Sunday, August 9, 2015

Zugspitz Trailrun Challenge Race Report

We had a nice week hanging around Zugspitze mountain in Germany/Austria with TPjr recently. Let's start with our video featuring Zugspitze and Alpspix on a sunny day as well as Partnach and Höllental gorges.

Zugspitz Vertical Challenge is a 10-mile +2127m trailrun from Ehrwald (in Austria) to the summit of Zugspitze (2962m). I've always dreamed of running all the way to the Top of Germany. Now I was finally going to make it come true. Or so I thought anyway.

Map of my Suunto Move of Zugspitz Vertical Challenge.
Vertical Challenge is part of a big Zugspitz Trailrun Challenge event. TPjr came with me to run the 1.8km Kids Lauf on Friday afternoon. It was a city-trail through the bushes, lawns and stairs of Michael Ende (author of The Neverending Story) park in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. There was also a 3K City Run on Friday evening, but we too the train back to our hotel in Ehrwald before that.

On Friday evening we received a text message announcing that Marathon had been moved from 6am to 8am and Vertical Challenge from 9am to 10:30am. These two races shared the same course in the last 10K. What the text message failed to mention was that both races would be shortened by about 1km. Their finish would be at Sonnalpin (2576m) instead of Zugspitze (2962m).
Vertical Challenge map.
The organizers are risk-averse, because seven years ago two competitors died on this course in a similar race. The weather had turned really bad then in that July 2008 race with lots of snow. This year there wasn't much snow and both the weather and the forecast for Saturday were excellent. Unfortunately the organizers had already made their decisions based on an earlier forecast indicating thunderstorms.

Vertical Challenge profile.
Saturday morning dawned clear and sunny. It was frustrating to wait for the delayed start and watch the temperatures rise. Before the start there was a thorough gear check - we actually saw a competitor sprinting to get a missing item from his hotel. I've never carried so much stuff for a 15K run, but I passed the check. By the time we got on our way at the Church Square in Ehrwald (990m), it was already too warm for me. I decided to run at an easy pace to avoid overheating.

Competitors getting ready for their start.

The course was an easy gradual road to Alm cable car station (2K, 1105m). From there it was a wide uphill trail to the other end of the cable car at Ehrwalder Alm (4.8K, 1502m). From there it it was a short climb through the woods to the first aid station at Pestkapelle (5.8K, 1617m). They had watermelon slices so I stopped to eat for a couple of mins. It was hot and sunny so I filled my water bottles as well.

Right after the start.

I enjoyed the steep trail to Feldernjöchl (9.3K, 2045m) and welcomed the cooling effect of clouds above 2000 meters. Then followed the only technical section around Gatterl (9.7K, 2024m). They even had signs indicating the start and end of the 'dangerous' part. In a good weather like this there was nothing to worry about. I hardly noticed it, but we crossed the border between Austria and Germany here.

Last corner before the finish.
Soon I got Knorrhütte (11.8K, 2051m) mountain hut in my sights. The second aid station had been moved down here from Sonnalpin where the finish was now located. I quickly drank something, refilled my bottles and continued right away. I felt strong and increased my tempo for the last 3K. There were some harmless snow fields scattered here and there.

TPjr at the finish line.

It was getting increasingly foggy and cloudy, but these were definitely not thunderstorm clouds. I sprinted to Sonnallpin (14.7K, 2576m) finish line arch with an official time of 2:48:01 - good for 7th place in my age group M50. A girl hang a medal around my neck and a guy asked if I was ok. I said I felt fine and then made a mistake by asking where the trail to Zugspitze summit was.

TPjr right after the finish.
This opened up a huge can of worms instantly for me. This guy got crazy panicked and told me I would be disqualified. I laughed at first thinking he might be kidding. I was getting hungry so I headed towards Finishers' hut where they had food and shelter for us, but the dude shouted I wasn't allowed there and dragged me to the other direction by force. For some reason I failed to understand he kept on demanding that I give away my race bib with the chip right there at the finish line. I couldn't comply with his request because the bib was my ticket for the cable car and bus and the chip had to be returned in the Finishers' hut to get back my 50€ deposit.

Beautiful day in Ehrwald before the start.
Finally I was able to break free from this DQ-dude only to be stopped by a lady official at the Finisher's hut asking what the hassle was about. The guy had broadcasted my number on his radiophone. Somehow my innocent question about the whereabouts of the final part of the race course had turned me from a finisher to fugitive in minutes. I explained how the guy had gotten pissed of for my question and all I wanted was to get inside to eat, dress up and return my chip. She allowed me to do that.

I used Mountain King Trail Blazer poles.
The food was good and I got my 50€ deposit back. I was putting on my rain gear when the DQ-dude showed up again and gave me another lecture on how I would be disqualified and so on. I smiled, thanked him profusely and told him I wouldn't do anything stupid. Finally he left me alone, although I was sure he would be watching my every move.

Getting through the gear check was perhaps the greatest challenge.
After all this I was really determined to finish what I came here for: to climb all the way to the top. In fact I had seen an inspiring video (you can watch it below) by Gabriel Seiberth, who had done in previous year exactly what I was planning to do now.

I spotted the trailhead to the summit easily because there were lots of hikers going up Zugspitze. To feign a retriet I walked casually in the opposite direction. I went past Gletscherbahn station and entered the round steel and glass Gletschergarten restaurant. After a while I got out the other side. The thick fog formed a natural smoke screen for me. I wasn't followed, so I rapidly sneaked behind the buildings and descended a steep slope to the summit trail.

Calm before the start.
I chatted with a hiker coming down in shorts and a t-shirt and he assured me the trail was in good condition and the weather was quite ok. Low visibility would not be a hindrance as this was a Via Ferrata route with a steel cable bolted to the wall all the way up. Usually special Via Ferrata gear like a harness with a double-karabiner lanyard and a helmet would be essential, but most folks here used just the good old gloves. As far as Via Ferratas go, this would be one of the easiest out there. At least I hoped so as the rain started.

A friendly sign welcomes tourists at the top of Via Ferrata.
The cable passage started at 2680m altitude. I folded up my poles and pu them in my backpack, for they would be useless and on the way from now on. I passed several hikers and a couple of guys with proper VF-gear. Visibility was very low so there was nothing to do but climb on. The rain wasn't too bad, except a short hailstorm that luckily died quickly. I saw a memorial for a fallen climber. Then there was a girl and I told her we must be close to the summit, although we couldn't see anything through the fog. We walked just a little further up and stumbled upon stairs to almost empty Zugspitze restaurant/panorama platform. I made it!

A little rain and hail, nothing to worry about in a Gore-Tex jacket.
According to my Suunto Ambit, the whole thing from Ehrwald (990m) to Zugspitze summit (2962m) was 17.2km (+2146 meters climbing) in 4 hours 11 minutes. I'm happy with the result.

A memorial by the mountainside.
I was able to get a free Zugspitzbahn cable car ride down to Ehrwald by showing my bib. There weren't any buses in sight to the town at the moment, so I ran the easy 3.5km downhill to our hotel.

I made it!

In hindsight I should have climbed the whole thing on my own, starting early in the morning when it was still cool in Ehrwald. I could have easily reached the top before it got really cloudy. Maybe I'll do that together with TPjr in the future. In any case, this was good training for Swiss Irontrail T201 in mid-August.

Double-bling time!

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