Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Perfect Race: Swiss Irontrail T201 2015

Click to enhance this panorama stitched together by Google Photo from my iPhone pics shot while running 201km and climbing 11,440m.

Part I

"No one knows the extent of his own powers til he has tested them." -Goethe

It's hard to slow down when everything goes perfectly.

My main goal for 2015 was Swiss Irontrail (SIT) T201: both my longest (201km/125 miles) ultratrail race, the one with most climbing (D+ 11,440m/37,533ft and the same amount D-). Their slogan Beyond the limit is right on. I participated in Transgrancanaria (43km DNF), Ecotrail Oslo 80km, Lavaredo Ultra Trail (95km DNF) and Zugspitz Vertical Challenge 16km as training races. Things rarely happen exactly as planned, but if you just keep going the end result can still be achieved.

My priorities were 1) to stay healthy and uninjured, 2) to do more vert up/down training in June-July than ever before, and 3) to taper really well the last weeks before the race on August 13-15. Running flat miles wasn't important. Also finishing those training races wasn't necessary. The only thing that mattered was focusing on finishing SIT.

Cruising through Sertig Dörfli.
I arrived in Davos on Wednesday afternoon. The start was 8am next morning. I got my bib and GPS tracker, packed my Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 2.0 as well as two drop bags provided. The weather forecast predicted sunny until Friday noon, and from then on rain with possible thunderstorms. I packed an extra Haglöfs Gram Comp Gore-Tex jacket in my second drop bag with Hoka Stinson ATR shoes just in case.

The best weather ever on Thursday! Photo by Roger Molleman.
I planned to start with Hoka Challenger ATR shoes, shorts, a t-shirt, a cap and Black Diamond carbon Z-poles. The food/beverage plan provided by the organizers seemed excellent, so I just carried my front bottles, a few salt caps and some caffeine gels for emergencies between stations.

The sunny trail to Sertigpass.
The dawn in Davos (1558m) was ideal as expected. I dropped my bags for Samedan (55km) and Savognin (135km), turned on the GPS tracker, and strolled to the start area at Promenade. I chatted with Christof Teuscher (who would finish 5th and the best non-European). At 8 o'clock the gun went off. 185 runners started for 201km. It would have been really easy to run much faster with the others, but I held back big time. I have run this trail to Sertigpass via Eggen, Sertig Dörfli and Grüensee before and knew it would be wise to save energy.

Roger the Swiss trail machine.
I chatted with a Swiss Gigathlon finisher Roger. It turned out we are both a bit of multisport aficionados. For example we both have read Bennie Lindberg's book 'Bis Zum Äussersten'. Anyway, we shared a similar conservative strategy and ended up running more or less together the whole course since then. Roger was crewed by his sister. I had no crew or anything as usual. I didn't even bother to wear my old Ambit1, but Roger managed to track the whole circuit with his new Ambit3 Peak.

Me at Sertigpass in my first Swiss Alpine Marathon in 1995 (67km).
It was fun to run on such a gorgeous day. Soon I was admiring the views on top of Sertigpass (2739m, 18km). After a short jog we enjoyed the first meal of the race - awesome Himalaya Vegetable Bouillon and bread with bananas - at Kesch hütte (2630m, 22km).

Me at Sertigpass in Swiss Irontrail 2015 8201 km). Photo: Roger Molleman.
Then it was my favorite downhill via Punts d'Alp and Tuors Davant to Bergün (1373m, 34km). It started to feel pretty hot, but the super easy pace and ice-cold water from Alpine streams kept things under control. After 5h17min we arrived in Bergün CP. We were already 3h38min under the cutoff. My ranking was 76 in men overall. I stuffed watermelon slices in my mouth and washed it down with Coke. Ready to go!

