Do you ever find yourself singing in the woods? A song just pops into your head and the chorus just goes on a loop and it becomes your mantra, that thing that will carry you to the end, where the pain will stop and a tear will form. Well this happened to me at some point on the afternoon of the 12th October 2019, in the woods of the hills in southern Poland.
Don’t stop moving.
Don’t stop moving to that funky funky beat.
Because if you move forward, you are growing, you are learning, you are experiencing. I wanted to stop so badly, I wanted the pain to end but what I wanted more was to finish.
In 2018, 5 friends went to Poland to race the Łemkowyna Ultra Tour 48km. In the end 4 raced and 1 cheered but they all had an amazing time and came back with glowing stories of the race, the organisers and the course. They wanted to go back and do it again but go for longer. I was interested, as were a few others. When the entries opened, 8 of us registered.
Jana, Daisy, Yvette, Claire, Jakob, Tamas and me on the 103km. Dai on the 150km. At this time I hadn’t noticed the start times. Jana found a house for us all near the start for us to stay for 4 nights, Jakob and I booked cars for transport. 8 runners all ready to take on a challenge.
Now plan A for 2019 end of summer was CCC. I would have had 6 weeks recovery between races, but that didn’t come through, so I decided to do Cumbria Way instead, but that race turned out to be way harder than I thought and there would be only 4 weeks between races. Not ideal really. I felt good in the lead up though with easy training prescribed by coach Maggie. One thing that did start to worry me, was the start time. 1am Saturday morning for the 100, (the 150 was midnight). I am not a night person, and I was pretty concerned about being awake for most of a day. I did a night run a couple of weeks before with Dai, Yvette and a couple of others to help ease the concerns, practice using the head torch and fuelling. I was also a little concerned about the elevation gain of around 4200m, which would be my biggest yet, but hadn’t factored the total descent. The other concern was the mud that this race is famous for. In fact the marketing line is “Welcome to the mudness” and apparently they love it! The course is set in the southern hills, they are big hills but not mountains, with a lot of woodland, which we all know can get pretty crazy after some rain and in the lead up there was plenty of that.
Thursday – Travel Day
Because of the start times, we needed to arrive a day early to have any hope of preparing our bodies on the Friday. Straight forward flights and drive down to the town of Krynica Zdrój. We were soon all settled in our lovely chalet. Jakob, who is Polish, cooked us an amazing feast of local food with the help of some of the others. 8 like-minded runners enjoying the relaxing time. We then formulated a plan for Friday to make sure we would be as rested as possible.
Friday – Prep Day
The goals: eat and sleep as much as possible.
09.00 – breakfast followed by showers
11.30 – walk down to town
12.00 – traditional Polish two course lunch of beetroot soups and some Pierogi
13.00 – collect race bibs after kit check
14.00 – cake and coffee/soft drinks
15.00 – nap time. I think I got some sleep. It was broken but I definitely had some rest
18.00 – cook dinner. A big vat of pasta and sauce
19.30 – nap time. I set an alarm for 22.45 as we needed to leave the house at midnight. Dai had to leave an hour earlier. Again, I think I got a little bit of broken sleep but don’t know how much.
22.45 – final kit packing, shower and some snacks.
00.00 – Lets go race!
Saturday- 1am, Race Day
After saying good bye to Dai an hour earlier we headed out to walk down to the race office at midnight. The air didn’t feel too cold, it was dry, great running conditions apart from it being the middle of the night!
After arriving at the race office and depositing our finish line bags, we chilled out for a bit, not wanting to stand around outside. Then came the time for a quick pre-race photo before heading to the start line. I forgot that they would be checking ID to get in, which was annoying as mine was at the bottom of one of my dry bags, and Claire had a bit of a freak out as she couldn’t find hers to start with. Then we were in the pen, 150-ish runners ready to head out into the night and with literally no fanfare, the race started.
Section 1: 19.6km. 800m Gain
Almost instantly, I found myself running with Yvette and Jana. Back and forth. There were no plans or agreements to run with anyone. We were all out on our own as such. Together but running our individual races.
Starting with a road section up and out of town, the pace was steady before we hit the trails. The climbs got steeper but I kept my poles away as my legs felt strong and I was over taking people with Jana. I also had to stop at some point though to put a plaster on my heel. I should have done this before starting to be honest but it was early, so losing a bit of time didn’t matter too much.
