Link: Race Information
Pre-Race: The Day Before
The race began at 4am on Saturday, May 13, 2017. Most of the 50k and 80k participants stayed overnight at the Ambelia Village hotel (myself included), which is the finish line and registration point for all races (except the 50k, our finish was at Alevkaya). The organizers had arranged for buses to drive us all participants to the starting lines (and return for 50k runners) which was very helpful.
I arrived at the hotel on Friday evening at about 6:30pm to find the place bustling with activity and chock-full of runners. The energy was high, and the sights were charming.
After picking up my race materials including bib, emergency phone numbers, and a couple of discount coupons for local sporting goods stores, I had just enough daylight to take a stroll around the property.
I dropped my stuff off in the room and headed to the restaurant to grab a quick meal before going to bed. They had a chicken and bulgur wheat dish on special, which I was happy to test out.
They also have a neat bar. I thought about drinking away my anxiety but ultimately decided against inducing a hangover.
After chatting it up with other racers for a bit, I headed off to the room to try and get some rest for the early wakeup call.
Because we were overnighting at the finish line, the bus needed to take us all the way to the start line–a trip that takes about 2 hours. As such, the bus departed at 2am and thus I had to be up even earlier than that. I was able to conk out by about 9:45pm, I think, and so only scored about 3.5 hours of sleep. Jitters are real.
The alarm went off at 1:25am, and I felt like I had just shut my eyes. Luckily I had laid everything out the night before and made sure to put anything away that I wasn’t going to need that morning lest I forget something in my sleep-deprived haze. Having never done a race like this before I was unfamiliar with such oddities as putting on sunscreen before sunrise, but the confusion soon turned to excitement as I checked out of my room and made my way to the bus with about 35 others who were just as excited to get the day started.
As with most ultras, I’ve found, we were permitted to leave “drop bags” with the crew, who would place them at various points along the route. In these bags, runners generally pack food to replenish their stash or a fresh change of clothes. For us 50k runners, we were permitted to leave a drop bag at Checkpoint 3 and Checkpoint 5 (the end), while the 80k runners were allowed those two plus one more at Checkpoint 7. Since I came with only two bags total (on purpose), I left the smaller one at CP 3 with some extra food and the rest of my items at the end so that I could change once I finished.
Here’s everything I packed for the race (click on the image for labels and links to all items):
Of the items above, the only things I didn’t end up using were the trekking poles and jacket. It was warm enough at 2am not to need the jacket, and I made a game-time decision to do the race without poles for personal preference. I also didn’t need to use the emergency cell phone, which I suppose is more of a blessing than anything. Otherwise, I packed very intentionally to reduce weight and inconvenience. All the items serve a rather straight-forward purpose, but if you need any further explanation or recommendations leave a comment and I’ll get back to you. FYI I know what you’re thinking about the Crocs, and I’m with you–they are the most repulsive and unsightly footwear imaginable–but when your feet are swollen and you don’t want to deal with floppy sandals, these are king. Don’t tell anyone I said that.
Moving on, here’s a breakout of the food bag pictured above, which includes all of the nutrition I planned to take in during the race (again, click on the image for details of each).
Learning from my mistakes on the Karpaz Training run from last month, I decided to pack all my own nutrition and take only liquids from the aid stations along the way. This worked out very well, and I even had a couple of gels leftover at the end. I’ll admit that I wasn’t perfect and I absconded from one checkpoint with a handful of gummy bears and potato chips. Sue me.
If you haven’t been following my training for the last 20 weeks (for shame!), I will give a quick reminder of the course route:
So, how did the race go?
Without further ado, here are my ramblings from checkpoint to checkpoint preceded by the official description of the section. For some additional context, I will also be adding in an elevation map for each section, which was put together by a friend, cartographer, and 80k race finisher Nick Wood. Let’s get to it.
