The pain is long gone and the memories of the Eiger 101k are now largely of magnificent vistas, camaraderie shared amongst old and new friends, and the thought that the next race will be all the better from the strength and lessons gained.
Coming off an unexpected 5th place at mid-May’s Ultra Trail Australia, I was sure to get a good week of rest and active recovery before resuming training. Then as spring gave way to summer, my training turned a bit more vertical. But as anyone who's familiar with my training grounds in Chengdu knows, that's not an easy feat to accomplish. I’m surely not the only one who, after the leg pain subsides a bit, looks back on a race and the preceding training and thinks it could have gone better. However I do think I'm one of just a handful of front-packers who lives in the middle of a metropolis in a giant basin, thus my training needs to be a bit creative! While these creative workouts are no doubt better than just hitting flat roads or running track intervals, with them comes an inherent risk of little motivation to push for 10 ascents after ascending a 52-story building for the fifth time or pursuing a second hour of running Wal-Mart parking ramps after the first hour has passes.
Race morning came early to this town situated at 1000m elevation below the stark Eiger North Face. The 4:30AM start had me eating PB banana bagels at 2:15 and then I napped for a half hour longer. I stuffed the last bits of gear into my race vest and a halfway drop bag and headed out the door at 4AM with a few other friends to catch our ride to the start. I spent a few more moments rearranging gear, but then had a bit of trouble finding a vacant place for it atop the overflowing farm wagon that looked like it served hay-hauling duties the day prior. It made me think of a Chinese tourist I sat next to on the way into town who put on a surgical mask as if it could stifle the manure aroma wafting its way into the train and as if (presumably) the polluted city she just came from has better air than the Swiss Alps!
I was soon in the middle of a few guys I didn't recognize. Daylight hadn't arrived yet, and as we climbed a ‘VK’—a continuous ascent where we gained a 'Vertical Kilometer'--1000m in elevation—I looked down the mountainside into the valley and was struck by the scene of the bouncing orbs of six-hundred headlamps rank and file ascending the 6km long climb to CP1. The chilly air at this altitude largely kept sweat at bay, and I hoped the day wouldn't warm too much even as the ascending sun bathed the mountains in brilliant yellow hues. 50 minutes into the race I realized I'd not be at CP1 in time to get water into my dry Tailwind flask to start fueling at the hour mark, so I took half a gel as I stowed my headlamp for the day. Just ahead of me at that point was the wild black hair of Sange Sherpa; I pushed just a bit harder with my Gipron poles to close the gap. We don't know each other well, so I reintroduced myself and told him I was also there at the forward-most CP at Mt. Fuji’s STY last October when the 72km race was cancelled due to flooding on the course. On this day, though, we would yo-yo positions until he opened a gap of a few minutes around 30km. He'd finish in 12th around 12:35
Two years ago, I ran the 4 Sisters 60k Ultra in Sichuan Province, China that took me 14 hours to finish (due to a technical 40km being above 3700m), and I knew that this race could take nearly as long to complete. The Eiger Ultra's faster overall pace, warmer weather, and demanding long ascents and descents all combined to require much from us whether we finished in 11:01 as the German winner did or nearer to the 26 hour cutoff. As was the case with the last 1/3 of Ultra-Trail Australia, warm temperatures in the back half made hydration an utmost priority even as my stomach started to shut down.
Eiger was my fourth 100k and I can thankfully say that each one has been a quality result based on where I think I should be finishing in the field and on the expectations I placed on myself. This race showed me that though big-mountain ultras share the same requirements as their flatter counterparts, they are entirely different in respect to three dimensions. Though all three can be prepared for, the following lessons were re-enforced: (1) altitude is an insidious presence, (2) the long climbs and descents really require specific training to prepare for well, and (3) the mental challenge in this race really pushed me to my current limit!
If I ever doubted that the relatively low elevation of the Mile High City of Denver can affect athletes, I'll have to say John Ellis proved me wrong. His goal of completing the course in sub-14, I'll conservatively say, ended up far and away unattainable this time around. I greeted him at the line after 21:15 of arduous effort, most of it spent walking in what he might term an “energy-less stupor.” While I came through the race relatively unscathed by the altitude, I could definitely feel its affects above 2200m and couldn’t really prepare well for this race beforehand. I spent a week at altitude three weeks before the race, but that’s not enough time physiologically-speaking for the body to make any significant gains to prepare for a high altitude race. John has since went on the defensive and is sleeping in an altitude tent in his HK apartment to prepare for a 120km also in the same location and on the same weekend as my next race.
The location of CP’s (plentiful at about 14 in total) was typically on passes, summits after a climb or valleys after a descent. There was a certain relief in arriving to a hut or shelter (or woodworking factory for one CP) after a long climb or gnarly descent and getting a couple minutes to take in some food and liquids, rest for a minute or two, and then regroup just enough to shuffle back out on to the course. I felt quite sluggish at all CP’s after 34km upon arrival to the highest summit—the Faulhorn. The change in grade after each CP, though welcome, was also tough to handle because I felt that the downhills—usually a place to relax and pass some people—were quite technical and long, so I couldn’t run them as fast as I wanted. Additionally, I purposely held back early on as I knew bombing down 10-20km of a mountain would leave me in a precarious state of muscle failure later on. Then later on, a bad blister on my right heel and a toenail that was getting bruised hampered my descending ability. Next race I’ll be making some adjustments, or at least addressing foot issues immediately!
As the race wore on, though, something unique occurred. I was hot, tired, and my stomach was failing. But, if I really focused and urged my body onward, I could still run downhills quite fast and could climb relatively ‘fast’. I came to realize that finding the true limit on the physical side (one reason why we ultra-runners engage in this masochistic pursuit perhaps) wasn’t going to happen in this race. If you’ve ever raced at the marathon or ultra distance, the goal is to arrive at the start line with your body physiologically primed to undertake that which your mind wills it do. Inevitably though, if you race enough, there are races where, like was the case for me here, the body wasn’t ready to handle the rigors of the course. The mind can only will an unprepared body so far! As such, an undertrained body is the bottleneck and traversing 101km of the Alps become much more of a mental battle. That being said, I never cramped in this race and actually stopped twice for bathroom breaks, a sign I was indeed drinking enough. After the race, though, I would vomit seemingly all I consumed in the last 2 hours of the race. Not sure how it worked that I was able to finish relatively strong….guess my pacing was decent and nutrition held out just long enough.
Though I first raced in the Alps 13 years ago, it was just a 30km race in Davos-Platz, Switzerland. But now this summer is my ultra debut in Europe and it's been quite the summer thus far. The remainder of my time til my flight back to Chengdu on Sept 3 will be spent in France training and tapering for the Sept. 1 9am (local time in Chamonix, France) race. Stay tuned for what will be my fifth and most competitive 100k yet—I'm personally calling it the most competitive 100km race ever on the face of the Earth! The line-up is stacked with some of the best and most well-known ultra runners from five continents. ,I’ll be bold and say top 15 is the goal again…top 25 would be respectable, yet great things were never achieved by aiming low! "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible!"