Today we're happy to publish a guest blog post from one of our athletes; Ruben A. Zondervan. This is his race report from Lejonbragden 50 k, and for being a debut ultra runner, he had quite an ambitious goal — finishing 50 k in sub 5 hours. Read all about his strategy, his thoughts and how he visualized every step at the aid station in advance. A great ultra debut and a very well written report!
Lejonbragden 50k race report
by Ruben Andreas Zondervan
One day, shortly after I moved to Sweden and Lund in 2012, I was waiting for the bus at the bus-stop close to my home. Every few minutes, someone was running by. Well, not all were running. Some were walking, some were shuffling in a slow jog, and sure, some were running. Some seemed to be lost in deep pain and utter exhaustion while others were chatting and smiling. Some looked like prototype fit endurance athletes; others not so much or not at all. The only thing they seem to have in common was a race number pinned to their clothing. And, talking about clothing: while some of them looked like what I associated with runners with flashy, well-fitting shirts and shorts or tights, sleek running shoes of major brands, many of the runners passing the bus-stop looked different: Some were sporting strange hats and a mishmash of apparel, or weird shoes. Come to think of it, some wore small backpacks or fanny-packs and one guy even was eating a slice of pizza on the run.
When I boarded the bus as it finally showed up, I concluded that it certainly was a race of some kind. But something was odd about it.
Fast forward to 2014. This is not the place to elaborate on why and how I developed an ambition to become an ultra-runner. Here it suffices to note that by the end of 2014, after some months of do-it-yourself training for longer distances and one DNS, I had decided that I needed advise. I was lucky that Pace on Earth accepted to coach me. I had to decide what races I would like to go for in 2015. For starters, for my ultra-running debut, maybe a race at the lower end of the ultra-distances and relatively close to home? That is how I found out about Lejonbragden: Sweden’s first official 100 kilometer race held four times in the eighties, revived in 2012, and scheduled this year in a 50 kilometer and 100 kilometer version for 9 May.
When looking at the map of the race course, it suddenly dawned on me what I had observed while waiting for the bus some years before.
A few months later, and about 44 minutes after the start of the Lejonbragden 2015 50K race, under the curious gaze of some people waiting for the bus, I myself passed that same bus stop with a race number pinned to my shirt. At that point in the first of five loops, I was slightly above planned schedule but felt great and barring any injuries, I was confident that I would be able to finish. But would I be able to do so in sub-5 hours as my rather ambitious schedule called for?
The start of the race had been rather unspectacular. After arriving at the start/finish area and collecting my race number, about 20 minutes were left until the start. It was cold, wet, and windy. Keeping my soft-shell on, I tried to stay out of the wind behind the tent with the drop-bags, tried not to be distracted by the other runners arriving and milling around. Many seemed to know each other well. No surprise. But I was in no mood to socialize. I did a last check of the food and gels in my short pockets and in the pocket of my hand-held bottle, and on the organization of all additional food, drinks, and clothing in my drop-bag. Due to the cold, I decided to keep my sleeves on, but despite the low-hanging dark clouds, I decided to stick to the plan and run with my sun-glasses. That final pre-race decisions made, I just stood around, observed the other runners. Calm and ready.
After a short pre-race briefing, I took position near the end of the starters’ field. At 11:00 sharp, we started. I was calm, cold, and stayed close behind a couple that took a pace close to my planned pace. Actually, they were running a bit faster than my schedule but it felt good. By the time I passed the bus-stop for the first time however, I had already overtaken them because they had stopped at the aid station located in the start/finish area which was passed twice each 10 kilometer loop.
The observation that I could overtake people not by running fast, which I am anyway no good at, but by not stopping, reconfirmed the strategy I had for the first 3 loops. A strategy that basically was to keep running in a stable pace with only brief water-refill stops at the end of loop 1 and 2. But hey, why stop to refill? Why not open the bottle hundred meter before the aid-station, grab a cup from the table, keep running, poor the water from the cup in the bottle, close the bottle, keep running, throw the cup in next waste bin along the course, and keep running? And running I did. A steady pace, a bit faster than scheduled but feeling good and focused. Focused on one loop at the time.
I completed the first loop of 10 kilometers in 56 minutes; one minute below schedule. Meanwhile the sun had gotten out of the clouds and it was getting warm. Without stop, I went on to loop 2. Not much to report about that loop. It just went smooth, legs and body felt strong, my mind slowly cleared out all non-race thoughts. And there were not many race-thoughts needed because the course was perfectly marked, the race excellently organized in a nice low-key way, and the field of runners was spread out over the entire 10 kilometer loop so most of the time I ran alone. Half an ölkorv and a small fruit bar towards the end of the loop. Not that I needed fuel at this point in the race but during training it had emerged that if I needed to run more than 90 minutes, I needed to start eating solid food around 50 minutes and keep doing that in a 30 minute frequency in order to not get hungry.
