Monday, November 23, 2015

24 hour Race Kabul

Running around the clock for Deba & Nageena

Race report Ultra Compound Race Kabul

Posing with Deba (back), Nageena (front) and their parents and little brother
after being awarded as best male runner

After completing the first international Afghanistan marathon last October I was sure there wouldn't be another race to run anytime soon in this war-torn and security-paranoid country. I was actually looking for a marathon to replace the Athens Classic on 8 November, to which I had signed up (and paid for) but couldn't take part because my first recreational break could only be granted one week later. I was thinking about the Istanbul marathon on 15 November - never done before - a good way to run from Asia to Europe on my way home to Athens. Until I received a strange email with the announcement of a 100k/24 hour charity race/walk in downtown Kabul, on Friday 13 November. Wasn't quite sure if it was serious: running 100k within 24 hours in a city with zero freedom of movement, at least for internationals and UN-staff in particular - where, whom? The charity cause however was more than serious: raising $100.000 to help Deba and Nageena - two poor Afghan sisters - with a life-saving bone marrow transplantation in an Indian hospital. I called organiser Dave Lavery and I agreed I would sign up after I saw the race venue and checked with security about its safety.

Roof-top race course marked by cones and a code not to bombard this place
The 6 floor running course
Next Saturday I was dropped off at a gate of a compound close to the popular ‘Butcher street’ in downtown Kabul. Security guards with automatic guns let me in and led me to Mr Lavery - a tall well built, grey-bearded jovial and vocal Canadian expat with many years of Kabul in the backpack. In the typical Canadian no-nonsense style, he immediately showed me the race-course. While walking next and behind Dave - in many sections there was only space for one runner at a time - my eyes must have must have looked more and more puzzled - was it possible to run 100km or more on this 875m lap of which only 300 meters outdoors and 575 meters indoors in an empty residential building over 6 floors connected by 220 stairs, from basement to roof-top - with splendid views over Kabul and surrounding hills? Dave might have noticed my ‘puzzlement’ but reassured that security would be UN-compliant, with Nepalese ‘ghurka’ soldiers fending of any possible attack - sic. After this commitment I had no arguments left in the pocket not to confirm my participation next Friday.
Obviously there was no time left to train properly for a race like this. This year wasn't very successful on ultra-running so far - my longest distance was not more than 62 km, in a mountain race in Northern Greece (Zagori mountain run), not even completing the full 80k. Now I was supposed to run 100km or even longer within 24 hours. I would go with the flow - there was no pressure to perform or to compete. The decent performance at the Afghanistan marathon some weeks ago should suffice to confidently aim for a distance beyond the marathon mark - despite the odd course of maybe the most compact ultramarathon in the world and human history.
The 220 steps of the staircase between basement and roof-top

The entire week leading to the race it was raining and very cold in Kabul - under these circumstances it would be nearly impossible to run the slippery surfaces, stairs and sharp turns. But the race was on Friday the 13th, usually my lucky day since my birthday on the same rare combination more than half a century ago*. Friday morning was still cloudy but skies would be blue by the time of the gunshot - a nice prospect to start the race. I arrived well on time to organise my pit-stop with my choice of drinks and foods to keep going, as well some warm clothes for a night that would flirt with freezing temps. BBC Persian and a national Afghan TV (Tolo) showed up for interviews footage with focus on the charity story around Deba & Nageena who were present with their lovely parents.  All runners - around 30 national and internationals, fairly gender balanced to Afghan standards - had the chance to meet and greet with the family - a strong moral boost to keep going for their well-being. I paid my fee and got race shirt No13 in return - a positive sign?

