Thoughts after my first attempt at an ultramarathon.
Magraid 100k, Italy, June 2017
A lonely figure crosses the bare landscape, a vertical outline against the flat surroundings. The beam of its headlamp and a thin purple line on the horizon the only things contrasting the dark sky, clouds charged with the energy of the upcoming summer storm.
With a straight line to follow, it sets the pace faster. The first drops of rain fall fast and heavy, casting dark shadows as they cross the speck of light ahead. The wind picks up, its cool touch a blessing against a skin unused to the heat. Surrounded by darkness I ran, following the bright beam of my headlamp.
The clouds had rolled in quickly, the bright colours of the sunset disappearing with their arrival. The landscape, exposed by lightning for a fraction of a second, went on for miles: a light-grey surface covered in loose rocks, with minute bushes scattered around the flat, desert-like environment.
Revealing the surroundings briefly, lightning always comes as a warning before reverberating thunder, intimidating yet empowering me simultaneously, fuelling my mind with its energy and urging me to finish the 20km of the first stage of the Magraid ultra-marathon.
Here on a magazine assignment, I set my doubts aside and just go for it: a 100km, three-stage race through the Magredi region in northeast Italy. As I race that Friday evening I try not to think about the fact that my biggest running achievement so far has been a road half marathon and that, even though I do other sports, the 55km second stage represents more than double the distance I have run before.
Completing 20km already feels like an achievement to me; how I am meant to run 55km the next day, and 25km the day after, I do not know. Yet by the time I finish on Friday I am loving life. The storm was beautiful, I felt strong, and the remote landscape reminded me of tales I had read about marathons in the African desert.
Sore legs greet me the morning of the 55k. I helplessly feel the minutes tick down and the realisation of what I am about to attempt grow real. I am in no way prepared for it. Joined by magazine editors and experienced ultra-runners from across Europe, I feel utterly out of place: the youngest runner, a freshly graduated journalist from England.
Leaving vineyards behind, I enter the unforgiving barren landscape. Endless kilometres of stones and pebbles. The loose terrain feels alien under my feet, used to running on muddy British trails. Like running on slate, my energy dwindles as I fight the lose pieces of rock to take the next step.
Ground shifts under my feet, the oppressing heat ever present. Mind tirelessly nagging about unreadiness, eyes trying to find the most stable path. The rocks crack and crunch against each other with every step I take. Here, am find nothing but my willpower.
As the neon outfit of the runner ahead of me disappears, I find myself alone and unable to keep up anymore. Panic creeps over my mind as the feeling of being truly lost takes over. This place is so remote; I am alone, so utterly alone. No signs of life around me. What if I miss a sign? What if I get truly lost?
Running through unknown terrain, body shutting down, out there somewhere. I feel lonely. My mind keeps imploring me to stop. It follows no logic: it urges me to scream for help, it asks for reasons. At this point I can’t give it any.
And so my mind protests further, convincing me that I can’t move any faster. It keeps reminding me that, even though people finish feats like this – and much bigger ones – I am not one of them, not now.
“You are weak, you are unprepared, even if you tried you don’t deserve it,” my mind reminds me. Lightheaded, I continue, walking 50 metres, running 10, then back to walking. It feels like my body eats itself to find energy; short breaths are as much as I can manage, deep ones make me cough. The thought that I am probably the last runner on the course does nothing but undermine my determination further. I can’t just push my body to the finish line. This, for once, is too much.
Mind looking for any excuse, for an easy way out. I take every step in the hope that I will catch a glimpse of a water station to give up. But every time I do, it doesn’t feel right to quit just then. Running doesn’t feel right either. I hit the point where the challenge really starts, where my resilience is tested. It stops being about moving a foot in front of the other; it becomes a battle in my head. It becomes survival.
It’s not easy. Alone, out there, I question everything: my sanity, my madness, my desires, my goals. That clarity I came looking for – the one I usually find when I run – just wasn’t there.
I still need answers, I need more than what I have. There has been no revelation, just continuous pain. I feel like screaming, like crying. I struggle to breathe deeply, continuously. I resort to actually screaming and crying and breathing in short, inconsistent beats. But resilience is strong. I run out of reasons yet I keep moving. Somewhere in my mind I know I believe in something, something, and I hold on to that with every beaten breath.
When races stop being about the distance and become about survival, there is one rule, unwritten and unspoken, that everyone follows: we help each other out. Consumed by my own dark thoughts, I look ahead to find Mario; a thin, dark figure waving, struggling like a candle’s flame against the breeze.
Unable to string a whole sentence together, white spit decorates the sides of his mouth. No snack or drink will go down his throat, even though he is clearly dehydrated. His body has nothing more to offer. He had consumed himself into incoherence; the thought of food made him want to throw up, but he is set on reaching the next aid station and won’t call the medical team until he does.
What kind of force pushes him to continue I do not know, and so begins the slow journey to the next aid station, at 32km. With broken Italian and English sentences, I tell Mario about my shoes, as he is wearing the same brand, while Carsten cheerfully recounts the Lavaredo Ultratrail, a race so dear to him he had the logo tattooed on his left thigh.
At 38°C, under the burning sun, we cover the three kilometres to the aid station in two-and-a-half hours. The sun reflects its heat on the white rocks beneath us; there is no escape to a shadow. This is a torturous pace.
I give up on the race before reaching the aid station. I am incredibly demoralised about our pace and mentally exhausted from trying to keep a lively conversation when the last thing I feel like is alive. The thought of 23km more is not even an option. At the station, I throw my body on to a chair, breathe the cooler air and am utterly relieved that this is finally over.
The ride to base camp feels unreal. My mind already questions if I really didn’t have those 23km left in me. It is one of those decisions I can only look back at and wonder, is regret bigger than the pain and exhaustion? Will my mind, the same mind that urged me to quit, laugh at me as soon as I recover for being pathetic and weak?
Witnessing the finish line I find my answers. I have rarely seen such raw human emotion, seldom been as inspired as I am when watching the smiles and tears filling the runners’ faces as they are awarded a stone around their necks, as the realisation dawns on them that they have conquered the stones of the Magraid.
For the demons people fight to get to the finish line, because everyone has their own reasons to put themselves out there. And when it is over emotions are real. To hug a stranger, to feel their pain, to cry with someone. Emotions are powerful. Emotions inspire.
Ultra-runners find something out there; what to some people might seem like madness makes perfect sense to them. I saw beauty in the trail, the beauty in the solitude I felt when I was alone in a remote place, when my mind was stretched and pushed to the limit.
In ultra-running, I found something that kindles my spirit. The harder the run sounds, the more attractive it is; the more pain it involves, the more tempting it becomes. The greater the challenge, the larger the sense of achievement; the bigger the chances of failing, the more I want to be the person who proves it is possible.
I am no ultra-runner, at least not yet. But alongside the beautiful memory of the moments I witnessed, the call is there. And for that, I will go back.
Photos by Mirko Mottin