I did my final indoor meeting for 2015/2016 on Luxembourgish soil this past Saturday, over one month after the Luxembourgish Championships. Athletes in the national team were afforded two more opportunities to compete in between, but the rest of us had to make do with regular training or travel abroad to compete. I chose the former, getting a few solid training sessions in during February. I did no tapering at all for this weekend, with a particularly hard stairs training on Monday that left my calves shattered for the rest of the week. So did 5 weeks improve my performances? Yes and no.
My first race for the day was the 200m. I warmed up for it with a 2km loop outside, then headed back inside for stretching, skips and strides. The warm-up area seemed deserted, since a lot of the top competitors in the 2016 season had decided not to race. This allowed me to be seeded in the first heat, which is always a good thing because it gives you access to the running lanes fifteen minutes before the race start (as opposed to only being allowed onto the race track shortly before your start, after the previous heats have run). I was put in lane 4, which is pretty much optimal for me in my current shape because while it might be marginally slower than lanes 5 and 6, it is also less extreme and puts two runners ahead of me who I can make it my task to catch.
Catching the runners ahead of me worked… 50%. While I did catch up with Quentin Bebon in lane five somewhere at the start of the second turn, Philippe Hilger remained safely in the lead for the entirety of the race. I had a better than average start and did a solid first turn, but fell apart again in the final 30 meters or so; which meant I was forcing too much and not running with an optimal technique.
I crossed the finish line in second place, in 23″49, and a considerable distance from the winning time (22″82). More surprising was that overall, I also finished 2nd out of 13 runners. Also of note is that all of these guys were born in the late Nineties.
Next up, after several hours of waiting, was the 4x200m relay. I’d talked myself into my club’s first team, a spot I thought was merited because of my 2016 performances. I had made an argument for our club’s strongest possible constellation to compete since I thought we’d have a chance of finishing on the podium, but did not really agree when one newspaper predicted us as the potential winners in their meet preview. I thought that CAB with Pol Bidaine was a stronger contender, especially since most of their team was fresh whereas our relay had all competed in either the 200m (Gilles, me) or 400m (Stefano, Aymen) already.
The gun went off with Gilles (slowest PR of the team) in first position. FOLA had their strongest runner in first position. We were in lane 6, so the relay change from Gilles to me had the added complexity of him needing to fit between me in the inside of the lane and the barrier on the right side of the track. Our change went over without much drama, even though I probably started a little early and couldn’t push off at full speed until I had the relay baton in my hand.
I did a fairly aggressive first turn during which I could see FOLA’s second runner in an inside lane blow past. He had less distance to run, so all I could do was push hard and hope for the best. After the turn, the runners all converge in lane one. With FOLA ahead, I was expecting CAB to not be far behind, but as I moved left I turned my head and couldn’t see anyone else. I was in second position then, which I held until the end of my relay.
The relay change was a bit hairier this time. I came in at full speed, but all the lanes were blocked with waiting athletes. I had to brake aggressively, then was so close to our third runner, that I couldn’t hand over the baton straight away. We finally managed to do the change-over, and for a moment I was afraid I hadn’t safely handed over the baton, but he had a safe grip on it and was off. Aymen managed to catch FOLA’s third runner (born in 2002!), and Stefano solidified the lead to cross the finish line with over a second ahead of CAB who had moved up a position and finished marginally faster than FOLA.
Overall, we did 1’33″08; which means as a team each one of us had an average of 23″27. Considering the constraints (all of us running on tired legs), this is an OK time. There have of course been faster championship wins, but also slower ones.
In closing, while I thought that five weeks of additional training should improve my season best by more than just one hundredth of a second (23″50 to 23″49), I’m still happy with the competition. At 38 years, ten years after I officially put an end to my track&field career, and with more achilles injuries than toes on my feet, I can once again go out there and compete. What’s more is that I can feel my body becoming more resilient again, because contrary to the last few competitions my achilles tendon was doing quite well the next Monday.
One month to go before my final indoor competition for this season, which will also be my first international competition in ten years (and first european championship ever): European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor in Ancona, Italy.
In a vertical kilometer race, or kilomètre vertical (KMV) as it’s sometimes referred to in France, the goal is to ascend 1000m of elevation by running (or walking) the shortest possible route on roads or trails. For the Mont-Blanc Vertical Kilometer, the route starts at the Place de l’église just outside the city center at 1000m of elevation and ends at Plan Praz, a gondola lift station at 2000m elevation in the shadow of the Brévent mountain.
