The sands of the Sahara lured me away from the Iznik Ultra this year. A real shame as this race has been a fixture on my calendar all the way back to the 2012 edition when I won the 60km race. Iznik and Turkey are special places and the Iznik Ultra provides a wonderful opportunity to combine running and sightseeing.
The people are magical, the calm tranquility of the lake Iznik is sublime, the surrounding mountains are impressive and the combination of great food, hospitality and a committed and dedicated race team headed by race director Caner, make this experience a ‘must’ for the enthusiastic runner.
Not wanting to miss out on the action, I asked good friend and fellow photographer Jordi Saragossa and adventure journalist/ athlete Tobias Mews to work on behalf of iancorless.com at the 2016 edition of the race.
Enjoy the journey!
Words by Tobias Mews/ Images by ©jordisaragossa
‘You’re first time in Turkey?’ the old man remarked in surprisingly good English, as I watched the sun behind Lake Iznik, the third largest lake in Turkey. The water was incredibly calm with not a ripple in sight, despite being 32kms long and 10kms wide. It was also mind blowingly beautiful, offering an unparalleled level of peace. I couldn’t help but wish I had a stone to skim along it’s smooth surface.
‘It is,’ I reply, although I was already silently vowing to return. As through thrilled with this fact and despite my protests, he offers me a cup of tea – not a cup of Earl Grey, but one of the Turkish variety. They drink the stuff by the gallon. Sipping away, I mused on the notion that I no idea how stunning this country was or how kind everyone is. Turkey, I would soon discover, is a truly magical place.
I’ve often said that if you’re going to put yourself through any degree of suffering during an ultra, and let’s face it, who doesn’t have a moment where they question their sanity, then you might as well do it somewhere beautiful. It’s a mantra that I’ve held to my core and to date, have not been left disappointed through my travels and races as an adventure journalist.
Rather embarrassingly, and perhaps to my shame, I’d not considered Turkey a running destination, which is perhaps why I’d never visited this ancient cradle of civilization. Too many lasminute.com cheap package holidays, slightly less than positive press, terrorist attacks and an unsettled political climate have not helped Turkey solidify its position in the ‘must visit’ destinations lists. But thanks to the likes of Caner Odabasoglu, the Race Director and founder of the Iznik Ultra, things are changing and running events are becoming more common place.
Indeed, when the Iznik Ultra launched in 2012, it was the second ultra to be established in the country. Now, there are three road three road marathons and seven ultras. It is, as he puts it, ‘booming at the moment’.
Since I first began running competitively, just under a decade ago, I’ve suffered a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Perhaps due to the fact that I’m stubborn and a sucker for punishment, when faced with a choice of distances, I’ve always picked the furthest/hardest race on offer, especially if the race is named after this distance, such as Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or Transvulcania. I want to get the full race experience, not just an excerpt. So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I chose to take part in the 80k option as opposed to the main event.
Besides the main event, there are in fact four other races on offer – 5k, 15k, 50k, 80k – all of which follow parts of the full 130km course around the lake. Considering the course was actually 86kms with 2600m of ascent/descent, it is by no means a distance to be sniffed at and after all, still an ultra!
Keen to show buy support I made my way to the midnight start of the 130k event. After more than 200 races including dozens of ultras, I’m more than familiar with the shit that goes through your head as you toe the start line of a big race, especially one that begins in the middle of the night. But curiously enough on this occasion, I didn’t see the usual thousand-yard stare that you might expect to see from a runner as he or she prepares to run 136kms non-stop (it’s slightly further than the advertised 130k). Instead I saw smiles, laughter, lots of slapping on the back, hugs and the sort of banter you might expect to see at a running club Monday night fixture. The only thing that was missing was a lack of women (only five amongst the relatively small field of 63).
The race favourite, Aykut Çelikbas looked as cool as the proverbial cucumber as he chatted with his fellow Team Salomon Turkey runners, Faruk Kar and Elena Polyakov. Hardly surprising considering Aykut had competed in the previous four editions of the race, coming third last year. He’s also a two-time finisher of Spartathlon, so knows a thing or two about pushing the pain barrier.
And then, as just after the stroke of midnight, they were off, a luminous streak of smiles as a small army of intrepid ultra runners disappeared into the night. Feeling a mixture of sadness and guilt that I wasn’t amongst them, I trotted back to my hotel and went to bed, in preparation for my race, 9 hours later.
After a 45-minute bus ride to Orhangazi, a medium sized town situated in the Bursa province about half way around the lake, and a countdown from 10 in Turkish, we set off in pursuit of our 130k brethren. With a police escort to accompany us, a couple of Turkish competitors went off a little too fast before looking around and realising they were in the lead, sheepishly slowed down. Which left yours truly at the front.
