|before & after|
Race report: SWISS IRONTRAIL T81
Distance: 88.1 km
Elevation: +5010 m / –4630 m
Route: Savognin – Tiefencastel – Lenzerheide – Urdenfürggli – Weisshorn – Arosa – Medergen – Strelapass – Davos
Conditions: Muddy, a brief thunderstorm, some sun, mostly overcast and comfortable, changing at night to heavy fog and falling snow, clearing to a big moon and bright stars. 115 finish / 125 start.
It's Swiss Irontrail weekend with five race distances finishing in Davos, Switzerland. The races range from the unthinkable 201km, 145km, 88k, 42km, to 21km all with significant elevation gain. This year, Derek and I decided to step up to the 88.1km with a brutal 5010 meters of gain, but a rewarding 4630 meters of downhill fun. Our race departed from Savognin at 10:30am on Friday, while the two longer races had begun already Thursday and the shorter two would wait until Saturday, all requiring a finish before 6am Sunday. We rode a series of tram, trains, and bus to arrive in Savognin Thursday evening and camped near the start.
Race morning, we woke early, a bit of drizzle made us both strongly consider staying cozy and dry in the tent. Eastern Switzerland broke records for rainfall in the week leading up to the race causing mudslides that washed out some train transportation, and would likely leave us some muddy conditions on the trails. We both felt an uneasiness approaching this race from the mudslides, forecasted thunderstorms, cold temperatures, and flat-out fear of this distance. Could we even survive 88 kilometers? (55 km had been our longest race to date, just one month ago at the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, Iceland). Most of my fear came from knowing the difficulty of the climb to the Weisshorn (2653M), following it with the trudge to Stelapass (2346M), and knowing we would face these challenges in the dark with 50 km of wear on our feet already. Derek offered (maybe jokingly) that we could go for an easy hike today instead of the race, but I didn't take the bait, so it was time to get moving- dress, have a coffee, strike the tent, and off to the start line.
Savognin: Start & 23k loop
We got our bibs, dropped our bags, fiddled with our laces, and before we knew it we were standing in small-informal clusters near the starting line. A countdown. Then casually, the runners started making our way through the gate, no need to rush to be the first one through, we had a long way ahead of us. Derek and I started together, and we started strong knowing that we had just a few fast kilometers before the first climb, 1200m within 8 km. The lead pack turned back, we had missed a turn and had to double back. Congestion had eased already before this point and we were a bit disappointed to feel stuck, moving a bit slower up the climb as we got caught behind the runners who benefited from not have reached the turn yet. I lost several positions (yes I was keeping track). There weren't too many women running, so it was pretty easy early-on to keep track of the other runners and try to keep myself in good standing. After a long climb through wet, rocky pastures, we reached our first peak. Derek pulled me along on that first climb, keeping a strong pace, then waved me ahead to enjoy my descent - time to open up for a long downhill and finally regain my position among the front women runners...until my next missed turn. But before that, the trail was fantastic, narrow and rocky, over small streams, and made me feel fast and light, and encouraged for the remaining 65 km. The first 23 km were a loop, returning to the start at Savognin for an aid station. I missed a hard left and instead of cutting straight down some stairs, I made a nice long tour of the town before turning back and making my way down to the check point. I grabbed a banana, dropped it, looked pathetically at it by my feet before picking it up, drank a cola, went to the bathroom, searched for Derek in case he had also passed me while I was on my town tour, changed into a dry shirt- I guess I should mention that it was raining, hard, but I didn't want to stop before the aid station to get my jacket. I finally left the aid station (03:35 into the journey, about the timing I expected), still raining, but not as much, and not for too much longer.
Lenzerheide: A long, long, road
The next 26 km took us to Lenzerheide. I don't remember much but green pastures and tall steeples. I felt good up until about the midway point, running between small farms and dodging the ducks and roosters who came out to cheer. I turned a corner and started a steep climb, and suddenly, I realized that I was tired. It felt like forever between the 5k markers, and all I could think was, "shouldn't I be at Lenzerheide by now?" Not yet, not yet, no sign of Lenzerheide, still. I called Derek to check his location, and he said he was about 3 km from Lenzerheide. I said that I was 3 km from Lenzerheide, but I've felt like I must be 3 km from Lenzerheide for a very long time. He said he was near a gold-colored church, I looked down from my switchbacks and could see the church below. I was still more than 3 km from Lenzerheide, so I broke the news to him that he was also more than 3 km from Lenzerheide. I told him I would wait for him at the aid station in Lenzerheide, and we could finish the race together. I was starting to feel lonely, and saw the Weisshorn looming in the distance. After we talked, I slowed down, no need to tire myself out more than necessary, and spend longer waiting. I felt disappointed for deciding not to push for my best time, but I also wanted to give myself the best chance of enjoying the next several hours. Finally a marker, 45 km to go, I was halfway through, and still more than 3 km from Lenzerheide (4 km more to the rest stop). Another runner caught up to me near the tiny village of Lain, and I decided to run with him through to Lenzerheide, happy for a bit of company. When I finally arrived at Lenzerheide, I chugged cola and ate a cupful of peanuts, found the toilet, and watched anxiously out the window as other runners arrived. I saw Derek approach, and hurried to meet him by the entrance. I was well rested now, but needed to give him the chance to also rest and refuel. We both ate some pasta- I thought it a horrible idea when I first arrived, but now my body was asking for food, and needed it to sustain through the next sections. I gave-up on the possibility of a podium finish (a crazy goal for my first attempt at this distance), watching other runners arrive and depart, but I had made that decision a few hours ago. I spent 50 minutes in total at the station, so I was ready to move-on. Derek was a trooper, agreeing not to linger there, and we started out slowly to allow the food to settle. We were moving forward again, now 8.5 hours since the start.
