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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Be. Here. Now: The Transalpine Run 2018 Stage Race

Transalps. TAR. Transalpine Run. The multi-day stage race across the alps. This year it was 7 days, 255km and D+16,200m.


There will be lessons, a friend joked, if you run a 7 day team stage race!

I wasn't going to deny that, though what I really wanted was the opportunity to go back to Transalps, with a female partner, and spend 7 days immersed in teamwork. Getting ourselves - and each other - over the finish line day after day for seven days. Helping each other find the best in ourselves with which to help the team.

I did this race in 2012, with my "de facto." That is, my partner based on fact, not legal contract ;) Anyway, I digress. Whilst at that time I was a pretty new ultrarunner (just 5 years under my belt, but only 3 with any kind of substance), Rolf was a really new ultrarunner. He was actually a new runner full stop. The race that year was 4 countries over 8 days, 320km D+ 15,000m. It was a beast of an adventure.

Very bad shin splints for him. Sleep dep for both of us. First cold sore of my life.

With my accumulated experience, I was keen to go back and approach the race more competitively. Not as in "compete-against-others," but just race hard. In 2012, Rolf raced hard, but our pace difference was such that I only worked when I chased him downhill :) And that was only until he started to develop compartment syndrome.... I wanted to do it again, but be able to run hard every day. Focus on recovery every night. Repeat. Go into the time warp black hole that is Transalpine Run. Where every moment is a focus on running or recovering from running or preparing for the next run. And if that level of personal - team - competitiveness also saw any podium placings, well, that would be bonus. Because as I always say, you can't control who else shows up and how good their day goes.

I'd made a few attempts to find a female partner for 2017, connecting with a few women internationally who ran a similar pace. Nothing readily came of it and I admit feeling little motivation to pursue it. There were too many unknowns racing for a week with a stranger from somewhere else in the world. Cultural differences, personality differences, language barriers.... Communication is a critical component to team racing. I'd do better, I reckoned, to have a partner who I knew, even if she wasn't matched for my pace.

When my running mate Sanja said she was looking for a race in Europe in 2018, I threw it out there. And she was keen. Temperament is also a key element to team success and given that we'd had several running adventures together, we had a decent sense of each other's quirks. I thought ;)

Sanja was immediately a bit overwhelmed at race pack pickup in Germany, seeing runners go by in their "Lavaredo Ultra Trail" or "Eiger Ultra" t-shirts. She'd never raced in Europe.

We had a rough start. I felt that Sanja was sabotaging things by not taking beetroot juice, Fully Charged, or caffeine pills - things she'd planned to use. I thought it was her way of giving herself an out, reducing her own expectations on herself, in order to relieve the self-imposed pressure. To top it off, a combination of nerves and fighting illness seemed to put her heart rate very high on Stage 1. She had no experience of trying to back up racing day after day and couldn't be reassured by those of us she talked to who had. She needed to see that her own body could do it.

Thankfully we kept working together, so we could get ourselves to places like this! Stage 4.

Our paces weren't matched on the climbs, but even less than I expected. I found myself walking uphill, heart rate less than 100 bpm, whilst Sanja chugged away. I was sending emails and Whatsapp messages. Yup, really.

On the downhills, we couldn't make up time because Sanja was unnerved by the complete and utter absence of sun-baked red hard ground covered in pea gravel and honky nuts contoured by enormous ruts. That's the treacherous turf in Western Australia. Instead, she had rocks and tree roots. To her eyes, it was "very technical." I had thought we'd be matched - or I'd be chasing Sanja - on the descents. Wrong.

A sample of Sanja on WA's "non-technical" terrain. The defence rests.

Despite these obstacles, we ran ourselves as a team onto the Masters Women podium for Stage 1 and Stage 2! Though we had never planned to attend the nightly pasta parties unless they were very convenient, we agreed I would attend the nightly race briefings that were held at 7.30pm, after the daily podium ceremonies. Attending the race briefings is mandatory for one team member. I'm an "upholder" type person, so I like to meet expectations (both internal and external ones) and stick to the rules. And I wouldn't have slept well if I missed a briefing, wondering if anything critical was said.

