Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Swissalpine K78 Race Report

The Swissalpine K78 bills itself as the "world's biggest ultramarathon and an ultimate challenge". At 78 km and 2660 metres of climbing, the race quickly grabbed my attention when I looked around for an ultra within reach of the French town I would be staying in for my summer holiday. The event also came highly recommended by a nice chap called Richard from Leeds, with whom I ran most of the Oldham Way Ultra back in March. Richard had run the K78 four times after getting interested in ultrarunning and couldn't speak highly enough of the event. This was quite a relief, as I'd already paid the entry fee by the time I met him. Speaking of which, I'll say up front that I thought the Swissalpine wass really good value for money, particularly as the entry fee includes not only a huge number of aid stations but also a return train ticket from anywhere in Switzerland to the race start in Davos. This encouragement to use public transport both to and during the race is a great move by the organizers, and must dramatically reduce the number of car trips involved.

Early morning, at the start
The K78 was not the only event held on the day - it's actually just the longest race in a series which also included the K10 (10km), K21 (half-marathon), K30 (30km), C42 (very hilly marathon), and K42 (even more hilly marathon!), as well as a series of walks and children's races - the weekend is very inclusive and caters for all abilities. The K21, K30, C42, K42 and K78 all use the same route and just start and stop at different points. The K78, as the longest race, does a full loop out from Davos and back again; the K30 starts in the same place and stops at a town called Filisur; The C42 ends at the next town along, Bergün, which is also where the K42 begins. Again, the rail system is used really sensibly, and those starting and ending part-way round the K78 course are shuttled up and down the valleys by Rhaetian Railways, all included in the entry price.

But there was to be no shuttling for me, since I was doing the full K78 from Davos back to Davos (thereby, technically, meaning I would run at zero kph no matter how well I performed). I was joined at the start line by my friend Vince, who a few weeks earlier decided he would come along and have a go at the C42 marathon, despite never having run more than 5 miles before. He's not one to shy away from a challange is our Vince.

Vince at the start line. He'd later regret carrying those sunglasses

At the start line

After our glorious ride across Switzerland the day before, the weather had dawned wet and grey on race day, and it would go on to rain almost all day. As we stood on the starting line, the announcer told us that it was forecast to get to no more than 7 Celsius on the Sertig Pass that day. I was glad of my arm-warmers. A guy with about 15 race medals jangling round his neck bounced past us waving a South African flag.

"I'm looking for South Africans!" he shouted.

"I'm married to one," I said. "Does that count?"

"We're hard work, aren't we? Have a great race!" He bounced off again like Tigger.

View from the start line
The race began right on time, with around 1500 runners bursting out of the sports stadium and onto Davos's streets. There was plenty of room to find your own pace, and Vince and I quickly settled into 5 minute kilometres as the route took a long loop through the town, the streets lined with cheering people who were undeterred by the rain. The staff of all the local bakeries were out waving and shouting.

We ran under the railway lines and then were out into the countryside - roads then tracks across rolling green fields hemmed in by dramatic mountains. Up through villages full of clanging cowbells and people shouting "Hopp! Hopp! Hopp!" to encourage us on. I was particularly impressed with one village where they had an automated cowbell-ringing machine - perhaps the most specialised labour-saving device I've ever encountered.

Between about 10 and 20 km, the route ran up into woodland on the lower slopes of some mountains, much of the way on singletrack full of tangled tree roots that required much vigilance. I pulled slightly ahead of Vince here, and last saw him still looking strong as I switchbacked downhill off a road just after Monstein.

Through Monstein
From Monstein we dropped steeply down through the scented and dripping pine forests, the rain drumming on our heads, to the Landwasser river valley. Leaving the woodland, the next 10 km saw the route hug the valley-side on a track high above the river. I ran through dramatic dark tunnels bored through the rock, unable to see what I was stepping on.

