In the days that followed my DNF at this event in August of last year (first attempt blog post here) I couldn’t help but notice 7:13 on the digital clocks in my house. The significance of this was nothing more than it was my race number but, I couldn’t shake the reminder.
I was pretty devastated after last year’s result. Annoyed at myself for not paying attention to the signs. Annoyed with myself for failing. I was in pretty good fitness and this was my first attempt at a true mountain trail ultra and I returned home empty-handed. A first-world problem but nonetheless seeing 7:13 on a near-daily basis was a poke in the side. As soon as the tickets were released for 2022 I signed up, I had a score to settle – with myself.
The 50KM had a revamped start time of 06:00 which meant I needed to rise early to fuel up before heading into the mountains. My alarm went off at 04:10 and there I sat in the dim light shining through from the bathroom door left slightly ajar. Eating my breakfast I looked out of the window and into the darkness of where the mountains were concealed being as quiet as I could so as not to disturb my wife’s slumber.
I left the hotel just after 5am and walked to the town sports centre with other runners fanning in behind me.
I was earlier than many of the other runners. I visited the GPS Tracker desk to get the device enabled and checked over. Now the rest was down to me. I grabbed a seat and waited. Some runners were bubbling with excitement chatting to friends/family while others, like myself, sat alone most probably contemplating the challenge ahead, as I was.
With about 10 minutes to the start gun firing, I began my regime of stretching while curiously watching a couple of people wandering around (in full running gear) with electric toothbrushes. Something I’d never seen in the start area of a race before :-).
Following a race briefing, the start gun released us into the wild but first we had to negotiate a few undulating local roads before diving off into the forest tracks. Personally, I find this a good way to warm the feet and legs up before the real climbing begins and the uneven trails are upon me. What I don’t enjoy is the immediate need to break out the poles and drag them along the road surface, this accelerated my first KM to leave the noise behind. (Yes, I’m one of those ‘non-pole’ runners) As before, I chose to remain at the back of the pack so as not to get drawn into the faster pace and was able to find my own rhythm. It really wasn’t too long before I passed other runners who were taking rest stops and others with heavily laboured breathing.
I was keeping a watchful eye on the position of the sun as it was yet to crest the mountain range on the opposite side of the valley. It was my intention to break the back of the initial climb to the first aid station with as little sun shining on me, nothing more than a personal goal but a motivator. I was also keeping an ear open for the start gun of the 06:30 100KM entrants.
At 07:10 the first of the 100KM runners passed me. I was in awe. I’d been out for 1h 10m and only 40 minutes after starting the first of a handful of runners began to pass me.
The first aid stop was by the Eggishorn lift station, just over 7KM in, and I could see my wife waving and poised with her phone to grab photos. This year I was even more motivated to complete this race as she’d been supporting me in the lead-up as well as making the trek to Fiesch. She watched me binge on pasta dinners, accepted the early evenings and early mornings for this brief visit.
Leaving the small village of hotels and apartments behind the route headed upwards on rough fire roads toward a ridge. This section is by far the most dramatic as runners round a corner and see the Aletsch glacier for the first time. I paced myself with a walk/run approach as I was familiar with what lay ahead. I took time to drink and take in the views of the valley behind me and in the distance, the Matterhorn was just becoming visible through the thinning clouds.
I acknowledged another runner who was also doing the same, a fellow British runner too. Great, I had some conversation. We chatted while we ascended some of the steeper sections. I learned that the guy, Duncan, had completed the 10KM vertical race the day before. “Oh, wow“, I said. “Yeah, I’ve been in the area for a week already. I did the Gondo Marathon last weekend, two marathons, one per day.”. I can’t recall what I responded but as you can imagine I was pretty taken aback. He was incredibly humble about it.
We parted a short time after as there was a levelling out of the terrain and I wanted to pick my pace back up again.
Soon the Aletsch glacier was in full view. It’s ginormous and once again its hypnotic beauty stopped me in my tracks. I paused to take a couple of photos then caught up with some runners and we chatted as we traversed the walking path around the mountain with an unobstructed view of the glacier.
This year the route seemed easier due to the familiarity from having run it in 2021 which meant I could focus on keeping my pace. One runner, I later learned was called Rachel, was ahead of me with a pace that matched mine, she in turn traced the steps of the runner ahead. This continued until the route turned into a rocky descent. I pulled over to let some of the faster 100KM runners pass who’d caught me up. The route flattened out as the 2nd aid station came into view.
My wife met me there and we quickly exchanged stories about how we were both doing. At this point, she had already managed to walk at pace from the first aid stop where we’d met earlier through the Tälligrattunnel tunnel. Onward I continued, this year knowing exactly where I was heading – in 2021 this was where it all went wrong.
The terrain of the track changed significantly. Not only was it descending rapidly but the path soon became littered with large rocks, slabs and boulders. I found this very hard to deal with so picked my way down while others flew by seemingly without a care in the world.
