Marathon

SwissAlpine K42 Marathon Report

I paid for the ticket and decided to run the race. I finished the SwissAlpine K42 in just over six hours. 1800m up, 1600m down, 42 km from the start to finish, my first marathon experience and enough of an adventure to peak my interested in future races. SwissAlpine, more than a race, but sometimes it’s mostly a walk. Here are my thoughts on the race. What it was like running the highest marathon in Europe – what I learned, what worked, and what comes next.

But First: Why?


Running a marathon makes as much sense as climbing a mountain – there is no point to it. Why put your healthy body through such a torment when it’s not going to directly help your survival in this life? For the sense of adventure and accomplishment, an honest answer indeed. I didn’t decide to run the marathon for any particular reason except that my girlfriend suggested it, and I agreed. Although there’s no point in it, it seemed like an interesting challenge, my nose smelled a wisp of adventure and I was committed. I’ve been living in Switzerland for going on 8 years now. Hiking in the Alps turned into mountaineering, I like to ski tour, sport climb, and just generally enjoy finding adventure in the mountains. I don’t really feel a need to run anywhere however. There are no ghosts from my past I feel a need to get away from and I enjoy taking my time strolling down the streets. The draw of the SwissAlpine was to see if I could do it and to feel like an American hero. Of course, this was all in my head. When you stand at the foot of a mountain, the brain will always tell you to turn back. It is the concept of failure, of not being able to climb a crack to summit that makes mountaineering interesting. I like the idea of moving fast over rocks and across wide distances like I can do ski touring – and if you drop the weight of a climbing pack and use light shoes, you have this wonderful combination of speed and can experience the mountain environment in ways only mountain goats and lions know. Plus, you get to wear awesome running gear from brands like Salomon.

Training


I started with the best intentions, and began training for the SwissAlpine back in May. I ran in the mountains around Zurich like the Hornli, and then Rigi Kulm and even headed to Bettmeralp to train at altitude. I found that I could generally maintain a pace of 500m/hr elevation gain and I only trained on vertical ascents, not focusing so much on flat land running. Then an emotional bomb exploded in the start of July and I spent the rest of the month pulling out of the heart breaking madness. For nearly all of July and most of June I hardly ran at all. However, I subscribe to the notion set down by Hunter S. Thompson, that if you buy the ticket, you take the ride, and I set out with the goal of finishing the K42, and a day or so before affirmed in my head that I would go to Davos and do this thing. The morning of the race, July 30th, 2011 I heated up some pasta and took the three hour train trip to Bergun, a little mountain village where the race would start.

Bergun – Kesch – Pass


I felt good waiting for the race to start in the little mountain village of Bergun. I had a start time at 11:30am (for those of us who would need more than five hours to finish). The speakers blared some music I can’t quite remember, it could have been “you’re never gonna keep my down” but it’s irrelevant now. My mind was lucid, but with a determined focus sitting in the back of my primal brain. The purest times in life are when you know that you’ll embark on an adventure, but harbor few expectations for the outcome. Then it was time, and we started running. We started in a field of the village and then went through the main street. From the onset of the race I was getting passed right and left as we exited Bergun and began ascending in altitude. I expected this – I hate running on pavement. I was a little bummed at the start of the race, because we were running on pavement and asphalt, the reason I don’t normally like running races in the first place. “Get me off this dammed surface and onto some rocks” I thought. After a few kilometers we started the ascent up the mountain along a little river, and the trail turned to compacted earth and rock. At some point, everyone around me started walking, and I did as well. This was the point that I started passing people on their rights and lefts. I hate running on flat pavement, but love going up mountain trails. By walking with a long stride I was actually able to pass some people who were still trying to run up the beast. My training was in mountaineering you see, so I had no problem maintaining a quick walking pace up to the hut. Sure my legs were getting fatigued, but normally I’m doing an ascent like this with a 20-30 kg back on my back and mountaineering boots on my feet. The biggest hassle was trying to pass by people on the trail who didn’t see the point in standing aside and letting me go by. Beyond the river our path began winding through the trees and wisps of the cool mountain air began permeating my skin. There were clouds in the sky, but the sun was warm and I wondered why I had taken a jacket in my pack.


