“Zehn. Neun. Acht … Drei. Zwei. Eins. Go!” Race officials and the crowd counted down and sent us off into the mountains.
Over the next 15 to 20 hours, I would be running an ultra race in the Alps.
The race started in the dark, at 10 p.m. It drew more than 300 runners from 40 countries. To start the race, we all converged in the center of Kaprun, a village in Austria. The race is formally called the Grossglockner Ultra Trail (GGUT) 110 km.
Hopes were high. The reality was that only half of us would reach the finish line. The race was roughly 68 miles long, gaining over 20,000 feet in elevation, and would have us travel around Austria’s highest mountain, Grossglockner.
I thought I had a good chance of finishing because I have run about 40 ultra races, including a 68-mile race in the Swiss Alps. But I had underestimated that Swiss race – by 10 hours – and it was the hardest race I had ever completed.
The Austrian race course crossed the Alps twice, along 14 glaciers and over mountain passes as high as 9,278 feet. Kaprun was the last bit of civilization I would see for the next 20 sleep-deprived hours.
The second mile of the race gained approximately 900 feet, roughly three times the incline of Doomsday Hill – the infamous hill near mile 5 in Spokane’s Bloomsday.
“Bravo, bravo, super,” onlookers shouted as we headed out.
Suddenly, uphill turned into downhill. The Alps wasted no time in revealing their true distinction – this course would be a series of long ups and downs. Beautiful, scenic views would reward, over and over, all of the hard work to come. A lunar eclipse lurked over distant peaks with a rusty red tint. I looked up only briefly, to avoid tripping.
Runners were still feeling fresh, running in small packs and chatting in German. I fell in with a pack of four runners. The first mountain pass, at over 8,000 feet, was 13 miles long and climbed 6,000 feet. The last 4 miles were the steepest. Everyone was hiking now. I looked up several times in hopes of seeing the top. All I could see were dots of light from the headlamps of runners ahead of me.
Moonlight reflected off an icy snowfield that we crossed. I used my trekking poles for purchase. My feet started to get cold. I put on my gloves. I was breathing hard and my heart was pumping heavily.
It took a little over two hours to reach the pass. Then, like an oasis, an aid station for the runners appeared. Food was spread out on a table, including the usual fare for ultra-runs – bananas, oranges and pretzels – but also cured meats and cheeses. Watermelon dipped in salt tasted delicious. I pitched the rinds in the garbage, grabbed a handful of energy gels and refilled my water bottles.
Mars appeared, bright red and orange, below the full moon. Then dawn arrived. “Up. Up. Up. Up.” A fellow runner commiserated as we hiked up another pass for another hour. The sun rays hit the tips of the surrounding mountain peaks and turned them light brown and gray.
The trail dropped steeply through a field of loose scree. Mixed in were fist- to head-sized rocks, one of which whizzed down the hill about 50 feet to my left. A runner behind me had kicked it inadvertently. I sped up a little.
Along a ridge line, the sun hit my face for the first time of the day. As the sun rose my jaw dropped as beautiful scenery was revealed – rugged mountains to pastoral fields – like something from a postcard. Cows grazed along a steep hillside meadow dotted with white, purple and yellow wildflowers.
A small town with a white church and steeple appeared below. It was the 60-kilometer mark, and the aid station looked a bit like zombie land. Runners by this point had covered over 35 miles and climbed over 12,000 feet, according to my GPS watch. I sat down next to a young runner who had passed me earlier. “How are doing?” I asked. “Not good,” he said. He looked tired and defeated as he ate a plate of pasta.
Before I left the aid station, I shoved as much food down my gullet as I could. I thought I might throw up from all the food in my stomach – watermelon dipped in salt, Coke, sports drink and pasta marinara – but I knew I had to get calories in to make it to the finish.
The road climbed along a raging river of glacial melt at the edge of a deep ravine. Cool breezes flowed down the ravine. The trail skirted big boulders and a blue-green alpine lake. Many of the runners had dropped out of the race at the aid station. For the rest of us who kept going, we were confronted with another mountain pass.
It was the fourth mountain pass of the race, out of five.
