TransAlpine Race Report

Underestimated. That’s pretty much what we decided on Day 3 of the TransAlpine Run. Sure, we had put a lot of thought into it: we’d eyed it up for the last few years, finally decided to register for it in December 2011 and pretty much trained non-stop ever since. With quite a few mountain races and miles on our legs from an early age I’d put us both into the experienced camp when it comes to endeavors of this nature. This race, however, is like nothing you can imagine.

As the beer hall in Rupholding, Germany filled to the brim with participants on the eve of the race, one thing was for sure: this was no ordinary collection of runners or even the typical crowd you would expect to see at a regular American trail race. It was like being surrounded by people with giant mountain beards and 1980’s short-shorts. These people were serious. Our optimistic pre-race goal of getting inside the top 15 immediately seemed ridiculous.

The pre-race briefing and entertainment quickly demonstrated one more thing: this was an impeccably run, well oiled machine in terms of organisation and logistics. Sure our accommodation (we elected to stay in the race run ‘camps’) was on the basic side but everything over the next 8 days would further solidify this race as the best run event I’ve ever participated in.

The race camps mostly consisted of a school or village gymnasium where we threw our mats and sleeping bags on the floor and attempted something which could be described as sleep. We did not manage to perfect this part of the routine however and it would soon prove to be a major factor in the underestimation that defined this race for us. After a particularly sleepless first night (why is it that snorers have the uncanny ability to fall peacefully asleep within about 15 seconds of entering their sleeping bags?!) we awoke to the first day of the hardest race of our lives.

Day 1 – Rupholding, Germany to St. Johann in Tirol, Germany : 49.9km with 5,456ft ascent and 5,469ft descent

We went out hard. I have never perfected the art of starting a race sensibly. I believe that people who proselytize negative-splitting in races are just not very good at suffering. I like to suffer. As a result we found ourselves in the lead pack for most of the first 15km. In fact, at the first aid-station, to our amazement we found that all the lead pack stopped to re-fuel. We were a bit taken aback by this as we had everything we needed so continued on. This would be the first and only time we would be leading the GoreTex TransAlpine 2012 Race! Luckily for us, a quick call to nature ensured that we were quickly passed by a raging swarm of lycra-clad, pole-wielding Europeans.

It took a little while to pick our way back up the field as we had hit the tricky single track section, also marking the start of the first of the two major climbs of the day. The weather was rainy, foggy and cold. I was probably the only one enjoying this due to my recent move to the Gobi Desert (a.k.a Boulder, Colorado).

Ben, heading for the summit of the first climb of many over the next 8 days. I’ll warn you now, that you are going to see a lot of pictures of Ben running. It’s kind of like Ben went on holiday to the Alps with a personal photographer. Only this photographer had to suffer a lot. It’s a good job he’s not ugly….well not too much anyway.

A lot of the trails during the week consisted of 4×4 and ski service roads which are apparently incapable of being flat.

A pretty typical point in the race where we would emerge from clouds to see the valley thousands of feet below, knowing full well we’d be heading all the way down just to run up the other side!

Day 2 – St. Johann in Tirol, Germany to Kitzbühel, Austria :  34.8km with 6,066ft ascent and 5,715ft descent

It had begun. The 50K warm-up the previous day had ensured that our bodies would start to deteriorate from here on in. Luckily, the nice race organisers started Day 2 with a gentle 2000ft climb over about 2km. This wasn’t just steep, this was Austrian Alps steep. It hurt.

The route proceeded to take us along a razor sharp ridge which luckily for us was shrouded in thick fog. This is not the kind of trail you would ever find in an American trail race for fear of being sued for recklessness should someone fall to their doom…. of which there was a real possibility! Luckily this was Europe and apparently your personal safety is your own business. My kind of race!

Soon enough (well not really, it actually took quite some time), we descended over to the next valley to be awarded magnificent views of the area. This was our first taste of the beating to which our knees would be accustomed over the next several days.

Ben, enjoying some actual decent running form before the next climb beat us back into our Quasimodo-style shuffle.

That isn’t actually a giant Stegosaurus hiding in the clouds but rather the ridge we ran along earlier that morning. Ben is quite pleased that we aren’t on it any longer.

I think Day 2 was when Ben realised that running 95 miles a week in New York for training was kind of like getting deployed to a war zone after spending a bit of time playing Call of Duty 3. Luckily I live next to some rather large mountains and don’t have a job so have spent the last few months spending more time than is normal, running up and down them. This left me in better spirits than Ben at the end of Day 2. This would not, however, last.

