In the week leading up to this race, I had started to fall ill. But since I had taken the weekend off from my freelance job, paid for the hotel, and mentally committed to the race as an essential stepping-stone for the rest of my 2017 season, I drove down to the Alps anyway. It’s only 11km and 1462m of height gain, so no big deal, right?
What started off as a minor flu during the week gradually got worse as race day approached. By the time I arrived in my hotel in Unterkirchen near the Germany-Austria border on Friday evening, I was contemplating just calling the race off. Instead, I headed out for a good dinner (figuring that as long as I still have a healthy appetite, I can’t be that ill) and retreated to bed. Overnight, I bundled up in the hope that I could sweat out whatever illness was still present in my body. I woke up in the morning to a grey drizzle, and still not feeling stellar.
A quick drive down the Leutasch valley brought me to Mittenwald, the starting point of the race. I parked, paid for that privilege and proceeded on foot to the middle of the city. I was glad that I brought my umbrella for the sign-up. It was still raining quite heavily. Over the microphone, the race director was warning runners that it was really cold up high, and that people shouldn’t just start in shorts and a singlet. Also, it was announced that the finish line had been moved down – instead of ending at the Nördliche Linderspitze at 2374m, about 1.5km and 150m of elevation were shaved off so that runners could arrive in relative warmth and safety just next to the cable car station instead of an exposed mountain peak.
We set off at 11am, just as the rain stopped. The exact timing of the start was supposed to be synchronized with the time table of the local train, but after just 500m of running through Mittenwald, we all came to a stop at a railroad crossing. I had started at a pretty good pace (about 4:30min/km), but it was all moot because even the slowest starters caught up. After the train cleared the tracks, everyone sprinted off again, at what seemed like an even faster pace this time, as if to make up lost time.
We passed the cable car station at 1.4km, then crossed under the B2 road at 1.8km; officially ending the “easy” part of the race. From here on out, we’d be climbing the entire time.
And on the first big climb out of the city, I noticed that my body had switched over to self-preservation mode. My heart rate hit 176bpm once, and I realized that I would need to dial my effort way down if I wanted to see the finish line. Of course what this meant was that I was getting passed left and right. The pavement ended at the top of this first climb, and for the next couple of kilometers we were on a wide gravel path. I was still running intermittently, but overall I walked more often than I would have liked. All the while, I was thinking that this wasn’t steep and that I should be running… “but not today”.
After 5km and the first aid station, we hit single trails. By now, everyone who was in a better shape than me had passed already, so mostly there was now a single-file procession towards the top. I still tried to be as efficient as I could, but my heart rate that was well below my regular max threshold was telling a different story. If I was a car with six gear transmission, I’d be cruising along in fifth, accelerator half-depressed.
After slightly less than two kilometers of single trails, we intersected with the Dammkar ski route descent. What this meant was that the trail was now mostly loose gravel; and each footstep had to be carefully measured because on a surface like that excessively pushing your feet off the ground only leads to lost traction and kicked-up stones. The scenery was familiar: many years ago, I’d hiked this route. Except that back then in spring, there was still snow on the ground and I was in mountaineering boots and gaiters. Today, I was wearing running shoes, shorts, two layers on top; as well as a buff, beanie and gloves. Temperatures were probably not much above zero degrees, and I was starting to feel pretty cold.
At 9km, the climb flattened out for a bit. This should have enabled me to push my pace, but by this point I was on cruise control and continued steadily, with an ever-decreasing average heart rate. I was only at around 150bpm by now.
Eventually, I reached the Dammkarweg tunnel. It’s approximately 500 meters in length, and I knew that the finish line was at the end of it. Since it was less steep, I finally managed to start running again.
I crossed the finish line after 1 hour and 45 minutes. A whopping three quarters of an hour after the winner. But that didn’t matter. I was done. Another race was in the books, and even though I wasn’t happy with how the race developed for me, it was still a job done. I could easily have logged a DNS (“did not start”) or a DNF (“did not finish”) here. I did not punish my body hard enough to dig myself into a hole, either. The dice I’d been dealt had been less than optimal, but I’d still persevered and finished.
After crossing the line, I briefly talked with a random runner who’d been out on a regular run in the mountains when he came across the race. He decided to join the runners to the top, but now that he was here he was cold and had no way down. I was too cold myself, so I got dressed with additional layers form my drop bag, and then took the first available cable car down back to the valley. By the time I was back at the hotel, I was feeling better; as if the race had pushed the remaining illness out of my body.