For a normal human being, there are very few things that are worth waking up at 3am on a Saturday morning. An 85km run in the mountains is usually not one of them. But the runners around me are anything but normal human beings.
It’s 5am in Benicassim, a beach town by the Spanish Costa del Azahar. I’m in the bus with some of the best trail runners in the world, headed towards Castellon, where in less than one hour they will start running in what’s probably their most important race of the year and, for some, of their career: the Trail World Championships.
Once a year, the top ultra runners in the world compete for the world champion title both individually and in teams. This year, it means 331 athletes from 49 countries running a 85km route with 5000m positive elevation on the trails of Penyagolosa.
It’s still dark outside and the bus smells like strong menthol from the muscle rubs. The runners are all wearing their countries’ tshirts. Their support teams, including myself, have bright green vests. Portugal, South Africa, Ukraine, Romania – we share the same bus.
Everyone is wide awake, and together with the menthol you can smell the tension in the air. They’re all focused and, trying to read their minds, I can see Robert Hajnal’s legs shaking. It turns out it’s not the nervousness, but the Compex electrodes he’s using to warm up before the race.
“Hey, Romania!”, a Bosniac runner calls me. “See you next week in Timisoara!” (in the international 12/24/48h running event, he meant).
We’re competing but we still say hi.
First timers and regulars
It’s Romania’s first year in the TWC. The National Athletics Federation chose to send three men and two women to compete in what would be a pilot edition. The selection process and the logistics behind it have been largely disputed: from how the runners were selected to their equipment that arrived late, to all the costs involved, everything became a big Facebook controversy.
So here we were on the day of the race: the five runners and a support team of five.
What does a support team mean? It’s the people who help the runners on the route, in the aid stations. This time, most athletes were accompanied by their trainers, federation representatives, friends, better halves, colleagues etc.
You can usually tell who’s a runner and who’s in the support team by what they wear and how they look. However, some countries sent experienced elites while others sent whoever was good enough. Maybe it’s not wrong to assume that in that big crowd of big calves, some people were there not for having lots of titles, but lots of social media followers.
Actually, on Friday I overheard a girl in South Africa’s running team telling one of the girls in the Swedish team: “I follow you on Instagram. I totally love your national equipment. My pants haven’t arrived yet”.
Proof that it’s not just Romania always having logistical problems, as we think. Just a few hours earlier, on Friday evening, the lawn in front of the hotel where we were staying looked like a livingroom on Christmas morning: full of runners unpacking their equipment that had arrived last minute.
Planning a race involves different stages – the specific training, resting, route recognition, estimating the time and effort between the important points on the route and much more.
When it comes to what happens in the aid stations, it’s the thing that probably requires the least preparation. It doesn’t take years or months as training does, but at this level, one wrong step can ruin a race. Imagine relying on a pair of shoes to change after some kilometers and not having them in the drop off bag at the very moment you need them.
From this point of view, it’s always better to have someone there who knows a bit about this sport. Someone who knows what you’ll need to eat to refuel even when you’re in too much pain or too absorbed to ask for it.
That’s when we, the support team in our green vests and official badges, come in.
The runners had three aid stations along the route: Les Useres, Atzeneta and Vistabella, and we were as prepared as we’d ever be to assist them.
At the start line, there’s no time for smalltalk. A few quick selfies, some cheering up, a quick compulsory equipment check and off they go.
As they go, we also go. Next stop: first aid station in Les Useres, at km 31.
There are tables split in two, each shared by two countries, and arranged in alphabetical order. We’re sharing the table with South Africa, and our neighbor is Portugal.
“This is her second ultramarathon”, the man supporting the South African team tells me about one of their two women in the race. “Let’s see if she can make the cut-off time” (4h15min).
We have plastic zip bags with what the runners asked us to bring. Each of them has soft flasks that already have their favourite isotonic mixed with water, some gels and energy bars and some emergency pills in case of stomach pain or other problems. Some prefer raw bars, others go well with gels, others have real food.
Looking around at what’s on the tables, you can see everything from super strong gels with caffeine and guarana, coke and red bull to porridge, pickles and lasagna.
It’s strange what your taste buds and your body ask for after 40-50-60 km. And they don’t always ask for the same thing.
Not long after we arrive, the first runner arrives in the checkpoint: it’s Zach Miller, a very strong american athlete. He’s a kind of superstar of this sport, as are most runners that follow him shortly.
