Drop Down MenusCSS Drop Down MenuPure CSS Dropdown Menu

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Chemistry and Endurance: What does the body really require to run for hours, or even days?

I am not a chemist, nor have I taken a chemistry class since college, which wasn’t even in the past decade (nor the one before…nor, uh, you get the point), so when I was recently asked to speak at the University of Regensburg to a group of gifted high school (gymnasium) students interested in studying chemistry, my first reaction was, What does ultra running have to do with chemistry????

Answer: Just about everything.

holly zimmermann ultramarathon mom running everest

After I thought about it I soon realized that not only do endurance sports and biological chemistry go hand-in-hand, but without a basic understanding of our own body’s chemistry, we runners wouldn’t get very far on our feet!

Looking back on my preparations for multi-day stage races, I realized that I’d spent hours determining just what my body needed to function under extreme circumstances because I knew that if my training had been adequate and my mental strength was in good form, then nutrition would be the key to optimizing my performance and reaching the finish line.

So for the chemistry students, I did some research and applied some of their jargon to the runner's lexicon and introduced myself to the endurance athlete's two best friends: Electrolytes and Amino Acids

Let’s start with electrolytes.
Electrolytes are chemical elements which, when mixed with water, conduct electricity and support specific bodily functions. The heart, muscle, and nerve cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses to other cells. They function to regulate nerve and muscle action, hydrate the body, balance blood pressure, and even help rebuild damaged tissue.
Electrolytes that are found in the human body include, but are not limited to:
Magnesium: supports heart, muscle and nerve function as well as digestion
Sodium: assists with the absorption of fluids and muscle contraction
Potassium: helps keep blood pressure stable and regulates heart contraction
Calcium: supports muscle contraction, blood clotting and cell division
Chloride: aids in fluid absorption

Electrolytes are lost when we sweat and need to be replaced. A general electrolyte deficit can lead to cramps, dizziness, confusion, an increased heart rate, and nausea, which are (coincidentally?) some common complaints of runners during long distance races.
There are many scientific studies about what the body needs during sport. Depending on many factors including length of exertion, air temperature, humidity, and individual factors, if and how much of an electrolyte supplementation is required varies widely. A general consensus is that an electrolyte supplement is not vital under exertion of less than 90 minutes. That said, during a foot race of 10 km or shorter, we should not require more than water to maintain good hydration. But what if the race is longer? And it is sunny and HOT?
That’s when isotonic drinks come into play.

We are all familiar with the term ‘isotonic sports drinks’, but what does the term isotonic really mean?

An isotonic drink is a drink in which the ratio of nutrients of liquids corresponds to that of human blood, which means that the osmotic value has the same tonicity as human blood and can therefore be digested relatively quickly. Some isotonic drinks have been recommended for restocking levels of electrolytes during and after exercise to help restore lost sodium and potassium as well as to retain water. 
As a comparison:
  • Isotonic: An isotonic drink has a similar concentration of salt and sugar as the human body, for example, Gatorade and PowerAde
  • Hypotonic: A hypotonic drink has a lower concentration of salt and sugar as the human body; the best example of which is water
  • Hypertonic: A hypertonic drink has a higher concentration of salt and sugar as the human body, which include energy drinks such as Red Bull and Coke
Hypertonic drinks typically contain high electrolyte content and consuming too much can lead to an excess, which results in similar side effects as a deficit. Excesses are typically filtered out of the body via the kidneys, but during a race we certainly don’t want any of our organs working on overload. They have enough to do already!

Most sports gels contain electrolytes but many also have a considerable amount of sugar (carbohydrates), which may or may not be desired. Another means of replacing sodium is by taking salt supplements which are readily available in tablet form specifically produced for athletes. When I ran the 257-km Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert, prior to the race all competitors were provided with a bag containing 200 salt tablets and we were required to take two tablets with each 1.5-liters of water that we drank. We were reminded of this at each check-point by the doctors and staff because in that extreme environment a sodium deficit could quickly lead to dehydration and even death.

The message here is that during exertion of several hours or longer when we are sweating, our bodies will require an electrolyte replacement for optimal function and health, the amount of which varies upon the individual and the conditions.

