Sunday, 19 October 2014

Swiss Irontrail T81: On finishing an ultra under the goal time

This is a long-awaited race report. This delay was due to a few reasons - or better said excuses - I hope that I can provide as much details as I can after a couple of months. 

Last August I went to Davos once again to run another ultramarathon. Davos is where I ran my first marathon (Swissalpine C42, July 2012) and my first ultra (Swissalpine K78, July 2013). And this time I was heading there to run the Swiss Irontrail T81 and get qualified for the UTMB.

UTMB stands for The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, An ultra trail that perhaps everyone who is into ultra running wants to run it.  It is 168 km with 10,000 metres of elevation gain. In order to attend the race, you need to collect 8 qualifying points by completing a number of ultra races. Each race gives you between 1 to 4 qualifying points depending on length and elevation gain. You need to get your 8 points in maximum of 3 races.  

There are five different race distances to choose from in Swiss Irontrail. T21, T41, T81, T141 and the massive T201. I chose the T81, I'd love to go for a longer race and face a whole new challenge but considering my current experience, fitness level and  the fact that I ran the Eiger E101 only four weeks prior to this race, I believe that was a wise decision.

We did collect the bib numbers on Friday in Davos  an hour before the T201 start. All the runners in ultra distance get a GPS device that is used for tracking and also emergency contact. For T81 you get one drop bag that you can leave your stuff and collect it at the finish line. You don't have the access to your bag along the way which is a bit of shame of a 89-km race.

The race started at 10:30 in Savognin. There were around 150 runners at the start line. There was a 23-km loop before arriving to Savognin again. Although the race was very well organised, there was a big problem with course marking. That along with the bad weather and fatigue caused me getting lost few times. Shortly after the race started and after covering 6 km we didn't see a turning mark and kept on running on a road. It took us a few minutes to get back on track. The trail was muddy and slippery and it did rain for a while before returning to Savognin. I had a short break there, had a cup of hot soup and a piece of bread, changed my shirt and kept running.
The next stop was Tiefencastel on 34th km were my girlfriend was waiting for me. Shortly before arriving in Tiefencastel, there was a muddy downhill single-track part and I was running down quite fast. I passed a guy called Michael, and a few seconds before I overtook him, he stepped on the side of the path, looked back and as I was passing him, he shouted the words of encouragement. This is one reason I love ultrarunning, the crowd. In Tiefencastle I had another short break, and ran and walked almost 500 metres with my girlfriend, then she went to catch the bus back to Davos and get a proper rest before her race the day after. I passed Michael again, he was walking. So I stopped and walked with him for a few seconds and thanked him for his good vibe and words of encouragement. But he asked me to run with my own pace.

It is absolutely important during an ultra to pay attention to every details at all time. Every time you pass a refreshment station, you need to check if you've got enough water and food to get to the next one. Shortly after I passed Tiefencastel, I realized that I forgot to fill my hydration pack and I have only half a litre of water until the next station Lenzerheide 15 km away. I decided not to come back and carry on with the little water I had. Luckily I found a water fountain half an hour later.
"Run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must. But never give up" Dean Karnazes

 I had my longest stop at Lenzerheide where I had a plate of pasta and changed to warm clothes. From there it was long ascent to Urdenf├╝rggli. That was one of the hardest part of the race, it was cold, dark, there was an intense fog and the route was poorly marked. So you could not see farther than a few metres. When I got to Urdenf├╝rggli, I could not see the flags, then I saw a big red light on the top and I supposed that's where I have to go. I climbed up there, but I couldn't see any route marks. I walked all along the cable car station, couldn't see anyone. Neither I could see a sign or a mark. I could barely see the runners behind me walking up that hill. I tried to contact the emergency number with the GPS device, but there were no signal. Then I decided to wait, after several minutes I saw a runner 200 metres below. I asked him for the direction and went back and followed him. Then I realized that I didn't need to get to the top and I had to turn downhill 200 meters below the cable car station.

T81 has a very long time limit of 43.5 hours. So I decided to set my own time limit before the race and try to get to the finish line in 20 hours. I got to Arosa in 14:46. I had only 19 km to go and more than five hours to reach my goal. But there were more than 1000 metres of elevation to cover, and it was the fatigue. In Arosa I asked the medical staff to tape my right shin. There was the same pain that started in the last 20km of the Eiger race. In front of my shin, just above the wrist, was inflated and painful when I was running downhill. After the kinesio tape and a half a plate of pasta I kept on running.

Running feels so different during the night. There are long hours of solitude. You somehow lose the sense of space, You are absolutely awake thogh. You might not see much but you can feel the terrain with your feet. You can feel the ascent and descent in your burning quads, calves and hamstrings.

The last ascent of the course was brutal. It was 500 meter of climb between Jaltz and Strelapass. I eventually got to Strelapass, spent a couple of minutes to change the headlight batteries and then looked at my watch. It was 18 hours 57 minutes into the race. I was absolutely tired and could feel that sharp pain in my shin on every single stride. Then I thought there is only one way to get to Davos in my goal time, and that was ignoring the pain and running absolutely flat-out. So I did. And despite the pain I ran as fast as I could and crossed the finish line in 19:34:19.
Just after finishing the race, on the train to T21 Start in Arosa
Running with me the last 200 metres of the course, was Sara who needed to get ready for her own race in a few hours. She did a great job that day and ran - to my surprise - the T21 course in 4:12:38. T21 was her first half-marathon and her first ever trail race.

By finishing this race, I have now enough qualifying points for the UTMB. I only need to register for the race on December and wish that I am lucky enough to run the UTMB in 2015. I will be running a number of ultras as part of my training. The first of  which is the Cappadocia Ultratrail next Saturday.

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