Photo from the 2014 Ice Age Trail 50 Miler by Ali Engin. Permission to use header photo must be obtained through Ali Elgin.

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Transalpine 2009 Race Report - A Sheila among the Sherpas

We've been back now for three days and I still have pitting edema in both legs. I can barely lift them they are so heavy. I have huge scrapes and bruises over my body, swollen lips and even an edematous face. How on earth did I get this way?

Where but the Alps can one find such extreme mountain ascents and descents?

Below is Hannibal leading his army through the Alps in the 3rd century. From Saturday, Sept. 5th through Sat. Sept 12, 250 teams or 500 individuals attempted to cross the 240 km distance across the Alps, from Germany to Austria, to Switzerland to Italy, perhaps retracing the steps of Hannibal.

Of all the characters in the above painting, it is the poor elephant falling off the cliff that is most representative of my experience.

The night before the race, we arrived in Oberstdorf Germany to enjoy a large welcome dinner where teams from 25 countries were introduced. By coincidence, we sat next to Mikael and Søren from Denmark and Kimberly Giminez and Elizabeth Eppstein from California. Kimberly casually said "there are some people here who have never even run in the mountains before!!" I slouched a bit in my chair. Spirit Mountain in Minnesota probably doesn't qualify as a real mountain. And the last time I was in the mountains in Colorado, I ran on a treadmill.

It rained that night and I was worried. What in the world were we getting into here? But then there was this view from our Zimmer on the morning of the first day...




We started out fast, of course. We were in what we think was 3rd place for the mixed teams when we finished the first 10k and the first large ascent. But then the downhill started. It was steep, rocky, muddy and slippery. This was no problem for seasoned mountain runners, who passed us one by one.

And this became the sad story of our race. We were one of the top teams on the non-technical flats and uphills, but then we were daily passed by almost every single team in the field as we (I) struggled through the technical downhills and froze from fear on the exposed cliffs.

On the second day, there was a section where we came to the peak and then had to go down a rocky cliff backwards, holding onto a wire. We were in about the middle of the pack at this point. I started going down backwards, but kept imagining myself falling to my death. I was frozen still and felt the tears streaking down my face. One of the transalpine guides had to help me down. "What's going on?" I heard a woman yell above me. Then one of our Australian friends replied "We're being held up by the Sheila down there."

Yes, that was me, the Sheila in the land of the Sherpas.

By the third day, various parts of my body started hurting. Mostly my left knee (pes anserine bursitis) and left ankle (tibialis anterior tendon sheath inflammation). This meant the downhills were even slower.

We arrived about 2.5 hours later than we had told my mom and SR's parents who were watching The Lorax and step-daughter. SR was frustrated. I was in pain. The parents were irritated.

Day 4 started out the same way. We were among the leaders for the first 10k, but my ankle and knee just got worse and worse. SR started kindly asking if we could drop out so we could spend time with the family instead. Finishing that day would have been torture for both of us. So we dropped out of the official race. Strangely enough, Ida from Norway, a friend of ours, also had the same problem with her left tibialis anterior. The four of us from the two teams were taken in a bus back to the start. Ida then sought medical attention and was hospitalized in the next town, Scuol, Switzerland, because her left leg was so red and swollen that they suspected a skin infection. She was admitted for three days on IV antibiotics, bed rest and even given blood thinner injections to prevent a blood clot in her legs from all the bed rest. Let's just say I'm glad I didn't seek medical attention.

In the meantime, after we dropped out, I went over 12 hours without urinating and watched as my entire body swelled up with fluid. At 8pm the night of day 4, I finally urinated and knew it was just edema from stress and not kidney failure.

On day 5, we joined the race again for the 6km mountain sprint.The stage was arranged in a time trial fashion and we were leading the entire day until the top 8 teams came in and pushed us into 9th place out of nearly 100 mixed teams. And we were the top team that actually ran together rather than averaging our two times.

Since we were officially out of the race, we spent day 6 relaxing with step-daughter in the healing Baths of Scuol, Switzerland. It was awesome. I then felt ready for the next two days of mountain running.

On day 7 we did really well. I had mostly gotten over my fear of heights and did better on the technical sections and downhills.

On day 8, the pain in my left ankle and left knee returned, but we still had fun and got to enjoy the finish with all of the other teams.

It was humiliating and horrible, but extremely beautiful and challenging. I went from a sheila to, well, perhaps not quite a sherpa, but someone who would love to be a real mountain runner. Let's just say we're hoping to do it again. Either the the transalpine again or perhaps the transrockies (which looks like more running and less technical rock climbing and descending).

And if we did do it again, we'd rent a camper to save money and travel without the entire family, though we loved every minute we got to spend with them.

5 comments:

Danni said...

Mountain running is definitely a whole other beast. Sounds like a good time, even if you felt like the elephant falling to its death.

olga said...

But it was all worth the pain, right? Right? :) And that's what I love about it. And when you love something, you get better in it. Even if most of the training happens in your mind:) My first trails WS100 was run on training in NYC and subburbs with roads and dirt carriage roads and not hills. Apparently I love technical downhill. May be in my past life I was someone who had to do it? Anyhow, the pictures are beautiful! I have never done a stage race, and am kind of eager yet scared of the unknown factors. One day I'll save vacation time and jump in! Right now I am simply jealous:) Heal up!

Abbie said...

Wow!! That is such a beautiful race. Maybe someday I'll put it on my list of things to run... with lots of mountain training per your experience. Thinking of doing it again next year?

Helen said...

What an adventure! I hadn't thought too much about how tough that race would be - just thinking of the beauty... but some pain you can't deny! Funny (not in a funny ha ha way) that it's also my left tibialis anterior giving me problems - tendonitis resulting in shin pain. But of course we do it all to ourselves :) Hope you are recovering well. I am being optomistic about doing the 100 in 2 weeks time but I guess only time will tell...

Paige said...

that sounds beautiful. i love hiking in the mountains but unfortunately 1. i am terribly uncoordinated and 2. i live in ohio now!