Nothing is ever perfect going into an ultra. No matter how intense or careful the preparation, murphy’s law dictates that something will pop up in the days or weeks leading up to race day. In my case, I usually manage to self-sabotage by overtraining, over-racing or ‘over-life-ing’. As my friend Leah would say, you can’t put ten pounds of shit in an eight pound bag. Despite knowing this to be true, I inevitably find myself covered in a couple of pounds of shit hours before race start with a look on my face that says ‘again?’
Location: Davos, Swiss Alps
Distance: 78 km
Altitude: +/- 2650 m
Highest point: 2739 m
Time limit: 14 hours
Western States 100 Qualifying time: under 11 hours
Shoes: Salomon Senses Mantra: “Light weight training shoe for midfoot strikers who want natural motion, protection and neutral cushioning for high mileage training.”
Clothes: Mizuno top, Salomon Exo Women’s ¾ tights, Salomon socks
Food: Chips, Powerbar (Cookies and Cream), Powerbar shots (cola flavored), Gu Roctane gels
“If you run hard, there’s the pain — and you’ve got to work your way through the pain … You know, lately it seems all you hear is ‘Don’t overdo it’ and ‘Don’t push yourself.’ Well, I think that’s a lot of bull. If you push the human body, it will respond.”
-Bob Clarke, NHL Hall of Famer
Sometimes everything just goes right in a race. The sun shines, the earth turns under your feet, and your legs rhythmically glide over trails with quiet persistence. Sometimes, you push the human body, and it responds.
Other times, however, your body says “not today, sweetheart!” and rebels with a vengeance. Unfortunately, that was the case for me at the Swiss Alpine race on July 27 this year.
Stuart and I entered the race as we thought it would be excellent preparation for the epic 100-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race we are running on August 30. While it might seem strange to run a race for the sole purpose of training for another race, I’ve actually found that this is one of the best ways to train, both physically and mentally. No matter how intense you think your training is, you always seem to push yourself more in a competition setting. Plus, the more you race, the less nervous you might be on the start line of the next one.
With that in mind, the Swiss Alpine race seemed like perfect UTMB preparation. It is approximately half the distance of Mont Blanc and about a third of the elevation change, so it would be a good test of our levels of fitness on hills and also at altitude. I did not do too much research into the race before entering – an ultra in the Swiss Alps was all I needed to know… or so I thought! I really didn’t know what I was getting myself (or Stuart for that matter) into.
The race is advertised as a ‘mountain ultra’, which to me conjures up images of remote trails, intense climbs, beautiful descents, gorgeous views, and the odd goat or two. Sure, the race has all of these things at one time or another… but certainly that is not how I would describe the race overall. One fact that seems to be kept out of the promotional material is that the race begins with a marathon mainly on road. And that it is run by a heck of a lot of marathon runners (aka super fast road runners), rather than ultrarunners (aka slightly-faster-than-hiking trail runners). Dear me.
As a result, the race is FAST. Seriously fast. Normally, for a race of approximately 80 km through the mountains, you would expect the time cutoff to be up over 16 hours (5 km/hr average pace). The time cutoff for Swiss Alpine is just 14 hours and the winning time is usually just over 6 hours. That is INSANE for a mountain ultra. As soon as I saw those stats, I knew this race would play out more like a road marathon with some hilly trails tacked onto the end, rather than an 80 km mountain trail race.
See the race profile here: SAD_Profil_K78 copy
The race starts in Davos at about 1530 m above sea level and follows a relatively flat asphalt road along a valley for about 10 km, passing the towns of Alberti and Lengmatte. This section is fast as runners are eager to get some mileage behind them early on in the race, especially on fresh legs. The course then climbs about 250 m, which doesn’t look like a lot from the race profile, but don’t be fooled – even the largest of quads were brought down to a walk at some stage on the hill. Once you reach the top, the course then descends for 15 km to just over 1000 m above sea level in a town called Filisur. Thankfully, most of the descent is on unsealed road, which provides much-needed relief from the asphalt!
