The year 2018 didn’t start very well for me. An unlucky injury destroyed the first six weeks of training, which led to poor results at my first competitions, the Buller Gorge Marathon and the Challenge Wanaka Triathlon, both during a vacation in New Zealand.
But, I had a plan for 2018. It involved lots of marathons and two ultramarathons as well. How to go about that?
Just Keep Running!
It’ll all come back, right? Kind of. Finding time for training got more and more difficult for me in recent months, with the three kids at home and work being… work. My energy was just mostly gone after we put the little ones into bed at night, nothing left for a run. So I had to resort to the one thing that always works for me: signing up for races!
For March, I entered the Föhr Marathon on the little island in the North Sea, April had the obligatory Hamburg Marathon, and in May I joined my friend Mike at the Copenhagen Marathon.
While they all went alright, I certainly wasn’t blown away by my own athletic status. Four marathons so far in 2018, 4:12h in New Zealand six weeks after my accident, 3:52h in Föhr, 3:50h in Hamburg, and 4:08h in Copenhagen. Granted, that last one was during dire heat and more of a relaxed buddy run with Mike. Nowhere near my 3:26h form of 2017, though.
In the meantime, an annoying and painful disc prolapse in my neck vertebrae added insult to injury for some reason.
Oh, come on!
Still Going Ultra
In 2017 I did my first ever ultramarathon at Elbe Lübeck Kanal, which is 61 kilometers long. An ultra is any foot race that’s just longer than 42.195 kilometers, it doesn’t matter by how much. I enjoyed it and decided to do some more ultras, just to see how far I can get.
That’s why I signed up for the Biel 100 km race in Switzerland, which is a legend in the scene, and the MegaMarsch 100 km hike in Hamburg. Ill-fated, both of them. Biel didn’t work out because of a timing conflict, but fortunately my ticket could be moved to 2019. And the MegaMarsch… yes well, the MegaMarsch. I’m going to write a separate blog post about it, because I’ve experienced a lot trying this. Spoiler: so far I haven’t succeeded at it. When I will, I’ll write about it.
After Biel fell through, I decided I’d go for another big ultra this year, and Rennsteig popped up.
GutsMuths Rennsteiglauf Supermarathon
That’s the more precise title. It’s a legend in the scene, like Biel. They call it Europe’s biggest ultra trail race. After being part of it, I believe them. It was huge, especially taking into account it’s such a tiny niche sport. Here’s a short history passage about the race.
In 1973, four athletic friends decided to do a 100 kilometer run along the old and already very popular Rennsteig trail, without any competitive agenda behind it. They finished together after just 9:55 hours, and made it an event starting the year after that, but reducing the course length several times after that. Over the years, the run gained much popularity and several more race options joined, like a marathon, half marathon, junior run, hike, and more. Altogether, there are now over 15,000 runners and walkers who take part in it every year.
After the wall fell in 1989, reunifying Germany, the race course was changed to incorporate the Western German parts of the trail as well, crossing the former border several times, in an act of celebrating the country being united again. The Rennsteiglauf staff received the UNESCO sports prize in 1990 for it. Today, the course is located completely within the former Eastern German state of Thuringia again.
The title GutsMuths is in honor of a man from the 18th century, who went by the name of Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths. Very unusual last name, very unusual person. He is often credited with being the first to bring physical education into the classroom of public schools. Nearly 2,000 years ago, and probably way before that, humans already knew that mens sana in corpore sano, but GutsMuths had to remind everyone. Smart guy.
What makes the Rennsteiglauf special is
- the friendly atmosphere
- the beautiful and tough course through the Thuringian Forest hills
- the free specialty dumplings dinner the evening before
- and the unusual oatmeal soup at the aid stations
The runners love all that, and I wanted to experience this as well.
Also, I Needed a Win
As mentioned, the injury related slow beginning of the year and my failure at two attempts to do the MegaMarsch put me in a sorry state, mentally. Just regarding sports, thankfully. Still, I really wanted to try something difficult again and get it done. Rennsteiglauf seemed perfect.