Arosa: Onward and upward
The break did us both some good, but being together really helped our spirits. We still had a long way to go, some difficult climbs and navigation, but we were in it together. Daylight faded quickly and a thick fog dropped onto the trail. We passed some huge boulders, but then those boulders moved- they were the biggest cows I had ever seen! I wasn't even as tall as their rear-end, lying beside the trail. Either they were giants, or the fog was playing tricks on our eyes. Soon Derek was singing, "I feel good, na -na na na-na na na, I knew knew that I would, na -na na na-na na na." We were approaching that point in the race, where things get a little weird. We climbed and climbed. Finally a red light, a beacon in the night. I scrambled up loose scree. I would get to that light no matter what. It had to be the Weisshorn. Despite my determination, it was not the Weisshorn. I clambered back down, and we put on our head lamps, no use to continue squinting in the dark. We heard two voices nearby, also struggling to find the right trail, 'This is where we die," the voices half-joked in German accents. Now it was snowing. We could see nothing.
Soon two more headlamps caught us- we knew the couple from last year's Irontrail! They hiked this section earlier in the week, and told us that we had to descend, then climb another 350m before reaching the Weisshorn. We joined them in a slow but steady march up to the Weisshorn, an insignificant train of headlamps on the side of the mountain. Finally, 2653M, the Weisshorn. I thought for sure there was a checkpoint here and wasted some time trying to find it before accepting the unimportance of reaching the summit, and switching gears to descend to Arosa. It was a slow, deliberate jog to make our way down, but soon we reached town, and took a brief pause for fuel. Almost 14 hours behind us - the total time I had anticipated running, and still 20 more kilometers waiting for us in the dark.
Davos: Final push for the finish
We set out from Arosa to spend some hours on narrow wooded trail, cross a few bridges, and watch the sky clear to bright stars and a large moon silhouetting the trees and peaks above us. We watched the outline of Strelapass far in the distance. We were alone for a long time. Suddenly a group of ghostly-white horses rose from a field and ran beside us in the dark. Side-by-side in the night, we could see their glowing eyes and heard all of our feet pounding together around a curve. It was a moment of freedom and wildness and magic. A meteor streaked across the sky as we traversed a moon-lit fantasy land.
Our bodies were still running. We gained on headlamps ahead of us, but when the terrain demanded that we hike, we found ourselves passed during the final steep climb to Strelapass. We did our best to keep close, but this couple (we hadn't encountered them before) could hike. They were a good incentive to keep moving even when I didn't want to climb anymore. Eventually we made the pass- gave our numbers at the check-point and saw the marker for the final 5 km. It's all downhill from here. The footing is a bit tricky, especially now that our legs have more than 80 kilometers on them, so Derek waves me on to enjoy my favorite thing- bounding down to the finish.
I am nearly crazed with excitement, a caged animal set free. I am surprised to have life and spring left in my legs especially after feeling like I couldn't take another step on the ascent to Strelapass. I feel like I could run forever, now that I finally have the chance to run. I am happy and fast. I pass headlamps, more headlamps, no less than half a dozen, exchanging encouragement and congratulations that we have nearly made it. I am flying as I careen switchback after switchback dropping into town. I don't want to stop when I cross the finish. I want to keep running into the sunrise. It is 4:40am.
I return the gps tracker, accept my finisher t-shirt, and greet Derek with a hug as he crosses the finish line. We drink hot tea and make awkward conversation- our minds don't function as well as our legs at this moment. My feet are caked with mud inside my socks, and have been for the past 17 hours. We start to get cold and make our way to the bag-drop for hot showers, dry clothes, and a few hours attempt at sleep.
Later that morning, we dragged our tired bodies off the floor and dressed for the day. While I was brushing my teeth, another running couple tipped-off Derek that we should check the results. We made our way back to the finish line (and would-you-believe-it?), I finished third for women.
We chatted with the other finishers, went to a cafe for coffee and a huge plate of vegetables, walked around town, and took advantage of the post-race leg massages - wow! not going to pass these up anymore. In the evening we attended the awards presentation, and for the first time ever, I stood on the podium. (It felt pretty darn good).
I learned a lot from this challenge, but after an (ultra)marathon of typing, I'll save all that for another day.
Thank you, Swiss IronTrail, Mammut, and the many kind volunteers who lost more sleep than we did this weekend. Thanks and congratulations to my partner, Derek, for running a great race, pushing his limits, and enjoying another journey!
Kim: 18:09.47, #3 women, #26 overall ¦ Savognin 3:35.46 3. ¦ Lenzerheide 4:55.50 8. ¦ Arosa 5:21.42 4. ¦ Davos 4:16.28 3.
Derek: 18:12.44, #24 men, #27 overall ¦ Savognin 3:50.43 42. ¦ Lenzerheide 4:40.52 40. ¦ Arosa 5:21.42 24. ¦ Davos 4:19.25 25.