“Fuck this. I’m never doing this again. No more running.”
That’s all I could say to myself as I started another 200-meter climb with about six kilometers to go in the race. My legs wouldn’t let me run up anything resembling even the slightest ascent. They were shot from the previous 800 or so meters of climbing.
I was out of water to boot, having felt a false sense of relief after taking a drink at the last aid station. My throat was so dry, I couldn’t swallow a tiny bite of my Clif Bar without nearly activating my gag reflex. All I wanted in the world was to cross the damn finish line and be done with this mistake.
That said, I’d happily sign up again.
Rund um die Burg Are
I’d been in Altenahr earlier in the summer, falling hopelessly in love with this lesser-traveled region (compared with the nearby Rhine and Mosel River towns) and its fairytale landscape. It was like running around a pop-up book with quiet, quaint villages nestled into sharp valleys covered in a mixture of forest, wineries, and rock. My wife and I marveled over how we’d never heard of this region before, only stumbling across it myself in search of a hike.
An opportunity to return presented itself in the form of the Panoramalauf Rund um die Burg Are, a trail race up and down (over and over again) those aforementioned hillsides. Runners could pick their poison—16, 33 or 52 kilometers with approximately 500, 1,000 or 1,500 meters of climbing, respectively.
Running around the Ahrsteig and Rotweinwanderweg (Red wine hiking trail) back in June endeared me to the sport of trail running—coupled with films like Made To Be Broken and books like Born To Run and North. I had three half-marathons under my belt this running season (Düsseldorf, Gelsenkirchen, and Leverkusen, if you’re counting) and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to get over that 21-kilometer hump. After each race, I couldn’t imagine running more nor did I particularly want to. But given my long-standing love for trails, a passion living in Germany has only turned into a borderline obsession, I figured a trail race could distract me from that imaginary roadblock. Perhaps I wouldn’t notice that I ran more than a half-marathon if I was in the hills, surrounded by gorgeous scenery.
Race day started with a kilometer walk up to Martinshütte from Altenahr. Organizers had long been set up, handing out race numbers as runners continued to trickle in—including more than a handful of folks signing up last-minute. I imagined they were waiting to see what the weather would do before committing to a morning and early afternoon of punishment.
So what did the weather have in store? Sun and heat. I felt fine standing on the dirt path leading to the starting line and was even comfortable making my first ascent 1.5 kilometers into the race. But the sun was relentless and even suffocating in its omnipresence. There wasn’t a damn cloud in the sky. Relief only came in sections that took us through the woods. Fortunately, I had brought my own running backpack with a bladder—and I would need every last drop of that water to get through this thing.
I felt good for, let’s say, the first half of the race. Confident, even. I remember thinking, “I haven’t really seen too many people ahead of me. Am I doing… well?”
This is a mistake I make far too often in running. I equate my line of sight with how the race is playing out, having to force myself to reckon with the fact that whoever’s winning is likely long gone by now.
I was able to mostly talk myself into accepting that I wouldn’t win my first significant trail race and simply enjoy the ebb and flow of the trail, surrounded by gorgeous scenery—proving that the last visit was no anomaly. Ahrtal truly is one of the most stunning corners of Central Europe that seems to be relatively unnoticed by international travelers.
I passed 21 kilometers feeling decent. Not great, but not hurting. But I was looking at my watch too much, subconsciously begging the tenths of kilometers to tick away more quickly. Reaching 23 kilometers was something of a milestone for me because it was the furthest I ran in training. But in flat Düsseldorf, it was nothing compared to this.
Still, I didn’t feel as great as I would’ve hoped with only 10 kilometers to go. And it was right around this point that I started the sharpest ascent in the race. This thing stopped everyone in their tracks, huffing and puffing for nearly three kilometers before reaching the highest point in the race. I’d say my legs were jelly, but jelly would’ve been more useful than whatever was happening below my waist.
This is about when some doubts started to form. “What if I just can’t physically do it?” I can generally will myself to finish things, but if my quadriceps and glutes can’t muscle me up an ascent, then what do I do? Camp out and wait for a second wind?
I kept imagining myself crossing the finish line, telling myself that it was an absolute certainty. Besides, I ultimately had little distance remaining. I could get over the heat, suck down that last bit of water, and get myself across the finish line and dive into that post-race runner’s glow that would reaffirm that this was all worth it.
The Last Ascent
At 28 kilometers, I felt I was in my sweet spot. “Just five kilometers to go,” I thought. “That’s an easy lunch run.”
Imagining my lunch run has worked before, particularly in finishing the Gelsenkirchen Half Marathon. It was similarily hot and the heat had gotten to me. I could picture myself running along the harbor, then the Rhine, turning around in the Altstadt, and heading back to work. That’s about 25 minutes or so if I’m taking it easy. Piece of cake.
The problem with comparing my 5K lunch run with this course should’ve been obvious. Düsseldorf is flat. A PR runner’s dream come true. A 5K looks considerably different when you have to start with a 1.5-kilometer climb, covering almost 200 meters along the way.
It was demoralizing. But I should’ve seen it coming. One of the older runners, a local I assumed, warned at the last aid station that it just keeps getting “steiler und steiler” or “steeper and steeper.”
All I could do was keep my legs moving—hiking—taking deep breaths in through my nose and cursing with each exhale. That’s when I swore to myself I wouldn’t do this again. I couldn’t imagine signing up for another race. Why would I?
“This is awful!” I thought. “MY LEGS ARE AT THE BRINK OF NOT WORKING.”
“Willkommen ins Ziel”
Stopping at this point, with just a few kilometers to go, wasn’t an option. I’m being almost literal here because the quickest way to sweet relief was to just get to the finish line back at Martinshütte. I don’t think they do airlifts or search and rescues because “my legs are tired!”
At some point, it happened. The ascent changed to a descent and my feet started trotting again. I even occasionally managed a reasonable pace for my speed, something more reminiscent of when I’m running comfortably and not with my legs screaming at me.
Then, I could hear the announcer on the loudspeaker calling runners in and the bells ringing out. There was tape, guiding the end of the course. Sweet Christ! Melanie and Moses were there! It meant I’d be crossing that God-forsaken finish line any minute now.
And with one last loop around Martinshütte, just as the race started, I crossed the faint strike of white chalk on the ground and my feet can to an abrupt stop.
“Willkommen ins Ziel!” said the announcer. “Welcome to the finish!”
03:54:59. Good enough for 34th out of 109.
“Bat Out Of Hell”
I quickly found my way over to a shaded spot by a tree to sit down while Melanie handed me water. The earlier dramatics playing out in my head, imagining a scenario in which I’d quit, seemed like a joke. But it was no joke that this was the most challenging thing I had ever done to my body, certainly worse than my previous best (worst?)—the 245-kilometer Ronde van Vlaanderen bike granfondo.
It didn’t take too long for my body to recalibrate into some sense of normalcy, craving a tall Hefeweizen and bratwurst to flush out the pain. After indulging myself, topped off with a slice of apple cake, I laid back on the cool grass and let the festival music sweep over me: Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell.”
That’s going on my playlist for the next race.