As the woods gave way to alpine loveliness the landscape opened up. That wide rocky expanse flooded my soul and I felt at home. Now we were on the mountain hiking trails above 2000m, climbing up to the hut – the high point of the race at 2625m. On these trails it’s easy to lose your sense of time and think you’ll be there forever in a perpetual quest for the end, but then you turn a bend and catch a glimpse of the hut, it gives your body hope – and you try to run a little way before your lungs complain about the lack of oxygen. The weather on the ascent up to the hut was rather nice. A little bit of sun and nice cool temperatures, perfect for my body type. They checked us at the hut, looked into our eyes to see if were still coherent or not. My lungs were feeling fine and my legs didn’t want to sit, it was far easier than some of the 4000m peaks I’ve ascended. I contemplating stopping to rest, but only stayed long enough to put on my jacket as a wind was blowing from the ridge. From the hut we had to descend down and then climb back up to the pass. The fun was about to begin.

Over the Sertigpass


From the Kesch hut we had to descend to the mountain plateau and then up to the Sertigpass. Often times one side of a mountain looks fine and the other is grey and cold, and that’s what we had here. After the hut the wind was blowing and it started to rain on the way to the pass. For me this is the best weather to run in. I love it when it turns nasty, clouds envelope the ridges and the Gods start to forsake you. Your body is more efficient when it’s a little cold. Muscles don’t overheat, you just need to worry about tendons and ligaments losing elasticity, making an injury more of a risk. I just put on my super light Salomon running jacket and Mammut gloves and was good to go. Most folks on the race had nothing but their shorts and shirts, and wrapped themselves in the light orange ponchos the organizers were handing out. I couldn’t imagine running up a mountain in shaky weather in only light shorts and a T-shirt, but I guess it’s what a lot of people like to do. I prefer staying warm and flying down the mountain trails like a half-human mountain goat super hero. In the future, I’ll pick up a pair of Salomon running pants, probably the 34 length version – it would have been better to keep my knees warmer.


I think the cold and terrain was a torture for some people, but I relished in the nastiness. This is my environment. My body is tuned to survive when the weather wants to kill you. My only challenge was trying to pass all the people on the mountain trails. These trails are only for one person at a time, and it’s hard to find room to overtake, but I’m a resourceful basterd. See, most folks had basically no idea how to run down on mountain trails, and that is by far my greatest strength. Running down hiking trails is what I excel at. It’s sort of a combination of dancing and climbing technique. I get into a rhythm and my legs just dance along the trail. My training has been descending down those trails with a 30 kg mountaineering backpack, and when you remove the mass of the pack and put me in light trail running shoes, well…I can literally fly down the trails. I only saw two other runners who also knew how to jump along the rocks and float with the environment. Everyone else was going sort of slow, small little steps and trying not to slip. They would avoid all the big rocks and timidly step down the trail. I on the other hand would jump from one rock to the next in long strides and sometimes float for 2 meters of trail in the air before the next foot placement. I was easily gliding past runners and felt like a bird. Rocks are your friend on these trails. The big ones are the best, you only need some decent shoes to grip a bit (and the Salomon shoes were excellent for this), and then just let gravity pull you down the mountain, hopping from rock to rock to maintain direction and to control your momentum. I was a super hero. I was spiderman and I felt an amazing sensation of freedom and quiet calm letting my legs navigate the trail like a jigsaw puzzle that I could solve without thinking. Then the descent ended, back on the normal trails were the fun ended.

The Long Run to Davos


I probably sound like an arrogant cocky prick describing how easy it was to pass people on the ascent and descent, but that’s just my environment. Running on a flat surface is by far my largest weakness however, and after we got off of the mountain trails I was again getting passed right and left by folks who seemed to know how to run a marathon. After the descent from the pass the race was just another 20 or so kilometers to Davos Platz. The trail was basically flat at this point, descending gradually to the stadium and the finish line. This is where I slowed down and many who I had passed on the mountain were now going by me with large smiles on their faces. For the past 6 or 7 years I’ve been doing mountaineering and climbing. So my legs are highly optimized with muscle memory reactions for going up and down mountains, balancing on thin rock ridges, and going all day long, but I hate running on flat surfaces, my body literally doesn’t know how to do it (and has shown to desire to learn). Unless I’m sprinting my body doesn’t feel right and I would rather walk. On the flats your feet are just going the same way with the same stride, and my mind sort of gets bored and I think it would be more enjoyable to walk. In the future I’ll train more on flat runs to get the right stride and increase my flat stride endurance, but for the 2011 K42 the last 15-20 km is where I took the most time.