Although training was sub-par still, my marathons helped a lot with getting me up to shape. The week before the race I felt powerful and fit, as we took a family vacation at my parents’ place at the Baltic Sea. There, my little Julie (6) and I decided to walk down the staircase of the 24th floor of a building, just for fun. Down, she was doing great, but my legs where shaking. What’s happening? The next days I observed severe cramps and what felt like torn muscle bits in one calf. When the pain stayed after three days and barely let me walk in a normal way, I was devastated and about to cancel the Rennsteig trip.
But I decided to wait and give it time. It eventually got better. During these situations I remember David Goggins’ words:
Is the pain manageable? Then stop complaining!
Also a helpful quote of his is this one:
When you think you’re done, you’re only at about 40 percent of your body’s capability.
He is a person who once ran a 100 mile race with a broken foot, just a few days after another 100 mile race in which he broke that foot. Also, he held the world record for most pull-ups in 24 hours once. 4,025 that is, in case you’re wondering. I can do 3. On a good day. Apart from that he is a Navy Seal and in the US Air Force, and once was a bodyguard for the Iraqi prime minister.
So yeah, I think that’s impressive, and thinking of it makes me want to shut up about the little problems and go out to do great stuff instead. I guess you could say, the mere existence of people like David Goggins is motivation for me.
After the family vacation was over, I got into the car again and drove south towards the Rennsteig. My four girls wouldn’t join me this time due to a rather spectator-unfriendly course and supposed lack of good family activities in the area. Right they were, it’s a hiking trail in the middle of nowhere after all.
I made it to the city of Eisenach in time, a historic one as well. Something to do with Martin Luther (not the King), who once was publicly unhappy with church and got thrown in jail for it.
The pretty city center already had a huge festival tent on its main square, serving as my dinner location. Those free dumplings with red cabbage were delicious and a welcome change from the usual pasta parties. The town was already full with yellow-shirt wearing volunteers who would play a big role. Collecting the bib number was hassle free and given with a smile.
73.9 Kilometers With 1,800 Meters of Elevation Gain, I Think I’m Ready
I had my mattress in the car again and spend a quiet and relaxing 6 hours on it until the alarm went off at 4 AM. The sun was just about to come out. A big green smoothie and three Clif bars are a good make-shift breakfast. Slight nervousness is beginning to appear. The longest distance with the most hills I have ever done in my life. How will it go? When will it be too much to take? No one knows.
The sky is light, a helicopter appears. Many selfies are taken. Then, the PA plays a song, which is apparently called the “Rennsteig-Lied”, sung by creepy kids’ voices. Ugh, not my thing. But people enjoyed it for its historic purpose and clapped along in 4/4, very German.
Everything Is Very German
The food, the pubs around the square, the people, the whole feel of it. Now I realize, this is almost like a German theme park.
The participants’ age is about that of a standard marathon, I’d say. Maybe a few years older, but not many. At 33, I am among the youngest, as always. It’s an old people’s hobby and I am okay with that.
6 AM sharp, it’s time to run! I really look forward to it. Everything feels so fresh and new. Can’t wait to see all the places I’ve read about before.
After the signal, the masses slowly begin to move away from the city center. Cobblestone streets for 500 meters, and up a hill it goes. And what a hill it is! No bullshit, this race. Everyone around me, including me, has to walk here. I knew it before and am very relaxed about having to walk. My main goal is to keep my pulse down while running as often as I can. That leads to me having to walk at all uphill sections that have a grade of maybe 8 to 10 percent or more.
They say, the first 25 kilometers are the toughest of this race, but no one ever wins the race on the first 25, of course. From 210 meters of elevation it goes up to 910 meters at Großer Inselberg during this first third. That’s ten times the highest hill back in Hamburg. I’m definitely not prepared for the hills, so I have no choice but to take it easy as see how far I can get with patience and conserving energy.
