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What It Took to Conquer (Part of) the Runfire Cappadocia Ultra Marathon in Turkey

Karla Bruning

What does it take to run 160 miles through the scorching Turkish desert? Experience, sure. A death wish? Maybe. As a road runner, I'm no stranger to long routes, but I knew signing up for the Runfire Cappadocia Ultra Marathon would be a mythic and mettle-testing adventure, even for a multi-marathoner like me.

I traveled 16 hours from New York City to the village of Uchisar in Cappadocia. But my first real introduction to the region came via hot air balloon ride in central Anatolia. The semi-arid Cappadocia has been home to ancient Hittites, Persian, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Seljuks, and Ottoman Turks, and it was easy to appreciate the grandeur of the terrain I was about to run while soaring over rock formations known as "fairy chimneys." The pink hues of Rose Valley, deep gorges of Ihlara Valley, craggy peaks of Uchisar Castle, and trails through carved canyons promised a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Just like these 10 Best Marathons to Travel the World.)

But can you call it once-in-a-lifetime if you're already dreaming about doing it again?

Before the race, we set up camp in traditional Turkish tents in Love Valley. With six different options ranging from a one-day 20K (roughly a half marathon) to a seven-day, fully self-supported 160-mile ultra marathon, all 90 adventurers on my trip were covered. The most popular categories are four and seven-day "mini" ultras, where athletes tackle 9 to 12 miles per day between catered meals in camp. The race traverses rock outcroppings, farm fields, lush valleys, rural villages, a crater lake, and the dry salt Lake Tuz. The days are hot, pushing 100°F, and the nights are cool, plunging as low as 50°F.

I signed up for the RFC 20K—my first trail race ever—along with two more days of running. But I quickly learned that nearly 13 miles through Cappadocia would be the most difficult—and beautiful—miles I've ever encountered. Of the 100 races and countless runs I've logged on six continents, none has been as hot, hilly, humbling, and exhilarating as Runfire Cappadocia. How tough is this race? The winning time at any given road half-marathon is between 1 hour and 1 hour, 20 minutes. The winning time at the RFC 20K was 2 hours, 43 minutes. That winner was the only person to finish under 3 hours. (Learn What Running In the Heat Does to Your Body.)

The night before the 20K, we were briefed on the course—but while Ultra marathoners traveled with GPS devices programmed with the race route, we merely had a list of turns along a marked course. The day of the race, despite that marked course, I got lost. Then lost again, and again, until I missed the final cut-off time at the second of two safety checkpoints. I finished the first five miles without event in about 1 hour, 15 minutes and the next six miles in 2 hours, 35 minutes. I jokingly dubbed the race "Walkfire" after walking around in circles.

Out on the trail, the sun was unrelenting, the air dry, the shade few and far between. I accepted that a sheen of sweat would soak my clothes through. But I also took extra precautions to guard against heat stroke, sun burn, and dehydration as I ran through the mirage-inducing oven. I jogged much slower than usual and took frequent walk breaks."Walkfire," as it was, wasn't such a bad idea. Carb and electrolyte tabs were a must, along with plentiful amounts of water. I gulped down whole bottles of water at check points in addition to the bottle I carried with me on the run. My bandana buff was essential too. I wore it as a gaiter and sun guard for my neck, pulling it over my mouth when the road was especially dusty. And sunblock, sweet sunblock, how do I love thee? I applied each morning and carried on-the-go-swipes in my race belt to apply mid-run. Plus, I didn't dare make a move without shades and a visor.

In the end, getting lost in the Anatolian desert wasn't as scary as it might seem. As elsewhere, dangers lurk in Turkey, which sits at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. But in Cappadocia and Istanbul, I felt a world away from the woes of, well, the world. Even as a woman traveling and running alone, what I saw on the ground looked nothing like the images in the news.

Girls in headscarves on their way to Sunday school giggled as we ran through their rural village. Grandmothers in hijabs waved from second story windows. A young woman in skinny jeans wondered what would bring runners to her dusty hamlet. You're as apt to see Turkish women running in tank tops and shorts as you are tights and tees. And the sound of the Muslim call to prayer ringing out from mosque minarets was as calming as it was beautiful.

The running world is famously friendly, and I found Turkish runners and race organizers among the most welcoming I've encountered. During the 20K, I made friends with four other lost runners who hailed from various corners of Turkey. We talked, laughed, took selfies, bought drinks at cliff-side cafés, fielded phone calls from race officials directing us back onto the course, and finally rolled into the second checkpoint after wandering nearly 11 of 13 miles in 3 hours, 49 minutes. (Learn Why Having a Fitness Buddy Is the Best Thing Ever.) I earned my first DNF (Did Not Finish), alongside 25 other runners who weren't able to finish in the four-hour timeframe. (FYI: There were only 54 runners competing.) Yet I had one of the most memorable races of my life.

On the second day of Runfire, I trailed the roving Garmin GPS team, tracking runners throughout the course in a Volkswagen Amarok. With the 20K runners gone, they had just 40 runners to watch over. I cheered the ultra marathoners on from a few of the checkpoints along the way, where officials offered water, medical aid, and a spot of shade. Then I ran the last four miles of the course along a lonely, but lovely, sand road.

Sunflowers formed breakwinds through the scorching farmland, lining the path dotted with wildflowers. Potatoes, pumpkins, wheat, and barley grew beyond in the Anatolian breadbasket of Turkey's heartland.

As I trudged along, I felt as if I was the only runner in the world, kicking up dust, squinting under the sun, and loving every hot, sweaty second. In that moment, I understood the appeal of the ultra marathon—toiling along a lonesome road and touring the world one step at a time. Running without music, I heard every breath, each footfall, buzzing fly, and windswept rustle of wheat. I felt a part of the land, an animal roving, a sojourner on an epic quest. 

But as I lost my thoughts in the reverie of the runner's high, three boys snapped me from my reverie. They addressed me in Turkish, then English when I responded with a poorly pronounced merhaba, the all-purpose hello. They wanted to tell me their names and learn mine. One wore a Disney 101 Dalmatians tank. And once again, I was merely human; merely a runner, not an ultra marathoner. But the seed was sown, the bug had bit. I wanted more.

For nine miles the next day, I teamed up with a Turkish runner named Gözde. We marveled at a crater lake, tumbled stone village, and other sites as we climbed to the race's peak elevation at 5,900 feet, more than a mile high, while the heat index climbed above 100°F. With the help of a GPS device, I found it much easier to stay on course. Gözde plucked apricots and cherries from nearby trees. We showed off photos during walk breaks—her cat and my dog. I shared tips about the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the next big race on her calendar, which just happens to be in my childhood hometown. She gave me recommendations for my upcoming visit to Istanbul, her hometown. (Craving a far-flung adventure? Here are 7 Travel Destinations That Answer the Call of the 'Wild'.)

And my heart sank when I realized my time at the race was winding down. At the end of the day, a car waited to whisk me away, back to Cappadocia and on to Istanbul. I wanted to run with the other participants on to the next camp along Turkey's great salt lake. I wanted to be an ultra marathoner for all my days. What does it take to run through the scorching Turkish desert of fairy tale scenery? The willingness to be a hero "for ever and ever," as David Bowie sang. Or, you know, just for one day.

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