Saturday 24 October 2015

Gelita Heidelberg Trail Marathon, Germany

I'd been looking for a hilly marathon to run a couple of weeks before the Rodopi 100 mile in Greece and was recommended to this race by some German friends. Before entering the race I'd never been to Germany and after having a look at the website, concluded that this was actually a fairly tough marathon. Over 1500m of ascent (1800m on Strava) puts it somewhere similar in terms of ascent to that of the Excalibur trail marathon and just a little less than Scafell Pike trail marathon. I think on the entry form I put that I expected 3.30 to 3.40 for a finish  time.

I was able to get out a few days earlier and explore some of the route in 2 chunks. It was useful as it gave me an idea of the terrain and the gradients although the course on the day was to be fully marked with sawdust and tape.

The route starts up in the castle overlooking Heidelberg, there is a quick descent on the cobbles through the altstadt (old town) and over the river Neckar before a climb up around 6km to 400m. From the start I'd been on the front line... Two guys in matching racing kit bolted and led closely followed by a couple of others and myself. I did the first mile in about 6 minutes and there was already a gap between me and those leading. We began to climb up towards Thingstatte which is like an amphitheater type structure, with plenty of steps... The route then weaves through the forest and descends on some slippery single track down into the first checkpoint.

I picked off a runner here and then followed the undulating trail over the next few kms as we climbed back up to about 560m I was passed by two runners and soon after arrived at the second cp just over 10 miles in a wee bit over 90 mins. I guessed I was somewhere in the top 10 maybe 8th... but not sure and just stuck with my pace. There were heaps of runners cheering at each cp so far it was really lively.

Next after running on the top in the forest for a couple of km it is essentially downhill from 20 to 30km where you cross back over the river. There were a few undulations but I knocked the 10k section out in 40 mins and was now had 12km to go and 2hr 20 on the clock... only one more thing.... There is a rather meaty climb still to go including the 'Stairway to Heaven'. So over the next 6km I climbed and climbed to reach the Konigstuhl around 550m again in 3 hour 3 min... I had passed 2 runners at the bottom of the climb one was in the marathon but the other I realised was in a relay team!! I had completely forgotten about the relay runners. I wasn't sure but thought I must be somewhere in the top 10 still.

As I ascended the stairs a relay guy passed me too so it was a bit confusing position wise I just set to descending strong to the castle and the finish. It's pretty rocky and the slippery paths full of roots but I had used the same descent in one of my recce runs and was comfortable to let the legs go. I had held back a little during the earlier stages of the race knowing the last climb was pretty big although it passed much quicker than I expected. It wasn't long before I could hear the spectators cheering and the loudspeaker with the commentator and I was entering the castle grounds. I picked the pace up and ran into the finish to find out I came 3rd. Within 1 minute of the 2nd place who unfortunately was being promptly strapped onto a stretcher when I finished.

I'd finished in 3 hr 25 mins which was a bit quicker than I'd expected but had felt like a good run. The castle was the venue for the post race meal and presentation and I was up on stage to take a nice wooden trophy and complete a few interviews with the German press.

The town itself is really nice and has enough to keep you occupied if you wanted to make a long weekend out of the race! One I'd definitely recommend! I managed a trip around the castle too whilst I was there. Interesting stuff!

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Rodopi 100 mile, Greece. 1st + CR

100 well marked miles of remote Greek forest trails, 
8000m of ascent from 'gradual and runnable' to zig zagging hands on thighs stuff, 
6 checkpoints with some incredible volunteers, food and drink,
20 additional timing points, 
160 eager runners on the start line,
5th edition of the race
and ????s of ravines and streams to cross.

I like to aim at a longer race around Autumn time, capitalise on an increased fitness from the Summer's races. I'd spotted the race a couple of years ago but last year went to Italy and Spain for 100 milers in October, I didn't think 3 in 3 weeks would have been a great idea....So, I was keen to enter and take the trip to Greece this year.

*****logistical details for those interested***** feel free to skip

In terms of logistics it was relatively straight forwards despite the remote starting location up at 1300m altitude in the North East just below the boarder with Bulgaria (you'll never see a bus up there I don't think, or a shop!) 
Ideally fly to Thessaloniki and for ease I just hired a car, straight forwards to drive, once you're out of the city roads are very, very quiet. I stayed at Kyeti hotel from there it's a 30 min drive up to registration, start/ finish etc. You can camp up at the start. A good meal the night before and a breakfast pack included at registration made things easier still.


