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Shona Stephenson: Embrace Trail Running Adventure

September 22, 2015 Comments (1) All Posts

Transalpine Run – A Story of Mountain Trails & Bomb Shelters

I’m writing this as we travel through the Alps from the finish line of the Gore-Tex Transalpine-Run in Sulden, Italy, back to the start in Oberstdorf, Germany. As the coach threads its way through the valleys and passes alongside the mountain route we’ve followed, the magnitude of the undertaking is sinking in. We’ve run 266km over 8 consecutive days, including 16,000m of mountain trail elevation gain. From Germany to Italy, from summer to autumn, from pleasure to torment and back again; we’ve slept on school floors, in gyms, in bomb shelters and in the back of a truck; we’ve eaten more pasta than you can imagine and drunk far too much isotonic sports drink.

This was always going to be a tough challenge physically and mentally, but what I hadn’t really appreciated was just how emotionally exhausting it was going be. Every day brought a whole range of highs and lows, with the stage finish line providing relief and anticipation in equal measure. However, each finish line was to be the following day’s start line so the euphoria of getting through another marathon day was always short lived! Afternoons were spent napping (or trying to nap), while evenings were spent at race briefings, before once again getting our bodies and kit ready for the next day. Mornings were early, usually 5am, for a basic breakfast and a nervous wait for the opening chorus of Highway to Hell, which marked the start of each stage. All very cheesy, but it was impossible not to get into the spirit of it by the end of the week.

Sleeping properly was difficult, not only because of the hard floors and noisy, sweaty, smelly runners camps, but because of the physical toll that each day was taking on the body. Muscles ached, legs tingled, feet throbbed and thoughts, memories and anxieties made it hard to switch off. In spite of the great spirit of communal endeavour, mood in the camp became increasingly dark on the last few mornings as teams and individuals who remained in the race committed themselves to the suffering that was to come.

My moments of maximum unpleasantness were probably not the ones that I had been anticipating. The hill sprint on the ‘rest’ day (stage 5) in Samnaun was a suffer-fest from start to finish, and in fact the whole experience of stopping in the same town for two days and interrupting the routine was very difficult. I struggled to sleep and recover at altitude and my stomach took a turn for the worse, making it very difficult to fuel properly overnight and on the run. The following stage was horrible and I spent the day chasing running partner Rhys’s heels as my guts tied themselves in knots. But it is amazing how things can turn around in a race like this; the following day my body cooperated and I felt good from start to finish, something that was impossible to imagine just hours earlier. It’s important not to dwell on the misery and accept the natural ebbs and flows of your body.

Running with a partner makes this a different kind of challenge from your average mountain race. On the one hand, it’s not only about getting yourself through, but also making sure that you both reach the finish line. Chances of something going wrong are doubled and there is a guarantee that you will have your highs and lows at different times. On the other hand, it helps to be able to share the experience with someone and to have company and encouragement though the bad times. Rhys was rock solid and never blinked in the face of the challenge. We both made an unspoken commitment from the start to get through it together as a team no matter how bad it got, and we never strayed more than 20m apart on the trail. Having a partner you can rely on to give absolutely everything day-in, day-out made it easy to do the same. Only a mechanical could prevent us from finishing, and this remained our biggest fear throughout the week.

That fear never really left me until the finish came into sight on the final day. Until that point, I think that neither of us was ever completely secure, being so far out of our comfort zones, and with weekly mileage and ascent records long blown out of the water. In some ways, the closer we came to the end, the greater the anxiety became. When we started the week I felt confident that the last day would be a relative breeze, should we make it that far. By then surely everything would be wrapped up and we could just cruise it in to the finish? It turns out that the reality of a final marathon, including a downhill half mostly on roads, followed by a 1,500m climb, is far from a breeze. I genuinely had no idea whether I would be able to run on day 8, let alone run fast enough to defend our position.

Oli Johnson. inov-8. Transalpine Run 2015.

‘Running with a partner makes this a different kind of challenge from your average mountain race… it helps to be able to share the experience’

As with all the other stages, though, as soon as the gun went, we were off and we just got on with the job in hand. Head down, legs moving, look out for the next orange dot (if I never see another orange dot again it will be too soon). The downhill half went by in a blur of soreness, but the kilometres ticked away agonisingly slowly from there, each new landmark reached leaving a seemingly insurmountable distance still remaining. It became a game of patience that was everything to do with the head and surprisingly little to do with the legs. The biggest lesson that I have taken away from the week is that the body will endure pretty much anything you throw at it so long as you keep it together mentally. Fortunately, both Rhys and I are stubborn buggers.

Was getting to the finish a climax? Sure, we both got very excited and made a lot of noise as we hammered it down the final few hundred metres. It was an emotional thing and we both needed a bit of time to take it all in. I have never felt such a sense of achievement before just to get a finisher’s medal. But at the same time the finish was just the finish. It meant that we could stop running. But the real achievements lay elsewhere – those dark times out on the trail where things had felt really hard. It is getting through the bad times and experiencing odd and often unexpected moments of euphoria along the way that define the week for me.

Oli Johnson. inov-8. Transalpine Run 2015.

‘Crossing the finish line was an emotional thing. We both needed a bit of time to take it all in. I have never felt such a sense of achievement before just to get a finisher’s medal’

What are the moments that stand out for me? There are the trivial things; a cold shower under a culvert in the searing midday sun; a marmot spot; singing a Kate Bush song out loud on the way up the biggest climb of the week; sharing the trail with a herd of cows. Then there are the more dramatic and obvious moments; single trail snaking through a lunar landscape; emerging from the woods into a meadow in the shadow of two gleaming domes of rock; racing through tunnels sewn into the side of a gorge; reaching the high point of the week on a mountain pass between Austria and Switzerland. Then there are the more personal things; an occasional pat on the back or word of encouragement with Rhys; meeting some likeminded folk from all over the world on the trails; sharing the experience with the other British teams; missing the family like hell and thinking about them a lot.

What will it be like to go back to reality? The 8-day race was a bubble. Sure there was a lot of strain, but it was dead simple; all we had to worry about was putting one foot in front of the other. Emails have not been checked. Work has not been thought about. Family responsibilities have been neglected. I suspect that what feels like a massive undertaking and achievement right now will very soon fade into a vague set of recollections. No matter that we have experienced so much in such a short time, it is all just a game and not connected with real life. But perhaps just one small thing has changed. We set ourselves a hard test and passed it. That feels good.

For most of the race, I ran in the new Terraclaw 220 shoes, which were ideal on the mix of rock, gravel, mud and asphalt and kept my feet healthy for the duration. Rhys also wore the Terraclaw 220 as well as the Terraclaw 250. I used the Race Ultra 5 pack with a 1.5L hydration pack and carried the lightest kit I could find, including the Race Ultra Shell.

* Oli and Rhys finished 4th team in the men’s open category, their total running time for the 8 days being 31 hours, 17 minutes and 24 seconds. Results.

Oli Johnson. inov-8. Transalpine Run 2015.

‘We set ourselves a hard test and passed it. That feels good’

One Response to Transalpine Run – A Story of Mountain Trails & Bomb Shelters

  1. […] Sleep deprivation plays a part in many ultra races and obviously in 24-hour rounds like the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley (Wales) and Ramsay Round (Scotland). Lack of sleep affects people differently and some can also experience hallucinations. This, fortunately, has never happened to me. I can go a long time without sleep; being a farmer has taught me that you just have to get on with the next day as if you had a full night’s sleep, even though in reality you’ve been up from 2am to 4am calving a cow. […]

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