My main race for 2015 is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc at the end of August. In the past this race has been hit with weather issues causing the race to be shortened or changed. My hope is that we will be lucky this year and get to do the full course in good conditions.
The Zugspitz Ultra Trail race I did last weekend was in many ways going to be a test event for me ahead of the Mont Blanc race as it would be in mountainous, alpine terrain with long climbs and long descents. It also has similar organisation to the Mont Blanc race with well stocked food stations, a fully marked route and a bit of a big race feel even though on a smaller scale.
What I wasn’t expecting to get a feel of too was how alpine weather conditions can wreak havoc on these races. Snow eventually would play a major part in this.
The Zugspitz Ultra Trail is a 100k race round the massif of the Zugspitz mountain on the German Austrian border with start and finish in Grainau. There are 4 supporting races of shorter distances starting at various points along the course but all finishing in Grainau.
Even though I had botched up my flight plans, I got to Grainau on the Thursday afternoon (June 18) meeting up with my dad as I was going to stay in my parents’ camper van at a local campsite for the race weekend. Registration opened on the Thu evening so I decided to get that over and done with especially as they were handing out detailed maps which I wanted to pour over with my dad as he was going to be out on the course supporting on Saturday. My parents returned home on the Thu evening and I had the Friday to myself to sort race kit out. I took my time having a very relaxed day only popping into Grainau centre twice (for the briefing – I skipped the pasta party – and to check something at registration). I had the loan of my dad’s bike too so that would make nipping into the village easier although I did get soaked on my way to the briefing. It had been a mixed day weather wise with hot sunny spells and hefty downpours. The bike was going to be my means of transport to the start on race morning too upon recommendation from my campsite neighbour.
The temperatures on the Friday had been around 17-18 degrees and although we had showers I’d have been happy racing in those conditions. The forecast for Saturday – race day – was 11-12 degrees and light rain most of the day. Considering we were due to top out at 2200m above sea level I was expecting it to be a bit chilly up there. My mum told me on Friday evening that they had forecast snow down to 2000m on the news that evening and the race organisers had posted on FB saying that from VP3-5 (checkpoints) full body cover (no visible skin) was compulsory should the forecast not change dramatically. A decision on which route we would be taking would be announced at the final race briefing 15 min before the start. I was aware at this point that there were 2 options to get from VP3 to VP5 – a high route going over technical terrain and approx. 2200m above sea level and a low level route through the valley (Gaistal). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this and partly expected to wake up to a glorious day the next morning with the forecasters having got it all wrong. I did go to bed though with the rain pattering on the roof of the camper hoping I’d hear my 4:30 am alarm through my ear plugs.
I did, unsurprisingly, had breakfast of 2 boiled eggs with salt and 2 slices of Zopf (an Austrian sweet bread) with butter and honey. Just before 6am, having finally decided what to wear I mounted my bike and cycled down to the start through the morning drizzle. The campsite was already busy with other runners getting themselves sorted too. While cycling to the start I looked up to the Zugspitz mountain and to my surprise the forecast was spot on – Fresh Snow! – and I suddenly thought: That’s way they were so keen to stress additional safety measures and all the talk about the alternative route – a piece of paper we were only handed as an add on at registration.
I was a bit surprised then to learn at the 7am safety briefing that we would run the original route. Reason being that the snow was only a thin coating and the first runners would clear it off the path.
I can’t speak highly enough of the organisation of this event. I was expecting a well organised event and it didn’t disappoint and although I don’t need a pasta party with Bavarian Lederhosen tradition along with a parade of nations I did feel they thought of everything. Registration was well organised, including a good half way point drop bag system and efficient kit checks. The race briefing really only reiterated points already mentioned in the briefing notes on the website so handy for anyone who doesn’t read them! Where the organisation came in to its own for me was on the day out on the course. Well stocked and manned feed stations with hot and cold food, savoury and sweet (and not a single gel in sight although we did have them in our goody bags), fully marked course over 100k with km signs every 5k too. The markings weren’t occasional but they were so frequent that when you didn’t see one for a few 100m you got worried. The alternative route which was a separate 20k was also fully marked. Mountain Rescue seemed to be stationed everywhere, you’d see them every 5km at least, probably more often. Navigation wasn’t necessary but it was suggested that you knew how to in case people removed markings.
