The end has no end

Swal_1650-53

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…

This is it

We registered at the Expo and picked up our numbers for the hardest run that any of us have ever run… harder by 30k. As the sky cleared slightly, we were able to see the tops of some of the mountains and realised that we would be running higher than most of what was visible.

Realising that worrying was not going to help, we had a cup of tea, read each other’s tea leaves, realised that our trainers could have been in much worse condition and had a game of chess. Now bring on tomorrow. Or something like that.

Cows, clocks and cheese*

For the record we have arrived at our hotel in Davos, Switzerland. It is 1500m above sea level in the Alps, yet there are many peaks high above the rainclouds which we are unable to see. For the time being, this is a good thing.

*these items are of no relevance to the day, other than being associated with Switzerland

The biggest mountain ultramarathon in the world*

On 30th July 2010, my mother went into hospital for major surgery. If the fact that she still hasn’t fully recovered and consequently had to quit her job was the worst thing that happened, these past 12 months would have been bad enough. But instead (and I say this with care), it was just the start of what turned out to be the single worst year of my life. As things became progressively worse, I needed to find my own way through it and, as I do so often, I focused on my running.

The biggest mountain ultramarathon in the world, and the ultimate challenge would accurately describe the past year, but instead is the tagline of the Swiss Alpine Ultra. Before deciding to run from Paris to London and after withdrawing from the Jungfrau Marathon, I entered this event thinking it would be an appropriate way to generate awareness for what had happened.

Having garnered much support on the journey from Paris to London, I still intended to run my first Ultra. In the Swiss Alps. A 79.1km circular route climbing (and descending) 2370m with 21km on high alpine terrain will undoubtedly be the single most difficult run I have ever attempted. It takes place on 30th July, exactly one year after Mum went into hospital, and will hopefully provide some closure to that difficult period.

In stark contrast to Paris to London, I will be taking significantly less kit and the weather forecast is atrocious – but I have my Vaseline, lycra and gel ready, so I’ll be fine.

Let’s do this.

I suppose it is now time to start thinking about what my next challenge will be…

*see http://www.swissalpine.ch/cms/competition-k78.phtml

How far is too far?

July_2011_race_calendar

Today I entered the Fairlands Valley Challenge. This makes my race mileage for July alone extortionately high – as if it were not high enough already. In fact, I will race further in two July races than I will have raced in all other races this year added together. See if you can use the pie chart to work out how far.

Note: maths knowledge alone is not sufficient to answer this one, hence it’s filed under ‘training’