Motivation is a powerful thing. I came to experience this in winter 2016 when I read Scott Jurek's book Eat and run where I learned about how he became the best ultra marathon runner of all time. Previously, I had with great joy read Christopher MacDougall's excellent Born to Run, which arguably is the best book you'll ever read about running. However, while MacDougall's book was hugely entertaining and a real eye opener, it was Jurek's book that inspired me to push myself to go further than I ever had before.
Previously, my longest distance ever run was a half marathon. For two consecutive years I had enjoyed taking part in the traditional Birkebeinerløpet 21km trail race. After reading Jurek's book, I started toying with the idea this year instead join the new Birken mountain marathon. And the fascinating thing is this: before 42km was just a ridiculous distance, way out of my league. Then, when I dared think it, while it still was ridiculously far, it become something tangible, something more real. After first mentioning it to a friend that I was thinking of joining it, it was as if it almost became a reality. The whole process took perhaps three weeks, going from "that's absolutely out of the question" to "it's crazy, but I'll do it!".
A bus ride to remember
Together with the coolest kids on the block: the ultra marathoners, I took the bus 06:30 in the mounting up to the mountain where the race started. On the bus, it was very inspiring to talk to people so dedicated to running. Around my friends, family and colleagues I'm crazy running geek, talking about these long runs in the forest all the time, but amongst these people, I was just normal (compared to the ultra runners, I was just a junior of course, but still). We had all read many of same books, had many of the same thoughts and had made lots of the same experiences while running in the forest, experimenting with different shoes and training regimes. It's a lot like going to a religious event, really. All of a sudden you're among your peers, people who understand you while the the rest of the world thinks you're a nutter. You're with family.
This first 12-15km of the race were stunning. Running up to wee mountain tops, running across the ridge from peak to peak, having spectacular 360 degrees views, seeing miles up on miles of breathtaking scenery. It was hard to run without tripping while taking in the spectacular views. The sun came out while we ran on the mountain tops too, if I only had brought my camera!
A whole lot of pain
My biggest worry for this race was not the 42km, a distance I had never covered before. No, my biggest worry was my foot. One a half month ago, after increasing my mileage too fast and stretching my calves too little, I developed plantar fasciitis, inflammation in the tendon from front of the heel to the forefoot. This injury made training much harder as I always had to make sure I didn't over strain the fascia, while still giving it some stimulus and myself some much needed exercise. The worst thing wasn't the foot strike, it was the lift off. Moreover, when the foot was in stretch, the extreme of which was running up a really steep hill in the forest where only a part of the forefoot touched the ground, the fascia got stretched the furthest and the pain was the most intense. To mitigate this, in the hope to make the foot last for the entire course of 42 km, I ran with a flat right foot when attacking uphill, and a semi flat foot when running on flat terrain.
The last week before the race, I refrained from running in the hope that it would recover to the extent that I could run 20km before feeling anything. Tough luck. After 6km my right foot was so painful that I thought to myself: "How can I complete 42km with this foot? Should I just quit?".
Of course, I soldiered on. I hadn't prepared for several months, running 40-50km a week, skipping parties, staying clear of alcohol, not eating my beloved waffles for bailing out after just 6 kilometres! No way! So on I went.
Then a funny incident happened: bruises on the inside of both my thighs got worse and worse as the kilometres went on. By the time I had reached 12km, the pain was overdoing that of my foot. Contrary to the foot, the pain from my thighs was harmless. It was just pain. So I could easily ignore that pain, while it at the same time made me forget about my foot pain. Funny how strange the logic applies when you're in the middle of an endurance race…
And lo and behold: the pain in my foot, when focusing on it, did not seem to increase in strength. By some divine intervention, the foot seemed to stabilise after around 18km (we'll have to see in the coming week if that still stands or if it retaliates and makes me jump around on crutches).
Slip sliding away
I didn't know how tired I was before I reached the filling station at 21km. When I stopped in front of the stall, I lost my balance and had to take a side step to not fall over the table. Running was sure easier than standing up straight!
At the filling station, in addition to water, sports drink, bananas and lefse (traditional Norwegian sweet wrap), we got whole meal bread with elk salami. A great energy source after more than 20km on mountainous trails.
One of the many thing I liked about joining the marathon version of the Birkebeiner race was that you for long amounts of time ran completely alone. You really got the feeling that you were out in the forest and mountain by yourself. At times it was a bit funny, because there are not as many signs as the main race, and more than a few times I wondered if I was on the right track!
The terrain of this marathon was varied. We started up on the mountain, running mountainous trails for about 18-19km before dropping down through the undergrowth to the forest. Then at times we ran on dirt roads, wet swamps, regular forest trails and finally gravel roads. The organisers have been very good at avoiding gravel roads as much as possible giving us a true trail running experience. The trails on the mountain part of the race were often one man tracks, giving an even better experience.
It gets worse
If I thought I was tired at 21km when I had problems keeping my balancing when stopping to have a bite to eat, it was just the beginning. As I approached 30km I was not only starting to develop a headache, I also started to get dizzy. As I also was starting to get seriously tired, I was weary of pressing my body any harder in fear of not being able to complete the last 12km at all.
11km before the finish, the marathon (and ultra marathon) track joined with that of the 21km race. I went from this quaint race meeting another runner every now and then to joining in with hordes of runners with tons of energy, sprinting on down through the forest (they had only run 10km I kept reminding myself as scores of them hurried past me).
At this point in the race, my left knee had started to give me considerable troubles. The last 18km were practically all downhill and it proved to too much for my knee. It was so painful I couldn't run properly downhill and had to succumb to skipping and hopping downwards, running at a snailing pace of around 8.5m per km.
I was also so nauseous the last 5-6km so I couldn't eat anything more, even though the headache suggested I was low on energy…
If it hadn't been for all the people along the tracks, I wouldn't have run much of the last 2km. I was so tired and in so much pain. The people cheering me and all the others on were amazing and made a big difference: Thank you! By the time it was only one kilometre left, I was so worn down that I got overwhelmed when when two wee 8-10 year old boys cheered me on like crazy. It was so intense, their passion so real and my pain even more so.
When I came down the hill to the finish, I once again (just like the two previous years) got fooled by the track, assuming I was done when in fact I had another loop to run.
Crossing the finish line was glorious. I couldn't believe it. I had made it. My wife greeted me with a big smile and we kissed and hugged for a long time. I was completely knackered. Empty. I cried. We both cried out of happiness. I had finished my first marathon.
I did it.