Hello darkness, my old friend
JUNE 1, 2022 | RODOPI | 12 MIN
At the beginning each run appears in story. And then immediately in the imagination that does not allow you to forgot and demands realization more and more. Many friends have told me about Rodopi Ultra Trail. They said that it was a unique race, completely unlike any other in Greece, that there was an extraordinary atmosphere and magic.
Even a cursory overview indicates that there could be a lot of truth in this. The run takes place in the wild Rhodope Mountains, the start and finish are located in a tourist clearing in the heart of the mountains, there is only one real village on the way. You cannot see the Aegean Sea, there is no such extraordinary luminosity of the air, so characteristic of Greek running competitions, especially those organized on the islands. There is an October time, often capricious weather, long night, and even (horror of horrors) sometimes mud! No wonder then that the invitation to the run is a quote from the famous song by Simon & Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence:
“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence “
most remote place in Greece
The ultra-run is always a trip to another world, especially when this run is to be over 160 km long. A ROUT is certainly a different world. We drove there for a long time, from Litochoro with a stop in Thessaloniki. There was a time to get weaned from Olympus, enter the big city for a while and slowly get closer to the goal. We followed the ancient road of Egnatia Odos towards the border with Bulgaria. The highways are somewhat similar to each other everywhere, this one was distinguished by the fact that the traffic on it was five times smaller than in Poland. After the town of Xanti, we left the main road and turned into the mountains. About 50 km along a winding, narrow road. All the time asphalt, but slightly “strained” in places, the edges were overgrown with forest undergrowth, and bushes appeared in the cracked asphalt, even in the middle of this forgotten artery. It is not surprising, since we did not meet a single car for the entire 50 km!
There wasn’t even a village or town at the end. Our goal was a tourist clearing in the forest at an altitude of 1,300 m above sea level, known as Haidou. There were several cabins in the clearing, but the vast majority of participants lived in tents. There was nothing else to do but to follow this trend 🙂 . I focused on minimalism: the Fjord Nansen 640 g sleeping bag, the 510 g Forclaz Air Structure inflatable sleeping mat and the two-layer tent – CAMP Minimal SL I 1000 g. I was wondering how it would work, because I have never been a camping animal by passion. The more that my tent, when pitched, reached at most to knee height 🙂 There is no way to sit in it, it is not a record holder in length, but because I’m not a giant, I managed to crawl inside somehow. But everything was at hand: a smartphone, a headlamp, a watch, even the entire backpack could fit inside. Generally, my “quarters” before the race did not resemble a five-star hotel or even a mountain hut 🙂 Certainly – a completely different world. A good introduction to a unique experience.
It is also worth adding that the weather was excellent: the sun and 25 degrees during the day, the starry sky at night and around 12 degrees Celsius.
we are running too fast
The start is scheduled for 6 am. We set off in the dark, 134 daredevils with headlamps. The beginning is easy, wide gravel road, slightly downhill. The pace is too fast for 100 miles, but I was reassuring myself that if there is a downhill, you have to use gravity. I was running with the others but I didn’t know at what pace I should be moving. The new distance for me (and very long) suggested caution, but the slight downhill soon turned into a fast downhill, with a fabulously twisted single track in a charming forest. Something like this cannot be run at a lazy pace 🙂
The sun rose and the world took on colors. It was possible to better understand what kind of mountains we are running through. I don’t know why, but before the race I imagined that most of the course would be wide gravel roads. In practice, there were perhaps 15% of roads of this type. The rest are beautiful, narrow and often rocky paths. We were running through the forest all the time, but in this forest there were a lot of rocks, sometimes they protruded like huge inselbergs above the crown of trees, much more often we encountered rock walls right next to the trail, so we ran on stones. It turned out again that the Greek paths are technically much more difficult than Polish ones.
About 65 km, I already had the first crisis behind me. With some surprise I watched as I easily catch up with the others on the downhills. I decided to just watch myself. Do not focus on any time at the finish line or pace, just move at any pace and watch what time will bring.
In this moment I realized that I actually started this race out of curiosity. I wanted to check what was happening behind the 100-120 km border, which had been tame quite well before? Do the legs keep moving? Are muscles not breaking down into prime factors? Does air constantly go to the lungs and does the heart pump blood? How does it feel to run further than ever before?
night and crossing the border
From this perspective, everything up to 120 km was a necessary filling.
