The Eiger: Returning to the Origin

The first ever mountain I spent time in was in Lauterbrunnen, back in 2014. Only months after my full-blown commitment (some would say obsession, of which I don’t disagree) to ultra-running had begun. I was on a group tour through Europe, and it was two days before Christmas. We had two nights in the gorgeous Swiss town of Lauterbrunnen, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Whilst others on the tour chose to do more ‘normal’ stuff, I got up early our first and only full day there, and decided I would go as far up the mountain as I could. Mind you it was Winter, I had minimal gear that one would deem appropriate for a mountain adventure, and there were minor safety issues as they had closed many of the mountain paths (Note: Just the usual Winter process of closing certain paths, no specific danger. Risk was definitely assessed and measured acceptable). I was undeterred, and headed up. In short, I fell in love with the mountains. Fast forward to the tail end of 2015, and I had decided I wanted to round out my racing ‘season’ with the Eiger Ultra Trail, a race that is part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, and starts and finishes in one of Lauterbrunnen’s neighbouring towns. For a change, I convinced my friend Amelia to join me in the paired 51km race, in which we would have to start, race and finish together, whilst competing against other couples. She was game, and I was going to get to race in Switzerland, and pay homage to the first mountain I spent time in.

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View from our hotel

A few weeks prior, just minutes after finishing the Lavaredo 119km race, I said something akin to “Thank god I only have to run a 50km in a few weeks”. I was wrecked mentally and emotionally, and the thought of getting out and running another hard effort, was not appealing. Only a day later, I was feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and excited to head out to Switzerland, with the sole intention to run happy, have fun, and enjoy time in the mountains with Amelia (who would be doing her first mountain race). Her partner Mat was coming out too, and would be racing a shorter distance (also his first mountain race). We were all excited to get out there, knowing how incredible that part of the world is. Mat drove us up to Grindelwald, and after a food stop and then a coffee stop in Lauterbrunnen, we were there. Immediately the sheer presence of the Eiger was felt. It was a monster. Whilst this race would be my shortest ultra yet, and I would be running it with someone else, I was under no impression of how seriously aggressive the course would be. The Eiger is a beast, and for Alpinists and mountain runners alike, demanded respect. It was breathtaking, and our hotel had perfect views of the stunning mountains. After bib collection, a hearty pasta party (included in our race entry fee which was DELICIOUS), we got our kit organised, and headed to bed.

 

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The 3 of us just after race check-in
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Pasta party, and yes that 2nd bowl was Amelia’s of which I ate!
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The random ramp we had to run down before crossing the finish. Mountain looming in the background

It was a fresh morning, and Amelia and I both had our gloves on as we toed the line. The usual European ultra scene of trekking poles and lycra was ever present, and wearing my short shorts and singlet, without trekking poles, I definitely was in the minority.We were definitely the pair that “were not from around here”. The race started with a uphill road run, heading up into town before peeling off and making its way up and into the mountain. Grindelwald sits at about 1000m above sea level, so we were climbing up the mountain before long. We took it steady, which was our goal for the day. I was happy to enjoy the experience, after a heavy few months of racing and a challenging race in Italy only weeks before. It was crucially important for me mentally and emotionally to reconnect with the trails, and check in with myself after all I endured in Italy. I only really spoke about this in passing, but I needed to put the demons of Lavaredo to rest. Thankfully, they were never an issue. A conga-line of people moved up the mountain, on a course that essentially climbed for 25kms, summited Faulhorn at 2500m, then descended back to town over 25kms. The sun was rising in the mountains as we hit the first aid station, and I took pleasure in sampling the European aid station selections of bread and cheese (which I had yet to do in my race career thus far). With an efficiency that would carry through the race, we were in and out of the aid station, and making our way up higher and higher.

