Beskidy Ultra- The Run
How I got myself in Beskidy is another story, I think it’s documented here.
After two eventful days cooling my heels in small town Szczyrk it was time to get on the business end of the race.
On 29th September chilly evening we gathered for the pre-race briefing. For 10 minutes, I stood around listening attentively as the race Director gave a very detailed infomercial on the run, in polish, which I don’t understand a word of. He then called for the non-Polish speakers to congregate around him for an English version, so we made our way to him, a healthy crowd numbering exactly 3 people.
The assembled runners were a reality check for me, a daunting group, you could tell these were seasoned and hardened trail runners, definitely looking the part. In no race have I felt as out of place as I felt then.
My race plan was to break down the run into segments to avoid being intimidated by the whole distance, each segment a small win building up to the main war- the full distance. The segments were by aid stations. So I’ll do my write-up in the same segmentation, like I said, by aid stations. I’ll also indicate the elevation gain and loss for each leg.
First leg- start to 10km; Elev gain 615 m loss 333 m
4.00 am was to be the start time, I got to start point at 3.45, humble as I have never been at the start of a race, new worlds for me. The mandatory equipment was checked and with a lot of fanfare we was flagged off at exactly 3.59 am.
The start group consisted of three races; 60km, 90km and 130kms. The first kilometer was flattish and then we hit our first hill and everyone turns to walking. I have read all over that running up the hills in an ultra is generally a fool’s errand which folly one usually pays for later in the race. So like everyone, and in adherence to literature, I settled to a brisk walk. Lots of literature also advocate for hiking and power-walking as good preps for trail ultras, you could tell I hadn't done any such preps as immediately we started walking it seemed I was moving backwards, guys overtaking me all round… in a short while, we had ascended 600 metes, the top of the hill delivering great views of Bielsko-Biala in the dark.
As would become the trend, immediately after the hill came the corresponding descent, more treacherous that the climb, especially as it was dark. It’s here that I discovered the joke that was my head torch, it was next to useless, the surrounding headlamps were on steroids, swallowing up my light like it didn't exist- think the biblical Moses rod swallowing up the sorcerers ones. Just to be sure, In my quest to get a good headlamp I had ended up buying three back in Nairobi, on my forehead was the strongest, in my running pack was the next best, the supposed spare.
So by the time we got to the first aid station I had hit a few rocks and roots, good thing the shoes around my feet were up to the task so my toes suffered only marginally, but not the socks, the one on my left foot had already lost the good fight to my aggressive toes-my mistake as i had ignored the tougher socks for these sissies.
In 10kms we came up to the first aid station it was lined up with dates, dates, more dates, biscuits, water, isotonic drinks….I picked up a good amount of dates, some water and embarked on the next hill, walking up as would be the tradition.
Leg 2- 10th to 21st km; Elev gain 594 m loss 882 m
It is a beautiful thing, day-break when out running, add some mountainside and colorful fall forest and you have yourself an unforgettable experience. I was glad to get rid of the embarrassingly under-qualified headlamp, I didn't want to see the dang things again so I developed a secondary goal, finish the run before nightfall.
This section wasn't too eventful, only that I pulled ahead of a few of my running compadres on the few flats as I felt the 7 min/ km kind of pace was too modest even on ultra-standards.
Got to the second aid station at 21 km, this one was in the middle of nowhere. I loaded up on dates and biscuits, the effect of the early hills ensured I was feeling the need for more energy. I had never taken isotonic drinks before and had not contemplated doing so in this run, but the rate at which I was sweating called for a lil bit o’ flexibility. So an isotonic drink found its way down my throat, and it tasted very agreeably, and so there my handheld water bottle found a new role, It would henceforth carry isotonic drinks instead of water, the 3L hydration bladder on my back was sufficient dam for the water.
Third leg- 21st to 35th kilometers; Elev gain 765 m loss 791 m
This leg was quite becoming (to the eyes, legs didn't quite fancy the hilly affair). Walking uphill was no longer strategy but necessity, my quads already feeling the heat but i wasn't getting out of this kitchen. I got to the top of first hill coming up to a sort of ‘pilgrim point’,up there in the forest; a human size cross, a “hail Mary” figurine, flowers at the base of the cross. Further ahead is a mountain cabin whose occupants cheerfully urge me on.
I exit the forest into a little town in which sat the third aid station at 35 kms, what was the name of the town? Brenna? Maybe, I don’t know. What I know for sure is that this was one of the big brother aid stations, sporting a varied selection of eatables; I took red dates, brown dates, black dates, oranges, coke, various biscuits, bananas and my new love the isotonics; as usual I packed dates for fueling enroute to the next aid station; by then I’d taken particular liking to the reddish and Blackish dates (sorry brown dates)..also replenished my stock of Isotonic and departed for the next hills and forests.
