Stage 5: Prettau im Ahrntal – Sand in Taufers
The forecast for the remainder of the race was rain for the next couple of days but clearing up after that. Although the course had been extended for the day somewhat, I was still optimistic of a quick(ish) finish and the opportunity to rest up a little. I knew stage 7 was supposed to be a toughie so it was still all about holding on – damage limitation was the name of the game.
This stage was tougher than expected, and looking back the toughest of them all for me. By this point in the race, I had lost the ability to descend with any speed, and any descent was becoming pretty painful. I hadn’t paid much attention to the actual details of the stage in terms of figures, but stage 5 offered up the largest cumulative descent of the race.
The first climb was straight up to 2500m odd and fairly exposed. Colder than the day before but less miserable weather. Followed by shortish descent, another climb then a tricky traverse followed by a long continuous descent to the finish.
I was fine until the second traverse and final descent. I kept stopping. Couldn’t find a rhythm, and although I could see Sand in Taufers in the valley below, it wasn’t getting any closer. I felt trapped in the run, and even though I was slowly moving forward, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Despite doubts that it ever would, the stage came to an end eventually, and we head straight to the camp by shuttle bus to shower, change and rest up. Despite the usual excellent organisation, they had somehow sent our bags to a hotel where there were some other competitors staying. Bagless and in damp clothes from the days run with only a hard mat to rest on, we gave in and head to the bar to salvage what we could of our recovery time. Mistakingly ordering only 2 dl of beer each at first, we soon realised there were larger glasses available. We sampled these and after further research, it turned out that they actually had pint glasses too - it would have been rude not to….
Stage 6: Sand in Taufers – St. Vigil
After another terrible nights sleep – I did NOT want to get up. I awoke to the relentless hammering of rain on the sports hall roof. Usually this would be reason enough to dodge a Cally session, but with almost another marathon to cover I was not in the mood. Breakfast was hard to force down, and the race was beginning to take its toll.
The stage profile was more or less a half marathon along a valley (on tarmac) followed by a huge 1500m ascent in one go and a vicious descent down the other side. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to start what described by the race organisers as the hardest stage of the gore-tex transalpine run they had ever put together.
I managed the first 10km in 57 minutes, but the second took a little longer. I had started to slow after about 15km and after rounding a corner I saw Oli walking up ahead (he usually ran just ahead of me at a constant speed then walks waiting for me to catch up – just as I do, he starts to run again. Endless torment basically – like some twisted nightmare, but it kept me moving.) Just for good measure as I caught up with him this time, he didn’t start running straight away but said ‘What happened? you were right behind me?!’. ‘I don’t know Oli – I’m probably just dying very slowly?’
Oli has a way of communicating that is very direct – not to be misinterpreted, but sometimes as frustrating as it is consistent. If I took it to heart, it would break me, so I found some of it best to deflect with sarcasm or ignore entirely. My other favourite Oli quote from the race was ‘Andy, I’m sorry but, I just can’t walk that slowly’ on the ascent of the Kitzbuhelhorn on the second day - this was whilst I was bonking massively and slow expiring from thirst! On reflection – quite amuing. Whilst both Oli and I disagreed from time to time, I took heart in our dynamic for Polar Challenge since we always seemed to be able to put it behind us with ease and move on.
Despite tightening up through my hips – the climb was soon upon us and offered respite from the painful jogging. After nearly 2 hours of solid climbing – soon began an excruciating descent. It was so seriously steep that by the final checkpoint merely 1km over the summit when Oli offered painkillers I dosed up on pro plus and ibruprofen in an attempt to make the remainder more manageable. This was the first ibruprofen I had taken during the race and it was the last. No matter how painful things are I am now under the firm belief – your body and your mind is better at coping with it than non-prescription pain relief. Other than the wired effect of the caffeine I got causing me to sprint the final 100m in probably a pb the ibruprofen did little to ease the discomfort. There is a bit of a culture of popping some ibruprofen before a race in triathlon even for ‘precautionary’ purposes- my advice – save your liver the hassle.
Finishing the stage was a big relief and it finished in great weather, and despite getting stung by a wasp in the neck (which even left its sting in there pulsating and repeatedly stinging me through some dismembered reflex mechanism for good measure)– after a coffee and a sit in the local stream to chill my now club-like feet – my mood had noticeably improved from the morning’s huge lows.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we the stage was a LOT tougher for others than it was for me – we finished in our highest position yet and climbed 17 positions in the overall standings. It just goes to show how tough running on the flat tarmac is on your body.
As a testament to that my legs felt very, very sore.
Stage 7: St. Vigil – Niderdorf im Pustertal
In my mind – this was the last hurdle – if I could make it through the day, nothing would stop me from reaching the finish. The entire second half of the race had been much harder psychologically than I had anticipated. Originally I thought that once I was past half way, it would only get easier, but it was quite the opposite, still having so far to go, time had slowed down and the finish somehow seemed further and further away.