Day 3 – Kitzbühel, Austria to Neukirchen , Austria :  46.5km with 7,408ft ascent and 7,043ft descent

Everything hurt. It didn’t really seem reasonable, in fact possible, that we had to run today. After letting us off easy yesterday with only a 21 miler, today’s route stepped it up a notch in both distance and elevation change. Today would be a game changer…and not in a good way. We started off the day, as usual, with a monster climb: 4000ft in 12km. I think we lasted about 1km before both of our knees were screaming at us to stop. We had made the fatal error of not bringing any Ibuprofen with us. We started to panic. Luckily Ben remembered that he still had a couple of pills stashed in his pack from our training run in the Rockies earlier that month. We swiftly dispensed with the drugs and continued on our way. From here on in, the consumption of Vitamin-I (as our British friends referred to them as) would become a daily routine!

After hitting the summit we heard a large pack of people breathing down our neck so we switched up the gears for the next several km of downhill pounding. Either the Vitamin-I kicked in or the adrenalin from trying to ditch the chasing pack seemed to relieve our knees somewhat and we started to feel somewhat good. We left the ski service roads finally and headed onto some wet and boggy single track. Unfortunately, this signaled the start of other gnarly climb from which we wouldn’t descend for another 10km.

Heading up into the clouds with our tall, bald German counterparts with whom we seemed to spend a lot of the week running.

Once we caught the ridge the visibility was pretty low, getting down to about 5m in sections. As with everything on this race however, the marking was impeccable and I think if you were to ever get lost on this course you would have to remove yourself from the race for reasons of stupidity.

Apparently this section was supposed to be one of the most beautiful! I felt right at home here though, it was kind of like running in the UK.

Day 3 ended as it had begun. In pain, with a 10km downhill knee buster. Ouch.

Day 4 – Neukirchen , Austria to Prettau im Ahrntal, Italy : 43.3km with 6,551ft ascent and 4,658ft descent

Motion sensitive lights. This is not a good thing to have installed in the corridor in which we were sleeping. Every time someone rolled over or got up to answer the call of nature we were instantly awakened by 60,000 Watt solar flares. This was not conducive to a swift recovery from yesterdays carnage.

Nevertheless, we proceeded as we did every day. Dragged our broken and sorry bodies out of the sleeping bags at 5:30am. Staggered down to breakfast to throw down strange European food products.  Gulped down copious amounts of coffee to try and ensure some successful results in the bathroom department before donning our race attire and proceeding to the race corrals. From here the organisers tried to further witter away our morale by playing ‘Keep on Running’ (the TransAlps official song) before blasting us with ‘Highway to Hell‘ shortly before the gun started the days death march.

Cattle grids were not our friends. Slippery, painful and numerous. Here the cows mock us as we attempt to navigate the umpteenth grid of the day.

After 28km of painful 4×4 roads we finally break off onto some single track. Ben’s optimism lasts all two seconds before we are confronted by this…

Yup. Cows, grass, bogs and giant friggin mountains. Guess which way we are heading?

The second climb of the day sent us up over 3000ft in about 2.5km to the highest point of the TransAlps Race.

Are we there yet…?

Nope…

Not even close…

Finally with temperatures dropping and snow surfacing we topped out and said goodbye to Austria and hello to Italy!

First impressions of Italy were much like Austria. Painful.

Italy rewarded our climbing efforts by sending us all the way back down, in a horribly technical, 4000ft descent.

Day 4 was done in a pretty respectable time and without too much drama. This was probably our strongest day since Day 1 and we felt pretty pleased with ourselves for getting back into the top 10 finishers in the Mens division.

In case you were wondering how our post race recovery/schedule worked each day. It went a little like this:

Finish race. Try not to puke/cry/collapse. Hobble about looking for something cold to submerge legs into. Find beer. Drink beer. Consume all food products within sight. Walk/limp/crawl to camp. Secure least horrible floor space. Hit the showers praying there is hot water left. Attempt a bit of rest whilst avoiding noisy naked Europeans wondering about camp. Give up on rest and stagger down to the pasta party. Consume as much food as is possible/allowed. Sit through painfully long briefing on the next day’s massacre. Watch slideshow and video of the day’s carnage. Feel inspired again before realising it all starts again tomorrow. Head back to camp to sort out gear for the next day. Attempt to sleep. Unsuccessfully.

Repeat.

