Monday, 27 July 2009

Number 100 at Davos, but never easy

Finishing the 2009 K78 Swiss Alpine Marathon was one of the highlights of my few years of running. But it was also one of the hardest races I've had. The whole time I had pressure on myself to beat last year's time by as much as possible with the certainty that I would finish no matter what. I had to - this was marathon number 100, I had about 30 friends racing or spectating at one of the events of the weekend, plus I even had a great big medal from the 100 Marathon Club engraved with the date and race name.

So I was never likely to take it easy and was looking forward to really seeing how much I'd improved on mountains. It wasn't as much as I'd hoped and I was still hopeless at running for long periods uphill, spending much time walking. Luckily I've never had a problem with downhill running and made up time on every drop. That's always one of the most fun things about running for me - kamikaze-style leaping from rock to rock on steep, off-road sections, ideally with mountains as a back-drop.

I'd been looking forward to the race for ages since the 78.5km (49 miles) course is beautiful and I've run in Davos the previous two years, doing the marathon K42 and the ultra K78 in that order. The whole event has several other shorter and easier races too, but all are significantly more difficult than running on roads and much more rewarding (see the photos with this write-up for why).

The early morning flight didn't bother me much, neither did the 2h30m journey from the airport to Davos Dorf station. Between the plane and train I'd picked up three other Serpies (Angus, Jess and Ben) and we met up after checking into hotels to collect our race numbers in the slightly underwhelming expo. We'd persuaded Jess to switch from being a spectator to running the 11km race and I also bumped into my first friend from the 100 Marathon Club, Dave Ross, and his new fiancé fact she only upgraded from girlfriend to fiancée the previous day in the romantic setting of the Alps. So a pretty positive start to the weekend.

