Eiger Ultra Trail - Report by Dick Jones
It's true what my father always said to me "You'll learn the hard way, you will Son!!" It wasn't meant to be a compliment! Ultra Trail Snowdon hurt back in April maybe due to recovery from a calf tear and 3 months of rehab but it's now July and Dick Jones suddenly finds himself in Grindelwald. Of all the places!
Flights into Geneva are relatively cheap, the train transfer proves a little more pricey however, just like their watches, the efficiency of the Swiss rail network is astonishing as are the views. Now, here's the thing, accommodation and the general cost of survival in Grindelwald leaves a Russian Oligarch concerned about his bank balance. Switzerland is like being in a game, money isn't real and the cost of absolutely anything is so expensive it's ridiculously laughable. To enjoy it you need to pretend it's a cross between the Hunger Games and Monopoly. Once you get home, you step outside the bubble, back to reality and repair the damage to your wallet. Therefore, this time Team Jones was to stay in Wales and support remotely. They were sorely missed but Lloyds Bank managed to stay afloat.
Last year my running mate, Katie caught me at a vulnerable moment and convinced me this was going to be a good idea, being such an easy target I had agreed without first checking the course profile, I would pay for this later.
It's worth noting, this race sells out so this year we got entered early. Another running mate of ours Becca Jones phoned and asked me for an honest opinion "This sound serious "which race she should enter the E51Km or the E101Km?" For those of you that know me, you'll probably already know what my reply was! This was Becca's first major European race and Katie and I both believed in her, our job was to get her to believe in herself, we had time.
My calf tear from snowboarding in Italy back in January left me very concerned for Eiger trail. Whenever I get injured or for example if I trip at speed, (Speed! -I hear you all laugh!) as I'm flying through the air in slow-motion what goes through my mind is not "OMG this is going to hurt" its "OMG! How long before I can run again?" However, Eiger preparations had gone well. The tear still occasionally reminds me of the injury in the form of a cramp or a ping in the soleus but generally I'm very happy with how it's healed.
We arrived in Grindelwald in perfect time, you gotta love the Swiss, by We I mean my running mates Katie, Becca and Becca's husband Mark. Our fifth crew member Ben was flying in from Scotland and due to arrive at 20:59, that's not approximate. Mark and Ben were heading off to climb the Monk and Jungfrau whilst those of us with much fewer brain cells ran 100Km with 6800+ climb.
We decided to register early to leave maximum time to faff, relax and enjoy the surroundings. I gathered my mandatory kit and crammed it all in a nylon 'Hunter' drawstring bag that my daughter received free with a pair of wellington boots and traipsed into town to find registration. It didn't take long to find as we identified the source of the endless trail of 'Salomon' goody bags that led us to the Ice Rink, here we joined an orderly queue, most civilised.
On finally reaching the registration desk I was confronted by an abrupt yet efficient race rep, I put the abruptness down to cultural differences but was demanded to produce my identity papers. 'Identity Papers!' At this point I had a flashback to Humphrey Bogart in 'Casablanca.' Passport! I exclaimed, no one mentioned anything about a passport, after frantically searching my being for some form of ID I had to admit defeat of no identification papers. To my response the race reps little face lit up with delight like a Christmas tree, "No papers, No registration!!"
Hmm, much to Dick's annoyance and not renown for his patience, he now finds himself returning through town to his luxury apartment chunttering and muttering obscenities to retrieve said documentation. One Deja-vous later he finds himself back at the registration desk full of frustration, impatience and in possession of a passport. The official now requires random mandatory kit, ID-Check, Jacket-check, hat-check, sunglasses 'Sunglasses!'-check, Backpack, hmmm, now the mischief within Dick gets the better of him and for shear devilment Dick produces his daughters 'Hunter' drawstring bag as his preferred choice of race pack. The official looks at it, pauses then looks at Dick-Check! Unbelievable!! registration complete.
We returned again to the apartment to drop our gear off, laughing to ourselves that they wouldn't believe who I was but believed I was about to embark on the Eiger Ultra Trail with a nylon drawstring 'Hunter' bag.
With plenty of time to kill, I now packed my Scott Ultra Trail 6 race pack for the first and last time ready for the start. I'd wanted something smaller than my usual long haul UD-PB pack and my mates at Likeys.com had come up trumps this time, it ticked all the boxes but left me with one concern, Soft flasks. Other than the obvious puncture wound, my concern being a slim throat. I usually run with powder nutrition/hydration and trying to get a measured powder refill through such a narrow throat proved too much at 2800m up a Swiss alp. My concern soon came to fruition, the powder went everywhere bar in the flask. I trashed the remainder and had to rely on the provided energy drink as without a handy funnel from somewhere (not part of the mandatory kit, funnel-check!) myself and several others were about to start our first major descent looking like we'd just had a fight with a dry powder extinguisher.
