Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Mountain to Valley Relay, April 2010

Mountain To Valley Relay, April 29-30 2010, Israel.

This is a 24-stage relay race for teams of 4, 6 or 8 runners, covering an overall distance of 210 kms. There were 62 teams of 4, 46 of 6, 103 of 8 and 3 2-person teams, and 15 ultra runners who were running the final 127 kms of the course. Additionally there was 1 Brazilian runner who was starting the night before and attempting to cover the full distance. The race start was on Thursday with the start times staggered from 7am until 4pm according to the quality of the teams, with the calculations being made such that all the teams would finish on Friday morning between 6 and 10am. More details are available from the race website
This year's experience was totally different from last year's. Last year we were a mixed group of runners from our Jerusalem running club. An 8 person team divided into 2 units and 2 cars. We had a wonderful time and an unforgettable experience. But it wasn't competitive. On my 3 legs I gave my full out effort, but this year I wanted more. By the end of last year's race I had decided that next time I wanted to be in a competitive 4 person team.
Leading up to the registration for this year's race (which filled in a couple of weeks!) I approached some of our club runners and we formed a veterans (over 40) 4 man team. Our club coach Herve, Dudik and Shimon. Ian agreed to be our reserve runner, and in the end came very close to joining us… Dudik ran with us in last year's team, but for Herve and Shimon it was all new…
In the weeks before the race Herve had not managed to get back to his usual self. He was carrying a few niggling injuries but was determined to compete and not disappoint the team. All 4 of us joined a night training run 2 weeks before the race – two 10km legs with a 90 minute break. Everyone had organized all their night equipment. On the Friday before the race Shimon dropped a bombshell on the club website. He had a nasty fall on an easy run and had badly hurt his knee. I called him and we agreed that he would rest and ice, and we would decide at the Tuesday training session (2 days before the race). Meanwhile Ian was on full alert.
Tuesday. Shimon is jogging comfortably on the grass, but not looking fully confident. Dudik calls us all together and pulls out the surprise that he has prepared – Team shirts – that was the turning point for Shimon, and he is IN.
Thursday. I collected everyone in my car and we headed up North. In the second half of the journey we start passing places that we would be returning to during the race. As we near the start we start passing cars with race flags and also some runners. Our start time is 4pm. The final start time of the day. That is because we were considered a "fast" team. Herve runs about 32 minutes for 10K, both Dudik and me 38-39 minutes, and Shimon just over 40 minutes. We arrive at Nimrod's castle in the Golan Heights an hour before the start. Our main competition is starting at the same time. Our clubmate Danny and his team who are defending their win from last year. The race organistaion is first class. We receive a wrist bracelet and an ankle chip which must be passed from runner to runner at each station. The first leg is 6.3kms all downhill on the road. Herve is our first runner and we decide to leave and wait at the next station before the start. I am the third runner, after Dudik and before Shimon. During the first 2 stages I have a strange surrealistic feeling as we drive from station to station – as if the race hasn't yet started…Herve arrives at the first station in about 19 minutes! Dudik takes over and we drive on to the next stop. Kibbutz Snir. Shimon, Dudik and I are sharing the driving. We also have a navigator nominated for each leg, and the runner who has just finished his stage has a "free" leg to rest, recover, change clothes, and eat and drink. As I wait for Dudik I run a short warmup and stretch in the shade on the grass. The weather is pleasant – around 24C (75F). Last year we were sweltering in 35C (95F) heat. I am happy to see that Nachshon, the runner of the fastest 4-person team (non-veteran) has passed Dudik – that means that Dudik is running a sensible pace. Herve has given us a handy lead on Danny's team, and I'm hoping that Danny's co-runners will push themselves to catch up. That should work to our benefit towards the end…Dudik finishes his leg and I set off on a relatively easy 6.7km leg which starts downhill on the road before heading off on some flat trail. I see that Avidov from Danny's team is closing on me. I finish a few seconds ahead of him in about 26 minutes. Shimon is also running at a sensible pace, and their last runner passes him and finishes a couple of minutes ahead of him. Herve takes off again and regains the lead for us. Their second runner closes on Dudik, and I start my second leg with my headlamp on as the light is starting to fade. The leg is 11 km mostly flat and Avidov gradually catches up to me and we run together for most of the leg. Towards the end he pushes forward, as I finished the leg in 43 minutes.
