Landie and Christiaans view on the Goretex Transalpine 2015. “Eight days, four countries, two runners, one dream!” 269 km, 16000 m Ascent Mentally and physically drained, struggling to breathe and unable to focus on the digits of my Suunto Ambit, tapping the absolute last bit of energy, we soon hear the very familiar sound of the noon church bells and the supporters with their cow bells we have become so acquainted with upon entering a village, the cheerful voice of the ever enthusiastic commentator.
At last, we have reached the final kilometer of the 2015 Goretex Transalpine run. Controlling our emotions becomes virtually impossible as we make our way into the finish hall in the village of Sulden, with hundreds of supporters roaring us on towards the finish line. Every feeling experienced in the last 192 hours, is relived in this final moment. Day 1 – Landie’s view Oberstdorf (Germany) to Lech (Austria) 34,8 km & 2033 m Ascent Our fairy-tale race did not quite start as I imagined. I woke up with severe abdominal pain and most certainly not the “butterfly” kind… Butterflies would have been quite normal, considering that this was after all the biggest challenge of my running career. But I just had this “gut” (no pun intended) feeling that it was more than nerves. Nevertheless, we lined up at the start at Oberstdorf Haus with 700 other enthusiastic and blissfully ignorant runners, including 4 other South African teams. I thought the cramps would ease up with a little warm-up jog, but to no avail. The pain was so intense that I found myself frantically asking for cramp relief tablets at the medical tent 10 minutes before the start. Now my only hope was that the aches would magically disappear once the gun goes…
We were set off at 10am sharp and pushed hard in the first 3 kilometers with the lead bunch. Unfortunately, the cramps just seemed to become more intense the further we ran, and I have to admit, I did panic a little inside. We were forced to adjust our game-plan for stage 1 and it was heart-breaking to see 5 mixed teams pass us in the next 5 kilometers. The rest of the stage was merely a fight for survival. But the really gloomy part was that I was unable to enjoy doing what I love so much, unable to enjoy the picturesque alpine scenery and every kilometer turned into a combat of cramps. Fortunately our technical skills came to the rescue in the latter part of the stage and even with my handicap, we managed to pass many of the mixed teams again on the long downhill single track and miraculously finished the stage as the 2nd mixed team, 8 minutes behind the leaders, team Tuga Wear from Spain.
Day 2 – Christiaan’s view Lech (Austria) to St Anton (Austria) 24,7 km & 1889 m Ascent Our splendidly comfortable lodging 500 m from the start of the stage in the charming little ski town of Lech set the scene for quite a relaxed morning. Instead, we were rather concerned with Landie’s unchanged health condition and the major climb straight into stage 2! To bring this stage into perspective: We had to climb mountains with just over 1800 m ascent, all in the first 17 km, making this the hardest 25 km we have done to date, with an average incline of approximately 11%. We both used hiking poles during this stage to ease the effort on our legs and once we got the hang of it (there is quite a technique to using them effectively), I especially found the European way of climbing very efficient.
We were the first mixed team to reach the foot of the climb after the first couple of road kilometers. But soon, our handicap became reality again as we saw all the top mixed teams pass us as we struggled our way to the top, pushing Landie wherever I can. This was one of the moments in the Transalpine run where I truly doubted in our ability to podium in this event. We eventually did finish 4th in the stage, but I will never forget Landie’s words afterwards: “I think this was my last stage; I have given everything I had…!”Our dreams and goals suddenly seemed so far away!
Day 3 – Landie’s view St Anton (Austria) to Landeck (Austria) 39,9 km & 2868m Ascent It was day 3 and after a night of pain, the cramps were still very much with me… I simply could not see myself running with this kind of agony for another stage. Especially these brutal Alpine kind, where, if healthy, is already one beast of a challenge. I mean, 2700 m ascent over 40 km is no easy task in itself. Now add a throbbing stomach and a European heatwave of 33 degrees C to the mix and this beast turns into an even more unpleasant monster!