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Views from the first climb

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We ran past waterfalls, parallel with indescribable mountain views, both of us in awe of the scenery we were experiencing. There was a lot of snow on the mountain, and as we passed some mountain gorgeous lakes, it became more and more present on the course. Increasingly technical climbs presented themselves as we had to run and scramble up to the last aid station we would see before summiting Faulhorn. It was a barn, with a very distinct smell of animals. I filled up on cheese and bread again, and we moved off. Before long, we rounded a bend and came to a sudden halt. Something was going on, and everyone had stopped. I heard a lot of bells, and then felt an animal push into me. Goats. Goats everywhere. There was a heard of goats, blocking the bridge crossing, and just causing absolute chaos. They clearly were un-fazed and unimpressed with our presence, and just moved on and off the trail as they pleased. We slowly crossed, and to our dismay, would spend our hardest climb of the day, batting the goats for position on the trail. It was steep, covered in snow, and a grinder of a climb to the summit. Narrow trails, and with all the snow, slippery and hard work to progress efficiently. Goats would push past, through (as in in between your legs) and generally be menaces, including pushing many people over. One even attempted to eat my race bib. It was absolutely the craziest race experience of my life. As the sun beat down on us, we slowly but surely made our way up to the summit. As it got closer, it was noticeable how the altitude was affecting many. Short and sharp breaths, both from the thin mountain air, and the effort of exertion climbing straight up. We hit the aid station and finally ditched the goats, who had been fun company for all of three seconds and nightmares for the other kilometres we ‘shared’ the trails with them. Amelia and I had both been craving broth, and we finally got our wish. It was cold on top of the mountain despite the sun, but the views were perfect. We had to wait in a line to access the aid station (something that would have annoyed me more if I had been racing), but we eventually got our fill of coke, broth and more bread for me.

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Climbing up
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Goats
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A Goat and a view from the summit

As we left, I could see a lot of snow on the course. People were falling over and clearly very challenged by the terrain. Trekking poles were making little difference, and it didn’t seem that any shoe brands were better than others. We took the first section very carefully, heeding the race markings saying walk, as it was treacherous. We began to run soon after, and joined the ranks of runners doing a hybrid of running, skiing and falling over. I had put gloves on at this point, as I didn’t want my frequent falls in the snow to give me cold hands. It was tough going. Big rocks were covered by the snow (so it was difficult to know whether it was a soft or hard landing if we fell), and it didn’t take long for one of those falls to really open up my knee. My tradition of racing with a bloody knee was back! For a good few hours, we had to navigate razor edges that were covered in ice that would easily send you to your death if you slipped. Rope ladders down sections that were dangerous enough without the snow, and steep technical descents that I ran with a mix of extreme caution and reckless abandon. The snow and conditions posed a entirely new challenge to me, and I was reminded once again that the mountains don’t care. It was madness, and everyone running was dealing with it in their own way. I was surprisingly calm and at least had an air of confidence about me in how I ran this section, but I was definitely challenged. It was hard work emotionally, and there were plenty of others really getting broken down by this. After what felt like an eternity, the trails become more and more runable, and the snow began to disappear of the trail. The sun was shining! After taking a few minutes to mentally reset after that prior challenging section, we pushed on, and began running with more vigour. It was rolling descents, so whilst our major climb of the day was done, the course would see us continue to roll up and down on our way back to Grindelwald. Learning and sharing from my Trasnvulcania experience, I became quite aggressive when trying to pass people, knowing that if we didn’t make strong moves, we would be forever stuck in a line of people. Most were gracious in  allowing us past (which wasn’t my experience at Transvulcania), and we made solid progress. It was really hot by this stage, and definitely summer running in the mountains. We passed green pastures, beautiful lakes, and locals spotted around who would spend their day cheering for everyone. I was having a blast, and we were chipping away at the course nicely. The descents were more of a challenge, as I had to measure running in my rhythm, but staying with Amelia. I was ever mindful of the fact we were a team, and it had a vastly different feel to pacing someone. I also was aware that had I been running with someone else, I wouldn’t want them to run too far ahead and just leave me. Not once did it feel like our dynamic wasn’t working, as we both took turns leading, chatting, and on occasions I would run out a bit, then wait to regroup. Our goal of moving steady was working well, and whilst challenging us both in different ways, we were smiling. The descents began to get steeper, and more aggressive. The carnage of an ultra was more apparent with aid stations having a myriad of runners strewn about with various physical and mental issues. The mountains were showing once again they didn’t care, and that you disrespect them at your own peril.

