Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sleep monsters of Ballyhoura

Two days later I was back in Ireland, heading towards the small town of Castletownroche in County Cork for the start of an epic adventure race called 'The Beast of Ballyhoura'.

The Beast is a 30 hour non stop adventure race in which teams of four competitors traverse the lush green and rugged landscapes of counties Tipperary, Cork and Limerick in Southern Ireland. The race involves mountain run, bike, kayak, abseil, shooting, orienteering and navigating the best route to win. The Beast started on Friday night August 1st and finish on Sunday August 3rd.

After a late night briefing on the Friday night, myself and my team mates - Melanie (UK), Greg (Ireland) and Andreas (Germany) - stole a couple of hours sleep before jumping in a bus at 3am and travelling to a 'mystery location', where the race would begin. As you can imagine, climbing out of the warm bus at 3.30 am into the brisk night air was not the ideal situation, especially knowing what lay ahead! 'How do i get myself involved in this sht' came to mind.
After seven hours of hill running and bike riding, several wrong turns and a stint of orienteering, we found our way to...

The Galty mountains - 11am on Saturday 2 August

This photo was taken at the base of a valley that lead up to the first peak of our Galty traverse, approximately 600 m above the pictured position. Unfortunately there was no smooth path to follow up to the peak. Instead we would follow the path of the stream, and clamber up boggy sheep trails up to the summit. The climb wasn't so bad in itself, what was more difficult was trying not to blow up your legs with 25 hours still to go in the race! It's not normal to have to think that far ahead.

This photo is a picture of the same peak as is pictured above, but looking down from a neighbouring peak.
Spirits were still high on the team as we made our way across the roof of Cork. It was amazing to look out across the ground that we'd covered, and the ground that we were yet to cover. After a couple of hours traversing the undulating ridge of the Galtys, Andreas began to feel the pinch of a past injury. Indeed, the rough and uneven terrain was hard going on the legs.

2pm: As we approached the western end of the Galty range, we dropped down off the ridge into a deep valley and followed a stream bed through the valley to a waterfall. From this point, we abseiled down the waterfall into the valley below.

Abseiling down a waterfall is just as precarious and unnerving as you might imagine. After easing into the initial section, it seemed that the only option from then on was to go straight down the middle, which involved going straight under the falling water into the over-hang and getting drenched. The rocks were slippery and hazardous, which made the experience even more dodgy. I was LOVING IT!

In the picture above you can see a gortex clad team peering over the edge, awaiting their turn to drop over the edge and get soaked.

Once at the bottom of the abseil, we bush bashed our way through thorns and thick forest down to the road and ran 5km to the transition. Time for the next bike section.

Clay Pigeon Shooting 7pm (15 hours into the race)

After riding around for what must have been several hours on trails and country roads, we arrived at a clay pigeon shooting range and were handed shotguns. Cool. After nailing our fair share of pigeons, we couldn't help but take the opportunity to put on our meanest faces and pose for a photo. Clearly Mel and Andreas need to work on their mean faces.

At this point Andreas was suffering from too much pain in his knee, and was forced to withdraw from the race. The rest of the team decided to continue anyway.

A long night in Ballyhoura 10pm (18 hours into the race)

As darkness descended upon us, we arrived at the Ballyhoura range of hills in County Cork. In particular, to the Ballyhoura multiple transition point at the Information office (teams would return to this transition twice during the night between stages). Throughout the night we trekked, ran, and mountain biked our way around 60km of trails and open countryside (read: scrub and bog). As we made our way along the trails and bashed our way across scrubby hill tops, we could see tiny lights blinking on the surrounding hills - the headlamps of our competitors. Next thing we were flying through the forest on mountain bikes looking for 'glow in the dark' numbers attached to trees. The narrow forest trails were magic in the still of night. Occasionally the trails would turn into perilous board walks, requiring more skill and coordination to negotiate than i probably had at this point in the race. Still, i couldn't help but give it a shot, and i was lucky on the night.
At this point in the race i was feeling better than i had done throughout the first day, i think because i felt the end drawing closer (it was now only 14 hours away!). It was interesting to see the way people struggle at different parts of the race. For me the hardest part was the first 3 hours of the race. For others, the real struggle came later.
Good morning Vietnam 4.30 am (24 hours into the race)

