Spoiler Alert: After 42k It Gets Tough
For my first major goal of 2017 I’ve chosen to do an ultramarathon for the first time. Because what could possibly go wrong?!
It started back in May of last year, right after I finished the beautiful Prague marathon while being sick. It really was a fight to reach the finish line. But after that experience I felt so strong that I thought to myself: “If I can do this, I might be ready to do an ultra as well!”
So I was on the look-out for a suitable race. One day, in October of 2016, I somehow came across the Elbe-Lübeck-Kanal Ultramarathon, I don’t remember how exactly. But it all seemed perfect:
- At 61 kilometers it’s not too far above the 42.2 of a standard marathon
- It’s located just an hour away from Hamburg
- The course is completely flat
- It’s a turn-around course, which means it’s easier psychologically, because on the harder second half you’re “running home”
- It’s not a huge event, but organized very carefully and with lots of passion by very friendly Tobias Riedel
It was sold out. But if I would be one to easily give up, I wouldn’t be doing marathons. So I emailed Tobias out of the blue and nicely asked for a spot. He put me on the waiting list. Just a few days later, I got the news. Someone had dropped out and I was officially in! Thereby, it was settled.
My First Ever Ultramarathon Would Take Place on 26th of March, 2017 at Elbe-Lübeck-Kanal
But before that can happen, some kind of training plan needs to be established. But has it, though? With 8 marathons last year and continuous running through winter 2016/2017 I felt I was in shape to take on the challenge. But a little extra won’t hurt, so I signed up for two winter racing series, Bramfelder Winterlaufserie and Wilhelmsburger Winterlaufserie, where I always ran the most possible amount of laps. One 7-Minute-Workout per day rounded off the core strength development, and then I tried a training marathon. Turns out, it’s fine.
Off We Go!
I took Sophie and our three little daughters and we went to Lübeck the day before the race. Right to the Holstentor, probably the most known building in this beautiful northern German city.
Tobias had organized a little “Sightseeing Run” for everyone not familiar with the old town. Like me.
Right before that I was interviewed for a documentary about the race, and then we went off on a slow 6.1k round around the inner city. Beautiful place, really.
I got to know a few of tomorrow’s participants, which was nice. I felt like I was the only ultra rookie, but then someone raised my hopes of not being alone. He said:
“No, I haven’t really run an ultra before, too! Well, except for this cancer fundraising event, where I did 15 hours on a 400 meter lap and reached 120 kilometers total. But other than that, no experience at all!“
Later I found out I was one of just 3 real rookies. But it’s not important. Everyone has to conquer the distance on their own, in the end, anyways.
After the round around Lübeck was over, Tobias handed out medals to everyone. He had them made especially for this short Sightseeing Run – so nice! A gesture like that makes you feel you’ve come to the right place.
Afterwards I met my girls again. They were strolling around the city and had some ice-cream. It’s starting to get warmer now in late March, so ice-cream is a must. We packed our things and drove over to the town of Timmendorfer Strand, the place where my father lives. Perfect location for tomorrow’s race. The kids love him and his Birgit, so we had a lovely evening. Lots of pasta for me, as I usually do, and then off to an early night’s sleep.
Somewhat traditionally, I’m racing the day after the move to Daylight Saving Time, which means one hour less sleep for everyone. It’s time to get rid of this unproductive relict of the past. At 7 AM (6, actually), the alarm goes off, and I prepare the way I tested: A bowl of hot oatmeal with honey, and a whole liter of green smoothie I freshly prepared right then.
The kids woke up, too, and pushed me into the elevator to get to the race. My father was kind enough to drive me over to Lübeck. He took his e-bike mounted on his car to have a little outdoor activity of his own.
In Lübeck, the weather was around 5 degrees and grey. But not wet. Quite alright. At the fitness center that Tobias had prepared as a racing center, most runners had already arrived. I collected my starting number and met my friend Holger. Very cool, he was wearing the HoneyPower shirt I gave him! We laughed about each others insanity of appearing here at this event today.
