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Race Review: Eiger Ultra Trail 51K Panorama (July 16, 2016)

It is approaching my one-year anniversary of completing the Eiger Ultra Trail 51K race. Like many great events, Eiger has stuck with me all year and the joy, awe, and difficulty of it are still sinking in. After coming across a half-baked race report in my Google Docs folder that I started a year ago, I decided it was time to finally finish documenting the day. In doing so, I am amazed at the level of detail that is still fresh in my head, and I reveled in reliving every step. Fair warning - this is an unusually long race report. But the story is worth telling, so here it is.

The First Step

I never aspired to be an ultra-runner. I am impressed and even envious of the dedication of ultra-runners, and I gobbled up every word of Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” the way an ultra-runner would, but running more than 26.2 miles is not something I ever had the urge to do. So, sign up for a 50 kilometer race? Nah, I’ll pass. But spending a day on a long trail-run/hike in the Swiss Alps, hanging out with Heidi, her goats, and happy Swiss cows seemed like a perfect way to spend a summer vacation day. Sign me up! And that’s exactly what I did at 3:00 am Pacific Time on October 23, 2015 when the registration for the Eiger Ultra Trail race opened.

The Eiger Ultra Trail sounded a little crazy, but not too crazy. It is a 51 kilometer (32 mile) race starting in Grindelwald, Switzerland, traversing the Jungfrau region, with a total ascent of over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet). This race seemed to be the perfect combination of misery and joy that us endurance athletes willingly subject ourselves to, and would qualify for that item on my bucket list that read, “Do something epic when you turn 40.”

If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail… or problem solve

As we grew closer to race day, and Barry started putting in some serious training weekends (albeit, he had registered for the Eiger 101K course, not the 51K), I started doubting that my silly little triathlon training was going to properly prepare me for this course, despite the fact that I had no intentions of actually “racing.” In addition to the training time required, I also needed to devote time to research gear, which I hadn’t done. This race had a mandatory gear list that was almost as intimidating as the total ascent. The race regulations made it clear that if you didn’t have ALL of the required gear with you at check-in, you couldn’t race. And rumor had it there were random gear checks throughout the race and if you didn’t have all of the gear with you, you couldn’t continue. This shiznit was serious!

Snow-Covered Pre-Race Nerves

Prior to the race, we had spent a week in France cycling in the Pyrenees and the Alps. Although we had long days on the bike (over 300 miles and 30,000 feet of climbing during the week), on some of the most epic mountain passes in the world, we were relatively rested when we arrived in Switzerland, as we had cooled down from our own private Tour de France with three days of light hiking and sight-seeing in Chamonix. On July 13, we drove three hours from Chamonix to Grindelwald, in the rain. I could only guess that all of those snow-capped mountains against perfect blue skies, and bright green pastures spotted with Swiss cows and cute chalets were out there somewhere, underneath the rain, clouds and gloom.

July 14 did not bring sunshine, only escalating pre-race nerves. The only mountains that I saw were on the postcards in the gift shops. But my ultra-positive boyfriend insisted that, when in Switzerland, you need to at least pretend to view the mountains, so we took the gondola up to First, a station at 7,100 feet. which was also the first major rest stop on the Eiger 51K race course. It was two days before the race and it was a complete blizzard at First. There was not a drop of sunshine to be gleaned, or a single mountain top visible. There was a foot of snow on the ground, and it was growing rapidly. At that moment, I tried to come to terms with the fact that (1) I would probably not do this race, and (2) I would probably not see Switzerland as it’s meant to be seen. (I also might have been slightly relieved at the prospect of this race, for which I was incredibly ill-prepared, being cancelled.)

On July 15, the day before the race, we continued to march on as though this race was really going to happen since we had been checking the website and had not heard otherwise. By mid-day, the weather forecast was looking better for race day. Not just better, but miraculously better - clear skies and 70 degrees - but that was a hard pill to swallow, given the clouds that were still looming, and the view that we had to behold from Junfraujoch:

But the weather predictions in Switzerland are much more accurate than they are in Seattle because when we returned to Grindelwald, the clouds were in fact starting to part, and I saw my first glimpse of Swiss mountains. Even between the cloud breaks, they were surreal. So big, so close, and Grindelwald is right in the middle of them, not like the distant Cascade or Olympic ranges that surround Seattle, as I had expected to see. I accepted this as the best views I would get of the Swiss Alps on this visit, and was satisfied.

