Sunday, September 20, 2015

Gore-Tex Transalpine Run, 2015 Race Report, Day 4

Transalpine Race: Day 4
45.7 km, 2861 meters vertical ascent
Finishing time: 7:23
Staggering stats from the halfway point of the race:
Total miles run: 93
Total Elevation Gain: 28,200 feet. Mt. Everest is a few hundred feet higher. We'll take care of that tomorrow.
Average hours slept per night: 4. 
Between the packing, unpacking, sore body parts and the weird heat wave (Germany and Austria don't do air-conditioning), sleep just isn't happening.
Stage 4 promised to be epic at 28 miles and 9,200 feet of climbing. We had trained for loads of climbing, but 9,200 feet is a preposterous number. You would have to run up and down the face of the Squaw Valley ski resort nearly 5 times to generate that amount of climbing.  
And the climbing was set to begin almost immediately. According to the official map, after a short, flat, two mile run out of Landeck, Austria, we were to make a right turn and hit single track for the next 5 miles and 5400 feet of elevation gain. But like many things in this race, everything is just a little harder than it seems. And it already seemed really hard to me.
This type of start, where we run through the little ski village hosting the event before heading up the nearest, biggest mountain has been utilized in every stage so far. And being no dummies, Laura and I developed a strategy: Run hard to the base of the mountain. Because, if you're in the back of the pack, the mass of runners ahead cramming themselves onto 25% grade single track, creates a traffic jam. This means that competitors at the back of the pack come to a complete stop at nearly every tricky bend in the trail. Obviously, this benefits the folks in the front who are busy running while you're standing, waiting.
So I went out hard. I mean what's two miles of effort at this point? Well, ok, it hurts a lot.  And it really sucked that I wasn't sharing the pain with Laura today.   
Naturally today, unbeknownst to the competitors, instead of the two miles shown on our map, the race organizers gifted us an extra 2 miles of flat road running.  And it's not like they subtracted it from the end of the race either.  Life and Transalpine are not fair.  
And 4 miles of hard road running is twice as far as two. Even in my current state of delirium, I was able to do this math. And 4 miles of hard road running as a warm up for launching into a 5,400 foot climb to start a 28 mile run at 10,000 feet elevation, turns out to be quite the strenuous endeavor.
Let's just say that, on my way up the mountain, I spent a few minutes cursing the guy or girl who drew the map.
Arriving at the first checkpoint, we runners were drenched in sweat. The climb had been humid and warm. But at the top we were greeted with 30 mph blasts of alpine air, and suddenly it became obvious to us why we were all required to carry backpacks containing raincoats, long shirts, warm gloves, first aid kits and waterproof pants. You can get stuck in some awful weather up here.
Fortunately for us, the course looped around to the sheltered side of the mountain and the weather didn't become an issue. Though the relentless climbing took its toll on everyone. One of the strong female competitors who had passed me on a climb broke down crying at mile 18. I wanted to sit down on a rock and join her, but her teammate didn't look like he could handle two of us.
As fate would have it, at this point, I came upon a French team, a couple guys who work for Solomon. They were holding a great pace on the climbs, so I put my cycling skills to use and tucked into their draft, staring directly at the feet in front of me and nothing more. After 10 minutes of this, the guy I'm stalking turns and says, "would you like to pass?" Of course, I declined.
Still, introduction were made and Jo and Jono turned out to be quite engaging. Jono was the older runner and the pace setter -- which duty he figured required him to keep everyone's minds off the pain of the climb by telling jokes. Jo was younger, quieter, but laughed a lot and took care of translating Jono's thick French-accented English.
They asked where my teammate was, and I told them about Laura's injury and that I was now out here alone. I explained that I wasn't much of a trail runner and that Laura had gotten me into Transalpine partly by promising that it would make me a better runner.
To which Jono said: "It will make you a better runner, but more importantly it will make you a better man! In fact, you should stay with us today, because being around French people will also make you a better man."
At that point, I tripped on a rock as we were crossing a river and nearly fell face-first into a pile of granite. As I expertly avoided the fall with a well-timed pole plant, Jono exclaimed: "Steve! You cannot fall now. If you are not able to stay with us, we will not be able to make you a better man. And then we will have to find a replacement for you and the training will have to start from the beginning. And we have been running for four days just to find you!"
And a fast friendship was formed -- in a way that seems to happen with regularity in these types of endurance events. Perhaps that's why I'm so drawn to this stuff.
So, in the end, I managed to complete the stage in about 7 hours 21 minutes. For a sense of perspective, the winner ran a little over 5 hours and many were fighting to make the 11 hour and 45 minute cutoff. But we're all out there doing the same thing -- setting goals, adapting to conditions and failures, and making friends.

