Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Transalpine insanity never made so much sense - Sept 09

[Note that the photos are in a random order and not within the text due to the website being annoyingly stupid today.]

What makes a race particularly fun? It depends on who you ask, but I'm sure there are some common threads, like a sense of achievement for finishing, great scenery, interesting competitors or flawless organisation. Well, I'd add a couple more to that list which may not be everyone's cup of chosen beverage: an overwhelmingly epic atmosphere and difficulty levels which push the limits of the body.

And the race I've just returned from has all of the above in oil tanker-sized quantities. It's called the GORE-TEX Transalpine Run and it was virtually the perfect race, based across the Alps from Germany to Austria to Switzerland to Italy. Or eight races, to be more accurate, since it's a multi-stage event with the positions determined by adding stage times for four different racing categories: Men, Women, Masters Men and Mixed.

There's a mixed category in there since the race is run in teams of two due to the danger of alpine running. Yet I (like most) am more used to running solo and not worrying about team dynamics. So the fact that each team has to stay together the whole way, or within two minutes of each other, certainly changes the tactics. Although I hadn't really thought about it in advance when I entered with fellow Serpentine runner/triathlete, Oli Sinclair.

In fact, we'd both been a bit casual in our outlook and preparation. Oli had come off the back of a big effort at Ironman Germany, with less running than usual and very little hill work and none in mountains. I'd had the Mt Blanc and Davos mountain races to give me a taster, but that doesn't really constitute training. Mt Blanc was a marathon with 2,500m of ascent and felt very tough. Davos covered 78.5km but with 2,200m of ascent. That sounded like good training until I saw the stages posted online...

240km over eight stages with over 15,000m of ascent! And one stage is a mountain sprint stage with just under 1,000m of climb so that left an average stage being over 30km long and with 2,000m of climb. In effect we had seven stages like the Mt Blanc marathon, but slightly shorter and a 'sprint' up a mountain. In that context I knew I was in for a challenge since Mt Blanc had left me sore and hobbling for several days.

Luckily, Oli and I had a cunning plan. We would approach the race as a holiday, as we'd initially envisaged it, putting our competitive instincts away in our backpacks and taking in the views at a leisurely pace. Except this is a tough race to just finish and we knew we'd have to put in a fair amount of sweat to get through, even taking it easy.

With this in mind I'd spent the previous month travelling around with my fiancé, Amy, and not trained hard. I even used the taper effect from the month to go for a marathon PB two weeks before the Transalpine in Reykjavik (success - see last posting). And I'd been carried away with the Québéc marathon the following week and put in more effort than I'd planned. That double-whammy had left my legs slightly tired and in no way rested. I just hoped I wouldn't be a drag on Oli but knew that the gentle pace we planned should reduce that issue.

Oh, and I also decided to add jet-lag to my handicaps just for fun, having flown into Munich direct from Vancouver. I then got the first train to the starting village, Oberstdorf, and arrived slightly dazed but excited. Oli had only travelled from London and had done so the day before so was slightly more refreshed.

We checked in at the registration and enjoyed a slow jog through the beautiful mountain backdrops, hoping that the rain would dissipate in time for the 10am start in the morning (it did). Everything seemed to be running like clockwork and the race organisers looked well on top of things.

At the evening pasta party we met a friend from London, Sandra, who had entered in a female team. The atmosphere wasn't electric but people clearly were excited about the week to come. Plus we had a set of maps and profiles for each stage to give us a clue about what we'd be going through. Day one looked about as hard as any other day - 37km with 2,500m of climb. So it wasn't going to be a gentle warm up, but a hardcore baptism of white hot lava, a Mt Blanc marathon squeezed into less distance, hence sharper climbs and descents.

What had we let ourselves in for? Luckily we had the profiles for the other days to help answer that. There wasn't really a let-up in how tough the race would be and every day looked equally as calf-burning. The mountain sprint was the obvious variation, on day five and with the 936m of climb over just a 6.19km distance. This was the rest day, it seemed? What a brilliantly crazy race.

Oli and I had a good night's rest in the communal sports hall with 400 other racers. There were 250 teams lined up for the start in the morning but some had opted for hotels instead of the cheaper option offered by the organisers - large rooms where you can lay down your sleeping bag, put in your ear-plugs (essential) and pull down your eye blinds (also essential). These weren't a problem through the week for Oli and myself, even when we stayed in a WWII bunker in Switzerland which had been converted into Tokyo-style bunks, giving each person about a two sq ft space to squeeze into (only long enough for average height people so the six footers were dangling off the end).

