Lighthouse Challenge – 50 miles / 80 km on Öland (english version)

Like with almost every travel we do, there needs to be a highlight with running. Already when planning I poked around and found the Marathon in Jönköping, but it would have been hard to fit into our plans. Looking at the map of Öland I thought, this island with its proportions almost screams for a long run, e.g. by circumventing it in multiple days. Digging a bit more I found all the races taking place on Öland. The marathon took place while we were still at home. But who needs a marathon if there is a suitable ultra marathon? As a bonus this would be a premiere: The Lighthouse-Challenge runs from the northern lighthouse (long Erik) to the southern lighthouse (long Jan), in total 100 miles or 161km. This was far too much for me, as I was looking for something that fits into a vacation that also should be kind of relaxing. As alternatives there is a 50km race and one 50 mile (equivalent to 80,46km) race, so everything very clearly in the ultra marathon range. As I already did quite a few 50K races this year and the longest distance was 73,6km at the Rennsteig, the choice was an easy one: 50 miles it is.

Signing up for the race was no big deal, except that most of the website is in Swedish. Luckily I was backed up by Marion, who helped me as well with some of the later updates about the race that were posted later on. So I am well aware of all the required equipment, a list that is usually a bit longer for ultra races. At least for the 161km a reflective jacket and a headlight are required, as the race will well quite sure extend into the night. Looking at the list of participants it soon becomes clear that this will be a small and cosy event. Just 36 runners have signed up. At least until some days before our departure to Sweden, it looks like all I have to do is to arrive at the finish line to get a place on the podium: only 6 participants for the 50 miles are registered, three female, three male. Until the race takes places the numbers raise slightly, there are nine runners (m/f) in total, so at least some kind of effort will be required …

After a very short night, I get up at 3 a.m. from my sleeping bag at the campground, on the day before I already prepared everything including the bag for the family support van. A slight mishap still happened to me: The cereals are stored on our trailer, but I cannot open up this one without waking everybody else on the campground at this early hour. So I take a Swedish start and grab some cinnamon rolls for breakfast. The race bibs are handed out from 4 a.m. on, a mandatory briefing for all runners is scheduled for 4:30 a.m. So I hop on my bike to head to the start, it’s just a bit more than a seven kilometers ride and I get a first glimpse at the race track so not all of it is unknown to me. It feels a bit awkward riding the bike through the darkness along the coastline. I hit the sweet spot, right at 4 a.m. I dismount from the bike at long Erik, the first members of the organizing crew are already there as well. It’s no big guessing, no one else is awake at this time in the morning here. Nonetheless some camping vans and buses are scattered around long Erik.

I park and lock up my bike and head towards the counter for the race bibs, no worries here, everybody speaks English. I am promised to get a shortened version of the briefing in English as a special service. I have some talk with the other runners that are slowly filling up the place. The briefing is quite short, I wish I would at least understand a bit of Swedish. It gets even more compact in English: keep to the right on roads, the track is marked with arrows and logos, at critical crossings there will be additional red arrows. I also have to learn at least one Swedish word, „Färist“ these are grids that are in place to keep cattle and other animals inside their meadows, without resorting to gates that would at least partly block the road for through traffic. You need to be careful when crossing those, it might easily happen that you get your foot stuck in the grid.

Minutes later a photo of all starters is taken and the starting pistol marks the start of the race in the morning. It has lightend up a bit, but the sun is not yet visible over the horizon. I just start jogging as usual – we cross the bridge that connects the small island with the lighthouse to the main island, afterwards we turn slight right and follow down the road. I talk to another runner, but soon he heads of with his own pace, which is way too fast for me. According to my GPS I am running at round about 5:30 min/km. I am a bit sceptic about that speed, but trying to run slower feels much more uncomfortable. But instead of looking at the watch, now is the time to enjoy the beautiful scenery around. Everything is quiet, I can even hear some of the waves washing up the shore, at least until we head into the first forest along the route.