It really was one of the things we underestimated most about the execution of this race. Whilst the organisation was second to none and all the facilities were convenient, comfortable (as much as a floor can be) and adequate, we really struggled with the lack of recovery time. We were always busy. Packing/unpacking/eating/showering/walking etc , we really never had more than an hour or so to lie down after each race. When you are running for 5 hours a day, it doesn’t leave you with much time to recover. And that’s for the faster people. Many teams were out for 7+ hours each day. Hats off to them.

The sleep we got each night was minimal, given the early starts, the late(ish) evenings and the number of people all holed up in one large room. Each day saw the camp more closely resembling a refugee camp. With emaciated souls jammed all over the floor, fighting over crash mats or whatever they could find to assemble some form of comfort. Groaning and whimpering as they tried in vein to squeeze some life back into their deteriorating bodies. We threw anything and everything into our bodies; recovery drinks, painkillers, energy gels, beer….basically anything consumable was consumed.

Ben demonstrating the recovery position in our luxury accommodation.

Day 5 – Prettau im Ahrntal, Italy to Sand in Taufers, Italy : 32.8km with 5,974ft ascent and 7,883ft descent

An epic. And not in the good sense of the word. Day 5 brought new heights to Ben’s pain tolerance. It started out reasonably, as most days did, with a giant climb through some stunning scenery.

Ben leading the train of refugees up from the valley.

If you are wondering where we are heading then you haven’t gotten the gist of this story yet!

Up there of course!

Pretty close to the top of the pass now and things are still holding together well.

Not too much I can say here other than: Wow!

It all started to go horribly wrong about here. Today’s route had the greatest amount of descent yet: 7,883ft of it in fact.

Somewhere in the first few hundred feet, Ben’s knees decided to stage a debilitating revolt and proceeded to shut down operations.

We were many miles and thousands of vertical feet from the finish. The next several hours were some of the most torturous of Ben’s life.

A rare picture of Ben on Day 5, actually looking like he’s killing it out there. He wasn’t. His knees where doing all the killing. Normally Ben has some of the best running form I’ve seen. Today saw this perfectly postured stride reduced to a crippled, stumbling swagger. It was not a pretty sight. It’s a testament to Ben’s determination that we managed to continue on nevertheless. There wasn’t much said that day. We had a job to finish and it was going to get done, of that we were sure.

The descent was broken by another 2,000ft climb which gave Ben a bit of a rest and an opportunity for a head dunk half way up.

After more painstaking downhill, we ran crawled into town and through the finishing line after being overtaken by numerous teams who had not suffered as much. We probably lost about an hour of time, which doesn’t sound too bad in retrospect but given it was the shortest day in distance, it would be our longest day on our feet. Ouch.

Making up for the destruction to our bodies was the absolute stunning setting of Sand in Taufers. Even given our increasing ambivalence towards the continuing beauty of these Austrian/Italian villages, this place was pretty incredible. We had come to view these places, simply as end points, where we could finally stop running, get fed and sleep. After today’s disaster though we decided to try some active recovery and walked around quite a lot. Spotting a Pizza place we opted to abandon the pasta party with some others, in favour of some real food.  It was a game changer. Never have such thin people eaten as much food. Bliss.

The stunning setting of Sand in Taufers, Italy.

Day 6 – Sand in Taufers, Italy to St. Vigil, Italy : 38.5km with 7,509ft ascent and 6,450ft descent 

If you had told me half way through Day 5 that we would be running as a team today, I would not have been so sure. We awoke as every day, in pain. Today’s route had us running a lot of flat road before we hit the longest, steepest climb of the entire course. We had clung onto the vain hope the previous evening that the flat road might work in Ben’s favour given his training. It did.

To our amazement, we went out hard. We attacked the first climb which was a lot more of a climb than we were expecting. The downhill was painful but we attacked it. We ran with Team Tyne and Weary from the UK with whom we had been running off and on for the past few days. The four of us set a determined pace and were in great positions coming into the start of the climb.

Half way up the hardest climb of the race. This was steep. Steeper than seemed reasonable in fact.

Topping out with the valley many thousands of feet below.

We didn’t feel great but good enough on the climb. We crushed the downhill. Overtaking teams which would normally beat us including the senior masters team (these guys were animals!). We felt vindicated after yesterday. We charged into the finish line with a sigh of relief. Yesterdays performance would not define the rest of the race. It was an anomaly.

Day 7 – St. Vigil, Italy to Niederdorf, Italy :  41.8km with 6,397ft ascent and 6,561ft descent

Mountains. After yesterdays relatively ‘urban’ feel, it was good to finally be back in the real mountains. This came with its own problems however. Today was long, marathon long in fact, over two major passes and some really rugged terrain including the most scenic section. They didn’t fool us however. You don’t get scenic without some suffering.

