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Home » 12 – Ultrarunners in the Wild

12 – Ultrarunners in the Wild

There is a snail in my sleeping bag.

After Maxi had left me all on my lonesome again, I once again upgraded to sleeping in the woods, somewhere a few hundred meters off trail, lying in the bushes in my bivy sack. I say upgraded, because honestly, who doesn’t want to exchange a safe, comfortable room in an inn with a bathroom, running water and electricity for a patch of dirt amidst some nettles, waking up at night because the sounds of foxes playing with one another can easily be mistaken for witches cackling.

I flick the snail from my sleeping bag, another off my shoes, a third and fourth off my sleeping bag. “They’ve accepted you as their kin!” I can practically hear Denis’ giggling as I read his text in response to my snail complaints. After a long breakfast, I get ready to rumble. Or walk. I’m not feeling like moving today. I ran most of yesterday, 45KM, and I’m tired. Also, it’s cold, I’m wearing 5 layers of clothes, it’s foggy and there’s just no point-

A runner passes me by.

Not just any runner.

This is a runner going at a Death Shuffle Pace, and carrying a running backpack. “No way. Is he…?” My thoughts trail off, as he puts more and more distance between himself and me. “Alright, I gotta know,” I think, and rush after him.

He hears me galloping after him.and turns around, startled. “Yes?”

“ARE YOU AN ULTRARUNNER, TOO?!” I’m very proud of myself for not adding: “Be my friend!”

Or maybe I should. Maybe we all should say that a lot more often, just like kids in kindergarten still do. Maybe we’d all be a little happier that way. But I digress.

“Um… yeah!” – “OH MY GOD, have you done this before, how often do you train, how long do you run each day, do you eat special food, when do you get up, do you walk, how often do you walk, and can I join for as long as it takes you to answer all my questions and also: what’s your name?”

He starts with the easiest one. His name is Thomas, he works to keep the Deutsche Bahn safe from fire disasters and yes, he’s done this before. He’s running 290KM from Augsburg to Lindau in two weeks, crunching off 30 to 35KM a day, staying in pensions, and yes, I can be his new friend.

I’m thrilled. I’d been hoping for something like this to happen for days and weeks now. To meet someone as nuts as myself. I couldn’t be the only one in Germany running long distances every day. “No, there are a lot more of us down South,” he replies with a smile. Maybe it’s just that Ultrarunning in the Flatlands of northern Germany isn’t a thing yet. “I know quite a lot of people down in Boden who run marathons every week, just for fun. No race. Just a decent long run.” Though he does admit he hadn’t met anyone like me yet. “1000KM if you’ve only started running this year?! …. sounds ambitious.” But the fact that I’m almost done seems to make him think I’m not (just) crazy.

We talk for the next 20KM, running to a town where I hope to find food. Everything is closed, so even though we’d just said goodbye, I run after him again, chasing him like the lost puppy that I am today. “Hope I’m not holding you back!” I say. He just laughs, shaking his head.
We talk less about running, and more about life. “You can be so darn proud of yourself in two days,” he says, patting my shoulder. “Yeah well…. sometimes I feel like I’m just being stupid and reckless and irresponsible with my adventures. Other people seem to have it a bit more … under control.” Tom laughs.

“Eh, it can all change in a year, trust me,” he adds, telling me a story of a friend of his who’d given up on love, family and her career to go into a monastery. This monastery is the only one of it’s kind in all of Europe: it houses a bunch of monks just on the other side of the courtyard. “Well, and once a week, they get an afternoon that’s all their own. She went to a local bar and met this guy. Chatted, flirted – till they found out he was a monk, living in her monastery. They met again the next week. And the week after. Finally, before the test period was over (there’s a year where one can still decide to opt out of being married to God, I guess)… she called me to invite me to her wedding. To this dude. All in a year, she’d gone from “disillussioned with love” to “nun” to “happily married”.” Tom shakes his head. “Whatever you do, just promise me you won’t go to a monastery.”

“Do something normal. Like kayaking down the entire Italian coast. I think that’s a saner way to find control in your life.” He winks at me.

We finally make it to Schongau. The morning passed by so quickly, and it’s hard to say goodbye. He reminded me of Tomi, the Polish cyclist I met on the Nordkapp. Tom’s soft laughs and kind jokes have the same kind of feeling to then as Tomi’s smiling eyes. They were all simple gestures giving away the kindness a human can carry.

He hugs me before he leaves. “When you get up there, remember to take a moment and just feel your arrival. You’ll have done something incredible, something no one will ever be able to take from you.” I grin at him.

