“No, it won’t be gone from your memory, but it will be settled. You will have faced the fear, the anxiety and the trauma”. These were words that came from my therapist’s mouth at the end of a particularly hard session dealing with some childhood PTSD. This sentence came back to my mind this morning on my run. Why you may ask, well I have been struggling to find a way to write about my recent race in a way that will do it justice for me and for you. How does this fit into a mountain race? Well, for me this race was about facing one of my biggest fears, something that’s been with me all my life, that’s held me back from adventures.
I don’t know if it’s Vertigo or Acrophobia. All I know is I have an imbalance of some kind but also a mental issue too. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. I sometimes feel dizzy walking over motorway bridges. I will have to be right in the middle of them, eyes facing forward or I feel I might fall. This fear can be crippling, I have been known to crawl down hills on my ass, not even on a ridge because the fear is so strong.
Back to the point, my little realisation this morning came as I remembered the sentence from my therapist and linked it to a moment while I was out running with Ged on the NDW. We had to cross a motorway bridge and for the first time in a long time I felt ok. The fear was there still but I was managing it and not letting it hold me back and it was like a lightbulb moment as it dawned on me that I have made a massive leap forward and it comes down to a few things that happened before, during and after the race in Switzerland.
Two weeks before, going to France/Italy with Lauren to run in the mountains started the mental preparation. I finally understood what it would be like to climb that high in a short distance. To run small shale paths at an angle, cross steep gully’s and descend from altitude.
Then over the next two weeks I studied the route map and watched YouTube videos made by runners from previous years. I worked out where the potential points of fear could be and tried to visualise myself running them. I wrote down the cut off times for each check point and planned on how much of a buffer I would need to finish. The goal of this race was to finish and enjoy it, not to race it. No A, B or C goals, the only pressure being the cut offs and if the plan went well, I wouldn’t have to worry after 25km, so I could just chill and smile my way down off the mountains.
The day before the race I went on a 8km hike/run up to a glacier on the other side of the valley. I used this to practice on similar trails. Tucked in tight to the mountain, with sheer drops at times, some steep climbs and descents. A shake out run for someone who hates heights but loves the views. A confidence builder, something to settle the mind and allow me to sleep well.
Looking back on this prep, I am really proud. My actual physical training had been poor due to injury but my mental training was the best I have done I think so far. I was as ready as I could be and excited for the adventure that lay ahead.
The Eiger is a festival of races starting (mostly) in the Swiss town of Grindelwald. You can select the E101, E51, E35 and E16. They all have slightly different routes but the 101 covers the whole way round the valley.
You have to enter by setting up a Datasport account then getting lucky by clicking the link at the right time when entries open. The 101 sold out in 5 mins, the 51 in 2! I was very lucky to get a spot.
The E51 has 3000m of elevation gain and a cut off of 14 hours. The route goes up on to the peaks opposite the Eiger mountain. You can find more info on the website.
Getting to Grindelwald is a bit of a trek but it’s worth it. You can fly to Zurich or Basel then get 4 trains to the valley and it took me about 5 hours. It’s a small town, which felt very full because of all the runners from around the world. I stayed in a hotel that was about 10mins walk to the start/finish and served an early breakfast on race day. This is important as the 101 starts at 4am and the 51 at 6.45.
I was still a bit nervous, like any race but it had helped being around some friends to talk over the race. A couple had done it before and some were newbies like me to this mountain lark. Talking over tactics though and getting some tips was really helpful. It helped me get a good nights sleep and I woke feeling pretty fresh, followed my usual toilet, shower, breakfast, toilet and chill routine. I don’t like to be rushed in the morning, even if it means getting up a bit earlier.
Soon it was time to walk down to the start line, I deposited my post race bag and met up with Krysia and her husband Martin who were entered as a couple, which meant they had to stick together unless one quit! We had a chat, took some photos, then before we knew it, the horn was sounding and off we went.
