Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2015

It has been a week since I finished the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).  My body is quickly recovering and the realization of my finish is slowly settling in.  Over the course of the past week I’ve wondered how to share my UTMB experience.  I probably won’t get this right in the first go, but will come back to update and correct this as necessary.

Life has quickly picked up where I left it about two weeks ago.  Work is busy as ever and being home compares very little with being in sunny Chamonix, France or coursing over a 170KM/105Mile 10,000 HM mountain trail.

Visual and physical images still fleet through my mind of running past jagged peaks and tumbling glaciers.  The feel of climbing, climbing, climbing and climbing some more, particularly up that fucking mountain near Bovine in the dark over jumbled boulders, tree roots and mountain streams haunts my thoughts during the day and enters my conscience each night.  The down, down, down of the seemingly never ending, narrow twisting trail to Trient, Vallorcine and ultimately Chamonix – no apparent ending.  I am condemned…

Just shy of 45 hours of heaven and hell.  Two full nights.  105 miles.  10,000 meters or 33,000 feet of elevation change.  More height gain and loss than Mount Everest from sea level.  2500 starters, 1632 finishers.  What an event!  This is my attempt to relay the experience…

I started running trail and ultras in 2008.  Much like my experience running marathons, I stumbled upon the ultra scene by accident.  Following my first 58KM ultra in 2008 I absolutely hated the experience, but much like my first marathon I found a pull to go further, to explore the edge of the possible, the edge of endurance.  Late in 2008 I came across the UTMB on the Internet and was intrigued…  Words like “Chamonix”, “Night Trail” and “Mont Blanc” fell like seed corn on the fertile ground of my ultra running fantasies.  In February 2009 I committed myself to pursuing the UTMB.  I started that year with my first Brocken-Challenge and a series of other ultras in order to train and assemble enough points to register for the 2010 event.  Five years later I’m grateful that the 2010 UTMB ended the way it did.  My attempts in 2013 and 2015 would show that I was woefully physically and mentally unprepared to take on this Olympic Class ultra endurance event.

My UTMB experience in 2013 left a chapter open; a page unturned.  2013 was a DNF that I could not come to terms with.  Had I withdrawn; had I quit; could I have gone on?  The years and comfort of being physically removed from the decision to quit nagged me.  No, those thoughts haunted me and would do so until I got across the finish line in Chamonix in 2015.  I entered the UTMB registration lottery for the 2014 event, but did not gain a spot.  On a fluke I entered again in December 2014 for a spot in 2015 and was honestly surprised when I gained a spot.  By early 2015 I was not excited about my confirmed registration; in fact I was nonchalant to the point of being worried that I would again DNF.  I did look back on my 2014 running year with some confidence as I had finished three separate hundred milers and a mix of other shorter ultras.  Given 2014’s training and racing successes I settled on a similar approach for 2015.  The Hexenstieg in April and back-to-back 100KMs in June/July were critical to my training plan.  Looking back over the months prior to August I could have definitely increased my up and down hill training, but the weekly and monthly long training runs I did were critical to my approach for getting ready for the UTMB.

The first weekend in August 2015 Simone and I traveled to Vallorcine to explore the area and hike the trail network back towards Trient and forwards to Chamonix.  I had not been beyond Champex Lac in 2013 and conducting this terrain walk was critical to my preparation.  Doing so was to pay huge dividends during the 2015 race.  While running the race I was able to rest on the fact that I knew where we were and that the end was in fact approaching.  A clear, personal mental advantage. 

The weeks following our wonderful weekend in Vallorcine leading up to the race were crazy.  I was unable to stay on track with my training plan and had to commit a considerable amount of time to work.  As a result I started my taper a week earlier than I had envisioned.  I was relieved when 24 August arrived and Simone and I headed to Chamonix.  This early arrival afforded us the opportunity to relax, enjoy Savoy and explore just a bit more.

Wednesday morning Simone and I went for a light run towards La Houches.  On the way out of town I ran past a guy that looked a lot like Scott Jurek.  I did a double take and asked Simone to wait for me for a minute.  Hell, that was Scott Jurek!  I doubled back and chatted with him briefly.  He was as personable as he is portrayed in many of the books and articles I’ve read about him.  He immediately focuses away from himself and onto you.  Very nice meeting him and confirming this frame of reference.  That afternoon, thinking that we would get out ahead of the crowd Simone and I walked over to the Chamonix Sport Center to check in to the race.  Much like 2013 we waited in line for an hour to go through check in and inspection of my racing gear.  We ran into Oliver and Andrea while waiting in line.  It was great to see a friendly face and share a bit of mutual trepidation about the race.  With the pain of race check in behind us Simone and I continued our vacation enjoying the sights, sounds, and culinary delights of the High Savoy.

Friday came more quickly than I had anticipated.  My head and thoughts on the UTMB were not where I thought they should have been.  In fact, I was worried that I was being too cavalier about the event.  Simone and I got a nice hike in, in the morning and I spent the remainder of the day chilling and organizing my kit.  We dropped off my drop bag about 1600 and then relaxed on the lawn in front of the Sports Center with several hundred other trailers until about 1700 when I could take the waiting no longer.  From the lawn we moved to the start chute which proved to be an hour of crushed misery waiting on the ground and standing around like cattle.  At 1730 or so the UTMB announcers began to introduce the elite runners and attempted to fire up the crowd.  I was surprised at just how hollow this all seemed.  My take – spare it or try a different approach.  I was bored out of my mind only wanting to start and not at all interested in who the elites were.  From my vantage point we couldn’t see them anyway.  Big whoop!

FINALLY… The waning minutes of 1700 had arrived and we are at the count down to start.  1800 and we are off bordered by thousands of spectators, yelling, screaming and urging us on.  The UTMB start is something phenomenal – the energy of the crowd is enough to carry you out of town.  I was, however worried.  Because of the crowd in the starting chute Simone and I had parted ways almost an hour previously – would I see her again as we head out of town?  I positioned myself on the far left of the race mob in an attempt to at least see some of the extensive crowd that lined the streets.  No sign of Simone.  Chamonix rapidly came to an end and we head out of town.  Suddenly from my right front I heard Simone yell, “Pudi!”.  There she is!  I doubled back and we exchanged a final kiss before I ran off into the evening.  Pure joy!

