Today was the day it all changed…From how my body felt to how hard I could push to my attitude towards the race… Day 3 changed it all.
Day 3. Imst, Austria to Mandarfen, Austria. 51km 3100m ascent and 2100m descent, 12h cut off time. I had never ran a 50k with over 3000m of gain before and to do it on day 3, in 12h feeling the way I’ve felt so far… started as my biggest day of uncertainty.
We were up by 4:30am to eat breakfast, where I was lucky to get down some watermelon and oatmeal, get ready and have our bags and our selves into the lobby by 5:55am. We had to bring our orange luggage bags with us on the “shuttle bus” that was to pick us up at 6:10am and take us to the start line. There were a lot of runners staying in our hotel and we all packed into the lobby area/outside to wait. Today was the first day I decided to bring my music. I was plugged in as soon as we got to the lobby to try and really focus on what was ahead. This is what I do before all races. I don’t talk to anyone… I get in my head and stay in my space. As we anxiously waited, it was dark out and lightly raining, we started to question if we were all in the wrong place because the shuttle was just not coming… watching the clock tick… finally we see a bus come down the hill, it was packed so full! There was no way anyone was getting on and we were informed that another one was a few minutes away. That bus shows up and luckily a few of us runners managed to cram on but not all the runners did so they had to wait. It is now later then 6:20am. We twisted and turned through the narrow streets in this little Austrian town and got dropped off down the road from the start line. It was chaotic, we had to grab bags off the bus and roll them down the road to them drop off, everyone just started grabbing a bag we didn’t have much time until 7:00! Forget about finding your own just grab any bag and roll. We had maybe 10 minutes to to get through bag check and start.
We started in the group C of A, B and C. There was a staggered start time this morning. Each group was separated and started 10 minutes from the previous… so we started at 7:20am. The ritual of the TRANSALP theme song and HIGHWAY TO HELL played though I didn’t hear it very well with my music playing in my ears. Gun shot! We ran through town, my body didn’t feel as bad as the previous two days off the start, keeping a pace on the road, though my heart and lungs felt sore… but I already had to pee! I was thinking YES! and ugh at the same time because there wasn’t really anywhere to go in the streets but as my bladder insisted I ducked behind a car in a parking lot. We made our way through the flat town streets and I kept my eyes out for familiar faces, making sure… who am I kidding I was more like hoping… we were keeping up. We were following along side a beautiful river that ran right through town, we then crossed on a bridge over the river. It was a wet day but warm enough to be in shorts and a tank top.
Just as we hit 5km we headed straight up. It was was paved road that turned into gravel off road. It was a grind again. My body would just not let up on the uphill. My heart rate skyrocketed and I was mad. I was just in a negative place in my head. I felt like a loser, honestly. We were surrounded with our familiar friends faces at this point. As I pushed step by step up the steep trail it was time for a salt tab and for the first time in the race I decided to take an extra strength advil. Flo and Marcus were right with me, which made me feel better. Flo asked me how I was doing this morning and I remember this moment because I expressed to him how frustrated I was that my heart and lungs just weren’t letting me go. I didn’t give my usual “oh you know… good/alive lol ” kind of response, I actually said how I was feeling, which at this point was pretty negative. He said some encouraging words back to me, as I was hunched over on my poles trying to breath, I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember starting to move again. We were going up this steep non technical dirt trail and then popped out onto a paved road…
There are always times, some shorter then others, in these long ultra races that I’m in a negative head space, this was that time… but as we touched that paved road section, which was flat and runnable, is where my day and whole race changed. I instantly started running on it and just up ahead I could see where it was a bottle neck as the course took a sharp right and again straight up the side of the mountain. We had managed to keep up in the crowed still at this point and as we took our place in the train on the first switch back… I started to breath… My quads started to let up. I began to recognize how I felt different… better…This is the second thing I will never forget from today… I was also able to, in this moment, recognize the fact that I was being negative and if I stayed in this negative head space about the day then there was a bigger chance of missing a time cut off. I said to myself “just enjoy it… enjoy this feeling even if its painful and just enjoy where you are” I told myself to change my attitude! And in that moment I did. My race had just started.
