Race Report: 24 Hours of Rhineland-Palatinate 72K Trail Run

I mentioned in my last post that I found a new 72K trail race, similar in characteristic to the Westerwald run, but when I tried to sign up online they were booked solid, so I signed up for the 80K Fidelitas Night Run taking place on June 28th. Well as luck would have it, I received an e-mail a few days later saying a runner had to drop out and there was a starter place available, if I still wanted to run the event I should let them know, so I did.

The Pfalz Trail Run is part of the “24 Stunden von Rheinland-Pflaz” (24 Hours of Rhineland-Palatinate) event, a benefit Wanderung (hike) used to raise money for Kinder in Not (children in need), and also to encourage tourism in the region. The run version of this event covers the same 3-Stage, 72 kilometer course as the Wanderung, the only difference is the runners can run straight through and the walkers hike one stage at a time, taking a lunch and dinner break in between the stages. The run is classified as an Erlebnis (experience) run, which means there is no winner, no clock, and no finisher list. In other words it’s just for fun, if you consider running 72 km (~45 mi.) with 2228 meters of elevation gain/loss a form of enjoyment.

As I mentioned the race is broken into 3 stages:

• The Day Stage: 26.5 km with 772 meters of elevation gain/loss
• The Dawn Stage: 21.5 km with 729 meters of elevation gain/loss
• The Night Stage: 24 km with 727 meters of elevation gain/loss

I arrived in the small town of Hennweiler around 7:00 a.m., in plenty of time to pick up my start packet in the market square and enjoy the breakfast provided by the organizers. There were no start numbers, just a Road Book with a rough map and description of the 3 stage course, and for the runners 2 bottles of water. This event originated as a hiking event and the manning of the aid stations planned for the hikers, the runners were more or less on our own, the only concession the organizers made was to deposit cases of water bottles at 2 designated points on each stage, for experienced Ultra runners, not a problem as long as we know about it ahead of time (I had my Camelbak).

Shortly before the 8:30 a.m. start of the event, the local mayor called the roughly 270 Wanderers and 8 (eight !) runners together in the parking lot of the market square and went through his little speech, encouraging the hikers to hang tough and stay safe. There was no mention of the crazy little group that actually planned on running the course, maybe he wasn’t informed? After finishing the starting pistol went off, and realizing I was at the back of most of the hikers, I quickly sped around them before we got to the narrow trail outside of town. Soon I was alone, with only a fleeting glimpse of a couple runners ahead of me, it would be the last time I would see them, or any other participant, for quite a while.

Holiday Region Hunsrück Slate and Castle Route

Holiday Region Hunsrück Slate and Castle Route

The course quickly changed to what would be repeated throughout the event, an uphill climb, either short and steep or long (1-3 km) and gradual, followed by a corresponding downhill, followed by a somewhat flat section, repeat. The steep sections were steep, as in hang on to the tree when you are going down or you will fall on your face. The course itself was a good mix of asphalted field ways, gravel roads and dirt single trail, mixed in with cobble stones, stones and roots of every size imaginable, stairs, bridges, rocks, and anything else nature could think of to trip you up. This was one of the first “Trail Runs” in Germany that at least tried to live up to its name.

I completed the first stage in good time and without falling on my face. I replenished my sports drink and had something to eat at the market square. By this time it was midday, the hikers were probably still a couple hours behind me, so there were only a few from the organizers sitting around. As I set out on the second stage I noticed the temperature was still around 18°C, very mild compared to the summer days we had lately, and very important considering the severity of the trail ahead of me.

The second stage began as the first had, a couple kilometers through the fields, then up into the hills. The “Dawn” stage passed by the Wartenstein castle (http://www.schlosswartenstein.de/), located high above the Hahnenbachtal, north of the town of Kirn. This area is located on the edge of the Nature Park Soonwald, an area with rugged cliffs and clear streams, surrounded by large forests. The sheer beauty of the attractive and varied landscape kept my mind off the accumulating mileage and particularly the pounding my legs were receiving from the constant uphill climbs.

I arrived back at the market square around 3:30 p.m., approximately 7 hours into the race. They were serving dinner, but the line was long, I decided to change my socks and refuel first, by the time I finished I managed to get some food without waiting too long. It appeared most of the hikers had just finished their first stage and were eating before heading out on their second. I didn’t see any other runners, so assumed I was the last, but this made no difference to me, I was taking it easy, I hadn’t trained for this type of race so knew better than to push it.

After around a 20-25 minute break I headed out on stage 3, by this time I running only the flat and downhill sections, and even the pleasant scenery did not distract me from my weary legs. This stage passed by the ruin of the castle Schmidtburg, a castle built in the year 926 and destroyed during the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697) by French troops in 1688. The castle is divided into an upper and a lower castle and was one of the largest in the area.

Ruins of Schmidtburg Castle

Ruins of Schmidtburg Castle

Several kilometers into this stage I was passed on a downhill by another runner, the first that I had seen since the beginning of the race! He appeared to be doing much better than I was, as he easily ran past and asked how I was doing. I remarked that mentally I was top fit, but could use some new knees, which caused him to chuckle. Somehow contact with another human offered renewed my energy and chugged along with new determination. The last stage was gentler than the first two, but the trail had a lot of protruding stones and roots, so I had to stay alert to avoid falling on my face.

With approximately 5K to go the course bid it’s last farewell, climbing to the second highest point of the day. During the climb I caught another runner who was clearly struggling, I walked with him for a couple minutes, his legs kept cramping. As we approached the top he assured me that he would make it to the finish line, but would have to walk, so I ran on. From this point it was mostly downhill or flat, so I did my best to run much of it. The runner that passed me earlier in the stage passed me again, he said he had stopped for a break, I again let him run ahead, he wasn’t looking quite as fresh as before, but was still better off than I was.

After a while the course broke out of the forest one last time and I could see the town of Hennweiler ahead. I ran most of the rest of the way and arrived uneventfully back at the market square. I reported to the organizers that I had finished, which kind of surprised them, I guess they noticed the surprise in my face as they said most of the hikers just leave. They pointed me to the showers and said there was lots of food left if I was hungry. I showered and joined a couple of the runners, one that I knew from previous races, he was finished a couple hours ahead of me, but he is 20 years younger too.

In any case I finished a very difficult course, requiring around 10 ¼ to 10 ½ hours of actual time on the trail, I spent another 30 minutes on breaks between the stages. As this event doesn’t count as an official marathon or ultra, I would probably not run it again, but could picture doing it as a hiking event. I think this course would be especially enjoyable if done in a group, either walking or running. I can also picture returning to this region on vacation, there are numerous trails winding through the national forest, and lots of tourist attractions that warrant a closer look.

The event itself was for the most part well organized, the only advice I would offer is if they want to attract more runners they should at least have a finisher list and post it on the Internet, even if the finishers have to keep track of their own time. The folks in Rengsdorf have been doing this for years with the Westerwald Run, and it works out very well.