When we arrived back at the Ballyhoura transition for the third time, the place looked like a makeshift military hospital out of a Vietnam action picture. THere were pale and exhausted looking people crashed out on the floor all around. Some were wrapped in survival blankets, waiting for the support vehicles to take them back to the camp site. Indeed, the long night had taken many victims, and a number of teams had pulled out of the contest (We had already forfitted from rankings since the entire team must finish in order to rank).
After more than 24 hours on the go, and a long dark night in the forest, Mel uncharacteristically succumbed to fatigue. The epic mountain bike section had taken its toll on many. Mel decided to leave Greg and myself to finish off the course, and opted for the relative comfort and warmth of a friend (Rachel's) car.
Sleep monsters 8am (28 hours into the race)

Finally there was light, which revealed a glimpse of the surrounding Ballyhoura mountains as we sped away on our now filthy bikes. After flying down a lengthy fire break at ridiculous speeds, brakes squeeking and gears refusing to shift, Greg and I found our way to the next orienteering section. Anyone who has spent 15 hours on a mountain bike probably appreciates how sore my arse was by this stage. I have never been happier to get off my bike.
The orienteering section should have been relatively straight forward, except that things were starting to get a little... well... wierd at this stage. One minute i'm walking through the forest looking for a bright orange orienteering control. The next minute i'm walking around a strange forest aimlessly, wondering what i'm doing here and 'is this a dream?' I'm not sure how Greg was doing, but neither of us seemed to be finding the controls very easily, and they were supposed to be fairly obvious. After i declared with a wild grin that i was totally tripping out, Greg suggested that we head back to the transition and miss the last few controls, instead moving on to the 20km kayak section. I didn't really know what he was on about, but i figured that kayaking sounded like fun, so I enthusiastically agreed.

On the way to the kayaks i saw a small statue of an elephant lying in the forest. It was amazingly detailed, i figured that it was a gift from a visiting Buddhist monk or something. 'Check it out!' I wailed at greg excitedly, like a drunk teenager whom had spotted an open kebab shop on the walk home at 2am. Greg didn't agree though, he thought it was just a log.
The boat ride home 9 am (29 hours into the race)

The last leg of the race involved a 20km kayak down a swollen river, followed by a 4km run to the finish line. The boat ride proved to be quite exciting. The river was strewn with plantation and blocked with massive fallen trees all over the place. THe water was fast flowing, and negotiating a path through the maze of plant life was difficult.
Fortunately, Greg is an accomplished kayaker, and showed great skill in steering us through the wreckage. My job at this point was merely to provide man power, following Greg's orders to 'PADDLE' or 'BACKPADDLE' etc. I was more than happy to assume this role, given that i my kayak control skills are poor at the best of times.
After 2.5 hours on the kayak, and a 20 minute jog, we crossed the finish line at lunch time Sunday. Just in time for a a late pub lunch and a pint of Guinness at the local before bed.

Climbing to the Eagles nest in Bertchesgarten, Austria

Run Summary

22 km, 1200m ascent/descent, 2 hours 45min

Four days after the SwissAlpine challenge, I decided to take a day trip from Munich (where I was staying with a friend) to Salzburg. However, during the 90 minute train journey to Salzburg i decided instead to head to the Austrian alps, 40km south of Salzburg. After all, mountains are more fun than cities right?

A friend in Ireland had mentioned that there is a wicked spot near Salzburg where Hitler had a chalet on top of a mountain, surrounded by the glorious alps. The complex was built by the Nazis in the Alps as a 50th birthday present for HItler, and was meant to be a retreat for Hitler to entertain visiting dignitaries.

It is situated on a ridge at the top of the Kehlstein mountain (1834 m altitude), which towers above the Austrian town of Bertchesgarten (600m altitude) on the border with Germany, but is itself dwarfed by the surrounding Alps. On the map above, Kehlstein is on the summit of the smaller peak in the foreground, with the impressive peak Hoher Goll looming over it in the background.

As the public bus headed south from Salzburg towards the Alps, i knew i had made the right call. Pulling into the bus stop in Bertchesgarten, I spotted Kehlstein to the left, and thought i could make out a tiny structure perched on the summit. The photo below is taken from half way up, you can see how tiny the building looks, although it's actually not that small at all.

As the tourists on my bus headed off towards the gondola, I checked out the tourist office to find out just how big the ascent was. After all, i had to get back to Munich that day! After sourcing a map, and ensuring that the climb was within my limits, I slammed an overpriced sandwich and a powerade, and started running. Unfortunately i had not come prepared for the mission. I was wearing casual baggy shorts and a cotton T-shirt, which weren't the best, but would have to do.