One of the first things I notice after the crowds have thinned out over the first few kilometers, is the amazing nature. The air is so fresh and clean between all these healthy looking trees here in the Thuringian Forest. I can breathe in deeply and it’s such a soothing feeling. Looking around and seeing nothing but green, in the shallow sun light of the morning is like meditation.
People always knew about the healing qualities of just being surrounded by quiet nature. Whether it’s the calming sea clashing on the shores, the plain sight of mountains, or a bath in the forest, as it is here. That’s what that Japanese expression, shinrin-yoku, means. Feeling stressed from every day life? Sports in nature is the key. By listening to the 2017 Enter Shikari song by that same Japanese name, you can get a sense of that feeling, in my opinion.
“My lungs fill with air – I feel supercharged.”
Its simplicity and lack of surprise here make it even more clear to me. This is the right place for me right now. We could all probably benefit a lot from spending more time in nature, especially in dense woods like this one here.
This is why nothing here bothers me, really. The steep hills, the weird dad-jokes all the old folks around me make, the insects. Don’t matter.
Stuff That Bothers Me
Tough to come up with any. Before I went here, I read about the probability to catch ticks in the woods that can give you tick born encephalitis, a disease that can knock you out for half a year. A vaccine exists, and I got it when I lived in Bavaria, but that was ten years ago and it surely has worn off by now. High compression socks would be a good method to make it harder for these little suckers, but today I didn’t want to wear them. Instead, I went for some repellent spray, which hopefully works.
Apart from those dangerous ticks, there were obviously millions and millions of little insects around, all determined to end their lives in some random human’s facial cavity. The amount of little smeared black dots I got out of my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth, was staggering. But not as much so that it would have made the run a nuisance.
Every little plateau view or freshly cut wood staple smell made me forget about the insects immediately and realize what a great place this is.
Freshly cut wood really smells so good.
What About the Crowds?
During about 95 percent of the 73.9 kilometers, crowds were non-existent. This is mainly due to the course, which is very hard to reach by cars, and tough by bikes. There’s no parking. Every once in a while we would pass by 10 to 20 folks, standing there and clapping. The odd wanderer appeared sometimes as well.
“Guten Morgen!” – Random Spectator
For some reason, the cheers they decided to give were mostly just a polite greeting. No “go, go, go!”, “faster, you can do it!” or similar, just a plain “good morning to you!”.
I liked that simplicity! I even spotted one kid holding up a sign that read “Guten Morgen!” – now I wondered if it’s maybe meant sarcastically somehow. Or it’s just the very German rationality without emotions, again. I remembered two rock concerts I visited earlier this year (TTNG and Tera Melos), where both the singers said to us, the crowds, that we were behaving especially polite. At a rock concert, that’s more of an insult, though, I feel.
At the aid stations, though, there’s always a party.
The Aid Stations
These were a bit unusual, in a very positive way. Around every 5 kilometers, which is very often for an ultra race apparently, – judging from all the runners carrying their own backpacks with food and water just in case –, we reached a spot where the organizers hat put up a few tents on a meadow or next to a small street crossing, filled it up with food and good-willed volunteers. At many locations there were some crowds and a DJ around to wake you up or to remind you of civilization. I really welcomed these little refreshments!
Quite typical for rural German areas – and Germany in general as well – the food was focussed around meat, unfortunately. Raw meat on bread, sausages, lard on thick bread. Ugh.
A specialty they routinely serve, is the so-called “Schleim”, literally ”slime”. Appetizing description, right? It’s more like oatmeal or porridge, just a little less viscous. Sometimes mixed with blueberries. You could describe it as a superfood in our modern city-based world, but here it’s been part of the standard nutrition for ages. Although this is vegetarian and full of nutrients and I usually like to eat oatmeal, I didn’t really feel like it, today.
NUTELLA to the Rescue!
Instead it was the Nutella breads that got me. I usually never eat that brown palm oil sugary stuff, but here, I somehow really wanted to. The body wants what it wants, I guess. Gave me a good boost every time!
