Swiss Alps 100

I’ll open this post by saying the day wasn’t what I had expected and it was all my fault. Every run I do and event I enter I always learn something new whether that’s about my form, being better prepared or simply understanding the way to run once I’m in motion. This was an important event in my calendar as I hadn’t run a 50KM for a while and this was a true mountain immersive event. It’s worth stating there were longer distances but they’re way out of my reach.

A shakey start

As with everything about 2021 the world was learning to start again and in the travel industry the rules were constantly changing as country restrictions peaked and troughed. My flights were cancelled and re-scheduled twice with the duration shrinking from 5 days to 3. This meant I’d fly on Friday, run Saturday and return Sunday. This clearly is a first world problem I realise but the travel times weren’t conducive to arriving rested and setting off even remotely recovered. That said, isn’t it all part of the adventure?

Hello Fiesch

A 2.5-hour drive from Geneva airport soon passes by when there’s wall to wall stunning scenery for nearly the entirety of the journey. Although one thing I hadn’t expected to see while queueing in traffic was giant gnomes and even as I write this sentence it reminded me to dig out the photo. They’re not their usual size… In the town of Visp if you’re wondering.

Grabbing provisions from an Aldi supermarket along the way and only about 25 minutes from Fiesch I was all set. The lodge I’d booked was perfect for me. The location and views were spectacular.

Directly behind the hotel, just a 10-minute walk, the Fiesch train stop and cable car are there. The temperature upon arriving mid-afternoon was just under 30 degrees Celcius and the sun ripped through the sky burning my skin within minutes of being out of the car.

I headed off to the Sports Centre to get registered stopping on the way via the local town supermarket, surprisingly large, to grab water and snacks,

The town was ready for the deluge of weekend runners with a calm vibe amongst the people I saw who were never shy to acknowledge each other before we collectively embarked on our challenges. After signing in I grabbed the obligatory photo with the event backdrop brimming with excitement. I grabbed the local train back to the other end of town as it was just arriving as I left the Sports Centre. I was on it only for a few minutes but it was nice to see the views out of the window.

Back in town, I found some food, pasta, of course, with a soft drink to wash it down. With still a couple of hours before needing to go to bed, I found myself on impulse heading up the mountain on the cable car. I thought it would be good to give the legs a final stretch out after a day of flights and driving. What I hadn’t factored into my spur of the moment sight-seeing trip was the lift closed for 2 hours before returning back down the mountain at 21:30. Now, the photo you see above with me in shorts and t-shirt was the same attire I was wearing 2000m up. This wasn’t a problem as it was still warm although by 21:30 it certainly wasn’t…

Arriving back at my hotel just before 22:00 I gathered my gear ready for the following day. The race officially started at 06:30 with the race briefing and GPS tracker preparation requested for just after 06:00. My alarm set for 04:30 I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow after the day of travel and, well, last-minute sightseeing.

The alarm went off. It was dark and I was groggy. I began prepping breakfast and slowly munched away even though my stomach wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. Bearing in mind it was 04:30 local time, my body thought it was 03:30 but I persisted and eventually, I won that battle.

Leaving the hotel at 05:40 the 20-minute walk back to the Sports Centre was delightfully cool. The first glimpses of daylight were breaking over the mountains, turbulent rivers of rushing water weaved through the town and other walkers were the only signs and sounds of movement. The 50KM entrants were the lucky ones, we started in the daylight, the longer distance events had already been underway for many hours and I was in awe of their ability to just keep going.

The race briefing finished, our GPS trackers were double-checked by the support team and while we waited for the gun to go off people chatted excitedly, ran through final warm stretches and took photos. I love this picture of me above, I was grabbing a selfie (clearly) and the official photographer snapped me up.

The final seconds were counted down by ‘us’ eager runners and then we were off. Chimes and beeps of smartwatches sang out as cheers and whoops from gathered family and friends boosted us over the line and on our way. I chose to hang back and let the experienced and fitter mountain runners get ahead and into their rhythm. I had a plan of how to work through the first 8KM of climbing based on my learning from the Tenerife Blue Trail marathon in June. As it turned out I found myself in a comfortable paced group of people and we found our way up the mountain following weaving footpaths interspersed with wooden carvings and what looked to local information guides.

It was still early with the sun not long breaching the valley.

As were emerged from the hills and into the open of the lower part of the mountain I began retracing the steps I’d walked the previous evening when I departed the cable car. In my head, I was laughing at my daftness. We climbed and rounded a corner and scrambled over some large boulders and worked through rock gardens. With so much concentration on my footing, I hadn’t appreciated the other runners were beginning to stop. Looking up I realised why. This was the famous Aletsch Glacier. It was amazing. I’d never seen a glacier up this close and the atmosphere surrounding us was fantastic. There was an eerie sound too. For the next few KMs nearly all of the runners that were together stopped repeatedly to take another photo, another angle seemingly better than the last. Some of us just stood and chatted, it was quite humbling.

Passing the glacier the second aid station at Vordersee water soon came into sight. Sheep scattered as our collective feet pattered on past. At this point my supplies were good, my pacing and energy reserves all.

I set off and another runner caught me up and we started chatting and this is where it went wrong. We missed the marker a few hundred metres from the aid station and followed the walking path to the right instead of going straight on. In our defence, the run until this point had been on clearly signed walking paths. Merrily chatting we followed the path traversed trails and hills, passed waterfalls and then I saw the cable car station. The same cable car station we’d passed earlier. It then dawned on us we hadn’t seen any route markers. Immediately turning around we tracked back but soon doubted our route. A brief conversation with a hiking group revealed a tunnel was nearby that would put us back to the aid station we’d left earlier.

