Oslo Ecotrail: A new level of pain
The race nerves came, like an unwelcome visitor, after breakfast on Saturday morning. Irrational self-doubt, anticipation and slight queasiness, a motley trio with which I have grown all too familiar. Luckily I already had eaten a solid breakfast. The race didn’t start until 1pm, and I expected to feel like I had a long time to wait around. But the flurry of pre-race rituals began, and before I knew it I was getting on the subway, headed for Holmenkollen ski jump.
As the subway (well, not technically sub at this point) worked its way uphill, the cars filled with more and more lycra-clad individuals sporting backpacks and race bibs. What if everyone here is faster than me? I thought, suddenly terrified. I tried to remind myself that the race was with myself, not everyone else.
It was easy to find the start area by following the flow of people from the subway station. In the arena, I watched some runners who were completing the 80K distance passing through this checkpoint. They had gone so far already, and still had 45K to go! I found the port-a-potties and decided get in line there for good measure. While waiting in line, I started chatting with two jovial northern Norwegians. They were impressed by my (at least outwardly) calm pronouncement that I intended to run the course in 5 hours. Maybe everyone here isn’t faster than me after all!
I found an acquaintance, and left my backpack with him to go warm up. I didn’t want to warm up so much for the physical benefits as for the mental clarity it provided. Running along the road past the ski jump, I once again felt the magical lack of any lingering soreness in my legs. Primed, locked and loaded. I was going to crush this.
Confident pre-race selfie.
By the time I got back from my warm-up, my friend David had arrived and it was time to stash our luggage and line up for the start. We lined up pretty far back, although David joked that I should start with the front of the pack. There was no gun to signal the start of the race; the people below the start arch simply started to move, and everyone behind followed suit.
The crowds below Holmenkollen ski jump, just before the start of the race.
As the four-hundred-odd 45K runners shuffled into action, I quickly realized I had started too far back. I steadily passed people during the initial climbs, my heart rate telling me I was going a bit too hard. Don’t burn too many matches this early in game, I reminded myself, it’s going to be a long race, and a little slowness at the start won’t harm you. It did tick me off, though, when people walked at the first hint of technical single track.
The course climbed steadily towards Tryvann tower, and I was surprised to look at my watch and note that we had already run 3 kilometers. I was still passing people, especially any time the trails turned tricky. One stretch in particular was quite muddy, and I scoffed inwardly as people tiptoed around the muddy patches. Get over it! I wanted to shout, and I did so by example, wasting no energy trying to keep my feet dry.
It was on this section, as I looked a little too far forward, scanning the trail for my next line, that my toe suddenly hooked on an errant branch and I fell. Knee, hip, chest, boom!
“Are you OK?!” a girl behind me exclaimed. I jumped up, mumbling yes, as my face quickly reddened to match my Helly Hansen shirt. I was vividly reminded of a similar fall when racing Ultrabirken. Don’t start messing up this early in the game Molly, focus! I coaxed myself.
As I continued onwards, I had to laugh at my state. Race bib and tights coated in a sheen of mud, it definitely looked like I was running hard! I then noticed a dribble of blood oozing from my left knee. Ooops. I also felt a slight numbness in my right hip, and probed it with my fingers, relieved that I hadn’t ripped a hole in my tights. There was too much adrenaline pumping through my system to feel any pain.
After passing over the high point of the course at Tryvann tower, there was a long downhill on smoothly graded dirt road. I really found my stride here, reminding myself to flow down the hill with gravity rather than working against it, just like in skiing. I saw my average pace creep down below 6 min/km, and smiled. The magic number in order to finish in 5 hours was 6:40 min/km. I was banking lots of time, and I felt fierce and fabulous.
After the big downhill, there was a flat section on a dirt road in towards the first aid station. I chatted with another racer, a woman who said she mostly ran 24-hour races, including the one that goes on in the indoor track at Bislett. I have a hard time fathoming running around that endless circle for 24 hours straight, but then again people have a hard time fathoming running the distances I do.
The first aid station was at the 15K mark in Sørkedalen, and there was a whole buffet of different foods. I had already taken one gel and a Stroopwaffel, but grabbed a slice of orange and a few chips before heading out. I didn’t want to linger here; I was racing too well. I left the aid station in 1:30:52 elapsed, the 20th woman.
Looking at the race profile on my bib, I noted that the next 5K would be climbing. OK, now it’s all right to lose some of the time I banked! I alternated between jogging and walking, cruising passed plenty of racers who had decided to walk the whole climb. While walking, I realized that Audun must have finished his race, Oslo Ecotrail 18K, by now. I whipped out my phone and checked the results. 10th place! He had come in 10th place out of 395 racers! I was deeply impressed. I decided that I, too, was going to do great things in my race.
Soon enough I reached the top of the hill and the Ecotrail markers lead me off the dirt road and onto some sweet looking single track. There was a girl wearing headphones ahead of me. Get ready to be passed! I thought.
And. Then. It. Came.
Someone stuck a knife in the lower part of my right abdomen, and twisted. A side stitch, and it was bad. Ok, I guess you’re not getting passed yet, I mentally told the girl ahead, who couldn’t hear me because of her headphones anyway. I slowed to walk, and tried to focus on breathing deeply, expanding all the flesh in my stomach to try and stretch out the cramping muscles. I felt slightly better, and began to jog onwards. The cramp came back, and I was forced to walk again. Racers I had passed on the uphill began to pass me.
