Where do I begin? I suppose where I left off, and that was with me pulling out of the Outlaw 11 miles into the marathon. A difficult thing for me to do, but during that run, in honesty it was one of the few moments I had actually given thought to the Transalpine, what it entailed and how prepared I was – what I saw I didn’t like…
3 weeks before, I had hobbled my way round the final lap of Ironman Switzerland to a disappointing marathon time of 4.22 on a flat course and all I had to show for it was two IV drips. I was massively lacking in run endurance, with only 5 weeks before one of the toughest multi stage endurance events on the calendar.
In the brief weeks before Outlaw, if Switzerland hadn’t wrecked me enough I was clearly set on finishing myself off. I wouldn’t say I did too much in terms of volume, but went WAY too hard in terms of intensity - hilly but short rides to Luzern 2 days after IMCH and short club rides of 50 miles or so (but on my fixie) were not what I needed – all very valuable lessons for anyone who wants to attempt two Ironman events in short succession though! You can’t go too easy! It’s supposed to be active recovery not self-annihilation.
My complete state of metabolic disrepair was confirmed by Metabolic Solutions during a steady state testing the week of Outlaw – my ability to source energy efficiently in terms of endurance racing was more or less non existent, I was on a knife edge.
We all know what happened at Outlaw – and so I was then left to back up my decision to pull out for the sake of training. In the following 3 weeks I ran as consistently as possible - twice a day when I could, and as much as I could manage whilst at the same time trying to climb out of a black hole of fatigue.
Mileage wise I managed 18, 25 and 30 miles respectively in the 3 weeks before Transalpine. I was aiming to up my run efficiency as possible but so daunted was I by the task ahead when I gave brief consideration to Transalpine, I could only laugh at the mediocrity of my efforts. Laughter would be my new plan. Mountain ahead! A mountain you say?? Mwahahahahahah - done.
At least Oli was going to be knackered from his exploits at UTMB the week before Transalpine, right? RIGHT?! Wrong. Even after cancellations Oli still managed to cram in in excess of 120km of running that weekend, (most of which hungover) – For most this would warrant either a stay in hospital or retirement– but for a robot – the perfect taper!!
As hideously unprepared as I was, I knew I had to put it out of my mind. Negative thoughts wouldn’t help me. I joked about using laughter, but a positive outlook goes a very long way, that and never ever giving up. Ever.
Stage 1: Ruhpolding – St. Ulrich am Pillersee
Stage Position Men’s (SP): 51/86
Men’s Ranking (MR): 51/86
So the scene was set – even the steady rain on race morning wasn’t enough to dampen the atmosphere. I was already enjoying myself, more food than you could shake a stick at, great camaraderie, and even some people less experienced (although perhaps more prepared) than myself. It all served as a perfect distraction from the goliath task ahead. With a helicopter flying overhead, highway to hell and the Transalpine theme song ‘Keep on running’ pumping from the speakers I was apprehensive yet gee-ed up, safe in the knowledge that as tough and tiring as these first days are, they often pass quickly as the mind is distracted by the feast of new experiences available.
Wrong again. After a perfectly manageable 10km run along a towpath to the first moderate, but entirely manageable climb, there was a short descent along forest service road to a second, larger climb. This ascent began with a run up a series of planks laid over a couple of killometres of boggy fields. Forcing the competitors into single file it gave pause for breath, then it started to get (a little) more serious. I’m not a skier, and my experience of the slopes entails sliding slowly down long but very steep escarpments on my backside, except there was a lift to carry me back to the top – I’ve never walked, uh, I mean run up one of them. It turns out they are steep! Anyway, as we summitted I had a quick cup of soup, and then began the steep descent down the other side. This really is something you need to know how to do. Slow yourself too much, you’ll toast your quads, too fast and you lose control. After the earlier downpour the descent was slippery, and seemingly never-ending (never-ending descents a prevalent feature of this race).
I was relieved to reach the end of the descent and get through the last checkpoint. With only 8km ‘flat’ to the finish, I made the rookie error of allowing myself to think it was over. It took an age to cover those last 5km. Not because I was running THAT slowly, but because it must have been a country mile between the sign for 3km and 2km to go. This was the first of many ‘longest 5kms of my life’. The entire stretch I was having to work much harder than I wanted and my initial estimates were that my endurance seemed to last only about 30km, and this was an easy stage. I wanted and felt I needed much, much more in the tank.
Instant amnesia is a great technique for these multi-day events. Once something is done, put it out of mind. We got in just before another downpour, got some food, organised our camping position (away from the door) of the dormitory (we were sleeping in school classrooms), got showered and went for a beer.
