If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
This quote, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became my mantra yesterday as I navigated my way through Latvia’s beautiful Gauja National Park at the Cēsis ECO Trail 81K race. And though I could never fly, I ran as fast I could when I could and walked when I needed to. And, at times, I even crawled, just to keep moving forward to the finish line.
I’ve always believed that from every great run comes an equally great story. It became apparent within the first few miles of yesterday’s run that whatever happened, I’d finish (or not finish) the race and have a great story to tell and remember. And at the very least, if the words should fail me, I’d have some photos to capture the experience.
It had been nearly two years since I last ran an ultramarathon. I chose this one as a goal to work toward over the spring and summer, knowing it would also give me a unique chance to explore a bit of the Latvian wilderness on foot. As a race that is run in the spirit of having as minimal an impact on the environment as possible, with only five aid stations, no crew, and no real chance of seeing any spectators, the ECO Trail run proved to be an extraordinary adventure.
The Day Before
The town of Cēsis (population about 18,000), about 50 miles northeast of Riga, sits in the Gauja River valley within Latvia’s Gauja National Park. This year marks Cēsis’ 810th anniversary of existence, which was reflected in the unusual 81km (50.3 miles) race distance. M. and I arrived in town on Friday afternoon. Frieda was along, too, of course, and we took her for a walk in the evening to have a look around after checking into the quaint Kolonna Hotel Cēsis. We soon discovered that Cēsis is a lovely place.
After our short walking tour of Cēsis (I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on my feet before the race), we picked up my race packet, which included two bib numbers (one for the front and one for the back), a timing chip, and a small map of the route.
The start/finish area was decorated with flags representing all of the race participants’ nationalities. As the lone American in the race, I was excited and proud to see the U.S. flag hanging as well.
Before having a meal that we had brought with us from home (I prefer to eat familiar, homemade food the night before a race), we sat on the terrace of our hotel to enjoy the view of the park.
The Cēsis ECO Trail run prides itself on its self-sufficiency principles, outlined in detail with race regulations, which, if not adhered to, would result in a time penalty or disqualification. Among the rules were the prohibition of any outside help, meaning that runners were not allowed to have a race crew or receive anything in the way of assistance (such as food, drink, clothing, or other supplies) from anyone not associated with the race. Runners were also required to carry specific items at all times, including at least 0.75 liters of fluid, bandages, a charged cell phone, and a survival blanket.
I had spent the previous weeks and months training with my newly purchased Nathan VaporAiress race pack and everything I would need to carry for the run. Several days before the race, I had everything organized down to a final list: the required survival blanket, cell phone, and fluid pack, as well as a change of socks, foot/first aid kit, knee strap, headband, extra sunscreen, sunglasses, wet wipes, toilet paper, a plastic bag to carry out used toilet paper, salt tablets, ibuprofin, and food. With only five aid stations over the course of 81K, and limited vegan options beyond fresh and dried fruits, I wanted to make sure I brought along enough food that I knew would agree with my stomach. So, I packed two homemade veggie burgers, two Clif bars, and four chocolate GU packets. In total, my full pack weighed about seven pounds. Heavy, but still manageable, I thought.
Once I had everything packed, I went to bed to try to get as much rest as possible before my alarm would sound at 4:00 am, giving me an hour to wake up and prepare for the 5:00 am race start.
I never sleep well the night before a big race, and this time was no exception. I woke up promptly at 4:00, first with excitement for the day ahead of me, and then with a feeling of dread as I heard rain pouring outside. That’s never a sound one wants to hear when there are 50 miles of trail running in the near future. I hoped that the rain would stop before the race began, knowing also that at the very least, there would be wet, muddy trails to navigate.
I quickly showered (an old race-day ritual dating back to high school) and ate a banana and a Clif bar while M. went outside to assess the rain situation. He said it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded, and realized later that from our room we had been hearing both the rain and the fountain in the park. Thank goodness.
