When I initially found out about the Eiger 101 I had visions of running up and through outstandingly beautiful terrain, with the majesty of the Alps, and specifically the Eiger, as the backdrop. The reality was, I am thrilled to report, even more spectacular than the fantasy and from the second I landed in Switzerland and started my drive south to the Bernese Oberland, via Lake Lucerne, my senses were rewarded richly. From the purity of the air to the crystal clarity of the pristine lakes, all possible to enjoy whilst driving owing in large part to the impeccably well maintained infrastructure and sense of neat organisation that I understand to be typically Swiss, the overriding impression on arrival was one of being very much in that quintessential land of ‘milk and honey.’ My overnight stay in Lucerne was so picturesque and tranquil, with a view from my AirBNB room that could have stepped straight from the pages of a high-end travel brochure, to the gently lapping waves kissing the shore as I enjoyed a delicious, if not breathtakingly pricey – newsflash: Switzerland is very very expensive – meal at a lakeside restaurant, that even the unsurprising defeat of the England team in the World Cup could not dent my sense of calm.
A short run down from my B&B and along the lakefront gave me the first opportunity to try out the trekking poles I had purchased specifically for the race and it was immediately clear how much of a help they are when climbing a slope. With climbing being the theme, my drive onward took me winding up and around stunning passes as I entered the Alps proper, the lakes that flank Interlaken, my base for the race, coming into view and taking my breath away with their startling azure blue color. Just when you thought the view couldn’t get any more beautiful a corner would be rounded and there would present itself yet another vista of pure natural splendour that a landscape painter could spend a lifetime simply in one tiny corner of this land and never be bored. From Interlaken the might of the Jungfrau and Monch peaks come into view as one looks up the valley toward Lauterbrunnen, a place I know as a famous base-jumping spot. Perhaps it stems from the fact I hail from one of the flatter parts of the UK, specifically Norfolk, where we joke that one can get altitude sickness from driving over a speedbump, but I find the mountains utterly captivating and is, I am sure, one of the reasons I feel drawn towards events that compel me to engage with them. Tahoe was stunning but I daresay that the Bernese Oberland may well pip it to the post as far as sheer natural splendour goes, and that says a huge amount.
I had initially planned to base myself in Grindelwald itself, the mountain village that was both the start and finish of the Eiger 101 and other race distances, but due to a combination of simple tardiness in looking and an inevitable hike in prices I found myself being forced to look further down the mountain to Interlaken, the main jumping off point for visitors to the area and a bustling town with all the modern amenities that one comes to expect. My hotel was a basic affair, ultimately serving it’s purpose simply as a place to rest my head, and sure beat the other option I (briefly) considered: camping.
The first foray up to Grindelwald, approximately 30 minutes drive from Interlaken, offered the first clues as to the amount of climbing that the race would involve and also the potential limitations that the altitude could pose. I had identified the potential for altitude adjustment, or lack thereof, to be a factor as soon as I had entered but without the option to physically base myself at elevation for a couple of weeks prior to the race – not an option this year – I knew that I was simply going to have to place that aspect of my performance and experience in the hands of the Gods. I could, for example, feel myself breathing a little more actively even as I drove up to Grindelwald and had the niggle of a headache starting to set in. Aside from the standard, sensible, easy-to-do measures, such as as avoiding alcohol and caffeine, both of which serve as diuretics and thus hasten the onset of dehydration, drinking more fluids and ensuring sunscreen application, there wasn’t really anything more I could do to limit the effects that being nearly 2000 metres above sea-level, which is where I had done pretty much all of my training, would possibly have. At least the views would take my mind off the altitude and as I rounded a corner to see the Eiger for the first time I beamed. There it was! The mighty north face of the famous Eiger! What a spectacular setting for any race!
