“Za 3 tygodnie Dariusz Strychalski wyjedzie do Indii, by wziąć udział w jednym z najtrudniejszych na świecie biegów – La Ultra –The High.
La Ultra –The High
Trasa tego ultramaratonu wiedzie przez Himalaje. Darek do pokonania będzie miał dystans 222 km. Trasa prowadzić będzie przez dwie przełęcze, pierwsza Khardung La na wysokości 5399m npm, druga Wari La – 5317m npm. Temperatura może się wahać od -10 do +40 stopni. O poziomie tego wyzwania świadczy fakt, że w tym roku na trzech dystansach startuje tylko 14 biegaczy, w tym 3 kobiety.”
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When I received an invitation from the organizers of the first ultra in Podlasie, Ultra Śledź for 80 km, I said “I’d gladly run through the Knyszyn Primeval Forest!”. But time was flying and I still couldn’t train or run. I’d postpone the return to running for a week, for five days, over and over again.
But let me start from the beginning. I had minor surgery in a clinic in Łódź. Nothing big, removal of a bone overgrowth on my toe. I was sure it’d take me less than a month to run again, but instead of running practice, I practiced train trips between Łapy and Łódź. Train after train, appointment after appointment… in November I had another surgery. During all that time I was hoping that I’d run or at least walk again before the end of the year. None of that happened. 10th of January – I’m in pain, 15th of January – still in pain, time keeps on flying and I start to give up on all the planned marathons one by one. 19th of January – I leave hospital with a diagnosis that my injury should be examined by a surgeon. But I gritted my teeth, put on my shoes and went for the first run after that long break. It hurt so much I managed to run barely 14 km.
Two weeks passed and I was facing the possibility of giving up the Ultra Śledź run. I spent the last week before the contest by the sea. Surprisingly enough I managed to run a few longer, 30 km distances during training. I decided to participate at the last possible moment. It was the 11th of February, Friday, one day before the run. I arrived in Supraśl and realised the weather was entirely different than in Łapy – cold, wet, snow was covering the roadsides. But, as they say, in for a penny, in for a pound. I picked up my number, they checked out my gear, all that was left was waiting for the start.
Saturday, 13th of February, we’re leaving at 6 AM. We agreed with a friend to a wake-up call at 4 AM. As always, I stayed up all night, looked at the watch every few minutes, as if it was going to to be the first run of my career. Maybe it was caused by such a long break I had… Finally we set off, 6 AM. The weather was completely different than the day before – cold, dry air, nearly clear sky, still dark. The headlamps are shining on most runners’ heads, we’re off for a wonderful running adventure. The first kilometre of the route was covered in cobblestones, then asphalt, then pavement. It was slippery after the evening drizzle. Then a 90 degrees turn and we entered the forest. I kept a steady pace for the initial few kilometres. The first terrain rise forced us to slow down to a march, but the next ones I trotted through – I don’t like to walk when I run! After 10 km there was a pleasant, flat part along the Supraśl river. The view was amazing in that weather. Before the 15th km we entered the forest and ran down forest trails. At about the17th kilometer we had to cross a stream. You had to walk over a fallen tree, but I stepped into the water – luckily it was only ankle-deep. The first checkpoint was at the 27th kilometre. I felt great, my legs didn’t hurt, I was surprised, but also glad. I pressed on!
I had no troubles reaching the second checkpoint, Królowy Most, at the 38th kilometre. No muscle problems, but more importantly, no pain in my toe. I was more and more hopeful about reaching the finish line. After the second checkpoint we had to climb Mount St. Ann, Mount St. John and Mount Kopna, the biggest acclivity on the whole Śledź route. There’s a vantage point on Mount St. John and the view was amazing, quite like Bieszczady Mountains. In the distance I could see a river and Kołodno town, covered in snow and surrounded by forests, and a clear sky above all that. But I had no time to admire it, I had to press on! As I ran, I started to have first muscle pains, especially in my thighs, but I could survive that. Before the third checkpoint my Achilles heel-toe came into play. It started to hurt and when I left the third checkpoint I couldn’t run, so I marched. I found a painkiller in my bag, remains from a previous running trip (good thing I hadn’t done any cleaning!). After about 2 kilometres I started to trot, and then I slightly sped up.
