“Are you as proud of yourself as I am of me?” The lady with ‘ICELAND’ on her vest asked me.
We had simultaneously come to the same realisation – that we could actually finish this race.
The Swiss Alpine Festival, based in Davos, is the largest mountain running festival in the world, and the K78 event is the planet’s premier mountain ultramarathon. The last Saturday of our week there saw the staging of a range of races from 10 to 78 kilometres, to suit all abilities.
The 209 Events group, of which I was a part, had spent the week acclimatising to the 2,600m altitude, and running and hiking among the beautiful alpine meadows and peaks.
I had spent most of that time worrying about the cut-offs!
An ageing ultrarunner of 50, I was still proud enough to enter only the longest event on offer! And so I found myself analysing the strict schedule of times at which each part of the course would close.
The first 30km were mostly downhill to Filisur, with a 3:40 cut-off at that point. I would get a decent chunk up on the schedule during that time, I thought, and have something in hand for the demanding mountain traverses to come!
Little did I know.
We rose before dawn, had breakfast in the hotel and made our way to the stadium. Most of our group were doing one of the two K42s on offer, with only three of us opting to go longer.
The buzz in the stadium was fantastic – all shapes, all sizes, all nationalities, all nervous – and all too soon we were off, looping through the town to a chorus of “Good luck” from the rest of the group who had come out to cheer us on.
Now, those first 30km were indeed mostly downhill, but there were also some long climbs, some technical wooded sections, and, crucially, some bottlenecks where the early volume of runners meant agonising minutes were lost waiting for my turn over a stile or through a gate.
Filisur approached. OK, I’ve got a bit of time. Loop through the town. Where’s the bloody cut-off point. Another corner. Not much time left now. At last, I reached it in 3:37 – 3 minutes to spare.
From here the course basically climbs for over 10km, meaning a) I had to walk long stretches, and b) I was convinced I would not reach the next cut-off in time. I had till 4:50 to reach Bergum; I was somewhat surprised to get there in 4:44.
Lordy, I had never spent so long in a race, KNOWING – not thinking, KNOWING – that I would not finish.
Chants had a cut-off of 6:05; again it came slightly earlier than expected in 5:58. (it was here that an English guy in our group got to the cut-off 40 seconds late and was put on a bus back to Davos.)
And now the real work began!
From Chants, the course rises very steeply to the start of the Panoramaweg at the ski hut at Keschutte. I mean very steeply – it was agony even walking.
At some point, I turned a corner and I could see the hut far above me – I had till 7:30 to get there. I was walking with a Belgian in a distinctive orange jacket. He had finished the K78 for the last 8 years; he wanted to make it 10. I looked up at the hut again and apologised – I had to leave him and press on – over the river, round the switchbacks, up, up, up.
It was only now that I allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe, I could do this.
I looked back down the mountain and saw my orange-clad companion – he was not going to make it 9 years in a row.
It’s at Keschutte that the race has a team of doctors who stop each runner as they come through, look into our eyes, and ask us how we feel. They have absolute power: they pull out those whom they consider to be too spaced out to continue.
Because, apart from anything else, the next section over the Panoramaweg includes several mini glaciers and many exposed ridges.
I was obviously looking less vacant than usual, because they allowed me on, and I was able to walk and run the next two hours or so, along the well-named Panorama Way, taking in the alpine sights (including the K42 runners whom they route along the valley floor far below our vantage point), watching where I was putting my feet and trying to take it one mile at a time.
It was just after Durrboden (cut-off 9:50, time 9:37) with just the “easy” run back down into Davos to come, that my Icelandic friend summed up our achievement.
And so, we jogged through the beautiful alpine meadows, over streams, past farms, to reach the outskirts of Davos, where several of the 209 crowd had gathered to cheer me in. From there it was a circuitous route around and through the town, finally running along the main drag, high-fiving the beer-quaffing locals who were sitting outside the cafes in the warmth of the evening.
Into the stadium, and a finish in 11:25:32 (cut-off 12 hours).
Medal, t-shirt, drinks (a compatriot drank a beer just after crossing the line and found that it locked up his jaw completely and made him unable to speak for the rest of the night!)
I walked back to our hotel and went into the restaurant where the rest were already eating. Much to my surprise, they stood up and burst into applause.
I have been lucky enough to have experienced quite a few moments of intense pride, satisfaction and fulfilment in my running career, but this – coming from my fellow competitors – ranks among the very best.