I"ve never felt less prepared for a race. No mental preparations at all. There have been so many other things to focus on lately that, when race day finally dawned, I was almost caught by surprise.
The evening before, I packed my things with an uncharacteristic lack of interest. I would put one thing in the bag, then go and do something else, then come back and put another thing in the bag (or maybe that"s just my ADHD?). My right knee had been bothering me for ages, so much so that I wondered if I was injured. It made it hard to muster up any enthusiasm for the race. In fact, I was convinced I would get my first DNF and be forced to cancel the rest of my races this season. No wonder that packing felt like a chore. No wonder a 50 km race felt like having to face the death squad. I"d rather be at home tending to the garden and avoiding any confrontation with my knee.
There were four AIK runners that drove to Boden to participate in this peculiar race, that would take us to 5 (?) Swedish Army forts, positioned on the perimeter of the town. My running buddies echoed my feelings. All four of us have entered the Ultravasan 90 km race in August, and this was to be an important step towards that. Yet no one felt ready. It was a beautiful day, already warm at 9 in the morning. When we arrived at the National Defense Museum, just in time to listen to the information given by the race organisers, a trail shoe-shod, hydration pack-carrying crowd had already gathered.
Way too much time was given to the energy drink sponsors, and I felt my attention drifting off to other things, like the swords on the wall, the buzz of the cafeteria fridge behind me, the faces of the other participants. The race organisers then went through the course, but my brain was completely shut off. I trusted that they had marked it well enough for me to avoid getting lost; I wasn"t going to be able to retain any of this information anyway.
Outside, the four of us posed for a ”before” picture, to remember how insane people look right before they throw themselves into the burning pits of hell: all manic smiles and misplaced confidence. The starting gun was less of a gun and more of a tank cannon, keeping in line with the military theme of the race. I have a very strong aversion to guns, tanks and all things military, but it was kind of cool to get such a deafening send-off.
|Just before the start|
The others opened strong. I had no desire to try and keep up with them, partly because I was worried about my knee and partly because 50 KILOMETRES IS A LONG WAY, MAN, KEEP YOUR SOCKS ON. I wasn"t last but I couldn"t have been far ahead of the last runners. We climbed up to the first, and perhaps most accessible fort after just 4 km. The view was breathtaking: you could see for miles around, over the tree tops and Boden. I drank a couple of dl of water, filled my water bottle and negotiated the steep, rocky trail down to the river again.
|The first fort|
I was now running alone, no other ultra runners in sight. Some of the 10K runners ran past me impossibly fast, too fast to register. I trudged along in my 6:30 pace, the sun already too hot, the surroundings having gone from soft pine forest to dilapidated boat yard. My motivation started waning. After the second fortress, at around 13 km, we made our way back to town. This was a part of the course that was more populated, as we were running among what looked like Suburbia, but it did nothing to alleviate the boredom I was feeling more and more. Time went by so slowly, and the half-marathon distance seemed to never come. I haven"t been so bored since one hour before the bell rang on the last day of school.
|Running to the second fort aid station|
After the third fort, my mood started changing. I was running on forest roads now, having just passed 22 km. I kept thinking that I was almost half way. It was nice to run in the forest, in the shadow; the sun was really hot. Unfortunately, the course turned towards town once again, and soon I was in the town centre, giving angry looks at drivers who didn"t stop at crossings to let me pass. I spoke to J on the phone. I felt kind of delirious because of the heat. I remember asking him to drive to Boden and bring me cold milk. Move over, pregnant women. Your cravings are nothing compared to the cravings of a dehydrated ultra runner.
A couple of kilometres later, the aid station appeared before my eyes like an oasis in the desert. Conveniently positioned by the river, in case someone wanted to throw themselves in it to fight off the heat, they were a sight for sore eyes. My watch said I"d ran 28,5 km, the volunteer said 31. I wanted to believe him and not my watch. My motivation had started waning again. I ran by the river, then up up up on soft, bark-clad paths and technical trails, on an ascend that felt unending, like it would take me all the way to heaven. Right before I arrived at a fort/aid station, I ran past a couple of guys who were walking up. ”It looks easy!” they said. ”It doesn"t feel easy” I replied, really struggling now. ”How do you think it feels for us then?” they said.
One foot in front of the other, I thought. Onward, upward, forward. But the course had a fantastically cruel ace up its sleeve: The secret stairway. If you"ve never tried switching from running to walking up stairs, let me tell you: it sucks. It sucks all of your energy out of your thighs. It burns almost as much as the sun burned my scorched shoulders. Soon enough though I"d climbed to the top and reached the aid station. Two of my AIK-friends were there, one of them nursing a bloody, chafed foot, the other having just completed the obligatory run around the fort. We exchanged a few words, drank way too much/not nearly enough water and I headed off again.
|The secret stairway|
I had started passing more runners now. I passed one of the walkers, who commented that it still looked easy. It"s easier to run downhill, that"s for sure. The race doesn"t really start until you"ve hit 30 km; that"s when all the sins of your past, all the injuries and missed long runs, all the shoddy preparations start catching up with you. A few of the runners I passed walked. A few lingered at aid stations too long, but understandably so. My own sins hadn"t caught up with me yet. As I realised there were fewer than 10 km left, I started counting down, a countdown that was slow. I didn"t mind, because I was going to make it in under 6 hours and my knee hadn"t complained once.
The course had one last nasty surprise left for us: we had to make our way up a slalom hill. A sun-exposed slalom hill. Slalom hills are very steep, and they magically become even steeper when you"ve just run a marathon. One foot in front of the other, I thought once again. Onward, upward, forward. I looked down at my feet, looked up at the top of the hill. Neither helped. I just had to fight it, just had to make it to the top, even if I had to crawl there.
After that particular trial, a nice trail down to a camping site, some paved roads, a beautiful path by the river, and less heat. I remember thinking that it wouldn"t add up to 50 km. I remember thinking that it couldn"t be possible that I was still running and the finish line was nowhere in sight. I remember looking at signs and hoping I"d see ”National Defense Museum” on one of them.
|A couple of kilometres left|
And I remember finally seeing the finish line, among the tanks and the people and the shade. Oh, the shade.
My feet hurt. I crossed the finish line and immediately took my shoes off, lay on the grass, happy to do nothing and having nothing to do. My AIK-friend who"d finished first of the four of us snapped photos and got us coffee and ice-cream, once the other two also finished their race. We sat there chatting for a long time, all of us thinking about Ultravasan 90K in August with considerable trepidation.
After a wonderful shower and a meal, we headed home. It was quiet in the car, an almost contemplative mood having taken over us. This was one of the races I"ve enjoyed the least, mostly because of the heat but I think also because I wasn"t in the right head space for a race. Usually I look forward to spending a day out on the trail. Relaxing into the knowledge I have nowhere else to be, just enjoying my surroundings and the fact that I have a pair of healthy, working legs that make it possible for me to see all these new places. But this time, I couldn"t relax. I felt that I did have somewhere else to be, although I don"t know where. It was a stressful race, both for my body and my mind. Hopefully I will be more enthusiastic when it"s time for Ultravasan.