One thing that soon became apparent in this section was that we would need poles for getting through the mud. This particular realisation happened when I ice skated through some mud, slipped and fell into a bramble bush. Jana said “I think it’s time for poles”. Running in the dark is hard. Running in the mud in the dark is really hard. Especially this particular type of sticky mud.
Before long Jana and I ran into the first aid station, used the facilities, grabbed a snack and refilled our bottles.
Section 2: 22.9km 970m Gain
I left the aid station feeling great. It was a nice easy downhill before a big ass climb. Again, I powered up the climb, over taking other runners. We were also catching the tail end of the 150km race now, which made it hard to judge what was going on. The downhill off the top was steep and muddy. I had that familiar feeling of lack of technique again. Some of the people who I passed on the up were bounding past me. It’s so frustrating, but I accepted that I also needed to protect my quads a bit. As soon as we hit the bottom it was straight into the next climb. This was going to become a familiar routine for this race! Again I started powering up. But then I had to stop to get a load of grit out of my shoes; it was frustrating, as loads of people passed me who I had spent time getting past on the single track. Steam was coming off me and one Polish runner commented, “you’re hot!”. I didn’t quite know how to take it so just smiled and said thank you. I was up again quickly and climbing past everyone again. I passed Yvette, who was struggling a little on the ups but clearly better than me on the downs. I wished her luck and powered on. I wouldn’t see her again until the finish.
Then I passed Jana, who was loving it and very excited to be on the hills. The next downhill wasn’t quite so steep, so I held a few places but we were soon going back up as the sun was rising, hitting some open field at the perfect time.
Then it was into CP2 for some breakfast. I used the facilities again, refilled my bottles before having a baked potato piece and some pickles. I made an error here though. I should have had a 2nd piece of potato and would feel this later. Jana, laughed at me eating pickles as I left.
Section 3: 21.7km 900m Gain
I am going to name this the mud section. The 21km that would break my legs. Heading out of the CP I felt alright, I was trucking along to my own beat but had noticed it was quite lonely. Nearly everyone else in the race was Polish, this was a really local race and they all seemed really experienced at the mud running. They could literally skate across it without falling, where as I was either getting stuck or slipping and sliding all over the place. The mud in this part got really gnarly and deep too. I remember being up to my knees in water and mud at one point. Oh great wet feet again and I knew what was coming next too. Blisters, that’s what. My feet had just about recovered from the Lakes and now they were starting to open up again. This time I would deal with them but not until the CP as it would take some time. It was also during this part that my mind started to go. My body felt like it just wanted to shut down. I had been awake for hours, my quads were tiring, down hills were becoming really painful and I was doubting my ability to complete. The one bright spark during this section was seeing Rachel, a Canadian runner who was doing the 150. We had a nice little chat before I went on. I was able to run the flats and push on the climbs. All I needed to do was fight off the brain and body shut down. Could I get out of the next CP or would I DNF?
Not a happy camper
Running into the CP I heard something out of the blue, the word…”Ziemnaki” followed by laughter from the many people out cheering. I guess they wondered why a man would be shouting “potato” loudly. I looked up and saw Jakob, sat in a garden chair by the CP. I was instantly lifted. We hugged and he offered me his dads chair so that I could sort out my blistered toes. Jakobs dad is awesome and was essentially crewing him through the night and day. Jakob was struggling with knackered legs and a bad stomach. He said I would probably catch him up in the next section as he would be walking quite a bit and a few minutes later he left with snacks in hand. I refilled my bottles, ate some banana and grabbed a couple of sandwiches. Just as I was leaving, Jana came in, she was now broken too. This race was destroying us all, our bodies just weren’t conditioned for it. After a short chat, I left the CP, just two more sections left.
Section 4: 16.9km 624m Gain
Immediately after the CP it was a climb. I tried to eat the sandwiches I had picked up and promptly threw them up. This was another low point. I carried on though, pushing up the hill, wondering when I might see Jakob. I still went at my pace, walking, running, hiking. Doing what I needed. It was obvious now that I was slowing down though. Legs were beaten up, brain was starting to think about stopping again. Did I really want this for a few more hours? I could just turn around and go back to the CP and end it right then but then the woodland opened up and rolling hills lay in front of me. After a climb the views came out and it was a welcome distraction. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the reason I climb is for the views. To see the land open up in front of you is a wonder. Although on this day it was bloody windy. So much so, it would blow you sideways, and running became almost comically tricky!
