It’s been few days now. I’m back in London, on the train, on my way to work. Everyone is talking about London marathon and I smile quietly thinking about what my last weekend was like. It sounds unreal, but I ran two and half marathons (plus 4,300m altitude gain). For most of us that sounds absurd. I did such distance twice by now and yes, it still sounds unreal to me. I mean, how can you do 100k on legs?! Through the night?! Wait, what, you’re not sleeping? Well hell, you can! Even if it sounds impossible, so far and so absolutely insane. Even when it IS so far and so absolutely insane.
But then you go and you do it.
And it’s ok to be scared. It means you are about to do something very brave.
Back in December as I was hating every single step trying to cross yet another field full of mud and cows – in Sao Miguel in the middle of the night – I knew I will sign up for another 100k race straight away. It took me 10 days to wash off the mud and find a race for early spring. Because I picked up the worse possible race for my first 100, I needed something to find the love again. Azores were muddy, badly organised and the weather was so severe, that only 79 out of 180 people finished (read more here).
Quick browse through ITRA calendar and I spotted Corfu. Three clicks later I was sold! I signed up. Greece. Where the running was born. Where we went for our first holiday with Michael. Where we even got married. And where the sun shines. Sounded like a great idea back in December in cold grey London. We’ve arrived few days prior to the race and it was so green and lush, the air smelled of all the blooming flowers and trees and people were so friendly that it really took me by surprise.
Come 5pm on Saturday and I was sat on the bus on my way to the start line in Ipsos. Wondering what I’m actually doing there surrounded by all the pro runners around me. 100 milers, Western States finishers, Spartathlon winners, Transalpine finishers… and then: me. I had no big expectations and as per usual, I had no belief in me either. I never feel “strong” before the race. Or “ready”. I kinda approach it as if I’m about to go to war. Hoping to fight for the right thing, trying not to surrender, get to the end in one piece. But then the race starts and straight away I realise I don’t believe in wars as solution. I don’t fight it. I’m on a journey instead. Not so sure about the destination. The Odyssey.
6:30pm Ipsos: live music and such a relaxed atmosphere. Then we start lining up at the start. And suddenly it is 7pm and the race is on. About 2k on the road and off we go to the highest peak of Corfu and also of the race. 800m up. My running poles are costing me more energy than supporting me, so I pack them in the running belt. To my big surprise they stayed there during the whole race. Hiking uphill I meet (I’m overtaken by) some familiar faces. Pavlos, whom we met in the park few days earlier. Then Lourdes, whom I was very pleased to see as it means we can chat! Plus you should see her smile! She overtakes me in the end, only for me to catch up with her on the downhill. After the checkpoint she is suddenly by my side and we fall into a nice rhythm. I’m very pleased to have her next to me. Feels like we knew each other for years as we happily chat and run through the night.
To my big surprise it is quite runnable but my knees are not very happy about that fact – considering all the steep roads and the downhills. Not feeling that great, I decided to come up with a plan. Get through the night, through the 50k mark and wait for the new day. Our little group grows as we are joined by John and Max. Both of them are running their first ultra and decide to stay closely behind us as we “seem to be know what we are doing”. It is about 3am and as we are running down yet another hill. I don’t see much because it is dark but that’s when other senses come to life. Some birds singing, leaves on trees are moving, guys behind us talking in Greek. I almost feel like as if I should understand their language. Except I don’t. 50k in, friend of Lourdes – Ward is joining our little gang and we stay together until sunrise. Until the new day. I’m pretty knackered by then so I’m letting them go. It is great to stick together but when you are slowing someone down, let them go.
Especially if you find yourself trying to run through the beach after 70k and then the beach leads to some boulders. Plenty of boulders. And as you are trying to scramble through those rocks and not to break your neck, you suddenly wonder why are you doing this? But you need to focus on every single step so the thought is gone faster than it appeared. It took us forever. I stayed with John and as we were slowly moving forward, both of us couldn’t believe what on earth we’re doing. It felt like forever. Because it was forever. Finally we’ve reached the end. Just to find another sandy beach.
Night turned into day, uphills turned into downhills, and our odyssey continued. The last 20k are always the longest. The olive trees, the lush green vegetation. Check point by check point. You don’t know how, but you go. Just go. If you stop, you are lost. And just like that somehow with 11k to go I found some strength to go for it and I’ve started running again. To be honest, the pace was probably slower than my average walking pace. But it felt good. Painful. Slow. But I was moving. And then, as I’ve ran down, I could see the apartment in Moraitika, where we were staying. And there was Michael, waiting for me! And from there it was only 3k. So I ran. I ran downhill. I ran on the road. I ran and I turned left. And left.
And there she was. The finish line. And Lourdes. And Pavlos. And Markos. And Vasileios. And Ward. And all people I met on my journey. And suddenly I didn’t have to run anymore. I made it. I finished. And it felt good. And I’m very happy about my finishing time of 19:42. As we sat down and chatted, more people crossed the finish line, someone brought me beer, I was wearing flip-flops and there was John approaching the finish! I was so happy seeing him. It was so much more than a journey leading to destination. It was so special, because it was shared. Each of us did it for their own reasons. For themselves more than for anyone else. But if someone comes across your path on ultra, your paths will be shared forever.
And this is what I love about trail running most. Corfu had it more than any other races I did before. It had the local spirit. Only 80 people took part and probably half of them were from abroad. Everyone cared. There were 16 aid station on the course. One with live music as the runners were coming down. In the middle of the night. Then the old monastery and mill with the magical mist in the air. And all the lights. Kids running behind us in the middle of the street. Sleepy villages full of smiles. It felt as if time stopped. It was such a heartwarming experience that all the suffering from running 104k with 4,300m altitude gain is long forgotten. But the quiet smile and views, they will stay with me forever.