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

I’m writing this 48 hours after the race. I’m already at home and the worst – in terms of physical stress – has passed. I assessed the damage and I’m actively pursuing recovery. Most of the pain has disappeared and there are only some specific, minor moves which are triggering painful reactions.

Do I feel happy? Accomplished? It’s hard to identify a specific emotion or state of mind. I’m still wandering around through flashes of images and the most dominant state is a small, shy joy: the joy of finishing this ordeal. The joy of not having to push forward anymore. The joy of being past that. The joy of living up to what I committed myself to.

As I try to reorganize all the events in a logical structure, there is one thought circling back and forth into my mind: the person that starts an ultra marathon and the person that ends an ultra marathon are not the same anymore. They’re completely different. For me, just 48 hours after the race, the smallest thing from before the race feels so distant, almost like from another life. In a way, it is from another life.

But let’s try to take it one step at a time (by the way, prepare to read this sentence, “take it one step at a time”, a lot on this series of posts).

The Preparation

7 months ago I decided I want to run an ultra marathon. 220km seemed like an interesting distance (the longest distance ran by me at that time being 60km). I already wrote about the motivation behind that decision in this article, so feel free to read it if you want to know more about big, hairy, audacious goals.

As the race date approached, I became more and more involved in the entire logistic procedure. Just making sure you get there in a reasonable state to finish the race is a challenge. And by that I mean a lot of stuff beyond just training (being it physical or mental).

It was like a business project, with resource allocation, timelines, budget and a lot of tiny details. Many of the details were based on pure speculation. For instance, the organizers allowed us to place drop off bags at certain refreshment points, in advance. The race was starting at 6 AM and it was certainly stretching over night, so proper night equipment (more dressing layers, headtorch, proper reflecting outside layers, etc) was a must.

You had the choice to put the drop off bag containing your night kit at km 79, or at km 129. If you calculated that you will get at km 79 around 16:00 (at a reasonable pace of 6min / km) you would then have to run at last 5 hours with all the night equipment on you. But if you choose to put the night kit at km 129 then you must be sure you get there before it gets dark. Otherwise you risk running at least one or two hours in the dark, without a headtorch and without proper reflecting layers (which heavily multiplies the risk of road accidents). Choices, choices, choices…

Anyway, by slowly and carefully taking care all of the details that I could control, I was finally ready to embark on the train. We were 3 runners trying to beat this beast, Florin (a very fast runner), Vlad (a young and ambitious runner) and yours truly. We bought the train tickets with a month in advance. At Balaton we were also supposed to meet at least 2 other Romanian runners, Aris and Attila. I mention all these names because each of them will play an important part later on.

We met at the train station half an hour before the train departure. All smiling, relaxed and somehow eager to know what will happen. After a few minutes I realized that some people from the NGO I was fundraising for, Scoala de Valori, were also there. It was very nice from their part but then it became more than nice, it became touching. Just before they left, they silently surrounded me and gave me a big, warm group hug. I didn’t see that coming. But boy, that group hug will play such a big part in the race, later on.

And then the train arrived and we hopped in. The trip was supposed to last around 16-17 hours. We left Bucharest at 5PM and we were supposed to be in our hotel just before noon.

During the night nothing notable happened. We just joked about having a beer (or two) before the race, we talked about the running stars that were supposed to come at the race, the “aliens” as we were calling them, people who have won the previous editions or other important and inspiring athletes.

The morning was also calm and relaxed, but then something happened. We realized the train stopped for way longer than it had to. And then it became obvious we had a little bit of delay. We asked people around but nobody knew what happened, other then the fact that the railroad was under construction, or something like that.

Time became very slow. In hindsight, this now looks like a sign. Or like a pattern that will impregnate this entire adventure. Time was just slower than we expected it to be. The delay became longer and longer and 3 hours later the train finally started to move.

We arrived in Budapest with 3 hours delay. We had to change the train station so we took a cab. When we got to the second train station we found out that we missed our train (doh!) but there was another one leaving in the same direction in about an hour. We looked around for some place to eat, found a small terrace where they served pizza, so we took a pizza, and a beer. The beer was only for me and Vlad, Florin decided he doesn’t want it. When I asked for a beer, the waitressed asked me if I want a big one or a small one. I said a small one. He made a little bit of a grimace, like “huh, those tourists, they can’t even have a full beer”. Anyway, after we ate and drank, we got up on our train and started to move.

After about an hour, we got to a desert station and then we stopped. Everybody stepped down from the train and headed towards a small, empty parcel in the middle of the field, where a few buses were waiting. After asking around we found out that we should wait for the next bus to get to our hotel, which was just 20 minutes away, apparently. So, we waited like half an hour, in the middle of nowhere, 3 guys preparing to run a 220 km race. Eventually, the bus came, we hopped in again and, in 20 minutes, we were finally at our hotel.

Where, in order to spice things up, there were good news and bad news. The good news was that we were just 100 meters away from the start. The bad news was that they didn’t have WiFi in the hotel. Nor in other parts of that small village. Well, maybe it will be good for our concentration, I said to myself.

We checked in and then we went into the big tent where the opening ceremony was about to start, and picked our race kit. We also left the drop off bags.

At that tent we also met the 2 other runners, Aris, who had a cyclist companion, and Attila. We exchanged encouragements and we asked from tips. Both Aris and Attila finished the race before.

I remember very clear what Attila told us: “You have to love running. Each step is a step closer to the finish line. That’s how you finish Ultrabalaton. If you come with a super strategy to get a super time and stuff like that, Ultrabalaton will eat you alive. All you have to do is to be really happy about running and run with an easy heart. Even if you reach km 200, something may happen that will take you off the race. Just run happy, that’s the strategy.” And Attila first participation in Ultrabalaton was 23 hours and 55 minutes. It’s a dream time, for 220 km.

We took part in the opening ceremony, which was kinda nice, although I couldn’t understand anything, they were talking 90% in Hungarian. After the ceremony, we just went to our rooms.

I prepared whatever I had to prepare for the morning, and, after a short discussion with my room mate, Vlad, we made the schedule for the night. We decided to wake up at 3 AM, have breakfast, and then take another short nap, until 5 AM. That was because we needed to have the breakfast digested before the race start, which was at 6AM.

And that was the beginning of our adventure.

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