After Filisur, which is at the 29 km mark, the real fun begins…. What follows is a mind-numbing climb on road and unpaved road for 20 km, and then 21 km on high-alpine trail above 2000 m. At the 59 km mark, competitors reach the highest point of the course at a height of 2739 at Sertigpass before making the descent back down to 1538 m in Davos for the finish.
The 21 km high-alpine section is really the highlight of the race. Single-track trail, amazing mountain views, snow crossings at the peak, fun little switchbacks on the descent…. You really can’t ask for much more in an ultra. The problem is that you have quite a few hours on road before you get to it!
Objectively, this was a great race to get me prepared for UTMB as it had all of the right ingredients: the fast pace of the first half of the race got me out of my comfort zone and the long sectionat high altitude tested my lungs. But I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it, to be honest. Other than the road, one of the other major downsides of the race is the number of competitors. With thousands of runners competing in one of the many races – from 5 km up to the 78 km ultra – you never really get any alone time on the trail. Not only that, but if you do run the ultra distance, you will be constantly battling against other competitors who are running shorter distances. For the first half of the race, you share the trail with the 30 km and 42 km competitors, and for the second half of the race, you run with a new batch of 42 km competitors. As a result, you are constantly being passed by people who are faster and fresher, which can be mentally destroying!
But alright, I do have a confession to make. My view of the race may be tainted soooomewhat by my own unfortunate experience with stomach problems. Indeed, when I asked my body the morning of the race to give me all it had, it said “not today, sweetheart”. I had a dodgy stomach the morning of the race, but I thought it was just nerves so I tried not to worry about it. However, once I started running, it only got worse. Over the course of the 78 km, I had to stop for the bathroom 28 times. 28 times! That is more than one stop every 3 km. When I wasn’t going to the bathroom, I was looking for a place to go. It was absolutely miserable. At some point, my quads were so wrecked that I couldn’t even squat anymore without my muscles cramping up and going into spasm. I was left propping myself up by my forearms in the crab position on the side of the trail, quite indecently exposing myself to everyone who ran by. Luckily, I was too sick and exhausted to care about trying to be more polite.
At the 42 km mark (or after the 12th diarrhea stop, as I remember it), I caught up to Stuart on the trail. Seeing him gave me a boost, but also caused my emotional walls to crumble. In tears at 50 km, I talked to the medical team and decided to drop out. It was the hottest day in Switzerland all year and I was facing the biggest climb of the whole race. Stuart kissed me on the forehead and I promised to grab the shuttle back to Davos to cheer him into the finish.
Well, you can guess what happened. Stubborn me found out that the shuttle didn’t run for another two hours. No way I was going to sit there and watch everyone stream past me while I sat there like a dropout. No sooner than 20 seconds after I removed my race bib and handed it into the officials did I snatch it back and storm back onto the trail. I breezed past the medical team again, cheerfully trying to convince them (and myself) that I had made a miraculous recovery in the last 10 minutes and that I was fit to try the hill. Stomach or no stomach, I just couldn’t drop out.
I caught up with Stuart again at the top of the first pass and he smiled when he saw me, shaking his head saying “I KNEW you wouldn’t do it!” We both battled our way to the finish in pain – me with my stomach and Stuart with his knee – but we made it. Despite the time wasted squatting on the side of the trail, I still managed to come in under 11 hours, which means that I had a qualifying time for the Western States 100 race. I couldn’t believe it!
Like I said – some days your body rewards you on race day for all of your training… and some days it doesn’t. But you just have to chalk it all up to experience. Hopefully this rather, er, crappy race experience will just make UTMB seem easy by comparison. (Yeah right!!!)
I hope to get more blog posts out over the next week. I’ve been lazy with the blogs lately, but actually the past two months have been AMAZING for training and I’d love to share my photos and thoughts. It is a long story, but I made the difficult decision to leave my job in July due to some unexpected work circumstances… so Stuart and I have been running around Europe in preparation for the Mont Blanc race. We have definitely pushed the limits of what our muscles, bones and tendons can handle and are both suffering the consequences a bit…. But hopefully everything will come together over the next seven days and we can show up on the start line ready to go.
More to follow – thanks for reading!!