Another Did Not Finish.
DNF. It’s becoming a bit of a habit to have those three letter after my name.
How did I arrive at my 3rd, yes 3rd DNF of 2017?
Entering the Matterhorn Ultraks 46k was a bit of a spontaneous decision, I’d seen race photos which well & truly captured my imagination. This was for one simple reason; The Matterhorn. For years, I’ve had a mild obsession with this mountain. To me it is the mountain, you know, the one you drew as a kid when you had to draw a mountain. A proud, angular triangle dominating the landscape, reaching that summit tops my bucket list so finally getting to see it AND do a race in its vicinity was just too tempting! After chatting to a couple folks on social I checked the website to find out more information and was hugely disappointed when I first thought it was sold out. When I realised I was looking at the previous year’s page and I could register for the 2017 event I did so immediately without thinking any more about it.
Fast forward 9 months & the challenge was suddenly looming.
After a torrid MdS & inordinately tough Gozo 50km I made the difficult decision to withdraw from the two 100’s I had scheduled over the summer. Pulling out of the Lakeland 100 was particularly disappointing, but with mental resilience at a spectacular low & matching fitness levels it was the right decision. As one of 2017’s races I had been most looking forward to the Ultraks was to be my return to racing after a 3 month break & after some time off to rest & recover I’d worked fairly hard preparing for it so was hopeful for a positive outcome.
Having never been to Zermatt before I decided to make a holiday of it & spend a few days before the race there. The decision behind this was threefold:
- As the highest point of Malta is only 253m above sea level I thought the opportunity to acclimatise to the altitude would be beneficial come race day
- The aforementioned ‘mild obsession’ drove a desire to explore the area more than I would in just a single race
- I wouldn’t have been given permission to go without making it a holiday & going with Anna, my long-suffering partner
After the short flight and long train journeys we arrived on Sunday afternoon and was immediately blown away by the scale and beauty of the village & the surrounding mountains. Having done a bit of prior research I had a short list of long trails to do and spent the next 2 days hiking some of the most popular & beautiful trails that the area has to offer. These included the Swiss Top Walk to Rifflalp & Gornergrat and the sublime Edelweissweg past Trift which were all on the race route. We had some glorious weather, and were treated to astonishing vistas each day but the climbing, descending and hours on my feet did take their toll & my quads & calves were pretty sore by Wednesday. I took it easier for the remainder of the week with ascending mostly done in cable cars or trains. My legs were less painful but still felt heavy on Friday when a bout of diarrhoea from the ill-advised cheese fondue the night before compounded a week that wasn’t ideal preparation for a hard day among big mountains.
Despite these minor setbacks and major stupidity, I woke from the usual fitful pre-race slumber on Saturday feeling pretty good & jogged down to the plaza in the early morning drizzle feeling comfortable and reasonably confident of a finish. After meeting Chris (@RedSquirrelRun), Stuart @FromBoris) & then Darren (@RunnersKnees) & Jen (@_jen_mo_) at the start we had time for a brief chat to keep our minds off the looming adventure before we lined up towards the rear of the pack and we were finally off at 7.30am.
Leaving the Plaza we returned down Bahnhofstrasse before turning right at the Church passing the Climbers Graveyard & crossing the Vispa River. By this point, Stuart had already disappeared ahead, but I was still shoulder to shoulder with Chris & Jen popped up & said hi from behind. The asphalt started to ascend almost immediately and Chris slowed to a march while I carried on running for another 100m or so. Through a tunnel, the incline increased so I too settled into a fast march, winding through the pine forest as we quickly increased altitude and slowly ticked down the miles. The tarmac broke up, soon becoming a trail & we finally got to run along an undulating stretch of single track reaching the 5km marker in 47mins. I was happy enough, particularly as the first rays of sunshine start to break between the clouds nearing the top. The gradient increases towards the summit of Sunnegga & to maintain pace I pushed harder, redlining as I rounded the crest of the top (caught perfectly on camera) & then trotted down to the first CP.
Despite the photographic evidence, I felt good so went straight through without wasting too much time beginning the brilliant descent into the valley where Chris caught me as we passed through an idyllic hamlet. Having walked here on Monday I recognised where we were & identified that the right turn & immediate ascent marked the start of the climb towards the highest point of the race. As the temperatures and effort started to soar we cut towards the section I had ill-advisedly trotted down on Monday & after crossing the junction where we’d joined the 5 Seenweg (5 Lakes Walk) the trail immediately became much steeper with switch backs rising endlessly up the mountainside. Coming down, it hadn’t seemed anywhere near this steep. Up to now we had been running through thick pine forest or across lush alpine meadow’s filled with chirping grasshoppers & swirling butterflies but as we moved higher the life started to disappear & the landscape started to change, taking on the alien & almost lunar appearance seen at the top of many high peaks.
It was as we started climbing again that I realised I hadn’t got the strength in my legs that I’d had earlier in the week & I soon lost touch with Chris & several others passed and slowly pulled away from me. I was still making reasonable progress but had to pause several times as we zig-zagged up the path. Thankfully as we rose above 2800m altitude the time in the mountains paid dividends and despite feeling short of breath I overtook a few who were suffering far more than I was, then towards the summit the path goes through a quarry, ascending the scree to a ridgeline that leads to the top of Gornergrat at 3083m providing incredible views to te snow covered 4000m summits of Breithorn & Monte Rosa.
