20th October 2017: that was a long-awaited date of the 54th edition of Harpagan. To be honest, I didn’t have any particularly grand expectations. A bit less than a month before that I completed the 102-mile-long Cotswold Way Century and since then didn’t do much training. After 2 recovery weeks, I did literally 2 short runs and that was it. I certainly didn’t feel very strong ahead of Harpagan. My aim was to finish, and finish with a decent result. That would mean for me a nice finish of a very intensive (and not too well planned) running season. By the way, I will post a summary of my running in 2017 in December 😊.
In the Autumn of 2017 Harpagan took place in a village called Szemud, just outside of Gdansk in the north of Poland. If you’d like to understand better what kind of a race Harpagan is, then please visit my report from the 53rd edition.
As always, my friend Michał picked me up from Gdańsk and we set off together. After a 40-minute drive we were in Szemud. We promptly registered at the race HQ, picked up our race packs and the SI chips. With 1.5 hours to spare we found some space to lie down, get ready and have some rest. There I sat Mateusz, with whom we ran the previous Harpagan. It was good to see him and we agreed we’ll meet at the start and run together again.
Having packed my race vest I left my luggage and the half-way drop bag with the organisers. We were ready to roll. We went out to the school pitch where we had to wait 10 minutes until maps distribution. The weather was mild, around 12 degrees. The forecast had said that it might rain at night and in the morning, but the expected temperature meant that I could wear short running tights and my tried and tested technical shirt. Of course, I had my jacked stowed in my race vest, just in case.
5 minutes before the start I received my map and promptly walked to the start line. There I was joined by Michał, his friend Łukasz, Mateusz, as well as Tomek (companion from the few previous Harpagans). I devised a plan how to get to an easy first checkpoint (CP1) and at 21:00 we set off!
To describe my race I used the same formula I used in my blog post from Kierat. That is, at each consecutive map snippet there are two lines. The thick, red line denotes the shortest possible route, as presented by the organisers after the race. Of course, there was none of it on the map I received and it was up to me to find a way to get from one CP to another. The second line, thin and multicoloured, is my GPS track. Dark green means I was running, light green: jogging and walking swiftly, yellow: walking not to swiftly and red: not moving, or moving very slowly.
The route to CP1 was fairly quick and easy, except turning wrongly just after start and having to make up 100 metres or so. Among many others, after 25 minutes from the start, we reached CP1.
The plan was easy and its execution flawless, until we reached lake Borowo. There is a path on the map that runs along its shore and we were supposed to follow it northbound. Instead, the path turned into an impassable bog at one point and we were forced to slowly drag ourselves through bushes and thick undergrowth. Walking east we eventually managed to reach a main track where we could run again. Without any further complications we found CP2. I was pissed off because we easily lost 20 minutes by the lake. CP2 was an unmanned point, so we were unable to see how many people were ahead of us. I was sure that many!
I chose to go east towards Gniewowo, rather than go through the tough-looking (suggested by the organisers) terrain with valleys and ravines north. For most of this stretch we nicely ran, especially ran down to river Cedron. Past Gniewowo the terrain got complicated, but we managed to take the right compass bearing trough a couple of hills and almost perfectly found CP3. There a surprise awaited: it turned out that there had been just two runners before us; including one from the mixed category. That meant, that all five of us (Michał, Tomek, Łukasz, Mateusz and I) were tied on the 2nd place! That was completely unexpected!
With morale boosted by the fantastic news, we confidently continued. Firstly, following back the same path towards Gniewowo, and then an obvious route straight onto CP4. In the meantime, someone managed to catch up with us. We were conscious, that we need to keep a good pace, because we will be viciously pursued!
I planned a route that was not necessarily short, but was easy to navigate and looked quite runnable. Indeed, we quickly ran down to the Szmelta valley and then, with a mix of walking and jogging, easily located CP5. We refilled our water bottles there and helped ourselves to bananas and chocolate. The guy that was following us disappeared somewhere along the way, so again there was 5 of us.
I chose an easy to navigate variant via Łężyce. After a bit of an uphill we reached the village and then enjoyed a fair bit of running. We easily reached the area around CP6. Unfortunately, we left the forest track a bit too early and ended up roaming aimlessly looking for the CP. At one point Michał suggested another direction and after a few minutes of fighting our way through dense vegetation we found it. With no time to spare we set continued, because we could see some lights in the distance behind us: the hounds caught our trail and were closing the gap!