Ready to go
At 12 PM sharp, Dave Lavery finally blew the whistle and there we went - stepping into a new adventure. The first laps were quite hectic with many runners starting way too fast and bumping onto other slower runners on stairways and narrow alleys. Race director Dave was not only running himself but also correcting other runners on the course to keep left on the stair- and doorways. First laps passed quickly but also made clear this would become a tough race later on, both physically and mentally. Only the first 3 hours I could complete 8 laps per hour but needed to wind down to seven to save energy for the long haul. After 8 hours of endless laps, narrow corridors, thousands of stairs, hundreds of floors and rooms in and out - I needed a first longer break of around 30’ to restock carbs and proteins with a hearty meal of grilled chicken breast with rice and carrots, accompanied by a can of malt beer. That hour I could only complete 3 laps, the lowest number of the entire race. The next hours I only logged 5 laps per hour but I kept going while other runners took longer breaks or simply called it a day with sore knees an battered quads - some of them would later resume running and walking after a few hours of sleep.
A brief break with nurse Kim
In the wee hours after midnight there were only three non-stop-runners left that seemed to compete for the longest distance: Dave, the organiser, Sean MacGillivray, a Scottish endurance athlete running non-stop with a backpack of 12 kilo’s (no kidding!) and I. Some younger Afghan runners went to bed after midnight, claiming they ran more than 70k and would wake up on time to complete the last 30k before 12pm next day - a claim that the organisation commented with some skepticism. The counting of laps was not electronically but based on verbal communication to nurse Kim, who was not only standby for med-support but also registered the hourly number of laps on a big white board.  I found it very difficult to memorise the number the laps per hour - your mind is not working properly throughout such an ordeal - so I kept track of my laps by marking every lap on my own whiteboard. How many times I got so disoriented that I ascended the rooftop floor a second time instead of going down - with other runners correcting my mistake. But despite the monotonous laps and frosty and wacky cold night I can cope with the much-feared sleep deprivation and mark lap after lap, thanks to a shift from running to fast walking.
Running through the night with some beats
View from the roof-top shortly after sunrise
I reached the 50k mark around midnight and managed to log the 100th lap by sunrise - the magical moment when the night is pushed away by a new dawning day - with a golden sun reflecting on the frozen damp on the rooftop - making it extremely slippery - and reflecting its rays on the surrounding mountains with their pink coloured snow cover - pure magic. Even the patrolling Nepalese ghurka’s were at awe. I kept going and by 8AM I finally reached the goal mark of 114 laps or 100 km. 100 km in and around one building! Now it was time to listen to the competitive voice in me. Where are the others and how far and fast will the they go? Sean looked stronger and faster than ever and I was sure he logged more laps than I did so far. Dave have some setbacks due to medical tests but picked up the pace after sunrise. Also the young Afghan runners - some very committed young men and women - rose from their beds and were running again. As I could not read the running minds I decided to break the fast with a superb omelette and then add some more laps to compete for the lead. Around 11:30 it was clear I was out of reach and concluded the last lap, number 130, totalling 113,75 km and 28.600 stairs or 13 vertical km’s up and down. Sean already quit the race when he reached the 100k mark but Dave continued until the 12pm gong and accumulated 119 laps or 104,125 km. 

The 'podium' with Sean (3), Dave (2), Frank (1)
The podium positions were clear and of course I was happy with my win, but hats of for Sean with his 12kg backpack - an outstanding performance as Dave later said - as well for Dave himself - running strong at age 55, with only one kidney, coming back from a long recovery, running while organising and running while sampling blood every couple of hours - ‘il faut le faire’. Also hats of for the young Afghan runners that kept going until the gong, some of them - and Zainab in particular - the only Afghan woman finishing the Afghanistan marathon some weeks earlier - running, walking and finally limping a large part of the race in pain. 

BBQ with award for best female (Afghan) runner,
flanked by some other brave young Afghan runners
The race event was concluded with a great BBQ meal and some time together with the lovely sisters and their mom and dad. I was awarded with a gift box with Emirates goodies and a nice certificate as Best Male Runner. After the race I went straight to the gym of Alpha compound, not to run more but to enjoy a cooling-down swim and a re-heating sauna and hammam. Maybe thanks to this early-recovery workout I only experienced mild soreness the days after the race. It was not the legs but my lungs that needed most time for recovery: running 13 vertical kilometers at an altitude of nearly 1.800 meters with heavily polluted outdoor air is certainly not ‘trouble-free’ for a runner with a history of asthma like me. That was also the main reason why I was forced to a brisk walk for the second half of the race - but it was also the key for success as I could keep going without breaking down. It was my first completed 24 hour race, actually the longest race I ever ran in time - not in distance (that was Olympia Race in 2012 with 180,1 km in 20h15). In any other ’normal’ 24 hour race a distance of 113 km would be considered as a turtle-performance, but this race was everything but normal - it actually might qualify for one of the most compact ultramarathons ever, ‘thanks’ to the extreme security conditions imposed upon expats in Kabul. Once more it is proven that nothing is impossible and that there are no good excuses not to run, wherever, whatever.

Apparently, the entire event was ‘interesting’ enough for the BBC to make a short reportage for its Persian broadcasting (see link below) but lets not forget the cause: the solidarity with the Thalassemia sisters and their parents. The event raised around $10.000 or 10% of the needed funds. In other words more funds are most welcome, so please also donate - my race fee of $125 went entirely to the fund.