Moving on to Amino Acids…
As opposed to electrolytes, amino acids are not chemical elements but chemical compounds. They are the building blocks of proteins in the human body and serve primarily to build up body tissue. Thus, for the athlete, they are important for recovery and regeneration. In a very long distance or multi-day stage race, an accelerated regeneration is essential to maintain (or minimize the reduction of) performance levels.

Of the 20 standard amino acids, nine are called essential amino acids because the human body cannot synthesize them from other compounds at the level needed for normal growth, so they must be obtained from food. The 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. 

Glutamine is another important amino acid but one that the human body naturally produces; although, intense physical exercise drains glutamine stores faster than the body can replenish them. When this occurs, the body breaks down muscles and becomes catabolic, and performance and recovery can be compromised. Glutamine supplementation has been shown to aid in recovery and recuperation in addition to boosting immune function. The best time to take a glutamine supplementation is right after a hard exercise session since glutamine stores in muscle can be depleted up to 40% after exhaustive exercise.

Thus, unless you are competing in a non-stop multi-day race, amino acids typically do not need to be supplemented during a race, but can be taken following the exertion to help with regeneration. I use them in the evenings during mult-day stage races, after difficult training sessions, a tough race, or regularly during periods of intense training.

Amino acid supplementations are widely available for athletes in the forms of tablets, gels, powders and drinks.

Again, I am not a chemist, a doctor nor a nutritionist. I am a simple engineer and passionate runner who is fanatical about being prepared for extreme events. Please do your own homework* on this topic when planning for your own needs and use your training sessions as your own chemistry experiments.

*Dietary exposure to the non-standard amino acid BMAA has been linked to human neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS.
Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health 2012; 4(2):128–138.
Glutamine: Metabolism and Immune Function, Supplementation and Clinical Translation. Nutrients. 2018; 10(11): 1564.
A critical review of the postulated role of the non-essential amino acid, β-N-methylamino-L-alanine, in neurodegenerative disease in humans. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2017; 20(4): 1–47.
MedicalNewsToday (online)

Image Credits:
Essential Amino Acids: Chromatos / Shutterstock
Aid station: Freepik
Periodic Table: Amazon.com

This article recently was recently published for ASICS on https://www.asics.com/de/de-de/frontrunner/articles/chemistry-and-endurance-what-does-the-body-really-require-to-run-for-hours-or-even-days for which I received a form of compensation.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Running Everest: Adventures at the Top of the World

running everest holly zimmermann himalayas trek ultramarathon mom

Running Everest tells the story of a group of adventurers from around the globe who embark on a remarkable journey through the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, battling high-altitude sickness, deplorable sanitary conditions, freezing temperatures…and enjoying every minute of it! When they reach their destination, Mount Everest Base Camp, they turn around and run a marathon, the highest marathon in the world, back to civilization. Are they extremists? Or the new generation of ordinary people? Written with humor and passion, Running Everest explores the culture, inhabitants, and the delicate balance of Hinduism and Buddhism in the breathtaking Himalayas, topped off by an exhilarating race over glacial moraines, high altitude plateaus, and steep rocky climbs, all in the shadow of the highest mountain on earth.

Holly Zimmermann, the first international woman to reach the finish line of the 2018 Mount Everest Marathon, recalls her incredible Himalayan journey. Fans of her first book, Ultramarathon Mom, will be thrilled to be reunited with some familiar names in this next narrative, including her running accomplice, Beatrice, a Zurich-based fashion-blogger who is equally tough in running shoes as in high heels, and Kyaron, a young Nepalese environmentalist.

This book is for everyone: runners, trekkers, mountain lovers, Everest fans, and anyone who adores a good story. But be warned, after reading Running Everest, a part of you may long for adventure.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Roasted Eggplant and White Bean ‘Meat’balls

meatballs eggplant vegan holly zimmermannWith a couple of eggplants in the fridge and not wanting to make ratatouille again (though it's one of my family's favorite dishes), I decided to experiment. And I was very surprised at how delicious these meat(less)balls came out! I also made some regular meatballs (with beef) and had the kids try both of them in the spaghetti sauce ... and they said, except for the finer consistency of the eggplant-balls, it was hard to tell the difference! This recipe is high in fiber and protein and can be made gluten-free by using GF oatmeal and breadcrumbs.
Makes 24 balls... enough to freeze some! 

