"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

It's Just Running (or hiking, as the case may be): The Irontrail Story

The night before Irontrail, my partner and crew man extraordinaire said something to the effect of "No matter what happens tomorrow, I'm proud of you."

Pride: A feeling of satisfaction or pleasure over something regarded as highly honourable or creditable.
Day before. Turns out, this one IS beyond my (patience) limit! :-)

Thus, my reply: "It's just running."

And with that, we went to sleep.

In the morning, I woke and still did not feel like racing. It could have been a combination of several factors...the cool, rainy skies for the past two days, which tends to make one want to curl up with a book. Or it could have been my period (I don't mind being a girl, but in my next life, a boy body might be more convenient). Or, maybe it was just that I didn't feel like it. I considered whether it could be overtraining, but knew that wasn't it. My resting HR had dropped back below 40 within two days of Swissalpine and I was excited to be out running the trails again in no time. My stress levels were low, my mood was great, and I was well rested. 

I decided to stop over-analysing it. As I wrote earlier in my "eggs for breakfast" analogy... If I went to bed one night saying I was going to have eggs for breakfast, but woke up and didn't feel like eggs, the world would not go into microanalysis over why I simply didn't want eggs. I just didn't.

So, off we went to the race start to see what would happen. I had my UltrAspire pack filled with the mandatory gear - set of Icebreaker thermals, Icebreaker mid-weight layer, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket with hood, space blanket, compression bandage, whistle, headlamp, maps, mobile phone, 500 cal of emergency food (a bar of dark chocolate), their tracker device, and Icebreaker gloves. Although Inov-8 x-talons are usually my favourite trail shoes, I decided to start with the TrailRocs, as they provide a bit more protection under the sole and I thought I might need that layer over 36+ hours. But I brought the x-talons in case I wanted a change of shoes later. The TrailRocs worked, but the tongue of the right one isn't seated properly and shifted to the side all the time, causing me chafing in one spot - eventually I put a Compeed on the affected skin. Must be a flaw in the shoe.

The entry list indicated about 180 men and 20 women for the 201k (+11,150mtr) event, but I think only 122 men and 13 women started. Weather likely influenced a few decisions, after last year's storm caused a mid-race cancellation. But with a race this serious, many runners likely ended up overtrained and injured or undertrained and not prepared. The shorter distance events (141k, 81k, and 41k) started later in the day or the following day, further down the track; that is, everyone ran the same course, but skipped varying amounts of the beginning, depending on the length of their own event.

The gun went off and the race mojo hit! I immediately wanted to know how many women were in front. The pace was easy, so I slowly worked through the pack to get up to where I could see the front runners, as the lead men started to form a small pack. Just behind them, there was another group with two women. I settled in there and found my comfy pace. The comfy pace saw me then passing those women on the little climbs over the next km.

15km later (27k after adjusting for vertical) I was at the summit of Diavolezza, 3004 metres, where I had stayed for altitude acclimatisation for three days. That sure paid off! I felt fantastic climbing that peak - no dizzy rushes at all, in sharp contrast to the Swissalpine experience. I reached the aid station and got a lot of "erste Frau!" (first woman). I stopped for a sip of water and just replied, "It's a long day ahead!" and thanked them.

Back at Pontresina, km 35. Chipmunk pear cheeks!
Down to Aid 2, which was the cable car station at the bottom of Diavolezza (23km/35km corrected for vertical). I met Rolf there and quickly refilled water, emptied my pockets of rubbish, grabbed more Hammer solids, a gel, and a pear, and told him I was in the groove. I headed out for Fuorcla Pischa and Crasta Languard at 2927mtrs. Almost made one wrong turn on the switchbacks, but a fellow runner quickly corrected me. However, my Garmin would have beeped within 50 metres, as I was running with the course loaded. The organisers were very clear in saying we should use GPS, must carry the maps, and should expect markings to be only at junctions. In fact, the marking was quite plentiful in comparison to what they promised. I arrived back down at Pontresina, race start and Aid 3 (35km/56km corrected) with Rolf waiting for me just before the aid station. Looking later, I saw I was within about 5 minutes of my projected split time - not bad when you have to do a whole lot of guesswork about terrain, weather, elevation, pack weight, and such!

Coming into Station Murtel from Fuorcla Surlej. A rare bit of wide fire trail.

