I have just returned from the Alps after taking part in the second year of the ‘Salomon 4 Trails’ which is a 152km stage race on foot starting in Garmisch, Germany and ending in Samnaun, Switzerland including almost 9,500 metres of climbing and descending.
I heard about it last year and asked some people if they wanted to do it but the only person mad enough to say yes was Helen Bonsor and at the end of last year we had signed up to do it. About a month before that I had also signed up to run theLondonmarathon which was in April so I knew it would give me enough time to recover. It wasn’t until after London though that I realised I had a lot of work to do to prepare myself for all the climbing involved and long days out in the hills within a very limited space of time.
Although I had enjoyed getting some speed back with my training forLondonI was very happy not to be doing more soul destroying flat runs along Portobello Promenade. My runs during the week didn’t change much but I decided that my key sessions for this race would be getting out at the weekends so a typical weekend for me included a 2 hour ish run in the Pentlands on a Friday evening (usually in the mist and rain) followed by two bigger days out on a Saturday and Sunday either hill walking with Ian or going out for a run in the Lakes, Pentlands, Ochils or more of a trail run at Beecraigs for example. I did start to get some knee pain at one point so I replaced a Sunday run with a flat run (out with EAC along the water of Leith) followed by a cycle and didn’t do any hills the following week. Before I knew it I had run out of time and we were heading out to theAlps! I would have felt slightly more comfortable if I had spent a bit more time in the hills but at the same time I felt good and I think leading up to London one of the reasons I felt so bad was because I didn’t give myself a break and kept trying to train through an injury and in hindsight I should have taken a week off after my skiing trip.
We headed out toMunichon the Saturday although the race didn’t start until Wednesday but it gave us a few days to chill out in the sun. We took a cable car up to the top of some mountains and went out for a couple of 20 to 30 minute runs to loosen our legs off and get used to the altitude and then we just lay about reading books, eating food and generally relaxing the rest of the time.
We were both itching to get going though and although we had enjoyed lazing around we were happy when Tuesday morning arrived and more runners appeared in Garmisch, it felt like it was really happening now! In the evening we went to the pasta party and listened to the briefing for the following day. We met up with Casey, Brendan and Thomas from Glasgow who were also doing it but their strategy was slightly different from ours in that they didn’t arrive until late Tuesday evening! We also met up with Kenny and Gillian Reid who were fromEdinburghand they were treating it as a walking holiday and would be happy to make the cut off times each day.
We all went to our respective hotels and met up again the following morning to start our adventure!! I had apologised to Helen before coming out to theAlpsfor looking like a bit of a Salomon geek as I was wearing Salomon trainers, backpack and top however, before long it was clear I wasn’t wearing nearly enough Salomon gear as all the Europeans were head to toe in it. Not only were we not wearing enough Salomon kit but we didn’t have any compression tights or walking poles…we must have looked like aliens to them….
The first stage was a good introduction to what the rest of the week would look like, long steep climbs and descents. My plan was to set off very cautiously as I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t even sure if I would manage the four days in one piece. The gun fired and off we went, Helen went flying off from the start and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing her again! After about fifteen minutes I found myself running alongside Brendan and we seemed to be moving at the same pace so we agreed that we would try and stick together. This worked well for the first hour and a half until we started working our way up through some forest tracks after the first food stop and I turned around and couldn’t see Brendan anywhere…I kept going but never saw him again. I later found out he had some problems with his stomach and had a really bad day….but thankfully as the week progressed he got stronger and felt a lot better.
After the first big climb we had a really long steep descent which my quads didn’t enjoy, they hurt so much and I really thought I was going to get cramp. I was moving very slowly and as soon as we hit the bottom of a steep descent it was straight back in to another big climb…..this really was a wake up call and not one playing to my strengths. However, although I am not a big fan of ‘walking’ I wasn’t here to race as such and instead I just enjoyed it and finished feeling like I had enjoyed a nice day out in the hills.
It was great arriving in Ehrwald and after such a long hot day (5 hours 30 mins for me) it was nice dipping in to a cold tub of water in the centre of town. Helen had arrived about 25 minutes ahead of me along with Irish Tommy and Casey was miles in front of all of us. As we didn’t start until 10am we didn’t have much time to get ready for the pasta party but thankfully our hotel was about a minute walk from the finish area….that evening they presented prizes to the stage winners including Helen who had finished 2nd and they showed us photos and video of the day.
Slightly earlier start today at 7am which I preferred as it was cooler. Another big climb followed by a nice long descent which wasn’t too steep so I enjoyed it a bit more and after this I started to feel a bit stronger and managed to move a bit faster. One thing I really don’t enjoy is going straight in to a big climb and my legs always seem to feel a bit better after a bit of running before hitting the climbs.
