Rocks, pebbles and mountain tops - my first marathon
Well, it was actually 45k but felt like 80. The why is not that it was too long but rather that it
was a tougher course than anyone could anticipate beforehand. The course map was well
marked as well as the topographical map but when you are in the middle of it even the
smallest pebble would feel like the highest mountain.
13 hours travelling from the south of Sweden up to Vemdalen was perhaps not the best way of preparing the day before a race but nonetheless it would have to suffice. The weeks of preparations before this race had been ruthless and more and more sessions reached well above 30k. The most brutal ones included intervals within that distance as well so I have to say that it was with some relief the race day had finally arrived.
Feeling content with the amount of preparatory training, no injuries and excellent form, I stepped out of the car and in to the cabin in Vemdalen after a long day travelling. The weather was damp with sporadic rain. Having run in the fells before I expected the course to be both slippery and muddy on top of its already challenging trail. To my surprise I was not yet feeling the pre-race nervousness that usually comes creeping the day before. Hopefully that was a good sign. At least I took it as one.
As previously mentioned I have never run this distance before. I remember actually feeling quite relieved by that fact it made me humble in my expectations of myself. A lot can happen in 45k and even if the race takes a wrong turn for me I would be able to remedy at least some of it before the finishing line. Contrary to half marathons and shorter distances where minor difficulties become major problems.
After a good night’s sleep I woke up feeling great. Although I would admit that what I wanted most what to get this whole ordeal over with so that I could enjoy my post-race meal and a good performance. However, I need to perform first - definitely the downside of running. As I am a performance driven person it is of utter importance that I feel content after a race. Before starting the race that is my biggest fear - that when I cross that finish line I could have done more, done better.
Trust my training. There is no use in being nervous if you have followed your training program and taken all necessary measures to ensure your own success. All that is behind you now, that part of the race is already completed.
Closing in on the starting signal. The race is a 45k race with 1600 altitude meters. I was determined to dictate my own performance and my tactics are simple and easy to remember. On flats I will just push pace and be on the limit, no matter if it is 1k into the race or 38 - going fast here is essential and every second I can gain on my opponents is important even in the larger scheme of things - do not play it safe. Going uphill is expensive, I will conserve energy if it is too steep and try to draw my followers to chase me down - it will hopefully cost
them while I bide my time waiting for more favourable terrain. Downhill is key. Downhill is by far the most scary part of trail running but also where you stand to gain or lose most time. This would be the key to a great performance on this day. There are several steep downhill runs which I, for the life of me, would blast down with everything I have.
Race is under way and we have about 500m before entering the trail. Naturally, I put on quite a pace here, it is flat and the surface is good - if I can gain 20 metres cheaply it would cost more to get back later. Being new to this distance I was a bit surprised when I almost got 50m down to the second man. For a second I thought about what on earth I was doing wrong - am I being played by the more experienced runners? - I decided to ignore the notion and told myself that I have a plan, and I will trust my own experience.
We went slightly uphill for about 4k raising around 180a.m after that. My legs felt great although I had one humbling fall where I managed to swipe my left foot away with my right landing on rocks in the dirt - Great, first trail tattoos of the day.
Although I was going fast downhill the two runners following me caught up during the 100m descent over one kilometre. Did not think much about that - still far to go and nice to have some company. The trail surface was extremely challenging and slippery with point rocks of different sizes sticking up everywhere.
Afterwards the course turned upwards for about 70a.m over the next kilometre and leveled out for three kilometres. I took back what I lost downhill due to pushing on the uphill and on the flat as planned. However, I only shook one of them, the other one actually went passed me just before 10k asking “Have you run here before” with some nonchalance.
10k -15k Suspecting my opponent’s sudden burst of energy had something about the mountain checkpoint prize one kilometre ahead of us I decided to let him have it - I was hoping on taking the following three anyway.
