It was beginning of 2015. It was a cold, rainy day. Just another winter day in Ireland. I was surfing the Internet, reading any interesting articles about running that I could find. And then I made myself a cup of hot tea, sat down on a couch and started dreaming again about... Badwater 135. Race of my dreams - 135 miles in the hottest place on the Earth. At that point of time I've been running ultras only for 2 years. But being an over-ambitious person, feeling good with going long distances (I've already finished few times as one of first 3 women) and finding a wild pleasure in pushing myself to the limits, I didn't see anything in this dream that I wouldn't like to face. However, the costs associated with this race.... flights, renting a van, fuel, food for the crew, ice, cooler boxes etc. When I made an estimation of expenses I was looking at roughly USD 10,000. I didn't want to give up on everything, any other races I could do and places I could see to save every penny for a few years just to spend on this one race. Maybe I will have a possibility in the future. So for now I was looking for a similar challenge somewhere in Europe. Some evenings spent searching the Internet - and I found it!! Cyprus Ultra 135. According to the race organisers one of the toughest in the world. The same distance as Badwater, hot weather where you will find no shade, but being less lucky you may meet a snake (as there are 7 different snake species in Cyprus, one of them venomous). The first edition took place in 2012 and... no one managed to get to the finish line. Next year one person has done it - Gilbert Gray from USA. And another year the first ever woman completed the race - Mimi Anderson from the UK. Up to this year only 7 people did it. This sounded like a challenge - "OK, I'm in" - I decided.
I’ve been to Cyprus in 2013 to run Paphos marathon. Marek, my husband, has ran there his first ever half-marathon. He was quite new to running back then and yet he did it below 2 hours, which was amazing. Another year we have visited Crete, inspired by interesting article in Travel Geographic magazine. We knew that this time it will be a great journey as well. Greek are amazingly kind, friendly and open people. It is not fake kindness dictated by market rules, to encourage tourists to spend their money. They are just honest, nice people. They would give you a piece of heaven if they only could. It is “xenia” (Greek: ξενία, xenía, meaning "Guest-friendship"). It is a concept of hospitality, generosity and courtesy, which tells to treat your guests and neighbours the best you can. It takes roots from ancient beliefs in xenios Zeus, who commanded humans to do so. And despite of the fact Greece is a Christian country from a long time, this concept of xenia remained alive until these days as tradition, carried on from generation to generation. And you can feel it just about everywhere. Besides, Greek food is in my opinion one of the best in the world. Why? It’s because food there is natural and healthy. You will not find fast foods and pizzas around every corner. In local taverns the menu does not have twenty pages listed with fancy dishes. Fresh salads, olives, pitta breads baked locally, olive oil pressed by farmers and their halloumi cheese, thick yogurt made from goat milk, honey, nuts and loads of fruits that smell so fantastic!! And oranges…….. oh, I admired their sweetness at the checkpoints on the race route.
Way up to the church.
Yes, the route. When I was looking at the pictures that the organisers put on their Facebook web site it didn’t look scary at all. Nice, wide trail road with some easy hills. It’s true that they warned that some of the uphills are really steep, but who would care? I don’t think much when it comes to another running adventure, I just go for it. Well, at least when it comes to running. It’s good that in other areas of my life I have some more wisdom. 10 laps, each around 20k and then one small loop of 9k to make it to 217k. “I can do this” – I thought. Last year I made the 240k mountain race in Poland. There were real mountains with total gain/loss of approx. 15,000m. That race finished only 41 people out of 63 and 3 women out of 6. And I was the only lucky girl to finish within my age group. So why I wouldn’t finish the Cyprus challenge?
We invited my parents to join us for this event. Firstly, because they did a great job supporting me on my 240k race and, secondly, to let them see some piece of the world. And Cyprus is one of the most amazing and beautiful places I’ve been to. They deserved to see it. They came on Wednesday 17th May with Marek and I joined them the next day, actually late evening. The original plan for me was to come three days earlier but because I changed jobs in the meantime, I had to change my plans as well. So much of acclimatisation – well, all I could do was to go few more times to sauna the last week before the race and so I did. The following day was to organise last shopping – fruits for the race, some pasta with tomatoes and water of course. Nothing new, no experiments. Just things I would normally have – watermelon, bananas, dates, grapes. I base my nutrition mainly on fruits, and when I need more energy, I would have some egg-free pasta with tomatoes or rice. There will be a bit more about my nutrition later on. And then the most important part of pre-race preparation – go to sleep early. After all there was around 40 hours being awake and moving ahead of me.
The next day, fresh and cheerful, I showed up at the starting point in small village Vasa Kellakiou. A local preacher celebrated a short service during which he blessed us and the hills with beautiful singing of Greek prayers. It didn’t matter that I haven’t understood the word. His strong, melodious voice was rising into the air, and spreading around trails… the atmosphere was just amazing. After the service there was a half an hour for the final preparations and at 10:00 – START. There were a few other distances beginning all together – 100k, 50k, 21k and 10k. And so for the first two laps it was quite loud and amusingly. Runners greeting each other and shouting funny things to each other, all excited with this great adventure and full of energy – at least at that stage. But then other races have finished and I found myself to be alone. And that is where my race starts, I love to run alone. I like to sink into my own thoughts, my own rhythm, focus on how I feel and what I need on the next checkpoint. I don’t like talking much when running. The first bursts of laughter and jokes are fine but then I need to be by my own. I can talk after the race, sipping a nice coffee. But being in the race, I don’t waste energy for talking.