I digress, it's the day before a 04:00 race start with time to kill so two of us decide to get some altitude in and caught a cable car. We disembarked and found ourselves on part of the course with a spectacular viewing platform. Impressive as it may be, having spent much time in the alps spectacular scenery often gets taken for granted but on this occasion I'm more taken with a huge eagle flying low in the thermals above our heads.
As we walk towards a glacial lake I hear the rumble of thunder behind me but as I turn expecting to see black clouds overhead I witness an avalanche falling down the face of the Wetterhorn and filing through a narrow crevice like a giant egg timer. I scramble for my Go-Pro but its too far away, the avalanche not my Go-Pro! This is the first avalanche I've every witnessed for real, uber impressive but fortunate it was on a different mountain to me, it gives a perspective of how insignificant we really are.
It's 04:00 and it's race start in the centre of Grindelwald, typical scene with many runners resembling a Salomon window model – other brands are available. Eiger Trail is part of the World Series so I expected a dramatic start but surprisingly no fat opera singer, Eins, Zwei, Drei- go!!
I set off with Becca , we'd started mid pack to avoid getting boxed in at the back, too far forward and you'll be running like an Olympic qualifier. We ran together for about a mile then broke away not to put any pressure on each other, she'd put the training in and just needed to believe in herself and finish it now. We wished each other luck and set off into the darkness through single forestry tracks before the field opened up and the relentless climbing began, assisted by the artificial illumination of Petzl. There's no easing into Eiger Trail, it's pretty much straight into ascent.
As races go the first few hours went pretty uneventful for me, surprisingly! The sun came up, the scenery was spectacular, the climbing made my legs, heart and lung work overtime, typical ultra, you get the picture. At the summit of Faulhorn I decided to re-fuel properly, it was here that I had the fight with the dry powder extinguisher mentioned earlier.
With the third major climb out of the way I looked forward to the long descent into the half way CP but it was brutal, very technical in places with some large patches of snow. I thought I'd be able to make up some time on the descent but the fire in my knees and quads had a different game plan. The E51 trail runners started to catch up now and came flying past me, at first it hadn't dawned on me they were in a different race, my thoughts jumped to 'Who the hell are these guys? And if they can go that quick why aren't they out in front?' suddenly I realise they are out in front!!! The descent took me much longer than anticipated and as I dropped height I could feel the temperature rise. By now my legs decided they wanted back in the game and started to play again as I reached halfway. I now needed to sort my life out and have a word.
I didn't have much of a halfway drop bag, pair of socks and a flapjack I think, I don't know why I bothered really, oh and I'd left a note of encouragement for Becca not that she needed it. I managed to wolf down some spaghetti Bolognese and watermelon (not at the same time), a quick and very unpleasant visit to the portaloo and I'm back on my feet, feeling much better and ready for the next big climb.
Another running friend of mine Rich Heath had advised me to keep something in my legs for the climb out of Wengen apparently it's a trifle steep! I paced myself well climbing over into Wengen, it became stifling hot in the forest so I zoned out, drank plenty and dug in. The temperature was hot now as I remember it the town was quiet, I entered the aid station and quickly replenished, I didn't plan on staying long here, my legs felt strong and I wanted to get stuck into this beast of a climb. As I was about to leave the CP a staff member asked if I needed anything else to which I replied, "I could do with a cigarette!" The look of shear horror on the lady's face took me by surprise, she then proceeded to lecture me that this was indeed a sporting event, I was about to embark on a mammoth climb which was to take me at least 2 hours and that smoking was not acceptable for ultra runners. I glanced at the lady stood next to her who had a better understanding of my sense of humour as she was purple with laughter. Probably not that she found me funny more likely her colleague's response. Anyway, I left the CP chuckling to myself and headed off to tackle the ascent I'd heard so much about.
Yep, they were all right, the climb out of Wengen is so long and steep it actually made me laugh out loud, it was ridiculous. I zoned out and paced it easy, letting my calves and quads do their business while Mick and Keith entertained me with 'Sympathy for the devil' Things were going good for me now, the dip I'd had earlier was well over now and I was making up time. The 2 hour climb took me well less than anticipated and next I stood at the top of the cable car station stuffing Pringles into my face, its funny how your body and mind works on ultras, I never eat Pringles, I don't even like them but I couldn't take much more sugar on board. 5 mins of consuming anything savoury I could get my hands on and I was traversing the next section like a pack of wolves were after me, things still felt good.
