So here we are at Ultra Marathon number 6 – how on earth did that happen? Of all the Ultras on my calendar, it goes without saying that this was the one I was eagerly anticipating. You see I’d done my homework. After the amazing experience of Sierre-Zinal last year (see previous post), I was anxious to go back to Switzerland and do another race. Could any race top that? It would be a tall order but the Eiger Ultra 51k looked as if ticked all the boxes. The 51k was the middle option of 3 race distances offered – the others being 16k and the more challenging 101k. One look at the promotional video in December and I was signed up within days.
I managed to twist Elaine’s arm (okay, it didn’t take much effort!) and we entered ourselves as part of the mixed team race. Looking at winning times from previous years I fancied our chances of a podium place. We were also going to make a proper holiday of it too (holiday being a euphemism for a week of mountain running). Unfortunately, Elaine’s stress fracture hadn’t fully mended and she had to drop down to the 16k race 😦 We still managed to record some sizeable climbs over the week though 🙂
Preparation for this race had been nothing specific. 3 Ultras, a marathon and a few long hilly runs meant I should on paper have the stamina to see this one out. I hoped all my hill races last year would stand me in good stead too. I mean, just how do you prepare for 32 miles and over 11,000 feet of climbing??? – that’s more ascent than I do in an average fortnight!. I tried not to panic about what lay ahead.
The race starts and ends in Grindelwald, the largest ski resort in the Jungrau region. The town boasts 3 noticeable attractions nearby- the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch peaks which dominate the skyline and cannot fail to get those racing juices flowing. The day before the race we both registered and my gear got the all clear at the kit check. Then it was on to the race briefing via a wee photo shoot.
The race start time had been brought forward an hour to 5:45 am due to some heavy rain forecast in the later afternoon. The plan was to try and get the majority of the 51k racers home before we got wet. The slower 101k runners were just going to need their waterproofs. So, alarm clock set for 3:45 am, it was straight to bed after the race briefing.
I arrived back in Grindelwald about an hour before the race started. Elaine kindly dropped me off in the car before sensibly going back to her bed. The good news was that due to the recent heatwave, the temperature was very pleasant at 4:45am. I just couldn’t imagine loitering around in a vest & shorts at this time of morning in Scotland would be much fun. The sun started to rise and it was time to head to the start.
Having no idea where to place myself, the logical place seemed to be in the front row!!!
The klaxon sounded at precisely 5:45 (that’s Swiss efficiency for you) and I boldly settled into a top 10 position within the first mile on the road section. After about 2 miles the first real climb of the day came sharply into view. You’ll notice the abundance of walking poles from the pics that follow. I was in a minority who didn’t have a pair..and boy was I found wanting on those climbs. I’ll know for next time.
After an endless climb up to and beyond the 1st checkpoint, the views really started to open out.
And the trails were becoming slightly more runnable.
It was hard to know where to look as this was what was behind you.
The next checkpoint (10 miles) was shared with the 101k runners. They had set out some hours before us. It was great to see them in such good spirits. This shot has that checkpoint just coming into view.
I must stop taking photos at some point, I’m meant to be racing! MOOOVE over please cow!
Morestunning scenery and some photo opportunities
The views while running along the side of the mountain are quite awe inspiring. It really doesn’t take much effort to put one foot in front of the other.
After 11 miles of climbing and soaking up the views there was a very welcome 2 mile descent to checkpoint 3 at ‘Oberlager Bussalp’. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a Swiss Alpine brewery but just a table with a collection of sweet, salty and savoury snacks. I took some extra time to stop here and refuel, knowing what was around the corner.
My pre-race research, as usual, had involved finding Strava traces from previous participants. The steep 2 mile climb up to Faulhorn (highest point on the course & the half-way point) is what instanly grabs the attention. 2 miles and 2000 feet, after 13.5 miles of climbing already, is always going to be tough.
By this stage I was really struggling and questioning whether I’d get to the top let alone complete the 2nd half of the course. Runner after runner passed me with the familiar power walk stance aided by poles. Eventually, after about an hour of blood sweat and tears, I’d reached the top.
Mountain rescue formed the only audience just before the summit. Fortunately, I’d timed it just right to witness the chopper taking off. Or maybe they were offering me a lift to the finish?
Of course, I had to get a couple of photos at the summit (trying my best to still look fresh!)
As a means of a half-time interlude, here’s a collection of official race photos:
Having made the climb up to the highest point in just over 4 hours I was aware that like any long hilly event, the race was just about to begin. Unfortunately, this didn’t bode well for me. Having been to the Physio twice in the run up to the race, my ankles were not in the best shape for the long technical descent. I resolved to take my time and soak up the views. This was after soaking up some pepsi, cake, crisps and anything else I could get my hands on at the summit checkpoint.
One of the highlights of coming down is the approach to the checkpoint at Schynige Platte. It’s just ‘wow’.
It’s all too easy to look just a few yards ahead of you when descending for fear of falling over. It’s amazing what you notice when you take the occasional look up though, like this Saltire in someone’s garden in the middle of nowhere! I could think of worse places to live…
The trail followed on through a forest section which had a short and very unwelcome climb but did boast some nice views down the valley. The drops were steeeeep though:
The final checkpoint is in the small village of Burglaunen, 4 miles away from the finish. I was particularly looking forward to this checkpoint as the race menu had pasta being served here (remember – an Ultramarathon is a big picnic with a few runs thrown in). In fact, there was pasta, fresh fruit, coke, water, juice, crisps, salted nuts, gels, bread, cake etc- I definitely made sure I got my money’s worth here.
Burglaunen is also one of the last rail stations before Grindelwald. If the train arrives just as you’re about to cross the railway track, you have to wait a few minutes until it passes. Unfortunately I was out of luck – no train in sight.
The last four miles were along the road/trail which ran parallel to the river. Having never really bothered about positions or time up until this point I decided to put the camera away and tried to put the foot down. I was now cruising home in 10 min/mileing! I did however manage to pass a few people and I still had a smile on my face so I guess I was doing something right.
The last section of the race had us coming through the main street of the town and it was really nice to receive the applause and encouragement of so many people. I crossed the line in 7:40:36. I was tired, ecstatic and in need of more cake. The race organiser thrust his microphone towards me and got me to say a few words to describe the race. Oh dear. I suddenly lost the ability to form coherent sentences and babbled on about being in a state of nirvana throughout the race! Seriously, where did that come from Steve…? Anyway, after the photos were done, I caught up with Elaine, who had also done very well in her race, and enjoyed post-race coffee and cake.
Would I do this race again?
Hell yes. It’s unbelievably beautiful, very well organised and surprisingly quite doable. After completing it, it comes as no surprise to me why it was voted the world’s no.1 trail race in Runners World. Although I think they were referring to the 101k race, the 51k option should be considered no less inferior. If you’re reading this and thinking about a European Ultra next summer then this won’t fail to disappoint. 10/10 in my book.
results – 85th bloke overall
…and a Brucie bonus – top of the Strava Scottish Hill Runners charts this week 🙂 If Carlsberg did Saturday’s…