The Greek island of Corfu is the location of an extraordinary running event, the Corfu Mountain Trail Ultra. This island enchants by its forested mountain landscape with millions of olive trees and oaks. There are beautiful sandy beaches, rocky mountain slopes, steep coastlines and, away from the tourist centres, old farmhouses, churches and monasteries and lonely mountain villages where time seems to have stood still.
Last autumn ,together with my children, I discovered this island on the Corfu Trekking Trail, walked 140 kilometres in 7 days – and there I saw the signposts of the Corfu Ultra Trail. And so I learned about this race on the homepage of the event, which measures the island on a partly similar route over 110 kilometers uphill and downhill.
And then at some point – at 6 o’clock in the morning on 4 May – I actually stood at the start of this race, which crosses the island and will demand everything from us at 110 kilometres and 5000 metres of altitude.
There is fear, anticipation, skepticism, but also perhaps the somewhat naive trust in me, my motivation and running experience, which seduced me into believing that I could do this madness. . . .
It rains in the morning in the darkness, my biggest fear, already days before observing the bad weather forecasts, to have to start the run soaking wet and cold, maybe to have to run through the rain all the time. . .
At the start I stand with about 60 men and a few women on an old churchyard, all focused and serious about the coming hours and challenges. We are enthusiastically sent on an uncertain journey, it is still dark and right at the beginning we have to climb almost 1000 meters to the highest mountain, the Pantokrator.
The rain is slowing down, there will be only a few rain showers during the day, the sun will soon rise and slowly the beauty of the island and its rocky paths will arise from the foggy darkness.
It will be a long day for me, at the end I will have run 17 hours and 40 minutes – my first Ultra Marathon. I reach 14th place and fight my way through the last kilometres in the dark. I’m amazed at how long I can run easily and without pain and I’m amazed as well at how difficult the last 30 kilometres will be.
It is simply a magical moment when, after the first ascent, the cloud and fog breaks open and the landscape is released in the morning light – suddenly an enchanting view far down over the Ionian Sea and along the mountain slopes of the island. We run underneath olive trees and through oak forests, over narrow overgrown mountain paths, rock steps up and down, views from above far over the island, in the distance the high mountains of Albania, the mountains down again through half abandoned stone mountain villages, we are guided through an old oil mill and an almost abandoned monastery, catering places with incredibly friendly people, who care for us and keep the metabolism alive and send every runner with warmth, a smile and recognition on the further way.
Today I still see the sea of spring flowers in so many colours, smell the scent of pine trees, the smell of mossy forest trees, the salty sea air on the sandy beaches that we have to fight along the turbulent sea and balance and climb over huge granite rocks to get from one beach to the other. Birds sing, birds of prey fly far above us, goats run away anxiously and at night a marten crosses my way. I always run at my own pace, trying not to be seduced by a too high speed and always meet Nikos, who runs at about my level until kilometre 75, downhill a little faster, uphill a little slower.
We look at each other again and again with encouragement and recognition, meet at the refreshment stations until I have to slow down for the last 30 kilometres and he leaves. At the end Nikos finishes 1 hour and 40 minutes earlier and reaches 7th place and I will overtake another 5 or 6 runners during the evening and night. Actually I wanted to finish in brightness, but at some point I have to realize that I didn’t make it and I reluctantly get my headlamp out of the backpack vest. My thigh muscles have become more and more painful and make it almost impossible to run downhill. I think to myself, tell myself – I have come this far, now I can do the rest, look at the elevation profile on the starting number, concentrate on the next catering point and try to distract myself from the pain. The knees, the Achilles tendons, the ankles remain painless, only the feet tell me more and more clearly that the track could slowly come to an end.
And – my thighs. . . .
At the last refreshment point a worried person looks me in the face and in the eyes, asks several times whether I am ok and sends me on the last seven kilometers „you finish !!!!!!“ with so many exclamation marks and encouragement as I need at this moment.
And at some point it is the time I walk down a steep village road, past a small tavern (where I eat the next day) and it’s another kilometre on a flat road to the finish. I find a pace that is kind of like running and cross the finish line 20 minutes before midnight. I am celebrated like a hero and hugged like a friend, I’m seated on a chair and given warm soup and drinks, massages my tortured thighs and I get the feeling that I’ve done something really great.
What’s left? An incredibly dense feeling to have mastered these long and steep 110 kilometres with their 5000 metres of altitude – it is possible and I have managed to overcome my own fear, the scepticism of others and the pain of the last kilometres. The pictures of the island landscape, the feeling of running over such a long period of time (before the last 30 kilometres), the friendly people on the wayside, who with their enthusiasm and their encouragement made these achievements and this event possible, and the encounter with other runners who understand each other not as opponents but as friends.
And I think of the view over the mountains in the morning, when the fog breaks up and the sky seems very close and I am simply grateful to be able to walk here in this paradise and to be carried by my legs.