It’s also worth mentioning that the usual powergels from HoneyPower or other brands don’t do much for you in an ultra. The energy consumption is different to a marathon. You really need to eat real food to make it through such a long time. Mixing in a few gels doesn’t hurt either, but it’s just not as effective. I’ve had some HoneyPowers with me, of course, but in the end just had one Salty one, because at one point I felt like I needed more salt. At another aid station I just threw in a bunch of salt into a cup of water and downed it. You really lose lots of salt during those hours in the heat.
25 to 30 degrees Celsius, but being surrounded by trees almost at all times didn’t let a lot of it get to my head.
Another specialty of the former Eastern German republic is this off-brand ripoff. During the communist, anti-American decades under an authoritarian dictatorship there used to be no US products. So they made their own over here. Some stayed alive after the revolution in 1989, including this gem. The taste is very close to real coke, with a hint of cherry in it, I’d say. I was a bit surprised and incredibly happy about it to find Vita Cola at every single aid station. Years ago, I even used to ask friends who went on a trip to the east to bring back some for me, because of the scarcity of it in Hamburg.
Even at the first aid station after 6 kilometers, around 40-50 minutes into the race (6:40 to 6:50 AM), I downed two cups of it. Caffeine! Sugar! Running!!! Fits together perfectly.
The Race Itself
Now I’ve mentioned a bunch of things that I noticed during the whole race. But how did it go chronologically?
The first 25.5 kilometers up to the Großer Inselberg were tough, expectedly so. I did a lot of walking to keep the energy for later. I noticed that on the downhill parts in between, many people passed me by. Is my downhill technique not good enough, maybe? And on the uphill parts I sometimes started to feel my back ache. How come?
That’s never been a thing of importance on the mainly flat runs I do, but how to optimize for these trail runs with their ups and downs? Naturally, today I’ve had a lot of time to think about that, try different things, and see if they work. Here’s my take on it:
Whether I’m running or walking uphill, the most important thing seems to be to fight the urge to lean forward. Keeping a straight posture even if your hands tend to move towards your knees is very important to avoid back pain. The leverage effect on the back is enormous and cumulates over the hours. Especially for a tall guy like me at 1.9 m (6’ 3”). When I remembered and got back into the straight posture, the pain went away.
Right after the Großer Inselberg mountain top there came a steep decline, mainly on asphalt. Definitely over 10 percent of grade, maybe even somewhere around 15, I’d guess. If you let go and roll down to gain speed, the risk of injury is very high. Tumbling or falling is obviously to be avoided. But also, the muscles somehow need to survive, not to mention the joints. Minimize impact is what I came up with. If the decision is between putting the most pressure on the muscles or on the joints, the choice should be the muscles. They can regenerate later. Sore muscles can be fought during the race, destroyed and swollen up joints can’t. So I mostly tried to land on the forefoot, just taking the pain of that.
Is the pain manageable? Then stop complaining!
Here is an atmospheric video I made during the race to give you an idea of what it felt like to run the Rennsteig
Other than that, there wasn’t much to do except to run. Exactly what I came here for.
Notice the Rennsteiglauf logo on that sign? I think it’s an example of bad design, to be honest. Are we supposed to make a U-turn every time we see it? Is it metaphorically showing us the way back? That the way forwards leads to the past? I don’t like it. But some runner I saw didn’t seem to think so, and even had it tattooed on his calf. 🤷♂️
Right after the halfway point with its natural water spring to wash your hands, to no one’s surprise, there was another hill to overcome. As you can see on the above picture, the ground here is very soft. That’s great for the joints, especially if you’re used to asphalt only, as the city-boy that I am.
I saw this woman on the picture below many times today. We seemed to have a similar rhythm. Only thing I could think whenever she passed me or I passed her, was:
When the Zombie Apocalypse comes, I want her on my team, please!
Between 40 and 50 I had a feeling of losing my energy and didn’t really know how to combat that. Luckily it was then that I discovered the Nutella breads at an aid station! Immediate effect, no more problems afterwards.