I grabbed a Perpetuem pancake batter mix (nice and thick is yummy and means I can still run with plain water in my pack bladder) and munched a pear as I ran through town, headed for Fuorcla Surlej at 2,755mtrs, then a small drop to Aid 4 - a cable car station (49km/80km corrected). Rolf was waiting there for me again, as was the RD, Andrea Tuffli. He had been everywhere, following the race leaders. Again, looking back, I was still within 10 minutes of my splits. Wow. I had a cup of bouillon - my first time trying this in a race. With the cold weather, it really seemed to set me up each time I arrived at an aid station - a cup of bouillon, then munch a bit of pear from Rolf, then alternate that with Hammer fuel.

Station Murtel aid station, complete with RD.
Naturally after the climb, a descent followed - the descents were often killers. Really steep and you couldn't dare to open up, as smashing the quads this early on would mean certain death! I used my lovely Leki poles "Nearer" and "Further" (named during the Bibbulmun FKT) as partial brakes in front on the steeper bits. I mused how this race really required one to be a quadruped, not biped! I needed my arms as much as my legs, and my poles were just an extension to make my arms longer :-) Heading out of Station Murtel, I let out a good ol' Canadian trail running "Yee Haw!" 

At the bottom, I arrived in Samedan, Aid 5 (67km/102km corrected). It was here, from memory, that the reality of the nature of this event took hold. It required a lot of power hiking. The summits were many (at least 9, even if you only counted the big ones) and often steep, particularly in the last few km. Just like running fast downhill meant disaster, running fast uphill would also mean disaster.

I was pacing myself well and best word we had was that my lead on females had opened to at least 5km. But there was still a long way to go. And I was losing interest in all the hiking.

Nevertheless, Rolf passed on my other Garmin 310, fully charged, and I headed out for a long "solo" section over Fuorcla Crap Alv (crap means rock in the popular Romansh language of the area, but yes I was later to enjoy my own private jokes about the various Crap I had to run/walk/stumble/slip over during the night ahead!). 

Have bouillon, will travel! Before the storm at Alp Spinas/Palud Marscha
A storm came in on my way to this summit. I stopped under a tree to put a second Icebreaker layer on under my jacket. And to put my gloves on again, still wet from the morning rain, but fortunately merino wool warms quickly when wet. I started again and quickly stopped. The brief stop had cooled my legs, which were only covered with Compressport full legs. With a lot more elevation to come on an open switchbacking slope, I stopped again to put on my Patagonia rainpants. (Yes, I'm name dropping, and doing it on purpose, because I'm wanting to emphasise the importance of quality gear for this kind of stuff). The field of racers had spread out well now and there was just one fellow I shared space with on this summit. We leap frogged quite a bit, as we took turns stopping briefly for bites of food and such. There was an easy encouragement between us, though only few words were spoken. I find it generally best to keep my energy close in terms of talking during a race.

The rain really soaked the trails, which made the uber crap (I mean rocky, of course) terrain around the summit very slick. The sun set on my descent to Naz and I donned my LED Lensor headlamp. Rolf had given me an awesome trick of putting a piece of plastic film between one of the connections so that it couldn't turn itself on in my bag during the day. 

I arrived at Naz - Aid 7 (Rolf skipped Aid 6, as it was hike-in only). I was now behind on projections. The storm had changed things. I mentioned quitting again. But the next two sections were short and mostly downhill. What the heck. I could try another - I'd run the 5k to Bergun.

The trail into Bergun was a bit tricky, as they had moved the course, compared to the GPX file they'd given us and hadn't warned us. I encountered orange chalk arrows on the ground for the first time. I knew the organisers were going to use chalk arrows, but I didn't know what colour they'd be and I'd not seen any yet. I wondered whether these were merely leftover from another race, as they marked a path through a camp/cabin area and I had a feeling I shouldn't be there. I saw two blokes heading off up a road in the opposite direction to the arrows and opposite to the direction of Bergun , so I called to them. They also had the GPX file, but their device showed terrain. They insisted we should be on the other side of the river we had just crossed. After more discussion and brief stop-starts, a few more blokes came by and insisted we should follow the chalk arrows. I could see we were paralleling the original course, but on the other side of the river. Soon enough, though, we came to a junction with a bridge and I saw how the original course joined our track there. We could see headlamps in the distance, with people approaching from different directions. Small oops on the race's part there with their flagging.

The Filisur "5 hour" commitment aid station.
I decided to carry on the 7km to Filisur next, also predominantly downhill and I expected it to be on wide firetrail, so fairly easy to travel in the rain and mud. I thought it might feel rewarding. It turned out to be a mix of terrain with mud and tree roots, too. I met up with a fellow from the 141k event, which had started at Pontresina at 8pm. The fastest blokes were slowly catching some of us. We ran a few km together and I chatted a bit with him, contrary to my usual quiet racing mode. He was very encouraging about my lead female status, but I told him I was quite sure I was dropping, as I wasn't enjoying the nature of the event, where so much hiking was required. He helped pass a few km quickly and then sped up on the descent, going ahead. At Filisur (98km/142km corrected), I sat down for a good think. Rumours were I was 13k ahead of the next female now.

