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Monday, December 21, 2020

Running Through the Night: A 24-Hour Training Session


Another lockdown during the pandemic put our planned training weekend in November on hold. Although we would be outside in the fresh air, we’d still be four households meeting up and that was against the regulations, so we pushed back the date to the middle of December hoping that the restrictions would be relaxed. They weren’t. So instead of canceling altogether, we changed strategies and made a new plan.

Hunt Jagd wild boar holly zimmermann
Trails closed off due to wild boar hunt

The drive from Regensburg to Hohnhorst, a small village west of Hannover, went smoothly and in five hours I was reunited with Vincent and Carina (and Miley the chocolate Labrador), the heart and soul of our team. Over an early dinner we discussed the plans and I learned the news that Carina was five-months pregnant. The next generation of adventure racers was in the making.

Carina was our support team lead, and to reduce her burden for the training session, Vincent decided that we would have limited transitions in order to let her stay home and oversee ‘operations’ from there. Limited transitions means long stages… very long. And Vincent is known to underestimate the length of his courses.

We would have only three disciplines: running/hiking, mountain biking and paddling, in that order. The running stage was planned to be approximately 52 kilometers long, then 75 km of biking, then 15 km paddling. In order to keep within the regulations and the two household mandate, Vincent and I would be alone and a second group comprised of his cousin, Angelus, and Nicole, an enthusiastic climber and new AR prospect, would be running the course parallel but in the opposite direction. It would be a mock race; and with both teams sending updates, photos and videos to Carina throughout, it would all be uploaded real-time to Instagram so that we could be followed and tracked.

The logistics were a bit tricky. Vincent and I left Hohnhorst at 6pm in two vehicles. He had the van with our bikes and gear, while I followed him in a second car to what would be our first transition. From there Vincent got in the car with me and we drove to the start of our first leg, which would be running. We planned to run to the van, grab our bikes and then bike back to Hohnhorst. Angelus and Nicole would begin opposite. They would start on the bikes in Hohnhorst and ride to the van, then put their bikes in the van and run to the second vehicle parked at what would then be the end of their running leg (the beginning of ours).

And if all went well, we’d cross somewhere in between.

Start: Friday, December 11, 2020, 9 pm

check point holly zimmermann
It was already dark so the headlamps were in use since we began immediately on a dark trailhead into the wilderness. The first checkpoint was ‘A large rock below the cliffs’, which appeared to be right along the main trail. During the day, this may be easy to find, but at night, there are no guarantees. Every trail crossing brings a small shred of doubt and gradients are difficult to detect, but after a short time the cliffs were visible with a constant sweep of the headlamps and the large rock was conveniently placed at a crossing beneath.

After an initial climb the trail flattened out and we were running at an easy pace. The next checkpoint was the Lönsturm (a.k.a. Löns Towert). I’d come to know that Vincent, who creates our courses, likes to use all the lookout towers, viewpoints and essentially the most difficult to attain locations in the area as checkpoints.  At one point along the way, as I was struggling up yet another monstrous climb, I asked him why he doesn’t throw in some easy access points in the flatlands. His reply, “The races don’t have those, so why should be train that way?” Good point.

small clearing holly zimmermann
Small clearing
The Lönsturm was built as a lookout tower in 1928 and rises 26 meters over the Thüster Berg. It is built from sandstone with a stone spiral staircase inside. Of course for Vincent, just being at the tower is not a valid acquisition of the check point, we had to climb to the top. So up we went, knowing that my quads would later regret it, and we were rewarded with a view of the lights in the valley below.

From there the next checkpoint was one that we knew from the last training weekend, the ‘kleine Lichtung’, or small clearing in the woods. Again, during daylight, an easy find, but during the night a little glade in an actively cultivated forest is not self-evident. Thankfully, it was located at a crossing, so we found the trail signs and spied the clearing with ease.

The first time that we got lost…

The next checkpoint was called ‘tunnel on the south end of the quarry’ and this was going to cause us the most trouble of the entire day/night/day. Since Vincent knew the area well, I was doing the navigating. But since I didn’t have any idea of the terrain and that the old coal quarry (Tagebau Humboldt) was home to the highest cliffs in Niedersachsen which opened up a hole in the forest floor like an entry to hell, I took us way off course. Actually, we were on course, but I did not realize that access to the tunnel was only from inside the quarry on the east side, whereas I brought us to the outside from the west. This route was much easier to access, but Vincent was pleased to announce that we’d have to backtrack for a valid checkpoint. Ugh. So we turned around and climbed back up those dozens of meters of elevation that we just jogged down, back into the woods, circumventing the quarry on the north side (glad that it was dark so that I couldn’t clearly see the black-hole drop into eternity) and after some tricky path finding, we finally arrived at the old abandoned tunnel at the end of the quarry.

