3rd – 9th September 2017
Apologies in advance for the length of this, but it was a long race…
‘Four countries, two runners, one week – one dream’ goes the tag-line. I first read about this race back in 2007 and have spent a fair bit of time dreaming about it ever since. A mere ten years later, I finally made it to the start line, alongside Sam – the other half of team ‘Westerlands’ – and 281 damp but enthusiastic pairs of runners from 30 or so different countries. This year’s running of the race was taking the ‘Western route’, starting in Fishen in Bavaria and heading roughly south through the Allgäu Alps into Austria before crossing over to Switzerland and then finishing up (hopefully) 170 miles and seven days later in Sulden in Italy. Kit checks over, countdown started, and with Bon Scott belting out Highway to Hell on the PA, we were off.
Stage 1: Fishen – Lech: 26 miles, 3500 ft (4hrs 11min)
Heavy snow on the tops over the past couple of days had led to a re-routing of this stage, giving us less climbing but a longer route that meandered up the sides of a wooded valley before climbing up to the Schrofenpass and over the border into Austria. After the initial road and forestry track section, some lovely single track trails gave a good opportunity to indulge in a bit of Transalpine Bingo: cows with bells – check; man with laderhosen – check; runners with long socks and poles – check, check, check. Starting fairly well back, our pre-race tactics of taking the first three days easy lasted for all of 40 minutes when we reached the first runnable hill to find most of those ahead of us beginning to walk. We must have passed 50 teams by the time we caught up with Helen Bonsor and Andy Fallas of Carnethy at the start of the long pull-up past the snow line to the Schrofenpass. Elation at passing over the day’s high point was soon met with the realisation that the run in to Lech was indeed, as Helen had warned, ‘undulating’, and a couple of teams we’d passed earlier overtook us in the final run-in to the finish. Still, we were well pleased with finishing 17th overall and 11th in the men’s competition, and were soon settling into what would become our daily post-run routine: stuffing our faces, getting a massage, finding our accommodation, and generally lounging about until the evening’s pasta-party.
Stage 2: Lech – St. Anton: 16.5 miles, 6300 ft (3hrs 27mins)
After yesterday’s mist and drizzle day two dawned bright and clear, with snow covered peaks highlighted against a pure blue sky for the race’s shortest stage. A stiff 3000ft climb through forested trods took us quickly up to the snow line and the final pull up to the 7700 ft high Rüfikopf gave amazing views in all directions. Deep snow further along the ridge meant the organisers had put us on an alternative route again, taking us back down into the valley before a 3000 ft slog back up to the Ulmer Hütte. From here we rejoined the original route and began the final descent into the ski resort of St Anton. We’d run with Helen and Andy for most of the day, but on the final steep descent into town my quads started to seize up badly and they pulled effortlessly away, leaving Sam to jog patiently while I descended like a distressed coo – an ominous sign of things to come.
Stage 3: St. Anton – Landeck: 27 miles, 7500 ft (4hrs 59mins)
It was back to cool and misty conditions for Day 3, with a couple of miles of runnable forestry track climb before we hit steeper trods and then a beautiful single-track high traverse along the side of the mountain. After a canny start we were running well, picking up places on the climb and then sitting in behind the irrepressibly chirpy lead women’s team. A long descent through the woods took us back down to the valley floor and a few miles of cycle path before another steep climb up the heavily forested hillside. After yesterday, I’d not been looking forward to the final long descent but it wasn’t too bad until we left the trail and hit a long section of tarmac switchbacks where we were caught by a few teams including Helen and Andy. Once we hit the flat and the final few miles of trails skirting the edge of town we picked up the pace again and managed what was probably our fastest bit of running of the whole race, passing the teams that had caught us on the descent. The final couple of miles seemed to go on forever but we managed to hold on and just nipped in under the 5hr mark to finish 14th team overall on the day. ‘I think I might pay for that tomorrow’, I remarked to Sam. Indeed I would.
Stage 4: Landeck – Samnaun: 28.5 miles, 9600 ft (6hrs 33mins)
This was the biggest day of the race both in terms of distance and height gained and from the start my legs felt like lead. Sam seemed frisky as ever and keen to keep pace with the teams we were running with yesterday, but even on the initial runnable climbs I found myself having to work really hard just to keep up, and by the start of the first steep slog of the day I had nothing left. Teams we’d passed earlier streamed by, and although I had rallied a bit by the top, I was soon finding even the runnable traverse hard going (I’d like to blame the thin air, but it didn’t seem to be bothering any of the other teams). Although the rest of the day was a bit of a grind, I still couldn’t help smiling to myself at the stunning views as we topped out at the highest col of the day at around 9100 ft. Sam, who bore his frustration at my slow progress with customary patience and good humour, probably thought I was just delirious. In retrospect, it might have been the pent-up frustration that led him to liven things up by berating a Norwegian runner from the Pro Gore-tex team for always leaving his slower partner behind: fortunately for all involved, the Norwegian’s response was lost somewhat in translation. Despite being told to bring our passports, we crossed the Swiss border without incident and the final run in along the foot of the valley through wooded trails would have been lovely if I hadn’t been so to truly knackered, with the final 3 miles of gently climbing cycle path finishing me off completely. We finished a disappointing 26th team on the day, with our overall position dropping to 20th. I was tempted to skip the evening’s pasta-party and get an early night, but had been pre-warned by Helen that were going to be taken up to the ski station restaurant by cable-car and that it would be well worth the trip. It was indeed, with the best food of the week and tremendous views across to the wall of snow capped mountains across the valley. I was still feeling fairly jiggered but, sitting back with a beer enjoying the slide-show of photos from the day’s running (a nightly event) it was satisfying to know that we’d passed half way and survived the longest day. We also learned that the altered course and snowy conditions were taking their toll, with 60 teams dropping out by the end of the day.
