It’s dark, it’s cold, I’m tired, I got lost, my mind stopped working, but somehow I’m having fun. This Auge um Auge trail run isn’t only my longest race ever, it’s also one of my biggest challenges ever.
Everything is weird about this race: the time of the start – midnight – having only two refreshment posts on 73 kilometres, the small field of 35 runners only, and the trail that is untraceable at times.
We’re running next to the Rhine, I think, as I can’t see it. I can’t see anything, except the little circle of light in front of my feet, that’s made by my head torch. If it makes the ground, that is, because some parts in the forest are so misty, that the light reflects and I don’t see anything for a moment, but a yellow cloud.
But yeah, the Rhine. I hear water, so it must be it. We’re following a part of the Rheinsteig, the 320 kilometres long hiking route from Bonn to Wiesbaden. It’s famous for its single tracks, steep climbs, wide views, vineyards and endless forests. The hills I can feel, the vineyards and views have to wait till I’m on the way back. For now I’m just trying to stick to the path.
That’s hard enough. The Auge um Auge race doesn’t use its own signage. We’re following the signs of the Rheinsteig and some have faded, others are around the corner. Not a problem in the light, but in the dark, when you have to choose between two or three different paths, it does become a problem.
I do have the trail on my Garmin, but if there is a y-junction Garmin won’t tell me which one to take. Plus, if Garmin tells me to take a right and there is a right in front of me and a right, just behind a few trees, I take the one I see. Not the one I have to take; the one hidden in the dark.
It does mean, we take the wrong turn a few times. We are Helke Seitz and I. We’re running at more or less the same speed and decide to join forces. She is bad at eating during a race, she confesses, so I keep the time field open on my watch and make sure we eat at the right moment, she keeps the navigation open on her watch so we know where to go.
Well, that is the idea, because even with navigation we’re messing up, but we’re in luck. Tobias Rinke is running behind us and he knows every turn, as this is his home trail. Together we carry on. For how long is the question. Our local guide sprained his ankle only a couple of weeks ago and doubts if he’s going to run the whole Auge um Auge.
At the end he steps out the second time he passes the refreshment post. It means Helke has to carry on, on her own, as I’ve left the two behind a couple of hours earlier. Shortly as we’ve passed the first refreshment post, I notice I climb easier than Tobias and Helke. A couple of times I wait for them at the top of the climb, but when I see two guys further in front of us, running a bit faster, I decide to close the gap and join them.
I’m lucky. Colin Keuker-Sample is a local as well. Just like Tobias he runs this trail often and can easily find his way in the dark. He’s strong, especially on the downhills, and every time we hit one, the gap between him and Christoph Kling and me becomes bigger. I see myself as a pretty good downhiller, but in the dark it’s another story. Luckily, every downhill is followed by a climb and I can make up for my loss.
Together we run to Auge Gottes, the Eye of God, the little temple this Auge um Auge run is named after and it is our turning point for the day. That’s another weird thing about this race. We run one way, turn around and run back. There is no checkpoint to see if we actually reach the halfway point. Just God’s eye watching over us, plus the photo we have to take as proof.
It’s photo number 3 I take, of the 5 mandatory photos on this run. The first is of a gate, the second of a little mountain hut. The third is this temple and number 4 and 5 are the same mountain hut and gate, but now on the way back. They are proof that we don’t take shortcuts, but climb the mountains we have to climb.
On schedule, not on schedule
It takes us precisely 6 hours to make it to the halfway point. It means I am and I am not on schedule. I am, because I am hoping to run this race in 12 hours maximum, which means I would be faster than at the 68 kilometres Trail des Fantomes. I am not, because I was hoping to run the first half 20 minutes faster than the second half. But staying with Tobias and Helke in the beginning became more important, as I was getting lost without them.
Plus, I didn’t take the refreshment posts into account. Normally I am in and out, but Helke needed a bit more time for a pitstop and to fill up her camel back. That’s more time consuming than the soft flasks I’m running with. On top of that; the race isn’t the 72 kilometres the gpx file said; it’s 73.7.
It makes the way back a bigger mission, then I hoped, but at least now daylight isn’t far away anymore. For the first hour the pattern stays the same. Colin leads on the downhills and the flats, with Christoph on his heels, I hike up front on the climbs. But after an hour Christophs starts to fall behind. On the way to the Auge Gottes he already felt sleepy. Like me, he has been awake for almost 24 hours by now, of which the last 7 he has been running in the cold.