This valley was dominated by the river and by the railway hacked into the hillsides above it, occasionally crossing from one side to another on astonishing viaducts. I kept hearing the distant mournful sound of the train whistle echoing from the rock walls. The route took us on a narrow walkway over the Wiesener Viadukt, where the runner in front of me was so stunned by the sight of the river crashing below that he just stopped and muttered "WOW!". From there we dropped down and down to pass at river-level under the towering arches of the famous Landwasser Viadukt, which graces almost every tourist poster for Davos and the surrounding area.

On Wiesener Viadukt

That's the foot of the Landwasser Viadukt behind
From the viaduct it was a short run into Filisur, where the 30k race ended. Filisur, like most of the towns, had a flock of enthusiastic Swedish supporters waving a huge national flag. The Swedish supporters were easily the most vocal of the event, and would give a massive cheer if you even looked at them. They were great for morale! Sweden seemed to have the greatest number of entrants after Switzerland, most notably Jonas Buud, who had won the K78 every year since 2007. He would go on to win again today, with an astonishing time of six and a half hours.

Although nominally the difference between the K30 and the K42 was just 12 kilometers, in reality the two events were far more different than that. The next stretch, to Bergün, dropped right down to river level before firing up a long long twisting slope that climbed nonstop about 500 metres. I couldn't help but feel for Vince, who would soon be climbing all this on his first ever marathon.

I ran this leg in increasing distress. I had tried to kickstart the old digestive system that morning with two big coffees and a can of Red Bull. None of these had been enough to get the chew-chew train moving out of the station, but as I'd run into Filisur I had felt the terrible downward force of the Bowel Express working up to full steam. "Is there a toilet here?" I'd asked a woman at the Filisur aid station. "Just keep going," she replied with a gesture down the route - cruely failing to add "for another hour and a half" to the end of her sentence. All through the pre-Bergün climb I was eyeing up bushes for suitable hiding places but just about managed to hold disaster at bay. I burst into Bergün at high velocity, clocking a marathon time of 4:31:57 - fast enough that I would have come in 30th place if I'd been doing the C42! It just shows what alimentary distress and desperation can do for a runner. (If 4.5 hours sounds slow for a marathon time, you have to remember that this is with about 1200m of climbing on trails.)

Manfully masking my distress on the final descent to Bergün
Refreshed courtesy of a portaloo and nibbling on a bread roll, I started out of Bergün on the more difficult part of the day - into the high mountains towards the Sertig Pass. The route followed a sloping track of about 10% gradient alongside a mighty glacial river that crashed down its wide rocky bed. For about 6 kilometres the road sloped unremittingly up the river, and I made good progress up the ranks using a walk-run strategy whilst almost everybody else around me walked the entire way. With the C42 people gone, the overall pace felt far less frantic until the K42 runners started to appear later on. Everyone around me here was in it for the long haul.

Eventually the route left the river and started to climb even more severely - firing up a ridiculously steep and muddy track that seemed to go on forever. I counted my paces backwards from 100 to distract myself. The chill increased as the rain strengthened, and I slipped my arm-warmers back on. My watch was reporting gradients of over 30% (later confirmed by Strava) and my pace fell as low as 18 min/km up some of these paths - and I was going at least as fast as most of the runners around me. The long climb to Bergün now seemed like a happy memory!

At some point, without quite knowing how, I realised I had emerged above the tree line and was up in the alien world of the high Alps. Knots of tiny alpine flowers scattered the sodden grasslands; the ground was filled with streams and rivers over which we had to hop on makeshift stepping stones. Wet feet were inevitable. Everywhere there was the roaring sound of glacial meltwaters crashing down towards the valley below. The altitude was over 2600 metres and I was actually starting to feel some shortness of breath from the thinning air as a final steep and rocky ascent took the race to the Ketschhütte refuge.

