Guest Blogger and Further Faster Athlete Fiona Hayvice tells us the story of race day at the Eiger Ultra Trail, 101, 16 July 2016 .... take it away Fiona!
My focus in 2016 has been the Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT); an international circuit comprising twelve races of at least 100km. During a calendar year, athletes enter as many events as they wish and then they're ranked based on their top three results.
Eiger Ultra-Trail (E101), Grindelwald, Switzerland was my third UTWT race for 2016. On paper it was my also most challenging race, to date, period! The stats read; 6700m of ascent and descent (ranging from 900m to 2680m) over 101km. And to top it off it was my first time racing (and running for that matter) in the European mountains. Yes, we do have mountains in New Zealand, but over there I found myself confronting a whole other scale and concentration – more on that later.
In order to give myself a reasonable vantage, I arrived in Grindelwald (1034m) 8 nights prior to race day. I used these days to familiarise myself with the course's first climb (up past Grosse Scheidegg at 2000m), and the first and the last few kilometers. At a race 4 weeks prior, I'd received incorrect instructions from a marshal, which resulted in back-tracking to reach the finishing-chute. I didn't want a repeat occurrence, especially if I was vying for a placing in the final stretch.
By the time race day rolled around (Saturday 16 July), I was definitely mentally ready to spend a day traversing the Swiss Alps. Physically, I wasn't so sure. The reason being, when I'd raced the Mozart100 (105km around Salzburg) 4 weeks earlier, my left hip had slipped out of alignment. Consequently, my adjoining hamstring had tightened and become excruciatingly painful and debilitating. I'd spent the subsequent 4 weeks nursing/strengthening my body. Although, I'd followed my Fascial Stretch Therapists guidance religiously, there was an inkling of self-doubt “would I commence the E101, and later in the day find myself looking down the same barrel?”. There was only one way to find out!
The E101 started in the dark (head-lamp necessary) with very little pomp and ceremony. A few seconds before 430am, I happened to spot a gentleman raising the starter gun, as I was standing front-right, in the starting-chute. And then as the large neon stopwatch hit 0430am the gun was fired. There were no “go-well” words, or countdown; we simple 'shoot' off, up the mainstreet of Grindelwald towards Grosse Scheidegg, perched under the towering Wetterhorn (3692m).
For this first climb we rose approximately 1000m over 8km. The field of 600 hadn't really had a chance to spread out before we hit the single, hiking necessary, trail. Hence, I encountered and partook in a fair bit of hair-raising overtaking as we navigated the narrow path in the dark. The long line of flickering head-lamps must have been quite a sight for the villagers waking in the valley below.
Bypassing Aid Station 1 (8km), my smile broadened as we broke into a run and made our way along wider, undulating dirt paths. The sun had woken but hadn't quite poked it's head above the surrounding mountains. Hence, there was a marked chill in the air at 2000+m. I quickly stowed away my now redundant head-lamp, and whipped out my Montane Primino® gloves. I'd chosen these exceedingly light-weight gloves (18g) as every gram counts when you're carrying a swag of items for 13+ hours. To tell you the truth I was actually a little skeptical as to whether they'd actually keep my hands warm. I was very relieved when I discovered they instantly performed their desired outcome – no more ice-cube finger tips!
A 600m descent, down approximately 3km of tarmac road, marked the approach into Aid Station 2 (18km). I ducked into the mountain barn that was housing the tables of food and fluids, and shot out the other side; I had no need to refuel here.
Next up, was a 600m climb to Aid Station 3 (23km). Unlike the approach into Aid Station 2, we found ourselves back on trail; weaving our way up, up, up, grassy faces, through trees, and higher up large boulders. Finally I spotted midget figures overhead, running along what appeared to be a metal gang-plank, precariously hanging off the side of the mountain. I assumed this was the entrance into our next Aid Station, and I was right. After only just managing to stay upright on the 'swinging-bridge' portion of the gang-plank, due to sharing it with other runners; I pulled up on the balcony of First Mountain Restaurant. A quick water-fill of two soft flasks (one pre-loaded with Tailwind), and I was on my way again.
For the first 15km or so, I'd kept apace with two time E101 winner Francesca Canepa. She'd crept ahead of me on the descent into Aid Station 2. So, I was pleased to spot her just up ahead as I departed Aid Station 3. I called out a friendly 'caio' to her husband Rentao (we'd met at the Mozart100, stayed in touch and subsequently all dined together a couple of nights before E101), locked-on my hiking poles, and made chase. Apart from Francesca, I hadn't seen any other females since leaving Grindelwald. Aside from gauging my position based on time, I had no idea where I was placed in the field. I kept an eye on my splits, and made the assumption that if I kept withincooee of Francesca, then I'd be at the pointy end.
