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

I left the second big checkpoint refreshed and eager to run. Unfortunately, the heat was at its peak, it was half past 4PM and the road was melting under my feet. I continued for a few kilometers to “run the shadow, walk the sun” and things seemed to go moderately well. I was making progress. Not as fast as I wanted, but I was moving forward and, according to what Attila told us the day before the race, this is the only winning strategy at Ultrabalaton: just keep moving, each step will get you closer to the finish line.

After half an hour, around km 85, I remembered I had 2 protein bars with hemp. I tested them before and I always had good results with them. Just for the record, these are not made of “that” hemp, also known as cannabis, which contains THC (the psychoactive substance that makes you go on trips…). So, I took out one bar from the back pocket of my hydration belt, unpacked it and took a bite. At that moment I realized I didn’t have any saliva. After a few movements, I also realized that I didn’t make any saliva as well. That was weird. I took a sip of iso, washing my mouth and trying to make something out of that bite. The first one eventually went down my throat and I took another one. I had the same feeling, like chewing sawdust. I tried to water it down as hard as I could, but, for some reason, my mouth refused to produce saliva. Well, that’s new, I said. So I packed back the rest of the bar and put it back, in the pocket of hydration belt.

As I was approaching km 90, I started to feel better. It was slightly cooler, but still very hot.

And then, again, something happened.

We entered some very, very hilly roads. Compared with that, what we had at km 50-60 was a joke. Now, we had to climb slopes at 30-40% degrees. Nobody could run anymore. All the runners were walking and they were walking really slow. The roads were narrow and they made very sharp angles. At times, I felt like I was in a maze. At the top of each slope, there was a volunteer sitting and showing us which way we should go. We were going up and down on very narrow streets.

I had to recalculate my pace again. The initial plan was to get to the third checkpoint, the one with the headlamp and the spare pair of shoes, around 9 PM. Now it was obvious this won’t happen. The next target was 10 PM.

But the good news was that, around 6 PM, the hills came to an end and the road took an unexpected turn. We entered again some industrial terrain, but this time it was surrounded by vineyards. At the top of one of the hills there was a big refreshment point. I wanted to stop to take my ratio of cheese, tomatoes and Coke, but I decided I should go to the toilet first. The toilets were in sight, 30-40 meters away from the refreshment point. But, 10 meters after the refreshment point, the road basically entered in a big building. I wanted to tell to the volunteer who was giving me very clear directions to enter the building that I want to go to the toilet, but he seemed to understand zero English. I thought, “ok, I will come back later on”.

Once in the building, I had to take a few stairs down. I think I went down 2 or 3 floors and then, all of a sudden, I realized I was in a press house. There were huge wood barrels all over the place and, what was both unexpected and beautiful, it was really, really cool. I think there was a difference of 20 degrees Celsius between the outside and the inside. We actually ran on some aisles made of huge barrels, and, at the end of one of those aisles there was a guy taking pictures. I understood then that it must have been some sponsor to the race, or something. I was so happy because of the coolness that I gave to the photographer a huge smile.

Then, after I got out of the press house, I realized there’s no way I can go back. The road didn’t go back to the refreshment point. I was a bit frustrated because I lost my cheese and Coke meal, and also because I lost the toilet, but I was happy that I cooled down. Days after the race, after looking at my race report, generated by the Suunto Ambit Peak 3 I wore, I could see very clearly how my heart rate went back to normal precisely after this press house episode.

So, I continued to run and I fixed the next milestone at km 100. During training I made only one 100k race and that was done in 12 hours and 30 minutes. This time, I covered 100km in 13 hours and 20 minutes. And then I realized it’s only 50 minutes difference.

I restarted my mental mantras of gratitude: “It’s very, very good. You got almost the same result, although the training race was made during the night – which is your favorite time to run – and under much cooler temperatures, at 2-5 degrees Celsius. But you still made it with only 50 minutes more here. You’re good, baby. Keep running.”

After I reached km 100, I realized I’m in unknown territory. I never ran anything longer than 100km. “Ok, everything you run from now will be beyond your limits. You got to your limits and now, each step you take, will take you off limits. Keep doing it.” And I went like this for another hour and a half, without anything noticeable happening.

As you may imagine, my attitude got better and I was also covering more ground faster.

At some point, I met Aris and his cyclist companion. They stopped to put some extra layers and they put on their headlamps (one of the big advantages of having a cyclist companion is that you don’t relay on drop off bags to leave your equipment, you basically have it with you all the time). I passed them by gently, giving them a short encouragement. They smiled back and encouraged me as well.