All eyes and cameras on him. One sip of water, takes his bag off and changes it with another while still running and he’s gone from all the applause and the cameras.
Our Romanian boys all arrive surprisingly fresh. Robert is the first, feeling great and confident, and leaves with a Red Bull can in his hand.
Andrei Țale comes in second, absolutely surprised by how well he’s feeling.
Ok, let’s change flasks, drink, some pieces of grilled chicken to take away. A couple of minutes and he’s gone.
Radu Milea also looks great. It’s incredible how someone can look so well after this kind of distance and effort. He’s having some problems with the tights, though. He’s been sweating a lot and they’re full of water, dripping all the way down into his shoes.
Other runners start to arrive. Some are tired, worried they won’t be able to make the cut off times or finish the race.
I see a girl that’s obviously tripped and fallen along the rocky and technical route. All bruised and full of dirt, with a bleeding knee, and a heartbreaking look of desperation and exhaustion on her face. It makes you ask yourself why would anyone push themselves that hard. Until you find the answer, you know you’ll never be in her shoes.
She starts looking through a bag to find some gels. What a waste of so much precious time. Meanwhile, her support person, a man in his 50s, is busy writing down something (probably her arrival time) on a piece of paper. Intrigued, I offer to help her fill up her flasks with water. Then I hesitate. I’m not sure I’m allowed to offer help to any other runners.
Our girls, Ana Cristina Constantin and Cristina Cecan, also look ok. Tired, of course, but they both make it through the first cut-off time and go ahead to the next part of the race.
It’s almost mid day. The sun is up and out of the clouds, predicting a hot rest of the day. For some, maybe even too hot.
As soon as Cristina leaves the aid stations, Andreea and I also literally start running to catch the bus to Vistabella. That’s the third aid point and the second we’ll be covering. The FRA delegate and another friend are in charge of the station in between, Atzeneta, at km 40.
“Radu wants to change his pants”
“Please force feed Andrei”
“Yeeey! Cristina made the cut off, looking strong!”
We have a whatsapp group to keep in touch.
“We just arrived to Vistabella. About one hour left until Robert gets here”
The Vistabella “avituallamento” is indoors. We find the table with the Romanian flag, say hi to our Portuguese and South African neighbours, then we start preparing the table.
Zach Miller arrives shortly, immediately followed by Luis Alberto Hernando. The American doesn’t look that fresh anymore. Surrounded by his support team and dozens of phone cameras, he empties glass after glass and has some oranges. The Spanish runner, on the other hand, looks relaxed and confident. It’s the moment when everyone around knows that he knows the race is his. But never say never, lots of things can still happen.
The floor is flooded from all the iced water the supporters pour on the head and legs of their runners to cool them down. Orange and banana peels mixed with rests of gel and bars packaging. It starts smelling like menthol sprays again. They arrive here more tired, dirtier and sweatier.
Looking at how they can barely breathe, you can’t help but wonder about how surprisingly strong the human body is.
A Slovak runner throws his poles to the floor in anger as he arrives to find his support team is not there yet. Too tired to speak, he mumbles “food…water! Coke!” and the volunteers help him.
“Robert is coming! Over here, Robert!!”
He comes in as we take some photos. Gets out pretty fast and keeps going. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
Next one is Andrei. But a very different Andrei than the one that arrived in Les Useres. He’s pale and can barely speak. We do as planned: iced water on the head without letting it drip inside the shoes, something to drink, massage, and forcing in some food and caffeine. The sun got to him bad, he’s hypoglycemic and he doesn’t want to leave. He needs to sit down for more than 10 minutes before he walks out of the aid station.
“Soup, bring me some soup”, he mumbles.
“Is there any soup here?!”, I ask, confused.
A volunteer tells me that there is. The food options aren’t signaled in any way and I’m feeling like a student caught without the homework for not knowing what’s available in the aid station.
Will he be able to run? Will he be able to finish the race?
We won’t know until he reaches the next checkpoint. Until then we’ll only be able to see on the live trail app if he’s doing better or not.
Next is Radu. He’s still having problems with his shoes because of the sweat that got inside, but he looks good and confident. He sits down a little, has something to eat and drink and off he goes.
We check the live trail app and see that unfortunately Cristina didn’t make the second cut off time. The muscle problems she’d told us about made it difficult for her to go on.
We leave some things on the table for Ana, who’s supposed to arrive a few hours later and who’s not used to drinking or eating during the race, and we head out for the finish line in Sant Joan de Penyagolosa.
