Running Ultramarathons is like making love …

… The first time there is a big sense of anticipation, a certain fear of the unknown and a very intimate pressure to “perform”. Once it’s over the prevailing feeling is one of relief and some metaphysical emptiness, but to enjoy, really enjoy it … you have to do it a second time
With this idea I “developed” last June, a month after my first MiM, I decided to try it again this year.
Btw, for those of you who don’t know what the MiM is … this is the MiM:

marato castello
marato castello

Last fall I just kept running as usual, dreaming every now and then on this crazy race. Winter approached and it was almost time to register for the race. Eventually I saw on Facebook that the registrations would start on a certain Thursday in January, I believe. I had the great idea to kind of register on that very first day; registrations had never been an issue but you never know. Well, that didn’t only proved to be a great idea, but a GREAT idea. In less than 24 hours ALL 1.500 places had been taken!!
So, as Lennon would say, I may be crazy … but I’m not the only one.

Still, the struggle wasn’t over. During the registration I had the less great idea (it can’t be always perfect, you know?) that instead of paying immediately by VISA card, I would do it by bank transfer, without realizing that the bank transfer should be done within 7 days or the registration wouldn’t be valid.
Well, I had 7 days of fighting the stupidity of the registration office (a one-man show somewhere in Valencia) and involving my mother & sister back in Spain in order to be really, really sure that this guy had got his money. On the very last day and on my so-many call to him, he finally confirmed that the money was in his account and my registration was valid. My “YES!!” shout may have been heard in some distance.
From then on I had 3-4 months of trying to balance my world trips with some kind of training plan. This proved to be some impossible task, so the only “plan” was to run as often as I could, and (almost) as long as I could. Eventually I managed to put a decent mileage on my shoes.

There is, though, very often something wrong when everything should be right:
– Physically the week prior to the race, I was in Barcelona doing an IT audit to several European locations. They were pretty intense days and short nights, and I was clever enough not to wear enough clothes in the chilly Catalan evenings, so I got kind of a cold
– Mentally, we had very bad news on the family side, and on extremely minor scale, the last day of the audit we had a very emotional farewell dinner to a very good colleague.
So, physically on aspirins and mentally drained, I took the train to Castellon for Saturday race.

The race

Last fall I just kept running as usual, dreaming every now and then on this crazy race. Winter approached and it was almost time to register for the race. Eventually I saw on Facebook that the registrations would start on a certain Thursday in January, I believe. I had the great idea to kind of register on that very first day; registrations had never been an issue but you never know. Well, that didn’t only proved to be a great idea, but a GREAT idea. In less than 24 hours ALL 1.500 places had been taken!!
So, as Lennon would say, I may be crazy … but I’m not the only one.

Still, the struggle wasn’t over. During the registration I had the less great idea (it can’t be always perfect, you know?) that instead of paying immediately by VISA card, I would do it by bank transfer, without realizing that the bank transfer should be done within 7 days or the registration wouldn’t be valid.
Well, I had 7 days of fighting the stupidity of the registration office (a one-man show somewhere in Valencia) and involving my mother & sister back in Spain in order to be really, really sure that this guy had got his money. On the very last day and on my so-many call to him, he finally confirmed that the money was in his account and my registration was valid. My “YES!!” shout may have been heard in some distance.
From then on I had 3-4 months of trying to balance my world trips with some kind of training plan. This proved to be some impossible task, so the only “plan” was to run as often as I could, and (almost) as long as I could. Eventually I managed to put a decent mileage on my shoes.

There is, though, very often something wrong when everything should be right:
– Physically the week prior to the race, I was in Barcelona doing an IT audit to several European locations. They were pretty intense days and short nights, and I was clever enough not to wear enough clothes in the chilly Catalan evenings, so I got kind of a cold
– Mentally, we had very bad news on the family side, and on extremely minor scale, the last day of the audit we had a very emotional farewell dinner to a very good colleague.
So, physically on aspirins and mentally drained, I took the train to Castellon for Saturday race.

