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.
“Don’t Stop Believin” Cyprus Ultra 135 - July 2013
This journey started in 2012. I was looking at the ultramarathonrunning.com calendar. I came across the race that popped out at me, Cyprus Ultra. I believe this was in May or June of 2012 and the race was at the end of July 2012. I know a little bit about Cyprus because I have a co-worker from there, but to be honest, I never thought about a visit to Cyprus until I read about the Cyprus Ultra.
I figured that time was too short to try and get into the race for 2012. So I waited to see what was going to happen that weekend of July 2012. The race director, Michael Rivers was going to have updates on Facebook for the race that weekend. So come July 28, 2012, I was constantly checking for the Facebook updates of the race. There were three runners that finished 2 loops of 13.5 miles on July 28, 2012: Kobe Oren, Michael Ward, and Andreas Michaelides. I think the next update was not until July 29, 2012. That announcement was that runner Barry Codd had finished the 50 mile with a time of 11:42. He was the only finisher that weekend in cutoff time. I knew that I had to try this challenge.
I told my wife Maggi that I was going to the Cyprus Ultra the next year. “You can go with me, but I’m going whether you’re coming or not. So, I paid my 50 Euro deposit and set the wheels in motion. I made flight plans, hotel and rental reservations over the next few months.
I used other ultras as training runs. I had a 100 miler in the Philippines in December of 2012. I dropped out (DNF) at mile 42 for the race. That was a wake up call for me. Two things I learned from that: (1) try to arrive at least three or four days before the run if you are traveling internationally; and (2) try not to catch a cold before you go from a cold climate to a hot one. The first, you’re able to control, the second one just happens.
From the month of January 2013 to the end of June 2013, I had four 100-mile races. Each one was used as a training run for the next one. At my age (51) I just try to keep ahead of the cutoffs and have fun. To me, having fun is meeting new people and new places. That is my motto for Ultras. I don’t have a set training routine. I try to get in walking lunges with weights. I start off with a set of 30 lb. weights, doing 20 steps with that. Then work through 40 lbs., 50 lbs. and up to 60 lbs. with 20 steps each. I get in some pushups and planks for strengthening my core.
For my running: each week, I try to get in from 8 miles to 20 miles, sometimes up to 35 miles. I feel that at my age, too many miles will cause injuries to myself. For hill training, when I can’t get to long steep hills which is most of the time, I find one that is maybe 50 yards long and I sprint up it then walk down. I usually do this until I burn myself out.
Now fast forward to about a month before Cyprus Ultra. To acclimate myself to Cyprus, I put a portable heater inside a small water closet at home to heat it up. I was able to get the temperature inside up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius, and for humidity levels, I boil a pan of water and put it inside the room, and I would run in place 4 or 5 times a week.
Okay, jump to July 23, 2013. My wife Maggi and I leave the United States for Larnaca Cyprus. We arrived in Larnaca, on Wednesday afternoon August 24, 2013. We take the Express bus from Larnaca International Airport (LCA) to the Grand Resort Limassol. Then, from the Grand Resort, we take the 30 City Bus to our hotel. We had reservations at the Jasmine Hotel. It was the first one posted for hotels on the Cyprus Ultra website. So, I checked it out and I had a good feeling about it. I was not disappointed. We checked in to our room, stowed our luggage in the room and decided to check out the area. We had our first meal in Cyprus at the Santa Maria restaurant. It was a seafood meze. I was surprised by the amount of food. I was already full after the pita bread, dip and salad.
At the pre-race safety meeting at the Londa hotel, I’m sitting there listening to Quentin, Eva and Michael going over things about the race the next day. I find myself very nervous, and my legs are shaking uncontrollably. After the race briefing, I was talking to some other runners, and that is when I started to feel very comfortable about the next day. This is the first time I meet Jeff Danielson and Remy Brändefalk. Jeff was telling us about the race he had done in February on the same course. This was during the rainy season. The lower section was flooded. But we wouldn’t have that problem tomorrow.
The map of the course shown at the pre-race briefing. Ten loops of the 13.5-mile upper and lower loops to complete the 135-mile ultra.
Back at the hotel that evening, I cooked whole grain pasta. I had pasta with Italian dressing and peanut butter sandwiches for my pre-race meal. No problem sleeping that night.