Headed out of town towards La Houches my pace was way too fast.  My pack didn’t feel right and I was sweating my ass off.  This was not good!  The race mob pushed me forward.  There was no stopping this pace without sacrificing my position and my ability to influence the amount of time I have against the time barrier at St. Gervais.  So many concerns; way too early in this race.  My monkey mind was back with a vengeance and I worked to shut it down…  At least by St. Gervais.

The 13KM between La Houches and St. Gervais brought back so many memories from previous attempts at the UTMB.  It sucked in 2010 and 2011 and was pure bliss in 2013.  While running here I met up with Jin Cau who I had not seen in more than a year.  Jin is an old pro at the UTMB.  While chatting he mentioned that there is one key to successfully running the UTMB and that is “patience”.  I immediately thought of Emerson’s view to this, “Adopt the pace of nature her secret is patience.”  Jin, not certain if you’re reading this, but thanks for sharing this bit of wisdom.  I carried it with me and employed it on a number of occasions over the course of this year’s UTMB.  After successfully completing the “teaser” of a terrain feature between La Houches and St. Gervais I was able to roll into the aid station at St. Gervais with about 65 minute’s buffer before the cut off barrier.

After grabbing a bite to eat (sausage, cheese, bread and soup) I rolled out of St. Gervais feeling very solid.  My head was in the right place and I felt strong after the aggressive start we had made.  Headed to Les Contamines the running field was still crowded, but not as jam packed as the first 21KM.  The village of Les Contamines and the spirit of the spectators highlight the impact of this course on the local region.  I got into Les Contamines with a 73 minute buffer before the cutoff.  Rolling in, it seemed that the entire village was out on the town.  In the middle of town they had set up a fest-like aid station.  Bon Scott and AC/DC were pelting out “Whole Lotta Rosie” to the point where you could not carry on a conversation without yelling.  It does not get much better than this!  Les Contamines ROCKED!  From here we headed out for the 19KM climb through La Balme to one of my favorite points on the course, Croix du Bonhomme.  Croix du Bonhomme is the first serious climb of the course.  Our trip over the Croix this evening was surreal with a moon that was almost full.  The moonlight was so bright that you almost did not need a headlamp; and you could not make out the stars.  Instead of the stars you could look back down below and see thousands of trailers’ headlamps stretching back at least four or five kilometers.  Breathtaking!

Movement over the course from Croix du Bonhomme through Les Chapieux, Col de la Seigne to Lac Combal was largely uneventful.  Uniquely we followed a course I was not familiar with around Col des Pyramides Calcaires.  In the past we have rapidly progressed down from Col de la Seigne to Lac Combal.  In 2015 we were forced to move about 500m down and then course back up the Col des Pyramides Calcaires over large talus and scree fields.  I would like to hike back into this area as it marks the frontier between France and Italy and there are remains of field fortifications, obstacles and beaten down concertina wire.  I don’t know if these fortifications were French or Italian and if they were established during the First World War or during the Fascist period in Italy.  It was surreal hiking through this area.  I rolled into Lac Combal with almost a two hour buffer before the cut off.  I took a few minutes to re-supply my water and to eat (sausage, cheese, bread and soup).

From Lac Combal we moved up our fifth climb to Arrete du Mont-Favre.  Moving up this mountain the sun’s rays were finally able to reach us bringing a little life into our legs and spirits.  After summiting at Arrete du Mont-Favre we began our “fast” decent down towards Courmayeur.  The winding trail here coursed through a pine forest.  I had the horrible memories from 2013 about this section of trail as the air was permeated with moon dust like powder from the beat down the trail took.  This year the trail surface was moister and remained excellent to run on. 

Almost two hours ahead of the barrier I felt great rolling into Courmayeur.  As I approached town I mentally searched for the feeling of despair I experienced in 2013; thankfully they were not to be found this year.  I picked up my drop bag and decided to enjoy a somewhat longer break.  I moved into the Sport Center and upon entering was struck by the heat and stink in the main hall.  The aid station and all of its resources were overwhelmed with trailers, their supporters and volunteers.  There was no seating and lines for everything.  I pushed my way through to a far corner and secured a chair from someone that was leaving.  Working through my aid station priorities I dumped trash, re-supplied from my drop bag, stood in line for the restroom and took off my shoes and socks.  The line for food in Courmayeur was occupied by at least seventy-five people.  No chow from there.  Instead I ate two cliff bars and downed two liquid baby food meals I had in my drop bag.  This meal was probably about 700 calories!  As I was getting ready to leave Oliver surprised me by sitting down right next to me.  Oliver is a much stronger runner than I and I thought that he would have been at least a couple of hours ahead of me.  He indicated that he was having a hard time with the down hills.  His motivation was spot on with him saying that he would stay in the race until the race pulled him off of the course.  I wished Oliver all the best and headed out of the Sport Center after about a forty-five minute break.  Time to recapture some of that lost buffer!

The climb (800m over a very short distance) out of Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone was the opposite experience of the pine forest headed into Courmayeur.  It was hot with very little wind moving through the low hanging trees.  I watched four trailers turn around and head back to Courmayeur to quit.  Watching this happen is a mental kick in the Jimmy!  Working to turn away from that mental let down I focused on getting by butt up this climb and to Berone.  Finally!  Bertone was pleasant; the sun was shining and I felt pretty darn good.  After a short break to refill my water bottles I headed forward to Refuge Bonatti.  This portion of the course is relatively flat and a good time to regain strength and make up time on your barrier buffer.  Following Bonatti there is a short, sharp piece of downhill that at the time I could have done without, but having been here in 2013 I knew that it took us into Arnuva.  Arnuva is a significant aid station as it is the last prior to assaulting the highest summit of the course at Grand Col Ferret.  I arrived at Arnuva with an hour and ten minute buffer before the barrier.  I re-supplied water and had to do some foot maintenance as hot spots were developing on both of my feet.  After removing my shoes and socks I found that I had no blisters, but had a strange rather large hot spot developing on both heels.  I applied moleskin to each and took off.

