The Irontrail

My year had started off really quite manicly with the Spine, quickly followed by the Frostskade 500. Due to the financial and time commitments this demanded the rest of my year was going to be relatively quiet. At the end of June I had the Mont Blanc 80km because it is a local race so no travel or accommodation expenses. At the end of the season I have the Trail des Aiguilles Rouge which is another in valley race, but that was it. I was absoloutely fine with this as I knew that there would need to be some sacrifice for the start of the year. That all changed when I got an email from Richard Felton from Profeet to say that I had won a place (I entered a draw a month earlier) in the Swiss Irontrail in Davos. The race was to be held mid August and included a 21km, 41km, 81km, 141km and the daddy, the 201km. Which race should let the organisers know you’d like to do, asked Richard. There was no question in my mind that it had to be 201km so that is what I said.

Now I had said yes to this thing I thought it was time to check out the stats from the website. A smile crept across my face as I read about it. 11,480 metres of ascent! Certainly not the biggest out there but far from a flat race. It passed through many towns and villages too which would make it a bit of an exploratory adventure. I didn’t even know where Davos is. Switzerland is not a large country and I live within a few miles of it, but when I checked it was over the other side. I live near the West, Davos is in the East. It would be around a 6-7hr train journey.

Work were incredibly understanding and gave me three days off for it and with little time to spare, the Irontrail package arrived which included the Swiss Ticket. This is a great part of the entry fee in my opinion. The Swiss Ticket gives you free public transport from your point of entry into Switzerland to Davos, then back again (not flights).

As usual my preparation was minimal, though I felt mountain fit. The race stats didn’t scare me and the distance was exciting and new. I felt as though it would be a distance I would be more comfortable with. THe cutoff was a very healthy 66 hours which I felt was very doable and barring incidences, I felt was well within my abilities. I also kept in mind how difficult and how slow I was moving at the UTMB and this was over 30km further with around 2000 metres of extra ascent (and descent) so this was never going to be easy!

The weather in the Alps this Summer has been patchy if I was to be very positive about it. We’ve had lot’s of sunny days, but there have possibly been equal amounts of gray, rainy days. The weeks leading upto race day didn’t disapoint either! Plenty of rain in fact. I wonder if the trails I’d be on in Switzerland would drain as well as the trails here in the Chamonix valley. I generally am ok with a bit of foul weather as I believe when others start finding it difficult I excel. Then again, 201 km is a long way and if the weather slows things down it could be a very long day in the mountains!

I got my transfer to Geneva Airport train station early on the Wednesday morning, stamped my ticket and boarded the first of three trains. This was all very Swiss, being very clean, and perfectly on time. On the final train I got talking to Hideo, a chap from the UK who was running the 141km race and Anke, a German lady who was in the 201 and had successfully completed it the previous year too. As we got closer to Davos the landscape was jutting up all around which to me was far more pleasing and beautiful. It had been raining for most of the day and there were huge amounts of water on the ground. A river was very close to bursting it’s banks and looked as though it had a litle already. Then we heard an announcement over the tannoy informing us there had been a landslide which had blocked one of the lines. I don’t think I would be keeping my feet dry for long!

On arrival I went on a cafe hunt as there was only a short wait before I could register, this is where I bumped into Mark and Fiona. I believe I first bumped into this lovely couple a few years back on the Canary Islands for the Trans Gran Canaria. They (sensibly) don’t really use the internet so it’s really good to catch up with them as it really feels like you have news! Once through registeration, I walked off to find my accomodation which would be a hostel for the night. The race didn’t start till midday the next day so there would be a nice leisurley start to the day which would make a change. I wouldn’t even need to set an alarm! I ordered a pizza and had a really nice local beer as I relaxed down stairs in the common area. I was in a six berth room but there was just another couple in there from Finland. When I decided to call it a night, I was surprised to discover that the Finnish couple had already gone to bed!

