Bucovina Ultra Rocks and The Voice inside my head
Bucovina Ultra Rocks is a 108 km ultramarathon with 6500 + elevation. The race has 5 climbs on the 3 highest peaks of Bucovina: Rarau (1651m), Pietrosul Bistriței (1791m), Giumalău (1858m). Read how I won the race in 13 hours 16, minutes running side by side with Cristi Manole, Cătălin Șorecău and the Voice in my head.
Reading time: 14 minutes;
Photos: Pixel ProSport, Bucovina Fotogenică, Suceava.Media;
Each of us has a background noise, a tone stuck between our ears, in the middle of our brain. If we’re lucky, the voice of consciousness is identical to our own. If not, we have another voice in our head directing us to various actions. In a competition, alongside the other competitors, you need to run with it, whether you want to or not.
It’s 6:30 p.m., the day of the competition. I’m in the upstairs room in the house of Costin, the race director. The window is open and I hear a dog whose full-time job seems to be barking. He doesn’t seem to take any breaks from it, in fact he works overtime. I’m down to the last minute with the race plan. The gels are in bags, the bags arranged in check-point order. I’m getting ready for a power nap. Sleep should last at least two hours.
I close the window to turn down the dog’s volume. Snail-padded, I lay in bed next to M., who after a long walk sleeps unrested with a pillow under her head and two others cuddled.
In 30 years I have learned to fall asleep: I create a scenario for myself – a day I would like to (re)live, a recollection of a memory or a re-enactment of it. I generally achieve a state of sleep in a short time, if I am not distracted by noise, heat or other
thoughts or anxieties. If more than 30 minutes have passed and I fail the above, something is making me anxious. What would not let me fall asleep before a competition could be an incomplete plan, mistrust in my powers or the Voice producing other thoughts that I cannot control or be aware of.
It’s turning 8pm and I’m still tossing and turning. I have failed to gain a few hours of sleep. My resting pulse is (too) high. I feel more tired than I want to be before a contest.
A Voice has arisen in my head that does not belong to me. The Voice was telling me how hard the others trained and how focused they were for this contest. “Will you handle them?”, “Will you keep up?”, “Have you trained enough?”, “Have you trained too hard?”, “Have you been dedicated?”, “Have you had too many beers / too much wine?”.
It would have helped if there was a button to shut her up, a button to make me think about something else.
Usually the start has that power.
KM O - cu Cristi manole
Start- Rarău (I)
km 0 – km 14, 1H33MIN, 1200 (+)
I wish good luck to Cristi who has bib #2, high five and we set off 15 seconds ahead of everyone else on a 110 kilometre journey that would take 13 hours.
I have an anti-social attitude, I don’t get into a conversation with him while we run. He asks me a few questions in between running strides, but I give him all I’ve got: short, cutting answers.
Instead, I carry on a dialogue with the Voice in my head, which I keep trying to silence. I try to answer my doubts with the rhythm I impose.
I ran the first 7 kilometres with desire and fear.
I wanted to show myself that I could keep up the pace, that I was trained, that I knew the route and that I was willing to give it my best. That I have #1 on my chest and that I need to act like it, that it’s no coincidence that I have the highest ITRA score. I wanted to show that I’m better than everyone else, I wanted to shut the Voice in my head up.
I jump over a fence where the power’s on and I let Cristi know about it. Otherwise, I’m running and hydrating. I pay extra attention to the portions I remember being tepid.
I’m feeling a bit bloated from the risotto I had 2 hours before the start. For this, the first hour of the run I only drank water. Zero gels, zero calories ingested, over 800 calories burned. Atypical for my race plan. If I’d kept it up for another couple of hours like that, I’d have been in the minus.
After the first 7 kilometers, we reach the first CP and get caught up by #5, Cătălin Șorecău.
I reach for a 0.5l bottle of water, but the Voice makes me turn away – “But open the lid!” – in response to the volunteers not opening the lid of the water bottles at mile 7.
With 3-4 meters in front of the two, Cristi and Cătălin keep up the pace towards the first peak, Rarău I.
We reach the ski slope. The night light shows 3 runners, with 3 voices in their heads, with 3 different running styles. Cristi powerskiing with poles, Catalin runs at a light and steady pace, and I try to combine hiking with running.
I haven’t got my sticks out yet and can’t seem to find my rhythm. It’s shaping up to be a long evening where it won’t be as easy for me as most expect it to be.
It wasn’t even as easy as I expected it to be.
KM 21, CHEILE MOara DRACULUI
Rarău (I)- Slătioara
km 14 – km 27, 2H38MIN, 1560 (+)
The feeding points where everyone’s support team is waiting for us are battle sites. Whoever has planned this moment well, whoever knows what to do, whoever gets out of the ‘red zone’ first, gains precious seconds. These have as great a psychological impact on the opponent as the power to sprint up a climb.
At kilometre 14 we have the first chance to show how well we can handle it.
