Leaving Pamplona was just what I needed. I was tired, my nerves were shot from Running with the Bulls and we needed to get some solid driving time in on Thursday, if we were to make it to Zermatt, Switzerland by Friday night. The next big adventure was about to begin in earnest, so I needed to pace out the following days to reduce my stress and anxiety levels. A drive through the Pyrenees and across the French countryside seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.. Either that, or the doctor told me I was insane and should go back to OZ and stop screwing with my mind and/or body…. it’s all a little vague now.
The next adventure…. yes, it was clearly going to take things to a whole new level of crazy.. In fact, I will be referring to the mission as HurtLikeCrazy for this post, as it continually went through my head for the following few days..
The idea was to get to Switzerland for the infamous Zermatt Alpine Marathon, running from 1000m above sea level to nearly 2600m, below the glorious Matterhorn. Once that was completed, by early Saturday afternoon, we’d jump back in the car and drive for about 550km to a place called Reggio Emelia, where we pack in some sleep and then drive another hour or so to Busana for Sunday’s second marathon. 2 marathons in 2 days. I’d never run at altitude and I’d never attempted a trail race, so it seemed like a good idea to tick both of those boxes before I went to Mongolia for a 100km trail race at altitude, just 10 days later. Plus, the idea of just stepping up from the marathon distance to 100km without prior training scared the bejeezus out of me.. After that 100km race, I’d have a 2 week gap to my next run in Siberia, so I’d catch up on rest then… Only 2 weeks of hell, then 2 weeks of rest.. This all seemed like a fantastic plan to me! You have to admit, there was some method to my madness.
Driving through the mountain passes on the way to France was just an extraordinary experience in itself. The age of these beautiful little towns and hamlets was hard to determine, but you can bet your arse that they’re a good century older than the entire white history of Australia. I often wonder how they themselves haven’t developed into cities of their own volition, with such a long history to grow from. But as with anywhere in the world, they’re the town where grandma was born and built the family, only to lose members to the larger cities, or even internationally. The big cities get bigger and the little towns keep on producing the people that are the heart and soul of the country at large. I dare say the best of Spain come from some of these medieval villages. You’d struggle to hate your childhood growing up in a place as glorious as this. Classic stuff, with the old stone church highlighting the centre of a one lane town. Maybe there is a little more hidden off main street, but not much. A few hundred residents at best, bulging at the seams when the grandkids come home for Summer.
It took only about an hour or two to wind through the mountains. By the time we crossed the border into France, I was settled again, laughing and chatting to Bec about all sorts of nonsense. We were friends in Australia, coming from the same running club – the inimitable Tribal – but we moved in largely different circles, so there was plenty more to know about each other. That and I can talk people to sleep in about 10 minutes flat, so while I was buzzing from the run, she had her own mission to stay awake and listen!
Actually, I really never knew just how much I talked until this year. I mean, I knew that I was pretty chatty, but it borders on ridiculous when I stop using punctuation or pauses and start to run out of breath.. I’ve clearly got a fair old tank on me, so I must really crank out the crap if I reduce the juice that much. And Bec was kind enough to point it out a few times. I have no doubt she would have preferred I shut up, but she let me prattle on anyway, probably because it was keeping me awake and I was doing the driving, so she was safer to let me go..
We tried to get an RC plug so that we could connect our iPods to the car, but that wasn’t happening. The local radio stations were rotating a fair bit of local Hip Hop, dance classics and probably the world’s worst selection of love songs and dedications. Finally we hit the tollways. We stuck to talking and pointing out castles and churches from the freeways. The great thing about driving on tollways is the speed that you can traverse a country in Europe. The speed the Euros get up to on these motorways is kind of sickening. But the downside is you miss “real” France and “real” Spain. They’re extraordinary countries when you see them from the secondary highways, as I had back when I was a poor backpacker driving a campervan, a decade before. You could play cool games like “Punch Castle” or “Monk Punch”, a version of “Punch Buggy” where you nail the person next to you if you see a castle/fort/monastery in the distance or around a corner. I was determined to get off the toll roads a few times and take in the scenery, but we had a ways to drive, so best to stick to the Autobahn for a while..
