Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Orhangazi 80K: A weekend of meatballs and kaymak

I had very few expectations heading into the Orhangazi 80K in Turkey. I'd just raced Lake Sonoma the weekend prior, and the week in between wasn't great in terms of recovery. It included: a post-Sonoma photo shoot in high winds and unseasonally cold temps while running strides for 13 hours, 3 flights, a barge ride, and a car trip (all told totaling a couple of days worth of travel).  So I was a little startled when I saw a tweet from the Iznik Ultra congratulating me on my Sonoma race and saying they were "excited to see my talent" the following week in Iznik. That comment made me a bit nervous, as I would be running on tired legs and not planning to "display any talent."

At some point in the last few years published a story on trail running in Turkey. Last year, before I headed to Istanbul for a work trip, I contacted the author of the story to ask about where to run, and to see if anyone might want to meet up for a weekend run. This resulted in me being picked up from my hotel at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to go run in the Belgrad Forest with 5 guys.  A colleague expressed concern as to whether this was safe—going to run in the dark forest with a group of strangers (all male). I assured them it was totally legit--ultrarunners are ultrarunners the world around--although I think my colleague was skeptical. However, I was right, the guys were great, and we enjoyed a nice long run on muddy trails, followed by arguably one of my favorite meals of 2012--a post-run breakfast where I was introduced to Turkish crack (kaymak--pictured below). 

I always meant to blog about that morning on the trails with my new Turkish running friends, but I flew home the next day, and as a result of that flight ended up with DVT in my right calf, which resulted in a pulmonary embolism and 3-day hospital stay that overshadowed my lovely Turkish trail running experience. Recovery and stressing about whether I could run at Worlds became my primary focus. However, through email, FB and DailyMile, I kept in touch with my new friends, and one of them (Aykut) emailed me when he read on my blog that I would be visiting Istanbul again for work. I wrote back with the dates, and apologized for not being able to run  the Iznik Ultras, which were happening the weekend I arrived, because I was racing Lake Sonoma 50 the weekend prior. He wrote back within minutes, explaining an itinerary that would make it work--I could simply adjust my schedule to arrive 2 days earlier, and I could opt for the 42K, taking into account that I would have just raced Sonoma. This suddenly sounded like a grand idea, except the thought of a 42K after a 50 miler sounded horrible (too short and fast), so I told him I’d prefer the 75K, which I could treat as a slow suffer-fest and recovery slog. With a rapid exchange of emails, and approval from work, I had committed myself.

I arrived in Istanbul on Thursday afternoon, after a long 20 plus hours of travel.  I'd been home in Portland all of about 36 hours between returning from the long Lake Sonoma weekend, and that included a long work day, with a bonus visit at work from USADA for my second drug test in 6 weeks, and enough time to squeeze in an iron IV drip Wednesday morning before heading to the airport. I was toast when I arrived in Turkey, but I managed to stay awake long enough to eat dinner. Aykut, Caner (RD extraordinaire) and friends had graciously attended to all of the details of my trip to Iznik. Bright and early the next morning, I was picked up at my hotel to head to the ferry for the trip to Iznik.  Iznik is located only about 90 km SE from Istanbul, but part of that 90 km is across the Gulf of Izmit, so the trip to Iznik includes a ferry ride, followed by an hour drive.

One of the carrots that Aykut had used to get me to agree to run the race was that Iznik had the best meatballs in the world. I'm going to have to agree with Aykut on this one, and we made our first of many meatball stops shortly after getting into town Friday before noon. Meatballs were followed by race check-in, mandatory gear check, and some down-time in the park drinking Turkish coffee with last year's group and meeting some new friends.  Feeling antsy, I opted to get in a quick shake-out run before dinner as the 2 days of travel had me feeling tight and in need of some movement. I felt incredibly uncoordinated during my short 3-mile run along the lake, and things hurt, in general.  To top it off, I managed to face plant on concrete, losing a good chunk of skin from my left palm and knee. Not looking good. I lost enough skin that I was a little worried about falling again the next day.

There was a pre-race pasta feed later that night, and I was surprised by the attention I received. I was interviewed on camera, and had several people come up and ask me to pose with them in pictures. People seemed genuinely excited to have me there racing. I wanted to interject at least a few times, "Don't be disappointed, because I'm not planning to race!" I really wasn't trying to sandbag; I was tired.

The route around the lake, passing up into the hills to the south, and along the lake to the north, it's got a little bit of everything.