Walkers ascending the trail provided a mixture of comments and encouragement. I rounded a corner to see one of the recent fly-by runners on the floor crying out in pain. When I reached him he was dealing with a leg cramp. I offered assistance but he declined to say he’d be ok. I double-checked but he insisted he would be fine. On I continued not entirely comfortable leaving him in that state.
The tricky switchbacks were soon replaced with trails and water crossings. At certain points, the track turned into a dusty blown-out narrow path with the odd hidden danger of large stones. I was able to get back into the rhythm again and stretch my legs out. The dusty trails soon transformed into huge rounded rock formations, pockets of trees with nasty root sections with added via-Ferrata, wooden walkways and wooden steps for when the slabs of rock couldn’t be ascended or descended any other way. Runners bunched and separated as everyone once again found their own pace.
The Aspi-Titter suspension bridge came into view.
I remembered that while it offered dramatic views of the valley it was the gateway to a steep ascent comprising of concrete-formed steps, paths and metal steps immediately after. I reigned in the running pace to a controlled walk and paced my way up. I caught up with a runner, an American woman, who was struggling and offered for me to pass. I declined. I knew the height gain went on for some time yet. We trudged slowly, no words spoken, just focusing on one step at a time. This side of the mountain was sheltered from the breeze we’d so far been spoilt with and the heat of the day was really beginning to rise. The view to my right was of Fiesch, albeit rather small and far away. I was now in open pasture, the ascent now replaced with undulating descent. I was still in convoy with my newfound pacer, she once again offered for me to pass but I declined as I was comfortable concentrating on picking my route. The pasture was interspersed with rock formations and small water runoffs from the upper mountain. I stopped occasionally at the water crossings and splashed my arms and legs with cool water.
The pasture path soon converged to a gravel farm path then into a small conurbation. My pace picked up again, legs stretched and off I went leaving my momentary running pal behind. The descent continued via fields and forest fire roads toward the 3rd aid station at around 28KM. One of the runners, Rachel, I spoke of earlier was back with me as we entered the recovery area at Niederwald.
I was feeling fairly tired at this point. I took time in the shade, replenished my drink reservoir, sipped an electrolyte drink and ate a couple of pieces of cake. The aid station was a significant milestone as it was the point I handed in my tracker the previous year, everything from here was unknown.
Fuelled up I headed out following a small road to a scenic river picnic spot. A route split was here 160/100/50KM, albeit with a small sign. The route undulated and was shared with cyclists. Rachel caught me up and we ran together over the next few KMs. The American runner I mentioned earlier came bounding past, clearly in her own zone. The next stage of this race involved a beast of an ascent, the initial turn-in laid way to what was going to be a gruelling climb. The terrain had returned to forest floor, roots, dust, rocks and loose stone. Switching back and forth I walked up and stopped periodically to sip a drink and take on food. It was hot and oppressive and I was really feeling the heat. Rachel found a good rhythm and soon accelerated away. Occasionally other runners passed me, lightly stepping up the trail, checking I was ok and also commenting on the gradient. It was also at this point of the race that I hit the wall and I knew what was happening. I set myself shorter targets for the switchbacks, found shade for the stops (never sitting) and eventually exited the forest, 2.1KM later with a height gain of approximately 450 metres. An aid station was imminent that psychologically boosted me as I knew that was the last of the big challenges.
The aid station was situated in an oversized garage which offered coolness, shade, food and liquids but no bananas, which oddly I was craving. I was offered raclette which happened to be the last thing I was after, melted cheese on bread? Thank you, but no thank you. I grabbed light wafer-style chocolate bars, drank electrolyte fluids and composed myself. Rachel, seemingly full of beans headed off once more. The route out was confusing. After 20 or so metres there was a local restaurant but I couldn’t see any signs. With the last physical battering fatiguing me considerably I wandered around the building trying to find signs, my brain wasn’t thinking straight. The only option I hadn’t tried was to enter the outside seating area of the local restaurant, and there it was, the path was once again in sight.
Back into the forest I headed but this time tracking the edge of the mountain, some climbs, some rewarding descents and some steep descents that were nothing more than dust bowls of a very blown-out trail. A breeze had returned, I could hear fast running water and my body seemed to be kicking back into life as the food and fluids were working their magic. The trail had taken on a strange persona at this point. It was a walking path occasionally blocked by trees, not fallen, just that had grown way too large. I was descending the mountain but also ascending into the valley. A fire road was visible to my right and other runners were in sight, shortly after I too crossed the river and was on the fire road. For many KMs, I descended with a gradient that I found manageable from a speed perspective. My pace really increased as my legs could stretch out. The load on my body was greatly reduced which lifted me and meant I could eat, drink and run without needing to stop. All good things come to an end but I was glad I’d had some gentle spin time.