Bec had changed her plans a little to come with me for the runs that weekend. She was initially going to head to Croatia by Friday, wanting to get to the beach as soon as she was able. But she’d been surprised at how fun it was to be part of the adventure, so she decided to make sure I stayed alive for a few more days. As we drove, it became apparent that she was desperate to be by the sea. My plan was to stop in Avignon, but I figured that a stop somewhere on the Mediterranean couldn’t hurt. I looked at the freeway exits and picked out a place near Montpellier with the interesting name, Le Cap-d’Agde. It was holiday time in Europe, so should be a plenty busy place to stop in. It turned out to be a lovely beach town and we ended up in a nice little beach side hotel. We’d been driving for a lot of hours, so by the time we were in the water on this very hot day, it was clear this was the perfect idea for a break.
Problem was, I now had access to a reasonable internet connection. I had a fair few problems to work through, so I made the most of the opportunity and we didn’t really hit the road again till near 3pm on Friday. I was pretty sure it was only another 7 hours drive, especially with the speed limit (or loose speed advice) being 130kmph. I thought that would give us heaps of time to exit the freeways and hit some secondary roads to see a bit more local culture. We passed through Chamberey (where they came up with America’s favourite shirt material) and had some dinner in the evening. A beautiful town, that we would have skipped if we remained on the freeway. They even had a show playing in the community square – a French girl that sounded like Ani DiFranco, belting out some heartfelt, slightly hippy tunes. Sounds for Summer, to keep the locals entertained in the holiday period. I saw a few instances of similar setups around other European towns.
This stop was longer than it needed to be and by the time we hit the road again, with Bec driving, it was getting late. She let me sleep, in the vain hope that I’d be rested for the morning’s race. But when I woke up around midnight, we were skirting a huge lake near Geneva and still a couple of hours drive from St. Niklaus. I pepped up and tried to keep Bec company, but you could tell through her brave façade, that she was tired and needed sleep too. We finally arrived at the small ski village at 2am. We walked around in the dark for about half an hour looking for our lodge and when we finally found it we woke the landlady and copped a German earful about how late we were. She was really upset that we hadn’t called hours ago to tell her our situation and she had every right to be. With all the concentration it took to keep driving, we’d just plain forgotten…
A few hours sleep and we were up and getting organised to run. I felt surprisingly awake, mostly because my anxiety at the task ahead was just now kicking in. Bec had been outside and was full of cheer about how beautiful the scenery was… “I think this is going to be an amazing day for you Tristan. The views are so amazing and it will only get better the higher you go!” Haha.. “Thanks Bec”, I replied with a smirk, trying to appreciate her enthusiasm. Truth was, I didn’t really want to go outside and stare at the mountains. I was excited to be amongst their majesty, but looking up reminded me too much of what I was up against. And we couldn’t see the Matterhorn or the really big stuff from where we were..
We got going though, determined to be in nearby St Niklaus by 7:30am to pick up my registration package. St Niklaus and Zermatt are ski towns, like Mont Blanc and Chamonix. They’re just on the other side of the Matterhorn. They’re almost as busy in Summer as in Winter (slight exaggeration) as it’s so beautiful in these mountains that many come to trek the surrounding countryside and even ascend some of the peaks. And I passed a couple of young fellas carrying their snowboards, so there must be a few runs open all year round… Amazing.
