This is not good. It’s Friday, I’m strolling around in Umag, at midnight I’ll be at the starting line, ready to run 110 kilometres across Istria. Except that I’m not ready. I’m cold, shivering even though the sun is shining and the temperature is at least 10 degrees higher than in Copenhagen. My muscles feel sore, even though they shouldn’t be, my entire body feels weak, and worst of all: I feel sick, as if I’ve eaten something rotten or have some kind of stomach bug. No, I don’t feel ready at all. But the race will start in just a few hours. So I have to be ready.
I never intended to run Istria 100. Sure, it looked tempting — I have been to that part of the world a couple of times and always enjoyed the clean air, the warmth, always wanted to run up the mountains, I speak the language since my wife’s an ex-yugoslav — but my main goal was Transgrancanaria just a few weeks earlier, and I didn’t think I would be ready for another race that soon.
Well, Transgrancanaria ended badly for me, I was too cautious and didn’t eat enough and missed the cutoff after 80 kilometres. I felt OK the day after, fine the day after that, and I realized that I should have and could have done better. How to fix it? Hm. There is this race across Istria…
So I signed up. If Transgrancanaria wasn’t meant to be, surely this race was: not as hilly, 15 kilometres shorter, and a cut-off time of 33 hours as compared to just 30 hours in Gran Canaria. I mean, surely?
And here I am wondering whether I will make it to the starting line at all. The muscle soreness will probably go away, my body will feel better once I start running, it’s always like this before a race. Nerves, probably. But the stomach? I can’t be so nervous that I’m puking at the starting line?
Almost midnight. I am at the starting line in Lovran. I have been here before, I recognize these streets. I even know the first 8 kilometres of the route, I once walked up the summit barefoot. (No, really.) I remember the lamps and tights and compression socks and trail shoes from Transgrancanaria. I’ve paid lots of money for this. I’ve left my wife and kids for a long weekend, even my mother, who came the very same day I left, just to be here, just to run. This is what I wanted. And yet I feel strangely out of place. I’m still cold: I see no-one else with as warm pants as me. The stomach isn’t good, I’m still queasy, I need to pee, my body feels heavy, still not ready, not ready at all. In the bus I made plans to ask one of the organizers how long they would stay in Lovran: if I give up halfway to the summit and go back, will someone still be there so I can hitch a ride back to the hotel?
But we’re here. Let’s see how far my body will take me.
Past midnight. We’re off. I jog a bit from the start, it’s what everyone does, it looks weird to be the only one walking, but soon it’s getting steeper and we all start walking. I’m way back in the field, almost everyone is ahead of me. My poles go blump-blump against the asphalt (unlike most others’, which don’t have rubber on the tip and go clink-clink). After a few hundred metres, someone stops by the side of the road to pee, but it’s too early for me: find a rhythm, get away from the house, then take a leak. First be warmer: after a minute or two, I take off my pants. I am almost last. A minute or two later, I find some grass, some trees, a secluded spot with no-one around except other runners (and they don’t care).
When I’m done peeing, I am dead last. So far back that I seem to be officially out of the race: ahead of me, two volunteers are taking down the course markers. It’s like the race is over, that I didn’t even make the cut-off after five minutes. Part of me enjoys the symbolism. Turn back, I hear a voice saying. See? Even the organizers think you should give up at once. But another part of me is louder: no way, it says. No bleeping way! To travel all the way to Croatia just to give up after less than a kilometer? You can do better than that even if you puke!
So what do I do? I walk faster. I catch up with the others. I pass first one, then another. I get annoyed by some, they are too slow and I can’t get past them, the path is too narrow. I consider slowing down, taking a break for a few seconds, just to make sure I am not spending too much energy, but no, I am hooked on passing people, I am hooked on this rhythm of being slightly faster than those ahead of me. So I go on in the same way.
At the start, there was a lot of noise. Loud music, someone saying something in a microphone (mostly about how 110km is not 175km, as far as I can recall), cars in the street and people everywhere else. Here up on the mountain, though, it’s silent. No cars, no music, no-one making much noise except for heavy breathing, heavy footsteps, the occasional fart and sharp clink or muted blump from the poles. Nobody talks.
Except two Croat woman behind me. The last minutes I have been hearing them constantly chattering about God knows what (my language skills can’t keep up), but apparently it’s hilarious, they laugh as much as they talk, and they talk a lot. What is this, a party? And how embarrassing must it not be for those behind me to be slower than these two chatterboxes?
And then they pass me. They wear identical pastel-coloured tights from the 80’s, one of them doesn’t have poles, they keep on talking — and they skip past me outside the path, as if I’m walking annoyingly slowly. And after having passed me, they move away, walking so much faster that I lose sight of them.
So what do I do? I walk faster. Of course. I catch up with them. And when they pass someone, I pass too. Whatever you do, don’t let them get away. For your stupidly inflated self-esteem’s sake. As if a minute lost here will mean a lost race! As if anyone cares about who passes you or who you pass! But no, your pride and stubbornness makes you create competition where there really shouldn’t be one, makes you focus on small, minuscule victories along the way instead of the ultimate goal of finishing.