The first couple of KMs are up through the town, in fact we ran right past our hotel balcony. Gillian and Poppy didn’t make it out in time though, somehow I managed to get out of the room without waking them. Soon we hit the low farmland trails. There was some climbing but nothing crazy. My poles stayed in quiver, it was fairly easy for me to hike these and I had some fun banter with 3 Australian lads. One of them had forgotten to lube up and was already regretting it! Before we knew it we hit the first traffic jam, a small single lane bridge, which we all knew about. It took about 10mins to get through this, which was annoying but it is what it is. The trails started to get a bit steeper as we headed up to the first checkpoint, Grosse Scheidegg at 8.3km. I had my poles out about half way up this climb and got into a good rhythm, the sun was shining and life was great. I stopped at this checkpoint to refill my water, grab a yummy oat bar and have a wee. This one had inside toilets. I was soon on my way though.
I checked my timing sheet, the next check point was “First” and I needed to be there before 10.30, but I wanted it be out of there before 9.30 really as the bigger climbs were still to come! This checkpoint was only another 6km away, and I could see it up ahead. The route there looked really nice. A simple grass sided path slowly winding upwards. This section was quite runnable, which made me really happy. There is nothing quite like that feeling, as I discovered, of letting your legs go in the mountains. It just feels so free and the air is amazing. As I got closer, I started to get a bit anxious about a section of the course that would test my height issues. Leading into the CP, there is a metal grated walkway which hugs the mountainside then bridges a large gap. You can see straight through it to the valley below and it becomes exposed. When I discovered about this being on the route I was pretty worried I would have a freak out. It turns out I was in such a good place mentally that I really enjoyed this section, I actually ran it all, as it was pretty clear of other runners and the public. I enjoyed the views across the valley and before I knew it, was in the CP, filling my bottles, eating some fruit and more yummy oat bars. I left that CP at 9.20, well within the cut off but just missing seeing Gillian and Poppy by a couple of minutes which was a shame as they were in a cable car on the way up.
Next up was the climb to Feld, another 7 KM, to make 20 in total. The cut off for this CP was 12.00. Another beautiful part of the route, which was again quite runnable in places. It took us past two lovely mountain lakes and I really wanted to stop and dip my toes but no time! A note to runners, there is a small, toilet block here too! Soon I was running into the CP, which was in a barn, the time was 10.25, I was really happy with my consistency and felt amazing. I had been fuelling and hydrating well, especially as I noticed it starting to warm up. At this CP I made a classic Jon move, combining food in my mouth that shouldn’t be, doh. This time it was cheese and oat bars! Cue puking lol! I then made a portaloo stop before heading back out. Now the real climb was about to begin, the big one to the highest point on the course, Faulhorn which stands at over 2500m.
This was the climb I had both been dreading and excited about in equal measure. It was going to test me massively. I had until 13.45 to get to the summit and CP, it was only 5km but mostly straight up.
After the first climb, we had a ridge walk, which was the next test of my fears, I wasn’t expecting this, I managed to keep my head, only getting a little stuck with my poles annoying me on a climb down as I like to use my hands. Getting over this part was a major victory but there was a long way to go.
Judging the length of an ascent can be tricky but a cool feature of the Garmin watches is, when you load a route it will show you each climb. There is a screen which will say for example: Climb 5/12 3km and 900m. For me this allows me to pace it out and avoid the short lived joy, then pain of false summits!
I was soon on the first of the two steep climbs, sometimes scrambling, sometimes taking a moment to enjoy the views. I chatted to a lovely English lady, who lives in Chamonix, her best comment was “well you don’t get hills like these in London right?”, she gave me some great encouragement before climbing on. I soon reached the top of this climb, not the summit but, I stopped to look at the view of the lakes I had ran past earlier, just stunning. Now it was time to summit, powering on, my legs carried me up in a decent time. I buzzed into the CP at 11.57. I was now 1hr 45 ahead of the cut off, boom. It had taken about 1.5hrs to do 5km though. That will give you a feeling of how steep it was. I had also noticed several Mountain Rescue people sat up at various points of the climb with binoculars keeping an eye on all the runners, which was reassuring. The helicopter that kept flying in and taking off again wasn’t though. I guess some people couldn’t continue for one reason or another, so were being flown off the peak.
