This has been a long time coming. The Hills are Alive with the sound of music, and runners, intrepid runners including Jeff (ukruncat), Jen (_jen_mo), Stu (FromBoris) and Chris (RedSquirrelRunning). The arc back to fitness after the disappointment of Comrades has been a slow one. Has it been 12 weeks already, a meagre 3 months of daily rehab, pistol squats and a 4-5 run a week training program by Shaun Dixon? And then a few races, Beat the Boat, Chase the Sun and finally the Pride 10K, three tens with progression in terms of speed and comfort. Ultraks, however, a 46K ultra marathon in the Swiss Alps that now has stretched to 48 or 49K due to geography, and boasts 3600m of elevation is a different kettle of onions entirely. And this would be a proper challenge. I had not run for more than 90 minutes in training, not for 3 months. I had no idea what the outcome would be.
I had actually been looking at the Zermatt Marathon, a marathon in name but really an ultra that includes a proper climb, not a run, at the end. I clicked on the wrong link, I clicked on the payment options and the rest is history. I, rather than the Zermatt Marathon, was suddenly signed up for a mid-year mountain ultra, the Ultraks Matterhorn, part of the World Skyrunner Series – where professional elite runners race with amateurs (that would be us). Joy.
As time moved on more about this race came to light, and my training intensified in line with these new challenges, well kinda. Sorta. Not really.
First, the elevation. 3600m is a lot. That is 2.2 miles of climbing. 2.2! Miles! To put this into perspective Athens was only 274m of gain, piddling small change compared to the Portland Coastal Marathon gains of 568m, which pales into insignificance when put alongside the monstrous Beachy Head marathon and it’s 997m of gain. But let’s just stop a moment, at the crest of a hill, and think about this. The gains of Athens, Portland and Beachy Head added together are only half the climb we will be making in Zermatt. HALF! And no number of Swain’s Lane loops will make a jot of a difference when you put it that way. Chris did in fact mention that the three peaks challenge is Ben Nevis / Beinn Nibheis (1,344m), the highest mountain in Scotland, Scafell Pike (978m), the highest mountain in England and Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa (1,085m), the highest mountain in Wales. So that is only 3,407m gain. The runners that complete the 46K race will have climbed more than the 3 peaks… in one sitting!!! Now that sounds pretty hardcore.
Second, the bridge. I do not like heights. And when I first saw that there was a long, valley spanning walk bridge we had to cross I was a little nervous. Watching a video from the event organisers the other day I saw people running over it. To quote the late, great romance novelist Barbara Cartland, “fuck that noise!”
It was going to be a challenge, and not one I could really train for. I guess, when it came to the Chasm of Doom I just needed to focus on the opposite side of the valley and go for it. Brown shorts time!
Jeff and Anna had arrived in Zermatt a week early, Stu and Chris cut it fine but I thought it would be sensible to at least have a couple of days of adjustment before the race. And I am so glad I did. Andrianna (cakecrazycurtis) snowboard/skis in Zermatt and told me how great it was but I was not prepared just how much so. The town is stunning, literally stunning. The whole town is picturesque. You can walk a random distance in any direction, turn with your eyes closed, stop, raise your phone/camera and take a stunning photo.
…and, quite amazingly, there they were, mountains. All around you, even before you change trains at Visp and chug slowly up the valley in a bone rattling old train. Mountains providing the backdrop while a town of cuckoo clock houses, and cobbles, and flowers in hanging baskets, and a sense of relaxed contentment everywhere. This was a healthy town and a relaxed one. All the vehicles (taxis, police, ambulances, delivery vehicles) were little electric cars that hummed and had the cutest squeak as a horn.
People walked everywhere, and it was always uphill. People use Nordic hiking poles just to get from one end of the town to the other. Outside of ski season, Zermatt is quiet, but not that quiet with hikers, climbers, paragliders, and dog walkers, all happily eating as much cheese, chocolate and rosti as they can, whilst washing it down with Aperol spritzers and the local beer (Cardinal, and Zermatt. Although the latter is apparently just a publicity stunt).
