In the week leading up to the race, conversations with colleagues and acquaintances have typically gone…
“See you next week”
“Oh, are you going away?”
“Yeah, to Poland “
“What are you doing there?”
“How far? Are you doing a marathon?”
“No, it’s a little further, 150km”
“Oh, nice. How many days are you doing that over?”
The conversations tend to just end there. That’s been fairly typical this year. If you’re not interested in running you won’t know. You won’t understand what is feasible or not. It may sound ridiculous but 24 hours is a long time, you can achieve a lot in that time and in the world of trail running, covering 100-150 km of mountainous terrain is very, very feasible. You don’t even have to run that fast or even run that much and can walk a lot of it. Much of it is in your head and, as always, I think it comes down to mental strength.
And so, off to Poland I was. To the Beskid mountains. I came here last year, to the Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, and did the 48 km was event. Now I was back for the big one, the 150 km… Last year was a treat. The event is billed as a muddy one with the strap line “enjoy the mudness”. In 2018 though freakish weather meant we had a glorious sunny dry day and very little mud. All that was to change on 2019. The weeks leading up to the event had seen plenty of rain and mud was once again on the cards.
This posed a challenge. How would my legs cope with the fatigue induced from running in mud? What kit would I need, What shoes? How long might it realistically take? It’s a 3 hour bus back to the start once I’m finished, what else will I need when I’m finished? I left the planning there. Things mostly out of my control. I’ve more than enough kit to cope with the majority of situations now so I decided not to worry anymore.
The race itself, it drained me. In a different sort of way. I was tired. I enjoyed it. I didn’t think and recall the journey as I normally do. I didn’t put the effort into mentally tracing my steps. It was all very similar and so I can’t recall and write about the adventure like I have in many other races. What I do remember though is many of the thoughts I pondered along the way. The things that came into and out of my mind…
- As I left the house at 11pm, the group sent me off with one final Polish lesson. Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb. All I needed for the aid stations!
- The start was subdued. Runners casually making there way out of the meeting point and to the start. Whilst I chatted with fellow English speakers Mike and Alice, the race just started. No music. No countdown. Just a casual movement which became a run.
- The polish countryside is stunning. I thought this last year too. Covering 150 km is a great way to experience it. Rolling hills. Views of idyllic castles, churches and houses. Little farming villages, streams and fields were the order of the day.
- It was peaceful. Very peaceful. Less than 500 runners started and were out on the 100/150 km course. I was alone for a long time and I liked it.
- There’s always a point at night where you stop, turn around and gasp at the trail of head torches behind you. This race was no different and the moon was glowing with them. beautiful.
- There are different levels of mud. At some point no amount of grip or technical footwear will help you. Slipping and sliding is inevitable and managing how you do it becomes critical.
- I slipped about 4 or 5 times. I never trip or fall when running. The mud got me and I was hands and bum down more than I liked.
- Hot soup is great. Hot chicken soup is greater. Hot chicken noodle soup is the greatest.
- Spiced pumpkin soup is special.
- It was cold. Very cold. I ran the whole of the night sections with a jacket. I’ve not need to do that before.
- The Inov8 Thermoshell is an incredible piece of kit. I bought it a few weeks earlier and this was the first run I’d done in it. It was very lightweight, warm and breathable. I put it on again the next night and was immediately snug once more. Possibly my new favourite piece of kit.
- Warm fires at night are bliss. Having a few minutes at a checkpoint camp next to a blazing hot fire is lush.
- Polish runners are so considerate and thoughtful. I didn’t have to ask anyone to let me pass them and no one tried to kill me with their poles. They were keen to chat and understanding when I couldn’t reply.
- Muddy steep hills were challenging, especially to descend. Trying to do that in wetter conditions would have been terrifying. We were lucky it wasn’t wet during the race itself.
- There was a long climb at the top of which was a wooden structure. It reminded me of the church Sandor Clegane helped build in Game of Thrones. I sat on a bench and looked at it for about ten minutes.
- Hallucinations. First time I’ve had it. Only briefly in the last 30 km. I saw the most spectacular crystal chandelier above me glistening in the light. As I got closer I realised it was the moon and the trees flickering in the wind!
- Caffeine kick. For the first time I drank coffee during a run. 15 km from the end I was drowsy and nodding off as I hobbled along. I knocked back a coffee and then doubled up on caffeine (Tropical) Tailwind. I was buzzing and ran most of the last 15 km or so. I was wired. I ran through the pains I had.
- Apples. I’ve not had them at a race before. Smashing stuff. Crunchy. Juicy. Tasty. Easy to eat. Sugary. I like apples. My forth favourite fruit (after pineapple, strawberries and passion fruit if you just know).
- Cup of coke? I went for a bowl of coke. Game changer. Fuzztastic. Gulp gulp gulp. Belch.
- Polish churches are architecture masterpieces. Sounds like ‘costu’ in English.