Stage2: St Ulrich am Pillersee – Kitzbuhel
Having eaten an obscene amount of food the night before, I felt as though I had some energy and was surprisingly supple. Short-term recovery and damage limitation had gone well, no blisters, no sign of injury, bring on day two.
This was another double ascent/descent day. The second ascent being a nasty slog up to the Kitzbuhelhorn. The field started in pens A, B and C , and with us being below 40th position in our category, we were in pen C. Each pen started 5 minutes apart in order to ease congestion on the first hill. As Oli and I had discussed, to minimise delay, I ran hard (Oli followed) for the first 2km uphill and we were second from our pen to the first climb. However because the pens are organised by position in category, we were actually still behind many of those below us in the overall standings, and as we hit the first climb the moment the course went to single track, it was at a standstill. This apparently left us with the only solution of making up time on the downhill.
Regardless, the congested climb offered stunning views and actually served as a great warm up for the stage ahead. Over the summit there was a shallow (in transalpine terms) descent down soft grassy fields and forest service road. I bombed it as hard as I could, and despite losing Oli ahead of me all the time, we overtook many teams.
N.B. At this point in the race I still had a moderate ability to descend with a reasonable speed, every decent however (due to their sheer extent) had a slowly accumulating fatiguing effect.
The day then started to get hot as the second climb begun, and I misjudged the length of the climb and used up my water before it had really begun. What ensued was not enjoyable. Cruelly taunted by water troughs brimming over with crystal clear water trickling down the mountain from above, I knew the water was not fit to drink with fields of grazing cows milling around. I slowed and slowed. Reluctant to eat the gels or nuts I had with nothing to quench the insatiable thirst. I was left with little option but to tough it out as a steady stream of slow moving competitors moved past. There is a somewhat comedic photo of me at the summit of this climb, before the final descent into Kitzbuhel. I don’t look happy, but I can’t even remember if I was putting that face on!
The lack of attention to hydration and nutrition on that climb also began to rear its ugly head on the descent. Whilst we still managed to overtake a few teams, the majority came back past us on the final flat 2km into Kitzbuhel. I was absolutely hanging, and even Oli’s attempts at cajoling me to run hard for the final metres were quickly snubbed - I was totally wiped. So that’s it then, I’ve managed 2 days I thought. Getting food in was tough immediately after that stage and to me a sure sign I’ve overcooked it. With no camp accommodation we at least had the comfort of a hotel for the night, and I still managed two full 3 course meals that evening at the pasta party. I hadn’t quite realised the importance of how much good this would do for me, but the importance of eating more than you think you could possibly ever eat cannot be understated in multi-stage races such as this.
That night we were treated to a live performance by Marty from ‘Tumble Weed’ as he sang live (and quite well) the Transalpine theme song ‘keep on running’, twice.
Stage 3: Kitzbuhel – Neukirchen am Grossvenediger
With day two having gone absolutely excellently, I was thoroughly looking forward to the longest stage of the race this year. A steep climb out the other side of Kitzbuhel up a world cup downhill ski slope (pretty steep) followed by prolonged descent along forest service road. Then its does get serious with a semi-exposed climb up above the snowline to about 2100m and a 10km technical traverse on icy, rocky terrain at altitude, finishing with a beastly 10km descent of about 1200m into Neukirchen! I tried not to think about it.
At the first checkpoint, at the top of the first climb, we picked up a 3rd team member. As is often the case in this race, people succumb to injury and are forced to pull out. This leaves the remaining team partner with the option of withdrawing also, or pairing up with another team. The competitor called Jonas or as we decided to call him ‘J’ asked if he could run with us for the remainder of the stage. He was from Sweden, yet spoke excellent English. He said he’d go at our (read my) pace and Oli and I were happy to have him along. We got to a chatting and asking about his previous experience - a few weeks previously he had won the unsupported category of a 246km non-stop foot race. Great – another robot for company.
Anyway, distracted by the new teammate, as we chatted away and got to know him the time seemed to pass quickly up until the traverse. It was difficult running, one moment muddy, then snow, then slush, then ice, then rocky trail and everything in between. It was difficult to find a rhythm and having been on our feet for nearly 6 hours by the time we reached the final checkpoint before the last descent I was exhausted.
