Monday, 16 September 2013

Salomon trail ultra in Umeå

Here I was, a few days ago, contemplating giving up on this blog entirely, because I felt I didn't have a story to tell any more. And then I went and entered an ultra race and found myself with a story to tell.

A lot of my training the last few months has been about speed. I have improved my times immensely, even climbing up to top-ten spots in local races. I did a few longer runs during the summer, but I didn't seem to have the same focus and motivation to run really far as I used to. Then I half-decided I would try to do Umemarathon in October.

That's when a couple of running buddies from the club asked me if I wanted to join them on a 48 km trail race in Umeå. ”No way!” I replied. ”I haven't trained for that”. ”Neither have we”, they said, and explained that this was to be an adventure, a day out in beautiful surroundings.

Despite my initial hesitation, a couple of days later my name was on the participants list and my stomach was so full of butterflies, I had to force my carbohydrate-rich food down.

On the day of the race I woke up at 03.20 and was unable to go back to sleep. My fellow adventurers picked me up around 6, and we drove on country roads bathed in a golden September morning light. Hunters were stationed by the road at places, holding their rifles in their lap and waiting for an unlucky moose to walk past, but the only moose we saw were the couple we almost ran over with the car. 

We gathered at what looked like a conference lodge, professional-looking, compression socks and buff-clad runners picking up their bibs and chatting. We got some information from the race organisers and then it was time to head down to the beach by lake Tavelsjö. That's where the start was. Excited and apprehensive at the same time, I tried to keep up with the long, snake-like line of runners rapidly disappearing before me but I knew I'd have to take it easy and save my strength. There were some nasty hills ahead. Not to mention several hours' worth of running.

Taking pictures while running can be hazardous to your health

The race took place mainly on the 39 km-long Tavelsjö trail, through birch and pine forest, first climbing up a few kilometres and then rolling down gently towards Umeå - although we all agreed that it certainly didn't feel like we were running downhill. The view over Tavelsjö was astounding and I was glad I had entered a race where I could take it easy and enjoy the scenery.

The trail was littered with large stones and roots at many places, and I countered that by running like a cat in a puddle of water. This put a lot of pressure on my left knee, which responded by sending me runner's knee signals. I got worried. I had only run about 20 km at this point. Was I going to have my first DNF? I walked a few steps, stretched and could continue without pain.

My knee kept on sending me signals whenever the trail got too technical or I had to run down a hill, but kept quiet otherwise. This gave me hope that I would be able to complete the race. I was getting really tired, though. I walked up hills and ran on the flat parts, chatting with my friends at times and keeping to myself at other times.

We noticed early on that the aid stations seemed to show up earlier than expected, and soon enough it was confirmed that the race was going to be shorter than 48 km. I didn't mind. After all, I wasn't trained for this, and with my knee playing up I'd only be too happy to let it rest a bit earlier. We reached the last aid station with only 9 km to go. We ate some chips and drank some Enervit before we continued. Our little group split up soon after that and it became a race to see which one among us would get to the finish line first (spoiler: it wasn't me).

Some of us ran elegantly and seemingly unhindered by fatigue. Others (me) had to struggle to keep upright and not start crawling. With 4 km to go, I did what I had successfully avoided doing during the first 42 km of the race: I set my foot down in an angle that made my old injury flare up again. There was even an ominous cracking sound. I limped up the slope, trying to shake it off. After a few minutes, I was good to go. I should really have someone look at that, I thought for the umpteenth time.

I had now entered Umeå and ran among houses and parks. Even here the organisers had (impressively enough) found real trail to run on, even if it meant running on a grass slope outside the cemetery. I could hear the speaker announcing that yet another runner had made it to the finish line, and I could hear the crowd applauding, but I was surrounded by trees I couldn't see past. The last kilometre was fuelled by sheer will power, since I seemed to have run out of carbohydrates long before that.

The finish line was now visible but there was one last hurdle: an upward slope. I forced my legs to keep moving and they responded well. This was not the part they had trouble with. After running upwards, I had to run downwards again towards the finish line, and my knee wasn't too happy about that. I ran in a zig-zag manner, which kind of seemed to work. I stumbled the last few steps to finish in just under 6 hours. Happy.

We celebrated later that evening with pizza and beer. I even managed to walk to the pizzeria without pain. I woke up this morning with sore muscles, but it wasn't too bad. I couldn't feel the 45,6 km, in other words. I had a blood blister on one toe but -other than that it did nothing to make my feet look prettier- it doesn't bother me.

My knee was, unfortunately, very stiff. Getting J to massage my thigh with the rolling pin hurt, which is yet another sign that this might be runner's knee. I will rest and stretch it and then try a shorter run towards the end of the week. Hope it goes well.

It's strange. Even if this is runner's knee, I don't regret running this race. It was such a wonderful experience, such a great adventure in the woods, the icing on the cake of a great running year.