About a week ago my friend and co-editor of Dromeus, wrote a blog on why he doesn’t like running marathons. In his article he hits on several good points and his argument is easy to follow, but in my opinion it misses a great deal of the reasons of why we run at all. This article is meant to be both a retort to his article and a race review of the Eiger Ultra Trail at the same time.
After having our gear checked on Friday evening we were given our start numbers. The typical pasta party was already on the way, though I find bowls of pasta to do little for setting one up right for a long endurance run. At 8pm there was a briefing by the race organisers for everyone partaking in the 101 KM +/- 6700M ultra run the next morning. Being well informed is the key to a successful race, and the organizers in Grindelwald know this. Heading to bed at 10pm, I had a hard time falling asleep due in part to the usual nervousness I have before such an event and also the rather loud Americans (or Canadians) outside the hotel. Getting perhaps three and a half hours sleep at best it was time to wake up, eat something and get to the starting line.
As I arrived in the hotel restaurant, whose staff were nice enough to prepare a runner’s buffet starting at 3am, I was told that I needed to hand in my spare clothes bag by 4, which as I checked my watch it was. I quickly hurried to the start to give up my stuff only to see others still coming in with their gear to hand in for the halfway mark. I had made the decision this year to put in a fresh change of clothes and a separate pair of shoes.
With all of the morning hectic, breakfast did not happen, but I was sure that I would be able to eat en route. My running partner, AnneMarie, had also brought a banana along for me. At 4:30 under the indigo sky, with the Wetterberg looking upon us 500 runners set off on one of the most difficult foot races in Switzerland. A quarter would be DNFs, I among them. The weather was perfect, reminiscent of last year. The forecast similar, sunny with a high chance of thunderstorms in the evening. We were off, at first the trail was quite crowded with bottle necks over narrow bridges not helping the situation. While this speaks for Mark’s point about the crowds, in a 100 KM race, losing 5 minutes at the start will do little to harm your overall time. Crowds add to the sense of community which belongs to marathon running, they enforce the idea of “We’re in this together.”
The scenery going up towards Grosse Scheidegg was breathtaking. In the nape of the Grosse Scheidegg shawled by an evergreen forest, hundreds of runners created a crawling glowworm with their headlamps crawling upwards. This is togetherness. The race organizers of the Eiger Ultra Trail know the importance of this and even have a couples category. Extreme races, and with its 212 KM equivalent due to elevation the Eiger Ultra Trail is definitely an extreme race, only the very best can do it alone. The African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together.” holds true for races like the Eiger. The fastest runner completed the course in just under 12 hours. The final two runners came in just under 27 hours. Done is done though. Running isn’t just about time, it’s about doing the distance and pushing yourself.
Looking past to the runners on their left the remnants of a once thick and power tongue of ice that used to lick the intimate recesses between the Wetthorn and the Grosse Scheidegg could still be seen. Everytime I run in the mountains a pang of pain hits me when I see how far the ice has receded in just the past few decades, and I think to myself each time that we as a society need to do better. We need to take better care of the planet. The Eiger Trail organizers also know this and made cups mandatory for each runner, eliminating the tens of thousands of paper and plastic cups that would normally be wasted during such a race.
The route of the Eiger Ultra Trail from Grosse Scheidegg to First then down to Bort and back up to First before heading to the Faulhorn, the highest point in the race, then down and over to Schynige Platte before steeply descending to Burglauenen is a tough race… And that is only the first half. The paths are high alpine and not well groomed, though easy to follow. You need to watch every step and concentrate. Refreshment stations are located between every 6 to 9 kilometres, which with the heat is necessary. Could you self-sustain such a long race on your own, of course you could, but your pack would weigh a tonne. Are these organised races for those too lazy to research their own routes, pack their own gear and go at it on their own? I don’t think so. While it does make it easier to go and run, having a sense of security — that there is support — and knowing that the paths have been controlled adds to the enjoyability. A trail runner needs to be able to stop every once in a while and simply take in the scenery — both the simple beauty of his surroundings but also, and this is especially true in the mountains the feeling of being small. The other factor at play is that many race organizers seek to show off their region and to share their enthusiasm and pride of the area. In a way a race is often like a guided tour without the tour guide at your side. These are all very positive elements at play in the Eiger Ultra Trail and other running events like the Matterhorn Ultraks.
Of course there are also the fans, those people who come out and cheer you on as you pass through their villages, and then there are the diehard fans that hike out with a supplies for trail runners or to just cheer them on. One such person was Guido Huwiler, who organized the Rütli Ultra 100 Mile run in Switzerland, and who came up Schynige Platte and made his way to Faulhorn cheering us on. I saw him at about kilometre 34. These people often don’t know how much their support means to someone coming to the end of their physical and mental capacities.
On the way up to Faulhorn, a brutal climb that just seems to go on and on, a Frenchman fell right in front of me with a cramp in his calf muscles. Quickly three of us stopped and helped him to stretch it out offering massages so that he could continue. I know what this feeling of pain is like and I have been helped by total strangers before as well. There is a very human and caring element in an organised race. While there are a few that will elbow and push their way through, the majority definitely understand that respecting and helping fellow runners is an unspoken obligation.