I caught up with him shortly after, it felt as if he did not quite have control of his own situation. I confidently went passed him and decided that the following 4k downhill run would be quick to see how he was really doing. We went together all the way. He did not give any signs of being too bothered. However, now the terrain shifted to slight uphill over the fell. Being exposed without any cover rain rolled in over the mountain and it became almost chilly. Wind and rain made for a good challenge on the soaked trail as we started our ascent.
15k-20k I had told myself that if I made it to 20k - or thereabouts - with relatively fresh legs I would consider making moves and taking risks to outmaneuver any opponent. Here is my first move after just 15k Admittedly, I was not sure how long the distance up on the fell was but nevertheless it provided an opportunity to really test the opposition since my legs were
actually feeling quite fine. This test of opposition would be on 5k, ascending more than 200a.m.
I put on a higher pace. High enough so that if my opponent was to pass me I would not have followed. Luckily he did not. Instead he was placed a few metres behind and at the time I was unsure of his condition. This part was easy to run with a good, not so technical, trail.
Reaching the top of the fell looking to descend again I was not planning on diverting from my original plan. If the trail goes downwards - I would blast away with it!
Cruising at quite a high pace downwards on a grassy surface - which was a nice change of terrain - my opponent would not put any room behind me. Perhaps I had misjudged his ability up to this point.
Coming down to the bottom after a 100m descent from 20-22k we reached an energy station. I was planning on making this a stop for some energy drink but could not get my flask out. As my opponent was being handed a cup from the crew I went down on all fours, flipped the switch on the tap open and drank straight from the canister after which I put on a sprint towards the merciless wall in front of us.
This wall was a monster - ascending well around 220 metres over a 400-500 meter distance. Running up this beast was out of the question. But it would be a real pain to try to catch me going upwards at this incline and the short burst after the energy station had provided me with quite a nice lead.
For the first time, I felt that this could be the first nail towards being first over that finishing line on this race no matter how far it was left. Unbeknownst of any other opponents who might be gaining from behind I steadily started the climb. It was all four limbs required for this ascent - completely brutal. But a nice addition to the course overall.
Reaching the summit way ahead and an increased lead I decided to take it slow over the next 100m less steep ascent, get the worst cramp away from my calves and take in some energy put away in my vest. When reaching the final summit before the descent I glanced over my shoulder. All green and no people.
A steep descent followed. Technical beyond anything I have ever run before. Jumping left and right trying to avoid the most unpredictable rocks all while the course tilted going along the hillside towards the 25k mark. It probably looked something like I was skating on uneven ice. It was crucial that no opponent would be able to get a glance of my back on this part. I wanted them to feel as if there was no chance at all of catching me at the moment hoping that they would slow down. You must understand, coming up on a heap of rocks the size of footballs with sharp edges knowing that you probably cannot stop even if you wanted to really put things in perspective. I remember one time during the race where I simply just
jumped right out hoping to find my footing on my parry if not on the first steps - total madness.
Going alone without knowing whether your gaining or losing your lead is a terrible feeling. Even though you are pushing with everything you can possibly muster you have no idea if it is going to be enough - it is still a long distance to cover.
After finally coming down to the bottom of the 100m descent between 26-28k it was yet again time to gaze upwards towards the mountain tops. At this point I am not sure whether or not I actually cared if I went up or down - the terrain made it challenging any way you sliced it. Some part of me actually felt quite good about going up since it did not bring the feeling of a ‘short drop and a sudden stop’ you get when you jump on slippery rocks down a mountain.
After a three kilometre ascent between kilometre 28-31 I reached the top of the mountain. I remember an old man giving me directions as I went by - something that was occurring along the trail and gave you a certainty of being on course. Legs are starting to protest the continuous punishment from this brutal course but not yet having it their way - still 14k to go.
From the top I was faced with a slope. An actual slope. Where you usually have skis to help you get down. 350 metres downhill over 2 kilometres. This was my biggest gamble of the whole course. Not knowing how far behind the chasers were there was not much to do but sticking to plan. Blazing downhill is what I planned to do and blazing downhill is what I intend to do. Going downhill a ski slope in approximately 24-25kph it felt as if my legs were going to come right off leaving my exhausted remains to slide down the surface of stone and grass. But they did not and I managed to get all the way down all limbs in place.