The next morning I was up before the sun getting ready. On the way to the race, I stopped at a coffee shop to pick up some ice. My wife, Maggi got me a cup of coffee for the trip. On my first sip I spilled coffee on the front of my white shirt. My wife wanted me to change my shirt, but I told her it was a good sign.
We arrived at Vasa about 1-1⁄2 hours before the start. We found a table to set up our stuff for the weekend. We were next to Philip McMullen from Ireland, and Remy Brändefalk from Sweden.
Eva was having everyone put their phone number on the timing sheet next to the start/finish line. You are required to carry a phone with you during the race. Then she wrote my race number on the back of my hand. My number was #28.
There were seven names on the timing sheet for the 135-mile. I was thinking to myself that it would be great for Cyprus Ultra if all seven would finish, as nobody finished the 135 the previous year. While waiting for the start, I had my pre-race favorite cold chocolate milk drink. I was trying to smile and speak to the other runners while waiting. I am always nervous before the start.
At about 9:30am, Michael Rivers (RD) escorted the runners to the start of the race. Along the way, he pointed out some key details about the course. The start was at the lower loop aid stations. The table was set up and there were two gentlemen working that aid station that morning. I didn’t know it at the time but those two men would play a very special role in the run that weekend.
Runners gathering at the starting line
I carried my camera with me for the first loop because this way, it would help me take my time and not go out too fast. At 3 minutes before 10am, Michael asked everyone to line up for the start. Then he did a 10 second count down for the start, and at 10am we were off.
On the first loop of the course, my plan was to take it easy to get a feel for the course. One of the things I noticed to be a danger is down in the lower loop where there were thorn bushes. I’m sorry but I don’t know the name of the plant. I was thinking, you don’t want to run into them.
I was having a great time in the lower section taking pictures. There is a great view of the Dam on the big climb up to the abandoned house. To my surprise, I passed two persons in the lower loop. I think they were doing the 21K. Something I learned on the lower loop was once you start seeing bamboo you are getting close to the aid station, and once you turn the bend, there is that wonderful aid station. I filled my two handheld water bottles, had some raisins and banana. Thanked the “two gentlemen” and was on my way out.
Coming out to the lower section, I joined up with Debbie King from Scotland, Philip and Remy. Remy and I took some pictures of the group. I think this was first time I told someone, “That someone if not all, needed to finish the race this weekend”, for the good of the people that put the time into having the Cyprus Ultra. I didn’t know who, but someone needed to finish the 135 that weekend.
The first big climb on the upper loop seems like it goes on forever. Of all the climbs on the course this one for me was the toughest. Once you make it over this climb, we were heading for the small church with a water tank. On this first loop we didn’t see the tank that was at the back of the church. Sometime after the small church, Remy and I got separated from Debbie and Philip. Remy and I were having a great time telling stories. On this section before you get to the upper loop aid station, you have to endure at least two more nice steep climbs.
Gilbert and Remy Brändefalk bonding on the trail
One way I could tell I was getting close to the upper loop aid station is you start seeing pine trees. Before you see the aid station you could hear music playing. What a welcoming sound! Thank you ladies! At this aid station I had something I have never eaten at an ultra before, and that was tomatoes. After filling our water bottle, we were on our way. By this time, the sun was really starting to burn us. Heading out of this aid station you go down a steep long downhill with lots of loose rocks. You have to be careful that you don’t end up on your butt. Then, we have a long steep climb to a big church. At the last aid station you can see the church but getting to it is no easy task. For me, this climb is like two parts. Once you come out of the switchbacks you have a very long climb with a grade of 20% (my guess). Then a short flat. Then the grade goes to like 25% (my guess) and to me, this section was the best part of the course. I liked going from steep climb to an even steeper climb. Plus the view of the mountain and the sea from here is breathtaking. From here it is rolling hills to the church. Before we got to the church, we passed Antoinette Albus from Netherlands. She said she was not feeling well, but she was still pushing on.
Spring water from the tap
Once we got to the church, Quentin was there to show us the route around the side of the church. At this church, there is a water tap from a mountain spring. The water is not cold but is good to drink and cool you off. I wear sun sleeves and I used the water to wet my sleeves and put my head under it to cool off some. From there you start back downhill to the aid station. Along this section, Bryan Peozon was taking pictures (the big church in background). Once at the aid station, I had some tomatoes. Then Remy and I were headed back to the base camp.