I woke with no alarm in the morning which always fels a treat and crept out of the room trying not to wake the Finns who were still sleeping. The breakfast buffet was included in the accommodation, so I sat there and ate more than my share of cereal, ham, cheese and bread till I felt a bit bloated. I now had to go and pack my bag and get changed for the race.

With just over an hour before the off, I shouldered my bags and began the 20 minute walk into town to the HQ and start area. The previous night I had got quite wet walking to the hostel, so it was nice that it was dry on the stroll in this morning. For the 201km race we had two bag drop points. I very rarely bother with bag drops, but for some reason I decided to use the second one at the 140km point for a pair of shoes (Salomon Ultra 3 SG) and fresh socks. I doubted I would need them as I very rarely remove my shoes during races, and I think I have never changed shoes.

I met up with Mark and Fionna and then met Carmine de Grandis who I had spoke to a few times online. Always nice to meet people properly! We missed the briefing and then the small field of around 150 were off.

We briefly passed through town and were soon on a gentle incline up which meant I could still run at this early stage in the race. I felt very fresh as I had taken nearly two weeks off of any exercise at all, and I let myself enjoy this moment because not too far in the future things would be very different! I loved the fact that this was a more intimate affair compared to the UTMB. Don’t get me wrong I loved the UTMB as I knew what it was and I accepted it’s madness and electricity and let it flow over me, but I will always love the smaller races. I love being alone with my thoughts for long periods which I knew that with this size of field and stretched out over a course with a 66hr cut off, I would surely have plenty of ‘me time’!

The first 10km or so was either road or very good trail. I was fine with this as it made it easier to try and find that 201km rhythm. Being wide enough also meant it was easy to pass people without accelerating. After a while the gentle incline rounded off and the first descent of the day begun. It was very short, but still I took it as easily as possible. I really was aware that this was a race of balancing speed with preservation. A runner caught me up here and chatted briefly. His name was Mohammed. He and his girlfriend had been over in Europe touring around for a while and this was going to be the end of their holiday. Minutes after the descent started the trail changed angle again as we headed up. I wished Mohammed luch and pushed on.

Although the route had mostly been uphill up to this point, it was now that I would say the hill begun. I happily left the wider trail and was suddenly on some beautiful woodland songletrack. This was a real fun section where I had to stay disciplined and not race off as it was such good. The trail soon got steeper and steeper till my hands were on my knees pushing hard. As I slowly zig-zagged my way upwards the cloud got closer and closer. I could no longer see anyone ahead as they were already deep in the damp murkiness of the cloud. I too was soon deep within the gray cloud. The temperature had dropped plenty but I was still perfectly comfortable as I was working so hard.

I was wearing a brand new pair of La Sportiva Helios shoes which feel just so incredibly comfortable and have the most bizarre tread which I initially thought was a bit gimmicky, but in fact seems very effective on all terrains in all conditions, though this would be a real test. I wore shorts, my super soft La Sportiva Merino top with arm warmers. I was packing plenty of warm kit in my Salomon pack so felt prepared for pretty much anything.

Once on to the top I mistakenly followed some permanent trail markings downwards and after a few minutes I realised that this wasn’t right and turned back and was soon back on the course. The drop down to Bergun was long, slightly technical in places and plenty of fun. I felt like the race had just begun mentally now as the first major climb was behind me. I was feeling good and was now back out of the cloud that had enshrined the peaks so I could look around at this beautiful new scenery. Taking in the scenery is a rather dangerous affair as you are running down a mountain so my view admiring was kept to a minimum. That’s what the ups are for!

The descent was long but eventually I entered the town of Bergun and here was the first decent cp. I ran into the sports hall and scanned the food and decided on a plate of spag bol. I had decided to eat very well on this event. I was in no particular rush especially in these early stages. Set the foundations for the later stages. I was approached here as my GPS tracker was faulty. They had a play with it but it was not working, so I was told that I would be getting a replacement in 20km. Not ideal as this would mean that I would have had no tracker for the first 56km. Trackers are great for loved ones to follow you, but also can cause huge amounts of worry.