On June 26th 2015, I was about to enter this race for the first time. I was a relative newcomer to the mountain running scene, having just run two other mountain climbs in Germany and Austria in the preceding months. Both had been learning experiences, and enabled me to see where my limits were.
Two days before, I had done a reconnaissance hike of the entire race course. (This is where I took almost all of the pictures used in this race report.) Getting a good look at the course and trail conditions in advance didn’t just mentally prepare me for what was ahead, but also allowed me to fine-tune my clothing and hydration choices, especially since the weather was forecast to be the same.
Rather than following the traditional form of a group start (which would get very crowded on the narrow trails higher up the mountain), the Mont-Blanc Vertical Kilometer is run as a time trial; with athletes starting every thirty seconds over the course of several hours. The way this is handled is that the slowest athletes start at 16:00, and depending on your projected finish time you gave them when signing up you’re then put into a time slot (17:30 in my case) around which you can show up at the starting line. You don’t necessarily need to be on time ‘like a Swiss clock‘ – there’s no exact sequence that is strictly enforced, since you’re scanned individually as you set off and that’s when your personal timing starts.
In my case, I set off at 17:19, a few spots behind Charley and Sophie, whose blogs I had found while researching the race and who I had been following on social media. As such, I knew that Sophie was aiming for a finish under 1 hour; which was also my goal. With no other points of reference, these guys (who didn’t know me) would in a way be my implicit pacers, and I knew that if I lost ground to them my pacing wasn’t working.
The city center was quite crowded, and as such everyone sets off to constant applause and encouragements. It’s a little intimidating, and you tend to maybe go off a little faster than you’d planned. I ran past the church, through a traffic circle (traffic police was stopping the cars whenever a runner approached), and then up Rue de la Mollard, a paved road that has an approximate 14% grade.
While I’d done a lot of training for this race, a badly inflamed achilles tendon had put a damper on the amount of cardio I’d been able to do in the months leading up to the race. As such, I had to be very mindful of my heart rate, and knew that I would speed hike a majority of the course rather than being able to run most of it. I was still dismayed to find that I’d reached my limit in the middle of Rue de la Mollard already.
After about 0.5km on the road I then contoured around the Brévent cable car station, and after just a short stretch of wide gravel I reached the start of the switchbacks. Since I was one of the first people to switch from running to power hiking, I’d already lost a position or two.
After about 700m of distance we reached the start of the switchbacks we’d be on for the next half hour or so. It’s all single trail, which makes it quite a lot harder to pass people (or be passed). Soon, we reached 100m of elevation. Only 900 left!
On the switchbacks, I was able to cover ground comparatively well. My speed hiking pace enabled me to keep up with most of the people around me, regardless of whether they were running or hiking, and I even managed to pass a few. Most people were courteous in letting faster athletes pass, and likewise I stopped a few times in the curves of the switchbacks to let someone faster pass me. One person did not move over to let me pass as expected, and a sudden evasive step into grass that I chose to make almost caused me to fall and my heart rate spiked. No other damage done, so I soldiered on. My heart rate at this point was around 177, peaking to 180; which is also very close to my maximum heart rate.
Not much changes as I passed the 200m, 300m and 400m markers. While there were still a few position changes, things had settled down somewhat. Mostly, I tried to inch closer to the person in front of you, while in turn peeking back each time I changed direction on the switchbacks to see if I was opening up a gap towards the people following.
Somewhere around the 500m marker, we reached the sign announcing that the trail was no longer maintained beyond this point. Mostly, this meant that there were occasional small boulder fields to cross, and that the footing was more treacherous in some spots with either loose stones or loose dirt.
Somewhere after the 600m marker, we left the switchbacks behind. Whereas the trail had been going up below the cable car line, we were now starting on a line that veered off to the right and contoured around the mountain slope.
And then the 700m marker came, and it was time to get the hands dirty. In some spots, the trail seemed to go up almost vertically between jagged boulders. There was a cable to hold on to, and I used whatever strength I could muster in my upper body to assist my legs by pulling myself up on the cable.
There were a few spots where a slip or fall would have been painful, but it was always manageable. While the field had thinned considerably by this point, I caught up with a few more people on this stretch. I suppose this is where weaknesses in your strength or endurance will catch up with you.
