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

The first kilometers after I put on my headlamp were rather easy.  But, as I was covering more and more ground, I noticed a significant change in my environment. A subtle shift. The race changed, once again, but this time in a rather positive way.

In the beginning I didn’t know how to define it, I just noticed that I had a lot more focus. Maybe it was because of the darkness, maybe it was because of the comfort given by my headlamp (now I could actually see where I was stepping) or maybe it was because of the increasing pain in the legs. Because now both legs were making me problems.

Fact is I was feeling more present. It was like my attention span narrowed so close that my entire Universe shrank to only the next minute, or the next kilometer in front of me. I also noticed that my mental capacity was slightly increased. I was constantly monitoring my progress on my GPS watch and I could make calculations much more easily now than during the day.

The next goal, to reach 130 kilometers by midnight, was quickly met. Once there, I realized I had only 14 more hours to finish the race. The cut-off time was today at 14:00. And I still had 90 kilometers in front of me.

Like I said, I was making calculations way more easily now: 14 hours multiplied with 60 minutes, well, that’s equal 840 minutes. 840 minutes divided by 90 kilometers was roughly 9 minutes for each kilometer – exactly 810 minutes – and a buffer time of 30 minutes. 9 minutes per kilometer is a distance that I can cover even with a brisk walk, or a march. And the remaining buffer was allocated to refreshment points. I still had two major checkpoints (where I had drop off bags) and maybe around 15 smaller refreshment points, where I planned to stay between 1 and 3 minutes.

As I was running in the dark, I started to have small hunches. 15 refreshment points multiplied by 2 minutes (on average) was 30 minutes. Plus the big checkpoints, at a minimum of 5 minutes each, that was giving me a total of 40 minutes. 10 minutes beyond the cut-off time.

The first clear perception of the fact that I could actually miss the cut-off time, that I could actually not finish the race in the allocated time, was brutal. I felt it physical, like an emotion in the stomach. I think it even amplified the pain in my legs. That won’t happen, I said. Let’s do the math again.

After a few more calculations (all done in my head, while running) I decided to split the next 14 hours into two periods: 6 hours (basically the night, from 0 to 6 AM) and 8 hours (from 6 AM to 2 PM).

During the first period I planned to cover 7 kilometers per hour. That made 42 kilometers (well, just another marathon). During the second period I planned to cover 6 kilometers per hour. That’s basically the speed of brisk walking, something that I should still be able to do even after 24 hours of effort. This second part made 48 kilometers.

So, the total was still 90 kilometers, but running faster in the first period gave me a little bit of comfort for the second part. Because I didn’t know what lied in front of me, I didn’t know how I will react to fatigue, or if my legs will get worse (which actually happened, but more on that later) or if there was another killer uphill coming up.

And, at that speed, I could safely spend 5 minutes each hour at refreshment points, and still make 6 km / hour, in the second part, which gave me a total refreshment time of 40 minutes. With this strategy, I was still on a very thin line, but with more time to maneuver during the day part.

So, I took a deep breath and started to run the first hour. Because of the pain, I couldn’t run continuously. So, I started short run / walk sessions. I started to count from 0 to 400, for each step I was running. Then, after 400, I entered into walking and counted as well, until 100. Then started again. I did 4 or 5 reps of these to see if my body adjusts. It seemed ok, but the pain in the soles of my feet was brutally present. The constant switch between running and walking gave me two different flavors of pain, which, in itself, was almost perceived as a relief. After the first half an hour I was already at 4 kilometers. That’s a good pace. Let’s see if I can extend this.

At the end of the first hour I made 7.8 kilometers. I smiled. It’s good. It’s kilometers in the bank, baby, it’s kilometers in the bank. Let’s see if we can keep the pace for the next hour.

The second hour ended with a very good distance of 7.5 kilometers. I basically had a buffer of 1.3 kilometers, which translated into 13-14 minutes. That’s good. So, at that point I was at kilometer 145.

The outside reality was unfolding around me with a thinner texture. I could hear the noises, perceive the lights, understand the words spoken by people around, but the weight of that reality, compared with my inner projections of kilometer related goals, and cut-off times and pains in the legs was incomparably lighter. It was like the outside world became a 3D movie in which I was just an actor too.