Promptly at 4:45, we left the hotel and walked the 50 meters to the start area. The rain had stopped, leaving a lot of huge puddles behind. We were allowed to drop off one bottle of fluid for pick-up at the 43rd km aid station. I deposited a bottle of Gatorade Endurance into the drop box and started to get ready to run. M. took a pre-race photo of me under the flags, and we spotted our friend J., who was also running. It was his first ultramarathon. I was excited to see a familiar face among the runners, and hoped we would have a chance to run some miles together throughout the day.
The race field was one of the smallest I had ever seen, with only about 120 participants, most of them Latvian, and far more men than women. The mood was jovial, and everyone seemed excited to get going. With only about 25 minutes till sunrise, the sky was already light enough that a headlamp was not necessary. One less thing to carry.
At exactly 5:00, we were off! I started about two-thirds of the way back, not wanting to start too quickly, and not knowing how soon the trail might become narrow. I had learned from my last ultra that a single-track trail can be either annoying or stressful, depending on who is ahead of you or behind you. Plus, with more than 50 miles ahead of me, I was in absolutely no hurry.
Within a few minutes of starting, I settled into a very comfortable pace. I found J. again, and we ran together for a bit as the sun came up and the race field began to spread out. We made our way through town and out into the countryside on wide paths made of gravel and dirt. There were a few rolling hills, but nothing too difficult or scary. Yet.
Within a few miles, I found myself running alone for the most part. I had brought along my iPod, just in case I felt like hearing some music along the way, and decided to go ahead and turn it on with one earbud in my ear. There were a few people in the distance ahead of me and two people behind me, but no one immediately near. The trail was marked with red striped tape every few meters, and, less frequently, red arrows marking the turns. One of my biggest anxieties going into a race of this distance with such a small field was taking a wrong turn, or worse, getting lost. It didn’t take long before that happened.
There was some confusion at one of the turns, but thankfully, another runner who had run the race before called out to me from behind to get me back on track. Fortunately, my mistake only cost me a couple of minutes, a little bit of energy while I was still fresh, and taught me an important lesson in paying more careful attention to the trail markers.
Heading into the forest, the trail got progressively more narrow, hilly, and muddy. My goal starting out had been to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. I knew that getting them wet was inevitable after so much rain, but the later that happened, the better.
As we began our first major ascent, we were met with greater challenges. With limited trail running experience, I am not a confident trail runner, especially when steep descents, water crossings, and rocky terrain are involved. After this race, I will add copious amounts of thick, sludgy mud to that list. I reached my first swamp crossing, and failed miserably at trying to cross it on the flimsy, slippery logs that stretched across it. As soon as I felt my legs plunging into the slimy muck, a fellow runner appeared, seemingly out of nowhere (but obviously he had been behind me), and caught me. He kindly offered his arm and helped pull me out and onto dry (a relative term) land. I was about seven miles into the run and my period of dry feet had officially ended.
I emerged from the swamp and looked ahead at the muddy climb in front of me, moving forward as well as I could and often using my hands for extra support. I was on a switchback that seemed to have been washed away a bit by the rain. When I finally reached the top, I looked down to see tree tops and a mass of green, algae-covered water.
As we all know, what goes up must come down, and so began the unrelenting challenge that would become the remainder of the race. The trail was more or less single track at this point, but still runnable for the most part. I just had to remember to take the descents carefully, as those tend to be hard on my weak left knee.
Approximately two hours into the race, I reached the first aid station. I took a few sips of RC Cola (remember that?) and a handful of potato chips as I marveled at the view of the Gauja River below me. Shortly after I arrived, J. pulled in. He, too, was having a great run so far.
A series of steep staircases built into the cliff took us onward from the aid station. Down, up, down, up…. J. was behind me and I could tell that I was slowing him down, so I moved aside to let him pass. I wouldn’t see him again until mile 20.