I climbed those switch backs. I felt strong again. I was able to move. My heart stopped raging. All nausea was completely gone. Climbing actually felt good. Its hard to explain but it felt again like I was “fresh”. The switch backs went on and topped out at 7km we had climbed 1160m in 2kms. It was like with the snap of my fingers I was strong again…Then we hit more pavement and it was downhill through a village/town/neighbourhood. There were people in the streets cheering and clapping for us as we ran by and yelling “SUPA! SUPA! SUPA!” I started running the downhill because well downhill was feeling really good. I moved to Dayna and she said “how are you doing buddy?”… I said “really good, I feel way better” then we moved! Passing a lot of people as we made our way running! Our first time cut off was at 10km at 9:30am. After some pavement and dirt road we made it with 45min to spare! It was awesome… were in “the crowed”. We refilled and I ate a peanut butter and jam sandwich from my pack grabbed a banana from the table of food and off we went. We had our first “big climb” coming up and 11km more until the next cut off at 12:15pm.
It was some pretty nice runnable terrain, down hills and flats, roads and grass farm roads. I was talking out lound saying “something mean is coming because we’ve been running on nice for awhile.” With anticipation I awaited an orange arrow pointing sharply to the right sending us straight up something…we did eventually headed up a steep logging road… for a while… all I can think about is how good my body felt through this section. I kept a pace and was able to make the decision within myself to push harder, not just pushing with everything I have into a wall… we climbed in the forest… eventually breaking through the trees … feeling strong… we were greeted at the top by GOATS! Of course I had to stop for the first picture of the day!
The mean… it happened. After we reached the goats we followed a paved road past churches and small houses… then the mean. We stepped up into dense forest and headed up very short steep switch backs. There were spots where you couldn’t stop because it was so steep if you leaned anyway but forward you’d have a high chance of falling back. we gained 600m in 1km. It was nice because it was damp soft dirt, moss, rocks, roots and it was more of a climb that my legs like… like at home where its more of a stairs type of climbing instead of a flat dirt road. My quads preferred to work instead of my burning calves. But at this point just pumped that life feels good. Dayna and I started talking about food to distract ourselves from thinking about how we don’t see an end to this section. This is when I knew for sure I was feeling way better because I started craving the foods we were talking bout. Sushi in particular… I really really wanted a yam roll… we thought about how amazing it would be if the aid station had sushi. Funny how the pizza I could hardly look at and had to force down on day 1 was sounding like heaven. We pushed and eventually broke out of the forest into a field, still climbing at the same degree. Marcus was just behind us and I was pushing myself to keep up with the lady in the bright pink skirt, I don’t know her name but on most days she wore a bright pink skirt. The trail ended and forced us out onto a gravel road. Flo was sitting at the top waiting for Marcus, Dayna asked him how we were doing for time. The aid station had to be close because we were at about 19kms and the aid station was at 20.2km. Flo said awesome! We have over 1h to get to the next aid station cut off. Well this was just the greatest news to hear! We headed up the dirt road with a few turns… seeing the 500m sign and there we were. A rush of relief of course!
I had to pee again! YES! Peeing, feeling hungry oh man what an amazing day! The aid station was not serving sushi but they were serving hot pumpkin soup… and that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten… that’s how it felt at that moment. I had two bowls of soup. We took a few extra minutes here to eat and re stock up on calories. As people we arriving I got back into GO mode… lets go and keep in front of as many people as we can. I felt for one guy who arrived at the aid station to sit down and start throwing up… but I just looked the other way to keep the pumpkin soup going in the right direction. This type of thought, keep ahead of people, was all coming from the fear and pressure to make cut off times… and the excitement to be actually keeping up in front of the back of the pack we are used to.
