I clumsily wobbled onboard a small boat trying not to slip down to the freezing water below. After almost 9 hours of running it felt great to finally get off my legs and sit for a second. I was genuinely disappointed when the short water crossing was over in no time and I found myself getting ready for another 24k of running. “Wow, it’s hard to get these legs moving again!”
It was my second time participating Vaarojen Maraton (Marathon of Dangers) trail running race in Koli National Park. I initially signed up for 43k but when the race week was up I found myself buying a slot for the two loop 87k race. After my 270k run around Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania I was feeling confident on my endurance and headed to the start line exited and ready to get running.
The race took off at 7AM, right when the sun started to climb above treeline. My legs felt light and I was full of energy pushing forward with a group of guys doing the 43k race. “We’re going a bit fast, but I should be fine – I’ll slow down for the second lap…”
The first 20k was on easy trails with little elevation and I felt tempted to jog up the smaller hills even though I knew there was a long day ahead. Once the trail got more technical and elevation started to add up at 25k, I found my legs starting to show first signs of wearing down.
I had heard rumors of the route modifications making the second half of the 43k loop more difficult (and slower), but to be honest, the added time and effort ended up surprising me. It took me close to 6,5 hours completing the first loop (5:13h a year ago). When finally arriving to the aid station at race center, I already realized it was going to be a long day at the office.
Knowing it would be difficult to get going again if I let myself get too comfortable, I tried to make my aid station visit as brief as possible. Quick plate of warm vegetable soup, head torch, water and energy to hydration pack and I was back on the trail in no time.
The second loop was a lonely one. For the first two hours I saw no one, and if there weren’t the occasional route markings calming my nerves, I would have been sure to convince myself I was off the track.
Loneliness gave me time to think. On the first round my thoughts had wandered on the beauty of our surroundings, comradery among the runners, and the effortless pace we were able to keep up. However, the second round turned out to be quite different.
I started experiencing pains in different parts of my legs. Every rocky section and downhill gave me creeps as soon as I saw them approaching. Even the hiking poles I had picked up at the aid station before taking off for the second round weren’t enough to take the weight off my legs and I found myself winching on each unexpected slip off a wet rock or leaf covered root.
My pace dropped to a pathetic mix of fast walking and very slow jogging and soon enough I heard the first runner approaching from behind. After wishing me well (obviously noticing my pain) he soon vanished from sight. I had no chance of keeping up.
At 63k I finally saw the sign of a water crossing ahead and after another couple hundred meters of painful slog I finally spotted the small pier with a rowing boat waiting at the shore. Gathering all my will power I tried to keep myself steady climbing onboard and sitting down for the first time in more than 9 hours.
Knowing I still had another 24k and probably 4-5 hours of running ahead of me I spent the few minutes on the boat trying to munch down as much energy and water as possible hoping for some kind of a miraculous recovery. When we reached the other shore and I tried to stand up to get off the boat I realized I was in trouble.
My coordination was non existent due to the pains all around my legs and I needed to pull myself off the boat grabbing the pier with both hands. Running was out of question so I hiked up to the aid station couple hundred meters ahead pondering my options.
Most of the runners who had passed me lately were hanging out at the aid station fueling up and getting ready for the next 15k technical stretch. I re-fueled my bag and took off quickly knowing they’d shortly catch me again.
Before heading back on trail we needed to cover a kilometer of dirt road heading steadily upwards. Once my legs loosened up a bit I carefully tried to get myself back to jogging as this was one of the easiest parts of the remaining 24k. Regardless of my efforts, the motion that in my mind should have looked a bit like jogging, didn’t really increase my speed at all. The runners who had left the aid station after me seemed to be quickly catching me up – and they were walking!
I gave up my pathetic try of running and decided to fast walk with the other runners but the pains in my legs kept slowing me down and the others soon started to pull ahead of me. I looked the uphill ahead in despair, took a peek at the dirt road behind, tried to desperately calculate how long it would take for me to get to the finish line at this pace – and eventually came to a sad conclusion.
With the hardest terrain still ahead of me, darkness about to set in, legs with no coordination, and the pains I was experiencing, it wouldn’t be possible for me to finish the 87k race today. After 64k I made the decision – this would be my first ever DNF on an ultrarunning race.
It was a surprisingly difficult decision to make and I found it even more difficult to live with it afterwards. As soon as I was back in the warm race center and started regaining energy, I started the debate – would I have been able to make it after all? Why didn’t I just keep going?
In all honesty, I think I wouldn’t have been able to make it to the end without experiencing some kind of long-term injuries. When analyzing the data afterwards, I realized my pace and effort on the first lap were too high, and even with a mind of a yedi, I wouldn’t have been able to take myself through the dark forest safely.
What´s done is done and now I need to live with it. However, this does bring up another challenge. I don’t want to end an otherwise excellent running season to a DNF, so now the only option is to look up another race for the upcoming months! Sounds like there´s some more fun ahead!