I never could deal with the second night – not even when the first night is half spent comfortably in a sleeping bag. The red rear light of Mitch about 50 metres ahead, the white circle of my headlight a couple metres ahead of me, it all slowly fades into blackness as my eyes struggle unsuccessfully to stay open. Only a couple more hours of darkness remaining, but it feels like forever. Yet I know, this time I know, that we will finish this race.
My history here in this race, in Germany’s Harz mountains, has been quite dismal. Three years ago with Mitch, we were fighting for the win when we had to stop due to an injury. One year later, with Lisette, we were also doing great and again had to stop for an injury. And last year, with Elwin, we also could not make it through the second night and stopped exhausted.
It’s that kind of a sport. On the face of it, it really does make very little sense to run and bike for more than 24 hours, past one or even several nights. Non-stop. Self-supporting. Continuously navigating past random points that a seemingly insane race director placed on a map. Teams, usually of two persons, frequently fail to finish for reasons of exhaustion, injury, hypothermia, getting lost and mechanical problems. Yet all this does not capture the beauty of adventure racing: experiencing the full, slow breathing in and breathing out of landscapes. Seeing the world fall asleep, and still going on when it wakes up again. Traversing hills, mountains, valleys, canyons all by independent means. Only being dependent on teammates, trusting them. Suffering and coming through.
Coming through, finishing rather than winning, was our objective this time around. We approached the race with as little self-imposed stress as possible. We prepared for the start away from everybody else, to avoid the high heart-rates associated with seeing your competitors prepare. We took it easy in the prologue, a 40 minute mountain run that determined the start order for the real start. As a result, we started the first mountainbike leg of 64 km in about 30th place, 10 minutes down on the leader from the start. We started calmly, not wanting to overtake teams unless they made mistakes. Getting to the finish would take us an expected 32 hours, and our intention for the first half of it was merely not making mistakes and start the second half in as good shape as we could.
It started off well. Several teams were passed while they stood still to read maps in the dark. We were able to avoid that and slowly moved up a couple places in the ranking without digging into our energy reserves. The roads were generally good – some snow and lots of mud made for cold feet within half an hour so that we did not have to worry about that anymore. Warm feet would come back in the running-legs and were not really needed for biking. Mitch, in fantastic shape, was usually a bit ahead of me, using the bit of time that gave him to do some truly brilliant map-reading.
We seemed to sail through the landscape – at least when we were going downhill. Uphill was obviously more difficult and, refusing to push it, we were sometimes overtaken on uphill sections. As hills and valleys moved past us, teams started to get further apart and we were more and more alone, settling in our rhythm and telling ourselves that we were far enough down in the rankings to not worry about them.
About two hours into the race, despite our moderate speed, Mitch seemed to pull away further and further in the uphills, and I started to breathe harder, sweat more and feel very weak. A clear case of immediate hunger – no sugars left in my system. I had made a major mistake: I had not eaten a decent meal yesterday before the prologue. I immediately gorged on two sports bars and drank my fill, but the damage was done. My speed dropped to ridiculous levels and we started using the elastic pulling system on Mitch’s bike. Over the next two hours, as we finished the bike section, I felt like pure luggage. Teams overtook us, and we felt like we dropped to thirty again.
Arriving at the transition area to the second leg, I was not at all feeling better. The sports bars in my backpack were slowly getting finished, and a 38 km trekking/running stage including the highest mountain of the region, was about to start. Leaving our bikes and hoping for opportunities to replenish our stores along the way, we set off. We settled into a pitiful run whenever we went flat or downhill, and a too-slow walk when we went uphill. Time passed around us as we moved from compulsory point to compulsory point, and slowly, ever so slowly, I started feeling better. I was finally able to run at decent speed as we passed a frozen reservoir on very uneven, snowy ground. From then on, things started going our way. As other teams slowed down over time, we were picking up speed. A quick coke and a Snickers bar a few hours into the leg really revived our spirits, and we had a very brisk pace both up and down the Brocken – highest point of the region and the race at 1200 m.
We arrived back at the transition area in reasonable spirits. No orienteering mistakes, feeling decent again. We were looking strong for whatever was in store for us. Another Dutch team sat at the transition area, injured and out of the race. And suddenly we were second in the Dutch championships (and about tenth in the total race). I was annoyed at knowing this, expecting more stress and possible mistakes now. Mitch was simply happy and rightfully so because it was entirely his doing that we were in contention.
The second bike leg, of about 30 km, went by like a charm. I was back in shape, orienteering and biking well. We were going fast, yet completely focussed on what we knew was still a huge distance to cover. The last leg is always the worst.
