Race report – 80km (50 mile) trail ultra
Ramot Menashe, Israel – 27 March, 2009
On the Sunday before the race, deep into the taper, I went out for an easy run. This would be the last time before the race running the hills on a forest trail near our house – each hill is about 550 meters. During regular training I would typically run 10-12 repeats of these hills. This time I was only running 6 repeats. I never really "push" these hills. Start off gently and ease up to a moderate pace – and then easily cruise the downhills. Towards the end of the workout I felt a slight twinge in the groin area – nothing really to worry about – we runners get these twinges all the time, and usually they disappear as if they were never there…
Wednesday, 2 days to go
I went for my last pre-race run yesterday- 5 easy kilometers. Two days off now as the race draws nearer. Getting up from bed I felt a sharp pain in my left calf – I had almost the same experience last year before the 60km race, and before my last regular marathon in 2006. In both these races I didn't have any problems with the calf muscle, so I wasn't overly worried. I tried some stretching and self-massage. Apparently the massage was a little over-aggressive – the results were increased pain and more worries…
I left work around midday, we got ourselves organized at home, and headed up North. My wife, Michal and 2 younger daughters, Elisheva and Noa were coming along as cheering and support crew. Our second son Nahum, his wife Hanna, and our older daughter, Shira were to join us after the race. For the pre-race night we had booked a room in Kibbutz Dalia, about 20 minutes from the race start. Last year the start/finish line, at the same place as the refueling area, was at the nearby and easily accessible Kibbutz Ein-HaShofet. This year the start/finish/refueling area was moved to the middle of nowhere – 15 minutes off the main road on winding dirt tracks. We tried to find the area on our way to Dalia – it was well sign-posted by the organizers – and we eventually found it. Michal wasn't sure how she would find it in the pitch black at 4:00 the next morning, or more accurately how she would find her way out after dropping me off.
We arrived at Dalia – I asked if there were any other 80km runners booked in. They told me there was 1 other runner – Avi Horowitz. I called Avi and we arranged to meet at this car, the following morning at 3:55. Afterwards I drove off to another Kibbutz – HaZorea which was hosting the pasta evening and where I picked up my race number. Back at Dalia, I got all my gear organized, had a bath to try and relax, but only managed about an hour's sleep…
For pre-race application:
Suntan lotion (with bug repellant)
3M tape for preventing chafing
For the race:
An hydration backpack with a 3 liter capacity –
Filled initially with 3 liters of Clif Shot Isotonic drink for the initial 30km loop.
The plan was to refill with 2 liters for the 20km second loop. Then have 1.5 liters ready for each of the 2 final 15km sections – Based on last year's experience when I couldn't stomach any more of the sweet isotonic drink after 45kms, I gave myself the option of switching to water plus salt tablets and carbohydrates from other sources for the later stages.
A lightweight headlamp for the first hour in the darkness.
"Race ready" shorts with lots of pockets.
Pocket 1 had salt tablets, 2 anti-inflammatory tablets, and 2 "compeed" plasters in case of blisters.
Pocket 2: dates
Pocket 3: Sugar jellies
Pocket 4: tissues
Pocket 5: photocopied pages for morning prayer (complicated story…)
That still left me with a few spare pockets. ( I *love* shorts with pockets)
At the refueling area we could leave a bag with supplies:
Food: bananas, energy bars, Pringles, dates, jellies (not gels)
Medical equipement: more salt tablets, anti-inflammatory tablets and voltaren gel. Compeed plasters and a sterilized needle (blisters…)
I also had two spare pairs of running shoes and socks, and a spare hat.
Prescription sunglasses to switch my regular glasses after the first loop.
Friday morning 2:15
The first morning of "summer time". I'm up and getting organized. I eat a roll with lots of jam, and a cup of herbal tea. Michal gets up – the girls are sleeping soundly. I give Avi his requested 3:30 wake-up call – but he sounds wide awake. At 3:55 we meet at his car. If I slept an hour – Avi didn't sleep at all. We drive in the darkness. Everything is still. We reach the turnoff on the main road and turn off towards the trail. There are other cars following us. We arrive at the parking area. I turn on my headlamp and walk down the dirt path to the start/refueling area. I meet up with comrades from last year's race. Elon, last year's winner, and Levi with whom I ran the first 30 kilometers. We place our bags in the tent. I venture out of the lit up area into the darkness to check out my headlamp on the first stage of the race. A surrealistic, almost magical experience. Thoughts of all of those childrens' stories about wandering in the forest in the middle of the night flick through my mind…
4:50 – ten minutes to go. I take off all the outer layers that I had been wearing. It's cold but not freezing – around 6C (43F). I put on my backpack and start sipping the sports drink. We gather around the start area. Our timing chips are embedded in our race numbers on our chests. Each time we return to the refueling area we will go through the timing area and be recorded. Carin, the race-organiser gives us our final instructions. There's a 10 minute delay for some of the runners to move their cars out of the race area. A few words from the head of the local counsel, Carin counts down and leads us on our way!