Heart Exploding Finish


The last 15 km to Davos Platz were enjoyable (despite being mostly flat). Green and grassy, probably the easiest leg for most of the runners. Since this part is closer to the mountain villages, we were often greeted by random folks along the trails ringing giant cow bells – a fine motivation it was. The locals all seemed to show a great respect for us mountain marathon fools, and I thank them for that. A gradual downhill grade and drink stands with water and warm flat cola and random cow bells. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday. I started drinking the cola at this point, the Isostar mix I had in my backpack sort of tasted like banana and made my stomach ill. Eventually the valley opened up and you could hear the music coming from the stadium area – the finish. But it was also 7 or kilometers away. My energy wasn’t tapped out at this point, but I could feel the tension in my legs, and figured it would be a shame if I pulled a tendon on my first marathon, and walked a lot to go easy on my legs. At this point I knew I would finish, and wanted to do it strong.


I know that with a marathon you’re supposed to ramp up your energy from start to finish, but I love sprinting to the finish line. This implies that I didn’t use enough energy during the rest of the race, and I’m fine with that. I ran the last 2 kilometers non-stop on flat asphalt (my least favorite thing in the running world) and when I heard a woman yell from the sidelines that it was only 500m to the finish I ramped up my speed. As I entered the stadium my lungs were exploding but I had some energy reserves and decided to push myself just a bit more and I passed a guy next to me as we ran around the track at Davos Platz to the giant Migros finish line. People were lined along the finish corridor cheering, and that energy feeds you like an adrenaline shot, and I had a fine sense of super-human accomplishment as I passed the final line and resisted the temptation to collapse. The official time was 6 hours and 6 minutes. 1800 meters up, 1600 meters down, 42 km all the way, the first time I’ve run more than 10 km in my life, the first race I’ve run since the last Detroit Turkey Trot I did back in 1998 or something. Was it worth it? Hells yes. Mountain marathons are a fun way to experience the Alps. Ascending fast, moving over the mountain terrain like a wind spirit and pushing my lungs to the limit at the finish was a fantastic feeling. Now for some thoughts on gear and trash.

What Gear Worked


Basically, all the gear I had worked fucking amazingly well. The Salomon running gear is just basically the most wonderfully designed gear you could imagine for the sport. The compression shorts and calf compression things really are like a second skin, breathing extremely well, and actually help to support your muscles. The Lab running pack feels like nothing on your back and I could trek all day and night with it. I also took a pair of Mammut gloves along, which are essential for me when the weather turns nasty. When it rains and gets cold you stand to lose a lot of energy via your hands, and a nice pair of wind-proof gloves will keep you comfortable when it starts to rain or snow. The light running jacket from Salomon was also essential. It’s super light, fits easily in a backpack or on your belt and actually keeps the rain off of your body. It has a hood, which was great and kept my ears from freezing. The Pearl Izumi arm warmers were fantastic as well. They retain heat over your arms even when it rains and you can pull them down over your forearms if you get too hot. Plus, all of this gear weighs next to nothing. And now for a scolding…

Pick up your trash


No, I get it, you’re running a marathon in the beautiful Swiss alps and you think you have the right to litter? Oh right, you’re just so exhausted, you just got a cup of water and it’s just too much trouble to drink it and put in the multiple trash cans so you just drop it somewhere along the trail? Really, are those few seconds needed to stop at the trash bag going to cost you the race? I think not, please pick up your trash and leave it at the next station. I can understand dropping cups near the water stations (like those nicely lined up in this photo), however, I came across a lot of things like empty power gels and rain ponchos along the race path, and it was sort of amazing to me that people would just leave their shit along the beautiful mountain trails. If you’re running in a city at least a cleaning crew can easily follow the race and collect trash, but it’s not so easy in the mountains. Just because you paid a race fee doesn’t give you the right to litter. See, it’s easy, if you consume a power bar or gel, then just stick the wrapper in your pocket. Is that really so hard? The next time I see someone just dropping their power bar wrapper on the mountain trail I may just push them off the side, but I guess then it would be even more work cleaning up the wrapper of their body impacted on the rocks, and…I’m not an aggressive person to start out with. I follow the ethos of “pack it in, take it out.” It implies that you’re personally responsible for the waste you generate and transport out of the backcountry. With my backpack it’s easy, I eat a candy bar, and then stick the wrapper back in the pocket, then I throw it out when I get to a trash can. Respect the mountains that your choose to run in…trash rant over.