Kantara Castle to Checkpoint 1 – 10km
Start below the castle at 4am. Follow the tarmac along an undulating course for about 3.5km to Kantara village. Turn left onto a jeep track. The way is marked with red dots and orange Raidlight marking tape. Watch out for the right turn about 3km after the village – don’t blindly go down into the valley. Watch carefully for the markings. After the first long hill of the day, the course descends to a tarmac road, where you turn LEFT. Follow the tarmac for about 300m. Arrows and tape will push you RIGHT onto a jeep track, then LEFT down a firebreak. Go straight at the bottom of the fire break until you hit the road. Turn RIGHT. You will see the checkpoint up ahead.
CHECKPOINT ELEVATION: 440M — TOTAL DISTANCE FROM START: 10KM
The bus dropped us off in the parking lot of Kantara Castle at 3:45am, so we had a little time to make a last-minute bathroom run, turn on our headlamps, and take a group photo.
The starting bell rang at precisely 4:01am and we were off. I had positioned myself in the back of the pack for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way as they took off at breakneck speed. Second, I had neither the ability nor the desire to keep the pace of the leaders and was making a conscious effort to start slow, which ended up paying dividends later on.
Because Kantara Castle is at an elevation of 570m, we had to run downhill for the first few kilometers to reach the trail. This was a great way to start the race and get warmed up for the day ahead. An unintended consequence (or advantage, in my case) of being in the back was that our bus followed us the entire way down the road, providing a much-appreciated cast of illumination with its headlights.
Needless to say, the entire first leg of the race was in complete darkness. Once we got on the trail and away from the road (and headlights!), we were on our own. By now the pack in front of me had been engulfed in the night and I couldn’t see more than an arm’s length in front of my face. Once in a while I’d catch a twinkle of another runner’s headlamp peeking through the trees, but otherwise I spent most of the time looking down and trying to keep my footing. Having a good headlamp was critical here, and it saved me from twisting an ankle or falling off the mountainside countless times.
After an hour or so, I popped out to another road and was directed up a short hill to the first checkpoint. My pace was such that I still felt very fresh coming in.
At the checkpoint I grabbed a Powerade, sucked down a gel, thanked the volunteers, and headed back off into the night.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 – 12km
The first real challenge of the day. A slow steady climb along a jeep track up into the mountains above Tatlisu village. Follow the red dots, red arrows and orange Raidlight tape. WATCH FOR THE RED ARROWS PUSHING YOU RIGHT SOON AFTER THE 15KM MARK. From here there is a long climb to the crest of the ridge but afterwards the jeep track undulates and the going is very pleasant. The checkpoint is at the start of the trailhead of the first single track trail of the day.
CHECKPOINT 2 ELEVATION: 565M. DISTANCE FROM START: 22KM
The hills started coming immediately after Checkpoint 1, and they essentially never stopped until the end of the race. Thankfully they weren’t too abrupt here, and this ended up being my favorite stretch of the entire route as I got to see the sun rise over the mountaintops and glisten off their rugged silhouette.
The trail was a nice, wide, well-maintained jeep track for a majority of the time and by now those in front of me had increased their lead so I hardly saw another soul. One of the Lionheart runners and I swapped positions a few times as one of us got a surge of energy or I stopped to take some photos, but otherwise it was just me and the trail–true bliss.
About halfway through, the trail ducked into the trees and grew more narrow, obstructing the view yet providing some shade. It was still nice and cool, so having the shade wasn’t essential.
Every once in a while, the trail would open up and provide a fantastic view of the Mediterranean sea and surrounding villages:
This section really flew by for me as I was warmed up, in a nice groove, and absolutely loving the scenery. I was a bit forlorn when it came to an end, since I knew it was about to get a lot hotter and harder.
The second checkpoint was barebones, but it had everything they had provided in the first one albeit in a more compact fashion.
By the time I arrived, there wasn’t much left. No gummy bears for me! Not to worry though, I had my own sustenance and was just one checkpoint away from my drop bag. Grabbing another Powerade, I was off into the bushes!
Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 – 6km
The going is mostly downhill but the trail twists and turns and is demanding – more so because it is quite overgrown due to recent good rains. Wear gaiters if you have, or a double layer of socks to avoid being spiked by ‘spear grass’. Along this section you will follow the red dots AND the green and white stripes of North Cyprus Trails, which track the same path, as well as the orange Raidlight tape. Towards the end the tape is red and white and not orange. As you emerge from the trail you hit a tarmac road, also the lowest point of the route at 140m altitude. Cross the road and turn LEFT to run to the checkpoint on the verge, about 0.9km away. Watch for traffic!
CHECKPOINT 3 ELEVATION 190M — DISTANCE FROM START: 28KM
This section was short and almost completely downhill, as noted above. That being said, it was also a technically-demanding singletrack with lots of loose footing so I ended up walking a good deal of it simply to maintain my balance.
At one point I turned a corner to see a Lionheart runner go ass-over-teakettle after rolling an ankle on a hidden rock. I offered a hand, but he sprung up as if nothing had happened. I later saw him cross the 80k finish line looking no worse for wear.
This section also offered some great views (and shade!) as we descended into the valley:
A short time later, after making it to the lowest point, we came to a road and were directed up a short hill to the third checkpoint. Now 28km into the race, I was more than halfway complete and feeling good. The sun was out and beginning to warm our backs (good thing I remembered the early-morning sunscreen!) and I was running low on water.
At CP3 our dropbags were waiting for us, which was the perfect opportunity to take a rest and re-supply. When I arrived, there were a handful of others mulling around and taking a break. Because of the extra supplies and the ideal location, folks were spending more time at this checkpoint than the others, and I was no different.
I had packed a PB&J sandwich as well as some gels and nuts, so I took a seat and snacked on those for a few minutes while remarking to my cohorts how nice the trail has been so far.
Shortly after, people began to file out and back onto the trail. Once I finished my snacks and refilled on water, I downed a couple of salt tabs and was back on track.
Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4 – 10km
This section starts with a slow grinding climb, first along a single track trail and then along along a jeep track, but then becomes undulating. There are even short sections of downhill. The checkpoint is at the crossroads near the ancient Antiphonitis church. Follow the red dots, red arrows and orange Raidlight tape. A green-dotted North Cyprus Trails route coincides along this section, but it splits off on occasions, so ALWAYS see reddots/orange tape before proceeding). When you finally hit the tarmac,go straight ahead for a few dozen metres till you see the checkpoint straight ahead.
DISTANCE FROM START: 38KM — CHECKPOINT 4 ELEVATION 470M
Leaving CP3, the markings led us parallel to the road but behind the guard rail. Within a couple hundred meters, we had turned off onto a rather nondescript trail that soon opened up to a massive hill.
By now, the sun was starting to blaze and this section had absolutely zero shade. The hill was long and brutal, but at the top we were rewarded with a nice flat section for about 5 minutes before facing yet another relentless hill.
Once at the top of the second long hill, it was a relatively flat course for a while, which my now-getting-tired legs certainly appreciated. I was getting into familiar territory at this point, as I had done some of my training runs out here, and so I knew what to expect for the remainder of the race and got some comfort from that. At one point on the hills, as most of us were walking, I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys from Kosovo who were running the 80k race. They seemed to be suffering in the heat and admitted that their hottest training days had been about 6°C/48°F and by now it was at least double that amount. In spite of the weather, their spirits couldn’t have been higher and they were having a great time on the trail. That’s what it’s all about!
If I haven’t mentioned this already, the trail was exquisitely marked. These types of runs are a bit notorious for being difficult to follow, but the organizers here did a fantastic job. I have a bad habit of getting turned around, but I didn’t miss a single turn here!
The trail oscillated slightly with small inclines and declines until we came to road. Following it for a few minutes fed us directly into Checkpoint 4–the last one before the finish!
