When the (very short) list of aid stations on a 50-mile race consists mainly of springs to refill your water, you know you’re in for an interesting time. It might not be exactly fun, but it sure as hell will be fascinating, whatever the outcome.
That’s what I realized when I started to pack on a Thursday night for what was forecasted to be a very rainy race I was definitely undertrained for. Take into consideration that even just the thumbnail of the race promo video should have been a warning—the only path through the fallen leaves would be one left behind by my fellow runners—and it wouldn’t take a genius to realize I was in for a treat.
On Friday, I left my work as if it was on fire and then spent some 6 hours in a car, which definitely wasn’t the best pre-race strategy. A sign that read “The End of the World” welcomed me to the place where the race would start in less than 12 hours. I picked up my bib and the lack of people where the line for my distance was supposed to be should have been a warning but alas, on Saturday morning, I got up, legs stiff from the long ride, and headed to the starting line.
“It’s going to be a sunny day,” said the announcer, and I thought, where the hell did she get her weather from, because the forecast was promising rain the whole week coming up to the race. The countdown started and ended and then we were off; off into the mountains people call Forgotten for their beauty remains hidden to many.
The sun, indeed, made an appearance—for about five minutes before it crossed the short gap between the horizon and the clouds that hung dangerously low in the sky. Mile one rolled around and all of the runners were before me; this was really going to be a race against myself and the clock and nothing and nobody else. My right knee started to protest as I climbed the first hill—the first of very many.
At mile four I got lost, at mile six, my Achilles tendon sounded the alarm. At mile seven, everything around my tailbone started to cramp up, at mile ten, my uterus joined in on the fun. These aches and pains made an early appearance. Like old friends, they popped up for a surprise birthday party, even though my birthday was still over a month away.
I marked my bib at the first and second checkpoints, running along the border, then refilled on fluids at the first aid station at mile 10. It would be another half marathon packed with hills and rocks and wind and fog before I made it to the next one.
Wishing for Death on Czernica
The mental breakdown started when I finally got to enjoy a short runnable downhill right past the first aid station… only for the woods to spit me out on the best possible viewpoint from which I saw the soul-crushing monster of a hill that was ahead of me. A ski slope stared me down as I warily made my way past a cemetery, already contemplating staying there. I might have, had I known that the ski slope wasn’t the whole thing, by a long shot.
It was also at the cemetery that the first 50-k runner caught up to me and passed me. A quarter way up the slope, the second guy came steaming past, and the third. Before I made it to the second part of the climb, about 15 people that started an hour later than I did disappeared in the woods ahead of me. On the second part of the climb, a rooty ascent so steep in parts I could have crawled on all fours, I let more runners pass.
When I finally made it to the top of Czernica, the wind was blasting past my ears, the fog was rolling over me like a boiling ocean, and the two volunteers who were (unsuccessfully) trying to serve us hot tea swore that there is usually a gorgeous view from the top of the lookout tower under which they were hunkered down. If I went to the top of the tower, I wouldn’t even see them, let alone said supposedly nice view.
A downhill finally came, a super technical one, and I needed Courtney to help me run at that point. I put in my earbuds and turned on a video about her Tahoe 200 race, the one where she was in the absolute lead until about 30 miles before the finish. I know it by heart, it has my favourite line ever (… Kleenex, chapstick, no sanity, no dignity) and I listen to it every time I need a little pick-me-up during a challenging run.
I was able to actually enjoy the demanding downhill (thank you, Court!) and ended up at its bottom, running with and after the few 50k runners who were on the descent with me. It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I completely missed not only the fourth self-checkpoint but also my turn.
Getting Lost: A Sure-Fire Way to Spice up Your Race
Happily, I ran with the 50k runners until I reached a settlement… which I wasn’t supposed to reach. In fact, besides one village I’d passed through at the bottom of the ski slope, I wasn’t supposed to see any signs of civilization besides the occasional border marker until the very end of the race. A short check-in with the map and a runner who pointed me in the right direction later, I was running the other way, returning to my route. Little did I know this mistake was going to be one of the things that probably cost me the race in the end.
The Real End of the World
I ran past a few lumberjacks and soon, another long climb followed. As I ascended towards the cloudy sky, I got, once again, surrounded by the fog that was way too eager to embrace me in its arms and never let go. I spent several next hours running along the border without seeing a single human being—or anything for that matter. The fog, stirred by the wind, rolled over the ridgeline in angry waves, isolating me from the rest of the world as rain periodically pelted my body.
When I finally reached the next aid I was just happy to see people. After having been in the isolating fog entirely alone for several hours, the warmth of a space heater and human chatter was the best thing I could have received at the checkpoint. What a stark difference to the weather they said they ordered, what a stark difference to the promo materials! With that experience, I definitely got more than I bargained for when I signed up. And that wasn’t the end of it!
