Monday, July 16, 2007

Full Iceland 55k Ultramarathon Recap

Notice the little people near the snow (they are very little).


Abstract: The race went well. I ended up 9th of 137, with a finishing time of 5:29:31, about 40 minutes behind the winner. I am recovering well and will not be attempting anything much longer than this for a little while. Next thoughts are the Royal Victoria Marathon at Thanksgiving and then Boston if the boys all go. There are some pictures from the race included in the post, but all the pictures from the race can be seen here Iceland Pictures. There are also two videos which I took during the race (sorry for the naughty language).

This is now the FULL recap. Sorry for the delay in posting it - internet access and time to write have been difficult to come by.

The alarm went off, but it needn't have. I hadn't slept at all. It wasn't that I was nervous, or even excited, I just didn't sleep. It was like having caffeine to close to bedtime. I wanted to sleep, but couldn't. My watch was first, followed quickly by the wake up call from the front desk - not one of this automated ones, but the actual person, who was definitely not amused at having to call me at 3:30 am. I went through my normal pre-race routine and left the room for the lobby and the $30, five minute cab ride to the bus.

Iceland at 4:20am.

The race site was about 2.5 hours from Reykjavik, so they loaded us on buses and drove us out to the middle of Iceland, to the start of the four to five day hiking trail that we were about to run (It is actually more south than the middle). The bus ride was uneventful, except for the two times that our bus, once leaving the pavement and driving along barren, rocky, Icelandic roads, CROSSED rivers. Twice.


The campsite at the start of the race.

We arrived at the campsite/trailhead at 8:00am and had an hour to prepare ourselves for the race. I had dropped off a bag the day before at the package pick up so that it would be available to me halfway through the race - another shirt, extra water bottles, extra salt, and gels. I hadn't been sure what to expect in terms of weather, so I brought an outfit for every occasion. As it turned out, the weather was pretty ideal - cloudless to start and warm, with a cooling off as the clouds rolled in during the latter part of the race. I didn't do too much warm up, but nervous anxiety had caught up to me and I was trying to determine who the "contenders" were. Ultra runners are a quirky bunch and I had a hard time picking out who I should key off of, but in the end, it didn't really matter.

The beginning of the race

I knew something about the course from reading the website and from a kind commenter, so I knew the beginning was the most challenging part of the course. I knew that. And so I started out conservatively. However, as you can see, there is a technical climb right at the beginning, so I knew I had to be near the front or else I would lose contact with the frontrunners. I made sure I situated myself well, going up the climb in 8th spot, but was still feeling as though I wasn't working too hard. My breathing was under control and I was chatting with a Frenchman who, as it turned out, is the Brooks distributor for France. He was running with a camera as well, but instead of a compact snapshot camera, it was a full on SLR (think of your dad’s camera). He is the person in yellow in some of my pictures.



The beginning of the course is spectacular and I found myself wondering if the mountains were painted or real. The colours were vivid and you could literally see forever. However, the beauty of the region masked the constant climbing. In the preview of the course on the website, they mention that there is 500m of elevation gain in the first 10k. That is not that much when I think of some of the trail races that I have done. In fact, it was very much in the realm of “doable” (ok, may not be a word, but that is ok). Interestingly, sitting in the spring fed pool at the end of the race, the conversation centered around the feeling that the elevation we were told about was not what we experienced. My belief, looking back on it, is that from point to point the difference in elevation was 500m, but in getting there, with all the up AND down, the actual elevation gain was closer to 800m. And that was the first 10k. This did not bode well for the next 45k.



My plan was to use the first hour to find my legs and feel good. I did that, but even though I was chatty and conservative, my heart rate kept creeping up – 150, 155, 160, 165 - a little higher than I wanted to be at that point of the race. The last person I spoke to was a 52 year old man who previously had run 5:23:00. He passed along some advice – “When you come to a 500m downhill, walk, don’t run. When I ran it, I ended up walking backwards down the hills late in the race because the front of my legs didn’t work. But when I walked it, I had my best race.” After thanking him for his help, I ran off as he waited for his friends. I was happy to know that there was a downhill coming, but sad that I wouldn’t be able to fly down it. I thought back to my long run with Nik and how I paid for our downhill running on the backside of Mt. Finlayson and I promised that I would be conservative on this long downhill.



The course passed under me as I kept tabs on the frontrunners. They were only 4 minutes ahead, and I one point I was making up some time on them. I felt great as I passed the 2hr mark and wondered how the next 3 hours would go. The course had been pretty simple to follow – move from one post embedded in the ground to the next. It also helped that I could watch the people in front of me to get an idea of where I was going. Up and down we went – over snow, over volcanic glass, and soft rocky surfaces. I was feeling good but the early leapfrogging of positions was coming to an end and we were beginning to establish ourselves. As I was past the “warm up” interval I had imposed on myself, I allowed my legs to turnover a little quicker and hold a pace that felt a little more natural (read: I fed my ego and allowed myself to run faster). I began to pull back some runners and slowly moved from 8th to 6th. I felt comfortable here. I could see a lead group of three and a group of two guys behind them. The leaders had someone in yellow and the second group had someone in red – both colours that I could pick our from a fair distance.