On the way down from Schynige Platte a Dutchman ahead of me was moving quite slow and not quite in a straight line anymore. In an opening in the forest he weaved out and bent over, I could tell something wasn’t right and asked him how he was. He said, “Not good.” And looking at him, I could tell he needed food, so I offered him my last energy bar, knowing that Burglauenen was just a few kilometres away and I could get more supplies there. He accepted my offer, ate it and got some energy back, at least enough to make it to the next station, his hopes of doing the E51 in under 10 hours were unfortunately dashed. The Eiger Ultra Trail, despite the elevation profile is easy to underestimate. The most important thing though was finishing.
I ran into Burglauenen with AnneMarie and felt relieved. I was drenched with sweat and hungry, but I was positive that a change of clothes and some food would give me more energy. I dried myself off and ate, and looking at my feet and seeing that they were in great condition and they felt fine too, I decided to stick with the Dynafits. The change in clothes, food and music had me feeling great about the next 48 kilometers. After a brief pause and chatting to a few runners who were switching from the E101 to the E51, we took off. Both of us felt that we had eaten too much so we were pacing ourselves. The march up to Wengen is steep and on narrow paths. The sky looked friendly, but there was still a chance for rain, so we didn’t diddle-daddle and powered up.
The Importance of Electrolytes
Near the top I started to get dizzy, my vision became a little blurry and I had a sharp stabbing pain behind my left eye. By the time we hit the road, I was pale and AnneMarie made sure I got some electrolytes into my system. A few minutes later, I was able to jog and we headed for Wengen. Having a friend there to help makes a huge difference. AnneMarie motivated me to push through. Arriving in Wengen I had some more electrolytes, a little food and filled my water. I was ready to tackle Männlichen. We set off together and for the first 15 minutes I was able to keep pace with AnneMarie. And then the dizziness returned. I knew that the ascent was steep and running into the night meant there was little to no room for carelessness. Already having had an ankle injury this year I did not want anything bad to happen, so I made the call to turn back to Wengen. By this time AnneMarie was a few people and about two switchbacks ahead of me so I texted her to wish her luck and let her know I was stopping. She quickly called and told me I could do it, but my mind was now made up. Perhaps with more mental toughness I would have pushed through, but there are calls in life that we all must make. I thought I made the right one. (Am I still sure about it, no. But it’s been done.)
On my way down to Wengen every runner I passed asked me if I was alright, offered me electrolytes and tried to get me to continue with them. The support on a marathon or a race is huge and many people finish on that support. However, I also knew that going into night with time limits I did not want to slow anyone down. We were holding down the end of the pack after all. The Datasport team in Wengen were great, made sure I was taken out of the race correctly and then helped me get back to Grindelwald.
AnneMarie goes for it
Throughout the night I received texts from AnneMarie letting me know where she was. At one point after Männlichen she and a group that had formed got lost, and the race organizer went and helped them get back on course. The markings could have been better for night running, and I’m positive the organizers will ensure this gets improved next year. They had already taken the feedback for an extra water station between Faulhorn and Schynige Platte from last year. Course organizers are not infallible, but good ones listen and adjust courses to make sure runners have a good chance at finishing the race. This case too goes to show that while a great deal of work is taken away from a runner when signing up for an organized race, they still need to be prepared and aware of their surroundings and fitness.
Harder than the CCC and UTMB? Supposedly
After I got back to Grindelwald, I of course showered and got into something warm and dry. Looking for food in town was next to impossible at 10pm, but fortunately I found an Italian restaurant near the finish. Sitting outside I started talking with a group from England. One man had run the E51 in just under 10 hours, the other guy had signed up for the E101, but made the judgement call to switch races at Burglauenen and finish the E51 having done closer to 60 KM. They were waiting on a friend completing the E101. Over dinner and cheering on every runner coming past we talked about running and the race. The challenge of the course and a shared suffering as joyous as it was brought us together. These guys insisted that having done the CCC and UTMB that the Eiger Ultra Trail course is harder.
Shortly before 6am I got a message from AnneMarie saying that she was at Pfingstegg. I got my clothes on, grabbed my camera and headed out to the finish. At 6:27 she came over the last hill turned and headed for the finish line. Two minutes later she crossed, having broken away from group she had run with all night. The thought of finishing in under 26 hours was a motivator she said, and from last year, I know the thought of just finishing can also spur on some energy. And of course the cheers of even just a few people can help carry you to the finish.
Organized runs, be they short 10KM runs, half and full marathons or ultra mountain runs bring groups of people together and remind us that we are all part of one human race and that we must travel the road together, for collectively we’ll get further than we would alone. While the fastest have the glory of their time, the slower ones have the memories of the moments on the trail – the sunrise at Grosse Scheidegg, the vistas from Faulhorn, sunset from Männlichen, the moon from the Eiger Trail and a second sunrise from Pfingstegg. On any run, I believe you need to enjoy it for yourself, take in the moment, be in awe of your body — whatever size, shape or age it may be — and remember that no matter how bad the news may make us out to be people are good. My last thought is this. I’m not bored of running marathons or organized races — I love the community of the running world and though I’ve run many races numerous times, there is always something new waiting for me. Like finding a great restaurant that continually surprises you. Having run the majority of the Eiger Ultra Trail twice now, I can say with almost 100% certainty that I’ll be back next year to finish it.
Date: 19.07.2014 – 20.07.2014
Weather: sunny with a short rain shower
Shoes: Dynafit Feline Superlight