I pottered down from the summit, weaving among the aimless tourists who had all come up to the summit on the train and into the 2nd CP with plenty of time in hand. Again, without stopping for long I began the descent towards Rifflealp. Looking back, it was from this section on that my race began to unravel as my legs felt leaden and I didn’t make the progress on this stretch that I needed. I was enjoying the scenery as we soon joined a trail I hadn’t been on before, passing a mountain lake providing a dramatic view of the Matterhorn reflected on its surface but I couldn’t get into a rhythm and my pace was too slow. As we descended I was entertained by Marmot’s calling & the cow-bells from a herd of cows on the mountainside above Rifflealp. It seemed to take a long time to get to the 3rd CP but I still had plenty of time in hand at the cut-off so topped up my bottle, swigged a cup of coke & snacked on some cheese before setting off towards Furi.
I struggled up the following short sharp incline with a lack of strength in my legs suddenly very noticeable, despite descending some 500-600m it felt like I was suffering from the altitude now… in retrospect I was probably just low on energy as I hadn’t eaten anywhere near enough for the amount of effort being expended. The following descent became frustrating as it was quite technical & I didn’t have faith in my legs to hold me up hopping between the rocks & makeshift steps to the bottom so was moving very slowly.
After what felt like a lifetime I reached the bottom of the steep descent & started to jog down the good wide track with the full glacial river roaring beside me but just as my spirits began to rise I took 2 heavy psychological low blows. First after passing a sign for the Hangebrucke, the suspension bridge we were to cross, that showed it was 20mins away & then worse & heart-breaking was the 25km marker. I immediately checked my watch in disbelief & it showed 5hrs 30mins.
I just slumped at the side of the trail in the shade and wanted to cry.
I knew I was going to struggle to make the next cut-off.
After this brief bout of self-pity, I pulled myself together & continued down the trail, reaching the turn down to the suspension bridge after just a few minutes and slowed to a walk as I crossed the bouncy construction over the deep gorge & continued slowly down to finally reach the Furi CP.
I was surprised to see Anna waiting, I obviously didn’t look too good as she force fed me fluids & tried to get me to eat. I stayed at the CP for a few minutes before setting off on the ascent I had been dreading most. The huge lump to Schwartzee.
I made my way upwards, painfully slowly & feeling nauseous so I kept stopping to dry heave. All through the forest covering the lower slopes the floor was crawling with big ants. They covered my shoes & crawled up my calves each time I stopped, biting me when I tried to flick them off… this assault kept me pushing on a little more than before! Leaving the cool of the forest and the carnivorous insect life behind we moved into the open meadows again but tackling the continuous switchbacks crossing the mountain my progress got slower & slower as I stopped more & more often to lean on my poles & heave. Looking upwards there was a line of about 10 other participants all doing exactly the same, if I hadn’t felt so bad it would have been comical.
This climb went on & on & on & on…
Having seen it from the cable car on Wednesday I knew it would be bad but in my current condition it became hellish. I finally reached the summit to see them taking the CP down & a marshal just stopped me in my tracks slicing his hand across his throat in the universal signal of ‘you’re dead’.
My race was over.
I had my 3rd DNF of the year.
Despite my general lack of pace this was my first experience of being timed out and it was a complete anticlimax as I unceremoniously took the cable car back down to Zermatt with a couple of other guys who had also been timed out after struggling to the summit. I later discovered that Stuart had also withdrawn at Schwartzee after being sick on the ascent, both Darren & Jen stopped in Furi realising they couldn’t make the climb before the cut-off and only Chris managed to finish… and I had time to return, shower & get to the finish to watch him cross the line.
I didn’t put myself in the best position to complete the race, I clearly pushed myself too hard on Monday & Tuesday which I paid for on Saturday. I regularly ‘go hard’ a week or so prior to an event & personally I feel better for having my muscles activated & ready to go rather than resting or tapering, but in this case I did underestimate how much it was going to take out of me & this was only compounded by bad guts caused by the local ‘delicacy’. On the day, I once again didn’t get my fuelling right and the resulting energy loss & nausea made climbing difficult.
Usual excuses and justifications aside, I still don’t know I would have completed it.
On a better day, I know I could have made it to the summit of Schwartzee from Furi in the time I had left & on that day I also would have arrived at Furi earlier giving more time in hand. But as it was still a long way to the finish from there with one more steep climb would I have had enough in the tank to get to the finish before 6.30pm? I don’t know. I suspect that even at my current best I might well have still struggled to get round the route in the allotted time limit.
The Matterhorn Ultraks is a remarkable race, the route is incredible and the scenery breath-taking and views dramatic but it is tough. Very tough. The ascents are big and long, the descents destroy your quads, the altitude slows you down and the cut-offs are tight. It was a massive learning curve, I’ve done a few mountain events in the UK but they just don’t compare to the scale of those on the continent. It wasn’t my first time in Alpine mountains, but it was my first race in them & I had underestimated quite how hard that would be. Nothing has changed tough, I absolute love it in the mountain, even more so when they are like those around Zermatt and will be back to race again, summit some 4000m peaks… or maybe both but first I’m going to get a coach to prepare my mind & body for The Spine Challenger 2018 so I can finally put this year of DNF’s behind me.