Gore-Tex Transalpine Run, Race Report, Day 3

St. Anton to Landeck
39.9 km (let's just call it a marathon), 2019 meters vertical ascent
Finishing time: 7:05
The word of the day is DOMS -- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, severe type. This is what you get when you try to leave your husband/teammate for dead at the top of an alpine cliff on Day 1 of the Transalpine stage race. And the nature of DOMS is that it really bites you in the backside the day after the day you tried to score your husband's life insurance policy.
So today, Laura woke up to find herself nearly paralyzed with pain, like someone stuck knives in both her quads. Still, she bravely headed to the start line for today's 26 mile, 6,500 foot elevation gain race -- hobbling, grimacing.
At the gun, it was apparent that Laura was barely able to run. In fact, taking a quick bathroom break after mile two had us dead last. It was eerie watching the race from that perspective. And a bit stressful.
In the Tour de France they have a car nicknamed the "broom wagon" that follows the last racers. It sweeps them up as they drop out -- like a street-sweeper cleans litter off the curbside.
Transalps has no broom wagon. No wheeled vehicle can climb these trails. The race organizers do have David, a dude from Deutschland with a big backpack. He's sort of the human broom wagon, and he takes down the course signage as the last person passes it.
From the looks he was giving us as he took down the signs, he wanted us to hurry up.
Of course, even with non-functioning legs, Laura is far from the slowest runner in any race. So, we gradually made our way through a number of the slower competitors. But by now, it was clear that Laura needed a doctor. I couldn't bear to watch her hobble down these treacherous slopes in agony any longer. She just said "we will see" when I suggested she should call it a day.
My case for her dropping out was won when her destroyed legs could not navigate a tricky section of the trail. She tripped and fell a few inches from a steep drop off, spraining her ankle and bruising her hand.
Still, we had to make it to the checkpoint at mile 10 within 3hours 30 minutes from the start for me to continue as an individual racer. And when Laura heard from a fellow racer that we had to cover the last 3 miles in about 45 minutes, she gritted her teeth and bravely ran as fast as she could. Each step was agony made double by the steep downhill into the checkpoint. There was no softening the impact of each stride. It seemed a lost cause.
But with the end of the steep trail, we were deposited onto a road in a village.  With the flattening of the terrain, Laura hit the afterburners, or what would have to do for afterburners this day. We crossed the timing mat with not a second to spare and I was allowed to continue on alone. In fact we were so close to the cut off time that a race official practically pulled me away from Laura and pushed me down the road as I tried to kiss her good bye. As he shoved me he said, "you are really far behind, and you need to run hard to make the next cuttoffs!"
So the story continues another day. I had to run hard and burn some matches to catch up to the other competitors. But I made it to the finish line in about 7 hours, inside the 9 hour 30 minute cutoff and will be allowed to finish Transalpine as an individual competitor. And while our goal of finishing as a team has ended, Laura will be allowed to race the next stages -- once she manages to heal enough to run. She's hoping to take off stage 4 and return for 5 through 8. So the goals change, but the mission continues.

