“Hey, I hear you’ll be joining us on Bornholm!”
The winter had just ended and summer still seemed like a very long way off. Helle, however, was already organised and full of enthusiastic plans.
“You should join Lars and I for the island run” she enthused.
“Yes, it’s a five day event. Around Bornholm. It’s a nice way to see the island. Every day is a different location, a different landscape. Come, it’ll be fun.”
I gave a tentative grunt, but felt very non-committal, to say the least. Do I really fancy spending five days of the summer, running around a little island in the Baltic?
After just a few days of contemplation the answer came back. No. No I definitely did not want to do it.
I let Helle know and then forgot all about it.
Now, I’ve never been to Bornholm before, so I was unaware of just how enchanting a place it is. Rocky shorelines, sandy beaches, crystal clear water, forests, hills, heathland. It’s lovely really.
Just the kind of place in fact, that you want to run around.
Damn, I thought. I’ve missed an opportunity here.
But I was in luck. There was still space left. If I wanted to, I could sign in on the first day, and join the race.
And I wanted to, yeah? Now that I was here? Now that I saw how lovely it was?
And so it was that I allowed enthusiasm to get the better of me and found myself each evening at six o’clock behind the starting line, waiting to set off on the next stage of the Bornholm Etape 2013.
No training, no preparation. Just a pair of old running shoes falling apart at the seams, a couple of super fit friends and an unexpected heat wave.
This was going to be a blast …..
The first etape was billed as a road race with a few kilometres through the forest and beside the beach. A nice start to the week on a fast track.
The word fast was the one that stuck. I charged across the starting line all smiles and hurrahs and completely forgot that it’s been a long time since I ran 10km.
I used to run this distance a lot. Obsessively so even. But the past year I’d been less than keen to make up the kilometres around the city streets.
Not to worry though, I mused. My body will remember it. Muscle memory, I’d read about that somewhere. I’ll be fine.
And I was actually, until I misread one of the staging post flags that indicated how far we had to go.
Lars was beside me and somehow he made the same mistake.
“Last kilometre, let’s go for it!”
And off we flew, down the back stretch and round the bend where the finishing line awaited us.
Only it wasn’t there.
We rounded the bend and saw another flag.
1km. That’s what was written on it.
I looked at it. 1km? But wasn’t that what the last flag said?
My legs were burning and I was getting out of breath. I was going to have to slow down or this was going to kill me.
I jogged on and managed to obtain a speed significantly slower than most people’s walking pace. All around me, runners flew past yelling to me in Danish, I guess spurring me on, telling me that the final stretch was now in sight and urging me to keep going.
All I remember now is a blur of little houses, a hill, and lots of cheering crowds. Somewhere among it all another flag appeared. 500m.
And my brain betrayed me yet again. 500m? Hell, that’s a sprint if ever there was one. And off I went again. I’m not sure I actually wanted to, but my legs and brain seemed to be conspiring against me. Common sense was for another day apparently. This was a race here, and races meant speed. Even when speed is not your thing.
I crossed the line in 52 minutes, much to me surprise.
My legs were full of acid and I could feel the pinpricks of fire in the muscle tissue. But so what. That was a decent enough time considering my lack of preparation.
I was happy and raring to go.
The next day was a beach run. A mere 5.6 km along the beach and I was very much looking forward to it.
Post-race hubris. I bet that’s a thing that exists as well. Just like “muscle memory”.
We arrived on Dueodde beach with the sun blazing. A glorious day. Positively Mediterranean in fact. Twenty-seven degrees of perfect beach weather.
Dueodde beach itself is a stunning sight. A long stretch of super fine white sand and crystal sea, with rolling banks of dunes rising up from the beach, the marram grass swaying in the breeze.
Along the shores, contented families were enjoying the last of the evening sun, stretching on beach towels, cold drinks at the ready, dog eared books by their sides, a lazy, easy day behind them.
A lovely little summer tableau, blighted only by the sight of two thousand fluorescent clad runners charging along the beach engaged in various warm up exercises.
I trudged across the beach to the starting line, the fine sand collapsing under foot.
“Gee” I murmur “I better stick to the water line, this stuff is impossible to move through.”
On top of that, my thighs are like stone. Brick hard and heavy. Each step a chastisement. “Serves you right for taking off like that yesterday.”
Maybe I should warm up too, it occurs to me.
I set off across the sand at a half-hearted trot.
The day before I’d been blasé with regard to the distance. 5.8km. A cinch. I can even step up the pace.
Ploughing through the sand however, I soon realise my mistake. Of all the etapes, this one is the shortest for a reason. I saunter back to the starting line and wonder if I am actually up to the task at hand.