The assault on Grand Col Ferret reflects the highest climb of the UTMB course.  The push from Arnuva to the summit consists of about seven kilometers, but reflects an elevation change of almost 900 meters.  The climb up was demanding and although at this time of the early evening it was not too hot I almost ran out of water.  Grand Col Ferret is where I literally crushed my 2013 race.  That year I hiked up largely using my toes and in doing so wasted my shins.  This year I forced myself to remain flat footed going up.  The summit was almost a surprise.  Once there I restocked on water and headed out for the 1100 meter decent down to La Fouly.

The passage from the summit of Grand Col Ferret to La Fouly, although down hill is no walk in the park.  Wanting to recapture some buffer time I hiked and ran much of this stretch.  The later half of this section was the first time I witnessed runners asleep on the side of the trail.  The push to La Fouly is a grind.  The aid station arrives when you transition from trail to hard ball road.  At the hard ball you are directed onto its course and move into the town of La Fouly.  In 2013 I arrived here in a miserable state with the rain just starting.  In 2015 it was dusk and mild.  I moved into town and arrived at the aid station almost an hour and a half before the cut off time.  I took a short eighteen minute break to restock on water and to eat.  I had a couple of bowls of soup, some fruit and more sausage, cheese and bread.  Given the heat of the aid station tent and crush of runners heading back out was miserably cold.  Push!  Next stop…  Champex-Lac.

The course segment between La Fouly and Champex-Lac is fourteen kilometers.  The UTMB profile chart shows the course of the race moving down from about 1800 meters to 1000 meters and back up to 1500 meters.  It took me right at four hours to transit this suck fest of trail, forest, farm and country lanes.  To make matters somewhat more difficult I carried the weight of my 2013 UTMB decision which was made at this point through this section.  Fortunately, until we actually started climbing again, much of this section is a blacked out portion for me.  I was probably sleep-hiking.  In Praz de Fort I was treated to a delicious cup of coffee by a family that had set up a stand in their front yard.  Heaven!  Going back up to Champex-Lac I looked for and passed the picnic bench where I had made my 2013 decision.    There were paths through the forest here that as I passed through them this year I realized that I had not only dreamed of this place I had actually been here before.  This knowledge gave me strength to continue the climb up to Champex-Lac and although the aid station seemed as if it would never arrive, suddenly it appeared, right in front of me.  I had arrived with almost a three hour buffer before the cut off.  Fantastic!  Time for a break, something to eat and lots of caffeine.

Like 2013 the aid station at Champex-Lac was jammed packed with people eating, drinking, sleeping and suffering.  Champex-Lac is the place where the highest percentages of runners drop from the UTMB.  My focus was to re-stock my supplies, eat, drink coffee and get out.  I had a bowl of soup, some Coke and bread and noticed that they were serving pasta with meat sauce – had to have some of that.  I approached the volunteers serving this meal from heaven and was served a bowl.  One of the volunteers asked me if I’d like cheese on my pasta and I told them of course.  My thoughts, “This is going to be delicious!  Now to grab another Coke and to quickly eat.”  While grabbing a Coke I noticed a horrible smell, but blamed it on myself thinking that it was my body odor.  I went and sat down with this delicious plate of pasta just under my chin and prepared to dig in.  Gawd!  What an awful smell.  What the hell is that?  The only way I stink like that is if I’ve soiled myself.  No way!  As it turns out, that delicious cheese that the volunteer so graciously applied to my pasta was not Parmesan, but “Frumunda”.  (Never heard of Frumunda?  Say it out loud and you’ll recognize it.)  I almost threw up it stank and tasted so badly.  None of that for me.  I downed my Coke, threw the pasta away and left the aid station.  Off into the unknown…

Heading out of town I met up with Girish an Indian runner that is a professor of Human Resources at the Catholic University in Seoul, Korea.  Fortunately, he liked to talk and liked to run so he was able to help keep me awake as we worked our way into the depth of the second night.  We chatted for some time until I had to take a bio break.  After my short break the trail took us back up to the place that after reading in so many reports I dreaded, Bovine.  This part of the course is the real “gut check” as the trail here if it can be characterized as a trail is extremely difficult to negotiate.  The course moves over foot grabbing roots; is strewn with knee-high stones, talus and scree and includes hip high walls that must be negotiated over.  These obstacles are further enhanced by the six to seven hundred meters in elevation change that characterize this climb.  As you progress up the mountain to La Giete conditions only get worse with multiple stream crossings that must be jumped and climbed across as well as table sized rocks that are at times covered with water or moss. 

During the movement near Bovine  I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath, wait to negotiate yet another obstacle, or pause for the person in front of me to negotiate something.  Suddenly a woman (I think that it was a woman.  Yes, it was a striking Japanese woman with pitch black hair.) bounded past me dressed in a yellow karate outfit wearing a broad black belt.  What the hell!  My initial thought – “Where did she get the strength to move like that in this terrain and she’s got real balls wearing a karate outfit like that for the UTMB? Wow!  She looks a little ridiculous running around in the mountains of Bovine in a yellow karate outfit.  That yellow was a good safety call though...  Anyway, focus, breath and move over these damn rocks.”  I continued to move forward and doing something I had told myself not to do because it’s like looking at your watch when you’re waiting on something; I looked up to see how much further we had only to find that the mountain continued almost straight up.  Fuck!  The next set of headlamps was just over my head as if walking on the next floor up.  There are more people curled up on the side of the trail here – wasted and sleeping including Girish my friend from earlier.  I refused to allow myself to succumb to the temptation as I couldn’t face the fight with the cold that was bound to come following such a trail nap.

I didn’t really register summiting above Trient and the transition to following the maddening trails downhill.  I do recall passing the Japanese Karate woman again.  She was standing besides the trail cleaning her glasses.  I didn’t recall seeing here wearing glasses the first time I saw her.  She does have a black belt though and is wearing that insane yellow outfit.  Devo!  I’m loosing my mind and hallucinating like a son-of-a-bitch.

