Raidlight Aladağlar Sky Trail 15th August 2015

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15th August 2015 Aladağlar National Park, Niğde, Turkey

I Trailing on an empty mind

It was just before 7 am. After about 6 km, at 2000 m of altitude, the race course turned away from the gentle uphill road right into a narrow, steeper rocky path entering a valley towards the Kapı (the gate). My mind emptied out. The 45 km ahead through high altitude valleys, plateaus and peaks in the Aladağlar National Park were too long, steep and harsh to foresee. We would climb over 3000 m, and, of course, descend as much.

Two months before, Çağatay Köksoy and I had taken three days to walk the full race loop, from the village of Demirkazık (circa 1600 m) to the Emler mountain peak (3723 m), down to the Yedigöller (seven lakes) plateau (circa 3100 m), up again towards Çalınbaşı and the MTA top (3517 m), then down the valley around the Tekkekale peak to Maden yayla (circa 3000 m), emerging at the village of Pınarbaşı and following the main road on a long downhill back to Demirkazık village.

The Aladağlar Mountains were still patched with snow then. We had stumbled on the icy snowy slopes, raced against rain and hale-filled dark grey clouds, camped early to seek repair from the afternoon storms, and drank from the ice-cold deep blue lakes.

Then, a week before the race, Çağatay, Ömür, Hakan, and I had hiked up to the Yedigöller plateau to get used to breathing and moving at above 3000 m, and to build cairns on sections of the trail. There, I was faced with a changed, dryer landscape of reds, oranges, and greys, dotted with herds of sheep and goats, shepherds’ tents and mountaineers’ campsites.

Perhaps because I had come to intimately learn the landscape we would have to run through, it was easiest to simply forget any consideration about the road ahead. I focused on finding lightness and grace in my steps uphill on the scree, coordinating them with the rhythm of the poles poles, which turned me into a four-legged animal. Since I didn’t own walking poles, ultrarunner Alessia De Matteis lent me her ultra light telescopic running poles. I felt like a wizard with two staffs, filled with Alessia’s sparkling energy and tenacity.

I deliberately slowed down, holding back the impetus to throw myself uphill towards the peak. I visualized hoarding all unspent energy, hiding it into my pocket. I knew that later, after the second peak, I would need to draw from it.

After passing the Kapı, the path proceeded in steeper, wide zigzags up towards the aid station of Çelikbuduran. Çağatay was still with me. With the corner of my eye I could see Elena Polyakova’s light blue running clothes — Elena was climbing steadily just below us. A few hundred meters ahead I spotted Yücel Kalem, and shouted something of an encouragement. The first pack of runners, as small as ants, fifteen minutes before us, disappeared as they turned towards the Emler peak. Kerem Topuz had passed us earlier, on the road to Sokullupınar, chasing Alper Dalkılıç.

II One volunteer per race finisher

Throughout the race, in between aid stations, volunteers would be perched on rocks, standing in the rock-cracking heat and unforgiving wind, watching over us like guardian angels, spreadsheets and cameras in their hands. These fierce and strong mountain kids, members of ORDOS mountaineering club and DKSK (Middle Eastern Technical University’s Mountaineering and Winter Sports Club) became part of the race landscape. They merged with the surrounding peaks, together with the occasional shepherds family tent, mule caravans, and mountain birds. Overall, there were as much volunteers as race finishers. Their smiley faces soon became my main motivation for reaching and lingering at the aid stations.

WITHOUT SUCH A GREAT ORGANIZATION AND ENTHUSIAST VOLUNTEER PARTICIPATION THIS RACE WOULD NOT HAPPEN. Take into account that volunteers hiked up the night before the race, in a rainstorm, carrying provisions with mules, as there is no road access for most of the course. The race course was very diligently marked every 50-100 m with white poles or cairns and orange tape.

At Çelikbuyduran, which we reached in an easy 2.27’, I gulped down some coke. In my life I have only drank coke in the Sahara desert and, now, during long races. I quickly filled a bottle with half liter of water to melt some electrolyte powder, artificially flavored with something reminiscent of orange. My stomach was still processing the caffeinated energy gel and a home-made energy bar, so I just put the bottle in my bag. Yücel Kalem had lovingly made the bar with all sort of godly ingredients, and it tasted good too, better than my usual date-almond-oat-salt-apricot bars.

III Breathing on the Emler peak 

I followed Caner Odabaşoğlu’s bright green T-shirt on the rocky steep path towards the Emler peak, greeting race volunteers Ayşen Aktaş and Alper Kabran at the top, and taking some sips of the orangey water. I had been running-walking for 3.01’ hours and I still felt well rested. I breathed in the stunning over the valley on one side, and the Yedigöl plateau on the other, surrounded by higher peaks.