Our team is working well together. Driving, navigating, eating and drinking. There's no time to rest. You finish running and by the time you have recovered, eaten a bit, and with the driving and/or navigating you are very soon getting ready for your next run. Shimon finishes his 2nd leg and we are again about 2 minutes behind our rivals. Herve takes off, but he is noticeably struggling. On this shorter leg he doesn't manage to pass Danny and the gap has started to widen. By the time Dudik finishes his next leg, where he had a fall but recovered, the gap is 6 minutes. I start my next leg which is again almost 11 km and has some tough climbs – altogether 470 meters of climb (1540'). Using my "ultra" tactics on some of the steeper climbs I switch to "power" walking. One of the runners who was from a team that started 30 minutes before us and we have passed catches up to me, and we run together. The combined effects of night, climbing and the mounting kilometers bring me to the changeover in 58 minutes. During this stage I turned over my ankle slightly, thankfully with no ill effects, and almost slipped off the path. The last 200 meters was a steep downhill and as I handed over to Shimon I heard one of the other runners say that there was a difficult drive to the next station. I trudge back up the steep 200 meters and tell Dudik to start driving immediately. At the beginning of the race we said that we would give the runner who finishes a stage a few minutes to stretch before taking off, and at every stage we had all our team waiting for the incoming runner and helping with the changeover. By now, everyone was tired and the driver and navigator were usually waiting in the car, maybe catching a few minutes of sleep. The three of us are in the car as we drive past Dir Hanna and through the village of Arabe. Oi Arabe! We were in trouble. The most complicated instructions of the race were on this drive. We were to pass through 3 traffic circles, and look for various statues, and find an electricity pole in the middle of the road…we got lost! We were not too foolish though, and worked out quickly that we must turn back to the last known landmark. After several tense minutes one of the locals pointed us in the right direction. We were hoping that Shimon wasn't running his 7.3 kms too fast…But he was…Shimon arrived at the station, and team 443 is nowhere to be seen. He shouted out Herve again and again – no answer from the dark. He asked the volunteers – thinking that perhaps Herve had left without waiting for him… he spent what must have been the longest 5 minutes of his life shouting out and trying to work out what had happened. We turned up 5 minutes late, and Herve set off without having time to put back on his reflective jacket.
During the last few stages we had caught up to another 4some from our club who had started 90 minutes before us. It was good to see them and share some mutual encouragement and experiences. Our club also had an 8-person team but they had started at 11:30 and we weren't likely to catch them. Herve finished a flat long leg – the longest in the race of 13 km. He didn't look good. He was complaining of severe pain in his quadriceps muscle and not running freely. But we didn't really have time to worry about it. Dudik set off and after the Arabe fiasco we set off quickly for the next stop. Dudik finished his leg and I set off on my next run – 8.7kms. It was a leg that I had run last year. During most of my legs I manage to catch 2 or 3 runners. All runners have to wear reflective jackets and flashing red lights behind at night. The flashing lights present targets, and I try to gradually reel them in. There are excellent signs with sticklights – sometimes I mistake the sticklights for runners…After a few kilometers a runner catches me from behind. I am happy to run together with him as my headlamp does not give great light. I finish the leg in about 43 minutes. We have now fallen about 20 minutes behind our main rivals. Shimon sets off and Dudik tells me that they had some problems with the drive on this leg also, but thankfully found it in time. Shimon is running a relatively short leg – so we set off straight away not wanting any Arabe recurrences. But on this leg Shimon takes a wrong turn and is delayed by some minutes – apparently some of the local kids had taken some of the signs as souvenirs…I only have 2 remaining legs to run. A hard leg that I ran last year of almost 10 km, and then an easy short leg of 5.6 km to finish off. The finish is approaching…Herve is waiting for Shimon – he looks tired, cold and tense. Shimon comes in and Herve sets out. But Herve is limping badly and barely moving. I watch him as he stops to stretch. He continues but after 2 minutes calls me on my cell phone and tells me that he thinks that he can't continue. Dudik has just finished his "big" meal. But according to the race rules if a runner has to withdraw the remaining runners must continue in their set order. That means that Dudik must run Herve's leg, me the next leg then Shimon and back to Dudik – our "awesome" foursome just became a not so "fearsome" threesome…And looking at the stages to come I see that instead of 15kms in 2 legs I will be running 32kms in 3 legs including the tough final leg. Herve hobbles back to us. Dudik starts getting ready while I go to inform the race volunteers about what is happening.
