I’m writing this exactly one week after the race. One week ago, exactly at the same time, my GPS watch battery decided to give up, leaving me to run the last 25 kilometers “in the dark”. That was a key moment. Like the pinnacle of all those “and then something happened” moments.
It’s hard to explain what types of connections you create during a race like this with the objects you rely on. During the day, for instance, the second bandana, the one that I was watering at refreshment points and then wore it around my neck, was like a good friend. A reliable friend. A comforting friend. It stopped the insolation. As much as it could, because, after the race, I realized I still had sunburns on some parts and also had to cope with some powerful shivers.
Also, during the night, I grew very soft of my headlamp. After running 1 and a half hour in pitch dark, after hearing about Aris’s injury and abandon, me and my headlamp became very good buddies. Every few minutes I was checking it up, adjusting it’s fascicle, feeling grateful that I had some light. It was part of my adjustable Universe. And my adjustable Universe got so small during this race.
So you imagine how fond I was about my GPS watch. Especially since it wasn’t my watch. A friend I met in a running coaching program gave it to me especially for this race. My Garmin Forerunner 220 had only 7 hours of battery. I know that so well because I exhausted that watch too during my trainings. I remember very clear a 70km race in which I literally squeezed out the last drops of energy from my watch. I started that race at 6 AM and finished it around 2 PM. Back then, that seemed huge. To run 8 hours continuously. When I was telling my friends I did that, they remained in awe. 8 hours? No kidding? A full working day…
Now, I was running for 24 hours and that 8 hours race felt literally like a walk in the park. But I’m getting ahead of myself, we’re not yet at the “collapse watch” moment.
After I patched my feet and greeted the broom man I restarted my counting routine. I was counting my running steps, in the range of 100-300 and then my walking steps, now almost in the same range. I was basically running the same distance I was walking. But I was still running and that was adding meters after meters to the distance.
In fact, the entire race was powered by this feeling. From the very beginning, from the morning of the previous day, when I was targeting kilometer after kilometer, I always felt like this. Step by step. Kilometer by kilometer. I wasn’t that precise anymore, my focus was a bit fuzzy, because of the pain (and probably because of the fatigue) but I still had the feeling that I’m literally biting meter after meter with my teeth.
The morning slowly vanished, we were running in full light now and the rain almost passed. I could still feel a few drops every once in a while. The clouds were still there and that made it difficult to appreciate the exact time. But I was very happy about those clouds. Because of them, the temperature was at least 4-5 degrees lower than yesterday. It felt almost nice, except for the humidity.
For the next hour or so, the terrain was flat and nothing noticeable happened. I think I crossed 2 more refreshment points. Strangely enough, volunteers at these points looked more tired than us, the runners. The food on the tables was also in smaller and smaller portions. Some of them didn’t even have tomatoes and cheese anymore, only biscuits and raisins. I didn’t even stop at those.
Also, we started to cross more and more runners who weren’t part of the race. They were just normal people who woke up on a Sunday morning for a short jog. They looked fresh and full of energy.
And then, something happened.
It was half past 7AM and the road made a left to what seemed to be the entrance of the park. A wide entrance to a park, which, to my despair, was going uphill. Pretty steep. I didn’t see that coming. The last uphill this steep was at the press house and back there I was in relatively good shape. Press house was 90 kilometers ago.
As I stood there, in the morning, breathing slowly and trying to figure things out, I could feel my feet crying down there. I stopped for a few seconds and looked ahead. I had no idea how long the uphill was. But it looked like at least 1 kilometer. On my left, I saw a woman passing me by, on one of the park alleys. She had a race number and she seemed determined. She could run, at least.
I started to make again calculations. I was at km 182 and it was 7:30 AM. That meant I had 6 and a half hours to make the last 30 kilometers. In normal conditions I could make 30 kilometers in 3 hours. Easily. But I wasn’t running in normal conditions anymore. From the kilometer 100 onward, I wasn’t on anything that my body could evaluate as “normal”.
I thought: “I will make an average of 5km / hour for the next 6 hours, meaning 30 kilometers, and I will still have 30 minutes buffer. At that speed I can even walk. Let’s do that. Let’s assume I’ll be that tired that I can only walk.”
After I decided that, I started to walk towards the peak of the park. Alas, the short pause, no longer than half a minute, made the next first steps to feel like knives in my feet. I continued to walk and started to balance my hands around my body more. I observed that I could gain a little bit of momentum like this. Fifth grade physics, again. A little bit of torsion and the body will be pushed forward more easily. I know it sounds strange, but at that moment, even the slightest gain in energy is heavily felt. Even the smallest drop of energy is counting.
I think I looked pretty funny from the outside. I even thought that people watching me could start wondering where is the “Gepetto” of this broken wooden toy. Because I looked like a stumbling Pinocchio, clumsily handled by a drunk and invisible Gepetto.
