On Saturday 9th September 2017, I ran through the finish line of the GORE-TEX® Transalpine-Run having run 267km through four countries with over 15,000m of vertical climbing. Before the race started I knew all the statistics and having run that distance before I was fairly confident I was going to complete. What I didn’t expect was all the other things I experienced, shared and learnt during the course of this epic week-long adventure.
HOW THE RACE UNFOLDED:
DAY ONE: Fischen to Lech
The start of the GORE-TEX® Transalpine-Run is in the small town of Fischen, Germany, and on day one about 600 runners congregate at the start line, with a light drizzle coating the brightly courted array of waterproof jackets. You can feel the sense of excitement and trepidation for the seven days of running that lie ahead. As we were part of the GORE Running Wear team, we had the privilege of starting at the front alongside amazing runners such as Sondre Amdahl and Zac Marion, who were running the for the GORE Running Wear International team. The gun fires and the runners are released onto a 40+km course that climbs up into the Alps for the first time.
The first day’s running is well suited to me as much of it is on flat or with gentle inclines and on less technical terrain. This is not as well suited to Kev, my running partner, but he pushes on waiting for the mountains to arrive and give some true tests.
I was very aware that I needed to adapt my running for the mountains and when the trail started to climb I felt a surge of relief that all the work in the Alps, Pyrenees and the coast line of Great Britain had paid off. I feel good.
We arrive in the beautiful ski resort of Lech feeling pretty strong and by sticking to our plan of having a modest pace feel well placed to attack the next stage.
DAY TWO: Lech to St. Anton
Day two started with an epic climb up into the snowy mountains. The first kilometre was a mad dash through the streets of Lech to the start of a single-track ascent. Due to our strong-ish finish the day before we were in the first wave which allowed us not to lose too much time. Arriving at the summit was truly breath-taking with snow-capped mountains in every direction. Then came the first of the epic descents. With snow underfoot, majestic views and cheers from supporters we let gravity take over as we flew down to the second check point. The big test for the day was the second climb up to the highest point of the day. After such a quick descent, the race field ground to a slow march up the hill to the third check-point. Here it was evident who had trained for hills and who hadn’t – the banter died down and determination was fixed on everyone’s faces. From the summit, it was a long sweeping descent to the town of St. Anton.
DAY THREE: St. Anton to Landeck
Day three combined distance with vertical climbing and muddy tracks. The first section climbed from about 1250m to over 2000m on gravel tracks and winding, cliff hugging paths before descending down gnarly trails to just over 1000m altitude. From there, the trails meandered through woodland, over rivers and across amazing valleys, while all the time climbing up to just shy of 2000m.
The final descent was when the problems started. On the long 15km decent into Landeck, something in Kev’s leg started giving him sharp pains and running was no longer an option. For the last 8km we hobbled along the trails as other teams caught up and overtook us. Our priority had switched from rankings to getting home safely enough to continue as a team the next day. Once in the town, Kev sought help from the medics and team physio.
DAY FOUR: Landeck to Samnaun
With the help of stretching, strapping and anti-inflammatory drugs, Kev was able to start the next day and we were determined to get to the finish. The trail ahead was mostly suited to what he was able to tackle quite comfortably. On the hills we made good progress, and managed to stick with the teams we had been running alongside for the first few days. However, the final ascent was not as well suited to Kev and while he heroically pushed on, it was evident that the pain was becoming unbearable. He adopted a one leg dominant running style and managed to cover the distance.
When we arrived in Samnaun, Kev noticed that something was protruding from the front of his lower leg. Several consultations didn’t come up with a definitive diagnosis but Kev’s desire to finish was not going to let this be the end of his race.
DAY FIVE: Samnaun to Scuol
Day five had some of the most stunning trails I had ever run and I felt like it was tailor exactly to my style of running. The course combined long up hills, with both technical and fast descents. The race was less ideal for Kev who was struggling with the down-hill sections. We agreed that out approach for the day should be to run individual stages and regroup at the check-points. At check-point one Kev needed to consult the medic and while there was little they could do they gave him the all-clear to continue onto the second stage. For me this was probably the most fun stage of the race but sadly for Kev it was to be his last. The medics attended him once more and the decision was made for him that his race was over due to the risk of further more serious injury.
