Monday, September 17, 2018

Swiss Peaks Trail 360: Glacier to Lake

Swiss Peaks Trail 360km. The longest ultra trail in Europe. From Europe's largest glaciers to Lake Geneva, cutting through the length of Valais, the Swiss canton blessed with 300 sunny days in a year and 45 peaks over 4000m. "Alpine course, very demanding and requiring excellent mountain skills".

When I read about this epic new event about a year ago, I knew right away that I'd have to do it. With 25500 meters of elevation gain, it would be by far the most challenging mountain running race I've ever attempted.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it in his recent book 'Skin in the Game: "Courage is the only virtue you cannot fake." I signed in at once and felt strangely confident that I'd finish this beast in the allotted 160 hours. I just knew that I was ready for this after finishing Swiss Alpine Irontrail 214km last year.

I set up a demanding race schedule for 2018 to prepare myself: Transgrancanaria 128km, Ecotrail Oslo 80km, Mozart 104km, NUTS Ylläs Pallas 134km and Swiss Alpine Irontrail 127km. After finishing them all, I could barely wait for September 2-9. Bring it on!

When I stepped out from the train in Oberwald at 1357m the day before the start, the weather wasn't great. It was windy, foggy and rainy. I was wearing a warm winter jacket under my Goretex rain jacket, and I was still shivering while walking towards the Holiday Camp, my accommodation for the night. I attended the pasta party and went to sleep early.

There would be six lifebases along the way, about 50-60km from each other, and offering a bunch of friendly volunteers, your crew (if you had any, 1-2 people allowed, I didn't), nutrition, shelter,shower, toilets, sleeping facilities, medical care, massage, charging of electronics and personal 50L drop bag. My plan was simply to run at an even pace and reach one lifebase each day before finishing on the evening of the seventh race day, Saturday. The ultimate cut-off time to finish would be 5am on Sunday, September 9.

Magically the weather turned out really nice and sunny when the starting gun went off at 1pm on Sunday, September 2. Over 300 starters were all smiles, feeling lucky until the path narrowed and long slow queues developed. I thought it was a perfect way to keep the pace down during the first marathon with three  mountains to climb.

The most common mistake in running events is starting too fast. I used the poles all the time, as this course was going up or down without too many flat easy sections.

The night fell before Eggerhorn 2455m. My headlight showed some hail, but the intensity increased at the top, forcing me to run down at my top speed to the first lifebase in Binn (56km, 1409m). The hailing stopped down there.

It was crowded so I just grabbed some pasta and changed my socks. I lied down for a while in a dark noisy room without being able to sleep.

Soon I continued my journey towards the famous Simplon pass after filling my water bottles. It was a pleasant undulating trail with great views. I enjoyed running through the warm sunny day, although it felt quite exhausting.

On Monday evening I was able to descend the steep slippery downhill to the second lifebase Eisten (113km, 1058m) before sundown. I was well ahead of the 7am cut-off and was able to eat rice, shower and sleep a couple hours. This was one of the best lifebases in the race. Good job guys!

The uphill to Hannigalp 2122m seemed extremely steep, especially at night. I had to put the poles away and use my hands, which is a bit unusual for a running race, although it wasn't too difficult technically for anyone with some climbing experience in the mountains. Crossing a waterfall was the most fun part of it.

After a seemingly endless downhill to St Niklaus 1088m, it was time for a 1800m climb up. After dawn broke, I experienced my first hallucinations in bright daylight ever. All sorts of strange people and animals entertained me as I pushed hard to climb this hell of a rocky path to Augsbord pass 2889m. I believe Mr Paul offering a nice cup of breakfast tea at his humble hut was real, as it was listed as an aid station.

I felt awesome and climbed really well with a Spanish competitor, who kindly took a photo of me at the top. I wasted some time photographing the spectacular mountains, lakes and snowfields before descending to Bluömatt, where my hungry stomach was treated with ten heavenly boiled potatos.

Then it was a scenic climb up to Forclettaz, with a lot of tourist hikers, some of whom knew about the race and cheered me on. After some more pics, it was down to the third lifebase in Zinal - following the classic Sierre-Zinal race route.

I changed socks again, enjoyed some fruit and rice in Zinal (159km, 1669m) on Tuesday afternoon, then borrowed a sleeping bag from a nurse working at the lifebase. After a couple hours of sleep I continued up steep slalom slopes to Sorebois 2871m while the sun went down.

After crossing a long high bridge, there was a cow shelter on the way up Torrent 2899m, where friendly young vols offered me a nice home-made tabouleh with alcohol-free beer - my favorite meal in the race. I felt a little cold in the wind and asked for permission to to lie down 20 minutes with a dozen cows with loud bells inside the animal shelter, using piles of hay as my bed. I enjoyed my short nap there.

Then I stumbled over a long grassy muddy downhill to a small but very welcoming restaurant La Sage, where I was allowed to sleep a couple more hours in a cozy bed. Excellent!

Early on Wednesday Morning I climbed Col de la Meina 2691m with a great view of the fourth lifebase at the huge dam. It took many hours to get there in the heat of the sunny day though. I managed to hit my right knee on a rock, but seemed to get over it with a scare.

I arrived at the Hotel Grande Dixense (200km, 2370m) on Wednesday afternoon. Swiss Peaks 170km race would be here after 11am on Friday, so there were only 360km runners around.

We were allowed to use the hotel showers, but had no rooms. I showered and changed my shorts, shirt and socks. After eating a lot and charging my devices, I continued with a warning "take plenty of water, as they will have very little" to a strange high plateau called Grand Desert 2909m. The rock formations seemed like from Star Trek, and it was an interesting night to say the least.