After the 800m marker, one can finally see the cable car station. Unfortunately, there’s still quite a bit of ground to cover on difficult terrain. This is the rockiest part of the course; and an iron rope was no longer sufficient. The boulders one needs to climb up are quite big. As such, there was an assortment of ladders or iron foot holds, with a guard rail to hold on to. This part of the race culminates in a spot where runners climb up with a sheer rock face on their right and a slippery gravel slope to their left. Here, race photographers set up shop because you can get a nice shot of runners with Chamonix in the valley below as a backdrop.
Beyond the photographers, the trail mellows out a little. With most of the climb facing into the Brévent massif with my back to Mont-Blanc, I was happy to find that for a short while the trail actually opened up with splendid vistas of mountain peaks and glaciers across the valley.
I passed the 900m elevation sign and another official photographer, and then the cable car station was almost within reach. The climb is less dramatic here, but of course with the accumulated fatigue I still didn’t manage much of a run.
After the relative quiet of the climb, the cable car station was much busier with spectators. The path leads over some wooden planks and then up some iron stairs. This of course marks the end of the single trail, and the remaining distance is on a wide dirt road. On its own, the remaining elevation change would not be drastic, but after climbing for close to an hour near my maximum heart rate, it was really hard to convince my legs, lungs and heart to allow me to run over the finish line. I managed, barely.
And just like that, the race was over. Almost straight away, I could see my official finish time on a timing screen, and had the confirmation that I’d stayed under one hour. I loitered around the finish area for a bit, taking photos and sending a text message to the wife saying that I’d survived.
After just a few short minutes, I was feeling quite well again (maybe I had energy reserves I could have tapped into during the race?). I set off to hike/run up to the Brévent, but then after the first bend reconsidered because after all it wasn’t just a jog up the hill but could easily have added an hour or two and maybe caused me to miss the last gondola down if something unexpected happened. Instead, I returned to the finish line to see the fastest athletes arriving. It was a bit disappointing to realize that there wasn’t more of a crowd – their finish times certainly warranted more attention.
After the final athlete arrived, everyone seemed to be in a mad rush to get down the mountain. I decided that with nothing else to do that evening, that I’d attend the victory ceremony (which was held on the main square near the starting line) as well. There was a lottery for all participants, and as luck would have I won a fairly nice supply of Isostar running nutrition (gels, powder, etc.). Afterwards, I set off towards the gym where the pasta dinner was held. This was a no-brainer since (a) it was on the way to the hotel, (b) it was included in the price and (c) I hadn’t eaten dinner yet.
The pasta was good, but of course it was no fun eating in solitude. I guess when elite runners always talk about the camaraderie among athletes, they may be right about it from their point of view; but as a random guy among other random people, a lot of them in established groups, it was hard to make contact with anyone. I didn’t particularly mind though, and instead soon headed out; walked the remainder of the way to my hotel and settled in for a good night’s rest.
Brooks Cascadia 8 shoes (These have been my go-to shoes for most of my trail running in 2014 and 2015, so it was logical to wear something that I knew would work. )
Ronhill Men’s Trail Cargo Contour Shorts (The differentiating factor between these Ronhill’s and comparable running tights is that they offer plenty of pockets so I could safely stash my cell phone, some paper tissues, my ID and hotel keys in separate locations. Otherwise, I’d always be afraid to, for example, lose one thing if I grabbed another.)
Under Armour Sonic Compression Men’s T-Shirt (Not much to say. A lot of similar running shirts would have worked just as well).
Ultimate Performance Handheld Bottle with hand strap (It is debatable whether much water is needed on a <1 hour run. However, I emptied the 0.6 litre bottle on the way up; and when the sketchier parts came I was able to use the strap to fix the bottle on my upper arm and thus have both hands free for climbing/scrambling.)
