Those of you who know me are probably well aware that a certain long-distance running/navigational event in Poland called Harpagan has for years been an important part of my running calendar. Even though I’ve lived in the UK for quite a few years I’ve almost always made sure to travel back to Poland for Harpagan. Indeed, between my first Harpagan (31st edition in April 2006) and the one just completed (53rd edition) I only missed 3 events, while the last Harpagan was the 20th I participated in. If you wonder why there were so many editions in 11 or so years let me inform you that Harpagan takes place twice a year, in April and in October.
Both the April and October Harpagans are pretty much the most important events for me and usually I try to make sure that my training leads to a peak form for them. In the last few years I’ve achieved some great results (4th place in October 2012, 5th in April 2013, or my best 3rd place in April 2016). Having been a match for the leaders I obviously grew hungry for even better results. In October 2016 my start in Harpagan was a bit of a failure. Due to getting hopelessly lost looking for one particular checkpoint I lost plenty of time and ended up in the 9th position. Having thoroughly analysed my performance I was very eager to atone for my bad performance by having a stunning Harpagan in April 2017.
My plan for 2017 included a start in Grand Union Canal Race in May, but unfortunately I didn’t get selected in the draw. As a result of that I signed up for my 2nd choice- the Viking Way Ultra. The timing was however a bit inconvenient with VWU taking place just 20 days before Harpagan. I failed to finish VWU what I described on my blog in detail (link here). I knew well that to run 113 miles 20 days before Harpagan will likely result in a suboptimal form. I suffered (more mentally than physically) in the first week after VWU, then I got better and even did three runs in order to get back into the rhythm and get hungry for a good performance at Harpagan. Therefore before Harpagan I felt quite well, though I was aware that I might not have as much power as usually. Physically I also felt ok, but unfortunately 20 days were not enough for my feet to recover from the ugly blisters I acquired during Viking Way Ultra. Nothing hurt, but the skin was not fully regenerated.
Before I go into details of my performance in Harpagan, I think it’s worth to introduce this event and tell you what’s so interesting about it. I recommend this read to those who are keen on navigational racing and orienteering.
Harpagan is a navigational race and in its current form offers a range of courses:
- TP100- 100 kilometres on foot
- TP50- 50 kilometres on foot
- TP25- 25 kilometres on foot
- TP10- 10 kilometres on foot (targeted for families and children)
- TR200- 200 kilometres by bike
- TR100- 100 kilometres by bike
- TR50- 50 kilometres by bike
- TM150- mixed course (50 kilometres on foot and 100 km kilometres by bike)
Of the above courses only TP100, TR200 and TM150 are considered the ‘proper’ Harpagan races, for completion of which you actually get a title ‘Harpagan’. The other courses have been introduced in order to attract more people to running and walking around forests with maps. Since my beginnings, I have always been competing in TP100.
It’s worth to mention that all courses require careful navigation and map reading skills and familiarity with using a compass. In light of that, the distance of a particular course, for instance 100k on TP100, is calculated assuming the competitor follows the most optimal and shortest route (along the existing paths, roads, forest boundaries and not as the bird flies). As a consequence of that it is normal that most participants will cover more distance due to inefficient choice of route and getting lost along the way.
The TP100 course consists of 2 loops (each about 50k in length), while on each loop there are 10 checkpoints (CPs). The first loop always ends in the event base where the participants can access their drop bags to resupply food and drink or change clothes. At the start of the race you get a map of the first loop with the CPs you need to reach in certain order. Those who manage to finish the first loop and reach the base then get the map of the second loop which eventually also ends in the event base.
Sounds nice and easy, right? An interesting complication you get at Harpagan is the fact that the maps provided by the organisers are a bit out of date, i.e. they show how the land looked in 1970s. As a consequence, very often where on the map there’s a forest in reality you have a road; where on the map you expect a road in reality you might get a bog; where on the map you see a small settlement with a few houses in reality you see none. Another complication is that TP100 starts at 9 PM, so the first loop is done predominantly at night- limited visibility, outdated map and often adverse weather ensure that navigation is tough and rather that 100k you ended up doing 120k or more.