But, I had a few, actually many, positives going for me; I had the best and strongest team partner who helped me up and over wherever he could; the Lord miraculously empowered my legs to keep going over every rock, kilometer for kilometer; however, most importantly, I still had hope and deep down, I already made the decision that giving up is just not an option. After what felt like days, we fought our way to 2nd place on the podium again, having to out sprint another mixed team in the final two kilometers. Once more, my body felt like it completed it’s last leg, yet the mind were still very much alive and kicking!
Day 4 – Christiaan’s view Landeck (Austria) to Samnaum (Switserland) 46,7 km & 2881 m Ascent The thought of the longest stage lying ahead of us was quite daunting. But as we came to realize, with our 2015 Transalpine experience, surviving one stage was the only way to go about it. We would study the stage profile in detail the night before to plan our nutrition and strategy. So needless to say, it was somewhat of a shock to discover that not only will the total ascent of the day amount to 2861 m, but the first climb alone will have an ascent of 1600 m, the biggest non-stop climb I have ever been exposed to…
I could sense that Landie was back in the game, as she started off really strong on the gradual jeep-track climbs and we were blowing in the necks of the front teams. My strength showed whenever hiking poles could be used and we functioned very well as a team to reach the summit at the first aid station of the day. The yellow jersey’s were still visible in the distance on the alpine ascent, about 3 minutes ahead. We were both hungry to contest and we were ready to make a race of it!
But for some reason, this was still not our day, as I learnt that at an altitude of 1800 m, I have trouble to breath and eat and I simply struggled to run. It was Landie’s turn to help me and along with the current heatwave in Europe we did the best we could under the circumstances. With Landie’s encouragement as only she can, we managed to secure 2nd place, less than 6 minutes behind the leaders. This stage finished in Samnaun, a lovely little duty free ski-resort village in Switzerland. The best was that the fact that we were stationed here for two nights, received some royal treatment from South African supporters. However, it also meant that I was exposed to an altitude of 1840 m and above for more than 48 hours… After every stage, in the evening, a glamorous prize ceremony took place and this specific one was on top of the mountain, with all athletes being transported with the Gondola to the restaurant at the top for a feast of a Pasta Party.
Day 5 – Landie’s view Samnaun Vertical Sprint - 6,2 km & 731 m Ascent Finally feeling like a million bucks, come rain or shine, I was going to have some great fun on my first vertical kilometer (well almost – 730 m ascent in 6 kilometers). And would you believe it, we had our first rainy stage. The stage format was structured so that teams of 2 would be set off every 30 seconds from 10 am onward. Our scheduled 11h33 start meant a very chilled morning and I thoroughly soaked up the “normal” feeling. Once the gun went, I knew I was back to my old self, and just wanted to run like a horse out of the box. However, with more than 120 km of running and big climbs waiting for us in the next 3 days, we took the advice of one of the ladies from the leading women’s team, Helen Bonzor, who also competed in the 2013 Transalpine.
She mentioned that there is no point in burning yourself to the maximum, just to gain a minute or two, and in the process compromising the next 3 stages. We still pushed relatively hard and that 2nd spot on the podium was once again ours. This short vertical stage in the rain was rather scenic with waterfalls and cow cheerleaders, and it was fun attempting to pass as many teams as we could on our way to the top!
Day 6 – Christiaan’s view 37 km Samnaun (Switzerland ) to Scoul (Switzerland) & 2084 m ascent As became custom for the Transalps, the start involved a big Alpine ascent, with another big climb waiting for us after the second aid station. But what was different from the first couple of stages, was that all of this started at 1800 m, which became quite a challenge for a sea-level organism like myself. Right from the beginning I had difficulty with my breathing and could not consume any solid food, nor could I speak normally any more.
This was a very unusual feeling and the only way to communicate with Landie was via hand signals. She helped where she could, carrying my pack, motivating, but the message between my brain and my legs was corrupted by my lungs, who seemed to be rather unhappy with the lack of oxygen. To my relief, the village of Schoul where we finished was at a much lower altitude and we had the best ever hotel to relax and recover until the next stage.
