3 Years in the Making
For three years I’ve wanted to take on the Mountainman. The course is somewhere I’d never run before, and the name of the course just spoke to me. So this year when I finally decided to sign up I was both excited and nervous. Going through a season with two DNFs had shaken my confidence. I was asked if I wouldn’t rather just run the marathon distance, it too is quite challenging and I’d most likely be sure to finish. That question caused me to think about it, but I knew it wasn’t really an option for me: I had to do the full Mountainman – all 80km and 5000 meters of elevation gain.
Who or what do we race against at such events? I think that most runners are of the same opinion, your number one competitor is yourself. Running faster, longer, further. Trail runners freely welcome a second challenger, namely the terrain. Trail conditions, general elevation, climb and descent. It’s all part of the mix. The Mountainman promises brilliant scenery, 5000 m of elevation gain, 4674 meters of descent and 80km of running exhilaration all at an altitude of over 960 meters above sea level. The distance, for all intents and purposes circumnavigates the canton of Obwalden in Central Switzerland and ends on top of one of the country’s most famous mountains Pilatus. Shrouded in myth and mystery, from dragons the the burial mountain of Pontius Pilot, it’s a fantastic place to end a race.
With a time limit of 16.5 hours to complete the race, there is no strangling here, and racers know it. The race begins at 6:45 at the station Trüebsee above Engelberg. On a damp, cold and dark Saturday morning we took our starting positions. Racers from all of Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the UK and even America were in attendance for a race that is also counts as the Swiss Trail Running Championship. As the traditional Swiss music being played at the starting was interrupted by the organiser of the event, Florian Spichtig, everyone paid attention. He told us to make sure to use our poles correctly if we had them with us and to be very careful on the descents as many were very wet and slippery. That said, he seemed optimistic at least in word that it would be a great although muddy race. With a twinge of uncertainty in his voice he counted us down and sent us off on an 80km tour de force.
After a brief decent and stretch along a gravel road the trail quickly goes up to the Jochpass. The morning was foggy and wet, but the climb was doable. Already here the runners, spread out with the best taking the lead, the middle pack forming and those that buildup the end section. From the Jochpass the way was slippery and muddy to Tannalp. This is where I had my first and thankfully only fall of the race, which was reminiscent of falling on skis and trying to get up only to fall over again. Thankfully having a pole with me helped and despite being muddy I felt fine.
Despite snow at the Planplatten, all morning I, and surely most racers, were expecting the sun to make its grandiose appearance and shine down on us. That happened briefly at the Gibel, before I headed down to the Brünigpass. The last time I was at the Brünigpass was when I went to Hasliberg to test run Firun sleds, and I’d passed through there in 2004 when I hiked the Path of St. James. Despite being the lowest point of the race, the Brünigpass was a relief for me, because it meant that I only had about 50km to go and I felt fine. I was also still hoping for the sun to come out.
Climbing up from the Brünigpass to Turren was difficult not so much because it was steep, but because it was slippery. At points it felt like two steps forward, one step back. The other issue was that despite having trail shoes, my Dynafit Feline Ultra Lights on, I still lost traction as the wet clay gummed up on my shoes forcing me to stop occasionally to clean my shoes to regain traction. With the narrow single trail that seemed to have drop-offs into the abyss, I was very happy to have my pole with me to guarantee balance and two points of contact. The most frightful part of the race was crossing a 50 meter or so ridge that’s about half a meter wide. At the end of this stretch of the race I was soaking wet with sweat and not from the physical challenge, but from fear. The race after this scary stretch seemed to take on a new face. It got better. There was an increase in downhill running, and it got muddier. The better part is that while it was wetter and dirtier forcing runners to concentrate more, knowing that there was just a marathon left ultra runners knowing they could finish the race. The narrow single-trail paths also seemed to disappear, which took away a fear factor.
Bayou on the Mountain
From other runners I had heard that even in dry years the ascent up to the Sattelpass is a swampy adventure. This year, as one of my fellow runners from Florida said, we might as well have been running through the bayou. Fortunately from the Sattelpass to Langis we ran on dry roads. It felt great to run on road after so much technical running and really stretch your legs and feel like you were getting somewhere. At each refreshment stop I found that I was catching up with the same group of people, either they were slightly ahead of me or slightly behind, but the food stops allowed for us to regroup and continue.
Together We Are Strong
Running with people is one of the wonderful things in the ultra community. You meet new people from all over the place that have run different races and you can exchange stories. We also motivate each other even if it’s just keeping up or pushing forward. At Lütoldsmatt it started to really pour rain again. Two runners who had been ahead of me for 35km were at the stop and I just took some water and a piece of Biberli before taking on the 5.5km 900m ascent to the Pilatus Kulm. They left at the same time and for the next 4.5 kilometres we stuck together. we talked and encouraged each other. The path was nice until the last kilometre when it got muddy again, but it was an appropriate end section. About 500 meters of wet trail before the final 200 meter or so climb to the top. In the distance you cloud hear the finishers being welcomed to the finish. As I climbed the stairs and crossed the finish line though there were no announcements anymore. I had to ask if I had made it thinking that I needed to go the peak. It turns out that just before I arrived the speakers were shut off as not to disturb the guests at the hotel.
Completing the Mountainman was a major accomplishment in my trail running journey. It was a dirty and wet challenge, but the weather also kept me from overheating and losing too many electrolytes. The conditions challenged me as a runner, and the views stunned me as a human. Anyone looking for a trail running challenge in the alps, will find a brilliant challenge and exhilarating run with the Mountainman.
Photo Impressions of the Mountainman 2014