Harpagan 53- Cewice
Harpagan takes place every 6 months, in various places in the Pomorskie region of northern Poland, allowing the participants to explore various parts of the region. This time we were about to head off to a small village called Cewice, located about 75-minute drive from my hometown Gdańsk. As always Michał, my old friend and long term Harpagan partner in crime, and I set off from Gdańsk on Friday afternoon and slightly past 7 PM checked in the event base (a local school) where we collected our race packs and went to the school gym to get ready
At around 8:30 PM, all geared up we went to deposit our luggage and drop bags in a designated storage area. After that, having waited inside the building as long as possible because of the cold and rain outside, we went to the race start where 165 participants were already forming queues to pick up the maps (maps are provided 5 minutes before the race starts). Once I got my map I positioned myself strategically in the front and quickly planned how to attack the first checkpoint (CP1). Meanwhile I was joined by Michał and also a familiar face Tomek, with whom we ran in a few editions of Harpagan. At 9 PM we set off!
Part 1- wet and cold
We were supposed to get to CP1 in no time- after a few minutes from the start there was supposed to be a nice forest track leading us easily to the CP. Very quickly the nice forest track suddenly vanished and we ended up plodding through a dense forest. Having lost a few precious minutes we found another track which led us to an old railway track from which without any major problems we reached CP1. Just before the CP we met up with Mateusz, an old friend of mine, who followed another route which seemed to be navigationally safer, but similarly it was not that obvious.
Not wasting any time we quickly set off towards CP2 which looked like an easy one to get to, but going was slow due to rough terrain with some steep and frequent inclines to cover. A persistent and at times heavy rain didn’t help, but as long as we were running I didn’t feel cold and didn’t mind the rain and wet shoes too much. After an easily found CP2, a group of people (Michał, Tomek, Mateusz, I and some other folks) went into a nice run towards CP3. While enjoying the quick pace I didn’t realise we missed a turnoff towards the CP and ended up going too much westwards. Mateusz and the other guys continued on while I led our trio north through the forest where we eventually reached the road I was hoping to reach, from where we easily made CP3, where again we caught up with Mateusz. From then we stayed together.
The rain kept falling and whenever we slowed down I started to feel unpleasantly cold- this was a good motivation to keep on running. I planned what seemed a good route towards CP4 but after over a mile of a nice road and then track the track suddenly disappeared and we ended up plodding through a freshly ploughed field. After that a bit of a nice track and again magic happens and the track is gone. A quarter of a mile plodding through a field later we reached the forest, from where the route to CP4 was easy, but the earlier plodding turned out to be quite tiring and I had no will to do much running.
The way to CP5 was initially nice, fast and easy (courtesy of a slight downhill), but just before the CP we got a bit lost until one of us realised where we are and eventually I led our quarter onto CP5 which reached 21 minutes past midnight. The nominal distance from the start should have been 19.5k (12ish miles) giving us an unimpressive average speed of around 3.6 mph. In reality however, the analysis of the track from my Garmin Forerunner watch that I performed later at home indicated that by the time we reached CP5 we covered not 19.5k but 23k (14.3 miles) resulting in a real average speed of 4.3 mph.
The start towards CP6 was slow and I had no energy for running. Very quickly it transpired that what we expected to be a good forest path was in fact a very overgrown and slow going path on which we continued winding our way around enclosed areas of newly-planted forest hoping this will improve soon. What did improve was the weather: it stopped raining. I put on a second pair of gloves to warm my hands up and shortly we came onto a nicer forest road on which I picked up the pace, mainly to warm up. With no further major issues we made it to CP6, where for the first time since the start we could refill our bottles with water and grab a banana to eat. PK6 was at 26.5k (16.5 miles), so we just covered over a half of the first loop. It took us 4h and 48 minutes to get there, with an average speed so far 3.4 mph, so a slowdown.