You have a steep downhill out of the aid station. Then a couple short hills then left turn on the highway. Once you see a blue water tank, you know you are at the base camp. You go around the tavern then into the base camp. Remy and I were running into the base camp, with Remy doing the high sidekicks running in.
Once you cross the line you have to record your own time on the sheet. There is a clock by the board. This is one way the staff can check about your condition during the run. We start back out for our second loop, it was afternoon. My thoughts are that if you can make it through the heat from 2pm to 6pm and stay hydrated, that is good. Yes, for hydration, I wear a Camelback with a 1.5-liter bladder. I fill it with water then add one 20ml package of electrolytes called “The Right Stuff”. I also carried a 24 oz. insulated polar bottle with plain water for drinking, and for wetting my head and washing my face. I don’t remember if Remy and I headed out together for the second loop. I do believe we were together most of the second loop still exchanging stories. When I finished my second loop, I remember writing my time on the time sheet. As I turned to walk to my table, I saw Jeff Danielson sitting at his table. I had met him and his wife and two sons, Eric and Alex at the race briefing. I remember the look on his face, so out of respect I didn’t say anything, but because I know the look and I have been there before. I headed back on my third loop, and heard that Jeff had dropped out of the race. At his point, there were still six runners on the course. I don’t think I had seen Sergio Nikolaides or Loannis Gaiganis, two gentlemen from Cyprus. On the third loop, I was with Remy the whole loop. When we headed out on this loop we had headlamps with us knowing it would be night before we finish. One thing, I told myself was always to be on the lookout for snakes. I had seen a lot of snake tracks cross the trail and dirt road.
I may have this wrong, but I think Paul and Flora Parker were working the lower loop aid station or may have been the upper station. Great people indeed! Paul had run the 21K that day and then worked at the aid station afterwards.
For me, I was having a good time being on the trail with Remy. On this lower section, Remy told me he has to leave a “doggie bag”. I didn’t get it at first until I noticed him stepping off the trail. And yes I left 3 doggie bags over the weekend as well. As night fell, it cooled off maybe a degree or two. During that third loop, Remy told me that he needed some real food when we made it back to the base camp. So during our break before going back to our fourth loop, Remy ordered a burger and fries from the Taverna, and I had mango juice and a peanut butter sandwich. I was carrying Hammer gel with me, and using them between aid stations.
After we had refueled, we headed back out for our fourth loop. At this time there were still six runners on the course. This was our second loop to be on the course at night. It was on this loop when my friend Remy started talking about blisters on the back of his feet. We talked about this during our loop. I also felt I had one on my left foot. At the time I didn’t know how Remy’s feet would affect his race for the weekend.
Hydration was still going well for me. I still had the Right Stuff electrolytes in my camelback and water in my handheld. We made it through the lower section and headed for the upper section. The race organizer had placed white and red led lights to mark important turns on the course.
After completing loop 4, we took extra time at the base to refuel and took care of our feet. I had one blister at the back of my left foot and small hot spot on my big toe. Eva took a look at my feet to see if there was anything she could do. For the hot spot, she gives me a
Compeed® Blister Plaster to put on it. I haven’t seen this product in the US. I was planning to use a mole skin and duct tape for the hotspot. For the blister, I drained it and covered it with another Compeed® plaster. The Compeed® worked great. So, before I departed Cyprus, I purchased some.
I cleaned and lubricated my feet with Vaseline petroleum jelly, changed socks and shoes, from Hoka Monte 3 shoes to Hoka Stinson. I also put on some thin injinji and thick injinji socks.
Eva and Nicola were taking care of Remy’s feet. I didn’t check out his feet but Eva and Nicola said they were not in good shape. They taped his heel using a method to try not to peel the skin off when it is remove later. As we head back out on our 5th loop, we were joined by Philip again. This was good so we could keep each other awake. I find it hard to stay awake between 2 am and when the sun comes up. I was also carrying a thermal with coffee for this loop.
As we passed the lower loop aid station we had a couple things off the table from Dave and Tony, then off into the lower loop. We were being very careful not to run into any of the giant thorn bushes. As we passed the abandoned house, I noticed Remy was some distance behind Philip and me. I was thinking and hoping it was not because of his feet. As we got back to the aid station Philip and I arrived together, but Remy was a minute or two behind. When he got in, the expression on his face didn’t look good. He took a seat at the aid station. That is when I heard it. He said his foot wouldn’t let him go on. As we talked about his feet, another bombshell was dropped. Philip said he was dropping out. I looked at him and asked, “Are you sure”? He said, “yes” that he was going to take the left turn when we got back to the “T”. As for Remy, we hugged. I know he was heartbroken. And I was so sorry for him, but he told me to go on.
