One winter’s morning, back in November 2010, one runner suggested to another that maybe they could try something a little different. The second pondered the thought intriguingly and, before long, two other runners were in on the act. Having only ever trained in the flats of rural Norfolk without venturing beyond 42km, the distance of a marathon, they all entered the Swiss Alpine Ultra Marathon. The four runners (not necessarily forerunners) will be referred to as A, B, C and D as I have not sought their permission to publicise this.
The term Ultra refers to any race beyond the marathon distance, but this was not just an ultramarathon. It was 79.1km, almost double the distance of a regular marathon. It was at high altitude. And it was over some incredibly difficult, steep terrain. It is billed as “the biggest mountain ultramarathon in the world, and the ultimate challenge”.
As the training progressed, runner D only made it is far as a completed entry – which, to be fair, was a challenge in itself. As for A, B and C, they all arrived in Switzerland together, uncertain of what lay ahead.
Runner A had recently returned from a trek at altitude, but had been nursing an injury in the build-up – and had only completed one run beyond 2.5 hours, a 50k. He is the fastest marathon runner of the three, but is often full of talk of injury woe, so when he suggested similar this time around, nobody was too concerned.
Runner B has the most marathon experience, but had picked up an injury trying to attempt a triple jump, and claimed that with only two runs beyond 2.5 hours (including a 6 hour run through the Yorkshire 3 peaks) that he was the least well prepared. He was also adamant that, despite planning to run together, he would be the one to suggest A and C ‘crack on’ and leave him to make his way back on his own.
Runner C was possibly the fittest of the three runners at the time of the run, and his training regime had gone exactly as he had planned – completing the 50k with A and the Yorkshire 3 peaks challenge with B. Nevertheless, he would still find something to worry about – and even go so far as to worry that he would have nothing to worry about.
The day started nicely with cool conditions, and the sun shining, but with large queues for the ‘toi toi’, B had to stop for an early call of nature. Sticking to the plan, A and C waited, concerned that 75km was a long way to run alone. Otherwise, the first half progressed largely to plan – with A climbing well, C descending well, and B finding his way somewhere between. And A (a nutritionist) pointing out that spitting should be avoided to conserve sodium for the latter stages.
All three stopped for about 20 minutes at half way – where there was an opportunity to stock up on supplies from bags which had been shipped out. A casually refuelled, as B updated his facebook status and had a puff from his inhaler. Meanwhile, mild panic ensued for C as he spent at least 10 minutes trying to locate his bag before stuffing himself with carbohydrates. But eventually all were running as a group once more.
From here, the profile changed from hilly to really hilly. Tiredness was setting in to different degrees but, as the route surpassed 2000m, the terrain became steeper once again – like nothing ever witnessed as part of a run by any of the athletes (climbing 300m in just 1.5km). A walk soon became a slow walk. A was struggling, while C tried in vain to push on (his effort would prove to be his downfall). The climb continued for what felt like more than an hour. But it was B who reached the summit first. C was a distant second, looking and feeling rather ill, and A was a close third.
Suspecting it was a low blood/sugar concentration, C quickly drank three cups of isotonic drink followed by three cups of water. Within seconds, B was commenting that the colour was returning to C’s face – and in a motivational speech to A and C, proclaimed “as we [had] come this far, it was important that we finished together”. We all set off from the peak at the same time but, as we turned the second corner, B had started to disappear into the distance. At the same time, A started to drift backwards.
By the following corner, all three were out of sight of each other. This was the last time that all three would be together until after the finish (more than 25km away). It was also at this time that it started to rain. And within 5 minutes this had become heavy but, fortunately, waterproofs were to be provided en route.
The run continued with C hoping to see B at any of the water stations, and A checking the medical tents to see if B or, more likely, C had been taken ill. Luckily, this would not be the case.
From the peak, the route descended for 2km before climbing for another 3.5km to the highest point on the course. And finally, with 20km to go, the route started to descend back towards the finish. 1000m was descended over the next 6km, with the remaining stretches proving to be a question of survival.
For A and C, the individual finishing times were irrelevant. For B, the finish time would have been irrelevant had he not finished 20 minutes ahead of C and another 20 minutes ahead of A – with all three finishing in the region of 10 hours.
The day ended with pizza and sleep, before climbing the neighbouring mountain (Jakobshorn) to see the views the next morning. By cable car, of course.
All in all, this was certainly a huge achievement for all runners. For me personally, it was the single toughest run I have ever run, and I wonder if it will ever be surpassed. But ‘forever’ is a long time, never say never and all that other baloney, so who knows. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my next challenge…