2 large eggplants
1 large can of white beans, drained and rinsed (approx. 500 g (18 oz.) when drained)
1 Tbs Italian seasoning
½ cup oatmeal
½ cup polenta
¼ cup yeast flakes
1 tsp salt
Half a dozen twists of the pepper mill
¼ cup fine bread crumbs (optional)
Olive oil

eggplant meatballs vegan holly zimmermann
Cut eggplants in half, rub with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast open side down in a 180°C (350°F) oven for an hour. Turn off oven leaving eggplants in to cool (or take out when time constrained). When cool, scoop eggplant out of skins and place in a large bowl. Discard skins and stem. Drain and rinse the white beans and add to eggplant. Puree the beans and eggplant with your favorite mixer. Add all remaining ingredients except the bread crumbs. Mix thoroughly, preferably with your hands. Lastly add the bread crumbs, using only enough to bring the mix to a consistency which allows forming balls. Form the ‘meat’balls and fry in olive oil over med-high heat until brown on all sides. The ‘meat’balls will be very soft until they have that brown crispy exterior, so turn carefully. They can be served hot as-is or in your favorite sauce over pasta, or even cold on salad as a type of falafel.

*Most of these measurement are guesstimates as I normally cook by 'feel' instead of precision, but with this recipe the key is simply to add enough solids (polenta, oatmeal and breadcrumbs) to get the mass to be solid enough to form balls that stay together when fried.

eggplant meatballs vegan holly zimmermann

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A few days ago I got an email from a man named Apa Tenzing Sherpa, an Everest summiter and mountaineer. He called my attention to a web page that he oversees via the Climbing Gear Lab which posts helpful, interesting and well-written articles about mountaineering and rock climbing gear, technique as well as general geographical information. He asked if I’d be interested in including a link to one of his articles on my blog* since it related to my post on the Mount Everest Marathon. The article, entitled Mount Everest Deaths Statistics by Year (1922-2019), is self-explanatory; it summarizes the deaths over the past 100 years on Mount Everest alone. Since I studied up on the dangers of high-altitude exposure and climbing in extreme weather conditions for sections of my book Running Everest, I am all too familiar with the risks; yet, people still die every year attempting to summit (or descend) the highest mountain on earth. A decision to climb any mountain should be considered and planned very carefully, and the articles from the Climbing Gear Lab can help do just that.

Mount Everest and neighboring peaks. Photo courtesy of Climbing Gear Lab

*I did not receive any compensation for this post, but found not only the article on Everest deaths, but the entire website so interesting that I wanted to share it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


If you've been wondering why I haven’t posted a report, or anything actually, since the pre-race post on the Adventure Race Croatia, it’s because that race was the very first one in which I did not reach the finish line. Not that I didn’t want to or wasn’t capable of it, but in a team event, there is more than one person making decisions, and after only 33 hours, with a total of 15 minutes of sleep during that time, two of the guys on my team decided to throw in the towel.*

Was it inadequate training that forced them to quit? Or lack of resilience? Or both?

The term ‘resilience’ can be defined in many contexts: In ecology, the capacity of an ecosystem to recover from climate change; in engineering and construction, the ability of buildings and infrastructure to absorb assaults without suffering complete failure; and in psychology, an individual's ability to adapt in the face of adverse conditions. In endurance sports there are two aspects to resilience: physical and mental. Is our body capable of withstanding prolonged stress and is our mind strong enough to keep us pushing through it?

When I was in school, we were given a handout in a chemistry class that had sketches of laboratory equipment on one side and motivational text on the other. I hung that sheet of paper with the text on it over my desk at home, brought it with me to college and still have it today. Those words have guided me and inspired me throughout my life. Here’s what it says:

Press On
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

So, if we believe in the truth of being rewarded by persistence and determination, and we add to that the definition above for resilience, then we can see that success has little to do with physical condition, environment, nor money, but rather is wholly reliant on one’s mental focus.

An ultra marathon is said to be 90% mental, and the remaining 10%... is also mental. If that’s the case, can anyone who is strong-willed just go out on a whim and run one? Probably, yes. There are many such documented cases. But most of us do a lot of conditioning and training to boost our performance and minimize the physical pain. Training plans for any distance race can be found in legions of books and everywhere on-line. But is there a method to train our minds? Of course there is, just ask any psychologist. But I personally believe that to be truly resilient we have to love what we are doing. We have to be passionate about it. Something that we love so much that we are willing to suffer for it. May it be sports, work, family or a social movement, I believe the single most important motivational criteria to master resilience and achieve our goals is passion.