Along with this thoughts, I reached the top. It really was only one kilometer and, from there, it was going downhill. I didn’t think too much and I started to run that downhill. “What an opportunity, I thought. What a huge opportunity to have this downhill available now, while I can still run. It hurts like hell this downhill running, but who knows when I’m gonna have this opportunity again”. I think I ran downhill around 3 kilometers and then the terrain got flat again.
The road was now really close to the lake, we were crossing some sort of touristic resort. The lake water was brownish because of the rain and agitated. It didn’t look nice.
And that was the exact moment when my GPS watch battery decided it’s time to stop. As a matter of fact, it just stopped the GPS activity, saved it and then remained in watch mode only, so I could still see the time. It still had 3% power and in watch mode it could have battery to show just the time for the next 6-7hours. I couldn’t see the kilometers, though, and that was kind of a big issue for me.
I didn’t know exactly at what kilometer the battery died. So I didn’t know if I still had time. Suddenly, although it was light outside, I felt completely in the dark.
I took a sip of iso, to calm down. I knew for sure it wasn’t km 200, because I should have seen the sign. Organizers planted signs at every 10 kilometers. I decided to continue the GPS tracking on my iPhone, although I knew it was heavily inaccurate. Didn’t have time to calibrate it, though.
So, I took out the iPhone – realizing what good karma I had when I put it in the back pocket of my hydration belt, last morning – and fired the Nike running app. It felt so weird to run with the iPhone in the hand, though.
After a few hundred meters I found a refreshment point. It was exactly on the bank of the lake, the space was large and people seemed friendly. A subtle feeling of joy, or at least satisfaction, was floating in the air. Didn’t know from where it came, from the fact that is was morning again, from the faces of the people, or simply because I was closer to the end.
But my feet were on fire again. Looking back, I think the psychological shock created by the GPS watch incident amplified the pain too. Whatever the reasons, it was hurting really bad. I asked the volunteers if they know anything about medical support. I remembered we should have access to some medical support at every refreshment point. The plan was to find some patches to change the ones on my feet, because I didn’t have any on my back pocket.
The volunteers talked for a while in Hungarian and they told me then that the medical support, somebody with a motorbike, apparently, just left. Oh, well. That’s it. I started to run again, and, from the touristic resort, the race course was making it into something bigger, like an intercity road.
At the crossroad, just before the course of the race was taking on the left, on the main road, I saw a motorbike. The biker had a standard biker costume, but with a green reflecting vest. There were some inscriptions on the bike, but I couldn’t understand a word from what it wrote. I approached and asked in English:
– Do you know where I can find the medical support?
– Oh medical support, said the guy. Yes, yes. What do you need?
Apparently, he was exactly the motorbike guy who just left from the refreshment point. Luckily, he didn’t got too far.
– Well, I have blisters, I said. Can you help me?
– Yes, of course, he said. Something from the pain, too?
– If you have, I said, then I sat down on the street, near the motorbike. I took off my running shoes and my socks.
I will definitely remember the look on the face of that guy when he saw my feet. Sadness, surprise and an almost organic clinging of his entire body. Like he was trying to cling to something in order not to run away.
– Ok, ok, he rushed and he started to look for stuff in his bags.
A family passing by briefly stopped to look at my feet. They talked rapidly in Hungarian, then the woman, clearly talking to me, asked:
– Yes, ultra, I said.
And then the woman turned towards her husband and continued to talk in Hungarian. It seemed like: “I told you so”. But since I don’t know Hungarian, I can’t be sure.
I took off my patches, along with a mix of sweat, blood and skin and left my feet to breathe for a while. The blisters looked really nasty now and the bad news was that around the toenails I had small accumulations of liquid. Some of the toenails had also blood around. It didn’t look good.
In a matter of minutes, the medical guy found a huge roll of patches, several times wider than what I had. He put a small textile patch on the wounds and then applied the other one around the feet. It suddenly felt better.
– Do you need something for the pain? he asked.
– If you have something, yes.
He gave me two pills, looked me in the eyes and said:
– This is “paratzetamol”.
I refrained myself from laughing because, back when I was taking pills, I took “paratzetamol” when I was having some sort of a mild cold. Not wounds on my feet.
I took the pills though, with a sip of iso, counting on the placebo effect. Maybe my body will imagine for a while that the pills really work.
And it kinda worked. For the next 2-3 kilometers I could make real progress and could also witness some other things around me. Like other runners.
You could clearly identify the ultra runners because almost all of them were walking, barely standing on their feet. Every once in a while one of them was making the effort to run again, but not more than 20-30 meters. The mere effort of looking around for cars – to avoid being run by them – was huge.
