Oh where do I even begin... Because an ultra experience is not just on race day, it starts well before and also continues after.
Since the beginning of April I have been working in Lysos (at the edge of Paphos forest) coordinating a short-term EVS project called World Wide Village. During this time, I had really good conditions for a training: nature, mountains with quite some elevation, heat, humidity, support by WWV volunteers … therefore I was very lucky. We organised »Sun! Lysos Run!«, which was my essential resposibility as I was the main organiser. So I have also gained some experience in running organisations as well.
On SLR I managed to arrange a transport from Paphos to Bellapais (the venue of Two Castles Ultra in Kyrenia mountains in so called Occupied North Cyprus). Many thanks to Ian Hines for accomodating me in Coray Bay and being my <<personal driver>>! I did not expect I would get a drive with a BMW X5! Ian also invited me on a »gentle 8km« run on Thursday evening with Paphos running club. I could not decline the offer. No worries: On the last day before the Ultra I took it quite easy, the last long and tough run was a hilly 30k on Saturday (1 week before 2CU).
We came to the hotel early on Friday afternoon. I wanted to unpack a.s.a.p. and maybe get some rest. It did not really happen as planned: I registered, talked to people/other runners and time passed fast. I tried to arrange the North Cypriot number, because the number from South Cyprus does not work (»Political disagreement«). My phone blocked the North Cyprus SIM card… »Oh no, what now?« I needed to carry a working phone with me for safery reasons. You never know what can happen: you might get lost, you could suffer from heat exhaustion/dehidration, a snake might bites you etc. It was getting quite late, I got more and more nervous, because I wanted to get quite some sleep. In the end Murat (organiser) borrowed me a phone and another Turkish Cypriot (sorry, forgot his name) topped up the credit. So I was finally ready to go to bed. Just before going to sleep, I felt very weird and tired. »Eat, I need to eat!«, I thought, so I boiled some oats just before bed. 19:30 was sleep time (only 5,5h of sleep). Atleast I was tired enough that I slept very well!
I had to wake up at 1 a.m. Took a quick shower. Checked that I had everything ready for the run. I prepared the dropbags (that runners could leave at certain checkpoints) and my running backpack already in advance, so I wouldn´t waste that much time in the morning. The bus picked us up at 2 a.m.. 3 a.m. something, we stopped for a quick »pee break«, then went towards Kantara Castle, which was the start point of the Ultra. I did not manage to dose off in these two hours drive, was too focused on the run. Last arrangements at the castle: toilet, adjusting head-lamp.
4:01: we start!!!
I overtake the lead right from the begining. I start to look around myself, because I was suprised I already had some meters of »advantage« from others, because I started reallyyyyyy slow; at least it felt like that. I start fooling around at that point: dancing with hands to the music I was listening to, running a bit zig-zag with slow and long steps; just to keep me in a good mood and motivated right from the start. After 2km I decided to slow down just enough that I could join the group. At 3,5 km in (I purposely checked my watch, that is why I know exactly when) the tempo of the group increased. I didnt want to follow it: »Let them run/go forward, I aint running their tempo, need to reserve energy when it is going to be needed the most (for the heat).« I just wanted to keep my running steady and easy going. Soon my 1st stomach ache started, but after the toilet brake it got better. I caught up with ZM at the first climb/uphill. While walking we exchanged some words. It was very humid and dusty at this time! Then I pulled up a bit ahead. At CP 1 I stopped a bit for a banana and date snack. I will never forget this conversation at that point (just after leaving CP1): BP: »Enjoy the run!« ZM: »ALWAYS!« Me (in my thoughts): »YES!!!«. With ZM we departed together.
Soon after I left ZM behind, although I did not speed up my tempo. For quite some time I ran alone. I checked my watch at 16 km, when there was enough light to see the way without using the headlamp. Right after that I was looking around myself and enjoying the view of nature and at this point I noticed one of the runners was not far behind me. It was FA. We ran together till CP 2, we were not in a rush. Just before that I asked him for some water, because I ran out and got quite thursty. It is nice to see runners helping out other runners! At CP 2 I stopped a bit longer, filled up my water supplies and got some quick dried fruit bites. At this time ZM and SR catch up and both leave the CP just before me. SR was like: »I thought you were wayyyy ahead!« At this time I was in 8th position, although I did not know this at that time and also did not think about it.
Now it comes my favourite part of the Ultra: »Natalie´s trail« Single trail with quick left-right and up-down sections, which is the type of trails I just love. Until CP 3 I overtook four runners. And one of them is NW. No wonder. This was the 1st time, when I started to really feel my running. It just went very smoothly without putting in any extra effort. At CP 3 BP was waiting for us and there took some pictures. I put on sunscreen, because the sun was starting to show. Ate some food, but forgot to fill in the water. I thought I would have enough till the next CP. I was wrong, very wrong, because now the first really hilly section started and the heat was slowly starting at this point. I drank all my water just 3 km after the CP. I had 7 km uphill till the next one, till I could get some water. I felt really bad and kind of stupid that this happened. And on top of this my backpack zipper got stuck/»broke down«, so I had difficulty to close it (wanted to replace my mp3 player). But this was not all: My legs started to »lactate«, it is a strange feeling that you get, like odd vibrations in the muscles, when they get tired. At this point I was a bit concerned. I was just repeating to myself: »Now just go slow uphill, go slow, go slow!«. And this is what I did. Luckily this soreness went away before CP 4.
