I set off for Turkey and the Lycian Way Ultra Marathon with a sense of excitement but no trepidation whatsoever. After all, I had run 250km a week every day for months and months so how hard could it be? I had run in the heat of the Kalahari, carried a heavy pack for days, experienced the humidity of the Wild Coast in February, the climbs of the Amatola, Addo and Rhodes, the technical challenges of the Baviaanskloof, so at the very most I was going to feel pleasantly fatigued against an exotic backdrop of pomegranate and fig trees, a shimmering Mediterranean, ancient ruins and broodingly attractive Turks. Having a marked tendency for casually underestimating everything I have ever taken on, I should have possibly been a little less complacent…..
We set up camp on the evening before the start near the ancient village of Kayakoy in goats hair tents with woven floor mats and settled down cross legged on cushions to a dinner of lamb, rice, peppers and pita and minted yogurt with the plaintive sounds of the call to prayer emanating from the local Mosque. Getting to meet all the runners was very exciting, and although the majority of them were Turkish, there was a smattering of international runners from Denmark, Germany, USA, New Zealand and of course myself and Mark Adams from South Africa. It was particularly thrilling to meet Barefoot Ted Macdonald of Born to Run fame (running in his Lunar Sandals) and Andrew Hedgman from New Zealand who has recently run the length of New Zealand and from Brisbane to Sydney and is something of a celebrity in Ozzie and NZ circles. Ted had declined to run the Ultra and was instead running the 6 G (12-20km per day, no pack, no time limit and fully catered). His reasons for doing so were perfectly summed up as follows: “Dude, do you think I’m gonna come to Turkey to suffer, miss out on great swims and eat freeze dried sh***t? Its like having some beautiful woman inviting you over and you having to say no, no, no. You’ve got to be nuts to do that!” Retrospectively there could hardly be a better analogy!
We were up way before the crack of dawn with the first roosters (something of a feature in rural Turkey) having a hurried breakfast and organizing and reorganizing our packs before we set off along a contour jeep track into the majesty of an exquisite sunrise over the Mediterranean. Only 35km on day 1 – bound to be a walk in the park! Less than an hour into the race I realized I was in for a tough time. A very tough time! It was not yet 7am and the sweat was streaming from every pore and I was panting for breath as the humidity was already unbearable. There is no breeze and the warm ocean has no moderating effect whosoever. The jeep track was short lived and within no time we were battling a vertical climb on a footpath littered with sharp and shifting shale and dodging the cruel thorns and razor sharp rocks. For the rest of the day we were either climbing straight up or down trying not to lose our footing on shale and gravel and the km’s were very slow to clock up. The slowness was exacerbated by wandering off the course once or twice because taking my eyes off the path and focussing on the GPS would have spelled certain death! It got hotter and hotter and I soon realized that carrying 2 litres of water between check points was WAY too little and I was rationing my water with 4km to go to the checkpoint and beginning to battle the nausea which became a constant feature of the race. I was saved to some extent on day 1 by the fact that I had started very conservatively and because I was utterly charmed by the amazingly beautiful views and quaint peasant type villages. With 10 km to go I started catching up with runners who had completely run out of water and were showing all the classic signs of dehydration. We are not meant to help each other so as not to give an unfair advantage and most of them stoically refused to accept water from me (I had learned my lesson and took on 4 litres at the next checkpoint). After total climbs of more than 2000m, I dragged myself into camp on day 1, exhausted and chastened by my complacency and collapsed in the communal goat hair tent to commiserate with the other runners, all of whom had taken strain. A couple of hours passed before I had the energy to start the daily chores of washing socks and running kit, preparing dinner, patching up injuries, and reorganizing the pack for day 2…
A night on the stony ground surrounded by snoring tent mates is not ideal recovery time, but I felt surprisingly good as I rolled up my sleeping bag and managed to cram everything back into my10kg pack. I had made a conscious decision to take things easy on day 2 with an approximately 50km day looming. I set off at a gentle pace with Turkish Burke and the first few kms were surprisingly gentle and very beautiful in the soft light of dawn. My only concern was the 100’s of beehives in every valley and thick swarms of bees around every water source – I have an allergy to bees and knew I would be out of the race if I was stung – even with my medication at hand. We caught up with fellow South African, Mark Adams, who had gone out too hard the day before and was also taking things easy and the 3 of us stuck together for the rest of the day. The terrain was massively varied with brutal descents (one of the athletes had lost a finger after falling on this section the previous year) single track climbs, jeep tracks and beach running which provided a welcome break and the opportunity for a much needed swim. The surface of the path/track was the one constant – sharp and jagged shifting stone and rock. We made jokes about coming to Turkey to get stoned but I was starting to worry – my shoes were too lightweight for the conditions. I take remarkably good care of my feet and have never got a blister even in the most hectic conditions and now my feet were beginning to fall apart on day 2 despite all my efforts to keep them intact…having never run with blisters I had no idea if I could run through the pain for another 200km?
Race briefings took place every night in the communal tent (we were fortunate to have someone to translate) and we would only find out the day before how far we had to run the next day. We didn’t know what format the race would take, when the long day would be, if/when we would have a rest day etc. The uncertainly and speculation pushed us way out of our comfort zones and we had to try to relax into the race and take each day as it came. Day 3 was intended to be shorter and easier than the previous days as the temperature was predicted to soar. I set off with Mark feeling confidant that we would make it into camp by midday but instead this was to be the day that would push us right over the edge…The day is a blur of heat and pain and relentless climbs, we ran out of water repeatedly, suffered from intense checkpoint yearning, got lost, stumbled upon a putrid boar rotting in the heat, had to perform mobile surgery to our blistered feet, were savagely attacked by stones, rocks and thorny plants and crawled into camp after 11 hours just ahead of the cut off time. We were about to collapse in exhaustion and relief at the camp site, only to be told that the stage actually finished half way up a mountain in the ruins of an old castle/fort and with minutes to go to the cut off we hurtled up the mountain with the last ounce of energy in our weary limbs. I collapsed in a heap outside the ruins and shed a tear of pure relief, self pity and pain for the first time in my 22 years of running….How on earth were we going to get up and run again the next day?