Meeting a Former Boss at a Recreational Activity
Holger used to be the boss at my ever first job from many years ago. After I left the company to start my own, we lost sight of each other. But a few years back he started running like me, and shot me a message after a Hamburg marathon which he completed in an amazing 3:23 hours, after 20 years of no sports and heavy smoking. A born runner, if you ask me! So we got in contact over the sport, but also formed a new friendship. He advises me with my businesses, I tell him about my experiments, and we occasionally run together. This was our first race together though, and I was looking forward to how it would go. I thought, a Top 10 finish should be possible for him in this crowd of 62 starters, as I know what kinds of feats he has accomplished before.
Then it Gets Official
Tobias gathered everyone around and said a few important things about the race procedure and mentioned all the nice helpers who made this event happen.
The course usually runs right along the Elbe-Lübeck-Kanal, a canal connecting the river Elbe with the city of Lübeck at the Baltic sea. It’s not a huge canal, and seems not to be used that much these days. 30 kilometers down south to the city of Mölln, turn around, and 30 back to Lübeck. That’s the plan. But Tobi had to change it a bit due to a construction site at the canal, so the first few kilometers had to be run through the city and along a federal road.
Also, everyone was required to stop their own time.
The beauty of a small event. 62 people hit their watch buttons at 9:30 AM sharp as the race goes off!
Holger and I stayed together and talked for a while. We noticed a few curious participants, for example one guy wearing some sort of sandals. And another one had his strong dog, strapped with a leash around the runner’s waist, pulling him excitedly.
For the first two or three kilometers, everyone stayed together, so Tobi could make sure we were all on the right track and didn’t get hit by the cars. When we reached the federal road, the race began. It’s hard to notice, though, because an ultramarathon apparently isn’t really a race. Not for most, anyways. It’s about following instincts, conquering your own reluctance, celebrating will-power, and also just enjoying nature.
I’m here as a tourist, as I often am at races. For the experience, not for the achievement in particular.
Right now, it has the vibe of a fun and slow training run. I like that. Not too much effort, just going as fast as feels good. Holger and I catch up on each other’s lives in the past few weeks. But after maybe three kilometers he wants to do his own tempo and runs towards the front. I’m curious what he will be able to do today and wish him well, as I keep my steady 5:30 min/km pace.
The field of 62 runners takes a much longer time to stretch out as I expected. Everyone is keeping a slow pace like me. That’s the key to ultramarathons, I guess. Keeping it even a bit slower than you think you could.
Not the Easiest Task
I really notice I’m one of the very few rookies today. Almost everyone seems to be fully equipped for a whole Alp crossing. Water backpack, compression socks, belts full of energy bars on about 95% of the people, it seemed.
Have I forgotten something? I hope not! I packed three HoneyPowers in my pockets. That’s it. Will it be enough?
Tobi had made sure there were three feeding stations, which means food and drink after every 10 kilometers. That’s enough, I thought.
What Could Go Wrong?
I would have to find out. But that’s the beauty of it. Venturing into unknown territory and learning from mistakes. I’m keen to find out.
As always at longer races, the first kilometers are barely noticeable and I’m somehow sleep-running and warming up, still. It feels good. Weather is alright, a little foggy, damp, and cool, but not too bad.
After maybe 8 kilometers along the road I remember:
Weren’t we supposed to run along the canal?
How long is this construction site, of which I can see absolutely no signs of its existence at all, going to be?
But then, right after 10 kilometers, there is a turn. A right turn. A short downhill section and a bridge followed. This bridge led across – you guessed it – the canal! Finally.
Right there, the first aid station was situated. I feel like a second breakfast. They have everything: cereal bars, gummy bears, water, coke, tea, salty pastry, cake. I opt for a chocolate cereal bar and some water in addition to some coke. Nice!
Off I go, I think. There’s a photographer catching me in the act of half-eating, half-running. Close one!