Arraving at CP 4 I felt a bit of relieve. I came there at about the same time as SR. I filled in the water of course… now a bit more then before. Out of curiosity we were checking how much time advantage does the leader (DS) have on us. It was 15 min and they said he was not looking very well at the CP. Because of this I thought: »That´s not enough!« (»evil« smile). I left the CP 4: 1 min after SR and just some meters after RC, that we caught up. I always took a bit more time at the CP, just to make sure I had enough of everything: water and food as fuel.
The trails went uphill for some km again. I quickly overpassed RC and caught up with SR. We started to run together. We overpassed CA, eventhough not running at this hilly section. I could see a reaccouring pattern: Both of the runners seemed quite tired at this point, while me and SR were quite relaxingly/easily going uphill. They started too fast! At this point the heat really started to kick in! After some km, the trail flattened and then went downhill. Then at cca. 45 km we reached one of the more technical parts of the run: rocks, dirt and going uphill. It went streight again and soon we reached CP 5. There we caught up with FA and DS, who were the only 2 guys in front of us. I asked DS »wassup?!«, he said he was »dead«. I took in some bananas, oranges and biscuits. Changed my sweaty jersey and dusty socks. Filled in the water. I wanted to change my shorts as well, but there was no place to change & there were little kids running around, so I couldn´t go naked / change just there on the spot. FA left the CP first. Soon after SR. And me 1 min after him (again).
And again quite soon I caught up with SR and at this point we both overpassed FA, who was running quite slowly. So it was 52 km in and I overtook the lead!! Amazing! This was the 1st time in a running race that I got tears in my eyes and shivers in my upper body. It is because I realized that getting a podium spot in the Ultra run was very much plausible at this point. I have medals from all the distances from 10 km to 42 km, so I was just missing a podium from the Ultra distance. This is why I got so emotional. I really wished for it so much and in the end my wish became an unbelieveable reality.
But this was not the end: 25+ km to go! So I started to encourage myself: »Come on focus, focus…!! It is far from over!« to snap out of the emotions/visions and to be ready for anything till the end.
With SR we continued more or less all the time together and talked a bit about what can we expect next, because he already ran this route before (30 km race from last year). The trails here were amazing. So much that I forgot that there was a furnace outside (it was 35 deegres). Soon we came to the famous »Five fingers« mountain. We went a bit down hill and then up up up through this short rocky and bushy section that you couldn´t really run. We reached CP 6.
I ate quite some food here. Put on more sunscreen! Drank Powerade (electrolite drink) and filled in the water to the top (2 litres), because the next part was quite technical and slow, so they recommended me to take alot of water. So I did. You do not want to mess with dehidration on the heat like this. I also took some granola bar, that I was offered from SR wife, who was waiting for him (with the children) at the CP. She reasured to me that it was vegan. It was very tasty (thank you)!
Again SR left the CP 1 min before me. And again I caught up quite fast. At this time I thought that we might finnish the race together, just like at Madari 18 km run one month ago (the history would repeat itself), because we were running up untill here together.
The marking from now on were not with tape, so we needed to pay more attention to the surrounding rocks and search for »red dots« and »green B dots« (B because quite some of the 2CU was a part of the Besmark long distance trail). If we didn´t stick together in the beginning of this section, I would have probably gone the wrong way at one point. We were fighting through some really rough terrain. Rocks, big rocks everywhere. Then I remembered I was running this trail before: on the Buffavento Run Wild running race 13 km back in November last year (which I actually won). I pulled ahead from SR a bit. So much that I could not see him, when I looked behind my sholder. I was just hoping that I would not get lost, because it was quite hard to follow the markings. Then I reach a quick single trail. I was really flying and enjoying the run at this point, eventhough a bit tired and »heated up«. Just after the sign »1 km to the CP 7« I was like »Already CP!« and soon after I took a wrong turn and got a bit lost for one or two minutes. Then I found the red-white tape again, thankfully. I got lost at the same point as in the Buffavento race. J Some meters before CP I saw a familiar face, it was Ian Hines, who escorted me to CP 7. There I rested a bit.
Now the next stop was on top of the Buffavento Castle! So 1,5 km of vertical running. This was at about 70 km on the trails. The CP was located just down from the castle. I wanted to go up there with my backpack and then Ian said that I did not need to take it with me, since I needed to go up and down the castle and I came back to the CP. I decided to go… made a few steps towards the castle, when Ian again advised me to take some water with me, because it would take about thirty min to go up and down. When you are running in such hot conditions like these were, you don´t think 100 % clearly, so it is nice that somebody is »supervising«, helping you on the CP! Seeing familiar faces also helps alot.