On the other hand, to focus solely on something 100 kilometres and 20-30 hours of running further down the road, and not on the small goals along the way, is a sure way to lose your mind and give up.
And of course, the nausea is gone now.
As we get higher and higher, it gets colder and colder. Some hundred metres from the summit, I put on my pants. I remember this last bit from my barefoot run: the pointy rocks, the sharp twigs, and then, at the top, the tower and the marvelous, fabulous view, clear skies and brilliant summer sun in all directions. This time around, it’s slightly different. It’s dark, it’s cold, my feet are fine, and I don’t stop for one second at the summit, just get my bib number registered and run on, yes, run, even though it’s more like a jog or a trot, at least it’s not walking, and that’s something.
On my way down, I pass both the 80’s tights. I never see them again. At the first aid station at the bottom, I am already two hours ahead of the cut-off. This is going splendid!
When I run for a day or more, I tend to lose track of time and space. That is, in both of my previous ultra races, I have been surprised by aid stations coming from nowhere and by the time being something else than I thought it was. My first main goal in Istria was Buzet, about halfway: the bag drop-off point. There, I could change socks and get some of my own food and drink and even sit down and get some rest. You see, I am bad at aid stations, they are not the reason for my running, I always just stuff food into my mouth and move on as quickly as possible. I never even sit down. And it feels good, it feels like I am pushing forward and not just loafing, my mind is attuned to that way of doing it. My body, however, isn’t always on board. So having looked at the race profile, I decided to make myself sit down in Buzet. Force myself to eat and rest. Even though I probably will feel OK.
Coming to Buzet, though, I’m knackered. After the first summit, we had about four more summits, most of them cold and windy (especially the one where there were no vegetation and the cold wind gathered speed across miles of barren landscape) — but instead of putting on my pants, I have just run faster and willed my way through. It felt good every time I passed a summit and could move towards the warmth in the valleys, but it might have taken its toll. I’m tired as I come into Buzet. Not as tired as the Croatian guy who swore for every other step coming down one particularly technical part of the trail, but still. Much more tired than I should have been.
I get my dropbag and sit down. Get some food, can’t remember what, just remember eating something of this and something of that. Oranges, probably, and bread. Drinking coke, something I under normal circumstances find almost nauseatingly sweet. Oh, speaking of nausea, it’s back. I feel nauseous. For many kilometres I have been forcing down gels and bonk breakers, the stomach complaining but my mind saying yes, you have to, you need the energy. The chocolate ate the last aid station made me even more queasy. But we go on, right?
I don’t know how long I sit there. Get up, find an orange or something, sit down. Get up, stand with my hand on my knees, sit back down, lie down, close my eyes. There are many dropbags left — perhaps 30? 40? Timewise, I’m apparently doing alright. Bodywise… But we go on, right?
As I leave Buzet, the volunteers take my number. 543, they say and look at me, stare at me, it seems like they are confused or a bit scared or, I don’t know, as if they’re thinking «he is too tired, how on earth will he make it to the finish?». One minute later, I go back into the aid station, I forgot my poles. As I leave for the second time, I try to make a joke, haha I forgot my poles, but either they don’t think it’s funny, or they’re busy taking down another bib number. Or I am so tired I don’t speak clearly.
But we’re off again.
If time and space was a bit weird in the first half of the race, it was even more so in the latter. I remember the sun setting: it took hours. I remember having no idea how far I have to run to the next aid station, or indeed how far I have run since the last. I remember waking up from a trance and being surprised that I was walking so fast, and that I had been doing so for quite some time, and that I was in the middle of a bonk breaker which I had no recollection of having taken out from my backpack. I remember two people on top of a hill, they had water. I remember winding paths through meadows, a magic coniferous forest, a cold stream (the guy ahead of me skipped gingerly across to try and avoid being too wet; I thought for a second and then waded straight through). I remember running along an endless, straight road in the dark. It seemed like it was constantly ever so slightly uphill, and it confused me, I couldn’t remember it being like that from the profile. Or perhaps my sense of space tricked me. Don’t trust your senses in the latter stages of an ultra race.
I remember the path turning into a road, and the road leading into a city, and me thinking «this is it, it’s almost over, it has to be, I have been running for ever». Then again, I shouldn’t have trusted my sense of time, either. Coming into the city, a guy points me towards the aid station. It’s only 15 kilometres left, he says.
I should have known, of course. The last aid station was 13,4 kilometres from the finish (not quite 15, but still), and I knew that I hadn’t reached it yet. But hearing the number, and thinking that I hadn’t even finished 90% of the race, and feeling, well, this is knackered. The Buzet knackeredness was nothing compared to this. But we go on, right?
I eat bit. Some other guy tells me how close the finish line is. I smile, or try to, and eat some more. Drink some coke (I think). For the last kilometres I have been in the company of another runner; after a few minutes he leaves the aid station. I leave too. I have eaten enough (I hope), I have rested a bit (not really), I can do this. We go on!