We may not be going through the same effort as the runners are, but seeing them in pain, nervous, tired, makes our stomach ache and our hands shake. I’m constantly feeling thirsty and Andreea hasn’t eaten anything all day. I’m thinking it’s the first and last time I do support at this level. I don’t have the stomach for it.
From this moment on, it’s all about the live trail app. The next checkpoints don’t have aid stations and support teams, so we’re headed towards the finish line to see them arrive.
Is Andrei able to make a comeback from his faint state and finish the race?
Is Robert going to achieve his objective?
Are the new pants helping Radu even a bit?
Is Ana able to make all the cut off times? Does she have enough food and water with her?
Is Cristina ok, physically and mentally, after all the pressure she’s been through?
Hasta la meta
As we approach the finish line we can see buses arriving full of people who want to see the world champions breaking the ribbon. Luis Alberto is now way ahead, followed by Cristofer Clemente.
The sun is already strong and it’s probably making the last rocky downhill even more painful.
The runners from the other two races, CSP and MIM, keep arriving. However, they don’t get the attention we’re all used to at the finish line, having their name called out, congratulated or anything. The only thing the MCs mention about them is that “another runner from CSP has arrived”, focusing more on waiting for the World Champion.
Luis Alberto passes by in 08.38:35, more than he’d predicted, in huge applauses and loud music, hugging his son and his wife. He’s been talking for a long time about retiring. Family life and ultrarunning must be difficult to balance.
Everyone is waiting to see who will be the champion in the women’s category, although it’s already pretty obvious that the Dutch Ragna Debats is going to arrive first.
Hitting the refresh button on the live trail app every five minutes.
The ETA for Robert is getting closer. Andrei also has a better ETA than expected, while Radu seems to have lost a few positions. Something is definitely wrong and we’re frustrated by not being able to do anything about it.
But here’s Robert! “Hurry, take the flag.” “Sprint! There’s a British guy right behind you!”.
He managed an amazing 15th position. It’s a great success, especially if you look at the first 14 men before him.
It’s time for hugs and congratulations and, as he sits down in the refreshment tent, he asks for beer.
Andrei is taking longer than the ETA on the app. We’re all waiting in the sun, holding the Romanian flag. Ragna Debats and Laia Canes, had already arrived. So had the third woman, France’s Claire Mouget.
And here he is. Finishing the race on a rather unexpected 57th position, looking way better than the last time we’d seen him, in Vistabella. Oh, the magic of good food and some caffeine!
Almost in the same time, Georgeta Manolache, a veteran Romanian runner, also passes the “meta” in her MIM race, the first in her category.
We take a few pictures and prepare some plates for them: pasta, sushi, fruit, paella. Unfortunately, as most runners know, nothing looks appealing after a race.
While they’re resting and trying to eat, we head out to the finish line once more to see Radu arriving. His face is all red from the effort and sun, finishing the race on the 91st position.
We spend the next few hours talking about how the race was, feeling relieved that they all made it without injuries or major incidents. Also, we share the pride in the 12th place in men’s teams that they’ve achieved for Romania, ranking before other experienced runners.
Later in the day, Ana Cristina also reaches the finish line. She looks girlish in her running skirt, but she’s cursing the sprained ankle she’s had to put up with on the last few kilometers.
The team is reunited and we’re all tired – runners and non runners alike. So we’re headed towards the big queues for the buses that take us back to the hotel.
TWC 2018 is officially done
We’re on our way back to Benicassim and it’s dark again. It seems like days since we were on the way to the start.
The air in the bus is a mix of strong sweat, vomit, dirt, and some donuts and fries that the runners are sharing. Add to that some other nasty things that are normal after an ultramarathon.
One might think they’re tired. And they are. But their parasympathetic nervous system keeps them awake and chatting, showing photos of their families, inviting each other to other races and friending each other on facebook.
They start recalling moments in the race, such as difficult segments, the states they’d been through, and how they managed the route.
“That fucking climb de puta mierda!”
We find out some things we could have lived without knowing.
“Did you pee? Did you stop or not?”
“Did you puke? And did you swallow or spit it out?”
I’ll spare you the rest of the details.
The way back is just like a race film, a relive of their incredible day of agony and ecstasy, shared with lots of interjections.
All trip long, the sound of the occasional bursts of vomit of a runner puking in a bag every five minutes keeps reminding us all that ultra running is a sport of sacrifices. And for some strange reason, they say it’s totally worth it.