tunnel lost holly zimmermann adventure racing running

But to dash my excitement and enthusiasm, the tunnel was fenced off on the outside (which Vincent knew) so we had to find another way out of the quarry. We decided to try to climb over the embankment which the tunnel ran through, so we turned around and then made a sharp right, climbing the steep embankment on all fours. There was a narrow path on top which we followed south-west, our desired course, but the path seemed to get narrower and narrower and then suddenly we found ourselves crawling under thorny bushes, my hat and headlamp being pulled in disarray, my knees wet from the mud until we finally decided we were no longer on a people-path, but an animal track and we decided to turn around. After trying to reorient ourselves in the woods, we relied only on our compasses to get us in the right direction and upon hearing a road in the distance we followed the sounds of the traffic to get us back on course.

The next checkpoint was a boat rental shack on a small lake. To get there we could stay on the roads, though I had chosen to try to spare us about a kilometer and routed us through yet another quarry. We soon found out this was a poor option as we noticed the terrain falling away ahead of us and we soon turned around to suck up the extra kilometer on the road and play it safe.

adventure racing holly zimmermann
Selfie at the docks

After finding the abandoned docks on the lake, we had an easy 6 kilometer jog along a bike path before reentering the forest and a steep climb in the woods up to our next checkpoint: the Wilhelm Raabe Turm, a 15-meter high skeleton-metal tower, another favorite of Vincent’s. We’d also seen this on our last training and I knew I wouldn’t be ascending this one. To access the platform you have to climb ladders and since the temps were hovering around freezing and we’d already found ice at the top of the Lönsturm, I knew it would be too dangerous and apparently Vincent knew it too since he didn’t even mention the ascent. Whew…

Five hours later…

There was a small enclosed hut at the base of the tower so we took a short break to eat, drink and rest the legs. We were 27 kilometers and five hours into the trek. I mentioned that we were halfway. Vincent replied that we were still several kilometers from our next checkpoint which was a parking lot on the Ith, and from there we would have 28 kilometers to transition. Hmmm… That sounded like the route was going to be considerably more than the planned 52 kilometers but, knowing Vincent, that didn’t come as a surprise.

checkpoint tower lookout holly zimmermann
Wilhelm Raabe Turm

We couldn’t stop for more than a couple of minutes before our bodies began to drastically cool down and it would take precious energy to warm up our muscles and core body temperature, so we only stopped when necessary.

After reaching the parking area, the same place where I’d spent several hours alone in the darkness while waiting for Vincent and Lucas on our last training event, we began the climb on the narrow technical trails adjacent to the Ith, a 22-kilometer-long ridge-line of cliffs, and a favorite spot for climbers throughout Germany.

bat cave holly zimmermann

The trail is a constant climb and descent over rocks, roots and is constantly crisscrossed by smaller paths. If that didn’t make it hard enough to follow, then the magnitude of autumn leaves strewn everywhere topped it off. And don’t forget that it was 1 o’clock in the morning, so it was pitch dark. Our first check point along that ridge was the Rothschildhöhle, otherwise known as the bat cave, from which access was closed off for the winter months so that the bats could hibernate. From there our next check point was the Bärenhöhle, the bear den, similarly closed off with bars for the winter so that they could get their winter sleep. Ok, that cave was just named for fun and there were no bears in there…hopefully. Vincent had been there many times before, both hiking and climbing, and despite a few wrong turns, he got us through there without getting lost.

cliffs felsen Ith climbing holly zimmermann
Vincent on the cliffs

Is dirty water better than no water?

After finally getting out of the woods and into a small village, we both realized that we were running short on water and we decided to look for a cemetery where there are always accessible water spigots. But we saw no church steeple in the village, which wasn’t a good sign. A cemetery without a church is not to find in Germany. But we did find a public building that had an outdoor spigot, and despite being well into the start of winter, the water was still turned on. So we filled up our bottles, ignoring the foggy-brownish color of the water.

A few minutes later we were back into the woods and on a well-traveled trail leading up to the Ithturm. As usual we climbed the spiral stairway to the top, but on the last few turns the metal staircase swayed under our weight. This didn’t give me a warm cozy feeling so after a quick look at the amazing 360 degree view of the lights in the valley. I scurried back down as fast as I could.