Rafael running
Rafael running

They asked me how I was feeling and my answer was “f*cked up” That must have been one of my more honest statements in years. From a physical perspective, I was about to experience the most miserable hours of my life.
If you look again at the race profile, you’ll see that the “fun” is the second part of the race, with the Kanchenjunga, K2 and Everest after each other (read Serra de la Creu, Lloma Bernat & Marinet) with in between the Eiger & the Matterhorn ( Sant Miquel de les Torrecelles & Xodos).
I always do my best to stay positive on (race) adversity, but the idea of running on empty for 30 km, with over 30°C under the sun and with these mountains ahead was really overwhelming. I remembered then the mantra I read somewhere “Ultramarathons is where the pain really hurts”
After a couple of km up the first of these giants I seriously considered giving up. Problem was that my family would already be in the car driving to the finish line so, it would have felt kind of weird to stop then. Ok, and I have to admit that I’m not too good at giving up, either.
I took a deep breath rested 30 sec. climbed maybe 100 m under the scorching sun (not a single tree on that mountain btw) and again and again …
Through my running years I’ve learnt as well that the fact that you feel terrible at a certain point in time, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will feel “that” terrible, all the time. So without putting my health at risk … I kept moving.
At the top of that mountain it seemed as if the heavens wanted to show some mercy. There was the usual drink stop AND a water tank with some improvised shower. I still can feel that refreshing water cooling my dry skin.
From then on, moreover it was downhill till the next bad thing, and that meant two things: less waste of energies and less negative thoughts, because you must put 100% of your senses in putting the next foot on the right place in order not to fall.
So, I managed to run till the foot of … yeap yet another mountain, and not many remaining tricks, let alone any energy reserves.
Then help came from an unexpected point. A guy that was doing the “long” race of 118 km, compared to my “short” race of 63 km (one more evidence that in life everything is relative) started talking to me about how bad he was feeling (and he still had 70-80 km to go) and we started to talk about it, and about not doing that race again (what I had already decided even before the start of the race) about his girlfriend that was doing the same race and would probably land in hospital and so on …
That meant a few more km’s of talking and of slowly moving. Somehow I got to St. Miquel de les Torrecelles, with just two big & two small mountains to go.
The first one was Lloma Bernat, the longest mountain of the day. It was … tough. Stop and walk and stop. Every now and then some passer-by asked whether I was ok. My answers varied between “I haven’t felt better in my whole life” and a nod in silence.
Don’t ask me how, because I don’t remember, but eventually I got up there. From up the mountain (Km 48) you could see two things:

  • The beautiful top of the Penyagolosa mountain (probably the only good thing of that weather was that the air was clear and views spectacular)
  • the village of Xodos (to where I should somehow drag my body for the next 8 km).

In between there was a valley where I met a guy who told me that he was very tired and was giving up, and that I didn’t look much better either. I was too tired to discuss, so I just moved on.
Xodos is as if somebody would have built a small village at the top of Alpe d’Huez. There is a winding and very steep road, punished by the midday sun (have I already mentioned it was warm?) that brings you to the village. Only difference with the Alpe d’Huez is that instead of drunk Dutchmen throwing beer at you, like in the Tour de France, there were nice locals telling “come on, you’re almost there!!” what is probably the biggest and more repeating lie I heard all along the race.
Up there I was, as in the previous 3 hours, dead. Somebody was showing a poster that said “Lo que os hace diferente es vuestro espíritu!” (It’s your spirit what makes you different!) I was touched by that. But now that I’m writing this story, I wonder whether “spirit” shouldn’t be replaced by “craziness” or a similar word.
Still got some food, got yet another improvised shower and had the last relieving downhill track of the day, till the foot of the Everest, I mean Marinet (unfortunately without oxygen).
The Marinet was the only mountain of the day with some shadow, as pine trees were along the way, but I was feeling so miserable, that sun or no sun didn’t really make a difference. Moreover that mountain has some turns that seemed to me as steep as the Southwest face of “El Capitan”.
The only good thing (or bad thing, depending how you look at it) was that there was no way back. I don’t think anybody has given up alive so far in the race.
By then I was moving at 2-3 km/hour, and a guy passing next to me said to a colleague, “well we still have 8 km to go, so it may take up to 3 more hours”. I could have killed him, but was too tired so just took one more step, and one more step. Every now and then I stopped to check that my heart was bumping normally (and it was) so deep breath, and one small step, and yet another small step.
Getting up that mountain took me forever. The last few hundred meters were a bit less steep and that was probably the first time I was sure to reach the finish line. Not so sure on which day, but I would eventually get there.
Anyway, the Marinet was just like the Hillary Step in the Everest, you aren’t there quite yet. Still had to negotiate a final kind of hill called “La Bañadera” where I had to cheer for the first time somebody that was even slower than I.
From km 60 it was finally almost all downhill. Only issue was to avoid the rock where I left some facial DNA last year. I have to say that at the speed I was going, it was quite easy to do
The last km was of course magic. Finally the martyrdom was over, big smile, fist up in the air and the usual shout (excuse me) “De puta madre”.