The Descent through (or from?) Hell
“If you can keep your pace, you’ll still make it before the cut-offs,” told me one of the volunteers. What I don’t understand is how he could have told me that knowing what was up ahead. Waiting to break down my body and spirit was the hardest, most technical section of the whole route. The runners who have gone through it knew it but didn’t say anything. After all, the route description I carried with me said the stretch “can’t be described.” And it was right. Because that section was really fucking indescribable.
If you want to train for what awaits you at the Forgotten Mountains Ultramarathon, do your speed sessions on uneven forest roads, your long runs on deer trails, and your terrain training on a steep mountainside strewn with fallen trees. Don’t forget to throw in some bouldering, wading, and mud racing. Chances are if it’s a dry year with gorgeous weather, you’ll have some Type 1 fun. But if it’s a year like this, you still won’t be 100% prepared for what’s to come, having only one option: say “let’s fucking rock n’ roll” and get ready for a lot of Type 2, maybe even Type 3 fun.
Blue ribbon marked a 1.5-mile long stretch down the steepest thing they managed to find in the whole of Rychleby mountains. Forget trails; forget deer trails. Even the animals have more brains about them than to go down that thing. At mile 28 (yes, past the marathon mark!), crawl along rock ledges and under fallen trees, slide through the autumn foliage, dislodge rocks and watch them run away from you, unstoppable on the steep slope. Don’t even think about trying to film it. Instead, hold onto dear life as you make your way down the surprisingly incredibly well-marked route.
Clench your teeth and enjoy the best worst non-trails of your life. Because if this race can promise you one thing, it’s this: you won’t know if this section is the reason you’ll keep coming back year after year or the reason you never show up in the area ever again. I guess it depends on your character. This section teaches you more about your running adventure goals than any other experience in your life. As you watch the video below, remember… I had no bloody idea that this ledge walk some 10 feet above the forest floor was just the beginning; a child’s play compared to the descent ahead.
When the forest finally chews and spits you out deep in the valley, it’s still not the end. Wade or rock-hop across two streams to make your way to the next self-checkpoint placed for various reasons behind the creeks. I have a few theories about why whoever designed the route did this but I won’t share them here. Note that you have to wade/rock-hop your way back after you mark your bib. In other words, there’s no reason to have to cross the creeks. It’s just for the sake of it. God, I hated and loved it at the same time.
The waterfall is gorgeous tho so, while you’re desperately trying not to get your feet wet, let it distract you and slip off the rock into the cold water. What, you think that’s exactly what happened to me? Pffft. Not a chan… okay, that’s exactly what happened to me.
The Climb from (or through?) Hell
I had to crawl out of the valley. Having known where I came from, it was clear it wasn’t going the be the most fun part of the race. Oh, how wrong I was. It was about a hundred times worse. As I crawled my way up another steep slope, the dusk, and complete mental exhaustion, caught up with me. I had no cell service and my legs started to refuse to move. I started contemplating what my death in that remote gully would look like.
That’s when I finally saw a ribbon. I cut it directly to it, refusing to let it out of my sight. Aaand that’s how I ended up having my shoes nearly sucked off my feet by a bog. Eventually, I made it to a forest road. I had two more self-checkpoints to go through before I made it back to the aid station that I left several hours ago. The first one wasn’t far away. To get to the second one, however, I had to run down another gully, knowing very well I’d have to climb out of it once again to get to the aid.
The way down was the hardest thing, mentally. My legs caught up, I was able to run on the difficult terrain, and I knew my body was good to go. But I also knew that the way up would probably put me out of commission again. Near the checkpoint, I caught up to another runner. For a moment, I thought my eyes were playing games on me again. (Yes, again. I saw a person on the first climb but it turned out they were never there. Dissolved into the shadows when I tried to talk to them.) But no, it was a real person.
We marked our bibs together and started back up the hill along a small creek. Soon, she disappeared in the darkness; on the uphill, I was too slow.
The Verdict: How I Finally DNF’d
The time came for me to put on my headlamp. The damp day turned into a dark, rainy night. As I climbed higher and higher, I felt the temperature drop drastically. By the time I reached a forest road that would lead me to the aid station, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. When I saw the lights of a car, I couldn’t be happier.
The other runner was there, sitting in a small shelter, eating. The aid station was packed away and only one volunteer stayed there to wait for us. It was the end of the race for us both. We weren’t going to make it in time to the finish line, and the conditions got too dangerous for us to go back out on the ridgeline. The temperature was dropping, the wind and rain got worse, and we both had another 10 miles left on the exposed non-trails while other runners were already descending into the relative safety of the valley.
I accepted the decision, not knowing if I was actually kinda glad he pulled me from the race or if I was so immensely disappointed I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Thus I received my first DNF (did not finish): cold, wet, muddy, and defeated. This time, the mountains got me. But even as we drove back to the start/finish of the race, I knew that, although I promised myself I’d never come back, I’ll be back very soon for redemption. I won’t stay defeated for long.
Races that went better even though the use of the word “better” is questionable.