Bielersee Ultra

Posted on: 30 May 2015

Saturday 16th May: the Bielersee Ultra! Don't get too excited, though - we 'only' did the walking category (40k). The runners did 50k........ except for a few mad ones attempting 100 miles. (Yes, MILES.) The 50k could also be done as a relay, which is how we did it last time - I ran the first 29 kms, J. the other 21 kms. This time we planned to switch. The plan was necessarily provisional until I knew for sure that I had both that day and the previous evening free.......... by which time J. was having achilles trouble, and not running. We procrastinated some more, but it clearly wasn't going to get better in time. What to do? Run/spectate/volunteer as a helper? I was kicking myself now for not being better prepared, but I didn't think I could magically conjure up 50k out of nowhere, having done nothing longer than about 22 since the marathon last summer. I did think I could manage 40 walking, though, and when I suggested it, so did J. So with this revised aim, off we went to Nidau, near the northern end of the Bielersee. I had booked us a hotel in Ipsach, about a km and a half away, so we went there first, checked in, then walked back to Nidau to check the way for the next morning and how long it would take to get there. The administrative base and the start were at Lago Lodge, a backpackers' hostel by the lake. We got a bit lost on the way there, but found a shorter route - about 20 minutes - on the way back. Part of it was also the race route, and had coloured arrows painted on the ground. There was no registration or anything happening at Lago Lodge, but having got there, we took the opportunity to visit the bar and have a drink. It has its own mini-brewery on the premises with 6 kinds of beer, and I remembered trying and really liking the honey beer last time. So a honey beer it was. The weather had been pretty vile all day, and trudging back to Ipsach in the rain, we felt sorry for the 100 milers, who had set off at 5 that evening, some 3 hours previously. Not only was it wet, it was really cold too - I felt I could have done with gloves. (Of course I hadn't packed any - who expects to need gloves in May?!) The forecast for the next day was better - I hoped it was right. There had already been flood warnings though, after all the recent rain, and I was a bit concerned that it was STILL raining. Back at Ipsach, we had a meal at the hotel restaurant (Flammkuchen for me), then adjourned to our room and turned in.

Up at quarter to 7, look out of the window.......... weak sunlight, and NO RAIN! Dressed, packed (including a small rucksack to take with us), and breakfasted on a banana each. (Breakfast was not included in the overnight; we could have ordered it extra, but at half past 7, it was a bit late anyway for our purpose.) I hoped Lago Lodge could provide me with my morning coffee - I don't function without it! We stepped out into a morning that was fresh and still chilly, but a lot more promising than the previous day. Back at race HQ about eight, we found it now quite lively, with runners collecting their numbers, eating, chatting......... Registration, at a wooden table outside, was a quick and simple process, dealt with by the race organizer in person; we were already dressed in our walking clothes, so we only had to leave our bags (in lockers at the adjacent Lido where the changing rooms were), affix our numbers, and we were ready. Just the small matter of my caffeine fix.......... found in the Lago Lodge bar again, together with a Gipfeli (that's a croissant in Swiss.) At 5 to 9, everyone drifted in the direction of the start (a line painted across the road, with a 'Start/Ziel' banner drooping above it), the race director issued a short briefing - yes, there was some flooding, necessitating a little diversion which would make the race about 1 km longer (news greeted with good-natured groans and laughter); then the gun fired, and we were off.

