European Mountain Racing: September 2nd-9th, 2012
The past 12 days have been filled with lots of elevation change, scenic trails, a couple 10-hour plane flights, and experiences I’ll never forget.
I had the good fortune of traveling over to Italy and Switzerland for the world mountain running championships (held in Ponte di Legno, Italy) and the long course world mountain challenge at the Jungfrau Marathon (held in Interlaken, Switzerland) on back-to-back weekends. I felt truly honored compete at these events as I got to represent team USA in both races. I also met a ton of talented and friendly runners from all over the world and got to run in the beautiful Alps for the first time.
My first European mountain running experience was at the 14.1km world mountain running championships in Ponte di Legno, Italy which is just below the famous ski venue at Tonale Pass. The course gained just over 700 meters of vertical, but started off with some flat stretches on roads and had a little technical downhill section on single track. There was also a nice ski slope hill in the middle with a 30% grade (yeah, you read that right 30%….no typo there!).
After a horrible start on the roads (I was 3 rows back from the line and it was very crowded) I initially had a very hard time weaving through traffic trying to find a rhythm. My USA teammates Glen Randall and Joe Gray were close by as I tired to work my way into the top 20 after a couple kilometers of playing “catch-up.” On the technical downhill section the race really opened up and I lost sight of the lead pack (and a lot of major competitors!). This was quite discouraging for me as I wanted to pace myself conservatively at first and really do some damage on the uphill section for the second half of the race…. however by that point the race was already decided; most of the top guys never came back.
In my YouTube “Vo2max Productions” recap of the race here you can see most of the front-runners come by the 5km mark (end of the major downhill) about 1:17 into the video:
Once we hit the uphill sections on the course I was able to pass some runners, but the top guys from Eritrea, Russia and Italy were out-of-sight. With about 3k to go Glen Randall, Joe Gray and I were all running together as a team in the top 15. Fans on both sides of the ski slope crowded the course so it was like one was running through a 5-foot wide tunnel of noise! I’m not sure if that ever happens at trail races in the US…it was quite exhilarating and painful at the same time. Glen moved well the last 500m on a slight downhill, passed a couple guys and finished as the top American in 9th place overall. I trailed behind about 7 seconds later in 12th with waves of nausea and the taste of lactic acid in my mouth. Joe was right on my heels in 15th. Overall as a team we finished 4th (just shy of Russia in 3rd). Eritrea easily earned the win with their front-running pack and the hometown favorites Italy also had a very competitive showing for 2nd.
The US women’s team faired much better by winning the team title and having three individuals (Morgan Arritola, Stevie Kremer, and Melody Fairchild) place in the top 10! It was an amazing performance by them and I wish I had had a chance to film and watch their race.
After several pizzas, a dozen shots of espresso and some tasty gelato over the next 5 days I was ready to drive up to Switzerland for the Jungfrau Marathon. This marathon, which many call “the most beautiful marathon in the world,” starts on the streets of Interlaken and meanders up towards the very steep Jungfrau mountain (13,642 feet in elevation) Also seen nearby at the finish line of this “mountain marathon” are Mt. Eiger and Mt. Monch. This was a special year for the race as it was hosting the World Mountain Running Long Course Challenge and teams from all over the world were competing for medals.
Going into the marathon I really had no idea what to expect as I hadn’t been doing any road/track workouts or long tempo runs under 5:45/mile pace all summer. Focusing mainly on uphill trail runs, mountain runs and ultra marathons I really worried about how the first half of the race (on relatively flat roads) was going to treat me. [I later consulted my training log to see that from all the tapering and recovery from racing this summer and putting in hours at the office I had only averaged 55 miles a week for the past 5 weeks going into this race…that is relatively very low volume for me] I figured 5:30/mile pace might be a reasonable goal at the start and I decided to stick to that plan since the last 10 miles of the course climbs considerably on trails for a total elevation gain of nearly 6,000 vertical feet. It seemed like not bonking on that uphill section would be key – and if I paced myself conservatively I’d have a chance to place in the top 3 and crack the 3-hour barrier.
