Suddenly he was behind me. Couldn’t figure how long he had been following me – I was sure I was quite alone. Focused on following the track and listening to some music I was a bit shocked to see another human being. The track made a funny little curve to the right and then turned more than 90° to the left. In reality there were two possible paths roughly 30-40 m apart from each other which could be the ones. Normally easy with the correct zoom on the map but on Day 3 you rather stop for a second to let the GPS fix a few % more. No stupid extra meters now. We briefly looked each other. I could see the strain, the exhaustion and the emptiness in his eyes – I looked the same I guess.
“I think its this one”
“No, wait – I think its the other one”
“Ja – could be”
“Ok looks good”
And off he was. Faster walking then me he tackled yet another steep climb. It was raining. Fog rising – everything grey in grey. Legends weather on a Legends Monday – roughly 12 km from the finish line. I saw him walking off in the grey zone and knew I would need to follow. But I was forced to take the phone out to take a picture. It was one of those moments. Moments which last. Moments which summarize everything in one picture – at least for those who have been in similar situations.
Preparation is important for adventures like Legends Trail. Especially to get the mental setup cleared and determined is crucial. With all uncertainties happening in my life at the moment I was not 100% sure whether or not I would be able to get the focus, to get into the zone. But well – I asked myself: do you really want to stand on that start line and the answer was a clear yes. There are so many personal reasons to go which do not matter here but one thing is for sure: deep inside you want to have an overwhelming longing to get this run done. Otherwise a start does not make a lot of sense.
Material preparation was straight forward – it gets to a routine. Running pack (everyone makes fun of me how much I carry but I think I will stick to it) and drop back with 4 smaller bags inside for each CP. Especially new socks at each checkpoint. Food was also packed in 5 portions – one for backpack, 4 for the drop back.
On Friday I picked up Uwe who saw my re-post that LT was looking for volunteers and jumped on the train for the whole weekend to get a look behind the scenes :). Its only a 1h drive from home to LT so that’s convenient. First thing was to survive the kit check including a “before” picture made by Caroline Dupont which would be completed by an “after” picture if all goes well. Can’t wait to see them. I was not feeling very well, was with slight headache the whole Friday so I greeted everyone as this is the family but went to the car for some quiet moment with my eyes closed with the hope the headache would clear and to finally put on the running cloths. The last hour before start was then again in the cafeteria of the school and its actually frightening and glorious. Runners, volunteers, crew – most of them friends – wait. Lots of chatter and laughter and excitement. Everyone knows (or think they know) what is about to start. I am not connected to German trail runners at all so it was really great to finally see more of them at LT. Tom was about to run himself, his girlfriend Moni was a volunteer, Volker who finished LT already was there with Maren to volunteer as well. It was really great to meet you and get to know you. Those events connect people and I hope it was not the last time we met.
Well, the headache did not got better until it was finally time. Weather was indifferent but I decided not to put the rain jacket on – which was the right decision. There were some discussions about the conditions and whether or not the feet would stay dry for a while. Funny thinking. After 400 m the first downhill started and was full of slippery and deep mud – so we would be confronted with heavy conditions the next 280 km. After 1 km the first creek crossing was reached. No bridge – why would there be one? So that one was settled as well :). Bring it on.
During the first stage I was not really able to connect to the race. The mind was not fully there but well – its a never ending race so lets stay calm and carry on – better days to come if all goes well. The highlight of the first stretch was a part on the Ourthe where the trail went through the water. And due to high water not just a little bit into water but waist-deep. For 20-30 m. Wow – that was cold. Getting the whole lower body dipped into a winter river in the Ardennes – it was a moment for those with very special interests. Being half wet in the middle of Night 1 was a nice twist to the challenge as well. But – its Legends – we are here for the struggle. I realized that my otherwise perfect strategy with the waterproof socks was a real problem now. My feet were swimming now with no way the water could escape. I decided to act and took out the waterproof socks. I had shoe insoles in my backpack (I take them out when wearing waterproof socks as those are thick enough), put them in the shoes and continued the journey to CP1. Its one of those decisions – it really sucks to stop, unleash the muddy shoes, open the backpack, try to figure out where to put the completely wet socks, take the insoles out and get the shoes back on. But the golden rule is: if there is a small problem fix it immediately or it kills you later.