I was having a great time though chatting to quite a lot of people and seeing them at different points throughout the day. Throughout the second climb I didn’t seem to be getting passed as much and near the top I was talking to one of the photographers for a while who said I was doing really well and that I was further up the field than the previous day. He chatted to me for a while and then we caught up with Tommy who we chatted to for a bit. I managed to get ahead but my orthotic in my left shoe was hurting my foot so I stopped to take it out just as Tommy caught up with me again and we arrived at the top of the last climb at the same time. Once again this was immediately followed by a really steep descent where I seemed to lose a lot of time but about two thirds down the descent it seemed to get less steep although my quads were still burning….I crossed the finish line in 5 hours 40, another great day! I was interested to see how far Tommy had finished in front of me and it was 7 minutes…….I need to get faster at descending on steep ground but he is very fast!! Helen had finished even stronger today and was gaining time on the leading lady….Helens strength is steep hills and endurance so I had a feeling she would get better as the days went on.
I really enjoyed todays ‘run’ and I can use the word run as there was a lot more running than the previous days stages. We started off running out of Imst along the road for about 20 minutes and I found myself much further up the front, we had to stay behind the motorbike so the pace was very comfortable and it gave me time to stretch my legs out so by the time we hit the hills I felt like I had warmed up my legs. Although there were still points where you had to walk the climbs were more gradual and I felt like my quads were getting more of a rest today. It felt a bit more lonely on the hills today though and when I did see other people they were different from the people I had spent the last couple of days with.
Once again as if from no where, Tommy appeared and we reached the top of the climb at exactly the same time….another steep descent followed but after the last feed station it was great fun, lots of gradual fun descents, my legs felt great and as we made our way through Landeck to the finish line it was the best I had felt all week! Once again Tommy beat me by 7 minutes, Helen was about 14 minutes in front and Brendan wasn’t far behind me…he had a really good day and felt like he was getting in to it now! Once again Casey was way out in front…..he was beginning to feel a bit left out as we told him about all the people we had been chatting too, as there weren’t as many people around him!
Up until that point I really hadn’t felt like I had been racing…I had just been doing my own thing and whatever happened. However, I checked the results that night and I was gaining quite a lot of time on the 3rd female. After the first day she had finished about 20 minutes ahead of me, yesterday 5 minutes and today and I had finished 13 minutes ahead of her. If I could take 15 minutes off her tomorrow then I could walk away with a podium finish something I had never even contemplated would happen! Helen was also in a very good position, she was getting stronger each day and had finished joint first with the leading lady – she was still 20 minutes behind first place though and although Helen was going to try and beat her she knew it would be tough as they were so evenly matched.
That evening was the first time I made it on to the podium to receive a prize for finishing 3rd that day…I was hoping it wouldn’t be the last!
I went to bed that evening knowing that tomorrow was going to be a really tough day, a really long big climb to start the day with which wouldn’t work in my favour but it was also a longer day so I had more of a chance to take 15 minutes out of the 3rd place girl. My legs were beginning to get used to the hills and don’t get me wrong, my quads still hurt but certainly weren’t as bad as the previous few days. I thought maybe the runable route today had given my legs a bit of a rest but the others said it was probably my muscles adapting to the hills. So with legs feeling okay I went to bed feeling excited about the last day of running…..the only problem, I couldn’t sleep. My alarm was set for 5am and yet at 2am I was still lying there eyes wide awake and my pulse racing – I felt really bad for Helen as I was tossing and turning and then I was hungry so I started trying to eat crisps in the middle of the night as quietly as possible so that I wouldn’t wake her. I wondered if I would be better off trying to stay awake but eventually I drifted off to sleep…
My alarm went off and I felt absolutely awful…..I could barely open my eyes and I just managed to haul myself out of bed for a shower before going back to bed again for twenty minutes. I struggled to eat my breakfast and standing at the start line I felt drained of all energy….sometimes you feel like you are the only person suffering but as I talked to people around me I found out a lot of people had struggled to sleep or their legs were hammered. The female in third position came up to me and we wished each other good luck and shook hands…..this time we only had about 1km of flat running before we hit the hills, not great and quickly followed by almost 1600 metres of climbing over 12km with about 600 metres of that over the last 2km. When Tommy and Brendan caught up with me I told them that at least I didn’t have to worry about racing as 3rd female had sped off from the start and I could just enjoy the last day and think about finishing it now.