The descent took over an hour, and I had to stop several times to recouperate such was the toll that the ‘never-ending’ descent was taking on my legs. With the concentration that descending requires, I found it hard to stay focussed, and every time I stumbled on a branch or rocks, mostly out of fatigue and the effort required to lift my legs, I became frustrated and angry. The kind of anger you get when you stubb a toe. Grrrr! The temperature also started to rise as we descended further and it became quite hot towards the end. I was incredibly relieved to finish the stage. We got some food on board – personally I had 3 fruit smoothies supplied by the Buff stand, two cheese and ham rolls and a local ice cream. Topped off with a beer as we soaked our legs in a cold fountain by the finish, we then dried off in deck chairs lounging in the sun – although knackered, it was the first time it felt like a ‘holiday’.
For the pasta party that evening we got the cable car up the mountain we had just descended, and worryingly for the first time – I couldn’t finish my meal. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, I did have a salad bowl bigger than my head and a large desert, just left some of my rice ;-)
Stage 4: Neukirchen am Grossvenediger – Prettau im Ahrntal
I got a shocking nights sleep – laying in one position for more than a few minutes had led to an accumulatory burning sensation in my legs, coupled with my feet in general feeling like they were in an oven, didn’t help.
The previous afternoon, Jonas had asked whether it was ok if he could run with us again for this stage and since he had been great company we were happy to accept. The dynamic in a team of 3 is very different to that of just 2 members and offers a nice variety in terms of conversation. It would certainly be needed – with another marathon distance to tackle, the highest altitude of the race and a double climb before the ‘rest’ day on day 5.
The stage didn’t start well, and after about half an hour of running along the road and trail even before the very steep climb up alongside a huge waterfall, I was slowing up. A good way to ruin tired legs is running on a flat road surface. I could feel both ITBs beginning to tighten. After reaching the top of the waterfall there was then a very long stretch of flat/rolling road, which again wound its way up a valley before the day’s major climb.
Although breathtaking to observe the valley walls rising higher and higher each side of us as we made our way towards an enormous snow covered wall at the end of the valley, it went on for an age. With all of this section ‘runnable’ it made it that much harder to keep going. I couldn’t wait for the ascent and an excuse to walk. I had no strategy such as ‘run 10, walk 1’, which probably made it tougher, but it was hard enough to concentrate on keeping moving. I ran when I could, and any effort to do so felt like I had to give everything to manage it. I was closing in on that ‘dark place’.
Now I say I couldn’t wait for that ascent, I probably could have done. It was about 800m up steep single track up to 2669m. For the first time I had started to notice the altitude, and I was just so tired I found it hard to work hard enough to stay warm. I stopped to put a jacket on ¾ of the way up to the top since I was getting cold and took the chance to eat 2 mini-tubs of honey from the hotel from breakfast and a power bar. The weather closed in and as we approached the summit, visibility noticeably decreased and the entire rocky trail was slow going, covered in snow and slippery. From behind there was some shouting and the partner of team member 122 was called for, apparently his team mate had hypothermia and they were calling for the other team partner to go back. About 5 minutes later 3 mountain guides came running down the mountain path ahead of me with blankets. That girl was apparently air lifted off the mountain.
The usual relief of summitting was not long lived, as the first portion of the descent the other side was bordering on treacherous and even more exposed that the final steps of the ascent. This still got me moving a little more and soon the honey kicked in. After only 10 minutes or so my enthusiasm for descending began to wane and I was reduced to a hobbling shuffle down the steps. This was until I realised we had 45 minutes to the final cut off at the last checkpoint of the day and about 5km still to travel. 45 minutes and 5km may not seem like much of a task, but having run over 150km in the past 4 days and after another 6 hours on my feet, getting a shift on presented a problem. Especially with a 1km of technical descent on shot legs to tend to. I told myself that 45 minutes of pain (more than I was already in) was worth it after having come so far and we picked up the pace. We made the checkpoint with 15 minutes to spare, and after that had time to finish the stage at our leisure. I was relieved we were still in the competition but as the last 5km ticked by, they again took forever. We finished another mammoth 7.5 hour effort in the pouring rain, and after only a luke warm shower to freshen up, I treated myself to my first massage of the race. I partly fell asleep during the 20 minute massage but it was good to loosen off the legs a bit. I could relax though – one of the major efforts of the race was over, back to back marathons tackled without injury, we were past half way and there was only 29km and 1500m of ascent to do the next day. I hadn’t checked the course info, but it was probably all downhill from there on in too? Almost Laughable.
Almost. The race briefing that evening didn’t share such an optimistic outlook. Due to a mudslide across part of the course, they had to extend the route by 5km, oh AND add in another 300m of ascent. This announcement was met with a massive groan and the ‘rest’ day was all of a sudden looking not so restful after all.