Indeed, there were times when the course was changed - and the start time, too! Then there were practical reminders. Like don't poo behind the vehicles at aid stations. Okay, maybe I didn't need that one. But some competitors obviously did.

For day 1, our accommodation was 12km away. Day 2, our accommodation was 300m away, so Sanja came over for the 7pm podium ceremony only. I admit I felt a little less silly having her with me on the podium, but my ultimate goal was for her to best recover for the following day. Making her come to stand on a podium wasn't in the team's best interests.

Day 3 on 'partial tow' in boggy terrain between 1600-2200m, AUT
Stage 3 was the longest stage. Made even longer by a landslide that caused a course re-routing. 51km + over 3,100m. I thought 7.5 hours might be possible, but much of the terrain proved to be very boggy. But the day dawned as very hopeful on my part, because I had found out I could tow Sanja. I'd thought it was against the rules and all I could do was carry her pack. But the organisers clarified that towing, pushing, pulling - it was all encouraged as an aspect of team racing - as long as there were no fixed lines between runners (a safety issue). When we hit the first hill at 4k, I put Sanja on tow, using her poles between us. I was relieved to hear she liked the method. Then elated that I could finally get my heart rate up! I felt like we were finally a team, instead of me suffering mentally whilst she suffered physically!

It was mostly a climbing day, so we didn't have to worry too much about the descending. Still, she found the boggy stuff technical, too. 8 hours 15 minutes. 3rd place for the day again.

Day 4 podium in Solden, AUT - 2nd place for that stage.

Stage 4? I have no idea. In fact, as I wrote this blog post up, I had to keep referring to my daily race profile summaries, my photos, and the website in order to piece it all together! As I talked about the race afterwards to others and as I wrote this post, I found myself conflating experiences and days - mixing them all up. That shows how unreliable our memories are - what we think the "truth" is.

And Transalps is just the kind of race to exacerbate our subjective storing of memories. You need so much to be in the moment and there's so much "go" that when you get "woah" moments, you sleep. So, looking back, I can see Stage 4 was a "recovery" stage. Haha. Just 28km, starting at a leisurely 9am. Add in 2,300m of climbing. A glacier crossing. High altitude running. A high point of 2,998m, which is reached via a 4km "VK" (vertical kilometre) with 1155m of gain involving via ferrata sections. And then a nonstop quad-crunching descent of 1,800m over just 9km. We finished in 5hr44m, in 2nd place, only 2 minutes behind the 1st place USA girls, and with the German girls only 2 minutes behind us! Since the hotel was just 200m from the finish line, Sanja came over for the podium ceremony for a second time. Another chance for her to show off her special "bronze Berkie - CEP sock" combo.

Stage 4, in the 4km 1100m climb  - a short via ferrata section, where towing is impractical and dangerous

Stage 5. 38.5km + 2220m, over Timmelsjoch (joch is 'yoke' or a pass) from Austria into Italy. They moved the start time from 8am to 7am because of the threat of afternoon thunderstorms, which would be dangerous in the high alpine. I towed for 2.5 hours, from 1346m at the start to the 2,475m high point. We took a quick celebration photo, she let go of the poles, and we began the 9k descent of about 1,100m. It was switch-backed and rocky to start, so I focused on my feet. Glancing back a minute later, I saw Sanja far above. I could give her tips for the downhill, but I couldn't tow her down. I paused. She caught up and said she had no quads. Just as we'd experienced so much on Stage 1 and 2, team after team passed us. I offered some tips, turned, and ran. Then stopped to wait. The German girls passed us. Sanja caught up. I turned and started running a third time. Then I found myself crying. A dry, hoarse sort of crying out of frustration. I felt powerless. I was having a most excellent "sooky la la" moment, as the Aussies say.

Time for Whatsapp. (Inside joke regarding tea for quads.)

