Thursday, 8 November 2012

Sardona Ultra Trail - Inaugural Edition

Being a new event I think a bit of background to this is required.  I first heard of it through my e-friend Umberto.  We first made contact via my blog reports on the Jungfrau Marathon back in 2007 and 2008 and have been swapping messages and emails about our running activities ever since.  A couple of years ago Umberto said that he had a project in mind.  It was based around creating a running event with the primary focus being on enjoying the environment rather than it being a mass race.  This eventually morphed into the Sardona Ultra Trail whose first running was last Saturday 15th (and 16th for some) September. Not content with organising the ultra Umberto also had a marathon and half-marathon race to deal with.

It is worth saying up front that this has been one man's dream (albeit fully supported by his family) and full credit needs to go to Umberto for pulling this off.  The amount of work required to sign up sponsors, organise technical and safety committees, create a website, marketing, plan the route, man the route, get the runners to the start line etc has been tremendous.  To top it all the weather threw a last minute spanner-in-the-works by blocking off two passes with snow, requiring an emergency re-routing of the ultra and marathon courses.  I'd been out here in July to recce the whole route with Umberto but we were snowed off then as well so we did the first section up to the first high pass on the first day and went out to the Spitzmeillenhutte on the second day.  This helped me decide to wear my Salomon Speedcross shoes for the race.

The original (official) ultra course is an 80km (50 mile) loop with over 6,000m (20,000 ft) of ascent (and descent).  The revised bad weather course was an out and back route of some 60km and 4400m.  A comparison of the two routes is shown below. The start and finish is in Furt on the extreme right hand side. The original route runs clockwise.  Furt is 1520m above sea level.

Original Route (pink) v Revised Route (yellow)
The original route as shown is in fact out of date. There are modifications to the route on the top right hand side but the important bit is the southern part of the route which contained the offending (snowed off ) passes. Instead of taking this high alpine route we went down into the Weisstannen valley and ran parallel to the original route. We then picked up the original route along the western edge and followed it up to the Spitzmeilenhutte in the north west corner of the route.  From there we turned round and retraced our route back the way we came (always interesting as you see the front runners on their way back as you're still struggling out).  The final few kilometres were different to the route out.

This give some idea of what we missed out on (route in red).  Maybe next time.
Original route from Lavtinasattel pass
The ultra started at 8:00 a.m. on a cool but dry day.  Clouds were still clinging to the tops but there was a promise of a clear day in the rising sun.

And they're off.....a quick wave to Rosie (I'm in the middle, blue top,white hat)
The race starts with a steady climb up the Garmil (2003m).  I had intended to drop back and take it steady but found myself towards the front so I jogged along until the increasing incline reduced us all to a walk and I started getting passed as usual.  Even at this stage I noticed lots of people taking photos and video footage.  They were already in tourist mode.  Can't say I blame them.

Over the Garmil there was a nice steady descent to the first water stop outside the Gaffia restaurant (1861m).  I passed a couple of runners on this descent but I was surprised at how spread out the field already was.  There weren't many other in sight to pass.  From here we were to follow an out and back route.  On the way back we dropped down the main track from Gaffia to Furt rather than go back over the Garmil.

After the Gaffia (on the way out) the route then kicked uphill again with a zig-zag up to the Baschalvasee (lake) at 2200m.  There were patches of snow up here but nothing serious.  After levelling out alongside the lake the route turned west and upward.  This climb was much shorter on the revised route.  We climbed up to the shoulder of the Baseggla at 2280m and then dropped down the other side (before reaching the dozens of stone columns on the original route).

The first part of this descent was over trackless tussocks.  It was soon obvious that the 'local' (Swiss, German, Austrian) runners weren't familiar with this sort of terrain as they slowly picked their way over the tussocks, wary of twisting an ankle.  Being a veteran of many KIMMs and OMMs this was very familiar territory so I mercilessly picked off several runners here.  They probably thought I was mad risking an injury.  The tussocks didn't last long though as we reached the stream and zig-zagged down through the gorge it had cut out of the mountainside.

This descent down into the Weisstannen valley was nearly 1300m in total (equivalent to Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain). It consisted of three different sections: the top section of tussocks and rough track through the gorge, a middle section of smooth looping farm track and a bottom section of muddy path through the trees.  We'd meet this again later in the day on the way back.

Furt to Weisstannen
I took full advantage of this and passed around ten runners, especially on the farm track where I had no fear of tripping and built up a full head of steam.  I've noticed this reluctance to let rip downhill in the alpine runners in the past.  I think there's a belief that it can ruin the knees. I loved storming down there.  My choice of Speedcross shoes was spot on for the bottom section which was very steep and muddy.