The trail after Bergun was nice but very wet in places due to all the heavy rain over the recent days. My feet were soaked and unlikely to be drying out much over the duration of the event which could make things painful. Before I arrived at Samedan in just over 20km, there was a large climb followed by a smaller (though still pretty large) then a nice little drop down to this first major CP with the first of our two bag drops, though I hadn’t taken advantage of it. I felt ok at this stage but there was a soreness in my thighs which seemed a bit too early. This has happened before and I remained calm, but there was a whisper of concern in the darkness of my mind. My 15 months of living in the alps had been great for mountain fitness and the primary benefit was that my quadriceps could take the huge downs that they couldn’t when I was in the UK. I was cautious on the descents from now on and was very keen on my diet as I focused on electrolyte intake and simply making sure enough energy was going in. Other than that I just hoped that it was just a passing bad phase.

The two climbs that preceded the major CP where tough though energy levels were consistant which buoyed my hopes of a strong overall race. The descents where still tough on my thighs though and my hopes of this being shortlived sensation were fading a little. I was a little weary and grateful to enter the town and weave my way through the narrow streets following the tape finally leading me to the sports hall which was the location of the CP. I walked in and reported my tracker immediately, handing it to a chap who said that it had been turned off for the entire race so far. I then grabbed a large plate of spag bol and some coke and sat down intending to make sure I ate and drank well but didn’t waste time just hanging around. The pasta was gone very fast and I topped up my bottles before collecting a new tracker as apparently my original one was faulty. I took a handful of cheese and a piece of chocolate cake and walked out. As I was leaving I saw the 141km race runners in a seperate room registering. I believe it was around 2030 as I left and they would be starting at midnight so I had a 3.5hr headstart on them.Once I had consumed the food in my hands, I stiffly broke into a trot. Mercifully the first km or two was along a flat section of cycle path that took you out of town straight to the base of the next 1100 metre climb.

It was on this climb where the final overall winner Denise Zimmermann was just a short distance ahead. I was not aware of here calibre, and stupidly assumed that if I kept my pace consistent on this climb I felt I would pass her. It was a rather steep ascent and as I worked hard with my hands pushing on my knees, Denise kept the gap, but then took her phone from her pocket and started a five minute conversation. During this period she actually began to drop me. This continued till she had a second phone conversation where she again was not slowing at all or sounding out of breath, as I was puffing and panting like a steam train behind her. As she disappeared into the gloom of the quickly oncoming night, I switched on my Petzl and prepared myself for the first night alone in the mountains. Rough calculations were being bounced around in my head to try to calculate how long this thing was going to take. What time of day would I be finishing, if I were to finish? It was now a distinct possibility that I would be out for two whole nights. That may mean I would have to grab a little sleep somewhere.

I leaned into the next climb that would slowly and a little too painfully take me to the cable-car station Murtel. Here I entered the building feeling incredibly sore and tired, determined to have a little break before pushing on again. The altitude here was 2700 metres and although the night was beautifully clear, the temperature had dropped dramatically as I gained height. It was below zero and although I was still not wearing too much the exertion on the huge ascents, created plenty enough heat to keep me warm. All except my hands as usual.

On entering the building, I saw the usual table of food, which I was alredy getting a bit tired of, but I forced myself to eat something no matter how unappealing. Then I noticed one other runner was already here. Mattias was having a lie down before continuing. I asked how he was doing and he said he was good but needed a little sleep and his hands were frozen so he was trying to warm them. The temptation was too much then and my hands really needed to have some blood back in them before I set off back out there, so I grabbed a blanket and lied down. I was probably only there for around 15 minutes and I didn’t sleep, but the calmness was soothing and felt wonderful.

I think it was possibly around this time that my competition / survival balance became a little weighty on the survival side. I don’t like to DNF and if that meant finishing in a time a lot lower than predicted then so be it.

After my brief lie down, I got up and prepared to leave, putting my warm gloves onto my now warm hands. I thanked the crew and said goodbye. The initial section of the descent was very poorly marked but I found my way down with a whole load of soreness in my thighs, which did ease a little but I must stress only a little. My thighs were shot! I was shocked about how quickly my legs had blown, but I really needed to just accept the fact and not dwell on it. The physical aspect was bad enough alone, so I really didn’t need to add a negative mental aspect to it.