We reach the summit of Rarau, all three of us, side by side. I have the trunk of Maria’s car waiting for me just as I had planned hours before. Cristi has the trunk of his wife’s car, and Catalin seems to be getting gels and flasks “out of the air” from his friends.
The voice takes my order and tells me: ‘electrolytes’, ‘orange juice’, ‘mineral water’, ‘run’.
It’s the first time the Voice has steered me towards something constructive, when he seems to realise it’s better for both of us to collaborate. At mile 14, she stops putting obstacles in my way and we start working together for the best outcome.
I follow his instructions and I’m first out of the checkpoint with my spirits and pulse up.
The first climb, the first check-point, the first descent – all are in check. I establish a baseline of pace and intensity that I try to maintain for the next few hours of running.
We run on the downhill with warm muscles. The soles of our running shoes don’t cope with the friction of the grass and the pace we’re trying to get into. The three of us each want to take advantage of a bump, a sharp turn to gain a small psychological advantage.
Get a little encouragement from the Voice.
Because of the pace and the night, I’ve managed to be as clumsy as a kid with his shoelaces untied. I stepped crooked, fell on my butt, slipped and sank ankle deep in mud. I’ve been through as many challenges as Ulysses in the Odyssey.
We reach the Devil’s Mill gorge, cross the jumping bridge, I grab a water bottle on the fly and pull out the number whose pins have snapped off and which I now hold to my chest.
A flat run through Slătioara follows. An optimal stretch where I can check the breathing of the other two runners. Cristi seems to be breathing a bit hard, but I can’t hear Cătălin – either because he’s very fit or because he’s too far back.
I get precise instructions: “Don’t turn your head, you look weak”.
km 27- 43, 4H37MIN, 2400 (+)
Blitzgrieg. That’s the word that characterised my attitude at the checkpoints. In Slătioara, as at the other checkpoints, I simply gave my number to be scanned, grabbed a bottle of water and stormed off. By the time the other two runners figured out what they were up to, I already had a 200 meter lead.
It worked, but each time they managed to pick up the pace and catch up with me.
“Unbelievable! It’s the first time you’ve run with two other runners from Romania, for so long, at an ultra” the Voice tells me, respectfully. I agree, and with admiration for Cătălin and Cristi, I take out my sticks for the most efficient effort.
Cătălin has managed to blow my neck out effortlessly on the descents, and Cristi is doing great on the climbs. This made the climb to Rarau II one that I stuck with Cristi. I pity Sorecau for not taking his sticks, but he has plenty of time to catch up.
Nutrition up to this point is working well, but not great. Every gel seems to fill me up and make me bloated, but I’m doing what every runner would do at a point like this: burp and get high. Cristi laughs, not just to himself, and tries to get into small talk with me again, but I’m too focused for small talk.
5 minutes later, karma hits me and I feel the first low of the race. My legs get soft, my arms no longer dig my poles into the ground well and I find it hard to maintain a running stride even on easy uphill stretches.
Cristi feels blood and takes the lead. Within 2 minutes he reaches the CP, feeds and goes. I’m 200 yards behind him. It seems like everything around me is running on fast forward, while I’m moving in replay.
I whistle for M to get out of the car and open the trunk for me to refuel. She checks online to see where I am while I tap on her window.
I drink a 3-sip Red Bull with the regulation electrolytes, grab my gels for the next section and head out. Forget the sticks. I come back for them after a few dozen yards and lose about 2 minutes.
I lose Cristi from my field of vision.
I don’t panic, because it’s not even 40 kilometres. A lot can still happen.
I maintain my cruising speed. I get a bold idea to stick a stick in. I try to shove it between my cheek and cheekbones and dissolve it with small gulps of water. But either the pace is too intense (about 04:30 min/km) or I don’t really need it, I throw up the stick and a few sips of Red Bull along with it.
For a moment, it occurs to me that Manole may have wandered off and that I’m ahead of him – I had time to think about that on the seemingly endless forester. I reach the CP in Zugreni though and the volunteers let me know I’m 20 seconds behind him.
“Start approaching him, keep doing what you’re doing. We support you.” Voice.
Pietrosul Bistriței, KM 50
Pietrosul Bistriței, KM 50
km 43- 60, 6H47MIN, 3400 (+)
I’m on the toughest climb of the race, to the Pietrosul Bistriței. This climb is as steep as it looks from the profile. If you lean forward, you’re going to hit the ramp.
On the first stretch the sticks don’t make sense because you’re on all fours anyway. I use my hands as much as my feet. My watch beeps and I realise that the last kilometre was done in 24 minutes – my slowest kilometre ever.
When you walk slowly, the miles go by very slowly. I’m just under 6 hours and approaching the halfway point. Both in distance and time spent in effort.
The beauty of the sunrise is like a bandage on my ego wound. Cristi is at least 5 minutes ahead. The guy is really climbing well.
