Briefly, to get the best effect, you should:
(1) match one elite runner with one newbie runner - someone who has been running less than 3 years and has only completed one 46km race (and DNF'd another).
(2) agree to run together in an 8 day race through 3 countries and over 15,000 metres of elevation. And
(3) become sleep deprived as soon as possible due to 6 am wake-up calls, 8 am race starts, and 7-hour days of running, following by late afternoons spent in massage, finding hotels, taxis, shuttle-waits, showers, repacking bags, doing laundry, eating dinner, attending the race briefing, and collapsing around 10 pm for another restless night of non-sleep.
|Start of a descent on day 1
I guess through it all, we discovered we really do like each other. And we found ways to cope with not just the mental but the physical adversity, as well. In a field of 299 teams, representing over 30 countries, we finished side-by-side (first of the teams from Oz) in an event that saw 126 teams DNF. Everyone, including the race organisers, admitted this was the toughest TransAlpine-Run ever.
Day 1 saw us tackle 50km from Germany into Austria. It wasn't a high alpine day, but there were two good climbs, including one up to nearly 1600 metres. The weather was cool and misty. There were no views from the summits and ridges, but I preferred that to running in heat. Aid stations tended to be between 8-14km and could take between 1 - 2.5 hours depending on terrain. They were stocked with salami, cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers (the veggies, it seemed, were mainly for getting salt in). I couldn't imagine eating all that fat in the meat and cheese whilst running hard! There was also oranges, watermelon, and banana, as well as High 5 energy bars and gels.
|Inov8 x-talons all the way! Perfect in all conditions for us
I stuck to my own Hammer Perpetuem solids as much as possible until they ran out. And bananas at aid stations. Rolf was fueling happily on the raspberry flavoured gels for the first two days. Until the nausea set in.
We encountered the first "congo line" of the race on Day 1, going up a long, slightly technical climb. Many people weren't comfortable in this terrain and were walking. Rolf wasn't a great hill climber yet and his British sensibilities made it difficult for him to ask to pass. So we lost a lot of time on the climbs and I became quite grumpy at having to walk so much. When the trail opened up on the descents, Rolf would shoot off ahead, passing heaps of runners and I would chase him. Rarely were we passed on a descent. Our shoes were like having gecko toes in the wet grass and mud and we knew to keep our feet under us for stability. Many others were wiping out and sliding down the hills - a lot of muddy bums!
|Congo line day 2, Rolf with his ninja sticks
The most interesting things about Day 1 were running behind a waterfall and running past a lady herding cows. She called to them in a long, drawn-out sing-song voice as if calming a frightened toddler. Rolf said she was saying things like, "Good cows, just let the runners pass, cows. We're turning right, cows..."
The most ironic part of the day was when Rolf passed me on a descent yelling something about cappuccino pace. Since we had agreed to run macchiato pace, not cappuccino pace, I thought he was chiding me for going too slow. So I downed two caffeine pills and picked up the speed. At the end of the day, after Rolf heaved himself to the finish line, threatening to impale small animals with his poles out of pure anger-fatigue, he told me that I had pushed him too hard. So I asked about the cappuccino comment. He said that he had been talking about another team going cappuccino pace! Oops! We finished in 22nd of the 77 mixed teams, just 1hr 10 behind the top team.
Another misty day for Day 2 as we woke to face 35km and nearly 1800 metres of climbing. The first congo line queue was the worst ever and started within 2 km of the start. The trail became very steep and was wet. There were also stiles to cross fencelines, which slowed people more. The queuing on just this one climb probably cost us 20 minutes. But Rolf found himself unable to push from the start of a stage to get in front of the main pack before a single track section. His body disagrees with early mornings and he would feel tight in the muscles and nauseous if he pushed. So I spent another morning grumpy as I stood on hillside trails. Rolf complained that his shoulders and upper back kept cramping from carrying the poles all day, but every time I tried to take them on a descent or flat, he refused. Stubborn man left me feeling helpless whilst listening to his whinging!
|Nearing the summit of Birnlucke 2665mtrs, highest point in race
The TransAlpine people do some exceptional organising. They transferred our luggage every day from hotel to hotel. Other than Day 1 when we started late waiting for the helicopter (which probably couldn't fly due to inclement weather), the race started promptly each morning. The race office at each finish line could tell us immediately where our hotel was and whether there was a shuttle or taxi to take us there if it was too far to walk. The trails were very well marked and the medics seemed to be everywhere in case of need.
But the one thing they did badly (besides choosing single track climbs too close to the start line, which I'll give them as pretty hard to fix) was in vegetarian food options. Basically, there just weren't any. Finish line food was usually something like meat soup or prosciutto and rolls. At the pasta party on Day 2, I was handed a plate of rice cooked in what I think was chicken broth with two pork cutlets stuck in the top. When I mumbled to myself and Rolf about the vegetarian option, the woman smiled, said, "Vegetarian! No problem!" and attempted to take the pork away. So that would mean a white rice dinner. I kept the pork and managed to get half of it down, by burying it in a white roll.