Hundred metres later, if that much, I stop and lean heavily on my poles. I’m terribly cold. Just exhausted. Transgrancanaria was nothing compared to this: there, I had to throw in the towel because of the cut off-time and because I hadn’t eaten enough. Here, the cut off isn’t a problem, and I have been eating a lot more. It’s just that I’m so tired… I stand there, on the pavement, feeling the dark around me, the cold night, thinking how far I have come, how far I have left… And give up.
We won’t go on. Gingerly, I walk back to the aid station. I tell the volunteers that I quit, stagger over to a chair and slump down. So this was it.
On the Istria100 Facebook page, there was a quote by Martin Luther King:
If you can’t fly, then run,
if you can’t run, then walk,
if you can’t walk, then crawl,
but whatever you do,
you have to keep moving forward.
I did fly. Up the first hill, 1400 metres, I passed many runners and was passed by almost no-one. And the downhill after that. After a while, I settled into a steady run. Occasionally, I walked, but I always ran when I could. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, perhaps I should have saved up energy for the latter part of the race? Some time after that, when is a bit hazy, but at least from Buzet, I didn’t run at all. Just walked. Sitting at the last aid station, in Buje, I think about this quote again, as I did several times during the race. I can’t walk now. But I can crawl? There are (*checks watch*) something like nine hours until cut-off, there wouldn’t be a problem to crawl 13 kilometres in that time. But no. My knees are too painful to crawl, they have strange red bruises, apparently they have never been through such an ordeal before. I am cold, my entire body is shaking. I sit inside some kind of hangar, it’s slightly warmer than outside, with my jacket on, bent over, trying to keep my warmth. I drift in and out of sleep. Once or twice I venture outside, struggle to get to me feet and stagger over to ask someone to drive me to the hotel. I don’t want to, of course, but I can’t see any other way unless they order me a taxi. And that doesn’t seem to be what they suggest.
I stagger back and slump back on the chair and drift back into sleep, or coma, or semi-awake exhaustion. Apparently, another runner recognized me and told our common friend that I looked exhausted. If a veteran ultra runner says that you are exhausted, you know you really are.
One of the volunteers at Buje had a dog. Argus, I think it was called. I watched it fetch a ball as I came back from my short-lived attempt at finishing, and it made my smile. Not on the outside, that would have taken too much energy, but it was nice to see a dog playing and just enjoying life the way happy dogs can. As I sat there afterwards, she (the owner, not the dog) came in to me and asked me what she could do for me. She didn’t say «it’s only X kilometres!», she said «how can I help you?». She asked me what I needed, she said that the cut-off was many hours from now, I even had time to sleep here for several hours and still make it.
I felt like a fraud. A cheat. First I wrote for all the world to see: I WILL FINISH TRANSGRANCANARIA 2016! Then I made my entire family (wife and kids and my mother, seems like a pattern now) come with me to Gran Canaria for two weeks to cheer me on. My mother hadn’t even been there before, and always said that she’d never go to those sun-and-beach-and-drunk-Norwegians places. When didn’t finish, I decided to go to Istria. That I can finish, at least, it seems a lot easier. And here I was, slumped in a cheap plastic chair, knowing that I had failed again. I’ll have to come back and explain to the kids, again, why failure is an inevitable risk en every project worth pursuing, and that it’s not nothing to have run 100 kilometres (ok, 96,6) across Istria, and that they shouldn’t lose their faith in their dad just because he gave up. Again.
But I can’t go on. I go outside again, but it’s too cold, I can’t stop shaking, and my legs make we walk like a penguin and are on the verge of buckling under me for every step. Argus’ owner comes back in, with Argus behind her, but the dog stops as soon as she tells him to, impressively obedient. I can’t remember what she said, but I remember that it made me feel more at ease: I can’t go on. But that’s OK.
I hear a voice behind me. A Danish friend has appeared from nowhere, like an apparition. (I talked with him earlier, as I strolled around Umag.) Let’s go, he says. It’s not that far. Apparently, he had also given up, but changed his mind when he realized how much time there was to the cut-off.
But I can’t go on. I don’t see him leave, perhaps it was just an apparition after all? But it must have been him, he did finish some time during the night.
Eventually, someone picks me up. He drives me to the finish line to get my dropbag, then to the wrong hotel before the right one, with me all the time drifting in and out of sleep. Can’t sleep, must sleep, can’t sleep, must sleep. When we get to the hotel, I get out of the car, and I can hardly bend my knees. My muscles have never been this sore. In the car, the heat was turned up, and it was marvelous. Walking 50 metres to my hotel, I start shaking from cold again. But I manage to get into my room.
So. That was that.
Now, some 40 hours later, I use my hand to climb the stairs in our house. The tiredness is still lingering, like a flu clinging on. But I’m fine. I will be fine. The kids understood that I was tired, and sooner or later they will understand that it’s better to aim for the stars and hit the moon than not aim at all. I did run almost 100 kilometres, didn’t I? I did run myself to exhaustion?
Yes, I failed again. The only thing to do is to train more, train better, train harder. And be back next year for the longest race.
I mean, 110 kilometres is the new moon. And one should always aim for the stars, right?