We passed through a café garden where two volunteers cheered us on.  They told us that this was not the aid station, but we didn’t have too far to go into the valley.  “Allez, Allez, Allez!”  Forgive me, but I’m not certain I can hear or speak those words at this time of day.  No stopping, I wanted to get down to Trient, get something to eat and continue moving forward.  As if it would never arrive I found myself finally standing in the aid station in Trient.  I made it in with a good two hour buffer before the barrier, but was droning hard.  It was here that I met up with Elaine A.  Thankfully her fiancée took charge of both of us; directed us through the aid station and back out onto the course.  Both of us were hurting on sleep and without Tom’s push would have likely stood around the aid station for much too long.

Elaine and I busted out towards Vallorcine.  I led the climbs and she led the downhills.  Super team work going into the finish of this race.  The hotspots I had identified back in Arnuva had calmed on my right foot, but had developed into a monster blister on my left.  The entire foot from mid-foot to my heal was one giant blister.  No issues going up hill, but down hill was a nightmare.  You don’t die from blisters, but they certainly can raid on your parade.  Focus!  I centered on chatting with Elaine about running and on seeing Simone in Vallorcine.

Above Vallorcine I encouraged Elaine to take off.  She was super strong on the downhills and by this time the sun was coming out and I just needed an opportunity to gut through getting down off of this mountain.  I was glad that Simone and I had hiked here earlier in August as I knew where we were and could judge how much more suck I needed to push through to get to the aid station.  Running slightly later than I had anticipated I arrived in Vallorcine at 0924 and was all smiles as Simone was there waving and cheering me on.  A visit like this is a two edged sword.  I wanted to spend some time with Simone, but needed to push onwards to finish this thing.  We spent a total of 22 minutes together and I was off again into the cold headed to Le Tete aux Vents (supposedly the last climb which turned out to be bullshit).

From a climbing perspective the course trail between Vallorcine and Col de Montets was relatively mild, but I froze my ass off the entire way as it path lies in a valley where the sun had not yet arrived.  At Col de Montets I took another short bio break in the fixed facility there before attacking the final major climb up to Le Tete aux Vents.  As I began this climb I began loosing touch with both my physical and mental capacities.  By this point in the race I had not eaten a full meal in two days and had been surviving on the limited food available in the aid stations, gels, energy bars and junk food.  This was not a good place to be mentally and physically – my tank was running on empty.  This was the only time I was really concerned with my well being and ability to move forward.  To fight through this I increased the number of gels and energy bars I was consuming and hoped for the best to get this thing wrapped up.  The course distance between Vallorcine and Chamonix was only 19KM, it would have been a pity to waste this all knowing the finish line was so damn close.

At the summit above Le Tete aux Vents the course was very similar to the rocky path near Bovine.  After summiting we coursed across this talus field to head back down and there below us lay Chamonix.  Way below us…  Shit!  “Are you kidding me!?!  We have got to go back up to Le Tete aux Vents?”  OK, I can do this, but then, we’re certainly headed down to Chamonix.  No, no, no!  Le Tete aux Vents comes and goes and we head back down, to head back up again.  Eat another gel!  Next stop, the aid station at La Flegere which lies atop a ski run.  Shit!  OK, I can do this, but then, we’re certainly headed down…  No, no, no!  The profile chart for the UTMB is somewhat misleading as the scale is way too large to actually see that you must course up and down to get down to Chamonix.  Eat another gel!

Traveling down a ski slope, from which we transitioned to a mountain service road, to finally transition to a serpentine forest trail, all headed down hill I came out of the haze I was in and recognized where we were.  Again, it paid dividends to run and hike this terrain with Simone before the race.  She and I had agreed to meet in this area at the gates of Chamonix.  My thoughts were that maybe she had come a bit further out – it would be great to see her.  Yes, that is her in the distance – I waved and smiled.  No, that’s not her, that woman probably thinks I’m an idiot.  I repeated this routine four times hoping to see Simone and then finally stopped waving and smiling at anyone.  Eat another gel!

There it was, the final left turn back onto hard ball in Chamonix.  From here it’s only a short jog into town and the finish line.  No!  This is not the final turn.  Yes, you’re in Chamonix, but they have somehow re-routed the course to take you weaving through town.  Anger!  No, let it go, you are in Chamonix.  I came around a corner and there in fact was Simone, dressed to run and carrying her water bottle.  Pure joy!  Pure overwhelming joy!  This was it…

We ran along the river that courses from the Sports Center into the heart of town and the finish line.  The atmosphere was insane.  There were thousands of people lining the street yelling and cheering us on as we approached the finish.  Time stood still.  I had, and actually continue to have trouble comprehending that this endeavor was over.  Simone and I crossed the finish line together.  Bliss!  Oliver and Andrea were there as well to welcome us in.  Amazing!  My thanks to them both!

The UTMB has been a journey for me which I have not yet completed.  A week later it is still too early to measure the depth of its impact on me.  The 2015 UTMB was the culmination of a multi-year journey for me.  Since 2009 there have been a number of central characters in this journey that made 2015 possible.  My apologies up front if I’ve overlooked someone, my blood sugar level remains low.  I’ll eat another gel.  I extend much gratitude to Bernie Conradt and Friedbert Isenmann:  Your focus and dedication to finishing this race inspired me to pursue the same.  Christine Lallier:  We’ve been running this thing together since 2010 – thanks for the inspiration and motivational push.  Lutz Kalitzsch:  A damn fine racing partner.  I drew from the experience of our previous events together and your stone cold approach to finishing.  Aschu Grantl:  You’re a sandbagger, but one hell of an inspiration.  Thanks for sharing the insight into our enemies.  And last, but certainly not least, Simone:  You made this all possible. 

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  As I pursued completion of the UTMB I contemplated this view on a number of occasions.  I’m finishing this report up on Sunday afternoon a week after the 2015 race.  A week ago I was not yet finished and could not have imagined doing this race again.  There is however, a desire growing in me…  The UTMB is an incredible emotional and physical adventure.  It may not be next year, or the year after, but I will be back again.  Insanity – it’s a very pleasant place to be.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Polar Opposites

Or the tale of two races 

I just finished up the Zugspitz Ultra Trail (ZUT) and the thüringenULTRA (TU) which occurred two weeks apart from one another here in late June and the first weekend in July.  Different races, yes...  The ZUT takes place out of Grainau in the Alps while the TU goes in the Thüringenwald in central Germany.  One is an Alpine event while the other is a “friendly” ultra that transits over the Rennsteig through the forest of Thüringen.  The ZUT has approximately 5000 meters of elevation change while the TU contains 2150.  Their 2015 distinct differences lay in the weather extremes that characterized each.