The buzz of a crowd and the adrenaline of a race can prove astounding antidotes to muscle fatigue and self-doubt and so, when the starting gun fires, I feel a little better and make the decision to run at the water’s edge and just get wet feet. The fine sand is now my enemy and I plan to avoid it at all costs. Pleased that I have a plan, I succumb once more to a fatal lack of common sense, and charge ahead full of adrenaline fuelled vim and vigour.
And it’s nice there on the beach, the sun at our backs, the water lapping at our feet. I even take in the scenery. Those white dunes, the gulls, the kiddies’ sandcastles all higgledy piggeldy now as the tide turns.
I settle into my stride and begin to enjoy myself.
Of course, being as this little race malarkey is a spontaneous adventure, I haven’t managed yet to actually flick through the brochure I was given that details the etape routes, so when we turn and head back along the beach into the sun, I am a little perplexed, but still happy.
It’s only when the route begins to swing right and head to the dunes that I begin to ponder where we actually might be headed.
“Surely they’re not going to make us run up and down the dunes?” I muse. “I mean, that sand is far too fine to get any purchase on it. It’ll be like running in the desert.”
No, I decide. That would be too gruelling.
But sure enough, we keep veering to the right and all of a sudden I am faced with the prospect of clambering up sand dunes for a good three kilometres. The romance of the marram grass quickly loses its appeal.
Somewhere out there, Lars and Helle are flying along. Tired but keen still. I can only marvel at how they manage it.
With each step forward I feel the sand give way around me and pull me back slightly. I’d be faster jogging on the surface of the moon.
We zig-zag on. Up and down the dunes, through the sand. The well-wishers patting our backs and cheering us on. Of course I don’t understand a word they’re saying, but I smile anyway, glad they are there to offer support. Without them I’d be a gonner.
No doubt about it.
I realise that this is the first time in my life that I have felt awful while running, and wished myself to be anywhere doing anything other than this.
It’s a thought that can zap your energy and mental reserves, but thankfully it comes just as we leave the dunes and hit a flat gravel path that is the home stretch.
I don’t even look at the time as I cross the line. All I want is a drink and a lie down.
It occurs to me (better late than never) that some sort of training and preparation may have been a good idea.
Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Just three more days to go. And it can’t get any worse, that’s for sure.
At the finish line, Helle gets a passer-by to take our photo, which she promptly posts to her Facebook page.
As we drive home, her phone pings continuously as the reactions come in. General merriment all round and complete agreement that a generous application of sunscreen before setting out for a run on a sunny beach, is no bad idea.
Yeah, yeah….Ha! Ha! Ha!
The previous evening I decided a little preparation was in order, and dutifully got out my brochure and studied the next day’s route.
Not too bad, on paper at least. 7.8km through the forest. Nice and shaded and cool. But, I noted with dread, there were quite a few hills to contend with.
After the race yesterday, Helle had encountered a fellow runner who had completed the tour the previous year, and he had been keen to inform her that the Almindingen stage was “definitely one of the worst. So many hills. It’s just up and down the whole way.”
I went back to the map and took a better look. Yup, that was about the gist of it. Hills, hills and more hills.
I suppose a wiser fool would have considered all of this and decided that this was the moment to bow out gracefully before injury became inevitable.
But I’m a foolish fool, so I opted for the other option. Worse-case scenario pessimism. Works every time.
Basically, it’s negative psychology. You go into something thinking it’s going to be just about the worst experience of your whole life, then, afterwards, when this actually fails to be the case, you content yourself with the comforting fact that “it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined it was going to be.”
Yes, this would be my race strategy.
That, and music. Music too would be my salvation.
Now, I’m not one of those runners that is surgically grafted to their mp3 player. As a rule, I prefer to run without music, because I like the rhythm that occurs when you settle down and listen to the beat of your feet on the ground, and the synchronised thump of your heart and lungs. It zones me out and leaves me feeling extremely relaxed.
Some days though, I need help to push me out the door and onto the streets, and on those days I find plugging in my headphones and turning up the volume can be the motivating factor that makes all the difference.
This was one of those moments. Trouble was, I had no mp3 player with me.
“Never mind” I thought “I’m going to be in the third largest forest in Denmark and reputedly the most beautiful. The surroundings will carry me through this. And, I can re-create a soundtrack in my head. I’m good at that. I can hum away at a few tunes and before I know it, I’ll be over the finish line and home and dry.”
I thought of some of the tracks on my mp3 player and tried to channel them. The Chiffons, Belle And Sebastian, Aztec Camera, The Velvet Underground, Bowie.
I felt better already.
Now the subconscious is a curious thing. A source of delight and horror.
And I was about to discover just how horrific it could be.