The glaciers and lakes seem to be getting smaller due to hotter summers.
The following double-peak section would be challenging but beautiful. First we climbed to Naz (1747m, 40km - only 100 miles to go!) where I had my first but not last warm meal of pasta and tomato sauce. Then it was a scenic trailrun to Lai da Palpuogna (1915m, 42km) via Punt Tranter. This mountain lake would have been a fantastic place for a picnic, but we continued up to fabulous Fuorcla Crap Alv (2461m, 46km).
Getting near to Kesch Hütte
About half-way up I encountered Becky Nixon wandering around, having lost the trail for a while. She was one of the top women (she would finish 6th) and I was happy to show her the way up. It was an incredible technical section - stunning and steep. The course was well marked, but in this kind of terrain it's still easy to lose the right track. On the top an amazing downhill opened up. Becky let out a wild scream and revealed the downhill demon inside her. We spent some time taking photos with Roger and saw her tiny figure run far down below in the valley of Palüd Marscha.

I felt comfortable above 2500 meters, despite arriving only the afternoon before.
While approaching Spinas Aid Station a last year's T201 finisher told us they had they had been told to take a detour around this downhill because it wasn't safe enough in rain. Suddenly I saw something shaped like a tree root moving on the trail. I thought it was unusual to have a hallucination this early in the race and in broad daylight, but then the others saw it too. It was a real snake.

I love this trail to Bergün, especially when going downhill :)
We loaded some energy at the AS for ascending Margunin (2426m) and descending to Samedan (1702m, 55km). We reached this big CP with our first drop bags in 10h53min. It was already 18:53, but the cutoff was 23:50 so we had plenty of time to take a break.

View to Piz Kesch in south beyond where we would be heading later.
I changed all my clothes and had a great dinner consisting of pasta, tomato sauce, bouillon, bread, boiled salty potatoes, chocolate cake and coffee. "You are a crazy downhill runner", I told Becky. "You are a crazy uphill runner", she replied instantly without missing a bite from the food mountain on her dinner plate. There were mattresses for those who required a little nap, but we decided to push on further with Roger before the sunset.

Lake Palpuogna after about a marathon 42km.

Part II

Lake Palpuogna.

"Difficulties increase the nearer we get to the goal." -Goethe 

Me navigating up Fuorcla Crap Alv with Becky Nixon following.
The climb up to Muottas Muragl (2454m, 61km) went well in the last rays of daylight. As the night fell, we lit up our headlights and ran the easy descent to Margun (2338m). On the way up to Chamanna Segantini (2731m, 64km) I suddenly lost all power and had to stop for a Enervit Caffeine gels and sports drink, a B-vitamin complex and a salt cap . This was definitely a dark moment for me, but a similar situation has happened before in other races and I've learned how to automatically reboot my system a bit like a Terminator or something.

Roger climbing up to Fuorcla Crap Alv.
Roger had continued without noticing my serious troubles straight up to the top and waited for me in a hut there. I passed the hut in darkness without seeing him, but luckily he spotted me plodding ahead and after some discussion we arrived in Pontresina (1805m, 69km) CP together in 15h15min. It was 23:15, I was feeling good again, and the cutoff wasn't until 4:50am on Friday.

Fuorcla Crap Alv.
We attacked straight away the highest point of the course, Fuorcla Surlej (2755m, 80km). We could see the red lights at the top, but the problem was they didn't seem to get any nearer. The mountain just went on and on. There was nothing to see there in the middle of the night, so we hurried to the welcome warm shelter of Murtèl cable car station (2699m, 82km).

After eating there it was mostly downhill to Sils (1809m, 89km) and then relatively flat route by the Lake Silsersee to Maloja (1803m, 96km) CP. It took us forever to get there, or 22h54min to be precise. It was dawn of a cloudy Friday, 6:54am. It was nice to meet Race Director Andrea Tuffli and his son (who was in the T201 race with us) Jon Andrea Tuffli there as well. We had an awesome rejuvenating breakfast with coffee and cake together and headed out.

Descending Fuorcla Crap Alv.
The morning weather was nice, although Lunghinpass (2645m, 101km) was windy. We hurried to Septimerpass and then down to the next AS in Bivio (1769m, 110km). It was hot as hell there and I asked the guy at the computer to check out the latest weather forecast for this area. He said there is a thunderstorm warning, and the bad weather could start anytime now. We hit the steep uphill to Murtér (2181m, 112km) at noon.