Getting back to the race, the morning came and the sun had replaced the clouds. By the start it was pleasantly warm and we were ready to go. Rather than trying to explain each stage in detail I'll cover some of the general features, partly because the week is a blur of activity and I'm sure time slowed and that we were truly in the mountains for about three months.

Each day generally started with a climb that got gradually steeper and steeper. Everyone started out running but the levels of fitness were clearly graded by how long it took to start walking. Then how long before the walk became a crawl.

Even after just a few minutes we could tell that we were in for a treat with the views. After climbing up to the first checkpoint (we walked some but not much up until then) the mountains lay before us. Unfortunately some people were having to drop out even at this stage and there were several teams which didn't complete the day. Our friend Sandra had not expected the course to be as challenging as it was and didn't get further than this point. But she's vowed to return and get to see the whole course, which is certainly worth it.

As with all alpine races the scenery changes from forests to bare rocks as the altitude rises and the air thins. The first couple of days had significant muddy sections following the rainfall, but also snowy parts near the top. I'd consider myself to be well-travelled in mountains for a city dweller but I was still in awe of the incredible views along the course every single day. Better than other parts of the Alps I've been to and as incredible as the Himalayas, although on a smaller scale and without feeling like a pro wrestler is bear-hugging you.

Some of the climbs nearer the top were very technical with basically no path and just jagged rocks. On many days the rocks were loose to add to the difficulty of avoiding twisted ankles or falls. Mud was the biggest danger at first and I was close to injuring myself on a muddy climb near the end of day one when my legs tried to slip into a side splits and my right knee just stopped me, but by putting a lot of pressure on the joint in the wrong direction. It felt like a niggle at the end of the day but didn't come back to haunt me during the week.

I've always had a preference for downhill running over uphill. It doesn't matter how ridiculous the terrain gets, my legs know where to go and my brain makes the right calls. This helps a lot when there's a significant downhill section at the end of a race as I'm able to finish strongly and overtake comfortably. However, I wasn't sure how comfortable downhills would be with so many stages and so much cumulative descent. Plus I hadn't really considered any differences in running styles and strengths between Oli and myself.

After the first day we had answers to some of the questions about team dynamics. Most other teams had trained together and worked out their comfortable strategies on how to stick together. This was evident in the teams who seemed to stick together like glue on the way up and down and was most apparent in the Salomon Outdoor team who won every stage and were always photographed completely in step with each other.

Oli was fit but definitely less comfortable on the long uphills, a bit slower on the flat (reflected in our marathon times) and also had more trouble letting go on the downhills and relinquishing control of every step to just fly down. However, we were both fine going at the pace we were going at and were taking a lot of photos while we fully experienced the spectacular scenery. And if we could get through the week without injury we knew we'd start moving up the rankings anyway.

That evening we continued meeting more people from the rest of the field, inevitably English speakers. Canadians, Yanks, Aussies, South Africans and even Scots. The Scots, Casey and Iona, had spoken to us on the first evening and were just planning to get through the event with no real competitive aims. But after stage one they were in 3rd in the high quality mixed category (compared to 29th in the men's category for Oli and myself). This theme continued and they managed to push their way into second each day and overall - a very impressive performance given Casey only started training for mountains six weeks earlier.

Everyone was buzzing from the event and, as is usually the case at multi-day events, were very friendly and open to meeting new people. Even though the majority of the teams were German speakers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even Italy (who knew that parts of northern Italy were German speaking?), almost everyone spoke English and we met a varied and colourful bunch of people from many different backgrounds. The race definitely ticked the box for having great company.

Oli and I were slightly sore from the first day but were fine to go into the next stage and there was a notable lack of limping amongst the field throughout the whole week. The field didn't narrow as much as we'd expected each day after half the teams failed to finish in 2008. But I think the weather was much worse for them while we had bright sunshine almost the whole race.

The immediate steep climbing each day caused my calves to scream at me, but because I had to slow down to stick with Oli I was able to have plenty of breaks and the toll on my legs was much less than most. I'm sure Oli appreciated it every time I'd wait for him, take a photo of him bent over double then trot off expecting him to follow. Luckily he was very tolerant of this and pushed on throughout the whole event with gritty determination.