But the moment I passed them by I realized it was late. They had their headlamps already. That meant it was going to get dark soon. And I was right. It was half past 8PM. The runners were fewer and fewer and my feet were giving me quite a lot of trouble. I was expecting the swelling to go away once the heat will pass, but it didn’t happen. If my shoes were a little bit larger, maybe, but now I was stuck with that pair which was too fixed.

Although it was colder, because of the swelling, my speed didn’t improve. Even more, the small discomfort I felt at km 43, that little blister I saw at km 79, now it became something really nasty. I had constant pains when I was touching ground with my left foot. Which happened at every step, of course.

At some point, in the dim light of the evening, I saw a silhouette barely advancing in front of me. It looked familiar and, as I approached, I recognized the hairpieces girl, the one that ran with me in the first part of the race. She was obviously having difficulties running, and she looked really tired. I looked at her as I was passing her by, giving her a smile, trying to encourage her, but she seemed totally estranged, in her own world.

And then it became pitch dark. I could barely see where I was walking. We were running now through some forest and, every once in a while, a car passing by in the distance will briefly light the way, throwing fast moving shades ahead or behind us. The mere fact of keeping the road was a chore. After the race, a few friends asked me if I wasn’t scared to run like this, through the forest, in the dark. Looking back, I realize I didn’t have time to think about that. I was so caught in managing my footsteps as gently as I can, in seeing where I run, that I simply didn’t have time to be scared. Strange things happen to you in an ultramarathon…

At some point, I remember a short, but strange incident. I was passed by a runner who obviously had a cyclist companion. The runner had his head down, his moves were quite mechanical. After I looked more carefully, the cyclist seemed really young, just a kid. “He’s probably his son”, I thought. And then, just when the kid was passing me by, he lost control of the bike and felt down. I rushed to ask if he needs help, but he didn’t even look at me. Instead, he got up, brushed off, went on the bike and started to pedal again. His father was already away. He didn’t even stop to look back.

And then, around half past 10 PM, I finally reached the third checkpoint. At that time, I was in the race for 16 hours and 10 minutes, and, during the last hour or so, I was in big pains because of the blister. I identified my bag, with a feeling of profound happiness, found a bench and then slowly started to manage my stuff.

First of all, I changed teeshirts. The one with which I started the race already had some blood from my early nipples chaffing. I took another pair of socks, my vitamins, the headlamp and the reflecting vest. I also took out some gels and replaced the stock in the back pocket of my hydration belt. After a short hesitation, I decided not to take an extra clothing layer (I still had an extra long sleeves blouse in the bag) and use only the vest on top of the teeshirt. Then I put on my headlamp and I clearly remember the feeling of safety I had when I tested it. Now I could see the road. I wasn’t relying on other runners to show me the way, and I could actually see where my footsteps will land.

Then I took off my running shoes, my socks and started to assess the damage. And the damage was quite big. The left foot had a blister in the sole with a diameter of about 3-4 centimeters. The skin was tender and I could see the accumulation of liquid underneath it. The right foot didn’t have a blister yet, but the skin was very tender. It became quite obvious that I will have a blister there as well. It was just a question of time.

I took out some patches and applied on top of the blister. They weren’t very big and they didn’t cover it entirely, but at least there was something.

At that moment, Aris and his cyclist companion (Marius, is his name, by the way) arrived as well. Aris didn’t look well.

– How are you? he asked.

– Now I’m better, I said. I have a headlamp.

– You didn’t have one before?

– Nope, I said, it was in this bag. I had a little bit of fun walking in the dark until here.

– You’re lucky, said Aris, as he was seating on the bench. I took a wrong step even with my headlamp on and I think I broke something.

I felt my stomach clinging.

– I’m sorry, man, I said, can I help you?

– Nope, he said, I think I’m going to sit down here for a bit. Marius, I think I will lie down for 10 minutes here.

– Ok, said Marius. Yes, you’re lucky you didn’t do what Aris did, and you didn’t have a headlamp.

– Well, let’s see what happens until the end. I’m curious how many kilometers I could cover until midnight, I said. I think 130. It’s almost 22:30 and we’re at 121.5 km. I think I can cover at least 9 km in the next hour or so.

– Of course, said Aris. You’re in time. You’re ok. If you hit 130km at midnight, then you have 14 hours to make 90km. It’s doable.

– Yes, it’s doable, I said. For you too, right?

– Well, we’ll see. If it wasn’t for this injury, maybe. I think I’ll take a nap here, Marius, he said. 30 minutes, top. Ok?

I left them there and started to run again. My feet were hurting big time but I felt so happy to have some light with me.

When I finished my third marathon I was in the race for 16 hours and 30 minutes.

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