(Ursvik Ultra 10) Pardon me? You mean we're not in December? Cause it sure looks like it!
It's the season Grand Opening!!
For this first race of the season, I registered for a 75kms race by night in Stockholm, the Ursvik Ultra. I deemed it was a reasonable distance for a season (early) start and with almost no altitude change since I would not have had trained by then. I usually don't like when it is too short or too flat because it then goes way too fast for me but I did not really have many other choices. Moreover, for the first time, I have not entirely made the decision to do it on my own, I was advised to do it, given that it would be very good for a first and especially for my August Holy Grail, THE race of my season. Let us see if it changes anything on the finish line or not!!
D-7, troubles starts. First, just like many other European countries, Sweden has have its coldest winter since 1987 and even though this was March 21st, snow is still very present, saveguarded by negative temperatures. I therefore spent my week on the Weather Channel to spy on upcoming conditions which remained far from heartening at all as the week passed: when it is not snow falls, it was rain showers, cold, etc. And I am not cheered up by the organization's mail either sent in the last days proudly announcing that the course is covered by snow at almost 100%, be it icy or slushy and that “no matterwhat the conditions, the race WILL take place”. Who said the Swedes weren't funny??! My mom will later tell me: ”Barbarians!!!”
D-2, off to Stockholm where I am staying at my friend Clara’s. Once in the train, I think to myself that I must have discovered the time machine. As we come closer to Stockholm, the snow covers each time a bit more the fields and roads. This cannot be true, I must be mistaken, day-dreaming or something! Am I in a DeLorean or what?? Doctor Brown, are you there?? Is this Back to the Future in the Past?? It is like mid-January now!!! Whereas temperatures in Gothenburg have gone up O for the past days, snow had consecutively drastically melted and ice that was covering surrounding lakes turned greyish, showing that it had lost thickness and that is was irreparably dying. As we were reaching Stockholm's suburbs however, I discovered in a mixed feeling of stupor, anger and bewilderment that the city is still suffocating under the snow and that its lakes are also still prisonners of the ice.
H-18, starts one of the longest day of my life, with as a sole entertainement, (binge) eating. Meanwhile, I try to take some resting naps but even though my body would want to, my brain clearly refuses, playing its scales for tonight, getting ready to provide me with as many ressources as possible all along the race. I decide to let him do, foretelling that I will need a lot indeed. A remedy however against thinking too much (and not staring depressively at the rain that keeps on falling or at the weather forecast) and to turn the brain off: Will Ferrell and the very very good ”The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”.
H-2, let us go... Clara's parents kindly offered to gave us a ride. Them, who I had never met before, were a bit disconcerted by the French girl that they had heard of, this girl who does curious races, including half the Tour du Mont-Blanc in 21 and 24h, whereas they (willingly) took 3 to 4 days to complete it. Maybe a French thing not to take the time to admire the splendour of this region! Maybe did they also want to take us to make sure we were not telling lies and in fact going out to a rave or a party alike since I had these flashy and reflecting clothes and a head-lamp on my forehead!!
On the way, we passed by several bus stops where youngsters our age were flocking with beers in both hands and laughing out loud. We could guess where they were heading on this Saturday night. Again, maybe it was a French thing they must have thought. And the adage ”we are all different” never appeared better appropriate than at this specific moment!
When the GPS indicated to turn right and stated that we had reached our destination, a heavy silence, almost as biting as the outside temperature, was hardly bearable... But... There's nothing!! We then drove very slowly, afraid that people holding a ”You've just been punk'd!!!” banner would pop out or that we would disturb armed gangsters... After a few meters, despite the clotted fog, we hardly discern a halo around a ”Runners store” banderole. Well, looks like it's there!! do I fire out with a contained enthousiasm, trying to reassure Clara's parents. The latter looked at themselves and even though they aimed at being discreet, I could definitely tell what they think. It's such a shame because I had tried so hard to honour my education and be the best guest possible but now, they must have been highly asked themselves if I were indeed a fine young lady. Moreover, they must have wondered how on Earth they could have let themselves being dragged in one of Stockholm's filthiest neighbourhood! Mom had not called me Sarah Bernhardt for years nor have I played the main Angel in the final high school play without a reason!!