Part 2- navigational hell
Having left PK6 we quickly made it to a major road, from which I identified the right forest path which I intended to take to cross a river using the 2nd bridge from the top, as highlighted on the map. I felt invigorated by what seemed an easy and quick stretch to CP7 and super confident that my route choice is perfect and that I’m in full control of where we’re going. When we came to enjoy half a mile of a nice downhill run I stopped monitoring the time elapsed 100% sure we’re where I wanted us to be.
My conviction faltered when we reached the boggy area around the river and the paths and their directions stopped making sense. We did push on westwards however hoping things will clarify around the next (and next, and next) bend. Finally it was Mateusz who realised where we are; land features confirmed it shortly thereafter. We ran too much to the west, towards a village called Runowo, essentially adding a mile or so of distance! From there, the route to CP7 was easy, that is until the vicinity of the CP, where we got miserably lost plodding around bogs and not knowing where actually we were. We lost maybe 10 minutes until Mateusz figured out that we started searching for the CP too early and finally led our miserable bunch towards to flag. What supposed to be 4.5 miles from CP6 took us 1h 47min… what was reassuring was the fact that most people struggled there and even it took the winner over 2 hours to get from CP6 to CP7.
Having checked in at CP7 we planned to enter a nice forest road that would lead us almost all the way to CP8. Soon we realised there was no road. We lost 10 minutes looking for it and then decided to follow a very rough, overgrown and interspersed with bogs and huge puddles path. After an hour of tiring plodding and the 30 minutes along a decent road, with sun that was gradually showing its face, at 5:05 AM we made it to CP8 where we again refilled our water bottles. There we actually met Karol Kalsztein, the Race Director, who informed us that the first loop is actually just a warm-up and the real fun will be on the second one. That wasn’t very motivating I must say.
Part 3- dawn of a long day
I planned to bag CP9 quickly and easily, which we pretty much did, the only exception being that we were supposed to turn left in a small settlement called Owsianka (literally translated porridge!), but there were absolutely no houses- everything must have been razed ages ago.
PK10 was quite easy, although not very fast. Similarly the route from PK10 to the halfway point at event’s base as we managed to get a bit lost just before entering Cewice.
We checked in at the base at 7:13 AM, so the first loop took us 10 hours and 13 minutes- not impressive at all, but still it turned out that our group (Michał, Tomek, Mateusz and I) were at around 8th or 9th place ex aequo, so not too bad!
I got the map for the 2nd loop and quickly went to get my drop bag. I refilled my bottles with the electrolyte drink, stuffed my Salomon race vest with gels, bars and other goodies and almost ready to set off I decided to do something that I’ve never done before, i.e. I changed my socks to a fresh pair. The act of taking off the shoes and sodden socks was nothing pleasant and I saw the miserable state of my feet, but when I put on the new pair of socks and then the same shoes it felt so much better! I grabbed a polish sweet bun called drożdzówka and with Michał and Tomek we set off to conquer the second loop.
Part 4- walking (as in opposed to running) out of time
The way to PK11 seemed obvious and in the beginning I was running, nicely refreshed and invigorated after the short break; moreover my feet felt lovely in the new socks. After about half a mile Mateusz caught up with us. We lost sight of him in the base and I actually thought that he must have already been ahead of us. Tomek on the other hand was struggling and started to slow down and soon we left him to move at his own pace; he decided to call it a day at PK11. Mateusz, Michał and I easily made it to PK11 ahead of him and with no time lost immediately started towards PK12 following an obvious road.
Indeed this stretch was very easy to navigate and we relaxed and ended up more walking and chatting rather than pushing hard. A short stretch of less than 3 miles took us as many as 43 minutes, to which a few minutes were contributed by me because I started to search for the CP a bit too early and ended up in a bog.
