Sunday, August 5, 2012

An Ultra flirtation

I'm throwing up, my body's screaming at me to stop, my mind is asking me what the hell I'm doing, who the hell do you think you are? Well, this is what I know; I'm Belle Zimmerli. This is my first Ultra. I came here to run. I came here to finish. Suck it up.

For two years it has been my dream to run and complete an ultramarathon. The norm has never been enough for me. If the bench mark is set at a certain level I will most certainly strive to shift it further. Sometimes this works in my favor, sometimes it becomes a self distructive force.
The allure of an ultra is not about measuring myself against other people, it's much more about measuring myself against the distance and my personal limits.

Swissalpine K78 in Davos was to be my first flirtation with an ultramarathon. For the first time ever I managed to train injury free, which strengthened me not only physically, but also mentally, because I knew if body was ready, mind was ready.
For months I had been visualizing that start line, a line that would mark yer another chapter in my life. Self doubt continually tried to challenge my focus and diminish my determination, but my eyes, everything about me, was too focused on that goal to let it distract me for too long. Actually, the moments of doubt fired me up even more, they made me ravenous to prove to myself that I am capable of more.

My belief is that if you want to be a successful Ultra runner you need to be in tune with your body, a harmony that I had lost for many years during and after being posessed by Anorexia. That's why I decided that I'd ditch the distractions and external dictators for this adventure. I left my watch at home, because the race wasn't against my watch, it was against myself. The iPod stayed at the hotel, because the experience wasn't just about me, but also the nature I was surrounded by, the fellow runners and the wonderful volunteers. I didn't want to isolate myself from that. I then went one step further and ran in the new Salomon Sense, a super light weight, minimal drop shoe with amazing technology. It helped me literally Sense my feet, which effectively heightened my body awareness.

The Swissalpine K78 is dubbed "The biggest mountain ultramarathon in the world, and ultimate challenge". I wanted a taste of their take of an ultimate challenge, so 5 months ago I entered the event. I had familiarized myself with the course profile online, so I had an idea of what to expect. Only, I later came to realize, that my imagination couldn't do reality justice. The atmosphere at the startline was electrical. A diverse range of people were lined up - some with focused determination, others with an air of adventure, and some looked keen to test their limits. I grouped myself into the latter category, aiming to have a challenging, fun and enjoyable day.
The start was idyllic, looping throught the mountain village of Davos with people lining the streets, cheering with encouragement. You then wind your way through the valley until you hit your first minor (as say minor, because compared to the inclines ahead that was a baby) incline, followed by a long stretch of downhill, first on road, then over beautiful trails. That's where I decided to let my body roll and accelerate to a comfortable yet solid pace. I learnt on that section that guys don't like being "chicked", which did surprise me, as I had always perceived the ultra world to be more of encouraging nature as opposed to competitve, at least at amateur level (but maybe its the other way around?). That attitude however, just added to the fun on my behalf as it became a game, in my mind, to try and get a hello or encouraging response from the men in the field. Women, on the other hand, were cheerful and ever supportive. Thats not to say that I didn't meet some nice people (being men) along the way. Rolf, a german guy I ran with for the best part of 10km, talked me through the whole race ahead of me and what to anticipate and gave me valuable tips. He also promised, that if he were to pull out of the run (due to injury issues) he would wait for me at the finish until I crossed the line, which he did.
Dermot, a super cool aussie guy and an absolute running machine, was such a boost along the way. For some reason you can just pick the Aussies out of a crowd, and he was that Aussie. He was full of enthusiasm and a boost to the morale. A nice little chin wag and another 5km's had passed efforlessly.

After the blistering descent the course took you through a magnificent canyon and little tunnels that are carved through rock to make the path. The next climb was a steady 5km that took you to the marathon point in Bergün. i decided to run the uphill at a steady pace and focus on the white line, imagining it was a rope pulling me to the top. I got there as 8th female and with my dad waiting there and my confidence conservatively high, I knew I would finish this run.
They say that the race doesn't start until you hit Bergün, and boy they were right. For the next (close to) 20km all you have to look forward to is upill. Uphill isn't my forté and combined with getting sick on that stretch, it made it for a long and torturous part of the race. Not long after Bergün I started to take a turn for the worse, which frequently forced me to stop and be sick, which made me feel better temporarily, but kept returning with a vengeance. At that point all I focused on was making it to the Sertig Pass and then reassessing after that. My main worry about being ill was the loss of energy. It drained me, but I kept trying to refuel as best I could. Storms and heavy rain hit adding an adventurous dynamic to the run. I loved the distraction and finally crested the Sertig Pass at 2'700m where patches of snow were awaiting, upon which I decided to throw a snowball in the direction I had come from (avoiding fellow competitors of course) to mark that I had made it that far - 60km. I downed some coca cola and started the descent with respect, leaping over slippery stones and boulders and attempting to let my legs recover for a few km's and focusing on not making any stupid mistakes on fatigued legs. At this point I knew I had 19km left to the finish line and the main part of that was downhill. "I can do this" I kept telling myself. My pace started picking up, I started catching people, and I knew that 3 women had passed me since Bergün and I made it my goal to catch at leas one of them. I got to an aid station where I left my raincoat and hand held waterbottle, as they were annoying and distracting me.
As I was running my curiosity grew as to how long I'd been running. I was watchless and clueless. I whouted out to a spectator asking her for the time - 2.15pm. "okay, so I started at 7.00am, it's now past 2.00pm that means I've been running for 7hrs15mins and I've got 14km left to run. I could do this sub 9hrs...". My goal was to break the 9hour mark. I kept moving, refusing to walk at any stage, at any uphill, telling myself that I came here to run... "suck it up". At every aid station I'd guzzle down coke and water and kept going.
Again a gorgeous stretch of narrow trail lay ahead, upon which I ran into the same problem of guys, only hesitantly, letting me pass. I passed one girl... tick for that goal. From behind a guy came up and asked if I was having trouble getting past the people. Yeap, sure was. His resoponse was for me to follow his step and he'd pull me through as far as he could. He was running the marathon distance, aiming to break 5hours (if you think 5hrs is slow for a marathon you should check out the course profile!!). At that stage I knew I could break 8hrs30min, so we made a deal to push so hard that we'd meet up at the finish line habing conquered those times. We hit road again and I pulled away for the final 4km, quads screaming. calves crying, my face smiling... "I'm nearly there". I had picked up my pace to sub 4.30min/km and hit the last 800m which stretched along the main street of Davos and extended towards the finishing shoot. Kids were high fiving, people were cheering and I jumped accross the finish line in 8hrs20min. winning my age group and placing 11th amongst the females. Goal of sub 9hrs - tick.

An ultramarathon is a bit like life. You need to take it step by step, enjoy the moment and avoid looking too far ahead. Be prepared, but don't focus on what will be, focus on what is. Eventhough K78 tested me at times, it gave me so much more in return. It was a great start into the chapter of ultra running in my life.

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