I stopped at a refreshment point to take my usual bite of tomatoes, cheese and the sip of Coke. I decided to spend a little more time there, maybe 3 minutes, instead of 2. As I was enjoying my mini-meal and waited for the volunteer to fill in my iso mug, I witnessed a discussion between a woman and a man. The woman, a runner too, surprisingly fresh for that hour of the night, was pumped up and laughed and tried to encourage a man with a much darker face. The man was tall, thin, with a grayed beard and a long, but balanced face. They were speaking in English and the woman, who apparently just ran a portion of a semi-marathon so far (there were many races organized at the same time along Ultrabalaton) was telling to the guy to go faster and to enjoy running. By the expression on the face of the man I could tell that he was running the ultra. And he was at the same kilometer as I was, namely 145.

– Well, I did enjoy running for a while, said the man.

– Then go, go, go for it, yelled the woman, obviously pumped up and filled with endorphins.

– Well, I’ll do my best, politely responded the thin man.

– You can do it, it’s great for your heath, for your body, continued the pumped up woman, who obviously had no idea about the enormity of the distance we ran so far.

– Well, I don’t know if this was a good idea, said the thin man.

– How can you say that? yelled the woman. Of course it was a good idea.

The thin man took a few steps back without answering, then took a seat on a bench and continued to eat, while the woman sprinted with a roar.

After 2-3 minutes I started to run again, at the same time with the thin man. Since we ran shoulder to shoulder for a few hundred meters, I decided to get social.

– So, you’re running the entire distance? I asked.

– Yes, you?

– As well, I said.

Then silence for a few more minutes.

– What was the longest distance you ran so far? I asked again.

– Well, 100 kilometers, said the thin man. And, he added with a smile: 145 now. You can say I ran 145 kilometers, and that’s the longest distance.

– Me too, I said, the longest distance I ran so far was 100 kilometers. Well, before that, of course.

– I’m afraid it will still remain at 145, at least for me, said the thin man.

– Are you tired?

– Of course I’m tired. And I don’t think it was a good idea. 220 kilometers is huge. I don’t think there is something to prepare you for this.

– Yeap, I said. It’s pretty fucking huge.

We ran again silently, shoulder to shoulder, for a few hundreds meters. I looked at my watch and decided it’s time to start my “intervals” again.

– Well, good luck, I said, see you at the finish line.

– Thank you, good luck as well, answered the tall, thin man.

He didn’t look convinced at all that he will finish the race.

For the next two hours I tried to stick with the plan as strictly as I could, and it worked. At 4 AM, I still had a “positive buffer” of around 1 km, meaning I was at km 159.

But down there at my feet, the hell broke loose. Since I was using the right foot to compensate for the blister in the left one, it was only a question of time until a right foot blister will come up. And, by the signals I got, it was already there, and it was hurting big time.

For the last two hours, the pain was continuous, except when I was stopping for refreshment points. These points were my oasis. That’s where I could breathe and that’s where I could feel my body de-stressing, de-compensating, becoming lighter. But those oasis where also my curse. Because when I was starting to run again after the stops, the pain was even more intense.

I understood after a few hours that our tolerance to pain is in direct relationship with the exposure to pain. The more we expose ourselves to pain, the less we feel it. We become accustomed with it. It’s part of our life. But when we stop the exposure, our body starts to adjust again to this pain-free state, and the tolerance to pain decreases. Hence, when we start the exposure again, the perceived pain was bigger. At least for a while. The first few hundreds meters after a refreshment point were always excruciating. As I was approaching a new refreshment point, two mixed feelings were battling inside myself: first, the soothing of the familiar taste and the energy boost from the food and second, the expectation of the excruciating pain once I was starting to run again.

At one of these stops, I got lost. Literally. It was a big one, with many people encouraging, yelling, with lights and also the noise of a few night clubs. It looked very crowded so I took the road which looked available. After 500 meters I woke up in a parking space, with no cars parked and with a suspect silence surrounding me. From a distance, the noises from the refreshment point were slowly reaching me. I stopped.

Now what? If that’s the road, then where are the runners? It may be that I can’t see them because there’s too much distance between us. But if this is not the road, then I have to go back to the refreshment point and ask the volunteers. And that means I will lose one kilometer worth of saving (I was already 500 meters beyond the refreshment point). I pondered for a few seconds and decided to go back. Maybe they will say this is the right direction and then I stupidly lost 1 kilometer. Or maybe not.

As I was approaching the refreshment point, I couldn’t see any runner coming my direction. They all seemed to magically vanish in the crowd. I got to the point and asked a guy where’s the road for ultra. He vaguely pointed me in a direction where there were a lot of people standing. There? Are you sure? Yes, he answered. I went into that direction, and, after 10-20 meters, a small path, not wider than 1 meter, opened in front of me. I could see runners on that path.

I congratulated myself once again for the decision and started to run. Ok, I lost my “positive buffer” of 1 km, so painfully gained during the last hours, but it could have been way worse than that.