Most of my friends were staying in a hostel about a mile from the centre of town, so the evening downpour persuaded them to stay indoors while I met people staying more centrally in the main bar on the Promenade. Was great to get into the spirit of the event and I always love the anticipation before a big event. I'd managed to help to persuade quite a few people to race it, mainly the ultra, so much of the chat focused on that and how the heavy rain and recent snow would affect the course. We were also celebrating the recent victory of two mates in the Gobi March the previous month, Dave and Diana. They'd run together the whole way and Diana had won.
Before I got too carried away with the Swiss Weissbier, we all called it a night in preparation for the 8am start. It was still raining heavily but the forecast showed some improvement, not that mountain forecasts can be trusted much.
After a good night's sleep I was nervously excited, as I should be before any decent race. I met up with a sea of Serpie running vests at the start, not just ultra entrants, but Serpies doing all distances who were either supporting or taking part in one of the other 8am start races. The sun was vaguely shining through and everyone was in a great mood. There was a slight panic when one girl (who shall remain nameless) realised she'd left her race number back in the hostel a mile away and there was just 20 mins 'til the start. But she made it back on time and we were all lined up in the huge crowd of starters.
I planned to run as much as possible with Mark Braley, who had raced the K78 with me the previous year. He has a habit of zooming off at the start (his 10k PB is within a marathon) then slowing down, so we planned to pace each other and to therefore have some company throughout the earlier stages of the race at a minimum. However, the pacing mainly involved me trying to rein him in as we set off at 6 min miles, not a pace we expected to be sustainable in the slightest.
We did stay together for most of the first 18km or so, although I spend much of it trying to keep my pace down and only seeing him in the distance. The first section of the race goes to Filisur and is undulating but not as mountainous as later on, plus it has a net drop of 500m (1,700ft). During a particularly fast section of downhill roads (rather than trails) I caught him up and noted that my Garmin was showing our pace around what we do for 5k. Again, not very sustainable, but it was fun and we were able to keep going without being out of breath at all.
I got too caught up in the speed and let my race plan go out the window temporarily. I just wanted to enjoy the ease of running down a good section and saving a few mins from my overall time. Of course, it doesn't really work like that and going a minute too fast early in an ultra can lead to losing many minutes later on. But while it was easy, I didn't think I'd be losing too much later on.
This is where I got too cocky and really didn't need to be overtaking so many people. The race doesn't start until the last quarter so gaining positions early on is completely meaningless...particularly if the people I overtook were in the K31 race which stops at Filisur. I kept up the pace as the course flattened and we had a railway track crossing at 19.5km. The crossing involved weaving in between a narrower section and almost turning back on myself. For this sharp turn I foolishly using a piece of wet wood in the rack to take the weight of me twisting. The slimy surface had no grip and my leg flew from under me like slipping on a banana skin sideways. I crashed into the fist-sized rocks around the rails at full speed and right in front of a crowd of people.
It happened so suddenly after I'd been cruising so comfortably but my first thought was that I still had 59km left to run so was anything seriously damaged? I could stand up, my head hadn't hit any rocks and the adrenalin masked most things. But I could feel a lot of bruises along my right side and chest as well as nasty cuts and blood flowing freely from my right palm.
The spectators wanted to make sure I was ok and were trying to help me up and direct me towards the medics at the water station just ahead. But I decided the best tactic was to see whether I could still run. I could, although this started as a slow limp. Quickly I realised that limping 59km would lead to some serious muscle imbalances as my body had to make up for the poor posture, so I needed to try to run as normally as possible and just ignore the soreness. After a few minutes this wasn't too difficult but was very annoying.
In total I was probably only down for 20-30 seconds but I was running more conservatively and slower from that point. The race had become more serious in several ways - getting a decent time had just become tougher and finishing could even be an issue. There was no way I'd drop out unless I was incapable of continuing, but the wet conditions made a second fall much more likely.
With my slower pace, Mark came into view behind me after I'd broken away previously. I expected to see him join me at my side but at the next water station a few kms later he stopped to drink while I kept going thanks to having a Camelbak to keep me hydrated. My leg and side was loosing up a bit as well and running with a normal gait wasn't an effort, it just ached a bit. Maybe it'd all work out fine after all?
Filisur came soon after, marking the lowest point in the course at just over 1,000m (3,300ft). Ahead was a non-stop 1,600m climb to the top of the first pass, merely a half marathon away (now that would be a tough half marathon!). It started with a section of reasonably steep windy road up to Bergun, where the K42 marathon starts and then continues basically along the ultra route to the finish.Runners kept leap-frogging each other as some alternated between running and walking or just varied their speed. The women's winner came past me at this point and was slicing through the field making the hill look very easy. I blame the flatness of London on my sloth uphill, but when you see the quality mountain runners you have to stand back and appreciate their fitness and technique. They've worked hard to be able to run uphill so fast and it's impressive.
Just before Bergun the road temporarily flattened to give me a breather. I knew there would be plenty of Serpies waiting there as the K42 starts 3.5 hours after the ultra and I was going through town just over half an hour before their start - enough time that they hadn't moved towards the start line yet. Running through the cheering crowds made me put more effort in and to try to look stronger than I felt (especially for the photos). The Serpie support was great and gave me a big boost. There was literally a tunnel of Serpies to run through and I couldn't help speeding up, even though it was a relatively steep road. Of course, as soon as I passed the crowd I slowed my run back to race pace, but it's difficult to not play up to the crowd.
Feeling newly elated and with the earlier fall virtually out of my mind, I focused on the remaining 1,300m of vertical ascent to the highest point. I used my Garmin mainly to tell me my altitude rather than distance and found it helpful to know how much of the climb was done and how much was ahead.
