Prague Ultra-trail 2017
Posted on January 2nd, 2018
Let me start at the end: I did it. For the first time, I ran a 100-miler, an approximately 170 kilometer-long run. I made it to the end after 33 hours and 25 minutes. As I approached the finish line, I had this crazy idea to wait for another eight minutes, so as to have a finishing time of precisely 33:33, but I was just too exhausted for such games. Talking about the numbers, 171 runners had started the race. And only 99 finished. It was not an easy one.
They say the difficulty of a race depends on three separate factors: the length, the trail characteristics, and the weather. There is no need to discuss the distance. Before the race, I was unable to imagine covering such an extremely long route within one run, and I didn’t believe I could do it. Even now I am not fully capable of acknowledging that I did.
However, I would like to own up to one thing. It helped me very much that Olaf, the chief organizer of the race, published the navigation course in three separate files. Apart from the 100-miler, there were other, shorter races taking place along the same path, so that each runner could upload only those files covering his or her route. Of course, one could connect the three separate files into one large file. And indeed, some folks did so and shared the single big file on the internet. Nevertheless, I had had a previous bad experience with huge amounts of data in my watch – once I had covered a certain distance, the software in my Garmin started slowing down, and then it took several seconds before I could switch between different screens.
So, I had uploaded three separate files, and after covering one segment, I saved the recording and started a new leg from scratch. This way I initially ran 63 kilometers, then 51, and finally 56. I was always only focused on covering the particular segment, not on overcoming the whole trail. And evidently, it paid off, at least from the psychological point of view. Had the watch, at the ninetieth kilometer, shown me that I had to cover another eighty, I would probably have quit because at that moment I could not imagine running so much more. This way my Garmin informed me that I had to cover a “mere” twenty-four, which was much more acceptable. Of course, I knew there was yet another leg to cover, but it lay somewhere far beyond me in a hazy cloud.
Even though I have repeatedly claimed I was running, I should probably set the record straight. Indeed, up to the fortieth kilometer, I was running most of the time. From the fortieth up to the ninetieth kilometer, I was walking most of the up-hills, but I was still running more than walking. From the ninetieth to the one hundred twentieth I ran downhills and sometimes also on the leveled paths. Afterwards, running became just an occasional alternative to walking. In the final fifteen kilometers, I just walked. Shortly before the finish, I tried to run again, but my weird hopping looked ridiculous, and furthermore, it hurt a lot, so I gave up after several jumps.
Just before the start, the more experienced fellow runners had warned me about the technical passages that Olaf usually prepares on the path. And they were right. We enjoyed running in the mud, steep downhills on both frozen and slippery clay with the estimated slope perhaps exceeding even 50 degrees, balancing on footbridges made out of loose sticks no wider than an arm, jumping on frosty stones in the middle of a stream, steep climbing on loose gravel, squirming through young spruce stands, jumping over frozen furrows in a field, and many other goodies.
I also didn’t believe that in the not-too-hilly region of Posázaví, where the top of the highest hill Fialník lies at an elevation of 530 meters above sea level, one could climb that much. The Prague ultra-trail websites claimed an overall elevation gain of 5500 meters. According to several map applications, the climb was supposed to be between 4 and 5 thousand meters, but I still did not believe it, because I knew that the elevation of a trail planned in a map application usually differs from the actual one quite a lot. I didn't realize that to plan such a course, someone had to go through it in person, and thus they had to know its characteristics well. In the end, at least according to my measurements, we climbed 5635 meters and descended 5725 meters. Quite a load.
I ran without poles. After the recent Grandpa’s 100 race, I had decided not to use them anymore. Right at the beginning of that race, a cord holding the three separate parts of a pole together tore in two, even though the manufacturer boasted about their lifetime guarantee. And just a few years earlier in the La Travesera race taking place in the Spanish mountain range Picos de Europa, I had broken both poles in succession in deep snowdrifts. It is the truth that it was somewhat my fault, because I did not attach powder baskets to them, and so the poles got stuck in the snow. Anyway, I eventually concluded that rather than relying on suspect equipment, I would instead train my legs. OK, maybe I could have waited a few more months…
Most of the time the trail led us through natural terrain. It was only occasionally that roads could not be avoided, mostly because of recent wind-blown trees throughout the region. I again reassured myself that I liked trail-running much more than road-running. The thing is that when running on the road, my soles hurt more, probably because I always tread in the same manner. But what is worse, paradoxically, running on asphalt is much slower. Even if objectively, according to the pace, it is faster than trail running. I figured out the reason was that, when running over terrain, I have to focus on every step to avoid obstacles. On a road, on the contrary, I don’t have to think about such things, the result being I can more intensely feel the fatigue, the pain, or I just overthink about what lies ahead.
The weather was not too bad. The temperatures were around 0 °C / 32 °F; a little less in the night, and by contrast a little higher during the day. On Saturday afternoon, an unpleasant wind started to blow, which decreased the perceived temperature. Sometimes it was snowing a bit, but I was better off than those who stayed in the race even longer. It was heavily snowing on Sunday afternoon at some places along the trail.
I also learned a new strategy for managing the cold. In the past, I used to lament my sweating when running in the winter time. Yes, it is true I sweat a little more than other runners because I am heavier than them. However, I also used to wear too much. This time I decided to test my ability to endure the cold at the beginning of a long race. I wanted to find out whether I could run, if only for a few hours, lightly dressed and very close to my endurance limit: the point at which I feel the cold yet still can manage it. As time elapsed, I started adding layers of clothing. During the race it worked quite well for me: I felt really cold maybe a couple of times, and only close to the end of the race.
There was one more thing I had learned. Experienced ultrarunners say one should not linger at the refreshment points too long in winter. When you get outside again, the cold is almost unbearable, and runners have a hard time persevering. Indeed, this is true, but with one exception: when I donned dry clothes from a drop bag at a refreshment point, I felt great, even when I got outside of the heated building. Nonetheless, I had made yet another mistake. I had drunk four cups of tea and coke at the refreshment point, and as soon as I started to climb up a small hill, I promptly began to sweat again.
All in all, however, it was an excellent and intense experience. And it is obvious it would not have been possible without the work of the race organizers. When I saw the frostbitten volunteers at the outdoor checkpoints eagerly pouring drinks, only to shake them out of the cups a few minutes later in the form of ice cubes, I realized what a harsh ordeal they were undergoing just so we, the racers, could fulfill our dreams and ambitions. It must have been utterly exhausting, and it is probably not only my opinion when I say that I was aware of your exertion and I am thankful for it. Thanks so much, it was well worth it!
Check out the video from the race. Even though I had struggled with the gimbal, which didn’t work correctly in the cold, I finally managed to put together a few shots. And please, don't forget to leave a comment.