Start line photos:
Of mice and men
Finally, we are on our way! Months of training. Hills and long runs, and more hills. Hopes, fears and dreams. All narrowing down to the next few hours (well… not exactly few). Last year, in the 60km race there were 105 starters and 87 finished. This year there are only 44 of us starting...
We start all bunched together. Flickering fireflies in the glooming. The whole pack almost misses one of the first turns. I find myself running next to Aviv. We run at an easy pace, and almost immediately we reach an uphill climb. The two of us revert to a brisk walk – Gavin, slightly ahead, also. Others continue running and open up a slight gap. We watch Reuven pass us at a quick pace – not for us, we agree. My calf muscle feels fine, everything is going smoothly. And then suddenly, with no warning, after 24 minutes and around 4 kms, in one step I feel a sharp pain in the upper right leg/groin area – the same place I'd felt on Sunday, but much more severe. I don't stop. Perhaps because I was running next to Aviv and Gavin – I'm not sure why. If this happened in a training run I would stop immediately. I think to myself: "Anti-inflammatory – now!" I take off my gloves, search in the pocket for the tablet and swallow it. Of course it makes no difference…But I think that the inertia of the race keeps me going – the fact that I didn't actually stop, combined with being physically able to run, albeit in not insignificant pain. So – I make the decision. If I am able to continue – I will. I'll only call it quits if I am physically unable to go on. "Mind over matter". Even now, almost a week later, I'm not sure that it was the correct decision – or a wise one. I will admit that I had other considerations going through my head – all the people that had supported and encouraged me. Friends, running club, family, Michal, and the kids. I had also agreed to use my race as a fundraising venture for an organisation for which Michal works on a daily basis – for "abandoned" women, and those whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce (a sore point in Orthodox Jewish law). I decide not to tell the other runners around me about the injury. If I don't actually speak it out, maybe it will get a bit better…
Pacing and placing
We started on wide trails, but while it was still dark we turned onto single trails. A word about the trail markings. The race organizers managed this brilliantly this year. The arrows were clear and unambiguous. Wherever there was a possibility of running in another direction there was tape placed on the ground to indicate *not* to go there. On the single tracks we had to be more careful – and not just because of the cow patties. Gavin lead, followed by Aviv and then me. In last year's race I never knew my exact position in the race. I would pass other runners and ask them, and they also didn't know. This year I told myself I would watch it more closely. It didn't help. I am by nature a "conservative" runner – I prefer to let the others race ahead, and them haul them in during the latter stages. It works well in races of most distances – 5k, 10k etc. If you've ever run a marathon in a negative split you'll know what I'm talking about. In an ultra marathon I think that pacing is even more critical. If you burn yourself out early on, as an ultra veteran told me – you'll turn into "road kill". I knew that Eilon, Reuven, and Aviv's friend Eyal were ahead of us. I wasn't sure if there were others. Slowly darkness lifted and first light dawned. Aviv turned to me and said that he thought the first 3 places would be Eilon, Eyal and me. I told him now about my injury and said that I doubted I would repeat last year's success. He told me that I'd be OK, but I was less optimistic. We turned off our headlamps. Gavin stopped to relieve himself. Aviv and I continued on and I told Aviv that soon I would have to pray.
Up up and away
Uphills. In my opinion the course was significantly more difficult than last year's. The word that kept floating back to me – brutal. And I don't think that it's a subjective assessment based on my condition this year. On the difficult uphills I reverted to walking. And not because this is some nature hike as opposed to a race. I'm walking to improve my time – and walking is a skill that I practice on the steep hills on my long runs at Mount Eitan – pumping your arms to increase your speed. You even sometimes find yourself outpacing other runners who keep running. In any case, on some of this course's uphills, and especially during the first 50k, the uphills were barely walkable. They were that steep. And I am remember my late grandfather, of blessed memory who was a major in the British army during WW2. He was a keen sportsman and a lover of sport. I think I inherited a lot from him. He would go out every day for his "constitutional" - his one hour walk. And when I accompanied him and we would come to a hill he would always say: "Short sharp steps, short sharp steps". And that's what I do.