Leaving the woods the sun is already above the horizon, time to take a photo. I get in touch with a another runner and we have some chatting, he will only be doing the 50k, as he is living very close to the finish line. The kilometers pass by and some minutes later Marion is standing at the intersection that leads to the campsite. I take the chance to hand over my jacket, it was a good idea to have it while riding the bike and for the first kilometers but now it has already warmed up, so from now on the running shirt is the right choice. In Byxelkrok there is also the first refill station, the first 10k are done and my time is looking promising, I am well under an hour since the start of the race. I grab some Iso and an piece of energy bar before I head on.

The next part of the track leads through a nature preserve area, which is mostly forrest. The race track follows the cycling path that runs around Öland completely most of the time. Meanwhile I already got to know about the „Färist“. You need to watch your step while crossing those, but no worries at this time. Ahead of me I can constantly see a runner, but she is quite a distance to me, but it clearly helps to have someone for orientation purposes such as turns and crossings. Soon we also get to now the reason for the „Färist“, two horses are using the road as well, roaming freely. You need to be careful when passing those not to cause to much stress to them being over or outrun by them (they are faster, that’s a fact). I am that shocked so I did not take a photo of this iconic view. The path now leads away from the shore and dives into another forest, first on the road but soon it takes turn onto a trail until the next replenishment station. It is only intersected by one road crossing. Just before we reach the checkpoint I am able to catch up with the runner ahead and even take the lead- 21km are done at the checkpoint, my pace is still averaging around 5:30 min/km.

The upcoming passage of the track has far less trees, but it follows the shore line nicely. All around us people start to wake up or are already enjoying their breakfast. In a more wilder area I spot two deer that are a bit afraid of runners and cross the road to hide somewhere in the bushes. Marion sends a message, telling me that she will try to get to the checkpoint at kilometer 30. However, reaching the station, she is not there. I supply myself with iso drink and another energy bar. Taking up the race again I get my sunglasses which I stored in the backpack. As I used them for the bike part in the morning they are still equipped with the transparent glasses, which do not provide any protection after all, so I switch to the dark ones while jogging. I also inform Marion that we missed each other and that its the best idea she tries again at kilometer 40 which is where the next supply station is located.

The underground to run on gets more difficult after the checkpoint. It is not a real trail but more of a gravel or sand road. Somehow waves have built up in the surface, just like they were created by a big caterpillar or similar machinery, pressing the surface into this pattern. Its no fun to run on such underground, especially as I choose to run in my New Balance Boa shoes today which are lightweight but also very minimalistic. So need to find the best possible path, it turns out that using the lanes carved out by vehicle traffic are the best option. In addition there is one of the few places where the path goes uphill at a steeper grade, even some serpentines are included. This is necessary to round a quarry on the coast. Directly after I left the quarry behind the 40km checkpoint comes into view. However this is located in a bay, which means going downhill towards the checkpoint, but I can already clearly see the path winding uphill directly aftewards. Overall I am feeling very comfortable although I am almost at the marathon mark. To my own surprise I realize that I already did more than half of the race. I think the number of 50k races I already did this year got me used to such distances, they are nothing special anymore.

At the checkpoint you can clearly tell that the temperature is going from warm to hot, the energy bars are already melting in the sun. I also take some Iso once more, this time some additional proteins are included due to some small mosquitos that are attracted by the smell but than fail to swim in it. I would have loved to fill up my water supply in my backpack but this is not possible until the next station at 50k is reached. For the first time today I take some of my salt tablets I carry along with me, keeping up the salt level has turned out to be a very important factor to success for me.

In the next village only a few steps after the marathon mark (and I am still below 4h of race time) Marion is waiting with the kids near the harbor. I take the chance to fill up may backpack and continue, leaving Sandvik behind. The countryside is more a natural one once more, nonetheless it is still more live a savanna or dried up moorland. The heat is picking on me quite heavy now. But the next checkpoint is close at hand. Meanwhile Marion passes by with the family van. There is a nice view on the stacked up stones in high numbers along the coastline. It’s still a bit to run but the houses of Djupvik come into sight. By this I reach the 50km mark, one of the more important checkpoints.