The first 8km was up a fairly steep road that wound up through a forest, with an overhanging canopy that conveniently protected me from the hot sun. Eventually a dirt track turned off the road (unfortunately the road now continues most of the way to the top), so i followed the mountain bike trail up what appeared to be a more direct route to the summit. The trail climbed up through a pine forest before zig zagging its way up a steep rock face towards the summit, steep enough to cause pain but still runable (just).

The northern rock face of Kehlstein appeared intermittantly through breaks in the canopy, dwarfing the Chalet that sits akwardly on its summit (you can see it in the photo if you look closely enough). It looked so far away! After almost 1.5 hours of relentless climbing, I arrived at the Chalet, feeling satisfied and fatigued. I was met by hoards of tourists whom had opted for more leisurely transport alternatives. What was once Hitler's mountain lair was now an overpriced restaurant packed with American tourists eating ice cream.

After stopping to check out the views and rehydrate, I began the descent. After an hour and 1/4 of bone shaking descent, I arrived back where i started in Bertchesgarten. Thankful for the classic turquoise coloured river that ran through the village. I found my way to the nearest swimming spot and dived in.

Photos: Looking westward down over the eagles nest with Bertchesgarten visible far below in the background. From the same point, checking out the impressive Hoher Goll peak to the east.

After a bus ride and a brief foot tour around Salzburg, i jumped back on a train to Munich. The end of a rewarding day out.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Swiss Alpine Race report 26 July 2008

At 7.45am on 26 July, high up in the Swiss Alpine village of Davos, I lined up alongside 900 men and 400 women from around the globe to compete in a 78km Swiss Alpine Mountain Ultra Marathon. After months of training and preparation, it was finally D-day. I felt somewhat vindicated, standing amongst massive mountains and a huge crowd of people who were, as it turns out, just as crazy as I am. Who would have thought that there so many of us!

The idea was to complete the 78km alpine course in the shortest amount of time possible. At 7.55am I was thinking that next time i set myself a goal, I might choose something that is a little less intimidating. By 7.56am I had brushed off those unhelpful thoughts and turned my focus back to the task at hand.

The course would take me through riverside forests and deep alpine valleys, across two mountain passes (at 2,600m altititude), before finally descending through a lush valley back down to the town of Davos in the Swiss Alps. My ambitious goal was to complete the run in under 8 hours, and finish within the top 10% of competitors.

I figured the best way to work through the race was to break it down into parts, which on their own each seem manageable. The way i saw it, this race could be broken into three distinct sections.

Section 1 - The 31km gradual descent

The first part of the course was the fairly manageable 31km section of mostly easy trail that descended from 1500m altitude at the starting point down to an altitude of 1000m at the 31km mark. This section was all about settling into the race, and finding a rhythm. People were chattering away in German, wrongly assuming that I understood what they were talking about.

One Austrian man asked me in a thick accent what 'Have you GOAT what it takes?' means, since it was written on the back of my running shirt (a relic from the Ruapehu GOAT mountain race in 2006). Explaining the concept of a 'play on words' whilst simultaneously side-stepping tree roots proved to be a challenge.

Most of the trail was through forest, with astonishing peaks rising up on either side of the valley beyond the canopy of the forest. The trail crossed a couple of bridges that spanned deep canyons, which was quite a buzz, although not as treacherous as some of my Himilayan experiences.

The legs felt strong, spirits were high. Although having studied the course profile at length, i was haunted with the thought of what was to come.

Section 2 - Nature's never ending staircase

The second section was the 30km killer climb. This section involved almost 2300 metres of verticle climb, most of which was in one go (by comparison, Mount Victoria in Wellington is 200 metres high). The track climbed from an altitude of 1000m up to the first mountain pass at 2600, before descending slightly into an alpine valley on a rough rocky track (snow in parts), and climbing to a second pass at 2600m.

The ascent started on a road, and wound up a large valley, passing through a couple of small and quaint Swiss towns, each one bustling with supporters (not mine of course, but you wouldn't know it because they were so vocal). As i passed through the towns, I was each time traumatised to hear an announcement over the public address system that JASON REID from DUBLIN, IRELAND is passing through the checkpoint. On a number of occasions I considered taking this up with the man behind the microphone, before deciding that there were more important things to think about, like surviving the first pass.