We left the aid station in really high spirits. Headed down a dirt road then tucking into the trail again to head up for our second biggest climb of the day. We had over 13kms to go (so the map said) until aid station 3 with a cutoff time at 3:15pm. We were now in goat/cow field type of terrain. Lightly forested, dry grassy fields etc. I climbed and climbed and climbed. The rotation of salt pills and Gu Salted Watermelon Gels was my clock and what kept me going. After a period of time I was in a place where I couldn’t stop… I couldn’t stop myself from moving. I had reached that space in my head where I was zoned out or zoned in depending on how you look at it. When I think back to it I feel a rush of excitement and energy. We were on the heels of “the california girls”… thats what we called the team of two ladies from cali. They were strong climbers and I was using them to pace on the climbs today. With aggressive momentum and determination I pushed ahead.
There were small sections where we levelled out and I couldn’t stop my body from picking my feet up and running. I was high in so many ways. I was now passing the group who was ahead. It felt good… did I mention how good I felt. After forest, steep climbs, some small down hills, a million switch backs and a small house way the H out there with a crazy view of the mountains, we finally broke out into a grassy boudleresk area. Greeted by a couple of photographers… both the gain and then the pass was captured on camera… the gain and pass on the California girls I mean.
We kept on in terrain just like the image above for awhile. All I can really remember is the feeling of flying, I was going faster then I thought I was able to go… finally getting to push through a limit I anticipated finding today. Thinking back to my attitude change… was it that that was working or was it the fact that I was now on my second extra strength advil and all of the “real” physical pain was being masked… or it was that I was almost 100kms into this race and that is when I actually get into my happy place. A combo of all I am sure.
This grassy rocky state of terrain eventually broke out into a boulder field and this is where we started to climb again. It had started to feel like a long time since we had been at the last aid station… thinking about the cut off. I had caught up to Bart and another man (image below), I forget his name I am sorry! He was the sweetest… The man in the green shirt.
Climbing through the boulders we rounded a corner to an edge that on a normal day would have stopped me in my tracks. (see images below) We were chatting, I was telling Bart what I do for a living etc. Bart told me that he was starting to feel fatigued now… kinda tired… kinda off… I said “Bart do you have any salt pills?”… He said “oh yea I have nuun tabs in my water”… “No Bart like salt pills”… I pulled out my baggie of little white pills… He said “no what are those?”… I went on to explain and gave him a handful. I said take one right now this will help you… almost instantly. I explained to take one whenever he felt “weird/tired/off or one every 30 minutes… at this point in the race you not going to over do it… and drink water when you take it. This will change your life,” I told him! He said “okay?!” We had some ropes to hold onto now as we climbed and rounded corners and then had some via ferrata type of climbing on some steep rocks. The nice man went a few steps ahead of me and would turn around take my poles, even though I insisted I was okay and made sure I put my feet on the right steps. He was telling me that he has daughters around my age and he couldn’t help but help me and make sure I was safe! I will never forget him he was so sweet! Proceeding we had a few sections the same as this. I wasn’t scared. I am decided that it was because of the state I was in… the zone and determination I had set in my mind. I just didn’t look, at times kept my eyes on the ground and just kept moving. After we had passed these edges Dayna said she knew they were coming and had contemplated telling me about these sections today… she decided not to so I wouldn’t be thinking about them all day… so I would’t pre worry myself. Im glad she didn’t tell me.
Escape from the edges came briefly as we made our way through a “summit alpine type” of field, a sound of music field vision came to me, covered in big rocks and grass as we ran on a single track trail. We took a minute to take a photo! It was the most amazing views… we were high! Oh and I had to pee again… ducked behind a rock… sooo good! Such a milestone!… It was sunny, we had caught up to the guys and now for a sweet steep downhill that my legs couldn’t help but run fast down. The guys moved aside to let me pass… this was becoming a ritual on the downhills. It was very steep in some spots and there was water running down the trail in areas creating this very hard packed trail with a layer of very slippery mud. I hopped from one steep step to the next. Starting now to feel a bit nervous about the time. Then I saw one of the crew guys sitting at the base of a tree cheering for everyone. This made me feel better because if we were really that far behind time he wouldn’t be there cheering for us… so I told myself. As we reached the bottom of this descent it turned into a runnable open field on single track. Letting the legs go we flew through it until we reached technical rolling climbs. As I took a step up onto a rock I let out a gruelling scream! Dayna turned around as if to check that someone didn’t stab me with a knife… the blister on my right heel popped.