- The ‘middle’ sections of these long races feel like the longest parts.
- I constantly checked and tried to trace my way using the elevation profile on my bib. I mis-judged it so many times. Hills don’t look like hills on a 150 km route profile picture!
- The silence of the night was disturbed only by the mass barking of dogs locked up away from the runners. Miles away from villages you could hear the dogs!
- Memory is an incredible thing. The last 48km was so clearly memorable to me. Only the order of trails/sights/memories was a little jumbled.
- Damn windy. Head winds whilst hiking up mountains is not easy. I was pissed off when a group of runners clearly used me as a wind shield. I didn’t blame them though.
- Pictures – I took less. Whilst it was beautiful to see all around, the landscape was similar and too darn cold to keep fishing out my camera.
- The last 48 km I latched onto a group of four runners. I used them (it might have been those that used me in the windy parts?!) My mind was going and collectively they were strong. I sat back and when they ran, I ran. When they walked, I walked. I used them. Until I took the coffee and my mind fired up again and I left them in my caffeine trail.
- I visualised my body working. Buses driving messages from my brain to my body. Loads of tiny workers shovelling the food I consumed into a burning fire engine like a steam train. My legs like two grumpy trees telling me they were in pain. Functioning.
- I visualised the finish I always do. I could see myself crossing that finish line. Celebrating. This time I saw exactly how – A chicken dance. I did eventually do the chicken dance I thought about for so many hours.
- Tamas running passed me before 70 km. So strong. He started an hour after me! What a legend.
- Runners drinking beer at 82 km. How?! Talk about stereotypes.
- The realisation at 60 km that I was no where near halfway through. That was tough.
- The disappointment when my Suunto went bezerk and at 82 km I thought I’d done 86 km.
- The count down by comparable races. Only a TDS to go. Only a TGC to go… A Lavaredo to go… A MIUT to go… A CCC to go… A Brecon Beacons to go… A Cinque Terra to go… A marathon to go… A Wild TR weekend run to go… A run to work to go… A park run to go. I don’t even do park runs. Fuuuck when will this end.
- Running 100 miles is an incredible achievement. I’m still 15 km off that. Wow. So much respect for those achievers now. Those who have the strength to even start and those who persevere to the end. So inspiring.
- Leaving a message for Julian and Astrid whose wedding I was missing. The words were in my head but I’m not sure what I bumbled down the phone.
- At the finish I was shattered. Momentarily I fell asleep on a bench.
- I like polish food!
The race itself…
- It’s is exceptionally well marked. Tape and reflective signage every few metres. You can’t get lost (although others somehow did!?!).
- It is superbly organised (just like the year before). With 5 different races starting and ending at different locations, this is not an easy feat. Lemkowyna make it seem effortless. As a non-Polish speaker, it’s very easily negotiated (OK, we had Polish speakers in our group but I’d be comfortable attempting it myself).
- The volunteers went out of their way to help you. Not only filling bottles and serving you but sitting you down and fetching you things. All things.
- The volunteers and support were amazing. Big shout out the the man I met at the 82 km mark and chatted too and whom came to find me at each checkpoint there after to talk to me and see how I was getting on. So thoughtful!
- The bell medal. Unique. Now I have two.
- The finishers top (150 km finishers) is great too. High quality Columbia kit.
- Finish line food – an abundance. Healthy, vegetarian, meaty, local specialities. They had it all.
- The trails were mostly forest paths. Soft and not too ‘rooty’. There were a lot of long road sections also.
- The aid stations are about 20 km apart which is longer than most races. There’s nowhere to get water in between. I carried 1.5 l at all times and was thankful I did.
- There were two ‘bonus’ aid stations with water and some other supplies towards the end. A very welcome surprise!
What else do I remember? Support and friendship. That’s what. I’ve said this a few times over the last year. Friends and companions on such adventures is a huge boost. The joking, the laughter, the shared panics and emotions. The common understanding of what you need and don’t need. The different approaches, advice and learnings. Not being alone. The achievement of succeeding is one thing, but sharing it with others is something else. I was spoilt with such a special group. They took control. They looked after me. Cooked for me. Cleaned after me. Ordered for me. Drove me about. Waited and cheered me. Travelled 50 km in the wrong direction and waited for hours for me. Forever and constantly I am in their debt. Their support and friendship is mind blowing. Daisy and Claire called it out, making new friends as adults is strange and often not easy (the innocence of childhood friendships is lost as you grow older…). But through running I’ve met people with similar characteristics, traits and mindsets and we’ve bonded over the most memorable experiences together.
Whilst I was out in the polish countryside, there were a lot of other runs and running achievements happened the same weekend and conversations I had with others summed up my own experience this weekend. This snippet from Sarah said it all… “...Like a roller coaster, so many highs and lows but we rally through to the end. The things we put ourselves through for fun, and I have to say it was fun…“. We find our enjoyment…