Within a few seconds, we found ourselves right at the back, but that was okay. Ahead were 3 other walkers, walking together; and ahead of them, the runners were already receding into the distance. The first km was relatively leisurely (9:32), following the painted arrows along a road, down some steps, along another road, and into a lakeside park. But the trio ahead were pulling away, and we decided we should at least try to keep them in sight (having someone to follow might be helpful for the navigation), so we speeded up a bit. This was quite comfortable, and the next 21 kms were all 8:something, except for no. 19, which contained the feed station at Erlach - that was 12:58, as we took a few minutes to eat and drink properly and remove excess clothing. The other walkers didn't get any further ahead, but we didn't catch them up either. Our duo did become a trio, however, when we were joined by Martin, a fellow-Englishman from Stratford-on-Avon (but who lived in Switzerland.) For a while I had heard the tap-tap-tap of Nordic Walking poles somewhere behind us, but hadn't realized it was another participant. He had been visiting the 'facilities' when the race started, and emerged to find everyone gone! - but saw us in the distance, and eventually managed to catch us up. He said he had never walked anything like this distance in his life, but was doing it to win a bet. Apparently he used to be 105 kilos, but through a combination of healthier eating and consistent exercise, had managed to lose a significant amount, and was still working on it. At every feed station, he celebrated with a cigarette and a hopeful request (unfulfilled) for a Guinness! (though there was actually beer at the last one, and he was the first and only taker!) He eventually ditched the walking poles behind a pile of logs, planning to drive by and collect them later ("I hate the bloody things - don't know why I brought them!") and strode along quite happily without them. I thought he might eventually tire and slow down, but he was very determined, and kept with us almost the whole way. He was cheery company, and the first 20k or so passed very easily. I had the Garmin, so I was generally the pacemaker, but the other two were right behind me. The route was well-marked, and the other walkers were generally visible ahead. I remembered much of it, but the bit I was particularly looking forward to, through a stretch of reed beds, proved to be the part that was flooded; here we were sent on a diversion up a hill and along a loop of road, before rejoining the lakeside path further along. We paused only very briefly at the feed station at Hagneck Canal (about 10.5 kms) - just long enough to drink something and grab a couple of lumps of very sticky cut-up Power Bar (and for Martin to light up!) The sweeper bike came up behind us, checked we were all okay, and said she'd see us again at the next stop, at Erlach. Onward, through a hyro-electric plant that I remembered as the huge building site necessitating a diversion last time - all finished now. A nice stretch through fields and trees; then a part I remembered with less affection, a dull 3.5 kms of bicycle lane along a main road between Lüscherz and Vinelz. Back to the lakeside, and a muddy little path winding along through trees and bushes......... and there we were at Erlach. 19 kms: almost halfway.

Erlach was the busiest feed station, because it was actually two: here the routes diverged, the 50k runners doing an extra 10k out to the Peterinsel and back. (No, they weren't required to walk on water - there is a long, sandy causeway to the island. Rather glad we didn't have to do this, as I remembered this causeway seeming to go on forever, and having a very pronounced sideways slope; also constantly having to dodge bicycles and slalom round strolling pedestrians walking 3 abreast.) Here the offerings included orange segments, crackers, and flat Coke, as well as the ubiquitous Power Bar. The weather so far had been perfect, sunny but cool, with a lovely rainwashed freshness in the air, but now it was warming up, and with the more sun-exposed part of the route to come, a layer had to come off! Unfortunately this layer was UNDER my shirt, necessitating a fairly major strip. Still doing up my buttons and chewing laboriously on a lump of Power Bar, I hurried after J, who now seemed to have the bit between his teeth, having finally caught up with the other 3 walkers at the feed station, (though they left before we did, and were once more some way ahead), Martin at his heels.

Settling back into my pacemaker position, I led us round 3 sides of a square: through some trees, along a field path, and an unpleasant stretch of main road with no pavement - glad to get off this, down a steep path back to the lake again. We had company now, as 50k runners passed us after their excursion to the island, exchanging mutual greetings and encouragement. The first 22 kms or so had felt fine - enjoyable and really quite easy. But now I began to notice the pace dropping a bit if I didn't keep working at it. There was also the suggestion of a slight ache setting in in the hip flexors - not somewhere I ever normally get it. Also an old, familiar adversary in the form of sore toes. The second toe on each foot, to be precise, although they are NOT actually longer than the big toe. I can't remember which race it was, but I DO remember the offending shoes - a pair of Asics, at a time when they seemed to make them narrower across the toes than before. Anyway, those nails ended up rather mangled, never grew back right, and have been trouble ever since. (Toenails are not a subject I generally talk about with 'normal' people, but runners understand!)

