I knew the Sardona Ultra would be tough, but I came to realize I had still underestimated it and was out of my depth. After taking almost 6 hours to cover a mere 15 miles, I started to wonder if I was going to make it.
It had rained steadily the day before, so I knew the course would be wet. Fortunately the rain largely held off on race day with just some mist and fog in a few sections. The race has a huge amount of mandatory gear from multiple headlamps to batteries to safety blankets to waterproof jackets and pants to spare batteries to bandages. I got my race number and headed to gear check where they would make sure I had everything I needed to avoid killing myself in the mountains. Five of us stood around while one guy performed the check. The process went roughly like is:
- The guy would say something in German
- Someone would crack a joke
- Everyone laughed loudly; I looked confused
- People pulled some item from their pack
- I would look around trying to guess what on earth the guy had said to find the corresponding item in my pack
The first four miles went well. I probably had a bit too much fun running / hiking around zermatt, so my legs weren't quite 100% fresh, but they felt good enough. I tucked in behind some serious looking people, and we managed about 15 minute miles up some steep terrain. I thought I heard people ringing cowbells as we came into mile 4, but it was just a bunch of cows. Nonetheless I just assumed they were cheering for me.
The climbing continued, and I was already starting to feel a bit worked over. I was on the lookout for the 8.3 mile aid station, which I gathered was called Wildseeluggen. We passed a checkpoint where you had to scan a chip to ensure you completed the full distance and then traversed a rocky scree field around a lake up at 8,000 feet.
Time was ticking by, and I was surprised I hadn't seen the aid station yet. Surely that checkpoint where there was virtually no aid to be found couldn't have been the aid station, right? Nonsense, I just had to keep going. I hit a short but very steep section of trail up to a saddle.
A bundled up guy with a bunch of official looking race gear was standing at the high point. Wait, is this the 9.2 mile aid station? Where is the aid!?? Apparently in this race an "aid station" is a Swiss mountain official who nods solemnly when you pass and makes sure you haven't killed yourself.
I felt exhausted after only 9 miles, and the next 11 miles would be even tougher with the most gnarly terrain I have ever seen and almost nothing that could be described as actual trail. Fortunately I had a 2 mile and 3,000+ foot descent to relax on. This amounts to an average grade of 28%, and the first part was 30% to 54% grade down a scree field. It is difficult to fathom this, but basically imagine running down the edge of a cliff covered in falling rocks.
I survived this by drawing on my skiing skills and making liberal use of my poles (and by that I mean Jen's poles since I had lost mine in zermatt). The grade leveled off a bit, but now we were in cow pasture with shoe sucking mud that was inches thick everywhere. Between the mud and the still steep grade, I slipped and slid my way down and fell several times, covering myself in mud. Wonderful.
The view here was incredible, though it was difficult to enjoy while managing to stay alive. It was something out of Jurassic Park with multiple waterfalls plunging over 3,000 feet straight down lush green cliffs. I slid my way into the mile 11 aid station a bit over 3.5 hours into the race. I later realized that the fluids available at this aid station were in fact using the mandatory cup you had to bring to drink from an alpine stream. These Swiss sure do know how to pamper their runners!
I was spent at this point and was not even a quarter of the way done. I didn't know the next part of the course well and figured it would be better not to check my map. What was next was in fact another punishing 3,000+ foot climb, and this one was even steeper than the last. It went from crazy steep and muddy forest trail to steep and muddy cow pasture to even steeper scree up to the saddle. I am sure I was slower than 30 minute miles here, but everyone else was doing about the same given the endless 20%+ grade.
We popped out over the saddle to a flatter section up on the 8,000 foot ridge, but I was too worked over to move very fast at this point. We went over another saddle and I was starting to realize that aid of any kind may just never happen in this race. I used my handy cup to drink from an alpine stream (best tasting water I have had in my life) and then pushed up another steep climb to yet another saddle.
This was apparently the 15 mile aid station. It was yet again just a chip scan and a serious looking guy making sure you hadn't fallen off the mountain. After an unrunnable and fairly terrifying traverse along the rocky ridge line, we started the descent down to the mile 20 aid station. Much of this stretch was again muddy cow pasture, making it tougher to run than it should have been. I came to one of many cow pasture fences and while wiggling underneath it had a weird type of full body cramp. Strange. I guess I was just tired and the strain of bending over caused me to cramp up. More on this soon.
I ran down, down, down with a group of guys, and we stopped at a barn to refill our water again. After getting briefly lost (the trail was generally well marked, but it got tricky sometimes and you always had to be paying attention), we were finally getting close to mile 20.
In leaving the cow pasture, I had the same weird experience going under the fence. Then I realized it. I was getting electrocuted by the cow fence which was causing my whole body to cramp. Leave it to the rookie American to electrocute himself on the cow fence.
The last stretch was very steep but was out of cow pasture land, so I was able to actually run into mile 20. It had taken me over 7 hours to get to this point, and I was going to drop down to the 58km version of this race. The course is the same up until this point, and you can drop down the distance at any along the way (there was a half marathon, full marathon, 58km, and 82km).
After over 7 hours we finally hit a real aid station! The aid station folks tried talking to me to check on how I was doing. After running through the first 14 languages they knew and getting no reaction, they finally asked where I was from. After replying Washington DC, they get a scared look over their face that seemed to say "please don't die in our mountains".