So I was running. Night came and it was fine. I was waiting for it too. I knew that it brings a change, everything becomes quieter and more peaceful, I slow down and I can easily find objective explanations for it – in the dark, with the headlamp on your head, you can see everything much worse. There are bonfires and friendly warmth at the feeding and control points. It should be mentioned here that on the entire 100-mile route of ROUT there is one village (Prasinada at 27 km – you cross it twice, also at the end of the run) and maybe 4 km of asphalt. There are a lot of checkpoints (20) where the starting numbers are written down – even in the heart of the forest, in a complete remote area, you can find such soul mates. But there are only three real nutritional points (!) and because you run up to two twice, it gives a total number equal to 5. It’s definitely a different world – not similar to Polish Lemkowyna Race at all.
I thought about Lemkowyna at night, when I remembered the stories of people who had fallen asleep on the route. In the Low Beskids in Poland it is possible, because such a falling asleep competitor simply falls into the mud, which is relatively safe (although of course – he can drown 🙂 ). It is impossible to fall asleep here, because due to the rocky ground, each step requires full concentration, with the risk of serious injury or death caused by falling into the abyss. The rivers in the Rhodopi Mountains often flow at the bottom of ravines 20, 50 or 100 meters deep, with vertical walls, and the path at the top, along the edge, is not much larger than a runner’s foot. In such places, it is not worth closing your eyes 🙂
Somewhere at night I crossed my magic barrier of 120 km. And what? And nothing! I have stared at the watch many times, and when this moment has come, I realized that the watch had gone a bit crazy a while ago and provided not entirely reliable information. At one point, I crossed that line, but I don’t really know exactly when it was. But what does a border mean, it is just a number, pure abstraction, and the body is governed by some unknown rules, feeling tired, experiencing crises and overcoming them. It was similar here. About 95 km, it seemed to me that I was completely exhausted and I would walk the rest of the route, and at 135 km I ran again, with joy overtaking a few competitors. Nevertheless, I was getting more and more tired. More than at other races? I don’t think so … Anyway, at one point in the middle of the night, I stopped and rested my head against a tree. I closed my eyes. The world spun instantly, everything was spinning around like I was running very fast and in all directions. With the eyes of my soul I have seen the entire route so far and what is still waiting for me. As if I could directly cover the whole world around me. It was very enjoyable. Later, I stopped in this way a few more times, recalling this unusual phenomenon.
Maybe that's all this for? To be able to stand at night, under a tree, in the mountains, with a crazy dizziness?
Finally I ran to the Zarkadia station. The ROUT route is shaped like a lasso: a large loop, and at the beginning and end you run to it, following the same route in two different directions. Zarkadia is at the end of this run (or at the beginning on the way back). It is about 40 km away from the start, so that’s how much I have left to the finish line. At the beginning it took me 5 and a half hours to cover this section, and on the way back – 10 hours and 20 minutes! And this is a fairly good measure of my fatigue.
However, I ran to the finish line as if I did not feel exhausted, completely happy. Nothing hurt, I had no injuries, no pinned fours or burning Achilles. I was also glad that the ultra is not over yet. I am not going back to civilization yet, I am still in a beautiful clearing in the middle of great forests and mountains, and another night awaits me in my micro tent – ultra challenge.
do I want to do it again?
After a week, I felt even better. There were no hidden injuries or delayed pains. So when is the best time to try to run your first 100 miles? Of course, I’m not a rookie, I’ve been running about 4,000 km a year for 5 years. I have completed several dozen ultra races, this year alone, four runs of about 100 km. However, ROUT did quite well in cycling training. I felt that I had a lot of racing this year and that is why I tried to save myself, rather take a break from running than increase the mileage. The bike gave me some kind of endurance training.
Out of 134 riders at the start, 97 reached the finish line – within the limit of 40 hours – quite a good percentage for such a long run. Ultimately, I took 32nd place with a time of 32 hours. 23 min. I keep wondering if I want to do it again?
ROUT Classic 100 miles
Distance: 176 km.
Elevation gain: +9000/-9000 m.
Additional distances: none.
Start/finish: Haidou, Rodopi.