That is something I have never had happen to me before. Blisters on my toes popping sure no biggy, but I have never felt the skin pop and then become detached from my foot. That exact process was very painful and to then have it continue to rub on the back of my heel while we had to keep moving was even worse and awkward… thats my only word for how it felt. But we didn’t have time to stop and we didn’t… we never stopped moving. It was awful for the next couple of km’s as we rolled through ups and downs… the ups of course were so painful, I kept trying to kick my foot to the front of the shoe to release the friction my heel… the downhills were fine as my foot naturally slid forward in my shoe. We popped out onto a dirt road where there was a little house and a truck. From afar we thought this was the aid station… but it wasn’t. We followed the dirt road which lead us into this section…
At this point I am really starting to get mad again… where the H is this aid station! I’d like to stop and tape up my heel! Id like to eat… breath… we made our way through a technical bush whack trail… and popped back onto the dirt road… only to climb… the road curved up hill… a few twists and turns later, we caught up to the German Girls Team… we all wondered where the H this aid station was… we should have reached it by now according to the map… again we found ourselves on a single track trail through a grass/rock open field… then Dayna turns to me again she says looking at her watch “we have like 5 minutes… we have to move!” so move we did… we passed at least 6 people running down through this field… we were encouraging everyone else to run to… quick hurry we only have a few minutes common! We finally see the 500m sign at the bottom of the field… hitting another dirt road below… we pop out and see the aid station set up at the top of a steep climb… Dayna is running up this steep road… “we have like 45 seconds” she yells “RUN!”… well shit my legs started to run up this steep section I don’t know how, I don’t think either of us will ever know but we did… We made this time cut off with like 1 minute to spare if that! It was chaos at this aid station… people who had rolled in a couple minutes to seconds before us were all there trying to fill water… re fuel and get out.
As we were refilling we saw Flo and Marcus run in… they literally just made it by like 5 seconds. They were the last team to “make it”. Everyone that we had passed on that last field section and before didn’t make it… some were 30 seconds after cutoff time and were not allowed to go. The lady in the pink skirt… Bart… Johanna and Lucas… The German Girls…The nice sweet man… and so many more. I couldn’t believe it. I heard some of the runners pleading to keep going. Some of them started the race late because of the crazy shuttle chaos this morning… their bus was late, they started the day 10 minutes late… but they were still not allowed. It was one of the worst situations I have had to be in and pretend wasn’t happening. But we had to get our asses out of there asap! I popped another extra strength advil, my 3rd of the day, not forgetting about my heel wound but forcing myself to forget about it because as you can see there literally was no time at all to stop and take care of it. It wasn’t even an option. So I grabbed a handful of watermelon and got the heck out of there. Moving strong and quick again we headed into the forest… this annoying section of big boulder rocks with a little dirt trail in between. It was very hard to run through… frustrating really. But there was no looking back… Every time there was even a few steps runnable I ran them.
We broke out of the forest and there was a restaurant/house/im not sure… on the side of the mountain… people were on the patio and waved at us… I had to pee again… Good thing there is all of these massive boulders around… I ducked behind one… we made our way through the property of cows, a muddy road and a gate… Now Flo and Marcus and a few others had caught back up to us… we were all in high doubts about making the 4th aid station and cutoff time… It was 3:25pm when we left the last aid station and now we had only 2hours to make it another 12km with our third biggest climb, with the scariest edge section of trail I have ever been on, to then descend 400m in 2kms. It doesn’t sound so bad… even now when I re read it and the map in meters gained it really sounds like no big deal… It really was such a big deal though. So we round a corned into again more open alpine rock field terrain… and way up and over to my right I can see people making their way up this ridge of a trail. I will never for get it.