In the valley bottom we crossed the road and went up the other side of the valley for a while before turning parallel to the road along the bottom. Prior to our start we'd been told that the start to the marathon distance race was to be delayed to allow for the Alpabfahrt in the Weisstannental.  The Alpabfahrt is the bringing down of the cows from the alps into the valleys at the end of summer. In typical Swiss style this isn't a mundane agricultural task.  It's a celebration and major tourist attraction.  The cowherds and their families dress in traditional costume and the cows are decorated with flowers and extra large (and noisy) bells.

I didn't see any of this at this stage but as I was running along the valley side I heard this strange cacophony filling the whole valley.  At first I thought it was a large factory or sawmill before I suddenly remembered the Alpabfahrt and sure enough it was just possible to make out individual cowbells.  The noise must have been amplified by echoing between the valley sides.  I'd heard nothing like it before.

The whole route was very well marked but along this section the markings failed.  The track split into two equally likely looking paths.  There were no markings visible beyond the split.  I'd seen a runner in front take the upper path and, because I knew he was following another runner who seemed to know the locals at the road crossing, I assumed they had local knowledge.  However, it didn't quite feel right so I went up 50 metres before getting the map out.  As I was checking the map I saw most of the runners I'd passed on the descent run past and along the lower path.  While putting away the map, the runner I'd followed came running back down.  He'd seen no further markers and realised he'd taken the wrong path.  This was Michael from Germany.  We were to meet often during the rest of the the race. As we ran along the valley side we caught glimpses through the trees of the cows strolling along the valley bottom road.  The route then dropped down to the road at Weisstannen village and the next checkpoint.

On approaching the village there was a table full of drink and food out on the right hand side of the road outside of the hotel but a guy was gesturing for us to go to the left hand side next to a hut.  This was very confusing but the guy was pretty insistent (not that I could understand what he was saying).  It turned out that the hotel table was refreshments for the cow people and the race checkpoint was indeed behind the hut. This was very well stocked with gels, cake, bananas and drink.  I'd dropped Michael slightly on the descent down to the village so I left the checkpoint on my own.  This section involved a kilometre (notice I've gone metric in this race) or so of road before taking to a riverside path for a five or six kilometres.  While still on the road I encountered my first Alpabfahrters.  The cow to people ratio seemed to be well inside 2:1 and there didn't seem to be more than half a dozen cows in each group.

I managed to run most of this section as it gradually wound up the valley along side the river.  The sun was out but there was plenty of shade.  I took a riverside path on the right hand side of the river but I think quite a few runners stayed on the road on the left.

Weisstannen towards Vorsiez and Unter Saas
The route crossed the river and then onto a path along the left hand side up to the collection of farms and a cafe (very tempting) at Vorsiez where it took to the farm track that gradually rose up and turned north.

The whole bad weather route
Weistannental to Spitzmeillenhutte (and back)
This was a long steady climb along a lovely wooded hillside overlooking the valley where the original route came down from the wonderfully named Foo to join us .

(c) Thomas Schmidtkonz
Michael caught me up along here after I attended to a call of nature.  Nowhere else but Switzerland would they bother to tunnel through a 100 metres of solid rock for a farm track.  
(c) Thomas Schmidtkonz
The track eventually levelled off and became runnable again.  I dropped Michael here knowing he'd catch me when it went uphill again.  I ran to the farm at Obersiezsass nestled in a broad high valley.  The route reared up again, very steeply at first, for the long haul up towards Spitzmeilen.  As predicted Michael soon caught me up on the steep section, just as the front runners came down on their way back ( I reckoned they were a good 2 hours in front of me).  He dropped me on this stretch as I trudged up the hill feeling the effects of the warm day.  I'd run out of drink by now so welcomed the mountain stream we had to cross on our way up.  Eventually I reached the shallow Fansfurggla pass and should have been awarded with a view of the Spitzmeilen mountain.  Unfortunately there was some mountain mist covering the peak.  When you can see it (as I did in July) this mountain looks like it belongs amongst the buttes of Arizona rather than in the Alpine peaks.    As it was we didn't get to see it during the run.  At this point in the race my mind was on other things anyway.  It was only another 4km to the Spitzmeilenhutte.  

It was just a gentle downward incline for a kilometre, contour round past those strange white rocks shown above, a slight rise over the shoulder to the right in the above photo then a drop down to the hut and the turn-around checkpoint.  Throughout out this section runners were streaming past on their way back.  I did a quick headcount and figured I was somewhere in the middle of the pack.  This was fine by me as I knew that   most of the climbing was out of the way and I had the lovely downhill section back down into the Weistannental valley to come.

Me approaching the Spitzmeilenhutte checkpoint
I had a slight disappointment here as I'd expected the checkpoint to be actually inside the hut and was looking forward to a bowl of the lovely meat and vegetable soup that I'd had here in July.  Instead, they'd erected a wigwam and the checkpoint was set up on tables outside that. (What is it with the Swiss and wigwams? There is a permanent wigwam in Kleine Sheidegg where the Jungfrau Marathon finishes).  There was a first in race refreshments for me here: hot isotonic drink.

