The gun goes off. The timing chip beeps as I cross the starting line, surrounded by around 200 other runners. This is my second attempt at running Katrinberglauf (2015 blog entry). The basic premise is simple: the race spans an official 4.4km and climbs 943 meters of elevation. The first few hundred meters are on tarmac (which helps spread out the runners a little), the next half kilometer is on a narrow gravel road in the forest, and then from around the 1km mark to the top the runners follow a ski slope with a rocky single trail snaking its way up, getting steeper and steeper along the way. I may not be the fastest competitor, but with the majority of runners being from Austria, there’s a big chance that I drove the most Kilometers go get here. Why would I do that even though I have no chance of finishing on the first page of the results? Why would anyone subject themselves to this much suffering, anyway?
During the initial 300m on tarmac, oddly enough, things felt more relaxed than last year. I hit a top pace of 4:05m/km, but that’s pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things because the one minute and fifteen seconds it took us to cover this ground is fairly meaningless compared to the almost hour-long slog up the mountain that would follow. Now off pavement, we went around a 90 degree bend and then attacked the first short but solid climb of the day. Here, things were a bit congested and I transitioned into a walk for a few meters because people in front of me weren’t moving faster. I had started quite conservatively, but even then my heart rate had already gone up from 130 at the start to 170 right as we did another 90 degree turn and followed a gravel-filled road through the forest. I transitioned back into a run for the next few hundred meters, but after a little over 500m of total distance, with my heart rate at 172 and the road now getting steeper, I was (just like last year) one of the first people to switch to power-walking.
I was quickly starting to feel my lack of mountain-specific training. I competed at the European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor (EMACI) in late March. With so much focus on 60m and 200m sprints, along with the inevitable flu season that hit me hard in March, not only did my 2016 training only see half the vertical elevation change, but I also did less than half of last year’s distance on roads or trails.
On the steeper stretches, I tried to do that steep-mountain-walk where you push with your hands against your quads, basically in an attempt to use your arms to aid in pushing your legs into the ground and yourseld forward; but all that gave me was arms that were quickly feeling tired. And while last year I fell into a groove and went the same speed as the people around me, this year it seemed that I was passed a bit more often. I was working hard, and my heart soon reached the maximum sustainable level of around 175 beats per minute. While it can go a little higher for short bursts, I know that this is right around the level where I can still keep going without falling apart. But even though I wasn’t falling apart, I still didn’t have an easy job. A stuffy nose left me with some breathing issues; which I’m sure wasn’t really helping to get enough oxygen into my blood and muscles.
Since there’s also a separate relay after the main race has started, and several teams each year answer the challenge of sprinting up the mountain in larger groups, there was regular clapping and encouragement coming from relay runners who were still waiting for their chance to run.
We passed the first “Labestelle” where water or isotonic drinks were offered. Since temperatures were much lower than last year, and I thought I’d hydrated well before the race, I opted not to slow down for a drink. I had memorized my splits from last year, so when I passed the second kilometer in around 20 minutes and the third one in 35 minutes, I knew that I wasn’t too far from last year’s performance. In between, there were a few spots where the gradient was a little less steep. I wished I could have run here, but the heart rate and overall state I was in did not allow this.
Even though my eyes were mostly focused on the ground, and landing ideal foot strikes without slipping or sliding; I couldn’t help but notice the large variety of the people around me. With the top athletes already across the finish line by now, my competitors here were a lot more diverse than you’d expect. It’s a little humbling to have a women in the W60 category pass you; but good for her. Coming from a country and a sport (track&field) where most people finish their athletic careers before they hit 30, it’s refreshing to see people who maintain fitness well into their sixties.
So not only was I getting passed by people considerably older than me; but the terrain got even harder. During the final kilometer, the average grade increases some more, sometimes hitting 30% or 40%. The elements started playing a more dominant role now, too. With valley temperatures at around 16 degrees when we started, it was noticeably colder here. My running top was soaked with perspiration by this point, so when the wind picked up (even if it was a bit of a tailwind), the evaporative effect started to chill me. And then, to up the annoyance factor some more, it started raining.
Finally, a sign with “400” written on it came into view. In my oxygen-depleted state it took a while for it to register that this meant I had 400m left to go. 400m is not very far. I’ve covered that distance in less than 50 seconds on the track. Here, it would take me at least a handful of minutes. I traded positions with one or two runners a couple of times, but really I was just too tired to make any meaningful improvement on my racing position. Basically, all my body allowed me to do was to just keep on going. In comparison to last year that was a change, because last year I first had a really low point where I wanted to quit, and then found a second wind. This year, I neither had a low point nor did I ever find a second wind.
The final 200m or so were tough. I still had breathing issues, and I could feel that my legs were threatening to cramp up. There was a trio of runners ahead of me, and I tried to hold on. I was moving faster than the last of this trio as we entered the finish line chute (where it’s an unwritten rule to no longer pass people). He moved to the side, but I stayed behind, saying something along the lines of “it’s okay”, meaning I’d gladly stay behind. I think only “okay” actually came out of my mouth. Maybe he understood. With nobody immediately behind me, a bit of a gap formed in the last meters as I unraveled. I walked over the finish line and collapsed against a wall.
I heard the speaker announce my finish time. The exact numbers didn’t quite register, but I understood that I was a minute or two faster than last year (in fact, I did 54’15 , versus last year’s 55’55).
I crossed the line in 127th position. With 202 finishers in total, that puts me at about 63%; which in turn is marginaly better than last year’s 65%.
So why again do I do this? I knew I wasn’t in any kind of shape to significantly improve last year’s performance. I knew that the weather wouldn’t great. I knew that driving almost 1500km (round trip) over the course of the weekend would tire me out. I knew that I’d be forced to power-hike for the maority of my race. And yet, I signed up for the race and I’m glad I did. When I did the race last year, my achilles tendon was the limiting factor. It was badly inflamed and running on it was painful. Recovery was a long process. When I started preparing my second season as a mountain runner, I vowed that I would do my best to improve my physical shape so I’d be able to actually run much more of the distance. Not only would this be faster on the easier gradients, but it just feels a little dishonest to sign up for a race and then power-hike 90% of it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite adhere to that vow because somewhere along the way an indoor track season happened. But the achilles is a little better this year, and as long as my body still allows me to do a little training for these kinds of challenges, I’ll sign up for it. Because the alternative to it, a world without athletic challenges, just seems entirely too boring to me. Other people may have differing opinions, and in fact I think most of my friends and acquaintances cannot even imagine competing here. To some, a flat 10km race is a perfectly fine challenge, whereas others don’t seem to need challenges at all. To each their own. I can’t imagine a life where I’m not pushing myself for some athletic endeavour.