REGISTRATION & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Grindelwald itself was much like any alpine town, with a busy centre populated by a plethora of restaurants, cafes, stores selling hiking, climbing and other outdoor gear and supplies, and a wonderful sports centre, which served as the nerve centre for the weekend. As with everything I encountered in Switzerland, the standard of infrastructure was world-class and the parking availability in the town was no exception. Open 24/7 – hugely beneficial considering my plans – and central, whilst pricey, the knowledge that I was able to park pretty much at the start was reassuring. My main objective that first trip up was to simply get a vibe for the place and familiarise myself with the layout of the race village et al in addition to just getting an early hit of the mountain air and atmosphere. The following morning I returned, eager to get registration and the mandatory gear check completed early. Once again, the organisation seemed on top form and with waiver signed, gear in tow and some palpable nerves starting to set in I took my turn to wait for the moment when it would all become official and I would be well and truly part of the starting line. That came with the handing over of the GPS pod that all 101 runners were provided with, serving as both a tracking beacon for organisers and supporters alike, in addition to serving it’s main purpose as an emergency beacon should the dire need arise. The sheer fact that we were being given an emergency beacon that would hail a rescue helicopter drove home just how full-on this race is and how much of a step-up it represented from any of the events I had partaken in before.
Whilst I have done a few ultras before I have not taken part in anything as long or extreme as the Eiger 101. As such my concept of what I would actually need on the run itself and at the halfway point was not guided by experience. As far as kit in my halfway bag was concerned I opted to include a complete change of clothes, including shoes, especially as I wasn’t sure if my feet would be wet or not by the time I arrived at the 52km mark. In terms of what I carried, there was the mandatory kit (see above), with the rain coat definitely proving it’s worth on a few occasions. In hindsight what I would like to have done was to reduce the weight I was carrying by a significant amount. My headlamps, for one, constituted a reasonable weight, especially my main lamp. It’s fantastically bright but does weigh a hefty amount so opting for the lightest, yet brightest, options would make for a smart future strategy. I would also opt to invest in a much lighter, thinner rain jacket as, again, it added to the weight I was carrying, especially once it was a bit damp. First aid kit – I carried a small yet comprehensive kit, which whilst good practice did add to the volume and weight I carried. The support on the course was very comprehensive so I really only needed to carry the mandatory items in the end, which would have reduced the volume and weight. Cameras – I was seriously in two minds over whether or not to take a camera on this race. Part of me felt that to let those views and elements of the experience go unrecorded would have felt wasteful whilst the other part of me worried that carrying a camera would have not only added unnecessarily to my weight but also proven distracting, taking my mind off the key objective, that being to actually complete the race. In the end I did opt to take both my GoPro, although I didn’t use it once, and my Insta360 camera, which proved to be especially useful for this kind of event – it was easy to carry, fitting snugly into one of the hip pockets on my pack, and rather helpfully captured a full 360 degrees, perfect for such expansive and majestic vistas, especially on the summit of Faulhorn. The other electronics that I would probably do without on the run itself would have been the charging pack for my watch and/ or phone. I could have left it in my halfway bag and simply charged my equipment during the aid stop, especially if I had managed to arrive in a faster time and so with the luxury of a relatively decent break at the stop. That way I would probably have been able to further reduce the weight and volume being carried. Even my cup, which was one of those awesome collapsible camping ones, had perhaps a little more weight that was ideal and, in hindsight, using one of the very lightweight, small ones that I saw a few people had clipped to their packs meaning they didn’t need to necessarily remove their packs at the aid stations, would have made more sense.
This was always going to be one of my concerns and something that whilst I know is of vital importance to nail down for race day I still did not have certainty over. Pre-race nutrition was ok and I woke on Saturday morning having focused on ensuring I was adequately hydrated going to the start-line. Breakfast wasn’t especially heavy, with a banana, chocolate milk and a pear-pastry being what I opted for. I had indulged in a lasagna the evening before so didn’t really feel as though I needed much more heading into the race. In terms of what to use on the run itself my main plan was to rely on the Tailwind that I had recently purchased and that, based on reports, was great at helping to keep runners adequately fuelled throughout long races without then needing to fall back on gels etc. The other advantage of using a solution was that it would ensure I sipped regularly, thus keeping on top of hydration at the same time as fuelling. I knew, however, that liquids alone, were not going to be especially enjoyable and psychologically I knew that I would need some solids at some point. In the end I consumed some banana at one of the aid stations, a snickers bar, a couple of Gu stroopwaffles, a very considerate gift from my friend Anna, and a few small jerky sticks that I remember enjoying on previous races – just having sugary stuff soon gets tiresome and so it is really nice to enjoy something a little more savoury at times, especially later in the race. Had I made it into the 52km aid station with much more time to spare, and in a better state, then the pasta and mince that I had there would, I think, have actually set me up very nicely for the second half as I definitely did feel somewhat rejuvenated mentally, if not physically, shortly after eating a bowl of it. In hindsight I do wonder if I actually did consume enough calories during the race and whether that was one of the reasons I ultimately hit a wall. At no point, however, did I feel light-headed or weak, and think I did a reasonable job of remaining hydrated. Nutrition is, however, a very personal element of a race strategy and it is still something that I am trying to figure out. Experience, it seems, plays a big role in getting this aspect of one’s trail running in check.
