Race report: Trail World Champs

I could hear the roar of the crowd before I could see them. Tearing out of the aid station at the sanctuary of Piedade, I rounded the corner and saw the cheering Portugese lining the steep set of stairs ahead of me. I dashed upward, propelled by their energy and excitement, and off into the forest, on an upward quest over roots and rocks. Adrenaline still pumping, I caught my toe on one rock and slammed my knee into another.

Spectators line the stairs coming out of the Piedade aid station at Trail World Champs. Photo: Trilhos dos Abutres

Stay on your feet. Keep it together, I thought as a drizzle of blood made its way down my calf.

This was Trail World Champs, Trilhos dos Abutres (literally "Trail of the Vultures") in Miranda do Corvo, Portugal. It was the big leagues. And I was doing it!

Standing on the start line of a race is nervous wracking at the best of times; doubly so when it's the World Championships, and triply so when you have watched your best-laid training plan implode in the months leading up to race day. Whether it was symptomatic of some form of overtraining or simply my immune system resetting itself, I was thwarted by a series of draining colds after Rotterdam. My self-confidence may have suffered more than my physical fitness. As we all know, ultra running is half mental and half eating contest.

The experience of staying at the athlete hotel in Coimbra in the days leading up to the race was surreal. Everyone wandered around in their national team warm-up suits, clearly dividing individuals by nation. I got to know the rest of the Norwegian team; we rented a car and went for a shake-out run on the course before obsessively going through the profile and discussing tactics and nerves.

The Norwegian team! From the upper left: Hallvard Schjølberg, Sebastian Krogvig, me, Hans Kristian Smedsrød, Sylvia Nordskar, and Runar Sæther. Henriette Albon wasn't present for this picture.

The date before the race, there was a parade and opening ceremony for all the countries. A pompous affair, it took a good three hours, most of them spent on our feet. Not the ideal prep for a ultra, albeit a short one!

Parading through the streets of Coimbra.

A fitful night's sleep led into race day. Afraid of blowing myself up with zealous, I didn't focus too much on jostling myself into a good position for the start. I stood in the crowd, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Tranquil as a forest, but a fire within. 

The stress of the last hour - endless toilets lines, scrambling for safety pins that the race organizers had failed to give us at bib pick up, the painful twinge in my hip flexor as I ran my warm-up jog - all fell away. When the gun went off, I knew I had a job to do.

Final pack adjustments before the start of the race.

The first 16K are just a warm-up, I reminded myself. After snaking its way out of town over several sets of treacherous stairs, the course promptly dropped us in a relatively deep river crossing before passing through a tunnel.

As the kilometers ticked by, I couldn't help but think about KRS. I thought I had put the DNF behind me, but the shadow loomed ahead. You quite after 12K, will you make it passed 12K today? Or are you forever a quitter? Not today, I thought, today, I finish.

River crossing early in the race.
We moved deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees grew over and around the runners, and the trail was a brown stripe tunneling through them. I could see a few heads in front of me, mostly ponytails, and took the opportunity to sneak by when the trail gave it. I began to wonder how far ahead Sylvia and Henriette, the other girls on the Norwegian team were.

About seven kilometers in, I rounded a corner and was surprised to see Sylvia with a large bandage around her leg, supported by two other runners.

"Are you OK?" didn't seem like quite the right response, but I couldn't think of a more intelligent greeting.

"It's deep," she intoned mournfully, "Go! Run fast!" I ran off, lamenting that this was no longer a team effort, as three team members need to finish to score. I was only running for myself now.

Previewing the race course a couple days prior. 

After a bit of a climb, it was time for the descent that the Norwegian team had previewed during our little excursion on the course. It was then that I felt the advantage of having seen the course before; I wasn't surprised at the sudden drops, twists and river crossings. Unfortunately, I was stuck behind a number of more cautious runners and ended up doing some sketchy passes, cutting switchbacks and flinging myself passed where the trail opened up slightly.

