Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Burgwald Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 18th Edition 
233.5 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Burgwald Marathon
Place: RAUSCHENBERG FRIGGING GERMANY!
Miles from home: 5300
Weather: 70s-80s; Humid

I don't recall exactly which of my random late night search binges had me seeing if the town of Rauschenberg in Germany happened to have a race. But I do know that once I found out they had a marathon (which I was bummed was named the Burgwald Marathon and not the Rauschenberg Marathon), I knew I would be running it one way or the other.


I just wish it had been run 48 hours later than it was.

Germany is going through a rather warm and late summer (like so many other places.)  Unfortunately, this meant that on race day the high was predicted to be 90 degrees. And humid. Forty-eighty hours later the high was supposed to be colder than the low on Sunday. Ugh. The good thing for me was that I was planing ahead. Even though I had run the Reykjavik Marathon the week before and was traveling and sight-seeing, I was putting more effort into preparing for the weather for this race than I had for any race in quite some time.

One of the main preparations I was doing involved a major shift for me. I intended to utilize a Camelbak backpack for the marathon when I rarely even think about what a race is going to offer at the aid stations for a race of this distance.  This meant I would fill the 1.5 liter bladder of the Camelbak Circuit to the brim and then freeze it overnight. I had no doubt with the heat of the day and the heat of my body, that I would melt it in no time. Plus I would have that many more ounces of cold water to rely on when I normally just get by on what is offered.

Another preparation I was making was to put virtually no pressure on myself time-wise. I always have goals of sub-3 hours in a marathon when I run but sometimes that is more realistic than others.  That was not going to be the case at this race. Where ever I finished overall in the race and what my time ended up being were secondary to healthfully completing the event. I wish I could say that all this foresight and advance prep turned out to be fruitful. It wasn't. Well, it did keep me out of the hospital - barely.

I have no real complaints about the race itself or the way it was run. If I had my druthers, I would never start a marathon at 8:30 in the morning, even though I hate mornings. Three or four hours (or five or six) allows way too much to happen to start a race late in the morning.  I also would do my best to have an aid station every other mile with very cold drinks. However, the race made it abundantly clear neither of those would be happening. So there were no surprises and nothing I can say was not made known to all. In fact, one thing I have learned about myself and Americans during the past 12 days abroad is that we apparently put a far higher priority on cold drinks then the rest of the world. Why that is I am not exactly sure. But the fact that asking for ice routinely nets you two cubes in your glass that they handle with such care that you feel they have named them individually shows the difference in cultures.

Furthermore, it is hard to feel anything but happiness about a marathon that takes place in the town where you family comes from. I was even given my own personal walking tour of the town by the race organizer's daughter the day before the race. We didn't walk forever but even the 2-3 mile jaunt might not have been the best idea the day before the race. However, there was no way I was passing it up and missing the opportunity to learn about the history of this town. It also allowed me to put to use my extremely rusty German which I had not used in (*gulp*) twenty years. I also learned that, ironically to me at least, I was the only person in the whole town with the surname of Rauschenberg. Which I think means I get to own the old castle that still remains there.


Another thing that was wonderful about being in Germany was blowing away misconceptions. Germans are not exactly known for their senses of humor. My time in Germany didn't exactly disabuse me of that feeling. However, on the whole, Germans were some of the nicest, if not outwardly friendly, people I have met in quite some time. There is a curtness to them and a stoic bluntness. However, mistaking that for unfriendliness would be folly. This was not just in the town of Rauschenberg, where my experience might be colored by my desire to love the place, but rather all over the country.

It surely doesn't hurt to have a personalized watercolor of your town presented to you minutes before the start of the race. To say I was touched by the kindness and generosity of the people and this race would be an understatement.  In fact, it is basically the only reason I finished this race.

My personal experience with this race is completely tainted with how poorly I performed and how bad the weather affected me. So for me to tell you it was still a very well-run race should tell you something about its organization. I am going to try and not only tell you about my own personal race but also fill you in on the race itself so you can join next year for the 750th anniversary of Rauschenberg. (To read another review by a great German guy named Joe Kelbel and see oodles of pictures he took, click here.)