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As we came into a very built up section of trails, the descents became highly technical again. We ran past a runner about to be airlifted out with what looked like a serious injury preventing her from walking. Yikes. Tired legs and technical descents are brutal. After some quite intense ups and downs, it appeared we were really dropping altitude fast. I turned around to check-in with Amelia, to see no one behind me. Shortly after, she came around the trail, in visible distress. IT-band issues. Not major, but her left IT had suddenly flared up, and as any ultra runner knows, down-hills are excruciating if you blow a quad or IT. She was tough, but it was clearly hurting her. We didn’t have a huge amount left to descend, probably 700m (over 3-4 kms of steep downhill running). So we took it easy, power-hiked, and deliberately made efforts to look after her leg. It was a gruelling period, and the horrendous inclines did not make things easy. But slowly and surely, we hit the bottom. 45kms, and the 50km aid station for the 100km runners. Amelia was ready for a reset, so whilst she ate and took a breather, I took advantage of the massive pan of fresh pasta cooking, and devoured a huge bowl. Most of my prior races I took no time to enjoy the aid station food, so I relished my pasta with extra Parmesan, fresh bread and washed it down with some chocolate and watermelon. After five or so minutes, we decided it was time to finish this thing. So we did. It was mostly flat running to the finish, following a river all the way back to the town proper. We ran parts, hiked parts, and just didn’t push too hard. I didn’t need to race, and blowing out Amelia’s IT made no sense. We kept a consistent pace, chatted, noted how sunburnt we seemed to be (and dreading our post-race tan lines which were in fact AWFUL), and just kept pushing to the finish. We kept moving, and before long the town was in clear view. We kept eating the distance up, and could feel the finish getting closer and closer. Coming up along the town, we had to hike back up to the main strip, the final obstacle of the day. It wasn’t steep, or that long. But after nearly 10 hours of running, it felt it. Up we went, and then we breached the main street. It was over, we just had to run that final 100 or so metres, through the crowds, and up over a random ramp, and into the finish. We ran, as I cheered Amelia forward. We came into the final straight, saw Mat cheering, and crossed over the finish line. 13th place in our category. We hugged, and then Amelia went to see Mat (who had raced that day too). I drank a ton of coke, ate some food, sat down for 10 minutes, drank a beer, and then headed back to shower and sort myself out, and then celebrate with Amelia and Mat.

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Enjoying the scenery mid-race

That was me done. My final big effort for the year, and a stunning race to finish my first season racing elite level ultras. I felt good, and any physical effects remnant from Lavaredo a few weeks earlier weren’t showing. Most importantly, mentally and emotionally I was happy to be there. Happy to be out in the mountains, happy to be hurting, to feel that burn that only an ultra can give. To be out in some beautiful yet aggressive mountains, and just running. Amelia had completed the biggest race of her life, and we had worked as a team the entire day. I loved partnering with her in this effort, and it gave me a new experience in the mountains. Technically, I was exposed to a range of different alpine challenges, including dealing with heavy snow, and both ascents and descents in icy and snowy conditions. Whilst only a shorter ultra for me (comparative to my year), the sheer technicality of the Eiger was evident. These are big mountains, serious mountains. I am thankful for the opportunities and time I got to spend in them. Thankful for the lessons received, for the humbling moments, and for the beauty I am so grateful that I get to revel in. Whilst I have plenty of things happening in the remainder of 2016, my ultra racing is now looking to 2017. Big goals, big adventures and more opportunities to push up as far against that line as I can.

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Stoked to finish

Strava Data: https://www.strava.com/activities/642901460

Gear:

Nike short shorts (#NRC branded), singlet, trucker hat, gloves and socks

Nike Wildhorse 3 Shoes

Ultimate Direction Jurek 2 Vest with 2 bottles up front only

Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket (Meets & exceeds all waterproof, seam sealed and technical standards required by European Mountain races)

Suunto Ambit 3 Run GPS Watch

Nutrition:

Tailwind all day! Green tea, and the berry flavours. 100% success rate since the first time I used it.

Plus aid station fare of pasta, bread, cheese, crisps, chocolate and lots of coke.

Thank YOU for taking the time to read this! Always appreciated

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