"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Surprise Success in More Ways Than One: The Swissalpine 2013

A few things happened recently in my life that helped shape this race into what it was.

First, I had gone through burn out from being too passionate about too much, saying yes to too many things. That was a terrible time and had a negative impact on my performance at World 24hr in May. I am still far from reclaiming and reinventing the life I want to have (partly because I still need to better define what it is I want and what I'm willing to give up!), but things are certainly much better.

Second, I read a blog post of Timothy Olson's less than a week before the race. He's packed his life up into a car and has hit the open road with his family. This has been a rumbling desire of mine for the past several months. Yes, the idea of the freedom is appealing, but it's also about finding that old hippie of mine and letting her commune with nature again. The one who used to make her own moccasins and pick berries to make jam. So I wanted to run with my hippie nature - to try to enjoy the surrounds more and be more "with" the race rather than seeing it as an adversary to conquer.

Third, I was invited to compete in the Irontrail 201k race, which starts 13 days after Swissalpine. So, Swissalpine suddenly had to become a "taper run." Ummm, yeah, a 78km taper run.

So with all that in mind, I spied the list of female entrants and noted a couple also entered in the Irontrail 201. They were repeat Swissalpine runners and I believe one had run the abbreviated Irontrail 2012 edition (rerouted early, then called off after a half day due to severe weather). I thought I might take the approach of trying to sit just behind/near those females, who were also Swiss locals, provided their pace wasn't too fast for me to feel was sustainable.

The problem was at the start line, I saw only two other "elite" females and neither were those women I wanted to try shadowing. There were about 4 rows of runners still in front of me, perhaps 10 wide, so my view was really limited. I wasn't worried about my starting position, because the first 4km routed us through the wide city streets to allow the group to spread out. I knew I'd be able to settle into my own comfy pace and didn't have to worry about a congo line developing early on. But I couldn't see who all was in front of me and couldn't find my "pacers!" ;)

The other problem was the C42 event and K30 events also started at 7am. So, although I could see two women in front on the first road section, I couldn't see their bibs, worn on the front. I realised one was Lizzy Hawker, as she seems to wear her distinctive blue skirt to events. I was a bit confused as to why Lizzy was within eye sight and didn't expect it to last. I was aiming for top 10, thinking perhaps around 6th was achievable, depending on who showed up, who ran well (including me), the weather, careful pacing to try not to destroy myself for Irontrail....

Early hours, still shady and mild enough.
In my head, thus, I was around 10th place. When I passed Lizzy and another woman before the first major CP (Filisur, 29k), I mentally thought perhaps 8th place. Then another woman went past me and I couldn't read her bib easily from the side to catch her name - I started trying to chase her a bit, hoping that when we passed through Filisur and the timing mats, I would hear her name announced. From her name, I thought I might understand my pacing better.

But she was getting away on me on the descent and I was worried about smashing myself up so early on. Rounding the corner, I saw her peel off into the K30 finish line! Hilarious! Secret racing a girl in a different event! That was a reminder to run my own race and be careful. And what happened as I passed the timing mats? "GermanGermanGerman Bernadette Benson German Australia GermanGermanGerman." I tried to hear a number, but missed it. I looked back at the woman and she held up 4 fingers. My eyes most definitely widened, as I held 4 back up, making sure we were speaking the same sign language! I wasn't sure how to digest that news. Did I go out too hard? Was the heat wave taking its toll on others more than me because of my WA-Summer training? Was there just no depth to the field? I couldn't answer those questions, so decided to just get back to trying to find that hippie that was going to enjoy a gruelling 24k mountain climb in scorching weather.
I'm melting, but at least my gear is comfy! ;)

After the predominantly downhill 29k section to Filisur, it's a 24k climb to Keschhutte, where we are teased by a few km of descent before another climb to the highest point of the race, Sertigpass, at 2,739mtr. Probably around 44k, I passed a bloke who said "GermanGermanGerman." I said, "I'm sorry, only English" (which isn't strictly true, as I can get by with a bit of Spanish, French, and Mandarin, too, but that was too many words to say at the time!). He said, "The third place girl is only just close. You will win her!" (Love the way he translated from German to English!) I replied, "It's a long race, on a hot day" and settled back in to do my thing.

I didn't see her for probably 4km. Then I passed on a steeper section. I figured she must have flat-out speed, but perhaps lacked some hill strength. So it was my chance now to open a gap, as after the summit at 59k, it's 18km mostly downhill to the race finish. That's a lot of time for someone with fast turnover to catch up!

However, the further I got above 2,000 mtr in elevation, the more my world closed in. I found myself walking and didn't remember having to walk at all at the event 3 years ago. Yes, it was a hot day, but that wasn't a complete explanation. It was the lack of altitude acclimatisation. Last time, I stayed nights in Liechtenstein at over 1,700 mtr just before the race, which did help. This time, I chose not to due to costs of hotels and that I knew it was essential I get altitude adjustment for Irontrail. I had to compromise with this one.

I felt like an Everest climber, one foot in front of the other, deep slow breaths. My vision tunnelled and I focused on careful, deliberate placement of my feet so I wouldn't trip. I did not look around at all, for fear of falling over with dizziness. It was totally unlike the last event and unlike TransAlpine Run last year, as well, where I was running up these kind of climbs and loving the views!
Don't even remember seeing the cairn!