Stage 7 – Landie’s view Scoul (Switzerland) to St. Valentine (Italy) 37,8 km & 1633 m Ascent What a blessing to once again wake up with excitement in my heart and wonderfully strong legs! It was stage 7, but it was not just another stage. After 6 days, we were about 70 minutes behind the yellow jerseys. We made peace with the fact that unless they experience a serious setback, we will most probably not claim the overall win. However, we were looking for a stage win at least! As a result, we needed to play a different game. After carefully studying the route profile, we noticed that the first 7 km was pretty much downhill on jeep-track and we could use our running strength to gain an initial advantage. I told Christiaan: “Run as hard as you can, forget about the yellow jerseys and the other teams and make a gap!” I thought that, even if they caught us on the 1200 m climb after that, at least it will mean they would have to exert themselves, or so I hoped…
Regrettably, Christiaan still suffered on any form of uphill and I pushed and pulled as much as I could. But as the husband and wife duo of Team Tuga Wear seemed to float past us at the 10 km mark, I felt like losing all faith. I pushed those thoughts aside and was desperate to keep fighting. With Christiaan attached to me, there was little chance for sneaky photo opportunities and he had to hang on for dear life, but sadly we lost sight of them soon after. Stage 7 produced some of the most scenic tunnels and thrilling single tracks of the entire run, which certainly helped to keep the spirits and pace up.
It was indeed a surprise it was to catch a glimpse of the leaders as we rounded the corner at the second aid station at 25 km. My heart raced and the battle for the stage win was back on!! I instructed Christiaan in Afrikaans to just keep on moving, while I filled water etc. We made sure we kept them in sight on the last 400 m climb, with the aim to overtake them somewhere on the last 8 km downhill. Team Tuga Wear certainly did not want to give up the stage win, but as the single track opened up into a wider path, we surged passed them and ran to the finish line like we stole something. What a sensational feeling when the commentator announced team Salomon Mixed as the winners of stage 7! Emotionally and physically drained after our efforts, I hardly made it to the finisher’s zone. But, nothing seemed to matter, we did it… Stage 8 – Christiaan’s view St. Valentine (Italy) to Sulden (Italy) 40,1 km & 1648 m Ascent After 28 hours of running over 7 days, I could not help but be happy that this day has arrived! I was so excited to complete the journey and welcomed the initial 17 km downhill tar and jeeptrack section. Not even the thought of the 1400 m steep climb from the 25 km mark couldn’t dampen my excitement. Another bonus for me was that the original route had to be altered due to an incoming snow storm, and instead of climbing all the way to 2800 m, we traversed around on the 2100 m ridge line of the climb. We learnt by now that our strength compared to the other teams was definitely anything runnable. So when presented with this adjusted route profile, we approached it like a fast road run, completing the first 10 km in 41:55. This pace left us with quite a gap on the other teams, but we were aware that this could be narrowed fairly quickly once we reach the very steep parts of the ultimate climb. Thanks to Landie’s continuous motivation and enthusiasm, I used every last bit of energy to bear forward and upwards, without breath and completely exhausted. We caught sight of the yellow jerseys behind us close to the summit, but were determined to consolidate our stage win. We never looked back and negotiated the last undulating muddy kilometers in the rain. I had so many great trail running memories, every time weakness or pain snuck in, I countered it with one of those moments. The race is only finished once you cross that finish line and I was aware of Team Carteney who became injured on stage 7 of Transalpine run 2013 and failed to complete the race. As we ran down the last downhill, past high alpine cottages, fresh water streams, fences, cows, supporters with bells, I became so aware of the blessing of being in the mountains, to run injury free and running towards another stage win with the love of my life. We would like to give a special thanks to our main sponsor, Salomon International, as well as the following partners who helped made our Transalpine journey a reality: • KPMG • Buff ZA • Peptosport/pro • Hazz Coffee • Stephen Granger (Journalist) • Futurelife • Runstrong strength trainer, Ronel Nattrass • Llamabar • Redbull ZA • Francois Retief Bio & Sport Massage • Buttanut • Gu • Endurocad • Activepatch4u • Extremelights