The safety at this event clearly was paramount as it turned out that route changes would happen after we got under way. When I got into VP2 (above Ehrwald) the guy handing out the soup let us know that we would now be doing the alternative route after all. At VP3 I found out that we would doing half the alternative but going over the pass (Scharnitzjoechl) between VP4 and VP5 (Leutasch) but we would be not be doing the final loop between VP 9 and 10 (Laengenfelder Talstation, above Grainau). This was all due to the snow that had been falling and both of those sections being technical. I suspect the final loop was taken out as a lot of the slower runners would be doing this in the dark. All these changes eventually shortened the route from the original 100km to 89km and we also lost around 700m of elevation gain – 4700m instead of the original 5400m.
A bit of me is disappointed that we didn’t do the sections left out from the original route as I could have done with testing out the technicality of it, racing on such terrain and also work on dealing with any exposure issues. Another part of me was pleased we didn’t have to do it for probably the same reasons.
Key aims for this race for me were to test running on this kind of alpine terrain, seeing if I could cope with the food handed out at the feed stations over my own food, see how I would get on with my clothing choices and get used to using my poles.
The race started (with a neutralised start behind a lead car) at 7:15am on June 20 – effectively the longest day of the year. One of the great things at the start area and where the kit check was, was that it was all roofed as it was in the Grainau music pavilion and only when the gun went did we step out into the now heavy rain.
The checkpoints/foods stations (VPs) were approx. every 10km so I’d decided to mainly refuel there snacking a bit in between. I’d have a mix of cheese, salami, sausage, cake and cucumber with salt along with various soups. At VP2 I added a layer to my upper body as I was colder than I’d expected with what I was wearing. I’d started out with a t-shirt, arm warmers and a Ron Hill Tempest waterproof jacket. I was also wearing calf guards, quad guards and running longs, gloves and a cap. At VP2 I added my Rab baselayer which worked a treat. The waterproof would be on and off on a regular basis.
I don’t recall much of the surroundings between the start and VP2. It went up a bit and down a bit and not much flat. It also rained a lot. I was hoping it would ease off at some point. Just after VP1 I got my poles out as I felt from here on they would come in useful and they did. Having only used them once myself I hadn’t actually worked out what the best technique would be and as I continued during the race I observed others and learned from them realising there were basically 3 poling techniques – 1 double poling and 2 variations of single poling versions.
Climbing proper started after VP2 and due to the extensive rain some of this was very muddy and I was grateful to have the poles as they added useful leverage to get up the steep banks. Through VP3 and you could see runners getting long kit on who hadn’t already done so. I had a bit more cheese and cake and continued hiking up. We would top out at approx. 1700m and start descending into the Gaistal valley that is to be the alternative route. As we started the descent the rain seemed to ease and when we hit the valley bottom the sun actually came out. Oh the irony! I picked up a few places on the descent and had a steady run along the valley reaching VP4 feeling good. A quick top up with food and off I hiked up what would be the climb to the highest point of the day. Starting off with Landrover tracks and then a lot of variations of single tracks some of which we could run as we were contouring across the hillside. I was making good ground here too picking my way through other runners as we were getting closer and closer to the pass (Sharnitzjoch). As we passed over the treeline and I looked up I could see the snow. It was notably below 2000m. At around 1800m we hit the snow line. I hiked a bit with a Dutch guy who was doing his first Ultra and had trained for this on a stepper in the gym. Wow! He was in awe of the scenery and the snow. I allowed myself a picture at the top and then started the descent towards Leutasch and VP5. Oh my word did I have fun and looking back I believe being used to descending soaking wet hills in Scotland was a blessing. I flew down 1000m of mountain leaving hill runners of all nationalities in my wake. Snow, mud and water! I was loving it! I flew into VP5 having passed dozens of runners a very happy chappy. I refuelled a bit and grabbed a couple of things incl. new cap and t-shirt out of my drop bag. I was expecting to see either my dad or my sister here but neither of them were so I texted them as I was leaving to let them know that I was through.