Race Prep (or Lack Thereof)

Remember that list of required gear? As rumored, it was no joke. The volunteers at race check-in were examining every participant’s gear bag, checking off each of the 14 items one at a time. (The woman checking me in even conducted a thorough examination of my rain jacket to ensure that it was Gore-tex brand, as specified by the required gear list). When she came to “whistle” (or pfeifen in German) on the gear list, she rummaged through my things and there was no pfeifen to be pfound. Yes, I had noted that a whistle was a required piece of gear, but I didn’t consider that I didn’t have one because (1) I didn’t think they would really check EVERYTHING, and (2) every trail running pack in the world (except the one I chose for this race, apparently) has a whistle attached to it. Next on the list was a hat (or hut in German), which I absolutely knew that I packed… but it happened to be in the car at that exact moment in time. The woman at check-in was displeased with this explanation, so without evidence of a pfeifen and hut in my possession I was banned from race check-in.

I walked back to the car to pick up my hat, borrowed Barry’s whistle off his bag, and then scurried back to the race check-in for attempt number two. Thankfully, I passed the gear-check this time, got my race bib and my tracking beacon, and was approved to start the race in the morning.

Because we had an early morning ahead of us (3:00 am for Barry and 4:00 am for me), we decided to go back to the AirBnB, pack our gear, eat a simple dinner, and get to bed by 8:00 PM. This was a fine plan, but that required gear list had one more bone to pick with me. When I laid out all 14 items on the bed and tried to fit them into my 8 liter backpack for the first time, I just couldn’t cram things tight enough to make it all fit. Yes, I practiced running with that backpack and 2 liters of water, but I never thought to also practice with the 2 jackets, running tights, a day’s worth of food, an ace bandage, an emergency blanket, and everything else on that list. As was becoming painfully evident at this point, I had not properly prepared for this race.

Thankfully, Grindelwald is an outdoor enthusiast’s mecca, so trail running packs are as abundant in the gift shops as T-shirts, postcards, magnets, and mugs. After an hour of shopping (just in time, before the shops closed for the night), I found a small Mammut backpack (Swiss-made, but not meant for trail running), and yes, it had a whistle attached to it. It wasn’t perfect, but with some rigging, it would get me through the day.

Between missing gear, last-minute shopping, snow blizzards, and lack of real trail running training, I reached my quota of pre-race stress. I had a simple pasta dinner and a glass of wine and was off to bed. “What have I gotten myself into?,” I thought, as I drifted off to sleep that night.

The Great Anticipation

The alarm went off at 4:00 am, and it was like any other race day. My gear was ready to go, so I just had to put on my clothes, eat a bowl of muesli (when in Switzerland...), a banana, and down a cup of coffee before heading out the door. As I walked to the race start, I noticed that the sky was totally clear, as promised by the weather report. Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau were alive in their pre-dawn glory. This was going to be amazing.

There was lots of activity at the starting line and I was having trouble deciding what to wear. If you’ve raced, you know the drill - jacket on, jacket off, arm warmers on, arm warmers off, arm warmers on but rolled down, tights on?, nah - shorts are fine, etc., etc. A guy standing near me noticed my REI jacket and said, “Where in the States are you from?” We chatted for a bit. He was from California, but had been living in Grindelwald for 8 years. A couple other locals overheard our conversation and asked if I had ever done this race before. I said, “No, I’ve never even really done a trail run,” and all three of them just laughed at me. Looking back, this wasn’t a completely accurate thing to say. I have plenty of experience hiking and I’ve done a number of trail runs, though I knew I was about to do something that was unlike anything I had ever done. In their eyes, I just said something utterly ridiculous. These mountains were their backyard; they ran these trails every weekend and knew what to expect every step of the race. But I was a non-trail-runner from the States who was about to start one of the most challenging ultras in Europe. I was a lunatic in their eyes. At that moment, I knew I was tougher than they knew I was, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried at all about what lied ahead.

And We’re Off!

With that, we were asked to line up at the race start and the countdown to the start began, so thankfully I didn’t have much more time to doubt myself. My strategy was just one foot in front of the other until the end. Stop along the way. Take pictures. Enjoy the views. Jog slowly. Walk. Smile. Breathe. Relax. Make friends. Eat and drink. Don’t puke. Have fun. And we were off…

The first mile or so was flat, along the quiet roads of Grindelwald, leading to the trail. Once we hit the trail, the climbing started right away with a gain of 2,000 feet in the first 3.5 miles. Most of the trail was single-track, and we were packed in pretty good, so we were all stepping along at the same steady pace. Some people were chatting, but it was mostly quiet, except for the growing rhythm of heavy breathing. We were chugging along at a 15-20 min/mile pace. I was comfortable, but getting chilly fast, so I pulled myself off the trail to put on my arm warmers and duck into the bushes to pee. I promised myself that I would use the porta-potties from that point forward because there were race rules about not urinating in the woods and, not only did I want to respect Switzerland, I did not want to get kicked out of the race, recalling how rigid they were about the mandatory gear.