Before the race, people had asked me what my expectations were. But with my wife recently having a child and moving house to the French Pyrenees, my training had temporarily taken a bit of a nose dive for worse. In fact, I’d even told my wife that I was doing the 50k, so she wouldn’t give me grief for doing one of the main events on next to no training.
Seeing that no one was willing to take the lead, I strode out at a 4.30 min/km pace, making the most of the 19kms of flat terrain. It follows a stretch of road out of Orhangazi before meeting the edge of the Lake Iznik and a sandy beach that brought back to me a a few memories of the Marathon des Sables. From the perspective of race tactics, it’s an opportunity to put some distance between you and your opponents. But go out too fast and you’ll later hit an 800-meter-high wall of pain and that later on in the race will come to bite you not just in the arse, but in your quads and calves.
Somewhat conscious that I might be going too fast, for the next 4 hours I steadily overtook around 30 odd runners from the 130km race, exchanging broken pleasantries in Turkish as I went. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt, watching a number of them hobble along in that all too familiar death march. I had come with no expectations of winning the race, but for a while I genuinely thought I had a chance.
However, any thoughts of podiums were far from my mind. I was simply reveling in the scenery as I ran through olive groves, along beaches, charming little villages before going high into the hills surrounding the lake, which offered panoramic views to die for.
But then, for the first time, I heard the the pitter patter of feet of Hasan Öztürk, who unbeknownst to me had been doggedly following me. With my two words of Turkish vocabulary and his non-existent English, conversation was brief as we trotted alongside each other, silently pushing one another slightly harder than we’d have liked.
That’s of course the problem with being out front, and what I imagined Aykut and Faruk were going through. They had decided to run together and hold on to the lead. But lovely though it is to be out front, you simply don’t know how fast your pursuers are going – so you push on harder than might be wise.
Until now, the terrain had been very runnable. But new to 2016, Caner had inserted in a rather technical and simultaneously hilly section smack in the middle of the 80k and about 87k into the main event. Very steep descents which often involved hanging onto tree routes and branches slowed us all down, less for the odd mountain goat. Some might say it was too difficult (it added a minimum of two hours on to most people’s time), but I think it was bloody marvelous, even though I was cursing at the time.
The checkpoints are spaced between 10 and 15k apart – about right for a course of this nature. As to be expected, they were a welcome reprieve and a chance to fill our water bottles, as the warm sun was thirsty work. It was during one of these moments that I noticed third place man, Mehmet Yildirim catching me up.
Cutting short my replen, I hobbled off and spent the next 20kms looking over my shoulder like a man being chased. Just shy of 10kms from the finish, my legs began to object and I regrettably waved Mehmet on with a ‘bravo’. Unbeknown to me, a similar situation had happened several hours early in the main event, where Aykut and Faruk separated. Aykut maintained the lead, finishing in 17hrs 10mins, leaving Mehmet Arslan to claim second place in 17hrs 30 and Faruk third, 18 minutes later.
As I arrived into Iznik I felt like a warrior returning from war. Covered in dust but grinning from ear to ear, I must have looked a strange sight to the Iznik locals who had come to watch the runners roll in. Knowing that I didn’t have long left, I picked up the pace, even though I was way over what the time I estimated it would take me to run 86kms to cross the finish line 3 seconds shy of ten and a half hours and a full 55 minutes behind Hasan who’d I’d not seen again.
After collecting one of the most fabulous medals I’ve ever seen, a locally made ceramic tile, I made my way back to the edge of the lake I had been standing at almost 24hours previously. Digging into my pocket, I picked out a smooth pedal I’d found in a river bed, and with my last remaining energy, skimmed it along the still smooth waters, trying to count how the bounces. The old man, who I’d seen yesterday, was still here and shuffled over to me.
‘What do you think? You like?’ he asked, his eyes sparkling with curiosity.
‘I loved it’ I replied. And that’s the truth!
33 finishers from 58 starters (57% finishers rate)
1st Aykut Çelikbas 17.10:12
2nd Mehmet Arslan 17.30:43
3rd Faruk Kar 17.48:46
Elena Polyakova 22.49:45
Bakiye Duran 24.43:19
65 finishers from 84 starters (77% finishers rate)
1st Hasan Öztürk – 9.35:55
2nd Mehmet Yildirim 10.19:28
3rd Tobias Mews 10.29:57
1st Alessia De Matteis 11.10:28
2nd Martine Nolan 12.02:31
3rd Asli Sertcelik 12.08:23
all images ©jordisaragossa – all rights reserved
IZNIK ULTRA WEBSITE HERE
Images from the 2015 edition by ©iancorless.com below