I felt comfortable. This was fun. The scenery was amazing and I was doing well. I realized that I wasn't going to win the race, but I thought I had a chance for a strong placing. Through the first aid station I took some more water, but was quick. A little cheer from the people gathered there and I was off, trying to make up some time from a fast transition. I came up on the long downhill the racer had warned me about, and heeding his advice, I slowed up. The rock was very loose and quite sharp, almost hollow sounding as I knocked it around on my descent. My tentativeness had allowed two people to catch and pass me on this descent. I am not one that like being passed on downhills, so again is was ego check time as I let them go, thinking that they would come back to me.

The downhill lead to a river crossing. This was the first of a few that were to come. I was prepared for FREEZING water, but it wasn't that bad. I don't know if all the ocean soaks have numbed me to the cold, but I went through and it was almost, dare I say it, refreshing. The two people that had passed me moved on a bit and I tried to keep pace, but from a bit of a distance now. I could no longer see the frontrunners, but still had my eye on the people I thought were in the second group.

This is where the race got long. After the absolutely amazing start, the course stretched out into long, rolling strecthes of volcanic black rock. No more technical running. No more beautiful vistas, no one around. This was to be the guts of the race.





And for a while things were good. But then they started to, very slowly, come apart a little. I noticed my heart rate dropping slightly, which would have been good if I felt I was easing up. But this is in a indication that a bonk is starting to set in. I had been taking gels and drinking my drink, but I started to slow down. The time to the leaders was increasing and I didn't feel as though I was able to push the pace. Through another aid station and another river crossing. Someone else passed me. He looked quite strong. I tried to stay with him. It was working. For about 3 minutes. And then he was gone. With each step he was pulling away. I was back to 9th now. And looking ahead.

Thankfully there were many hikers along this four day hiking trail. And they were all amazing. They would move off the more worn path in plenty of time and cheer as I went by. They were not upset about the fact that there were 130 people running by them; they cheered for every person, sometimes giving feedback about where I was. It was the kindness and energy of these hikers that kept me sane through that long stretch.

Cramping had started to set in as well. Thankfully, the omnipotent Jasper Blake had given me a bunch of salt pills for the race and these worked wonders. Not wanting to wait for digestion to occur, I bit into these pills, releasing A LOT of salt into my mouth - but it was glorious for I knew that it would stop the cramping for a little while. The thing was though, looking at this elevation chart of the race, it doesn't really mention any uphill in that latter part of it (save for the obvious one). But that just wasn't the case...(see video)








And so I marched on. Perpetual forward motion. I thought of my training run and how Nik had laughed at me, but I had made it through. I was no longer in sight of anyone. I didn't look back, but there was no one ahead. I had find my way along. And finally, I came to river crossing with some people there. It was good to see them. But with them came a HUGE hill...


We were to get to the top of this hill via a path along the left side (unseen) of the picture.

This was to be it. My Moby Dick. I had long since stopped running the hills in favour of apower hike. Then just a hike. The a survival hike. This one now a pride hike. My goal time of 5:00 hours was passed and I was now thinking of 5:30 as a reasonable target, but not knowing (exactly) how much further I had to go, I just wanted to keep moving forward.


The view from near the top of the hill - looking backwards.

And so, with the hill summited, I trudged to the finish. The landscape changed back from barren to lush and I could feel a sense of pride welling up. I had never questioned if I would be able to finish the race, it was a matter of how well I would finish it. And although dreams of medals had danced in my sleepless mind the night before the start, I was exactly where I thought I should be right now - suffering, but still able to go forward. I ran the last couple kilometers pretty well as I saw the clock inching toward my new goal time of 5:30.

I crossed the line in 5:29:31 to the cheers of about 30 people, 9th overall, and was instantly taken care of by some wonderful volunteers. The next few hours were spent alternating between thermal hot springs, soup, chocolate bars, sleep, showers, and salad and backed potatoes (no BBQ'd lamb for me). It was a long wait for the ride home (which I almost missed because I was engrossed in finishing the novel Once A Runner), and the ride home was pleasant. A time to reflect on the success of my first ultra. I don't think I will be venturing over the 50k distance anytime to soon. Maybe a 50 miler, but I am definitely leaving the 100's (km and milers) alone fore a good little while. I would like to do some more stage races in the future and have my eye on a couple. But for now, it is back to training for the Royal Victoria Marathon in October and maybe Boston in the spring.

We arrived back late and there was NO WAY I was paying for a cab home! The forty five minute walk was serene. It was 11:30pm and yet twilight. Still and bright. A nice end to a long day.




Post a Comment