Our gear bags were waiting for us at the second transition area, containing our two secret weapons. But first, we attacked another (short) running leg that included a 1000-m zipline. Especially the compulsory wait before the zipline was nice: we lied in the sun for a bit, munching the final supplies from our backpacks. This really woke us up. It was about two in the afternoon now, which also helped: lots of light. Back at the transition area, we opened the gear bag. The half-litre alcohol-free beer that came out first surely raised some eyebrows among the competition, but Mitch was adamant that it was isotonic and good for us! Second came a pair of fantastic Subway sandwiches, with lots of vegetables and small peppers. Another great reviver, and there was more in the bags, so that we left the transition area completely refreshed and recharged a couple minutes later. The first Dutch team had left only about ten minutes before us, and the third looked to leave within ten minutes.
Another bike leg, taking the remainder of the afternoon and the start of the evening. The organisation had had to move one compulsory point just before the race, and this change meant that the stage had been lengthened (to a total of forty kilometres or so), but that the best roads to take were now the type of wide, well-kept roads that we liked at this point. When the leg ended, at a ski jump where we had to climb and rappel, we were still in good shape. There were suddenly only three more legs to go: first an orienteering one, then a run-bike leg with one bike for the both of us, and then the final bike leg of another 40 kilometres with a lot of up and down. I was starting to hope that we would comfortably get to the finish without more hardships that we had already had.
At the transition area, getting ready for orienteering, we heard that we were now the first Dutch team. Apparently, the team before us had make a rather big orienteering mistake so that we had arrived first. Again, we were slightly annoyed but we chose to believe that the number two and three Dutch teams would still overtake us somewhere between here and the finish.
The orienteering leg went very well. Mitch, still in great shape, was our runner and searcher, while I had the compass and was our pointer. I would point him in the exactly right direction, wait for him to cover about hundred metres and then follow, while correcting him ever so slightly. In this way, and together with a team of Belgian colleagues, we quickly covered all points.
The run-bike leg went slower, but was luckily not so long (12 km). My running had not been great all day, but was worse again now. Running to where Mitch dropped the bike took longer and longer, and overtaking him on the bike to drop it in front of him was sometimes very hard. But we made it, having lost about ten minutes to the Belgian team who were humming nicely along.
We made a bit slower transition now, with me very consciously preparing for what should be a triumphant leg: the one taking us to the finish. Eat, drink, clean socks, even a quick face wash with the warm water that was available. Just when we left, we saw the second Dutch team, our friends of CUBE/Inov8, return from the run-bike. Only one way to find our whether we could keep our first position: leave and hope for the best.
And that is where we are now. Somewhere in the infinite dark forest where the ghost of Goethe’s Werther seemed to walk, certain that we will finish, but with me unable to stay on the bike at times. I need a fifteen-minute power nap on three different occasions, sharing a space blanket with Mitch to stay warm. On the second compulsory point in the leg, CUBE/Inov8 pass us with great speed. We resign to second place and simply try to keep moving. Mitch does a fantastic job orienteering and seems to be unaffected by sleep or fatigue. Steep and flat, up and down form an infinite series of stretches that slowly but surely bring us closer to the finish. Four points to go, with the roads improving and the light slowly returning.
Birds around us start to sing softly, then insistently, even triumphantly. They hail us for coming through! It is as if I get a shot of caffeine worth twenty coffees. We get a great gift when the road that we choose is modern tarmac instead of the narrow path that the map indicated. Speed picks up again, and I cannot believe my ears when Mitch says that the last three points will take us less than an hour. Expected finish time: about 28 hours after the start. Suddenly it is all so close, and there is no doubt anymore. After not having seen other teams for hours, everything seems to come alive now. As we bike up a long road after descending to get a point, two teams dive down past us to do the same. They are within ten minutes of us! It makes no sense anymore to save our energy, so we go as fast as we can towards the next point. Mitch’s laser eyes save us a lot of time there as he spots the point from 100 metres distance. Two points to go. The penultimate point takes us east across a high-lying pasture, right into the sun which is rising above the horizon just at this moment. There is nothing better than this feeling! Success and beauty combined. Werther would cry, and perhaps our eyes are wet too…. We are awake, and successful, and happy and we sing as we descend before the last climb. Up again steeply, pushing our bikes for the umpteenth time. My breath is ragged, as it has been for many hours, and I can again not keep up with Michiel but it does not matter anymore. On top, he has already found the point and then makes one, almost his only, orienteering mistake which means that finishing takes us twelve instead of two minutes. No matter, we are happy.
Entering the race base, we see that another team has just finished. We are very surprised when they turn out to be our buddies of CUBE/Inov8. They should have finished an hour ago! Turns out that they had made a much bigger mistake in the last hour than we did. Still, feeling that they deservedly won the race, we congratulate them and are very happy with our second place. Only later did it turn out that their waiting time at the zip-line had been shorter than ours, and that after correction, we beat them with a full 18 seconds! 18 Seconds of difference after racing for 28 hours and 15 minutes is quite ridiculous, and all four of us felt that we jointly won the Dutch championship. However, officially Mitch and me got the highest place on the podium, something that we were very, very proud of.