I am writing this from my bed, because when I sit still, my legs don’t ache. I periodically hobble to the kitchen like a 120-year-old lady suffering from severe arthritis, which is the proof that I, in fact, finished the hardest race I have ever attempted yesterday. Physically grueling and mentally tough.
I figured I would write a race review for those non-athletes out there who may want to take on an epic challenge like a trail ultra marathon.
Pre-race training and prep:
Training: I signed up a few months back, and set up an ambitious training plan, which I definitely didn’t stick to.
My training wasn’t perfect – let’s be honest, when has it ever been? I did go for a collection of long runs (30ish k) on a variety of trails and paths. Most weeks, I went for a long training run, a few shorter runs, and did some sort of cross-training (bootcamp classes at the gym, lifting, or climbing). But some weeks, I enjoyed lazing in parks in the sunshine and drinking beer with friends on patios. I think I got to the stage where I knew it was possible for me to complete the race, but definitely didn’t feel reassured that I would do it gracefully or fluidly.
Pre-race prep: I had picked up my race kit on Friday because I needed to head into the shops to find a new camelback bladder (as my current one had sprung a leak), and a running cap (as my hats are packed away in England and Canada).
I ate a hearty protein-rich dinner, packed my backpack, laid out my race clothes, and was in bed at a decent hour. I woke up nervous as heck. I had a hard time eating my breakfast (granola, yogurt, orange, coffee) but managed to get through it, knowing it would spell disaster if I didn’t. Even at 7am, it was already hot and bright, so I slathered on sunscreen, made sure I had my running cap, and headed out the door.
Travel to the race: One of the really cool things about the Ecotrail Stockholm is that it is a trail race that is embedded in the heart of the city. I was able to take the subway to and from the race (total 60kr = $9 CAD), which means this is a really accessible race, as traveling to races and accommodations can add up quickly.
I arrived at the start line with more than an hour to spare, so spent my time lying in the grass, sipping on cold brew coffee, watching the svelte runners gather around me, chatting, stretching, and taking start-line selfies.
I was no exception in that count:
And with that, we were off!
There must have been between 100-200 runners in the 45k group heading out at 10:00, with an earlier wave of 80k runners leaving at 7:00am. The sun was already hot as we crossed into the forest and the string of runners clotting as we came to the first rocky, technical part.
However, in short order, the line of runners stretched out, and before long, I found myself alone on the trail.
At first I felt a bit panicky, and all sorts of negative thoughts swirled in my head. “I am terrible at this!” “How embarrassing is it that I thought I could do this?” “I am going to be dead-last, and that will be mortifying.”
This was the start of the most mental race I have competed in. I was able to firmly insist that “I can do this” and repeated this over and over. I also reminded myself of this simple fact:
Even if I am the slowest person on the course today, I will finish faster than all the people that didn’t try
Approximately 85-90% of the race is on trail, and many of these had technical sections.
Physically, I was suffering pretty bad from early on – from the beginning, my tibialis anterior muscle (the one right behind the shin bone) didn’t seem to like the idea of the race, and as the day wore on, the pain intensified. However, the more pressing issue was dealing with the heat. I had not packed enough salt-based snacks, and my version of sweating is to just excrete salt. Early on, I noticed the tell-tale skin pricks and sausage fingers of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Stockholm doesn’t get very hot, and this was the hottest day of the year – hotter than a devil’s navel.
When I rolled up to the first aid station (at 21k) I was desperate for a top up to my hydration pack, but they had run out of water. Instead, I filled up my metal cup with coke and liberally salted it (which is kinda gross and great, as the salt removes the carbonation, and you are left with a sweet, salty concoction). As you leave that aid station, you are immediately confronted with a really steep incline into Hagaparken. I sipped my salty/sweet syrup as I teetered slowly to the top. You have a moment to observe the entire city lying below you, before immediately heading down the other side. These are the moments when I believe that trail race designer are indeed sadists.
