I never thought I'd run an ultra-marathon and if you'd asked me this time last year, I wouldn't have been able to tell you anything about this rapidly growing niche sport.
This past weekend I found myself deep in the heart of the Swiss Alps to run the Trail Verbier St-Bernard, a 61km (allegedly) ultra-marathon over 3 alpine mountains. How did I get to the start line of one of Europe's toughest ultra-marathons and qualifying race for the brutal UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc)? Well that's down to half Australian, half Polish, former semi-professional footballer and now full time ultra-endurance superman, Luke Tyburski.
I'm a big fan of podcasts and usually listen to them when I'm running or am forced to travel via slow moving underground metal tubes. One of my favourite's is The Rich Roll podcast. Rich is an inspirational vegan athlete who does some great long form interviews with truly inspiring people from all sorts of fields. One such interview was with Luke: the man in the propeller cap. As someone who also suffers from depression and has used exercise as a tool to help combat his illness, Luke's story touched me personally and as he lived in London I decided to get in touch. We hung out a couple of times and before I knew it I had agreed to stand alongside him at the start of the TVSB.
As a newbie to the world of ultra-running, I opted to run the 61km Travesee race along with a few other members of the group I traveled out to Switzerland with. The furthest I've ever run before was the particularly flat 42km Milton Keyes Marathon, so 61km over 3 Alpine mountains was outside of my comfort zone or experience to say the least, but they say that you never grow if you never push yourself.
The race began in the village of La Fouly in blistering 30C+ heat, the shadow cast by the hot air balloon being the only solace from the burning sun, and a sense of nervous excitement both in myself and the other competitors waiting at the start line. A quick last minute check of my kit and applied levels of sun block and we were off up a 1,200m ascent of the Col de Fenêtre at a, not trifling, 2,700m above sea level. I managed to run the first few km's, but as soon as the trail turned off road and led up some seriously steep terrain, it turned into a bit of a procession as racers queued to get up the really technical sections. Up and over the first Col we were greeted with a superb technical descent along narrow tracks (see video) and rocky mountainside and it felt amazing to just let the feet flow as I skipped and hopped my way down as fast as I could. By now the searing heat, it actually felt hotter on top of the mountain than in the valley, made the first aid station (a tent where you can get refreshment, medical help and a little rest) seem about as real as a mirage in the dessert. Thankfully it was real and was stocked with beautifully cold mountain fresh water, which by this point, was quite possibly the most refreshing liquid I've ever tasted.
Looking back I probably stayed at this aid station a little too long, but I decided to wait for Paul, another member of our group, and share the suffering with someone I knew. Unfortunately Paul was one of many people in the race, including Luke, who were really suffering in the extreme heat and altitude and even tho we left the station together, I didn't see him again until the next aid station where he made the wise decision to withdraw from the race.
The 2nd climb started with a particularly boring uphill fire road. Thankfully there was a little shade along this part of the route, which ,combined with a few clouds that had started to gather, gave a welcome break from the scorching sun. Before long tho, the fire road ended as we broke through the treeline and we returned to the rugged narrow single track trail of earlier in the race. To say the dramatic vistas of snow capped mountains and emerald green alpine valleys were spectacular would be a gross understatement. The only problem being that the trail was so technical it was impossible to run and take in the view at the same time for fear of tripping and falling 20 meters down a near sheer slope. Instead I spent most of my time staring at the trail or the back of someone else's shoes.
It was at the top of the 2nd mountain that I came the closest to quitting. I was extremely dehydrated and couldn't seem to take enough water on board, so tired I could barely walk, I'd felt sick since the start of the race so had barely eaten anything and had a huge coughing fit after trying to drink some much needed water. I really wanted to finish the race but I didn't know if I'd be physically able. My training had not gone as planned as I'd been knocked off my bike 7 weeks before and suffered 3 broken ribs which meant 2 weeks stuck on the sofa and at least a month with no exercise whatsoever. I was 40km in and completely out of my depth. A seasoned ultra runner and uber mum, Alison, who'd I'd met on the previous climb, sat with me , gave me some words of encouragement and recommended I get some hot soup in me as it would help me feel a little better. She was right.
I picked myself up and convinced myself I could at least make it to the next aid station, which was at the bottom of the hill in Loutier, it was all downhill after all. The first part of the descent was more flowing single track trail and lots of fun. I found just enough energy to run most of this section, stopping only at the occasional mountain stream to fill my cap with refreshingly cold water to cool down. It didn't last for long as soon I reached the tree line again and it got seriously steep. I've never run for long periods down tracks so step you're only priority is trying to not be defeated by gravity and fall head over heels bouncing down the hill. Whilst the uphills take a great effort by legs and lungs, the downhills are brutal on the joints and feet. By the end it felt like I'd taken my shoes off and allowed someone to hit the soles of my feet with a stick in some sort of arcane torture technique. If you are particularly attracted to peoples feet, then dating an ultra-runner probably isn't for you.
One of the highlights of the whole race came 3/4 of the way down the descent. Coming out of the forest there were 3 young local blonde girls had set up a little refreshment station with their mother and grandmother and each were excitedly offering a cup of cold water from the spring well for the thirsty competitors making their way down the mountain. The oldest one, who couldn't have been older than 7, was amazed to meet someone from England.
Loutier was the final stop before the assault on the final climb of the race. By this time I was determined to finish the race, no matter what it took. All that stood in front of me was a 1,200m ascent over 5km up to La Chaux followed by a steep descent down to the finish line in Verbier. I met up with Alison again and we made final preparations for the climb. Any unnecessary items (sun cream, excess food etc) were ditched, hats were replaced with head torches, water bottles were refilled and we were ready.
The ascent up to La Chaux was steep, really steep. At times it felt more like climbing than trail running. This was easily the hardest climb of the race and as Alison and I climbed, there was a steady stream of runners coming the other way, deciding that it was too much to make the ascent and deciding to return to Loutier to pull out. It was up this climb, exhausted and tired, that Luke's words from earlier in the week kept ringing around my brain; 'It's just one step at a time mate'. After a couple of stops on the way up, the terrain leveled out a bit, the path widened and I reached the final aid station at the ski lodge atop La Chaux. It was at this moment I knew that I had made it and I felt exhilarated. A 4 minute stop to refil water and grab a drink and I was off down the final descent into Verbier.
I almost sprinted the final couple of km's, filled with adrenaline that I had overcome dehydration, exhaustion and a brutal course to complete my toughest physical sporting challenge. Having Katie, Jo and Hannah, new friends from our group who'd ventured out to Verbier, waiting at the finish line with big smiles, lots of encouragement and an ice cold can of Coke was an amazing sight and having someone to share it with made it even more amazing.
Not long after I finished, Hannah, the final member of our group to start the race, and only other finisher, crossed the line with a huge smile plastered across her face. It'd been an amazing, challenging and physically demanding day. We'd both suffered through the heat of the day, overcome the extreme vertical ascents and brutal descents and pushed through the tiredness and exhaustion to reach the finish line.
Big thanks has to go out to Kusaga Athletic for their awesome Ecodry Tee, Saucony for keeping my feet in the best shape possible and blister free and Ultimate Direction for the amazing running pack that was home to all my kit, nutrition and water throughout the race.