What do cow pats, blistering heat and “off piste” running have in common?
They are all part and parcel of mountain running in Switzerland!
A few weeks ago when planning my lead up for the Sky Running World Champs I had stumbled across the Trail Des Paccots. It looked like a good lead up race, it was almost exactly half the distance and gain of the Sky Champs 42km/3000m vs 80km/6000m and fell perfectly 3 weeks beforehand.
My plan for the race was to go and have a decent run but not to completely empty the tank or cause too much fatigue. I had been struggling to find my mountain running form since arriving in Switzerland and it almost seemed like the plane trip over had stripped away all my strength. So I was hoping I would find those mountain legs again at Trail Des Paccots.
Race morning rolled around and despite rolling my ankle on the road during the warm up I took the start line to listen to a race briefing I couldn’t understand (it was in French). Looking around everyone was completed decked head to toe in technical apparel, expensive packs, lightweight shoes, carbon poles you name it! Everyone there looked like a complete professional and in it for the win! No bare-chested, short shorts wearing gnarly trail runners here, it looked more like a competition between Compressport and Salomon for bragging rights!
Before long the starting gun went off and we all surged forward down the little hill and around the first 1km on the road. The course began to go up hill right away, gradually at first and then steeper once we hit the trail. I was pleased to find myself in the leading bunch of 5 running quite comfortably and once we hit the single track I accelerated away using the technical terrain to my advantage.
The other runners where never far behind and for the first 3-4km I could see them during any open sections. I was running with another guy at this stage who would go on to DNF later in the race due to wrong turn.
At 10km I had about a 5min gap on the chasers and could no longer see them. It was also here that the course got interesting! Much of the lower elevations of the course where run though farm land and pastures, but not your normal farm land! These farmers had perfected the art of grazing of 40% inclines!
The course would randomly go off the side of the formed trail and down these ridiculously steep descents through the vast array of “ripe” cow patties only to join back up to the same trail at the bottom! These “off piste” sections where covered in long grass but the ground was churned up from grazing cows. It made for some very technical descending and few slips and slides along the way.
But they didn’t just go down! One of the steepest sections of the entire course at about 15km went off the trail again and directly up a slope I swear was more than 45%. It made the Warners Wall from Buffalo look like a speed bump! I was using my hands to grab at the grass (and sometimes stinging nettle) to haul myself up. I couldn’t stand up straight for risk of tumbling backwards. So rough and difficult was this section that a volunteer was coming down from the top to half way to guide runners up the un-marked gnarly climb. By the top I was completely spent and it was only 15km in!
Despite the weather having been rather cool all week on race day Switzerland turned up the heat. By the time we had hit 15km it was already 29-30deg and the altitude made the sun’s rays even more punishing. I was drinking way more than I had planned and running out of water between aid stations!
Just when I thought I could have a quick breather at the top of this one hellish climb I looked down only to see one of the chaser’s storming up the bottom sections. He was using poles and moving much quicker than I just had, he was still probably 4-5min back but it was enough to scare me into pushing the next descent.
For the next few kms the course was undulating and then began to climb. By 21km I was in full up hill hiking gear as the climb to the tallest summit (2000m) began. As the slope got steeper, the sun got hotter and I got slower! I could now see 2nd and 3rd closing in.
As the grass gave way to alpine rock and altitude I was really starting to feel the pinch and stopping at every chance to drink from the mountain streams. I was hiking as hard as I could but the other guys where still closing in. I knew if I could get to the top still in front then I would be in with a shot. From the summit at 30km the course is pretty much 12km of all downhill to the finish and I knew that I could descend well.
As I rounded the last switch back I saw the summit, it was packed with spectators. They cheered and clapped and said lots of encouraging words I couldn’t understand….this was trail running Europe style. I made the top, got my number recorded and turned around to see 2nd and 3rd less than 30m behind me! Oh no!
It’s safe to say I crapped my pants here seeing them so close and I didn’t waste any time. I pounded down off the summit, the trail was very technical, narrow, loose and downright dangerous as we ran across this knife edge of a ridge. From the summit the course descended slightly then traversed to a second lookout along the ridge before heading directly down.
Once on the decent I let my legs do the work. I jumped, skipped, slid and practically flew down the narrow twisting trail. I was moving so fast that by the time I had warned on comers I was there it was too late and I found myself darting around many startled hikers who just froze in the middle of the trail.
After about 35min of frantic descent I had enough courage to look behind and thankfully there was no one to be seen. I started to pass runners in the shorter distances and foolishly thought I had it in the bag.
The last 4km is a little up and down with a few short steep climbs that I hiked (thinking I was safe). By the time I had made it back to Les Paccots I was within 800m of the finish line hiking up the last little road hill. I heard some cheering and looked behind to see 2nd place storming up the hill!
That will teach me for backing off….you idiot I thought! I promptly put my speed work to practice and sprinted up the last section of the hill with my quads screaming then down the final trail descent and into the finish to cross in 1st place a mere 30sec in front of 2nd.
Overall I am happy with the result, despite still lacking that uphill form I want I know now my descending is in a good place and still have 3 weeks to gain that hill form back.
Until then it’s back to training this week in Zermatt where I get to practice running at altitude.
Top: KSR/Sponsor Branded Compressport Singlet
Shorts: Ron Hill Advanced Racer
Compression: Compressport Trail Quad
Shoes: La Sportiva Bushido
Hat: Endura Visor
1x Endura Gel every 20min (mix of vanilla and Grape)
1x 500ml of Endura Rehydration
HEAPS OF WATER!
1x Endura Optimiser Recovery shake
½ Red bull (presentations weren’t for another 4hrs)
1x Glass of red wine!