The shops were laden with discount kit. UD belts, and On Clouds sat outside with every type of waterproof clothing. Every second store sold outdoor sports attire. And between them, a very complete set of eating and drinking options. And the food was great. Derbys on day one for a superb Lasagna al Forno, the last day rosti with fried eggs and cheese, and a discount from a huge list of them for everyone taking part in the Ultraks weekend of the vertical KM, children’s race, 16K, 30K and the big daddy of them all, the 46K Ultraks Ultramarathon.
Ultraks – where Elites run with Amateurs, or something along those lines. And it was when arriving at what was dubbed Ultraks Plaza for the weekend, that I realised I was wayyyyy out of my depth. The elites would be completing the race in around 5 hours. Yes, 46K in 5 hours. If these were 2.20 marathon runners, just use the yardstick that this is twice as hard as a normal race. If I was even going to finish, it would be around the 10 hour mark, and that would be good. Having met up with everyone there or the day before, we all agreed that just finishing would suffice.
It was 7.30am and it was raining. A good start to a long day. After carefully pinning my bib straight on my RTTS tee I now had to unpin it and repin it on my waterproof jacket as it was a DQ offence not having your number visible at all times.
A tri-lingual introduction, during which Jeff was papped by Ian Corless and we were off, with the elites leading the way, followed by the good amateurs, followed by the brave, the foolhardy, and finally me. I was running with Nordic poles for the first time and had decided to keep them extended the whole way around and to use them for the upward climbs, the flats and the downs. I needed all the help I could get.
To stop bottle necking at the start the race circled Ultraks Plaza once before going out into the town. And the townspeople, the locals anyway, were out to clap and cheer us on with their “hophophop” call. We made a few turns and were then already out of town and on a paved up. It was still bunched and I was at the back of the pack with two Swiss tail runners, a girl (let’s call her Sabine), and a guy (Gustav), trying not to hit anyone with my poles. And then, after a brief tunnel the race really started.
And this is where it really starts…
I am going to ad lib this bit, the race description, as I cast my mind back 48 hours. It may not make too much sense, but here goes.
The first ascent starts in the woods. An asphalt path that zigged and zagged a few times through sparse trees was deviated from at a turn and we were onto muddy trail in rich green hills. To ascend you zig then zag rather than go up in a straight line, and at this stage the zigs were long and zags longer.
The higher I climbed, the less I ran, making the most of a few flattish parts to get some speed and, and this was a major disappointment for me, get some distance from Sabine and Gustav. For the tail runners 1. would not shut the hell up. Clearly Gustav spends a lot of time by himself as he talked almost constantly for what would be my entire race, and 2. they were too damned close, literally over my shoulder. When I run tail I give the runners space, they were so close I could feel their hot breath on my ear. Ew.
The top of the first climb and the forest and mud and humidity changed to long grass, and dusty paths, and it had stopped raining so the waterproofs were put away, bib repinned on RTTS tee and onto the next challenge.
The 16/30/46 Question
Out of the top of the forest and finally a downhill into what looked like a quarry. Paths! And downhill paths at that before reaching our first checkpoint and a welcome coke break.
Yeah you read that right, 1 hour 36 and I was only 8K in. Ah, but don’t you worry, such speediness will not continue, for long anyhow. Down from the checkpoint as the 30K runners arrived on the train and prepared themselves, we were back into lush, green meadows. An Alpine horn troope practiced to our left as we ran down on soggy paths, past a photographer, past some wooden huts, and down some more to a stream that edged the next up.
The next up felt tough, right in the middle of the forest again, with Sabine and Gustav (with his constant wittering) grating more than any physical pain, and now worried that I would soon be overtaken by the 30K leaders. I did get overtaken, but only by two (including one wearing the 2018 Season Scott kit I coveted in the race village), before the 30K split away on a different route from the 46K. From what I could tell, the easier route.
After hitting the top of the forest there is a nice comfy descent into a lush valley, but this is where the pain really starts. This was the bottom of the down before the steepest up and Gornergratt. The first climb was relatively, and I only say relatively as I know what is to come, easy. Zig zag climbs up a steep grassy slope on muddy paths dug by those who came before us. I was moving along with Jen and a Japanese lady who had been with us since the first forest, as well as the ever-present Sabine and Gustav (still yapping away).