In retrospect I turned out to be wrong: unlike the women’s championship race the day before (which saw some amazing performances by Stevie Kremer, Kim Dobson and Melody Fairchild taking 1st, 3rd, and 9th respectively to bring home the gold for team USA) the men’s race was pretty much decided on roads during the first half.
After a pretty quick start at around 5:20 mile pace I found myself barely in the top 20 in the opening miles. By the time we started a gradual, 2% uphill grade on some gravel paths around 10 miles into the race I realized the lead pack was out of sight and it was going to be hard to catch up with them unless they totally died. I slowly increased my effort after a relatively leisure 1:16 first half (it was a net uphill) and moved from 10th place to 6th place on the first climb at 14 miles, which was a very significant 18% grade. I could already tell that my calves were on edge and despite grabbing some calories at the aid stations (including a a cup of chicken broth that I thought was a sports drink) I worried that my legs might fail me on the climb. At 16 miles there was a slight downhill and as I tired to open up I suddenly felt my hamstrings tighten up. “Oh no! This is going to be a looong last 10 miles!” I thought to myself. From then on the climb was brutal and I felt like I was barely moving. On every turn I expected to look up and see a runner in front of me struggling, but there was nobody to catch; I was all alone.
In the final 5km I kept thinking to myself “this is the hardest physical thing I have ever done!” My legs are stiff with pain, I was breathing hard and my back muscles and stomach were tied up in knots. I glanced back on one of the few switchbacks on the course to see a Kenyan runner rolling me up. When he passed me he looked very strong and I was sure at that point I was going to be lucky just to finish in 6th place. However, on the last 3k of the race the course goes over a brutal rocky trail and ridge that is probably near a 20% grade at times. As soon as we hit the rocks I saw the Kenyan in front of me falter and I started to slowly gain ground on him. This got the competitive juices flowing even though I was just struggling not to walk at that point. As I tripped over rocks and put everything I had into the hill I was able to move back into 5th place and even open up a large gap on all the runners behind me. However, as I neared the top of the ridge disaster struck and my hamstrings totally seized up. I yelled out in pain and clutched the backs of my legs – trying to still limp up the hill dragging one foot and hopping on the other The intense cramps were too much at that point so I stopped completely in my tracks and started stretching. After about 10-20 seconds I was able to move again although every muscle in my legs was on edge so I had to be cautious. This happened a couple more times in the final mile but luckily whenever I glanced back no one was in sight and about to pass me. Even with a half mile of downhill to go to the finish I was not 100% sure if I was going to be able to finish the race.
Overall it was another epic race experience and I felt very fortunate to be able to finish 5th with a 3:06:47 and help team USA earn the silver medal with the rest of my teammates: Galen Burrell (3:10:58), Zac Freudenburg (3:20:34), Josh Ferenc (3:32:31) and team manager Jason Bryant (3:37:29).
Here’s a little video my parents filmed of the men’s race:
In closing, here are some lessons I learned from European Mountain Racing:
1. In races with high-level competition the lead pack does not come back on the uphills. In fact, it is very hard to pass anyone on a 30% slope (as in the middle of the Ponte di Legno 14km race). You have to go out hard and take some risks with a high speed start on the flats if you want a podium finish.
2. I need to work on my powerhike/uphill walk instead of trying to run all the way up 30% grade ski slopes…there is always a point of “re-defined running” on these kinds of things and you reach a certain speed/intensity were walking is often the better choice!
3. The pizza in Italy really is the best (don’t know about the beer though as I prefer strong IPAs instead of Lagers with my pies…but on that note you can get an awesome bottle of wine for $2!)
4. They really do serve you a lot of cheese for breakfast in Switzerland.
5. Mountain running/racing is a lot more common in Europe than it is in the US…and the mountains are steeper!
6. Some of the roads that wind through the cliffs and mountains in northern Italy and around the Alps seem to only be about 12 feet wide but are still open for “two-way” traffic.
7. There are lots of friendly and really cool runners from all over the world that are big fans of team USA.
Thanks for reading and best of luck with your training and future races!