Shortly after that first stop was a small aid station where I grabbed some electrolyte drink and potato chips and had a few bites of a ProBar that I had brought with me. The next few miles were my first slice of Swiss paradise - a flat trail with mild rolling trails, cows all around, the bluest of blue skies, rugged snow-capped mountains, and green grass. It felt good to be able to jog for a little bit. About 8 miles in (13 km), I reached First, the first major aid station and spectator point. There was a ski lodge where Barry and I had stopped in the blizzard just two days before. All the snow was melted, the sun was out, and people were all around, eating at the restaurant, cheering on their runners, and just admiring the beauty. Mom, Dad, and Johanna were waiting there for me and it was cool to see them so early in the race when I felt fresh and strong.

Onward and Upward

After First, the trail rolled on and opened up around a small lake with an iconic mountain view and a great photo opp.

This was a nice last bit of paradise before things got challenging as we started our ascent straight up to the sky over the next hour and a quarter, climbing 2,000 feet over 2 miles to Faulhorn, the halfway point and highest elevation of the race. Groups of spectators were thinning, runners’ smiles faded to grimaces, the air was getting cooler, and the snow on the trail was getting thick and harder to trek. My lack of preparedness was showing once again as my chosen footwear (Hoka Challengers) provided unsteady footing on these snowy trails. I didn’t bring trekking poles or microspikes, as my more experienced fellow racers had - and seriously, of all of the required gear, neither trekking poles nor microspikes were on the list yet they were what I needed most. Although neither my lungs nor legs were tired, I was moving slowly (35-40 min/mile) due to the crowded trail and the need to watch every step, ensuring not to slip on the snow and fall down the mountain, wiping out other runners like dominoes. As I saw the sign for Faulhorn, I was relieved. I was ready to pee again and my ankles could use a rest from this makeshift snow-shoeing.

Bittersweet Pinnacle

Arriving at Faulhorn was the most astoundingly bittersweet time in the race for me. The ‘sweet’ was because I was at the halfway point, which provided a sense of accomplishment, and the views were positively unreal. We were at 8,800 feet and situated between two contrasting landscapes, living up to the race’s name, “The Panorama Trail.” On the north side was the city of Interlaken, its surrounding lakes, and the green peaks of the Emmental Alps range (rising to only about 7,000 feet).

To the south, the Bernese Alps - jagged, majestic, snow-capped and unbelievably clear against a cloudless cerulean sky. The mountain range contained every shade of blue and grey, with a pinkish-purple opalescent glare, and looked like a holograph, as though I could reach out and touch them, even though the 14,000-foot peaks were at least 10 miles away (as the crow flies).

With my mind firmly planted in fantasyland, I also had the false perception that I was on track to finish this race in record time. It had taken under six hours to reach the halfway point, and based on my ultra-extensive ultra-running knowledge, I estimated that I would descend in about half the time it took to ascend. If I dared to listen to the noises in my head, I would have heard the faint laughter of those locals at the race start.

The bitterness of the Faulhorn moment was the fact that there was a traffic jam at the aid station and my bladder was screaming. All of the hikers arriving at the Faulhorn aid station had to wait in line to refill their food and drinks and it took 20-30 minutes to get through this line. It didn’t make sense to step out of line because there was nowhere to go to the bathroom, as far as I could see. I grew more anxious, which of course only made the tickle in my kidneys feel like a knife in my back. I gritted my teeth and made it through the aid station, expecting to get to porta-potties within the next few steps, but no such luck. There were no porta potties at the halfway point aid station! And this is also when the trail got absolutely brutal for me and my shoes were in all ways unfit for the snow and ice ahead.

The next hour, covering only two miles were the hardest, without question. I had a lot going on inside my little brain. Breathtaking views were all around. And while wanting to soak every last drop of it in, I also needed to move quickly to find relief for my bloating bladder. While the first six hours of this hike were relatively painless and I figure I was in the top third of the pack, more prepared hikers with microspikes and trekking poles were now passing me in droves. Without the assistance of the proper footwear or gear on this terrain, I had no footing and the steep mountainside was to my right. One misstep and I would be tumbling down the mountain. After the first mile, and 30 minutes of this torture, I beheld the glorious site of a little lodge that appeared to be in close range. I estimated that I would be there in 10 minutes, but between the neverending ice and snow and my misjudgement of distance, another 30 minutes had passed before I reached that lodge. As I approached it, expecting it to be a rest area with a toilet, I nearly cried when it turned out to be just an abandoned shelter.