I was going to really miss my friends along the course. As I headed down the hill before the first big climb on the upper loop, I noticed something I had not noticed the day before. There is a chapel in the little valley. I had seen the metal box with a cross on top but had not noticed the Chapel St. Dimitrios in the valley.
I stopped at the chapel of Virgin Mary Vosiena to use the water tank. The sun was up and it was starting to heat up. So I turned the water on and just covered my upper body with water to cool off. It was good but I forgot I put my head torch in my camelback and found out later that night that lots of water was not good for the switch on that head torch. This chapel with the water tank would be like an unmanned aid station for me.
As I approached the upper loop aid station I could hear the music playing. It was always a welcoming sound. I can’t remember who was at the aid station that time, but like always everyone was friendly and helpful. Thank you for making sure we’re eating and got plenty of water.
After finishing my 5th loop, I refueled and poured water down my hat & sleeves to cool off some. My wife, Maggi and friend Remy were there to help out. Even after dropping out of the race, Remy and Philip stayed at the base camp. Upon heading out for my 6th loop, I tried to calculate how much time I have to do each loop and make the cut off at 10am Monday morning. I think maybe 4 hours to 4 hours 30 minutes to do each, if I wanted to finish within the cutoff time. This is when I went into a little bit of a panic mode. At the pace I am going, I am not going to make it. So, I decided to try to put some time in the bank. When I got to the lower level aid station, Dave and Tony were there. I believe this is the first time they played the song (at least first time I remember it) “Don’t Stop Believin”. One of the things they had on the table was dried fruit. I had some dried apple; it reminds me so much of the one my grandmother used to dry out in the sun in Tennessee.
I continued on around the lower loop. Back at the aid station again they played the song. They told me Debbie and Sergio were maybe 20 minutes in front of me. I was happy to hear there were still three runners on the course. Before, I started first big climb on the upper loop, I saw Debbie & Sergio on the climb. I made a stop at the church with the water tank to cool off.
Church with the water tank, providing an unmanned aid station
I caught up to Sergio about maybe 1.5km before the upper loop aid station. We had a short talk as we ran and walked. We could see Debbie maybe 100 meters in front of us. As I passed Debbie I spoke and she spoke back. I thought things were okay with her, because earlier I remembered her saying that she doesn’t like to talk a lot on the trail. So, I continued on. That is when I saw Michael coming at me from the upper loop aid station.
I think he was a little surprised to see me. He said he was going to check on Debbie due to the heat. I was making good time on this loop but I still was thinking I can’t keep up this pace to make the cut off time Monday morning. As I made it back to base camp, I was told that Debbie was feeling better and she and Sergio were together making way back to base camp. I had really overheated my body trying to put some time in the bank on that last loop. So Bryan Peazon put a towel over my head and down my back and poured a liter of iced cold water on it. What a relief! Then Remy had his cooling vest that he put on my neck. I wanted to get back out on the course as soon as possible. I was still thinking I only had 4 hours for each loop to complete the course. Then as it happens, what I was about to hear was a big turning point in that weekend. Quentin Macilray must have heard me mentioning I didn’t have enough time to make the cut off. He had to know that I wasn’t thinking straight.
He said listen to me! If you leave base camp at 12 noon, you will have 22 hours to finish the run. That still didn’t mean anything to me. It still wasn’t registering in my head. Then he said you have 4 and 1⁄2 loop to do. That gives you 5 hours for each loop and 2 hours to do the last lower loop. That is when I really started to think this thing can be done. So, I headed out with a real good positive attitude. Okay, there were three runners still on the course. If we just keep moving, the Cyprus Ultra 135 should have three finishers.
