There’s a whole story behind the Zimowy Ultramaraton Karkonoski (ZUK)… It’s a popular race that is difficult to get into. I was meant to be running it with Dorota in 2017, but I got in and she didn’t. Waiting until February when people drop out and some spaces become available wasn’t plausible at the time, as we both live in the UK and needed to book flights in advance etc. Therefore neither of us did it last year.
Just to give you a bit of a background. ZUK is a 54 km winter, mountain race in Poland. The route goes from Polana Jakuszycka, the most famous cross-country skiing resourt in Poland; through the beautiful Karkonosze mountains up to Sniezka, the highest point in teh Czech Republic 1,603 metres (5,259 ft) and back down to Karpacz a cosy ski resort town.
I forgot about ZUK for a bit, well… until November 2017. When friends asked me if I was going to take part I said “not this year”. And then I got a message from Katarzyna, saying simply: “ZUK entry is closing on Friday at 12:00”. Hmmm… she wasn’t even trying to convince me, she just ‘put it out there’… Well… it doesn’t hurt to try, right? I used up all my luck last year anyway! I signed up on Friday morning.
On Monday I received a message from ZUK… I got in! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was so happy!
The months went by, Christmas, New Year… and suddenly it was February, therefore March and ZUK was just around the corner.
I was generally fine about it until Katarzyna said: “I’m really pleased that you got in, but I will be so worried about you”. What exactly did I get myself into here?
As the days went by and I kept re-reading the race instructions and seeing various Facebook posts and YouTube videos I got more and more worried.
When I shared information about ZUK with my English friends, they didn’t seem to understand what ZUK really was and how hard it would be, or so I thought… even Jamie said “you’ll be fine!”
Were they just saying that to encourage me? Were they worried just as I was?
I needed to come up with a plan, rationalise the whole thing. I read the instructions again and I started thinking about my compulsory kit. I already had most of the things that I needed, apart from a proper hat. I decided to go for a good quality, warm, wind/waterproof hat as I knew what the weather can be like on Sniezka (That’s where the race route went)… in 1990, the weather station at the top of the mountain recorded 345km/h wind… I checked the weather, just in case:
Rationalising wasn’t going well… Previously I was worried, but after checking the weather I was seriously scared, despite trying to play it cool! I had never run in “proper” snow, let alone in such conditions up a mountain and I knew that I’d be there alone. My standard “How hard can it be” didn’t cut it this time… also, if you know me, you know that I’m not great in the cold. Why did I choose this race again? It just all started to feel a little mad.
Let’s look at the compulsory kit list, shall we?
1. Each participant, during the whole run, must carry the mandatory equipment comprising:
· Clothing adapted to winter weather conditions
· Watertight and windproof long sleeve jacket
· 1 pair of gloves (watertight, windproof)
· Additional warming long sleeve layer
· Backpack or waist bag containing all THE MANDATORY EQUIPMENT
· Headlamp with fully charged batteries
· Pair of chemical warmers (packed)
· Water bottle with at least 1 litre capacity
· Switched on and charged mobile phone (with roaming) containing emergency and organiser’s numbers
· ID or valid passport
· Space blanket with a minimum size of 140 x 200cm
· Red flashing light (attached to a backpack, waist bag or back clothing item)
· Starting number (attached in a visible place – provided by the organiser)
· Route map – provided by the organiser
LACK of any item from a mandatory equipment list during the competition (from start line to finish line) may result in disqualification or time penalties.
2. Recommended equipment:
· Mini crampons (highly recommended)
· GPS receiver with a route map
· Footwear with spikes
· Footwear with Gore-tex membrane
· Waterproof and windproof pants
· Trekking poles
So I went and bought a hat. An extreme hat, I put it on and I knew that it would be a good purchase. Fleece inside, wind and waterproof outside and it covered my ears. Yes! First thing off the list checked.
A week before the race it got cold in the UK, not Sniezka cold, but enough. I went out with my running Leki poles a few times but my hands got so cold holding them that I decided not to take them to ZUK especially that I hadn’t practiced running with them attached to my bag. Poles removed from the list the warmest possible gloves added instead!
So here’s what I went for:
Hat – Extremities Winter Cap (I liked the beak!)
