Last Saturday I faced the hardest physical challenge in my life so far. 4 weeks ago, on an eco-farm in the middle of China, I set my mind on participating at the Khunjerab Pass Marathon at the Chinese-Pakistani boarder, the highest paved boarder crossing in the world at 4693 m. I wanted to run the Ultra-Marathon distance of 50 km. Four weeks time for preparation was all I had. I was pretty well in shape already, but my body, especially my legs, needed to get used to long distance running again. I made a tight trainings schedule, I got up at 6am almost every morning and I ran. During those four weeks, we travelled almost 5000 km overland through China until we reached the Pakistani boarder all the way in the west. Training and weather conditions were far from being always ideal, but hey, all I needed to do was to log kilometers.
Isn´t the travelling itself exciting enough, you´re thinking? Are you wondering why I actually signed up for this event in the first place? If you know me well, you´re probably not wondering at all. I love physical challenges. I love to expand my limits. And I love the feeling of achievement afterwards. However, besides stilling my personal thirst for adventure, a competition like this is also a good way for advocating a good cause that is trying to change the world for the better. Hence, with this run, I wanted to support Team Satoshi, a sports team founded by my good friend Vitus Zeller, which aims at creating awareness for bitcoin through sport events and bring forward the decentralization of money and power (Learn more about Team Satoshi at www.teamsatoshi.org
). Lastly, I want to advocate for Pakistan with this run. Ever since 9/11, the country and its people have been connected with terrorism due to a small radicalized Islamist group. I hope this run helps to put the country in a much more positive light and lessens the prejudices that the world has had about this beautiful country. We have been in Pakistan for one week now and we instantly fell in love with the country and its people – the hospitality, generosity and helpfulness of the Pakistani people leaves you speechless after every encounter. We will spend quite some time in Pakistan. So far we´ve only seen the north. You will read more about our Pakistan experiences on our blog (www.takethebumpyroad.com).
So last Saturday was the day of truth. Besides me there were another 30-40 international runners from all over the world plus around 120 local runners. The atmosphere is difficult to put in words. The whole event was organized by z-adventures, a sports travel company based in Qatar, specializing in running adventures across the globe. The event was guarded by the Pakistani military. There was an army helicopter watching the spectacle from above, there were army officials armed with heavy machinery, sitting in nearly every curve, smiling and cheering for us and there were several ambulances with doctors and oxygen in case of emergency. The event was just perfectly organized and managed from all sides.
I had a good but light sleep the night before the race. When I woke up I felt energized. I felt excited. I felt great. I felt ready. It was a two-hour drive to the top of the pass. When we arrived shortly after 8am, there was still a chilly breeze and it was around 10 degrees Celsius. The sky was blue and the sun was shining. It was a perfect day. Everyone was excited. Some were filling up their energy storages with fruits and energy bars; some were anxiously trying to find a place to empty other body storages and the Pakistani runners were shouting some motivational lines out loud. Soon after, everyone impatiently gathered at the starting line waiting for the starting signal to ring out. And there it was. Everyone started running. I was just behind the leading group. I felt amazing. The view of the surrounding Karakorum mountain range was spectacular. Despite the high altitude, I didn´t have any difficulty with getting enough oxygen. The adrenaline kicked in and I started off quite fast with the local Pakistani runners, however, increasing their distance to me by the second. After a few minutes, I lost sight of them. A few internationals were also ahead of me, but I soon found my pace. After the first 10k, I had 45 minutes on my clock. I kept the pace. A few hundred meters ahead of me was a British guy that I tried to keep up with. Next to me were a few Pakistani guys. The first 20k were just pure joy. The landscape was breathtaking, the atmosphere indescribable. I had a dopamine explosion. After 21k, I had 1:48 on my watch and I noticed that my thigh muscles were rebelling louder and louder. I thought about my Dad, a passionate runner himself, who whenever you feel little aches and pains here and there, says “Lauf´s raus”, which means ‘Just run and the pain will go away’. This mindset helps indeed quite often. However, not this time. After 25 km, I knew that this was going to be the hardest race of my life. I underestimated the stress on the thigh muscles that is caused by the constant running downhill – on tar. Additionally in such high altitudes, it is not just your lunges that are longing for oxygen, but also your muscles. The relentless solar irradiation from above wasn´t helpful either. At a hydration station at kilometer 25, I stopped for the first time and stretched my thighs for a couple of minutes. From that point on, I set my milestones to the hydration points, which were placed every 5k. I stopped, ate a banana and some dates, drank water, stretched my legs and moved on. After about 35 km, I repeatedly had to switch from running into walking to prevent my thighs to clock up entirely.
My sore muscles were not the only challenge. As I was behind the fast group in the front and in front of the other runners in the back, I was running pretty much by myself. After around 30k, the field spread out so much that most people were actually running alone. Many times it felt like a training run. Only the smiling army officials and the hydration points reminded you that you were in a race.
Due to the constant pain, the runner’s high – a euphoric feeling experienced during prolonged endurance exercise, which usually makes me feel like I´m floating over the ground – didn´t kick in either. Instead I was continuously fighting inner doubts and voices that were telling me to just stop. And one question stuck with me the entire time: How far are your legs able to carry you if they actually can´t anymore? All I knew was that I had to keep on moving forward, no matter how fast or slow. Just move forward, I kept saying to myself. After passing the marathon distance of 42 km, I had 8 long kilometers to go. I was almost in a state of hallucinating, unfortunately not a runner´s high however, constantly aware of the pain. At kilometer 48, I activated every last bit of strength and energy in my body and ran towards the finish line. I tried to catch up with a Pakistani who was a couple hundred meters in front of me to cross the finish line together, but when he noticed me, he increased his pace as well. After about 5 hours and 10 minutes, I took the last curve and I saw Mia a few hundred meters away standing at the finish line in the middle of the road, waving her hand enthusiastically. As I ran towards her, I noticed that she was holding the medal in the other hand; her big smile was filled with love, pride and relieve. After a hug and a small kiss (we´re in Pakistan after all J), she put the medal around my neck. What a great surprise! And at that point, I knew the answer to the question that didn´t get out of my head: How far your legs will carry you depends on your ability to program your mind and to commit yourself to a goal, where can´t is not an option. Or in the words of Napoleon Hill: “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”