The temperature had dropped now and the sky had darkened but my pace allowed me to stay warm. The worst was over and I felt I was on course for a decent time, I was now catching those who had overtaken me hours earlier. At the next CP we were turning off the major path and starting another descent or at least that was what I thought. The official scanned my number and directed me to a wooden mountain hut, "Excuzo?" I asked, 'race postponed – in the hut and await instruction' "How come?" 'Electric storm on its way!'
To my disappointment I shuffled off to the aforementioned hut like a naughty schoolboy where I joined a number of Swiss and Germans. Fair play, their weather warning was as accurate as their rail network, the storm came thrashing over with biblical forks of lightning descending upon us.
The race officials had made the right call pulling us but for me this was where The Eiger Ultra disappointingly ended. There had been suggestions of a re-start but we were left wondering what was happening and when. It was only a matter of time and my Raynaud's kicked in, I stripped off and put my dry top and jacket on to try and keep warm. We were held for about 2 hours when the official decided there would be a number of mass re-starts at various locations where everyone was to descent to lower ground and back into Grindelwald. My distance was shortened by about 15km but the problem here is everyone has now run different distances therefore a disappointing uncategorised result page. No one will ever know their true position due to 3 mass starts at various distances.
We were informed we were to descend 8km back to town dropping 1000m. Now, I've never disputed that I am nothing more than a thick Welsh bloke and my focus is now on these statistics – 8Km/1000m = finish line. The brakes were well and truly off now and Dick was smashing his quads one last time like his life depended on it. My quads were now saying "Hail Marys" but I wouldn't let them repent and continued to punish them, I could see the finish, hear the music, smell the pizza and this pain would soon end when I crossed the line. Wrong! Our survey said- 'eh-orhh' as I reached the bottom the race crew now informed us of a right turn and another 5Km through the woods of Narnia!! Arrrgghhhhh Nightmare!! Its only 5Km right? But this really got inside my head. Now chunttering for the second time this trip I enter the woods and continue for the longest 5km ever, I think a Swiss Km is much longer than a normal one. I finally reach the town, now fuelled by my anger and finish to a typical Alpine World Series Race to collect another finishers T-shirt and unique Eiger Trail Rock medal.
I don't dwell on my Raynaud's, I don't feel it inhibits my performance that much providing I keep moving but when I stop I very quickly freeze up, this can lead to severe uncontrollable shivering, chattering and loss of circulation. It started in the mountain hut and at the re-start, which can often lead to the concern of others runners. I'm conscious of it and can control it by continuing to move but when I'm like this I try to keep out of the sight of any race officials at the fear of being pulled off the race or detained for any period.
Having re-united with my kit bag it's time to get wet cloths off and dry one on to avoid the inevitable while we wait for Becca. Looking for a suitable heated private changing cubicle Dick now suddenly has another rush of pooh to his tiny brain and finds himself in yet another portaloo, this one a bit less traumatic than the half way point. He's now stark naked, pitch black, shaking violently and cramping in a portaloo as he attempts a change into dry clothing. Thankful for the 350 lumens of his Petzl Nao! Sincere apologies if this image scars anyone for life but needless to say this was an interesting achievement and more difficult than the climb out of Wengen!! I eventually burst out of my vertical tomb like a magician and my next goal is a dry seat to refuel, I managed to blag some spaghetti from a stall with an invalid meal ticket and sat eating and chatting the usual debrief race chaff while I waited for the usual happy return of Becca, assisted by Live-tracking.
Excellent, as you'd expect from the Swiss and a World Series Race. Don't forget your passport for registration.
Tough (they all are), spectacular, well-marked, huge climbs with some technical descents and traverses.
As you'd expect- excellent, well stocked, friendly atmosphere, plenty of high energy fuel, very poor selection of cigarettes.
As usual I ran in La Sportiva Ultra Raptors, the sole is not too aggressive, cushioning is great over long distances with a brilliant toe box and heel support. Trainers are so personal but I've worn these for many years now and I love them.
I didn't wear compression for this race, I opted for a cheap pair of lightweight Quechua shorts from Decathlon and I wore my UTMB finishers tech t-shirt from Colombia, not because I want to promote UTMB but because it's super light, comfortable and feels dry even when soaked.
I'm now a massive fan of the Scott Ultra Trail pack 6, very comfortable, water proof, plenty of stretchy compartments and affordable, thank you #Likeys.com 10/10.
Cheap Easy-jet flights into Geneva
Swiss rail- uber efficient, bit pricey, no waiting
Accommodation- ridiculously expensive unless you share with mates.
Food/Drink – Hey, it's Switzerland, it allows you to see into the future and what the prices will be like in 2030!!
Finally, Phew I hear you say!
Great experience, great company, well organised, spectacular scenery, well marked course, brutal climbs.
Go and smash it – Enjoy and stay safe!!
- Evan Davies