“This is getting ridiculous!” I looked down at my watch, my average pace had slowed another second. “Oh come ON!” Frustrated, I went down what seemed like the thousandth hill of the race, trying to make the most out of the extra speed while wincing from the beating I was putting on my quads. I kept up the pace for a few seconds, the trail turned slightly, and there it was: the thousand-and-first hill of the race.
I signed up for Lidingö Ultra almost a year ago, at the end of june. I had run my first marathon a month earlier and I was craving even longer distances and more pain and suffering. The race choice was easy, of course I was going to race my hometown’s own trail ultra! The fact that people thought the 30 km version of the race was even harder than a marathon didn’t phase me. Bring. It. On.
Training had not gone according to plan. Too high mileage, running too hard, not easy-enough easy runs. My shins were not having it. I decided to rest indefinitely, and went on one easy run per week to see how it felt. One week before race day, after five weeks of almost no running, I had a pain free run. I would at least be able to finish the race, but I had a feeling it would be a struggle.
Fifty kilometers. Five hours. If I could just keep my average pace per kilometer at or below six minutes, I’d reach my A-goal. I was going to walk up every hill, but I was going to push a little bit harder on the flat sections to make up for it. I knew the first half was flatter than the second, so I wanted a bit of cushion in case I couldn’t keep the pace up at the end. I felt as prepared as I could be, given the circumstances.
We were off. I started in the front and had a lot of people running past me in the first few kilometers. Even a 70-something man who made what I can only describe as dying noises went past me after 4 km. But I kept a decent pace, maybe even too decent. After 10 km I was averaging 5:40/km and feeling good.
A couple of my friends live right by the race course at the 12 km mark, and I was happy to see them come out to cheer me on. “I’ve only got 38 km left! No big deal! I’ll call you when I finish in four hours and we’ll go for pizza!” The next 10 km were among the prettiest and easiest of the race. Running along the water, into the forest, around the lake and up to one of the highest points of the race with a beautiful view over the island.
I was really happy to see my sister and get a bottle of water at 25 km. We run-walked together for almost a kilometer while I drank, ate from the aid station, and had her take some pictures of me while I took a few running strides. When the calories were consumed and the photo op was over I kept chugging along the second half of the race.
7 km later, I was at the gates of hell. The race had started out hilly, and there had been hills every so often throughout the race. And sure, I was definitely feeling my quads a bit. But the pain, torture, agony and suffering had just begun.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a mountainous race. There are no mile-long climbs or descents. A lot of the hills on Lidingö are tiny, it doesn’t even take a minute to climb them, and they’re barely noticeable on elevation charts. But they are steep, and they never, ever end.
Up, down. Run a little bit. Up, run a little bit, down. Up, down, up, down. Up, run a little bit, down… And there it was: the thousand-and-first hill of the race. “Why won’t it end?!” I angrily punched my quads which were beginning to feel like bricks, and started power hiking yet again.
My sister would be waiting at the 39 km mark with another bottle of water. When I reached her, I wasn’t looking or feeling anywhere near as good as I did when I saw her before. “There were like TEN hills in a row! It wouldn’t end!” I looked at my watch again. Average pace: 5:56/km. She told me that I didn’t have to make a certain time, just finishing would be amazing. But I wanted that sub 5 and I was so close! I downed the water bottle and kept running.
Barely 11 km left. I only needed to keep a 6:14 pace for the rest of the race to finish in under 5 hours. I actually managed to keep that exact pace for about 5 km. But I had nothing left. I tried running, but I could barely keep a proper stride. I was either walking or hobbling. After I reached the top of the gazillionth hill I felt like I couldn’t get my legs to run another step. “Come on! What are you doing?! RUN!” I directed my thoughts toward my legs.
I kept trying to force my body to make running movements as soon as the ground was flat. The slightest incline reduced me to a walk. I came to a small overpass and immediately felt the mild temperature in the shadow. I came to a complete stop, bent over with my hands on my knees and just stood there, feeling the cooling breeze for a few seconds.
Average pace: 5:59/km.
This is the point where I realized that I’m not as mentally strong as I had previously thought. “Just walk until it says 6:01. Then you’ll know it’s over. You won’t have to get your hopes up and try and fail.” I welled up a bit, feeling weak, feeling my dream finish slip away. I kept run-hobble-walking.
A couple of people passed me in the last kilometer. I tried to get that last bit of home-stretch juice out of my legs but there wasn’t even any of that left. I finally entered the track for the last hundred meters to the finish. I saw my sister cheering me on and I managed to at least make it look like I still remembered how to run.
I was done, my body was done, my mind was done. I was on all fours, crying. I had missed my A-goal by a little over three minutes, but that didn’t even cross my mind at the time. I was just so happy to finally be done. I was an ultra runner!