They were excited by my plan to drop to 58km (and thus avoiding them scraping me off the trail in the middle of the night), and I started the 11km descent to the 44km aid station. This was the only tame and runnable trail I had seen the entire race. I made some decent progress, but then my stomach started to go very far south. Towards the end of this stretch I started dry heaving, but my stomach was so empty that nothing came up. The lack of aid had really just killed me. But there was nothing for it but to get to the next aid station and spend some time there nursing myself back to health.
I rolled in there at 5:05pm feeling terrible. I sat for a bit collecting myself and then shuffled over to the aid table. Then there it was. Coke. The indescribable joy I felt at seeing a bottle of soda here just about sums up how tough this race was. I gleefully drank 3 cups of it and instantly felt better (Coke, if you are looking to sponsor an ultra runner, feel free to contact me).
The aid station guy tried talking to me but didn't speak English. Then he just pointed over and over again a sign they had put up on what the rest of the course had in store. There was a steep and nonstop 1,400m climb (almost 5,000 feet) and then a 700m descent. He kept pointing over and over again at this giving me that same Swiss "please don't die our mountains" look.
I felt good enough to get moving and left a bit after 5:15 for what I figured would be 4-5 hours to go. The first 45 minutes up was more steep, nasty, muddy forest trail. After a comically steep last stretched I popped out on a dirt road. A dry trail at 10-15% grade felt amazing after the the previous terrain, and I made quick work of this section. This was the kind of stuff I had trained for, and I could move fast up this kind of trail all day long.
Along this stretch I also gave Jen a quick call. It was nice to talk to someone in English for a few minutes, and she gave me some great words of encouragement. At 7:35 I reached the halfway point of the climb. I had forgotten this was another aid station and was thrilled to see there was actually some aid to be found! They had a great bonfire going and even had some Coke up on the mountain. Boy I was a happy man. I downed some coke and filled one bottle with perpetuem. It would be liquid calories from here on out, but I knew I had enough in me to finish.
The second 700m was really steep and tough again, but I was a man on a mission and powered up. I really wanted to get as much done in daylight as I could and also really wanted to finish. I was motoring along up the mountain and came upon a family that lived way up there. The father and children yelled "up, up, up!!! Allez, allez! bravo!" This added fuel to the fire, and I kept powering up.
It was starting to get a bit dark, and I also was climbing up into dense fog. I got to the point where I couldn't see the trail markers anymore. Since this section had no actual trail and was just forging through steep cow pasture, it was scary to have no bearings at all. I assumed that these crazy Swiss people would just take the steepest route possible up the mountains, and luckily I was right and was able to stay on the trail.
I came to a tent and two more serious mountain dudes told me I was at the top. I was VERY happy to hear those words. It was 7:26, and my mission now was to try and finish before dark. At one dark point I figured it would take me until midnight to finish the 58km, so this was a thrilling prospect.
It was foggy and wet and slippery, and I was really running on fumes. But I kept pushing and soon came upon the glorious sight of the finish. I texted Jen to come out and watch me if Liam was still up. As I bombed down the last descent, I saw Jen running with Liam from our hotel to get to the finish in time. Liam was squealing with delight while mom ran. I crossed the finished line at 8:05 and was thrilled to have finished despite running a shorter course. Jen and Liam gave me an awesome greeting, I shook the race director's hand, and just like that it was done.
What an experience. I was truly humbled by running in the alps with these tough people and their tough terrain. I had a few complicating factors such as losing my poles and a slightly injured pinky toe, but mostly it was just tougher than I had thought. In 36 miles I covered 13,500 feet of climbing, nearly the same amount as the entire Vermont 100. I had trained to run 15% grades pretty easily but wasn't prepared for the even steeper terrain or the difficulty of the terrain with the scree fields and muddy cow pastures. I trained on lots of tough stuff including some very steep trails in Zermatt, but this was just a different class of extreme.
The race was a great experience though, and I loved the challenge and the difficulty of it. It might seem like I was complaining at the lack of aid, but this race was through rugged mountains where that kind of aid wasn't possible. The race did a great job with everything and put on an amazing event. Hotel Furt was also great. The staff was excellent, and it was really nice staying right at the start / finish.
Now we are off to Grindelwald, and I am going to try to get some much needed recovery!
Gear check at the start
Ready to go!
And we're off!
Looking up the mountain from the start
Picture Jen took from the start / finish area during the day
On the first big climb
Chugging our way up
Wildseeluggen (alpine lake) up in the clouds
Traversing some gnarly stuff around Wildseeluggen
Other end of Wildseeluggen after scrambling over some rocks
Cow pasture flatter part of the face melting 3K+ descent in 2 miles.
There is a trail somewhere that bombs down the mountain
Straight out of Jurassic Park. These huge waterfalls were incredible
On the second climb. This doesn't quite do it justice but gives some sense of the steepness. The "trail" goes straight up this all the way up and over the saddle way in the top left of the picture. This was only about the last 25% of the climb.
Much further in the race coming out of the town of Schwendi for the monster 1,400m last climb.
Up, up, up!
I came from the valley below and this still was less than halfway through the climb.
Shaking the hand of the race director after finishing
SUPER happy to be done
Bonus pic: Liam training for his first ultra