Grainau, 20 June, 50F/10C, rain.  About 500 friends and I lined up for a 0715 start of this 100KM mountain ultra.  The weather in town was cold and rainy.  At elevation was below freezing and snowing.  Seeking to limit considerable risk to participants the organization team, Plan B, made the decision early on to alter the ZUT course to avoid two summits that had gained a significant amount of snow overnight.  In my mind this was an exceptional call as the weather would continue to deteriorate over the next twenty-four hours.

With the ZUT start gun Lutz and I headed off to transit around the Zugspitze massif.  He and I had been talking about doing this race together since April.  I was excited to have him along as a partner as we both had scores to settle with the ZUT and I think we make a superb running team.  This race like many previous certainly contained its challenges associated with elevation gained and lost, the distance, nutrition and the endurance necessary to finish.  Going into an event like this I always question where I am with my training and if some unknown will raise its ugly head and kick my ass.  As the rain continued to fall and following my experience in April at the Hexenstieg of being so cold for so long I was very concerned about either having to drop or suffering a cold weather injury.

 Courtesy of Lutz K

The ZUT unfolded for Lutz and I nicely as we progressed along the course.  That rain though, it was coming down and would not stop.  As we reached the first quarter or so Lutz and I were both suffering.  Neither of us could feel or really use our fingers.  I had again made a mistake on my packing list and not brought a pair of waterproof gloves with me.  For the ZUT I wore a Gore-Tex jacket to avoid the mistake I made in April.  Like most other materials Gore-Tex will soak through given enough rain.  We reached the soak through point earlier than I had hoped for.  My only real options by that point were to either drop (No) or to continue to move to generate enough heat to endure.  This latter option ensured that we maintained a solid pace and that we did not linger in any aid stations.  So…  The ZUT became a suck fest – another score to settle.

By VP5 (KM 55) at Reindlau or Hubertushof the rain had stopped, people were saying that we would see no more rain through the evening and I was feeling like nothing could prevent us from finishing.  Fleeting thoughts…  After eating, drinking and resupplying from our drop bags Lutz and I headed out to take on a little more than a marathon.   

With about thirty kilometers to go the weather changed on us again.  It started raining and temperatures hovered around freezing.  This stretch of the ZUT course was tough in 2014.  In 2015 it was soundly miserable.  The leg between Stuibenwald and the aid station at KM88 starts “pleasantly”, but quickly transitions to a serpentine course gaining about 800 meters over a very short distance.  With the rain and accumulated ground water  we quickly transitioned from moving along a hiking path to a path that had become a stream.  I’m not certain where Lutz got it from, but he was in top form going up.  Mentally I drew on his energy to get to the aid station at KM88.

Generally VP9 also serves as VP10 as during “normal” years you must pass through going up to the Alpspitz and back out going down.  Because of the weather and the amount of snow that had accumulated at elevation we did not transit up in 2015.  Instead we refueld at VP9 and headed back down.  This last leg was a “walk in the park” as well as we also moved down a hiking path that had become a stream.  I was treated to a nice surprise when my left toe stuck on a rock and I somersaulted into an actual stream bed and soaked myself yet again.  Joyous!  Simply joyous!  I had been droning to this point.  I was definitely awake from this point forward.

Seems that the last five kilometers of any ultra event are the most challenging.  Lutz and I pushed to get back into Grainau.  Both wanting to finish and finally get warm and dry.

Plan B, the volunteers that support the ZUT and the local Grainau community put on a superb event.  The ZUT will remain on my planning list for future race seasons.
Fröttstädt, 4 July, 68F/20C, waning full moon.  About 250 friends and I lined up for a 0400 start of this 100KM ultra through Germany’s green center.  The weather was balmy and had not cooled much from the day prior.  The forecast for the day called for more than sixteen hours of sunshine.  My personal outlook was one of trepdition.  In 2014 I was able to complete both the ZUT and TU with the same amount of time between the two.  I went into the TU this year having not trained at all the week following the ZUT and having only gotten in thirty odd kilometers the week prior.  The evening before the TU much of our discussion and thinking was focused on the heat that would certainly accompany us and tactics to have a succesful race.  Getting ready to run I narrowed my focus for the day to simply finishing.  No PRs would be a part of my 2015 TU calculus. 

The morning hours unfolded nicely.  I got a short run in with Aschu and Sanna; had a chance to chat with Micha and Udo going into the first VP at Sondra; and spent a bit of time with the race director Gunter Rothe starting at Schmerbach.  To this point temperatures were warm, but tolerable.  It was not until we got to the VP at KM33/Brotterode/am Gehege that I began to recognize that this was going to be one hell of a hot day.  From this point forward we would see the temperatures rise and simmer at 104F/40C.  

From this point forward the TU became one of those ultras where you run, hike, walk from aid station to aid station.  Fortunately, much of the course from Brotterode to Kleinschmalkalden was in the forest and shade providing a moderate 100F/38C temperature.  Time to hydrate, get and stay wet in anticipation for the old rail line that runs from Kleinschmalkalden to the half-way point at Floh-Seligenthal.  This stretch of the course has always been a challenge as it’s a mix of forest and field along a tar bike/hiking path leading to the half-way point and the mental pressure and release that comes with that.

The coolest place on the course!
At Floh-Seligenthal I ran into Harald who had just arrived.  He was not running because of an injury, but was at the TU to spectate and support.  It was great to chat with him, but troubling to hear what he had to say.  In no uncertain terms he told me that I looked like “shit” and probably should sit down, eat and have something to drink.  I told him that I felt pretty darn good, it was damn hot and that I was going to have a seat on the toilet to get some relief and take a break.  All good…  Drink!  Drink!  Drink!