From here to VP6 (Leutasch to Mittenwald) it was flat along a forest track and a bit of road which was rather uninspiring but at the end of it my dad and sister were waiting and we jogged/walked into VP6 together – short video of me arriving at the spot where they were waiting. I wasn’t feeling a 100 % going into VP6 but seeing them lifted my mood and I had a great run to VP7 after which I nearly saw my sister and dad again as they illegally came charging up the track. Moments later I hit a real low point in this race as my stomach started going funny. We were again going along a forest road and I’d just been chatting to a German guy for a bit but was starting to realise any incline felt like a struggle. I was happy running downhill and OK on the flatter bits. As this continued visions of the NDW100 I did last year came back where stomach troubles derailed my race entirely. Ahead of me was a lengthy technical descent and I thought I’d go and have a bit more fun but half way down I had to ease back and just walk down it. It was raining quite heavy but instead of getting cold I was overheating and sweating profusely. I couldn’t work out what was going on and was hoping some coke and a sit down at VP8 would help sort things out. Before that though a 300m climb and the only accurate signage as to how far it was to the food station (1km) – all the others appeared much sooner than the signage suggested. There were a couple of chairs and I sat down with some coke to give myself a few moments and find some energy. Legs were fine it should be said. The rain got me moving again as I was now getting cold and I basically knew I had less than 15km to the finish with a 500m climb in between. I got going, took it easy, jogged some downhill, walked everything else for a while, let some runners overtake. As we’d returned to some single track a runner came through and without trying I seemed to stay with him with roughly a 15m gap between us. It appeared that I made it through my bad patch and was starting to feel stronger going up the remains of the final climb. We’d top out at 1600m. I had a quick cup of soup there – final VP – and started my descent. It is now approx. 8:45pm and darkness is starting to set in. My aim is to make the finish without having to get my head torch out. I have 6km left and 900m of descent.
I treat this descent similar to the one running into VP5 and pick up runner after runner after runner. The descent is more technical but equally as muddy. The forest sections are getting dark and the first runners start putting their head torches on. Just before the bottom I have to take evasive action and come a cropper. It doesn’t stop my progress. My legs are feeling awesome. From km 5 to go the race organisers have put up a sign every km marking how much further. I hit the valley bottom and the edge of Grainau. Less than 2km to go and I stride out. This feels more like the 2nd half of a park run than the end of an 89km mountain run. I overtake runner after runner, get cheered on by supporters. I have no idea what my race time is as my Garmin died just before the top, I just keep pushing and actually feel that I could go on for much longer. I am nearly disappointed that the finish is near. Well I only need to go on for 1 more km as I have just passed that sign. Round another couple of bends and into the finish straight. With around 50m to go I ease up to enjoy the finish knowing that no one was going to pass me now. Over the line in 14:17 hours to the beaming smiles of my sister and dad. So great to have them there.
What an awesome final 45 min and I didn’t need my head torch!