Doubts begin to creep into my mind. I no longer think it was a good idea to have done the recon just a few days ago. But the hydration and nutrition is working, I’m really craving a sandwich and a Coke.
I finish the climb, and the scenery at the summit is so beautiful, it can be used as an answer to the question “Why do you run hundreds of miles up a mountain?”. From this competition I will use the two photos to show why.
The hardest ascent is followed by the most spectacular descent. It looks like you’re in a video game simulation. You’re walking on moss-paved trails with pine trees. Muscularly, the effort seems non-existent. The only thing stopping me from “breaking” is the lack of glycogen and the heart that keeps beating wildly.
Chop another gel with maldodextrin and another gel with fruit. AMR 30 minutes to sandwich. Before that I try to consume something semi-solid (jelly from decathlon), which I put in my jaws and “quench” with water. It goes a long way and fuels my run.
I can hear the sheepdogs barking at Cristi. I know there’s a sore spot coming and I let it go. I pull out a stick as a safety measure. The dogs spot me and start barking at me. They’re not aggressive, just cautious. Angrier than them are the shepherds who are angry that we don’t close the gates. I hadn’t opened any gates, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
I also pass by the sheepfold, reach the village asphalt and am greeted by a volunteer with a vuvuzela. Before the check-point, I look around for Maria – my team, the head of logistics and the entire staff.
The first thing I do is squeeze her for information about Cristi:
Me: How long does he have?
M.: He’s been here for 3 minutes, but he’s sitting to eat and change.
Me: “Oh, he hasn’t left yet?”, I see Cristi coming back into CP;
Then I ask for the food I dreamed of on the last portion:
ME: I want a sandwich and a Coke + a can of unopened Coke to take with me!
M follows my instructions.
ME: fill the buff with ice, I’ll take the sunglasses too.
ALL ME: how much is in the back?
M.: he had 10 minutes on the last CP!
Cristi Manole pe Giumalău, pe locul 1
Rusca - Valea Putnei
km 60-79, 8H59MIN, 4550 (+)
I leave the checkpoint with fresh legs and an eagerness to run. I head into the second half of the race. It’s time to pick up the pace and get closer to Cristi. The climbs are very varied, both steep and runnable.
“If you tackle them correctly, you’ll be able to get close to 1st place. If you don’t, 2nd place is good,” the Voice tells me, seemingly in a whisper. Was she tired too, or did she not want anyone to hear us?
The 5 minutes turn into 2 minutes, and all 3 of us – me, Cristi and Vocea – end up on the Giumalău. I fill a flask with water and put in 2 slices of watermelon. All in 35 seconds.
“He’s tired, he’s been in CP longer than you,” Vocea.
With effort, I shove my sticks in the gutter and overtake him. I’ve wanted this since mile 33. A minute after I pass him, I pull a slam and go hard.
I get up, shake off the dust and start to take the reins of the race. I run without looking back. Without seeing if he’s keeping up with me or if he’s struggling.
The descent ends and we hit a flat section. I can hear his breathing which sounds like he needs extra oxygen.
“If you push him now, you’ll weaken him on the next climbs” – those were the words that made me run as hard as I could.
We reach the Putna Valley. Maria has the car on the left side of the road, his wife is waiting for him on the opposite side. Another battleground.
Giumalău II, ultimul vârf îmi aduce locul 1
Toate pânzele sus către finish
Valea Putnei - Finish
km 79-110, 13H16MIN, 6450 (+)
Ice, Red Bull, and fresh legs made me able to run the next stretch to the last peak of the race. I had a pang of gratitude because I did my route reconnaissance and knew which stretches to speed up and which stretches to slack. Plus, I had the comfort of knowing “how much longer the climb would last”.
The voice smiles and tells me:
In 5 kilometres you’ve managed to gain at least 7 minutes. If you keep this pace, you have a good chance of winning! I was happy to cross the finish line first. All I had to do was hydrate and fuel up.
The clock tells me 12 hours into the race. I had passed the 100-kilometer mark. I can feel my right big toe tearing my sock, I’m afraid of blistering. My legs feel like two pieces of rock, and my quads feel like they have a thousand and one pins stuck in them. The heat makes the effort harder, and every running step requires extra strength.
But the smell of freshly mown hay and the green landscape of Bukovina make my life (easier). So does the fact that I’m running alongside competitors from shorter races. Cristi is out of sight, and that’s reassuring.
I reach the foot of the surprise climb – Runc. One of the sticks doesn’t open. I decide to powerhike up the climb, hands on knees. I walk 1.5 kilometres in about 30 minutes. The whole time the Voice said nothing.
Paul and Mateo’s support helps me through the weak moments on the climb when my legs go more sideways than forward.
Together we shut the Voice up, confident that I was about to cross the finish line first.
Until the next competition.
Finish Bucovina Ultra Rocks cu Paul și Mateo
MEDALIA ȘI ÎMBRĂȚIȘAREA