I clearly remember one guy, with an orange band around his head, glasses and a gray beard. He was barely moving, but he was really happy. I couldn’t understand why was he happy. As I passed him by, he told something to me in Hungarian. It was probably the one hundredth time someone was speaking me in Hungarian during that race and I was answering the same: “Sorry, I don’t speak Hungarian. English?”
To my surprise, this guy responded me in English:
– It’s ok. It’s over. We’re almost there.
– Really? I asked. What kilometer?
– 200, but it doesn’t matter, we can walk from here and we’re gonna still make it.
– Thanks, I said, and started to run again.
And then, on the right side of the road, I saw the most beautiful image of the race so far. A sign with the number “200” on it. I was at km 200. “I doubled the range of my longest run so far. I ran 200 kilometers.”, I said to myself, as I was slowing down.
And then I stopped and took a selfie.
Back home, before embarking on that race, a good friend of mine, and also coach, Andrei Rosu (a legend in the ultra-triathlon world, with a quintuple iron man finished last year) told me to bring him a selfie at km 200. He was my coach, so I couldn’t do anything but comply. But as I prepared myself to take that selfie I also realized how damaged I was. Just squatting for 10 seconds was excruciating. Keeping my balance to take the selfie was almost impossible. I did my best to smile, but all I could express was a painful grimace. As you already saw…
After I took the selfie, I decided not to use the iPhone to track my kilometers anymore. It was inaccurate and cumbersome. So I put it in the back pocket of my hydration belt and continued to run.
The orange band guy was now in front of me, walking – or, at times, gently running – hands in the air, and with a gray, luxury car slowly driving along with him. There was loud music coming from the car and the people inside were obvious related, maybe his kids (in their 20s or 30s). They were talking and it was obvious they were already celebrating.
The subtle feeling of joy, of satisfaction, that I experimented at the last refreshment point became more present. That was the first time that I realized I could actually finish the race in time. But, in order to give you a better picture of my overall state, the size of that feeling compared with the generalized, increasing pain I was still experiencing, was the size of a tennis ball compared with the size of the state of New York.
Now that I felt that I could actually finish in time, my running pattern changed. Again. I couldn’t focus enough to do the numbers anymore, the pain was too heavy to let me count continuously for more than 50 seconds, so I started to fartlek. “Fartlekking” is a running technique in which you pick a certain point on the course, run to that point, and, when you’re close to it, pick another one, run to that one, and so on. You did this for as many points as you can do. Usually, fartlekking is used to increase your speed, as it is done at maximum effort. But now, I just used this trick in order to advance.
I was doing between 2 and 6-7 points in one fartlek. The shortest were made of 2 points: let’s run to that car, and then to that house and then I was walking. But the longer were made out of 6-7 points, in which I think I was covering at least a few hundred meters.
At some point, I realized that I wasn’t doing it consciously anymore. It wasn’t like I planned to start those fartleks. I was walking and then, all of a sudden, surprising even myself, my body was running. That basic urge to run, that drive to push forward even when every cell of my body was begging me to put an end to that nightmare, was probably the most surprising discovery about myself in this ultra. I still don’t know from where this thing came. It was just pure drive to start running, despite the pain, despite the fatigue, despite everything.
Somewhere around km 201 I caught Attila. He was walking in front of me and I was so happy to see him, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. I ran until I got side by side with him and greeted.
From that point on, we walked and run together until the end of the race. We stopped at a refreshment point and a lady brought us pancakes. Pancakes weren’t on the menu. They were home made, especially for the runners. Attila was talking Hungarian and every once in a while he was translating me some bits and pieces.
At a crossroad, I saw a few guys waiting and then greeting loudly Attila and talking to him. After a few hundreds meters Attila told me:
– You saw those guys, back there, at the crossroads?
– Yeap, I said.
– Well, one of them finished Spartathlon 13 times. Consecutively.
I felt shivers down my spine. I couldn’t recall the face of the guy Attila was talking about, but none of them stroke me as spectacular in some way. Yet, that guy did 13 times in a row something super human. Ultrabalaton has 222 kilometers, Spartathlon has 245, and it’s going on the mountains, between Athens and Sparta. At Balaton, 30 degrees Celsius is an exception, at Spartathlon, that’s the norm, temperatures being even higher than that. I couldn’t imagine how was to run – and finish – the Spartathlon 13 times consecutively.
– That guy, continued Attila, is well known for this thing: whenever he gets sleepy, he stops, pulls an isoprene and takes a nap. 10-15-30 minutes, as much as he needs. And then he wakes up, brushes off, takes the isoprene and starts running again. Those naps included, he finished Spartathlon 13 times. Consecutively.
These types of conversations are quite uplifting when you’re on the last 20 kilometers of a 220km race.