From Floh-Seligenthal I headed off to my second least favorite leg of the TU.  This portion courses through some lovely forests and concludes just shy of Tambach-Dietharz meandering along what seems to be an unending, mind altering stretch along the Spittergrund.  As I was running along working to focus on retaining a positive mental attitude an elderly gentlemen stepped onto the trail just shy of the Löwen-Born spring.  In his hand he held a large garden watering can.  With a smile he asked if I’d like to get watered down.  I thought to myself – “Dude, hell yes.  You are a God send.  This is going to be freaking amazing!”  I asked him to pour water over my head and down my back.  He warned that the water was going to be cold as he’d just gotten it out of the Löwen-Born.  COLD was an understatement.  As the water flowed down my neck and back it was breathtakingly delicious.  I had to stop myself from bellowing “PHUCK!  That’s some cold ass water”.  I don’t know if Gunter and his team organized this watering hole, but this gentleman and many others that just “appeared” along the way helped ensure that I finished the 2015 TU.

Aid Station in Tambach-Dietharz

I didn’t remain long at the VP in Tambach-Dietharz; just enough time to dump trash and guzzle a couple of cups of water.  From here I headed off to the VP at Neues Haus.  Like VP 11 I did not want to remain at Neues Haus very long in order to make up time and space.  This was the first VP where I experienced other runners falling apart.  VP 12 was not a good place to rest as dropping from a race is a contagious disease and spreads very rapidly.  Getting away from here and reducing the remaining kilometers were my focused thoughts.  Off to Finsterbergen and the aid station at the Sports Platz!

Finsterbergen!  Shit!  This VP is another wasteland with runners talking among themselves about how to drop and the VP Team not knowing how to facilitate that happening.  This is getting uglier by the minute.  I took another shower to get ready for the next leg and wished several runners all the best on their decision and headed out as quickly as I could.  My focus – finish this damn thing!  It is now all a mental game.  Drink, stay wet and finish.

The course from Finsterbergen to Friedrichroda to Tabarz is a blur for me.  I had plugged in my Ipod and tuned out.  Tabarz, kilometer 81 and we’re headed out into the open fields and an oven.  This stretch is one of those where you have to put your head down and simply push.  My thoughts slipped between the music I was listening to, drinking and counting on get wet at the VP at Langenhain.

Hydrated, dumped trash, wet…  Time to move from kilometer 92 to the world famous aid station at kilometer 95.  As a runner it’s a wonderful thing to get up on the crest of the ridgeline about a kilometer away from the KM95 aid station.  From this point you can hear the see the “Mad Max Thunder Dome” like set up and hear the announcer and the stations music.  Rolling into the station it was a tremendous boost to hear your name called, the music get cranked and to have the cheerleaders fire you up.  The Team at KM95 played a big part in my making it over the last five kilometers of the 2015 TU Furnace.

Passing under the autobahn headed into the “lovely” industrial park that sits astride Waltershausen and Fröttstädt I slipped through my Ipod playlist, and punched up AC/DC.  There’s not much else like punching through the last gasps of an ultra jamming out to “Highway to Hell”, “Big Balls”, “Thunderstruck” and the like to finish off a scorcher of an event like the 2015 TU. 

Rolling into the finish line I felt a more sense of relief vice one of accomplishment.  I was an hour off of my usual TU finish time, but was glad to have passed through what is one of Germany’s hottest July weekends.  Huge congrats to all of the finishers and to everyone that attempted this “Highway to Hell”.

The thüringenULTRA is a tremendous 100KM ultra event that takes place in the Thüringer Wald the first weekend in July.  Many thanks go out to Lauffeuer Fröttstädt, the town of Fröttstädt, all the volunteers and RD Gunter Rothe.  Can’t wait to sign up for the ten year anniversary event in 2016!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hexenstieg Ultra 2015

2015 saw the fourth running of the Hexenstieg Ultra.  The Hexenstieg Ultra Race Director, Michael Frenz, has established a phenomenal event that generally follows the course of the Harzer Hexenstieg Hiking Trail.  The race course begins and ends in Osterode am Harz; traveling through the Harz National Park and Harz Mountains.  For the casual hiker this course ends in Thale.  For participants in the Hexenstieg Ultra, Thale marks the 112KM aid station and turn around point facilitating an actual course distance of 216KM or approximately 135 miles.  The race opens on Friday morning at 0600 and closes on Sunday morning at 0600 limiting the course cut off time to 48 hours.

So let’s step back for a minute…  A go at a distance of 216KM is a challenge; clearly an ultra-distance.  But dear reader, like a number of other uniquely challenging events, it is not the distance alone that makes the Hexenstieg Ultra one of a kind.  Adding to “the sweetness” of this ultra are a number of other dynamic factors.  In addition to the distance runners face 4,500 meters or 14,764 feet of elevation change including summiting the Brocken.  Late April weather conditions in the Harz are best described as dramatically unpredictable.  2015 conditions included sunshine, blue skies and mild temperatures on Friday, 24 April.  Friday night was cool and relatively clear.  Saturday and early Sunday morning included low temperatures, rain, sleet and snow and very high wind at elevation.  Harzer weather conditions were to come back to haunt me later in my 2015 attempt.  More on that later…  Oh, we can’t also lose sight of the distance between aid stations (sometimes up to 30KM) and the roughness of some of the trails (when there was a trail). 

As the old saying goes, no good plan survives initial contact…  In this case my plans going into the Hexenstieg 2015 did not survey my work issues three weeks prior to the event.  I had initially planned to take Thursday, 23 April off in order to leisurely travel to Osterode to take part in pre-race activities.  Instead, I faced either not starting at all or traveling after a full work day Thursday evening.  After talking with Micha and Lutz, my running partner, I decided to give the journey a go.  I finally got out of Stuttgart and into classic German traffic jams at 1800 Thursday evening.  The trip to Osterode took me until about 2215.  My reception by Coni, Stefan and Micha that evening was simply fantastic and a clear reminder why I prefer running these small, friendly venues.  Coni had my starter kit set up, Stefan offered me dinner and Micha provided a personal brief on the course and event.  I remain very appreciative for Lutz’s gracious attitude in our hotel room.  He allowed me to keep him awake until 2300 organizing my running kit and getting caught up with him.   

Friday morning came much too early with the only saving grace being the great breakfast spread that Stefan and his team at the Hotel Harzer Hof provided for us.  I can’t say enough about Stefan and the Hotel Harzer Hof crew.  Annually, Stefan turns the Harzer Hof into the headquarters for the Hexenstieg Event days and all that comes with them.  Many thanks Stefan! 