The amazing downhill to Palüd Marscha and Spinas.

A few minutes later there was thunder and it started to rain gradually. I hid under a big hollow rock and put my rain gear on. There were some lightnings but it was ok to continue the rollercoaster route down to Alp Natons (1963m, 114km), up Kanonensattel (2241m, 116km), down Alp Flix (1969, 119km), and up Furschela da Colm (2399m, 125km). We ran fast considering how wet and muddy it was everywhere.  RD Tuffli obviously waiting for his son greeted us in the pouring rain and wind: "How are you feeling now?" - "We love the rain!" I shouted and gave him a thumbs up sign.

Preparing for the downhill to Palüd Marscha.

It was a miracle that I didn't fall once, as there certainly were opportunities for that. On the final long downhill to Savognin (1173m, 135km) CP the weather cleared for a brief sunny spell. We arrived there tired and muddy in 34h58min, 18:58 on Friday evening. My ranking was 63 in men overall. By then the winners had already happily finished in Davos: Ramon Casanovas in 34:20:34 and Andrea Huser for the women with 34:53:36.

Near Spinas.

We agreed to have only a 80-90 min break in Savognin, although the cutoff there wasn't until 2:15am on Saturday night. I went downstairs to the shower rooms to change all clothes again. When I washed my feet I didn't know if I should laugh or cry. I reapplied NOK anti-blister creme, put on clean dry socks and Hoka Stinson ATR shoes, and hoped for the best. I ate as much as possible, put on my Gore-Tex jacket and changed the batteries of my Silva Trail Runner headlight.


If you wanted to stop in Savognin you would get the same 4 UTMB points credit as finishers of full 201km in Davos, but not the T201 Finisher t-shirt. Many accepted this generous deal and half of the field chose to DNF. We certainly not going to stop now - not even for a nap! We started the long dark wet march with Peter from Sweden, who had kindly decided to join our team. RD Tuffli was there again to wish us good luck.

Roger and me running by night to Pontresina.

Part III

"Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen." -Goethe

The way to Lunghin Pass.

"This trail seems much different from the previous trails", Peter observed. I agreed, as in darkness all the shapes and forms on the ground shifted into various hallucinations. I knew they weren't real, but it slowed me down. Actually the little black lizards were real - or at least the others saw them too. The downhill was quite steep in some places and the trail was slippery in the rain - at least with my Hoka Stinsons. Challengers would have been much more suitable shoes for this, but my only pair was left full of mud and dirt in my drop bag in Savognin. It occurred to me that falling down would not be a good idea now, and held back considerably. Right then I slipped and slided on my bum, but managed to fall on the safe mountain side. I felt an adrenaline rush and continued even more carefully if possible.

View towards Hörnlihütte.

We reached the lowest point of the course in Tiefencastel (851m, 146km) and enjoyed some coffee and cake there. When we walked up the most boring asphalt road to Sporz (1585m, 157km) I felt very sleepy all the time and found it challenging to go straight and stay on the road. At the top we found it hard to figure out where the route goes, although we did see some markings here and there in the dark cold drizzle. I guess we weren't the sharpest tools in the shed at the moment. Certainly I was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Although constantly gulping down caffeine gels with sports drink, I barely was able to put one foot in front of the other. After a few hits and misses we finally ended up inside the bright warmth of Lenzerheide (1473m, 160km) CP in 42h51min. It was 2:51am on Saturday, I had less than a marathon to go, and I was on 59th position in men overall.

When you climb high enough, there might be blue sky above the rain!

I proceeded to eat and drink pretty much everything available. They also had a first aid service, so I asked about the pain in my left forefoot. The guy asked me to remove my shoe and shock to examine it. He said I had a big blister there, but the best he could do was to cut a round flat shape from a soft material and tape it around the blister. That provided the extra cushioning required to get the job done. I have never popped painkillers and wasn't going to start now, as I plan to rely on my old pair of kidneys in many future races.

Climbing Weisshorn above the clouds.