As you can see, today’s views weren’t too shabby. This is Ben coming towards the first pass.

Nearly at the top now. Simply stunning.

Thanks Suunto, I hadn’t noticed.

We won’t forget this day!

At the bottom of the first pass we were treated with a pristine alpine lake, looked good enough to jump in!

No time though, we had to run up another pass!

We soon put some vertical distance between us and the lake and were over the next pass and into the finish area. We ran today hard and it worked well for us but we both agreed that despite today’s beauty it had been one of the hardest days of running.

Day 8 – Niederdorf, Italy to Sexten, Italy : 33.4km with 4,163ft ascent and 3,622ft descent

The end was in sight. Just 20 miles, one climb, one descent and one final sprint into the finish line. We went out as hard as was possible. The first 15km was mostly flat and as a result of that and the fact it was the last day, there were plenty of teams looking to finish strong. We called them: “Last day heroes”. Where were they on the other 7 days?! We tried not to get sucked into the hysteria and put our heads down and settled on a pace we deemed sensible.

Coming towards to the top of the only climb of the day. Most of the last day heroes had faded by this point and we continued along with a little more space thankfully.

You can see why they have stage 8 in this race. Probably one of the best views of the whole race. What a way to finish!

Ben, trying to savour some of the final views of the race.

And what views they were! The Dolomites truly deserve their reputation as one of the most stunning places in Europe.

We had been dreaming about the finish for a long time now. It never seemed to be within our reach. We had imagined there would be a tipping point. Day 4 perhaps. If we could just complete day 4 then we’d make it. Day 4 came and went and we felt no closer. Each day in fact, brought us no joy in the terms of feeling closer or more able to complete this race. We just couldn’t see past the next day. Lining up at the start, the day’s route seemed unfathomable. How could we get our bodies around the next 26 miles, or 7000ft of uphill? We started each day with a question. Could we finish today? It usually took us 2 hours or so before we even contemplated the finishing line. Only once we were comfortable with the suffering…. the knee pain, the shin splints, the aching shoulders, the energy levels… could we really have any confidence that we could finish that day.

Day 8 was no different. 20 miles was short, true. But could we actually do it? We had no idea. We were in uncharted territory since about Day 3. We took nothing for granted. Topping out on the pass, we had, to our surprise, run pretty comfortably on the flats and attacked the hills. There was one final question though: would our knees forgive us one last descent? With some trepidation we crested the summit and descended into the unknown.

Holy crap, our knees work! Within a few hundred meters (after some wincing and screaming) we knew we could do it. We switched off the brain and let our bodies fall gracefully(ish) downhill towards the finish line.

We had watched the finish on the previous years videos and seen the crying, the emotion, the relief as people crossed the line. It now felt real, we would be those people. To not cry seemed impossible. We were ready for it…we wanted it. We were not done.

We found ourselves with a few miles to go surrounded by some teams who clearly wanted to go out with a fight. Oh well, what the hell! We turned it up a notch and kicked hardL

7:06, 6:42, 6:35

This is not how we imagined finishing a 200 mile race! We were fully sprinting! Anything we had left, was thrown into the furnace. We came into the village, turned the corner, saw the finish line and sprinted right through it.

It was over. Finally. We could stop.

It wasn’t quite how we imagined it.  The final 3 mile sprint to the finish had changed things. There wasn’t the rush of emotion, the crying, the fist pumping… but there was relief. We bent over and received the coveted medals and did the next thing that came naturally to us. Set out to find beer.

Epilogue

On about day 7, Ben made an interesting observation. In 38 hours of running, we had probably never uttered a word or sentence that wasn’t about this race.  It consumed all our energy, all our thoughts, all our focus. It was all that mattered for 8 days. It was the hardest, most painful thing Ben and I had ever done. It was truly epic.

I’m not even sure that results matter at this point. Just to finish this race in one piece seems like a massive achievement. With just 57% of teams finishing, this race took its fair share of casualties. For what it’s worth, we were the 9th place Mens team and 16th place overall. The caliber of participants was staggering, especially in the Masters, Senior Masters and Mixed categories.

Lastly, we, of course, met some great people during this race, like Adam and AndyKris and Kelly, Sam and Emma, Tom and Scott, and Tristan and Scott. This was an incredibly social race and it was great to have other people to complain to, laugh with and of course run with. Everyone agreed that this was the stupidest, most insane, best race ever! I already miss it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *