Few days after coming back from Arctic Ultra were pretty depressive. I was trying to find answers to million questions about my failure, but eventualy i've sucked it up and decided to move on. But as my legs were recovering, my hunger for a new adventure started growing. One lunch break i decided to check race calendar for Europe ultramarathon races, and after a while i found "100 Miles of Istria". It immediately caught my attention - great location not so far from Cyprus, great price, generous cut off (i thought overly, but it wasn't such an overkill as i later found out). I started to check the route, their great website, reviews, race reports and videos from past years.. I was hooked! And when i came home and told Andry about it - all i got was just a wink and "Let's do it". The deal was sealed!
We knew it's gonna be much harder, especially with the 7000m+ elevation over 174km of technical terrain, so we immediately switched our training into the hills, we even started doing night trail runs to get used to running in the dark over technical terrain. The time was flying and on the 16th of April early morning we boarded the plane.
The travel was quite exhausting, it took us almost 17 hours to reach our hotel in Umag, Croatia. We didn't waste time and got a good nights sleep - this time it was much better, than in sweden and i actually pulled lovely 8 hours of sleep. We've prepared our race kits in the morning, went to the registrations to get our numbers and leave the dropbags for checkpoint Buzet (87km).
Night before we had a little surprise - we met Cat from UK at the hotel, she was running the Arctic Ultra in Sweden in January as well. After the registration we decided to go for a lunch, accompanied by a one small beer. But as girls were thirsty, we ended up having actually 3 :) A proper pre-race preparation!
At 16:30 we boarded a bus to the start line, where we arrived two hours later. Some group photos, last calories (there was a lovely cheese pizza served at the start area). Word from race director Alen Paliska and we were off!!
We placed ourselves in the back of the field, but we were certainly not expecting the traffic jams that followed - 200+ people on a technical single track, there was a lot of waiting and standing.. Finaly after 3-4km the field spread a little and we started to move a bit faster. But as we reached the first climb a thick fog fell on us and the visibility was just a few meters. Luckily, the course markings were absolutely amazing, as close as 10-15 meters in places was a red small flag with reflective 3M tape that was shining as you pointed the headlamp on it. By the time we got to the first aidstation at CP3 (Plomin) it was a dark night. The weather kept getting progressively worse as we started the biggest climb to the highest point of the route - mountain Vojak. Most of the route was a techincal single track, with sharp rocks and slippery mud/grass. By the time we reached the summit , we were already 2 hours behid our planned pace, but that was expected with the given conditions. At this point we climbed 2300 meters in just a little over 38km. Andry did an amazing job pacing the uphills, most of the time she was in front and patiently waiting until i got my ass up the bloody climbs :)
I was glad that we decided to take a lot of warm and windproof clothes, as the cold and humidity was getting very bad up in the mountains. As we later found out, some people actualy dropped out of the race before even reaching this point.
We reached CP08 Poklon (42km) in 9 hours, quickly got some food, fixed our feet and moved on. This was the first time i noticed Andry was limping a little, but she played it cool, saying she just have a little calf pain and it's nothing serious.
Following was a set of difficult climbs, few hills with 400+m elevation. By the time we reached another aid station Brgudac (56km, CP 10), the daylight had come again. I had to retape the right foot completely, as i felt a lot of blisters popping out. Again we grabbed some coke and food and went off. Just few minutes later started a heavy rain a we were soaked to the bone. The only way to keep warm was to keep on moving, and we did. I've noticed that Andry's pace was dropping a lot and i could clearly see a lot of pain in her face. Finaly she told me she had a shooting pain in the knee, i'm sure this was there since the cp8 but she toughened it out - that's the way she rolls, brave warrior :) / ..she'll probably kill me for this info, but to make the picture clear, i have to reveal that she got her period literally just hours before the start, too!.. /
In a terrible wind and rain we somehow managed to get over 2 rough climbs of Orljak and Gomila (CP11 & 12), but as we began to descent to aid station Trstenik , it was obvious that Andry can't go any further without risking a very bad knee injury.
At this point i couldn't imagine to continue alone and i told Andry that we will drop out at the next aid station, but she insisted that i will try and continue and finish it for both of us. It was a very difficult decision, we came here as a team and i didn't feel it was right to leave her alone for the rest of the weekend.. But she insisted, and i tried to evaluate how i feel and eventually decided that i will give it a try, as my legs were feeling ok.. We came to Trstenik and Andry announced her dropout to organisers. It was a very rough weather at the aid station and i think they didn't really noted it down, as in the official results her dropout is listed as CP10 - but she actually made it much further. I couldn't help but being very emotional, but eventualy i took off and started the climb to Zbevnica (CP14). It was a very exposed hill, the wind gusts were throwing me of the trail and it started snowing. I actualy had to force myself to start running uphill to keep myself warm, and after what seemed like an eternity if finaly reached the top and started the 1000m descent to Buzet. There were some kilometers with 200m altitude drops each, literaly climbing down almost vertical cliff at places. It was qiute dangerous, as the rain turned everything into a muddy slide.
Eventually i made it to Buzet (87km, CP15), and finaly got to my drop bag. I changed all the clothes i had available, dried out, fixed the blisters and switched to my Altra Olympus. I had a nice portion of pasta with meatballs and i felt much better. I spent almost 1 hour there, but it was time well invested into warming up and a little recovery.
It took a lot of will power to get out of the warm house into that weather again, but i had to keep moving, i was only 3 hours ahead of the cut-off at this point and there were some nasty climbs still waiting.
