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

When I left the first drop off bag checkpoint I was in the race for 5 hours and 15 minutes. The first marathon was finished in 4 hours and 45 minutes, which was a rather good time, taking into account that I still had 4 marathons to run. Plus a bonus string of 10 km to make it to 220.

The next big stop, meaning the next stop where I had a drop off bag, was in 36 km, at km 79. “36 km is not that much”, I said to myself. “I can do them in about 4, 4 and a half hours”.

Knowing that I won’t be able to digest if my pulse goes higher than 130 bpm, I started with a short walk. It took about 10 minutes until I reached km 45 and I was feeling refreshed. No gastro-intestinal problems, no acidity, nothing.

Although I didn’t try before the isotonic drink that we were given, Power Bar, it looked like my body was tolerating it pretty good. One of my biggest concerns for a race this long was how to stay energized and the primary source of energy is food. If my gastro-intestinal tract gets messed, it means I can’t properly digest food. Hence, I will have a very big problem. That’s why I decided to give my body at least 10 minutes to digest the first meal of the day. And that went rather well.

At km 45 I started to run again, slowly.

Then, something happened.

I realized I can’t generate kinetic energy. I was pushing really hard, I was moving my legs, I was taking deep breathes, but it looked like my body could barely move. First, I blamed this on the digestion stuff and decided to walk 3-4 more minutes. But when I started to run again, I hit the same wall. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a wall related to fatigue, I wasn’t tired, it was something almost unexplainable.

The road changed now, I was running through some part of a city, in an almost industrial area. The trees and forests were gone and, every once in a while, a big truck was passing us by, really close. And then, when I finally got a patch of shadow, made by a big building, I suddenly found the cause of my kinetic failure.

It was heat. I didn’t realize it was almost noon and the sun was already up in the sky, beaming up light and heat, vertically. But when I entered into the shadow area, I suddenly started to to advance.

As I was about to find out after the race, I was running at temperatures between 32 and 34 degrees Celsius. Back there, on the road, I didn’t know those numbers, but I realized I was running in heat and that was the reason my body couldn’t generate kinetic energy.

95% of my training was done at temperatures between -10 and maximum +10 degrees Celsius. 2 weeks before the race I did a few (very) small acclimatization trainings, running for an hour or two at 30 degrees Celsius, but it was obvious now that it wasn’t enough.

As I was struggling to move forward, I remembered fifth grade physics: when it creates energy, a mechanism also dissipates heat. The more heat we can take away from the mechanism, the bigger the energy created. If, at some point, the mechanism won’t dissipate enough heat, it will stop producing energy.

In our case, the mechanism was my body. I couldn’t dissipate enough heat (because I wasn’t previously exposed enough to heat to adjust). I was moving like in an aquarium.

And then I started to think at persistence hunting. Man was able to pursue for days animals much fasters than him, (on smaller distances), but with the deadly handicap of not sweating. Man is the only mammal capable of sweating and that allows him to dissipate heat and still producing energy. Other mammals can’t and, eventually, they’re overheating and they die. That’s how prehistoric man was doing this persistence hunting.

As I was moving these thoughts into my head and trying to make as little progress as I could, I suddenly realized something very bad. I was running for more than 6 hours and didn’t pee yet.

That’s a very big deal. Especially if it’s hot outside. It means your kidneys aren’t working right. And, if you keep them in this state, they may stop functioning. And that’s very, very, very bad.

At first, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do so I drank almost half of my isotonic mug, around 200ml, in one sip. Maybe that will force the kidneys to work, I said to myself. At that moment I also realized how much I was sweating. I started to calculate how much iso I was putting in and how much sweat I was letting out. Of course, I could only guess.

When I hit the next refreshment point, around km 52, I went straight to the tomatoes and salt corner. At each refreshment point they were giving us food: olives, biscuits, tomatoes, cheese and a lot of other goodies. My plan was to change the liquid intake. Maybe that iso wasn’t very good, so I thought changing the type of hydration will also give a boost to the kidneys. So, I took a few tomatoes, dipped them deep in some salt, ate them and then drank some water. The idea was to replace iso with water, but at the same time to keep the salt level constant. If you drink too much water, it will dilute the minerals in your body. And, sooner or later, that will impact your kidneys as well. It’s called hyponatremia and it’s more complicated than that, but you got the idea.

I also dipped my second bandana in water and tied it up around my neck and the back of the head.

I started to run again, as slowly as I could, knowing that I am very, very close to insolation. It was a tricky exercise of awareness: pay attention to my body and try to identify the smallest pee sensation, pay attention to the upper part, the head especially, not to get over heat because of the sun and then keep an eye on the pace as well.

For the next two refreshment points I did the same thing: I ate a few tomato slices, dipped in salt, then drank a glass of water. On the road I was still sipping iso, but tried to drink only when I was thirsty. Sometimes, when you run and you want to feel some boost, you unconsciously chase a familiar sensation and very often that sensation is the taste of a drink. If you do this too much, you may end up over drinking.

Around km 60 I decided I’m going to pee anyway and, at the next refreshment point I went straight to the toilets. I entered, got rid of my hydration belt and took down my pants.