The car then pulls over the parking lot, or should I say, empty lot, obscure and desert, except for the what-seems-to-be a robbed and abandonned red Mercedes with broken windows and flat tires. The sight of the shabby grounds, coupled with the so-called starting line strangled by the heavy fog is absolutely and even beyond surreal. This must be a joke and yet, nobody laughs. Rather, everybody is dumbfounded and I admit I myself have hazy eyes. Nervousness, despair, I don’t not know which to choose. Death fear maybe! Before going out of the car, I glance through my watery eyes at the board thermometer: -2. Well, I think because I was blinking so fast they I might have been mistaken.
After having accidently ran on the organizors and then withdrawn my number, my sweetest Clara most probably trying to make up for the organization and even maybe for her country for these conditions told me: ” You're gonna do great but you are already my hero for just being here and taking the start!!”. Over these fine words, we head towards the gymnasium or should I say blockhaus. After checking that it was not a squat for marginal junkies, Clara tells me that she will hitch a ride with her parents now to head downtown to go clubbing instead of risking a bad encounter on her way to the bus stop in this Brooklynesque area, after watching me at the start. I totally understand and as her parents await in the car, Clara, usually not very effusive, grabs me in her arms and wishes me ”lycka till”, with one of those looks that one gives to the sentenced to death, just as she was saying goodbye before my last hour...
The following hour, I try not to catch a cold in these lockers unheated, conditions probably wanted by the organization to avoid a thermic choc on our way to the start! So I occupy myself, for instance by trying to figure out how on Earth I am supposed to fix on my shoes these removable pikes, bought only a few days before, after the organization's mail. I loose a few millimetres of skin on my fingers at that game but anyway, I will for sure loose some too during the race because of the cold so why not start now and accommodate to the pain!
M-15, I close all hatches and get going towards the starting line. I was not (evening) dreaming and nope, it was not a symptom pre-stress, it still looks the same: a start barely enlighten, snow every-single-where and, no, wait! A new element: a delicate and tender drizzle has just joined in. Välkomna! Isn't that wonderful??! It just keeps getting better!
M-10, the organization starts the info briefing What's more to say?! Maybe tips on how not to die from hypothermia? Yet given that my svensk is not all that good, I barely understand a little ”Abba” here or ”krissprolls” there... So I then turn towards one of the few stunning hunk (there are good sides to live in Sweden luckily) present in the ”crowd” (60+ participants, 6 girls) and ask him if there is something important I should know. He answers that not really. Polite to answer but not really what you can call loquacious nor unnecessarily stressed, that is a Swed indeed!
M-1, legs are not responding, heart is off to the moon, head is spinning and I am not quite sure if it is because of the excitement to get started (no, maybe not...), stress or just my body trying to prompt a heart attack to die now when it is still time instead of after taking the start and die in horrendous suffering... Well, midnight, too late! Off I go!!
In only a few hundred meters, I quicky realise the inmense mistake I made, youth mistake of course. It is going to be hell, hell, hell. Calvary, Gehenna, road to the Pandemonium, abode of the Damned,... It is too late, I am headed for the end of the world, I am now RUNNING to my loss...
A few more hundred meters further, we definitely leave the world of the living to enter the murk of the Swedish winter night. Maybe consecutively, despite having proved to be an absolute lighthouse light in my past night races, my head lamp is tonight not really with me and I can barely see my feet. That is why after only 27 minutes (I had to watch my watch for I thought it really was funny), I no longer feel the ground under me and when I understand, fierce stings seize my feet: I just completed a beautiful triple jump landing in a frosted puddle. I don't even know how it was not frozen in this temperature. My breathe is cut. I try to take it out but the sounds coming from the deepest part of my rib cage stop in my throat and do not come out: they are not silly, it is way too cold to go out for them too! So then my life instinct makes me think of Mike Horn saying that in order not to die from cold (the Dude crossed the Arctic pole on a sled in winter time in self-efficiency). All right Master, I am at your command. And I forget about my feet. Maybe have I lost them? Arh, anyway, with this lamp, I can't see a thing so let's just keep on straight.
After 1 hour running, I am finally warmed up, I finally have found my pace. But that does not mean that the moral is up. After starting on a surface composed of frozen streams, humid snow and a few icy snow parts, I now must cross entire fields of wet and heavy snow up to my calves. In just a few meters, I lost completely the sensation of life in my ankles, my blood having fled towards my hopefully warmer thighs. Moreover, I can now here unusual and unexplained noises: some ”pop” and some ”clack”... And suddenly, profound pains go through my shoulders, my back, my adductors. By running in this type of snow, I link together front splits, side splits and some failed attempts of front flips, my feet flying towards New York, Paris, Christchurch, everywhere at the same time! I try as best as I can to take it slow, fearing to lose already all my energy, but I hardly succeed and I even hurt and tire myself some more in trying to do so, doing even more contortions. At one point, I even almost kissed my rear bums! as much as I was head over heels. Fog is still here which keeps me from looking at the moon: I bet it is full which would explain such phenomenon and far out atmosphere.