Just after the first lap I had no doubts this will be harder than I thought. The hills that looked so innocent in the pictures began to reveal their secrets. Two of them were indeed so steep that I had to walk them up. And there was nothing on flat, only up or down. The weather was sunny and hot but on the open sections there was some wind that allowed to cool down a bit. And I was looking at the trail to see if there are any snakes, praying not to meet one. And that how the first day went by. The night was calm and warm with no crisis. I took a one hour nap just in case, as I decided I have some spare time to do so. The second day was supposed to be really hot and dry. And that's how it was. When the morning came Marek informed me that 3 people already pulled out. There was supposed to be 12 of us for this distance but at the end 8 lined up. And I was the only woman starting this year. I knew that if only I finish I will be the third woman ever who completed the race, and the second in hot weather. There were 2 of us signed up but the other girl unfortunately couldn't take part due to an injury. That's a pity there wasn't a women competition but at least I could just take it easy, enjoying the scenery and atmosphere. All the people in the base camp were cheering for to the very end me and that was brilliant!!
When the second evening was coming up I still had "only" two laps and the small one. Roughly 50k to finish this. But during long events like that I never think of the distance. What’s the point? To stress myself out? I just go as I can, that's all. The less I think the better off I am. It was all going well. During the day I took three more 15-minutes car naps while my crew was preparing drinks and food. Eating was going fine... up to now. A few kilometres into the 9th lap I heard some loud cheerful noises from the distance. That were the first two finishers with amazing time just over 35 hours!! Then one more man has finished but I haven't met him at the finish line. The finish - so close and yet so far. The temperature has dropped and I found troubles eating and drinking. I've never experienced anything like that before. Yes, it happened many times that I couldn't eat solid food but at least I took some calories in drinks. I asked for a soup. The first portion was good, but after the second one I thought I would throw up. I decided to force myself to drink just as much as absolutely necessary. Two laps - I'm not giving up now. Not an option. Michael (the race director) and Eva (one of the supporters) checked up on me at one point and gave me some electrolytes. That helped a lot. I was sailing through the night although at that stage my legs were weak. I was running/ jogging/ walking... didn't matter, just to keep going. When the sun was coming up it was only the small loop left. In my thoughts I was saying goodbye to the hills, to lizards that kept me a company and the big church on the top of the highest hill of the race, where was a garden with cold water. I used it to cool down at each lap. What a moment of relief!!
Coming to the finish line I grabbed the Polish flag and happy as a kid, I crossed it after 45hrs and 10 minutes. Congratulations, photos, sparkling wine that I opened with a loud "bang!!" and that my dad poured to cups for those who wanted to make a toast, exchanging national flags with Vasa mayor as a sign of friendship... amazing emotions. It’s been a month since the race has finished and I still have these wonderful memories… of the sunshine, trails, kindness of the supporters, silence on the course, warm nights that were passing so quickly, baked potatoes from the fire (thank you Nicola) and so much more. This will stay with me for ever. This is what’s important – not only completing the challenge but the experience.
On the private side this was also a reward for my efforts. And I'm not talking only about trainings that I've done, as it’s quite obvious you need to prepare for such a race. I mean my battle with eating disorder. When I was just 12 years old I made a friend with Bulimia. She was the fake friend though. And for all my school years another one joined our pack - Depression. Mrs D. gave up after few years of pulling me down. And the final goodbye I said to her thanks to my husband. This wonderful man taught me how to think positive and he calmed down many of my storms. He's very patient himself. I guess this reflects what he does. He's into triathlon where cold thinking and patience is the key to success. I'm more emotional and like to work through my fire that burns inside of me. This leads me to push myself for long distances or run, jump, fly through mountains. Anyway, there was still Mrs B. in my life. And nobody knew... for 23 years. She was telling me lies, promising a lean body, great self-confidence and successful life. But what she was really giving back was self-destruction, doubts, fears and weakness. I was feeling like a failure with each run that I haven't done as I planned to because I didn't have enough strength. Some races I haven't finished at all because my dehydrated and undernourished body simply refused to work. In July 2015 I did my first attempt to the 240k race and I had to stop halfway. That was the point when I understood this is it. It's either sticking with B. and keep failing at everything I care about, keep losing my health and strength until one day I won't be able to get up from the bed. OR: it's time to have my life back. It was a hard battle, with many really tough days but finally I said my goodbye to her. I don't want her in my life ever again.
In terms of nutrition I've been a vegetarian for quite a long time at that point. But being vegetarian doesn't automatically mean being healthy. Pizza, chips, chocolate, cakes... Vegetarian? Yes. Healthy? I don't think so. When fighting B. I was trying different approaches: vegan, raw, fruits only... going in the right direction but seeking for something that I can stick to for a lifetime. I didn't want another "diet". This never works in a long term. And I knew that if I really want to be free I need to go for something that will stay with me for ever. And after many trials I have it!! Natural food. Some call it clean eating. Fruits, veggies, grains, rice, nuts are 99% of my nutrition. I read labels. If a product doesn't look natural to me I simply don't buy it. Sometimes I would have eggs (only free range), honey or Greek yogurt but very rarely. This way of eating works wonderfully for me. I gained strength that I need for my runs. In 2016 I lined up for 240k race as a different person. Stronger. I still learn my body and what I'm capable of. It's like learning to run again, on a completely different level. I can't imagine B. coming back to my life. But I know I need to be careful. She can attack me any time but I need to stay focused.
In order to motivate myself and others I set up a Facebook page Clean Ultrarunning. I share some ideas but mainly just passion for good natural food and running. I'm hoping that maybe I can reach people who are still fighting their battles. Or have conquered their own demons and know how hard it is sometimes to stay on the right path. My hope is to inspire people by telling and living my story. Because it's important to have passion in life. And we have only one life to make it right.
Enjoy your life to the full, be happy and change the world in a positive way – that’s what matters ~ Agnieszka - Pami.