The climb was a leg burner and a heart and lung tester. We had talked about not blowing our legs up in the first ascent the day before, and I was conscious of this even here. The climb was up and up, and more up. The route was marked with orange flags. The flag marked a point you reached before looking for the next flag. It was very reminiscent of looking for the glow sticks at RTTS in the fields.
The grass started to disappear and was replaced by rock. Through zigs and zags we managed to edge our way up and up. I relied on my sticks, as did the Japanese lady. Jen went old school and relied solely on her legs. I am not sure I could have done that. Sabine and Gustav just bounced along, chatting.
We did make the top and was so glad for what was a small downhill before an inevitable up, this time on scree paths going up to the top of the next mountainous crest, but not after stopping at virtually every big boulder to have a sit down on the edge of a steep drop.
At this point, we were 3 and a half hours in. I had, for a good while, thought that if I can do 1 hour 5Ks, then I would be ok. But this ascent blew that theory out of the water. And the worst was still to come. After edging around more boulders and then going over the top of the crest we found ourselves in a quarry, complete with diggers, and a nice flat road and atop the next giant climb – the telltale flags, the cable car cables?? and the next checkpoint. It was here that the party expanded to include a French lady, an injured local, and Hamish, a nice boy from Edinburgh who had attempted the race the year before but missed a cutoff at Schwarzsee and was back for more.
Unfortunately for Hamish, he was struggling. Much like mine, his fuelling was off. He was shuffling in Compressport sleeves that seemed like an impulse buy at the race village the day before, and seemed a little down.
Still, as we finished the quarry stage we embarked on the last portion of the most difficult, or certainly the highest climb to Gornergratt. Hamish took the lead, telling us that the sandy, loose surface we zigzagged on would make way for actual rock when we reached the top. Jen kept up with him, then the French lady, who at each pause would swear, or groan, or both, then me, then the chirpy tail runners. And he was right, but before I enjoyed the first solid footing for half an hour, I made the most of the stunning views.
Amazing. It was a wonderful pause to take in the majesty of the scenery before running along the top of Gornergratt and seeing the prayer, before skipping through the second timing zone and into the oddest part of the race.
What was odd about it what that at Gornergratt there is a shop, a restaurant, toilets, a chapel, and hundreds of tourists. As Hamish, the Japenese and French ladies, Jen and I started running on perfect concrete paths around to the next descent, we were surrounded by tourists who had taken a train to see the view. We must have been a sight and a half.
It was about here that we made use of the pristine toilets, no tree, bush or rock for me! Drank some coke, refilled our bottles and headed down.
And this down was ok. Leaving Sabine and Gustav behind for a bit, we actually enjoyed the clay-like brown muddy paths with the occasional rock, and short stubby grass that led us all the way down to a lake that had, as I said, fish in it! How did they get there? Did they take the cable car too?
Drop out and cut offs
The tail runners were right up my jacksy as we descended down and down in the most comfortable part of the race, actually running at times we hit the checkpoint, a third timer went ping, and we stopped for more fuel. Jen tried to force feed me Tuc biscuits and I spoke to a couple of the marshals after almost walking out the wrong way, and down the 30K route. Can’t I go that way? No, they replied. But it looks so much nicer and more downhill. You can change from the 30K to the 46K, they said, but not the 46K to the 30K. BALLS! And so, with Sabine and Gustav at the checkpoint we decide to head off, having beaten the first cut off by a good margin.
The next bit felt tricky. We were heading to Furi that started nicely through the forest by Riffelalp (the third checkpoint) but then turned into a bit of a rocky climb up tight corners with a sheer drop on one side. It was here that Sabine and Gustav were joined by two fellow tail runners who came from the direction we are heading. Let’s call them Marco and Henning. So now, with four tail runners running right on our, well, tails, we started what was by far the most difficult part of the race for me. It was a technical descent with very little in the way of paths. Boulders and rocks, a rope to guide you if you were lucky, iron pegs rammed here and there to create the illusion of a step.
