It was quite easy once I had seen the YouTube video: Royal Sky Ultra Marathon, 54 km 4000 height meters, was the race to run when on holiday in North Italy (the alps close to Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso and Matterhorn). I convinced my wife that we could spend one day of our holiday there. Actually she decided that it could be cool to do the short version herself.
I signed up and then the first problem started. How does one train for such a race, living in a country where the highest point is something like 100 m above sea level……I was born in the Netherlands, highest point about 300 m above sea level and moved to an even flatter country…. The only thing I could think of was to use the only hill in the village we live. So there I was running up and down the hill, through the sandboxes in the playground on one side and putting as many obstacles on my course to jump over. That should do the job, I thought, since how much harder than Swiss Alpine marathon can it be? It is 25 km shorter, but has the double number of height meters. O boy, what did I know….
3 days before the big day, we arrived in the race area and decided to have a look at the start. Well, the start is around 2000 m over sea-level and to get there one needs to drive over an extremely - bad road while the incline reaches many places 20% (or more it seemed). It was raining, the car was suffering severely and when we finally arrived at the lake where the start is, my motivation had lowered to the minimum. If this is the road to the start, then what can I expect from the race? We walked the first 300 meters up to a hut on the route to get a feeling of the race. Took us 50 minutes. That gave a feeling of how fast we should be moving to get to the first cutoff (after 6,5 km and 1000 meters up). My wife had decided to try to walk it. She would take it easy though, since being pregnant. The days after my motivation returned fortunately.
The race started at 7:00, but one needed to be in the start area at 6:00. Reason not totally clear, but with that road it seemed a good idea to have some extra time.
At 7:00 the start gun went off. About 200 runners take off, including my wife in the end of the group. The first 1 km is flat and I can run. I am sticking to the middle of the pack. As soon as the first mountain starts overtaking gets hard/impossible. The time I overtake some guys, cost me a lot of extra energy. When I pass the hut we had walked to, my watch says, 24 minutes. Plan was to pass here in around 30 minutes, so I decide to take it easy to the first pass and keep in line with the other runners. Need to keep aware of the poles of the other runners though, since they point in all directions … I do not have poles myself. It keeps going up and up. I keep drinking since I am sweating a lot. Views are fantastic! Getting close to the first pass, I notice red drops on some stones. Is it red energy drink or some runner has crashed? I reach the top in 1h:34 (cut off is 2h00). Beautiful cakes and tea at the top. Amazing these volunteers, carrying this up the mountain for us!
Then the downhill starts. My hope to run is shot down immediately. No path, just big rocks, where the only way down it to jump from one stone to another. Patches of snow… at some point the fellow in front falls and slides down 25 meter. He manages to stop with help of the poles. Hmm, maybe I should have poles…. Path keeps being tough for quite some time. I can see on my times that I am moving slowly. I hoped to use 9 hours for the race (since how much harder than my worst Swiss Alpine marathon time can it be…). But I am losing ground already. Well the course will get easier later, won’t it? I get past the first difficult part and finally can run a bit again.
I don’t believe what I am seeing. Many runners take crazy short cuts and run straight down the mountain. This results in some bad crashes.… A guy crashes in front of me, all skin open at the back of his leg and butt. He curses, stands up and runs on…. Another runner is lying down with quite a lot of bleeding from one leg… looks ugly, but he passes me a little later and I never see him again. Wow, I thought I was tough, but among these guys I am a major sissy.
I am enjoying; this is simply great! On the second incline I am one moment not paying attention and I crash. Now I am also bleeding from my leg, but nothing serious. A little later my other leg suddenly disappears in a deep hole which was covered by grass. Ouch! I curse and continue. It is getting tougher again. After the second pass, it is supposed to get easier, but it keeps being tough. Thanks God, there are beautiful depots though with fantastic cakes, chocolate, cheese, and everything else one can wish for!
