Last year I signed up for my first 48 hours race, an event scheduled at the end of March, in Athens. It was an act of pure curiosity, to be honest. I’ve never done a 48 hours race before. And it also was quite well situated, from a time point of view, because it was just 2 months before Ultrabalaton (a 220+ kilometers race along the lake Balaton, in Hungary, which takes place at the end of May). I already ran the Ultrabalaton, but I will be there again this year, hoping for a better outcome than the last time.
So this 48 hours race would have make for a good training session, I thought.
The Pre-Race Setup
This 48 hours ultramarathon marked a few firsts for me. I will mention them as they will unfold, starting with the first one: I finally had someone crewing for me. My girlfriend, Raluca, decided to come over and help me during the race. At various moments during the race her presence was absolutely heavenly.
We arrived in Athens one day before the start and checked in at a hotel near the area (which happens to be one of the hotels used for the runners of Spartathlon, another race that I hope to run some day). We asked for directions from the ladies at the reception and started what we thought it would be a short, pleasant walk to the place of the race.
Alas, it wasn’t neither short, nor pleasant. The boulevard we were supposed to take was mostly a highway, the noise and the speed of the cars were quite high and the area seemed more and more “sauvage” as we were approaching the start.
Eventually, we got there. It was a former Olympic complex (Greece was the host of the Olympic Games in 2004) now almost abandoned. The race was just a small alley, with a few people stumbling every now and there, in a zombie like setup. The “zombie apocalypse” scenario will resurface many times during the race.
There was a checkpoint with a screen where you could read the numbers of laps you ran. Two tents and a few tables.
If we thought the outside was scarce, well, the inside was almost scary. A man from the race crew took us inside to give me the chips (two, attached to the shoelaces, one for each shoe) and we signed a paper. There was only one desk in a very big room. There were a few corridors, scarcely light, and every once in a wile a blue door. Behind each door, yet other big, empty rooms.
In some of the rooms, racers from the 6 days and 72 hours races, who started before us, were already “camped”. Meaning they had a sleeping bag, and, the most experienced, maybe some sort of a mattress too. I was going to find out very soon that a sleeping bag and a mattress could make the difference between a “normal” 48 hours race (a 48 hours race is not normal, I know) and a hellish one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I parked my suitcase in one of the rooms, took out the equipment and started to change my clothes. I also prepared the first drink mug (isotonic and vitamin C), put my bandana and went out.
We started in time, at 4 PM, without too much bells and whistles. There were a total of 12 runners in this race.
My strategy was to bank 160-170km the first 24 hours and then 140-130 in the second day. I planned to run for 4km and then walk the 5th. I also split the race in “5km” laps, instead of 1 km, because it would have been too demoralizing to count them one by one. I planned to do 60 laps, 5 km each.
The first 90 km were literally blank.With only one significant glitch: before the race I set up my Suunto Ambit Sport to record the GPS signal every 60 seconds, in order to save battery life. But because of the specific course of the race, which consisted of two almost parallel alleys, it skewed the measurement. The lap was not in a circle, or a square, it was basically 2 parallel lines, with some variable space between them (4 to 20 meters). So basically my watch had the impression that I didn’t move too much.
After a few kilometers I realized the watch was only recording 0.7km for each lap. So, if the watch was showing 3.5km, I was actually at 5km (or one “big lap”). That wasn’t good. But I also didn’t have a way to change the setting, without my laptop. So I decided to keep the heartbelt on, for having at least heart rate measurements later on, but to completely ignore the distance measurements.
Instead, I relied on a “lo-fi” measurement.
It’s a technique I tested at Ultrabalaton: for each “big lap”, a 5km one, that is, I was rising a finger from my left hand. With that finger raised, I was starting to count the kilometers inside that big lap with the fingers from the other hand. So, when the thumb on my left hand (the lap counter) was up, it meant I was in the first big lap. Then, for the first kilometer, I was running with the thumb from the right hand up. The second kilometer, I was having the index up too. For the third, the middle finger. For each kilometer I ran, the corresponding finger had to stay up until an entire “big lap” was over. When I was at the fifth finger, basically I had all the fingers up, the palm was open and I knew it’s time to walk the fifth kilometer. After the walking kilometer, I was rising the next finger on my left arm and starting to count with the thumb from the right.
It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. It kept me alert and focused. I was making steady progress. At km 30 I decided to spend 10 minutes at the checkpoint, to eat a little bit of dinner, prepare some drinks and check out if I need ointment in some areas (to prevent chaffing). I did the same thing at km 60.