One of the great advantages of training in Dubai, especially during the summer months, is that early starts do not phase me. Getting up at 2am is almost routine on the weekends, especially when driving out to run in the wadis. As such, the 4am race start in Grindelwald did not seem in any way troublesome. With my alarm set for 1am, all of my equipment packed and stowed by the hotel room door, and my race-wear, including a relatively new purchase of a pair of Runderwear briefs – they’re awesome by the way – I retired to bed and was asleep by 9pm, not actually expecting to really get any meaningful shut-eye if truth be told. However, the next thing I knew the alarm was going off and it was game on!
1am showers are a bit of a new one to me but I figured that I was set to have a very lengthy, grimey day so at least starting it feeling clean and fresh would get my head in a good space. Plus, judicious application of cold water does more to wake a person than a shot of coffee could ever hope to.
One final check of the kit, food, including breakfast packed, and a confirmation of pick-up for fellow Eiger botherer, Victor, who had travelled over from London for the race and whom I had offered to provide a lift to up from Interlaken, and it was off we headed. One of the reasons that I wanted to get up to Grindelwald so early was that I was concerned that given the number of entries this year, there might be some issues finding parking close to the start on race day itself. I honestly need not have worried as we rolled into an almost deserted central car-park and so had time to wander to the start area and ask about where to place our half-way bags, before leisurely taking on some brekkie. In hindsight I might have been better off eating a little more at the start than I did but pre-race nerves do tend to curb one’s hunger. Still, I didn’t feel sick, just excited and eager to get this thing underway. One thing that is common across all sports and any big event is the need for the pre-start pilgrammage to the, ahem, facilities. One advantage of being early was that I was able to avail myself of them without suffering the ‘music festival’ atmosphere that tends to quickly develop around them. Phew!
With the race start approaching the area just behind the line started filling with people, with the deathly silence of just a few souls quietly pottering around being replaced by the anticipatory hum of excited voices and the obligatory motivational soundtrack. I guess the idea that anyone not doing the race and staying in the centre of town being permitted a restful early morning snooze was thrown out, especially when right on cue, at 4am, the race was started and a large cannon was fired! It was magical running through the village, as there were scores of supporters up and out even at that time of the morning, and as we snaked up the valley towards the start of the actual trail, I was beaming from ear to ear. I was here, finally, in the Alps taking on this mammoth challenge. What a world away from the Middle East. Victor had originally suggested that we try and stick together for as much of the race as possible, an idea that I was happy to go along with, especially given how mentally tough I know these races can get later on, and knowing that he had experience of running long in such events. In fact I had to drastically reevaluate my original projections of target times based on our morning conversation as he said he was aiming to finish in about 20 hours. Given his greater level of experience with such races I started to seriously question my original target of 18 hours, with that admittedly based purely on blog research and extrapolation. In the end even my own revised targets were way off, but more about that later.
