Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Swiss Alpine Irontrail T127

Swiss Alpine Irontrail T127 started at midnight on Friday in Samedan with a total lunar eclipse. I chatted with my Swiss ultrarunning friend Felix, who kindly updated me with recent course changes. Blood moon illuminated our first challenge to conquer Piz Nair above 3000 meters of altitude. In perfect weather I marvelled at huge Mars on the clear night sky.

Saturday sunrise above Silvaplana was spectacular as we climbed with poles the endless slopes of Surlej. Last year I ran T214 in the opposite direction here. When I was young I ran up Piz Corvatsch 3303m on a sunny day like this. At sundown the temperature dropped below freezing point and the slopes got too icy for a safe return to St Moritz. I missed the last cable car down and spent the night on the station bathroom floor. Engadin is one of my favorite places for trailrunning in the world.

On the long trail down to Pontresina I chatted with Nick, a knee surgeon from UK. He was afraid  that he might have to quit as his legs were killing him. He told me to go on ahead alone. Reluctantly I agreed after persuading him to keep fighting until the end. After the race I checked the results and found out Nick had indeed finished. Those Brit lads can be incredibly tough. 'We shall never surrender!', as Churchill put it.

On the way up to Muottas Muragl it was hot and humid. I refreshed myself frequently in mountain streams, wondering if the forecast risk of thunderstorms would be realized soon. After 61km I arrived in Samedan, our starting place where we were allowed to access our drop bags with personal supplies. The rain had already started, so I put on my long-sleeve shirt and Goretex jacket. I packed rain pants and warm gloves in my UD vest as well. The second half of the race would probably be considerably colder and demanding than the pleasantly balmy first one.

I have descended from Fuorcla Crap Alv to Palüd Marscha before, but now I was ascending this steep trail for the first time. It will make you sweat a little, but the wonderful views up there are worth every step. It kept on raining, so I ran carefully to avoid falling down on the slippery terrain. In Palüd Marscha the friendly volunteers had told me it would be only 6K to the next aid station Naz. In reality it was a solid 10K and those were some damn long kilometers in the rain. I wouldn't have made it without the various energy gels and bars stocked in my vest. You have to stop whining and be able to take care of yourself in all circumstances.

Naz is always the most cheerful aid station you can imagine, although it usually seems to rain every time I pay them a visit. They welcome each runner with the delightful sound of enormous cow bells, but I just yelled 'Food!' at them. Only the usual stuff like bananas, cakes and drinks were available. 'It's only 5K to Bergün, where they serve pasta', a helpful lady said, but I wouldn't take any of it. 'I need pasta and coffee now, or I may not make it', I demanded. 'Alright, step inside the house and I cook for you, if you are not in a hurry', she suggested. The rules allow personal support only near the aid stations, but the house was right there, so I couldn't say no. She quickly improvised a simple meal. 'Please don't tell Race Director Andrea Tuffli about this - I don't want him to flip out on us', I quipped while stuffing my face with delicious food and coffee. 'He is my father', she laughed.

The rain stopped in the evening in Bergün, the lowest point on the course. I stopped there only briefly. The sky cleared for another full moon night. I put the lamp on my head and started the steep road up at 9pm on Saturday. As we approached Chant, the trail got increasingly narrow, muddy and technical. In the dark it was difficult to even walk. I realized that finishing this race would take a lot more than expected. I wasn't going to give up, but I definitely had to dig deep to keep going.

I saw the aid station lights of Chant from a mile away, but reaching it took a long time. Surprisingly, I was mobbed by drunk teenagers who were celebrating like it was 1999. The aid station attendants were adults, but they didn't seem to care. A teen boy slapped on my back in a semi-friendly way, obviously finding something about me funny as he was laughing and talking in Swiss dialect which I don't understand, then suddenly hugged a girl so hard they both fell down on the ground screaming. Taking advantage of this brief opportunity to escape, I took off immediately eager to climb the familiar steep trail up to Kesch Hut.

A Swiss lady identified as Renate by her bib started climbing at the same time. I had already put my jacket, hat and gloves on as the temperature had dropped a lot lower and there was a nasty freezing cold wind now too. Her headlamp disappeared quickly into the distance as she seemed to be an incredible climber. After warming up, I sped up and caught her putting on warm clothes on a windy ridge. She asked me to help her to get her jacket on. We saw the lights of the mountain hut high above and powerwalked all the way up together holding what I'd call a crazy suicidal pace. It was probably business as usual for her. I have done this climb many times in much shorter races, but never nowhere near as fast. I found it strange that it felt so easy. I wasn't breathing hard or anything like that. Anyway, I fist-bumped Renate saying 'Good job!'.

It was 2am, but the cut-off was 5am. I felt suddenly very sleepy, so I figured maybe I could sleep for an hour or so in the cozy hut. However the men there told me to beat it, as they hadn't prepared any sleeping facilities for us competitors. Without further ado I continued to push to the last climb to Sertig Pass. I have done it before in daytime, but with sleepy eyes in cold windy night I found it more challenging. My headlamp battery started dying on me, but I kept going, getting slightly lost once in a while. I picked up a familiar glove from the ground and sure enough, a little further up the rocky pass there was Renate looking for it. There was an aid station with lights on on the top, so it was impossible to get lost, although I'm still not sure where the actual trail is. All I could see was rocks, not much unlike in NUTS Ylläs Pallas 134km two weeks earlier. It was worth all the trouble getting there, as this aid station was the only one with seats around a big fire. It was nice to warm up the old bones while enjoying risotto and coke! The view illuminated by the full moon and stars was magnificent.

Descending Sertig Pass with a weak lamp was somewhat exciting, but the rest of the way to the finish was straightforward. I stopped briefly at Sertig Dörfli to undress a bit as the sun was up again and fill up my two half-liter front bottles. Interestingly, I noticed a blind T88 runner with his guide there. I couldn't believe he had managed to run all the way from St Moritz. I don't have the best eye sight, but I felt grateful to be able to see at least something. I made a mental note to myself to stop making excuses and get my ass in Davos asap.

Just before 8am on Sunday I sprinted to the finish line in Davos Sports Centre. There were very few people there. Just a guy who gave a bone-crushing handshake, finisher bling and t-shirt. The lady announcer who interviewed me last year on live cable tv was there to greet me as well. All alcohol-free Erdinger beer that I mainly thought about for the last 10K was gone. It didn't really matter, I was super happy as I headed for Hard Rock Hotel breakfast just on time. When the breakfast closed I continued eating by ordering a vegan burger, sweet potato fries and alcoholfree Schneider Weisse for lunch.

I found Swiss Alpine Irontrail T127 half wicked and half sick - just the perfect combination! I loved every meter of it and would recommend this race to anyone crazy enough to try it. This is the only race I know of that gives free train return tickets to Zürich airport (or wherever you want in the country). Trains are expensive in Switzerland, so this is a big deal. On my way back home on Monday the train conductor cracked me up by saying 'Great to see you are still alive!'