In its second year, the Iznik Ultras offered 3 distances: 42K (Mountain Marathon), 80K (Orhangazi Ultra), and 130K (Iznik Ultra) (last year’s inaugural version offered two distances: 60K and 130K). All 3 distances start at the same time together in the center of the town of Iznik and follow the same route, with the 130K completely encircling Lake Iznik. The 42K stops in the village of Narlica, which is the fourth check point in both the 80K and 130K. The 80K follows the 130K course until 75K, and then turns off and adds 5K to finish in the town of Oranghazi (the 80K was slated to be a 75K until just a couple of weeks before the race, when it was changed so that it would finish in the town plaza in Orhangazi, adding on 5K).  And the 130K completes the loop around the lake, finishing where it started in Iznik. There were around 220 starters spread across the 3 races.

With friends, Kerem and Aykut, at the start. The token self portrait. I was absolutely not nervous, which almost never happens. I guess racing a 50 miler the week prior helps calm nerves. Photo by me (obviously).
The race starts in the center of Iznik, and runs through town and out one of the three town "gates". Excuse the butchered and very short history lesson, but the town of Iznik was formerly known as Nicaea and some important points in its history include its stint as the interim capitol of the Byzantine Empire (1204-1261) and it's where the Nicene Creed (church goers) was written (325). The ancient town was surrounded by a 10 m wall, which still exists, at least in part, and the only way into and out of the city was through 3 gates on the land-bound sides of town. The race route leads you south through one of these historic gates, and within a couple of miles, heads up into the hills around Iznik.

Heading out of Iznik through the historic gates of town before we head up into the hills. Race photo.

The 80K includes about 6000 feet of elevation gain, and while this doesn't sound like much, it's all within the first 60K, as the last 20K is pretty much flat (as is the rest of the 130K race).  So, for both the 80K and 130K, almost all of the elevation change is within the first 60K. The course is a nice mix of single track, double track, and gravel road, with some pavement mixed in, too. I think the course is challenging in that all the climbing is done initially, and then when you are the most tired, you hit the flats where you feel like you should be pushing the pace.  Add in a bit of mud, and the course is not one to taken lightly.  It's definitely a very runnable course, and with the exception of bits of the first long climb (red), the first section of the second big climb (green section after 42K), and the shoe sucking mud portion (from 60-63K--see picture below) I ran nearly all of it. 
So, at the start I hung back while lining up, but once the race began, moved up to the front and ran with the lead guys out of town. There was a group of 5 of us by the time we headed up the first climb, and I ran with a couple of the guys before letting them go. I might have misunderstood what one of them said to me, but my take on it was that he had been excited to run with the world champion, but that I was moving a little too slow, so he was going to go on ahead and to have a nice day.  Again, my understanding of his message might be a bit off.  So, as we climbed up a windy road, I could see them ahead for a while, but then they were soon out of site.

Just after passing the first checkpoint at 13 km I could see a good portion of the upcoming climb along a gravel road and there was no one in site. This would become a common theme. I couldn't figure out how those guys got so far ahead of me, being that I could see for several minutes ahead of me. Alas, it didn't matter much, as they were dudes, and I had no idea of in what race they were even entered. It did give me something to chase, because while I don't necessarily feel the need to race against the men, it was nice to have some targets up ahead to try to catch and maybe for some company down the road. I was impressed by how much ground they'd put on me being that I was actually feeling pretty good, and moving really well. But I also wasn't sure where the course went, so maybe it turned off the endless road that I could see into the distance. Heading into the race, I'd been a little nervous about following the course, as there wasn't much of a map with directions, but the course was impeccably well marked with white ribbons, and never went more than a couple hundred meters without seeing one. The turns were very clearly indicated, and would be hard to miss, unless you zoned out for a while.

Heading down towards the first check point. Race photo.
The course continued to roll along for several miles up top with nice gradual ups and downs that were all very runnable. We passed by locals out tending their flocks, and with green views of the surrounding hills and farms, it was scenic. A phone had been part of the mandatory gear list, so I stopped to snap a few photos along the way, regretting the fact that I didn't get one of some of the adorable couples out tending their flocks, or of the crowd of women and girls cheering for us in one village.  There were people out along the way and they gave a nod or shout of encouragement.

The views from above. Photo: me.
I hadn't seen anyone since the first climb when the guys ran away from me, and there was no one behind me either, so I pretty much ran alone until we started to come down off of the first climb, and a guy in black caught up to me.  We nodded and high-fived, and it was quickly apparent that I didn't speak Turkish and he didn't speak much English. We continued to run together through the aid station and started to descend together down to the checkpoint that would be the 42K finish.  The descent lasted for a few miles, and at some point he fell back, and I never saw him again.  He was my only company all day. I would later learn that he was in the 42K, and was the eventual winner of the 42K race.