Whilst I stuck with Victor for the first couple of clicks, once the climbing started to get significantly steeper I was acutely mindful of not blowing out my lungs and legs in the first 5km of the race and consciously dialed it back to a walk up the steeper slopes. As such, I let Victor press ahead and figured that I might see him again at one of the aid stations and if not then at the finish. In hindsight, having a run partner for this race; someone you can share the mental load with and you can swap pacing duties with, thus keeping each other pressing on, would have been incredible. As much as the sheer physical exertion ultimately bore me down, I do wonder how much faster I would have been and how much further I would have been able to push myself had I actually had someone alongside me, much as Elliot ended up doing in the Urban Ultra 50km race I did back in December of last year. It is a powerful motivator not wanting to let someone else down and those times when I felt that I had to walk, I wonder whether having someone else there relying on me to keep up the pace might have pushed me on. There is also the matter of keeping an eye on one another’s nutrition, as it is very easy to lose sight of how much fuel and/ or liquids one is actually taking on, often until it is too late to rectify any problems. Having someone check in with you about how much you’re eating and vice-versa might well reduce the risk of there being a shortfall in calorie intake and the inevitable crash in performance that such actions would lead to. Keeping mentally sharp is definitely one of the biggest challenges with racing long, especially over such tough terrain, and is, I know, one of THE biggest elements in determining ultimate success or failure. In hindsight I know I could have been tougher as there were sections where I should have been running but caved to how I was feeling and reverted to walking. Staying motivated in such situations is hard. Very very hard. Although there is an element of self-preservation that kicks in as well. I had this very conversation with a friend who also races long and their take on it was that they were intrinsically quite conservative when it came to really pushing themselves, such that they felt it helped them avoid pushing themselves to ultimate break point. I wonder whether that is perhaps how I also operate and is probably why I am never going to win any of these sorts of events – I simply don’t, or can’t, push myself THAT hard; the failsafe kicks in well before the break occurs. If so then I do not count that as a negative. Ultimately I saw no value in breaking myself and potentially making myself ill. My parents were heading over to have a holiday with me and being stuck in bed or unable to walk for the sake of pushing myself to the finish would not have been doing them or me any real favours. Besides, it is ultimately a recreational activity; something I choose to do for fun and not because I have to. Of course I wish to do well but not at any cost.
The following is a short Prezi presentation/ slide show that provides an account of my experience of each of the stages of the race – click ‘Present’ to start.
It was during the walk back that the storm clouds actually rolled over and the distant rumble of thunder soon became heavy rain where we were. My thoughts turned to how I might have made a different decision and would, at that very moment, likely be getting drenched on the exposed climb up the Männlichen, increasing the likelihood of actually making myself ill and writing off the second part of my holiday in Swizerland with my parents. Rather bow out gracefully at the halfway point and at least enjoy the next week rather than make it a write-off.
As it turned out the weather did end up impacting the E101, with the race officials opting to pause the race for about 3 hours later in the evening, and ultimately redirecting runners such that those who had been stopped – I’d have been one of them – ended up doing 80km rather than the full 101km. Whilst it would have still been a huge achievement, knowing that one had not completed the full distance yet receiving a medal for it would not have sat well and I feel that I might have found that more frustrating than electing to pull out when I did. One thing is for sure though: I want to return and I want to tackle the 101 again. Next time I will be better prepared, will train more specifically for it and absolutely ensure that I get a chance to acclimatise to the altitude. I know that I can do the distance.
It seems that for me, big goals seem to take me two years to realise, whether it be completing my first Ironman or gaining entry onto a top MBA programme. The Eiger 101, it would appear, is no different and so perhaps it was fated that I would not make the finish line this time around, thus compelling me to return and nail it the second time around. Who knows? The thing is I may not even secure an entry for next year given how unbelievably competitive the registration is – I will simply have to be ready when 10am on the 31st October 2018 comes around and keep my fingers crossed!
The rest of the trip was fantastic, from getting to watch the World Cup final with hundreds of others in Grindelwald on an outside screen, with the mountains as the backdrop, to revisiting First and part of the Eiger trail with my parents, river swimming in both Bern and Zurich, to being invited to enjoy a traditional Swiss raclette with new friends in Zurich. Switzerland is a small country, extremely expensive but with a quality of life for those who live there that seems unrivalled. Being outside and engaging both in physical activity and with nature, both in the winter and summer months, seemed to be completely normal, and it was impossible not to fall in love with this approach to life. Being out in the mountains was a gift and should I ever get the chance to spend time living in this little corner of heavenly terra firma then I would absolutely jump at it. Yet another reason to want to return to revisit the Eiger 101: Switzerland feels as though it is now in my blood.
Special thanks to Trace Rogers of GroWings for her expert coaching once again, and to Lee Harris, the maestro of trail and ultra running here in the UAE for all of his advice and the superb sessions he runs so generously.