This topic of resilience will be discussed next week in a forum called the Eckert Talkrunde where I have been invited to be on the panel along with other experts in sports therapy, training, coaching and even an Olympic medallist

I’m curious to see what the others believe… and if I’ll get some insight as to why even some of the most hopeful endurance athletes only rarely cross the finish line.

*Of course I've documented all the gory details of the entire race in nearly 30 pages of text which are just waiting for the right time and place to air them ;)

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Expedition Extreme: pre-ARC

Next week I will begin the greatest adventure of my life. At least I hope it will be great.

I am nervous.

Nervous because there are so many question marks and so much for me that is new. Not only will I be racing the longest distance that I’ve ever competed in, for the longest duration non-stop, but there are sports disciplines which are new to me as well as the dynamic of competing on a team.

What is this crazy race? It’s called the AdventureRace Croatia, a 500-kilometer, 10,000-meter elevation gain/loss, non-stop event involving not only running, but also mountain biking, climbing, rappelling, kayaking and, since there is no marked course, navigation with maps and compass. 

Teams of four athletes must include both males and females and any combination thereof. Our team consists of three guys and me. We must complete the entire race together, staying within 100 meters of each other at all times. There are 41 teams from around the world; we are the only one representing Germany. 

If we are good at navigating, the course is about 500 kilometers, if we are bad, it could be much, much more. The terrain will range from dry karst mountains to wetlands, grasslands, bogs, trails with dense overgrowth, natural caves, the Adriatic sea and winding rivers dotted with rapids and waterfalls. We will be completely self-supported, carrying all our own food, water and gear.

There will be 17 legs in the race, commencing with 32-kilometers of kayaking in the Adriatic sea, which will be followed by a 40-km run with 2,200 meters of elevation gain. And that is just the beginning. 

In total there will be 8 running legs summing to about 130 kilometers, 6 mountain biking legs covering 300 km, and three stints in the kayak adding up to about 70 km. And at every transition zone where we begin or end a bike leg, we need to build up or respectively break down our bikes. That means removing the wheels, pedals and handle bars and carefully tucking it all away into a 140cm X 80xm X 30cm box to be swiftly and easily moved to the next transition area by the race crew.

Last year the competitors had to rappel from a high bridge down to their kayaks waiting in the water below… in the darkness of night.

Sleep will be a luxury. The best teams do not sleep. We will try to get by with as little as possible. Looking forward to the hallucinations.

My training consisted (obviously enough) of mostly endurance. Long mountain runs/treks, hours on the bike and with regular strength training and a few short races for speed.

My biggest concerns are the rappelling sections (I have a bit of a fear of heights) and the sleep deprivation (who doesn't love to curl up in a warm cozy bed for 8 hours each night?), but I am also so excited to be free from commitments, telephone, Internet and to be able to (completely undisturbed) enjoy two things I love: nature and sports.

Our team goal is far from being on the podium. Our hope is simply to finish the race, injury-free and come home with a team comradery that keeps us motivated for future adventures.

*All photos courtesy of the Adventure Race Croatia and the Adventure Race World Series.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

MountainMan Nesselwang

 Click here for the English version

11. Mai 2019
Strecke M: 16 km (17+), 960 hm (1040)
Bedingungen: Schlamm, Schnee, Regen, Schneeregen, Wind, Kälte und mehr Schlamm

Obwohl es sich um eine neue Serie handelt, werden die MountainMan-Rennen professionell organisiert, als hätten sie jahrelange Erfahrung, aber es herrscht ein unverkennbar familiäres Gefühl. Die Organisatoren und das Support-Personal lächeln und lachen immer und haben Spaß dabei, sich auf die Bedürfnisse eines jeden ihrer Läufer einzustellen. Bei ihren Rennen fühlen Sie sich wirklich wie ein Teil der Familie und treffen sich zu diesem jährlichen Wiedersehen an einigen der malerischsten Orte, die die Welt zu bieten hat.