At first it was tough to find the right way due to a hilly terrain and tracks and paths not consistent with the map. Nevertheless, relatively quickly we found a very runnable downhill track towards the Cisowa nature reserve. From there navigation was easy. We crossed the Marszewski brook and easily checked in at CP7. While I refilled my water bottles, Mateusz asked the CP crew in which position we were. He received a response, that there was just one person ahead of us (the dude from the TM150 mixed course), which meant we were the leaders. Absolute shock!
I didn’t verify this information myself as we swiftly set off towards CP8, but I had doubts if this could be true. Indeed, having looked at the checkpoints times after the race, I saw that we were actually in the 2nd place. Anyway, it was super exciting that we were in the lead!
An easy stretch with a decent amount of running. I must admit though, that tiredness started to get to me. Drizzling rain didn’t help.
Just past CP8 we were supposed to get onto a forestry track, which was in turn supposed to lead us nicely towards the track marked white. Instead, we ended up fighting through vegetation and moving in a roughly good direction. This cost us some time, but eventually we found the red road, from where we easily navigated to within 200 metres from CP9. There for a short while we were moving in the opposite direction, but as soon as I realised the mistake, we turned back and promptly got CP9 out of the way.
It pains me to recall this stretch. The plan was easy: when we reach the tiny lake south of CP10 we beeline the last 200 metres through the forest and land exactly at CP10. We reached the lake swiftly and according to plan indeed. There, we somehow missed the right point for the beeline and instead started it 300 metres too far. When we didn’t find the checkpoint where we expected it, we started looking around, desperately hoping to find some feature that would help us locate where we were. Because of that we ended up making this ugly loop around the CP. We eventually found it, but this mistake must have cost us 20-25 minutes. The crew at CP10 informed us that 3-4 people overtook us.
Race HQ- the halfway point
For the last few hours the rain was quite strong and relentless, but I put my jacket on just after CP10. Time wasted at CP10 and the resulting frustration made me feel cold and miserable. We started running to alleviate that and indeed this made me feel better. Without any issues we reached the road in Grabowiec from where we easily checked in at event’s HQ.
The first loop was supposed to be 52 km long. My Garmin watch showed that in fact we covered 62 km and it took us 9 hours and 43minutes.
We all went inside the building to access our respective drop bags. I refilled my bottles, stuffed my vest with gels and bars, grabbed a cheese bap and within 10 minutes from reaching the HQ I was en route to CP11. Michał, Mateusz and Tomek sorted themselves out in about the same time, while Łukasz decided to linger a bit longer and continue at his own pace. So, just before 7 AM the four of us started the 2nd loop.
We easily made it to the vicinity of CP11, but we ran down too far north-west. As a consequence, we had to backtrack to the checkpoint. There we saw a runner, who swiftly moved on, evidently wanting to run away from us.
This was supposed to be the longest stretch: 9 km. We easily made it to Donimierz with a fair amount of running. After the village I wanted to follow the track which the organisers selected as their optimal route. The guys convinced me to take a different route though. Having crossed a field and a bit of wilderness, we reached a forest, where we hoped to find a path that would lead us to the ‘optimal’ track. Instead, we came across sprawling bogs. Initially it was a bit wet underfoot and we walked along the edge of the bog, hoping to circle it and find the main track. However, in order not to go too much south, I decided to cross the bog.
Going was fine, until I realised that stepping on a grass clump results in other clumps and MECH around me lifting slightly! It wasn’t until a few steps later, when I fell through the grass into water waist-deep, that I realised, that below the grass is God knows how much water! My heart started to beat faster. I realised, that perhaps this is not the best route. I managed to pull myself out of the water and after a few shaky steps I reached a safe haven of a few solidly grounded trees. I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I lost sight of the guys, who were moving south-east trying to walk around the bog.
Hoping this would end soon I continued on and over a distance of 20 metres fell into the water 2 more times. I was seriously anxious at that point. The only thing that kept me going was the sight of rising ground not far ahead of me. Indeed, I shortly reached hard ground and after a while shakily stumbled onto the track. I shouted to the guys that I found it and continued towards CP12.
After 10 minutes of walking/jogging Michał appeared in the distance behind me and soon caught up with me. It turned out they circled the bog and found the track too, but Tomek and Mateusz didn’t chase after Michał. Just the two of us now, we passed Częstkowo and without any further issues, after 1.5 hours from CP11, reached CP12.
