn – a total of 90 hours.  Pacers and support outside of aid stations, of which there are ten, are not permitted.  The race course is not marked beyond those markings that establish the Rheinsteig.  2017 registration cost 185 Euro.  The WiBoLT is organized and directed by Michael Esser and supported by a crew of volunteers led largely by Ulrich Hansmann.  

(Pre-race Dinner and Beer.  There's never a bad time for Shiner!)

The first lesson.  Ultramarathoning is all about problem solving.  Participation in the WiBoLT sustained this principal from start to finish.  Obvious problems included:  the distance; sleep deprivation; food and fluid deprivation; navigation; my personality; other racers personalities; wildlife; race organizer’s lack of attention to detail in planning and providing promised supplies and services; blisters; many bowel movements; lack of toilet paper; unexpected cold weather; unexpected hot weather; sunburn; and hallucinations.  The list goes on and on.

The second lesson.  If it’s cheap – don’t expect much out of it.  I decided to use the German rail system to get to Wiesbaden.  The practicality of Die Bahn seemed ideal to get situated.  We found tickets from Stuttgart to Wiesbaden for 19 Euro.  What a great deal!  Not so much…  The train from Stuttgart was jam packed.  Die Bahn was on their game and ensured that we could appreciate the summer day we were enjoying by not using the air conditioner within the entire train.  No matter you say – open the windows!  That would have been great, but you can’t open the windows on German trains these days.  Well hell, you say, you sweat a bit in the ride to Wiesbaden.  Using the rail system was certainly efficient because Germans set their watches by their trains.  Not so much…  We were of course late at each connection along the way.  If it’s cheap – don’t expect much out of it particularly if it’s Die Bundes Bahn. 

The third lesson.  The 2017 WiBoLT was my first successful attempt at completing a 320KM run.  Georg Kirsch and I discussed the enormity of the idea of something like the WiBoLT as we sat in the starting area before the race.  He told me that he had just “checked out” until Monday…  on Wednesday afternoon.

Over the course of the WiBoLT I explored how I generally define time.  In my hectic work life I squeeze the most out of a busy day among projects, meetings and other "essential" activities.  Like many of you my work and non-running life demand significant amounts of commitment and “time”.  Things move rapidly, hectically and "very close to the edge".  The WiBoLT illuminated the “duration” aspect of time for me where time is defined as a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.  Minutes, hours, days become insignificant.  Time, outside of meeting aid station cut offs and reaching the finish line becomes irrelevant.  In this continuum I found that it becomes much simpler to live in the present moment; to enter flow; to center and exist within what has the potential to become a very pleasant mental and physical state.  This "place" is one of key aspects of why I am so drawn to endurance running.

The fourth lesson.  Sleep is overrated when running an ultra.  Okay, I do like and need to sleep.  Science has shown that we require sleep to rest and recover both mentally and physically.  I hate to admit it, but you can, get on with far less sleep than that which you are accustomed to.  For how long I am uncertain, but from Wednesday morning when I rose at 0430 until I got in bed on Saturday night at 2330 I slept for a total of three and a half hours with the longest block of sleep occurring over 50 minutes while the others were nested in moments of ten to twenty minute naps out on the trail.  Sleep has been awfully good this past week and I can tell that sleep deprivation training is a concept I am going to approach with trepidation. 

In previous 100 and 135 mile events my approach to sleep was to avoid it.  Although these distances are long they represent twenty-four to forty-five hour periods and have been very manageable from a sleep deprivation perspective.  On a 200 mile course that continues non-stop over a ninety hour period I was in uncharted territory and had no experience using the twenty-minute nap as a method of rest.  Each time that I went down for a nap I set an alarm, but did not use it as I awoke because of the cold.  Similarly, each time I napped I awoke from a vivid dreamscape and fully refreshed.  I found that naps later in the race contributed less to my sense of freshness; requiring more frequent naps.  I think that I could have off set this “charge” by sleeping somewhat longer.

The fifth lesson.  Hallucinations are cool and they do occur while on an endurance event not only at night, as in my previous experience, but vividly during daylight hours.  I recall entering, and actually measuring some control over entry into a hallucination state after being on the WiBoLT course at about the thirty-six hour mark.  I experienced fascinating views of military vehicles, dwarfs, and wild animals.

