The Story Of My First 220km Race – Ultrabalaton – The First Marathon

We woke up as we planned at 3 AM and we ate. It was a very light breakfast, bananas and some protein bars. And some water. Then we tried to go to sleep again, for the next 2 hours. For some reason, I couldn’t fall asleep again. I stayed wide awake, trying to relax my body and to control my breathing. As I could hear from the next bed, though, Vlad was sleeping ok.

At 5 AM we both raised from our beds and started the preparation. I did my 20 minutes yoga session and then started a silent meditation. I do this every day, and, during the training for the race, I was slowly increasing the time spent on yoga and meditation, especially in the last 2 weeks. While I was meditating, I heard Florin coming into the room and gently speaking with Vlad. After I finished, Vlad asked me: “Bro, dod you say a prayer for me too?”. “It’s not a prayer, bro, it’s a meditation, but I’m sending good vibes, and you know it”, I answered. Then I went on with my preparation, starting to work on the contents of the hydration belt.

For this ultra I took with me a hydration belt with a placeholder on the right for a 500ml mug and a small pocket in the back. I filled the mug with isotonic, a little bit of alkaline Vitamin C powder and a vitamin mix. I also put in the back pocket a bunch of chaffing patches (I was expecting nipples chaffing) a special ointment for the same type of injury, made from calendula (quite popular among runners in Romania), a few energizing gels and 2 protein bars. That should take care of the first marathon (the first drop off bag point, where I could refill my gels stock and protein bars, was at km 43). After a little bit of thinking I also put in it my iPhone, although I didn’t have roaming, but I thought it could be a good safety measure. After that I put on my running gear: running pants, socks, compression socks, a special branded teeshirt and a black bandana. I added my sun glasses to the mix and that was it.

I had 2 pairs of running shoes, both Mizunos (I love Mizuno, I feel very comfortable in them). The pair that I was planning to wear during the day was fixed on my leg, without any extra space. Usually, this makes me a little faster. The plan was to bank in as many kilometers as I could during the day and then change the shoes with the other pair, a bit larger, at the third drop off bag point, when my feet will probably be tired. That drop off bag also contained my night kit (headlamp, a thermal blouse and a reflecting vest). In hindsight, wearing the fixed pair of running shoes during the day was by far the biggest mistake of this race. I should have wear the larger shoes from the beginning.

But I think I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Let’s take it step by step (I told you you’re gonna read this a lot during these posts).

Ready, Steady, Go!

We got out from the hotel and entered the race area. The place was buzzing with runners, there was again a lot of noise (of which I understood zero, of course, because it was in Hungarian) and you could literally feel the excitement in the air. We met with Attila and made a picture of us before the race, all 4 smiling. Then we entered the small area before the start and we each received a white balloon (filled with helium, probably, because it was trying to go up). The idea was to release the balloons all at the same time, at the start signal.

While waiting for the start signal we also met with Aris and encouraged him. Florin was gazing around, trying to find the last year winner, a guy named Ivan Cudin. “My strategy is to follow Cudin for as long as I can”, he told us. And he found him really fast, he was just a few meters ahead of us.

Then the noise amplified and it also got some kind of a beat, like there was numbering and we realized the countdown was on. A sharp whistle and then the gates opened. Dozens of white balloons escaped in the sky and we started to run. Florin cut the platoon and picked the trail of Cudin, while me and Vlad remained with the rest of the runners. That was the last time I saw Florin in the race.

The light was almost horizontal because the sun was just rising and we could see the dew drops on the grass. The platoon of runners was rather compact. The course started with a small uphill on the  village alleys and then we entered a nice and cozy forest.

In about 3 kilometers I picked my pace, around 5:50 min / km, and tried to see if I was relaxed at that speed. I felt very comfortable, so I continued like this. For a while, Vlad ran with me. We even had some small chit chat and we observed a few of the runners we met at the opening festivity last night and greeted them. At some point, around km 4 or 5, Vlad stopped for number one (I mean, he stopped to pee) and I remained alone.

I continued to run another 5 km, without any discomfort at all. The temperature was great, the light also well and the scenery was absolutely beautiful. Small houses alternating with small forests and alleys.

We expected to run along the banks of the lake, but instead we were running on small, discrete alleys, most of them used for cycling. We could barely see the lake. And that was a good thing. The night before we made a short stroll and we saw something that looked more like a sea, than like a lake. The Balaton was enormous. Our brains had a very hard time realizing that we will have to run around that lake, which, at several points, was blending into the horizon line.

As I was running, a girl approached me from behind and then kept my pace. It’s not unusual to pick a race partner like this (I mean, Florin did this for Cudin, right?). I was just surprised that she picked me as a “hare”. After 1 kilometer or so, when it became obvious she was running along with me, I decided to get social and asked her if it’s her first time there. She said “yes”. “And are you going to run the whole distance?”, I asked. “Oh, yes”, she answered and she felt very relaxed and confident. She was wearing glasses and had a nice haircut, made of dozens of small hairpieces. People were actually greeting her about her haircut, as we were passing them by. She didn’t have a hydration belt and she obviously didn’t have any cyclist companion. Well, she must be really tough if she came like this here, I thought to myself.