As we were approaching the finish line, we realized we have only 2 checkpoints left. The checkpoint before the last was at the end of a straight road and we could see it in the distance. We could see it for quite some time now. But because the road was so straight, we couldn’t estimate exactly how much is to run to that point. It was like a Fata Morgana, with every step we thought we were closer, but in fact we weren’t.
Attila used the same technique to cover ground: running for a while, until a certain point, then walking. As we were approaching that checkpoint, he said to me:
– Let’s do one more interval, I think we’ll nail it with this one.
– Let’s, I said.
Then, something happened. (Again).
As I was running along with Attila I clearly felt the nail from the left toe detaching. I used to feel it in a painful way before, for the last 50-60km, but now it was different. I clearly felt I had only a loose contact with the toe. I looked down and I saw blood coming out to the texture of the running shoe.
– You know, Attila, I think we should resume to walking for now. I think my nail won’t let me run again. Or at least, not that fast.
– Oh, now, I can see, said Attila.
From that moment, we walked, but we didn’t have more than 4-5 km. But, as Attila already told me an hour ago, those kilometers were going uphill. Fortunately, it was the last uphill of that race.
A group of female runners passed us by and one of them talked to us in Hungarian, laughing and smiling. I didn’t have to tell them again I don’t speak Hungarian, because now Attila was with me. A short dialog ensued. Attila seemed interested.
– What did they said? I asked
– They said the finish line is 3 kilometers away.
– Are you sure?
– That’s what they said, said Attila.
– It’s like we’re already there.
– Yes, we can make it even if we crawl, from here, smiled Attila.
I remember this moment very, very clear. I was walking, I felt in pain, I had blood in my left shoe and blisters on the soles of both my feet, I was starting to feel the chaffing in my armpits, on my butt and around my navel, I had sunburns from yesterday insolation, but I was sure that I’ll finish. I looked at the watch. It was 13:05. The cut-off time was at 14:00, and we were just 3 kilometers away.
I looked around. Very, very curious. And I asked what could possibly happen now that will delay me. What? I had heat, I had uphills, I had blisters, I got lost, what else could happen? I was totally decided to cope with whatever will come up, I just couldn’t imagine what else could be. What could stop me now? Maybe I will pass out, I said. I may pass out because of the pain. I heard it happened. How long can you stand continuous pain without passing out? 3 hours? 4 hours? I was in pain for more than 8 hours now. Yes, passing out is the only way that can stop me now and that won’t happen.
– Let’s stop for a while, said Attila, when we reached the last refreshment point, which was 2.7 km away from the finish line. Let’s change clothes. We should look nice at the finish line.
Yeap. We even had time to change, I said to myself, and a deep feeling of gratitude for Attila flooded my soul. I couldn’t make it in such a good shape at the finish line if it wasn’t for him.
So, we stopped and I took off my reflecting vest. I realized at that moment that I ran the whole morning with my headlamp on. I took out the headlamp and put it around my arm. We looked better now.
As we started to walk again, the road started to go slightly downhill and we could hear the amplified voices at the finish line. That was a wonderful sound. We were so close.
– I will let you go first, said Attila. You should at least be able to mimic a few steps of running, right?
– We’ll see, I said, looking at my let shoe, where blood was slowly, but firmly covering the texture. I’ll try. But don’t you want to go first?
– Well, it doesn’t matter, said Attila. This is not a competition. The only person that you compete with it’s you. To make a better time than last year. Or to finish a longer and more difficult race than last time. 1 minute earlier or late doesn’t count.
We entered the village and I could recognize the hotel where we were staying. I could see the tent where we had the opening ceremony 2 days ago. It felt like an year ago.
Then I saw the plastic bands around the trees delimiting the final aisle.
– Go, said Attila.
I started to run, trying to look forward and maintain a straight posture, but I was dizzy because of the pain. I got at the end of an aisle where the road made a u-turn. There was a lady there, under an umbrella, applauding me, and apparently encouraging me. She also said my name, with a Hungarian accent. I realized it was because of the MC, because immediately after that I heard the MC telling my name out loud at the microphone, repeating it a few times and heard some cheering and applauding from the crowd. I made the u-turn, passing by the lady under the umbrella and I saw the finish line. Two girls were holding a blue band with my name on it. I had to run in that direction, pass under the finish portal and take that band.
The last 10-20 steps were absolutely brutal. I pushed, I passed under the portal, I took the plastic band, a lady put the medal around my neck, and that was that. She also asked me if I’m ok and I said yes.
I made a few steps around, waited for Attila to come and congratulated him. I then asked him to take the finish picture for me. I was still dizzy and started to shiver.
I made a few steps on the grass, and then, for the first time in 32 hours, I lied down on my back.
It was over.