The tunnel, Tälligrattunnel, was a welcome relief, the sun’s rays had been on us for quite some time. The aid station was packing up and the team advised us where the path was also telling us to be aware the sweepers were closing in. A watch and distance check wasn’t great. We’d lost nearly two hours and added nearly 12KM to our distance.

Back on the trail we descended negotiating rocky and random depth makeshift steps. It was hard going and one of the poles my (new) friend was using broke. This added to our collective anxiety of the question, “Are we actually going to be able to complete this?”. We found a rhythm and forged on stopping periodically for photos and sips of water.

Out of nowhere, we stumbled upon a large house with the owner standing on the balcony looking down at us. My new friend asked for her water bottles to be refilled and as a bonus, we were generously offered alcohol-free beer. It was delicious and a much-needed distraction from the many of KMs still to get through.

There are three major viewpoints along the 50KM route. The glacier and two suspension bridges. Here’s a photo of the first bridge called the Aspi-Titter taken just after we crossed it and it’s phenomenal.

Now, if you look very closely at the far end of the bridge you may be able to see two figures. These were the sweepers. They were catching us so we upped our game. Well, tried to. The terrain from this point was mainly climbing and switchbacks. The heat was oppressive in the shade of the trees and brutal in the open. My friend pretty much hit the wall shortly after leaving the bridge so we took it steady and I (hopefully) coached her through the next couple of KMs. Finding rhythm where we could, stopping for water, feeding her re-hydration tablets and energy gels. It wasn’t too long before we summited and began our descent toward the third aid station, Niederwald. Chalets with neatly tended gardens soon came into view – think of those traditional alpine scene photos – and we passed many with an occasional local acknowledging us. Small lanes and paths made for easier traversing which soon became forest tracks. Finally, we arrived at the refuelling stop at Niederwald.

I sipped a sugary fizzy drink while standing in the shade. I was exhausted. I told my friend I was going to pull out of the run. She was keen to continue and said we should rest for a short time then continue together. Realistically, I didn’t think it was safe for me and stood by my decision not to continue with the run.

For the first time that day, I sat down revelling in the respite of the shade. Another runner was already doing the same although it was an injury that had gotten the better of him. Reviewing my watch’s tracking I’d covered 38KM and by my reckoning, I had a further 23KM to complete the course. Not forgetting the sweepers weren’t too far behind either. The heat had begun to overwhelm me and I considered it would be foolish to carry on only to hit my limits later along the course. But not just foolish for me it would have been completely inconsiderate for the people who’d need to recovery me. I’d never run more than 52KM before so embarking on just over 60KM plus the final ascent of a few hundred metres to Chäserstatt verged on a ludicrous decision.

I gave all the provisions I had to my friend as I was somewhat concerned she didn’t really bring enough with her. Off she went. Less than 10 minutes later the sweepers arrived. Two very fit guys carrying bags of trail markers and ribbons. It was official, I was now out of the race.

Soon after the sweepers left the aid station was packed down and I managed to get a lift back into town. Walking back from the Sports Centre to my accommodation runners passed nearby at times with only a few hundred metres of completing their journey. I waved and cheered noticing that some were from the 100KM cohort, I couldn’t imagine how tired they must have felt.

After showering I sat on my balcony looking toward the mountains I’d been in that day. The sun was still baking and the sky a blissful blue. The tiredness was being overtaken by emotions now. I was upset, not annoyed. I’d made a huge mistake which could have been avoided if only I’d been concentrating. Another small blow was my wife had been tracking me using the GPS app that was available to the spectators. She’d messaged and called my mobile phone but for some reason, my Bluetooth connection had turned off so no alerts came through to my watch. It would have been a different ending that day for certain had my phone not been on silent and connected to my watch. It clearly wasn’t meant to be.

I fired up the GPS tracking app to see how my friend was getting on. I was saddened to see she was way off course. I had no idea what was going on but it looked like she’d aborted the final ascent and made her way into woodlands to find a way off the mountain. I felt bad for not being there. Having seen her struggle earlier in the day, witnessed the distress and listened to her talk of not wanting to continue I couldn’t imagine what she was going through. I kept an eye on her progress and sure enough over time she was just taking the most direct route as possible into town. I was relieved, to say the least, when she was on the final road to the Sports Centre.

So much learned

I began this write-up saying that I’m always learning and you may have gleaned a few insights of these that I’ve chalked up from this day. The stand out item for me is to have a map on my phone and watch. I have the ability to do this and technical know-how but yet, I did neither. To remain vigilant for course markers. My complacency ruined my race and I’d been sucked into not watching for markers as the path ahead up until the second aid station was so obvious it didn’t need 90% of the flags.

One thing that I am proud of is being prepared. I had enough food and fluids as well as re-hydration tablets to keep me going until stopping at 38KM. I observed though that my friend carried very little and relied on the aid stations. When they weren’t there it meant she had to improvise with water from streams (dropping her phone into one of them) and fortunately, gels and re-hydration tablets from me. I realise it’s not the world’s worst problem but being lost on a mountain with little sustenance in the baking heat isn’t likely to end too well.

Next time

Yes, there will be a next time. I have already signed up for 2022 50KM and will be laser focussed on completing this. I hope that my friend will do the same, I won’t know until the day as we didn’t swap details but if she’s as determined as me to complete this then no doubt we could toe the line together.

The route profile

The starting point of the Sports Centre at the 1045m mark.

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