Because of the lack of water at the aid station, I stopped at a convenience store at km 26 and grabbed a bottle of life-saving liquid. This really helped stave off some of the effects of the heat, but at this point I knew I didn’t have the right snacks to fuel my last 20k. My stomach was feeling very wonky and the thought of putting dried fruit and nuts into it was inconceivable. I had made a gel concoction of honey, coconut oil, salt, and water in my gel flask with was the only thing I could keep down. I also had packed some baby food packets of the apple sauce/banana/sweet potato description that I was able to tolerate. I total, I drank 2.5 liters of water, 500mL of Gatorade, 200mL of salted coke. I had two packets of fruit/veg baby mash, one protein bar, and a bit of my homemade gel. This was not a perfectly executed nutritional strategy, and I will need to improve on it for my next race. Struggles.
About half-way through the race, the 45k course meets up with the 80k course, and we run the same final 20 k. Basically, that meant I was passed by dozens of athletes, lilting by with long-legged Swedish ease. It was pretty phenomenal to see their athleticism, knowing as I plodded along, that these folks had done what I had + 60k. I accumulated a lot of thumbs up during this portion of the race, and I felt that most people were very supportive. I do worry that I look exceptionally rough, as the really gentle and encouraging treatment by race volunteers and fellow racers seem to suggest that I indeed look as bad as I feel.
Then it happened. I crossed the finish line. An adorable small boy handed me a wooden finishers metal. I couldn’t quite believe it. The race crew who gave me my finishers t-shirt was so kind – I was feeling a bit embarrassed about my super slow finish, but he reminded me that it is a huge accomplishment. This is the longest distance I have ever run, and I did it.
I was given a plate of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes. I knew I was in a state, as I couldn’t even finish the buttery, smooth mashed potatoes. I was totally fixated on the idea of my bed. Subway, hobble home, lie down. I got heat rash, mad chaffing on my thighs, and a loudly complaining calf muscle. But I also am so proud of myself for persisting.
Route: I give major props to the race organizers! The route was actually beautiful, during the moments where I was in the mind-space to enjoy the scenery. They took us along the some spectacular lakes, through beautiful forests, past 3 palaces, and up to one of the highest natural points in the area (which was lung-bursting and grueling, but pretty spectacular view, followed immediately by a sharp descent). The route was really well-marked with red and white marker tape every few meters and there was little doubt as to where to go. They also had provided Google maps and .gpx files in advance of the race, which was really great.
The ECO part of the race: The name of this race was the ECOtrail, and indeed they upheld that name. They were very clear in stating that no single-use cups would be available at aid stations, and each runner would need to have some sort of cup or bottle to replenish with sports drink or water. They also provided each runner with a little mesh garbage bag, and throughout the day, I only saw one rogue gel packet on the ground, which is so different from other races I have done, where the road is often littered with the little plastic packets from gels.
The only improvement would be to provide well-marked separated trash/recycling/food waste containers at the start and finish line. I think most people would be happy to sort their rubbish, given the opportunity.
This was way harder than my marathon (but I cried way less): I did the marathon a few years back (with sis Karen & bestie Lisa) and my two conclusions from that experience were (a) a marathon is a really long ways to run, and (b) I would like to cry slightly less in my next marathon. This race was actually so much harder than my marathon, but despite that, I didn’t cry AT ALL in this race (likely due more to my dangerous dehydration or my waves of nausea rather than my mental fortitude, but this is still a win!) And even though I objectively didn’t complete in any sort of impressive time, I am already thinking about the next ultra I might be able to take on. I have a problem.
The top 5 decisions I made during the EcoTrail:
- Having a cold brew coffee available in my fridge to take to the start line and sip while waiting for the race to start.
- Stopping at a convenience store for water, after the first aid station had run out of water and I was in the first stages of heat exhaustion.
- P20 Once a day sun protection. I was very skeptical of this product (how is it possible that sunscreen lasts all day?) but I coated my arms and neck and got through over 8 hours of sun exposure without a burn, which is quite shocking for someone with my ghostly complexion.
- Having a beer in the fridge and an ice pack for my achy knees in the freezer waiting for me when I got home.