The sixth lesson.  If you make the decision to quit an ultramarathon when feeling hungry, cold, tired, frustrated with the organization of the event, or tired of being with the people you’re running with, you will very likely make the wrong decision.  The key to this decision is to establish before the event.  Set those conditions and use them as a framework to finish the race.

At the aid station in Braubach (160KM or 100 miles) I was very tired and very hungry.  The aid station sucked as it was completely disorganized, contained no real food or drink and reflected a halfhearted approach to what I thought should have been a station that marked the halfway point of the race.  As I refilled my water bottles and thought about what I could eat that would keep me moving forward my planning shifted focus on how to exit.  I figured that I could sleep within the aid station and when I awoke in the morning I could find a bakery and eat a solid meal.  In order to further explore the feasibility of dropping at Braubach I asked if the regional train system could get me to Wiesbaden and how I could get my dropbag.  The race volunteers had been sympathetic to my questions to this point.  Abruptly, Ulrich Hansmann picked up on  where I was going with my questions and snapped on me.  He barked at me, “Stop talking about this bullshit and get your ass to Bonn!” and walked away.  Well, I thought… no pity from the volunteers, I’m going to take a brief nap and see how things are from there.  After twenty minutes of exquisite sleep I awoke cold, but in a much better state of mind.  I asked Frank Muller with whom I had paired up with to run the day prior if he was going back onto the course and he told me yes.  With limited factors to hang quitting on I also decided to head back out and see how far I could get.  Braubach was the last time I really considered dropping out of the race.  From here on it would take an injury or other problem that I could not work through to get me off the course.  Thanks again Ulrich – I needed that!

This lesson also highlights the ultra-truth that ultramarathons are more mental than they are physical.  It is matter of keeping that mental focus and flexibility that is key to success.

Running 320KM or 200 miles readjusts your interpretation of a “long run” and illustrates lesson seven.  Work colleagues, family and friends likely think that I have gone mad (I have a little, and am embracing it) when this idea comes up.  It is unhinging to think that the half-way point of a race is at the 100 mile mark.  This lesson highlights an additional ultra-truths.  At the end of the day or in the middle of the night for that matter, you can go further than you think.

Lesson eight.  For me – if going 160KM or beyond I will tape my darn feet.  My experiences with blisters have been episodic.  As a result I have not ever considered taping my feet before a race.  At the WiBoLT I learned this lesson twice.  At the aid station in Feldkirchen (231KM) I had, had enough of two or three blisters on each of my feet and decided to lance and mole skin them.  Ulrich helped me with the lancing and draining part and I mole skinned each area up very nicely.  By Rheinbrohl (255KM) I had developed new blisters directly adjacent to where I fixed the previous ones doubling my fun.  Tape your toes, heels and the balls of your feet!

Endurance events afford you the opportunity to meet old and new friends.  On the first evening of the WiBoLT I met up with Frank Mueller-Seidelmann and Michael Heinkelein.  We spent the next days together exploring the Rheinsteig and getting to know one another.  We got split up from Michael (he’s faster) and Frank and I spent the rest of the race working through its adventure together.  Lesson nine highlights that you can establish tremendous friendships while running something like the WiBoLT.

I owe a lot of my finish to Frank as he helped get me out of the aid station at Braubach and filled many hours talking with and getting to know me.  I hope that Frank and I can tackle another ultra adventure together.

The tenth and for me perhaps most important lesson.  Ultrarunning is hard, and seeks every opportunity to remind you of that fact.  It goes without saying that running a race like the WiBoLT requires a high level of physical fitness and preparation.  The physical part is tough – it’s the mental part that is hard.  At any point along a course like the Rheinsteig you can come up with very valid reasons to quit.  I learned that I must practice not allowing myself to blame anyone or anything for any of my current problems or conditions on the course.  When I slip into this hole I slide into a trap that can lead to an existential crisis.  I believe that the key is to actually take responsibility for my own journey, my thoughts and emotions.  The sooner I can embrace this view the quicker an event like the WiBoLT stops being hard.  On a very personal level this is where an ultra is won or lost.

(Life is a journey, not a destination. - Emerson)

A day or two after finishing the WiBoLT I am still considering the experience.  Michael and his team of volunteers put on one heck of an event.  Many thanks go out to he and this team of folks that shared our long hours, trials and tribulations.  Would I go back and run the WiBoLT again?  I’m still digesting that.  This past Sunday I would have told you “absolutely not”, but as I digest this thing that is the WiBoLT I am certain that I’ll be back.

A little something about sleep and a few other things...