My biggest complaint has to do with a somewhat misleading elevation profile. Granted, even knowing in advance how tough this course was going to be wouldn't help much but it seems some of the edges were smoothed a little bit on the race profile. I mentioned this sort of softening in my Steamtown Marathon recap back in 2007 and have had more than a few people mention how my more straightforward telling of the course helped them greatly.

In addition, if you don't do sufficient research, you wouldn't know that 16 of the 26 miles are trail.  Not technical, Hardrock 100 trail, but trail nonetheless. And what is not trail is undulating, rolling, and twisty-turny hills. There are a few blessed stretches of straight running but they come at inopportune times.  At least when it comes to the weather we had and no shade from the hot sun means nothing feels good..

Therein lies the rub. Everything about this race is different than what one could normally expect because of the ridiculously hot weather. Fortunately, this is rare weather and also fortunately, you do not have to live in my body, aka the Sweatatron 3000.  Even if you prepare properly, nothing can change basic body chemistry. It goes a great deal to how I work to say that last week's marathon in Iceland in 50 degree weather was a tad too warm for my liking.

The Race:

I started out near the front but not at the front, as per my usual routine.  Even if I think I am going to finish in the top five I just assume other people might be a bit faster.  Also it is common courtesy, like not dry humping the luggage carousel at the airport so everyone can see and then get their own luggage.  But I digress.

Normally I have to pick my way through hordes of people who do not belong where they are but with only 74 finishers in this race (and I am unsure of how many who started but didn't finish) this was not too much of a problem. Almost immediately I was in 6th place behind  four men and a woman as we looped around the startling line and the open to the public pool I assumed I would be diving into after the race.

I knew the course immediately began climbing up what was an extremely steep hill and would continue to climb with a few rises and dips for the first three miles. After that it would slalom downward for a mile or so until flattening out for a jaunt through the neighboring village of Albshausen.

During this first few miles, I felt fairly good. I watched the runners in front of me jostle for places a bit while I kept forcing myself to run as relaxed and easy as possible. I could tell which runners I was better at on uphills or downhills and thought perhaps I might just surprise myself later in the race. I also made particular note of how far into the race I was when the first sweat droplet came off my forehead and onto my sunglasses. How far?, you ask.  One freaking kilometer.

After the initial up and down, the run under the "highway" and the trek through Albshausen, we skirted a camp ground before running along some shade and trees on a thin running path. I actually felt the slightest bit of chilliness here and was so happy. The first few miles, whenever they had been exposed to the sun without the wonderfulness of a branch to break its glare, absolutely baked runners. The shade here was blissful and the breeze made me feel like I might just not die. There had been no spectators to speak of but we did have a small herd of cattle purposefully run from a far distance away to join us and then run along side us. It is so funny how such a large animal seems so harmless and a herd of them coming at us was seen as nothing but funny.  I imagined if a herd of bears had done the same way if I would have been as smiley.  I yelled "Kommen Sie!" at the cows to follow us, pretty sure I missed used the tense of the verb but pretty sure they didn't care.

At 5.5 miles the race turned off this path and entered the namesake of the race: the Burgwald.  It was also here that I joined the runner in front of me and we would run for more than few miles together. We turned shortly after entering the forest for what I would call the lasso portion of the race. Not even a mile later I did something I haven't done since my 2nd marathon: I took off my shirt.

I had already wrung out the bottom portion of my shirt a mile or so back and was thoroughly drenched again. I knew I was taking a big risk exposing my skin to the Camelbak without having never used it without a shirt.  However, the risk seemed to outweigh carrying a 5lb shirt of water. (And in the end, miraculously, I only had two small spots of chafing near the shoulders.  This was absolutely astounding and should make you buy this product immediately.)  After a thorough wringing of the shirt, I jammed it into one of the front pockets of the pack and never thought about it for the rest of the race.  Since I hadn't lost much ground on the runners in front of us, had caught up to this runner here (Antie) and didn't feel horrible, I assumed my pace was solid. When I hit the 15k mark and saw I was on pace for a 3:28 marathon I was shocked. I was hoping my math was wrong.