Monday 5-Oct: Boring 2km lunch time walk without GPS to grab food
Tuesday 6-Oct: First stair running training of the fall season. Did 4 repeats at the Rollingergrund stairs. 49″, 50″, 54″, 73″. In other words, OK for the first two, managed to mostly hold on for the second, and had no energy left on the fourth. (Strava)
Wednesday 7-Oct: 52 minutes on the bike at lunch-time. Rode on the flat and paved cycle path to Hesperange and back, but felt like I was cycling into a headwind both ways. (Strava)
Thursday 8-Oct: Again the 2km lunch commute, and then ran about 7km on pavement and track for an evening club training. (Strava)
Saturday 10-Oct: Headed to the Saarschleife across the border in Germany to do my first hill running workout for the fall season. Kept it quite simple by only going up twice: one run and one walk. It went OK: no major pain from the achilles, and the one run up was about the same time I did last year when I first discovered the place. 7.2km, 431m elevation (Strava)
Sunday 11-Oct: The newspaper wanted me to cover a 73km MTB race. They thought covering the final third of the race was sufficient, but I figured that with competitors being really spaced out in long races, I wouldn’t catch too many before I had to be at the finish line for the winner. So I decided to head out on my own MTB to catch the riders roughly 1/3 of the way in, then return home (after clocking 6.5km and 148m of elevation) and cover the rest of the race the traditional car-based way. (Strava, Photo gallery). In the afternoon, I drove to a cyclocross race, where the Garmin supposed I did 2km, but that may be a little optimistic. (Strava, Gallery)
The wife had wanted to go to the women’s volleyball world championship semi-finals and finals in Rotterdam and insisted I come along. So I got to spend 4 hours on Saturday in a bus, then many more hours in cramped seats surrounded by thousands of volleyball fans; and on Sunday the same thing happened in reverse (watching two games in the afternoon and then 4 hours return trip). Basically the only free time I had at my disposal was on Sunday morning, and despite the boring hotel location and lackluster weather I still got out for a mostly relaxed 5km jog. 6:51/km pace according to my Garmin. If not for the achilles tendon injury and wanting to take it slow, I could certainly have chosen a longer and more scenic route. As is, by the time I reached a forest I’d done half of the distance I wanted to do that morning, so I had to turn around. Strava activity
Just like the previous weekend, I headed to my favourite training track, at the INS (“Institut National des sports”); reasoning that since my achilles was still on probation (so to speak) I shouldn’t subject it to anything extravagant. So laps on a flat track it was.
Straight away, I found myself moving quite effortlessly at a 6 minutes per km pace, which is 0:30 min/km faster than 7 days ago. I ended up running for 24 minutes and exactly 4km; and then did some stretching under a perfect blue sky (but with temperatures that served as a reminder that summer is over and fall is here).
The achilles tendon hurt a little, but not too much; which is just the way it should be – at this point I should do reasonable efforts that stimulate the achilles, without resorting to the kind of extremes that could mean a re-injury.
Well. That didn’t last long. Posted a “daily training log” on the 19th, and promptly fell ill and didn’t do any training for the next few days. Would have preferred to take a sick day or two and recover at home, but forced myself to go to work because we’re short-staffed and there was plenty of work to do.
I did continue treatment on my left achilles, with another laser treatment (the third so far) on Monday 21st. I haven’t yet reached a conclusion whether these treatments help or not – there’s so many variables at play and the injury has been plaguing me for so long already that it’s hard to say exactly what is helping and what is not.
On Thursday, I headed to my club’s usual Thursday training, but instead of joining the group for the usual early fall routine (of easing back into winter training), I merely did laps on the grass. I did a total of 3.8km in a little under 25 minutes, with a break in the middle for some stretching. Afterwards, the Achilles didn’t feel all that pleasant, but once again it is difficult to know for sure whether this is still ongoing pain from the injury, or just an adverse reaction to the stress of running after almost two months off. One would mandate more of a break or maybe even more invasive measures (an operation), the other can be ignored, more or less.
I really like reading other people’s daily training logs. George Zack for example has been blogging about training and various races in Colorado and elsewhere for years, and it’s always motivating to see consistency not just in training and racing, but also in documenting it all.
One of the big reasons I’ve always been reluctant to blog daily training updates is that I am not a very consistent athlete. Back in 1998, before the format of “blogs” was popular, I was training almost every day and competing often; but all of that vanished in the early 2000s after a major Achilles injury. Back then it didn’t even occur to me to write about my training or the competitions I ran – in the infancy of all things internet, there wouldn’t have been much of an audience. I don’t have an audience now either, of course.
The same Achilles tendon is plaguing me again in 2015, so for the time being I can’t even have firm goals or post about them for fear of having the rug pulled out from under my feet. But still, maybe there is value in posting about little accomplishments; and maybe I’ll look back at this later and wish I’d documented more.
As for training today, the sports doctor had suggested I tentatively restart some easy jogging. A month ago, we’d already discussed that option, but back then it turned out to be too soon. Of course a month ago I’d gone running (partly) on trails, with some elevation gain; and I’d started with a whole 30 minutes.
So this time around, I scaled things down to the bare essentials: 20 minutes at 6:30min/km pace, on a flat and smooth running track. Afterwards, I did some stretching (feeling very much that I’d lost some more mobility over the past few months) and drove home. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening, I could feel the calf muscles tensing up and there was a noticeable pull in the Achilles tendons on both feet. This doesn’t bode well.
In two days, on June 14th, I will be competing at Katrinberglauf. This mountain run in Bad Ischl, Austria, is labelled as “Austria’s steepest mountain race”. The start and finish lines are at the valley and mountain stations of the Katrin Seilbahn cable car, which goes from an elevation of 472m to 1415m, for 943m difference in a distance of about 4.5km. While this does not qualify for the term “vertical kilometer”, it is nearly as close as one can get.
The race was not in my long term plan leading up to the Chamonix KMV in two weeks, but after finishing my first vertical race Wallberg Berglauf on May 1st, I figured I needed another race to be better prepared for what will await me in France. So at the beginning of this week, I took time off from my weekend job as a sports photographer, and decided to do the long drive to Austria and back in order to get more vertical racing experience.
The race will once again be very challenging for someone living and training in a land of hills but that is devoid of mountains. The course description mentions that after the start there will be a short flat section on paved road (250m) and forest path, and then somewhere beyond 500m the relentless climb will start, gaining 943m over the next 4000m of a ski descent route. This would translate to an average grade of just below 24%.
There is a Strava segment that seems to skip the start and last few meters to the finish line; it is 4km long and climbs 917m for an average grade of 23%.
All in all, the grade isn’t too different from my “Gringlee” training hill near Bourscheid; which is around 28% and reduces my run to a walk a lot more than I’d want. I’ve done up to 4 repeats on Gringlee with as little pause as possible. This comes close to approximating the height gain at Katrin but of course I still can’t train for continuous height gain in Luxembourg.
Looking at my segment times on Gringlee, I’m figuring that I should be able to cover the individual kilometers in 11, 12, 13 and 14 minutes respectively; and if I factor in another 3 minutes for the flat 0.5km at the start that would leave me at an estimated finish time of around 53 minutes. To make things slightly more challenging, I set myself a target of 51 minutes on Strava. On the other hand, I haven’t encountered a climb this hard in any of my training, so it’s just as likely that I’ll suffer more and more the higher I go.
In 2014, there were 205 people who crossed the finish line. The winner from Kenia took a mere 33:27 to the top, the first Austrian runner wasn’t too far behind at 35:00. But those are real athletes; which I can’t pretend to be. So if everything goes according to plan, I’m more likely to look at a finish beyond position 100, which last year required a time of 51:06. My realistic estimate of 53:00 would have put me at #122 last year. If things go badly, finishing in 1 hour would have put me at #163.
Of course it’s always difficult to make accurate predictions. I’m not really in the best shape of my life – I’ve had trouble getting enough quality sleep lately and my left achilles tendon has seen better days. On top of that, I’m sure that driving 750km on Saturday will not improve my performance, and most certainly the prospect of driving 750km back home after the race will also play a factor in how deep I can dig during the race.
But at least the weather is forecast to be better than it was for my last race on May 1st; and even though I haven’t been able to train as much for this as I would have liked, I have seen some improvements on routes that I run regularly.
A few days, ago, I wrote this on Facebook:
Realistically speaking I’d need to train at a much higher level for at least another year before being in any shape to truly compete at [..] these races, but this is all about setting myself new challenges and expanding my comfort zone.
Wallberg Berglauf was my first mountain run. I joined 252 other people on a rainy May 1st morning in Rottach-Egern, near Tegernsee lake in Southern Germany to run/walk 5.5km and climb 860m of elevation.
Having taken the day before the race off work, I left for Germany at a reasonable 9:30am. There was quite a bit of traffic on the A8 for the next handful of hours, but fortunately no traffic jams. There were a lot of construction zones though and a lot of the remaining distance had speed restrictions. I could have gone pedal to the metal a handful of times, but why bother? Most people I saw on the left lane invariably had to step on their brakes a few hundred meters later. I arrived at Tegernsee lake after about six and a half hours (including refueling and three more quick breaks), and was a little surprised to see my old trusty Mondeo was reporting a fuel consumption of 4.4 litres per 100km over the past 560 kilometers.
Since it was still quite early in the day and contrary to weather reports it wasn’t raining yet, I opted to do a little recon. It’s a difficult gamble: how far should I hike up the day before a race? On one hand, it’s useful to see what lies ahead, on the other hand there’s no need to tire yourself out. After running into the race director and his wife at the parking lot (being the first ever person to participate from Luxembourg makes you stand out when you drive up in Luxembourgish plates), I ended up hiking 5.6km (up and down) and 414m of elevation (Strava activity); which may have been a bit too much. To top things off, I had quite a bad headache.
I retreated to my hotel in nearby Bad Wiessee, skipped any dinner plans and was in bed at a record-breaking 18:30.
I got up at 6am – definitely can’t say I didn’t get enough sleep. Killed some time on the laptop, showered and was at the breakfast table at 7:45am. Tried to strike a balance between eating enough but not too much, and sampled around 600 calories from the hotel’s breakfast buffet (bread, Nutella, deli meats, small slice of cheese, small yoghurt). A glass of OJ. And of course some coffee.
The weather wasn’t stellar: it had been raining for quite a while when I took the following picture in the morning. Conveniently, my destination for the day was already in plain view (Wallberg mountain center-left and the race finish at the cable station about 100m of elevation further down).
I left my hotel at 8:30, which coincided with the the start of the one-hour window for late registrations and bib pickup. Since I’d signed up in advance, I merely had to pick up my racing number and then had a lot of time to kill before the 10:30 race start. I spent some of it just sitting in the boot under the large rear door of my car (yay for station wagons), pondering what to wear and what to take with me.
With temperatures of around 10 degrees Celsius in the valley and a reported 5 degrees Celsius at the finish line, I had settled on my Asics long tights (non-thermal) over underwear; a form-fitting Kaikialla functional shirt as a base layer on top and a Brooks long-sleeve running shirt over it. I decided against compression socks, but was wearing normal running socks in my well-broken-in Brooks Cascadia 8. I would also don light gloves and a lightweight buff over my head and ears. As more and more people arrived, it was easy to become distracted with clothing options: shouldn’t I rather wear short tights? Or maybe a rain jacket? Salomon shoes looked popular, but I don’t have any of those.
And then, should I take a camera? How about my Gopro? Or maybe skip all electronics except my watch? In the end, I stashed my cell phone in a pocket but left the Gopro in the car. I was sure I’d be plenty busy just moving, never mind about mentally or physically dealing with picture-taking in that stress.
I opted against a long warm-up, instead just walking around a little to stretch my legs occasionally, and then jogging a few hundred meters before walking down about 400m from the parking lot to the starting line.
I lined up at the start line with a reported 280 participants. The race start was delayed for a few minutes (I guess to deal with last-minute late sign-ups). And then we were off. I’d lined up just before the 55min line (the race director’s 10km equivalent time); which was quite conservative but I neither wanted to get out too fast nor did I want to be in a position where I’d be overtaken (read: be in other people’s way) more than necessary.
The first 500m or so were on a paved road; which I guess was a good enough way to get people well spaced.out before the narrower paths start. 2015 was actually the second year this paved part was added to the race, before that people started at the cable station.
On my own, I guess I would have started out faster, but since I was pretty much stuck with the pace those runners around me were setting, I just followed that. I hit the first kilometer in 7:24. The first 500m only had about 30m of elevation gain. The change from lounging around all morning to suddenly being in a race was a bit of a shock to me. My head really wasn’t in it at first. The more things change, the more they stay the same – I’ve had the same to say about quite a few 100m starts back when I was competing on the track. After passing the cable car station on our left, we started climbing for real. I switched over to a fast walk; which still matched the pace of those around me running.
After the initial 500m on road and the next 800m on gravel, the next two kilometers (give or take) would be on mountain trails. These were not quite single-track – there usually was enough space for two people next to each other but since everything was quite muddy and there were lots of exposed rocks or potentially slippery stones, there often was one good single track and then one that was slightly worse next to it.
While the runners had spaced out a little, things were still quite busy. A few times, you’d need to be careful because there were still a few position changes. I found that I didn’t like running or walking just behind someone, since that restricts your visibility of the trail ahead; so instead I often switched over to the slightly more uneven part of the trail that was maybe a little more slippery and closer to the edge on the right; but afforded better visibility of where I’d put my foot the next few steps and a slightly better opportunity to set my own pace.
By the time we hit 2km of distance (and 200m of elevation gain), I was dealing with the onset of a side stitch and just generally not feeling as well as I could; especially seeing how much elevation gain was still in front of me.
We passed Wallbergmoos (a small mountain restaurant) after about 2.25km. After traversing a small meadow, the terrain got steeper again. This was how far I’d gone on the previous day during my recon, so from here on out I didn’t have any mental imagery of the course to rely on.