St Niklaus was a hive of activity, with runners of all calibres and ages strapping up for their assault on the mountain. It looked very well organised and I walked through and picked up my bib quickly. I’d left Bec to park the car and in my haste had left a couple of things behind, including my hat and sunscreen. When we met at the start line, we only had 10 minutes before kick off and I didn’t want to panic, so decided against going after the sunscreen. It would be hot, but compared to Aussie sun, European sunshine usually felt a bit tame. Bec started to fret and ran off to look for my hat anyway. The race kicked off, I started to run and sure enough, before the first turn, Bec had my hat to hand to me. Lucky break… Real lucky, it turned out…
The run through town was fun, because many family members were out to cheer everyone on. They even had a number of those enormous horns that look like water slides, being blown with wild abandon by Swiss dudes in lederhosen! Very cool. Once we’d exited town, it was a long 6km trek on a reasonably low gradient rise. I noticed my shortness of breath almost immediately, but at only 1000m above sea level, I knew there was plenty more to come. The course would ease slowly up to 1500m by the time we got to Zermatt, which was the halfway point of the race. Then the incline would become much steeper, getting up to 2900 metres by its end. I had no frame of reference for this, as I’ve never done any mountain running or trail running. Most of the first half of the race was on trail and dirt road, so it was interesting to see how much more slowly everyone was progressing on the unsteady ground. I found it pretty taxing, actually, so with the combined problem of being quickly out of breath, it wasn’t long before I was taking short walking breaks.
I chatted to a few runners on the way. Dave from England, recognised my singlet and told me we’d run together in Cyprus! How cool is that?! “I was even in your video”, he told me, “I was the guy fidgeting about trying not to look interested in what you were doing at the start line.” Ha! A super nice guy, he told me he’d been following my progress, but had been disappointed to see my blogs dry up in South America.
“Yeah, sorry mate, I had a bit of a melt down in Argentina. Just couldn’t keep my brain going anymore and needed to switch off.”
“Figures”, he said, “I thought it must have been something like that. I’m just happy to see you’re still going!”
I moved along and chatted to another fella for a while. His name was Walter and he was a Swiss farmer from closer to Zurich. Once he’d listened to my story and the fact that I started in Zurich, he became quite animated – “I saw that article! I remember reading that story! How great to see you out here, still running.” I was pretty chuffed to hear that too. Walter was returning from a long break from marathons. He hadn’t run one in something like 15 years.
“And you decided a race like this would be your comeback?! Hot damn, you’re a little nuts..”
As we closed in on half way, Walter pointed up to our right, just as the powerful snout of the Matterhorn came into view.. I exhaled.. “Biiiiiig..”, was all I could muster.. We ran into Zermatt together and Walter kept an eye out for his wife, so we got separated. I enjoyed the crowd giving us a cheer, with a number of large cow-bells being rattled and monster horns being given a seeing to.. It made the atmosphere of this picturesque town very festive and I was happy to be a part of it. We looped around the top side of town, crossed the river and headed up to the eastern slopes. Looking at my watch, I was surprised to see it had already taken 2 hours and 15 minutes just to get through the first 22km. And the hard bit was yet to come.. “Long day, Bone”, I said to myself, “just keep moving buddy.”
As we headed out of town, the locals were spraying as many people down with water as possible. It was hot, but the Aussie comes out in me when I see that kind of water wastage and I avoided being covered. I know that the water is just coming from the melting snow, but I find it uncomfortable to see it being poured all over the ground.. Seems like the warnings at home have really sunk in with me, where our reserves have sat around 30% for years. Anyway, it’s not a concern for these villagers – they just seemed very worried about the health of the runners.
And I was feeling the sun. It seemed to be cutting through my skin. I quietly thanked Bec for my hat again, as my lightly covered noggin would have copped a severe roasting without it. Instead it was my shoulders that were absorbing a worrying amount of UV.. I’ll be hating this later, I thought.
Emerging from the houses, we hit the edges of the forest and a road so steep that running was near impossible. With that, the real challenge began. I’m not going to lie to you, I had not been running quite as fast as I could have in the first half of the race. I figured I should sand-bag a little – hold a bit back for the race the following day.. But when I hit this section of course, I came to a grinding halt without wanting to. All you could do was lean forward and pump your legs to push up the side of the mountain. I tried to run again and again, aiming to run for at least 1km then walk for a few hundred metres. I managed a whole 400m before I was walking again. I tried again….300m.. “What the hell?!” I panted..