The checkpoint at 50km gives opportunity to make a more prolonged stop and time to eat something more solid. They offer very delicious pancakes with cinnamon and sugar. I also fill up my backpack which I almost emptied once again. This is a clear sign that its getting hot, in addition I enjoy some greetings from home: Marion brought along some „Welde Sportweizen“ (a local brewery close to my home), free of alcohol, delicious and isotonic. As the next runner comes closer to the checkpoint I already head out right after 5 hours into the race. I think about having taken too long for the stop, but no way of changing the past. And somehow I lost power after the 50k mark, my pace drops to 6:30 min/km. After another „Färist“ I am totally drained. I need to slow down to get over it carefully but I just cannot come back up to speed. I don’t have a clue what is the reason for this drop in performance. But giving up is not an option yet, so I try to jog again, this works until I get to the next „Färist“. Marion sends a message, stating that they are waiting at the next checkpoint already, which is still 6km away. The runner behind me passes me. I try to keep up for a little while but her speed is far too fast for the time being. Regarding the heat I spot a cow and her calf, doing the best you can do in this kind of heat, they stay in the shade of a nearby hut, moving only as much as needed.

A few kilometers before reaching the checkpoint, I realize that they already take action with regards to the drought and heat, there is a camel farm located right in the middle of the island Öland in Sweden. I still got the other runner in my view as we cross the central road of the island. Some additional warning sings are installed to warn about runners crossing the road. However there is not that much traffic and I can cross without any issue. Only about 800m later I reach the next checkpoint at 60km. I grab some banana, iso drink and energy bar. This one is located quite nicely next to one of the many historic windmills on the island. I also take some energy gel from Marion and of course I take some of my salt pills again. I am a bit astonished that they do not provide salt at the checkpoints. I don’t expect them to offer a whole of a menu like you get it at the Ebertwise at the Rennsteig. Chatting with the supporters I talk about the idea of having some Nutella sandwich with pickles and salt right now. Freshly supplied with water in my backpack I hit the road again, the other runner is about one minute ahead.

Looking at my GPS watch I have to realize that the checkpoint was not exactly at the 60km mark but a bit too early, this means a bit more kilometers. The track now gets really boring and some sayings by Peter and Jürgen about the Race across Germany (Deutschlandlauf) come to my mind. The track now sticks to not highly frequented roads, there are only a few spots of shade by some sparse trees. At least those offer orientation and fixtures to aim to reach. Passing Haglunda, a real killer part of the track starts: going through the intense sun, always directly straight ahead and a small but constant incline. Furthermore the wind is getting more into my focus. Along the coastline it was there but was kind of refreshing, now it’s really hot and blowing a me almost directly as headwind. At least my running has stabilized, at least looking at the watch. My pace is back up again to round about 6 min/km or even less. Looks like it was really an issue of not enough energy available. I will take that into account for the next ultra races, as I already carry some additional energy gels with me in my backpack but did not use them.

At 66km the long straight road finally reaches an end, if I am not mistaken, even the distance to the runner ahead has gotten smaller, not very much but at least a bit. Starting from Öjbroken, the path gets more interesting again, we run on a dirt road that features trees to the left and to the right. A family from Germany passes on bicycles and asks about our bibs and if we are in a real competition. They are really astonished and ask if they heard right „8, 18 or really 80km?“ Of course it’s 80k and we just reached kilometer 68. Marion noticed me that they are waiting for me at kilometer 71. This adds up to the stress and burden. My backpack is running low on water and my stomach tells me that more water is maybe not the best option. At the next intersection I close up to the runner in front, she is unsure about which path to take. For me this seems pretty obvious, as there is no sign, it is straight ahead. We leave the woods and trees and along some fields, but the underground changes as well: it is very loose and sandy almost like a field of asparagus back in Schwetzingen. This adds up to the frustration as my backpack has finally run dry. At least I can spot the next building as we cross the 70k mark. From there its just 500m till we reach solid ground and the next checkpoint.

Marion hands me a Sportweizen and I refill the backpack for the last leg of the track. In addition to lots of iso drink and energy bar I also take some energy gels. The combination of flavors is not the best and judging by the best-before-date on the gels, it’s time to get them to some good use. I leave the checkpoint just a bit after the other participant, it’s still 9km to go. According to information given at the checkpoint there should be more shade now. We are once more running along a road, and there seems to be not that much of shade. As I am not sure to be on the right track I take out my smartphone to check if I am on the right track. This turns out to be unnecessary, a few minutes later I spot the runner ahead, although the gap is quite a stretch.

