Thursday, August 15, 2013

Steep is the new flat

This is BS. The world is steep.
We have been lead to believe that the world is flat. That's bullshit. The world does not have to be flat, at least not if you are a trail runner.

Nice view to Lauterbrunnen valley, a mecca of Tolkien fans and basejumpers.

In my road marathon running and triathlon racing days, I was always looking for a flat course. "Is it flat and fast?", was always the first question when deciding where to race next.

Icy water from melting glaciers runs down the slopes of Eiger.

In those days, a PR was always the main goal. The second aim was to go under a certain time limit, like running a marathon in three hours and finishing an ironman-distance triathlon in ten hours.

Eiger Trail.

Those days are long gone. Times have changed completely. A hundred-km trail run is the new marathon. Steep is the new flat.

Melting snow at Eiger Trail.

The first thing I check out now is le dénivelé positif  or D+, the cumulative elevation gain of the race course. A race has to be relatively steep and high to be considered worth attempting. Time doesn't really matter anymore, except the cutoff time(s) set by the organizer.

Eiger is steep.

Fortunately we in Europe have plenty of fantastic mountain trails. The Alps are my favorite destination, as they are only about a 2.5-hour flight away from my home. And they certainly seem steep enough. Even the prices are pretty steep there!

The dark North Face of Eiger.

I thought it would be interesting to determine the steepest ultra trail running courses in the world. I ranked them by elevation gain/course length ratio (D+/km). I had to rely on information available online, so I cannot guarantee that everything is 100% correct. Measuring mountain courses is not easy and every measurement produces a different result.

Eiger Trail and the shadow of Eiger.

Starting from 50-milers (~80.5km), Top 9:
  1. 80km du Mont Blanc, 6040m / 80km = 75.5 (I finished this in 2013.)
  2. Sardona Ultra Trail, 6100m / 82km = 74.4
  3. Ultra Trail du Barlatay, 5849m / 81.9km = 71.4
  4. Trans D'Havet, 5000m / 80km = 68.8 (Euro SkyRunning Champs 2013)
  5. Grand Raid des Pyrenees - GRP80 Grand Trail, 5036m / 79.5km = 63.3
  6. The Mountainman Ultra, 5000m / 80.3km = 62.3 (Failed a cutoff there in 2011.)
  7. Andorra Ultra Trail - Celestrail, 5000m / 83km = 60.2
  8. Gran Trail Courmayeur 80km, 4500m / 80km = 56.3
  9. Transvulcania, 4415m / 83.3km = 53.0

This part of Eiger Trail is good for watching climbers on the wall.

Moving up to the popular ~100 km category, Top 10:
  1. Andorra Ultra Trail - Ultra Mitic, 9700m / 112 km = 86.6
  2. La Montagn' Hard, 8800m / 107km = 82.2
  3. Ultra Trail di Corsica, 7600m / 105km = 72.4
  4. Ultra Cavalls Del Vent, 6668m / 100km = 66.7
  5. Eiger Ultra Trail, 6700m / 101km = 66.3 (DNF for me there in 2013.)
  6. Verdon Canyon Challenge, 6330m / 100km = 63.3
  7. Trail Verbier St-Bernard, 7015m / 110km = 63.2 (Finished this in 2012.)
  8. UTAT, 6500m / 105km = 61.9
  9. TDS, 7250m / 119km = 60.9
  10. CCC, 5950m / 100km = 59.5 (Finished this in 2012 but it was 88km.)
[Edit: Trail Verbier St-Bernard will feature a new course in 2014 - this new X-Alpine race will be 8600m/111km = 77.5.]
Eiger Trail to Eigergletscher Station.

100-milers (~161km), Top 6:
  1. Andorra Ultra Trail - Ronda dels Cims, 13000m / 170km = 76.5
  2. Hardrock 100, 10361m / 161km = 64.4
  3. Grand Raid Reunion - La Diagonale des Fous, 10845m / 170km = 63.8
  4. Grand Raid des Pyrenees - GRP160 Ultra, 9766m / 161km = 60.7
  5. UT4M, 10115m / 167.8km = 60.3
  6. UTMB, 9600m / 168km = 57.1

Cairns along Eiger Trail.

In the 200-mile (~322km) category there is:
  1. Tor des Geants, 24,000m / 330km = 72.7
[Edit: PTL 2014 will be 28,272m / 307.1 km = 92.1, thus making it number one in steepness, although still 'only' a 190-mile team event! Anyway this legendary UTMB event will now earn a spot on most bucket lists.]

Snow in late July at Eiger Trail.

There is also a couple more races well worth mentioning, although their length doesn't fit my categories: Trail Ticino, 9778m / 136.7km = 71.5 and Ice Trail Tarentaise, 5000m / 65km = 76.9!

Too steep for me.

Stage or team races were not considered, as I'm not too interested in them at the moment. Also fell/hill running races were dropped. Although they may provide a lot of cumulative elevation gain, I want to mainly focus on races that climb to above 2000 meters of altitude. For that reason races like Transgrancanaria, UTMF and TNF Hong Kong 100km were omitted from my lists. Also ultras well under 80km were not listed, although a 50K might be ideal for beginners or as a training run.

Eigergletscher cable car Station.

As you can see, I was able to find only four races with D+/km over 75. I have finished only one of those: 80km du Mont Blanc. It's most likely world's steepest 50-miler. These races are super tough!

Eigergletscher train station - the train goes up to Jungfraujoch 3454m.

By the way, all the photos on this page are from Eiger Ultra Trail 101km 2013 course, which is both steep and beautiful. Highly recommended.

I'm a risk-averse fair-weather runner. I'm also alive.

A final thought: keep it safe! Steep courses are fun to run, but it's not worth risking a fall. Kilian Jornet said recently while running up and down Matterhorn: "It's safe, but if you make a mistake you die." Stay away from dangerous stuff like that. It's possible to enjoy trail running without being a lunatic.

Once I tried to run a trail called Camino del Rey in Andalusia, Spain. I didn't have any gear or guide. I soon noticed it was dangerous and turned back. Many adventure-seekers have fallen into El Chorro gorge. I guess you could say I'm a risk-averse fair-weather runner. I'm also alive.


wcooperjr said...

Great post TP. I need to get back to europe for some more extreme course work. Outside of hard rock, nothing in the US made your list. Maybe I need to create my own race here? Check out my post Vivian Speaks...5,500 feet (1,676 meter) climb in 9 miles (14 k) at an elevation of 3,500 meters. That would be a nice course!

Trail Plodder said...

Yes I saw your Vivian post and it looks like you need to create your own race there. I'd love to run it, as long as the sun is shining.

I checked all the races in the States and only Hardrock made my list, because all the others are flat.

Kilian Jornet put it well when he was running towards his WS100 2011 victory and someone shouted "Will you come back next year?" Kilian shot back right away: "Nah it's too flat!"

You got to run Eiger Trail with me next July, the registration will open in late Sep. It's only 101K -peanuts for a 100-mile-nut like you - but so is UTMB if it rains again and they cut it :)

Peppe said...

Great reading, like always. I totally agree with your requisites for choosing a race, I prefer a long and steep race to a 10 K or big city marathon. I ran the Eiger 50k and it´s not too shabby either, a 62 according to the formula. Now I´m waiting for the KV in Fully, which has an index of 512!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Peppe! Congrats on Eiger 50k, you probably passed me somewhere along the way. Good luck for KV in Fully!