06 September 2014


The ultimate reward after a hard day's work, a local beer:-)

The adventure begins...
I got the opportunity to run this race completely by accident. A business trip required that I visited Ireland and Poland in early September and as usual, I immediately started to look for races in those locations or just cool places to run. After about a week of research, I located a really cool looking ultra marathon in Poland at the site of last year's World Mountain Running Championships. The "Festiwal Biegowy" or Festival of Races takes place in Krynica, Poland just a couple of hours drive outside of Krakow in the Carpathian Mountains (Eastern European extension of the Alps) over the first weekend in September. There were races on the calendar from the 100 m dash all the way to a 100K ultra marathon, the "Bieg 7 Dolin" or Seven Valleys Run 100K. In between, there were 5Ks and half marathons, and 33K and even a 66K distance as well, but I figured go big or go home. After all, I probably will never ever get the opportunity again to run an ultra in this region.

I went online in an effort to find more info about this race and to preregister. That proved to be more challenging than I originally expected. Everything was in Polish and any attempts to get info from the event organizers in English was in vain. Oh well, I am a resourceful guys after all, so I found some local assistance to help me through the language barrier and before I knew it I was officially registered for the Bieg 7 Dolin 100K in Krynica, Poland to make my way through 7 valleys while climbing 16000 feet and covering 62 miles in the process along with 1200 other registered runners.

I arrived in Krakow one day before the event. With the help of a local friend, we made the 2 hour drive to Krynica, so I could pick up my race packet the night before the race as well as attend the mandatory pre-race meeting. I could've done without the pre-race meeting, which incidentally was held entirely in Polish. I'm jsut glad they didn't change the race course or start time or something or else this race could've gone way wrong for me:-)

As soon as we arrived in the small town of Krynica, I realized that this race weekend thing was a pretty big deal here. The entire town (known for the healing properties of its natural mineral water springs and popular with weekend travelers) was decorated, indicating that something big was going on, but before we tried to locate race HQ, we headed to the little bed & breakfast, I had booked online, because the website promised they spoke English...yeah, right! Luckily, my local friend was able to assist me with the check-in. When the sweet old lady and apparent owner of the hotel heard that I was in town to run 100 kilometers the next day, she quickly showed concern for me. After all, who would feed me while I was running. She really was worried I could starve out there, so when I returned from picking up my race packet, there was a large bag in my room with individually wrapped turkey and cheese sandwiches she made for me for race day. I have never been treated so thoughtfully ever in any hotel I've stayed at and it absolutely made my day and made me forget about any pre-race jitters...at least for a little while.

The little bed & breakfast I stayed at with the sweetest and most considerate of hosts ever!

After I got checked in, my friend Wojtek and I walked to the center of town in search of the race HQ, but at first, we ended up at the location of a European Economic Summit that had concluded the previous day. We just though all those flags had to be for the race. Not so. When we finally got our bearings straight and found start finish area for the race weekend. The entire place was humming, races were ongoing already and would continue for the entire weekend, so you would hear spectators shouting "bravo!" and clapping all day and all night, really amazing! But with such a large event come a little bit of chaos as well, so it took us about an hour to actually locate the packet pickup location. There was a huge Expo as well as a large stage with live music, just stuff going on all over the place. Wojtek and I picked up my race bib, walked around a bit and found a spot nearby to get some dinner. Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel before Wojtek took off to head back to Krakow while I started prepping for race day. Thanks again Wojtek, for all your help you and your wife provided!!!

When I got to my room, I started laying out my running gear for the next day. The race start was scheduled for 3AM with a cutoff of 17 hours, which is actually fairly aggressive for this course, which is why traditionally, 40-50 % of starters do not finish this race. Knowing that there would be two sections with almost 15 miles between aid stations, I decided to wear my UD SJ vest. I had upgraded the vest with two soft silicone bottles instead of the traditional plastic bottles and it makes a huge difference, e.g. no more bruised ribs. I also added another soft bottle inside the back of the pack to be used as backup source of fluids for the long sections. I loaded up on Honey Stinger Chews and Skratch electrolyte powder as well as tons of SCaps, since I had a serious case of cramps at a local 50K just 2 weeks earlier.