The SwissAlpine K42 was an awesome race. It’s a fabulous was to experience the Swiss mountains and I can highly recommend it for those adventurous souls who like to run at altitude. Thank you to all the organizers, to Florian Kistler from Salomon for making awesome race gear, and to my girlfriend for suggesting that I run. What comes next? Well, I have a spot in the Jungfrau Marathon in Sept. It goes from Interlaken up to the Eiger North Wall and sounds like a fun time. The SwissAlpine was indeed more than a race, it was an experience.


SwissAlpine Training Days: Bettmeralp

For my first taste of alpine running I headed to Bettmeralp, a little dorf in the Swiss mountains, on the footstep of the Aletsch glacier. Bettmeralp (the better alp) is an ideal running location, the accommodations sit at 2000m, and the ridge above the glacier goes from 2200m up to 2600m by the gondal station near the Bettmerhorn. To mix up the running with mountaineering, you can also go up to the Eggishorn, which sits at a comfortable 2900m. If you’re so inclined you can run to the other side of the Aletsch, and go through many meters of up and down to reach the Oberaletsch SAC hut.


The goal of this weekend was to get into a little bit of shape, train my lungs at altitude and see what gear I need for mountain running. I had with me a pair of Salomon Lab running shorts, funky compression style running shorts that compress and stabilize your leg muscles while going up and down and around mountains. The support of the shorts is supposed to protect your legs so they don’t fatigue as much, and they also breath extremely well while keeping you warm in the alpine air. There’s also a very tight fitting shirt to wear, which helps maintain proper posture while running. I took along some compression ski socks to keep my lower legs warm. On top of that I wore my icebreaker wool shirt, which helped to retain heat in the cool alpine air. When paired with a pair of Pearl Izumi arm warmers, it all makes for a very energy efficient running uniform. It also makes you feel and sort of look like a member of the X-men. My girlfriend said I couldn’t run in just the shorts as their almost see-through, so I added a pair of Patagonia swim trunks.

Marathon Training


There are many things I’ve never done in life, including running a marathon and running at altitude. I normally keep a comfortably quick pace in mountaineering boots. So, for the first two days I spent my time running up from the dorf to the ridge which leads up to the Bettmerhorn.  Once you ascend up the hiking trail it’s more or less flat, and you can run between Riederalp and the mountain trail leading up to the Eggishorn. The panorama is beautiful from there, even if clouds come in from the distance and threaten to open up on you, it keeps you moving at least. Each day I had a small pack filled with a 2-liter hydration system, plus cold weather essentials and near useless things like my iPod. This is like 5 or so kilograms I probably don’t need to be running with during the SwissAlpine marathon, but I find it essential for training in a place where the weather can turn nasty before you have a change to find cover. I think once I get rid of the extra gear I’ll have some confidence that I’ll actually be able to finish the K42 race, but I also have 1.5 months to get my body in shape.

Last Ascent


On the final morning I got up early and left the apartment around 5:30am in my mountaineering gear and hiked up to the ridge of the Eggishorn. Running in the hills is fun, but there’s nothing like balancing on a real rock ridge with a Swiss panorama all around you. I developed blister almost immediately. The Salomon running shoes are amazing on my heels, but my La Sportiva Trango are brutal. However, the Trangos let me balance on my toes on a thin rock edge, and the Salomon shoes just aren’t designed for an alpine ascent. I got up to the ridge around 7:40am, which means I maintained a pace of like 500m/hr ascending. I wanted to traverse the ridge to the Eggishorn but some dark clouds were moving in and it was pretty obvious I would be hit with some serious rain if I stayed up there too long. This is fine if you’re just running in the woods, but on a Swiss mountain ridge it’s just a stupid risk, plus I wanted to get down for breakfast.