Before long, I found myself running alone again. I didn’t see anyone ahead of me or behind me for at least an hour. It was a bit frightening to think that I had to rely on myself to make sure I was going the right away. The terrain varied a bit between gravel paths, muddy trails, and brush. I had to concentrate on my footing and on keeping track of the red striped trail markers. I was grateful for my iPod, until suddenly, the music stopped. I immediately remembered- and regretted- that I had forgotten to charge it fully the night before. It would just be my thoughts and me for a while.
Eventually, I caught up with the runner in front of me- a young Latvian man who was very friendly and spoke fluent English. We chatted for a bit until it became clear to me that he was a stronger uphill runner than I was, so I let him go and wished him well. I continued on, and as the distance between us increased, my thoughts wandered to having some more RC Cola at the next aid station.
My pace had slowed quite a bit, between periods of power hiking steep hills, trudging through shin-deep mud that threatened to steal my shoes right off my feet if I didn’t move quickly enough, and negotiating rocks and fallen trees on the trail. Much of the time, I stopped completely to make important decisions about the best place to plant my feet to avoid falling. I pulled into the second aid station – mile 20 (32 km) – at just under the four-hour mark. To my surprise, J. was there! I was so happy to see him. He was doing well, but, like me, starting to feel the difficulty of the trail.
J. and I decided to continue together and spent the next 25 miles running together and leap frogging. We took turns leading, let each other go ahead when we needed to, and caught up with each other eventually. It was really nice to have the company of a friend along the way. Not to mention that J. helped me out of some (literally) sticky situations.
If you’ve ever run in pouring rain or through puddles or any kind of water, then you know the feeling of waterlogged socks and shoes. It’s not pleasant, and leads to raisin skin very quickly. With two more stream crossings and a muddy cliff that I simply could not get a grip on (J. had to pull me up because I kept sliding down the mud), my feet remained soaked for quite a while. I tried my best to ignore the feeling and sloshed onward into the Amata River flats, trying to focus on the scenery around me as the water slowly but surely eased out of my shoes. My feet were never dry, but they still felt relatively okay.
J. and I got separated again for a while, each running our own race. I knew we’d see each other again before long. Once we did, we stayed together until we reached the third aid station at 43 km. We were officially more than halfway through the race! Our stop there was a bit longer, as we took the time to eat properly and refill our hydration packs (I picked up the bottle of Gatorade I had dropped off at the start). I also checked my feet and changed socks. My feet were wrinkled and had a couple of hot spots, but otherwise, they were in good shape. Oh, the feeling of clean, dry socks! It only lasted for about twelve minutes, until the next swampy patch, but they were twelve heavenly minutes.
After many wishes of good luck from the fabulous aid station volunteers and fellow runners, we continued our journey together, excited that we could now count down the kilometers. The terrain continued to challenge us in new ways, slowing our pace even more, especially after fatigue began to set in. We had already begun to do the mental math of if we go X pace, we can still make the 14-hour cut-off time.
To give some perspective, my last 50-mile race took me 10:45:04; an average pace of 12:56 per mile. It may sound slow, but that pace accounts for hilly and technical terrain, aid station stops, and restroom stops. Yesterday, we were happy to cover some of our miles in 20 minutes because the course was so challenging. The 14-hour time limit that had previously seemed easily attainable was suddenly stressful to both of us. Assuming the course would continue in its difficulty, we knew we could waste very little time if we wanted to finish.
As we continued leap-frogging, with periods of running together and chit chat, I stopped a couple of times to take some photos here and there. I figured that if the race required me to have my phone, I might as well take some photos of the course.
As the miles increased, I started to feel tired. I wanted to tune out and just run, but the trail was too tricky and I was too inexperienced to plow through it with confidence. For long stretches, it was so overgrown that I could not see where I was putting my feet. And for this reason, after taking my eyes off the ground for one second to look at the sky, I fell. Hard. On my face.
I lay on the ground for a few seconds, telling myself that I was okay, it could have been much worse, that I could have hit the rock next to the spot where my head hit, but I didn’t. I was more stunned than anything. J. was not nearby, nor were any other runners. I picked myself up off the ground and walked it out for a bit before I started my shuffle again, promising myself I would make a better effort to pick up my feet.
