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
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.
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 slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?
The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.
Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.
With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!
Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.
I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.
I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.
Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.
As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.
With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.
That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!
The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?
A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.
From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!
Click here to visit the Eiger Ultra website & learn more about this epic event.
Some of the great blog posts I have had the pleasure to find & read since signing up to the Eiger 101, with some of the key take-aways summarised:
- Felt long – closer to 120km based on his watch
- Very vertical!
- Use poles
- Don’t go in with any mental baggage
- Did it in about 18 hours
- Views are just breathtaking!
- Tough race – a full THIRD of the 600 runners who started DNF’d!
- Lots & lots of mental toughness required!
- Injinji socks – NO BLISTERS
- Take a camera
- A real sense of ‘togetherness’
- Lots of concentration required – high alpine trails & not well groomed
- Electrolytes important
- Harder than the UTMB!