All right, so my Vitosha 100 km once again did not turn out as planned, but ultramarathons rarely do so. Here are my statistics:
- ~106-107 km, including a few ‘bonus’ km with a major hill and some quality bushwhacking;
- Second overall.
Granted, these look mediocre at best relative to my pre-race goal of running 100 km in 8:30, which based on results from the last 20 years, should have been enough for the win. But in shocking contrast with the quantitative results, I feel really good about my run. In fact, I will go as far as saying that this was my best run ever, both physically and mentally.
The weather was cool before the midnight start, and I might have been the only runner wearing shorts (what’s wrong with you people? ;). I was more excited than I had been in a long time because this race is extra special for me and because I had tapered heavily in the previous three weeks, so I was relieved when we finally started running. Apart from the usual silly sprint off the start line, the pace was pretty relaxed for a while and the mood at the front was light. We even had some support, with an intoxicated voice from a bar reminding us responsibly that “100 km is a really long way!” The lead pack consisted of Dimitar (3rd in 2010 and looking strong), Slavi (also looking fit), myself, and another young runner, who looked like he was working way harder than he should have been so early in an ultramarathon.
So, we were happily plugging away on the gradual climb through the neighborhood of Boyana, and I was shooting the breeze with Slavi, when Dimitar suddenly told Slavi to stop talking in order to conserve energy and then took off at what I was pretty sure was sub-7-min/mile pace. The young guy I didn’t know followed him immediately, and they ran together for a pretty impressive low 40-min. 10 km to the first checkpoint. After some hesitation, I decided not to worry about this at all and just stick with my plan to run very steadily and evenly throughout the race. I was pretty sure their pace was not sustainable, and I had no intentions to battle for the lead so early on.
I was able to put down Torq gels and Cliff Shot Blocks pretty easily and felt like I was running efficiently, so I expected to catch the two leaders by the 25 km checkpoint in Kladnitsa. And just before entering the village, I finally saw their lights and easily pulled behind them. They were not running so well anymore, and the younger guy looked like he would be done racing soon. But I decided to stick with them so that we can navigate together the tricky bits of trail and dirt roads around Studena Lake.
By the time we hit the next checkpoint (~32 km), I was ready to start running a bit harder. This next section is may be an 11- or 12-km gradual climb up a paved road and it has killed my body and soul on each of the three previous occasions I had run it. But not this time. It still felt hard, but I ground it out, re-filled my bottle at the checkpoint, and gladly jumped on the forest road leading up to the highest point of the course. There was a good amount of mud and water to plow through and I figured I had a good lead, so I tried to just relax and run smoothly.
In retrospect, this “just relax and run” thing might have worked a bit too well. I remember at some point thinking how great things were going. I was 5+ hours into the race, feeling fine, still pretty strong on the hills. My only slight concern was that it looked like I was going to come a bit short of hitting 8:30 (I was on pace for may be 8:45-8:50). But I was not worried about that. In fact, I was not worried about anything, which is pretty rare for me. And then I realized I was running on the wrong dirt road and climbing the wrong hill. I had one of these moments of cold-sweat paralysis and then started to think hard (well, as much as this was possible with my depleted brain). I did not particularly care if I was going to be passed, but I wanted to rescue the sub-9-hour finish, if at all possible. What followed was a mad dash up and down the hill, trying to find a way to get back on course without backtracking (I am stubborn like that). I tried following a power line, which I knew would take me to where I needed to be, but that just led to re-discovering how hard it is to run through blackberry thickets.
When my common sense finally kicked in, I just reversed and sadly calculated that I had killed almost an hour. After a few minutes of self-pity, I decided that getting through the remaining ~40 km was going to be extremely tough, unless I redefined my goals. I figured I was at least half an hour behind Dimitar at this point, but I figured I had a reasonable chance of catching him, especially if he had a meltdown and I didn’t. And if I could trick my brain into buying this, I could probably sneak under 10 hours, which would still be an improvement of over an hour relative to my previous runs on this course. So I had another gel and started running as hard as I could. By the next checkpoint (75 km), Dimitar’s lead was down to 20 min. and by ~90 km, it was only 15 min. But by then, I was running out of time and gas, so I just cruised in to the finish and congratulated Dimitar for his excellent run. The guy had shaved two hours (!!!) from his 2010 time, and I know he could do even better. Next year should be fun!
I am generally a goal-oriented person. But missing my goals for this race somehow did not disappoint me. I was very happy with the way I ran and even happier with not rolling over when I realized I had messed it all up. More importantly, the race was a huge success. The course marking was impeccable (getting lost was completely my fault – I just fell asleep) and the checkpoints were excellent. There were 106 starters and 54 finishers, which was more than I remember seeing or reading about in the last 15 years. I think both of these numbers are likely to go up next year. And it was nice to see the recent trend of improvement set by Petur Unjiev (R.I.P.) continue. I hope it takes a sub-9 or even sub-8:30 finish to win next year. And I will do my best to be ready for that.