Gloves – Mountain Equipment Womens Guide Glove – proper skiing gloves with elastic bands so I wouldn’t lose them and feel like I’m 5 again! Loved them!
All the layers – base layer (string vest type) + another base layer, with long sleeves + short sleeve running top + Softshell windstopper cycling jacket 😀
Bag – S-Lab ADV Skin
All the Buffs (including woolen ones) I like buffs, I packed 4 of them!
Back up – additional long sleeve top packed in a waterproof bag in my rucksack and a lightweight OMM Aeon waterproof running jacket with sealed seams.
Montane – Women’s Ineo Pro Pants. Apparently they “have been developed for streamlined functionality with a fashionable twist when moving fast in the mountains.” Call me mad, but I cared more about the abrasion resistance, wind resistance and water repellency! Whilst looking my best 😉
Shoes – Salomon Speedcross 4
Socks – Stance fancy socks
Gaiters – Salomon
Space blanket (came with my bag)
Survival Bivi Bag (I don’t really trust that the space blanket will keep me warm if something goes wrong…)
Hand warmers – x4
Silva torch with a back red light
GPX file uploaded on my watch
GPS tracking – there was an option to rent a tracker for the day
Tailwind dissolved in water – 1L
Torq gels – 2 x lemon drizzle & 2 x apple crumble
Marmite biscuits 2 packs of 5
Nakd bar – also lemon drizzle
All I needed to do was to make sure that everything fitted in my bag… and it did, easy!
I was flying to Poland early on Friday morning and I didn’t get much sleep the night before, I was tossing and turning all night and then my alarm rang at 4am and that was it! Time to go!
Jamie got up very early with me and took me to the airport, I was flying from London Luton. The airport was very busy and as always it didn’t fail to surprise me, seeing people drinking beer before 7am…
I was in Wroclaw at 11am local time. Katarzyna picked me up from the airport and we headed in the general direction of the Giant Mountains (Karkonosze).
Once in Karpacz and settled, Katarzyna and I went out to grab some food (carb-load) and drink (isotonic) aka potato pancakes and beer 🙂
After refreshments we went to register and get my race pack. Katarzyna wasn’t running with me this time, which was a shame, but she kept me company during all the activities.
The race briefing was at 8pm and the Mieszko Hotel was packed with people. A few words from the organisers and a couple of people who did the race reconnaissance as well as the safety reminders and we were good to go.
Katarzyna and I decided to do more carb and isotonic loading.
After going back to our accommodation we went through the compulsory kit again, item by item, checking everything.
I put the organisers’ numbers in my phone and downloaded the RATUNEK/HELP application that allows the Mountain Rescue to locate you easily. Safety first!
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep with “neighbours” slamming doors at late o’clock. My alarm went off before 5am and I had everything ready and my bag was packed, I even managed to have some breakfast (bread roll with peanut butter and jam).
On the way to the coach pick-up, Katarzyna and I met Krzysztof from Bristol (!) how cool was that!
A few pictures before we went…
Katarzyna stayed in Karpacz and Krzysztof and I set off.
When we got into the coach the organisers checked our kit, it was very efficient!
Krzysztof and I spent our journey to the start talking about our planned races, London Marathon for him and Rzeznik (The Butcher) for me.
The start was at Polana Jakuszycka which is the epicentre of cross country skiing in Poland (one day I will try that!). There was snow everywhere, even though there wasn’t any in Karpacz and there was a massive fire to keep us warm.
The organiser’s team were checking everyone’s compulsory race kits. My kit had already been checked, so I kept myself busy trying to turn on the race GPS tracking device, I was worried that it wouldn’t get a signal in time. It took me a while (and some help from Krzysztof) to identify the power button on top of the device, it even had the power symbol and everything! It’s OK, I just won’t mention that I work in Technology…
Finally all set to run, my excitement was growing, only a few minutes to go…
The race started at 7:30 sharp and we went ahead into the wilderness. It was mostly OK running in snow, I don’t get a lot of practice in the UK 😉
The day was a bit murky with drizzle and grey skies and the forecast for the day wasn’t promising.
