At the end of May I will run in a 220 kilometers race around Lake Balaton, in Hungary, called Ultrabalaton. As part of the training for this race, last weekend I took part in a 100 kilometers race. During the night 🙂
The whole thing was organized by Andrei Rosu, a well known endurance athlete in Romania (he held the Guinness World record for running 7 marathons and 7 ultramarathons on 7 continents for 2 years, he recently finished a quintuple Iron Man – that’s 5 Iron Man contests in a row – and this summer he will take part in the toughest Iron Man on the planet, Enduroman).
I’m lucky enough to be part of Andrei’s coaching program (called CIA 🙂 ), and I’m also hosting the first session for each series of this program at Connect Hub,. That means we get to see each other quite often. Recently, he offered to help me with the training and we did a few one on one training sessions. At some point, we talked about a 100k race. In the beginning it was just a random sentence: “Well, let’s do a 100k one time, it would be cool, right?”. And then, we started to look into each other’s agenda and try to find a common free spot. Then I started to talk to other people who are running at Balaton, asking them if they’re interested. And one thing led to another, and, somehow, we ended up with an event on the night of April 10th. Andrei took care of the preparations and race check-lists and I talked to some friends to help us with support cars. Almost without realizing, we ended up with a full blown race, with 2 support cars, walkie-talkie devices, more than 10 runners and even finisher medals.
The Race Story
We started on a beautiful evening, from a place situated at exactly 101 kilometers from Bucharest, near the mountains. The weather was gorgeous and we were well rested and eager to run. The first two hours of the race were almost without history. It was just flow, we ran each at his own pace (much faster than we expected) and we were just focusing on the road.
Then it became dark. The group was split in 3: the leaders (two very fast guys, also runners at Balaton), the middle group (in which I was with Andrei and a few other runners) and the last group, people who were just trying out to see if they can run such a long distance.
At some point even the middle group started to split. I got to run alone for 2 or 3 legs (and by leg I understand the distance between 2 refreshment points, which were basically just places where we met the support cars). Those legs were absolutely superb (see below, at Mental Fitness). The night was still, the sky was crystal clear, I wasn’t (yet) in pain and I could just let myself dive into my running meditation. At the end of one of these legs, around km 40, I took a wrong step and twisted my right ankle. Fortunately, the next refreshment point was just a kilometer away, so I could assess the damage quickly. I used an anti inflammatory ointment and decided to run more conservatively. That was also the starting point for hypothermia (see below) and, all in all, the beginning of the bad stuff.
10 kilometers after this incident we met with another group of runners. It was half the distance and just a bit over midnight. The new runners were much fresher than we (and by “we” I mean me and Andrei, the rest were either in front of us, or abandoned after 44-48 kilometers) and that kinda helped. In hindsight, it helped a lot, because they added a touch of fresh energy and a lot of positive attitude.
An important moment of the race was the second dawn. As we approached Bucharest and the night was vanishing, the temperature was slowly starting to rise and the light started to creep in. I felt a burst in energy and detached from the platoon for about 5 kilometers, until the last refreshment point. Unfortunately, that was the part with concrete surface and that hurt my ankles a lot (see below: What Didn’t Work). Nevertheless, as we all entered the city, now in full day light, and entered the park where the finish point was (the park where most of us are regularly running) a sense of accomplishment became very clear. We were literally 2 kilometers away from the finish point.
And, just as I was climbing a small bridge Andrei announced that we nailed it. We reached the 100 kilometers milestone exactly at that bridge in the park. From that point we walked until the finish point, another kilometer. I was literally feeling battered and bruised. But very, very happy.
The feeling was almost surreal: I had real difficulties in finding a part of the body that didn’t hurt, I was still shivering because of hypothermia but at the same time I knew we finished in a very good time: 12 hours and 37 minutes.
After I got home I immediately took a warm bath and that was the precise moment that made my world livable again. But once I became warmer I also became more conscious about the pain in my joints and muscles. I briefly ate something and went to sleep. I couldn’t sleep for more than one hour, so I got up and tried to keep busy somehow. I started to unpack the gear from the race, got in touch with other runners on Facebook, and tried to keep myself busy. I was experiencing something very confusing: because of the fatigue I was shivering, but because of the lack of sleep, I was getting hotter. The difference between those two sensations was very disturbing.
When I was feeling better, my girlfriend gave me a few massages for the ankles and that made the recovery much more effective.
In the afternoon I took another 2 hours nap and then went out for a recovery run. Each and every step of these 5 kilometers recovery run hurt but I felt very good that I did it. Eventually, I fell asleep normally and my entire routine was reinstated.
I write this 2 nights after the race and I consider myself completely recovered. I still have some mild pains in my ankles, but nothing serious.
I’ve read a lot about mental strain in endurance races. It seems that hallucinations, or at least mild depression or feelings of anxiety and inadequacy are quite common. Especially during the night, when sleep deprivation adds up to the physical effort. I also had my own experiences with extreme sleep deprivation: I didn’t sleep for 5 nights in a row when I was in the army, and yes, I did have 2 minor hallucinations episodes (you can read more about this entire experience here). So, when I started this 100 kilometers race I was at least curious about this part of the training.