Stage 7 was a BEAST! 10km gentle incline, then 2 pretty serious climbs with descents just as savage. We were now firmly in the dolomites and this stage produced the most outstanding scenery of the race – it was truly incredible. Every view I felt like I had really earned it, and that made it all the more sweet to take in.
The second climb really took it out of me and the final run into the finish from the final checkpoint (about 8km) all gentle downhill – well the less said about that the better. The final two km were all dead flat, and on an exposed (what seemed to be) baking hot road. This wasn’t the longest 5km of my life – this was the longest 2km of my life. I’ve never had to concentrate on running so much and on finishing I felt nearly as broken as I did after Ironman CH. This was complete exhaustion – if there had been any more than 1 day to go – I would have quit there and then. Beneath the elation of only having 1 day to go, I was completely demoralised. To make matters worse, as I slowly shuffled over to get a massage, I could feel my groin was very tight and weak, dangerously reminiscent of when I injured myself back in February. Too tired to care – shamefully, I ignored it.
Stage 8: Niederdorf im Pustertal – Sexten
So I’d done it! The last stage – 33.4km between Team Pure Sports Medicine and the finish. Course profile? Who cares!, it was the last stage. I just had to get through and nothing was going to stop me.
It was a cold clear start, with only one ascent and descent to tackle, and the prospect of a sun-soaked finish in Sexten was enough to spur even my weary legs into action and initially distract me from the twinge I had felt the day before.
During the flat 12km run out to the first checkpoint, sure enough my legs began to tighten and with it my groin. A casual rest at the penultimate checkpoint before the last climb up past the spectacular Drei Zinnen – three huge spires of rock standing next to one another - an incredible structure and if you are ever near there - a must see!
As the climb began my groin almost immediately became painful, and not the usual ‘I’ve just run 185 miles’ painful, the ‘you’re about to get injured’ painful – trust me, there is a difference. I voiced my concerns to Oli and he asked me if I wanted to stop. My memory of this sequence of events is not that clear, and this may not have been the exact question he asked, but it seemed to be what he was getting at. I couldn’t really believe that was the case, because who could stop now? We had just run 300 of 310km, 8 of the remaining 10km were downhill – stop now?!
I suggested that it might seem a bit strange to quit having come so far (at the time I was thinking ‘he can’t be f***ing serious!!’), and as he made example of another british pair (2nd in the overall mixed category who had to sadly pull out on the final stage through injury), I retorted with ‘but they’ve finished it before, they have nothing to prove’. All he said was ‘that’s not really the point’. In silence, I carried on trudging up the hill as people walked past, slowing, and wincing with each ascending step of my left leg. As we approached a bench I just sat down as Oli stood there staring off into the mountains, patiently waiting. It was decision time.
I knew my brother and his girlfriend were waiting in Sexten to greet us at the finish – but even their potential disappointment seemed to pale into insignificance whilst I weighed up my options. It was either...
...finish and potentially do some serious damage, followed by many more months of frustrating rehab with no running...
...OR stop there, walk back down to the checkpoint whilst Oli finished, still potentially be injured and also miss out on the feeling of succeeding in one the hardest physical challenges I am likely to ever undertake.
Decision made – I’d have to get off the mountain somehow, it was going to be down the other side! It doesn’t seem like a tough decision, but with the responsiblity of my medium and long term fitness - I owe it to the team and all our sponsors to keep myself in good working order, it wasn’t quite that simple. Not to mention I couldn’t honestly bare the thought of doing soley physio exercises for the next 4-6 months (even though they are awesome Kate - totally awesome ;-) )
Damage limitation was yet again on my mind as I asked to borrow Oli’s sticks for the remainder of the ascent – pathetic I know, but they did help. And as I gingerly jogged the first few paces of the descent I was pleased to feel the pain in my groin largely dissipate. I pushed a little harder and still good – rock and roll - ‘lets finish this’ I thought. I gave myself the target of overtaking at least 12 teams (the number that had overtaken us on the climb) since I didn’t want to lose our overall position if I could help it. Oli had arbitrarily put the target of ‘top 40’ out there on day 5 which we achieved by day 6 – I didn’t want to let him down and lose it!
I bombed it, and sure enough, by the final checkpoint 12 teams were overtaken. The final 5km from the checkpoint in was yet again ‘the longest…..etc’ only memorable for two things – 1) Oli almost standing on a snake on the service road as we left the checkpoint (a very close call – that snake was NOT happy) and 2) the most awesome feeling as I ran down the finish chute – I went mental – and must have looked it too jumping up and down shouting my head off. I ran over to Philbo (my brother) and Charlie (his gf) – Oli and I stole their beers. We crossed the finish line – man-hugged, and soaked up the moment – we were offered glasses of champagne as we crossed – which I promptly poured into the remainder of my beer and downed (to the looks of disgust from the girls pouring it) – it tasted so very good.
Job done – big thanks to Oli for sticking with me - again he’s helped me to achieve what I thought out of reach, to Everydaytraining for their sound advice and training plans, and Pure Sports Medicine for fixing both Oli and myself in times of disrepair, both before and after the race!!
What an amazing experience. Would I go back?