The weather forecast called for mild temps early in the morning followed by a gradual warm-up during the day, much more of a warm-up than local runners had expected and hoped for. I decided to wear cheap compression sleeves at the start of the race along with a new Salomon running top and my usual running shorts. Seems everyone in Europe wears compression shorts, which really doesn't work for me. I also opted for gaiters and no compression socks. With a 3 AM start, headlamps were an absolute necessity. After laying out everything I turned on the TV to watch one of three channels. It showed James Bond with Polish narrative. Oh well, that should help me fall asleep quickly, or so I thought. I checked my watch for the last time at 12:30AM, just one hour before my wake-up call, argh!!! One hour of sleep. Hopefully, the race excitement would make me forget about the lack of sleep quickly and permanently.

With a long day ahead, I decided to eat a banana and a sandwich just to have a head start on fuel. I didn't know what to expect from the aid stations and the first aid station was 15 miles into the race. I filled up my bottles, put on my gear and headed out the door. As I left my hotel, I saw other runners leaving their hotels as well and as we headed closer to the race start, more and more runners joined along the way. When I arrived at the start, I realized that this was the biggest ultra event I had ever participated in. It really reminded me of pictures I'd seen of the start of the UTMB. The entire town was out and about and there were hundreds of runners everywhere, making final adjustments to their gear, giving interviews to different media outlets and generally getting pumped up for the day ahead.

Here I also met one English speaking couple, Anna and Mike, from the US (via Poland) and we chatted for a while, comparing ultra events we had done in the US. Anna was actually going to race the 100K while Mike opted for the 33K. Turns out, she is pretty damn fast as she finished 5th female overall in a field of over 500 finishers. She ended up giving an interview in Polish while Mike and I continued to chat about ultras.

Obligatory selfie at a race of this magnitude.
After a quick selfie it was time to get ready to run. I noticed that nearly half the field used trekking poles, which made sense considering the elevation profile, but it did make me have to pay more attention whenever I passed a runner with poles on the trail, trying to avoid to get stabbed or tripped. Thankfully, none of these things happened. Because of the serious elevation gain of this race and because this was a training race for me, I targeted a conservative 14-14:30 min per mile pace for the entire race. I was hoping that it would allow me to finish the race feeling somewhat comfortable and not completely spent. 

This place was filled with excitement and runners were rearin' to go.
Once the race got underway, I realized very quickly that I would likely not be running much by myself with such a large field of runners in a 100K. While they tried to spread us out over the first couple of miles through town, as soon as we hit the first trails and started climbing the conga line of runners started as well. While I was initially slightly annoyed to be unable to run at my pace, I ultimately saw it as a blessing in disguise. This way, there was no possible way for me to start out too fast, so mission accomplished on that. One of the mandatory pieces of gear was a working cell phone, which allowed me to take a couple of pictures. However, this was a race after all, so pictures are few and far between and to be honest, they really don't do the beauty of this course and the event as a whole justice. This course was as pretty as it was difficult. Obviously, with a 3 AM start, we ran in complete darkness for quite a while, so there wasn't any point in snapping pictures anyway. 

The race course offered everything from jeep roads, loads of single track and some actual roads as well, especially to and from the checkpoints.
I settled into a pace slightly faster than my target pace, but it was difficult to maintain a steady pace mile per mile anyway due to the severe ascents and descents we had to deal with. I started to check my pace very infrequently, because there really wasn't a point in monitoring it closely just yet. I was nowhere near the cutoff times and I had no plans to get close, so it was really just about trying to execute my plan with regards to my overall training goal.

Most check points were in the valley towns. This is the view on one of the descents.

The air was nice and cool early on and it was still a little dark when we finally rolled into the first aid station. The aid stations at this event were all extremely well stocked and staffed. However, food and rink varied from US races, but I knew that ahead of time and was prepared. Water was carbonated and I still don't know if they even offered regular water because I couldn't read any of the labels. But they also offered great tea and a very particular type of cookies (Butterkekse), which were very familiar to me from growing up in Germany...comfort food, indeed! They also offered pastries and danishes and some type fruit flavored water or juice. No gels of any kind, so I made sure I added Skratch to my sparking water along with taking my other electrolytes and salt tablets along the way as well. I stayed on a pretty strict schedule, especially regarding salt and food in general.

Not sure if they had a tornado or if the local forest service is clearing the area, but the view beyond is spectacular.
To ensure adequate hydration, I really chugged down some fluids every time I entered an aid station in addition to drinking the fluids I carried in between. Still, there were two occasions were i along with other runners ran out of fluids way ahead of the aid station. If it wasn't for the amazing locals providing buckets of fresh water along with their personal coffee and tea cups at a couple of locations along the race course, many of us would have had some serious dehydration issues as the day heated up.