Gore-Tex Transalpine Run, 2015 Stage 2

Lech to St. Anton
24.7 km, 1899 meters vertical ascent
Finish time: 6:12
Well, I said that day 1 was tough, and today we learned the sad news that a very large number of teams dropped out during or after the first stage. And these were fit competitors — athletes who were prepared for 8 days of serious Alpine running.  If I had to guess, other than the guys who shattered his leg right in front of me, the heat took out most of those who abandoned.
On paper anyway, (the paper being a map of the stage we are required to carry with us) Stage 2 held the possibility for a respite. At a mere 15 miles long, we had hopes for an early finish and a nap to make up for all the not-sleeping we had been doing.
But like I always say: “The Alps are not made of paper.” Ok, I’ve only ever said that once. Just now. But never has it been more true.
The race started out enjoyably enough, an easy run along the streets of Lech for a mile, then a little 3 mile, 3,000 ft. climb up to the first aid station at the top of the Lech ski resort. (You know that your perception of what is difficult is deranged when a 3,000 ft. climb seems to be the easy part of the stage.) 
As an aside, he race organizers provided some really delicious Austrian cake at that first aid station.
But beware of race directors bearing gifts. Because one thing is becoming predictable in the this race: at some point they are going to try to kill you.
Yesterday, I mentioned that we ran along a sliver of a trail carved into a thousand foot high granite cliff.
Today, they took away the sliver. At about 8 miles into the race, after a really steep ascent up a 1,000 foot mountainside, we found ourselves at an amazing clear pond — sitting like jewel in a granite setting — a setting that surrounded us on all sides that mattered with sheer 2,000 foot high cliffs. 
I stood there marveling at the pond, but looking around, I realized that there didn't appear to be a trail exiting this place -- not unless you climbed the granite face of the mountain surrounding us.  The only obvious way out was the trail that got us here -- and it was clear we weren't leaving in that direction.  
But the absence of a trail doesn’t stop the good people who bring you the Transalpine Race. Nein. A can of orange spray paint, a few signs and a skilled mountaineer = instant trail!
Not surprisingly, being terrified of heights, I was not an outstanding free climber, and our finishing time suffered as a result. But against all odds, Laura and I found our way to the finish line within the seriously challenging cut-off time yet again — and will be rewarded with the privilege of lining up for Day 3. Yay us.

Gore-Tex Transalpine Run, 2015 Race Report, Day 1

Transalpine-Run: Day 1
Oberstdorf to Lech:  34.6 km, 2083 meters elevation gain.
Finish time: 6:43 
A few quick thoughts.  We have to go to bed for a few hours before this madness happens again tomorrow morning.
Today's stage, the first of eight, was 22 miles of Alps versus man -- and it wasn't a contest.  The Alps barely knew we were there.  We, on the other hand, were painfully aware of the Alps.
As we made the fist major climb of the day, scrambling up endless boulders the size of soccer balls, teetering on paths of loose stone thousands of feet above the valley floor, I just kept thinking how impossible it seemed that we might endure eight days of this.
But finish stage one we did. Delirious with fatigue, dehydration, and cramps (yeah, apparently the temps at 7000 feet in the Alps can get close to the 90's -- who would have guessed?) we broke the finish line.
There were a few close calls. A few miles after watching one of the competitors shatter his knee going up the climb in the picture I've attached, Laura nearly broke her ankle on a descent that was essentially a cliff -- it was so steep that we were repeatedly forced to utilize the highly efficient, but incredibly slow, backward crawling technique.  Running down these cliffs was not an option.
Out of desperation, we also took a risk, filling our hydration packs with water from a hose used for filling a cow trough.   
For my part, I ran the last 5 miles with cramps in my pinky toes.  Interestingly, you don't really need these toes to run.
And, just when the trail became runnable single track near the end of the race, we found ourself stuck behind a sauntering cow with big horns.  I assumed the giant steak was a bull, not realizing that cows can have horns, but fortunately Laura knows something about livestock and had the courage to sweet talk nice Mrs. Cow into sharing the trail.