Frankly runner
Athens, 23 November 2015

*) with all my respect to the victims of the horrible killings that day in Beirut and Paris

BBC Persian;

For those that want to support the worthy cause please visit the Gofundme site; please spread the word so we can ensure we raise the necessary funds for Deba and Negeena. Thank you!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Afghanistan Marathon Race Report

 Race report

It’s Friday morning 16 October and I am 43 km out of Bamyan town towards Band-e Amir National Park in the Central Highlands of war-torn Afghanistan, 3100 meters above sea-level. At 9:04 AM, race director James Bingham blows the whistle to kick-start the first International Afghanistan Marathon, jointly organized by Untamed Borders, Free to Run and the local Silk Road Event club. I am the last one to cross the imaginary starting line, marked by two race banners, literally in the middle of nowhere in this majestic rugged landscape, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Only now it sinks in this is really going to happen. For many reasons this is not just another marathon race - one in the many dozens I’ve ran so far. 

Only ten days earlier I arrived in Kabul to embark on a new UN-mission to advise and support the Government and President on urban development issues. On my two-day layover in Dubai I must have picked up a virus, causing an infection of the upper part of my precious lungs. Two days ago I was still coughing up my lungs and could hardly train. My training already lost focus the last couple of weeks since I knew I could not be back on time to run the Athens Classic as planned. When I found out about the Afghanistan marathon a couple of weeks ago I thought it could be a nice replacement but was pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed to run it because of security risks, provided the race would happen anyway. The Taliban was just pushed back from their brutal attack on Kunduz but they demonstrated how easy it is to terrorize and create a state of fear. I spent my first week in Kabul in splendid isolation in a UN compound, under security curfew due to high alert of attacks on UN compounds in the capital – with entire restriction of movement. With the combination of a severing lung infection and security threats I could only dream of lush Afghan highlands, let alone running a marathon. Yet, against all odds, I finally applied for a UN security clearance to travel to Bamyan, bluntly indicating the real purpose (I could have faked a business trip). To my big but pleasant surprise the trip was cleared two days before the race. A race against the time started to figure out how to get there, where to stay overnight (safely), how to move around there and last but least to register for the race if still possible an if the race was still on. 

No wonder it felt like a miracle just to drive out of the compound and heading to the airport, still anticipating a last minute cancelling of the flight due to security risks. Uttered a sigh of relief when the small plane finally took off and landed safely at the small Bamyan airstrip the day before the race. I was warmly welcomed by the local team of my agency and after a courtesy visit to the office I went to the registration centre in Buddha cafe. In no time I was handed over my bib number - it started to sink in this could really happen.

The office team took me on a tour through the nearby Buddha caves, a truly unique UNESCO World Heritage Site with what once were the biggest Buddha statues ever made, until the Taliban blew them to pieces in March 2001, as ultimate humiliation of the local Muslim population that cared for its Buddha’s. However, Bamyan bounced back and is now a thriving and relatively progressive multi-ethnic community, welcoming a growing number of Afghan and foreign tourists in a stunning landscape setting. While admiring the views of and from the Buddha caves I motivated three local office colleagues – two gents and a young dynamic lady - to sign up for the race, which they did just before closing time. Moving others to run and push their limits can be as rewarding as running yourself! I was driven to my hotel - Highland Hotel, built as a small fortress on a hill overlooking the entire Bamyan valley – and warmly welcomed by manager Parul, an Afghan archaeologist with excellent knowledge about the region, its people, its history and its multiple local legends that testify a unique blend of different cultures of East and West. The Highland fortress also happened to be the hotel of the race organizers and even more pleasantly surprising, the finish line of tomorrow’s race - while I thought it would be more downtown. I couldn’t wish for a better briefing on the race, accompanied by excellent Afghani food.

Next morning, after breakfast, my office running colleagues showed up timely to drive to the starting line, ahead of the official race vans. It reminded me to the Athens and Boston marathons, where you also drive the race course and then run back. It gives you more than just an idea of the race course: you notice the hills and the sheer length of the one way road. Once at the starting line I was happy to meet ultra-runner Stephanie Case, whom I know as colleague while working in Gaza, and driving force behind Free to Run, an NGO aiming at empowering young Afghan women and girls to run in this male dominated and women unfriendly society. She came with an entire bus and contributed substantially to a high share of more than 40% female runners, high overall and of course especially in Afghanistan. Hats off!
The next surprise was the timely start, which I nearly missed as I thought it would take the usual delay. I deliberately started easy given the high altitude (3100m), the fragile condition of my lungs and being slightly undertrained for running an oxygen deprived marathon. I was here to complete the race; not to compete. Some other international runners took of much faster and most of the local runners went out weigh too fast, as if it was a sprint. 

