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...