Then, around km 20, Vlad caught me from behind and we had a little chat again. After that, I let him take the lead with a few meters. At km 21 we hit a refreshment point and I realized my mug was empty. I looked for the isotonic glasses and started to pour them into my mug. When I finished, both the hairpieces girl and Vlad were gone. That was also the last time I saw Vlad during the race. The hairpieces girl still had to make one more entrance, but more on that later.

I started to run again, very relaxed, trying to get my pulse around 155 bpm. At 6:30 / km I usually have 130 bpm but I was going a little faster than that, at 5:50 – 6/km.. Even at that pace, I should have something around 140 bpm. I couldn’t find an explanation for that, other than the humidity. Running around the lake should raise the humidity somehow.

So, in order to lower my heart rate, I started to count. It’s a form of meditation I practice when I’m running. I start to count my expirations, until I reach 300. At that point, I raise the thumb from the left hand, keeping it in the account of 1. Then I start to count again, until I reach 300 again, and I raise the index finger of the left hand. And so on and so forth, until I finish the fingers from the left hand. Then I continue with the right hand. When I finish all the fingers from the right hand, it means I counted 10 times 300, or 3000 times. If we equate one count to one second, that gives us 50 minutes. But, given the fact that my respiration is taking usually more than a second, it’s a very safe bet to make this entire session worth an hour. My plan was to bank in as many hours as I could.

So, one hour later, I was finishing my first 10 fingers session. I was feeling great, I was on the schedule and I could feel that I was covering distance very effectively.

Oh, and another thing I was doing even from the start was to “befriend” the kilometers. In other words, I very, very seldom thought ahead of the next kilometer. When I reached km 1, I was telling to myself that this is an amazing achievement, I already have 1 km behind me. We’re not talking 222 anymore, it’s 221. It counts. It counts a lot. And I told to myself: “Let’s target km number 2, shall we? Let’s aim for number 2 for now, ok?”. At km 2, I was targeting km 3 and so on and so forth.

I kept myself intentionally in this very narrow web of expectations because I knew if I start to think ahead of that, I will get dizzy. Even by car, 222 km is a huge distance. Even if you break it down in 5 marathons, it’s huge. I mean, 5 marathons. So, as part of my strategy, I never thought ahead of the next kilometer. I was always targeting only the next kilometer. And I was congratulating myself big time every time I was covering another one.

After the first 10 fingers session, I realized I am very close to what I used to call “the wall”. Around km 33-35, many athletes are hitting this thing. It’s usually associated with the consumption of the glycogen reserves in the muscles. During my marathons I did have my experiences with this distance.

As I was running, I started to feel difficulties breathing and a little bit of soreness in the muscles. I continued to run until I reached km 40. I was stopping at each refreshment point (after the km 20, refreshment points were every 5-7 km) and refilled my isostar mug. I soon realized it’s much better to ask the volunteers to do that for me, from the big isostar barrel they were operating, than to pour 3-4 glasses myself. I was saving around 10-15 seconds, after my calculations.

At km 40 I realized the first drop-off bag was really close (it was scheduled at km 43). In that drop off bag I left some vitamins, socks, another bandana (just a thicker and bigger handkerchief) and my meal. In each drop off bag I left a small recipient with the following mixture: 8 spoons cashew, 5 spoons sunflower seeds, 2 spoons canah protein powder, 1/4 spoon turmeric powder (curcuma), 1/4 spoon cinnamon powder, 1/4 spoon ginger powder. The ideas was to mix proteins with fat and also keep the inflammation under control (turmeric, cinnamon and ginger are very good at that). I wasn’t hungry yet, but the thought that some food is waiting for me at the refershment point was enticing. I didn’t eat anything from the other refreshment stops yet, counting only on my own provisions.

Very soon I reached km 43, identified my drop off bag and stopped. Took off my food recipient, added some water to that powderish mix and started to eat. It felt good. My legs were a bit tired, but not much. Breathing was still a bit heavier than usual and now I was convinced it was because of the increased humidity. I also took of some sunscreen and spread a bit on my face and on my legs. I tied the bandana around my neck, because I was planning to use it against the heat, watering it at each point and then keep it on the back of my head, on top of my shoulders.

After I finished eating, I took a sip of isotonic and decided to change my socks. My feet were unusually swollen but I considered it normal after 43 km. I changed the socks and I immediately felt a difference. Not a good one, though. The texture of the new socks was feeling harsher. The old socks were already wet and they were making a softer contact with the skin. I said to myself “well, they will get wet soon, it’s just a small discomfort, it will pass”. Alas, as I was soon going to find out, any small discomfort in the beginning of an ultra will explode into a disaster later on.

I left the drop off bag in place, checked to see if I have everything on, put some water on the second bandana, tied it up around my neck and started to run again.

And that’s where the best part of my race comes to an end.

From now on, everything will get tougher, more complicated and painful. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself.


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