The next section was over the "hardest" pass. A climb from 1,019 metres to 2,699 metres (+1700) over 10km. Essentially, a 17% grade. At the 8k mark of that climb, we would pass Aid 10, Chamona d'Ela (Die Ela Hutte). Two more km to the summit from there, then 12k down to the town of Savognin, where Rolf would be waiting. I expected this would take 5 hours. I needed to be committed. I had another cup of bouillon (I tell you, it makes a rainy night of racing so much better!). Again, the RD was there. He asked if anything was wrong and I tried to explain that I was fine, but I was learning that I didn't like hiking so much.

Rolf handled me awesomely (he said later he's improved his strategy after watching me crew others). He simply kept waiting patiently, trying to hand me my other re-charged Garmin and a pear. I kept saying, "But I haven't said I'm going again!" He would agree, then after a minute, try to hand me the things again :-)

A 10 minute sit made my tired feet feel great again (though still oh-so-soaked, but at least I'd opted out of my usual Injinji socks and used my Icebreaker ones that were so trusty on the 100km+ of inundated trail on the Bib FKT). I was hoping to avoid maceration of my feet. Off I went.

Yes, there's a reason 2k takes an hour! This was in the dark, too.
In the middle of nowhere along this climb, I passed 4 or 5 blokes on a firetrail section, having a huge bonfire in the middle of the road. There was one dirt bike beside them. They cheered massively as I went by, which was nice. I don't think they had anything to do with the race - just some crazy guys out on a Friday night.

I made it to the hut in under 2 hours and was pleased. Firetrail made good running, especially at night in the wet. The bouillon was almost cold, but considering the station was so remote, I felt grateful to get any kind of welcome :-) The bloke manning the hut pointed the way towards the summit, 2k away, and said "It is one hour to the summit."

No way! In my head I thought, "maybe for some people, but I am a fast climber. Surely 30-45 minutes is enough."

This wasn't one of "my" boulder fields, but gives a great example of them!
Exactly 60 minutes later, I reached the summit. It was the most torturous climb over and around giant soaked and slippery boulders that must have been on a trail at a 50% grade. The organisers had put very bright lamps along the way to the summit, to help guide us, along with orange chalk on some rocks. The lights were a wonderful safety feature, but also very demoralising, as you could see lights that seemed to climb all the way to the heavens! At the summit, winds hit in excess of 80kph and I pulled my Montane jacket hood tight. It wasn't raining at that moment, but the ground was soaked and muddy. One wrong move would mean a very quick and painful-ending slide down the near vertical hill into another boulder garden ahead - anywhere else this would have been a via ferrata. There were two tents set up - I assumed they were emergency bivys. One or two km down the pass I could see light of another apparent tent - the organisers had set up a bonus aid station. Fantastic reprieve for a moment to have 4 "walls" of tarp around me! I went in and there was the bloke who I'd run with for a few km near Filisur - he told me how proud he was that I was still in the race. I didn't know how to reply to that. I didn't need my ego stroked, but I knew he just meant well. It was better to simply be grateful for his attempt to cheer me on with kind words. I told him I was glad I had stayed in, just so I could have the memory of the most insane summit of my life!

The climb from Filisur to Pass digls Orgels - see that point?!?
I had a quick bouillon and took off my shoe to examine the sole of my foot. I felt like I had a rock under my sole for a few hours and couldn't shake it around - I wondered if it wasn't actually a rock but was perhaps a neuroma starting. In fact, it appeared to be slightly macerated skin starting to fold over on itself. A Compeed plaster to the rescue and I was on my way!

Rolf said later that watching my tracker online, he was sure it was malfunctioning, as it didn't seem to move off the summit area for ages. 5 1/2 hours after leaving Filisur, I landed in Savognin (Aid 11, 119km/180km corrected). The sun was up. It was a major aid station within a building, where one could get drop bag access (if you'd arranged one), a lie-down on a cot, and lots of warm food. They had pasta, bouillon, rice, cakes, chocolate, cured meat, peanuts.... Being vegetarian, gluten-free, and lactose-intolerant, I chose my usual simple bouillon (could have been a meat broth - I didn't ask but it tasted like veg to me). I sat down to rest my feet, which promptly started stinging and tingling.