At the Keschhütte
The temperature was cold up here, especially with the constant rain and drizzle, and the race organizers were handing out plastic ponchos. "Are you okay?" one of the helpers asked every runner, in very serious tones as she stared into their faces. Clearly she was tasked with looking out for any signs of hypothermia. Who'd have thought that we'd be worried about this in late July?!

Two thrilling kilometres of technical descent saw us begin to climb again to the highest point of the day - the remote Sertig Pass at over 2700m. Still fording streams and hopping rocks, the slope went up, and then up even more steeply, until finally, breathless and surrounded by the clanging cowbells of tiny grey Alpine cattle, I stumbled up to an organizer at the crest of the pass and called "Es gibt kein Luft hier!". "All downhill now!" he shouted back with a big smile.

At the Sertig Pass
I had a quick cup of warming soup from the aid station and then began the challenging descent to the valley. The path was steep and rocky, at times crossing ankle-snapping boulder fields and even a couple of patches of snow. I tried to focus on "flowing like water downhill", and really found myself in the zone, shooting past more cautious runners on the occasional points where the narrow track allowed passing. This whole section was enormously exciting as runners slid, stumbled and glided down 25+% slopes in a rolling mass of bodies.

Eventually we were on lower ground, with about 12 km to go to the finish line. Although at this point I was happy to start admitting to myself that I would finish, my legs really started to feel heavy. As the route took us on long rolling singletrack along forested hillsides, I felt myself bonking and was reduced to walking some sections until I could get more fuel in - clearly I'd not been hitting the gels enough. To force myself to run more I kept reminding myself of the most fundamental rule of ultrarunning: if you're wearing more than one piece of Salomon Exo clothing you look like a prat if you're not trying hard! Luckily the sugar replacement finally started to kick in around Sertig-Dörfli, as you can see from the photo below...

By the time we were 2 or 3 km from the finish I really started to feel that second wind, and actually knocked off one of the fastest splits of the day as the track sloped down through the woods above Davos, crossing ski slopes and cable car routes. A final little uphill slope through the town and there was the sports centre ahead of me! I ploughed through the entrance, the crowds cheering all around. As a victorious Vince burst from the trackside to run in with me, the announcer called my name and I crossed the line in 10:19:01, punching the air with a massive smile on my face. Today had been about having fun. And although I secretly would have liked to have got back in under 10 hours, and my failure to eat enough had scuppered that, I didn't much care. It wasn't a serious ambition, and being fast really wasn't the point of the day.

Approaching the finish line - That's Vince with his medal in the background
So overall, the K78 was a fantastic run. The organization of the race was superb. The entire route was marked with flags and tape and there was no danger of getting lost at any point. There were aid stations about every 5 km or even closer, meaning you could happily get away without carrying water if you wanted. Each had a different selection of drinks, many had snacks, and towards they end they even started stocking flat Coke (for which I'm eternally grateful).

Perhaps the only negative point of the whole day was that there was far less conversation than I'm used to. Having mostly run ultras in Britain so far, I'm used to spending long stretches chatting to my fellow runners. Here, I hardly spoke to anybody all day. I don't think this was just me either. I tried starting conversation a few times and got little more than polite single-sentence replies; I didn't hear many other runners talking along the way either. Perhaps it was a feature of the international field (there were over 60 nations represented) or just a cultural difference, but the effect was that, without the usual distraction one can find from conversation, I spent 10 hours in my own head with little to think of except running and which bits of my body ached. Thank goodness the views were so extraordinary.

But that's a minor thing, and was really the only downside to the whole day. Otherwise the race was superb and I would happily recommend a running trip to Davos to anybody next July. And to emphasize what value for money the race is, I don't need to point to the inclusive train ticket, the lovely medal or the stylish finisher shirt - I just need to tell you how, now I've checked my GPS track, I see that the 78 km route with 2660 m of climbing actually gets you 79.5 km and a full 3192 m of climbing. Honestly, those Swiss race directors are so modest about how much they provide!