Team GORE Adventure Runners was not going to finish as a partnership, but I was determined get to the end. I managed to complete the last two sections of the day as 5th and 3rd fastest participant respectively as I let my legs fly after a couple of days running at my injured partners restricted pace.
DAY SIX: Scoul to Prad
On day 6, I thought I was going to be running alone but an alternative plan was being hatched. I would be running with one of the other GORE Running Wear Teams and more specifically Sondre and Zac. This news filled me with excitement and dread. They were fast – really fast! Sondre is a relentless force on the trails and is hugely respected in the sport – his hill climbing is legendary. Zac is a speed runner with an awesome downhill pace. I felt I was out of my depth…
Today’s run was of two parts – a 1000m vertical climb followed by a 20+km descent, playing into both my new teammates strengths. I set myself two goals, not to disgrace myself on the hill and to make it to the end. From the start, I latched onto Sondre and tried to use his experience to drag me to the top of the mountain. Sondre was the perfect running partner and coached me to the top, sharing tips and techniques that transformed my performance. The descent was relentless on the legs and as the finish line drew nearer, my legs got weaker. My determination took a hit when we passed a marker saying 10km to the end – I had calculated it should be only 8. Negative thoughts started rushing in but neither Sondre or Zac would let them affect me, constantly pushing me on and encouraging me to get to the finish line. We fly over the finish line in 15th overall place for the stage. I felt I had done myself proud and was happy to see Kev standing at the finish line with his never fading smile, despite the disappointment I knew he felt.
DAY SEVEN: Prad to Sulden
The final day arrived too soon and after yesterday’s effort, I was feeling drained and stiff. My left calf muscle was tight and the weather horrible. This was to be my toughest day and I joined my team mates at the start. The total climb was over 2600m, which is twice the height of the UK! I warned my running partners that I was going to be slow and even suggested I run alone but their unwavering support wouldn’t allow it. We were going to finish the race as a trio.
The route ran up through the woods and onto the exposed rock of the mountain. On the way up, Zac and I were stung by bees nesting next to the trail. It was cold and wet and continually pushing at speed was tough. Small things along the route, such as cattle being herded and warm tea in a mountain refuge, lifted spirits and soon we were just 500m from the top. My legs started to wobble and Sondre could tell my energy levels were low. He insisted I take on more energy and I exhausted my supplies, trying to find the energy to get to the top. As we hit the summit, I let out a roar, even though there was about 7km till the end we were going to make it and all that stood between me and the finisher t-shirt was a fast-downhill trail to the finish line.
Running over that finish line was filled with so many emotions – relief, happiness, sadness and realisation. The GORE-TEX® Transalpine-Run had not just been about running but so much more.
WHAT I LEARNT
I came into this event as a solo runner. The comradery from the other competitors was infectious and uplifting. Everyone had a different reason to be there and for many that was just getting to the finish line. There were couples, friends, colleagues, professionals all together with one shared passion for running trails and pushing themselves to test their boundaries. On the final night, there was a video from the finish line that even the most emotionally strong would struggle not to be moved by. The realise of emotions from all the runners from winners to those further down the field was humbling. It made me realise what running meant to people and it rekindled that feeling of why I run and why I push myself to train and to test my boundaries. Running is not just about speed and distance but about sharing an adventure, meeting likeminded people and living.
The biggest lesson I learnt was about me and what I need to work on. The GORE-TEX® Transalpine-Run is not just about strength, endurance and stamina its about team work and I learnt that I need to work on that. From running with Sondre and Zac, I realised that my support to Kev was not what it should have been. I was being driven by my desire to compete when I should have prioritised us finishing as a team. Injuries can just happen, especially when you are on technical trails but I question whether if I had been a better team mate, would Team GORE Adventure Runners have crossed the line together. Kev is true team mate and never made me feel guilty but it’s a skill I want to work on and just maybe it will help me improve for the GORE-TEX® Transalpine-Run 2018.