Yes, they sent us straight up a ski slope 50 miles into the race.
As the day progressed, temperatures rose. I kept a steady pace, but I started to drink more at each aid station to make sure I wasn't going into the negative. My pace started to slow a little, especially due to some of the more technical sections. Not because of rocks, but because many of the climbs and descents were covered in wet mud, making them extremely slippery and dangerous, especially for a runner in Altra Olympus, like me. I was just glad it wasn't raining right now or else this race might be over for me before we even got to the halfway point. I shouldn't even have thought that. Next thing I knew, I was laying on my back in a big puddle of messy black mud. Thankfully, this was on a flat section, so there was nowhere for me to go. I spouted a couple of profanities...hey...nobody spoke English, so no harm no foul...before dusting myself off and moving on.

Another fun climb along the way. Pics just don't do it justice.
Mike and I caught up with each other a few times during the first 33K, which was his race distance for the day, so I had an opportunity to talk to a fellow racer for at least a little bit. Other than that, I was pretty much on my own when it came to conversations. Such a strange feeeling, to be so close to other runners for so long, yet to be unable to really communicate with them in a meaningful way other than the occasional "You ok?" or a thumbs up.

Risking a look up at the amazing scenery while descending yet another steep section.
I continued to run my race, stop here and there to take in the amazing views and just enjoy the experience. Getting lost on this course is really really difficult, because you never really ran any section of the race by yourself. There were always runners ahead and behind you. I kind of enjoyed that type of reassurance, but the constant clacking of trekking poles did get old after a while:-)

The mountain range seemed to expand forever and beyond my view.
As I continued on into the second half of the race, the weather turned. A slight drizzle here and there turned into a brief thunderstorm, which was especially scary as we climbed the ski slope at mile 50, fully exposed and next to the ski lifts for a couple of hours of ascending and descending the race course. Now the trails had become really treacherous. Every ascent became twice as difficult as your feet slipped on the ground trying to make it up the climb. However, the descents were much much worse. Some were extremely steep and now fully covered in very slick mud, which basically turned into a death slide with nowhere to hold on to as you tried to make your way down steep single track sections of the race course. Everyone had to slow down and again, my Altra Olympus were definitely the wrong choice for this type of terrain surface. I love 'em for their wide toebox (goodbye Morton's Neuroma), but please, fix that tread!

Part of the race course straddled the border between Poland and Slovakia, kinda cool.
The final 12 kilometers of the course were definitely the hardest, both because of their terrain and because of it being the last part of a mountainous 100K. But I started to perk up just a little as I started the final descent...until I came upon a half mile section that had one massive blown down tree after another, straight across the trail, at least 30 of them. I don't know about you, but lifting your legs and climbing across massive trees after you've been running for 14 hours straight, shredding your quads and calves to pieces isn't something that comes easy to me. But I continued. I caught up to another runner and while we didn't speak each other's language, we just nodded to each other and continued the last 2 miles together, smiling from ear to ear as we entered the town with spectators lining the streets for the final 1.5 miles of the race. After I passed under a long row of banners and flags, I crossed the finish line in just over 15 hours and within my goal pace, elated to still be able to walk.
One happy finisher.
Once the race director announced my finish and realized that I wasn't local, he quickly came over with a microphone to ask a few questions. Again, language was a barrier, but another runner gladly interpreted for us. I'm not sure about you, but a congratulatory handshake from the race director after you finish an ultra means a lot to me, always will and always has, and to have that happen at a big event like this just makes it even more special:-)

The "course".
This race course is nothing to take lightly. It rightfully deserves it's designation as a UTMB qualifier giving racers three qualifying points for finishing. This year, this race also served as the Polish National 100K Ultra Trail Championship. For the first time ever, Poland held a 100K mountain race championship. As a result, twice as many runners registered this year compared to last year, but only slightly more actually toed the starting line. It looks like there were just over 500 finishers with over 300 DNFs, mostly due to the checkpoint cutoffs. Thankfully, I was nowhere near the cutoff at any point during the race, even though i ran fairly conservatively:-) Considering this elevation profile, I am glad I survived.

The "ridiculous" elevation profile.

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