Somehow, our legs stopped deteriorating after about three days and seemed to plateau at a level of fatigue that was very manageable. I think this was the case amongst the field since people didn't have many exterior signs of the damage they were inflicting on their bodies. Well, except for the growing queue each morning at the medical tent to get the Japanese colourful athletic tape on competitor's legs. Some had virtual works of art with the intricacies of knee supports they formed with swirls of that tape. But we refrained.

The only recovery tactics we opted for were compression clothing (just Oli), eating a lot (both) and jumping in a river at the finish line to cool our leg muscles (mainly Oli at first). Oli is unfairly(?) mocked amongst the ultra runners in my club for his many scientific approaches to training (the Maffetone method, anyone?). He has a love of lycra which was matched by the whole field, excluding me. I may have been the only person at the race without one item of lycra clothing or any compression gear. I didn't even have the walking poles for Nordic walking, which half the field had opted for (mainly the slower half) since they just get in the way and slow me down. Besides, using poles is clearly cheating since the Nordic walkers tend to spear everyone around them while they flail about their sticks, either while using them or while carrying them in an overly casual manner. Hence they narrow the field unfairly by skewering competitors.

Our recovery tactics worked just fine for us and we got through to the mountain sprint stage on day five feeling ready for a bit of racing. The rules were different for this stage and it provides a welcome change to the race format. Instead of having to stick together the whole day and having punishing drops to pound the thighs, teams could split up and there was no downhill. The course wound up 936m from the finish line of the previous day to the last checkpoint from that stage. It meant we knew exactly what the course was like.

As well as allowing the teams to run separately, there was an individual ranking as well as a team one. So everyone could have an all-out sprint, if you can call walking half the distance a sprint. For the day's podium there would be an individual ranking as well as team rankings worked out from the combined time of both team mates. However, the overall standings were only affected by the time of the slowest person from each team, effectively like any other day.

This all sounded like a fun variation, but I was a bit worried that the usual mass start would lead to the usual traffic jam on the narrow paths. Cleverly, the organisers had another twist here - to start each team 30 seconds apart in reverse order. We were fairly high up the overall rankings so had a start just before midday.

For once every second counted given how short the course was. And with a course record of 45 minutes we had some idea of how long we would take (I aimed for under an hour, to average a staggering 6.19kph, roughly the speed of a pedestrian). By the time we started there were less teams hanging around and they were all very fit-looking. It was hot but we knew we didn't have to endure it for long.

As the starter let us go (similar to the skiing starts but without the timing bar), we stuck together for a good 100m before I went ahead to bust my lungs and set my calves on fire. The top couldn't come soon enough and it felt like the hardest stage, with every second of walking being minimised. Both Oli and myself overtook lots of the competitors ahead of us and we managed a respectable 49m (me) and 58m (Oli), compared to the winning time of just under 40m, which must have involved no power-walking at all.

After pushing so hard we had the day's pasta party at the gondola station at the finish rather than back down near camp. Oli and I opted for a cheeky beer and it wasn't the only time that week that we felt we deserved it. We felt like we'd been racing for weeks, not days, but it had become a way of life. And a very pleasant way of living at that.

Each evening we had a podium for the winners and various presentations about the next day's English, German and Spanish. It made it drag a little but it was also fun to see the leaders from each category dance on stage to a Right Said Fred tune called 'Stand Up For The Champions', or something similar. It was a fitting end to each incredibly beautiful day where the scenery continued to surprise and stun us. My favourite section of any day was through the Swiss border with Italy where the path had been dynamited out of a sheer rock face and looked unreal.

I can't remember which night it happened, but we even had a live performance from a rock singer called Marty, who is probably German but sings in English. He'd written the theme tune for the race which was news to us (both that there was a theme tune and that it was written specifically for the event). Called 'Keep On Running', it was a decent, if cheesy, rock song which we'd heard every morning just before they played AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell' over the start.

Everyone loved his energetic performance, especially the crouching in guitar solos then leaping back in the air for the singing. It was hilarious but also felt very appropriate and fitting. What was even better was that he'd written another song for another of the organiser's races, which he also performed, then he did an encore for the first song again. Genius! Why don't all races have large, blonde, long-haired rock Gods performing live? The closest I've seen is the classical music played by the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra in the MdS after one of the later stages, but that doesn't really compare.