The day seems to wake up, too, as the weather turns it into a much more beautiful one. The grey sky slowly clears up and makes room for a bright blue one, and also our best friend, the sun. 10 degrees out here right now, great!
After 17 kilometers I feel like HoneyPower. I don’t think I need it this early, but why not! But will I then have enough left for the later kilometers?
Tobias and I talked a bit before the race. I told him about HoneyPower and he was open to let me sponsor the event by putting HoneyPower on all the aid stations. Very cool! That solves multiple challenges: more advertising for my favorite energy gel, a new great thing to try for a lot of experienced runners, and last not least: I don’t have to carry as many of them myself during the race!
“61k isn’t really in the ultramarathon territory”
When I talked about the deal with Tobias up front, he was a bit skeptical at first, because, as he said, “ultrarunners don’t eat as much powergel, they really eat”. His own running background is in 24 hour races.
Imagine Running for 24 Hours Straight Without Sleep
You don’t get far by just consuming gels during 24 hours of straight up running. You have to stop and eat for real. But, as a “61k isn’t really in the ultra territory”, we should go for it, he said. Ha! I understand his point very well and changed my plan a bit, accordingly. That is: more real food at the aid stations, in addition to some delicious HoneyPower, of course. After all, it’s just barely an ultramarathon.
The Support Crew
At 18, I get a visitor! My dad appears on the horizon, on his e-bike, coming towards me.
He has himself a relaxed Sunday morning ride and uses the chance to show some support. What a nice gesture! Also, quite practical, because I can get rid of my warm jacket and neck warmer now, thanks to him. Also, I feel like a pro being paced. At many running events or the running parts of triathlons, bikes will accompany the front runners with a sign “FIRST MALE”, for example. So I’ve got my own pacer with me, now. Cool. We talk as the kilometers disappear.
My father explains he saw the front runners, who are a bearded fast guy and my friend Holger! Amazing, he is holding on to the lead.
I’m approaching the next aid station after 20k, where I have a little chat with Tobi’s wife who runs this station at the moment, as well as a huge part of the whole race, to be honest. Everything is so nice here! I have some water and Coke as I mentally get ready for the next 10k. Because that’s how I’ve divided the race in my mind.
6 Bits of 10k Each
After 23k’s, there’s another surprise: someone is actively watching the race, like a spectator! No one so far had the idea to do so, and in general, there haven’t been many people out here at all. But this guy isn’t just anyone. It’s Christian from Hamburg, another Strava runner and friend of both Holger and me. What a nice thing to do! He didn’t say a word before but instead appears out of the blue. He runs next to me for about 1k while we’re talking.
And he confirms that Holger and “the bearded guy from the Laufwerk store” are still up front at a 4:30 min/km pace. Insane!
A little later my father is leaving to be at the turning point in Mölln with my family and help prepare them for shouting at me in a motivational way. I have just a few kilometers left until the race is half-way done, which is a remarkable point in any race.
And then, the front runner come towards me. It’s the bearded guy from Laufwerk! I cheer him on, of course. And a couple hundred meters behind him, Holger. Ah, he lost some speed. But still being in second place after about 33 kilometers is very impressive. We happily aim for a fast fist bump while running but fail miserably at the attempt. The running is working better.
Every couple hundred meters, another runner is greeting me as we pass each other. Those are quite fast. But the more there are coming towards me, the slower they are, naturally.
The canal now widens a bit as we enter the territory of the historical city of Mölln. It was founded by some knight in between 1165 and 1180 BCE. I haven’t really seen the city and had hoped for a quick glance, but the canal leads around it so there is nothing of real Mölln to be seen. An adventure for another time.
And then, at the horizon, I see a few people I can recognize even if they are hundreds of meters away. Squeaky voices, running towards me. These kids!
I stop for many hugs and kisses as well as a little chat with the grown-ups, and am really happy that I will see them for a second time, soon after I’ll have reached the turning point.
Two other runners pass me by here. They admit I have a strong fan base. That’s right!