The route veered a sharp right presenting a narrow root-ridden lumpy and narrow ridge alongside an irrigation channel. Periodically, I stopped and stooped down to splash water on me. My fatigue and the path’s continued cruelness meant I stumbled more than once and to add a little more excitement, it started to ascend. A sense of humour failure was imminent but was halted as the trail returned to something smoother and not long after exiting into a village. The final aid station was in sight, again, another cool garage.
I politely declined the offer of Minestrone soup and made my way through the village toward the final suspension bridge, the Fürgangen – Mühlebach. It was fairly wobbly and while I tried my hardest to not accentuate the movement I couldn’t help but think my running was making it worse. I observed one local person heading toward me trying their best not to sway left and right so I decided I should most probably walk this bridge. I mean, it wasn’t like my time was really going to be affected.
On the plus side, I saw my wife, also on the bridge further down. We walked together and exchanged stories of how both of our journeys had been to this point. After the bridge, the flags directed me through an underpass and up to a railroad crossing. I opted to conserve energy and not attempt to run up the road, so walked in the shade of the hill and carried on chatting with my wife. Cars were queuing on either side of the crossing as the barriers were down. We stood and waited. The train in the station wasn’t moving.
People looked at me from inside the carriage and I looked back at them. I wanted to keep moving, not stand. I was tired, it was hot and remaining stationary in the sun continued to drain me. Another train came into view and parked alongside the train in front of us. Now we have two trains and queues of cars. The first train burst into life and moved on, the second one did the same and finally, the barriers were raised. After the cars had passed I was able to carry on. Initially, up steps next to the station then paths behind properties before heading back into trees and trails. I felt I was on the home stretch now but how wrong I was…
The path ahead became steeper and there I returned to a walk/run rhythm. A signpost revealed distances to nearby villages, towns and points of interest and that Fiesch was only a few KMs away, fewer than my watch suggested but I convinced myself it clearly was the cumulative GPS misreads that had skewed the total KMs so far. The narrow climbing path was soon replaced with a wide trail heading seemingly downwards in the direction of the town. Occasionally a mountain biker would blast past, clearly on pace and having a great time. My legs were able to spin through again and I felt like I was making progress. I even calculated the KMs left from the signs into my pace to establish how long I had left. It was all going well until I saw a course marker and the abrupt turn I needed to make at the point called Gibelegg, at 44KM. The turn wasn’t a simple slide right, it was a full 180 degrees. The height drop continued but through forest trails. Rough and rooty, small drops and twists. This is exactly what I didn’t need. The path continued for just under 2KM before eventually dropping into the village below. From here on it was straight to Fiesch and the sports centre where it had all started what seemed a very long time ago.
The sun continued with its relentless heat and I was battling with tiredness and hunger, yet I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. I had drinks and they were good but my energy reserves were depleted. I stopped periodically to dip my arms in water troughs and splash water on my legs. Where the path into town became covered in shade I chose to walk/run. This routine continued until I came to the Eggishorn cable car, I now knew where I was and what lay ahead of me. No longer did I need to walk/run, I just ran. Through town, I lightly ran. Up past buildings balanced on saddle stones, along winding roads that linked properties together and even under a water sprinkler one family had left for us runners to cool down through. The sports centre was in sight. The road we’d all departed on early in the morning was now underfoot and the relief of this boosted my body. I ran down the final hill then up to the finish. My wife was there cheering me on and then it happened. I crossed the finish line.
What a day. My final time of 10 hours 14 minutes 33 seconds placed me in position 93 out of 154. I had covered 50KM with a vertical gain of 3310 metres. I was so done.
In the subsequent days, my legs went through the usual pattern of recovery. On the third day, I could wait no longer and headed out on my local trail. The legs seemed ok and there were no complaints from my quads – inwardly chuckling to myself I conceded that I simply hadn’t tried hard enough.
Over the past couple of months that I’ve been writing this article, it’s re-kindled memories of the people I chatted with, the highs and the lows, and the battles of the darker moments too. I’m comfortable with those dark times, I have to be. It’s those moments of a race that remind you of what you’ve truly achieved. As David Goggins would say, “…I put them in the cookie jar.“, and for the SwissAlps 100 (50KM) event I did exactly that.
Not familiar with the cookie jar concept? Here’s a brief explanation from his book, “Can’t hurt me”.
The Cookie JarThe Cookie Jar is something I’ve made up of all the failures of my life. All the things that I failed and I went back and finally succeeded. All the things that kicked my ass, I put them all in the Cookie Jar. Because in times of suffering, even the hardest men forget how hard they are. Suffering is just a test of life. Whenever I get pulled into a “woe is me” or “life sucks” mentality, I step off and pull out something from my Cookie Jar, and remind myself what a badass motherf***er I am. It’s a reminder of who you truly are at the core of yourself.