I stopped and sat down to get my spare full bottle out of the back of my bag. The reason I had a spare full one was because at this CP and the next you were not allowed to fill your bottles because of limited water supplies at the top of the mountains, apparently. So I came prepared!
The next part was really annoying though, I stood up and noticed a line in front of me going through the race branded summit arch. This line lead all the way down to the CP. It took me about 15mins to get through, which was really annoying. I had a cup of coke, some more oat cake and a bit of banana, then walked on out. There must be a better way of doing this, very frustrating. Anyway, I was about halfway and it was going to be all down hill right?
The next CP was “Egg”, also no bottle filling but not a timing point. I started the descent and soon realised it was going to be pretty technical. My plan though, was to take it at my own pace, run when I could, walk, when I felt I needed to and step aside to let other runners past. There were some really tight paths on shale, with sheer drops. It was pretty nervy at times but as I keep saying, the views just kept giving me all the good vibes! Then came the snow. I guess I was expecting some but hadn’t really thought about it. The first couple of sections were pretty easy on a climb, with paths made already, then after a descent to a random cafe in the middle of nowhere there was this huge slab of ice about 2.5ft deep. A channel had been dug out of it that was just wide enough for your foot, so it was one foot in front of the other and slide down. A rope had been put in as it started to slope too, so it was kind of mono skiing. Then a just a couple of hundred meters later there was another big patch of snow, this time though it had a drop off, going all the way down. I was a little freaked out by this tbh but saw another mountain rescue dude, I said hi and thanks, he gave me some encouragement and I managed to cross it, albeit pretty slowly. The next bit of snow was more like a small training ski slope and it was pretty fun. No drop off but a nice long run, where I used my poles to keep balance as I skied down to the bottom. After finishing the snow sections I felt pretty bad ass to be honest. It helped my confidence loads. Soon I was running into the CP, which was on a lovely wide grassy area. I had two cups of water and trucked on. 30kms done, only a 21 to go, easy right? Oh how I was wrong.
At this point, I had noticed that I was getting tired, I had let my nutrition slip a bit, so put a recovery plan in place,;eat everything. Also at some point I remembered that I forgot to re apply sun cream and it was pretty dam hot. My face was feeling it, so I stopped and put some on. It was already burnt.
The next CP was Schwand, which was at 37kms; I had plenty of time to get there, was a bit worried about water but had to just get on with it. There were some more climbs of course but some great views over the lake at Interlaken before the descent into Endor, I named it that as it looked like the Ewoks home planet. So green and lush, just a shame it was steep as hell. Tree roots, then sheer rock faces, ropes and stairs, this section had it all and it was so tough. I had a low part here, everything started hurting, I had pretty much run out of water and had 1/3 of a bottle of tailwind. When I finally exited Endor, I was wondering where the bloody CP was, it had gone past 38kms on my watch but next up was a step descent on a road, which was also pretty painful. I would have given anything for a climb at that point lol. The next best thing though was coming across a small hut where some runners filling bottles with water. I was like, screw waiting for the CP, I’m having some of that. Quickly drinking a whole bottles worth before refilled. Just as I was leaving, another runner ran past saying the CP was only 200m away. Doh!
I entered Schwand just before 3pm, the cut off was 5pm. Now 2 hours ahead, this made me very happy. I took advantage of some food, started on my Longhaul sweet potato food pouch and got my buff soaked in ice cold water to cool myself down, then high tailed it out of there.
