The journey to Russia could not have gone better. I got upgraded! Amazing luxury! Champagne, choice of meals and space to incline the chair back. On landing in Moscow I was picked up and driven for 5hours to Suzdal. The road surfaces were relatively poor so it took a while to cover the distance. It was interesting to see the stark contrast between the city and the rural towns. All the money is in the city. However the culture extends far beyond the city. I loved the colourful display of window frames.
On arriving in Suzdal it was buzzing. It was founded in the 11th century, Suzdal is one of the oldest towns in Russia and home to more than 300 unique historical sites and monuments from ancient Russia, including several that have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Awarded federally protected status in 1967 and surrounded by expansive forests and fields which I learnt I would be running through.
My first priority was finding some food some a menu that was complete gobbledygook. I opted for pike!
I had a day before my race to register and get my bib number. I used the day to eat a lot. The men’s course record was 10hrs which is not that fast for a flat course- only 800m of elevation (don’t get me wrong it’s fast!). I figured then the course had some hidden difficulties so I was eating to prepare my energy stores!
The race started at 0500 so I got up at 0345 for a coffee and some oats. Compulsory kit check, bag drop for 68km and then I lined up. The music was rousing- we were started by Michael the race director and his mini axe!
I thought if it was flat I could sustain 9min/ mile pace on runnable trails for 108km so I started off with that pace in mind. However the first few miles were around the ancient sites on the road so my pace was slightly quicker. However, we soon hit single track through fields and adjacent to the river which meant frequent river crossings (good wee opportunities!), boggy, muddy slippery trails and lots of river rushes to battle through.
The river crossings were deep- I had to swim. It was hard to overtake so my pace was kept pretty conservative.
I caught the first two women about 2hrs into the race. I swept past the first one but the leading woman was a class runner- a real match! On and on the miles went and we essentially remained together. The trail changed from single track to technical forest. They called it the Russian jungle. We had to battle through young trees, old fallen trunks and slippery mossy stacked logs.
I had the odd sense of humour failure as my foot got sucked into yet another bog but in the end I told myself to not fight it so much and just go with what the trail threw at me and this helped. I got ahead after an aid station but lost the markers temporarily and she caught me. It coincided with me leaping a trunk and wacking my knee on a sticking out branch. It was like I’d hit my elbow funny bone- my leg felt slightly dead.
She was much more fluid and relaxed running through this undergrowth and I was happy to follow especially whilst my knee throbbed. There were periods were I felt she was stronger than me but I knew I couldn’t let her go. It was only 25miles or so into the race and with 42miles to go I knew this race was going to be tough physically and mentally. There were certain points when I pulled away and tried to increase my pace to put some distance between us but these were usually on runnable tracks and by the time we returned into the ‘jungle’ I could hear her salt tablets rattling away in their container in her pack as she closed in on me. I used these solo times to good effect- obligatory toilet stops and shoe lace malfunctions.
We then hit a long stretch of sandy track. I didn’t know exactly how long it was but every time we turned a corner the track disappeared to the horizon. We worked well together- clacking along at a pace where I could only manage a few words. She was more loquacious and from what I could gather was looking forward to the chicken soup at check point 68km making a chicken impression and the word ‘soup’. I on the other had this awful realisation that I was developing a blister on the sole of my foot.
All the water crossings and soggy forest floor, swamp land, had taken its toll. By the time 68km came I knew I needed to address it with tape. She on the other would sail through and gain the advantage. I had to remain focused. I stopped at the check point refuelled from my drop bag ad sat down to take my shoe and sock off. I demonstrated my need for tape and vaseline and the staff at the check point were brilliant. Really on the ball and were able to provide me with both. All the checkpoints were really good- fruits, food, coke and lots of encouragement. I taped my foot and then put a very gritty soggy sock back on and my shoe.
I set off and thought ‘oh god the tape…it’s too tight’. I felt like a Chinese lady with a bound foot (although I’m well aware they would have suffered a lot more than me!). However I couldn’t feel my blister so focused in on establishing a consistent pace. It was runnable and I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose the course markers. My hamstrings felt really uncomfortable (which makes a change from my quads which tend to suffer in mountain races!) but the more normally I ran the better they responded. The only problem with this was running normally was hard work! Normally I develop more of an ultra- shuffle saving energy. I was desperate to catch her so I pushed on and on under the midday sun. It was hot but luckily the morning had been relatively shaded and cooler. I kept thinking I can’t lose this race because of a blister.
I hit check point 82km and looked round and saw her behind me. Now I was confused. She must have stopped for something. This was my only opportunity to take his lead and go. I had 15miles or so to go and I headed off like I had stolen something. I flew through ‘nettle’ fields, along wiggly single track and through farm land.
At 10miles I suddenly felt spent. My legs were really complaining. All I could do was keep trying to eat and push. Coke helped!
I turned around at certain vantage points and could still see her white cap bobbing along. Men passed me and I passed them. I tried to use them to drag me along but they could obviously smell home earlier than me and were really picking up the pace whereas I was just trying to maintain my current one. We had one final swim crossing where it was highlighted to me I forgot to apply anti-chafe cream to a delicate area and it stung like crazy!
I climbed the bank and weaved through the muddy trails to eventually emerge on a road. Now I could smell home. My blisters and chafing were nothing compared to my effort in pushing to the finish. That finish line was so welcome.
I hugged the race director with my stinky sweaty body and sticky gel hands.
I waited for Elena. It was lovely to see her finish (although obviously lovelier because she was behind me!).
It was all quite overwhelming.
The prize giving was immediately post 3rd finishing. The race sponsors had been incredibly generous with gifts from local suppliers, Suunto, Compress-sport and rubles! The medals were selected and then branded with your race distance. There was also a belt buckle for fishing in under 13hrs.
(Oh I almost forgot I won a sofa! I gave it to Vladimir, the chap who met me at the airport and drove me to Suzdal).
After the race I decided to leave Suzdal by bus and travel back to Moscow through the night. I hadn’t seen the city yet. Two friends, Fergy and Anna, from the UK were also racing and they were planning to head back so we caught the last bus back. It was 4hrs of cramping and being squashed, we all needed to stretch our legs out flat, but we made it.
Arriving at the hotel at 0400 meant little sleep before we headed out sight seeing to Red Square but it was worth it.
The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (aka St Basil’s Cathedral) is a church (now a museum) in Red Square built in 1555- 61 on orders form Ivan the Terrible.
The Kremlin is a fortified complex including 5 palaces and 4 cathedrals! It was formally the Tsar’s residence, and now belongs to the President.
I only managed to get a visa for 3 days in Russia (that was an ultra in itself) but I would love to go back; the history, the splendid buildings and the culture are all a draw. Through the race the people I met were incredibly welcoming, the race was well organised with a great atmosphere. It was runnable but with some technical forest trails to challenge your pace (and patience)! I was the first European to win an ultra out there and in doing so set a new female course record. Thank you for having me!