Bright Idea: Run the K42 SwissAlpine Marathon

I think it’s a good think to keep your mind flexible and challenge yourself in the, seep out of your comfort zone and do something excessive. So when my girlfriend suggested I run the SwissAlpine mountain marathon I sort of said “yes” in my heads. The farthest I’ve run so far is 10K at the Detroit Turkey Trot, and that was years and years ago. This is a bit more challenging, but the people in the Swiss Startup community are inspiring, and if they can start cool companies, I figure I can run the K42 SwissAlpine mountain marathon in Davos, Switzerland on July 30th. It’s 1800m of elevation gain, which is more than I normally do in a day of mountaineering, but I won’t be wearing a pack full of climbing gear. Besides, I’m an American and don’t sweat all those little details, I have a mountain heart and fierce, fierce determination, full of undeserved confidence, and anyways, I’m a Doktor of Science and I have a training plan. Now for some full disclosure, I don’t really like running all that much. At least, not on flat pavement, but when you’re running up a mountain you’re connected to the environment, part of the landscape. That’s why I’m doing it, I love moving through the altitude, and thinking that your body and spirit and flowing in the wind. Plus, the running gear that Salomon is offering is hands-down awesome.

Gear Matters


I know you should’t do sports because of the gear, but I don’t mind admitting that I’m running the SwissAlpine partially because I get to dress up like a superhero. It makes sense, I openly admit being a gear whore. The Salomon trail running shoes I have are amazing. I had a blister from running in my Scarpa approach climbing shoes, and the Salomon shoes don’t even put pressure on the blister area, it’s just amazing. The XT 5 SLAB running pack I’m looking at and their muscle support clothing also looks awesome, I can’t wait to run in the Wallis with the EXO shorts. It’s the perfect form of functional fashion, clothing which looks cool and actually improves your athletic performance. You’ll never find that mix at Dolce & Gabbana or H&M. My official drink for the event and training period is Isostar. I started drinking it years back when I was looking for a sports mix to help me hike/climb/ski faster and longer in the Alps, and Isostrar does the trick. I haven’t done an testing, I just know I go long and faster when drinking Isostar instead of just water. Gear is motivating, it feels nice to have a pair of Petzl arm warmers keeping you dry and warm when the weather turns dark and thunder rolls from Thor’s hammer across the sky, threatening to zap you with a lighting bolt if you run too slow over the mountain top. However, you have to back it up with results. If I’ve learned anything from the Swiss Startup community, it’s that ideas are useless with determined execution.

Training for the SwissAlpine


How do you train for a mountain marathon? I’ve asked the marathon runners and tri-athletes that I know, but it seems like this isn’t a normal type of race. Being a Doktor of Science, I decided to design a program-philosophy on my own. A lot of sources say things about running long distances and ramping up and ramping down, but that does nothing to address the altitude issue. So, instead, I’m training for the K42 like I would for speed climbing. I go to mountains in Switzerland, and try to ascend them as quickly as possible. For example, I ran/walked up Rigi Kulm from Goldau in 1 hour 50 minutes last Saturday, that’s a pace of about 500m/hour and matches my basic goal for the K42. It means I should be able to finish the K42 in 5-7 hours, which is 1800m up and 1600m down. It’s not for sure I can do it, I’ve never run a marathon before, I just like the mountains of Switzerland. However, I see no point in not being positive. That’s what Americans excel at, backing up an undeserved excess of self-confidence with measured results. In this case, I think a mountain madness training philosophy makes sense. Later this week I’m heading to Bettmeralp to train around the Great Aletsch Glacier. That’s why I’ll attempt a day trip in Bettmeralp, going from the dorf to the Oberaletsch SAC mountain hut and back. It’s an excessive amount of up and down and I’ll be leaving early in the day and coming back late at night. I figure if I just become one with the mountains and altitude and concentrate on being light and fast, I’ll survive. I’ll stay committed to this cause as long as it stays fun. What’s the point if you’re not having fun in life doing what you’re doing? I’ll add the big posts on my blog, but I’ve also started a new Tumblr with all the images and randomness of training for the SwissAlpine, http://myswissalpine2011.tumblr.com/.