That entire section of trail slightly sloped off to the right, which was torture for my still-injured ankle. Running flat or at a leftward tilt was relatively pain free, but the right slope and the technical jaggedness of it was pushing my pain threshold. Thankfully the bike leg was on the near horizon. But still, we decided to get off the small path and try to traverse the ridge on a lower forestry road. Although that was much easier on my ankle, the going was rough because the entire surface of the road for about a mile stretch was a thick grainy mud bath and we were trekking uphill through it. The mud gripped onto our shoes so that with each step instead of sliding backwards, it grabbed onto our shoes. I was afraid they would get stuck in the mud and I’d come out in my socked feet. So I tied my laces tight and hoped for the best. This was also the end for one of Vincent’s trekking poles when the bottom 20 cm of one remained where it was placed in the mud.

holly zimmermann

Our last checkpoint on the running leg was the Adam and Eve rock formation: two giant narrow free-standing monoliths, one larger than the other, standing side-by-side. From there we had a long descent to the transition area and noticed the sky beginning to brighten in the distance. As we neared the village of Coppenbrügge the trail turned into steep switchbacks with packed earth steps. Emerging from the woods, we saw the van parked at the Lindenbrun Hospital in the distance and had only to cross about 500 meters of field paths to reach it. With the first low beams of daylight, I turned off my headlamp and we ran to the van feeling exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.

Transition to the bikes at T-13 hours

We got to the van where we found the bikes from Nicole and Ange inside. Vincent took them out so that we had space to get changed. We decided to first get changed into clean dry clothes then rest for a few minutes giving us some time to eat, drink and prepare for the bike leg. Vincent, being a gentleman, said that I could go into the back of the van first and get changed. There was a curtain that separated the drivers and passengers seats from the cargo room in the back, so I assumed that Vincent would sit comfortably up front and wait. I was moving in slow motion and had trouble peeling the layers of clothing off with ice-cold hands. After a while I wondered why I hadn’t heard Vincent in the front; maybe he’d fallen asleep? But then I heard him call from outside, “Everything ok in there?” Oh! He’s outside! He must be freezing, I thought. Luckily I was just finishing up and we swapped places… but I got into the passenger seat where it was protected from the cold wind. Once Vincent had changed, he got into the divers seat and we turned on the heat, ate, drank, sent photos and videos to Carina, and checked messages.

mtb running adventure racing holly zimmermann
The van at transition

Then onto the bikes feeling refreshed and excited about continuing in daylight. Initially we had a long climb up to St. Avoid, a small lake in a nature preserve. From there we continued uphill and then enjoyed a speedy descent to the Wolfsbuchen Hütte where we took a short break to eat. It was there that the conversation suddenly turned to English. I’ve lived in Germany for 20 years, so my German, though not perfect, is fluent. And Vincent has traveled a lot and his English is excellent, but we almost always speak German with each other. Strangely enough though, during those 24 hours underway, it was only those few minutes that we switched to English after which we reverted back to the language of the land. Kind of bizarre.

Next stop: Homeisters Cave, which was easily located directly on the forestry road. The next checkpoint was tricky though; we were looking for ‘old stone walls’. We had to go off the road and into the woods, cutting across a ravine, over which we had to carry our bikes, then onto a windy footpath that suddenly was full of day trekkers, so we knew we must be near a ‘point of interest’. The stones walls were only remains of who-knows-what and we stopped for a minute so Vincent could take a photo as evidence that we’d found them. I laid my bike down and then laid myself down in the dirt and closed my eyes. We’d been going for about 17 hours, not to mention that I’d been up since 6 am the previous day, so the fatigue was settling in. I think I may have dozed for a minute or so. Power nap. It actually felt good and oddly enough I felt slightly refreshed.

Then we had another long, arduous climb up to the highest point on the Deister, the lookout point Kalenberg. The forest had been cleared there a few years back, there must have been an infestation or something, so the clearing provided no protection from the wind which was blowing strong and it was cold. It was there that Vincent stopped and took off his backpack for a short break and to get some food out of his pack. I was cooling down rapidly and told him I couldn’t stay there, so I slowly started again knowing that our course would follow the main trail for the next half a dozen kilometers and that he would soon catch up with me.

The Deister is well known for its mountain biking trails and, since it was now Saturday afternoon, there were bikers everywhere, and not only in groups of two. There were also day hikers in masses. Thankfully Vincent had a bell on his bike to let them know we were coming through when we came up from behind. Our next checkpoint was the Annaturm, which was located at a small beer garden that was closed due to the pandemic. The area surrounding the tables was cordoned off by red-and-white police tape, but that didn’t keep people from sitting on them. I also needed to lie down for a minute so I hopped over the barrier and laid down. No sooner had I closed my eyes when a woman came right up to my bench and began looking around. It was strange behavior, especially with the quarantine rules requiring 1.5-meter distance which most people were religious about observing. But I was exhausted and tried to get in a 2-minute power nap.

mtb holly zimmermann
Somewhere in Niedersachsen

As we started up again I mentioned to Vincent about the woman’s odd behavior. He had also seen her looking around and was pretty sure that she was looking for a geocache. That would explain it.