Stage 5: Samnaun – Scuol: 24.5 miles, 7500 ft (5hrs 15mins)
‘Right Sam, I’m knackered, so I’m going to have to start nice and slowly and then see if I can pick up the pace later on.’ ‘You said that yesterday … and the day before … In fact, you say that every morning.’ The air still felt pretty thin as we set out from Samnaun, but the sun was out again, which made for some cracking vistas to distract me from my heavy legs. After a sluggish start, I did begin to feel a bit better as the track steepened and zigzagged its way up to the first col of the day and we began to pick-up some places again. The route today was another cracker, following a high trail that snaked just below the summits of a couple of 9000ft peaks, descended back down through lush alpine meadows before climbing again to a high col and then 5000ft downhill into Scuol. I was really enjoying my running again, even on some of the long grassy descents but a combination of the growing heat and the final descent on interminable switchbacks seized up my quads again and it was a relief to reach the narrow town streets for the run-in to the finish. The day was rounded off with another high-altitude pasta-party, the only sour note being that, after five days continual use, Sam’s favourite running socks had finally given up the ghost.
Stage 6: Scuol – Prad am Stilfser Joch: 28.2 miles, 5700 ft (4hrs 53mins)
We woke up to sunshine and clear blue skies, and, from the off, I felt much better than the past couple of days. The stage began with around 5 miles of gentle descent on track down the edge of the valley before we cut sharply off up a narrow glen heading uphill towards the Uina Gorge. We’d started fairly cannily and as we started the runnable climb we began to pass teams, working our way through the field. The track wound upwards through forest for around 7 miles and the best part of 4000ft climb, the gradient staying just on the runnable side of steep. By the time we’d traversed the top of the gorge by way of the spectacular Uina Schluch, a hundred year old notch carved out of the side of the rock face, we’d manage to pass all but three teams, and emerging through a tunnel we passed over into Italy by way of the Schlinigpass and today’s highpoint of 7500ft. The views across the high alpine meadow were stunning, with the snow-capped Ortler range spread out before us, but we were soon heading down again and, again, my stiff quads began to hold us up and we soon started to haemorrhage places. The final 6 mile run in along the valley to Prad was tough, with the heat beginning to build and a final undulating trail section just about finished me off, but in a final rally (spurred on somewhat by Helen’s and Andy’s appearance) managed to up the pace a bit for the last couple of miles and to finish under the 5 hour mark.
Stage 7: Prad am Stilfser Joch – Sulden: 19.2 miles, 8750 ft (4hrs 54mins)
With cool conditions and heavy rain forecast, there had been talk of the final day’s high-level route being altered, but with an earlier than planned start of 7am, the organisers gave the go ahead for the original course. Although in terms of distance, at just under 20 miles, this was one of the shorter days of the race, with almost 9000ft of climbing we always knew it wasn’t going to be an easy finish. The first section of the day was fairly runnable track and we made fairly good time as we headed south, gradually climbing the west side of the valley. However, I’d underestimated just how big the first climb of the day was and once the steeper terrain set in I began to fade badly and started to pay for the over optimistic start. After eventually climbing up about 3800ft, we descended back through the mist to the valley floor before starting the final 5000ft climb up over the shoulder of the 12,800ft Ortler. Just as we started on the footpath Helen and Andy caught us and I was happy to hang on to their pace as they led us up the start of the zig-zagging climb. Once we’d left the tree-line the route took us across the face of a massive scree-filled corrie and then, surreally, through a mountain hut, with very welcome tea being handed out as we passed. This was the first time on the run where I’d felt the cold and despite wearing my waterproof and gloves couldn’t seem to stay warm. The final couple of thousand feet seemed to go on forever, low visibility making for endless false summits, but at last we pulled up onto the mountain’s northern ridge at the Tabarettascharte, and, at 9468ft, the highest point of the race. As expected, once we hit the descent Helen and Andy easily pulled away and my crap descending once again cost us a few more places. But knowing it was less than 5 miles downhill to the finish helped overcome my seized-up quads and we had a great run in with two Swiss lads of the Zwo Balgar team that we’d been nip and tuck with all week. Because of the weather, the finish was actually just inside the town’s community centre, which made for a great atmosphere, with music blaring, cameras flashing, and a good crowd of friends and relatives cheering everyone on. We crossed the line in 4hrs 54mins, making a total time for the week of 34hrs 25mins and 58secs, finishing 8th in the senior men’s competition, and 16th overall, giving us a few notable scalps including the Salomon USA and the Gore Running Wear International teams (an international sponsorship deal obviously awaits). Helen and Andy took an excellent 2nd place in the mixed category, finishing 13th overall in a time of 34 hrs 1min 40.
From start to finish the organisation of this race was superb, from the delivery of your bags to the hotel each day to the marking of the course. Although the fairly commercialised format – with daily gear expos, heavy sponsorship, and cheesy prize giving ceremonies – took a bit of getting used to, in the end it all added to the overall experience. Aside from the amazing trails and landscapes we travelled through, what struck me more than anything was the real feeling of camaraderie that developed over the week, not only with those teams that were close to you in the race, but with the whole field, something that was particularly evident in the post-race party, which, from what I can remember, was the best I’ve ever been to. All in all, this was definitely one of the best races I’ve ever done and made for an unforgettable running experience, which I’d highly recommend. Finally, special thanks to Sam, who made an ideal – and very patient – running partner: hope you enjoyed it as much as me!