From km 2.5 to km 3.5, we followed a number of switchbacks. This was the most treacherous terrain yet, but I got through without too many issues. Well, apart from slowing down some more. Here, I also played leapfrog with at least two different runners, who I passed and who passed me again several times. It seems that my pace is indeed quite irregular; and it almost felt like I was able to push a little bit better on the steeper sections, but they ran faster than my fast walking on the less narrow segments. Maybe I annoyed them because they signed up for a mountain run, and here I was walking a lot of it.
After 3.5km, we rejoined a wider path of very small crushed gravel. By here, I’d managed to leave behind one of my co-runners in a yellow jersey; but was once again playing leapfrog with a female runner. For most of the way up, I’d been at a heart rate of 172, so I decided to stay there. But since the climb was less steep here, I was finally able to do some running again. At one point towards the end of this stretch, I even managed to dip below 6min/km pace; but this was short-lived.
At around 4.6km, the route deviates from the wide path for a quick 100m stretch up a meadow. And “up” is the defining factor here, because the grade is around 30%. My heart rate shot up to 175 and there was nothing I could do. Whereas I’d been thinking that I should ramp up my speed and maybe catch some runners – there were a good 10 or 15 that looked within grasp at that point – this spot took the wind out of my sails.
Especially since the remaining distance to the finish line once again felt very steep and I was once again resigned to a fast walk. I could neither catch anyone, nor could I shake off the female runner I’d been exchanging positions with for a while now.
Finally, we neared the top of the race. I was thinking if I should make a move for that one position because everyone else was out of reach now. Just when I had decided to stay behind she slowed down for a second or two, so I went past almost naturally. The last 100 meters or so were on a meadow and because it was flatter I was once more able to run into the arrival chute where our bibs were scanned. I thought I’d put some distance between us, but in the results there’s only 1 second of difference. Oh well.
I stopped my watch just shy of 55 minutes. This was later confirmed when the official results were put up; where I was listed with 54:46.
Bonus climb after the race
After crossing the finish line, I sat down on the ground for a minute. I regained some energy almost straight away, and actually, this happened way quicker than I expected it to; which either means I didn’t give everything on the race or my recent training efforts have made me more resilient.
Either way, I thought since I was already most of the way up to the peak of Wallberg, I might as well run/walk there. To my surprise, none of the runners I had been around joined in; so I made it to the top almost in solitary (I encountered one runner and two hikers climbing down). And half-way up the remaining distance, I understood why the race doesn’t go to the top of the peak: it was quite slippery; and it required more scrambling than some runners might be comfortable with. At one point I even had to do some easy climbing moves, but i guess that was more because of my poor route choice in that spot.
The climb to the top added 12 minutes to the climb and another 137m. Which means I failed to hit 1000m of elevation gain; although just barely.
On the way down, the rocks I’d scrambled up on were very slippery, and I had to be very careful not to fall. Actually, I slipped once, and just barely was able to prevent my rear from making an unplanned contact with the ground. Good thing I was wearing gloves, because my hands made full contact with the muddy trail and rocks to break the fall.
Restaurant meal and raffle
Of course by the time I got back to the official finish, everyone had arrived, and the finish zone was already starting to get torn down. I got something warm to drink, then retreated into the cable car station to change into my warm clothing (which had been sent up by cable car – a welcome service). And of course with everyone across the finish line the restaurant was packed by now. The race fee includes a free meal (Kaiserschmarrn), so I opted to stay and hang around for a bit. I ordered a coffee with the free meal, but was a little surprised to pay 4.20€ for the coffee. This seemed a little steep.
Before the victory ceremony, there was a raffle being held. My bib number ended up winning a pair of socks. It’s just a small thing, of course, but I guess as a runner you can never have too many socks (even if these, being white, are not the best colour for trail runners).
At around 14:00, the race organiser announced that the official results would be put on the walls in the staircase outside the restaurant. I decided to go look – I guess deep down I’m still as competitive than I was as a sprinter, and want to know where my performance puts me. And then suddenly I decided I’d had enough of the crowded restaurant and people in general and opted out of spectating the victory ceremony (which I couldn’t see from my seat in the restaurant, anyway) and took a cable car down before everyone else would do so.