I was trying not to let the excitement get the better of me, going steady and rather slowly, I was cautious on turns, testing my shoes in the new conditions. We crossed some railway tracks and carried on in a large group, I was considering crampons, but soon we got to a road and I was pleased that I decided not to put them on just yet.
We ran to the house in the distance, and turned again into the woodland, the whole drive in front of the house was very icy and I felt a bit like Bambi on ice. I was happy once we got back onto snow.
The path we took quickly changed into a single track (mainly because of the section of snow hardened by runners in front) and we were going one behind another in a really long line.
Once we started going uphill my shoes were slipping a bit and I decided to put my crampons on. I chose a very good location to do it, next to a marshal who took pity on me, jumping on one leg, fiddling with chains and spikes, and helped me to put them on, Cinderella style! 😀 Thank you!
We walked the hills, and there were a lot of them, so I couldn’t help but wonder, how long will this race actually take me? There’s nothing wrong with a bit of uphill walking though, you can multitask! I texted Katarzyna and Jamie to check if they could see me in the GPS app. They could! OK, good, that’s one less thing to worry about.
Anyway… there’s always a time to take a picture!
Then we went through a downhill section that looked like a path next to a stream (you couldn’t see, as everything was under snow) and the descent was quite technical. Deep snow, big jumps down, this downhill required concentration and effort (I took a picture at the start, after that I didn’t risk it).
Gradually the hill became less steep and the path was wiggling through the forest, that bit was fun, especially since I had crampons on!
The forest looked a bit eerie with a fog-like aura. I like downhills and I like to run them fast, but it was quite difficult with a lot of people in front. The snow to each side of the path looked quite deep though and I didn’t think that I could overtake anyone, so I stayed where I was.
We got back onto a path and started going uphill again. One of my crampons fell off and to be honest, I was quite pleased that it was on a track and not on a steep downhill with a lot of people behind me. Here I had space to put it back on. I was worried that I would really become a crampon Cinderella!
Walking up was OK. I tend to walk fast so I managed to catch up with people that went passed me when I was putting my ‘glass slipper’ back on.
I was also quite hot and contemplating taking at least my very warm hat off, but it was drizzly so I didn’t want to get my hair wet and then have to wear my hat on wet hair (there’s clearly a lot of things to consider with hats and rain!). But as we were going higher, the weather conditions were getting worse and the hat was actually quite handy again to protect my face from a sideways wind and sleet/snow.
I remember getting a text from Jamie, saying that I was near a waterfall, I couldn’t see a lot, so it made me smile, I had probably already passed it, as it turned out later that the GPS was not accurate to the metre (and I wouldn’t expect it to be!).
Then I met Agnieszka, I started talking to her as she was wearing a hat from the Sleza Marathon (that I did in January), although her’s was the previous version, Katarzyna has the same hat! Apparently it was for luck and she hadn’t actually run the marathon 😀 Good conversation starter, though!
We split just before an aid station at Hala Szrenicka Shelter.
The aid station was great and they had the best tea ever with lemon and sugar. Far off the standardised method for brewing tea in the UK, but exactly what I needed at that point in time! 😉 Just FYI, in Poland, tea with milk is called a bawarka (“Bavarian style”), and is often drunk by pregnant and nursing women…
I took my tea and started walking up the next hill (I had a lot of space in my bag to put the cup away when I was finished with it, I don’t litter).
I caught up with another group of runners and again we were going all in one line, but not at my pace… so I tried to overtake and it turned out that the snow on the side of the path was quite deep and I had to make this high knee run-jump performance in order to get ahead. In the grand scheme of things, I overtook two people and it was hardly worth it, must have looked amazing though 😉
I ended up being behind this guy (as it turned out, another Krzysztof) who was walking at a really good pace and I thought to myself that I’d try to stick with him for as long as I could. We started talking and it was so good having someone to run with!
The route was mostly uphill until Śnieżne Kotły and then downhill through the Karkonosze Pass, both sections were very tough. The visibility was very poor, 10 to 20 metres at most, but we had no problem seeing the route marking yellow ribbons.
The snow was very uneven (well… it’s snow, not a path) and you had to really be able to trust your gear, as well as your judgement of how fast to go and where your feet went. It was very tricky and Krzysztof summed it up by saying that you could really hurt yourself there. Thankfully we didn’t, but it required a lot of focus.
