Monday, 29 June 2015

High Coast Ultra 75km

No one said it would be easy
But no one said it'd be this hard
No one said it would be easy
No one thought we'd come this far
Oh, and look we've come this far
- Sheryl Crow

6 months. 6 months of focused training, of worrying about injuries, illness and earthquakes, floods and meteorites devastating the planet. I had finally made it to the start of High Coast Ultra 75 km healthy and strong, and the planet was still as intact as it had been 6 months earlier.

7 AIK runners had driven down the day before, arriving at the Nordvik hostel/student residence hours before the scheduled pre-race pasta dinner. We unpacked, then re-packed our drop bags. Looked at the weather forecast, chose clothes, then changed our minds 2 seconds later. Talked strategy, hydration and food intake, shoes. I wandered around the hostel, taking photos, admiring the open fields and trying to pet unwilling horses. I felt calm and composed. We ate dinner at the hostel restaurant, a delicious mushroom sauce over pasta for us vegetarians. Then, more strategy talking and looking at maps before it was time for bed.

My bed was crooked. My matress wavy. The room was too bright, too warm, too cold. My pillow flat. I was overtired, getting nervous, tossing and turning. I slept a grand total of 3 hours, 3 very restless hours, and woke up with a headache, too tired to even register what that could mean for my race.

After a big breakfast, we got our things and climbed onboard the bus that would take us to the start at the foot of Skuleberget. We got there an hour and a half before we were due to start. Rain was hanging in the air and we sought shelter inside the visitors' centre. We used this time to get the final details in order: attaching the bib to our clothes, re-tying our shoelaces, eating and scrawling mantras on our arms. Getting ready for what was to be -for all of us- our longest race yet.

One of the race leaders went through some information with us and then we gathered at the starting line. He rang the bell and we set off. I jogged leisurely to preserve energy, joined by two of my club mates. We walked the hills and ran when it was flat or downhill. Soon enough the gravel roads gave way to single-track, and we got a taste of what was to come. Running uphill or downhill would have been suicidal. Stones and roots protruded from the ground, slippery from the rain. The track was as runnable as a steep staircase, only some of the steps were half a metre apart. Even the runnable parts were slippery, where thick mud covered the trail.

We ran on, chatting with each other and other runners. My knees were exhausted, my thigh muscles hurt too much to use already, but I was in a great mood. The places we ran through were breathtakingly beautiful, something that I pointed out so often that I think my friends started considering it more of a torture than blisters and bruised toenails. I didn't stop before we reached the first food station at 30 km. I ate quickly from the broad selection of snacks, grabbed half a banana and a cinnamon bun to take with me and left the station. My friends stayed behind to change clothes, and we all thought they'd soon catch up.

The most delicious thing I've ever eaten.

They never did. I spent the next 40 kilometres running alone, occassionally passing one of the 129 km-runners, but by then most of them had gone in a trance. I didn't mind. I felt strong, both physically and mentally. I stopped to take photos now and then, but much fewer now than I did at first. I was becoming more and more focused on my running, at least where running was possible. But my concentration failed me once: while I was running on a gravel road, I missed a turn into the woods and ended up in someone's back yard. That cost me 300-400 metres extra, but luckily for me I was still too full of energy to get worried about it.

It doesn't look like much, but this was the toughest part of the race.

On my way up the highest climb of the route, an elevation gain of some 200 metres over a couple of kilometres, my demons started approaching me. They coughed politely to get my attention but I ignored them. I knew what they were going to say. That I was supposed to quit, 50 km into the race and with what seemed like an unsurmountable wall ahead of me. I took one step at a time, trying not to slip on the wet stones, lifting my head to look for the orange signs that meant I was still on track when there was no track to be seen. I did not falter, not even when the skies opened and seemed to pour a whole river's worth of water on me. Drenched, with stiff fingers from the icy rain, and having seemingly pulled a muscle that I thought was going to ruin my race for me, I turned to climb down again, wondering momentarily if I had taken a wrong turn and was walking down the same way I had come. I don't know if I could have found the strength in me at that point to walk up the same hill one more time. So I was really glad when I realised that I was run-walking through new places, with new views over the sea, descending as the sun slowly came out and baked the soaked earth so fiercely that steam emerged from it. I found the beauty in my surroundings that fueled my run and kept me going towards my next milestone, the second food station. My thigh muscle was ok after all.

When I reached the station, the volunteers asked me what I needed. I told them they were doing an amazing job as I was changing into new, dry shoes and socks from my drop bag. I ate as much as I could, though not enough. After 60 km, as I realised I was breaking my distance PR every time I took a step, I felt my shoulders sink more and more with tiredness, making it hard for my lungs to expand properly with much-needed oxygen. Mental exhaustion was lurking dangerously close. I tried to keep it at bay by drinking as much Tailwind as I could. I was walking a thin line. Then, this sight came into view:

The High Coast bridge, where the finish line was. I got goosebumps. Because I had felt so strong during most of the race, I had always believed I would make it at least if I didn't get injured, but this sealed the deal. I glanced at my clock, did some calculations in my head and realised that, if I could keep going at the same pace for the last 10 km, I would finish the race in under 12 hours. This gave me new strength. Before the race, I would have been happy to just survive the 75 km, even if it took me all of the 17 hours that we were allowed to run it in. Now, I was looking at completing it at a very respectable time. I pushed on.

I met a fellow runner during the last 10 km, running past him sometimes, him running past me at other times, while we negotiated terrain that offered spectacular views and gnarly roots. When we finally started treading tarmac instead of dirt, after almost 72 km, I turned to him and asked him if there was more trailrunning to expect. I was tired of trying to run and ready to do some actual running. My wish was fulfilled. The rest of the way was mostly trail-free. We ran over bridges and past houses, on tarmac and gravel, and the little trail there was was deliciously root and stone-free. After running together and chatting for a while, my company said it was ok to leave him and continue by myself as he needed to walk for a while. I still had strength left. And boy did I need it.

The High Coast bridge

The last 350 metres of the race were a steep uphill climb on gravel. I focused on the High Coast hotel looming over me, having run under the massive High Coast bridge. One step at a time. I glanced at my clock again. There was time. The last 10 metres were flat and I ran past the finish line 11 hours and 51 minutes after I started, as the fifth woman to complete the race.

I was happy but calm. Content and tired. I could have pushed harder but then I wouldn't have enjoyed it so much. It was perhaps the best race effort I could have made without risking injury. Today, two days after the race, I try to resemble a hundred-year old as little as possible and have discovered new ways of lowering myself into chairs that don't hurt so much. I expect that I will take up running again soon, when my muscles have healed. I am already looking forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. Nu vet jag! Så bra jobbat! Grattis! Vi ses nästa år? :)