Although gradually going down to 2550 meters altitude in Bamyan, there were also some uphill’s to negotiate. The weather was overcast and temps below 10 degrees Celsius – ideal running conditions for me and allowing me to push a bit on those hills, picking up more and more runners gasping for air while over-striding. Only after cresting the hills I had to make some brief stops to cough up the toxic waste in my lungs – painful but controlled. At the halfway mark I was handed over refreshing watermelon while informing that I was running in 10th position. That must have been a decisive moment to shift from completing to competing – I had nothing to prove nor to loose and I was still enjoying the stunning landscapes on both sides of the road. For long time you don’t see any runners in front of you and all the sudden there are a few within reach. International runners usually keep their (slowing) pace while most local runners could not bear the idea of being passed and clinched on until they broke down and were forced to walk, which indicates they are really doing something new and inexperienced – again hats off! When I reached the last check-point I was told to be in second position, but too far behind the lead runner, Keith MacIntosh (UK) who was running at a blistering pace. The last 7k I struggled a bit with raising temps, sun, lungs and glutes but could keep my position, as I didn’t see any runner at far distance behind me, at least not on feet. Crossed the line after 3 hours 49, which could have been maybe 20 minutes faster if I started a bit faster, had clean lungs, had more prey to hunt and didn’t suffer a bursitis hip injury towards the end of the race – still struggling with it. However, it was a marvellous experience to cross the finish line after a memorable race with unexpected outcome. 

Being sure I finished second I was informed I was actually third. How come? There was a lot of buzzing about cheating with a motorbike but the mixed race jury finally rejected a disqualification, which would have resulted in a podium with only foreigners - maybe undermining future competitions. I didn’t really bother too much about this ‘setback’ and cherished my ‘bronze medal’ and a call onto the podium - a feat that felt surreal anyway, given the antecedents of this race.
Next day I joined race initiator James Bingham on a trip to the stunning Band-e Amir lakes 80 km out of Bamyan, while sweeping all the plastic bottles along race course. Band-e Amir is the first National Park in Afghanistan and more than worth it – a chain of 6 deep-blue glacial lakes surrounded by sandstone cliffs. It could be the perfect setting for the first Afghanistan Ultra-marathon…(and yes, James is considering it one day). Later in the afternoon the running team of my agency took me also on a ride, this time to a volcanic mountain with a ridge that was cleaved by a big sword to kill the dragon in the valley, with strong reminiscences to the legend of Saint Michael. A nice place to conclude this extraordinary journey before heading back to dusty and jammed Kabul next day.

Post scriptum
My last running blog on goes back to February …2014. What happened in between and why write again? Was the Afghanistan race so exceptional or were all races in between so bad? No and maybe yes. The dedication to overcome many hurdles to get to the start and then running a decent race in a war-torn country despite all the adversities feels like a greater achievement than running a faster but ‘normal’ marathon. On the other hand this was just a marathon while I thought I was an ultra-marathoner only writing about marathons as trainings for  primary ultra runs. And indeed, since the longer-distance races were not working out that well anymore since a series of very promising races a couple of years ago, such as Swiss Alpine marathon (78k), Comrades in South-Africa (89k), Psara-Allepochori (100k – 7th place), Megara (125k – 2nd place) and Olympia (180k – 3rd place) all in Greece, my appetite to write about a growing number of failed ultra-races ebbed away since my second DNF in the ultimate ultra-run from Athens to Sparta – the (in)famous Spartathlon – see my last race report of February 2014. Since then I only had more disappointing ultra runs while also my finishing times on the classic marathon distance went gradually upL. Although I always claimed that participating is more important than performing or even completing, the truth was probably hurting a bit, but not enough to bother writing about it. 

However, I never failed to raise and run again after falling and failing. Last year I still ran around 10 international races of marathon or longer distance, including a memorable ‘short but intense’ 55k run in Iceland and a 62k run from Ancient Nemea to Levidi in Greece. I was also unlucky to start well trained and motivated in the 100 miler in the Virgin Forest in Northern Greece autumn last year, struck by a winter storm/blizzard and cancelling of the race after only 35k mud/snow running – wisely since many runners including myself suffered severe and life threatening hypothermia. This year was not much different. I ran five so-and-so marathons during spring - all in too hot conditions for me – and failed to complete the brutally beautiful 80k ultra Zagori mountain run in northern Greece, despite a training week with my coach Robbie Briton around Chamonix at the foot of the Mont Blanc, some weeks prior to the race. I basically gave up dreaming and signing up for other ultra-races and be happy with ‘simple’ marathons , thus happy to have seized the opportunity to run the first international marathon in Afghanistan. Since there is little chance to find other local races this will be it for this year so time to look forward and plan races next year – despite the great uncertainty where I will work and live. But the bottom line remains that there is never a good excuse NOT to run, train and discover new places or rediscover old places. Aging and/or a demanding profession might grant some excuse for running slower and shorter but not for NOT running and NOT trying to push again the readjusted limits of speed and distance. Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw there is a say that
“We don’t stop running because we grow old, we grow old when we stop running”.

See you on the road!

Frankly runner
Kabul, 23 October 2015