A new day
Usually my practice as an Orthodox Jew doesn't directly affect my running. My observance is a part of me. I don't run or compete on Saturdays. I always run with a hat. But – I also pray every morning – almost always in a synagogue. The time for the morning prayers is bound by Jewish law from dawn until midday. Not usually a problem. But today we started well before dawn, and we would be finishing after (hopefully not *too long after*) midday. So, I prepared photocopied pages of the prayers and determined to pray on the run. There is one central section of the prayers that must be said standing still – that would take me about 3 minutes…In addition the morning prayers are said with a special prayer shawl and phylacteries – these I would be able to wear after the race…I first stopped to relieve myself. Gavin and Aviv together with another couple of runners who had caught up forged ahead. I pulled out my pages and began. Even though I was still battling through the pain, the experience of praying while running through such beautiful countryside was uplifting – it surprised me. Another climb and a breathtaking view. I stop for the Amida – the standing prayer. Noone else catches up. I continue on my way and wonder when and if I will see Gavin and Aviv.
We run into Nachal HaShofet. This is a well developed tourist spot. We are running for a few seconds on a wooden path and bridge. We'd visited this spot after last year's race on the weekend and it was swarming with visitors. Now in the early morning I pass a solitary woman walking her dog. The trail turns back towards the refueling area. We cross the main road under the watchful eyes of the local police. I make a mental list of what I have to do at the refueling station. Switch glasses. Take off the headlamp and dump the gloves. Take out the pages. Voltaren on the injury. Refill the hydration pack. Grab a banana and an energy bar. Getting closer. I catch up with a runner who I didn't know was ahead of me.
We approach the timing gate and I joke that we should sprint for the line. I crossed the line in 3:01 and enter the tent. Panic stations. They moved my bag! It takes me about a minute to find it…I remember everything on the list – except the pages which stay with me for another 20km…All up I was in for 4 minutes. Out of the tent and onto the green trail. (Each loop is colour coded).
In the tent Carin told me that we had a great climb coming up with a wonderful view of the Hermon mountain range at the top. Out we go.
Besides our race, there is a 50km ultra which was schedueled to start at 8:00. The 50km course is the final 50km of our race. Similarly a 30k race at 11:00, and a 15k race at 12:30. The cutoff for finishing for all the races is 5pm – 12 hours after our start.
According to my calculations, we started at 5:12 am, and with the refueling stop I had been running for 3:05. The 50km race started on time at 8:00, so I was 17 minutes behind them. Afterwards I heard, and saw from the photos that Eilon had started his second loop with the 50km runners, a little way behind Reuven. I continue with the regimen. Sipping sports drink every 10 minutes. From time to time a date or a jelly. A salt capsule every hour. I planned to take another anti-inflammatory tablet 4 hours after the first one. Up ahead I see Aviv who is running with another runner who was ahead of us – Yuval. I run up to them – wish them luck, and onwards. I reach the climb that Carin told me about. Up and up and further up. At the top – a 360 degree vista – pity I don't have a camera. The only problem with the uphill is the downhill that follows. Having overcome the burden of running with the groin pain, an old friend comes back to visit – ITBS on the outside of the left knee – and together with that a new pain on the inside of the right knee. These 2 knee pains make the downhill running very problematic. And what downhills! Once I return to flatter terrain I realize that here I can run OK – the uphills are also good. I undergo a transformation. I make a determined decision. In races I usually conserve myself on the uphills, and let myself go on the downhills – I seem to have a good technique for the downs. From now it was going to be pushing more on the ups, and gingerly managing the downs. I had no choice. That's all I could do. I'm starting to haul in the slower 50km runners, and towards the end of this loop I pass my club-mate, Alon. He thinks that there are 4 or 5 80km runners ahead of me…I realize that once again I'll have to switch from sweet sports drink to water. I can't take the sweet stuff anymore. I can barely swallow a date, and have no appetite for an energy bar.
This time we enter the tent before crossing the timing gate. I've drunk around 4.5 liters of the sports drink in 5 hours. I pour out the remaining 0.5 liters, and the organizers refill with water, while I grab a banana and some Pringles. I'm in the tent for 2 minutes, and whilst the photo shows me heading out at 6:08, believe me that it was really 5:08. That gives me 2:01 for the 20k loop.