As I got to the lower aid station, Dave and Tony were playing the motivation song. I topped off my water bottles and headed out on the lower loop. Once I got into the valley I had a nose bleed. That wasn’t good. So, I wet my bandana and put it in my nose and held my head back to try to stop the bleeding. It finally stopped. I didn’t call Eva because I didn’t think it was a big problem. I figured it was just from the heat. Then, I looked down at my white shirt and it had blood on it. I knew if Dave and Tony saw this they might call Eva or Michael. So, I used a bottle of water to wash the blood stain out. When I made it to the aid station they didn’t notice anything at all. They told me Debbie and Sergio had gone through to the lower loop. I refilled my water bottles, had raisins, chips and a banana for the road. I stopped at the chapel with the water tank to wet down and sit on the bench for a few minutes. When I got to the upper aid station Dianne and Mary were there playing the music like always. They had some bad news. They informed me that Debbie and Sergio made a heart breaking decision to pull out of the run.
I topped off water, had apple and chips. At this point, I was having a hard time eating solid food. I was using gel and drinking mango juice and soda at base camp for calorie intake. As I headed out of the aid station I beginning to wonder if this thing was possible. Then, I remember one thing that Michael said at the pre-race briefing, “we will give you what you need to finish”. Then another song popped in my head “you can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, well you just might find you get what you need” I had been telling my fellow runners that someone needed to finish this run. Now, it was left for me to put my feet were my mouth was at. That really became a real motivation factor. To finish this thing for everyone that put this race together and for the village of V asa.
I finished my 7th loop around 4:11 Sunday afternoon. I decided to take a longer break. I changed my shirt and shorts. I had very bad chaffing in my groin area. My wife, Maggi helped me wash the area and Eva examined the area and said no bleeding. I was going to use some chamois butter. Then my friend Remy said he had some stuff that his grandmother used for diaper rash. The box said “Potatis Mjöl”. He told us it was potato flour. This stuff was like a miracle powder. It took away the burning right away. Remy had come to my rescue. I tried to get a ten-minute nap at this point. They put a towel and cooling vest around my back and neck. But I couldn’t sleep. This is when I found out the water messed up my head torch switch. I had two backups: a smaller headlamp and a handheld torch. So, I carried them both, as I wasn’t sure if I would be back before dark.
Dave and Tony were at the lower aid station playing the song again. I had to keep moving on and on and on. On the upper loop before I got to the chapel with water tank, I finally saw a small black snake cross the road. It seemed to be checking me out. I continued and took a short break at the church. I finished the upper loop and made it back to the base camp before dark. At the base camp, I remember removing my camelback to fill it with electrolyte and water. The hand torch dropped out of the pouch but I did not notice it at the time. Simon had given a pack of noodles to Maggi just in case I wanted some. I ate them with toasted bread with honey. Before heading out I traded one of my water bottles for my thermal full of Michael’s freshly brewed Lavazza coffee from his very special coffee maker. It was going to be a long lonely night and I was going to need things to keep myself awake. On the way to the lower loop I noticed I didn’t have the hand torch I had planned on using in conjunction with the head torch. But I couldn’t go back or I would be disqualified (DQ). So, I continued on, making do with what I had.
On the upper loop someone had removed one of the led lights from first turn, but things like that seem to happen in trail races. I continued on. I was drinking coffee and eating dried mango with lots of sugar to help me stay awake. It seemed to be working pretty well.
Gilbert’s favorite race energy – dried mango
This second night on the upper loop the wind was stronger than it was the night before. After finishing my 9th loop, I found my hand torch under the table. So now I had two torches so I could see better. But then Remy saved me again. He let me use his head torch for this next loop. I will always be indebted to this man for helping me get through this run. Remy’s headlamp made this loop a lot more enjoyable, being able to see things better. I made it through this loop with no problem. It was when I got into the upper loop that things seemed to happen. Before I made it to the chapel with the water tank, I saw headlights from a vehicle. It came from the church on the road toward me. It was a little strange because I had not seen any vehicle out here the whole weekend. Then it stopped. There were three men inside. They asked if I was out here by myself. I said yes. They looked to be like park rangers. They told me they were out there looking over me. I thanked them and they were on their way.
I continued on to the chapel. I made one more stop here. I sat on the bench. I was thinking about lying down here but I must not because I may fall asleep. So I give myself 5 minutes. I remember light in the chapel. I think it was from candles. To tell the truth, that second night I wasn’t sleepy. As I was walking along and before making a left turn off the dirt road I almost stepped on a snake crossing the road. No idea what type it was. It was not a black snake like the one I had seen earlier that day.