Around half past 4, I stopped at a refreshment point and greeted the tall, thin man again. We were going back and forth each other for the last 15 kilometers, smiling to each other at refreshment points or on the road. There weren’t many other runners left, at least not many for the ultra, judging by the speed of those who were still running. That refreshment point was near a railroad, and, for the first time, I had to wait for the train to pass. In that case, the organizers “reimbursed” you the time lost. I passed my chip for verification when I got there and then again after the train passed and the barrier was lifted.

As I was running over the railroads I observed a cyclist coming towards me.

– Morning, he said.

– Morning, I answered.

For a few seconds, he continued to come towards me, and it was only when he was really close and called me by my name that I realized he was Marius, Aris’s cyclist companion.

– Hey, man, what’s up? Where’s Aris? I asked.

– Well, he had to give up, his foot was really bad. He called a doctor and they took him by car to the hotel. I asked them to take me too, but they didn’t want. They say I could safely finish the race…

– I’m so sorry for Aris, I breathed heavily, while feeling my feet heavier. I’m really, really sorry.

– Well, maybe next time, when we’ll be more prepared, with more luck. We’ll see. Now, do you need something?

– Nope, I’m fine, man, I’m ok.

– How much do you still have?

– I think 60, less than a third of the entire race, anyway.

– You can do it, man, you have time.

– Yes, but my feet are in big trouble now. We’ll see.

After a few more minutes, he wished me success again, and vanished away pedaling in the dark.

After the race, while talking with Vlad, I understood that what I said to Marius got a bit twisted. I said “we’ll see” with the Buddhist meaning of “everything is possible, hence, we’ll see what will come out of this”. There is a Buddhist story about a farmer who’s son breaks his leg and everybody in the village is sad and say to the father: “who’s gonna help you now on the field? it’s so sad he’s ill..”. But the father answers: “we’ll see”. The next day, a king’s soldier comes to the small village and announce there is a war and all youngsters must join the army. Except for the ill and handicapped, they’re no use in a war, of course. Now, every villager comes to the father and say: “You’re so lucky that your son broke his leg, he’s gonna stay home and survive this war.” And the father answered: “we’ll see”.

That was my “we’ll see” statement too. But Marius got it in the way I wasn’t confident or something. Because, after the race, Vlad told me he was convinced I won’t finish. Marius caught him too, with 20 kilometers before the finish, and he told him that we spoke and that my numbers aren’t adding up. Eventually, my numbers added up.

After meeting with Marius, the rain started. We knew that “somewhere, around Balaton” there will be some rain, but nobody knew exactly when and where. I had only the teeshirt and the vest, but the touch of the rain on my overheated skin was a blessing. It rained for about one hour, until I finally reached the 6 AM milestone. By that time I covered exactly 173 kilometers. I still had time.

So, I took another decision. Because my feet were in so much pain, I thought to check out again and see what can I do. I still had a few patches in the back pocket of my hydration belt. The day light started to creep in. Couldn’t see the sun because the clouds didn’t go away, but at least there was light now.

I found a place which looked like a small terrace. I think we were in a village, or something. I found a bench, took a sit and took out my shoes. And then my socks. And then I took out the patches and put them on the bench. I had about a dozen of patches left.

At this moment, the tall, thin man passed me by and, in the short window of 5-6 meters when he was in front of me, he asked if I’m ok. “I’m ok I said”, and then looked at my feet.

Well, actually, I wasn’t ok. Both feet had huge blisters now, the size of my fist. The skin was torn apart towards the toes and the toenails were in really bad shape too, barely attached. Both feet were swollen. Still 50 kilometers to go. On these feet. Tricky.

At that moment, a guy came out from the house behind the terrace, carrying a small broom. At first, I thought he was going to chase me away with that broom. I wouldn’t be surprised, anyway. But he just told me something. In Hungarian. I responded in English that I don’t understand a word. He waved his hand as if it didn’t matter anyway and started to clean the windows of the house with that broom.

I started to apply the patches slowly. There was a lot of paper from the patches packaging around. Small patches of paper, floating around me, and medical patches on the soles of my feet. When I applied the patches, for a few seconds the pain increased, but then the place was numbed. I took this as a good sign.

After I finished, I took all the garbage that I produced, put it in a garbage bin, thanked to the man who was still cleaning the windows and started to run again.

As always, when I started to run, the pain pierced through my body, stopping somewhere inside my brain. But after a few hundreds meters it slightly went down a bit.

At that point, I have finished my fourth marathon. And a little more than that. I was in the race for 24 hours and covered 173 kilometers.

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