After gathering in front of the hotel for a short final briefing and a couple of pictures we set out for a group run to the start of the Hexenstieg trail.  From the trail head Simon Gfeller and Michael Wagner led early and would dominate the race over the next thirty-plus hours.  Simone and Michael tied the finish with a new course record in 31:24.  Steffi Praher had am an amazing race finishing for the ladies in 41:55.  Lutz and I had planned a slow deliberate approach to the next couple of days.  Our investment in patience paid dividends for us over the long run.

Friday was simply amazing with blue skies and ideal running temperatures.  Watching the barometer and the weather over the course of the day it was hard to imagine anything but a wonderful event.

Lutz and I coursed over the route with few worries until we departed the Goetheweg to the west of the Brocken Mountain and got onto the track along the Eckar stream.  From here we were challenged by a good bit of deadfall and extremely wet surface conditions caused by snow melt.  My thinking at the time…  “It’s not an ultra unless you have wet, trashed feet!”  Passing the Eckartalsperre it was great to look south and know that the Brocken loomed out there.

Highpoints of my 2015 Hexenstieg included a number of different locations and experiences starting with the Brocken.  The Brocken is a magical mountain.  Yep, it takes some time to get there on foot, particularly if you leave the Goetheweg and head off in the opposite direction to the Eckartalsperre.  The approach to the summit up the old Kolonnenweg is in and of itself a gut check.  Upon finally arriving, Lutz introduced me to the Brocken Bahnhof Gastaette which was a real treat.  A bowl of pea stew never tasted better!

From the Brocken we traveled 26KM to Ruebeland and the aid station within the Gasthaus, Tannengrund another of my highlights.  It was here that I discovered the joy associated with drinking an alcohol free Hefeweissen in 2014.  I enjoyed the same again this year with some of the open faced sandwiches that were on hand for our culinary delight.  Evening and darkness were approaching as we left the warmth of the Tannengrund.  Our next aid station objective was the Hotel Bodeblick in Treseburg.
Unlike 2014 I was not hurting as badly as I had in the past when coursing to the Hotel Bodeblick.  The course travels 21KM from Ruebeland to Thale and the turnaround point.  This year I was more anxious than not to pass through Treseburg and close on Thale and an opportunity to reset for my approach to the second half. 

Die Sonne versinkt,                           The sun goes down,
der Himmel wird Pink.                        the sky turns pink.
Die Nacht beginnt,                             The night begins,
dein Leben macht wieder Sinn.          your life makes sense again.
-Seeed Molotov                                -Seeed Molotov

The aid station in Thale run by Gabi, Simone and Simone’s husband was phenomenal!  Here we had the opportunity to shower, switch out or take on additional gear/clothing, sleep and eat.  I took advantage of the station and did some preventative maintenance on my feet, changed tee-shirts and ate.  I did not sleep.  I also committed my largest mistake of the 2015 Hexenstieg by not picking up my Gore-Tex jacket and rain pants.  Looking back this was a distinctly amateur mistake having now hiked and run in the Harz for going on six years.

From the aid station at Thale Lutz and I headed up to the Hexentanzplatz enroute to the aid station at Treseburg.  Going back out we didn’t spend much time at the Hotel Bodeblick only enough to check in, grab a bite and a drink and we were on our way through the night to Hasselfelde.  Oh the night…  It’s funny what happens within the orb of light cast by a headlamp.  I can’t say that I experienced any hallucinations this first night, but do recall going deep within and very nearly, if not actually sleeping while we moved.

Saturday morning we arrived in Hasselfelde and instead of visiting the Total Gas Station we stopped at a bakery and had a fantastic breakfast – probably the best coffee I had all weekend!  From breakfast we faced another 20KM trek to Mandelholz and the Hotel Gruene Tanne.  We arrived in Mandelholz in time for lunch – my tanks definitely needed a fill up prior to the 19KM stretch to our second drop bag at Saint Andreasberg

The stretch between Mandelholz and Saint Andreasberg was one of the most challenging for me mentally.  The Wendeltreppe just to the west of the Rinderstall and just shy of the aid station was physically challenging, but not the cause of my difficulty.  Moving into Saint Andreasberg I was mentally spent and having sever motivation issues.  Adding to my difficulties was the fact that it had started raining and was not to stop doing so for much of the remainder of the race.

The aid station at Saint Andreasberg afforded me an opportunity to again maintain my feet, eat and restock from my second drop bag.  Lutz and I did not remain long in order to work through the remaining 41KMs left on the course.  The rain, exhaustion and cold really began to take a toll on me at this point.  With our pace I was unable to gain or retain any warmth.  I cursed myself for not packing or wearing my Gore-Tex kit.  While transiting the alternate route around the Oderteich I told Lutz that I would either need to drop from the race or dramatically increase our pace.  He told me to take off on my own, which although unhappy about leaving Lutz, I did.

The approach up the Bruchberg and Wolfswarter provided me the ideal opportunity to gain some heat as it was steep and rough, following the course of a creek bed.  My movement to the Wolfswarter was relatively uneventful until I arrived at the summit.  Lovely Harzer weather brought in very strong winds which were pushing sleet and snow almost horizontally.  The hiking stamp station on the Wolfswarter was one of our check points and required either a stamp or a photo of the stamp station.  In 2014 we searched to no end to locate the stamp station.  With the weather closing in and getting worse I decided to simply take a picture of the Wolfswarter summit and move back down as quickly as I could.  Picture taken I began my decent down the Oberer Bruchbergweg to the next aid station at Altenau.  The transit down the Oberer Bruchbergweg was eerie as about half way through the fog moved in and rapidly reduced my scope of vision.

Rolling into Altenau and the self-serve aid station at the Hotel Sachsenross I was filled with a bit of trepidation knowing what awaited me over the course and the night itself.  Locating the Sachsenross was no issue.  In 2014 Lutz, Andreas and I spent literally hours wondering around Altenau attempting to locate the street that took us to the 7Km long old rail line that runs between Altenau and Clausthal-Zellerfeld.  As I left the aid station I was keenly focused on staying on track to avoid 2014’s frustration.  Although I initially missed the sharp left hand turn in Altenau (ran 100 meters past it), I quickly doubled back, found the right path and headed out.