With every kilometre we run, I start to long more for the refreshment post. My stomach has been playing up for a couple of hours, because of the cold, and all the sugary bars and gels I have been eating. But no matter how many times Colin says we’re almost there, or how many corners we turn, I don’t see the post.
Emptying my bowels
When Colin and I start on another long downhill, I give up and find a small path into the bushes to empty my bowels. Lighter and without cramp I follow the descent in the hope to catch up with Colin. When the road bends again, I don’t see him, but I do see what I longed for only seconds ago; the refreshment post. Less needed now, but still a pleasure.
When I get in, I get offered the choice between pea soup and potato soup. I politely decline both. When I get offered a white beer I pass as well. I think neither my stomach, nor my legs are up to that. The mint tea, that’s on offer as well, tastes heavenly. Finally something fresh and something I can swallow another Clif bar away with.
I started out, eating perfectly according to schedule, but the last 3 hours eating has been a mess. No saliva to swallow and too much gas in my intestines, of all the sweets. Luckily the tea does wonders.
Getting lost, again
For the first time in my young ultra running career I take my time at a refreshment post. It feels good to sit for a moment, have a hot tea and just look around. It’s 23 kilometres from here to the finish. I have six hours before the cut-off. I should be fine.
When I finish my tea, I put on my running vest again, grab my poles and head out of the door, before Colin. It’s light and I am confident I can find the way back on my own. It works for about an hour. Then I am on a hard climb I don’t recognize from the way over. My Garmin tells me I am running a couple of metres too far to the right. When I look beneath me, I see Colin passing by.
Luckily there is a little path back to the main trail and I can join Colin again. We leapfrog as before. Colin leading downhill, me leading uphill. But this time there is more down than up and slowly I’m losing Colin out of sight. Especially because by now my quads are trashed, just like my shoulders and feet.
But pain or not, somehow I still feel strong. Around six in the morning I had a dip and longed for bed. An hour later it was gone. At this moment I’m in pain, but still feel good and to my surprise I am able to run on the flats and on the downhills. Slowly, but I’m running.
Or slowly, I am gaining time on my schedule. At 55 kilometres – just after the refreshment post, I was almost 17 minutes behind schedule. At 60 kilometres the gap was still 14 minutes, but now at 65 kilometres the gap is only 5 minutes. On top of that, I’m eating again. Maurten gels, as that’s the only thing I am able to swallow, but at least I’m eating.
More and more walkers are heading in my direction, a sign that Bonn can’t be far anymore. The kilometres go by slowly by now, but not as slow as I expected them to go by at this point of the race. This is my longest ultra to date, but also the one I feel strongest in the final kilometres. Yes, I have been in my pain cave, but only for about 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes in which I didn’t give a shit about this race, nor qualifying for the UTMB, but listening to a podcast got me out of it. I’ve done 60 kilometres without my earphones, but as soon as my mind became black, I put them in.
I’m happy my mind was clear enough to think about that. It wasn’t working a couple of hours earlier. I left the refreshment post six hours before cut-off time. That’s more than enough for the 23 kilometres I had to run. Yet, after a kilometre or 2 I started to become really nervous and afraid I wouldn’t make it. I just couldn’t do the maths that I only had to run 4 kilometres an hour to finish on time.
Now all is good. I just passed kilometre 72 in 11 hours, 56 minutes and 50 seconds. That’s faster than the 12 hours I had in mind. Okay, I am not at the finish yet. The race is actually a bit longer, but I’m in good company again. Henrik Muhle, started on the Kleiner Kobolt, the 100 kilometres race, and is making his way to the finish as well. As running is hard for him at this point of the race, we decide to walk together. Having a little chat always makes the kilometres go by faster.
The last 500 metres, with the Rhein as our companion, we decide to run to have a glorious finish. Well, glorious for us, because just as with the start, there are no spectators, there is no finish arc. Just the door of the sports hall, we left so many hours earlier. But after 73,7 kilometres and 2.800 metres of altitude and after 12 hours and 15 minutes of trail running, even the doorway of a sports hall feels like a glorious finish.