I get to the bottom of the third big incline. This is 1000 meter up. I walk, since cannot really run anymore. It keeps going up and up. Clouds everywhere. I am suffering and need to have breaks every 100 meters, not being used to the heights. Other runners pass me. I try to calculate how much more meters we need to climb and conclude that it should be around 200 meter more. But that moment the clouds disappear for a second and I can see…. Mountain, mountains and some very very small runners on top… that is not 200 meters but rather 500…. I sit down for a minute, think of crying and then start dragging myself up. 50 meter at a time. Another runner on the way is in troubles as me. We try to talk together but he does speak Italian and I don’t, so my reply goes in English. After being dragging ourselves up like that for 30 minutes he says ‘ Basta’ and indicates he will give up at the next depot. I try to tell him it will get down afterwards, but he says it will go up again afterwards. He is right and I have no idea how I will get there, but somehow I get upset. I get very upset. With that runner, with myself, with the mountains, with the guy who has made this race. ‘I am not going to give up’. ‘They will not take me off this course’. ‘These mountains are not going to beat me’ are the sentences I yell in myself. I start moving faster, leaving the other runner behind. I start repairing myself. Taking snow to cool myself down; eat some food from my backpack and reach finally the top of the pass. Even there they have icetea! Happy to be over the top, I start running again. Making the next cutoff point is my main focus now.
I crash another time, twisting my right foot badly. Damned that hurts, but I just get more determined and I continue. Next small incline I am suffering again. An older runner passing me put his hand on my shoulder and says something encouraging to me. I must look really bad and I do not have any energy left in me.
When reaching the top I get some text on my phone. My wife did not make the first cutoff; has returned with the organizers, is back at the camping and had a good time. Good, since the race is much tougher than expected and I happy she is safe down. She also tells me there is a price for the runner, who finishes and who has travelled most to get to the race. That’s mine then! And I also would like to have those 2 credits for UTMB. I learn writing a text while running downhill is a stupid idea, leading to another bad crash. I crash another couple of time in the next hour and my ankle hurts pretty badly. I try to follow another runner, who is moving nicely and I study his technique with the poles. They seem handy. Then he starts taking shortcuts and I keep to the path since my ankle will not hold to that.
I can see the road down now, where the next cutoff is. On my way down I twist my ankle several times more. It hurts more every time. This time twisting it before the road my hearing disappears for a minute… disturbing. My wife is at the road crossing with a coke. Great. She walks with me, while I complain about the torture this is. I am still upset and still very determined to beat these mountains. She tells me I am doing well and that it looks good. I am however having troubles to see how I get up the next and last mountain…
The next mountain goes well until half way, and then I start suffering again and move very slowly. There is supposed to be a mountain hut with a depot and every time I think I see it it appears to be something else when I get there…. Finally I make it, after having twisted my foot another time. I sit down, drink and need to do an effort to reassure the race organization that I am doing fine, while thinking: ‘you are not going to pull me off the course; over my dead body’. Now it is just 300 meters up and then only downhill. Those 300 meters go very slowly. I am moving 2 kmh on the inclines…. Very happy to reach the top, I can see I have 2,5 hour until the final cutoff of 13:30. I walk all the downhill, simply destroyed and am very very happy to pass the finish after 12:20. The race organizer comes to congratulate me and I get a microfone under my nose while he asks something in Italian. The only thing I can say is ‘tired’… A little later I get a huge piece of local cheese. My prize. Wow, what a race.
Great race, which I very much underestimated. The comparison with Swiss alpine is very wrong. Swiss Alpine is a walk in the park, compared to this.
Fantastic organization, fantastic volunteers, great food everywhere!
Yes, fantastic race!
One month after I have to say that I am totally in to mountain running. City marathons seem boring now, so planning to try to get into UTMB (the short one CCC) next year. How fast one forgets the suffering….
NB. De website van de organisatie is http://www.royalmarathon.com/ Voor 2012 wordt nog geen datum gegeven, dus hou als je belangstelling hebt de website in de gaten of neem contact op met de organisatie.