As I wound my way down the mountain in the dark, I was just over 80km into this race. Around 120km remained! I noticed a torch behind me, and when I looked again, it had closed up the gap considerably. I was guessing it was Mattias who I had left behind at the last station. Soon he was with me, and instead of pushing on without me, he stayed with me. Mattias is Swiss and fortunately his English is excellent so we chatted away about how our races were panning out. The night was almost through as a faint glow appeared on the horizon. Below us we could make out the murky black of a lake surrounded by occasional spots of light. On the far end of the lake was a small town which was Maloja. This would be our next stop. Just before leaving the trail and we lost the markers and ended up wasting some time running through town trying to find the CP. Finally we found it. Another decent stop and I packed my Petzl away as it was just about light enough as Mattias and I left together to begin the next big climb out of town to Lunghinpass at over 2600 metres. It was quite fresh at this early hour but my hands seemed to be ok now.

I noticed a runner moving very fast behind and we guessed that it must be the first of the 141km race runners. He looked incredibly strong as he passed us. What I’d give to feel that fresh! As we neared the top the temperature really dropped and then it begun to snow. By the time we had reached the CP tent on the col the ground was covered. Mattias did a quick photo stop and then we were on our way back down. Next stop – Bivio. I was certainly using the CP’s well now making sure I was well watered and fed before I left each one. Mattias was certain we were in 6th and 7th place. I was amazed and wondered whether I could hold on to a top ten position. We were now past the half way point and it was all beginning to seem a little more likely that
I would reach the end.

There was nearly 30 tough km betwen Bivio and Savognin, the location of the second and last major CP with bag drop. This is where I had my shoes and socks. During this section my feet were getting very sore. It felt a little like huge underfoot blisters were forming but I knew it was the early stages of trenchfoot. The descents felt really bad as it would pull the skin back as I braked, and sharp rocks were agony. There was such a long way to go this was not the time to ignore and push through, such is my usual tactic. If these blisters actually formed, it could well be the end. I needed a plan. With 10km to go till the prospect of a dry pair of socks and shoes, I slowed right down even though this was a fast section of the course. After 2 painful hours and one torrential downpour of rain, I hobbled awkwardly into town.

Morale was a little low as I was a little dubious about removing my shoes and socks and looking at my feet. I sat in the first seat I saw as I entered the CP. I was smashed. There were showers here so I removed my shoes and socks and rinsed my feet off before drying them thoroughly. They were badly wrinkled up. There was too far remaining to ignore this. I decided to rest here and let the skin air out before continuing. After messing about with my kit and eating, I found the quiet room and had a sleep for an hour hoping that when I awoke my feet would be in an improved state.Thankfully they were. I sorted myself out and put on my fresh socks and shoes before thanking the crew and walking out into the bright day. The muscle soreness had now faded a little and overall I was feeling more positive than I had for a while. There wasn’t too much of the day left so I pushed on taking advantage of it before I would be plunged into darkness again.

The next section was undulating and took me through a few pretty villages which helped the km’s pass by a little smoother. I think that even though there was still a sizeable chunk of the course left, I could smell the end which also gave me a boost. I overtook a few runners from some of the smaller races here which also helped. I knew that the next major CP at Lenzerheide Was the start of the final major mountain climb up the Weisshorn.

My Petzl was back on as I arrived at the CP. I spent a little while in here making sure I was ready for the climb ahead, before leaving alone. It was cold again in the early morning, so I was happy to almost immediately get stuck into the climb. I zig-zagged my way up through the trees for quite a tiring while before the trail straightened out and roughly contoured around the side of the mountain for a couple of km’s. I broke out of the treeline and was instantly engulfed in thick fog. I struggled to find any markers as my Petzl just lit up the fog directly in front of me. The wind was weak but was enough to keep the fog moving and giving the occasional window of visibility. Half an hour later and the night was crystal clear again as I left the fog behind. I could see lights ahead but nothing behind yet. I stopped and looked around occasionally and was stunned by the beauty of a silent electrical storm, completely encapsulated in a glowing cloud far, far away. It was silent and I felt relatively good. I passed a ghostly cablecar station and continued towards the light ahead which I assumed was the next station with a CP. I passed through the CP fairly quickly, keen to reach the top of the Weisshorn.