Bin es nur ich oder hast du das Gefühl, je schlechter das Wetter ist, desto mehr Spaß haben Trailrunner? Man hört sie nicht jammern, wenn Mutter Natur böse und wild ist und sie an ihre Grenzen treibt, aber man hört Trailrunner an schönen Sonnentagen jammern, weil es dann einfach zu ... na ja, sie sagen 'warm', aber was ich denke sie meinen, ist "einfach".
Nehmen Sie zum Beispiel den Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) in Großbritannien. Es findet seit 50 Jahren statt und ist absichtlich für Ende Oktober geplant, um „herausforderndes Wetter“ zu garantieren. Dies geschieht ganz einfach, weil die Leute das wollen. Wenn das Wetter am Rennwochenende mild ist, gibt es viele enttäuschte Läufer.
Für Nichtläufer, die denken, wir wären verrückt genug, um bei bestem Wetter die Berge zu bewältigen, ist es völlig unergründlich, warum wir an einem stürmischen Tag überhaupt nach draußen gehen würden, ganz zu schweigen von stundenlangem Kampf gegen Schnee, Schneeregen, Minusgraden und Kilometer aus schlamm und stürmischen kraftwinden zum spaß daran? Aber für diejenigen von uns, die Bescheid wissen, ist das genau das, wonach wir verlangen.

So viel Glück hatten wir beim Nesselwang MountainMan in den deutschen Alpen am 11. Mai. Nach einem Frühling mit milden Temperaturen war Jack Frost plötzlich mit aller Macht zurück.

König Ludwig II und seine Braut Sissi waren da, um uns zu verabschieden. Ok, nicht der wahre König und die wahre Königin, die mehr als ein Jahrhundert zuvor lebten, sondern Schauspieler in prunkvollen, königlichen Kostümen, die das Ereignis in den ohnehin schon idyllischen Alpen eher zu einem Märchen machten.

Die beiden langen Strecken (38 km und 30 km) begannen um 8:00 Uhr und mein Rennen (16 km) begann um 10:00 Uhr. Zu diesem Zeitpunkt war das Wetter am Start / Ziel stabil. Meine jüngste Tochter, Amelia, war bei mir und positionierte sich beim Start etwa 200 Meter entlang der Strecke, damit sie beim Vorbeirennen ein paar Fotos machen konnte. Ich erhielt die amerikanische Fahne von den Organisatoren in der Startzone und die Flaggen anderer Nationalitäten wurden auch entsprechend ausgegeben. Die Aufregung stieg in diesen letzten Minuten im Startblock, bis wir den Countdown von Rudi und Stephan hörten, der uns losließ. Ich rannte mit der Fahne weit über meinem Kopf vor und zurück und als ich an Amelia vorbeikam, gab ich sie ihr, um sie zum Start zurückzutragen. Klar, dass die anderen Fahnenträger zu glauben schienen, dass sie die offizielle Fahnenbringerin ist, also gaben alle anderen ihr auch ihre Fahnen, als sie vorbeirannten. Sie war froh, ein Teil der Verrücktheit zu sein und trug die Ladung glücklich zur Startlinie zurück, sobald die Läufer durch waren.

Hoch, hoch, hoch auf einem Pfad, der zur Metalltreppe neben einem prächtigen Wasserfall führte. Zweihundertsechzig Schritte, die alle ein wenig langsamer machten, was nicht unbedingt bedeutete, dass sich unser Puls verlangsamte, als wir die Treppe voller Kraft und Energie hochmarschierten und begierig darauf waren herauszufinden, was vor uns lag.

Dann kam der Wurzel-Weg, ein steiler, schmaler Weg, der überall mit rutschigen Wurzeln durchzogen war. Jeder Schritt musste gut platziert sein, um einen unangenehmen Sturz zu vermeiden. Aber bald hörte ich Stimmen und als wir den Wurzel-Weg erklomm, jubelten uns ein paar Leute zu. Einer von ihnen rief mir in Bezug auf mein Buch zu: "Wie geht es dir, Mama?" Und ich antwortete keuchend, dass meine Kinder stolz sein würden. Zugänglich über die Gondel, die die Zuschauer auf den Berg brachte, hatten wir die erste Verpflegungsstation im Sportheim Böck erreicht.

Dann stiegen wir über die Baumgrenze, der Wind nahm zu und es gab eine massive Mischung aus Niederschlägen: Eisregen, Schnee und Hagel. Ich musste anhalten, um meinen Rucksack abzulegen, in dem ich meine leichte Regenjacke aufbewahrte. Ich hatte beim ersten Aufstieg geschwitzt, aber jetzt zitterte ich.

