Previous on The Irontrail saga
Some of you will remember my attempt on the Irontrail last year. Due to bad preparation, personal issues and bad timing, I had to quit the race, exhausted after 110 kilometers in Bivio. Just counting on basic condition and healthy food, doesn't do it for a race of this posture. Still, something inside me told me I had to complete this race once in my life. Sometimes one must step out of his comfort zone, in search of the limits of the impossible. Why, you're asking ? Because we can.
A lot has changed since last year and all for the better. I realised a childhood dream and own together with Katrien my partner in life, a sailing boat. We have fun running together, and although our pace and distance is different, we understand each other in that passion for running, healthy food and nature. This year, I prepared optimal towards this goal beyond compare. Completing the Swiss Irontrail. By his high altitude, distance and number of meters to climb which exceed by 2600meters Mount Everst from sealevel to the top, one of the toughest races in the world.
During winter I ran as often as I could in the dunes along the Belgium coast-side. With the Flanders Coast trail, I completed a 50K race on the 1st of March through the dunes and over the shore. The race was though on the upper legs, so I fuelled well afterwords, gaining indispensable muscles for the climbing in the Alps.
In June I ran the Trail de l'Absinthe in Canton Neuchâtel, Switzerland. I have lived for five years in that region and running over the Creux du Van, was like homecoming for me. Katrien ran her first half a marathon in the mountains, with a climb of about 800 meters. She enjoyed it and did a great job ! In Davos she planned running the D21, a race over 26 km and 1300 meters overal ascent.
My race in Neuchâtel went very well and gave me great confidence in my physical and mental condition. But I knew that even though this was a hard race over 75 km and 2952 meters overal ascent, it was far below what waited me in the Grison Alps. Here the highest point was Le Chasseron at 1606m. For the Irontrail, this is nearly the lowest point. The high altitude and lack of oxygen, was something to prepare properly. And this we did by doing the Kesh trek. A 4 day alpine hike on high altitude 10 days before the start of the race.
By doing a hike between 1500 and 3200 meters for four days, we gradually adapted to the high altitude. The first day was cloudy and we started of a little heavy, climbing the Fluëla Schwarzhorn at 3146 meters. At the same time, different from running, we had the time to enjoy the stunning panoramic views, mountain lakes, marmots in abondance, rivers and waterfalls, glaciers and good food in the mountain refuges. The following days the weather was with us. We lived in calm and peace with nature, chatted, laughed, wondering around like children. Katrien realised during this trek what un unbelievable challenge I had put myself up to. She had a hard time during the climbs, had suffered from high sickness, swollen fingers, dizzy head. But she bit right through it and also enjoyed it enormously. No need to say we had a little shock returning to Davos, where cars, stores and tourists and as always streets filled with orthodox jews who made this town their top on the list holliday resort where a big contrast. Rest at the lakeside, sauna and small walks were on the agenda towards the big day !
THE RACE: Day one !
On a sunny morning around 7p.m., about 204 fierce men and woman gathered at the start of the thoughest race in Europe. At that point only smiling faces. Some looked confident, others slightly worried of what to come. I was exited and had hoped for the start since two days, as I turned more and more nervous about it. Leaving Katrien behind for at least two days and two nights, felt as if I was going to war. On the other hand, Katrien promised me to be at Bergün, at 35 kilometers, which gave me something to look forward to. The final countdown with music from Vangelis gave me the shivers. And then the gun went of and all the stress fell of me.
I ran comfortably up to Sertlig Dörfli, going gradually uphill on easy underground. Although it was only 9 in the morning arriving there, the sun already heated the air. From there started the long climb over Sertig Pass at 2739m. Over the top I quickly passed the beautiful lakes Ravais-Ch and ran through an uphill valley to the Kesh hütte. In front lied the glacier and the Piz Kesh and just as I set my lips on a cup of water a huge avalanche of stones and rocks came down from that mountain. An ominous and frightening sound emerged from it and I was glad we were at safe distance.
From the Kesh hütte it went downhill over 12 km and I gradually felt my legs burning from the effort and impact. I saw Katrien just passed the Kürhaus in Bergun, where a week ago we had a drink on the terras with a friendly couple from Basel. I had only done 5 hours of running and was not well. My body did not adapt to the exercise yet. Katrien gave me food and care and encouraged me running along with me through the streets of Bergün to the foot of the first hill, just outside the village. A pleasant surprise was that she promised to be in Samedan, at 65km.
