“Bugger! Again?!” It dawns on me that this time the mistake might be costlier than the first. Having worked hard to regain the race lead after getting lost coming out of Spindleruv Mlyn 5 miles or so ago, I now find myself near the top of a mountain in Poland. The wrong mountain. Having motored on after taking the lead again, I had got into a nice rhythm ascending and must have completely overlooked the junction, where the green path forked away. I now found myself in no-mans land on the red trail and had to stop 3 separate groups of people to work out where I went wrong. My Czech is rubbish, but my Polish even worse so, from what I can make out, I had overshot the turn by about a kilometre. This wouldn’t have been awful if it hadn’t have been 1km of uphill on rocky terrain.
Rewind a couple of hours and all was so calm and relaxed. 200 or so runners had turned up in the small town of Vrchlabi in Krkonose National Park, Czech Republic to take part in an event that was supposed to be 55k long with just over 2km of vertical ascent, taking in CZ’s highest mountain in the process.
“I’m going to try and stay in second or third place so I make sure I don’t get lost.” Those were my famous last words to my student and friend, Ludek, before the race. Approaching the summit of the first 6km climb, however, I couldn’t resist the temptation to shoot off any longer. I had opened up a nice lead of 2 and a half minutes by the next checkpoint and was really enjoying the race, but from there on in it was a combination of running like a madman to regain the lead, running scared from those behind me and running on empty due to the near debilitating lack of food.
Staying in the lead for most of the race would be boring, right? Well, I definitely made sure that cruising home to victory was not going to happen as simply as that. And in a way I am glad.
Getting lost keeps it interesting
The process of having to re-gain the lead and overtake 10 people on two occasions sure kept the mind occupied, obsessed even, with the job in hand. It also meant I could exchange a few words with the other runners as I passed, breaking the solitude nicely. In an ultra, it’s amazing how comforting it can be to have a quick chat with someone after a few hours of running. Such simple pleasures are not afforded in shorter races.
With my mind busy and legs working overtime to overtake and re-take the lead, it was easy to miss the breathtaking scenery around us. When the path flattened and I was sure I was on the right track, however, I allowed some nice long stares into the wooded horizon. CZ does forests well and here they were at their finest.
Before long we find ourselves at the foot of Snezka, CZ’s highest mountain. By this point I find myself running with a chap named Lukas, who had not started out very fast but was now seemingly in his element, moving quickly up this beast of a climb. The tourists are out in their droves today and this provides a nice game of seeing how many we can overtake on the way up. “Pardon! Pardon!” I yell as I work my way up the narrowing path. It is also at this stage that I note we are not the only ones participating in a race today. Passing a lad with a colossal rucksack that looks like it’s been filled with bricks, I check his race number and see that he’s in a ‘Sherpa race’ to the summit. My self-pity for having to climb up this giant of a mountain fades away in an instant.
Coffee and a banana breakfast
The glory of reaching the summit fades quickly upon realising that there is no aid station at the top, just a stamp to check your race card with as proof you got to the summit. Lukas and I stamp each other’s cards and it’s back down where we just came up. It’s tricky passing through the crowds now as we are moving quickly, but my mind can only think about one thing: “I am so hungry.” Thirsty too, in fact. Rewind to last night and the pre-race carbo loading consisted of a modestly portioned gnocchi dish out and a couple of beers (I wouldn’t normally drink before such a race but I was with my student and he did the ordering!). Due to the 7am race start our hotel couldn’t serve us breakfast before the race either. So, a coffee and banana breakfast it was. That might have sufficed if I had taken a race pack full of bars and other fodder with me. I did not, though. Two gels and two S!caps was my feeling strategy as I planned on the aid stations being stocked. They were not. It was actually difficult to get water at some of them too. At the top of Snezka, I am told, “You can buy water from the shop.” when I ask. “With what money?!”
On completing the steep descent we are treated to a thoroughly enjoyable stretch along flat meadows. It is at this stage that I have a good chat with Lukas. To reiterate, one cannot underestimate the morale and energy boost it gives having someone to run with and talk to on a long-distance race. What is more, Lukas is incredibly kind and gives me half a flapjack and a swig of his water. It is just what I need, as my stomach is beginning to cramp up.
Unfortunately for Lukas, the nugget of energy and dose of hydration gives me a much-needed boost and I bid my farewell to him on the next downhill. From here on in, the race profile is kind: it is all downhill to the finish! So, the game becomes not getting lost and holding on for the win. “Don’t get lost. DON’T GET LOST.”
This is easier said than done. Just 2km from the finish and I find myself being shouted at a by a resident, “Je spatny” .. “It’s wrong”. I backtrack and go the other way. “JE SPATNY!” she hollers again, this time pointing in the direction I need to go. Finally I manage to find the correct route and it’s freewheeling down to the finish, feverishly checking over my shoulder every minute or so to check. The finish line can’t come soon enough and when I see the town ahead I breathe a deep sigh of relief. Rounding the final corner to the finish line, I fail to raise my feet high enough to clear the kerb and stumble 10m from the finish. I was knackered! After 6 hours, 9 minutes and 45 seconds on my feet, I needed some fuel, fast.
I neck a good few cups of water and iso back whilst simultaneously wolfing down the delightfully simple buttered bread the race organisers have laid on. 5 minutes later Lukas comes in. Another 10 minutes or so later the next runner crosses the line. We share good chat and stories as is always the way at ultra races. That is what I love about such races: the community spirit, the friendship and the good-hearted competition.
Reflecting on the experience, I only have positive things to talk about. Running in the mountains will always be delightful. This race was in the most beautiful national park in CZ and summited the highest mountain… win win. It was also a small, low-key event and I believe this helped give it a character some larger races fail to attain. I am also happy I got lost; after all, had it not been for going the wrong way, I would have had a lonely race out front by myself and not had the chance to talk to fellow runners such as Lukas. So what if I could have shaved half an hour off my race time? Sure, the course record would have been nice, but I’ll take the company and chat any race.