In ultra running races it’s common to see competitors team up along the course. It’s a strategy deployed by the elite and back-of-the-pack runners, as well as all those in between, to help the long miles pass by quicker. Teaming up with the one you love, however, is completely different and needless to say, it can prove tricky. Running an ultra puts everything to the test and you can guarantee that all your character traits, both good and bad, will surface out there on the trails. Some couples grow stronger together. Some do not.
My partner (Ellen) and I have been running together as a couple for the past three years. And while countless training runs together in each other’s company have gone well, we’ve never managed to pull it off in a race. There was the one time that we signed up for the BAMM 70 (Björkliden Mountain Marathon) without knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Located in the far north of Sweden, the BAMM 70 is a two-day ultra which sees competitors carrying heavy bags packed with tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and food while running amid unpredictable and hostile conditions. We didn’t finish the race… not because we were too slow but because we didn’t know how to navigate. Neither did we fight or get on each other’s nerves, but our failure meant the concept of racing together lost some of its charm. For a couple of years we didn’t dare try and race together again… that was until late November 2015 and the Desafio Lurbel Aitana 120k.
Ellen had just endured a DNF at the 168k UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) and desperately needed another four points in order to qualify for an attempt at redemption in the 2016 UTMB. We searched for a race and uncovered the Desafio Lurbel Aitana in Finestrat, Spain. With four points up for grabs (six according to the new rules), we knew the importance of the race and completing it inside the cut-off time. The question was would we make it… together?
120k and 7,200m elevation gain. Comfort zone? What comfort zone?
With around 7,200m of elevation gain and a lot of technical terrain, including some scrambling, to negotiate, it was going to be a tough 120k. Super-technical races with stacks of ascent have never been our forte in the past so we both knew this was going to be one hell of a challenge. On top of that, Ellen was really nervous. The pressure was on to get those four points and in the back of her mind she knew that it was those same nerves (nausea, energy problems and dark thoughts) that caused her to DNF at UTMB.
I was also nervous, very nervous. My last attempt at a similar race had ended after just 30k. I failed to pace the race correctly and ran way too fast downhill, resulting in badly beaten up legs. I’m really a 24-hour track runner, not a trail runner. This race was set to take me far, far outside my comfort zone.
Trails filled with love and bags filled with candy!
We began to discuss race tactics and found we both had very different worries. My biggest fear was the impact the downhill running would have on my legs, while Ellen’s concerns were about not going fast enough and thus having to effectively race between each and every checkpoint. We both needed to find a way to deal with these pressures. Could running together be the solution to both our problems? Ellen’s pace would be beneficial for me – by running behind her I would be able to calmly ease my way into the race and run more conservatively on the downhill sections. In turn, I hoped that my presence would make Ellen feel safe and, if we were luck, help to lower her stress levels. And then there’s love, which can conquer all anyway, right?
On race day itself a number of things could have potentially gone wrong. For once we were going into a race very much underprepared. Usually we are quite meticulous in what kit and food we use, but on this occasion we just played it by ear, hoping our experiences from running previous ultras would be enough.
The race organisers offered three bag drops. Not knowing what type of food and energy supplements would be served on the course, we filled our bags with an array of candy. As we had travelled from Sweden to participate in the race, we hadn’t brought much spare clothing nor a a change of shoes… but we definitely weren’t short on candy!
Running smart and to a strategy
We took to the start line with one thought – run slow, but never slow down. And, as it turned out, that strategy worked like a charm. We ran smart — going slow on all the uphill sections and taking two-minute breaks every 15/20 minutes or when our heart rates got too high. We also focused on slow breathing, ate whenever we stopped, and ran all the flat and downhill parts of the course. Many other runners started walking the flats and downhills within a few hours of setting off from the start. A few runners passed us on uphills but no-one overtook us on the downhills. We were quick and efficient at all aid stations and used the candy in our packs to keep our energy levels high throughout.
It was one of those races when everything worked out the way we wanted it to. There was no nausea, no trashed legs… instead we stayed calm and supported each other to the full for the entire 120k.
When running together leads to a life-changing experience
Running together, this time, was a life-changing experience… and I say that for both of us. I controlled my pace no matter how strong the urges were to go faster on the downhills and instead of being mentally beaten up by thoughts of cut-off times, Ellen passed that pressure onto me. How much time have we got to run this part, and how big is our margin?’ she would ask. My response was always a calm, reassuring one, delivered with love. In truth we didn’t gain much between each checkpoint, but what little we did gain was enough to grow us a nice margin.
And so finally, after 27 hours and 36 minutes, we crossed the finish line hand-in-hand… More than two hours inside the cut-off time.
Mission accomplished. Bring on the UTMB!
Thanks to the qualifying points gained at Desafio Lurbel Aitana, Ellen has been granted another shot at finishing the UTMB. In the draw she was selected as the only Scandinavian woman set to run trail running’s biggest race in 2016. And this time we will go to Chamonix and tackle the UTMB as a team. Together we are stronger.