After a small descent I lost the trail for 10-20 mins. I could see torches over to my left but was unsure how people had got there. I backtracked and finally saw the marker I missed and took the good trail. It soon was heading up again and after around 10 minutes, the final section that would take me to the summit was in front of me. It was very steep and carried on for longer than I anticipated. There was a small amount of fresh snow on the ground again and the temperature was sub zero again. The very top was completely fogged out again and I really struggled to find my way down as it was so thick. The fog was just capping the top 100-200 metres so soon I could speed up and start to enjoy the descent which was long and steep. I passed a few runners coming down here. I was exhausted but was finding that reserve that is seemingly always there but I can’t always find. I was really enjoying this and for the first time my pre race target of a top ten position was feeling possible.

I again stopped briefly at Arosa which was the last decent CP. There was just over 20km remaining and one last blip of a mountain on the profile. It was daylight now and the Petzl was packed away for the last time. It was sunny but there was some showers as I worked my way to the end. Although my feet were ok from the soaking from the earlier stages, there was now a new pain in my metatarsal. It felt skeletal this time and was forcing me to favour running on the edge of the foot to lower the impact on it.

A basic CP was at Jatz which was the low point before the final climb began. I had a coke here and started walking up the road before hitting the trail again. It was here that I started to really feel quite energised and as I pushed the pace up a little to test out this surge, I was surprised to feel that there was more! I was still walking but I felt great. All the stiffness and soreness had faded away and I was now quickly gaining on runners far ahead. I passed 3 runners and ahead I could see runners struggling up the steep final ascent that would take us to the top of Strelapass, the final ascent of the whole course. I couldn’t wait to get stuck into it with this new found energy. Once I hit it, my strength held and I quickly passed 4 runners who were going the speed I was guessing I had been ascending for the majority of the race. After around 25 minutes of the steep final climb, I topped out and was then facing the final descent into Davos. I passed a few more runners here and one of them was in my race. My foot was slowing me a little but I was so close to finishing now I cared little about it.

The trail turned to tarmac and now my foot really hurt and my run was a bit of a hobble. I stopped to walk a few times, frustrated that my energy surge which was still flowing could not be tapped due to my foot. I just cared about the runner I just passed catching me back up, but every time I looked behind he wasn’t there..

Town was soon in view and soon enough I was running along the streets with the descent behind. I turned onto the main street, turned into the square and crossed the line. I immediately told them my number as I wasn’t wearing it due to it tearing off, and was told I was 9th in just over 47hrs. What a fantastic race! I loved the distance, and the mountains are just glorious. My performance was pretty aweful really, what with just feeling pretty crappy for the whole thing except the end, and my time feels pretty soft for what I think I’m capable of. Overall though, to come in the top ten is just brilliant. With 70 finishers and 74 DNF’s it’s obviously pretty hard too. I would certainly recommend this race even though there were a few issues with marking, lack of variety in the CP food and some problems with my tracker. I have emailed them some feedback as I believe they really want this race to be a huge success and will listen to everything. I may even like to return so I could put in a better performance. We need more mountain 200km races in the world!

It is over two weeks since the race now and my foot is still pretty painful, though the swelling has gone and there has been lots of improvement. Chamonix has been manic over the past week as it has been UTMB week which has been fantastic. It has been really nice to not be a runner and meeting up with friends. What a great sport this is! I have one more race this year which is a local on at the end of September. I will not run it if my foot isn’t 100% and to be honest, although it does look to be a fantastic race over an amazing course, it won’t matter too much really. It will soon be winter an then it’s ski time!
Happy running.

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