On the night before the race a storm was approaching. We had arrived a day early and listened to the wind building up as darkness fell. 130km ultra start scheduled for the evening had already been cancelled and listening to the dark forest howling around us it seemed like a good call.
Vaarojen Maraton (Marathon of Dangers) is an annual trail running race in Koli National Park. The 43km route includes more than 1300m of ascend spiced up by some fairly technical sections of rocks and roots. Alongside the marathon, there are also 86km and 130km ultras available for the brave ones.
I was signed up for the 43km as my first ever trail running race and had an early 7AM start. This meant waking up for breakfast at 4:45AM after a night spent mostly awake listening to the storm and wondering if we´d actually get to start the race the next morning.
To my relief, the surroundings sounded relatively calm when the alarm went off and I started my regular race morning routine with porridge, freshly baked rolls and a cup of coffee.
I was worried of fallen trees blocking the roads to the race start and decided to leave early. After thanking the B&B hosts for the early breakfast I grabbed my gear and headed out. Seeing my car intact with no fallen trees on it was another relief. Luckily, someone had been up even before me as several fallen trees had been cleared from the roads leading to the race.
It was still dark when I arrived to the start line. Morning was cold and the wind wasn´t really helping in keeping myself warm while waiting for the start. I kept myself busy walking around peeking curiously towards the other runners. Some of them would be starting a 86km journey continuing for a second loop when I´d finish my race at 43km with most of the others. Even the thought of it sounded impressive.
A couple minutes before the start I worked my way closer to the front. I figured I´d start from the second or third row and see how the pace there would work for me being ready to drop further behind if needed. I had set myself a heart rate zone where I wanted to stay throughout the race regardless of the varying terrain. To make sure I wouldn´t be paying attention to my pace, I had my watch showing only the current heart rate and elapsed time with no pace or distance visible.
We were set off at 7AM sharp when it was just barely bright enough to head out without a headlamp. The pace felt comfortable heading downhill on a narrow forest path and there was a cheerful chat going on among the runners around me. I had started my first trail running race and was really looking forward to see how the day would eventually fold out!
For the first kilometers the pace felt pretty brisk but we went downhill and my heart rate was more or less in control so I didn´t worry about it that much. When we approached the first ascent the pace started to slow down and eventually we were walking our way up a steep hill in a long line.
Climbing felt surprisingly tough even by walking and I took a peek at my heart rate which was miles off from the target zone. I knew I should have slowed down but being there in the middle of a queue of people walking up in unison it didn´t seem like a feasible idea at the time. I decided to just keep up with the others and slow down a bit later once the climb was over.
The problem of running in a queue quickly solved itself once the path turned to a downhill. It was a steep descent of wet rocks and I needed to concentrate on every step to keep myself from falling. The experienced trail runners in front of me just took off and vanished in the horizon before I even had time to realize what had happened.
Soon, I found myself running in a small group of four who somehow seemed to share my view of safe downhill running pace. However, a brief chat revealed they didn´t get dropped off because of gaps in their downhill running technique. Instead, they were all 86km runners who wanted to save energy for the second lap.
Once I got used to the rhythm of constant ups and downs and learned to run somewhat relaxed in the varying terrain, the first 2,5 hours turned out to be really enjoyable. The views couldn´t be much better as we were constantly running on high hills surrounded by lakes and I thanked myself for making the decision to take on trail running after years of triathlon. Running on small forest paths required constant concentration and forced me to keep my mind off from the fatigue slowly building up.
At around 25km I realized something changing. The path had turned a lot more technical and seemed to keep going upwards. For the next hour we kept working our way up a more or less constant technical ascent dropping the pace down to 9mins/km. When the route finally turned back downwards I thought the worst was over. It was actually still to come.
We were off for a long descent and after 15ish mins of constant downhill my legs started to give signs they´d had more than enough of it. First, I started wobbling on each step and soon enough the wobbling sensation turned to shots of pain.
I realized I had never really had a chance to train on long downhills and the muscles needed for it weren´t up to the task. I tried going down with small baby steps, long leaps and anything in between but nothing seemed to work. When I eventually got to somewhat level ground after 30mins of constant descending I still had 10ish kilometers to the finish line.
Luckily the route headed for a section of dirt roads making the running a bit easier. I kept my cadence up trying to run conservatively and cursed every small downhill on the way. The kilometers passed slowly and after more than 4,5 hours of running I felt my energy levels getting low. I tried getting my spirits up by chatting with co-runners, getting an extra shot of energy gel and making sure I was drinking enough but eventually I needed to admit I was struggling.
At around 36km I started hearing rumors of the “final climb” and the “false climb” before the real one. Actually, I wasn´t really worried about the climbs but the idea of descending after the false climb sounded already painful. Luckily, the finish line was getting closer and I started to smell the barn. When the false climb started at around 39km I was mentally already past the worst and felt renewed. I was even daring enough to jog the uphills where most of the co-runners decided to walk.
After a kilometer of climbing it was time for the final descent and it was going to be a painful one. As it felt equally uncomfortable to walk or run downhill I decided to take it all in as fast as possible and run down as quickly as I dared. My quads were sending up very uncomfortable messages but at the same time I knew was getting really close to the finish.
When the descent eventually ended and the path turned back up I knew there was less than 2 kilometers and about 230 vertical meters between me and the finish line. Time to sprint to the finish!
In all honesty, me sprinting up the hill probably looked more like longish walking breaks among slow jogging but soon enough I found myself crossing the finish line with the time 5:13h. I had made it through my first trail marathon more or less intact and had learned a couple of valuable lessons for my upcoming trail races: Cut the toenails before a race and run more downhills!
While enjoying a cup of sports drink and easing off at the finish I looked at the runners around me continuing for their second lap towards the 86km finish line. Hats off, seriously!