A couple of guys shuffled past me, continuing their efforts to run. One fella had “Highland Hill Runners” emblazoned on his green singlet.. He looked solid and passed me easily.. I kept walking as quickly as I could muster, looking to the efforts of an older fella that seemed like he was walking to a strategy.. I tried to keep up with him and got frustrated, starting to run again, but no sooner had I blown up at 300m, old mate pumped past me.. “Bastard”, I breathed.. I walked on, trying to get my breath back..
The amount of effort needed to keep running was exorbitant.. It wasn’t going to work out well, so I would need to just keep my head down and walk until the path plateaued. I did so, trying to keep old mate in sight.. After a while, I seemed to find a pretty good rhythm and wasn’t gasping quite so hard. I even ran again for a few hundred metres, but slowed to a walk before I was completely spent, so I could stride without sucking blades. I knew the next couple of kilometres would be much the same, so I accepted my fate and just kept going.
I passed a stream, cascading down the side of the mountain from the melting snow above. It was pristinely clear and a few runners filled their bottles. I did the same and took a swig… Holy Water! It was possibly the most delicious mouthful of water I’d ever had! So fresh and freezing cold. It tasted like real water… I’m not sure how else to explain it and it may have been completely circumstantial, but it was an absolute pleasure to drink.
Finally I saw some runners getting excited ahead, as the path’s gradient began to subside. People were beginning to trot again and even run. I took the opportunity to move my legs too and it wasn’t long before we were running on a flat road, edging along the side of the mountain. I thought my legs would fail me, but they seemed to revel in the feeling of running again, so I let them flow. There were a few more points on this road where the path shot sharply up for a while, but I was certainly making real progress by now. I passed Old Mate Walker and Highland Hill Runner within 2 kms..
We climbed further and hit some trails that led us over ice cold streams, funnelling water down the slopes. Apparently the temperature was 0˚C at 4500m, a temperature that was very uncommon at that height, so the snow was melting very quickly. The sting in the sun was really getting to me, but I kept on running. It wasn’t time to give in, not with less than 10km to go!
One section was the bottom of another ski slope, the junction of two lifts showing where the skiers would normally head. We were high! It was a bit of a wasteland though, as at this height, a lot less foliage managed to resist the winter snow. We crossed over and started to climb along a goat track. It wasn’t too long before we were cursing and slipping, single file along a mountain pass. Then it was down into another shallow valley, running quickly down the rocky trail, trying not to fall and on up the other side.
This race had everything!
With only 5 kilometres to go, I thought I was safe. I’d heard there was one more hill to come, but I felt pretty safe about completing the race without injury. My hamstring and my adductor on my right leg were pulling pretty heavily, worrying me that my old injury might flare after the race, but it didn’t warrant me slowing down just yet, so I soldiered forth. I finally came to another checkpoint where I grabbed copious amounts of Isotonic drink. I was feeling pretty flat and would need a lot more salt if I was going to finish without cramping too badly.
I came out of the drink station, situated at a busy crossing and train stop. It seemed to be the last big stop before the top of the mountain I was trying to climb. Not far now. I ran forward and saw runners ahead of me take a sharp left turn…. And straight up the side of the mountain… 3 kilometres of the steepest mountain road yet. This was why they had a train and ski lifts that went to the top, because there was no way to walk.. well.. walking was just a stupid idea..
