Race Day

I wake up and check my watch. It’s 4:03. I go to the bathroom, lie back down, but realize that I am awake, rested and excited. The alarm was set for 4:30 anyway so I decide to just get up and start the day a little earlier. It’s dark, it’s quiet and I feel ready. All the preparations are done and it’s time to execute.

Breakfast, sunscreen, water, re-adjusting the bib — finalizing the last details and then it’s off to the starting area of the race. It’s 6:15, there’s a calm excitement in the air. At 6:30 the gun goes off.

We are about 100 runners and the field quickly falls apart. We start our ascent to the Fiescheralp while the sun is rising beyond the peaks on the opposite side of the valley. I find another runner who seems to have the same pace as me and fall into a rhythm behind him. We are all hiking, noone is running. At the front of the field things are probably different.

The ascent is less steep than I had thought and I’m sticking to my commitment to take it easy. So I can enjoy the morning air, the quiet, the rising sun and the fact that now, 11 months after signing up, I am here.

After 90 minutes and over 1000 m of elevation gain I reach the first aid station. I meet Dorela and another friend who have taken the gondola up, tell them that everything is great, refill my drinks, eat a gel and move on.

Restocking at the first aid station.

Another small climb follows as the landscape becomes more alpine, I pass over a little ridge and there it is: The Aletsch glacier. 20 kilometers of ice, the largest glacier in the Alps. To my surprise the path is quite runnable. It’s is still in the shade, but the sun is already peeking through between peaks and illuminating parts of the glacier and the other side of the mountains. It’s quiet and the trail gently flows up and down. A trail runner’s dream.

The route follows the glacier for about 4 kilometers before turning back towards the valley. I pass a high alpine plane with a lake and the second aid station. I fill my flasks, eat a handful of pretzels and move on. It’s been 16k and I still feel great. I’m starting to think that my training runs prepared me for much steeper and more technical terrain than today’s. Then I hit the first descent. It’s crazy steep, I can almost immediately feel my thighs revolt and I’m grateful for every difficult meter of ascent and descent during my training.

I reach the next highlight of the run: The 160m long Aspi-Titter suspension bridge. It’s not only long but also incredibly high, above a wild river. Simply spectacular.

Afterwards the route goes through some rough terrain with stairs mounted into rocky walls. Some of them so steep they are almost vertical. For some reason there are slightly more people around again. Maybe it’s the reduced speed, maybe some are even running the other distances. (There’s also a 100k and 160k race happening simultaneously.) I don’t know. But I enjoy sharing the experience with a few people next to me.

Once we’re past the boulders and continue the descent to Niederwald I’m by myself again. Back in forests and on grassy paths. And downwards, always downwards. Sometimes I try going slower, sometimes faster, but either way, the quads are tiring quickly. I’m trying to figure out how much further it is. My watch shows 24k and I thought the aid station should be at around 25. But there’s no town in sight. I finally check my phone and realize that the aid station is only at 27.4k. I slurp another gel and trot on.

Eventually I reach Niederwald and I’m ready for a break. It’s been almost 5 hours. Dorela is waiting for me, helps me refill my water and provides some potato chips that taste awesome. I change my socks and reapply sunscreen. I’m surprised when I realize that I’ve spent 15 minutes at the station and hurry onward.

I cross the train tracks and see a runner a little down the road, straight on. But I also see the little flags that mark the course go to the left. I wave at him to make him aware of his mistake, but he doesn’t see me. I turn left and start moving, but take out my phone to double-check. The course continues straight. I’m confused, but trust the digital map more than the markers. Another runner comes to the intersection and I tell him that we should go straight. He’s doubtful, checks his map and continues left. That’s when I see the tape on the road: “100” with an arrow to the left, “50” with a straight arrow. It’s the first time that any marking is on the road. Usually there are big signs when the courses for the different distances split. I continue straight — it was a close call and I only later realized just how lucky I had been to see that other runner ahead of me when I reached the intersection. Apparently the original sign had been stolen and a lot of participants of the 50k distance took the left turn and went in the wrong direction for a while before realizing their mistake.

Back in the race, the next few kilometers follow a road through the valley which is relatively flat and I manage a slow jog for most of it. It’s noon now and getting hotter.

Eventually the route takes a sharp left turn and winds up the mountain on the other side of the valley. In the village where the climb starts I meet two other runners who are refreshing themselves at a fountain. The next two kilometers are tough. It’s really steep and it’s good to have them around. We don’t really run together, but they are often in sight either ahead or behind me, depending on who took the last break. At least one of them is also struggling and giving me a sense that I am not alone.

On the top we reach the next aid station. Among other things they provide plain bread with a slice of cheese on top and the moment I see it, I know that I want it. It tastes delicious. I sit down, eat another one and a piece of apple, refill my drinks and feel ready to move on. Shortly after, another runner passes me, running swiftly down the path. Then I am by myself. It’s the final third of the race. I’m not thinking much, just moving. Lots of hiking and some “shuffling” downhill. Real running is rare for me at this point.

7:40 hours into the race. Originally I had thought that maybe I could do it in 8 hours. Then I thought maybe 9. Now that seems unlikely. It’s ok. I’m not doing it for the time. The final aid station. Food, drinks and a quick chat with Magdalena, another runner, who tells me that she had to run through a hail storm in her last ultra-marathon. The final stretch. I cross the suspension bridge Mühlebach-Fürgangen and am happily surprised to find Dorela greeting me on the other side of it. I wasn’t expecting to see her again until the finish.

The final climb. It’s short and in the shadow, but steep. I pass Magdalena who is taking a rest. Then I’m on top. 8:10 hours. Roughly 6 kilometers left. One of my goals for the days is to push myself, to see what I can do and how much I can take. I decide that 9 hours is not out of reach after all.

For a couple of kilometers the path goes down through a forest and I’m feeling pretty good. I pass another runner. Then we leave the forest. Roads, heat, tiny elevation gains that hurt so much. I try to do math in my head to figure out if my pace is fast enough. I’m not sure. Another 10 minutes and now I know that I will make it. It provides some relief, but I push on, testing my limits. At a fountain I splash water on my face, arms and legs. One minute later it’s all dried up again.

The final loop around the resort where the race ends. A final little hill, Dorela and our friend waiting on top and then I cross the finish line. It’s done. 8:52:49 — not that the time matters much.

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