Dudik sets out and we proceed to the next station where we meet some friends from the Bet-Shemesh running club who are running 4 4-person teams together. Throughout the race I have made sure to keep up a steady intake of food and drink. After each leg I would eat a banana. I also had some pasta with tuna and vegetables, yoghurt, pretzels and chips. I'm starting to feel a little nauseous now. This can sometimes be a sign of dehydration. I try and drink more water and start taking salt tablets every 30-40 minutes. Dudik arrives after a difficult leg – not surprisingly he has also suffered from a side stitch. I set off on the next leg – Herve has given me his headlamp which is much better than mine and gives me a lot more confidence in the dark. I pass a couple of runners and climb up towards the famous statue of Alexander Zaid. From there it's a descent into some fields. The last 2 kms of this 10.2 km leg are on the road – I complete the leg in 58 minutes, and we are now 45 minutes behind Danny's team. Shimon sets out on the hard stretch that I was meant originally to run. We continue in the car to Ramat Shofet – we are now entering the area where the annual ultra races are run, so I know it well. Shimon finishes his tough stage and hands over to Dudik in the first light of a new morning. There is a chill in the air, but what a relief to think that the next stages I can run without fear of falling and without a headlamp. Dudik has a relatively short stage, so we hurry to the next station at near Kibbutz Hazorea to wait for him. At every station there are smiling volunteers. Some of them have been here most of the night. Shimon brought with him a gas burner to prepare coffee, but we never had time to set it up. So here, as earlier he is offered a few sips of coffee from the race volunteers. Here there are also some sweet biscuits, but I still can't eat anything. Dudik arrives and I set out on a long, flat stage. I shout out to Dudik as we're changing over to check our times because I remember that the race website said that they would close the 2nd last station at 8:15 and the last station before the finish at 9:00. I set out just before 6:15. I told myself I had to finish the 11.5km in an hour, so that Shimon would have an hour to complete his next stage of 10.6km. As I start I feel stiff and slow. But gradually I free up my muscles, pass the usual 2 runners (why is this always at the beginning of a stage?) and pick up the pace to what felt like 5 mins per km. (8 mins per mile) I run like this for about 35 minutes, and hope that I've run about 7kms. It gets a bit harder and I slow down, but only slightly. What a great feeling to see the 1km to go sign. As I approach the changeover I see Shimon from afar and he's not quite ready. I shout out to him and he runs over to the changeover point. I've run the stage in 62 minutes, and I tell Shimon that he has an hour to finish the stage. We have a very short drive to the next station while Shimon runs a loop. Dudik and I go over to the volunteers to explain that Shimon should finish by 8:15, but we might need another few minutes. They tell us that they have received instructions to keep the station open until 8:30! But Shimon doesn't know that… I take advantage of the long break to say the morning prayers – I'm not sure what time I'll arrive at the finish, and I will try and sleep a little there before the drive back home. Rona is helping Herve with some stretches on his injured leg. Their 4some has much more serious time issues than us. They won't make the cutoff. But both Harel and Rona say they don't care. They have run 180kms and they are going to finish the 210kms – even if the volunteers fold up their tables and close the stations.
Shimon finishes his stage in 57 minutes! Dudik sets off and we proceed to the last station at Yifat. Dudik again has a short stage, but again there is a problem with the signs, and I set off on the last stage just before 9:00. Now I am really stiff and I can't shake it off like last time. There is a runner who has started just ahead of me and he opens up a gap. I do improve a little as I continue. This leg has some serious climbs. On the steeper sections I revert to power walking. There's a runner behind me and he continues running and slowly passes me. I reach the peak of the mountain and start the descent into the finish at Timrat on rocky stones which make running difficult. Just as I pass the "1km to go" sign Shimon calls me to find out how I am going. Soon enough I see him waiting to accompany me on the last 800 meters. Herve is waiting near the car and shouts out some encouragement. David from our 8-person team joins in and as we cross the finish Dudik is waiting with the rest of the club runners. I finish the 10.6km stage in 74 minutes.
Our overall time is 18 hours 11 minutes which averages out to 5:12 per km.
The first 8-person team finished in 14:48, the 6-person in 15:21 and the 4-person in 15:36.
Danny and his veteran 4-man team finished 7th overall and 1st veterans in 16:44. We were 26th overall, 10th among the 4-person teams, and 2nd in the veterans. The first 127km ultra runner finished in 14:36 and the Brazilian managed 170km and had to shorten the route due to gastric problems.