I completed the second loop in 55 minutes; two minutes below schedule. Without stop, I went on to loop 3. The legs were doing their job now in full-automatic mode. Suddenly, I already passed the bus-stop for the third time, 2,5 kilometer before the end of the loop. Time for another fruit bar and time to start following coach’s advice: visualizing the stop at the aid-station. The plan was to take a real break at the end of loop 3 to be followed by a slower loop 4. So what did I need to do? And in what order would I do that now that I knew how the start / finish area was set up?
Open the water bottle before coming in —⎯refill bottle at left side of table —⎯move to the right to grab a piece of banana and a slice of pizza⎯— continue to the right towards the pile of drop bags ⎯— eat pizza and banana while getting rid of the sleeves and the buff (which I use as sweat cloth) — grab the zip-lock bags marked 30 and 40, the first including a new buff⎯— continue to the right to the toilets — start walking the first couple of meters of loop 4 while re-locating the food and gels from the zip-lock bags to short pockets —⎯take a salt-tablet and a precautionary ibuprofen —⎯drop a nuun tablet in the water bottle — increase pace — consume a gel —⎯run.
Sounds complex? Well, it was not. Coming in from the third loop after 53 minutes, five minutes below schedule, I executed the stop exactly as planned. Well, instead of banana I took a piece of apple. In just above 2 minutes I was out of the start / finish area again and on to loop 4. And then the trouble started.
I simply could not get my pace down to the 06:15 min/km-pace scheduled for this loop. Only at the end of the loop I managed to get down to about 06:00 but the first seven kilometers, my legs and feet were ignoring the commands they received from the brain to slow down. In full-automatic mode, they just kept going strong with nice forefoot strike, good cadence, and good posture, calm breathing. Worried that this pace might take too much energy, I even tried to use the slight upward slopes in the road to get the pace down but the legs were unresponsive even to external influences.
So what! It was a good opportunity to eat another half ölkorv and half of a fruit bar. And it was a good reason and opportunity to engage in some short conversations with other runners, finally! Somehow ultra-running is a strange sport in which people who are overtaking others slow down for a bit to chat with the competitor they are overtaking and to tell them that they do a good job and are looking strong. Those being overtaken happily wishes the other all the best and thus I learned that “heya heya” in Swedish is different from the “hej hej” I meanwhile am used to.
Anyway, with 1:02 this loop was slower than the others, although still nearly 5 minutes quicker than planned. And, by again skipping a stop at the start/finish and direct continuation onto the fifth and final loop, an additional two minutes or so were taken off the schedule. That was fine with me at this point in the race because from here on the plan was to keep increasing the pace to as fast as possible and sustainable over the last loop. A gel, this time one with caffeine, and I kept on running.
The main goal for this race was to finish, thereby also to complete my first official ultra-run – a goal I was confident to achieve already at the start. My second goal was to finish below 5 hours – by the time I started the last loop, it was clear that I would achieve this goal as well. I had no explicit other goals, but the fact that fueling and drinking went smoothly, that shoes, clothes and other gear was well selected and functioning, and that I had not developed any pain or injuries, were additional achievements I felt happy about.
The weather was quickly worsening. Halfway down the fifth loop, it started to rain seriously. Perfect! Rain and chilly wind were the conditions I trained in during the past few months. For the first time in the race my feet and legs started to feel tired, my running technique started to get a bit sloppy, but the expected suffering never happened. Unfortunately, because it would have been good to experience this in preparation for the next race I plan to run in August, the Cēsis Eco Trail 80 kilometer. Fortunately, because it allowed me to incrementally increase speed during the last loop to a pace much higher than scheduled. The last four kilometers even went down in a sub-4 minute pace, which, for me as a slow runner, is actually pretty fast.
It rained hard and the wind got strong during the last two kilometers and I felt great, euphoric. I must have smiled like an idiot. Luckily, the rain had driven away the anyway very few spectators, and the photographer as well as the volunteers were hiding in the tents at the start / finish area hence my idiotic smile and fast finish went nearly unnoticed. I finished Lejonbragden as low-profile as I had started the race 4 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds earlier. 10th overall, 9th male, 4th in category.
I could have run quite a few more kilometers. I could have run for a longer time. But, I could not have run the race any faster. A good ultra-run debut.
In 2012, when watching runners pass the bus-stop, I concluded that there was something odd about them and the race. Now three years later, I still think that there is something odd about ultra-running races and about people who run them. But, now being part of this oddness actually feels good.