Rolf's achilles both flared up in the first two days and one knee became painful. He wasn't able to sleep, due to the chemical imbalances caused by racing and the general aches in his body. So he wakes on Day 3 in a pretty bad mood.
|The pink pom pom boys were on nearly every summit
Day 3 is called the "king stage" or "royal stage" because it's 47km with over 2200 metres of climb. It takes us 7 1/4 hours and we finish as 28th mixed team. The best part of the day is the long descent off the ski hill at 2100 metres into the finish line, passing heaps of people again. Rolf is in his happy place on the descents. Then we find out that the pasta party is back up at the ski hut restaurant, so we get to take the cable car up and have a chance to enjoy the views and look down at the trails we had run down earlier that day. The food up there is the best - we have a choice of so many things and there are veggie options! I am a happy girl. Everyone digs into massive quantities of food. We have to get back down the hill to massage, which makes it impossible to get back up again in time for the race briefing - that bit was a little awkward. But Rolf checks the weather forecast on his phone and the race website for any news and we plan to get to the start in good time to find out about any last minute changes we need to know of.
All-in-all, although we are smashed, the "royal stage" didn't feel quite as bad as expected. We are also learning to deal with each other's strengths. I run ahead now in "congo line" sections to find a place with a gap. I can "surf" the gap, running ahead to the next pack, then stopping to wait for Rolf's "pack" to catch up. Then I run ahead again. I am stopping, yes, but when moving I am going my own pace up the hill instead of walking. I stay warmer this way and enjoy moving my own natural pace. On descents, I can't quite stay with Rolf without going "all out" so he takes the few seconds every once in a while when I get behind to eat, drink, or pee. In the coming days we become known as "mountain girl and downhill boy" for our style!
|These congo lines are fine because the trail is wide enough for passing
The "royal stage" to me seemed to come on Day 4 - 43km with another 2000 metres of climb. Backing up with this after Day 3 makes it tougher, I think. We hear there may be 10 cm of snow at the summit. We're glad to know the course isn't altered and I wonder about UTMB, about to start not far away.
The day is predominantly climbing, so it's not a good day for Rolf's strengths. He's also had nausea for two straight days and we can't find the cause. He is able to drink isotonics at the aid station and slices of watermelon. But there's not a lot of calories in that, so he is often at walrus-fat-burning pace. At the top of the highest summit, Birnlucke, 2665 metres, he is dizzy and he agrees to eat Jelly Tots before we hit the descent. Ginger chews also go down all right. Though he feels like he worked hard all day, we finish in 38th position.
|Finish line relaxation, with alkoholfrei beer
Our day ends badly, as we are staying 11km away in the next village, Sand in Taufers - the village that will be the finish line for Day 5. We rush to get on a shuttle bus without enough recovery fuel in and get dumped off the bus to walk through town dragging our bags, trying to find the hotel. There, despite having paid a deposit months ago and receiving several pre-arrival welcoming emails, we are told they don't have a reservation for us. They are surprised when we show them the emails we have from them on our phone. It takes an hour, standing there hungry, in our stinky clothes, but we finally get accommodation elsewhere for two nights. Now, we've missed our massages (paid for) and the last shuttle back to the village where the pasta party and briefing are. So Rolf googles the weather again and we order pizza in a restaurant.
Day 5 becomes my breaking point. I've been doing my best for 4 days to help Rolf cope with the toughest task of his life. I coordinate our packs and mandatory gear, write brief course notes for each day's stage, do our laundry in the hotel sinks, find out where our hotel and massages are each night, and carry as much of his gear as I can in my pack. Every day Rolf complains that he isn't good at suffering and doesn't see the point. He's right and I can't argue with the logic. I have to let him find his own way in this race - to see if he can find a reason for carrying on. I have no desire to push him to do a race he doesn't want to do. The point was to do something together. I also realise we are both getting colds and now I know the likely reason for his nausea - phlegm in his stomach and an elevated heart rate making work that much more difficult.
|We started Day 6 at "Sand" in the back of the valley in the distance
This morning, we have to rise earlier in order to walk to another hotel for brekkie and then get on a shuttle at 6.35 am to the start line 11km away. Rolf is like an amoeba in the hotel room. He just stands in the middle of the room vacant at times. I have to prompt him to keep getting his things ready. We head out the door with about 15 minutes for brekkie. I say I need to jog over or there won't be enough time to eat. Rolf won't jog and won't answer when I ask whether he remembers the way. I go on ahead. At brekkie, he looks for coffee and I say he needs to ask the waitress. She passes within a metre of him and appears to make eye contact, but he doesn't call out.