The good news is that I didn’t experience anything that I would consider out of ordinary at the mental level. No depression, no bad feelings (apart from the normal physical pain that adds up as you approach the end of the race) and no hallucinations whatsoever. On the contrary, I’d say. The portions I ran with friends were basically all fun and laughs and men jokes. The main theme was always what fun it is to run in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, with friends. With “the guys”, you know. The “fitness” version of a “night out with the guys”. There were a few legs where, for a few kilometers in a row none of us talked. At some point, after one of this periods of intense silence, one of us said: “Guys, please stop talking, my ears are hurting”. Which, obviously, restored the conversation and laughs.
But in all honesty, the parts of the race that were the most intense and fulfilling, mentally speaking, were the legs I ran alone. From my calculations, a quarter of the race I ran alone, approximately 25 kilometers. At least 2 or 3 legs in the dark, and around 20 minutes in the morning, during the dawn. During these periods I experienced increased clarity, a sense of being in sync and in “flow”. As I said many times before, running is a form of meditation for me. These legs, where I ran alone in the dark and my focus was crystal sharp, were deeply rewarding. Is not uncommon for me to find answers to various problems while running, and this race wasn’t different. A few things in my life that were kinda fuzzy at the beginning of the race became more manageable at the end. So, the mental part went really well. And, with that, we’re gonna make the transition to what worked and what didn’t worked on this race.
The most important thing that worked on this race was nutrition. And by that I understand everything that I put into my body: from isotonic drinks to energizing gels or bars, or supplements. I did a few calculations, based on the long races I did before, and I put at least half of it more. At least that’s what I brought back home after the race, almost half of the food bag. It was the first time when I experienced with a few supplements, like magnesium and caffein tablets. I had 2 magnesium doses (100mg each) and 1 caffein pill, on top of the 6 energizing gels (20g each), one pack of salted biscuits and 3-4 energizing bars. As for the drinks, I prepared in advance 5 liters of isotonic drink (with electrolytes) and I filled my bottle at the refreshment points. I’m very happy with this part, because this is where I experienced most of my setbacks before (I ran two marathons with face numbness because of bad hydration / nutrition last years).
Also, as I said above, another thing that worked was mental focus. Despite the fact that I experienced a lot of pain and some unexpected, but very disturbing side-effects (see below: hypothermia) it didn’t cross my mind to stop not even for a second. I simply pushed forward.
What Didn’t Worked
The most surprising – and, to be honest, the most unpleasant part – of this race was hypothermia. Around km 40, after I twisted my ankle, I started to experience a deep and somehow unexplainable state of cold. It started at one refreshment points, when all of a sudden I felt incredibly cold. I was literally shivering. During the race these episodes (most of them at the refreshment points but there were a few episodes in the open too) became more and more frequent and more and more intense. At its peak, this sensation was so intense that I had difficulty controlling my body. There were parts of it, like my abs, or the muscles from my right forearm, contracting independently. Which, to be honest, I found very disturbing. The sensation of cold disappeared after 500 meters, 1 kilometer of running, but it was almost instantly reactivated once I stopped.
It was very frustrating and it was only after the race that I could form an opinion on what may have triggered it, and there were (at least) 3 contributing factors.
First, it was the fact that the temperature dropped very fast. We started to run at around 14 degrees Celsius and we ended up running at 1-3 degrees. 100 kilometers is a very long distance and there are many temperature variations, especially since we didn’t run on a lap, but on a continuous course, coming down from the mountains. There were literally “slices” of cold air alternating with warmer air, and we felt that bluntly.
Second, I wore a reflecting vest, something that I needed to wear, since we were on a public road, during the night. It turned out that this vest wasn’t very good at letting air out, so when I started to sweat, my clothes couldn’t dry up. I wore technical layers (a teeshirt and a blouse) but the vest on top acted like a container that didn’t let the layers get dry. So all the moisture was kept inside, making my body colder.
And third, it was the fatigue. The hypothermia got triggered around midnight, and I knew that during the night our body naturally drops its temperature with around one degree.
The coordinated result of these 3 factors was something that slowed me down with at least half an hour.
Another thing that didn’t work as expected was the technical part. I measure my runs with a Garmin Forerunner 220, which has a 7 hours autonomy when in GPS mode. Based on my calculation, the race should’ve taken between 12 and 14 hours, so almost double. So, I needed a way to recharge my watch during the race. I recently received a USB battery charger, the type that you plug into any USB plug, charges to a certain level and then you can unplug it and use it as a portable charger for any other USB device. So, when I saw that my watch only had 1 hour of battery left, I plugged it to the charger. Unfortunately, the Forerunner stopped the current activity (saving it first, which was a good thing) and reset. I was able to charge it during the next hour by keeping the charger plugged in my left hand, but I wasn’t able to track those kilometers (around ten, based on my calculations). Once I saw the battery indicator was full again, I left the USB charger in a support car, I restarted the GPS tracker, and the watch went on for the next 5 hours flawlessly. So, the good news is that I learned I can’t use my Forerunner 220 at Ultrabalaton. The bad new is that I need a GPS watch capable of this, and my only option right now is Forerunner 920 XT. But it’s way out of my budget.
Finally, one thing that I consider not working is related to my lower running train, namely my ankles. The last 5-10 kilometers were not even on asphalt, but on concrete and that concrete took a big toll on my tired ankles. I had them both moderately swollen for a day and a half, and the pain disappeared only after the second night. I should be more careful with them.
All in all, this race was by far the most intense, the richest and the most beautiful of all my races so far.
All photo credits Radu Cristi.