Monday, July 6, 2015

Velebit Ultra Trail Croatia--Ridiculously difficult, ridiculously beautiful

That's Velebit Mountain behind me!

   Crossing the finish line 7 hours and 40 minutes after starting the 27k at the Velebit Ultra, I knew I had definitely done the right thing and not run the 65k despite all my crying last post.  It actually had ended up being 22.4 miles (about a mile extra at the end as I went the wrong way off the mountain) and the hardest race I've ever done, not just elevations wise but terrain wise.  And then when Emir finally finished what ended up being a 44 mile race in 18 hours, I REALLY was thankful that I did not try to do the longer race.

That tiny incision is the reason I wasn't running the longer race
The Velebit Ultra starts and finishes in the town of Starigrad, Croatia.  It's about a 2 hour drive from where Emir's family lives in Bosnia.   We set off at about noon on Friday, leaving the kids with Emir's family who were all very eager to have the kids to themselves.  We checked into our room at the cute little place we were staying and went looking for the money exchange place.  Somehow we missed that it was literally a two minute walk from our hotel and ended up walking for over an hour down the road trying to find it.  I guess it was a good shakeout for the race.  We sat at the bar near the start/finish area and had a couple beers while waiting for registration to open.  Soon enough we had our numbers and shirts. 

Hotel Europa

My punch card that I had to carry

The map we were required to carry.  Honestly if I got lost, it would not be helpful to me ;-) haha

We had an excellent pre-race meal at our hotel's restaurant and once again walked back over to the race area for a briefing that was to take place around 9pm (kind of late if you ask me!).  The RD announced he would start the briefing a little late due to bad weather on the other side of the mountain that had some people stuck in traffic.  We took this opportunity to get some ice cream.  It was good that we stayed for the briefing despite wanting to just go to bed.  The RD explained the markers we needed to follow and what to expect at the aid stations.  After that we went back to our room and prepared our gear.  At the time I thought Emir was forcing me to overdo it by taking so much stuff but as I would find out later, it was necessary.

ALL the stuff I had to carry including a first aid kit and a cd to send light signals if I got lost
I slept really well even through Emir getting up and ready.  His start time was 5am.  He woke me up to say bye and I really couldn't sleep much after that.  I was eager to get ready and start my race which was at 7am.  I laid around a bit and then got up and slowly went through my routine since I had extra time.  I left the room around 6:15 as it was encouraged to get to the start by 6:30 so they could check our gear.   As it turns out they didn't start checking until close to 7 and we didn't start until 7:15.  Oh well!

the fullest/heaviest my pack has ever been
starting area
Eventually someone blew a whistle and off we went!  We went up the road towards the mountain but made a right turn to take a bit longer way to a different entrance of the National Park Palencia that is the home of Velebit Mountain.  I was feeling very good and moving well.  The first two miles I was up with the lead ladies and it was easy to stay with them.  Then we hit the mountain and things changed REALLY quickly.  At first we were going along a trail that was similar to most trails I've run.  It had rolling hills, some rocks and tree roots here and there but all very runnable.  Then we started to climb.  Not only was the climb straight up but it consisted of giant boulders.  I felt like Spider-Man scaling these rocks.  Some people started passing me but I honestly could have cared less.  I've never encountered this type of terrain in a race let alone training so I knew I was completely inefficient.  I really have no idea how long we climbed like this but it was miles.  At some point someone handed me an orange thing that I was supposed to punch a hole in my card.  That's when I realized I was supposed to be looking for those at checkpoints.  Oops!  I figured it wouldn't matter much anyway with how long I was now anticipating this race to take me.  Eventually we started to encounter some downhill however I'm pretty sure I was even slower on some of these descents.  It was extremely steep and consisted completely of loose rocks and boulders.  It was so hard today get my footing.  It was like each step took such careful planning.  I was TOTALLY amazed at the runners in the front of the pack who seemed to just float up and down these rocks, seriously amazing.  
The beginning of the never ending rocks

Eventually we reached one of the refreshment points.  This consisted of a spicket with water and some coke.  I had no idea how long it would be until the next one so I filled up my pack.  These two girls I had been climbing with seemed so annoyed by my filling up my pack and then they did everything they could to push past me back out into the course.  I had noticed people weren't overly friendly so far but thought maybe it was just the fast people fighting for the front but now that I was with people my speed and none of us clearly had any top 10 hopes, I expected it to be like all other ultras at home.  To my surprise, it wasn't.  I was clearly moving faster than these girls but they would not let me pass.  There were also instances where people slipped and I asked if they were ok and all I got in return were glares so I quickly stopped worrying about what was going on around me. I'm sure this is normal for races here, it just caught me very off guard since at home, everyone is super friendly and would help another runner in a heartbeat.  I know for a fact that I could have split my head open on a rock and no one would have cared.  