Its a remarkable feature of multi day races that one is desperate for them to end until approximately day 4, and then a subtle shift takes place and from then on the runners are frantic to suspend the race and wish it will never end. I think it has a great deal to do with the camaraderie and the intensity of the “brothers in arms” type relationships that are formed and the bond that is established especially among the motley crew that becomes one’s “tent family”. The laughter and hilarity that grows out of communal suffering and shared freeze dried meals is very special and completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. A lot of my girl friends ask if its tough to integrate into a world (and tent) of male runners – this always surprises me as it simply doesn’t occur to me (or my tent mates for that matter) that I am any different from them. Endurance running is a surprisingly and pleasantly gender free environment, in my experience anyway…
A blessedly short though tough day followed, with a fairly long rest period before the 87km day night/stage. The rest period was used for the endless washing of socks, recovering, patching feet, and foraging for food. The race organizers took pity on us and agreed to give the ultra runners an enormous traditional Turkish pancake for brunch before the start of the long stage. Our pathetic gratitude was hilarious to observe but Mark and I are adamant that the pancake is the only thing that got us through that day! The long stage started at midday in blistering heat and we began by running directly up a mountain, things did improve after that, and although there was one horrendous climb up what appeared to be a dry waterfall, we at least caught a breeze and had a semi decent road surface for a good couple of km’s. As night began to fall and we approached the lights of a coastal town we were feeling mildly elated that the long stage was turning out better than we had hoped. Our elation was short lived. We descended a very steep and winding road into a town filled with the sounds and smells of a Friday night and were immediately astounded by the heat and humidity at the coast after running in the mountains for most of the day. Although it was by now pitch dark and our headlamps were showing the way, it was unbearably hot and we began to sweat in earnest. We were naively pleased that we would soon be back on the beach for a 25km stretch. Little did we know that the “beach” would turn out to be a steeply sloped quarry of stones, pebble and gravel that we would sink into up to our ankles and which would pulverize our already shattered feet and turn out to be the worst surface we had encountered yet. A compulsory stop was planned for the night phase because a particularly treacherous stretch of track would be impossible to navigate at night. We all hoped that we would reach the stop with enough time for a an hour or two of rest before we set off again at first light. Mark and I had hoped to make it to the checkpoint by just after midnight and by 2.30am with no sign of the checkpoint we began to despair of ever reaching it. We had already run 7km further than where we had expected the rest point and in our exhaustion we began to wander if we had taken a wrong turn ……. After an eternity of suffering we saw the dim light of the check point and I collapsed into a chair shivering with cold and exhaustion, desperate to inject methylate into my feet before I could rest. With the agonizing mission accomplished I went into the tent to find runners sprawled everywhere. The only place to lie down was on top of the running shoes scattered at the door – I wriggled my filthy body into my sleeping bag only to discover that it was soaking wet (my camelback bladder had leaked into it) and spent 2 miserable hours quivering with cold in the foetal position on top of 20 pairs of fetid running shoes having vivid dreams of being pushed in a wheelchair to International Departures in Istanbul. I was convinced that I would be unable to stand, let alone run when our alarms went off at 5am.
The body’s ability to recover itself is truly incredible – when 5.30 came we were all up and ready to head off again for the last 30km of the long day and even able to appreciate the stunning beauty of the terrain. Despite Mark literally falling asleep on his feet and me having developed blisters the size of fried eggs on the palms of my feet we took turns at being encouraging and grumpy and triumphantly made it to the end of the long stage in 21 hours, hours ahead of the cut off. Nothing was going to stop us now.
That night nobody was immune from the zombie-like gait of the walking wounded – the last 6 days had taken their toll on everyone. About a quarter of the ultra runners had pulled out by this stage due to injury or misery and a group of 24 would hopefully make it over the finish line the next day. We spent the evening gleefully consuming everything left in our packs and knowing that would be light on the last day. The organizers, sadistic to the end, didn’t let us off lightly and despite the euphoria of having made it to the last day, we struggled over the finish line greatly relieved that the next day would not involve running!
On reflection the Lycian Way Ultra is by far the toughest multi day self sufficiency race I have ever attempted. The ingredients that make it so difficult are a combination of the intense heat and humidity, the insane climbs and descents, the technicality of every inch of the course and the savage road surface every step of the way. Had I done my research better I could have greatly improved my comfort levels by having a less lightweight pair of running shoes, having twice as many electrolytes and training much much more on straight up and down type foot paths littered with razor blades. Having said all that, the race was incredibly beautiful and atmospheric and extremely well organized and my experience of Turkey and its people was truly magnificent. I would recommend that anyone really keen to test themselves should give it a try but would very much encourage less masochistic runners to experience the 6G which is a wonderful concept: Runners on the 6G race live with the Ultra runners in tents every night, but only carry water in their packs, they are fully catered for with excellent Turkish cuisine and run between 12 and 20km a day with no time limits. This enables them to swim in every bay, drink freshly squeezed pomegranate juice or Turkish coffee in every village, photograph every ruin and suck the marrow out of the Turkish experience without ever feeling the need to assault the long suffering race organizers. Have a look at www.likyayoluutramaratonu.com to book your spot for 2013!