It was good chatting to people again I had met over the first day but I must admit I thought I would never finish, the climbing just went on forever and someone said to me that it was okay if I wanted to shed a few tears on the last day. We hit the first food station and I had my usual cup of water, high 5, coke and an orange. I noticed the trail route on the table and was delighted to see we had finished the biggest climb of the day…suddenly my body woke up and I was off!
When I look back and think about the best and worst parts of the 4 days the first part of the last day was probably my least enjoyable but the next 4 and a bit hours were probably my favourite! We didn’t lose a lot of height over the next few km’s and yes I was happy because I was running rather than slogging my way up big hills. It also got interesting as I passed 3rd female after 2.5 hours…..ooh race is back on I thought! There was still quite a lot of climbing to do but I didn’t mind this as the biggest climb was over for the day.
The route took us up and down for a while until we reached the highest point of the course at 2,800 metres. We were running across snow and more snow, the water from the rivers was even more refreshing as it was so cool and there was quite a bit of scrambling across rocks which I enjoyed. Once again I caught up with Tommy…we actually spent more time running together and yes we reached the top at the same time again….this time he said to me ‘right Kim (in an Irish accent with a few swear words thrown in) switch your brain off for the next hour and run as fast as you can, even if you break your legs it will be worth it to go home with the bronze medal’. So I did what he said and ran as fast as I could and before I knew it I couldn’t see him…for once he was behind me!
The descent was brilliant, a few tussocks, some rocks, grass and some nice smooth paths too but what made the biggest difference is that it wasn’t too steep so my quads weren’t complaining as much. I passed quite a few people on this section including the female who had been leading all week…all of a sudden I realised Helen would probably beat her by a large distance today and I felt quite emotional all of a sudden. I tried to pull myself together and hit the last feed station after 5 hours 40 minutes – only 8km on undulating paths to go…easy I thought.
Ironically this was probably the slowest and most painful part of the week, after blasting a 1000m metres descent (oh and everything leading up to that…) my hips felt like they belonged to an 80 year and not me….I limped my way to the finish line waiting for everyone to pass me (forgetting that everyone else was in just as much pain). Once I hit the 5km to go sign I tried to work out how long it would take me to finish…okay so 4 minute km’s would take 20 minutes and since I seemed to be crawling along the road I worked out that it would probably be more like 30 minutes to the end. I only got passed by one person over the last km but I had been talking to him whilst running over the snow line and he had been running a 2.18 marathon until a year ago when he retired so I didn’t mind getting passed by him….also proof that speed isn’t necessarily an advantage in this type of race!
His friend also caught up with me but he ran alongside me and he said he would run to the finish with me and told me to relax and enjoy the final 2km as there was no one catching me. Finally I saw the finish line and suddenly my legs found ‘something’ and I managed to turn my crawl in to something resembling a jog for the final 200 metres. The guy who had ran with me dropped back to let me cross the line on my own. I pumped my arms in the air delighted to have finished, 6 hours 32 minutes later that day. I saw Helen and I ran across giving her a big hug however, this time she had only finished 3 minutes in front of me so we had a long wait to find out if she had taken the overall lead.
Fifteen minutes later it was official that I had finished as 3rd female but we couldn’t believe it when Regina also crawled across the finish line to win overall in 1st place by a mere 3 minutes…. I was gutted for Helen but at the same time so happy for her to finish in 2nd place. She had run so strongly over the 4 days it just didn’t seem fair that either of them had to take second place to be honest.
Tommy soon arrived – I don’t know how far behind me but lets just say 7 minutes…with an Irish flag draped around him followed not much later by a happy Brendan! We all hugged, and talked excitedly about what we had been up to. Casey finished in a very respectable 7th place overall only being beaten by a large Salomon contingent. We had all made it to the finish including Kenny and Gillian who had made the cut off points each day and so far no injuries…apart from trashed quads I had no blisters and only a small bruise on one of my toe nails. Unlike running inScotland my trainers ended up cleaner than when I arrived and I had no scratches or mud on my legs…..
Another pasta party that evening ensued with some beer included this time, Helen and I were back on the podium twice to collect our stage prize (1st for Helen and 2nd for me) and overall prizes (2nd and 3rd). The beer was very tasty and the evening was over too quickly, I wanted to stay out to be honest but we made our way back to our hotels instead and packed for another early start. I lay down in bed and once again sleep did not arrive……not doubt it will catch up with me this week.
Overall great event, great trails, great people and very well organised. Now it is a case of what next….I quite like the idea of doing another stage race so maybe Transalps next year, 8 days instead of 4 days :-)
Kim Threadgall Spence