The path led steeply to the beautiful lake of Palpuogna. Then up to the Albulla pass and taking a turn to climb over Fuorcla Crap Alv at 2462m. I followed the footsteps of a young woman, that climbed with a good pace and brought me faster to the top than I would have been able to do running alone. Little did I know at that point, that we would finish this race together. Because downhill, I flew down, had good sensations in my legs and started to have fun in it. I did the next climb over Margunin at 2426m and was happy to see Samedan, where I knew I would meet Katrien, with food and drinks, care and love for me. I was an other person than the one in Bergün, feeling good and at peace. My feet felt good. I was confident to start the long climbs overnight that would lead me to Maloya. I took a 10 minutes nap and wished good luck to Brigitte, who earlier had lead me to the top of Crap Alv.
My first night
From Samedan, there is a huge climb to the Chamanna Segantini. I gradually saw the sun go down over St-Moritz and his lake as I made my way to the top. It was dark as I reached it and the cold surprised me. From there I saw Pontresina deep down in the valley and undertook the long descent that gradually warmed up as I left higher altitude. In Pontresina the nursing point was installed in a gas stinking underground garage. So a quick bite and hydration is all you do there. Not the best of ideas, for what was to come, was long and very demanding. In the forest uphill towards Fuorcla Surley (2755m), in the middle of nowhere, my eye fell on a burning candle set on a small rock. A scary thing to find so far from the civilised world !
The climb to the top is frustrating, especially at night because you see 3 red lights from some antenna up there that seem to withdrawl and never to be reached. But logically every climb comes to an end, so I bite through and from there ran downhill to the station Murtel. The two voluntary women were very helpful, bringing me food and bouillon. I did a 10 minutes powernap and as I woke up Brigitte had arrived, exhausted. As I stepped outside, the cold surprised me and a terrifying sound of an enormous landslide at short distance nailed me to the ground. Not knowing yet where the path lead through the dark, I was worried that some runners up front might have been there. I soon noticed that the track went away from the disaster area. Downhill it went for a very long time. I ran a while with an Italian and Becky, a girl from New Zealand who stayed with me until we reached Maloya. The sun started to come up, but I decided to offer myself 40 minutes of sleep in the gymhall. I lied down and fell asleep like a rock.
That short sleep was very refreshing. I climbed by sunset up to the Lunginpass at 2645m. A year earlier this climb had killed me. But now I enjoyed it as the views over the lakes were stunning and the higher mountains where so peaceful. A stone world with emerald lakes and marmots popping out of their holes. From the top it went down, first steep, then nicely until I reached the village of Bivio. Last year I quitted here, but now I was still alive and kicking. Brigitte had joined me on the way down there and we left almost at the same time for the next stage to Savognin, where Katrien would wait for me and I looked so forward to seeing her, that the 20 kilometers to come seemed a peace of cake. A big mistake !
The 3 climbs that followed were very demanding and the weather turned very bad. Ice-cold rain showers came from a threatening sky. My rain jacket couldn't take the showers and I got soaking wet and cold. Lightning and tunderstrokes were audible in the distance and then suddenly it was very nearby. I took shelter under a rock and Brigitte took my example. I'm scared to death of thunder on unexposed high altitudes. The storm calmed down and we continued.
The third climb was just to much. For a moment I started thinking about giving up. I wanted nothing but to get off that mountain, find my love and warm myself up in the Savognin gymhall. Brigitte assured me she was fine and told me to run. So I did and although I ran down fast, through the pouring rain, it seemed endless before I finally arrived. I had moments of anger, dispear and somehow that helped me to decide not to quit. Why quit if you go through all that shit, is what I thought. I would never come back again, after two attempts, so I decided that no matter what I would go through this until the very end ! As I arrived in Savognin my feet were aching. Katrien nursed me like an angel, finding me food, drinks, chocolate and helped me out of my shoes. My feet looked like cheesecake with strawberry sauce over it. But then less inviting. Blisters and fissures on the soles, tones and heals. I took care of it the best I could. Brigitte arrived more than an hour later, completely exhausted in hypothermia. Her feet were worse then mine and she had to see the doctor, who told her to stop. She didn't and we decided to attack the second night together for safety reasons and just because it runs better when you're not alone. I enjoyed being in the welcome care of Katrien which gradually gave me back strength. As she left I offered myself a 30 minutes sleep and of we went.
