in the footsteps
of gods and monsters
Five days in to the Transalpine Run, Matt Ogg reflects on what it takes to succeed in a multi-day race
The trails that cross this part of the Alps have a storied history from Neanderthal times, through pre-Roman times, a land of gods and monsters, to our modern understanding of mountains as our playground. Brave adventurers finding these passages across, round and through these immense, immovable walls. Ingenious peoples who found ways to live and thrive at altitude. We follow in the footsteps of our ancestors in the same fashion, bound across time, unaided except for the power in our legs and determination in our hearts. Perhaps at least some modern mapping and course markings.
The calm is shattered as ‘Highway to Hell’ opens up on the PA system, as it has every morning of the week, before the start gun sets off this merry band of trail runners into the above mountains. It’s cliched, ironic, hilarious, completely apt and European. And there is plenty of compression kit on the start line too. This race has a heart and a sense of humour, but the route and quality is as serious as it gets.
It’s the fifth day of the Gore-Tex Transalpine Run. Our team (me and Claudi Schroegel, for this is a pairs’ race) is hoping to recover from a bad day in the mountains on day four. Fatigue, niggles, spending longer on the hill than hoped, meaning even less recovery and the mind games that go with it. What’s left of the 300 teams of two runners prepare to leave Austria behind and enter the endgame of this race in Italy. The opening bars of AC/DC’s classic raises the adrenalin and the heart rate, a prompt for the effort and nerves that inevitably surge in the moments before any race. But this isn’t just any race.
From Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, scene of the lesser known pre-war 1936 Winter Olympics, to Bressanone/Brixen in Italy – first mentioned in records dating back to 901 – the 14th running of TAR takes on the Eastern route for 2018. Connected via Austria, in one side and straight out the other. When’s the last time you ran across a country?
The Tyrol region almost has its own identity in spite of these modern borders, with a Germanic-speaking corridor running the entire length of the race, as territories have jumped, been traded, and fought for throughout the ages. While the French trail scene has perhaps seen greater media attention, the trails in this part of the Alps have yet to be fully appreciated further afield while offering the same technical challenges, stunning mountain ranges and often in a more affordable fashion.
One stage at a time. Forwards, always forwards
The profile for stage five looks infinitely runnable and the weather is pleasantly mild. It is also the first day since I destroyed my legs (specifically my quads) on the downhills on the first two stages that my legs feel like they are mine again, and no longer do I ache or feel the need to wince every time I lean down to pick up my pack or poles. No matter how much we train in London, it’s near-impossible to replicate the impact of multiple hours of hard downhill running. We throw in escapes and trips where we can, but there is a limit to what you can simulate when you still have to hold down a day job. The realm of the bold amateur.
So stage five beckons: Sölden (Austria) to St. Leonhard (Italy). It is billed as a day that favours those competent on drawn-out, technical descents; this is my jam. After yesterday’s struggles we are searching for our mojo and here is an opportunity to find it, I tell myself. I tell myself repeatedly.
Claudi and I climbed steadily out of Sölden in the morning sun which gives a real feel of heat to the effort despite the early hour as layers are stripped off. It’s hard going as energy levels haven’t fully replenished overnight and one of the biggest enemies in stage racing – cumulative fatigue. We ride the train to the top on these single trails, taking a tow from those in front and getting a mental push by those chasing behind. It’s a march of attrition and I am thankful for my poles.
Claudi is a better climber, light and nimble, whereas I can push it on the descent with more downhill speed so we tend to match well. Throughout the race we have never really stretched apart, except occasionally by choice. We came to race together and so we shall.
Notably, the rules maintain you should not be more than two minutes apart from your partner – it’s both a unique element of the race and a safety feature – but sets the dynamic. This is regularly monitored at each of the days’ three timing points, which also serve as aid stations and cut-off locations. The cut-offs are fair but not overly generous, ensuring you couldn’t make it without running at least the majority of the race. This is no walk.
I have witnessed some division and frustration in teams of all abilities, so it’s wise to run with a partner you know you can bounce off. You don’t actually have to be the same pace, each runner brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the team, but I believe you do have to share a mindset. This race is unforgiving enough, your partner shouldn’t be. I’m lucky with mine. In hindsight, even on our worst day of the week, it was always how do we get to the finish the best we possibly can, even if we are a little agitated and snappy? Or in my case, overly silent, retreating into my quiet place and just moving forwards. It all dissolves away when that line arrives, but I had a good feeling about this route.
The highlight of this stage was the famous Timmelsjoch. At 2,474m it is the highest non-technical pass across the High Divide from Austria to Italy. The summit also serves as the border, and the clouds cleared as we dropped off the back into the valley below welcoming us to the Italian Alps offering up views for miles.
And the trails – oh, the trails. We were flying again. Smiling. Into the sun. The best part was sharing this section with the father and son team of Hans and Andreas Hummer, who I had the pleasure of meeting the previous year and who, like so many, have returned because this week gets under the skin. Hans is into his sixties, but he’s a downhill machine. If I can move like that when I reach that age, well, I will have lived a pretty charmed life. We opened up the stride, rose through the gears and let gravity go to work.