Anyway after the so called refreshment area, I was told it would be 5k until the next one that would actually have food.  That was two lies in one sentence.  It was way longer than 5k including a solid 4 miles of steep uphill climbing and I wouldn't really say the refreshment station had food.  Yes there were some oranges and bananas but that was it besides the beer and water.  Luckily for me, Emir had stocked me well in case there wasn't much at the aide stations so while I did have a couple oranges, I had plenty of my own stuff to sustain me.  I should also mention that these were the ONLY two aide stations the entire race.  
I wasn't kidding about the rocks

This section of the race made me happy as it was in the valley between the mountains and I was able to run about two miles.  Those two girls were trying to run and not let me by but they were only able to sustain running for a couple minutes before walking and I sped by.  I was actually shocked at this section by how most people were walking and slowly.  I felt like I had so much left in me from all the slow hiking and couldn't wait to run.  I passed so many people at this stage and was feeling awesome.  I thought I only had maybe 5-6 miles to go as I was at 11-12 miles and supposedly this was a 27k or 16.8 miles.  
terrain wasn't bad here but it was several miles straight up

We started climbing again but the terrain was manageable and I was maintaining my place even tho the climb was a couple more miles.  I was feeling good because I figured at any moment we would start to descend back down towards the sea to the finish.   Boy was I wrong!  After the climb it was back to boulders, it was relatively flat but hard to get my footing.  Then it was more climbing up boulders.  While I never felt like giving up or hit a bad point mentally, I did keep thinking "how can we be still going up?!?! We are already so far from the sea and we should almost be done!"  But I just kept going.  The worst part for me was the last 3 or so miles.  It was severely steep downhill on boulders, naturally.   It took me FOREVER!  I just couldn't believe some of the parts of this section!  It was unbelievable to me that I was supposed to know how to navigate this kind of terrain.  I just did what I could.  Tons of people passed me and one of the miles took me 40 minutes and another one 30.  Yup my slowest miles were going DOWN the mountain.   With what ended up being a mile or so to go, I was so frustrated and it wasn't because I had bonked or felt like I couldn't do it anymore, it was because I was just so sick of these boulders.  I just wanted to run!  Finally a million hours later I reached the bottom and was able to start running for the finish.  I was following the markers but after a bit I realized I was heading back to where we had started to go up the mountain.  I turned around and headed back.  Eventually I saw other runners turning to go down a different street to the finish.  The race was extremely well marked overall, I just wish there had been a sign to indicate that last turn for the finish.  I'm really not sure how people knew that was where to go.  Really it wasn't a big deal to me, I got to run a bit extra after feeling like I hardly ran all day and what maybe I would have finished a few places higher which when you finish mid pack doesn't really matter.
why I am I not down there yet?!?!?!

Finally done!

So in the end I had 22.4 miles and if you take away my wrong turn, I still would have had over 21 miles, definitely well over a 27k.  I also heard other runners the last few miles saying things about how it was longer than what they said.   

After I crossed the finish line, all I wanted was some cold, fresh water.  Nope.  There was nothing.  They did hand me a bag with some packaged foods which I found a couple things appetizing but not too much.  The whole second half of the race I kept thinking how I couldn't wait to jump in the sea.  I saw other runners had the same idea.  I threw off my shoes, compression sleeves and singlet and in I went in my shorts and sports bra. It felt amazing!  Every race needs to end at the Adriatic Sea!   I saw people had bought beers and we're hanging out drinking so I made a mental note to get a couple to have ready for Emir.  After my experience, I knew it was going to take him way longer than we both expected for him to finish his race.  I also figured his would end up being longer than the advertised 65k as part of his race was the same as mine.  

the rocks destroyed my altra lone peaks but they were great for navigating the tough terrain.  My Zensah sleeves were good protection from the brush and plants

I hung out on the beach for a while but then I started to get real hungry.  I walked back to the hotel, threw on my bathing suit and headed out in search of food.  There was a restaurant near the finish so I could watch finishers.  My meal of choice was calamari with fries and a beer.  So good!  

