(Running the early climbs up the ski slope)
The early climb was gentle and runnable, as we worked our way up to the top of the first ski lift. I stayed between Sesalie and Amber and felt comfortable with my pace. About halfway up the climb, the grade got steeper and the real mountain running began. I sprinkled in walking and hiking, pacing myself off Amber - I would hike when she hiked, and then jog as needed to catch up on the flatter sections. As the course turned to a hiking trail, I got ahead of Amber but felt comfortable with my pace. I could see the top and put my head down to power up the last steep bit. Considering the climb was an average of about 11% grade - and the early slopes were so runnable, the last mile or two of the climb must have been super steep, and the trail was covered with carefully placed rocks in almost steps (I flashed back to Cayuga as I powered up). I was as aggressive as I could be with my pace - running earlier than others around me - I wanted the climb behind me and wanted the real race to start.
(Towards the top of the first climb, with the rock steps. The peak behind me is the finish line.)
I was incredibly pleased as I crested the climb - I was only 4 miles into the race, but I had climbed more than 2,000 feet already and my biggest fear was behind me. It had been about 50 minutes of continuous up - but I had survived. More over, the legs didn't have that distinct fatigue feeling - so I was pleased that my recent 100-miler didn't appear to be affecting me out there - phew! From the top of the climb, you could see the ridge we were going to run, the ups and downs we would traverse throughout the adventure. It reminded me of the White Mountains, when you ridge run from mountain to mountain, and that feeling filled me with joy - this is why I run!
Almost immediately, the trail turned downward in a super technical rocky trail. The first mile felt like it was 15-20% down, and was large placed rocks that you hopped across - it was terrifying. I did my best to enjoy and cruise down them, but a part of me was freaking out that I was going to fall and get injured. I was sure glad to have on my trusty Inov8 Roclite 268s - they gave me enough grip to summon some courage through the rocky sections.
(Running a rocky downhill section)
I kept imagining that Amber was right behind me and going to catch me - and that kept me aggressive. I was pleased to be catching the stronger climbers, although I didn't catch too many ladies. In general, I was just running in awe of the beauty - there were these 30-50 foot rock features that were completely natural but were like no geolocial feature I've ever seen in the US. There were people along the course cheering 'Bravo!', and offering splashes of water to runners.
(One of the many rock features we passed along the way. This was about 1/4 mile from the finish line.)
At some point along the way, I started to notice these small concrete bollards painted white and red, along the side of the trail - with the letter C or P on them. These were the bollards marking the Chez Republic and Poland border - we were literally running along the ridge that separated the two countries.
(Polish-Chez Republic border markers)
The amazement of the views, the wonder of running in and out of two countries, and the awesomeness of wearing the USA jersey in a World Championship certainly fueled me through the first half of the race. As I approached the turn-around (22.5km), I saw how the USA men were doing (which was incredibly well!), and saw that Alison was about 5-minutes ahead of me. Then, after turning back towards the finish line, I saw that Sesalie was about 15-minutes behind me, and Amber was struggling behind her. But, considering Amber was hurting, the rest of the USA ladies appeared to be running strong and doing well.
About a mile out of the turn-around, the heat started to affect me. This entire ridge was exposed, there was little breeze, and it was upwards of 80-degrees of baking sun. The aid stations were far enough apart that as much as I drank and splashed water over my head, I wouldn't get completely cooled until I could reach my next aid station.
(My nightmare at 25km in - rocky technical trail)
During this tough patch, I quickly reached several rocky and technical sections. These sections that I typically love and float over were now land mines, and I stumbled over rocks as I tried to tip-toe and gingerly step around them. I couldn't stomach any gels or chews and my luke-warm fluids weren't doing anything to cool me down as I continued to hydrate as best I could. I mentally struggled also - thinking about how I wasn't a mountain runner, and how I had just run a 100-mile race only 2 weeks prior and ran a hard 50 miler just 2 weeks before that - what the hell was I thinking even toeing the line at this race? My only solice was that I wasn't loosing ground to the South African runner who was near me, she could run the technical sections better but anytime the rocks subsided, I was able to catch back up. I just hoped I wasn't loosing too much ground overall as I waited for this to turn around.
