Well… That was interesting.
But before we get to the race, a little backstory.
Starting Trail Running
I came to trail running a little later in life after spending the first half of my years playing team sports. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I started regularly hitting the trails. And it wasn’t until my last year or so in Düsseldorf that I started running the trails.
And holy hell, I love it. There’s not much I’d go back in time and change. But if I could’ve introduced trail running to my younger self, I’d gladly hop in the DeLorean and feed myself the tip.
Over the past four years or so, I’ve done a number of trail races around Germany, Italy, Greece, Scotland, and Spain. I also ran the Berlin Marathon, something I never imagined myself doing after I finished my first half-marathon well over a decade ago.
I viscerally remember the feeling of crossing the finish line at the Cleveland Half Marathon and thinking, “Nope, not a step further. A marathon is insane.”
But as I get older, I want to continually challenge my body lest I devolve into one of the denizens of the Starship Axiom from WALL-E. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility of running 20-30-kilometer trail races. You don’t have to plan so much of your life around training and it’s easier to find the time to mix it up with some other sports.
But, I also want to be able to say, “I’ve completed an ultra-marathon.” I mean, the word “ultra” is right there? Who doesn’t want to say they faced down an ‘ultra’ and completed it?
So with a little encouraged bullying from a friend, I signed up to run the 48-kilometer race in Innsbruck, Austria.
Ultra Marathon Training
Training was going well. The race was just two-and-a-half weeks away and I felt strong, confident that I could actually do this thing.
Until the end of a sprinting workout when my knee suddenly felt stiffer than a wooden board and was wildly painful.
Walking was agony for the next couple of days.
I most likely came down with some Runner’s Knee––a broad term to describe a number of possible issues usually related to, well, a lot of running.
Cue the montage of me desperately searching and watching YouTube videos, reading articles, and sacrificing the blood from my knee to a moonlighting shaman in a kind of hyperbolic hopelessness worthy of a two truths, one lie.
There was stretching, massaging, strengthening––anything and everything I could do to heal my knee in time for the big day.
My confidence oscillated wildly. Some days I was sure I’d heal in time. Others, I didn’t think there was a chance in Hell I’d show up at the starting line.
But I went for a short run the day before our train ride down to Innsbruck. And I felt as good as I ever felt since the injury. So, I decided to board the train on that Thursday, two days before the race, with the intention of running.
Innsbruck Alpine Trail Race
Race morning. I can still feel some junk in my knee, but I feel oddly optimistic that I’m going to do this thing. At the same time, I know deep down that I haven’t run more than six kilometers in a single effort over the past two-and-a-half weeks. The only way to find out if my knee would hold up over 48 kilometers with 2,000-plus meters of ascent and 3,000-plus meters of descent was to put it to the test and accept that things would either work out, or go terribly wrong.
The race kicks off with an immediate, challenging… pause. I don’t mean to brag, but… I could do this all day.
The traffic jam frees up and the 781-meter climb to the highest peak of the course gets underway in earnest. And I’m feeling surprisingly good! Climbing is my friend. My knee likes going up.
And this mountain backdrop is the course. Not bad, right? With the mountain air at my back, things were looking up.
But what goes up, must come down. (Stupid Sir Isaac Newton… More like TURD Isaac Newton…)
SORRY! I’m experiencing a little post-race frustration and lashing out 17th Century scientists. I’ll do better.
The going down is what destroys my knee. At one point I looked at my watch and saw I had 1,000 meters of descent immediately ahead of me. It was just a Looney Tunes switchback that obliterated my right knee.
Coming into the first aid station, I felt remarkably solid. Two of the three major climbs were behind me. Up ahead was 15 kilometers of mostly flowing, runnable trail––the kind of stuff I love and can do all day… usually.
I may have felt solid in terms of strength and condition, but my knee just wasn’t having it. So it was time to make a choice.
I had to pull out.
So yeah, chalking up my first DNF sucked balls. It sucked tremendous balls. But fortunately, I’m still young-ish and have time to rebuild and take another stab at an ultra. In the meantime, I’m on the road to recovery––starting with a train ride from Berlin to Wales for some hiking and recovery running in Bannau Brycheiniog National Park where I learn a bit about Welsh culture, heritage, and why they’ve recently decided to drop the English from the park name and what it all has to do with climate change.