My mantra for the last km to Keschhutte became "Get me off this f'in mountain." Hardly Zen! The announcer and mats there indicated that "GermanGermanGerman Bernadette Benson German New Zealand German Third position." So that confirmed it. My nationality had changed, but who's going to complain about an extra star or two at this altitude? I hit the short descent and then saw the last 350mtr climb to Sertigpass. My mantra started up again. I knew every step on the descent would bring me more oxygen. When I got to the aid station at the pass, I grabbed my usual: 1 cup of water to dump over my head, 1 cup of water to dump down my throat, and 1 more cup of water to go, for sipping.

Not carrying hydration on a run of this nature - in this heat - required very careful monitoring. The race organisation is impeccable. There were over 30 aid stations, with aid planned every 2.5 to 7km. And with the heat, they added several more impromptu ones. Plus sprinklers! Amazing on-the-spot planning and the communities got behind it as well. Families came out of their homes with buckets and sponges and sprinklers. I have no idea how, in some places, on the tops of mountains and such, they even got the water to put in the hoses and spray at pressure! But despite dehydration, there's only so much water you can guzzle on procuring it. Too much and you'll puke it instantly! I saw that next to me! But this careful dance meant that despite water at EVERY aid station, plus the hoses, sponges, and sprinklers (on my legs, too, to help cool and prevent cramps), I did not pee once in over 8 hours. To keep systems simple, I chose to go with Hammer gels for the entire race - something I'd never tried before. It worked fine; I would generally crack a gel open just before the aid station, but I went through half my stash within 3 hours! Bites of banana, where available, began to supplement my fuel needs.

Now, back to the summit.... The aid station medicos said, "Bernadette, are you okay?" a couple times as I went by. I would not spare the energy to reply. I knew I was okay and was going to be even more okay when I got to start dropping off the edge of that mountain. If they stopped me, I would have made the effort to answer quickly and coherently, but at that moment, I really just wanted to conserve resources. A quick pause for one more sip, drop the cup, and bang! Over the edge to let gravity help me down to Davos!
Must be another aid station here, as I have another sippy cup!

My back, unfortunately, was not pleased with the jarring. I had a tightened back from just before leaving Perth and funnily enough, it did not improve with 24 hours of flights, sleeping in a strange bed in England, being removed from my sports chiro and massage therapist, and a drive to Switzerland. So, bang bang bang, I jarred my way down the steep descent. But at least with every breath, I felt psychologically better, knowing I was losing altitude.

The course I ran in 2010 had us finishing alongside a river, on the flat and in the open, for quite a while from memory and I remember this feeling like a very long, exhausting section of the race. I was mentally prepared for this. However, the new course (their course from 1986-1997, I think), had us finish predominantly in forest. That was fantastic. I was finally running in solitude, seeing no one in front or behind and it was hot, but shaded. It was hard, but the forest was comforting.

3rd female, 36th overall of 877 finishers in K78
I thought I heard footsteps a few times and kept looking back, waiting for "that girl," then realised my shirt had started to make a crinkly noise near the back of the neck (maybe from being so soaked?). I wondered what I would do if "that girl" caught me into the finish. Would I try to go for it? There was something left in the tank physically, but I didn't know if I truly cared or not. Probably, I would. But again, I decided just to run my pace and address it if it happened. I passed a spectator who smiled broadly and told me in German and with sign language that I was 8th. I knew she must be counting the K42 women, as well, who had started their race at about our 40k mark, at 10.30 am (about the time I passed that town). However, it left a seed of doubt and reminded me not to be greedy about my position and to just accept whatever I'd accomplished.

A drop off the paths into town and a quick 400 metres to the stadium, where I heard them announce, most definitely, Bernadette Benson from Australia was the 3rd female. I ran the half circuit of the stadium. For the first time I can recall on finishing a race, I did not find myself wanting to sprint over the line with a grimace and grunt, with a feeling of, "There! Take THAT you race!" Instead, I remembered where I had come from - the girl who ran 5k alone on bitumen, then the trail runner at the back of the pack, left for dead, who had "one pace" and ran for beer credits. I celebrated the joy of surprise and unknown, the joy of the unpredictability of life. The real success for me in this race was not achieving a podium place, but running with openness. I know no other word to describe it right now.

With my partner in life, running and crime! ;)
After the first "flower ceremony" for podium placers, I found out Rolf's time at Keschhutte (yes, he was doing his longest continuous ultra yet!) and started to make my way back out along the course. There were a lot of hot, suffering faces coming in. It had been a long day in the sun and it was a massive achievement for every one making it to the stadium under their own power. I cheered them all in, offering words of encouragement as best I could. I slowly walked about 2k back up the hill, cheering runners in. I was carrying a giant sunflower I got at the first ceremony and it brought a smile to many of the weathered faces out there. I clapped and reassured them that there was lots of "wasser" and "bier" waiting for them at the bottom. And when I saw my partner, I let out an even bigger whoop of joy!

Four days after Swissalpine, I ran again for the first time. I ran not because it was in my training program, not for beer credits, not because there was someone making me feel guilty, not out of boredom, nor trying to prove something. I ran to feel that fluidity of movement, the beat of my heart through my chest, the smell of the pine forest, the squish of the ground underfoot, the sound of birds, and the peace. I ran to see what might be around that next bend on the trail.

Run with wonder at where it will take you.

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