At some point I caught up with Jakob. I think it was as we were hobbling a downhill section. It was another welcome distraction. To chat and moan about how broken our bodies were but also joke about a bit. We ran together for 10/15 mins before the next climb, where I had a little bit more in the tank, so I pushed on. I was now counting the downs and ups left to the finish. This was a good sign. Looking back, this change of mindset meant not finishing wasn’t an option now. Also, I knew the next CP would be a good one as it’s the bag drop for the 150km, it would mean hot food! Upon entering, I think I was a little all over the place, then I saw Jakobs father and a girl I kind of recognised. It turned out to be Anna. She knew some of our group and is Polish and was in the race but unfortunately had to pull out at 42km. She helped translate for Jakobs dad. They gave me a seat and fed me soup and many cups of Coke! Jakob came in about 15min after me. I decided to check messages at this point and saw that Claire had had to pull out at 60km, I was gutted for her but it sounded like she made the right choice for her safety.
Tamas had already finished and I think Daisy was close-ish to finishing. I gave them an ETA, based on my watch but had no idea what was ahead!
Section 5: 21.3km 886m Gain
This section had two climbs and two descents. The first climb was up onto some more rolling hills, where again the wind sent me sideways.
I now felt like the tank was pretty much empty. I was running on auto pilot, following the pink tape, counting down the distance. It was around this time that the lyrics to the 2001 hit by S Club 7 came into my head. Then they left my head and were vocalised in a loop.
Don’t stop movin’ to the funky funky beat
Don’t stop movin’ to the funky funky beat
Don’t stop movin’ to the funky funky beat
Don’t stop movin’ to the S Club beat
This became my mantra, something to hold on to and boy would I need it.
The final climb was something I will describe as hell on a hill. It was super steep, it was unrelenting, it had thorns, trees you had to go under, then a weird wooden tower at the top. Except that wasn’t the top; you had to go higher. It was cold and brutal. Not the highest part of the course but because it was so close to the end I named it Heartbreak Hill. The final hardship to overcome, to try to push you over the edge, but it didn’t.
The descent was so painful, my knees were now hurting as the quads couldn’t hurt anymore than they already did. I knew it would be the last big one though and was super relieved when we hit the tarmac. I got chatting to a Polish runner that spoke really good English. He was running the 150 and was feeling pretty good. He asked my how come I was here and I explained about my friends coming here last year etc. He promptly said, we should come back in winter for more “fun”, I just laughed! There would be zero chance of that happening but I enjoyed the chat.
The remaining part of the race was all on road. I didn’t care now as it felt like a victory lap. A run, walk run, run to the finish line. Probably my personal worst 5km but I didn’t care. Crossing that line just as darkness was setting in was amazing. It was relief, mind over body, a sweet victory.
Tamas, Daisy and Claire were there. Then Jakob, Jana and Yvette came in. After refueling and getting in warm clothes, we travelled 50km further…by bus, to See Dai cross the finish line just after midnight. Our bus back to the start left at 3am, we were in bed by 6am. It was a long, long day.
Going to Poland for a race like this was great, spending time with this group was awesome. There is something special about sharing a racing experience with a group, a bond that you will all have forever.
My key takeaways from this trip/race are:
- Don’t race 122km 4 weeks before the hardest race you have done!
- Don’t do a 1am race again Jon. Your mind and body do not think it’s cool or clever!
- Eat more food and don’t eat on hills. Just chill at the CPs a little more.
- Get better at down hills, find a way to make your quads stronger.
- If you need to sing out loud do it, whatever gets you to the end dude.
- The organisers, course markings, volunteers and aid stations are awesome.
- Running a race with mostly local runners can be lonely.
- Polish runners are lovely.
- Polish food is great and cheap.
- Go back to Poland, not for a race!
- Surround yourself with inspiring people.
If the Cumbria Way showed me that a 24 hour 100 miler is possible, then this gave me confidence of completing CCC within the cut off. Yes it took about 1 to 1.5 hours longer than I thought but if I can do that on tired legs then bring on 2020!
103KM, 4200m gain, 4400m loss.
This race was worth 4 ITRA/UTMB Points
17hours, 8mins, 11secs. 56th place.