Shortly after that, around 55, we reached the only city of the course. Well, the outskirts of a city, Oberhof. Not really city, more of a town, also. We crossed this parking lot of an indoor cross-country skiing building. Weird.
You got the chance to drop out of the race right here and still get a finishing time. So there’s no shame in quitting here. I thought about it, but for a very short time. Not necessary. I can do this.
The kilometers melt away as long as you keep moving. The natural switch between running and walking the uphill parts seemed to work very well for me. That in addition to the salted water, Vita cola, and Nutella breads got me continuing without any significant problems. The further I got, the happier I became. I expected my body to shut down at any point, because I’ve experienced that before. But it didn’t happen. The broken ribs, the neck disc prolapse, the calf muscle fiber crack, it all didn’t matter.
At one point I had the great chance to look at my GPS watch and see a kilometer number bigger than 61 and think to myself:
“So, starting here this is the furthest I have ever run in one go.”
Starting at 64 and up until the finish line, the course is going slightly downhill. This is very nice and comes with perfect timing. I even got my pace up and did the last 10k in the fastest time of my whole race. Very steadily, as well.
And There it is
The last few kilometers were spent in the 2,000 soul city of Schmiedefeld, where this event is quite popular. The streets were still full with clapping and cheering folks, even after all these hours. To give you an idea, a winner needs about 5 hours to finish this race, so that’s happening at around 11 AM. I am reaching this place after 3 PM. They stand here for a big part of the day! And I appreciate that. The smile on my face increases even more, I sporadically thank some random people, and feel pulled towards the finish line by them.
What a Great Day. What a Great Race.
I’ve enjoyed myself so much today. Finishing still is nothing compared to that first marathon many years ago, but today I finally realize that it’s really not about the finish line, it’s about the time between start and finish. Sound corny, I know, but here it just hit me that this changed for me. I really like running, more so than finishing.
The STRAVA stats.
By the way, it took me precisely 9 hours, 20 minutes, and 31 seconds. The winner, in contrast, finished in 5 hours and 12 minutes. Florian Neuschwander it was, an icon in the German ultra scene. Very cool guy with his Steve Prefontaine signature moustache. Also worth mentioning, there’s no price money. He just ran for the fun and glory of it. We all did.
This finishing area has all you need, it was world-class. I enjoyed some Vita cola, of course, and went to collect my clothes bag to go for a shower. There were two barns on the field which had maybe 60-70 continuously running hot shower heads mounted on the ceiling each. No walls, just 60-70 naked men showering in it, I myself somewhere there, too. It kind of looked like a pigs’ stable, all the pink skin!
But very few things feel as good as having a hot shower after a long run to me. Freshly cleaned with new clothes I wandered around and got my free finisher’s shirt that I’ll probably never wear. I’ll give it away to charity like all the others, probably. Not much to do now, except finding the shuttle buses to drive us back the 73.9 kilometers to Eisenach. The finish line party in the evening is supposedly a big hit as well, but I’m not really into partying anymore, and also would like to get back to my four girls today.
While waiting inside the shuttle bus which parked right next to a REWE supermarket, I got to witness the ugly side of former Eastern Germany. A bunch of obviously drunken and neglected people started fighting on the parking lot until they bled from their faces and the police had to arrive to clear it up.
Some people in small towns in the middle of Eastern Germany face tough problems and try to escape. There aren’t many jobs, the outlook on life is very negative for them. They blame others for it, not themselves. The government, the rich, the refugees, whomever. Some of them, maybe rightfully so. They seem forgotten and definitely need help, even if it’s just someone to talk to. Made me sad and also a bit guilty, as there’s probably something everyone can do to help.
Mixed emotions in the evening. Then, during the one hour bus ride the tiredness won over the other feelings, and I gave in.
Back in Eisenach I was very happy to find my van still at the same spot I left it at, crawled into it, and drove home.
Four hours of driving across the German Autobahn during a nice summer evening later I’m home. After two days, still a bit sore, I already felt like doing another ultra. On to the next adventures!