Wir setzten unseren Aufstieg fort und der Wind setzte gleichzeitig seinen Ansturm fort. Ich schaute in den Himmel, um Anzeichen für gefährliches Wetter zu finden, aber es schien eine dicke Wetter-Front zu sein, die dort eine Weile hängen bleiben würde. Deshalb hoffte ich, den höchsten Punkt der Strecke in über 1.500 m Höhe zu überwinden und sobald wie möglich wieder unter der Baumgrenze zurück sein. Aber ein Teil von mir war begeistert von der Aufregung des wilden rauen Wetters und drückte meinen Körper an seine Grenzen.

Ich habe noch nie so viel Schlamm auf einem Kurs gesehen. Zuerst versuchte ich behutsam, mich in den Flecken zurechtzufinden, aber manchmal konnte ich es nicht vermeiden, so dass eine gerade Linie meine Strategie war, obwohl ich bis zu den Knöcheln in der dicke Matsch war. Aber ich war trotzdem vorsichtig, da es andere Läufer gab, die mit Schlamm bedeckt waren und anscheinend ausgerutscht waren und ein Schlammbad genommen hatten. An einem warmen Sommertag kann ich das freiwillig tun, aber bei eisigen Temperaturen kann ein Bad jeglicher Art gefährlich sein, deshalb habe ich alle Anstrengungen unternommen, um aufrecht zu bleiben.

Plötzlich wurde ich auf einer breiteren Strecke im Wald auf meiner linken Seite rasch vorbeigelaufen... von einem Hund! Eine gemischte Rasse flitzte mit seiner schnellfüßigen Besitzerin hinter sich her! Beide mit einem breiten Grinsen. Hunde sind in diesen Rennen auf der Strecke erlaubt. Muss man lieben!

Die Finishzeiten für Trail-Rennen auf unbekannten Strecken sind schwer vorhersehbar. Aber schon in der Mitte des Kurses wusste ich, dass ich weit davon entfernt sein würde, in 2,5 Stunden fertig zu werden, meine erste Einschätzung. Aber nach 3,5 Stunden, als ich den letzten Abstieg machte, sah ich meine treue Tochter mit einem breiten Lächeln zur Begrüßung in der Kälte warten, um ein paar Fotos von ihrer Mutter zu machen. Und vor der letzten Kurve überquerten wir einen Checkpoint-Empfänger, der den Moderatoren im Ziel, Rudi und Stephan, mitteilte, dass ich auf dem Weg ins Ziel war. Also hörte ich meinen Namen über den Lautsprecher, bevor ich sie überhaupt sah, und hörte den Jubel in Rudi‘s Stimme, der mich nach Hause begrüßte.

Wenn man in der Zielbereich durch die Finisher gehen, von denen viele mit Schlamm bedeckt und für die schlimmsten Elemente der Natur gekleidet sind, werden man nie eine Ahnung haben, dass die meisten erschöpft sind und unter einer Vielzahl kleinerer körperlicher Beschwerden leiden. Alles, was man sehen konnten, war Aufregung und Zufriedenheit. Und obwohl nur einige von ihnen an diesem Nachmittag auf dem Podest standen, hatten alle das bekommen, wofür sie gekommen sind.

Abenteuer. Herausforderung. Spaß.

Friday, June 28, 2019

MountainMan Nesselwang

Hier klicken für die deutsche Version

Although a new series, the MountainMan races are professionally organized as though there are years of experience, but there is unmistakably a very familial feel. The team and support staff are always smiling and laughing, having a blast themselves, while ready to jump to the needs of any of their runners. At their races, you really feel like part of the family, meeting up for that annual reunion in some of the most picturesque locations the world has to offer.

11 May 2019

Strecke M: 16 km (17+), 960 HM (1040) Conditions: Mud, Snow, Rain, Sleet, Wind, Cold... and more Mud
holly zimmermann, interview, mountain man
Interview with Rudi and Stephan :)
Is it just me or do you get the feeling that the worse the weather is, the more fun trail runners have? You don’t hear them complaining if Mother Nature is wicked and wild and pushes them to their limits, but you DO hear trail runners complain on beautiful sunny days because then it is just too… well, they say ‘warm’ but what I think they mean is ‘easy’. 