Further to try and calm down, I reach another part of the trail, a bit like the video games ”worlds” that you have to go through, this one being the Marvellous world of mudd, thick, slipery, watery and any form you can imagine! Wonderful. And it is true, I was still a bit too clean so it was high time mudd arrived! In addition, I was also still a bit too warm, a shocking 30 or 32* so some more arctic pools were very welcome! I wouldn't already have taken the train the day before, I would definitely believe that I was in it on my way to the past again and in particular with a stop at the Great War period. Gaz would be the fog, trenches some parts of the course binded by snowy and icy passageway, the distant bombings my cracking bones, shell holes the ones I would create by falling, muffled painful screams would be mine, rationing the few cereals bars that I try to chew on despite my frozen face, propaganda the organization photograph that will later take my picture at the food stop and for who I will force myself to smile... Verdun/Ursvik, they could be mistaken for! Who said athletes did not have a brain? Such an imagination, mine is clearly developped to be able to analyse all that, at the same time as I fal... run!
After 2 hours, I catch sight of the end of tunnel's light. I am not dead – not yet – but the trail lights of the 2 last kilometres break through the mist and the dimness. First lap completed. Fffff, it's like I had left for days, going through Amazonia like the Great Mike Horn did, after all I've been through! I get closer to the food stop and even though I turn off/turn on my head lamp thinking it really does not work much anymore, I discover the food supply I was telling about earlier. On the menu:
- chocolate Kex bars, a swedish chocolate bar not really easy to eat when it's cold, dark and when you are tired;
- some pieces of wet bananas;
- and ”kanel bullar”, another national specialty: a cinnamon roll.
Maybe it is because I ate so many on my first weeks in Sweden (what? It's part of learning the local way of life and being part of it, you gotta embrace habits even though it is sometimes difficult!) and/or maybe because these ones could not be more industrially-made, but they looked all sticky and melted together. Yet I managed getting one and tried eating but I almost choked on the first bite when my palate and my tongue sticked together. No way, I am not going to die like this! I have so many other opportunities to die such as dying numbed with cold, after falling on the ground from extreme fatigue, half eaten by wolves! That is worth it, not chocking! So I grab a glass of liquid, violetish blue, and which appears to be a blueberry soup. ??? I will definitely never understand the Swedes for drinking that on any occasion: cold, illness, head ache, why not gangrene?? I skip that one and try the following glass, happy to find Maxim (energy drink) but it is so diluted in water that I can barely feel it. All right, I'll stick to my own water. I feel like my tong is wearing a sweater...
After as many happenings in 3-4 minutes as during 2 hours running, I take off on my second lap, before rain that is starting to fall wets the last millimetres of dry clothes that I could have. And I am sad as I enter the woods because surrounded by them, it is going to be really difficult to have the exquisite feeling of the drops falling between my neck and collar and which cleverly edge their way down by back...
The course goes on, no miracle, still the same mudd, same snow, same ponds, etc. After 2h10 of this second lap, meanwhile I can see the lights again, a split second of inattention and I execute another pirouette in this Camel Trophyesque melasses, just to make sure that I still got it, and that I still have my elastic woman skills... After standing back up, a severe ache appears in my left-side part of the neck. It is like I had a knife stabbed in. I just cannot hold my neck without hurting and there are no single position to relieve me. I even have to hold it with one hand for it really hurts too much. Once at the food stop, I try to forget about it. There are still these fodders not so appealing nor edible. I force myself to eat a kanel bullar, a bit more sticky and viscous if that can be possible. I would also like to change and put on a dry T-shirt if it still is in my backpack but it still drizzles and the thought of getting bare-chested already gives me a pneumonia feeling. So I take of my soaked gloves and put on a new pair. And off I go in the half-light.