After several miles of struggling, I finally reached the next aid station (30km), where Sesalie's husband and son were there. Her husband handed me fluids and a fresh bottle as her son poured cup after cup of water over my head and shoulders. I left the aid station ahead of the South Africa runner, and felt good about my quick aid station stop - especially since the water was starting to cool me back down. Mentally, things were turning around.
I caught and passed a few runners, and tried to run as hard as I could. I could cruise over the rocky and technical sections again without fear or stumbling, I was enjoying the amazing views along this ridge, I was soaking in all the cheers of bravo from folks along the course. I ran a few of the last climbs, as folks around me were reduced to a power hike. I reached the last aid station (38km), at the top of the opening climb, and our course went past this and one peak farther along the ridge - I had one more mountain to summit and about 5km more to run.
(Example of the rocky and technical terrain on the course - no longer a nightmare)
I quickly caught one more female, then didn't see any other runners for a while. I could see the finish line, off to my right, and I started to panic that I had missed a turn. I kept trying to ask folks that were on the trail hiking, but without them speaking english, I wasn't getting any info. I did keep the pressure on and try to hammer the last few miles, but I was anxious about running any extra distance. Finally, the course turned toward the finish line, and I could see national team athletes cheering us towards the finish.
(The last Chez Republic-Polish border marker, 1/4 mile from the finish on the rock feature above)
(Crossing the finish line)
I was quickly able to find Alison, who finished about 10 minutes ahead of me (20th place). We headed out onto the course to cheer on Sesalie - we had heard that Amber unfortunately had to drop out due to an injury. Sesalie powered through the finish about 17 minutes behind me - a super strong performance for her. I quickly talked her into also getting a celebratory beer at the finish line - I was calling it my birthday beer! We were both the most novice of team USA at this distance and competive level of racing, and were extremely excited to have finished strong and represented well for the USA. Turns out I finished 29th place and second USA runner - not so bad considering my preparation, my recent 100-miler, and my experience at mountain races in general.
(Birthday beer with Sesalie)
It took 2 ski lifts to get from the finish line to the starting line - really showing us how much climbing we did. After a quick shower, the team returned to the awards ceremony to cheer on the podium finishers. Our men's team was a close 4th place finish (just over 2 minutes off the podium!) and our ladies team was 8th place, which tops our 10th place team finish in Wales. Then, we decided that we had to have one more Polish experience before we returned home - and we went out for perogies. They were handcrafted, you could literally see the finger prints of the chef around the edges of each perogie; they were the best thing I had eaten in a while. Totally worth running for, and the perfect way to finish my Polish adventure.
(Handmade perogies, a well deserved post-race treat)
All in all, this was an incredible experience. I was extremely pleased to run a true European mountain marathon, and experience the enthusiasm and support of trail racing in Europe. The course was amazing and challenging. I was pleased with my results, but not completely enthusiastic - with more advanced selection, I would have focused a bit more on my technical running skills and mountain running strenght, however I did well considering. I finished my second World Championship race, within a month of each other, and placed in the top 30 at both events, I believe I represented the USA as well as I could have. However, I think that between the World Trail Running Championships, with the 50-mile distance that I love and focus I was able to give towards that event, and the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, with the technical section, beautiful and challenging course, and cheering spectators along the course - that I got to experience all the aspects of a World Championship and European race that I had always imagined. And to get to do that with a USA singlet on was an honor. I don't know if I'll ever have an opportunity to race for team USA again, or get to travel to these amazing places for races, but I am grateful for the opportunities that I've been given this summer and look forward to any other incredible opportunity in the future.