My crampons were slipping off my shoes which wasn’t ideal as I had to stop all the time to pull them up. Probably it wasn’t always needed, but I became paranoid about losing them somewhere in snow during a fast downhill. And then I pulled one of them so hard that I broke one of the chains. Whoops! But I did manage to attach it higher, up on the back of my shoe!
It cleared up a bit when we started climbing again and got to a more sheltered area, we also started seeing more people. Soon we realised that we were at another checkpoint – “Odrodzenie” Shelter. In order to get to the aid station we had to go off the route… it wasn’t far, not at all, metres away, but still, I wasn’t ready for that, I wanted to carry on as we were only 21.5km in! We asked the marshals how far it was to the next station and they said 9km… we decided not to stop. As the next section was uphill we had some snacks on the way whilst walking.
We started following the ‘red trail’ to the next station – Dom Śląski Shelter (here’s the route) and the weather conditions got worse again. The wind picked up, the visibility got poorer and the terrain was really tricky under foot. We were on a ridge, going forward on the side of the hill trying not to be blown off. That was hard, really hard. Krzysztof and I barely talked just focusing on fighting the elements. The wind got so bad that I could feel it going through all my layers, so we stopped so that I could put my OMM jacket on and an additional buff, I think I had 3 of them on! I instantly felt better. This bit wiped us out, I had really had enough, I couldn’t see anything apart from Krzysztof’s feet in front of me. If I saw him jumping to the side I would do the same, not thinking or questioning, just repeating his movements. As it turned out… just as well as there were often walkers or skiers coming from the opposite direction.
It got to a point when we needed food, Krzysztof got one of his gels out and I checked my watch to see how far off the next aid station we were… Hmmm… we were nearly there… I decided to wait and then we realised that we were right by the aid station, we just couldn’t see it!
30 km Dom Śląski, the wind was so strong, I couldn’t even open the door but once I was in, the contrast hit me, I just got to the warmest, cosiest, packed with people, filled with food place on Earth!
And then I spotted Katarzyna! What an amazing surprise! I was so happy to see her. She walked up all the way from Karpacz just to see me! Thank you, you are such a star! We sat down with some tea and tomato soup, the best tea and tomato soup ever!
I messaged Jamie to let him know where I was, apparently according to the GPS I still had a little bit to go to Dom Śląski, so Katarzyna didn’t expect me there!
And then I spotted “naked people”. What? There was a guy just in shorts? What? Why? What was going on? Apparently they walked up from Karpacz, they weren’t taking part in the race… still… why?
It was so good… being inside, hiding from the wind and cold but my clothes were wet and I was actually getting cold just sitting there, we needed to get moving. We said goodbye to Katarzyna and headed up Śnieżka.
I was afraid to go outside, I didn’t want to do it I think that the fortunate thing was that we were going up, this must have ‘saved’ me. I warmed up really quickly. The final walk up Śnieżka is very steep and I had to stop a few times to take pictures (or catch my breath) 😉
Here are some more “naked people” for you to enjoy… Did I mention: “WHY?!?!?!”
There weren’t many views to admire at the top, just overwhelming whiteness.
It was even hard to say which way to go down the mountain and once we figured that out we realised how steep the way down was! And it was a long way down.
On the occasional uphill bit I was adjusting my crampons, which resulted in breaking the other one. Krzysztof said that I was walking up far too fast and it was just as well that I broke them ;D
The landscape was gradually changing as we were getting lower, from no trees at the top, to windswept trees that looked as if they were crawling, to taller and taller pines.
We also gained some visibility, which was a nice change 😉
It even started brightening up! I couldn’t believe it! And we could see some sunshine! Yes! We were now in the Czech Republic:
So now when we were going passed walkers we were greeted by an “Ahoj!” So nice!
I was tired and going slower. We eventually got to The Okraj Pass where we crossed the border again and returned to Poland.
I was tired…
We were instructed that the aid station was 200 metres from a snowman. I was thinking I started hearing things, but no, there it was:
I really appreciated the fact that someone took their time to build it en route.