“Stay safe!” I say. He smiles and turns to leave.

Just before he rounds the corner, he turns to look at me one last time.

He smiles and waves.

Then walks away.

Honestly? I thought I already had this one in the bag. The run, I mean. I crunched the 940KM, I met a cool Ultrarunner, I made all the mistakes and had found my way into a flow. No more freaking out about having to find hunting stands, the owls hoots couldn’t scare me off putting my bivy down somewhere in the bush, 500m off trail. I had a rhythm to get food, water and electricity.

Well.

The latter was still a problem, as there is only so much time one can spend in restaurants leeching electrons off the socket like some sort of tech-parasite. Also, I have four items which always need to be charged, in order of their batteries (weak) capacities:

  • Phone (whiny little monster needs to be charged up to three times a day, if I want to write and post stories, as well as listen to music)
  • Powerbank (essentially because of: see above)
  • Watch (solar power is all well and good, but not enough for 4 consecutive weeks of non-stop GPS tracking)
  • Headlamp.

I’d forgotten about the last one.

“Sh*t,” I mumble, as I press the power button, and get only an angry hissy fit of a flashing red response in return. I’d barely used the lamp, but it had kept turning on in my pocket during the day, in spite of the lock that was supposed to be built in. It’s empty.

“F…!” I look around. Normally, I’d toss my bivy sack into the next bush, and wait it out till morning. But there’s no bush next to my slim, and very muddy trail. On my right: the woods go straight up, trees leering at me from over a cliff wall. On my left: a drop. Then a gushing mountain stream.

And I can barely see a thing anymore. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone into these woods in the first place, but I’d forgotten that over the past month, sunset time has shifted from 8.30PM to by now 7.45PM. Instead of making it through these woods, I had lounged in a restaurant that a nice lady from Peitingen had led me to. I watched advertisements for the local leather shop (Bavarian style) and strip club flicker across a TV screen across from me as I dug into my potatoes and cream, waiting for my phone, and watch to charge.

Not the headlamp.

That’s when I hear someone – something? – galloping towards me. I turn around and see: a trail runner. He passes me by, not really acknowledging the hiker in distress as I press myself against the cliffside of the walk to let him pass through. He’s fast. Really fast. But he’s my only chance.

“Mind if I join ya? I don’t have a functioning headlamp,” I cry, leaping after him and trying not to give him a chance to say no. He whirls around. It’s as if he hadn’t even seen me before. “Sure! Whatcha running here for without a light?” I try hard to keep up with him. Nothing like a good ol’ 5.30min/KM pace after already running a marathon today with a 10KG backpack to keep you on your toes. He flicks like a deer across my vision, his muscular calves working like springs to help him bound up up up and away- I gotta go faster to keep up. “I’m doing an Ultramarathon from the Lowest to Highest point of Germany, 1000KM,” I wheeze. I don’t sound like an Ultrarunner. Trying to keep up with him makes me sound like a steam engine with a cigarette addiction. “Impressive!” He says, lighting the way. “My Ultrarunning days are over, I hate having to carry a set amount of crap with me.” He turns around and gestures at my backpack, then at his empty back. “I wanna fly, not crawl,” his hands seem to say.

Which he is.

I am sweating tears and blood, slipping after his headlamp light, sliding on the muddy steps, terrified that one misstep will land me in the river below. He, meanwhile, is telling me about how he used to climb (“Though I prefer bouldering these days. Less hassle.”), that most trail runners he knows used to be climbers and mountaineers (“My guess is that they’ve had enough off all that slow moving through the mountains. Fast is where it’s at!”) and his favorite running discipline (“I’m a powerhouse when it comes to Vert!”). “Verts not real!” I almost say, but I’m near choking on the effort to keep up with him on this decidedly vertical terrain and unable to respond.

The trail flattens for a moment, then: a wall. He just keeps on running. I take my poles up, heaving myself up the 30⁰ gradient.

“Geezus CHRIST, what an end to a day!” I wheeze. He waits for me at the trail head, covering his light with his hand. It’s the first time I see my rescuer’s face. A young, early thirties face with a blond stubble beard and bright eyes greet me. “Thanks for getting me out of there.” I say. “No worries. First time rescuing someone for me!” He smiles and asks if there’s any way he can find out whether I made it to the top in the end. “Strava,” I reply.

“Alright then! Best of luck with that and don’t forget: don’t break a leg!”

And with that, he leaps back into the forest we’d just emerged from.