For some reason I had it set in my mind that we had done our three climbs, sure we had some climbing to do still but nothing like where I was seeing these tiny bodies moving. I was talking to Flo again… he said we won’t make it… when we arrived at the last aid station we were already not going to make it to this one. Because the cut offs are just based on distance not based on meters gained or terrain. Well it didn’t mater we both agreed we were going on with everything we had. Who cuts people off with 5 kms of flat left… well we will see I guess. We still hadn’t seen the sweep which was good. We were now making our way on the section of trail that I was looking up at thinking no way. I was now looking down seeing the last few people working their way towards us… and with the sweep. That was motivation in itself… don’t let the sweep catch up. So it was “balls to the walls” climbing. It got cold enough for me to put my gloves on and one arm sleeve… most everyone else put their jackets on. I was still in my shorts and a tank though lol. Flo and Marcus had now really pushed it and were a ways ahead of us… I knew we wouldn’t catch them. The climbing eventually levelled off and the sweep was getting closer.
I am trying to process how to recall and write about this next section… I moved/felt/saw/overcame so many things in this day that it is right now hard to process again… mentally. To revisit that place I was in mentally…
Maybe images like this will help… explain
The sweep and the last two runners eventually did catch up to us. A mixed team, two friends from the Netherlands that we would also become close with through the remaining days. In between boulder fields we were on edges like the images above, at this point I told Dayna to go ahead she can move way faster then me on an edge… I began to find more comfort in a boulder field on an edge then a trail. The edge would change from a skinny, wide enough for one foot at a time, muddy trail to rock terrain (with a rope or chain if we were lucky, you can see the mud in the bottom right corner of the image above). We followed this edge… watching a town far far off in the distance at the bottom of the valley never move any closer to us… I knew, but didn’t want to accept, that that was were the finish line was. It seemed impossible what was between us and it. We followed this never ending ridge for a long time. Rounding each corner in hopes that it was angled down… There was no way we were making this cut off…
We had made good friends with the sweep at this point… I can’t remember his name… but he was awesome! So encouraging… to us. He knew we were fine and totally understood how un runnable this section was… I made sure he knew I was okay just had to take it down a notch because I don’t do so good with the edges. He reassured me I wouldn’t fall and if I did he would catch me. It worked… I never paused, I never froze, I was able to continuously move through it all. I keep hearing in the background talking on his walkie talkie… of course I have no clue what they are saying… they are speaking German. Then all of a sudden he taps me on the shoulder… and quietly says to me… they have just canceled the last cut off time… you will finish! I said “what!?” he said “we are good, we can take our time now, relax, be safe on this trail, we can finish at midnight if we want there is no time,”… it felt like weight lifted from my shoulders, I yelled ahead “Dayna we are good to go theres no more time cut off!” She was pumped, we shared the new with the other teams that were close enough to hear! I had wished Flo and Marcus were close enough to hear so that they would be safe and take it easy to but we could no longer see them. It was a good feeling and I was thankful the race was recognizing this but at the same time I thought about those who missed the past cut off by 30 seconds, 2 minutes… they would have been with us or if not ahead of us and would have finished.
