TODAY MARKS A YEAR. A year since I signed myself up to do something crazy – something beyond crazy really. I decided that it would be a clever idea to enter the Goretex Transalpine Run. This event is a mountain trail race that traverses the Alps from Germany to Italy along a 260km route, clocking-up 16,000m of vertical ascent over 7 days. The race would be my first ultra, my first multi-day or ‘stage’ race and also my first race abroad. But that isn’t the crazy bit. I am a trail runner after all. I’ve been a runner of sorts for as long as I can remember. The showstopper is that now I’m a mum too. Or to be more accurate, I’m a mum OF two. My girls were aged 3 and 1 years old at the time of entry, and I am a part-time working mum. This is where it starts sounding like a really bad idea!
The Transalpine Run is a pairs-race, so my husband and I decided to put our names on the line together, as a team – in more ways than one. Training for this race was going to take every bit of self-discipline, spare time and commitment that we could muster as a couple. No sooner than we had signed up, we wondered what on earth we had been thinking.
And so it began; running after work, running in our lunchbreaks, hiring a babysitter and running at night – long, cold and wet runs, together by headtorch. We roped in the poor grandparents (who lived a 10 hour drive away!) We booked them up for ‘family weekends’ where we went running and racing whenever we could spare a few hours. Luckily, my husband works in the mountains as a guide, so he was able to build up a good baseline of fitness and even altitude training, by working in the Alps over the summer. My desk-based and buggy-based exploits however, were somewhat less useful. But our childminder was a godsend, helping me out with the girls here and there to buy me a few hours for a mountain run or two. It was a group effort certainly, and by the time September came around we were ready. Well, we were going anyway.
Had we done enough training? Not by half really. We decided some time back not to compare ourselves to the ‘recommended training’ plans supplied by the event organisers. We knew that we were not ‘normal’ and that our training was going to be on the minimal end of the scale. We were running only 3 times a week and had increased our long runs up to about 30km, but no more. We hadn’t even managed any back-to-back runs as advised. We weren’t kidding ourselves though. We guessed we had a 50% chance of finishing, and a 90% chance of injury. But we were keen, we were experienced (fell and mountain marathon runners) and most importantly we were parents. That meant we were finely-tuned suffering machines; think sleep-deprivation, noise torture and weighted-squats with circuit training (kid-lifting and tidying 24-7). We also had more to prove than most. As parents of two toddlers, this was our one big event that year, our one ‘romantic’ week away together as a couple (thank you grandparents) and it had cost us more than every penny we had, just to get to the start-line. We had ‘invested’ ourselves in this event and now it had to deliver.
On September 2nd this year we toed the start-line in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, looking the part but feeling VERY concerned. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried quite so much. Yes it was hard, yes there were bowel-issues, nausea and cramps, but we had expected that! The views were spectacular and the terrain varied. By the end of day one, we ran in to the quaint alpine town of Nassereith in Austria, having run 43.7km and 2,378m of vertical height. We were tired, sore and worried for the next day but mostly we were proud – that was the furthest we had ever run! Now we just had to do it again. And again. For 6 more days….
The route of the Transalpine Run is different every year, but it always crosses the Alps (via an ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ route on alternating years). This year the route passed through alpine meadows and forests, past glacial lakes and over high mountain summits, it crossed technical rocky terrain with cables and even a short section of glacier – which involved mainly sliding downhill on your backside! And every day it got harder.
Day 3 was 54km and 3000m of ascent, and from this day onwards I started to suffer with an acute overuse injury (tendonitis) in the front of my ankle. It was excruciating, so I had to visit the medical crew after finishing that day. Quite unexpectedly (as the ankle was very swollen) the medical team patched me up and gave me strong painkillers/anti-inflammatories and told me to ‘crack on’ (in German)! I was so disappointed to be injured though, and was gutted to be hobbling along rather than running at the pace I was hoping for. But I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was worse for wear and the medical tent saw a great deal of traffic.
The biggest surprise was that we were ‘racing’. We were racing every day, in the face of pain and fatigue. The pace was fast, the field experienced and the competition fierce. I was constantly surprised that my body could keep on performing. Every night we stayed in a hotel, ate our body-weight in pasta and recovery shakes, and rested. But every morning I could hardly bear-weight or walk downstairs to breakfast (think 4am breakfast and a shuttlebus journey to the start line – Zzzzzz!) But when that gun went off, everybody seemed able to run!
Continuing to run in the face of injury and fatigue was something new to me, but no matter how swollen, puffy, achy and tearful I became. I was GOING TO FINISH. I should also mention, that although my husband was also suffering his own aches and pains (apparently), he was also frustratingly fit and strong, and coping admirably with the challenge. It was running as a team that really pulled us through. We were helping and supporting each other, both physically and mentally. Many times I had to put my headphones in and retreat inside myself just to get by.
On the final day (36km and 2118m), the increasing closeness of the finish line was almost too much to bear (‘close’ had now become anything under 20km)! Despite the fantastic panorama over the Italian Dolomites as we approached Brixen, my eyes were full of tears. The whole experience had been overwhelming. It was as incredible as it was terrible, and the journey had been more than just a physical one. I even let my husband push me (yes, actually push me from behind!) up the hills. This seemed to be a popular strategy for competitive mixed pairs and my pride finally gave way to a willingness to accept all and any help to reach the end. And. Finally. Stop. Running.
The final stretch of the race took us through the rustic streets of Brixen, Italy. And as we weaved through shoppers and past beautiful architecture, the pain seemed to melt away. The relief on crossing the giant Gortex finish line was all-encompassing. We received our finisher’s medal but the real prize was the smiling. Not just our smiles, but the smiles on the faces of the other finishers, and the hugs with the people we’d met along the way, and come to know. It had been a sociable and moving experience. And I had to remind myself that it had also been incredibly awful, and that soon I would lose all my toenails. I was already saying ‘never again’ as I sipped my beer and climbed in to the town fountain to celebrate with the other runners.
The children seemed so far away and I missed them now more than ever. No sooner had I finished the race than my ‘mum-guilt’ started to set-in. Such is the plight of the modern mum, trying to do, achieve and be everything. But the girls were safe and having fun with their grandparents and it wouldn’t be long now before I was home, picking old Cheerios out of the carpet and scrubbing crayon off the radiators. And I was looking forward to it more than ever. And perhaps that is what it’s really all about, this self-inflicted suffering in the name of endurance sport; perspective. The darkness we experience when we’re ultrarunning, throws our ordinary lives into stark relief and the normal things, the everyday things, suddenly have a brilliance that we usually miss.
Maybe ‘never again’ was a bit strong…
Girls on Hills Ltd
Keri Wallace is a trail running guide and company director for Girls on Hills Ltd in Glencoe, Scotland. The company offer guided fell and trail running for women, equipping ladies with the confidence and skills they need to be independent in the mountains. If you would like to find out more visit www.facebook.com/girlsonhills