After climbing 500 metres up to an altitude of 1500m, the road thinned out into a track, and became somewhat steeper. At this point, the track was still very runnable, which meant the pace was still fairly quick. The 42 km mark went passed after 3 hours and 32 minutes.

After about 1 and 1/2 hours of steady climbing, things started to get pretty tough. The surface of the track became more rugged and loose, but more worryingly the air also began to thin out rapidly as I climbed. By the time my altimetre read 1900 metres, my lungs were beginning to scream for air. I was gasping for breath, and could hear my heart beating in my pressurised/blocked ears. Of course, this was to be expected, but i wasn't sure to what extent and at what altitude it would kick in. I have experienced the effects of altitude before, but i found that racing at altitude is a very different story to trekking at altitude.

I pushed the final part of the climb as hard as i could, teetering on the brink between exhaustion and manageable pain (I've become quite accomplished at striking this balance). It was such a fine balance, that by the time i reached the pass at 2600m the marshall distributing bananas caringly placed her hand on my back and with a concerned look on her face, asked me if i was ok. Obviously i looked like hell. I smiled like a looney, scoffed the banana and some fruit loaf, mumbled thanks, and stumbled on a rock as i launched down into the alpine valley. I had now been running for 5 hours, and was feeling the effects of the climb and the thin air.

The trail then traversed the left flank of the pictured valley, dropping a few hundred metres (offering a chance to catch my breath) before climbing back up to the final pass (oh dear). The alpine trail was a technical run on an exposed trail that involved leaping over boulders and negotiation of streams, and in some places snow. At this point in the race the legs are starting to tire and drag, leaving the runner vulnerable to tripping or ankle rolling. So i was concentrating intently on staying on my feet. Watching my footing carefully to avoid injury. I knew the toughest part was over, and couldn't bear the thought of succumbing to injury after surviving the climb i had just endured.

The highlight of the race came as I bounded up the final ascent to the second pass, crossing a patch of snow left by a recent storm, being tracked by two helicopters alongside the trail whom were taking video footage of me and the runner in front as traversed the terrace. The euphoria of having nearly finished the final big climb, combined with the intensity of the choppers on my right shoulder and the snowy footing was quite overwhelming. You can see one of the helicopters hanging off to the right in this photo, there was another one sitting ten metres directly to my right. It was difficult trying to run on a snowy cambered trail whilst taking a photo, attempting to catch up with the guy in front of me, all the while trying to look cool on video camera.

Section 3 - Descent from the clouds

Finally, the last 17km section of the course was a descent from the Scaletta pass at 2600 metres altitude down a pristine valley (pictured from a neighbouring mountain) to the Start/finish line in Davos. After 61 km of running, this descent was quite tough on the legs and the stomach. The legs are hurting badly from the constant battering. The stomach is churning from the jarring (combined with the bananas and ice tea) as i wound down the steep rocky zig zag track. The entire body was aching, and the sun was still beating down on my dry forehead as i demolished yet another two cups of water and electrolites.

However, i managed to maintain a reasonable pace on the descent, conscious the whole time that i was looking to be in a good position to achieve my target time of 8 hours if i could just hold on.

When I finally reached the last support station with 3km to go, I downed a cup of flat coke, which would deliver a hit of sugar directly into my bloodstream, and would carry me across the line. It worked a treat, and i crossed the line after 7 hours and 42 minutes in 39th place with a spring in my stride. Relieved that hours of lonely training in the Wicklow mountains had paid off!

Naturally the Irish contingent, consisting of three undercover Kiwis, later made a bee-line to the nearest pub for well deserved pints. It was great to be joined by friends on the finish line. Pictured from left to right are Sinead (NZ), Kieran (County Cork, Ireland), Gavin (NZ), myself, and Dave (Wexford, Ireland). Photo taken by Ciaran, another Irish national.

Here are some of my race stats:

Food consumed: Food and drinks were supplied approximately every 5 km. By my estimates, i consumed about 3 bananas (in bite size pieces), 6 muesli bars (in bite size pieces), 1 small Loaf of fruit bread (in small pieces)

Drink consumed: 14 plastic cups of water (2.8 litres), 7 cups or 1.4 litres of Ice tea (basically water with sugar in it), 7 cups or 1.4 litres of LOng drink (sugar and electrolites), 1/2 cup of flat coke

Average speed: 10.1 km/hr

Starting weight: 69 kg

FInishing weight: 67 kg