We passed through several small quaint villages, and there were more folks cruising around on tractors then cars.  Photo: me.
The long descent drops you onto the asphalt where you start to climb back into the town where the 42K finishes. Coke was sounding really appealing, so I downed a couple glass of coke, and continued up out of town, on what I had been warned was the tougher of the two climbs.  It was a welcome relief to hike for a bit, so I took advantage of the steep climb to refuel (gummy critters and a gel) and recover a bit.  After a couple of miles the climb starts to level off, and becomes runnable again. About this time, I started to hear gun shots, which freaked me out a bit. I came around a bend in the road and a police officer was wandering towards me talking on his phone. Passing him, I continued to hear gun shots, which continued to freak me out, especially as I was running right towards them, but being that the police man didn't seem to care that I ran by him towards the gun shots, I figured I wasn't about to die. I reasoned that police men around the world would not let you run directly into a group of thugs prepared to pummel you with bullets. Rounding the next bend was a group of police men shooting at nothing into the air. At least I wasn't going to die, but the adrenalin was flowing by this point.

Heading through a check point mid-race. The race had a nifty system where you wore little plastic "keys" that you inserted into the boxes on the table. Like a timing chip, but without the mat (also used mats at other aid stations). Photo by Aysin Ozer Baskir

The payoff to the second big climb, was a really nice long descent (about 10K worth) down to the 60K check point. I was feeling surprisingly good, and my legs felt relatively great for 60K into a race the week after an 80K. Coke was still sounding good, so I downed another 2 or 3 glass of coke in my re-usable cup, a hunk of cheese which the aid station man, confused by my insistence on only coke, encouraged me to take. The cheese was delicious, and for the next several kilometers I lamented the fact that I hadn't grabbed more cheese.

The 3K section after the 60K checkpoint was hands down, my least favorite portion of the course. I'd heard stories of the mud the prior year, but this year the course was in pretty good shape, and the mud on the first 60K had been minimal. Shoes had gotten wet a few places, but it wasn't bad. The 3K section was shoe sucking mud, which was hard to walk through, and running really wasn't much of an option for parts. So, I slogged, fearing that the rest of the course would be like this.  It did run through olive groves, which at least added some interest besides the mud factor. At some point late in my slog, a motorcycle passed and I figured out the secret to getting through this section--the grass to the sides, although the grass was pretty boggy, as well. 3K of muck isn't bad though, and it did eventually end, and was even so kind to end at a river crossing, so all of the muck was quickly washed away.

The shoe-sucking mud section although this photo does not do it justice.  Luckily  this section was only 3K, because it involved a lot of walking and navigation around large shoe-sucking sections. I lost my shoe once. The white thing you can see hanging from a tree (olive trees) is the flagging. The course was marked exceptionally well. Not sure how people got off course, but they did, and some even complained. Some things are universal.  Photo: me.

The payoff to getting through the muck was some lovely running alongside the lake. Even though the day was overcast, there were still some nice views of the distant hills across the lake. I appreciated having my iPhone along to take pictures, which helped me to swear less under my breath at the mandatory gear list, and weight of the pack I'd been lugging around all day.  The part of me that was the most tired during the race was definitely my back, as it's still early in the season, and my UTMB gear-hauling runs haven't yet begun.

The view along the lake around 15K from the finish. Photo: me.
The last 17K were pretty uneventful. I was getting tired of running, but it was flat, so I felt like I should run, and saw running as the quickest way to the finish line and to stop running.  The route takes you along the lake on a dirt road, and eventually onto pavement for a few K, before running along another dirt road right along the lake. The 75K aid station finally appeared, and the turn-off into the town of Orghangazi for the 80K finish. The last 5K was interesting, as it was a last-minute add-on in order to get us to the town center to finish, and took us on road, through "yards", down side streets, under a busy highway, and eventually onto a main street down town. There was a good crowd gathered at the finish, and I had an escort for parts of it, along with some boys that ran in the final couple of blocks ringing cowbells.