Climbing to the courses highest point (Faulhorn 2680m) was a little more taxing than the previous ascents; likely due to the fact that after 2100m the saturation of oxyhemoglobin in our bodies begins to plummet. Living at sea-level, I noticed the effects, and had to suck-up being overtaken by a handful of runners. Reaching the summit I felt slightly nauseous, so I grabbed a small chunk of banana, as I passed through Aid Station 5 (33km), hoping it would settle any imbalance (it helped).
The next section of the course was some of the most technical underfoot, exasperated by a sizable dumping of snow earlier in the week. Conscious of the fact that descents aren't my forte, I mustered every ounce of courage, and made a concerted effort to boldly tackle the semi-cleared, snowy trail. In between icy patches, I managed to catch a glimpse of the surrounding vista – WOW! I quite literally felt on top of the world!
By this stage, I'd lost sight of Francesca, and to make matters worse, I was overtaken along this rocky ridge-line, by two females. I tired to remain positive, and hoped that they represented the front of the 50km race; as it turns out one of them did (so I'd only dropped back one place to 7th).
Approaching Aid Station 6 (38km) I glanced down at my watch; disappointingly I was about an hour behind my estimated time. Checking in on my Tailwind supply, I found it was low. So, I decided to pause for water-fills rather than carrying onto Aid Station 7 (43km), as planned. A reminder that one must always be adaptable during ultra events (and life).
A few hundred meters down the line and I found myself clear of the snow. The trail widened and became slightly more groomed; my pace quickened. Instead of snow, I now found myself having to navigate a considerable number of tourists. The flip-side was their loud cheers of encouragement as I passed by. It was through this stage of the course that I also began to encounter race supporters. Up until now public access had been minimal. They perched themselves on sunny nooks, lay on grassy banks and hung off fence rails, often ringing bells and chanting my name (not because they recognised me, but because it was plastered across the front of my race bib). At various times throughout the day, deeper bell chimes echoed through the valleys. Support from local livestock (permanently sporting neck bells) was something I'd never experienced before; euphoria flooded over me.
Prior to the event, Race Director Ralph Naf had pointed out that the descent from Aid Station 7 to 8 was steep and technical. He advised that I should check-out this portion of the course. Unfortunately, time hadn't allowed for a recce prior to race day. This was perhaps a good thing, sometimes ignorance is bliss. It wasn't so much the steepness (dropping 1100km over 9km) that was tricky, but what what lay under foot. The tree rooty, slippery, at times rocky, narrow path that twisted through the forested mountain-side, quite literally kept me on my toes, and fully engaged for over an hour. The concentration required to stay upright was intense!
I was relieved to finally pull into Aid Station 8 (53km). I'd been on the go for just under 8 hours (disappointingly 1 ½ hours behind my estimation). This location was the last point of aid for the E51 runners, and the only opportunity throughout the entire course for E101 to access a drop-bag (personal items that could potentially be usual halfway around i.e. nutrition, change of tshirt, warmer top, sunscreen). Hence, this aid station was a buzz of activity. Unclear as to where to find my drop-bag, I made a beeline to the food table and called out for directions. Thankfully it only took a couple of seconds for my English to be interpreted, and I was pointed in the direction of a large white marquee. Much to my gratitude the volunteer manning the drop-bags was even more responsive. She quickly found my bag amongst the hundreds laying 'patiently' on the ground, helped me re-stock (with pre-filled water and Tailwind flasks), offered me additional refreshments, and wished me well for the second half of the journey.
The brief interactions were uplifting. Unfortunately, they didn't last long, as within a few hundred meters of leaving Aid Station 8, I found myself back in the trees. But this time I was going up! I still had a reasonable amount of spring in my step, so I hiked the next 5km (700m ascent) with purpose. Dropping 300m into the village of Wengen (at 1300m) offered a slight reprieve from climbing. I was able to lengthen my stride and actually run, through the narrow streets of this somewhat quaint Swiss holiday resort. On the flip-side, it added 300m to our next climb which was our longest and steepest of the day (1000m over 4km).
Hiking up out of the valley towards Aid Station 10 (66km) I began to feel the effects of already being on my feet for 9.5hrs / 62km. The majority of the climb was exposed, a narrow 'sheep' track leading up to the summit of Männlichen (2300m). The skies were clear, as they had been all day, and it was mid afternoon, so the sun's rays were intense. At one point I looked up and saw a young couple running towards me. As they carefully snuck-by I called out jokingly “you're up here doing this for fun!?”. They responded with a laughed and “yes, although we're out for a lot shorter time than you!”. I tried to find any distractions I could; including chatting to fellow competitors. Austrian Wolfgang Eggl shared tales of longer, more vertical races. Hearing these made me take a deep breath and suck it up; at least for a few meters.