Coming down that slope I thought that if any of my opponents put on a descent the way I did I hope they got down in one piece as well.
Crossing a bridge closing on 34k I found myself gazing up another slope. Like the one I just came down from. Only this one going the other way. Again, I actually found that I was not too demoralized by the upcoming 300m ascent over 800m. Some time to rest and reflect. Well, and keeping the cramp away and trying to get some energy in my increasingly protesting body.
Coming up on this slope it looked like the old Monty Python sketch when they perform silly walks. I passed many who were on the 25k race course and I saw people twisting and turning trying to make their legs go upwards. I myself was not any better. Left first - right first - side first - arms first - any way to keep my calves, hamstrings and quads from cramping. It was almost ridiculous but the cheerful encouragement from people on this slope kept my gaze fixed upwards.
I reached the top and passed one of the larger energy stations through - not noticed at that time - a large tent with “Kexchoklad” written all over it (I am told). The speaker called out my name as the leader of the 45k race but I did not pay any attention. Nor did I take any energy. What I needed I had on me in my vest and my next stop would be that finishing line. Especially when all I needed was to get down to the bottom of the valley.. or so I thought.
If there ever was a time I was somewhat demoralized during this race it was at this time. As I hoped after the top of the slope everything went downwards. Not too steep and not too technical - I could run even though I had to pace down occasionally because of a slightly cramping hamstring. Up to this point I had never expected to be able to win this race and I kept thinking that being second is good too, even third, even just finishing. But if they wanted to make it so it would surely cost them dearly.
Around kilometre 37 the other shoe dropped. The course went up hill again. I remember thinking that it could not possible be more than a few hundred metres since we have not lost that much altitude from the previous ascent. Slugging away on a stony, technical, ascent going on forever I had to make a short pit stop around kilometre 39 and walk for a few metres. Everything was cramping, my energy levels were at an all time low it felt. I decided to eat everything and anything I had on me. Two gels, 250ml of water and two cups of an unknown energy drink hoping it would give me some energy to finish this race.
My buffet of sugar seemed to have an effect even though I would run the last 6k with half a Snickers bar in my hand. I managed to get to the top after 150a.m over 3k increasing incline.
Going slightly downhill between kilometre 40-42 felt like heaven in comparison to the hell I had just been through. However, although the course was relatively flat there were just so many treacherous rocks to stumble on. In my mind - at this time - the smallest rocks were enormous and getting bigger.
Coming up on 42k where the last station was there were so many people cheering me on I almost went full sentimental. The following descent would be around 180a.m over 3k and despite blurry vision, cramping legs and battered morale I would never in my life let anyone overtake me on the last descent when my plan was to give everything down hill.
Since I still had no idea where the rest where I just let everything go - I will be first across that finishing line. Even if I fall and break a leg I would make sure I have time to crawl over that line, I remember thinking.
The descent was brutal. Everything went by so fast and all of a sudden I saw the goal. Because of the fact that the other races went on at the same time I could not quite see if
anyone from my race was close to me. Well, that and the fact that I was completely out of it after 44,7k.
Coming up on the final stretch with all the people around cheering, the speaker commenting and that white ribbon held out above the finishing line I was somewhat overwhelmed. Standing in the midst of all people after crossing the line was such a profound feeling of belonging. Many came forward shaking hands and congratulating me and I was just smiling like an idiot. The race organizers came up to me and asked how it was possible for me to descend as I did and I really did not have a good answer. I just wanted to soak everything in. Every applaud, every handshake and every smile.
It turned out that I was over 17 mins ahead of second place. My final descent had given me more than 2 minutes. I do not know if I wanted to know that I had a 15 minute lead at the last descent but I can say for sure that as I sat in that race area afterwards feeling as many others did on that day...
- that I had put on one hell of a performance.