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


Mum and Dad said...

johnHi from Mum. Thats awesome J. I really wasn't sure you could finish it let alone do so well. What fantastic scenery well worth the hassle of carrying a camera.

gus said...

Epic bro!! So inspirational.

Paul Armstrong said...

Congratulations. Great photos on the move. Should you have included the number of post-race beers in your stats? Paul