I reached CP1 after roughly 10 h – that was pretty much in the timing I envisioned before. I was just glad that the first stretch was over and no major issues were there. Given my overall condition I was not too happy with the race yet. I fell twice on slippery mud, the headache was still there and I knew this was not even the start of thew real shit. The pasta was heel lekker and I continued on Part 2 – hoping that the daylight would do the usual magic. And it finally got better. I finally felt stronger. In the dusk of Day 1 I met a group with Adriaan and Irene – that was really good to talk and joke and climb together for some moments. With Irene I also quickly discussed the standings in our Garmin Connect running challenge and send funny messages to our lovely little FB group – brilliant moments.
Weather on Day 1 was quite good as far as I remember. We had some sun and the focus was to use the new energy to get as much daylight km in as possible. Part 2 with more than 70 km was just endless. We had the usual “in-between” CPs including one with hot soup (so good) but it was clear it would be starting to get serious in Night 2. Although I really enjoy running with others – at runs like Legends I really feel best when I am alone with myself and a bit of music to fully dig deep. I think I may offend people with it – its really nothing against anyone. But when I can do my own tempo, be alone with my thoughts and completely focus on the tasks that is when I feel calm and secure. The world quiets down and fully feel one with the challenge. Especially at Legends I love and need those moments. Sorry if that seems rude – its not meant to be. I reached CP2 in a perfect timing. I wanted to have 6-7 hours before cutoff to have a bit more room to breath when the shit would hit the fan and I managed to be fast enough. Two helpings of delicious kip curry with rice – fresh socks – and off – off to a part I was actually looking forward to.
Hautes Fagnes time means crunch time. As always at Legends. Before the race there were some discussions on how short the stretch up there was at this edition – but looking at the map I was quite sure the selection was well chosen. Chosen to get us in real trouble – chosen to let the ultra really start. And I was not disappointed. Endless river climbing up and down, the best part of Hoenge, Statte, Sawe and Tros-Marets – places I know by heart but with the mud and the rain it was a real party. Especially the last downhill with the km next to the lower part of the river Tros-Marets. It had everything. It started to significantly rain, mud, stones, water everywhere – finally truly in a situation which makes Legends so unique to me. It seems overwhelmingly difficult and every stone with a false step can send you down and end the race. Its a bit frightening but those are the moments to actually fully embrace – I was finally 110% in the race. Everything was against us runners but that was exactly the battle we (or at least I) came for. Naturally CP3 was a great relieve. It is a good feeling to get out of Hautes Fagnes alive and to have survived one of the more tricky stretches of LT – no matter how unique the feelings up there were. Time for some stew with mashed potatoes and some new socks.
At CP3 the mood was dense. All of us strained, stretched, edgy. 170 km in – Hautes Fagnes in fresh memories. The race was really on fire. CP3 was in Malmedy – and just to mention the name of the city frightens most of my friends. We know those steep hills around the city all to well. But all was well. 7 AM on Day 2 – daylight approaching – 5 h before cutoff – better than I could have hoped for. Stretch 4 started with a real treasure: the area around the Beverce pipeline. Every time I wonder if it is really allowed to send people there; esp. people with lack of sleep. But maybe that is a stupid question. It was manageable. I felt pretty good for the given conditions so Malmedy area came and became memory within a few hours. It was clear that the last stretch of Part 4 was the tricky one so it was again the task to make the most of the light, to try to not lose against cutoff (4 km/h) and focus on not making mistakes.
Being that good in timing meant that the complete Part 4 would be daylight – that was really great and comfortable. Part 4 ended with the greater Coo area including Iceberg downhill. Steep but home. We lived there for a while in a long gone area. And CP4 had Tortellini: wow. I love them so much. To top that Moni, Francois and Martino were there. Having dinner with some friends feeling. Was hard to have to leave the place but it was not the end and I was pretty clear at that moment that I would not miss the opportunity to return to the folks waiting at the finish. And I would not return to them in a car – I would do whatever needs to be done to return as a finisher. The dream was so close – and yet: Night 3 was lurking behind the trees.