By this point, I believe every single person in the race had passed me. I was all alone. The good news was that the landscape was changing and there were now large boulders on either side of the trail instead of vastness, which meant that I had an object to crouch behind to pee. These boulders, however, were not easily accessible. The snow was packed to a couple feet on either side of the trail, and the boulders were another ten feet up the snowbank. I stopped in front of one to assess how I might climb to it, and if it would be safe to use as my porta-potty. I was losing time, not to mention patience, so I decided to step off the trail and climb. I was nearly at my target boulder when my bladder let go, and it was difficult to control the faucet once it opened. I managed to get behind the boulder, and frantically unhook my backpack and untie my shorts before my bladder emptied, but as I pulled my shorts down and started to squat, the patch of snow that I was standing on gave out and my legs just fell beneath me so that I was standing straight up, now peeing all over myself. My shorts, my socks, my shoes - all of it. I think I shouted “Shit!” but then pretty quickly laughed because I was relieved to not have to hold it anymore, and what else was I going to do? Also, I wasn’t exactly clean by this point in the race anyway. I had sweat and mud all over me (and now urine), so a little snow bath was probably needed regardless.

Ok, that was a mess. A real mess. But, at this point, the word relief did not begin to describe the awesomeness that I felt. Other than being very mildly concerned that, since I was now alone on the trail, I may miss a turn and get lost, I felt fantastic. The first thing I thought, as I continued down the trail was, “I can’t wait to tell Barry what I just did.”

A Walk Through Paradise

Not only was I able to pick up speed because I no longer had to worry about my bladder, the snow was also melting and the trail was becoming less technical and more suitable for the traction on my shoes. I caught up with other hikers and easily passed those who were trying to avoid the mud puddles. Because I was already a filthy mess, covered in urine, what harm was a little mud? I had the pleasure of barrelling through and making up some time.

For the next two hours (and five miles), I was having that day in the sun that I had imagined this race would be. The trail was easy - packed dirt and a gentle rolling descent along the plain of Schynige Platte. I could get into a nice jogging rhythm for a few long stretches, with plenty of opportunity to absorb the beauty, take pictures, and even people-watch. There were a lot of fellow racers on the trail, as well as local hikers and tourists. The trail wound through a grassy hillside, where people had brought lawn chairs or a blanket, a picnic, and a bottle of wine to enjoy the view. Adults and small children shouted “Hup! Hup! Hup!” along the way (which I later learned was a common race cheer in Switzerland). At the end of Schynige Platte, at mile 24, I reached the second to last aid station. By this point, I had a couple blisters, so I changed into fresh socks and put on some band-aids. I knew the race was nearly done, with just 10 km left to go. This seemed so close yet so far away! And once again, I underestimated the effort. Knowing that it was all downhill from here, I did not anticipate another two and a half hours to the finish.

Rocks, Roots, and Single Track … Oh my!

The four mile descent was incredibly difficult. For starters, it was really, really steep at a 20-30% grade for several stretches. Because I had to brace myself for every step - to attempt to lighten the impact on my screaming quads and my blistered toes that were being jammed up against the front of my shoes - this descent was exhausting. In addition to the steep descent, the trail was extremely technical. I’m sure that real ultrarunners have a special term to describe a trail like this one. Some parts of it traversed a hillside, which did not have a flat hiking path. So every step required that my foot was placed at an angle of 20-30% (or whatever the slope of the hillside was). There were also large tractor tire divots along the hillside, with tread as big as my feet, so I had to walk on my toes over the tire tread, or else I would twist an ankle (it took me several twisted ankles to just slow down and deal with the careful footing). Gradually, this hillside led to a forest path, which transported me into a pseudo Pacific Northwest wonderland. I would have been pleased by this change in terrain, except the trail turned to a narrow single track along large rocks and roots where every step was a massive step up, down, or over an obstacle. Once again, my pace was slowed to a rate of 35-40 minutes per mile. Four miles of this seems bearable, as I recall this part of the race, but in the moment, it was torturous. I yearned for a flat path and those final two miles to get me to the finish.

Amidst my torture, I glanced down at my watch, which I had set to km instead of miles, and it flipped to 43 km, the longest distance I had ever travelled by foot. Technically speaking, I was now officially an Ultra-Marathoner. I smiled and did a happy dance in my head, which lifted my spirits enough to get me to the end of that trail, which ended with a paved path that dropped at the steepest grade yet, just to rub salt in my wounds.