“Shiiiiiiit…” I just stopped for a minute and looked at the distant trail of people winding up the hill in front of me. At the highest point, they were no more than ants, marching in line up the mountain. I pulled out the camera and tried to look delighted about being there.. And the damn memory card said it was full… “Shiiiiiit…”
I started to walk again, leaning forward and trudging up the hill, while looking for photos to delete. There’d be no more running in this section except maybe at the very end. To give you some idea of how disheartening that is – I normally run under 5 minutes per kilometre.. Even as fast as 4:20 per km if I feel good at the end of a race. So the last 3km should only be 15 minutes of hell at most. But with that kind of gradient, you’re looking at 14 or 15 minutes per km. So 3 kilometres of the toughest road yet was going to be another 45 minutes minimum.. And I’d been going for 4:45 already…
It was a slow burn. I was tired, my legs ached and I was now very scorched from the sun. The beauty of the Matterhorn was on my right and a rail way ferried people up to the end point of the race to my left.. I tried not to look up too often as it was quite disconcerting. A couple of “walkers” passed me and I passed a couple myself. A few people shouted at themselves to “keep going” or something similar in French or Italian. A few others encouraged those around them – “Not far now!”
One guy asked me for the current elevation, seeing that I had a Garmin 310XT – “Mate, I know my watch can tell me, though I’ve never looked at it… but look around… we’re pretty bloody high and we’re soon going to be at the top..” I know it wasn’t helpful, but I really didn’t have the energy to start scrolling around my watch looking for the elevation. And I didn’t want to know. One task, one focus – keep going till it ends.
A train passed by and people were glued to the windows, looking for anyone they may know edging up the hill. A few cheered for anyone who’s attention they caught. It was nice, but a little disheartening to see them carried so easily upward. But I was getting there too. I realised that I’d told Bec to get on a train and head back down if I wasn’t there by 2pm, thinking we would have missed each other. I figured 5 hours was plenty to have me on top. It was now heading toward 2:30pm, which meant she’d be long gone… Would she have listened to me? Geez, I gotta stop making brash statements about my ability. I’m bound to keep coming up short!
Nearly there. I could see the bottom of another ski lift, in an area that doubled as the station for the train. Surely this would be close to the end. People were gathered at this point, cheering the stragglers as they got closer to the top. I took in the sight, expecting to come over the rise and see a finish line.. But I was in for a little shock when I came over the top, for although I could see the finish, it was off to my left, up the hill some more and the trail headed directly forward, seeming to loop around.. Could only have been another 800m, but I was really at my wit’s end.. I shook my head and laughed.. Really?! Do we really have to do this??
I’d committed to the extra loop when someone came bounding down the side of the hill from the finish line.. “Hey!” shouted Bec, “You’ve made it!!” She had a big cheesy grin and looked like she’d been waiting for a while..
“Aaaah, there you are! I thought I might have missed you,” I responded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“You’ve done it!!” she repeated, “How do you feel?”
“Well, I haven’t quite made it, but it’s nearly over…” I slowed for a minute to let her join me, but then continued on. I swear the trail got suddenly worse and a lot more dangerous, with just a few hundred metres to go..
Another voice chipped in, “Tristan, how are you?! You’re still going!”
It was Daniel Steiner from Marathon4U.de, who I’d met at the Rome marathon. These guys really got around actually and I was happy to see him. He’d been running with a handicapped fella, who had gotten unsteady on the difficult terrain and taken a fall. But then the young guy got up and left Daniel behind, to finish some 30 minutes ahead of him! Daniel had been running a lot lately too, covering some 200km in races in the last month. Mad man!
I gave a shout out on my camera to my great friends Paul and Tiffany who just had baby Fletcher.. Massive congratulations guys! Daniel and I crossed the line at about the same time. I was so happy to finish that I could have jumped for joy… ok, let’s not get carried away… I at least would have grinned, if I could feel my face.. Photos were taken, people were hugging and cheering for their buddies as they followed them in. It was a joyous scene with a view of some of the most impressive mountain scenery you’re ever likely to see. Breathtaking stuff!
Check this out, I just found out I could embed this!