Winding down into this luscious valley, I felt light again and refreshed. I’m pretty sure the surge of energy was also the result of the feed at the bottom of the earlier climb coming through. I must have been feeling light because I also took a fall from which I emerged unscathed.
Large but smooth boulders covered the track interspersed with smaller jagged and loose rock and scree that I was dancing around gleefully at pace. Near the bottom of the valley my legs were screaming from the effort, lactic burning and on one sharp turn I was forced into a small two-step. Losing my rhythm and balance, unable to recover as my legs decided not to follow my mind’s demands quickly enough.
The result was this trail runner ‘Superman-ing’ forwards into glorious freefall, sun reflecting off my stunned face, into a deft rolling tumble (luckily) on the smooth boulders with only a slap and a knock to the quads, and maybe a bit of a dead leg. Laughing instead of crying. Springing up then continuing on at a more leisurely pace while my heart rate returned to a healthier level as the flat of the valley floor beckoned.
Another ascent to the Toniger hut, marked by a scenic food station to resupply in a village with Alpine architecture frozen in time. Pristine grass slopes and spires rising in unison with the mountains like some fairytale of the elves. A final incline and sloping downhill to the finish in St. Leonhard in the Passeier Valley followed.
Just shy of 40km, Claudi and I find the finish line in just over seven hours. Arms raised to be greeted by friends at the finishing line, all variously collapsed with ice packs and beers, getting massages or food. Our regime followed something like relax, beer, massage, food, race brief, Compex and foam rolling, prepare tomorrow’s kit, sleep… breakfast and coffee… and repeat. Begrudging the alarm clock every single morning and wishing you could hit snooze, but instead sleepwalking to the start line on sheer willpower, helping each other through the grind to follow; but always getting there. Always finding the finish, sharing an incomparable journey and memories for a lifetime.
Somehow finishing day five, reaching the final country on the route, felt like a watershed moment. Reinvigorated and reminded of what I love about this terrain.
Although two days still lay ahead of us, somehow, the belief rises that you will make the ultimate finish and achieve what seemed so far away only days before. That it is achievable even if we have to crawl some of the way. I’m almost tearful crossing this line, but I’m hiding behind my sunglasses. I needed a moment to reflect quietly on how far we had come.
Making the impossible, possible
Stage racing is brutal. It is a raw experience that does not relent until the final finish line. For this particular race that means seven days, 265 kilometres and over 16km of vertical ascent. In simple terms it averages a marathon at altitude per day but with a bit of variation; a couple of longer stages and a couple of shorter stages to play with your limits. The trick is to take each day as it comes.
I’ve never seen so many walking wounded, but this race is all about ‘how can we get you to the finish line?’ Ice packs, bandages, plasters, strapping – the supporting physio team from Outdoor Physio were a godsend. Magic hands. Great chat. What will get you going again tomorrow?
You can stop, obviously. You can always stop. But for us, that was never really an option as long as it was within our power to keep on moving forwards. We’ll stop only when it’s all over or we are pulled off the course. We stop when it’s done.
Unlike the single push of a long, single stage ultra, where despite the effort and pain when it’s done, it’s done, in a stage race, the body tries to recover but simply can’t. One of the hardest aspects is calorie intake and recovery. Not enough time. Not enough rest. Not enough sleep. Not enough calories. It’s a battle of attrition. The first five or 10 kilometres each day until the body warms up and the blood circulation gets into stiff, traumatised muscles is one of the burdens you just have to learn to bear each day. After all, despite all efforts to consume all of the food, I still came home almost five kilograms lighter.
Find your why
In this crazy world of instant reward, of immense technology and sprawling civilisation – which I also appreciate in so many other ways – there is still an undiluted magic in undertaking a race or adventure in a far-flung place under your own steam. One that is uniquely human, steeped in history and relying only on you, your own power and your own desires. Where few others dare to go.
And in this instance, that of your partner too. Seeing them grow, shine and inspire. Because this is also a story of relationships and community. I can’t count how many friends I have found on the trails, especially here at TAR. Unlike single stage races, runners arrive, run and leave. Here, each night, we break bread together, share a beer and our daily war stories, laugh and cry and ooh and ahh at the day’s photos and videos and take in the briefing for the next day’s stage. And there is a party at the end of it all. We run together, we suffer together and we celebrate together. For most of us, it is a race of survival, not a race to win. A journey we share with the teams around us on trails that have been trodden long before we set eyes on these glorious monoliths and will be run long after us.
And this gives us power in the real world too. Confidence in self, confidence in others. A new appreciation or perspective. You can. You will.
That finisher feeling
It is undeniably one of the best footraces in the world. It will roll you, it will test you, it will ask questions of your limits. The canvas on which this race is painted is spectacular. This land no longer belongs to gods and monsters, but trail runners with bright eyes and bold dreams. A testament to human spirit.
Next year, the race returns for its 15th anniversary with a return to an eight-day format. That alone is enough to pique my interest. Perhaps I will go back for the hat-trick, before seeking new pastures on which to paint new stories.
I’m always drawn to Ernest Shackleton, ironically the author of arguably one of the world’s most successful failures. Yet how we overcome, and struggle, through success and through failure, that is so fundamental to what it is to be human. The essence of which is simple and applies to all things:
Through endurance, we conquer.