Together with my friends we reached the last checkpoint. From there we had only (and at the same time no less than) 17 km. I had a crisis due to lack of training and not enough kilometres run. I half ran and half marched, thinking only about the finish line. At the 70th km there was some mud, not that much, but enough to get our shoes dirty. I was getting closer, I was just counting – eight, seven, six kilometres left. I expected nothing but the finish line, but then we saw hills we had to cross – about three of them. I marched upwards and ran downwards, and then a friend, one of the volunteers said that we had just 3, maybe 4 kilometres left. Then I took wings! Even the last rise didn’t stop me, I just wanted to reach the finish line as fast as I could. After getting to the sidewalk that was it. I did it, I reached the finish line! Time and position didn’t matter, but I have to admit that I wanted to take less than 11 hours and I finished the race in 9 hours 33 minutes. I’m happy that I came back to running, training, planning the contests and marathons, because when I’m running, I feel alive!
I’d had a competition like that on my mind for a couple of seasons by then. I was filled with doubts if I could manage in the cold and snow, if I was prepared for such conditions. After all, it wasn’t a run for 2-3 hours, but for 30-40, runners were to be self-reliant. Finally, I found Rovaniemi 150 on the 21st – 23rd February with winter conditions. I decided to participate and see how my body would react for a few hours run under adverse conditions. The required equipment, checked a day before the run, included a gas stove, a pot, a lighter, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag with parameters up to -30 C comfort (borrowed from Michał Olbycki), and a sleigh that could be rented from the organizers.
Saturday, the 22nd of February, 8 AM sharp, the participants start to gather at the starting line. Everyone reports to the organizer’s, signs a paper before the start. 9 o’clock and there we went, all three groups – runners, skiers and cyclists, we all started the race, the self-reliant adventure.
The map suggested that the route would be relatively flat and the terrain rises – mild. It turned out that it was flat only if you ran on the frozen river or lake on short parts of the route. There were more higher grounds than the map showed. A few times I’d slide down the hill on the sleigh instead of running, just as if I was a kid. Two parts of the route were tough, we had to run through some bushes, the sleigh would fall repeatedly, we’d have to detach the belt and put the sleigh back on its “feet”. In my case it was quite a difficulty and a waste of time, but on the whole route it happened about 100 times.
On the route there was also a bridge across a rushing stream. The organizer said that a year before one of the contestants fell into the water and had to give up the rest of the race. To avoid the same fate, I crossed the ice-covered bridge walking backwards on my knees, pulling the sleigh. I succeeded. At the 80th km in the 24th hour there was a checkpoint providing the best chance to rest. I felt excellent, I ate, had a drink and moved on, but after just two hours in rather unfavourable conditions, -20 C thanks to the wind chill, I started to feel tired and sleepy. Thankfully it caught me on a beaten path where I’d often hunt hares.
Two, maybe three times I wandered off the route. The first two times cost me 5 extra kilometres, looks like I can never get enough. The third time had physiological causes, which weren’t fulfilled anyway because the snow was thigh-deep. I had to crawl out of it and relieve myself into a “loo” dug and buried with my shoe.
The last checkpoint at the 140th km was closing in together with the finish line. Only 10-11 km remained – so close yet so far. I could already see the high arch of the bridge behind which the finish line was waiting. I was trying to run, walk, reach the checkpoint as fast as I could, but the arch didn’t appear any closer. Two Finnish skiers accompanied me at that point until we were approached by Kamil who had been posting all the news on Facebook.
When I finished the race I was extremely glad that I made it in time and without any problems. Only after I got home I learned that I was 4th in the open men’s category. It surprised me as I wasn’t fighting for a better score, but with myself, my weaknesses and the route itself. I’d also like to thank Gosia Śmieszek and Kamil Jagodziński for the warm welcome and help during my stay in Rovaniemi, inov-8 for the gear and Michał Olbrycki for the sleeping bag.