After CP12 we made a mistake and due to lack of concentration ended going too much eastwards and adding over a quarter of a mile to our already excessive mileage. Once we realised and corrected we continued on and easily found CP13.
The stretch to CP14 was 5 miles long and was the longest in this Harpagan. Navigationally quite easy it just kept dragging on and on at times. We, instead of pushing hard on easy stretches and long straights where navigation was unnecessary, were moving at quite a leisurely pace, conversing and mostly walking with occasional jogging. The last bit of this stretch was very slow going as we carefully descended into a steep, forested valley where the CP sat. We checked in at CP14 at 11:24 AM. The map said we should have covered 71.5k (44.5 miles) by this time resulting in a pathetic 3.1 mph. The later analysis of the GPS track showed that actually we’ve already covered 89k (55.6 miles) giving a slightly better average of 3.8 mph.
Part 5- the mountain madness
I could see from the map that the next few CPs will be tough, because of the hilly terrain. Normally the north of Poland is mostly flat and there are no mountains, but this particular area has some mean postglacial hills interspersed with steep valleys. I’m actually quite familiar with this terrain from a couple of previous editions of Harpagan which took place around this area. I remembered well that it’s very easy to choose a suboptimal path and in consequence keep going up the hills and down the valleys on and on.
From PK14 we came back up to a certain point atop the hill from which we descended towards a prominent forest road. This was followed by a steep and onerous ascend. Then, rather than descend and ascend again to CP15, I chose to follow westwards and then northwards staying on the high ground. This stretch was supposed to be 3.5k (2.2 miles) long but still took us 54 minutes.
From CP15 the situation was not much different. Firstly a steep descent to a forest path in the valley and then a long, laborious way up towards the top of the notorious Jelenia Góra (literally translated Mount Deer). Well, maybe not so much notorious; actually it’s a very pretty place that offers beautiful views of the surrounding areas and towards the Reda-Łeba Ustromtal (postglacial meltwater vallley). If not for the fact that on each and every Harpagan in this area (H31 in 2006, H35 in 2008 and H47 in 2014) the organisers torture us by putting a checkpoint atop Jelenia Góra, the connotations with this place would only be positive. Again, a short stretch of just 2.5k (1.5 miles) to CP16 but it took us 42 minutes!
Having gotten CP16 out of the way we followed the ridge for a while, then descended very steeply and then, surprise surprise, we could enjoy another long and wearisome ascent… thankfully the last one. Nearing the end of this climb I felt drained and devoid of energy. A look at the map and I realised that there’s only 20k (12.5 miles) or so left to the finish, so it’s the right time to pull my good old trick, which is to get excited for a final push! Since the halfway point we have been at around the 8th place, so I consumed my tried and tested SIS double espresso gel and drastically picked up the pace hoping to overtake someone.
Część 6- need for speed
Initially Michał and Mateusz kept up with me, though I knew it was getting hard for Michał and he would soon stick to his own pace. The remainder of the stretch to CP17 was easy and uneventful. Still, the whole stretch took us almost 1.5 hour. The winner covered it in 54 minutes, so our time was far from impressive. At the CP I refilled my bottles with water and immediately continued towards CP18.
I was mostly running and Michał and Mateusz were gradually falling behind and I soon lost sight of them. I didn’t doubt they will make it to the finish line at their own pace, so with no more looking back I pushed on towards CP18 following an easy road. After a final climb and a nice 57 minutes from CP17 (the best time on this stretch from all participants) I beeped my SI card and moved on.
I quickly planned how to get to CP19 and after 20 minutes got to its vicinity. Unfortunately I went down a wrong path (too early before the point) and lost 10 minutes or so looking for the CP. I retreated to the main path, continued straight on and eventually reached the CP 34 minutes from CP18. It could have been below 25 minutes, but hey.