Thumbs up to the race organisers and volunteers. It’s a very nice event and I’m glad I made the drive down from Luxembourg. The weather could have been better, but at least it didn’t snow. I’m happy with my performance to the extent that it was my first participation at an event of this kind. My time puts me at position 136 of 253, which means I’m somewhere past half-point in the results. The time, coincidentally, is near my “reasonable” expected time; but of course much slower than what I feel I should be capable of doing if I keep training for events like these. So in summary, I liked today’s event and am looking forward to returning either here or similar events in the future.
In two days, on May 1st 2015, I will be facing a new challenge: competing in a mountain run.
Wallberg Berglauf will take place in Rottach-Egern, near Tegernsee in Southern Germany. It is not the first mountain run I’ve signed up for (that would be the Chamonix KMV, which I wrote about already) but it’s the first one I will compete in. And actually, I originally signed up for this race because of the Chamonix KMV – it should be a good preparation because while it’s longer it’s less steep and therefore should serve as a decent enough entry point into the sport. Often, the best preparation for a race is another race… only in race conditions can you truly test yourself and see if your training, gear choices, mental preparation, etc. can withstand the demands of racing. While you can approximate things in training, it’s often times not possible to replicate the conditions of race day (length of the climb, competitors, ability to dig deeper than you would during a training run, etc.). But of course the more I started reading about Wallberg, the less I started seeing it as a training or preparation run. I now consider it as a challenging and hard competition on its own.
And of course with just two days to go, I’m starting to get a bit anxious. First of all, because this is a discipline that is entirely new to me and I’ve never done anything like it. Then, I’ll be entirely on my own. On most of my track&field competitions over the course of the past twenty-seven years, there was direct or indirect support (presence of a coach, and/or of other people from my training group), or after a while even when no outside support was available I already had a huge history of races already run and the corresponding experience that goes with it. On Wallberg, it will just be me, doing something I’ve never done before. Sure, it’s not rocket science and I’m still in a well-supported race that’s close to civilization; but there’s still quite a few things that I will have to deal with: what to wear, how to handle valuables during the race (car keys, cell phone, etc.), the logistics of getting my starting bib, handing off my warm weather gear to be shuttled to the finish line, etc.
And then, there’s this:
Yup. Plenty of rain is forecast not just for the race day but also the day before. Which means that the trails won’t be dry and that conditions might be quite miserable. Which means I’ll need to think a little harder about what to wear so as not to get too cold or too wet. But then again, it’s a relatively short race; so carrying around extra layers means carrying extra weight that may not be needed because on the 16% average grade my body will certainly create a lot of heat.
Finally, I’m a little concerned about my fitness. While I have been training specifically for hilly conditions for a few months now, I’m sure I could have done more, in a more structured way. While I have no doubt that I can finish this race, it still remains to be seen whether I can finish “fast”.
The thing is, I know how fast and how well I can climb 200m of elevation. I also know I can climb 1000m of elevation over the course of one training session. What I don’t know is how well I can cover 860m of elevation gain by running and walking 5.5km up in one go; with no possibility of rest that hill repeats afford you (running down in between uphills will never provide the same stimulus than continuous uphill).
It’s always difficult to speculate in advance how well you can do on race day. There’s a lot of factors to consider (and maybe some I haven’t considered yet). Obviously the weather will be an important factor; but I also can’t really judge how much influence competing against other people will have. A while ago, I did some primitive calculations on paper by extrapolating a few of my training sessions, and came up with a rough estimate of being able to cover the race distance and elevation in 55 minutes (average pace of 10 min/km). In my more optimistic moments, I’ve caught myself fantasizing about being capable of finishing in around 44 minutes (for an average pace of 8:00 min/km). Maybe the reality will lie somewhere in between, or maybe I’ll find myself 500m up, completely out of breath, heart racing, and with the knowledge that I was being way too optimistic.
Looking at last year’s finisher list (2014 was the first year on a slightly longer course) with 311 people across the line (male and female combined), the winning time was an impressive 34:05; finishing in the top 50 required a time of 42:51; top 100 47:44. A time of 44:00 would have meant 61st, 55:00 would have meant 200th and 60:00 249th. This year, there’s 188 runners signed up in advance; so it looks like there might be anywhere from 250 to 400 competitors.
Plenty of things to get nervous about; but at least the day leading up to the race will be less complicated than first planned: rather than work a half day, go to the dentist during lunch and then drive down 600km the way I originally planned; I’ve now taken the entire day off work; I’ve rescheduled the dentist appointment and will therefore be able to set off quite early in the day, hopefully beating traffic. Maybe I’ll even get around to still checking out the first 1 or 2 km of the course in the evening.