The Nordmannsturm, an eerie stone building with lookout tower that looked like an old strong-hold, turned into a restaurant in non-corona times, was the next checkpoint. It was directly on the forestry path and since we were in downhill momentum, we just powered right by without stopping for a photo.

The brain starts to slow down…

The next checkpoint was called Stolleneingang / Feggendorfer Stollen. As a non-native German speaker who was now experiencing sleep deprivation and exhaustion, I had no idea what that meant nor the foggiest notion as to what we should be looking for. Turns out we were looking for a coal mine, although the German word for coal, Kohle, was nowhere to be found. To make things ‘more fun’, Vincent had placed a no-go area on the map so that we didn’t have direct access to the mine. We’d have to leave the main forestry road that ran along the ridgeline and find an adjacent path to traverse the mountainside. I had marked a parallel path along the map, but with mountain-bike trails zig-zagging everywhere, we were not 100% sure if we were on course. The path was a very old forestry road that was very grown over with thorns and rock debris that had fallen from above. The hillside was steep upwards to our right and an equally abrupt drop-off to our left. We didn’t have any choice but to move forward or turn around. I had already lost my sense of orientation as we were deep in the forest with no roads or trails in sight, but Vincent kept saying that we needed to lose elevation. We kept pushing on and eventually a trail came into sight that was well-traveled and then a small MTB path sprung off from that which led us right into the parking lot of the coal mine.

Although our next checkpoint, the lookout tower Deisterblick, was at about the same contour line as where we currently were, due to Vincent’s no-go area, we needed to descend significantly and then climb the hill again. He did this on purpose of course since there is an absolute killer incline that he didn’t want us to miss out on (don’t let the sarcasm escape you). It was so steep and I was so tired, that I could barely even get my body up the hill, let alone my bike, so once Vincent arrived at the top, he came down to retrieve me and take my bike, making a video of my suffering for fond future memories.

Much too tired to flirt…

Once again on the top of the ridgeline, we zig-zagged the trails leading to the Deisterblick lookout platform, our next checkpoint, and it we arrived there just as a runner was also climbing the stairs. He was very jovial and initiated conversation with us immediately, telling us about how proud he was and how good he felt to have just ran up the hill to the lookout point. Vincent, as always, was being very polite. But the guy kept talking directly to me and I could barely muster a smile, let alone conversation. If he had only known that we’d been on the go for the last 22 hours then he may have understood, but that would have opened up a whole new bag of worms, so I just kept smiling, nodding and letting Vincent do the rest.

The last lookout tower that we would have to ascend that day was the Belvedereturm as the sun was beginning to set, after which we emerged from the forest of the Deister hills for the last time on that tour. We rode into Rodenberg where Vincent told me that that was the village where his wife Carina grew up. Not two minutes later my phone rang, and it was Carina, telling us that Angelus and Nicole were at their limits and were cutting short their running leg and heading straight for the cars. I wasn’t too surprised and was nevertheless very impressed with the endurance that Nicole has shown on her first 24-hour orienteering training.

There were a few steep hills in Rodenberg and I was amazed at how our legs were holding up as we seemed to be climbing them with relative ease, although paved roads are naturally a lot easier to traverse than some of the other terrain we’d been on.

Up to the water tower for the next checkpoint and then on to the last ‘Waldeinfahrt Beckedorf”. Again here, I was so tired that I wasn’t really sure what we were looking for. Waldeinfahrt? Entrance to the woods? We were again in a small forest with paths crossing everywhere. There were a lot of dog-walkers about and thankfully Vincent knew approximately where we had to go but briefly stopped to ask two women with a small dog if we were heading in the right direction. Thankfully we were, and once we emerged into the parking lot of the entrance to the woods (Waldeinfahrt), we were back onto paved roads and only had about 5 kilometers of easing riding through fields and small villages until we were back in Hohnhorst where Carina was leaning out the window waiting to congratulate.

It was 7 pm and we’d been going for exactly 24 hours. Couldn’t have planned it better.

Actually, we had planned a paddling leg to follow, but considering that Angelus and Nicole were out, and I’ve got a sore shoulder, we decided to call it a night and instead get pampered by Carina with her homemade pizza and hot tea.


Running: 61.22 kilometers; 1,565 meters elevation climb: total time 12 hrs 44 minutes which included ‘breaks’, climbing up lookout towers, checkpoint photos, map reading, etc.  

Transition: 1 hour 15 minutes

Biking: 79.90 kilometers; 1,584 meters climb; total time 9 hours 58 minutes including all the stops




For more information about Adventure Racing in German visit: https://www.adventureracing-germany.de/

Email: info@ar-germany.de

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