I had to agree with J, who did this section last time: this was generally the less attractive half, often consisting of long, straight stretches of asphalt or grit track hemmed in between buildings or vineyards on one side and the road/railway on the other. I kept glancing across at the lake, to see if we were past the Peterinsel yet, but it kept us company for a long time. Although it was not actually a race, the walkers simply being listed alphabetically with their finishing times, J. had decided to make it one (he wanted to catch up or even overtake the other three), and had accelerated into a kind of race walk; now trailing behind him, I struggled to keep up (my legs are shorter than his!) and only managed it by breaking into a shambling half-run for a few paces every now and then. I didn't want to do this, it somehow felt like cheating (this being a WALKING category), but I thereby discovered the relief of briefly using different muscles. Martin, meanwhile, had donned his earphones and retreated into a private world of pain and music, but continued to stride doggedly along right behind us. Another feed station, another brief pause. I took some chocolate this time, which was a mistake - it clogged up my throat and I couldn't seem to get rid of it for ages. By the next one, my stomach was starting to feel a bit overtaxed by the strange mixture of things I'd inflicted on it, so I left the 'sports' stuff alone and just had water and a bit of banana. (The first time banana had appeared on the menu, surprisingly - or maybe it was just all gone by the time we got there.) The last one I left out altogether, feeling I just wanted to get to the end as soon as possible now.......... and there we did finally overtake the other three walkers, who had stopped to refuel and recuperate (I think the eldest of the trio, a man, may have been having trouble with cramp.)

A few 50k runners were still coming past, but they were generally interspersing the running with walking now. One or two we even overtook again: a man in blue; a Dutch guy with lime green socks; a couple of very cheery girls, one of whom had given the other a starting place in the Biel 100k for her birthday (a rather risky present! - not sure I'd be altogether grateful!), this being their 'dress rehearsal' for that. Our encouragement got them all running again, at least intermittently. Just after my Garmin had squeaked 34 kms, (44 for her), a woman in turquoise drew level, and asked how much further it was. 6 kms, I told her. She seemed to be flagging, so I spontaneously ran with her for a couple of hundred metres. The relief was instantaneous - running felt so much easier! But remembering I was supposed to be walking, I reluctantly slowed down again. She said her target was 5:30. "What's your number?" I thought to shout after her, wanting to check later whether she made it. "13," she shouted back - at which point I remembered she had been directly in front of me in the registration queue that morning. She had been issued no. 13, her partner no. 1 - they had been laughing about his getting this promising number. (Apparently they were allocated alphabetically - he was a 'B'.) A fleeting contact, but it had that 'feel-good factor' about it - that shared camaraderie you get in events like this. I really willed her on as I watched her toil into the distance, sometimes walking, but mostly running. Bravo, no. 13!

Km 35 brought the obligatory "Just a parkrun to go," which translated in this instance to about 42 minutes (or would have done, had it not been for the bit extra caused by the diversion.) Martin phoned his wife with this update, and we all buckled down to a last push. My little 'run breaks' became more frequent as J. pushed the pace again; I tried to justify it by telling myself it was no different really from runners taking walk breaks - the purpose was the same. I did try to run no faster than I would walk, but towards the end, one or two 7:something kms did creep in, particularly along a stretch of main road with traffic whipping past - not somewhere I was keen to linger. The final km was through a park and past the harbour. People sitting on a cafe terrace applauded encouragingly - they probably thought we were runners too tired to run any more! Disconcertingly, the arrows appeared to have run out, but J. knew the way. I remembered a bridge, where I had met him at the end of the relay so we could run in together, but there were three, and every time I thought we were nearly there......... wrong bridge, there's more! But finally, it was DEFINITELY the right bridge; just a left turn, and the short hobble to the finish. J. and I crossed the line hand in hand, and I was rather glad there was no photographer, realizing how I must look doing this ridiculous attempt at race walking, my face screwed up in pained effort. Quick about turn, and back a few metres to welcome in Martin, just a minute behind - what a walking debut for him! Bet well and truly won!