Supposedly the song had even reached number one in Germany, although I'm not sure if that was true. But we all had a surprise visit from him again in the morning as he performed in front of us live at the start instead of playing the recorded version. I was certainly impressed and will now expect similar from all other races.

So the race had transcended the world of running and become a daily ritual for us, with entertainment and who knows what else to expect. By the last day we had the usual mixture of anticipation for the finish and sadness that something so fun had to end. We'd started in Oberstdorf in Germany, run through Austria and Switzerland and arrived in the German area of South Tirol in Italy. That last stage would take us to Latsch and to the after party, where everyone planned to let their hair down and bounce around to crappy music as if their legs weren't sore.

Oli and I had spent the last few days trying to catch a German team purely because of their team name, Luftwafe. Now I know the war's over and that it just means airforce (and those boys were airforce officers), but when we saw their team name we couldn't help but want to beat them for the sake of old Blighty. Sadly, they had almost a 30 minute lead over us going into the last three days and they went up the mountains quicker than we did.

Our competitive instincts were ignited and it was very satisfying to overtake them each day on the downhill towards the end. On the final day we just needed to beat them by about 5m40s, which was certainly possible. I could hear the theme tune from 'The Great Escape' playing in my mind...but only when the annoyingly catchy 'Keeping On Running' gave it a few seconds of airtime (that song is now on my MP3 player and will forever remind me of the Alps and of the big, German rock singer bounding around).

We climbed up the last ascent of the race on the last day with leaden legs (maybe we were feeling a bit of fatigue?). It seemed harder than the other days, but that was probably due to the toughest course, according to consensus as well as the race director, being day seven. Once we reached the peak we knew it was downhill all the way to the finish and we set off at a decent pace over some technical terrain. After we'd dropped a fair distance the route became a forrest access road and was very easy to run down. We flew past people and eventually caught the German Team Luftwafe. However, we only had about 12ks to take the time out of their lead, almost 30 seconds per km. As a result I pushed Oli's pace a bit too much and he started flagging and stumbling over the path as it levelled out.

So what did we need to boost us to the finish? More Germans, of course. We were running on a very narrow raised path with only room for one person but a team tried to overtake Oli and nudged him off the path. Suddenly the hidden ogre errupted from Oli and I thought there was going to be a fight (I secretly hoped there would be as I had the camera ready). But then Oli sped up and the adrenaline his altercation had released sent him zooming round the remaining 5ks or so. We overtook plenty of teams, including the second women's team right before the finish line. For the finish we took in the cheers from the crowd as I videoed the experience. And it's lucky Oli got that boost since we only beat the Luftwafe by 8 seconds overall in the end, a very satisfying finish to an awesome (an overused word, but very appropriate) race.

It had been a very tough week and everyone seemed to have enjoyed every second of it. The memories will last forever, especially with the 200 photos I took of the route. And everyone we spoke to swore they'd return in 2010. Except possibly me due to my wedding...

Could it have been any better? I'm not sure I can think of anything significant, except maybe that the evenings went on a little longer than necessary due to the translations. Great job, race director Wolfie - you are a legend. I'd recommend this to anyone, but it's not worth turning up to the start unless you've put in some decent training, ideally on hills (or things like the Davos K78 for starters). Oli and I weren't well prepared but weren't in danger of a DNF at least.


  1. Nice report, Ian! Just one comment: the race in 2008 also had beautiful warm sunny weather - what caused the majority of teams to dnf was the length of the stages on the Eastern route; once you were off the steep mountains you really had to _run_ and many of the teams simply didn't have the flat speed. We came within 20 mins of the cutoff times on a couple of occasions. Also there was no short day and a couple of days well over 40kms. It will be the Eastern route in 2010.

  2. Well, I hope that is the format for next year. It will suit my London legs a lot better and it will sound better if only half the team finish. 20% drop out this year is nothing!

  3. Oh - and very good write up. I read it whilst playing Highway to Hell and Keep on Running. Brought tears of laughter and sadness to my eyes mate. Training for next year starts on Sunday.

  4. Wolfie said it'll include only alpine sections so it may be longer, but if it is, it'll have more climb too, I think.

  5. Great write up Ian.

    I'm now even more determined to do this. I just need to teach the other half of the team to run downhills properly first...

  6. Looking for a running mate in 2010. 3:20 marathoner. Live in Atlanta, GA, USA. Need the week break in the mountains - as tough as it looks - easier than the 4 kids and job. :)