One Tough Cookie

Within a few short feet of exiting this descent, I entered the last aid station of my race, with just under 7 km along a flat bike path to the finish line back in Grindelwald. I took my time through that final aid station - not that I needed the water or food to get me through the last 7 km, but I needed a mental recharge. Although this was the final aid station for us 50K-ers, it was only the halfway point for the 100K-ers. I thought of Barry, certainly not for the first time during the day, but really, really thought of him at that moment, knowing that he had been where I was standing a couple hours earlier and was now making his way back up to that snow which I had just come from. Except this time he would be there without the help of the spectacular views, as he would be traversing at night by the light of his and other hikers’ headlamps. Suddenly, the mental strength I was digging deep to find to make it through the last 7 km of my day, floated to the surface, and I got myself in gear, sad and happy all at the same time, to finish this thing.

And this is what gets me through every rough endurance event that I do - knowing that the depth with which I think I’m suffering in that moment pales in comparison to someone else, somewhere. Whether it is a fellow competitor, or much worse, someone who has to fight personal battles every day to eat or stay alive. And no matter how bad the blisters on my feet are, or the burn in my quads, my life is truly blessed and, virtually, without suffering. If I can’t find the mental strength to make it 7 km on a flat path in the beautiful sunshine, surrounded by a quaint Swiss village, then I feel like I have disrespected people in this world who really do suffer.

I proceeded on the path with nothing but the finish line on my mind. I decided to do a run/walk interval of 7 minutes of running and 3 minutes of walking. Surprisingly, this had me moving steadily at an 11:00-12:00/mi pace. My legs were cooked, for sure, but it felt glorious to simply run. Less than a mile from the finish, a fellow competitor jogs up next to me and said, “My friend and I have seen you at the aid stations. Did you do this whole race by yourself?” I told him that I did, and I was just killing time while my boyfriend was running the 100K. While I had noticed that many people were in pairs and I was a single, I didn’t think much of the fact that I had just nearly-completed an epic 50 km, surrounded by people but inside my own head for what was now approaching 11 hours. I was pretty pleased with myself when he then said to me, “You are one tough cookie.” I didn’t feel like it then, but looking back, I may agree with him.

The end of the Eiger 51K was super awesome, as the bike path opened up onto the main road running through downtown Grindelwald. There were a few spectators lining the last half mile to the finish, cheering competitors on, but it was mostly tourists walking around downtown.

I ran through the finisher’s chute at 5:00 pm, finishing the race in just under 11 hours, and was medaled with the most bomb bling I’ve ever received - a piece of rock. Mom, Dad, and Johanna met me at the finish, where they had rushed from the train station, having just seen Barry at Wengen, 60 km into his 100 km day. No question I felt a great sense of accomplishment at that moment, but my day was not over until Barry was done with his race.

The End of a Very Long Day

We took a few pictures at the finish, then went out for some Indian food and back to the AirBnB to shower and rest before having to go back to the finish line to pick up Barry. We were glued to our computers, tracking Barry’s progress. I had estimated that he would finish at about 10:30 PM, but he still had about 20 km to go and was only moving at 5 km/hr, so it was starting to look like it would be a long night. Dad and I went down to the finish line at 12:30 am and struggled to stay warm and to keep our eyes open. I brought my phone and refreshed the tracker every 30 seconds and kept thinking the damn thing was broken since the Barry dot wasn’t moving very quickly along the path. I imagined that he was probably just about at that treacherous Pacific Northwest forest area that I was struggling through, which meant he would move even more slowly in the dark than I did in daylight - not to mention that he had been on the course for 22 hours at this point.

Barry crossed the finish line at 2:00 am with a daze I had never seen in his eyes. The first thing he said was “What day and/or time is?” as his watch battery died at the 65 km mark and since that point had no perception of time or distance (I’m still not quite sure how he did this). The second thing he said was, “I got you a flower from Eiger,” and pulled a wilted daisy from a pocket on his backpack. We were both exhausted, to say the least, but tried to share highlights of our day. I, of course, couldn’t wait to tell him about peeing on myself, and he told me the play-by-play of the blisters forming on his feet. I love that we were in each other’s thoughts during the day, but each had our own race.

Since completing the Eiger Ultra Trail 51K, I have considered signing up for other 50Ks but this race definitely did not give me the ultra-bug. When putting other 50K races in the perspective of this one, I can’t imagine any one of them comparing to what I experienced that day - the surreal beauty, the challenge, the freedom, the joy, or the strength that I felt. I do know, however, that my next epic challenge is out in the world somewhere and I can’t wait to find it.

Learn more about the Eiger Ultra Trail here.

#ultra #ultrarunning #EigerUltraTrail #Switzerland #endurance

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