With 2 minutes to go, he spits the dummy. He wants to have a "civilised" breakfast with coffee. He wants us to stay there longer to get his coffee, then order a taxi for 30 euro to the race start. We don't even know if we will get a taxi within 15 minutes at 6.30 am. He's very angry that I don't approve of the idea.
|Heaps of shrines along the trails
We walk out and the litany of troubles carries on towards the bus station....the mornings are too early, the body hurts too much, there is no time to poo, there was no coffee, he can't sleep, the nausea of the past two days is still there....
And so I quit. I turn around and say I'm done. I've done all I can to help us as a team to get to this point, but I can't do any more. I need more help. There's no point in dragging one of us along kicking and screaming. If Rolf doesn't want to do it, we stop. I say we'll go into a cafe, order coffee, and go back to bed. We'll go on vacation.
But he doesn't say yes. He wants to finish, he just doesn't know how. He doesn't know how to see beyond the sufferings. We get on the bus, drive 11km, and then run the "long way" 33km back to Sand in Taufers. 199 teams finish Day 5. That's 33% of teams out now. Many singles are allowed to carry on, unranked with the rest of us. We finish the day in 26th position.
Day 6 is a 39km day with ~2300 metres, over Kronplatz, at 2269 mtrs. Rolf has right shin pain on the descents, but doesn't say anything until day's end, not realising its significance. We make sure to tuck into bed early - being uber-organised and getting to bed by 9.30 really makes a difference. So does taking a painkiller at bedtime to dull the aches which prevent getting to sleep. Rolf has developed a taping technique for his achilles that seems to have fixed them and he's learned a better way to tackle ascents that takes the pressure off.
|Day 7 - we have climbed from an aid station on the lake
Day 7, 42k over two summits. The right shin is bad, so Rolf runs hard on the left on the descents. The physio the night before told him she thought he might make it two more days. I got him in with her after I felt my own shin around Day 3 or 4 and told her my history of compartment syndrome - she dug right in with myofascial release and saved me. I also switched to using my Compressport long socks on her recommendation. They were great and that's what I used for the rest of the event, washing them at night every two days.
We finish Day 7 in 22nd position again and 90th overall, our highest standing. Today we ran into the Dolomites, which are a UNESCO heritage site. They really are gorgeous. The trails were fantastic and there were no congo lines - the trails were wide enough near the start to allow everyone to spread out to run/walk their own pace. Hooray! Rolf has become a faster climber in the last two days, too. But his shins are very bad.
|To the last summit on the last day in the Dolomites
The last day comes...stage 8. 33km with just one long slow climb of 1269 metres, followed by a descent to the finish line. Many teams are really supporting each other now with kind words and smiles. Though there's always some rivalry, I think, we are probably all at the point now where we want to see everyone else triumph. It's been a tough journey. Emotions are high at the start line as runners shake hands. We go up to Drei Zinnen Hutte (3 chimney hut) and the scenery is amazing. But Rolf sees only a metre in front of him, as his left shin is particularly swollen and angry. He runs when the pain allows, for brief moments. I keep track of time and ensure we have more in the bank for the descent, as I know that will be very bad. He holds hope that he'll find a way to run it and I keep silent. It won't help to bring down his spirits now.
|The Drei Zinnen behind us on day 8
Despite the pain, Rolf manages a heartfelt "Good job" to every runner passing us on the descent - normally his passion and forte. He thanks each spectator who cheers us on with "Bravo" or "Hop hop" or "Allez." I tell Rolf we have 3 hours for the 11km descent. We might need it. We stop a few times for me to elevate his feet and do some lymphatic drainage massage.
With 5km to go, Rolf asks to confirm that we can walk the rest of the way. I agree there's time, provided the shin doesn't blow entirely and require a total rest. We remember the time on the Bib Track where it took me 3 hours to go 5k. Rolf breaks into a run. The descending grade is mostly gentle now and he finds that the pain is no worse to run than walk. I can barely stay with him (of course, I'm carrying two sets of Icebreaker thermals, extra water, the gloves, and the Montane rain jackets - mandatory gear). I switch my watch to pace mode - 4:46 min/k. Bloody hell! The guy has 315km in his body and he's running a 4:46 pace with compartment syndrome!
|Presentation of the hard-earned finisher shirts
We spend much of the next two days in transit and I drive, which allows Rolf to put his foot up and do a lot of self-massage. All the way back to the family home in Switzerland, he's looking at the mountains and wondering what they'd be like to run. His spirit isn't broken at all.
During the Bibbulmun run, I named my Leki poles Nearer and Further. They never left my side. I asked Rolf what he was going to name his now, the Exped poles that never left his side, the ones he wouldn't let me carry once. His reply was quick: Dumb and Dumber.