I told myself that I was taking it easy and that on paper the first half of this course is far more difficult than the second half, at least when it comes to elevation change. I knew that once I got to the 15th mile, there were 3 small hills to contend with the rest of the way but other than that it was a mostly gently sloping downhill. Just get to there, I thought. You can make it there.

At one point in the race, I had seen the top 6 of us had splintered into 3 groups of two.  Here, closing in on the halfway point it appeared the leader runner was coming back at me.  But there was no reason for the lead runner to be heading back here. I was on the loop of the lasso not its stem. But as I was already deep into my strategy-planning phase and trying to block out heat and exhaustion, perhaps I got this runner confused with another out here on the course. There were more than a few pedestrians and recreational runners out in the forest this day.  However, not too long after this, the man who had been in second place came running back as well.  He had started the race with Antie before separating. Here, where I had stopped to use the bathroom, Antie had pulled ahead a bit. When the runner got to Antie he turned around and began running with him in the same direction.  Now I was thoroughly baffled. At the end I wanted to ask what happened but as you will see, I was in no shape to do so.

Hitting the halfway mark around 1:47 didn't help at all. Was I really on pace for a 3:45 marathon and still in 6th place?

Second Half:

I knew miles 15-17 were slightly downhill and I just wanted to get to them. Right before that, however, I heard footsteps. Crap. People were catching me. It softened the blow, however, when I saw it was my German buddy Bjorn who had traveled all the way from Berlin to run this race and say hello. I was flattered he made the 453 km drive to a small race simply because of my recommendation. (That's what they call "drawing power", race directors world-wide!) With him was another runner and we chatted for a bit commiserating on the heat.  I told him to not wait for me and before long he passed me and disappeared.  This being left behind so easily is what would hurt the most later on.  Not people passing me but then simply leaving me in their wake. I was beginning to run so slowly that I wondered if walking might be a better idea. 

I handled the downhill portion fairly decently however but was noticing some weird heaviness in my chest. That was when I noticed that I was sweating so much that the shirt in my pocket of my Camelbak was soaked. Over the next few miles I would have to pull this out and wring it out numerous times. I told myself, however, at least you are still sweating. But by now, the block of hard ice in my pack had long since melted and was completely drank.  I stopped briefly at the aid station around mile 18 to fill it with some water from the aid stations and asked the question I already knew the answer to: they had no ice. I did,however, laugh at the German sense of humor where someone had written "Forest Autobahn" on the path.  Oh, Germans.

It is amazing what just a few miles can do to you in a marathon. It is less amazing when you realize the cause. While we were still in the forest, the shade was more or less gone.We were running in a clearing where the sun was baking us.  It really is no surprise that even though I did what I could to minimize the shutdown of my body that over the next 5km, that shutdown was imminent.

What was surprising me however, was how few runners were passing me. I was walking virtually every uphill bump and barely running the pace I wanted to for everything else yet only a runner every mile or so would amble by. However, they all looked in far better than me. In fact, most stopped to ask if I was OK or if they could help. Again, German friendliness.

As we approached the 19th mile I had a brief spurt. Undoubtedly helped by both shade and downhill, I ran my first sub-5 km since earlier in the race. Then the course went uphill and I walked virtually the whole next kilometer. Bollocks. I hit a nice gradual downhill right around the 21st mile and two ambling gentleman passed me as if I had forgotten how to run. This should have told me how dire my straits were but I was oblivious. All shade gone, the afternoon sun turning my blood into a 100 degree soup of plasma and red blood cells, my race was done. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to go.