I consider this aid station the last frontier, from here on I was kept busy ignoring complaints from different parts of what used to be my united body. To be expected as by 35 kms i had been on my feet for 4hrs 36mins, had done an elevation gain of 1974m and elevation loss of 2006 m
Leg number 4- 35th to 46th km; Elev gain 445 m loss 543 m
The day was well on its way, more life around. I got to the top of yet another sadistic hill- (my 40th kilometer had an elevation gain of 210 meters)... at the top of the said hill I hear rumbling in the distance, rumbling gets closer, becomes a few rumblings, more aggressive ,earsplitting, loooud, the shattering sounds precede three rugged bike monsters, in quick succession they hurtle by at ‘lord here I come’ speeds. A motorbike mountain race is underway.
In this leg is also where I start crossing paths with Poles hiking…with their hiking poles (pun unavoidable). Henceforth the ‘poles hiking (mostly) with hiking poles’ becomes a standard feature of the run.
The ascents were getting tougher, the descents more treacherous, my quads were permanently on fire more so on the treacherous descents. Then I came face to face with the most hellish rocky descent, this one frustrated me no end, I was counting on decent downhill paces to enable my daytime finish but when you get to descents where your speed is the same as the ascents you know your plans are cooked.
Still this leg delivered a high point, I breached the highest elevations in my running; elevation gain of 2419 m and loss of 2549 m, the victory dance in my head and mental boost ensured I was upbeat as I sauntered into the next aid station at 46km.
The humans in this aid station were really something; all over me, smiling, congratulating, how is the run? Was I OK? Did I need anything? (Less hills would do, I thought)… so much attention, this treatment like I was so important, there’s nothing like it. I basked in the moment as I downed my usual quota of Coke, biscuits, Isotonic and dates and as I was about to leave one of them says, “you have 23 kms to the next aid station”. 23 kms? I stop, drink another solid 500ml of isotonic and refill my bottle, fill my hydration bladder, stuff more dates in my pockets (initial plan was to have my eatables in the running pack on my back but my jacket pockets were more convenient, laziness is tolerable in such situations).
Leg number 5 (forever leg)- 46th to 69th KM; Elev gain 1012 m loss 919 m
So far I was pleased to have escaped the usual ultra plagues; no blisters, no chaffing etc.
I headed out on the 5th leg, I couldn't run the flat sections of the town, the sun not helping matters. I slightly missed a turn and some guys on bikes escorted me to the next ribbons. Soon out of town and into the standard hills, and here was one of the steepest and longest hills of the run, my walking was no longer energetic, trudging at no significantly better pace than the handful of hikers going up. I get to the top of the hill. It’s a scenic touristy place, with ski lifts for ferrying up those not in the mood for hiking, there are many hikers and campers around. Close by is a cool mountain resort tastefully built in rugged wood…I envy the people out in the sun enjoying easy Saturday tete a’ tete, they look as I walk past- they have not been on the run for 8 hours...
The tough 10kms leading to the resort depleted my stock of dates. I was reduced to desperately nursing 300ml of isotonic. I had grossly misjudged the distance, on regular runs anyone easily run 23kms without support or water, I had thought a pocketful of dates and half liter of Isotonic would be sufficient. But this was a 23km starting at the business end of a mountainous 46kms; should have been treated like a full marathon. So here I was at 56kms, left with what is without doubt my most physically and psychologically tortuous 13 kms ever. By 60 kms all I wanted was to sit down and be rescued, my psyche was brittle, the remaining 9 kms was infinite distance... I’ll allow myself not talk about it anymore.
So after 23kms covered in 3hrs 37 mins the all important aid station showed up.
Aid station 69 kms was the very definition of Salvation. It was manned by one very Big Man; I must have made a lasting impression on him as I devoured biscuits, coke, dates, bananas. He advised me to sit down. I sat down,for a few minutes, then I asked him how long till the next aid station? and he said 10kms, fine it was 10kms but I drank what seemed to be a lakeful of isotonic, and packed more foods than I had in the previous leg. No taking chances.
Sixth leg- 69th to 79th; Elev gain 674 m loss 186 m
Left salvation aid station, missed a turn, went wrong way for 200 meters, turned back, 200 m wasted! Most annoying, swore under and over my breath as i took the correct route.