I wanted to finish before 10 pm for the full route and finished 30 min before 10 pm on a shorter route. For one this shows how tough the route was and how tough the conditions were on the day. How the day’s efforts compare to previous years is difficult to say. The winner finished in 9:45 hrs and the record over the full course stands at 10:15 hrs. It would suggest that even the full course would have been run notably slower than the record. The 2 main ascents we did on the day were very hard going and even though I descended very well I don’t think I was doing those as well as I could have on a dry day. An interesting stat popped into my head earlier: 2 months ago I ran the Highland Fling Ultra which is 85km in distance in 9:17 hrs. This year’s Zugspitz Ultra was only 4km longer and it took me an additional 5 hours! Puts the race into perspective. I’d like to say I had a better day at the Fling but my first 2-3 hours there weren’t great until my body decided it was time to race so that fits in pretty well with the bad patch I had here. Currently it is unclear as to how much downtime I had during the Zugspitz Ultra. Strava claims I stopped for 90 min which is highly unlikely. Garmin for the part that it recorded came up with around 40 min which I find more likely, adding into that a few min at the final checkpoint. I can pin point where I used a lot of time and should have got moving quicker. I passed quickly through VP1, 3, 4, 7 and 9. I had a bit of a faff at VP2 for a 2nd top and to inform my dad that we were doing the alternative route. At VP5 I pulled in for some stuff out of my drop bag, VP6 I had some fun with my sister and then VP8 I just needed time out for my bad patch. Most of this is accountable and in places a bit more efficiency would have shaved some time off. I also wasn’t overall gunning for a particular placing so did allow myself a couple of moments to snap a picture of the view – 3 in total including a picture at the highest point taken by the Dutch guy who I hiked to the top with. Had to document the snow madness!
The course was fun in most parts except for a few stretches, well quite a few actually which just meandered along forest roads somewhere in the valley. This was in particular the case between VP3 and 4 when we were running the alternative route and between VP5 and 6. I was also not that keen on the first part out of VP7. The mountainous sections though I enjoyed and interestingly compared to the Mont Blanc circuit this isn’t a marked long distance walking route but a route entirely cobbled together to make what is the Zugspitz Ultra trail. In places we just hiked up unused ski slopes or ran down them. Some of the forest section I wasn’t entirely convinced that they were normally paths. I’d be more than happy though not to see another descent with a log for a step as there were hundreds of them and most of them during my bad patch.
There are really only 2 criticisms I would put to the race. One was the signage for the feed stations which funny enough never really was an issue as they would have a sign up saying: feed station – 500m (or 1km); only for it to be around the next corner so no more than 100-200 m away. Annoyingly there was one feed station where the 1km sign was accurate and it was the one where I was trying to get to during my bad patch. I could have done with it arriving after 100-200m and not 1km. Oh well. The other criticism and it might be just me but they didn’t do themselves any favours with the design of finisher’s t-shirt. I am sitting here on the plane on my way home with my Transvulcania T-shirt on whereas I should be wearing my Zugspitz T-shirt but it is not one designed to be proud of. I am proud of my race won’t be using that T-shirt to show that I have done it. I didn’t see many other finishers wearing their t-shirts either although they may have been wearing them under a heap of long clothes to keep warm. Somebody actually gave my dad his finisher T-shirt for one of the supporting races saying he didn’t like the colour. It had a big ‘S’ on the front for Super Trail compared to the big ‘U’ for Ultra Trail. You can’t win on all fronts I guess. I am probably being a bit harsh too and we all have different tastes. The other kit they gave us was pretty awesome though especially the holdall bag.
The finish area was the same as the start area – so the music pavilion – and thus again roofed. Free pasta and beer (alcohol free – really?!?) were available plus a selection of purchasable food and drink including real beer. This area was manned from midday Saturday through to midday Sunday while the runners from all the races were finishing.
One interesting aspect to the race though was the lack of crowd support. Considering it is billed as a big ticket event you only spotted a few hardy souls close to the more accessible VPs, usually a sign that the VP was close. The weather didn’t help but there were spells of nicer weather but a complete lack of Joe Public out there except when running back into Grainau. Admittedly that was virtually the only time we really hit civilisation except for a brief spell in Mittenwald and near Leutasch. Will be interesting to see how the Mont Blanc race compares.
I enjoyed the race and the experience and have proved for the second time that mountain running suits me. As a UTMB test it worked well. I did the exact opposite to what ultra runners should do and hammered the descents only to have the best legs imaginable in the final 2kms. But that may have been mental, in more than one way.
Recovery has so far gone well and I intend to return to running proper (I did do the club run on Wed) as of Sat/Sun June 27/28 leaving exactly 2 months to UTMB. Zugspitz has boosted my confidence but it has left me none the wiser as to what time I should expect.