The website stresses the need for experience and self sufficiency and the organisers have aimed to keep a sense of adventure and remoteness combined with the endurance challenge. I liked the sound of it, at times it felt like I could be the only person on earth! Aside from the race crew and supporters I saw literally 1 person who was rounding up his horses... More on him later! 

In terms of race plan, I've done over a dozen similar hundred milers or longer so can usually get a reasonable idea of a range of finish times. I spoke to the previous course record holder who had run lakeland 100 and a few other runners with previous finishes. I learned that the long downhill looking section was going to be the most uphill running of the race (Yeah I was confused too) and that there were lots of ravines (If you have ever done the High Peak 40 mile..... throw some more water in the bottom and a few bonus rocks) bearing all this in mind I thought I would likely pass the 100mile point in 24 hours something. At 168km it's about 4 miles longer which could be an hour on a tough ascent!

We gathered out at the start ready for 6am so we had 90 mins before sunrise. I set out behind a group of about 5 or 6 for a couple of minutes whilst I took my jacket off and got a feel for the course markings then moved ahead by myself within a mile or two. It's a fairly fast start descending on a wide, moderately rocky track before the single track through the forest. In the dark the markings reflected really well off the torch light, there were also arrows pointing the correct way at any junctions and a cross marking any turn offs that you shouldn't take.

It wasn't long before the group and myself hit the first cp about 27km in 2 hours 40. I topped up my water and put my torch and stuff in my bag and left in 5th or 6th. We had a net downhill so far so the pace was fairly comfortable especially so early in the race. I rarely saw people ahead until I was right on their backs as there were so many twists and turns and ups and downs. It seemed like hardly any time at all until the 41km point just before we did the big loop (the route is essentially a lollypop shape with the first and last 41km the same and a big loop between) I'd passed a few runners although hadn't really paid much attention to how many. I grabbed a quick drink and set off out the cp. There were loads of people cheering and helping, I don't know how they got there it's incredibly remote! I was first to leave although I didn't know at the time I noticed over the next few miles of single track I was running through spider webs. It had warmed up a fair bit and I felt the heat in the open sections out of the shade of the trees. I splashed about in some of the streams and filled my bottles a few times from them.

As I continued to climb up towards the high point around 1600m about half way I backed the pace off a little bit as the quads were doing that funny pulsing thing they do before a cramp sets in, it only lasted a couple of hours. I stepped over the boarder once I reached the top so technically I've been to Bulgaria too. Looking back I was checking the distance quite a lot as I climbed but didn't notice at the time. So now for the downhill that would feel like the most up hill part of the course...

I had reached 50 miles in 10.33 knowing that the second half would have a little more up hill and that there was 54 miles left. I reckoned that a sub 24 would be quite likely and was aware the course record was just over 23.30. I was looking forwards to the temperature dropping a bit and made my way steady downhill. There were a fair amount of uphill parts and some tricky sections. I slowed a little to get around some cows and 2nd place popped up behind me. He moved ahead slightly although I came up behind him a few km later at a junction where a marking had been moved. We scratched our heads a moment before looking around and finding the next marking. We stuck together for the next few miles, my quads gave the odd little tingle like they wanted to cramp so I just kept a steady pace and all was good. We passed a junction which the markings weren't so obvious , the trail looked like a river bed I stopped and said I was going back and taking the turning I was certain it wasn't up the track we were on. Sure enough there was a marker just around behind a fallen tree and we were good as gold. Soon enough the next cp, I decided to get some soup and had a piece of potato along with a bit of coke, I don't usually stop at cps but we left together probably within 3 or 4 mins. I swapped the glasses for my head torch and put my batteries in as dusk was an hour away.

Pretty soon we were drifting apart and darkness fell. I passed some horses on a good wide track and not long after heard a vehicle chugging along, it was like something out of one of those movies where a bunch of students go into the woods to stay in a log cabin, break down and get rescued by an old 4x4 that happens to be some sort of cannibal/ axe murderer etc.... I passed a hut .... I kept on running and the truck drove past with a pip of the horn... all good! That would have been some story hey? I could smell smoke and saw a flicker of a torch infront... A welcome sign that there was some sort of life ahead and indeed there was in the form of a timing point (essentially a few enthusiastic folk with a walkie talkie and a clip board radioing back to HQ who were updating the website) those guys were awesome, some must literally have been camping out there all weekend waiting for us in the middle of nowhere! 