Each time I found a rhythm in my stride, there was an interruption of some kind: a stream to cross, mud to trudge (slide) through, or stairs, built into the sides of the cliffs, to climb or descend. So. many. stairs.
The greatest of all interruptions occurred when I was preparing myself for another stair climb and I suddenly saw a huge creature – grey, with a long tail – crash through the forest, away from me. Scared out of my wits, I stood there, frozen, not sure what to do. The creature looked like a raccoon, but was much too large. I had seen bears before while hiking, but the tail on this animal seemed too long for a bear. It all happened so fast that I didn’t get a good look at the animal, and there were no people around. I concluded that it must have been a bear (what else could it be?) and tried to imagine all of the things I would or wouldn’t do if I saw it again (Play dead? Offer it a Clif bar?). Otherwise, I really was in the Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride, complete with quicksand-like mud and R.O.U.S.s.
Terrified, I continued on, up and down and up more stairs, and slipping around in what seemed like the mother of all mudslides. (I definitely need to invest in some proper trail shoes.)
After my final descent, I approached the 55 km aid station, where a jolly man greeted me as the American. He informed me that I was in 108th place overall, and 26th for the women. I knew this meant I was at the back of the pack, but I didn’t care. At this point, I could say for sure that this was the hardest race I had ever run, and I just wanted to finish. I smiled and told him, Yes, but I am in first place for the Americans! He laughed.
I had some snacks while I waited for J. to catch up. He came through a few minutes later and we exchanged stories about the creature. He, too, had seen it, had come face-to-face with it in fact, and believed it to be a wolf or some sort of huge sheep dog. The folks at the aid station thought that the kilometers had caught up with us and were messing with our imaginations. They teased us about it.
Onward we went, shuffling together, stopping when we needed to, taking turns leading and following. We ran through more forest, up and down more hills, and through a huge open field, where a kind resident had left out a home-built aid station featuring fresh cucumbers and red currants. J. and I were both touched by the thoughtfulness.
The course became gentler in parts and allowed us to jog more than shuffle and make up some time. The sky became dark but it never rained. We enjoyed the scenery, taking it all in.
With fewer than ten miles to go and nearly four hours left on the time limit (my Garmin battery had died hours before, but we kept track of our distance on J.’s phone), we reveled in knowing that we were near the end and that something really awful and dramatic would have to happen to prevent us from finishing on time. J. knew that the ski slopes were still ahead of us, but I didn’t. Ski slopes, I thought? In Latvia, a country with no hills? How bad can it be?
Let me tell you. After 42 miles of running, it be bad.
I milled around the last aid station, trying to force down some bites of Clif bar and sips of RC Cola. I wasn’t hungry but I knew I needed some fuel for the final miles. J. soon came climbing up the hill, and we high-fived each other at the thought of having only 10K to go. Only 10K! He decided to hang out for a bit at the aid station and we agreed to meet each other at the finish line. I was ready to get this thing done.
There were a few more steep descents and climbs, and then the course finally, finally petered out a bit. My legs were completely shot. I don’t even want to know how I looked, shuffling along at a snail’s pace. I just kept Dr. King’s words in my mind and put one foot in front of the other.
I reached Cēsis at just around 6:00 pm. I had been on the course for thirteen hours. An older gentleman who had been running behind me caught up and encouraged me to the finish. I followed him in, up another set of stairs (more stairs), and stopped to take one last photo on the way.
Seeing my sweet M. and Frieda was the best part of the day, after all of those miles. M. caught this photo of me bringing it home through medieval Cēsis.
It wasn’t long before J. came through the finish as well. Impressively, he picked up his three-year-old daughter who was there to greet him and carried her through the finish line.
Thirteen hours, eight minutes, and 41 seconds. There were some nine-minute miles and some 29-minute miles. There were 50 miles, and I got through every single one of them, running, walking, and crawling… moving forward.
Thank you for reading!