Then, it’s a 180 degree turn and up a small hill to the third aid station and turning point. Half-way done!
From Now on It’s Back Home
I remember I should eat something, so I have a bit of salty pastry and my second HoneyPower. Can’t go wrong there.
My time so far is just about perfect: 2:45 hours for these first 30 kilometers. Maybe a bit too fast even. But I feel good and fit to run the next half.
Running home is a funny thing. It always works better for me and I get faster without really aiming for it. Same thing for horses apparently, as I’ve experienced on my first ever horse-ride. The animal underneath me just couldn’t possibly go any faster when we were turning around to go back to its home right in the middle of the Karoo desert in South Africa. I wasn’t the best rider, for sure, but this horse just wanted to end this trip so badly, it went straight into racing mode. I had trouble holding on, and scratched my inner thighs bloody on the saddle fittings while trying not to fly into the rocky sand beneath. What an experience!
Horses are keen on coming home, as are humans, I suppose. But in this case, it’s another 30k run before I can say “I’m home”.
Already a kilometer later I feel like home already, because the ladies are there again. Another little chat and cuddle, and they wish me well for the upcoming hard kilometers. Now I’m on my own.
My body is doing fine so far. I’m not in unknown territory after having had the experience of about 30 full marathon races so far. I feel a slight stomach ache, though, and wonder how that came into existence. I suspect it’s the masses of creamy sauce I’ve had along with the mountain of pasta yesterday evening. Too much animal fat, hard to digest. Another signal to try this vegan thing soon. But I can fight through the pain for now, of course.
It’s nice to meet all the other runners now. Everyone’s cheering as we meet, there are high-fives and claps and thumbs up’s being exchanged. Lovely people, these ultrarunners.
Seeing all the runners coming towards me is a huge motivation in itself, because it means I’m faster than all of them. Ha! In general, it’s fairly easy for me to stay motivated while running. I really look forward to the Achievement Unlocked moment at the finish line. I have the family with me who are supporting me in this lovely way. The weather is perfect, all the conditions couldn’t be better. I’m fit and have trained well, so there really is no reason to lose hope now. Lucky.
One of the runners I meet shouts: “You’re number 27!” – not too bad, I’m in the first half of the 62. Maybe I can stay there.
At 40, there’s the next aid station. A station I’ve already been at. Now really is the right time to enjoy this. I feel I need the supplies. Water, Coke, salty pastry, iso drink, HoneyPower. Delicious!
I overtake a few runners from time to time. Between 3 and 5, I think. It’s difficult to remember these kind of details, when you’re alone with your wandering thoughts, running for hours and hours.
Then, There’s the Magical Barrier
42.2 kilometers. A full marathon. Never have I ever run a longer distance than this. What will it be like on the other side? I guess I could even claim the title of an ultramarathon runner right after these 42.2, but then again, it has to be finished properly in my opinion.
Right at this moment I overtake two runners and excitedly tell them that we’re at the marathon mark right now. Completely unimpressed they ask for the time: almost exactly 4 hours. “Okay” is all I get. I guess I’m the only ultra rookie of us here.
Into the unknown. It’s difficult to believe my watch as I make progress. Have I really been running for 45 kilometer already? What a weird number. 45 kilometers of running. Can’t grasp it.
47, 48. What are those numbers. The legs get heavier. But it’s not far now, I tell myself, as I keep up the pace. I am longing for the next aid station. More and more. Come on, it must be visible after this next slight turn! No. Crap.
But of course, it eventually appears on the horizon. The station right at the bridge from this morning. Wow, some time has passed since then. The sky was grey and foggy, and now it looks completely different around here. I stop at the aid station and enjoy just about everything they have to offer. Get in those calories! Hydration, power, salt, whatever might be helpful now. Standing there, chatting for a bit, but really happy to have a break.
As I feel I’m done here, I try to run. It’s incredibly hard suddenly, so I walk. After 10 meters, there’s a bench. Perfect! Who cares about a few lost minutes in the end, I think, as I sit down.