I hit the road again with Roger and Peter. It was steep climbing for a change, but we refused to give up. By Saturday dawn we somehow found ourselves in Urdenfürggli (2546m, 168km). I felt freezing cold and was glad to see the sun climb up in the clear blue sky. After a short jog we arrived at Hörnlihütte AS (2511m, 170km). While we enjoyed our breakfast there the whole valley was covered in thick fog and clouds.

Weisshorn wind.

I started towards Weisshorn with Roger and Peter. The path was well marked as usual and I found it easy to follow even with the poor visibility. Suddenly the guys ran in the wrong direction uphill, apparently thinking they were lost. I went after them trying to find out what's the matter. Roger was already way too far to hear me, but Peter looked back at me and asked if I had seen any course markings. I told him yes, I had seen the markings so this was the wrong way. Obviously failing to pay any attention, Peter disappeared into the fog after Roger. I rolled my eyes and thought whatever, let those exhausted minds wander around - they'll find their way. I had a race to finish and no more time to waste. I returned to the right track which was soon confirmed by a fellow runner and a few more markings. I felt really strong and decided to fire on all cylinders.

Weisshorn view above the clouds.

I climbed the steep long ridge up when I heard someone shouting and waving at the top of the mountain. When I got closer I realized they were Roger's sister and wife. I'm sure Roger had called them to tell he was coming slightly behind me, because they cheered at me and weren't worried about the whereabouts of the guys. I shot some pics above the clouds on top of Weisshorn (2653m, 173km). I helped another competitor take a photo of himself. He told me his legs were in bad shape, but he had done the race also last year and knew that it was fast runnable trail all the way down to Arosa. I took his advice and said I was going for it. "Enjoy!", he shouted after me.

Weisshorn photo art.
I ran inside the last CP in Arosa (1739m, 181km) in 50h43min in 55th place. It was 10:43am on Saturday morning and I was about seven hours ahead of the cutoff. I enjoyed my last meal of pasta, tomato sauce, salted potatoes and coke there and hurried out like I stole something. I still had 20K of trailrunning left in unstable weather and the last mountain to climb, but considering what I had gone through I felt nothing could stop me reaching Davos.

Approaching Davos in rain and wind
It really cheered me up and warmed my heart how almost every competitor in other races (T121, T91 and T41) congratulated me as they passed. Soon I was in Tieja (2011m, 187km) and Medergen (2000m, 188km). It started to rain again on my way down to the last AS in Jatz (1831m, 192km). I enjoyed some more coke and cake to keep the fire burning for a bit longer.

Crossing the finish line in Davos.
The last uphill section seemed to take me forever. There were loose rocks, streams to cross, wind and rain, and I experienced some trouble with every single obstacle. I felt like everyone and their mother was passing me. Finally I reached the top of Strelapass (2346m, 195km). About 5km downhill was the only thing between me and the finish line.

Peter at the finish in Davos.

I picked up speed but when I stepped on a rock the painful blister that had been bothering me exploded. They must have heard my scream in Davos. It hurt a lot, but I decided to pick up speed in the pain cave instead of stopping and feeling sorry for myself. Higher cadence actually seemed to ease the pain, so I kept on accelerating. I realized that I was now passing runners of shorter distances, some of whom had passed me earlier. I passed hikers, I passed families, I passed people with dogs and I kept going faster. I ran through Schatzalp (1861m, 198km) and kept on passing people while shouting warnings to avoid collisions.

Roger and his sister at the finish in Davos.

I flew down the familiar cobblestone paths to the Promenade, run around the corner and jumped across the finish line in 55:19:30, 52nd in men overall. It was 15:19 on Saturday afternoon. I was ranked 8th in my age group M50. I later learned to my ashtonishment that I had ran the last 20K Arosa-Davos in 4h36min, which was 12th overall including all men and women. Needless to say I was very happy with this result. Before the race I had wondered if I could finish before the 64 hour overall cutoff, but in the end I had a nice 8h40min margin.

My new favorite t-shirt.