We had tea and biscuits at the station and carried on. We were told that we had 16km to go… I’m not sure I wanted to know. I was tired, very tired and I knew that these 16km would feel like forever.
The next bit was very tricky. Uneven terrain and ice, loads of ice. My tiredness caused my legs to be heavy and move all over the place – so I was kicking my ankles with the crampons I was wearing. Painful. So painful that at times I needed to ask Krzysztof to stop so that I could pull myself together again.
Eventually we got to a point where the snow disappeared. It was as if we were in a different world altogether!
We took our crampons off which made us feel so much better, both physically and emotionally.
It was much warmer too, which meant that I could start taking my collection of 4 neck warmers off 😉
Shortly after we were joined by Agnieszka (Sleza Marathon hat). That was great, as I could listen to her and Krzysztof talking about their 100km+ races (and get ideas 😉 ).
We were going downhill through woodland, every now and then we could admire a view through a clearing. The sky was blue and despite the tiredness everything felt great.
The only thing that failed was my phone, which stopped receiving and sending messages (I got them all later that evening about 8pm), I was pleased that I had the GPS tracker so that everyone knew where I was 🙂
Somewhere near Kowary (with about 8km to go), there was another mini station with Coke, very nice, a little “pick me up” just before we started climbing again.
There wasn’t a lot of climbing left, only about 400m, but we were quite tired by then. I was mainly worried about snow, as the higher we were the more snow there was… I was really reluctant to put my crampons back on. In fact, I think we all were and simply didn’t!
It was still slippery, so we had to be quite careful. We had to go over some big rocks, which actually felt “nice”, a bit like stretching 😉
Finally we got to the top (Budniki) and started running back down.
Everything at this point was a mix of slow running and walking. I was feeling quite optimistic, the snow was gone and we were running down to the finish line… And then Agnieszka said: “I’m really worried about the last bit…”. The “last bit”? What’s the “last bit”?
Well… the last bit was a ski slope called Kolorowa (colourful)… The only thing that came to my mind was Gone with the Wind: “Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow.“
But seriously, what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe I would just go down on my bum?
I was thirsty and I ran out of my drink, but thankfully Krzysztof had some tea with sugar and lemon which he shared with me, thank you!
Eventually we got out of the woodland and were running down a road, we started seeing walkers and families of the participants and they were all encouraging us forward, saying that it’s all downhill now.
Back in the wilderness on a woodland path and as we started going downhill we heard people laughing… which is when we saw the next hill. Not a big hill, but a hill. This was the back of Kolorowa, the ski slope.
There were marshals at the top of the slope telling us to avoid the middle of the run as it’s hard and slippery. Krzysztof went first, quite fearlessly, I was behind him, being encouraged by the crowds to “let myself go… like a gazelle!” (a snow gazelle, I presume) and then Agnieszka.
It worked, well, at least it made me laugh! 😀
At the bottom of the slope Krzysztof and I waited for Agnieszka and the three of us ran through Karpacz to the finish line.
Agnieszka saw her family and went ahead, Krzysztof and I finished together (like gazelles!). We got our medals and met with Katarzyna who was waiting there for us.
The ‘other’ Krzysztof finished about an hour beforehand and was waiting with his family at the finish line. Unfortunately I took slightly longer than expected on the very last bit 😉 Thank you so much for waiting 🙂
Because me and my GPS crossed the finish line, I started getting messages from everyone tracking me. ❤
From what Jamie was saying, it was quite exciting to see me as a little dot moving across a map 😀
I really appreciated all the thoughts and well wishes (thanks Diana)! My mum and my uncle were travelling that day and were stopping every hour to see where I was!
I am so lucky! Thank you all for your tremendous support!
Katarzyna, Krzysztof and I had some tea and went to get a hot meal. I loved it, it had just the right amount of salt and was very aspirational!
Special thanks to Katarzyna, who was my invaluable support on site ❤
I look back at this event sentimentally and with great emotion. I could go on and on telling you more about how this event was a true test of spirit, courage and how we all fought the elements, but frankly…for me, it was an awesome day out in the snow, meeting new people and eating food. This is my favourite event to date. What more could you ask for?
If in doubt, do ZUK! 😉