I can see the first summit - Keschhütte – long before I reach it. With Alice in Wonderland logic, it never seems to get any closer, no matter how long I climb. But finally, the faint clanging I’ve been hearing materialises into the sound of cowbells, being rung by enthusiastic spectators lining the trail into the aid station. ‘Hup, hup, hup!’ they call. They’ll be lucky. I can barely crawl and I’ve only covered 16km – 26km to go. Worse still, it’s taken me 2 hours 10 minutes.
I’m beginning to realise that all those weeks of hill reps in my local park were woefully inadequate preparation for the Swiss Alpine, the highest mountain marathon in Europe. It’s not just the altitude that’s foxed me (although at 2632 metres, I’m fighting for every breath), but the terrain. I’d started the long climb to Keschhütte at a comfortable jog - but after zig-zagging gently upwards through a forest of tall pines, the path suddenly dispensed with such niceties, narrowed and headed directly uphill. Since then, it’s been an interminable, single-file trudge over jagged rocks and loose stones, on an impossibly steep gradient. ‘We’ll be back on the move in a minute,’ I keep thinking, but 90 minutes later, I’m still skyward bound.
The day had started rather better. Boarding the Glacier Express train to the Alpine village of Bergun, where the race starts, I was brimful of confidence and carbohydrates. The train chugged along through steep-sided green valleys in which low clouds lingered, but the snow-capped peaks were backlit by a more promising blue sky.
I stepped off the train and followed hundreds of wiry, weathered runners to the registration and bag-drop area. I made my final kit selection - shorts, sleeveless top and knee-high compression socks - shouldered my rucksack (containing waterproof jacket, a set of arm warmers, plenty of energy snacks and a hydration pack with feed tube) and lined up on the start line, the air heavy with anticipation and the smell of deep heat.
The first couple of kilometres took us out and back through the village, but soon, we were ensconced in a glorious Sound of Music valley, a river hurrying along beside us, brown cows turning their heavy heads to stare and chew…We passed back and forth across wooden bridges, occasionally teetering over stepping stones or leaping mini waterfalls.
Over the course of 42km (the standard marathon distance), we are to climb a total of 1890m and descend 1710m, with two major peaks to conquer along the way. I’ve studied the course map well enough to know that Keschhütte, which I’ve finally reached, is the first one – and also the highest point of the course, at a lofty 2632 metres. My mood lifts a little at having reached this point, but the relief is short lived when I pass the aid station and see what comes next - a steep, rock-strewn hillside, down which a barely discernible trail lies – the sort of trail that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lake District fell race. To compound the problem, the heavy rain from last night has left rocks slick with water and the ground between them like mush.
Tense and tight isn’t a good way to run down a hill, I know, but the messages I’m sending to my limbs don’t appear to be reaching their destination. I step gingerly on giant pebbles which seem intent on throwing me sideways, my arms flailing for balance. Reams of people overtake me, and I stare after them with a mixture of envy and awe. How can they possibly run down here? If it weren’t for the fact that there are people all around me, I’d probably be tempted to descend parts of the slope on my bottom. (Later, at the finish, I note that bloodied hands, noses and foreheads show that the gung-ho approach isn’t without risk…) When the path levels to a point where I can run, I pick off a few people by sharpening my pace. But I’ve still got the second summit to climb.
As the path rises from Alp Funtauna, we hit snow. I’d normally be swathed in down jacket, scarf and hat at this altitude, I think disconsolately, as I slip and slide along in shorts and a vest. The enforced slow pace eventually makes me cold enough to stop and put on my jacket, and when I reach the aid station at Scaletta Pass – back up at 2600m - I gratefully take a cup of warm bouillon and eat an energy bar.
I’m getting the measure of this thing now, and I’m not filled with optimism about the next descent. Just as well. The first 3km of this one is even steeper than the last – and I’m more tired. I try different strategies to keep moving along. I work on keeping my stride short, with a swift cadence. I try a one-footed galloping motion. I try to keep my eyes up and not look down at my feet. But whenever I encounter a particularly steep or slippery patch, I stall, and have to gather up the confidence to go again. Start, trip, stop. Start, slip, stop. And all the while, my internal argument bats to and fro: ‘How can it be this hard?’ ‘How come you’re such a wimp?’
Another aid station comes into view. ‘How far to go? I ask the marshal, as I drain a cup of isotonic drink and cram fruitcake into my mouth. ’14 kilometres’ she replies. The path finally evens out, and I’m able to run continuously. I decide to treat the race like a triathlon. I’ve done the swim (climbing up) and the bike (coming back down) and now, I’m on the final leg, the run. The bit I’m good at.
At first, it works. I steadily overtake for the next half hour – playing an exhilarating game of cat and mouse with a cropped blonde-haired girl dressed in black for a couple of miles. But suddenly, a wave of exhaustion crashes over me and to her surprise and mine, I stop running. It’s as if all the miles of thin air have caught up with me all at once, and I fight desperately to catch my breath. The soles of my feet hurt. My thighs hurt. My back hurts. My guts have started to add their objections to this whole exercise.
I walk for a few metres, sipping water and considering what to do. Although my body puts forward a strong case, my brain decides that quitting is not an option. Not this close to the finish. I begin running again. The km markers seem aeons apart, but at last, trail gives way to tarmac and we’re making out way through the outskirts of Davos. I turn into the stadium, packed with cheering, bell ringing spectators, and shuffle the last 300 metres around the track. I cross the finish line with barely enough energy to stop my watch. Someone presses a medal into my hand. The race may have taken me over 2 hours longer than any previous marathon, but I’ve never deserved one so much in my life.
Gearing up for a mountain marathon
These are your bread-and-butter when training for an endurance event. Long runs (the term is relative, but 2-4 hours is typical) get your heart, lungs and musculoskeletal system fit for the challenge of prolonged, strenuous running. They’re also important psychologically – helping you build mental strength and confidence that you can go the distance.
If your event is on trails or goes cross country, it is essential to get used to running on uneven terrain. Not only is it aerobically more challenging (if you sustain the same pace as on road) it also works the stabilising muscles of the body harder – particularly those around the ankles and knees.
An obvious one – but think about how you tackle hills. Will you be sprinting up a short hill and jogging back down in your race? Unlikely. That’s why an undulating run or a ‘Kenyan hills’ session, in which you run swiftly up and down a hill continuously, is more useful than short sharp hill reps with jog recoveries. Shorten your stride, don’t lean forward and keep your head up.
Running downhill may not be aerobically challenging but to do it well (and not leave your knees and thigh muscles begging for mercy) you need good technique. Try not to ‘brake’ as you descend, shorten your stride, use your arms for balance and let gravity carry you. Trust your feet to pick the right route, because looking down at the ground will slow you down and throw your neck and back out of alignment.
If you are going to be running at altitude, it’s worth including some ‘hypoxic’ training. (The organisers of the Swiss Alpine recommend runners spend 4 days at 1500m above sea level before the race.) According to Richard Pullen, director of the Altitude Centre www.altitudecentre.com, even a single session is worthwhile. ‘It’s valuable to experience what exercise feels like, and through physiological testing, we can get an insight into how you’ll respond and the sort of pace you may be able to sustain,’ he says. (And no, it won’t be the pace you can achieve at sea level.) Regular sessions (2-3 times per week for 3-4 weeks) will facilitate a whole host of physiological changes that will enable you to perform better, both at altitude and sea level.