In Planproz 1377m I was able to rest a couple of hours in a warm cellar. At dawn I was eager to ascend to one of my favorite mountain huts Cabane de Mille 2482m.

Then it was a long steep downhill and a little climb up to the  fifth lifebase in Champex (248km, 1462m) with 'La Macchina Italiana' Ronaldo. It started to rain and we chatted about the white UTMB aid station tents that were for some reason still there a week after Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. We ran together through the town, but no lifebase. We called Julien the race director for advice. He told us that the lifebase was in those white tents! We ran all the way back there, accumulating a few extra km.

I waited out the strongest rain showers inside the tents before continuing along the familiar Bovine route, having done both CCC and UTMB in previous years. I laughed at how easy the trail seemed now, compared to my 2012 and 2014 experience. After Bovine 1977m, I stopped for a little nap at upstairs of La Giete hut.

After descending Col de la Forclaz and Trient I crossed a deep gorge. The stone steps in the gorge were slippery, and I flew from the top step down to the ground, falling on my back. Nothing was broken, so I just shrugged, laughed and kept on going.

In Finhaut 1238m there was a private home being renovated, serving as an aid station. I slept on the living room floor for a couple of hours. The family was very nice. This would also be the start of Swiss Peaks 90km.

On Friday morning I climbed Col d'Emaney 2441m. I'm not sure how long it took, but I managed to sing through the Pink Floyd albums The Dark Side of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals. Speaking of animals, there was a farm with lots of them, including pigs, sheep, dogs and black cows.

Usually cows would give always way when I asked them politely, but there was a particularly stubborn one who wouldn't move an inch no matter how much I pleaded. When it attacked, trying to break my carbon poles or my bones even, I realized it was actually a furious black bull!

There was another dam at Lac de Salanfe and an aid station in Auberge de Salanfe. Then a scenic climb up Col de Susanfe 2498m and then rock climbing downhill via Cabane de Susanfe to the sixth and last lifebase Champery (301km, 1027m), where I was able to get a pizza.

On the last downhill my right knee started to hurt, so I showed it to a specialist at the lifebase. She applied some gel and said I'd be ok to finish as long as I'd be careful not to bang it on rocks anymore. I had a couple of blisters fixed as well.

I was well ahead of the Saturday 5am cut-off, but left quickly for the last 60km on Friday evening before sunset.

There was a warning sign about an extremely steep path, and indeed it seemed more like a Via Ferrata. There were chains hanging on vertical slippery cliffs. There were narrow paths with deep steep slopes on both sides. There were steel cables to hang on. When my foot slipped the chain swung and of course I hit my sore knee on a rock again. With sleep deprivation and darkness, it sure felt dangerous out there. But there was no turning back, no hesitation, just focus and keep on going.

Finally there was a cable car station, an aid station, and a long technical downhill to Morgins. It left me exhausted and I had to sleep about two hours at the aid station there.

Refreshed for the seventh and last race day, I hurried up Bec du Corbeau 1992m on Saturday to get photos of sunrise. It worked out well and the views were fantastic. The course was very close to France at this point. You could see Mont Blanc clearly.

There was a steep downhill to have breakfast in Chalet de Conchens and brunch in Torgon (339km, 1138m). Only 21km half-marathon to the finish! I was pretty sure now that I could do it, as there was so much time left and the weather was the best ever.

Just a little climb over Le Planelet 1654m, and I was at the last aid station in Taney (349km, 1450m). There were runners of shorter distances everywhere. I gave way to them, shouting bravo, to which they replied 'Bravo to YOU'! People were really nice and supportive.

From up there I could see Le Bouveret, but it was a long way down and I had to be careful with my knee. A Finnish woman running a shorter race kept me kindly company, although I'm sure she could have ran faster. It was nice to communicate in Finnish after a week in French-speaking Valais.

Finally at 17:45 on Saturday I crossed the finish line, after running 360km with 25,500m elev gain (it was actually probably closer to 375km + 5k detour with Roberto = 380km or 236 miles altogether with 27,500m or 90,000ft elev gain) in 148 hours and 45 minutes. I was 164th finisher of 360km. There would be 193 finishers of 360km (60%).

The town was fully booked, but race organisation drove me to La Lagune hotel, where they were able to find me a nice room in St Gingolph on the French side, just 4km away. I hitchhiked there and after sleeping 14-15 hours in seven days (2h/day on average, but fragmented), I was able to enjoy a whole night of deep sleep by the lake. I skipped the breakfast and everything. Sleeping was my number one priority,

On Sunday I took a bus to La Lagune, swam for the first time ever in Lake Geneva or Lac Leman as they call it, and had a fabulous buffet lunch before heading for the award ceremony. All 360km finishers were called on the stage to get their Swiss Peaks Trail 360 Finisher 2018 jackets. The weather was again sunny, as it so often seems to be in this region. With only one rainy day, it was a very good week.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all competitors, volunteers, organizers and people along the way - you were fantastic. Although there was some room for improvement, we have to remember that this was the 1st edition of the 360km event. It's true that the results were hard to get during the race, but in the end perhaps the only result you should worry about is that a better person emerges after the ordeal. If the food isn't like your mama used to cook for you, complaining hardly helps.

Thanks also to Ultimate Direction Finland and La Sportiva Finland for great race gear, as well as Suunto for Suunto 9 watch. I relied on UD Adventure Vest 4.0 and La Sportiva Akasha mountain running shoes for the entire journey. La Sportiva shorts and shirts were great - odor-free and no chafing.

We can do a lot more than we think we can. We should do a lot more. 200 milers are the future. Or maybe 250? (Beat Jegerlehner managed to GPS the whole thing, and his Strava shows 274.8 km with 27,224 meters of elevation gain.)

Keep on running friends, and see you on the trails!