Finally, as I saw how useless my behaviour and emotions were - for me and for the team - I regrouped. "Information, choices, and consequences." That's what a rebel apparently needs (Sanja's a rebel type when it comes to meeting expectations). So I calculated that the slow descents would add 30 to 60 minutes to our day and I shared that information. And offered some more descending advice. Sanja made a choice - to push out of her comfort zone and work her alpine descent skills. Woohoo for Team CEP Australia! That's teamwork. We finished, shovelled food in our faces like wild animals at the finish line, had our daily 20 minute massages, and got a shuttle to our hotel 7km north of the village. I did the usual - left Sanja to recover and prep for the following day, whilst I had 3 hours of shuttle buses, pasta party, podium ceremony, and race briefing.

Stage 6, 6hr15. We won the stage. I rocked the solo podium thing again ;)

Stage 7, the final stage, 5hr44, 2nd place. And in the final tally of total time, we finished 2nd Masters Women team overall. We'd had some not-so-secret racing (quite friendly, but still competitive) with the "open" Women's 2nd place team over the week. They seemed to get an extra spring in their step whenever we caught them on a stage. I don't think they liked it when the "old lady" (me) caught them - I worked magic on their pace ;)

In the end, we finished with a total 7 day time faster than theirs, as well. (Quiet fist pump.) So, including all women's teams regardless of age group, we finished behind the open Women's winning team and the German girls in our Masters Women category.

Day 7 - approaching the last summit - before the quad punishing 2000m descent over 11km down to Brixen, ITA

We ran from Germany to Austria to Italy. I towed all the climbs and some flats, when Sanja was more tired. Occasionally, I felt the benefit of her pushing me from behind when I'd have a brief low. We checked on each other's hydration and fuelling, shared some laughs, and even took photos. We clearly and kindly communicated, for mutual benefit.

Our days were generally a variation of this:

5.20am - wake up, pack big duffel bag
5.30am - take duffel bag to lobby of hotel for pickup
5.40am - breakfast, dressing, taping, lubing
6.20am - head to start line (earlier if on shuttle bus)
6.40am - mandatory gear check, final briefing
6.59am - listen to ACDC's Highway to Hell (their start line tradition)
7.00am - run
1.00 or 2.00pm - finish, eat everything (including Hammer recovery powder), find a shower
2.00 or 3.00pm - 20 min massage
3.30-5.30pm - organise for following day, read next day's map, calculate splits, water and fuel needs, eat more avocados and more carbs
Avos on pizza, avos with beans and turmeric...avos and avos....
5.30-8.30pm - I go to pasta party/podium/briefing (Sanja attended Stage 2 and 4 podium only). I send Whatsapp to Sanja with any critical info on next day's stage.
8.00pm - Sanja in bed
9.00-10pm - I return to tiptoe around hotel room, organising, taping toes, etc
10.00pm - I'm in bed

I can't speak for Sanja, but I did indeed get my challenging team race (and not because she was the only challenging part!) Sure, she did my head in a few times ;) But it was my opportunity to figure out what I could do to help the team. To observe any useless, unhelpful thought patterns or behaviour of my own and figure out how I could make something better of it. To try to mentor a peer through her first European race and her first multi-day race.

My lessons? Well, perhaps more "reminders" than "lessons." I am never powerless over my own thoughts, views, emotions, and reactions. As a "control freak", it's easy to race solo and only worry about myself. The magic in team racing is working my "control freak" tendencies on myself to find out how I can gain "control" of my monkey mind when it starts writing unhelpful stories. When it writes a black-and-white, doom-and-gloom B grade movie where I'm the victim, I have the power to use "Information, Choices, and Consequences" on myself. What info do I have on this issue/situation, what choices can I make about my thoughts, feelings, actions, opinions, reactions? And what might the consequences be?

They say in ultrarunning the only certainty is that things will change. That's true for the mind state as well. And the reality is that I have power over that change.

I'm grateful to Sanja for racing with me.

Just. Be. Here. Now.