It remains a weird ambition to want to be one of the best in the world, but with the ambition to qualify for the elite 100km World Championships I traveled to Croatia. With several national champions and national ultramarathon record holders at the start I knew it would be unlikely that I’d win or make it to the podium, but a top 5 would be really great. The day before the race the usual nerves started. It is such a weird phenomenon, it’s in the end only running. Even my average working day lasts longer and with war back in Europe it does not even really matter, it will not make an impact on anything. Still the nerves were very real. Fast forward to the race start. As I lined up I had my watch on race mode (only shows pace and heart rate). Minutes before the start it indicated a heart rate of 120 bpm, I guess the adrenalin was surging, as was I after the starting gun went off. Although I ran with the handbrake applied, I still found myself leading the race in the first couple of hundred meters, I checked my pace: 3:30 min/km. Oops… that’s World Record pace. After I had held back, I ended up in the leading group. ‘Nice,’ I thought, good to have some company, but nobody felt like talking. When there was no response to a joke about not running too fast past the speed cameras, I also had enough and positioned myself behind the biggest man of the bunch, thinking: ‘All aboard the 4:00 (min/km) train! Chooo choooo!’ After the first of 20 five-kilometers laps I briefly had to stop to get a bunch of gels from my storage box which was at the neutral feedzone. I lost ten seconds, but I thought it was not a big deal, until I discovered the wind had picked up and that leading group was actually quite a good hiding place from the wind. Fortunately the group had strung out a bit at the turning point and I was able to rejoin quickly. Again: ‘Choo chooo!’. After an hour in the train, the locomotive was still accelerating through the feeding zone, I did not want to keep doing that so I decided to let the lead guys go, after all we still had two marathons to go.Even though I was dropped, I continued to run at my own pace, only a couple of seconds slower than the 4:00-train. I had my nutrition dialed, heart rate where I wanted it and the legs felt super. The first marathon was completed in 2 hours 50. Although that was absolutely not a goal, a ‘sub-3′ is always nice and especially good for morale. I would need that morale later that day, because after 50 kilometers the pace slowly started to fade and the wind and cold also started to have their effect. I never really suffer from the cold, but I was not as resistant to both snow ánd wind. Although I never really felt cold, the legs started to moan more and more. Or actually, they really hurt. Although I did think about the pain, I also thought about Sebastian Keinle’s phrase: ‘If it’s hurting me, it’s killing them’, which was showing in the field. Everyone was isolated, no more 4:00-train, no more choo-choo, instead there was ouch-ouch all around: the actual race had started. After I had been running in fourth place for quite some time, I noticed one of the guys who couldn’t laugh at my jokes in the morning. Not only had he been dropped by the leaders, I was also slowly getting closer. He still didn’t talk, but after I overtook him for the second time within five minutes after I had to do a sanitary stop, he unfortunately had to stop fighting. However it’s sad someone has to stop, it’s still a race and running for podium gave me a new shot of much needed ‘Grinta’ and it really shows what happens to people that don’t laugh at my jokes 😉
As the kilometers racked up and the finish approached, the Croats themselves became more and more enthusiastic. The encouragement from the injured Croatian 100k record holder Dejan Radanac was especially motivating for me. Despite his injury he had come to the race with a group of friends and barbecued and partied along the course all day. Each time I passed him he encouraged me and told me which position I was running in. After I moved up from fourth to third place I kept thinking that now only two more of the top three had to call it quits, I only had to make sure it wasn’t me. Although I thought it would be unlikely that anyone else would give up, it turned out that running a 100k should never be underestimated, even, or especially, if you’ve already finished a couple. All of a sudden I found myself in second position. At first I couldn’t believe it, but after a while I confirmed that the locomotive of the 4:00-train was also out of the race, I guess the ‘Choo-chooo’ had turned into a ‘Bhoo-hooo’. It was again sad someone had to quit, but it’s still a race and part of the race is that you actually finish the distance. Eighty kilometers in my legs really started to hurt and to make matters worse I was also overtaken by Jadrijev Zdravko (Croatian 12-hour running record holder). In the meantime I had switched to cola as my energy source which meant I had to stop at every aid station. It was hard to start running after every stop, I kept thinking about music with which the running cadence would come to about 180 bpm. I focussed strongly on rhythm and especially to keep running. I found it not as bad to lose some of my pace, but if you walk you lose. After a couple of hard final kilometers I made my 100k road running debut in a time of 7:38:16 in third place. I still find it hard to realise what it means, but I know I am very proud of what I achieved. Where I had started the day with a ‘Choo-chooo’ I could finish it with a big ‘Whoo-hooo’!