I chose to head towards CP20 firstly following paths and forest roads westwards towards the main road. It was a good mix of running and walking, except for the fact that just before the road I got into a bog and lost a few minutes. This was followed by 2k (1.25 miles) along a main road, mostly running and being careful not to get run over by speeding cars. Then I again entered into a forest a followed a nice forest road downhill, crossed a stream and then following the edge of the forest got in the vicinity of the checkpoint. I slowly walked into the CP due to the fact that it sat atop a hill. It took me 1h 22 minutes from CP19 which was the 2nd best time (just after the winner’s time).
From PK20 there was only 1 mile left to the finish, and it was impossible to get lost! Walking along a field on a slight uphill, I saw another guy about a quarter of a mile behind me so I picked up the pace and ran up the hill… I obviously wanted to make sure he doesn’t catch up with me. I continued running till the end and crossed the finish line in 11 minutes from CP20 (2nd best time of this stretch) and 20h 31mins and 29 seconds from the start. I was the 6th competitor to crossed the line, so indeed in the last 12.5 miles I somehow managed to overtake 2 people. I haven’t seen anyone, so it must have been due to a good route choice.
Michał and Mateusz crossed the finish line 1 hour after I did and they took the 9th and 10th places. In total, within the 24-hour time limit 23 people out of 165 starters made it.
Comparing with the last few editions of Harpagan, this one was quite tough due to the rain and overgrown terrain on the first loop and the murderous hills on the second loop. Therefore I am pleased with my result, though it’s been a few years since the last time it took me over 20 hours to finish a Harpagan! My time (20:31:29) gives an average speed of 3mph. The analysis of my GPS track showed that actually I covered 124k (77.5 miles) which gives an average speed of 3.7 mph. At my fastest ever Harpagan I ran 107k (67 miles) in 13 hours and 53 minutes (average 7.7 km/h / 4.8mph), but there it was dry and completely flat, so it’s difficult to compare these two performances.
The leaders were unfortunately out of reach this time. The winner, Marcin Hippner, finished 2h 45mins ahead of me. Interestingly, at CP7, where me got miserably lost, he was just 24 minutes ahead of us. At the halfway point he was over one hour ahead of us, at PK15 2 hours, at PK17 2h 40 mins; thereafter this time difference persisted till the end. I was 41 minutes behind the guy at 5th place, so he was within reach, but there is no point in further analysis of that.
Physically my feet suffered the most. Having written these words 3-4 days after Harpagan I still struggle with walking due to very sore balls of my feet with raw skin at some points. I blame it on the fact that 20 days since Viking Way Ultra were not enough to recover. Strangely, I have no muscle soreness whatsoever so I am very positively surprised.
At this point I’d like to express my thanks to the Harpagan organisers for another great event and for the reminder, after a few relatively easy editions, that it can be tough and one needs to fight to have a good result.
To my readers from outside of Poland I totally recommend to take part in Harpagan and I can guarantee this will be a great challenge and a memorable experience. You’ll get to see some beautiful and often unspoilt forests and try your navigation skills. The next Harpagan takes place in a village called Szemud on 20th October 2017. Szemud is located just outside of Gdańsk, which has a major international airport with many routes to the UK, Scandinavia, Germany, France etc. and cheap flights available. Not to mention that to enter Harpagan it will cost you less than £20!
Meanwhile, I hope that my feet will properly heal, because on 26th May I am taking part in a mountain ultramarathon in southern Poland called Kierat (link).
Feet are getting better and I’ve done a few runs recently, so I feel quite optimistic two weeks ahead of Kierat. As an addendum to my original blog post I am please to provide below two maps for those who, like me, love analysing and reading maps. These maps come from the organisers and show the ideal (in their view) route choice. What I’ve done is that I overlaid them with my GPS track, so it’s easy to see how my route deviated from the ideal route and where it is evident I made a lot of additional mileage. Enjoy!