Looking around, I spotted 'no. 13' (real name Anna) celebrating with the most enormous glass of beer; she hadn't made her target, but was very happy to have completed the race. I went over to congratulate her. "That looks good!" I commented on the beer; at which she held it out to me and insisted I have some! Then I went to sit on a bench by the speaker's desk, next to a man who turned out to be one of the 100 milers (they had done the same route as us......... 4 times!) - in fact, he was second. He was no spring chicken, either - 2 years older than me. 6 had attempted it this year, and 3 finished - at that time, one of them was still out there. Martin had disappeared to meet his wife; I do hope she had that Guinness waiting - he certainly deserved it!

I sat for a while, watching people still continuing to arrive, then tried to stand. Oh dear, I had stiffened up horribly! And my toes were not a pretty sight. (Lovely blister under one of the nails.) We decided a dip in the lake might do us good, so walked slowly and woodenly back to the Lido, found some concrete steps by the lake, (getting down them was something of a comedy act), and dangled our feet in the lovely cool water for a while. Finally, feeling rather crusty, I thought I'd better go in search of a shower. More steps to negotiate! Felt better after that, though. And now............. time for a beer! Back to Lago Lodge, sat at one of the wooden tables outside, and sent J. to get me a honey beer. Alas, there was none left! - but he brought me another beer, also good, and ordered a mixed salad for himself. I was strangely unhungry (is that a word?), so stuck to a my calorific intake in liquid form. Anna and her partner Rolf joined us at the table, and we had a really enjoyable chat until it was time for us to leave to get our train home. We allowed plenty of time to find our way to Biel station, but it was not far, and despite our snail's pace walking there, we had almost half an hour to spare, spending it walking up and down the platform several times to prevent the legs seizing up again. It was only when we were sitting on the train about to leave that a horrible thought struck me: "We didn't buy tickets!" (We had both forgotten we had only bought a single on the way there, apropos of travelling to/from different stations.) Being on a train without a ticket involves a large fine, so we leapt to our feet, grabbed our luggage, and rushed to get off again; just made it, about 2 seconds before the doors closed and the train left. What a débacle! Nothing for it but to wait for the next, 40 minutes later, (and that was a slow one that stopped everywhere.) Tickets bought, more walking up and down the platform.......... getting tired now. Change of train in Olten; bus (an 8, luckily - I didn't fancy the hike up the hill today, somehow!); HOME!

They were having trouble with the website, so it was a few days before the results appeared, (though the race organizer had already sent them to all the people he had an e mail address for.) When I looked, we weren't listed! - probably because we had somehow missed out on being given a Transponder (a wristband with an inbuilt tracker or chip). Martin had had one - apparently someone had given it to him before the start, with instructions to wear it on his wrist, but no particular explanation why. But nil desperandum, Garmin had the evidence.
I sent an e mail with a link to the appropriate entry in Garmin Connect, and we were duly reinstated in the list. 40.49 kms in 6:01:22. Stupidly fast, really; with hindsight, J. and I agreed that we might have increased the enjoyment factor (and lessened the pain one!) by taking it a bit slower. 6 hrs 20 would still have been a perfectly respectable time, even 6 hrs 30 - after all, the time limit was 8 hours. Although........... the first walker apparently came in in a little over 5 hours, which I find a bit improbable. Either she's a champion race walker, or she ran some of it.

Lots of thoughts still waiting to be formulated, but this post is already far too long, so I'll save them for a postscript some time. I just want to finish by saying I LOVE THIS EVENT! - I love its smallness (it did make it into triple figures this year: 101 participants, including the 100 milers and the relay individuals; in 2012, it was only 59), its friendliness, its relaxed simplicity. The feeling of connecting with individuals, rather than being part of an anonymous mass. The fact that the winners just get a couple of bottles of wine, and the reward for a course record is........... getting your entry fee refunded! (This was achieved by no less a person than Lizzy Hawker in 2012 - yes, she was one of the 58 others sharing the race with yours truly.) With events like this, I feel as though I'm in my preferred element, and shall be looking out for more of the same.

It's okay, you can wake up now!

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