Monday, September 14, 2009

Transalpine Race Report

It's over. And would I ever do it again? To every single regular reader (all 10 of you) and every person who stumbles upon this blog through googling "Transalpine", let me say that I would - and will - definitely do it again.

I almost only run races where I have some chance of winning, or placing or getting a PR. But this one, this most beautiful race in the world, I would - and will - do again. Maybe just to sit at the pasta party listening to German techno with 500 cool runners, or listening to 10 different languages as you stand on the top of a mountain after climbing 6000 feet. What a wonderful race it is. What a wonderful, terrible race.

We came as, perhaps, the most naive runners of all. Dangerously used to winning almost every small race we enter, we thought of this as a competition. Training and racing in Denmark and the Midwest, where trails are soft, more interesting variants of roads, we had no idea what to expect. Day One was a great example of this; we were doing well, running just behind the mixed team that would take third for the day. And then, the real climbing began. We did tolerably on the uphills, only impeded by our lack of poles. Most - though, interestingly, not all - of the runners had poles, and the most experienced would move as though they had four legs. It was the downhills that killed us. We would watch a scary passage, as some might watch a rattle snake, while people simply jumped right through it. There were places that took us several minutes; others did it in 20 seconds. This isn't quite like running on the track:

After day One, we walked like we had just run a race, whereas others looked like they were still just warming up.

One day Two, it became fun. We had reached our zenith of the day, near the sponsored teams, when we had to cross our third "fixed rope" section, which caused a full-blown panic attack in the Girl. Thankfully, Kimberley Gimenez was there to talk some sense into the Girl and get her onto a safe ledge. And then, as the teams all passed us, we decided to just have fun with the race and try to enjoy the experience. The very best day, in my mind, was day Three, when we were very close to being dead last, coming down from a long, technical descent. It was warm and we were getting tired and dehydrated. We made it up to the top of the next mountain, both thinking we would get pulled out of the race. Instead "Wolfie", the RD, smiled and said "no, you are still in!". I pulled the girl with my poles as often as the trail would allow it and together we made it in, in almost 9 hours.

The Girl got injured and we missed stages 4 and 6. Stage 5 was a mountain sprint, which we did as a train, ie. me towing the hell out of the Girl. It was a time trial, with the slow teams starting first. As we were third from last, and we were decidedly pushing it all the way up, we were able to set a strong early time. It lasted almost for the rest of the race, until the leaders all came in and killed our time. I don't think the words "Team Lorax is still in the lead followed by..." has ever been uttered so many times (if it ever has).

There was a guy there, who had taken third at the European Mountain Running Championships. I don't know if he was actually part of a team (if he was, he must have had a slow partner). He may have just shown up for the stage. But anyway, that guy crawled up those hills like a bug with his poles; he was impressively fast.

I would love to get good at using poles. We bought some after day One, which made it a lot more fun. If you are reading this, and you are unsure whether you should buy poles before the Transalpine, do get some, and practice with them before you go. THe last two stages weren't technical enough for poles, probably, but just having them along made it more fun. Some store them outside their packs until the technical sections, some run with them in their hands from the start. Some put rubber tips on for the road sections, some don't. It's a science I know nothing about. I didn't even know how long they were supposed to be so I just went with somewhere between downhill and cross country poles.

We are back home. I feel great, having gotten in a week of awesome training runs. The Girl has an ankle that is about twice as thick as it should be, from a combination of stupidity and guts. Speaking of, if I were medical director of this race, I would have pulled several runners out. Like the Austrian guy who sounded like he was going to pass out every time he stepped down on his severely injured knee. The medical tent put a heavy-duty knee brace on him and let him run on.

The Competition

There are some strong runners there. The very top runners are full-time pros, the most notable being Angela Mudge, who is probably the best mountain runner in the world. Even the middle of the pack are serious, competitive runners, who probably win everything they enter in their local races. People are much more competitive than in US races. Not everyone will step off the trail to let you pass, and this did cause some scenes out there. At one long bottle-neck section, where everyone had to go single file, a German woman squeezed past me, in between me and the Girl, interrupting our conversation. Everyone was walking, obviously just waiting out the congestion, but this woman just wanted to get ahead. She pushed on, annoying people several pairs ahead of us. A pair of Finnish ladies were particularly annoying, always seeming to take short cuts and cut in front of people. So, yeah, it's a very competitive spirit, even in the middle third of the field. In the back, of course, everyone is very laidback.

I did not like this competitive feel. If I had been in a guy-guy team, really pushing it, I would have been freaked out by some people's attitude. Of course, I can't speak for the really fast teams, as I never saw them race. The camaraderie may have been better up there.

Speaking of camaraderie, we mostly hung out with the American and Danes. It felt good having two groups of "our people". The Danes included a guy named Lars, who obviously knew what he was doing. I asked whether he was the Lars I had heard so much about, alluding to a Lars, who took second at the Spartathlon in 2008 and was in second place for most of 24 Hour Worlds. He said that, yes, it was probably him that I had heard of. I was a little star struck, but it turned out that it was actually a different Lars. This one has raced some crazy adventure races but is not as accomplshed as the other Lars. Three teams of younger Danes came as a big, fun partying group. They were fun to meet, even though they made me feel old. One of the teams had a Norwegian girl, who got admitted to the hospital for presumed cellulitis, and we went to visit her in the Swiss hospital.

The American group had some cool people, all of whom were there to enjoy the trek. Especially the aforementioned Gimenez is a fountain of ultra knowledge and helpfullness. A pretty loud un-PC fountain, but that's cool.

It will take a while to get back to normal life after a trip like that.


olga said...

Glad you started your post with the disclaimer:) It's fun either way!

SteveQ said...

I found the post by googling "German woman, squeezed."

Sometimes the races you know you have no chance of winning are the best ones. For one thing, you can actually look at the scenery.

SteveQ said...

You know, I DID just do that googling. With the quote marks, you're number one of two sites.

Runningdoctor said...

Hey, In Danish Google, I am second of the two sites, the first containing this sentence:

"...hiding a young East German woman squeezed between these surfboards that were tied to the top of the car..."

SteveQ said...

I thought Danish Google was a pastry.

janecs said...

I have just read your race report- i am going to do the trans-alps this year to raise funds for the Lodging House Mission (a homeless day centre in Glasgow, Scotland). I am also a Doctor and a moderate runner at best. I have never attempted anything like this before and am excited and scared in equal measure. Thanks for the advice re poles- i shall get some and get practising. Anyway, i enjoyed reading your thoughts on the race, I hope to be posting my own account in the not too distant future....