Then, something happened. I realized I had a very bad chaffing on my butt. I know it sounds awkward, but that was the truth. Because I had my focus on other stuff I simply didn’t realize that my but was aching big time. It didn’t look nice also.

But the good news was that I was finally able to pee. A little bit, but I felt like my kidneys were waking up, so to speak. As for the butt chafing, I had my calendula ointment and that worked a little bit of magic. Of course, I also had to take care of my nipples, who were already in pretty bad shape.

When I went out from the toilet I literally felt reborn. I was away from hyponatremia, I didn’t have any signs of insolation and the parts of my body that were suffering from chafing were finally soothed. It was good.

The only thing that wasn’t good was my pace. I lost a lot of time with the stops at the refreshment points and, because of the heat, my speed was absolutely ridiculous.

I decided it’s time to pick up the pace.

And then, something happened. (I told you you’re gonna read this a lot).

The hills happened. As it wasn’t enough that it was deadly hot (35-37 degrees Celsius), the road was taking it uphill. I didn’t remember anything about hills in the course map, but it didn’t matter anyway. The road was going up and that’s where I had to go too.

I said to myself: “ok, we’ll walk the uphills and run the downhills, maybe the average speed will be ok, at the end of it. There are only 19 km to go.” And so I did.

But the uphills took around 4-5 km. It was like the road will never stop going up and up and up. I was slowly passing by other runners who were beaten by heat but I was also passed by other runners in much better shape than me. We were all looking down, trying to avoid direct contact with the light. It was slow, and painful.

And then I hit another refreshment point and decided it’s time to deal with the insolation. I didn’t get dizzy or confused, but I could feel the heat of my body going up. I wanted to cool down. So, I took a few glasses of water and poured them directly onto my head. The first glass of water cooled me down, but the taste of the water coming down my face was incredibly salty. So salty that it almost felt bitter. But the upside was that I instantly felt better.

I looked at the watch and realized I have only 10 more kilometers to go. And those 10 kilometers were a little bit better.

Now that I had the hydration / pee thing in control, that I was cooled and the road was finally taking it downhill, I could get back to my meditation stuff. It wasn’t as pleasant as the first part of the race, but at least I wasn’t panicked anymore.

As I was approaching the second drop off bag checkpoint, I started to make calculations about the time. I was still optimistic that I could make it under 30 hours.

When I finally hit the drop off bag checkpoint it was 16:30. I was running for 10 and a half hours. Couldn’t complain about fatigue, but the thought of being late started to creep in. I knew that I couldn’t run at a reasonable pace until it will get colder. And that could happen in about 2-3 hours.

Then something happened. Again.

Since I was at km 79 at 16:30, it meant that I had only 4 and a half hours to get to the next big checkpoint until it gets dark. And that checkpoint was at km 121. That meant 42 km. And that meant a pace at around 6:00 min / km. No way I could have a pace at 6 min / km in those conditions.

That really got me worried, because at that checkpoint I had my headlamp and reflecting vest. If I couldn’t make it there before it was getting dark, that meant I will have to run at least one and a half hour in complete darkness, without any signaling equipment on me. Tricky.Very tricky.

As I was changing my socks again I saw that the small discomfort at km 43 was becoming bigger. The feet were swollen even more and the nails were starting to suffer. On the sole of the left foot I had the beginning of a blister. It was still small, but it was there. I took my vitamins with a glass of cold water and tried to relax my mind.

“Ok, I’m late. That’s it. Let’s see what can we do now”. It was 4:30 PM and I had to cover 42 km in 4 and a half hours (around 9 PM it was getting dark). I knew it won’t happen. All I could do was to keep hydrating, keep myself energized and hope to find enough runners to follow, in order not to lose the platoon and get lost in the dark.

“If that will happen, at least I should have a good meal”, I said to myself, and tried some cheese with the tomatoes. The taste was so incredibly good. Then, I saw a glass of Coke. I took a sip and, in a split of a second, a big part of my childhood appeared in front of me. It was the taste of my childhood: cheese, tomatoes and Pepsi (we didn’t have Coke when we lived in communism, only Pepsi). And, somehow, that image of my childhood relaxed me. I knew I won’t make it in time to get my headlamp before dark, I knew I will risk big time, but I was ready to accept this risk now.

I looked at the watch and started again to congratulate myself for everything I did. “79 km is a lot, I said to myself, it’s more than a third of the race. Let’s be happy about this. Let’s be really happy.”.

Before leaving the checkpoint I asked a volunteer to put some ice water on my head. It was so cold that it almost hurt. But, after 2-3 seconds, the effect was amazing. I was breathing again.

I briefly looked around and saw a few individual runners who were taking care of their feet too. None of them looked like they’re going to continue.

“At least, I’m not tired”, I said to myself. “I may move slowly, but I’m not tired. I’m just having a small blister, that’s all. I can manage a small blister. Let’s run, baby. Let’s run”.

And that’s how I left the second big checkpoint.

When I started to run again, I was in the race for 10 and a half hours.

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