The climb was 2 to 3 miles and grew steeper and steeper with each step, until it seemed nearly vertical. I had to stop and catch my breath every couple of hundred meters. My heart was pounding in my chest. A line of racers above me dotted the hillside. The top was nowhere in sight.
A British guy caught up and said “Ah, an American.” I stepped aside to let him go by, panting. He tried to talk with me as I tried to keep up. It was difficult to get out much more than grunts of “uh-huh” and “nuh-uh” in response. He told me this was the last climb of the day. “This is the worst of it,” he said.
I didn’t respond. I had studied the race profile and knew he was wrong. And I could not form full sentences at this point to make this a point of contention. Plus, deep down I wanted him to be right.
“Well,” he says, “there’s one more hill after this but it’s nothing like this. It’s short.”
A long valley with a blue, silty lake came into view – as well as a modern resort. This battle with the mountains was taking a toll. Day hikers were hiking around the resort. Beset on the trail by tourists, I encountered hikers in their 60s or 70s, children, some middle-aged hikers and some overweight hikers, some who looked and smelled freshly showered.
These tourists were a new challenge: I said to myself, “I’ve got to pass these people.” Some of the children, in particular, seemed to have fun trying to keep up with me. Once I passed them, I told myself, no way was I going to slow down my pace because they surely would pass me.
At the next aid station, I sat and put my head between my legs to try to catch my breath between sips of oxtail bone broth. My heart was still pounding. We were at about 7,500 feet in elevation. The strong temptation was to take a long break, maybe even take a little nap. But these little breaks could easily add up to hours over the course of the race if I was not mindful.
Out of the aid station, the next climb was a short climb, probably one-quarter mile. I was thinking maybe this was the last climb and the Englishman was right. But at the top, I saw nothing but valleys, glaciers and tall, faraway mountain peaks. Kaprun, where the finish line was located, was nowhere in sight. It must be on the other side of these tall mountains, I thought.
Last of the hard stuff? Not bloody likely. Only up, up, up for as far as I could see. That Brit was full of it.
A descent through a very steep boulder field involved down-climbing. I fell and banged my knee good enough to make it bleed and slipped and knocked my elbow, drawing some blood too.
After hiking 2 long miles back up over 8,000 feet, I was at maximum heart rate and gasping for air. A narrow, jagged mountain pass finally appeared. It was another scramble, climbing down through large boulders before the path transitioned onto a large snowfield. The incline was steep enough that the snow had two side-by-side tracks where people had skied on their feet down the snow.
Some runners had stopped and spread out at the top of the snow and looked panicked. I said to a woman who looked a bit frightened, “We get to do some skiing.” She responded, “I don’t know how to ski,” and she fell to her bottom and tried to glissade.
Suddenly, the scenery provided another awe-inspiring treat for the eyes. Waterfalls careened and crashed off the glaciated peaks from all sides, falling hundreds of feet, then came together like connecting spider webs into a large lake. The lake was silty and milky white at one end and gradually transitioned into light blue, emerald green and then a darker forest green.
This is the payoff for these ultra races, I thought. The beauty. The awe. The moment.
I ran across the top of a large concrete dam, 350 feet tall, above another aquamarine lake fed by the surrounding peaks, with another huge dam at one end. I was almost to the finish. But there were still miles to go.
At the final aid station, I sat down in a thin slice of shade. All downhill to the finish, I concurred with a fellow racer. I ran downhill the best I could. I turned my music on for the 10-mile homestretch. Nirvana blared in my earbuds as I tore down the hill. For an hour or so I felt like I was flying.
Scores of day hikers, bicycle riders and tourists were at the outskirts of Kaprun. I was back in civilization. The terrain became very flat – and so did my energy level. But I could “smell the barn.” The momentum carried me onto the concrete streets of Kaprun and the last one-mile stretch.
Onlookers cheered “Super!” and “Bravo!”
Nineteen hours, six minutes and 50 seconds after I had started the race, I finally crossed the finish line, tired, worn and happy to be able to sit down and take a proper break.
Matt Zuchetto is a writer, runner and lawyer who lives in Spokane.
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