I though about the previous month and a half. I had patiently waited for a cold to go away, but that had turned into pneumonia. For over two weeks I struggled to speak, breath, and sleep, attacked by constant violent bouts of cough and a mild fever. I stayed in bed and read books and watched running videos and commiserated myself. I could no longer longer recall what it was like to take a deep breath. Forget about the ambitious training plan, my chance to race was over. I inquired about joining the volunteer troops.

One month before the race, stuffed with antibiotics, I started running at the track, but my throat closed up after a while, and I fought with a dry asthmatic cough. Twenty days to the race, running on a slow pace with a buff on my mouth nose helped to warm and moisten the air, reducing the cough.

Then, exactly fifteen days to the race I went for an 8 km trail run and did not cough once. If I still wanted to race, and finish the course, I had to fit in some long runs, without compromising the tapering period, and accept to take it very easy after the race, to prevent the bacteria to hit again. The best way to do it was a back-to-back in Ankara’s Eymir and ODTÜ’s forests (27 + 18 km) with the Koşankara/Ordos friends, and another 18 km in Izmir with a long mountain ascent, following Yücel Kalem on his favorite training grounds, Nif Mountain. The doctor told me that my runs indicated I had healed better than any test he could do.

A week to the race we drove to Demirkazık and camped in Yedigöller for four nights. We hiked on the course, and practiced descents on the scree. Mostly, I tried to eat as much of our basic mountain food as possible, and took cold dip in the lakes. We left three full days of rest to recover, back in Demirkazık village. As quickly and violently as it hit, any sign of pneumonia had vanished.

And now I was there, on the highest point of the race course.

I was elated running on the crest of the Emler. Çağatay speeded past me in a cloud of dust and disappeared in the Yedigöl plateau. Scree is your best friend in the Aladağlar: just put your foot down lightly, quicken your stride, and let gravity carry you down. I used the poles to keep balance and turn. Looking at Çağatay, now far ahead, I still felt slow. Like in a dream, my legs pushed back against my will to run. I felt as if my muscles had disintegrated into wobbly stones.

IV Swamps of sadness

Çağatay was waiting for me at the Direktaş station, where I forced myself on a mushy banana and some cheese, and of course coke. We were 3.32’ into the race. Our bellies full on the verge of vomiting, we jogged slowly on the undulating path towards Çalınbaşı, our next big climb. Banu Aysolmaz and Deniz Iren were approaching the climb, running energetically, and passed us. I looked down on the scree and on my feet, and used my poles to prop myself up step after step after my legs failed to respond.

On the climb my legs felt like overcooked pudding. My stomach was pressing against my lungs. My heartbeat spiked up. I was helpless, and sad. Very sad. I realized I had fallen into a Swamp of Sadness, like in Michael Ende’s book The Neverending Story I read as a child:

The farther they went into the Swamps of Sadness, the more sluggish became his movements. He let his head droop and barely dragged himself forward. “Artax,” said Atreyu. “What’s the matter?” “I don’t know, master. I think we should turn back. There’s no sense in all this. We’re chasing after something you only dreamed about. We won’t find anything. Maybe it’s too late even now( …) With every step we take, the sadness grows in my heart. I’ve lost hope, master. And I feel so heavy, so heavy. I can’t go on!”  “But we must go on!” cried Atreyu. “Come along, Artax!” He tugged at the bridle, but Artax stood still. He had sunk in up to his belly. And he made no further effort to extricate himself. (…) “Leave me, master,” said the little horse. “I can’t make it. Go on alone. Don’t bother about me. I can’t stand the sadness anymore. I want to die!”

“I can’t run anymore, I feel terrible”, I told Çağatay, “I am not going to be able to finish, I want to die”. “You will feel better once we run down to the 2000’s”, he told me, “just hold on”. I could barely see Banu above us, and Elena below. If they could still put one foot after the other so could I, I though. Then I forgot all about who was running what, and I realised I felt I was about to faint. Or vomit. Or both.

Then we were at the top of the MTA hill, at 3500 m, and 5 hours of running. Çağatay slowed down to cover my back on the first part of the descent, which edged a deep drop on our left. Warning signs and volunteers intimated us to proceed with caution. This was not the place to make up for time. At the end of the rocky trail he ran ahead on the downhill scree path, pushing me to keep up with his pace.

Whereas two months ago we had been running down on snowy slopes and walking on frozen lakes, now there were green pastures and brownish streams. The terrain softened, and so did the air, although we were still at 3000 m. I washed down another energy gel all in once with now lukewarm water.