Half-way up this brutal ascent I glance back (something I normally wouldn't do) to size-up the monstrosity of the climb. Instantly, I was perturbed, as I discovered renowned French mountain runner Mélanie Rousset had crept up on me. She looked strong as she passed, and kindly called out “follow me”. I really wanted to tag in behind her, but I simply couldn't muster up the energy. Unfortunately, the European mountains were starting to get the better of me.
Departed Aid Station 10 (11hrs in) my pace quickened and my smile returned, as I was able to run along the next 3-4km of dirt road and wide walking paths. We were back in a 'tourist-zone' which meant a welcoming dose of friendly, optimistic chants. Although, I have to admit seeing all those happy, relaxed faces made me ask myself “why, am I not having a 'normal' Saturday and taking it easy like them?!”.
Sadly, the running 'malarkey' was short-lived. Confronted with another ascent, I clipped my gloves back into my hiking poles, shortened my stride and thought to myself “just be thankful you're into the back-end of the course now”.
The subsequent descent was reasonably steep, yet it wasn't technical underfoot. So, I gleefully shot down the grassy mountain side. I found myself once again in the company of Wolfgang, and a welcome addition Hong Kong based Brit Tom Robertshaw (who I discovered further down the track is a fellow Tailwind ambassador). I proceeded to play leap-frog with these two for the remainder of the day.
Approximately, 3km of gently rising shingle road lead us to Aid Station 11 (76km). At times, I gave myself an extra push and broke into a run. Although, it wasn't until the other side of Aid Station 11 that I really got my run on again. Taking advantage of the gradual descent, I happily 'skip' towards our second to last major climb. I was totally naive to the struggle I was about to encounter.
Starting at 2000m, with 77km under my belt, the next 400m climb over 2km presented an immense obstacle. Feeling slightly nauseous and quite literally weak at the knees, I slowly trudged my way up the shingle ridge-line, relying heavily on my poles for balance. Finally, after what felt like an eternity (turns out it was close to 45mins) I reached the crest. I pleaded with the photographer, who'd no doubt positioned himself to capture one of our darkest moments, not to take my picture. He tried to reassure me that everyone looked in the same deathly state; I wasn't convinced!
Traversing the foot of Eiger North Face was one of my favourite sections of the day. The track cutting across, and later down the mountain, was well-worn and walkers could have shared it two-abreast. It made for relatively easy navigation. Joyously, I felt flow return to my momentum.
Half-way into the sizable 1300m drop, I utilised Aid Station 12 (86km); filling-up my water, and last measure of Tailwind. From here I found myself pounding down 4.5km of tarmac. At every bend, I hoped we'd be diverted back onto the trail. Grindelwald and the finish-line, tantalizingly lay directly in front of us, across the valley. Yet, I knew from my pre-race recce that the course did not follow a direct line from here. Instead, we still had just under 15km to go. We had to loop further around the base of the Eiger, tackle one final 400m ascent, followed by one final 500m descent, then make our way along the river flats at the base of Grindelwald.
Miraculously, I broke into a sprint once I hit the flats. Even after completing a number of ultra marathons, it still astounds me how one's body can be so depleted (on this day, back at the 80km mark) and then some time later turn itself around. Additionally, as I made my way as hastily as possible to the finish-line, I reflected on the fact that my left hip and associated hamstring hadn't irritated me all day, not even one iota. Our bodies really are remarkable self-healers, capable of remarkable feats.
Popping up onto the main street of Grindelwald, lined with a handful of spectators, and many tourists going about their evening activities, I was exceedingly pleased that my day was finally coming to an end. Taking 16hrs 14min to complete the Eiger Ultra Trail resulted in my longest time-on-legs to date. I crossed the finish-line (8th female) more than two hours behind my goal; I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Yet, I wasn't for a second disappointed by the race. The scenery was out of this world. At numerous points along the way, I'd felt like I was on top of the world! And the race logistics were world class. If you're looking for a course that will test your vertical strength, whilst offering breathtaking panoramic views, then I have no hesitations in recommending Eiger Ultra Trail.
Huge thanks to my NZ based supporters;
1. Gear and nutrition; Icebug, CEP, Further Faster, Tailwind Nutrition, and ENDUROBeet
2. Fascial Stretch Therapist; Alex Butt of Back To It
3. Coach; Scotty Hawker of Mile27
4. And my two boys who wholeheartedly back my ambitions; husband Todd and 4 year old son, Spike.
My Race Outfit:
• Icebug, Zeal
• CEP, Run Sock 2.0
• Lululemon, Run: Speed Short
• Lululemon, Strap It like It's Hot Bra
• Montane, Sonic T-Shirt
• Montane, Via Visor
• Montain, Via Cheif
• Salomon, S-Lab Sense Ultra Set
• ENDUROBeet + Oat Milk smoothie
• Rice Bubbles
• Oat Milk
• Black Coffee
Nutrition During Race:
• 1,600 calories of Tailwind Nutrition
• 6L Water