This was one of the more scenic legs, I had carried my phone for to take photos with, it was in my bag, I was tempted, not once, not twice, to reach for it- nah, too much work, I managed to ignore the temptation each time and that is how I ended up taking zero photos the entire run. This is also the leg where I was reduced to almost exclusive walking; I could hardly run the flats. Still my arithmetic was sure I’d finish 90km before nightfall, thanks to my earlier decent paces.
You’ll notice that I’ve hardly mentioned fellow runners, is because for 45 kms, since the third leg, I had no encounter with any other runner.
Janutz, is a fellow runner, catches up with me at 79 kms, he speaks passable English. Instead of going on ahead, he slows down to my pace and gets some conversation going. He is doing 130kms, he is gathering points for the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc),he is an accomplished runner, has many big city marathons under his belt, a good number well under sub 3 hrs, he has run two 100s, is in his forties. We leisurely get to the last aid station at 79 kms. Aid crew is super nice and there’s hot food here, what more could a bloke ask for?
Another runner finds us at meal and I realize my classic rookie mistake… pushed a little too enthusiastically early on and the wiser ones were now catching up.
Janusz has a change of clothes to suit conditions of his upcoming night run then we continue.
Leg last: 79th km to End; Elev gain 840 m loss 1273 m
It was natural to feel I was baggage for my new friend, so I urged him on ahead as I was slowing him down, he brushes my concerns aside, says he has the whole night to cover the remainder 50 kms of his run- cut off time for 130 kms being 29 hrs.
We soon suspect we’re close to the split ways for 90 kms and 130 kms. He pulls out his map to locate where we were to split- this is where I realize I hadn't carried my map (I’m a sort of expert at the forget-important-stuff-business). Janusz looked quite alarmed at my lack of map… so we parted ways at 82 kms, me for my 8km him for another 50 km all night run. Shudder…
A few hundred meters later I get to a four ways junction, the signs are confusing, in Polish, that map would be invaluable here, I panic. its hard to decide between two possible routes- I consult my compass and with shaky confidence take the more probable route, a few tens of meters later I turn, head back to the junction, contemplate waiting for a runner to show up, but sunset is beckoning… long story short I finally get the correct route. Lesson learnt FORGET NOT MAP.
I keep on and soon hit 90 km, just at dusk, but wait- I’m still deep in the forest, no sign of the end, no hint of a town. Nothing.
Then as if my low spirits are not enough, here comes the steepest ascent yet. I recalled the race director’s words at the briefing as he pointed at his map ‘here is a bit flat so you could be tempted to speed’, ‘ you may want to conserve your energy though, for after it comes a very steep climb at this point’…I don’t believe it would matter if you conserved your energy or not. This was the grandmaster of all climbs.
So 90th km was the steepest descent of the entire run at 257m, then in 91st km came the steepest ascent, checked later on my Strava data to see a gradient of 42.3%, that is an all-fours kind of steep.
92 kms comes and goes, still deep in forest, behold night is upon us. I reluctantly chuck my lame excuse of a headlamp, to my pleasant surprise it seemed to work just fine in the absence of competitors, until another runner appeared with one of those ‘miniature sun’ headlamps. As he caught up his light completely enveloped mine and in limited English he went; ‘problem with torch’ I said ‘no’, he ignored me, stopped, fished out his spare sun, handed it over, pointed at his bib as he mentioned his name so I’d identify him at the finish. I said thank you but resolved not to let him get away, so I laboriously followed him through the jungle and solid darkness sliced through by our invading lights until I finished right behind him.
FINISH LINE!!! This elusive ‘line’ came after 96.7 kms and 15hrs 34min 57sec of relentless upward and downward movement. Well-earned medal, hot meal, hot coffee, congratulatory tidings from everyone… I’d have wished to replace ‘finish line’ with ‘the end’ but that would be a lie. The run left in its wake a new set of demons…
The aftermath is a whole story in itself but we’ll summarize;
The 350m walk to my hotel was tortuous; my feet have never felt more alien, zillions of pains in my body morphing into one amorphous ball of dull pain such that I couldn’t really locate a specific pain point, the walk was punctuated with groans(deep, manly, throaty mini-roars of course- no use having injured ego as well)... simple tasks like taking off shoes, sitting down,showering, bending, turning in bed etc became elaboraate full time jobs.
The following day my crippled status ensured i was the ultimate nuisance while embarking and disembarking from buses, trains, planes, and any form of stairs… people probably thought I had some form of disability, and they accordingly were most patient with me.
And that was Beskidy, my induction to the world of trail ultras, a beautiful experience and warning that ultras better be taken seriously,a lesson i intend to put to good use...If i dont forget the little pains of Beskidy…
Detailed run info on strava at https://www.strava.com/activities/1209129401