Not a lot of change happens in this third round, trenches get more deeply dug, mudd gain grounds, water ponds become oceans, which makes it impossible not to dive in them to get to the other side. And I'm still alone. I am alone in these silent woods in which I cannot imagine there are no beasts living. I am even convinced that there are evil trolls that are eager to devour me, starving from this long winter. My imagination is cut short when other runners, either doing the 75kms in a relay or the 45kms, passe me. Some of them send me a comforting ”hej” or ”lycka till” but it does not entirely take away the bitterness to be passed so easily and at such a pace. It is just like elements had absolutely no impact on them. They run on this snow just as I ski, straight ahead, brainless. Fast and from one bump to the other.
I reach the food stop in 2h30 for this third lap. It is now very difficult to grab a Kanel bullar in this mooshy puree. Why not Toblerone or Kinder Bueno while we are at it!? I then take off my gloves or should I say sponges to put on my last dry pair. I also take off my head lamp since it appears that the sun is rising. I say ”appears” because it is still not obvious. I breathe in and as I put my lamp in my backpack, I see my badge ”pain and cold are just information”, a present from my brother for the UTMB last summer, a saying the paratroopers in Bastogne had. I lay my hand on it, breathe in again and leave again on this fourth lap.
I would really like to spice this story but it is still the same song: cold, mudd, rain, snow, some more snow and icy water. But it does not reach me anymore, just like my body got used to it. In the last kilometers of this lap, I reach what I believe in the first place is an hallucination but that reveals itself true: a runner, and very good looking on top of that! Nope, I still have not left the world of the living, I am still in Sweden. A little comfort in this hostile environment, at last. We don't really talk but it is already enough to be two. He is doing the 45kms and this is his last lap. As I am leading most of the time, he tells me that he believes in me, that I will finish. I believe that too so I thank him. I would not look like this, I would kiss him! But as time passes fast, as opposed to us, the limit to start the last lap is ticking louder and louder. I try to mobiliser my last strengths. How many do I have left? How many are not already dead in this war? The last ones, in an adrenaline rush, push me til the food stop. Yet as I get closer and closer, I know I will be about 20-30 minutes late which will mean they will stop me. I get used to the thaught. So as I arrive, the 3 organizers cheer for me saying – what I believe is an honnest - ”bra jobbat” (good job). I am moved, no matter if they mean it or not. My Adonis, who arrives some seconds later, congratulates me as well and tells me that I am going all the way. One of the organizer comes to me and tells me that given the conditions, I can go on this last lap if I want to and still qualify. I am hesitating. I am thinking:
I am cold, really very cold and no more dry clothes,
at this pace and with the food fasting, I would be on for 2h30 or 2h40 more and utterly alone,
I would have to let my Clara know that I will be about 1h30 late, which might trouble her plans or her parents's,
and mostly, the fact that I am no doubt the last one, I don't want to be feeling like that, being cursed and despised by the organizing team waiting for this (bloody) Snail when they could be packing up and leaving.
So if it would have been a regular race aka one single loop and not five in a row, I would have finished these last 15 kms. I have gone through the intense heat of a CCC, the sticky mudd of a Saintelyon, a sprained ankle of an Annecime, a thunderstorm at 2800m high of a TGV, I could have born these conditions a bit more. But the thought of going on for a last lap, I didn't feel like bothering. One more or not, I honnestly would not have seen an extra credit for doing it. I therefore chose to give back my number and stop there, at km 60. The organizor then told me : ”Congratulations because given the conditions, it is still very good. Besides, you did much more than many other male who either didn't show up or stopped in the first laps.” Not sure she really meant it but when I looked at the numbers: 25 finished, 35 gave up, 10 on the 3rd lap, 11 on lap 2, … So be it.
After failing on the UTMB on injury, I really did not want to start the season with another big disappointment. But even though I did not technically finish, I do not want to consider it as an utter defeat: I knew these laps in a row were going to be annoying and I still did 4, in tough conditions, not perfect gear, I knew the flatness would make it a fast race and I still managed ok. Yet despite it all, I did enjoy it. I did.
Of course, the (necessary) ego that inhabits any runner reminds me that I cannot say that I finshed this race and from that arises a legitimate desappointment coupled with a feeling of shame, that is for sure. In addition to the joy, there is a pride of being able to say one finished such a race. However, I am happy I finished these 4 laps and I satisfy myself with it. I don't forget either that I was off training for about 2 months at the end of the year so starting in these conditions was tough for a first. Also, I am French and the Swedes, they are genetically programmed and have experienced it ever since kids!!
In conclusion, as told once by my number-one coach/adviser, ”Tough training = easy race”. And that is true, my only goal is the UTMB and nothing else. So no regrets, because for once, LESS IS MORE.