As soon as I head out on the third stage, I see Gavin ahead of me. I join up with him. We start talking and run together. We're both waiting to catch Reuven. The switch to water is a big boost for me. Whereas by the end of the second stage I felt I had to force myself to drink the sweet stuff, now I feel I can drink as much as I want. Also – I only intended to take 1.5 liters on this loop, but the organizers filled it up with 3 liters. The extra weight doesn't bother me – I take some water and pour it over my head. And while not hot – the sun is out and it's warming up. From now on I'll take a salt tablet every 15-20 minutes (Saltstick, 215mg Sodium), and try and eat more bananas and Pringles for the calories and carbohydrates. We approach an uphill and start walking. The transition from walking to running is hard for me. A lot harder than running continually. We now come to a short, but very steep incline. We maneuver our way up. We've been running together for about 5 kilometers. Gavin says that he needs to stop and have some food. I keep going. A little later I see that I've opened up a big gap on him. He told me after the race that he bonked on this loop and had a hard time, but managed to recover and run a solid final loop. I've already passed my longest run time-wise. That was 5:40 in last year's 60km ultra. But I'm not yet at 60km…I get there not long after 6 hours, and not long after that I see Reuven. It's hard to miss him – he's wearing a bright orange top. He's walking on a flat trail, and tells me that he's having a break to celebrate his (and my) longest ever run. We run together, but he says that my pace is too fast for him. We part company. I reckon that I'm now in 3rd place. Only Eilon and Eyal are ahead of me…I feel that I'll manage to finish respectably with my adjusted race tactics…Suddenly, without warning, Reuven goes flying by me on a downhill. I make an extra effort and attempt to stay not too far behind, waiting and praying for some uphills. He trips on a branch and goes flying, but somehow manages to regain his footing. We cross a cattle-grate and he stops. I run past and start to push even harder on the uphills. As I'm approaching the refueling point I hear a loud "Woohoo". That voice can only be one person – my daughter Elisheva. Michal managed to get here with the 2 girls. What an adrenaline surge!
The last 15 kms were covered in 1:31, and I headed out after another quick stop for bananas, Pringles, voltaren and more water with the time for 65kms showing 6:39.
Down but not out
This is it. The final stage. Another 15 kilometers and we're home. So I won't make it under 8 hours like I planned – but there are good reasons for that. And with a bit of luck I might even grab 3rd place…maybe…
The 3rd stage wasn't that hard – significantly easier than the first 2 stages. This stage opens up with a nice steady climb. The climb continues, and continues, which is good, but after every climb…Once the descent begins I discover that I can hardly move. The pains in the knees are worse. Each descent is harder than the previous one. I keep looking behind expecting Gavin or Reuven to come flying by, but the only person there is a 50k runner whom I've passed and who seems to be suffering as much as me. Closer. Some of the lead 30km runners pass me. I wish them good luck. The younger ones don't say anything. The older runners encourage me on. Dovev, in charge of the timing is also running the 30km race. He runs past and tells me "only 4 kilometers left". 4 kilometers. I've run 95% of the distance. So why is it all now downhill???
I approach the finish. It looks like no one will catch me after all. The last descent. I see Michal and the girls. Elisheva and Noa join me and holding their hands I approach the finish. I'm floating as I cross the line in 8:20 – a tough 1:41 for the final 15 kilometers.
Mixed feelings of happiness, fulfillment, pain and tiredness swell over me. "What place did I finish?" It's unclear. The timekeepers won't say. Michal saw Eilon finish well before me (7:29!) and thought that 2 others had also finished. That must be Eyal and one other who I hadn't counted on…So – fourth place – still a good achievement in the circumstances. I don't have much of an appetite. I keep drinking and eat a little. Michal goes off to pick up Nahum, Hanna, and Shira, and I wait with Elisheva and Noa. We watch runners finishing all 4 races. I shout out encouragement – especially to my 80km comrades – some of them are only finishing the third loop…Alon, my club-mate finishes the 50km race strongly. Michal makes it back before the awards ceremony. They put up the results – I'm second! More excitement – apparently at some stage I'd passed Eyal and hadn't noticed. The ceremony starts on time – every few minutes another 80km runner comes in. They call me up and the family entourage goes wild.
It was a totally different experience to last year.
I ran the 60 km race with less preparation, and minimal aspirations.
This year I was well prepared and more experienced.
Last year I ran according to plan, comfortably and with a pleasantly surprising result.
This year everything was put out of kilter. I found myself facing difficult decisions, and running was always a struggle.
In retrospect my decision to continue after the injury was a complex and confusing one. I hope that I'll get off relatively lightly. Time will tell.
Finally words of thanks. To Carin Goldblatt and all her team for putting on a wonderful race. The atmosphere and all respects of this race are unique – incomparable to other races. To Michal and all my kids for all the support and understanding and love.
Congratulations to Eilon Brachfeld on a monumental race and result. Also to Reuven Milman for surprising lots of people. To all the 80km runners and to Eyal, Gavin and Levi for making it home in under 9 hours.
Anthony. Jerusalem, Israel.