I was feeling really good over the next few hours though time seemed to be going slowly, I was actually moving well through the next few cps. I was about 30 miles from the end and I was sure that I saw the flash of a torch behind me as I weaved around another ravine. I carried on and didn't really change anything I was enjoying the trail and the legs had been behaving just fine. Not long before I was expecting to hit the 5th cp about a marathon from the end, I heard the cow bells ringing and saw lights ahead. It was just one of the timing points so I still had a few miles to the cp. As I was definitely approaching the cp a little later I was sure once again I saw a torch behind as I turned. I didn't really need anything from the cp so just grabbed a bit of water and a handful of crisps and carried on just over 16 hours elapsed.. No sign of the torch behind me.

The last 45km involves going up and over 1 mountain then beginning the climb up to the finish. I'm guessing but probably 2000m ascent. I thought realistically it could take 8 hours though I was feeling good and felt confident I could go quicker than that. The next climb up the zig zags was tough going. I stopped near the top and turned out my torch... It was totally dark and silent. It was stunning how peaceful and still it was. I carried on and hit the timing point feeling good, by now the energy from the volunteers was awesome. They were more excited than me by the thought of the new course record! I wanted to hit the next cp  before looking at the time again and it came by quite quickly. Everyone was trying to give me food but I didn't need any and just took a bit of water. Ready for the last 26km ish. I didn't really  remember that much about the next section but moved well through a couple more ascents and a few timing points. I looked at the clock and knew I would be under the course record but wasn't sure what would be happening behind me so carried on as I was. I'd decided now that I wasn't going to finish anything other than 1st and that anyone challenging from behind would have to be smashing it... Then I hit the zig zags up through the forest...

Effectively the last climb is like going up Snowdon could be runnable by itself... Not so much after 90 odd miles, though I did manage the majority. I hit the last timing point and then it was 7km to the finish. I was just over 22 hours so I did push for the slightly unlikely looking sub 23. I startled some horses near the top and remembered from the start they were only a couple of kms from the line. A few minutes later I saw a torch and the welcoming voice of Christos one of the organisors 500m to go he said.... I ran hard into the finish, having not looked at the time I ran it in to the sound of the cow bells and flashes of cameras... 23 hours 5 mins and a new course record by 30 mins. I was just over 20 mins ahead of 2nd after all those miles. To be honest I would have been happy in any position with the time I ran.

I was well looked after at the finish, a quick interview and some food and drink before a shower and a massage. I actually dozed off on the massage table before chilling out for a few hours and then driving out to my hotel, where funnily enough, I would meet someone from Bolton not far from where I live.

In terms of how the race went I ran well and responded well to the course. I didn't have any really low moments during the race just a couple of hours in the middle where I backed off and focused on getting on top of my energy levels ready for the final quarter. The race was pretty tough overall, with the terrain I tore through some nearly new Mizuno trail shoes and wore out some also quite new Injini socks with multiple holes in each.  

Doing the race again I would probably try to increase calories intake overall and I would have carried less stuff. I had all kinds of extra layers, had it snowed I would have been ok. I had a Berghaus vapour light windproof on for the first mile and then a vest for the rest of the race although we had pretty ideal weather conditions it could get a bit wild out there! You could make use of drop bags and doing it again I would have taken a small waist pack and stashed layers in drop bags just in case. You could carry less water than I did (2 x 500ml) bottles and just fill up a single bottle from streams. One stream was a little murky but I didn't feel ill from it.

If you're after a challenging 100 miler with a fantastic amount of support and energy, well organised and well marked and minimal road (I reckon less than 2 miles on tarmac!) you can't go far wrong with this one! Be warned it is remote, you'll not see much in the way of civilisation all the way around... I liked that! A huge thank you to all involved with the organising and support, obviously a big well done to all the runners that got to the end! If you fancy a go at your own ultra in the future I'll be taking applications for my coaching holidays for 2016 in the coming weeks! Jump on my coaching website for more info there!