I started the climb towards Buffavento about two to three minutes before SR. When I was going up I could see him not so far behind. It did not bother me, just wanted to stay as focused as I could be. I was squezzing the plastic water bottle that I was holding, so I would forget that my legs are tired. When I came almost to the top I had the thought: »Open the gates! The king has arrived!« (because I won the Buffavento run in November). At the top, one of the race volunteers took a picture of me, as proof that I came to the very top. It was an amazing view from there, but I could not waste time, so I started to go back down to CP 7. Going down was actually harder than going up… which is quite wierd (I know), but the legs were sore, so that is the reason. Soon I met SR (when he was going up), gave each other a »High 5«, because in the end you need to know, that the Ultra Run is also about creating a friendly, helfull & cossy atmosphere.
When I came back to the bottom I decided I need to eat something, but the body refused anything sweet, which is what I am used to eating on CP. So I to tried peanut butter. It helped alot and it is what I needed, because there was still 10 km to go, of which the first 5 were very technical! After a short rest I needed to go.
I knew what was coming next (from November´s race). Big rocks again. And again 1 km in I got lost and didn´t know where to go, so I turned back, saw SR some meters behind the techical trail and asked him if he knows where is the right way. He said that it looked like I was on the right path/direction. After jumping from one very big rock to another and so on… to my relief I found the red-white marking tape. From this time onward I did not see SR again (till after finnishing of course). The trail turned from rough and rocky to a bit softer and quite slippery. I had to put in quite some energy just to avoid medium sized rocks and to be carefull at the dirt trail. I slipped a bit twice, which was an indicator for me, that I needed to slow down, because I didn´t want to risk an injury just a few km before the end. »Take it easy. You don´t want to risk anything!«. Then the trails turned into jeep-track. Finally the technical trail ended. I was pleased about it. »I´m close to the end. Come on let´s go.«. The route was going up, down, strait etc. I wanted to run as much as possible, but I also wanted to save some energy for the final kilometer or 2. Beacause I was a bit nervous … I was checking behind my back every now and then, to see how far behind SR is. I could not see him.
When I saw the sign »4 km to go!« I was quite negatively surprised, because I thought I would have been closer to the finnish. I had to snap out of my supriseness, because I was close, yet quite far. The trail at this point was going mostly down. My legs felt good, considering the circumstances. I know I would enjoy this part alot more, if I had fresh legs. 3 km to go … stomach pain … »Oh no!« … toilete brake. I knew I had some minutes advantage so it was not an »issue«. I continued in a steady pace. 2 km to go … »OK I want to finnish as soon as possible«, therefore I speeded up my pace. At this point I knew I was going to win. I got very emotional: tears were just flying out of my eyes and I could even hear myself cry through the music I was listening to (no joke). Again I had to snap out of the emotions I was feeling. 1 km to go … I decided to go »all in« and just to push as fast as I could. I also started to tell myself afformations out loud (to motivate myself and keep me focused): »More!« / »It´s not over yet!« / »Let´s go!« / »Ajdeeee!« / »(Push) To the end!« … When I passed the spectators (just like 100 m from the end), they thought I was going »Kookoo crazy« (because of the running on the heat) … but I was just encouraging myself out loud. I sprinted through the finnish line, jumped up with fist-punching the air and then dropped to my knees … in total disbelief of what just happened … I won! Even some days later it is hard to believe it! 7 min later SR arrived to the finnish. Big hug: We congratulated each other for a great race and we really appreciated the fact we helped each other during the Ultra. It was SR´s first time he ran such long distance and he finnished 2nd! Bravo!
Alot of things also happened after the run, but I think I have rambled long enough. Some things can be kept secret.
I really enjoyed the 2CU. It was an amazingly awesome experience. Thank you very much to all the runners for sharing it and of course to all the organisers and volunteers to make it happen. You are all the best!
ZM = Zed Muir (UK), fellow vegan runner, Cyprus trail runner of the year 2016.
BP = Bryan Peazon (South Africa), the main organiser of 2CU.
FA = Faisal Al-Nakib (Kuwait), finnished in 3rd place.
SR = Simon Antony Rogers (UK), finnished 2nd. We came joint first on the previous trail race that we did at Madari 18 km.
NW = Nick Wood (UK), 6th place.
DS = David Simpson, another vegan runner. The current Two Castles 80 km record holder. He was just recovering from injury and probably wanted to ran an Ultra too soon. He stopped the Ultra at 50 something km.
RC = Russel Crooks (UK), 5th place.
SLR = Sun! Lysos Run! running event
2CU = Two Castles Ultra
CP = Checkpoint / refreshment point (which is on every 8-12 km)