The reception in rainy Davos was warm, cheerful, efficient and professional, just like at every other Aid Station and Control point. I'm really impressed with SIT race management, organisation, staff and volunteers. The food was easily the best that I've been served in any race. Everything worked so perfectly I wouldn't hesitate to give this event 10/10 points.
I'll recommend Swiss Irontrail for every ultratrailrunner, but remember that it's very hard. I think SIT is the Hardrock of Europe. In SIT there is more space on the trails to run freely without crowds or over-commercialization. There are lots of starting places available without a lottery. Medical Certificates are not required. The only negative thing was that a free train ticket to/from Davos wasn't included like in previous years. Hopefully they can work this detail out in the future. I'd sure like to do this race again. It was the perfect race for me.

Tired but happy in the finishers tent! (Photo: Agata & Marcus)


Roger's T201 race report.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Zugspitz Trailrun Challenge Race Report

We had a nice week hanging around Zugspitze mountain in Germany/Austria with TPjr recently. Let's start with our video featuring Zugspitze and Alpspix on a sunny day as well as Partnach and Höllental gorges.

Zugspitz Vertical Challenge is a 10-mile +2127m trailrun from Ehrwald (in Austria) to the summit of Zugspitze (2962m). I've always dreamed of running all the way to the Top of Germany. Now I was finally going to make it come true. Or so I thought anyway.

Map of my Suunto Move of Zugspitz Vertical Challenge.
Vertical Challenge is part of a big Zugspitz Trailrun Challenge event. TPjr came with me to run the 1.8km Kids Lauf on Friday afternoon. It was a city-trail through the bushes, lawns and stairs of Michael Ende (author of The Neverending Story) park in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. There was also a 3K City Run on Friday evening, but we too the train back to our hotel in Ehrwald before that.

On Friday evening we received a text message announcing that Marathon had been moved from 6am to 8am and Vertical Challenge from 9am to 10:30am. These two races shared the same course in the last 10K. What the text message failed to mention was that both races would be shortened by about 1km. Their finish would be at Sonnalpin (2576m) instead of Zugspitze (2962m).
Vertical Challenge map.
The organizers are risk-averse, because seven years ago two competitors died on this course in a similar race. The weather had turned really bad then in that July 2008 race with lots of snow. This year there wasn't much snow and both the weather and the forecast for Saturday were excellent. Unfortunately the organizers had already made their decisions based on an earlier forecast indicating thunderstorms.

Vertical Challenge profile.
Saturday morning dawned clear and sunny. It was frustrating to wait for the delayed start and watch the temperatures rise. Before the start there was a thorough gear check - we actually saw a competitor sprinting to get a missing item from his hotel. I've never carried so much stuff for a 15K run, but I passed the check. By the time we got on our way at the Church Square in Ehrwald (990m), it was already too warm for me. I decided to run at an easy pace to avoid overheating.

Competitors getting ready for their start.

The course was an easy gradual road to Alm cable car station (2K, 1105m). From there it was a wide uphill trail to the other end of the cable car at Ehrwalder Alm (4.8K, 1502m). From there it it was a short climb through the woods to the first aid station at Pestkapelle (5.8K, 1617m). They had watermelon slices so I stopped to eat for a couple of mins. It was hot and sunny so I filled my water bottles as well.

Right after the start.

I enjoyed the steep trail to Feldernjöchl (9.3K, 2045m) and welcomed the cooling effect of clouds above 2000 meters. Then followed the only technical section around Gatterl (9.7K, 2024m). They even had signs indicating the start and end of the 'dangerous' part. In a good weather like this there was nothing to worry about. I hardly noticed it, but we crossed the border between Austria and Germany here.

Last corner before the finish.
Soon I got Knorrhütte (11.8K, 2051m) mountain hut in my sights. The second aid station had been moved down here from Sonnalpin where the finish was now located. I quickly drank something, refilled my bottles and continued right away. I felt strong and increased my tempo for the last 3K. There were some harmless snow fields scattered here and there.

TPjr at the finish line.

