How many years will it take me to figure out how to run this thing well? Fifteen so far and still counting! Or is 100 km a distance that I, being as stubbornly impatient as I am, can never run comfortably? Well, I won’t know the answers of these questions for at least another year. But first things first…
My training in the 4-5 months leading up to the race might have been the best I have ever done. No injuries and good consistency, except for a 15-day setback caused by a nasty chickenpox infection, which was immediately followed by some pretty intense field work. The key change I made relative to the previous two seasons (a whole lot more hills) seemed to be paying off, as I had a very good race at the Brecon Beacons 40M and completely exceeded my expectations in the leg of the Welsh Castles Relay that I ran in early June. My only concern, having to run the brutal Welsh 1000m Peaks race only two weeks before the Vitosha 100 km, was resolved through demonic intrusion in the form of torrential rain and flooding that prevented me from even starting the race.
Аfter a longer than usual taper, I was raring to go and had to work hard to keep my emotions in check. Meeting old friends at the start and chatting with them definitely helped, but I was still relieved when we were finally off and running. I was feeling great, despite my complete lack of heat acclimation, and ran the initial climb pretty hard. Iliya Kutsarov and Bojko Zlatanov made it clear that they had no intentions of letting me go, so we ran together for a good hour, with Dimitar Davidov lurking not too far behind us. Running and chatting with these guys was probably my favorite part of the race. I had literally run into Iliya in Sofia’s North Park last Christmas break, and we had several excellent sessions on the ice- and snow-covered alleys and trails. I was very impressed with his athletic ability, but even more so with his extremely positive outlook and enthusiasm for running, so seeing him in the race and sharing some time with him and his friend Bojko was awesome!
Both of these guys, however, had turned up with inadequate lights and the inevitable eventually happened. At a rocky stream crossing, Bojko stumbled and took a pretty hard spill, Iliya gentlemanly stopped to wait for him, while Dimitar and I kept plugging away (not so gentlemanly, but after making sure Bojko was not seriously hurt). The two of us ran the following 8-9 miles of flat(ish) single- and double-track to Kladnitsa fairly fast by ultramarathon standards, probably averaging around 7:30-min. miles, and that still felt pretty effortless. We even had a little chat, before I started pulling away ever so slightly. The rough section around Studena Reservoir also went pretty quickly for me this year, and I got to the Studena checkpoint (~21 miles) in 2h49, by far my fastest ever split for the first third of this race, and about 13 min. faster than last year!
The long, gradual climb from Bosnek to Chujpetlovo is often the crux of this race for me. It started out well enough – I was feeling strong and calm. But then my stomach quickly started going south and, although I tried every trick in my bag for turning it around, it kept getting worse. I had experienced this before, but things had always improved after no more than an hour. This time was clearly different, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew I would slow down a lot – there is no way to hold pace after four hours of running hard and with no chance of getting any calories in. The question was just how much I would slow down and how many people would catch me.
The rest of the race was a strange combination of extreme physical pain (running 100 km will do this to you, even without the severe stomach cramps I was experiencing) and a manic-depressive state of mind. I would go through bad patches during which the stomach cramps were so intense, I had to slow down to a crawl, or even stop, and I felt like I wanted to cry. But then things would improve temporarily and I would pick up the pace substantially, incredulous that I could still run so fast. I would then get very optimistic and try to eat something and make the effort more consistent…which would immediately lead to closing the cycle.
Under different circumstances, I would have quit as soon as I was certain my stomach would not turn around. But with so many friends and relatives supporting me the whole way (my mother-in-law volunteered all night and most of the day at a checkpoint, without getting any sleep or rest!), this was simply not an option. I was committed to running until I fell in a ditch and could not move anymore. So I ran, walked, drank a cup of Coke at each checkpoint if I could, and prepared myself mentally for seeing Dimitar turn a corner and catch me. Strangely, the thought of that was not entirely negative. I knew he was going to run well this year, and I was happy for him and for the race atmosphere this was creating. I was just very pragmatically preparing myself for one last push when/if that happened. In the end, I didn’t find out if I really had that in me, and cruised to a surprisingly stress-free finish.
All is well that ends well, they say. But I am not so sure I agree on this occasion. Yes, I won the race and finally broke the 9-hour barrier, something I have been dreaming of for a long time. But the way this happened leaves a lot to be improved. Like running for more than five hours on three cups of Coke and a handful of pretzels! And once again fighting demons through the entire second half of the race. What did I do wrong this time? No heat acclimation (new problem)? Starting too fast (permanent problem, and seemingly hopeless)? Or is this just the way it is when you are pushing yourself close to your limit?
I am writing this literally minutes before jumping in the car and driving off to Coniston for the start of the Lakeland 100M. So, hopefully, I have at least subconsciously figured it all out (very doubtful ;)
Finally, here are a few pictures from the finish (courtesy of Krasimir Metodiev, Geotrade-Ivanov, Garmin Bulgaria):
Looking better than I felt.
This is about right – never again!
Best part of ultrarunning?
I really enjoy and value the way Dimitar and I have pushed each
other in the last two Vitosha 100 km races.
other in the last two Vitosha 100 km races.
Left to right: Dimitar, myself, Plamen Tsukev, and Iliya.
Can’t wait to race these guys (and many others)
again – it will take a huge effort to keep up
with their improvement.