When I finished, I asked how many people had finished before me and was surprised to find out that I'd not only finished first overall, but had come through all of the checkpoints in first, as well--even that first one at 13K. The 4 guys that had taken off on the first climb all missed an early turn, and had lost 10 minutes or so wandering around, and were all entered in the 42K regardless. No wonder I never saw them. The guy who had caught up to me on the downhill around km 27 or so was one of those first 4 guys who'd gotten lost and ended up winning the 42K. In hindsight, I finished far enough ahead of the 2nd woman (and 1st guy) that I could have relaxed and not pushed the pace, but not knowing where anyone else is in the field, it's hard to know when to relax. For all I knew, there was someone 5 minutes behind me. I didn't necessarily understand what was being said to me throughout the day along the course. I also felt great (relatively speaking) all day, and while I was running hard, felt good, and didn't feel like I left it all out there. I finished in 7:13, which I'm definitely happy with, especially after running an 8:04 at Sonoma the weekend prior. The courses were very different, but both challenging, and I loved both of them for different reasons. Iznik was different though, in that unlike during most races when at some point at a low point I find myself asking myself what the heck I'm doing out there, I never questioned why I was out there racing during Iznik. I had fun the entire way and loved the experience.
Finishing in Orhangazi.  Race photograph.
I made a few new friends who were practicing their English on me. We didn't get much past "My name is..." but we tried. Photo from my phone.
With new friends Alessia and Sirin. The women's podium in the 80K. Photo from my phone.

Coraline acting as translator post-race. Photo by TC Serkan Baslams (?). 
A fun video that was produced (I pop up several times):

I wanted to see all of my friends finish, so I hung out at the finish for several hours, which I really enjoyed. Coraline was working at the finish, and kept me company and acted as translator, which was very sweet of her. My friends all eventually finished, so we departed for Iznik in time to see Aykut and Elena finish the 130K, as well.  Post-run celebrations consisted of another trip to the meatball restaurant and several desserts with kaymak topping.  I was in heaven.

Sunday included a 10K race, followed by the awards ceremony. For those into race medals, the medal for Iznik is worth the trip alone--it's a hand-painted tile made in Iznik (Iznik is know for its ceramics), and the podium awards included a beautiful framed hand-painted tile that is both unique and beautiful. And before heading out of town, we hit the meatball restaurant one final time for one final round of meatballs and kaymak-themed deserts.

It's hard to go back to reality after a fun race weekend away, but the reality of Monday morning was there much too soon, and I was back to real life and co-facilitating a training for 40 Mercy Corps staff on USG grant rules and regulations. This was actually the real reason I was in Turkey.  But in addition to work, the rest of the week included a number of additional meet-ups with my running buddies Kerem, Aykut, Caner and Ilgaz for runs along the Bosphorus, in the Belgrad forest, more post-run breakfasts and kaymak, and a night out in Istanbul.

Taken during a sunrise run along the Bosphorus. Photo: me.
Ultra runners around the world are just awesome.  The community there took me in, and made me feel like one of the family, and I was truly bummed to leave.  I became reacquainted with friends from last year, and made many new ones. It was really hard to go home and leave these guys when it was time to go. Runners around the world are a unique bunch, and it's always a community that's easy to enter into as a visitor, but my Turkish running buddies are not just running buddies, but good friends, and I could have stayed indefinitely. Many thanks to my friends Aykut, Caner, Ilgaz and Kerem who served as awesome hosts, and took me under their wing(s).  I appreciated all of their efforts to make me feel at home. And to Caner, the RD, who puts on a top-notch event; I was honored to be invited to participate.  I'll hope to come back soon, and in the meantime, to meet up with all of you to run again.  See you at UTMB!

Ah, kaymak. Dreaming of our next encounter. 
Enjoying beers in Istanbul with Ilgaz and Caner, RD extraordinaire. 
Saturday run in the Belgrad Forest, the week after the race. Kerem, Elena, Aykut and Caner. Someone forgot to give Aykut the memo on what to wear.
It seems my body reacts very strongly to leaving Turkey, as well, and I’m now 0-2 flying home from Istanbul. No DVT this time, but this trip I managed to faint mid-flight in my seat, and while I was passed out, peed my pants. That was embarrassing. And humbling. Which after all the attention that was paid to me my week in Turkey was probably a good way to shrink my ego back to appropriate size. When I faint, I tend to pass out for at least a few seconds, and the Dutch guy next to me was looking fairly freaked out when I came to. I ended up laid out in the galley with an oxygen tank, a doctor and a crew of concerned flight attendants.  Thanks to the dear Delta flight attendant who loaned me her yoga pants. Wetting yourself 5 hours into a 10 hour flight is awkward, at best.  Also embarrassingly, it was a scene from a movie that caused me to faint (a bloody scene in The Impossible).  I wanted to finish the movie, but couldn't risk another fainting episode, because I wasn't sure if I would find anyone to loan me a second pair of pants.

If you find yourself in Turkey in April, I highly recommend this one.  Or better yet, find a way to get yourself to Turkey in April. 


Leslie said...

Yay! New friends! New places! New food! Good times Ms. Amy. Don't forget your Depends next time. You could just ree-lax and that flight would whizzzz right by....

ultrarunnergirl said...

Love the report on Turkey. I really need to put it on my list.

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