Then I went back to the beach for a while.  Once the sun started going down I got chilly so I went back to the hotel as got dressed.  I went to the bar near the finish to have coffee.  And then later since I was there so long a beer as well.  It wasn't until 11pm, 18 hours after he started that Emir finished.  I've never been happier to see him.  I never thought he would give up but I was worried about a couple of the cutoffs.  I was so proud of him.  This race was the hardest race we've ever done by far and he did double the miles I did, about 44.

Yes, this race was tough, grueling and never ending.  But I couldn't be happier I did it.  It was such a great experience.  We have never done anything like it.  We may not have been so great at it but we have had absolutely zero training on this type of terrain which is why I'm so proud of both of us for persevering and getting it done.  It also gave me a greater appreciation for other runners with different skill sets.  It was clear that I was a better runner on normal terrain however many of the other racers were better at hiking and navigating the tough terrain.  In addition I'm super proud of myself for not getting down on myself at all during this race as I tend to do when I think things aren't going well.  Even when I was getting passed by tons of people, I didn't freak out or give up.  I remained very rational telling myself that this was something I've never done before and these other people live and train here.  It was super helpful to remain so positive and happy the whole race, I need to try it more often ;-).  And in the end I was mid-pack anyway which I thought was amazing.  

The race itself was stunning.  I wish I could have just taken non-stop pictures to do it justice but I would have fallen off the mountain.   There's a lot of things about it that I thought weren't so great as far as the distances being pretty far off, not much aid or water and practically nothing at the finish.  That said, this race was in a completely different country and I'm sure standards/expectations are much different.  All of us ultra runners should just be thankful for the amazingly supported races we have in the U.S. and not bitch that the aide station didn't have one little thing that we in particular like.  We should also be grateful to be part of such an amazing community.  This race showed me that it's not like that everywhere.  Runners at home are awesome and would do anything to help you during a race which turns out is not the case everywhere.  I'm glad I now have this new appreciation.

And finally as far as my recovery from appendix surgery, things are going well.  I didn't have any major problems despite this race being only 18 days post op.  I did feel increased soreness in that area in the two days after the race so I know I definitely did the right thing in dropping down.  18 hours in the mountains likely would have been a major problem for me that soon after surgery.  I'm very happy with my progress.  Coach Caleb has been super helpful in getting me back on track.  Even just a week after the race Emir and I went on a 4 hour run in the Una National Park in Bosnia and I could tell how much more healed I am. This week I've also given some planks, push ups and easy ab stuff a try.  So far everything feels fine and does not cause pain.  As upset as I was about missing some running and dropping down in the race, I was even more upset about having to give up all my core work for weeks.  This year I decided that I was going to put even more emphasis on my core than ever before.  I know it's a weak spot for me.  I do all the exercises prescribed by coach which is usually a couple times a week however since January I had added daily planks, push ups and various ab routines and they were making a huge difference and I even could see the beginnings of definition in my abs, something I've NEVER had.  So naturally it was killing me that I couldn't do any of that and of course in my head, it was all just turning back to flab!   
river Una waterfalls

beer break at the falls!
So what's next?  I have a solid month left here in Bosnia and Croatia (yay!).  Originally I really had nothing on my race calendar after Velebit until the TARC 100 in October.  Of course I'll be pacing for Emir at Eastern States in mid August but that was about it.  Having to drop down left me feeling Unsatisfied and let's be honest, even if I had done the longer distance with Emir it wouldn't have stopped me from signing up for something else anyway.  Our friend here also an ultra runner is running a marathon in Croatia near the capital of Zagreb on July 12th.  Once I found out about it and checked it out online, it was a no brainer to sign up.  It will be tough as it's on a mountain.  It's a 14k course so we will do 3 laps.  The first half of each lap is downhill and the second half all uphill including a section that consists of 500 steps straight up.  My sister in law is driving me and bringing the kids so it should be a fun day and I'm super excited!

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