Then there was the utter chaos of the aid station, swapping my bottles and getting rid of my trash, charging out like I was in a position that mattered, rather than (as was reality) near the back of the race.

The first sixteen kilometers had passed. It was it time to push! Was it time to push?

I had planned to run the final 30K of the race hard, but the devil on my shoulder delivered doubt. You haven't trained for this, he said, just stay cool for a little longer. 30K is a long way to go!

The cool of the morning had been broken by the sun. I moved uphill, mostly powerhiking, running where I could, but I couldn't bring myself to really start pushing, although there were many girls in my immediate vicinity I could have latched on to. Suddenly the forest opened up to a view of the plains on central Portugal below us. I soaked it in, noticing how much more enjoyable such a view was at a slightly slower pace. I was tranquil, my competitive fire only embers.

Despite having taken 1L from Piedade, I ran out of water in the final kilometer or so to Mestrinhas at 29K. I sucked my bottles dry and fantasized briefly about being able to drink as much as I could soon. Although I drank well at Mestrinhas, I only filled one 0.5L bottle, reasoning that the next aid station was in 5K.

Meeting the great Norwegain support crew between Mestrinhas and Gondromaz.

I was near the top of the course now, traversing the line of windmills I had seen, far away, from the start line in Miranda do Corvo. I craned my neck looking up at the windmills until I felt dizzy.

I wasn't just dizzy; I was a little queasy. Dehydration, I reasoned, was the reason my one-gel-per-half hour was no longer going down smoothly. I would wait a little, until more water hit my blood stream.

After a final push to the summit, where there were more cheering volunteers, all of the major climbs were over. The descent began, and I still had legs.

I stopped briefly at the final aid station to refill both my bottles, anxious that dehydration would ruin the last 10K of the race. The trail followed a river bed, and was studded with rocks and roots and punchy climbs. This was my kind of terrain, slow going and technical. Something shifted, and I decided it was time to race. I picked off runner after runner.

When section on the river ended, I was thrown out onto a paved road. Oh no! What if everyone I just passed comes tearing by me?! I thought. I remember all of the long marathon workouts this winter - there had to be some tempo in my legs still! I found another gear. No one is going to catch me.

There was a final section of trails along some irrigation channels, before I was on the pavement for the final few kilometers to the finish. Keep moving, don't let them catch you!

Gustav, my coach from OSI and part of the support team, was standing 800m from the finish. "There's a girl behind you!" he shouted, "but you've got this!" I turned around, and to my dismay saw a woman from the Latvian team, moving well, behind me. No one is going to catch ME!

And that is how I ended up in a sprint finish for 82nd place in the Trail World Championships, which I won.

The trail demanded a blood sacrifice on the Sky Blazers bandanna I wore.

I am simultaneously pleased and humbled by my experience at Trail World Champs. I know I have more in me, given the right training and more of a fighter attitude. But I also confronted the demon of my DNF at KRS, and for the first time in years, ran a race I was underprepared for. That takes a different sort of courage than starting when everything has gone as you planned. I enjoyed the day, and sometimes that is more important than the competition.

As for the rest of the team? Sylvia ended up in the hospital for 12 stitches, while Henriette ran a bold race and ended up in 39th place despite severe cramps. Hans Kristian also ended up around 40th place, while Runar fought a hamstring injury to a disappointing (for him) finish. Hallvard, whose real strength is 100 milers, completed the Norwegian men's team. I think we all feel like we have something to prove, and hopefully the Norwegians will place higher in Trail World Champs to come!

{Norwegian readers can also check of Nå er det alvor: VM terrengultra 2019 for a podcast covering this race!}

- The Wild Bazilchuk


  1. Looking for Digital Marketing Services?
    Apex Infotech India is one of the best Digital Marketing Company in India from Mumbai providing creative and customized online solutions including Facebook Ads Services, Lead Generation Services and Graphic Design Services.


Post a Comment