“Mook mal’n lüttje Paus”
As it says, engraved onto this bench. “Have a little break”. Yes sure, why not! I even lie down for a bit on it. Aah, that’s better. For maybe 2 minutes I relax. 50 kilometers down so far, I feel like I’ve earned it. A few runners pass me by, around 5 I think. I must be right in the middle of the Gaussian curve of runners, because 5 runners out of 62 within just 2 minutes is a lot, statistically spread over around 6 hours of running. I’m average. At an ultramarathon event. I certainly would’ve thought that was crazy, a few years back, and now I’m here. To finish this. 10k left. Come on, up!
Unfortunately this starts with the one and only uphill section of the whole race. The bridge crossing the canal, and afterwards the little street leading up to the federal road. This is tough right now! I power-hike up there. Reaching the street, I feel the need to run again. So I do. That requires quite some will-power. It’s weird to me that this moment came after almost exactly 50 kilometers. I feel like my body is done. But it’s not! So on we go. Mind and body, together.
Every few kilometers, I need to take a little walking break. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. 200 to 300 meters of walking really relax me and give strength back. 55 kilometers of running. I still can’t grasp it.
And There’s a Street Sign: Lübeck!
I’m almost back! The city is the correct one, at least. That’s motivating a lot. I can do this!
58/59, right into the city again. It looks different from this morning. The whole world does, for that matter.
Cars, traffic lights, noise, cyclists, it’s a change of pace from the quiet and calm canal I’ve been at for the last ~6 hours.
Now, I need to cross the street. A volunteer is showing me where to go. And just a few hundred meters later, the girls are there, waiting for me! Julie takes my hand and wants to run the last kilometer to the finish line with me. Sure thing!
I feel like she’s now pulling me! She really is a bit too fast for me. What an unusual situation. Another volunteer, another turn, and there it is, the parking lot at which we started! Awesome.
People are clapping, having a beer, chatting, lying on the floor, hanging out. There’s even a car with a number display mounted on top, just like at the big events! I finished slightly above my goal of 6 hours, at 6:04:02. Not a problem for me, right now.
I’ve Done It!
Holger is greeting me, getting a big hug. He came in 7th, what a performance! And I can finally sit down. The family is here and takes lovely care of me. Julie puts my head on her lap and Vera gets some water for me. It’s great having daughters!
And I’m really done, now. Ultrarunner. Exhausted. This felt really tough. I compare it to the other tough race I’ve done, which was IRONMAN Copenhagen 2015, but I feel like this race was tougher. The three different sports of a triathlon make it easier to do, even though it takes a lot more time. Running for more than a marathon requires more effort, I feel.
Holger and Marcel
As I regain my powers, Holger and the bearded Laufwerk guy, who has won the race after 4 hours and 43 minutes (insane), sit down with me as we chat about other races, plans for the upcoming season, and similar topics. He now has a name, Marcel. And I admire this physical and mental toughness of his.
Shower, kids, victory celebration! As all the others reach the finish line, the applause gets louder and louder. Tobi, who himself has run the whole race, finished, showered, and prepared some more things, is now holding the celebration ceremony. Every single runner is called up, clapped at, and receives a little glass sculpture to remember the day. This is very sweet and perfectly rounds up the day.
61 of the 62 finished, this is also a number speaking for itself. I’m 29th, and 25th out of the 50 men. Right in the middle.
Also, I now appear in the statistics of the Germany-wide association of ultrarunners, DUV, because of this event. That’s quite cool.
So That’s What Ultramarathons Are Like
I conclude: It’s doable, you have to dig deep into your mental reservoirs, but the feeling in the end is worth it. I will try to do more of these in the future. A 100k would be cool. Maybe the legendary one in Biel, Switzerland.
Thanks for reading and I hope I could inspire you to try something similar! It always seems daunting just until it’s done. If I can be of any help, just contact me!