With 65km and numberous mountains to climb ahead, we set of as the sun went down and the rain poured down from the sky. But the rest in Savognin had been refreshing and I had good legs. Soon we arrived in Lenzerheide. From Savognin it was uphill all the time and this would not be any different until dawn, so I slept another 30 minutes before leaving towards the Weisshorn at 2653m. Before arriving there, there were two other climbs on high altitude to overcome. But time flew by as we talked, laughed about ourselves and this crazy undertaking and started to have small hallucinations, seeing strange things that once nearby were not what they appeared to be, like robots and humanoid figures. I thought about Katrien all the time, knowing the weather would be bad tomorrow and that she for the first time would have to run a demanding race on high altitude. I send her a message, kisses, to be careful and wished her good luck. I was worried more about her than about myself, as I knew I would finish now I had come this far.
On the last top before the Weisshorn, we entered a skistation that was so warm, it felt like a Sauna at 90°. The warmth was so welcoming that it took me all my courage to stand up and continue. The air outside was cold and the look of the Weisshorn was impressive. A demanding climb towards the top was largely compensated by a stunning view. The clouds formed a white sea and mountain tops lied like islands in it. A quick bite and down to Arosa it went.
On our way, a runner doing the 121km race followed us. He was completely gone, thought that the Weisshorn was Arosa and Arosa was Davos. We baptised him 'the horse', because he snort like a horse and his running pace was like a trotting horse. Although Arosa was soon in sight, we still had to run a big loop around it before arriving. The nursery was located in a public nuclear shelter. The 10 km that separated Arosa from the finish in Davos, seemed nothing. But two more climbs were to be the hardest part of this incredible race.
To the finish
The first climb was not to demanding and because we had climbed a second time, I thought Davos would soon appear. Wishful thinking. Suddenly an enormous mountain lied in front an the steep climb discouraged me completely. Brigitte had a hard time and I suffered from my feet with each step I took. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a second. Told myself to be strong and how happy I would be to complete this race. So I started climbing and pulled Brigitte over the top of the Strelapass at 2346m. As we stumbled down, runners from much shorter distances passed us by with great speed, tapping our shoulder and congratulating us. It frustrated me to have to make place on my weak legs. And then I heard my name calling from above me ! My love was there, running at great speed and with agility downhill ! A kiss and I assured her to continue her race. Seeing her and knowing that she finished before me, would be there, gave me that last push to pursue my painful descent. She flew down full of energy and we both admired her technique and speed as we hardly could walk.
Brigitte had been an enormous help running. Most of the time she gave me the good pace uphill and I took the lead downhill. We ran together as if we were a well oiled machine. The last kilometer, emotions whelmed up, realising what I just did. We stopped a car crossing the street: 'make way !' And there she was ! My angel, waiting at the corner of the last turn before the finish. She ran the last 30 meters with me and I finished my race after 55hours and 40 minutes. 55th on a total of 204 runners. Although everyone started this race in the idea of completing it, less than half of them really made it. I fell in to Katriens arms and we cried. A mixture of relief, unbelief, total exhaustion, happiness and sadness all together. I promised her this was the hardest one and would not do anything worse then this ever again. And I mean it. The irontrail was my opus dei, the best thing I ever did in my running career. Something I never want to dethrone by doing something even bigger if that would exist. I came back to complete it and I did ! In a way this gives me a big sense of victory, a feeling of being invincible, great confidence in life. But it also makes me realise how precious life is, how fragile we are, how strong nature is and how much respect we own her.
The finish was an very strong moment. The rain poured down as I hugged my love who had been so worried and so helpful travelling ahead of me to give me the best of care one can dream of. Meanwhile she had completed a 26km race with a climb of 1300meters in severe weather conditions. I am so proud of her. As I am of myself and as I am of Brigitte, who not only did this for personal achievements, but gathered with this race a lot of money to give the child of a deceased Sherpa a future raising a project called 'Run for hope'. Who wants to donate for this wonderfull project can visit the website www.run-for-hope.ch
This epic journey is the story I will one day tell my grandchildren and that will be confirmed by Katrien who was an essential part of it ! Big thanks my love !!!! Thanks to our children, my parents and brother who followed the race back home ! Thanks to Marc, Michelle, Fritz en Catherine who supported me and to all the followers on Facebook. Big thanks to Brigitte and Karin and to the organisation of the Irontrail and the 300 volunteers who stood out for us ! It was 'wahnsinnig', amazingly unforgettable !