My head starts spinning up the compute engine – will I be able to reach her? – Will this work out? What’s the level of energy available? What about the muscles? Any signs of cramps? Following the calculation I slightly increase my pace, according to my experience I know she tries to keep a constant pace of 6 min/km. But I am not aware which distance she has signed up for, there is no telling by the bibs as well. There is still some distance to bridge. This changes as she needs a stop to do some stretching most likely because of cramps. This cuts the distance down quite tremendously and I can finally pas her. This gives a real positive feeling, but there are still 5km to go. Do not overpace now. My pace is at about 5:50 min/km. I try to keep the pace and not to increase the speed, it would be very frustrating to have another performance drop right now. With the last check of the map I remember that there is a sharp turn about 2km before the finish. This is the next point I want to reach. Still 4km to go till the 80km mark, but as 50 miles is a bit more than 80km I estimate that it will be about 80,5 km.

Right before the turn at an intersection there are some markings sprayed on the road, in Swedish of course and they point to the entrance of a farm. So I take out the smartphone once more. The loaded map clearly indicates: Turn right at the intersection and not before. At the intersection I also find the signs for the race again. So I pack away my phone to the backpack and take on the about 2,5km left. Everything feels quite ok, so I increase my speed a bit more. I am a bit afraid of looking back, I don’t want to be passed by. According to Marion I was in place three in total when we left the last checkpoint. If this information is correct, I would be in place two now, a position I don’t want to loose now. Too bad the runner in the next position ahead is not visible which could give some more motivation to reach. A biker along the road shouts at me, of course in swedish, so I ask him to repeat it in English. He tells me that the finish line for 50 miles is straight head. I am not sure about that, but he insists: „You see the flags down the road? This is it!“ Now I am able to recognize them as well. According to my GPS I just passed the 80km, so its time for a sprint towards the finish line towards those flags.

I take a look over my shoulder and there is no one right behind me, but I keep up the speed nonetheless. My sons are waiting at the finish line and come running towards me, I take one of them to the left and one of them to the right and we do the last 50 meters together. Those are really flying by. Finally I reached the finish line after 80,46km or 50 miles. I get congratulations from the organizers on site and the first 80k finisher. I really made 2nd place in the race with a time of 8:22:02 (brutto) and this time it’s not only in my age group. This does not happen to me very often. We take some more non alcoholic beer to celebrate. I get handed the medal and a finisher shirt (this one is included in the race fees, since a couple of years I stopped buying shirts for storage and environmental reasons). There is also some food, home made stew and pancakes. Those are even more tasty after the finish line. About 4 minutes after my arrival the next runner reaches the 50 miles mark, now I get to know she is doing the whole race of 100 miles, so there would have been no need for me to rush on the last leg. At this time she also takes over the lead of the race, as I get to know the next day she was not able to finish up to „long Jan“, what a pity.

I switch my shoes, I fear that there will be lots of blisters all over the place, it felt very much like it, but there is nothing to spot. After I have cooled down a bit, we head home to the campground. After dinner there is still a small workout to do: The whole family pays a visit to long Erik and I pick up my bike. To avoid the hassle of storing it in the car, I ride the 7km once again to the campground. It feels very special to see this first part of the race once again.

In total a very nice, small and cozy race. Being a first for the organization I have to pay my due respect to them. Having international participants came a bit as a surprise, but was handled very well. Maybe next time the communication prior to the race with some of the information in English is available as well. But this would really be the cherry on top of the ice cream. The track up to 50km is very nice with lots of nature along the coastline, this one was more pleasant to me than the last 30km. Especially the long straight strech really needed all of my endurance and will. Remembering the position of the checkpoint at 70km instead of 71km is definitely something that is definitely not in the accountability of the organization team. The weather was an important factor as well, but this one can not be pre ordered, and with my experience from Rodgau I was already kind of „pre-boiled“. I am curious if there is going to be another event. Taking part in the race every year is something I cannot commit to right now, but the race is on my „you should do this once more“ list for sure.