This is where it really gets weird. After making a left turn off the dirt road past the led lights for about 30 minutes I kept seeing a light in the sky. It seemed to be following me. I would shine the head torch on it but couldn’t see what it was. It appeared to be interested in me. It was almost like a large hummingbird that had a light on it, because it could move, and it just stays in one location. I don’t believe it was the other led lights on the course. Well, I guess two nights without sleep will do that to you. As I approached the upper loop aid station I could hear the music playing. There was Mary and Dianne. They tried to get me to sit down but I decided not to. I was afraid if I did, I would not get up. They wanted me to eat an apple, pear or banana. I told them at this point I could not eat anymore solid foods. I was still able to eat the gels. I thanked them and headed out for the last climb to the church on the upper loop. As I was making my way up the hill the sun was rising. What a beautiful sunrise. You can see the sea in the distance as you make the climb. I made it to the church and took a short break. I thanked the water pipe and church for being there for me that weekend. I know it sounds a little crazy. Then I headed back down the hill to the aid station. When I got there I was going to just keep going and not stop for anything. But Dianne was on the phone and she said Eva wanted to talk to me. She asked me if I was still eating. I told her only gel, I could not eat solid foods. I thanked Dianne and Mary and headed for base camp. But before I made it to the main road going into Vasa, I met Michael and Eva. They had driven up to check on me. Eva mixed an energy gel in my water bottle and told me to drink it all before I got to the base camp.
I found out later the reason for the attention. Dianne thought I couldn’t keep solid food down. But it was just that I didn’t feel like eating solid food.
I had finished drinking Eva’s concoction by the time I got to the base camp. I wrote my time on the sheet.
Then I did what I had always done in all my previous loops, jumping up the wall to get to where my table was to refill my stuff. And this, supposed to be my final loop, was almost a disaster. I jumped, but not high enough, and so I shortly missed clearing the wall and I almost fell. It made everyone gasp as they thought I hurt myself big time. And the question of whether I would still be able to continue on and finish my final lower loop probably ran through their minds. But thankfully it was just a minor skin scrape. No major injury. I am glad nothing bad really happened with all that stupidity I did otherwise RD Michael Rivers probably would have killed me and hung me upside down (hahahaha).
Thanks to Remy, Eva and Nicola for a very refreshing protein shake to fuel my body before I headed out on my final lower level loop. That was the best shake ever. And it did really help my stamina big time. As I headed out, Remy, Dave and Tony were going back to the lower aid station. I didn’t need anything from the aid station anymore. The theme song was still playing when I got there. I started out on my final loop of the Cyprus Ultra 135. I was stopping and enjoying the view for one last time. One thing I didn’t mention before that I did on the lower loop. There was a small water cave that had frogs in it and I would stop and say hello to the frogs each time. So this time I stopped and thanked the frogs for being with me that weekend. Another crazy thing. When I got to the abandoned house I took a 5-minute break just to look back over the valley, I am going to miss this.
When I got to the aid station they were wondering what happened, why it took so long, I told them I was just enjoying my final loop and took the time. I was told that when I made it to the “T” at the graveyard to turn left.
When I got there Mixalis Sigopetrides and Paul Parker were there to make sure I made that left turn.
From there, it was maybe 1 km back to the finish line. There was a house at the base we had passed each time going out. The lady was out that morning cheering me on. As I made my way up the hill and around the Taverna for one last time, I could hear everyone yelling. Then I heard the song playing loud “Don’t Stop Believin’” and that made the theme song for that weekend and actually my song for the Cyprus Ultra experience. To me the finish is for everyone and for the Village of Vasa. Thank you so much for having us.
Gilbert “The Machine” Gray, crossing the finish line of the Cyprus Ultra 135 mile, after 46 hours and 26 minutes, to much jubilation. The only person to have ever yet, finished this race.
One thing I always do each time I complete a 100-mile race is I hug and pick up the RD if they are at the finish line. So Eva was the first one to get a hug and pick up. To my surprise, she picked me up also. And so I tried to give a hug to everyone present at the finish line. There was a lot of emotion at that time. Even the village mayor was there to welcome me to the finish and receive a hug also. Thank you, Mayor Pantelis Georgiou. Thank you to the Race Director, organizers and to the village of Vasa for having me that weekend. And big thank you to all the other runners and their support crew. I am very grateful for all the new friends I made that weekend.
I look forward to returning someday not to run, but to support other runners. Thank you again everyone.