I tried every remedy I could think of: stretching my right arm in the air, clenching a rock in my fist as hard as I could, breathing deeply. The pain abated, and I picked up the pace again. I noted that I was feeling hungry, and decided it was time for gel number 2. I was passing some racers again, but the gel seemed to exacerbate the demon holding the knife in my stomach and soon I was getting passed again. I clenched the rock I had picked up like a talisman, for all the good that it did.
The rock that I carried for the last 25 kilometers of the race.
You just have to get through this, it will pass! I promised myself, everything goes numb in the end! I pulled my headphones out of my race vest and put in one earplug, starting the special playlist I had made for the race. The music heartened me, and I kept moving forward, riding the waves of pain. Every time I took a sip of water the side stitch flared up, and when I took one more gel I immediately regretted it.
Somehow I made it to the aid station at Fossum, 27K. I decided to stop for a little longer at this one, and pulled out my ear plug to chat with the volunteers. To my surprise, the silicon earphone tip remained in my ear after pulling the rest of the head phone out. After rooting around with my finger a little, I was forced to admit that I wouldn’t be able to remove the earphone tip on my own.
“This may be the strangest question you get all day,” I said to the aid station volunteer I approached, “but can you help me get my earphone tip out of my ear?” With great care and a pair of scissors, the earphone tip was removed. I stopped listening to music after that.
At the aid station, I drank some energy drink and picked up a banana to eat. The first bit of banana made me nauseous, but I forced it down anyway. It would be the last thing I ate in the race. I left the 27K aid station in 2:47:58 elapsed, the 21st woman. I had gained a bunch of places and then lost them all in the last section.
Next on the menu was the long, technical downhill along the Lysaker River, the only part of the course I had run before. Before the race, I had imagined crushing this section. Compared to many runners, technical downhill is my forté. But the side stitch simple wouldn’t let up!
At the top of the river, I stopped and sat down on a log and had a little pity party. I was failing. How could I let this stupid side stitch happen? How did it happen? I got out my phone again, and called Audun, who was waiting at the finish line.
“I want to quit!” I wailed, startling several racers passing by, “This is so stupid, and it won’t go away."
“You have to just keep going, and walk if you have to,” Audun reasoned with me, “You were doing really well before!"
“I know, but a bunch of girls have already passed me,” I sniveled.
“Remember rule #5!” encouraged Audun.
“Yeah, the people who made that rule have never had a side stitch like this!” I growled. But I conceded that I didn’t in fact, intend to quit, and got up off my log and kept jogging as we chatted. I didn’t have to walk, I could jog, just not run as fast as my legs wanted me to. I also knew I had to get through these last 18K without eating. I didn’t want to anger the side stitch demon any more than I had to.
I soon caught a pace line of runners, mostly from the 80K distance, shuffling along the river. I fell in line, even though my instinct said, Pass them! You can go so much faster than this! I knew I had to go slow to keep this under control. I took tiny sips of water, willing the side stitch to disappear.
Falling into line behind an 80K running along the Lysaker river
It didn’t. Nine painful kilometers down the river, and I was still fighting. Sometimes I tried to convince myself that I could break this pain, that I could ignore it. But every time it reared its ugly head, I retreated and slowed down. At its worst, the pain reminded me of the time I broke my leg when I was 17. It was all consuming, and it would not be ignored.
Things got better when I hit the flat section along the fjord with 9 kilometers to go. Downhill was the worst with the side stitch, and on the flats I could run a little better. In fact, I was feeling almost no pain! Maybe it had finally gone away! I accelerated to pass another woman who caught me, and the knife twisted again. Ah, my old friend, I thought. It felt so familiar by now, like a little person running the race with me.
Runnin along the coast in the final 9 kilometers of the race.
The course was sandwiched between a highway and the fjord, and sea salt smells mingled with car exhaust. Not the most enjoyable route, and I found myself wondering way the race organizers had decided that the course had to finish at the Opera House. This section was just so ugly.
Rounding the bend to the finish line, the Opera house in the background.
I managed to drink some water at the final aid station, complaining a little to a volunteer about my side stitch. I was resigned to see this through, in the fastest manner I could manage. The last 5K are a blur of passing through crowded streets with oblivious pedestrians standing in the way, and willing the Opera House to appear. Soon enough it did, and I was jogging the final stretch to the finish. David, Audun and Vibeke (who had run the 30K) stood near the finish, cheering me on, telling me to sprint. I grimaced and willed myself to go a little faster.
Crossing the finish line, wearing the face of pain.
I crossed the finish line in 4:57, in 28th place and the last woman to finish under 5 hours. I sat down and started to cry, allowing the rock I had clutched for the last several hours to drop out of my fist. I felt mentally exhausted from battling pain for 25 kilometers and overwhelmed by the feeling of failure despite reaching my goal. I was in shape to run much faster than I did; the side stitch had stopped my otherwise strong, fresh legs. I had slowed throughout the race, rather than finishing strong as I am wont. And as we walked away from the finish area, I realized I hadn’t nearly used up the reserves in my legs. I could have gone so much faster, if only I could have stopped the side stitch. That thought has flogged me since I finished.
At home, when I got into the shower, I noticed a scrape on my hip bone, right below the area where the side stitch had been. Apparently my fall at the beginning of the race had been harder than I realized. My current theory is that the shock of the fall on my hip radiated into my stomach muscles, causing the demon stitch. So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t fall on your face during the first 5K of a 45K event? Where did I go wrong?
I ran 45K and all I got was this medal and a dirty race bib.
- The Wild Bazilchuk