And it started immediately. The first climb let to fenced farm land. Not unusual as we had to climb fences before in the race. But it was like two compartments and I couldn’t figure the direction anymore. As navigation is normally a thing I manage quite ok I knew immediately that the Night 3 was going to be much worse than expected. With a shock I realized that I was standing there and staring into the nothingness for some minutes probably falling half-asleep while standing. This brought some Adrenaline back and the brain tried to re-start. The first steep climb of Part 5 was the one to the water basin in Coo. A well known stretch but I was honestly surprised how difficult it felt after 210 km. Luckily on the top Volker and Maren were doing their Legends Safety Team job. We had to take a detour and they were explaining the way to each runner. Although I just left CP4 I asked for water as I felt horribly thirsty and I felt really hot. I think I spent too much time at CP4 and body started to shut down. A mistake in a race where no mistakes are allowed. At one point Volker looked at me questioning and I realized he was waiting since ages that I give him back the water bottle. Oh man. Not the best start of the last part at all. After that shock some more runnable parts came and the body slowly re-entered the game – at least for 1-2 hours. After that the sleepwalking started. Sleep deprivation is a beast. Slowly everything went out of control. The raindrops on the rocks looked like smileys in a way I couldn’t bear to look at them, the mossy stones turned into green frogs, every reflection of light was a runner with a headlamp. I don’t now how but I made it to CP 4.1 (Chez Ingo) where we had a great time. The real Ingo (racing himself) came in after me and Karen and Peter were there already. Suddenly all was well again. We had Toasties and Coke – we joked and laughed and listend to the intensifying rain outside.
Outside – where the last 30 km were waiting. The last 30 km of the endlessness of Legends Trail. We could have stayed forever but Karen, Peter and me decided to group due to our conditions – at least for the first stretch in the remaining night. The moment we stepped out of the tent all illusions were gone – the horror started at that very second. None of us was well, we were all sleepwalking, couldn’t talk but we were still in – crawling up and down Ninglingspo area. A disaster. There was only one last hope: daylight. Close to this and at the end of yet another long and horrible climb I let them go their way. They were a bit faster and I couldn’t stand keeping up with them. A quick stop to eat something, put some music on would do. And then the shock: the GPS signal on the watch jumped by about 100 m – just like that. I took out the handheld but it was weird as it was showing the same position. Horror. The one thing which should not happen at all, happened. I stood there frozen and shocked in the rain for a while until I realized that would rather kill me than help. I stopped the watch track and reloaded it – didn’t change it. As the direction was still moving when I was turning I decided to use the position displayed and go straight line back to track (about 100 m away). This at least seemed to work. So I stood again on that purple line. Good. Finally the watch signal was turning when I was in the direction I moved. Good as well. It seemed to stabilize. This really hit very hard. I was confused as I almost lost everything so close to finish. With the watch issues I forgot to put the other rain jacket on and was starting to get very cold. Mistakes on top of mistakes – it was out of control. Completely. I called Maarten to make sure that I was not hallucinating and really was on track. He checked the tracker and confirmed that all was well. Matthias called as well before leaving to work. Oh – the world was still there. Random news from a very distant reality but good to hear. And the light was returning. First thing I put the real rain gear on – an hour too late but well. At least I could see the world again and the watch behaved normal again. Had a look on the tracking page after the race and I nailed it the whole time. So what was that – was I having a really bad dream? Never had something like this before. With another 30 min in heavy rain but daylight and a watch behaving normal I took it as the last strike of Legends. The last attempt to finally beat me.
But no. Not this time. Daylight, horrible weather, Day 3, 15-20 km to go and 6-7 hours to get there. I was exactly where I wanted to be. Nothing would stop me now. The last km did not went easy but I was still able to jog which meant I was in considerably good shape this late in the game. Some more climbing. With the rain everything was completely watered but I did not care anymore. The only job left was to get those km in. It was time to return to those waiting at the finish. It was time tick-off another Legends Trail. You would have found me crying during those last km but luckily I was alone. Alone heading to Ferriers. Hard to explain those feelings.
Shoutouts to the whole LT team – whether it was the crew, the safety team, the volunteers, the support teams of the runners – another weekend which will not be forgotten.
Numbers in perspective:
There were some discussions before and after the race whether the course was easier compared to 2023. I would say: maybe a bit but with the conditions it felt harder. The numbers tell us that it was indeed a bit on top. More D+, higher climbing score. That with the conditions made 2024 a rather difficult edition of Legends Trail. This is also displayed in the finisher rate which dropped down to 30.3% (from 31.6% in 2023).