Take for example, The Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) in the United Kingdom. It has been held for 50 years now and is intentionally scheduled at the end of October to guarantee ‘challenging weather’. This is done, quite simply, because that is what people want. If the weather is mild on race weekend, there are a lot of disappointed runners.

For non-runners, who think we are crazy enough just to tackle mountains in the best of weather, it is completely unfathomable why we would even go outside on a stormy day, not to mention spending hours fighting snow, sleet, freezing temperatures, miles of mud, and gale force winds for the fun of it? But for those of us who are ‘in the know’, that is exactly what we crave.

König Ludwig with Sissi and Runners
Such was our luck in at the Nesselwang MountainMan race in the German Alps on May 11th. After an early spring of mild temps, Jack Frost was suddenly back with a vengeance.

King Ludwig II and his bride Sissi were there to see us off. Ok, not the real King and Queen who lived more than a century prior, but actors in ornate, regal costumes which made the event in the already idyllic Alps that much more like a fairy tale.
holly zimmermann, flag, USA, mountainman, nesselwang
Flag bearer

The two long courses (38 km and 30 km) started at 8:00 and my race (16 km) started at 10:00, at which point the weather at the start/finish was stable. My youngest daughter, Amelia, was there with me and during the Start she positioned herself about 200 meters up the course so that she could get some photos as I ran by. I was given the American flag from the organizers in the starting zone and the flags of other nationalities were also handed out accordingly. The excitement rose in those final minutes in the starting block till we heard the countdown from Rudi and Stephan that set us loose. I ran with the flag waving back and forth far above my head and when I passed Amelia I handed it to her to carry back to the start. Well, wouldn’t you know that the other flag-bearers seemed to think that she was the official flag-bringer-backer so all the others handed her their flags too as they ran by. She was glad to be a part of the craziness and happily carried the load back to the starting line once the runners were through.

Up, up, up along a trail that led to the metal staircase adjacent to a magnificent waterfall. Two-hundred sixty steps that everyone slowed down a bit for, which didn’t necessarily mean that our pulses slowed as we marched single-file up those stairs full of power and energy, eager to find out what lay ahead.

Then came the Wurzel-Weg, a steep, narrow path that had slippery tree roots (Wurzeln) crisscrossing everywhere. Each step had to be well placed to avoid a nasty fall. But soon I heard voices and as we crested the Wurzel-Weg there were a bunch of people cheering us on. One of them yelled out to me, “How’s it going, ‘Mom’?”, in reference to my book, and I pantingly responded that my kids would be proud. Accessible by way of the gondola, which brought the spectators up the mountain, we had reached the first refreshment station at the Sportheim Böck.

I felt like I was moving so slowly. I probably was. But I have a personal rule to keep moving, regardless of pace. I don’t like to stop at refreshment stations unless I am out of water or have to refuel, but today I had enough water in my pack as well as gels and bars to keep me going for the duration. So I kept moving past the Sportheim Böck and later the Alpe Stubental refreshment stations.

Then we climbed above the tree line, the wind picked up and there was a massive mix of precipitation: freezing rain, snow and hail. I had to stop to take off my backpack where I had my lightweight rain jacket stored. I had been sweating on the initial ascent, but now I was shivering.

Sportheim Böck
We continued our climb and the wind simultaneously continued its onslaught. I looked to the sky for signs of dangerous weather patterns, but it seemed to be a thick front that was going to hang out there for a while, so I bore on hoping to get over the highest point of the course at over 1,500 m and back below the tree line as soon as possible. But a part of me was thrilled by the excitement of the wild raw weather and pushing my body to its limits.

I’ve seriously never seen so much mud on a course. At first I tried to gingerly pick my way around the patches, but at times there was no avoiding it so a straight line ended up being my strategy even though I was up to my ankles in the wet goo. But I was still careful, as there were other runners covered in mud who’d apparently slipped and taken a mud bath. On a warm summer day I may do that voluntarily, but with the freezing temps a bath of any kind could be dangerous, so I gave every effort to stay upright.

Suddenly, on a wider section of trail in the woods, I was passed very close on my left side. By a dog. A mixed breed darted by with his fast-footed female owner being pulled behind! Both with big grins. Dogs are allowed on the course in these races. Gotta love that!