I had 6 hours to finish…easy
The final CP was about 6 or 7 km away. Tbh, I didn’t really trust any of the distances but I knew that my fuelling was back on track and I had plenty of water. This section ran along and then back up some of the hillside, the poles were still very much needed, with a few sharp ups and down to deal with. I was getting more confident on my feet though, I was enjoying the race again, chatting with other runners, stepping aside still to let those more experienced pass me. Before long though, we dropped down to the valley floor. This was a pretty quick descent, to trail and road, my quads took even more of a beating but I was pretty happy to see the final CP at Burglauenen. As I came running in, the announcer read out my name and home town. This was funny. I soon remembered though that this was the halfway point for the E101, this place was buzzing, runners getting their hot food, grabbing gear, chilling out, in blankets retired and getting ready to go out for the 2nd half on the other side of the valley. My main memory of this place though was finally finding some watermelon! I had been craving it for hours and none of the other CPs had it, bananas and oranges mostly. So I grabbed 3 bits and left.
I think I had about 7 or 8 km to go. I looked at my watch for the first time to see predicted time. I think it was about 18.20 or something, I can’t remember really. What I do remember is that after being marshalled across the road to the riverside trail, I realised my legs hurt a lot. I pretty much decided I was going to walk it in lol. I did a few short run bursts but couldn’t manage that much. Then it started raining. Then it rained more, I decided not to get my jacket out, so I started jogging. Then it rained even more, I ran a bit quicker, then it got to monsoon level rain, I ran quicker. I chatted to two Dutch girls, who said we were having a nice swim, they also decided to run it in. I suddenly felt alright, my legs lightened and I was running like at the start. It was a feeling like, no other. I was soaked through but just didn’t care, I was going to run this in strong. I tried to message Gillian to say I was going to be done soon, so Poppy and her could come down and see me finish but with the rain, I couldn’t work my phone! Of course there were a couple of hills in this section but I power walked them, over taking people, which was such a great feeling. Then before I knew it I was on the final climb up to the main road in town, then running down the street to cheers, into the funnel, where I saw Krysia and Martin cheering me on, I hi-fived some kids, was up over the funny wooden bridge and through to the finish.
It was 17.18, I had completed it in 10 hours and 33mins, 3.5hrs ahead off the cut off.
I was happy, no, I was very happy. The time was alright, nothing special. It didn’t matter. I was happy because I had just done 51km in the mountains. I had run ridgelines, climbed, scrambled, descended steep technical terrain, run/skied through snow and the scenery was the best.
It’s a beautiful route, well organised and marked. It’s expensive though and massively over subscribed. Switzerland is expensive too so be prepared for that. The locals are lovely, as is the town. The goodie bag is awesome, I got a buff, headband, running belt, stickers, sun cream and some vouchers for local stuff. The medal is amazing, it’s one of the reasons I signed up, lol. The finishers tee is pretty cool too, they also do a ladies specific one. Nearly all the CPs have toilets. Most portaloos but a couple with actual loos.
My only 2 negatives are:
- The food selection at the CPs isn’t that great really. Compared to Centurion races they are just lacking variety.
- Not having bottle filling for those two CPs is quite dangerous imo. I think they should have more water and allow refilling at EGG as it is less crowded.
Saying that, the experience was amazing, from the kit check to finish, thank you.
It’s taken me a while to process this race and that’s because I went straight into holiday mode with the family. Normally after a race I would have a day or two to think about it. 3 weeks later, I still don’t think I have processed it fully to be honest. A few days after the race we were in Italy at a small town called Monterosso, which is part of the Cinque Terra area. I did a short run along the coast for some head space. Again, tight trails with some sheer drops into the sea and I just felt comfortable, at home. I think subconsciously this is when I noticed the change in me. The fear was still there but I was managing and accepting that I will have it but on my terms. It’s weird really that childhood trauma being worked on in therapy has helped me learn to manage different anxieties in my life.
To anyone who like me thought they couldn’t do something like this, you can. The world is a big old place and I am tired of being scared. Now where are the mountains?