There were small sections of this rock type face on a slight angle where at certain times of the year this would be where a waterfall streams down but there was no trail no edge through it… and no rope, just I don’t know jump over it… grab your toe on a tiny rock and use that… I didn’t get it but the sweep would grab the back of my pack and hold onto it saying “I’ve got you, I won’t let go” and together we’d make it… or in some spots he would take a step below me to block the fall… so when I would cross if I did fall it would be into him, he put himself between me and the air I would fall into… I am so grateful for his fearlessness and willingness to do this for me… though I know it was no big deal for him and he hoped and skipped his way. Along with making sure we were okay…he had to pick up all the signs and carry all the flags with him. He was from Germany so this is why he was so good at being on the edge trails…
We came to this small area, right before we started our descend, that finally wasn’t on a edge… It was maybe the only chance to pee so we took it and for the first time in these 3 days I opened a bar from my pack to eat… because I had a few extra moments to stop… with no cut off time pressing us… to open a bar carry my poles in one had and eat with the other… I was so hungry here… I think I may have even eaten two bars. As nice as it was to have “no time” now, we still wanted to go as fast as we could because we didn’t want to finish at 10pm and have very little rest time. We were starting to make our way down now… finally… we came across two other crew members who were the first aid attendants and then the same crew guy that we saw earlier sitting at the base of the tree… he was way up here cheering again. As a group we worked our way on the trail that became not an edge… we lowered from the alpine terrain and started to be in the trees… the sweep was playing music on his speakers for us… and it was just good. We descended about 600m in 2kms. The river below didn’t get any closer until we were at the aid station beside it.
Because we could pick up the pace on the downhills we caught a couple teams just before the aid station. The Netherlands Team and this team of two guys I think they were German. We had passed them way before on the steep wet muddy downhill and they had passed us again at the restaurant/house/I’m not sure… and here we were. I had reached yet another high… I had opened up my GOCUP… filled it with Coke for the first time this race and drank… I reached for the thin slices of bread and thin slices of salami made a little bites of salami on bread… seriously so amazing at this point. The aid station gave each team a head lamp as it was slowly starting to get dark… headlamps were not on the mandatory gear list… since the cutoff times wouldn’t allow for anyone to be out into the dark anyways. We had about 5kms to go on a flat wide farm road alongside the river into town… with a gain of 100m. Maybe it was the caffeine in the coke or it was that sweet spot of time for me… but I couldn’t walk… my legs couldn’t stay still enough to walk, I had to run… or jog on the spot beside Dayna because it was her turn to now be fading… at one point I thought she was going to fall asleep standing… I turned the headlamp on just to shine ahead to keep her focused on the steps ahead… then we came across these guys…
We left the final aid station with 3 other teams, there may have been more behind still taking there time there and this sounds bad but its me being honest… I didn’t want to be the last team across that finish line… I don’t know why at this point it so far from mattered but I just didn’t want to be last. So I would run ahead a bit then turn to either wait for Dayna or move back to her… We chatted with the Netherland team for a few minutes before moving on… then the two German guys were slowly creeping on us… I was thinking no way… I won’t let them pass us. So running ahead then meeting Dayna again I’d walk with her… talk… finally we reached a paved walkway… a bridge to cross the river… and I said “lets run it in”… so we ran across the BEEP MAT… the guys pass us… o well and we crossed the finish line. I don’t remember if they announced our team or not this time… it was dark out… it didn’t matter… but our friends were still at the finish line waiting for us!
With a time of 13:23 ish, just after 8:00pm… we finished the hardest 51kms we had ever done. I am pretty proud of that time… considering the last 10km took the longest due to the terrain… had it been semi runnable that time would have easily been under 13h maybe even under 12.5h. So I will take it! I remember being really mad and angry at the finish because I had to stop… I had to make my body stop… I had to now sleep… I wanted to keep running… I felt so good I was in a zone and I dreaded the stop and start. Everyone looked at me like shut up I’m tired… your ridiculous.
Our hotel was close… we walked over, our bags were in our rooms thanks to our friends… and then this happened…
Oh man we were all starving! There was one restaurant open in the whole town… it was packed with runners so the guys offered to go get us food… while we rested in our room. We were all so hungry/hangry! We didn’t care what it was… but pizza we want pizza… but anything… and COKE!!! We got pizza… and coke!
Notes about today… after that 3rd aid station the pain of my blister never entered my head again… it was ugly to look at when I took my sock off but a minor minor issue considering… and still no butt chaffing, however now bad chaffing on my shoulders from my pack so I covered it with K-Tape and bad chaffing on my back that I also covered with K-Tape. Today three toes on my right foot started to go numb and loose feeling. It was to late for me to care about a shower or having an ice bath… it was pizza and compression socks and feet up… sleep.