And then, between the km 60 and km 90, things started to degrade slowly. I didn’t realize what was the cause until later on in the race. Looking back, I can trace the events, but at that time I didn’t really know what happened (and that was the main source of frustration).
First, the temperature dropped really fast. The course was very close to the sea and the cold wind from the beach hit quite suddenly. I did 2-3 big laps without any trouble at all (meaning at km 75 I was still doing ok), but then, starting with the 75-80km interval, I felt I was getting cold. Especially during the walking kilometer. I thought I will warm up again when I’ll start running and, for a while, I was. But then the walking kilometer came again and I was getting cold really fast again. At the big lap counting for km 85-90 I realized I was shivering.
Then I fell. I couldn’t realize why and how this happened. At one of the turning points of the course, the one where the toilets were placed, I simply stumbled and the next thing I know is that I’m rolling on my arms, ninja style, trying not to scratch myself completely on the ground. After one tumble I was on my feet again, but completely baffled. Looking back, I can think of two reasons: either I got sloppy and didn’t pay attention, or I stumbled because I was already hypothermic. Or maybe a combination of both.
Once up, I looked at my feet and, apart from a significant scratch on the right knee I couldn’t see anything. But the scratch in itself needed a bit of a care. At the checkpoint I stopped, got inside and took care of the wound, as much as I could, given the conditions. And that was the moment when I realized I was hypothermic: my hands were trembling so hard I could barely apply the patch on the knee.
To make a long story short, I decided it’s time to stop and try to get warm again.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a sleeping bag, nor a mattress and I just lied down on my jacket, with my head on a big isotonic box. In the room there were already two other runners, one for the 3 days race and the other one for the 6 days race. Both had sleeping bags and a lot better equipment than me. One of them was talking in his sleep. Really loud. I couldn’t close an eye.
In a couple of hours the shivering faded. I was still cold and I inferred that it would be better if I keep moving, the body heat will maybe counterbalance for the hypothermia.
I got out on the track again and tried to run following the same strategy (4 running laps + 1 walking), but I couldn’t. So I started to circle around and do short intervals within one lap, trying to walk the ascent (probably 20-30 cm level difference, but after 90-100km you really feel that) and run the descents.
Around 10 AM Raluca called and asked if I need anything. I asked her to buy some medical stuff for the knee wound, trying to keep my voice neutral (I knew she would worry). She worried anyway. When she arrived, 1 hour later, she carried a bag full of medical stuff. “Since I know you, when you say it’s just a scratch, it’s almost never just a scratch”.
Luckily, this time it was just a scratch. Raluca took very good care of it and I could run a bit easier.
But since morning, my progress was very slow. It was almost noon and I was at about 115 km. And still cold.
The most difficult challenge was to keep my mind clear. Very fast after the fall and the first hypothermia episode I realized I won’t be able to reach my goal: 300km. My mind was only on this thing and almost nothing else. My whole body was tense, just like my thoughts.
Episodes of frustration mixed with low self-esteem started to creep in more and more, until I realized, around 4PM, that after the first 24 hours I was just at a meager 125 km.
From that moment on I decided to switch my internal dialogue. First of all, I started to think at the guilt and shame that I was feeling and stayed with those feelings for as long as I could. The running became, of course, walking, as I was trying to understand why I became so tense.
Now I think it’s the moment to share some of the reasons I run such ridiculously long distances. It’s not about the fitness, although it’s important, nor about the records. Most of the time it’s about a process of self-discovery. If you run for such a long time, at some point you will have to deal with yourself. Since you’re already running, you have nowhere left to run from yourself, so to speak. You have to look into yourself and to understand you. As much as you can, of course.
When people are asking me why I run, I sometimes respond that running is the spoon I’m using to scoop deep down to my fears and insecurities. And, in this 48 hours race, that scooping moment lasted almost an entire day.
As I was slowly getting familiar with the guilt and shame generated by the fact that I won’t be able to reach my initial objective, I tried to understand from where these emotions came. It was a deep, muddy and dark part of myself. I didn’t like what I found there. It wasn’t comfortable.
But it was still part f myself. So I had to accept it.
I won’t give you all the details, because what I found there would be very difficult to explain without a lot of autobiographical reference, but I will tell you that I finally discovered the true nature and meaning of goals.
A goal is just a milestone you try to reach. The keyword here is “try”. As in giving your best shot. It’s not something set in stone, that will validate you or invalidate you. It’s not something that will make you or break you. It’s just a milestone. It’s very, very important, of course, but just a milestone.
What’s actually important is what you do to reach it. What you do before the milestone. And, as I was slowly getting comfortable with this new insight (a process much more complicated and hurtful than what I describe here) I started to feel my body releasing the tension.