It was here, at a boulder I unceremoniously slid down on my backside, that Jen finally had enough. She was deciding how to get down the 6-8 foot boulder when Henning, or Marco, you choose, got way too close. I looked back to see she was surrounded and getting stressed, to a point where she shouted at them that “they were pushing her.” And then, the clouds parted.
I understand they were just doing their job, but they did it poorly in my opinion. The tail runners should be there for your safety, not to usher you and prompt you to run faster than you want, or to make dangerous hasty decisions when climbing. But, as Jen ran by me and to a raging river of glacier water, along the stone paths that would finally lead us to the CHASM OF DOOM, the tail runners finally got the message and hung back.
And, to be honest, it made the rest of the race for me. I could finally listen to nature, rather than Gustav rabbiting on constantly about anything from the food options in town, to how people think they are runners but this is Zermatt, or whatever any of the 6 hours of conversations comprised of, because, yes, that is how long we had to hear him.
We ran alongside the river, up and then I finally came face to face with my nemesis. Jen led the way and I didn’t stop. She had her camera in one hand and was snapping away and the bridge bounced beneath us and swung a little. I had my poles in my one hand and held for dear life onto the handrail with the other as I kept going. And then, as I swore a little, at the far end, back on terra firma, a photographer shouted for us to run the last bit. I may have told him to fuck off, but it was enough for bungee jumping fanatic Jen to leg it across before I finally found the courage to do the same.
Time was against us though, and, despite losing the tail runners I knew that a huge climb to Schwazsee was ahead of us. We passed a few hikers, then turned down and out of the forest and hit the fourth timing zone at Furi. Here I spoke to the two Ultraks officials, let’s call them Horst and Rudi. Horst told us it was a 90 minute climb to Schwarzsee, and we only had 20 mins to make it there. We needed to make a decision, to quit here on our own terms, or not make the cut off at the next CP after a further grueling 90 minutes.
I think stopping here was the right thing to do. We had put ourselves through so much already and there would be nothing to be gained for putting ourselves through another 90 minutes of climbing and so, despite not wanting to, we called it quits, gave Horst and Rudi our bib numbers and then headed to a pub right there for a couple of hefty beers.
And this seemed the most sensible of move for us. Jen was upset but I was relieved not to have a further fruitless climb. Jeff has made it to Schwarzsee, as had Stu, who fell ill there so both timed out. Leaving Chris as the only one of the UKrunchat crew to go on and finish the thing. 1/5? That does show you how hard it was.
How I did?
Running stats are meaningless as a comparison. That is what I will say from the off. A 21 minute mile!!! And that I would have been happy with 1 hour 5Ks as it would have meant coming in within the 11 hour cutoff.
I kept going. It was all I could do. I hated Sabine and Gustav being so close and talking the whole way. With so much, let’s call it, nature around us, the silence would have made it spectacular. I was amazed at the different terrains and surfaces. We had mud, humid forests, lush green grass pastures, scree slopes, sand, clay, rivers, rushing glacier water waterfalls, boulders, suspension bridges, pavement, cinder track, dusty trails, concrete, lakes, and always in the background the mighty Matterhorn. You know, the one from the Toblerone wrapper. It started in rain, that then made way for cloud, then brilliant sunshine, then cloud again, then sunshine. I have comical striped sunburn on the backs of my knees and nowhere else.
So in the end the hills were alive with the sound of music (in the form of Alpine horn players), and cowbells, and crying runners, plenty of them. I managed to run/walk/climb for 7 hours and my knee held out. That is a positive. We managed to climb the equivalent of two of the three peaks of the UK in one sitting. Should be proud of that. No medal though, and a second DNF does grate on me a little but I have to say, that this was very very tough. It took 4 hours to make 15K. 4 hours! It took the time it would take to run a marathon to make 3 park runs! Dropping out at Furi at the bottom of the ascent to Schwarzsee made a lot of sense and we would have had another 90 minutes of pain just to be caught at the cut off with Jeff and Stu. That was a very sensible decision and one I do not regret at all. I am just not built for hills.