As I remembered from previous years, the roads and tracks were mainly runnable for the next 10km or so and I managed to avoid walking too much until I hit the last 700m of ascent where the path gets noticeably steeper. Everyone I could see was walking, except one long-haired and orange-tanned man just ahead. He was jogging but going at the same speed as the walkers which just looked like a huge waste of energy.
This is the part of the course most people love (and hate) the most. The scenery gets more mountainous and the number of trees drops to none eventually. Snow patches also started appearing and the temperature was clearly colder than lower in the valley. I was glad of my two layers as it only got colder as I climbed. It can be hard to fully appreciate the view while the calves scream at you and your heartbeat races, but I was well aware that being there was something special and that I'd made a very good choice for my 100th marathon.
I kept thinking how tired my legs were and also got some minor cramps in my calves which I had to stretch out, which normally isn't an issue for me. I managed to overtake more people than overtook me but I was disappointed that my recent hilly races hadn't helped me deal with the climbs more. Challenges like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or the mountainous US 100 milers now looked even more daunting, but also more tempting.
Eventually I saw the top of the pass ahead and above. I was 10 mins quicker than the previous year so had still managed to force a little more from my legs even after my crash. I was exhausted and my legs were painful from fatigue. When I started running down the rocky path on the other side, I felt a new lease of life and the tiredness ebbed away. The change of which muscles were being used made all the difference and I was back into race mode, overtaking people again.
This high section of the course between the two mountain passes lasts 7km and drops 200m before climbing back to over 2,600m again at Scalettapass. It was cold, exposed and difficult terrain to get a footing in due to the rocky, muddy and waterlogged path. But it's one of the best parts of the race and after Scalettapass it's just over 18km left and that involves almost no uphills and a drop of almost 1,100m.
Concentration has to be at 100% along these sections at the top otherwise a misplaced foot happens too easily. After the race plenty of people had cuts, bruises and limps to show that the slippery conditions had taken a few other victims.
I managed to only get overtaken once, by the female winner from the previous year and 2005, a local runner. She was powering along the uphill towards the second pass, but not as quickly as the leader of the K42 marathon who zoomed past, having caught up about 40 minutes on me over the 24kms of his race. He flew up as if he hadn't just done a huge climb already. But after that pass it was steep downhill and I knew that hardest part was over.
I stuffed my face with food at the water station at the top then set off down the steep paths. I could see far ahead and there were a few runners strung out over the path as well as plenty of hikers and supporters. It's amazing just how many people make the effort to hike far into the mountains to support their friends, family and everyone else who runs by. Cow bells and shouts of 'Hopp! Hopp! Hopp!' let you know it's definitely Switzerland.
The next few kms were all sharp declines, zig-zagging down the barren slope. I loved it and kept leaping around as if I hadn't been running all day. The second major shift of the race from steep climbs to steep descents again helped ease up the seemingly non-stop hammering on the calves. But it only shifted it to the thighs which soon started feeling it after a few hundred metres of going down the other side.
Soon I was tired again, but the rocky paths soon transformed into grassy, tree-lined paths with a gentler slope. I just kept focusing on the next runner ahead to try to catch each one, but the last 10k went by without seeing anyone behind or ahead. There were only a couple of tiny hills left, but they were still a bit demoralising. Then the last few km were started off by the 75km marker and the path entering the woods before popping out just above Davos for a tarmac road down to the stadium.
Just as I approached the entrance to the stadium and was exhausted from a prolonged sprint finish, I saw two more Serpies, Lou and Gav, with a big camera. I was spurred on for an extra last bit of effort and to not look too drained in the shots. Then there was just half a lap of the track to go past the big crowds. I couldn't help playing up to the crowd once again (I never can), slapping hands and reacting to the louder cheers with every extra bit of speed I could muster.
It had been tough, one of the hardest days of running I've had. But the fact that it had been hard, as well as beautiful, meant that I could appreciate the effort it had taken to get through it. I was limping immediately after stopping but was happy to have got through in one piece and to have lowered my time from the previous year by 12 mins to 6h51m and 15th man.
I spent the next few hours watching other Serpies and friends come in (that's Dave and Diana finishing below). Almost everyone had had a great race and really enjoyed it. Many had been converted to trail running, mountains or ultras. The beers through the afternoon were well deserved all round.
Apart from cleaning ourselves up and going out to the pub to celebrate, I just had one more thing left that day. Since the Chairman of the 100 Marathon Club was also running the K78, we'd arranged for a small presentation of my medal for joining the club at the finish line at 9pm.
At that time there were about 25 Serpies gathered round as the sun disappeared over the mountains. We cheekily used the winner's podium for the presentation and I was honoured to have so many old and new friends around to make the occasion more special. After a tiny speech several bottles of champagne appeared from nowhere, including one to spray podium-style. I was taken aback and felt like I was lucky to have good friends to share the day and the moment with. Some great photo opps occurred too, including me pouring the champagne from the stage into James 'Mr ultra-long ultra' Adams' mouth. Trying to get hold of that shot now.
The rest of the night went quickly but I was so tired and sore I couldn't stay too late. Davos had been a fantastic race, just as I expected. And it reminded me that distance running is never easy and can always push you further than expected. I hope that my future trail races in the US live up to it, but I'm sure there'll be plenty of top experiences still to come. And after so many people had such a great time, I know a lot more Serpies will be enjoying the fun and challenges of mountain running.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I hope you will see this comment....I was in Davos to watch the K78 in 2009 and running this event has been a goal of mine ever since. I notice that the route and cut off times have changed slightly...I am wondering if you have or if you will be running it again in the near future?