A few minutes after the checkpoint we saw Piotr Kopacz chasing us. I recognised him from various previous Harpagans. Looking strong and fresh, he quickly overtook us. I found it annoying, that because of the time lost in the bogs, not only the leaders are widening the gap, but we are also being overtaken!
Michał and I ran as much as we could, keeping Piotr in sight ahead of us. We reached CP13 a short while after him. There we were informed by the crew, that Michał and I are tied on the 4th position.
Piotr set off very quickly… no surprise. He knew, that he’s got to lose us if he wants to keep the 3rd position. A few hundred meters after the checkpoint we didn’t find the north-west path we wanted to take so I thought we’d continue towards Rzepecka and attack the CP from there. However, Michał came up with an idea (that later turned out to be brilliant) to veer up north. Indeed, the path was nice and very runnable atop a forested hill. Then having followed on a decent quality forest track we laboriously ascended a prominent hill where CP14 awaited. We saw neither Piotr nor any other runners.
We backtracked for 2km and there we met Mateusz and Tomek who were on their way to CP14, maybe 20 minutes behind us. Easily navigating towards CP15 we kept wondering whether Piotr is ahead of us, or behind us. I suspected there was no chance he could be ahead of us. We confidently reached CP15 having seen no one else though.
Over the last kilometres one of my gaiters started rubbing on my ankle, causing me gradually more and more pain. Just past CP15 I decided to remove it and a miracle happened! The pain disappeared, I felt relieved and shot ahead running, what can be seen by a considerable amount of green colour of my GPS track. We confidently found CP16, where the crew informed us, that we’re probably in the lead; however, there was a dazed-looking guy who just punched the SI card, but didn’t record his presence with them. I read it, that we’re back in the 2nd place. Michał’s route choice to CP14 turned out to be a win. We left Piotr and one other competitor behind us!
Even though we were in the 2nd position I dictated a strong pace. I assumed, that when the guys behind us reach CP 16 and realise they were overtaken, they would chase us relentlessly! The stretch to CP17 was very easy to navigate and we swiftly found CP17.
Another easy stretch, if not for the fact that I lacked stamina to run as much as I should have run. While at CP18 we learned that the leader had a 1.5-hour lead over us, which meant that he was out of reach. But we didn’t know what lead we have over the next runner, so we quickly refilled our bottles, grabbed a banana each and ran.
I chose to go via Ustarbowo. This was a slightly longer route, but looked safe and runnable. Indeed, we ran strongly and in no time reached CP19.
It was a similarly quick and easy stretch, covered in a mix of jogging and marching. Nothing special to report. The path network just before CP20 was a bit messy and didn’t fully correspond to what the map was showing. However, navigating carefully, I led us straight to the checkpoint.
We ran most of the final stretch. With 1 km left until the finish we were confident no one was going to steal the 2nd place from us. We had agreed earlier on that we would finish together to share the 2nd place. Boosted by an adrenaline rush, we ran the last few hundred meters very hard and at 14:50, after 17 hours and 50 minutes and 116 km from the start, we jointly finished at the fabulous 2nd position.
In the end 18 people finished and earned the right to the coveted title ‘Harpagan’. Out of 162 starters, Łukasz finished 7th and Mateusz 8th. Tomek pulled out when he was unable to find CP14. The winner finished 1 hour and 17 minutes ahead of us, so we managed to claw back 13 minutes from CP18.
On one hand, I was a bit frustrated. Having counted our mistakes and summarised how much time they cost (20 minutes en route to CP2, 10 minutes at CP6, 20 minutes at CP10, 5 minutes at CP11, 15 minutes at the bogs), I realised we could have been very close to the leader. So he was within reach, but that’s the nature of navigational races such as Harpagan, where one mistake can change the end result significantly.
Nevertheless, this is my best ever result in Harpagan and in any ultra race I’ve done. It’s great, especially since I had not anticipated a great performance before. What’s also nice, is that after 11 years of running together I did it together with Michał. Kudos to him for the excellent progress he’s made since the last Harpagan 6 month earlier. He was in top shape; he easily maintained my pace. What’s more, at times it was me who had to maintain his pace!
With this race, I concluded my ultrarunning season, so I’m glad I managed to close year 2017 with such a result. I’ve recently revised my 2018 running calendar and for the next 6 months will not run any ultra race. I want to use this time for rest and recovery and then for well-structured training to be in top shape for the 55th Harpagan in April 2018.
Last but not least, here are the full maps.
All the best,