Amelia greets me just before the finish
Finishing times for trail races on unfamiliar courses are difficult to predict. But already half-way through the course I knew I would be far from finishing in 2.5 hours, my random guesstimate. But after 3.5 hours, as I was making the last descent, I saw my faithful daughter with a big smile in greeting, waiting out in the cold to take some photos of her mom. And before the last turn we crossed over a check-point receiver which told the moderators at the finish, Rudi and Stephan, that I was on my way in. So before I even saw them, I heard my name over the loudspeaker and having known Rudi for years, I recognized the jubilation in his voice that welcomed me back.

Milling through the finishers at the Finish Line, many covered in mud and dressed for the worst of nature’s elements, you’d never have a clue that most were exhausted and suffering a multitude of minor physical ailments. All you could see was excitement and satisfaction. And although only a few of them would be standing on the podium that afternoon, everyone had gotten what they came for.

Adventure. Challenge. Fun.

Friday, April 12, 2019

What’s Next?

The question I am most often asked is not “How do you train for running in the desert?” nor “How do you stay motivated during those long runs?”, but rather two simple words, “What’s next?” And from those who know the type of races I prefer to run, they ask the question, waiting with bated breath, hoping that I will dazzle them with something off the charts. No pressure there.

Bu honestly, I don’t choose races for the ‘Wow’-factor, I keep my eyes and ears open as to what is out there, waiting patiently until I hear of a race that sends a chill down my spine, and then I know it is the next one. Choosing races of such magnitude with any other motivation I think would make it impossible to invest in the amount of training, planning and preparation necessary to pull it off.

During my down-time this past winter I created an Excel spreadsheet with all the race options that interest me including all of my standard short-distance races in and around Regensburg that I run with my team. But for 2019 I was having trouble finding that A-Race. I missed out on the lotteries in several big-name races in Chamonix and let those go, knowing that something else would pop up. And as always, it did.

At the end of January I got a two-sentence SMS message from an acquaintance asking if I’d be interested in joining his team for an adventure race in Croatia in September.

And there it was immediately.
The Chill Factor. 
I’d found my next race.

What’s an ‘Adventure Race’, you ask? No, it’s not an obstacle-course race nor a mud run, it’s more similar to a triathlon, in that it is a multi-disciplinary event, but it could include a number of different types of sports, not limited to the standard three. This race in particular will include running, mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, rappelling and navigation. Adventure races can be found in multiple distances, as short as a few miles or up to a few hundred miles, which is appropriately called ‘expedition’ length. And I knew, without a doubt, that the SMS was referring to that longer version, the expedition length. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been interested.

The Adventure Race Croatia will take place in the beautiful Zadar region along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. The course will be approximately 500 km long (300 miles) and, did I mention it is non-stop? No day stages, no hot meals, no overnight camps. We won’t even have a tent with us. If we do need to sleep, which at some point over the course of four days it will be inevitable, we will simply find a cozy place in the grass to lay down and sleep for a few minutes before continuing. The clock is ticking. There is a 96-hour time limit.

Those tiny things are kayaks waiting below
Teams are comprised of four people, one of which must be a woman, and the race is limited to forty teams from around the world. Our team, OMM Germany, will be the only one representing Germany.

When I first looked at the webpage for the race and watched a video from the previous year, I was mesmerized by the amazing scenery, the single-track trails, the turquoise-blue sea, and the rocky outcroppings, until the image of a woman dangling off a bridge by a rope appeared. A very high bridge. During the night. She was rappelling down to a kayak waiting in the water below.

Then came the reality check. What have I gotten myself into? The 500-km distance did not scare me, but rappelling off a 100-meter high bridge was definitely pushing my limits. I mentioned this to one of my team-mates, and thankfully, he reassured me by saying that only two of the team members needed to rappel, while the other two have to hold the kayaks very steady in the water below. So… guess what I’ll be doing in the coming months? Yes, spending ump-teen training hours to becoming an expert kayaker and steady-boat-holder.

Spring has arrived here in Bavaria, with sun and mild temps, which make it tempting to spend considerable time outside. I’m eager to train my upper body with paddling, excited about learning to climb and rappel, thrilled about devoting hours to my mountain bike as a focused discipline rather than cross-training and, of course, long-distance running is my utmost passion.

Those emotions are exactly what it takes to not only get me prepared for the next great adventure, but also to give me the freedom to enjoy it.

All photos are the property of Adventure Race Croatia.