The forest of Almindingen is close to a famous Danish tourist spot called the Ekkodalen or Echo Dale.
We had passed the signs for it on the way to the start and I had apparently taken a mental note of it and smiled as I recognised the sign.
I am familiar with this gem of a Danish landmark thanks to a little song that was sung by two puppets that appeared on Danish kids T.V. back in the 1970s. In this particular ditty, the puppets Kai, a frog and Andrea, his parrot sidekick sing about the Ekkodalen.
It’s a nice little song, the purpose of which is to teach kids the difference between left and right.
Trouble is, it’s super sticky. An earworm of unfathomable proportions, and now it was in there, inside my head, and I had nowhere to run, save into the forest of Almindingen as the starting gun fired.
I felt doomed.
Up and down the dales I went, to the left, to the right, through the forest glades, accompanied by two puppets one of whose voice resembles a dying crow on helium.
And do you know what? It worked a treat!
At the start of the race I had actually hobbled. The stiffness in my legs was that bad. I had decided that if the pain continued after 500m, I would call it a day and accept that I was simply not fit enough to continue.
But after 500m I loosened up and Kai and Andrea joined me, the chirpy rhythm of their quaint little song providing me with the perfect tempo.
At the end of the race I caught up with Lars and Helle who were now continually coming in a good couple of minutes ahead of me.
“That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be” laughed Lars.
Clearly the old negative psychology had worked its magic on him as well.
But I had to agree, most of it actually felt like it was downhill, and once I got my stride, I actually enjoyed it and ran round pretty fluidly and with a not to embarrassing tempo.
I agreed with Lars that indeed it wasn’t so bad at all and we all agreed that the guy from yesterday was pretty off the mark in his assessment of the etape.
I did admit to my pals though that my leaden legs had almost betrayed me at the start, and Helle had marvelled at my will power and tenacity.
“That’s cool you carried on though.”
“Yeah, Kai and Andrea helped me.”
I could try to describe the look on Helle’s face when I divulged my secret weapon to her, but I’m not sure I’m eloquent enough to do it justice.
There was surprise in there, for sure, mingled with confusion and the urge to double check she had heard me correctly.
I just nodded sagely and staggered away humming.
All I can say is that it’s a testament to her strength of character that she allowed me to get back in the car again and drove me home.
Still, that’s what friends are for.
Kai and Andrea have a nice wee song about that as well, now I think of it …
After my forest run, my complaints regarding muscle pain are met with the following sage advice.
“It’s because you’re a vegetarian.”
“No, it’s true. Vitamin B. You don’t get enough of it. Gives you sore muscles.”
My brain does a quick compute. Part of this is actually resonating and causing a little light to flick on inside my head.
“It’s true” I think “I read about this somewhere.”
No doubt the same place I read about “muscle memory”.
But it’s enough to get me to the pharmacy for a bottle of Denmark’s finest pills. I scan the bottle back home and indeed it is recommended for tiredness.
Gee, well there you go.
I quaff four which is double the recommended dose, but figure my physically demanding escapades call for such a concentrated level of vitamin overdosing.
The next morning I walk down the stairs the way every other human being does. Loosely, relaxed. The day before, I had been reduced to shuttling sideways like some demented crab because lifting my quads was simply too exhausting.
I make a mental note to keep an eye on my vitamin B levels and skip out the door.
Today is the biggie. A run across the heathland with a vertical climb of evil proportions to the old lighthouse at the end. 17% is the gradient. A 57m climb over the last 435 meters which they actually time separately to see who makes it up the hill fastest.
That’ll be me then…
There’s a funny thing can happen to you sometimes when you run. You get into a zone and focus so much on the act of moving that the world momentarily disappears.
So it was that I ran around the Hammeren course in a Zen-like trance of complete oblivion. I was aware of hills, and forest and fields of golden wheat. But more as some sort of vague smudge at the periphery of my vision.
As we approached the heathland however, with the sea to our left, shimmering in the evening sunlight, my brain switched on again and went into hyper awareness.
Something about the thump of the earth underfoot, the deep sound it made, seemed to awaken me and I looked up to see the lighthouse looming above us at the headland.
It looked glorious, this beacon there atop the hill.
Then I remembered we had to run to it. That this was our end point.
As we edged ever closer I could feel the elevation begin to change. The small increments that signalled the start of the climb. Easy at first. A gentle incline that posed no problem.
Then, from out of sight across the heath I heard them. The cheering crowds. A sound that would normally pick me up and quicken my pace. But something about this noise, the determination in the cheers, the almost pleading sound of it, made me nervous.
What was going on?