V Baked/ light feet

Further along the valley we trotted by a shepherds’ family tent and a herd of goats, greeted race volunteer Ece, and I reached the Maden Yayla station in 5.46’. Waiting for Çağatay I nibbled on some dry cake, refilled my water bag, and drank the usual coke with fruit juice, for a change. Mahmut Yavuz arrived as were about to leave, shaken with altitude sickness, but looking cool, and asked the volunteers to heat up the tea.

I don’t know what happened in the following 20 min, but we were already down at Karagöl (the dark lake), where the path gave way to a wider tractor road. This was at back an altitude where I could run fast. I still held the running poles and used them to balance the descent across the rocky road, propel my steps forward, and protect my joints and jelly-like muscles.

At this point I was alone. I saw tiny ant-runners ahead, but maybe it was a speckle of light. The heat weave started tapping on my head, fist gently, then banging down with full force. I run faster to catch some breeze, and so reached the final station of Pınarbaşı, where smiley volunteer Pınar (!) gave me some much needed fruit juice. It was 6.54’ into the race, and I would finish exactly 10 km and 60 minutes later. The heat was now scorching my hands. It must have been about 40 C.

Mahmut Yavuz passed me on the descent to the valley. He then stopped and turned back at me, and slowed down to allow me to catch up with him. He was smiling. Hold the poles in your hands, he instructed. Take light quick steps, like you are not stepping on the ground, he said. Small, light steps. Follow me. I tried, for a few minutes. Then he said he was going to go catch up with the group ahead, and vanished in the heat.

VI Watermelon for the happy finisher

I continued on my own, sluggishly. I looked behind me on the empty road and didn’t see any reason to run faster. The road was following the valley now, passing near farm houses and a village. I dreamed of lakes and beer and sparkling water and waterfalls. Pouring the remaining water over my head the sun screen trickled into my eyes. I was blinded! I kept running thinking about the ice-cold creek near the finish line.

In the meantime, I had also closed the distance with Banu and Deniz, I recognised their dark silhouettes against the sun on the asphalt road on top of the hill. Banu crossed the finish line 600m before me, and won the race, as I was still running down the hill at the Cimbar gorge. Village children joined me in the last twenty meters. Watermelon, shade, water, and friends are always the best race prizes!

Among the volunteers, race organizers Serkan and Sertan Girgin, other finishers, Mahmut, Kerem Topuz, Yücel Kalem, and Alper Dalkılıç were still lingering at the finish line. Coraline Chapatte took action shots and filmed small interviews with all the runners. I asked for my time: 7.54’ for about 46/47km. Çağatay arrived fifteen minutes later, still looking relatively fresh. I waited to watch Elena Polyakova, run fast down the hill and cross the finish line with a strong sprint, classifying third.

The gender twist

It is well known that difference in running performance between genders decreases as the distance increases. Women/men participation in trail running, particularly in the longer races, is about 1/3, according to studies drawing from US-based races, and women don’t get as much representation in the race videos, reports, etc. A typical running video would mostly follow the male leader pack, and divide its time unequally between the first three male and female finishers. Often, only female “celebrities” seem to get good shots.

This race attracted even fewer women than I expected, perhaps because of the technical mountain terrain, and certainly because of the usual sociological and cultural reasons. Yet, women shined: they had a much, much higher finisher rate and each woman runner finished strong, proving a mastering of terrain and elevation gains that was a new running experience for most of us. At a glance, volunteer women/men participation seemed pretty much equal, and so was the division of labor in the stations and along the course. I hope that next year we will see many more women from all walks of life join the race as runners or volunteers! Until then, let’s hit the mountains and train to   run at higher altitudes!

A Final note on equipment

This was my very first sky run, but I did learn some essential mountain skills as a kid, and I have followed them all my life.

The most important, mountains are fierce and unpredictable. Carrying warm waterproof clothes and a headlamp should become a habit.

I would definitely run in such a terrain again with very light poles. They were indispensable for me on such course on both ascents and some technical descents.

Small running gaiters were essential too. Mine were so light I forgot I was even wearing them, and they prevented rocks to enter my shoes and from hitting my ankles on the last descents on scree.

The temperature can drop quickly. To face the scorching sun as well as chilling breeze, knee-long tights and a short sleeve white running top worked fine for me. Needless to say a good waterproof sunscreen is essential. Without the reflection on the snow I didn’t need sun glasses, I could see the course without squinting my eyes. A light colored baf or bandana protects the head from the sun and the cold, if dampened with water it would act as a small ice bag.

To face stomach sickness from the altitude and the effort I packed a combination of liquid/solid salty/sweet snacks.

Information and Race Details

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