The next section to Hum just proved my fears - after the long lasting rains, most of the dirt trails turned into a mess. Ankle-deep liquid mud, that was try to get your shoes off wasn't really helping to save any extra energy. There were quite a few river crossing, where in order to not get wet i tried to jump the stepping stones, but eventually i gave up and just walked it through the cold streams.
After almost 24 hours in the race i reached the 100km checkpoint Hum (CP16). As another night was approaching, i popped one caffeine pill, got some food supplies and didn't waste time to move on. Few kms later when the night fell i joined two Czech guys, and we kept moving together. It was a big mental help as the going was getting very tough.. The fields turned into swamps and at one point we managed to make less than 2km in one hour! It was extremely demotivating and strength draining.. Finaly we reached the lake Botonega (CP19, 119km) and got some refreshments and food. I was surprised to see one of the Czech guys taking out a pair of greasy sausages from his backpack and starting a nice late dinner :D At that point i was happy to eat down half a banana with my stomach distress - these guys are just hardcore! :)
I let them to enjoy their caloric bomb and moved on to the next climb - village Zamask, 400m vertical meters of a muddy slide. Two steps up, one step down.. My only focus at this point was not to stop, and after another hour or so i saw the lights of the village, hit the checkpoint and started the descend. Czech guys caught up again, and after a while they passed as i was moving very slowly down the hill. In the mudfields i developed a sharp pain in my right shin which was shooting everytime i made a step downhill, so i took it easy.
I enjoyed the little flat section and started to crawl up the uphill to Motovun - a castle-like small village on top of another hill.
The trail got much better and the progress was faster without sliding back. I reached the CP21 (130km) in 32 hours. The Czech guys were there, telling me that they will take a nap here for one hour and then move on. I was considering this as well, but i was getting paranoid about missing the cut-off so i made a decision to just move on. This proved to be a crucial mistake as i later learned.
Soon i was sliding down the castle side, half on my ass, half walking, must've been a funny sight.. It was around 4:30 in the morning of the second night without sleep when i started my climb to Oprtalj, another 400+ vertical meters.
I could already feel the first effects of sleep deprivation and i was praying for the light to come to wake me up a little bit. Eventualy around six oclock it started to get brighter and soon after the sun came up, first time in the race the sky was blue. This lifted my spirits a lot, i reached the aid station at CP22 (139km), got a cup of coffee with some snacks and moved on.
This was the final steep downhill and i had to stop many times to ease off the shin pain. There were few moments when i stopped, closed my eyes for a while and then when i opened them i wasn't sure which way i came from, i started to get really confused. Paranoia kicked in again and what was the most interesting, every 20 minutes i had a feeling of Deja-Vu, that i'd run this course, that i saw that tree, those bushes.. it was really surreal.
I was on the climb again, which made it a little easier to keep the focus and sense of direction. I passed CP23 at 145km and finaly after few hours started the final 30km (mostly) descent to the finish line. I reached cp24 (150km) in 38 hours, with a comfortable 10 hours left for the last 23km or so.
I made a decision to use the painkillers for the shin pain, and i left the station together with one Slovenian runner. The pills took effect but made me even more letargic as i was. I was reaching a state where i was no longer understanding what was going on and i just focused to follow the guy and keep moving. I was no longer able to make the time calculations so i gave up on that as well. I didn't know how much time passed and i suddenly "woke up" entering the town Buje. The Czech guys caught up after having their nap and together we reached the aid station CP26 (159km). At this point i was very confused how i actually got there, but it felt good when i heard we have only 14km left to finish line with more than 7 hours left.
I went ahead alone, the pain levels were very high again but for some reason i was afraid to take painkillers or caffeine pills. I saw the sea coast in the distance but i couldn't see Umag anywhere, as it was hidden behind a small hill. This confused me even more and i started to have irrational thoughts that maybe i'm going wrong direction. Czech guys passed me along with the Slovenian guy, but this didn't fix my thinking. I saw a highway ahead and i thought i caught a glimpse of a tunnel going under it to cross it. But when i came closer, there was no tunnel at all. The markings of the course were every 30-40 meters, bright orange clearly leading the way. My brain suddenly told me that this is not the way, that it's a hallucination, just like the tunnel.. I went back and forth, getting more and more anxious and eventualy i took a different turn and went to other direction where i saw another tunnel in the distance.. I will not go into the details of what was going in my head, it was a complete mental mess of halucinations, including smacking my phone on the road and shattering it into pieces just to realize this is all real..
Higher powers reached out and out of nowhere came a car with an older couple that stopped and asked me if i'm in the race - it was the parents of the race director Alen. They probably immediately saw what state i was in and that i don't make any sense, they put me in the car and i blanked out.
I came to senses in the medical tent at finish line - health wise i was ok, i didn't need any medical attention, but i was at the edge of total exhaustion and sleep deprivation. They finaly got hold of Andry and she came to my rescue. We got a lift to the hotel, where i finaly layed down to rest.
The race was over, once again the ultra gods defeated me, but this time i stood out proud. I'm still not an official finisher, but i reached the 165km mark this time, which is the 100mile distance, and that gives me at least partly the feeling of achievement i was dreaming of.
The learning curve in ultras is very complicated, one mistake can cost u any race. There are many races ahead, and i believe there will be a day where me and Andry will cross the finish line together. And that's a dream worth training for, living for. :)
Thanks to everybody for the great messages of support and the energy you were sending us throughout the race, you are all amazing!
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