As we rounded the bend I soon saw why. A hill as steep as a ladder, rocky and imposing, the crowds on either side cheering on the runners as they struggled uphill.
A mild panic filled my gut. The climb breaking me in the end. I jogged to walking pace and tried not to look the spectators in the eye.
Much as I appreciated their gallant efforts to cheer us all on up the hill, my body was simply too intent on protesting. I just wanted to stop right there, but with all these people there, giving up was not an option.
I plodded on, then saw the rocky path give way to a tarmacked road as it turned to the lighthouse. I picked up the pace and started to run again thinking this was the end of the climb.
Alas, it was not. Rounding the bend a climb of equal steepness greeted me, and how I managed to keep running up it I have no idea. Pride I suppose. The idea of collapsing in front of all those people was simply too much.
I know I crossed the line, but I can’t recollect it. All I remember now is standing at the refreshment table with Lars and Helle eating oranges, all of us looking at one another, but saying very little, our understanding of what the other was feeling, keeping us from too much exuberance.
Lars and Helle are heading back that evening by bike. For me, a 2km walk along the headland lies ahead – back the way I came more or less.
Strangely enough, I am looking forward to it. I had walked this stretch a few days earlier and marvelled at how beautiful it was. From the cliff tops you can see the iron red kelp flowing in the clear turquoise water, and the rocky shoreline is alive with birds.
That evening, as I head home with dusk approaching, I am the only walker out on that stretch of path and the silence proves to be the perfect tonic after the day’s exertions.
I can feel the energy slowly seeping back into me. As if the calm of the landscape itself contains the vital nutrients my aching limbs require.
As I reach a bend in the path I turn and look back at the lighthouse, once again a looming above me, against the dusky pink of the evening sky.
“Just one more day to go” I think, and, with relief, I actually realise that I am ready.
Final Day – Ronne 10km.
The final day dawns hot and sunny. Not perfect running weather, but who cares. This is the last stage and it’s a fast race through the town of Ronne and through a nearby forest.
At the end of it, we get a medal for completing all stages.
All races give you a medal and normally I don’t particularly bother about it. I have a stash somewhere from previous events but don’t ask me to find them.
This one however I want. It has been earned in a way none of the others have been.
I have also promised Helena that I will give it to her to keep, an idea which has filled her with glee.
So no going back now. There’s a six year old waiting for me at home and she has her eyes on the glittering prize.
All I can say about this day is that I paid no heed to any of it. It was all about getting it over with and simply running as fast as my legs would carry me. Through the town, along the harbour, through the forest, then home to the final 400m in the stadium.
I suppose I could have been more enthusiastic about it all, but, if I am honest, my heart wasn’t in it this time.
In part I think it was the surroundings. After the previous day on the cliffs and over the heath, I knew this stage was never going to be able to compete for my affections in the same way. Yesterday was simply too beautiful.
Happily though I am feeling strong and revitalised.
The walk home last night had done me the world of good.
Earlier in the day I had bumped into Anders, my Swedish neighbour who was also running in the race and he had asked how my legs were feeling after the Hammeren hill.
“Surprisingly good” I reply “The long walk home helped me recuperate.”
He nodded in understanding. “Yes, that was a good idea to walk home. Gets the acid out your legs.”
I had spotted Anders the first day getting into his car and realised he was also a runner.
After the first etape I had enquired as to his race and if he had enjoyed it and he had agreed it was fun. I had told him that I was joining in for a laugh and that I was worried about my lack of preparation and training and hoping I wouldn’t get injured.
He had been very surprised at this and informed me that “training is really a good idea for things like this”.
“Man, he’s pretty serious about his running” I thought to myself.
I mentioned that I had run a 52 minute 10km which I considered nothing short of a miracle and he had smiled.
“What was your time?” I asked.
He laughed shyly. “30:15” he replies, and I gasp as I register this. Turns out Anders is a professional runner and throughout the week his times will astound and delight me.
How it must feel to be able to run that fast, I cannot even begin to imagine. All I can say is that it’s beyond impressive.
In the stadium, my medal safely dangling from my neck, I spot him with his wife and baby daughter and we smile our hellos and congratulations before getting lost in the crowd.
He ended third overall, as it turned out, no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination.
At the finish Lars and Helle are already wondering whether they should sign up early for next year’s race.
I decline to commit, of course. The idea of doing all this again seems, frankly, horrendous.
In the end, Lars and Helle agree that some time is needed before they make a decision, and so we all head home.
Pulling out from the car park it suddenly dawns on me.
“Hey guys, what the hell are we going to do tomorrow evening?” and after a moments silence we all laugh.
“Start training for next year?” Helle suggests.
And, do you know, as we drive off into the sunset, it suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at all…