Bec did everything she could to make me feel better, but I was fading fast. My legs were cramping and I was staring at the beer tent as though I would rob the joint. None of this indicated that I was ready to hop straight in the car and drive to Italy for round 2 the next morning.. I had my doubts about this being a good idea after all.. Not one of my brighter ideas anyway. HurtLikeCrazy.com
I needed to sit down. Bec got me a beer. I stared at the Matterhorn for a while, wondering what on earth I was doing here.. I wonder this after every race, as it always takes me a while to absorb what just happened. All around me, people were laying exhaustedly in the sun, soaking up its rays, even though many of them were as sunburned as me.. At this altitude, it was pretty cold no matter how much the sun beat down. The slightest breeze felt like it carried a thin layer of ice from the highest peaks, tickling your skin and turning the red sunburn to blue.. These guys and girls had been training for months and put all they had into conquering this mighty goal. They’d succeeded and they’d spend their afternoon and the night licking their wounds and celebrating with beer. My Swiss mate Walter had said that his Sunday would all be about the beer! I envied them. I wanted to celebrate my win and relax.
But no. Alas, I had said I would try to do this and it would be against everything I stood for this year to not even try. Time to get off this mountain and hit the road again. We got a the train down the hill and I watched as so many more people edged up the same path I’d struggled with an hour before. Poor buggers. God speed to you all.. In Zermatt, we hit a couple of little supermarkets and stocked up on pre-cooked vegetables and snacks for the trip. I was surprised at how much good stuff was available here. Normally I’d eat anything after a run, but we needed to be a little strategic, loading up on protein, if I was going to get through the following day..
One more train took us to Täsch.. I got changed in the carpark, basically washing myself with anti-bacterial gel and wet-wipes – thanks Sophie and Shaz for stocking me up! I had some serious chafing problems in my shorts, so a combination of soothing cream that breast feeding mothers use (thanks again Sophie!) and Vaseline was applied to the inflammation. What was left of my busted old tube of Voltaren was rubbed into my pulsating leg muscles, in lieu of finding an ice bath on the long drive South..
We had 550kms, half a tank of gas, an iPod full of the latest disco tunes and Bec’s Big Hits from the 80s and 90s, a ton of great stories and a mission half complete. It was no Blues Brothers movie, but it was a pretty good road-trip so far…
Ok.. I really thought this was going to be a short post when I started it 2 weeks ago. I’m just not good at shortening the story. The crazy thing is, soooo much has happened since then. I’ve been sick in Mongolia, slept on train station benches in Siberia, got the beginnings of emphysema in Moscow, had a blast in Helsinki and now I’m in Iceland!
I’m going to write about day 2 of that adventure anyway, because it’s a tale worth telling. Part 2 will be up in the coming days.
Couple of quick messages:
Melbourne New Year’s Eve Marathon is still going ahead as planned! I’m getting a lot of requests for more details, but those details will not come until we have final council approvals to put the event on from the City of Port Phillip. I’d love to tell you more, but this should be enough for you to lock in a trip to Melbourne and come see me at the end of the year. It also means you need to start training in the first week of September, so get your boots on and get out on the track!
If you like what I’m doing and want to support my efforts, then all I ask is that you give $10 to one of these two worthy causes:
UNICEF to help the children whose families have been drowning in terrible floods in Pakistan.
Thanks to Krys & Associates for their continued amazing support. Kenneth Krys has agreed to join me in Antarctica for the 100km race! It’ll be my 51st marathon this year and I am honoured to be running with this heroic man!
That’s it for a couple of days. I had a blast in Helsinki with Cristina and Alice from Melbs, thanks for your support girls! Plus Ben and Hanna’s friends, Anna and Ossi and Co, for hanging out with us, plus Salla for showing me around to some of the best eateries in town! Gotta love Helsinki!
I’m about as far away from Australia as I can be right now, with the Reykjavik Marathon in Iceland just 9 hours away. Apparently I need sleep too! Great to have Mel Bushby here to share the excitement, as I really needed a mate to boost me. Good times.
And good luck to Julia Gillard in the Australian Election! Haha.. I voted in Moscow and it was kinda fun to be involved from a distance.
You’re all champions for voting Australia!!