Throwback to 2013 the Yarkon 25km trail race.
Nerves through the roof not so much due to the race but more for the last year of a severe illness. You see in 2000 I contracted a water-borne virus from my daughter which left me bed ridden for quite a while. The medical specialists that ran a major battery of tests on me over the weeks that followed failed to pinpoint the cause of the problem. All I knew was I was suffering badly and was concerned about my future I had absolutely no hope. I had to make a harsh decision and take complete control which would not just change my life but also my career. Each year I would be hit with another attack by this invader in my body trying to subdue me and take complete control. The roller coaster ride and massive doses of antibiotics and tetracyclines along with many other treatment protocols was just an absolute journey of hell and I realized I was going to be in a life long war with this internal enemy. Becoming a physiology expert and sports nutritionist was not an accident it was a path I chose to win the war and to help others win theirs. After years of fighting I eventually triumphed and landed up with a relatively calm period. However in 2012 the invader had spent years strengthening its forces silently and when it was ready, it unleashed the most lethal attack on me that left me for the better part of 6-7 months virtually bed ridden and barely surviving from day to day. I nearly gave in, but then decided to pull out all the ammunition I had and give this bastard another war it would never forget.
Fast forward to September 2013, I hadn’t raced in a long time, I had been training again and felt stronger. I was invited to attend this race by a friend and I told him I would join, but run at a comfortable pace. I was nervous because all that was on my mind was the war I had just been in and the fact that after all I had been through, was this race going to be the trigger to knock me back down, would I even finish it. I withdrew from it a thousand times in my head. On the day I didn’t know how I felt. It had been so long since I actually felt normal.
A short warm up run and then off to the start line with all the other hundreds of runners. My heart and mind were in a mode of not knowing what to expect and I had to keep reminding myself this was just a training run. Take it easy, pace yourself and get through it.
It was a very hot time of the year and the race began very early in the dark of the morning to avoid the heat as much as possible. Waiting there suddenly the gun went off.
I have absolutely no idea what went through my mind but I switched to a completely different mode. I just saw a group of three guys running off and I ran after them. Everything I felt fear and anxiety for, just switched off and I chased them down. They were around a hundred meters ahead and we were now full on the trail with not much space either side. Suddenly my watch vibrates, 4:04 pace it shows and I am thinking what the hell are you doing Mark? You said you would run a comfortable pace and this is kilometre one. I just ignored it and ran after the group and at the 2nd kilometre I was just behind them. My watch buzzed again and this time a 3:56 split. I was feeling surprisingly stable and my competitive nature just completely overpowered my body and I ran up to the group.
There were two runners in the front and myself and another guy behind all running in unison over the dry sandy river bed beneath. In the corner of my eye I noticed the runner behind with me was wearing a cycling vest with open pockets to carry his race fuel. It was then I realised this guy was not a “true runner” and I had this feeling he was going to struggle soon. Maybe that was the arrogant part of me but I am very strategic when it comes to training and racing and this was my gut feeling. My Garmin vibrates for the the third split and now we are at 3:51 pace. I was settling in slowly. The terrain was not easy, lots of loose sand but I had chosen a very light weight race shoe instead of a full blown heavy trail shoe to help with the foot lift in the aim of skipping over the really soft sandy areas on the track.
The sun began to rise and as we started to approach kilometre five I heard sudden breathing changes in the athlete next to me. I knew this meant he was done for it was just a matter of when. Over the next kilometre I could sense the struggle in him as he was dropping off and trying to run back. He was burning big matches and he eventually fell off the back permanently. It was game over for him.
The problem I was faced with now was that there were three of us. Yes, 1,2,3 all podium positions and when you are in a situation like that you never want to let it go. The race was an out and back to make up the 25km. I began to strategize and decided to try to hang on as long as possible with these youngsters, especially to the turn around point, as then I could see the gap behind us as we headed back towards the onslaught of the pursuing runners.
At the 10km mark we still hit 3:50 splits and I was thinking this is super fast for a trail. Although fairly flat and not overly technical the legs had to work hard over the different planes due to the differentiating and uneven surfaces. We started nearing the turn around point and I was still feeling good except when we hit the feeding table at the 11km mark the volunteers had not set up yet. They didn’t realise we would get to them so quickly and that made me very angry as I had just missed a crucial feed and hydration point. So I would have to try hit them again on the way back and hope I could hang on. Then it came, the turn around point, the three of us soldiering on and I started the gap timing. I wanted to see who was hunting us and how far behind they were. Eventually it came the first hunter was around 4 minutes behind us with around +-11km to go. I did a quick calculation in my head based on time and distance and realised that even if he was a Kenyan marathon runner he was not going to catch us.
All I had to do now was hang on and not crash and burn. As our trio kept on we eventually realised that the race was now between us and new tactics were going to start playing out soon. At kilometre 21 the race heated up and one of the guys went off the front, number two then followed and as much as I tried to stick with them I was left on my own. They had dropped me and the fight for 1,2 was now not in my hands. With around 2km’s to go I was now feeling the pain, I had not hit a single feed table on route and I could feel my glycogen stores were dwindling to the point of no return. All I could do was dig deep and suffer it out. The thing about being in the hurt zone is that 1 or 2 kilometres don’t sound like much but in actual fact every second is excruciatingly painful once you are there. A kilometre feels like forever. It is a fact that he who can suffer the hardest and longest will win.
Nearing the trail exit I could feel the finish line getting nearer and soon I could see it. All I could think of is getting there so I can start breathing again and allowing the legs to stop working. As I approached the 50 metres to go I had an overwhelming feeling come over me and I completely broke down. Tears followed my final footsteps to the finish line. It wasn’t because I was on the podium, but more due to my victory of the war I had been fighting for so many years. I again had shown the invader I was triumphant over it. I never dreamed this moment would be possible. Lying bedridden down and out leaves you with a sense of hopelessness. However this exact moment in time was the tipping point it was my victory. They always say when you get knocked down just get back up and show them. But sometimes people get knocked down so many times it is a lot easier said than done. On this day I realized that it can be done.
This race was probably the most special I have ever done. It was a moment of survival of victory and one of absolute gratitude for the blessing of being able to have come back to health. Over the years I was invited to return to participate in this race a number of times. I don’t think I ever will. This race always has a special place in my heart it was the pinnacle experience that will need to stay etched inside forever.
In the end I finished 3rd overall, running the 25km trail in 1h42 and finishing just 90 seconds behind the winner.
“Value your health without it there is no hope”
all the best
Mark Wolff is a certified exercise & sports nutritionist, endurance nutrition and physiology expert with over 20 years experience. An endurance multi-sport athlete with a running, triathlon, mountain biking and weight lifting background, he works extensively with professional and amateur athletes in a variety of sports disciplines as well as those just wanting to change their lifestyles. He firmly believes that a person can only reach their full potential when their health and nutrition is given the proper focus. Mark’s focus on nutrition and physiology is not just on training and racing, but he places major emphasis on recovery, immune system health, emotional stability, stress management and performance. Mark is co-founder of 32Gi, a sports nutrition company, focused mainly on health and endurance nutrition. He is also co-founder of Rapid Recover focussed on pneumatic compression equipment to improve circulation for recovery and health.