The old rail line is known within Hexenstieg circles as the “Bahndamms das grauens” or “Rail Line of Misery”.  The path is seven kilometers of almost straight going with an ever so slight incline.  On any other day it represents an easy run between the two towns.  After completing nearly 195KM of movement it represents a significant physical and mental challenge.  As I began my movement along it significant fog began to move in closing my visible world in around me even tighter.  Going over things in my mind…  I had not slept in a darn long time, I was cold, and now I could not see anything but my feet in front of me.  “What to do?”  MUSIC!  I’d carried by IPod with me the entire time and not yet used it.  I was alone, in the fog and coursing over the Hexenstieg through the night.  Not much of a better opportunity to “Turn on, Tune in and Drop out”!  I can’t say that my music shortened the transit along the “Bahndamms das grauens”, but it sure did make it more interesting.  And I can tell you that Timothy Leary would have approved of my state of mind. 

I didn’t stay long at Jens’ in Clausthal-Zellerfeld.  I saw Jens, Micha and a couple of other race supporters, but no runners.  I had a cup of coffee, dumped my trash and headed out to finish up the last 14KM of the race.  The going was foggy and slow getting to Buntenbock because of the fog.  I stopped for a BIO call just prior to the village and saw someone coming down off of the ridge line I’d just left.  When they got down to where I was standing we greeted one another and much to my surprise it was Lutz!  Our reunion was perfectly timed to head into Freiheit and Osterode together.

My 2015 take-aways...  (These are presented now after having had the opportunity to consider the Hexenstieg experience for a couple of weeks.  Just long enough not to have the pain and bad memories escape me.)  Do the Hexenstieg in 2016!  I know, I told myself, Lutz and a couple of others that I would take a break from the Hexenstieg.  However, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary AND the Hexenstieg is simply an amazing adventure.  Don’t ever consider the finish of an endurance event until you have one aid station between you and it.  I was able to manage time, distance and exhaustion by breaking the race down into the current aid station leg I was on.  Nutrition!  Nutrition!  Nutrition!  Food is fuel; you’ve got to have it to keep going physically and for me it is essential to my positive motivational wellbeing.  In an endurance event like the Hexenstieg you require both early, consistently and over the long haul.  Before attempting one of Michael Frenz’s or a similar event that includes a course that is not marked, know and understand your GPS.  Lutz and I discovered some quality features associated with our GPS that ensured we didn’t stray too far off of the race course.  Weather happens – it is neither good nor bad, it just is.  Waste little time and energy lamenting about this and instead focus on aspects within your control such as suitable clothing and gear.

The 2015 Hexenstieg was a phenomenal event!  It represents one of Europe’s toughest endurance events with a small, familiar starting field, super organization and volunteer support.  Count me in for 2016!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Schneewittchen Trail 2015 – Over the Hills, where the Seven Dwarfs Dwell

Snow White is still alive and well…

Please forgive me as I’m experiencing a bit of Writer’s Cramp and don’t have many details to share about the Schneewittchen Trail hosted by Indie-Trail other than…  Michael, Susanne, Mario and the rest of the crew put on a super event!  I hope to gain another invitation to join them for this or another of their well organized and executed running events.

I had originally asked to run the 80KM (4000 HM) EisenZwerg. When I arrived at Race Headquarters Friday evening Susanne asked if that remained my intent.  Given my continuing struggle with my right Achilles and a wrestling match the week prior with a cold I asked if there was an issue with me shifting to the 53KM (3000 HM) Schneewittchen Trail.  Turned out that there was absolutely no issue with doing so and that’s exactly what I did.

Saturday morning I was awoken by runners preparing to head out for the EisenZwerg which started at 0600.  I wished them good luck in my mind and rolled back over and slept for another hour.  Decadent, yes, I know…  Shortly thereafter I got up and finished up what needed to be organized and went over for breakfast.

At 0800 twenty of the original twenty-two Schneewittchen runners lined up to head out onto the course.  The day opened perfectly for a day of running with cool temperatures and tasty hill to kick a day of hill running off.

The first aid station (Unmanned)

I spent the first twenty-five or so kilometers measuring things out in my head; listening for and passing the Monkey Mind on.  I met up with Stefanie Aaronson at the aid station at kilometer twenty and spent some time running with her.  We lost one another on one of the many up or down hill traces that led us back to main aid station at the Hotel Eule.  At some point before heading back into Alsfeld Hanno Recke and I linked up.  We spent the rest of the day running the remainder of the course together.  It was great to get to know him, and hope that we have the opportunity to run together again sometime soon.

Schneewittchen Trail Headquarters - Hotel Eule

Saint Katharina Church in Alfeld/Hoersum
The Brothers Grimm tell a story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that live beyond the Seven Mountains.  Highlights of the Schneewittchen Trail included for me running the Seven Mountains.  3000 meters of elevation change is a lot of going up and down over a 53KM course.  As Tim Scott mentioned prior to me heading off for this event, “Sounds like a very runable course.”  Sure Tim!  Additional highlights included the running field - a great set of people; the Orga Team and their helpers; and the course itself.  Alsfeld is out there in what we would describe as “Bum Fuck Egypt” or “Way out in the Sticks”; in German “am Arsch der Welt”.  The village of Alfeld/Hoersum is at least an hour’s drive from the Autobahn along country roads.  Friday evening I was convinced that my GPS was dead wrong.  This distance and placement takes you out into superior trail running country.
"Unmarked" single track trail

Rennsteig - Single Track

The 53KM Schneewittchen Trail included twenty starters.  Michael Wagner, Philipp Westphal, Jogi Winkler and Hubertus Kohlrautz led the run from the get-go.  Michael Wagner took finished out in 5:20 while Lana Rockmann led the women’s field in 10:06.  Hanno and I finished the day’s run 7:34.  I had a super day and although when we got to the aid station at the Adamishuette and KM46 I felt great and as if I could have reached for and completed the EisenZwerg I was glad that I’d run the Schneewittchen instead.  Doing so allowed me to kick back and really enjoy the day.
Aid Station at Adamishuette,46KM
Michael, Susanne and Mario put on a super running event.  Count me in for future events with Indie-Trail!