Upon arrival, I was greeted with a glorious buffet of bread, nuts, fruit, chips, and candy. Although I had plenty of gels to get me through, I was craving some extra salt so I went in for some chips. Man, were those good. I grabbed some gummy bears too, but they had all but turned to paste thanks to the scorching sun. Didn’t stop me from choking them down, mind you, but my hands were sticky for the rest of the day!
The lovely volunteers asked if me and the others remembered the way to the end, as there is a sharp turn before the last hill. “Heartbreak Hill?”, I said, “how could I forget?”. Beginning to feel the day’s heat and the fatigue in my feet, I gave one collective sigh and headed toward the finish.
Checkpoint 4 to End – 12km
The first 3km is all uphill along a jeep track but then it undulates until the start of the trail that leads to the infamous Heartbreak Hill.
Watch for the red arrows pushing you LEFT onto the trail. Follow the red dots, arrows and orange Raidlight tape over this demanding section of about 4km.
Watch carefully for the markings — this is not an easy section and runners have got lost here in the past. Do NOT follow any paths luring you back down into the valley below! Stay up and you will finally reach the Alevkaya checkpoint.
TOTAL DISTANCE FROM THE START: 50KM. CHECKPOINT 5 ELEVATION 630M
Despite “Heartbreak Hill” being the last giant incline of my particular race, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer. In fact, CP 4 marks the beginning of what I consider to be the most difficult hill of the course. By now, you’re 38km/23mi into the race and are faced with a hill that stretches for nearly 5k/3mi. If that doesn’t break your spirit, I don’t know what will. This was by far my longest section time-wise, as I started walking about as soon as I was out of sight of the checkpoint.
Earlier in the race (during an easier section), I glanced at my GPS and made a quick mental calculation based on my pace–if I kept this up, I could finish in about 6 hours! Well, that was before this series of hills that did their best to break my spirit. As I was hiking and fastwalking the majority of this section, I saw the minutes tick away until 6 hours had come and gone. I honestly didn’t care about the timing, but it just goes to show how different trail runs (and especially ultras) are compared to traditional road races. In fact, my favorite thing about these courses is that I don’t have to concern myself with splits and paces. I keep an eye on my heart rate to make sure it doesn’t explode and then the rest is just survival.
After hiking for what seemed like forever, the ground leveled out again to provide some relief before the last big push. Along the way, I had a little history lesson:
Before long, it was time to hit Heartbreak Hill. Taking a sharp left off the nice, smooth jeep track, we bumbled down a slick rock slide to end up on another jeep track, albeit a bit overgrown and loose. Feeling good, I passed a couple of my 50k running mates (some of the first I had seen all day) as well as some of the 80k runners.
Having never actually run this particular hill (in my training runs I usually keep on the nicer jeep track!), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After running for a few minutes on the track above I thought, naively, that maybe this was it–this was the hill everyone talked about. Boy was I wrong. Before I knew it, signs were pushing us off the nice track and into a rocky field.
A bit of hop-scotching around boulders and power hiking brought me through the field, but I quickly realized that the hill kept going. And going.
Through rock passageways and around trees, the hill kept climbing. The significance of the hill was not lost on me, nor was the fact that I was actually feeling a bit more fresh than I expected. Sure my feet were swollen and my calves were screaming for mercy, but I got a second wind (maybe fourth or fifth in reality) and made rather quick work of the hill. Passing a few more of my compatriots along the way, I pushed hard to the top, maxing out my heart rate at nearly 190 bpm. I knew that the course would dip after the hill and I could coast to the finish line, so this was my last-ditch effort. Things would have been different had I been running the longer race, but knowing the end was near provided the last bit of motivation I needed.
There was no time for celebration at the top of the hill as I careened through the rocky forest toward the finish line. Glancing at my GPS and seeing that the timer was running close to 7 hours, I challenged myself to make it under that time. I pushed a little harder, feeling like Forest Gump running away from his bullies, until I turned the corner to see the finish line.
I was coming in hot, so I threw out my dampers and engaged the engine brake to provide for a smooth landing.