I often bristle when I read about runners (or other athletes) pushing through broken bones or potentially life-changing injuries just to finish a race. Perhaps I am not made of the same stuff as others but I see virtually no reason for this.  I touch on this on an article I wrote about Ryan Hall DNFing his marathon in London Olympics.  It seems to me that those who are the first to decry how tough they are and how they would NEVER stop are the ones who absolutely need you to know how sinewy and indestructible they are.  Well, I am not. I destruct. When I destruct I destruct fast and hard. Perhaps because of having Gilbert's Syndrome.  Perhaps because I often redline my adventures and slight miscalculation not in my favor send me crashing and burning.  Regardless, there is no race that I know of where its outcome is more important than my physical and long-term well-being.

This does not mean I won't push my limits or strive for more.  However, when the chips are down and it looks like the house is going to take me out into the alley and whoop me hard, I fold.  There are other hands to play and other races to run.  Unfortunately, on this day, I had no idea how, if I stopped, I would get back to the finish.  I could also tell that stopping out in the sun, with no ice to cool my core, probably would be just as bad as slowly moving forward.

So move forward I did. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn. Yeah, it was that kind of day, sports fans.  As near as I can tell, I added another half of a mile to my run as I ran, I think, parallel to the course but slightly in the wrong direction.  OK, I lied. I did not run. I barely jogged. In fact, I mostly walked. Then I shuffled. Then I stopped.  With about half of a mile left I simply laid down on the ground.  That is when I learned it was a mistake to stop.  My body cramped in places I didn't know I had. In fact, my yelps and cries would have been embarrassing if there had been anyone around to hear them.  I have never had such seizures of muscles in my calves and quads before. It was a miracle I even got going again.  But once moving things felt mildly better.  I pushed on up the last cruel hill and saw the finish line in sight. I was moving so slowly and with such a lack of purpose that hardly anyone realized I was actually in the race.  I crossed in 4:46:09 for my third slowest marathon ever.  Only the first time I ran Leadville and Pikes Peak have been slower. Moreover, my body shut down.

I made it to about ten feet past the finish line and grabbed my medal. I then staggered to my left and went down. I am not going to go into much detail here about my woes but suffice it to say it was the scariest moment I have ever had in any athletic endeavor ( and I have been concussed in a boxing match and had my elbow bent the wrong way in a rugby scrum.)  My breathing was severely hampered, my cramps were so bad I was openly crying and apparently, I took in nearly two liters of IV fluid when the Red Cross arrived to take care of me. To call this embarrassing would be an understatement. I had thoughts of running well and possibly winning the marathon and here I was needing medical attention.

Before long I wasn't feeling too bad and my buddy Bjorn came to check on me.  I had also met a really nice French fella named Arnaud who had volunteered to hold my IV bag as it surged into my body.  When I couldn't get up to say hi to Bjorn he laid down next to me for a picture. Arnaud took it and I thought of no better metaphor for runners. When you can't get up to take a picture with your friends, they come down to you.  While another one who held your IV bag volunteers to take the picture.  Hardly what I had in mind for this milestone marathon.

But life, and running, are full of disappointments. They are then often followed by excitement. I couldn't have been happier when, just an hour later, my bestie Shannon came through the finish. She looked as fresh as one could possibly look in this heat and had run completely within herself as to not do any damage. Given she was as sick as a dog and had dealt with a serious setback when she broke her nose a week before (this was seriously the trip of all trips) finishing at all upright was an accomplishment.  In fact, it was seeing her all happy and healthy that finally got me off the ground.  The Germans got a great kick out of my shuffled happy steps over to greet her at the finish.

Throwing back some ASEA, I was able to get to the airport that night and head back to Iceland. We spent the whole next day, our last on this journey, exploring the Golden Circle route near Reykjavik. As if the trip had not been exciting enough, we added "making sure some elderly people didn't die on a remote volcanic road" to the list.  But that's a story for another day.

155 marathons down. I earned this one for sure. Thanks for being so darn pretty, Rauschenberg. And thanks to the people who put on the Burgwald Marathon.  You may have to put up with me again next year!

1 comment:

Tom said...

That is a typical story of dehydration. Try not to do it too often! I also sweat a lot and sometimes misjudge fluid intake. I used only about 12 oz in a full marathon in Antarctica, but a cup at every aid station can be too little in hot sun. Humidity makes it harder to judge.