Who is this old man?
It has taken me seven hours to reach this checkpoint.  I quickly calculated that I'd just finish as night descended, around 8 p.m..  This was quite good as I'd told Rosie to expect me nearer to midnight.

Michael was still at the checkpoint but he set off soon after I arrived.  I filled up my drink bladder, partook in the cake and bananas on offer and downed a glass of the very strange hot iso drink.  Then I turned around and set off back the way I came.

Heading home...
Retracing my steps back the mist had cleared by the time I reached Fansfurggla, having seen the back of the field still heading to Spitzmeilenhutte, and the sun came out again.  It was well into it's descent now.   As I descended down towards Obersiezsass I met a guy still ascending.  He said something to me but I replied "Sorry, English" to which he responded "Big hill".  This was the understatement of the day. I later learned that this was Thomas Schmidtkonz who was to become a Sardona Ultra legend at the first attempt.  He basically spent the entire race documenting it with his camera.  Apparently he unpacked his entire pack at the Wiesstannen checkpoint on the way out.  I believe that the marshals returning from a checkpoint also found him standing around at the top of the last descent taking photographs in the dark.  This man was not in a hurry but certainly knew how to enjoy a run.  

Looking down to the Obersiezsass hanging valley
As I reached the farm track above Obersiezsass I packed away the poles and set off on the lovely long descent.  I could see Michael in his yellow shirt about a mile down the track.  The next few miles were a lovely runnable downhill.  I ran this whole section at between 8-10 miles/hour. It was brilliant.  I caught and passed Michael halfway down fully expecting to see him on the big climb out of the valley but didn't see him again.  It took me an hour to walk up this section but only 15 minutes to get down.

The journey back down the Weisstannen valley was fairly uneventful. I was reduced to a run/walk by now.

It was then back up the 1400m climb out of the valley.  The muddy section through the trees was tough.  I was racing (in a slow trudging fashion) the sun as it set behind the hills on the northern side of the valley at my back.  The shadows were chasing me up the hill but I managed to stay in sunlight until the top of the climb.

On the middle section up the farm track zig-zags I managed to get into a good rhythm and passed a few other competitors.  One guy was sitting down in the middle of the track with his legs stretched out in front of him.  He said he was OK so I left him to it.  Towards the end of this section some people had driven up in a Land Rover and set up an impromptu aid station handing out gels.  This was very welcome as I approached the last section though the gorge. This went slowly but surely and I eventually reached the farm buildings just before the last climb to the top.  It was getting dark now and I found it difficult to find the track, although I knew where I was (I just didn't know where the track was).  I didn't have my headtorch on at this point so the reflective route markers weren't easy to spot.

Just as I was approaching the top section with the tussocks (Alp Gamidauer) I saw the strangest sight I've ever seen on a mountain.  I'm convinced that it was not an illusion.

There was another competitor about 50 metres ahead of me.  I was concentrating on the ground in front of me and just as the incline levelled off I looked up.  Between me and the other competitor there was a man.  He was wearing a dark long coat or cloak and a wide brimmed hat and had long shaggy hair.  He was carrying a pack of some description on top of which was a bedroll or tent.  If he'd had a pointy hat and a staff he'd have looked for all the world like Gandalf.  He was walking in the same direction as us but where our route turned right he went straight on.  I've since checked the map and where he was heading was just rocks and cliffs.  Very strange.

So, over the tussocks to the last checkpoint where I put on a spare top and my headtorch.  It was largely down hill from here, past the Baschalvasee and down the zig-zags to the cafe at Gaffia.  Here the route back diverged from the route out.  Instead of going back over the Gamli we simply had to follow the wide track back down to Furt and the finish.  I'd caught up another runner at this point and he tagged onto me as we started down the track.  I'd been down this track on my July visit and knew it was fairly runnable (albeit in daylight) so I turned on the after burners for a last blast and dropped the hanger on to sprint into the finish for a time of 12 hours 22 minutes in  36/78 position.  A grand day out.

The winner, Ueli Schneider, finished in an excellent 8:23, Michael in 12:35 and Thomas in a well photographed 18:53.

It was a mere 50 metres from the finish back to my hotel.  I couldn't find Rosie so I had a shower and got changed then went down and found her in the corner of the restaurant.  I was just in time for dinner so I wolfed that down.  We then had a chat and a few drinks with a couple of other runners in the hotel reception/breakfast area.  Being so close to the finish the hotel was the event centre so runners came in as they finished and, very reminiscent of the Lakeland 100 finish area, were clapped in.

For a first running of an event the whole thing went extremely well, especially so in the circumstances.  Umberto and his team are to be congratulated.  There were lots of very happy runners.

The next day was perfect weather so we went up the ski-lifts to the Pizolhutte where we had lunch then took a steady walk with Umberto and his family up to the Wildsee.


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