I crossed the finish line and stopped my GPS at exactly 7 hours. Seeing the official time of 6h59m later on, I realized that we had started at 4:01AM, so I had come in under 7 hours after all!
At this checkpoint they had a nice spread of solid food in addition to the snacks they had been providing along the way. This included cheese, nuts, fruit, vegetables, and bread. I took a few minutes to cool down, running my head under a nearby water tap, before diving into the food. The last hard push had really raised my core temperature (which I would not have been able to sustain for much longer) so I needed a break.
As I was receiving my finisher’s medal, Chris (pictured below) told me I was the first 50k finisher. What?! I really thought they were pulling my chain, but in fact it was true–I had won the 50k race. Unbelievable. To keep myself humble and honest, I must admit that winning this race was rather incidental. In fact, there were only 13 participants in the 50k race and the “top” runners were doing the longer 80k race (most of whom had already passed through the 50k checkpoint by the time I arrived). I was happy just to have finished, but being first through was a nice boot. I can’t imagine it will ever work out like this again!
I was tempted (both by the volunteers and myself) to push on and go for the 80k finish, which was especially enticing since this is the last chance I’d get for this particular race. However, I had decided beforehand that I would only run the race I had prepared for and would not try to overextend myself and risk injury or worse. I think that was the right decision–I was toast.
Here are the stats recorded by my GPS watch:
The the full 50km race results are as follows:
Time to unwind
After my bird bath under the spout and a belly full of cheese, I changed out of my beyond-soaked clothing and took a seat under a shady tree. I had to wait a couple of hours for the bus to bring us back to the hotel, so I killed time by chatting with the volunteers, grazing the food, and cheering on incoming runners.
Arriving back at the hotel later that afternoon, I decided to hang around until the award ceremony at 8pm instead of heading back home. I hadn’t ever received an award in previous races and thus usually didn’t stay, but I thought it would be worth it this time. Sure enough, it was. I was presented with another medal for “first 50k finisher” as well as a nice framed picture of the route. Later on during the ‘lucky draw’ I also won a bottle of wine, so I made out like a bandit!
What a great day! This being my first ultramarathon and longest-run distance, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I worked out a nutrition plan to consume 150-200 calories per hour of foods I had trained with and stuck to it. I made sure to start slow so as not to over-exert myself early on (“I wish I had started faster”, said no one ever) and kept a steady pace throughout. That left me with enough in the tank to propel (well, more like hobble) up Heartbreak Hill and finish strong.
The only thing I would have changed in this race would be to bring a couple more salt tablets. I consumed 6 along the way (each with 450mg of sodium chloride), but at the very end of the race my right hamstring began to cramp. I had successfully avoided cramps all day long, but I guess I had finally depleted my salt stores. Thankfully, I was able to walk it out without too much trouble. I also had only a slight bout of stomach trouble–coincidentally right as I passed the threshold of my furthest distance ever run (DANGER ZONE!). This feeling continued until after the race was over, but sticking to my nutrition plan saved me from agony early on.
This was a tremendously difficult race, but the wonderful and seamless organization, perfectly-marked trail, and all the helpful volunteers really made it a fantastic and memorable experience. It’s too bad that this will be the last year of the race, but I’m sure that Chris and Bryan (organizers) will go on to bigger and better things.
As for me, I’ve got another 8 months or so remaining in Cyprus and I plan to get a few more races under my belt in that time. On June 11th I’ll be running the Garmin Cyprus Troodos Trail Marathon (say that five times fast!) and then slowing down a bit for the summer as it gets unbearable to run outdoors.
In October there is the Buff Troodos Mountain Ultra, with both 50k and 80k ultra distances. I haven’t yet decided which distance I will sign up for, as it is a much different race than the Two Castles and requires training through the summer heat. I’m not looking forward to that!
Either way, feel free to follow along with my training, as I will continue to post updates and announcements in that space. Thanks for reading!
Until next time!