At the finish line there was the same crazy speaker that had been destroying my eardrums at every major stop, or they cloned him I don’t know. Anyway he said “…and there comes Rafael with the flag from …” and I helped him “Belgium!”
So, as first non-Spaniard male of the whole race (somehow an Argentinian woman seems to have ended ahead of me) the guy came to interview me, what is the last thing you need after so much pain is an interview.
Anyway, he asked where I came from, I said Flanders and then, as expected, he did the usual stupid joke that Spaniards make to Flemish people and asked me whether I could dance some Flamenco (In Spanish we use the same word “Flamenco” to name a Flemish person as for the popular dance from Southern Spain).
Then he asked me how to say “Congratulations!” in Flemish. “Proficiat!” I said. “Entonces.. Proficiat Rafa!!” he screamed.
I smiled and said to myself: “Proficiat Rafa!” … walked away and tried to grab some more water and to figure out where my family was hiding.
Oh yes, my time, while at a certain point in time I was expecting to arrive by midnight, but somehow I managed to do a similar time as last year, just 10 min slower (9h:07 instead of 8h:56) and finished on a better position 420th vs 436th still, time neither matters nor tells the whole story. Maybe a better figure is the number of retirements. In 2013, 16 people didn’t end the race, in 2014, 201 didn’t make it.
It may sound too American, but everybody who ended that race must feel terribly proud of him/herself, we were all “heroes of the day”.

Rafael finished
Rafael finished

Epilogue

After ending the race we quickly started the loooong drive back home (more than 70 km of turns). As Aznavour would say “épuisé mais ravi” (exhausted but very happy) I put some thoughts on my future running career and was thinking about the mantra: “You will never know your limits unless you push yourself to them”. Well, right now I’m pretty sure that “my” limit (certainly my healthy limit) is pretty close to running 63 km uphill in around 9 hours at 30°C in the sun, and I can’t think about any reason to neither repeat nor try to push any further. There are enough “shorter” races, to enjoy out there, don’t you think?

Next stop (health willing) will be a very special Marathon: “In Flanders Fields Marathon”, between Nieuwpoort (BE) & Ieper (BE), along the battlefields of WW I, exactly 100 years after the War:

Battlefield
Battlefield

In their website you can read:
“In 14-18 victory in World War One was more important than personal survival.
This time participation in the “In Flanders Fields-marathon” is more valuable than first place in the race
Mistakes from the past are a lesson for today or tomorrow”
… My new mantra …

Keep on running!

But wait, what about Conti??

At the end of the day this is a site about “Continental People”, so I’ve been writing a lot about “people” but not at all about Conti, right?

Well, one of the questions I usually get is “where do you get the time to do all that running”?

My answer is always “There is always time to do something, it’s just a question of priorities”.

You can always watch one less hour TV, or get up an hour earlier or … Moreover I happen to live in the perfect place on the planet to run: extremely flat, temperate climate and all I have to do is put my running shoes on, open my front door .. and go.

When on business trips (and I do a LOT of business trips) I try to get my hotel next to a big park, a lake or a river, where I can run without getting lost (my orientation is worse than awful). When it’s not possible to run outside, either due to climate (Helsinki in February), security (Salvador), size of the city (Mexico City, Shanghai) or any other reason, then just try to get a hotel with a gym, all you need is ONE treadmill. The issue is of course that running in a gym is BORING: have you ever been staring at your reflection in a mirror for an hour? Trust me .. is BORING

And just to make another link with this great company. As you may know we have four core values: “Trust”, “For one Another”, “Freedom to Act” and “Passion to Win”. Well, on a personal level the last two certainly apply to my running experience:

The first one is “Freedom to Act”. I think it’s important being able to think out of the box, to challenge your confort zone and dare to do other things that can fulfill you as a person, and responsibly take the necessary steps to reach that goal

And the second one is “Passion to Win”. Not in the sense of winning against anybody or beating anything, but having the internal drive to perform, test your capabilities and reach as far as you can. Personally I haven’t had a deepest sense of self-achievement in my whole life that the very moment I crossed the finish line of my first Marathon. If there’s any current or past runner reading this blog, they will certainly understand why.

And as I said … keep on running !!

Rafael Sales

Rafael Sales

Work in Conti since 1997. Started in the Tire Sales Organisation of Belgium, first as IT Assistant, then as IT Manager. From 2003 I got more and more involved on Central IT projects, till I became "central". Right now I'm Distributed Systems Manager on the Tire Division, basically covering all the "PC World", including Messaging, Mobility ...

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