It was getting increasingly foggy and cloudy, but these were definitely not thunderstorm clouds. I sprinted to Sonnallpin (14.7K, 2576m) finish line arch with an official time of 2:48:01 - good for 7th place in my age group M50. A girl hang a medal around my neck and a guy asked if I was ok. I said I felt fine and then made a mistake by asking where the trail to Zugspitze summit was.

TPjr right after the finish.
This opened up a huge can of worms instantly for me. This guy got crazy panicked and told me I would be disqualified. I laughed at first thinking he might be kidding. I was getting hungry so I headed towards Finishers' hut where they had food and shelter for us, but the dude shouted I wasn't allowed there and dragged me to the other direction by force. For some reason I failed to understand he kept on demanding that I give away my race bib with the chip right there at the finish line. I couldn't comply with his request because the bib was my ticket for the cable car and bus and the chip had to be returned in the Finishers' hut to get back my 50€ deposit.

Beautiful day in Ehrwald before the start.
Finally I was able to break free from this DQ-dude only to be stopped by a lady official at the Finisher's hut asking what the hassle was about. The guy had broadcasted my number on his radiophone. Somehow my innocent question about the whereabouts of the final part of the race course had turned me from a finisher to fugitive in minutes. I explained how the guy had gotten pissed of for my question and all I wanted was to get inside to eat, dress up and return my chip. She allowed me to do that.

I used Mountain King Trail Blazer poles.
The food was good and I got my 50€ deposit back. I was putting on my rain gear when the DQ-dude showed up again and gave me another lecture on how I would be disqualified and so on. I smiled, thanked him profusely and told him I wouldn't do anything stupid. Finally he left me alone, although I was sure he would be watching my every move.

Getting through the gear check was perhaps the greatest challenge.
After all this I was really determined to finish what I came here for: to climb all the way to the top. In fact I had seen an inspiring video (you can watch it below) by Gabriel Seiberth, who had done in previous year exactly what I was planning to do now.

I spotted the trailhead to the summit easily because there were lots of hikers going up Zugspitze. To feign a retriet I walked casually in the opposite direction. I went past Gletscherbahn station and entered the round steel and glass Gletschergarten restaurant. After a while I got out the other side. The thick fog formed a natural smoke screen for me. I wasn't followed, so I rapidly sneaked behind the buildings and descended a steep slope to the summit trail.

Calm before the start.
I chatted with a hiker coming down in shorts and a t-shirt and he assured me the trail was in good condition and the weather was quite ok. Low visibility would not be a hindrance as this was a Via Ferrata route with a steel cable bolted to the wall all the way up. Usually special Via Ferrata gear like a harness with a double-karabiner lanyard and a helmet would be essential, but most folks here used just the good old gloves. As far as Via Ferratas go, this would be one of the easiest out there. At least I hoped so as the rain started.

A friendly sign welcomes tourists at the top of Via Ferrata.
The cable passage started at 2680m altitude. I folded up my poles and pu them in my backpack, for they would be useless and on the way from now on. I passed several hikers and a couple of guys with proper VF-gear. Visibility was very low so there was nothing to do but climb on. The rain wasn't too bad, except a short hailstorm that luckily died quickly. I saw a memorial for a fallen climber. Then there was a girl and I told her we must be close to the summit, although we couldn't see anything through the fog. We walked just a little further up and stumbled upon stairs to almost empty Zugspitze restaurant/panorama platform. I made it!

A little rain and hail, nothing to worry about in a Gore-Tex jacket.
According to my Suunto Ambit, the whole thing from Ehrwald (990m) to Zugspitze summit (2962m) was 17.2km (+2146 meters climbing) in 4 hours 11 minutes. I'm happy with the result.

A memorial by the mountainside.
I was able to get a free Zugspitzbahn cable car ride down to Ehrwald by showing my bib. There weren't any buses in sight to the town at the moment, so I ran the easy 3.5km downhill to our hotel.

I made it!

In hindsight I should have climbed the whole thing on my own, starting early in the morning when it was still cool in Ehrwald. I could have easily reached the top before it got really cloudy. Maybe I'll do that together with TPjr in the future. In any case, this was good training for Swiss Irontrail T201 in mid-August.

Double-bling time!