In the evening I was at 150km.
But relaxed and at peace with myself.
And also cold.
So I went in the building to try heating up a bit. A vain attempt, alas, because there was no source of heating in the building.
I laid down on the floor (I had a yoga mat with me, though) and tried to cover with Raluca’s scarf. It kinda worked for a while, but the sounds the other people were making in their sleep were still there, now even stronger.
At some point I decided to start running again. I changed my socks, got up and went out.
It was 2 hours before the dawn. I warmed up with a few laps of walking, then I started again the running pattern of yesterday: walk the ascent, run the descent.
Two runners got injured (one of them being an extremely good runner, 2nd place at Spartathlon last year) but they didn’t leave. They were outside on the track, near the checkpoint, cheering up for runners.
I found this really nice. And useful. As I was approaching that specific place on the course, I was almost waiting for the cheering. It felt good. It gave me motivation and power.
From 4AM until 3:30PM I had a constant pace. I didn’t make as much progress as I expected, but now I was in much better mental shape than yesterday, so I had no guilt or shame feelings. I was just there, enjoying running and starting my meditation rounds again.
For the last 10-12 kilometers Raluca joined me and we ran / walked together.
Almost half of the runners already gave up at 3PM and they were resting or trying to take care of their feet. One of them had a huge ankle and Raluca asked if she could give him a massage. The joy and gratitude on the face of that runner, well, that’s something that I find very difficult to forget.
I finished with a kick, sprinting for the last quarter of the kilometer. I had 202 km in the bank.
And that was it.
Lessons Learned In A 48 Hours Race
The first lesson is that logistics and strategy are more important than physical fitness. If I would had a mattress and sleeping bag (or if I could have been more instrumental in finding another place to sleep, like other runners did) the hypothermia could have been avoided. That would have mean at least 8 more hours of running, which, translated in distance, would have mean at least 40-50 more kilometers, easily.
The second lesson is a technical one: the watch should be in the simplest setting ever. Even if I run a 48 hours race. I know now that I can recharge it while running, by using a USB battery, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do at the next race. I’ll keep the most accurate measurement setting and, if the battery drains, I will just carry a USB charger with me. The demoralizing effect of not having the correct number of kilometers versus the 100gr of extra weight is simply too much to bear.
The third lesson was about goals, or, at a more profound level, about wrong mental views. This race took me so far outside of my comfort zone that I had no other chance that to recognize some very disturbing truths about myself. I’m very happy I did this. You can’t lie to yourself after you ran 90km. You simply can’t. You have to confront yourself, accept who you are and change course if you don’t like that person.
That’s probably the most important lesson I learned from this race.
I will skip over the funny parts were I fell asleep in the hotel room, while still talking and while Raluca was massaging my feet, making her laugh for a good half an hour. Because she kept talking to me after I was asleep (without knowing it, of course, I was perfectly coherent in my incoherence). I’ll also skip over the deep feeling of satisfaction and comfort when I was finally able to lie down on a real bed.
I will just tell you that the next day we took a walk near the center of Athens, where we played the tourists. We visited Acropole and just enjoyed the nice weather that was finally taking over the city.
We got back at the hotel after a few hours, packed our suitcases and we headed towards the bus station. In the station, surprise: one of the two runners who got injured, and who was cheering all the time, was there too, with his girlfriend. We instantly bonded an we had a very nice conversation for the 45 minutes that we had to spend on the airport bus.
And during this conversation I learned one of the most disturbing, but, at the same time, funny, stories of this competition.
One of the 48 hours runners, with whom I was in constant challenge, was actually cheating. I remember that I was always either 1 km in front of him, or he was 1 km after me. Sometimes I was crossing paths with him, sometimes not, and I assumed he was inside during those periods.
But being on the track all the time, without running, the injured guy was able to see a lot more stuff. And here’s what he saw: every 2 or 3 laps, my “challenger” pretended he was taking a piss (something quite common, though) near a gate, but when nobody was looking, he was trespassing on the other route, cutting half of the course.
The organizers couldn’t believe until the injured runner asked them to look up the numbers for his laps on the computer. A 4 minute lap after 40 hours of running is something HIGHLY uncommon. And yet, this guy seemed to be able to run 1km in 4 minutes.
After a few tribulations, the organizers eventually told to the cheating guy that he will no longer be admissible for a medal, but if he wanted to continue running, he was free to do it.
The guy argued a bit, but then he continued to run.
And now comes the funny part: while he was out of the race, he still continued to cheat…