If you want to get a workout, go for a run.
If you want to feel accomplished, run a marathon.
If you want to question your existence, run an ultra marathon.
Technically a 30K isn’t really an ultra marathon. An ultra marathon is anything over marathon distance (26.2 miles or 42.2k). So my race on Saturday wasn’t an ultra marathon, even though they had ultra distances. You could have fooled me. It was, hands down, the hardest race I ever ran. With more than 80 races under my belt including obstacle runs and actual ultra marathons, that is quite a statement.
Let’s start at the beginning. Wednesday of last week I boarded the plane and jetted off to Poland. 8.5 hours later we landed in Warsaw hopped into a cab and drove around seeing the city. Then back on a plane for a short ride to Krakow. We spent the night and explored a bit of the city the next day. Nothing crazy, just about 5 miles of exploring.
Friday we took off on a train to Rzeszów to meet with our contact and get all set for the race. He was an awesome guy, named Wojtek, and explained to us that we were meeting with 4 Ukrainians who were also participating in the race. Apparently there is another sister city in the Ukraine. Together we walked about 2 miles to the sports complex for our numbers and final instructions. After listening to the race coordinator speak in Polish for half an hour I still had no idea what to expect from this race. Wojtek assured me that no matter what, I wouldn’t get lost and it would be fine. It would be roads and hilly meadows and I would be fine. Just in case, I stuck an extra map in my bag. It would be fine. FINE! My mother in law promised to get a car or taxi and meet me at some places on the course to check in. I should have guessed from how hard they tried to assure me that it would be fine, that it definitely wouldn’t.
Fast forward to race morning.
We walked the two miles back to the sports complex to get the bus to the start line. I am now alone with a bus full of strangers who don’t speak English. No problem. I’ll just run through my game plan. Start slow, walk hills, conserve water, pay close attention to trail markers. Pretty solid plan. We got off the bus, took care of the essentials (ahem porta potty), and toed the start line….at the back of the pack. I’m no dummy. Speed is not my thing. That is why I run long distances.
My watch decided as the gun went off that it was not going to track today. It just didn’t feel like it. Off to great start!
We started off going up and down 3 pretty severe hills through a little city. Then we took a turn to some cute little farm lands. Just like I expected the climb was up, Up, UP. It wasn’t so bad. Just some back fields and deep ruts from 4-wheelers. It was tough to get footing so I ended up walking quite a bit. Nothing worse then hurting yourself early in a race. All the other racers disappeared. I was sure I could catch up on the downhill later. It was quite pretty. Breathtaking even – but that could have been the hills.
I ran/walked along the rough trail and noticed we were skirting around some woods. Until the trail abruptly turned into something that looked like the beginning of every “Into the Woods” horror movie. Pay no attention to instinct and follow these little yellow banners into the deep dark woods.
Well it didn’t take long for me to get lost. The markers on the trees were pretty spread out and when the path forked into two directions with a marked tree in the middle I picked the wrong way. I made it about 2K before I realized I had to be on the wrong path. I got myself straightened out and spent the next 10K struggling up and down mud slicked, steep ledges covered in black beetles that made me think of the Mummy movies.
After stumbling through some weird chapel gathering in the woods (no blood stains anywhere, so I don’t think it was a horror movie set) I began a pretty steep climb to the top of a ledge. Reminded me of hiking trails, expect without ropes to help you up. And then a very dramatic fall down to the bottom. I can still feel these awesome bruises on my legs. I fell once more in the woods but less dramatically. There were only a few curse words uttered.
Eventually I left the woods to see a taxi hanging out on the side of the road. An angel in the form of my mother-in-law refilled my water bottle and told me I wasn’t far from the first checkpoint. Of course I had spilled most of my water during one of my falls. I checked in some time later and luckily one of the volunteers spoke English. I refueled and headed back out. It was downhill from here right? RIGHT?!
Not so much. I ran down into a nice little valley and into some cool farm lands. I even saw this cute cow chillin’ on the side of the pasture near the road. I snapped a quick picture and yelled out “Hey cow!” as I trotted past. Because I talk to animals. Because I love animals. Because I am an idiot. Big mistake.
The cow got up and started walking over to me. I slowed down because I noticed it had horns. I REALLY didn’t want to be charged by a steer. Not on my to-do list. So I panicked and started walking super slow. This fella followed me for about half a kilometer, giving me mini heart attacks the whole way. Then it turned into a pasture on the right and left me be. It was nice to breathe again.
There was not much happening after that until I reached the river. Just more terrible terrain. For some reason every time we got on road and I felt comfortable picking up the pace, we managed to veer off into the woods again. At this point I started using swear words to make entire sentences. I could have given the Wolf of Wall Street a run for its money on swear words per minute. Especially as I scrambled through an ACTIVE QUARRY with construction workers and over these “bridges”. Needless to say my shoes got soaked and I didn’t have extra socks.
After crossing the last huge bridge that looked like the rope bridge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I was checked in by medical staff that said something like 5KM. I was so excited! 5km and I was done!!! AWESOME!
Just kidding. It was 5km to the real aid station. I still had 12km to go. So back onto my single track trail behind farms and around the river. I swore to myself that next time I would bring a horse. Then I ran smack into this 6 ft bull dozed wall. I was extremely unhappy to have to climb this monster because there was no way around it. The little yellow marker waved over it, mocking me.
Once I was over it, I ran into a few more interesting bits of wildlife. A black dog that scared the crap out of me and some really annoyed birds. Nothing too serious. I exited the woods and must have looked like hell. A little old lady blew me kisses from a bus stop and made me smile again as I headed back towards the city. I ran into the check in spot and only stopped for water. I was running close to the wire on time now and didn’t want to miss the cut off. Luckily the trail emptied me on to the river path which was paved and blissfully flat. Too bad I was so shot at that point I could barely appreciate it. I had felt the pull in my leg on the last fall I took and knew there was something not good going on in there (later discovered the groin pull, nothing serious, just enough to slow you down). I struggled to hit my stride for the last 5k, but a nice medic on a bike kept me company. He was enjoying practicing his English on me and asking me tons of questions about the states. Medical staff and volunteers are truly amazing under-appreciated gifts to runners.
Triumphantly I ran up the hill by my hotel and headed into the city’s square. I hit the mats at 1 minutes and 29 seconds over the cut off time. Not that anyone cared. There were still other runners on the course from the other distances. Luckily it wasn’t a strict cut off race.
For the first time in a long time I cried. Yup. At a race finish. I was so glad to be done. I took off my favorite Tifosi sunglasses (which I left on a bench and cried about losing later) and used baby wipes to try and make myself look human. Luckily they let me shower before the award ceremony. They brought the Sister Cities participants on stage to present them with trophies.
Funny enough, I do appreciate the local Sister Cities rep inviting me back for the “normal marathon” in three weeks. I wish I had ran that one to begin with! In parting, I would love to visit Poland again, and possibly run another race. But I will be finding someone who ran it first and find out what kind of race it REALLY is before I sign up.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?
Thanks for reading this small novel!