Again, I announced my intent to quit. The next section was 12k up and 10k down. Another likely 5 hour journey. The weather was clearing, but the trails were like small rivers, with sections of deep, slippery mud mixed with cow pies. Unless they were boulder-strewn. Either way, they weren't going to dry fast. Rolf supported me and said, "Well, if there's no joy in it and you can't find a reason to continue, you should stop."

I said that the race had been really interesting, with some amazing trail and views and challenges. But the hiking was just not my cup of tea. And the storms had slowed everyone's progress down. The lead men's times also slowed. Projections of a sub-32 hour finish for the top man disappeared. It was going to be a full day on the slopes again and into the dark again. With a lot of hiking.

However, the next stage had a climb to Ziteil, the highest shrine in Europe. I'm not particularly interested in shrines, but generally when Christians, Buddhists, or other devout individuals decide to erect a building of homage or such, it's likely to be a pretty spectacular place. So I thought I might like to see it.

I'll go to Ziteil. Then I'll quit.
Another steep climb to Ziteil! Patience, patience....

Approaching the summit aid station, the cameras were again all over me and the support was fantastic. However, I told them not to bother with the fanfare, as I was quitting. They seemed so disappointed (and a bit confused!) and I felt kind of bad, as the volunteers really put a lot of effort in. I ran down the hill ("ran" being a generous term for the pole-braking jerky-quad thing I was doing!), smiling and greeting all the Saturday morning "pilgrims" on their way up. I was happy that I'd reconciled with quitting. The race wasn't for me. I should have entered a shorter distance, like the 81k or 141k event - some power hiking is good with me, but a 40 hour race with so much of it just wasn't. I am too impatient. I grew bored, despite all my attempts to enjoy the scenery, the smells of the pines, the marmots chirping on the rocks, the waterfalls and rivers flowing, the slugs hanging out on the trail trying not to get impaled by errant poles....

Coming into Tiefencastel 4 1/2 hours later, the course took us on overgrown trail for what seemed like 4km. It was frustrating, as it was hard to run in, it soaked the shoes yet again, you couldn't see any holes or rocks under the long matted grass, and the poles got in the way. It was the universe's way of making sure I didn't change my mind about quitting ;-)

The video cameras were again on me and I told them again not to bother. It was noon, I was at 141km, and had been racing for 28 hours. The last 60km would have to take at least 12 hours, especially as the sun would be down for the last summit or two.
Tiefencastel

The cameramen interviewed me as to my reason for quitting. Other racers questioned me. I waited 30 minutes to see if the second place girl would come, so I could cheer her on and wish her well. But I knew Rolf was shattered and it was time to go. We drove to Davos, the finish line. I showered, power napped for 30 minutes, and walked to the finish line.

One man from the 141k race was in. I saw two more come in over the next two hours. I tried waiting for the first 201 runner, but I just got too cold and tired. I left just after 9 pm and he came in around 10.10 pm. Over 38 hours! I watched the progress from my phone in my room. The first female made it in at 3.30 am - 43.5 hours.

I slept and woke and for a brief moment, I thought, "There's still time to drive back to Tiefencastel and finish the race before the 56 hour cut-off." But that moment passed! ;-) Instead, I went back down to the finish line and watched the presentations and cheered the occasional racer coming in. Only about 25 men and 3 women from the 201 were in. At final tally, they had a total of 31 men and 5 women finish. That's about a 27% finish rate.

I was a bit disappointed with the wording of the media release on the website regarding the male/overall winner, Andreas Allwang of Germany. It read (translated to English, but by my dodgy German still the same) that Andreas was an "amateur" and that the organisation had expected elite men (who were "ultimately lacking" at the race) to finish in times much closer to 32 hours. Though they did acknowledge that the stormy weather overnight took a toll on time predictions. Certainly, my own race predictions fell off the mark when the storms hit. What I thought might have been (very roughly) a 36 hour finish in perfect conditions was surely going to be a 40+ hour finish. For Andreas to hold his race together so well and to finish first in 38 hours in those conditions is no less than elite. Un chapeau, mate.

A day after the event, a dear person told me I was courageous to quit. Pondering that, I thought that courage can only arise from fear. So it could only have been courageous if I had been afraid of quitting. But I wasn't. That remark made me realise how grateful I am that I've reached a point where I know I run for myself and my own joy and not because I'm afraid my self-worth will be called into question if I quit a race. And yes, I still run to inspire others, too, if I can. So, somehow, I hope some will be inspired by the simplicity of my action. I exercised free choice, I was not bound by my ego or by fear. I have no regrets. I'm glad I went to the race, glad I saw those peaks, and glad I quit.

It's just running. It's everything and it's nothing and it's the space between the two.
Pass Digls Orgels - the space between

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