Monday, 6 August 2012

Ticino Trail - love at first sight

My friend Nikki & I have secured places in the North Face CCC next year, the 100km little sister of the UTMB, despite having never run further than 50km.  So this year we thought we'd better give it a go and a combination of dates, distance, difficulty and locality brought us to the brand new Ticino Trail in Switzerland: a 2-point qualifying race of 58km with 4480m ascent and 4000m descent.  We often train together and are intending to run the CCC as a team so not only would this test our endurance, but give us practice at racing together and running at night.  The race was only 5 weeks after the Chamonix Marathon, so recovery from that only allowed a couple of weeks of additional training before another short taper.  We did 20km 2 weeks after the marathon and it felt hard.  The following weekend I ran with friends over the course of the 30km Petit Trail des Fiz and it nearly killed me.  My left heel really hurt on the ascents and right knee on the descents, so I was in pain most of the time.  I found it so tough and it really scared me that just 2 weeks later I was due to be doubling the distance and ascent.  Nikki ran with another friend that weekend too and also had a pretty rough time.  Did we really have it in us to do an ultra, albeit quite a short one?  Had we bitten off more than we could chew, trying to squeeze in too much this summer?  How would we cope running together the whole way, particularly if either or both of us was struggling from one of our many ailments?

There was only one way to find out, so on Friday 3rd August we headed off towards Switzerland along with my long-suffering, super-supportive husband Andy, trusty dog Leila and enough kit & trail snacks to clothe and feed a small army.  The journey there alone was quite a mission, travelling through French-speaking, to German-speaking, to Italian-speaking Switzerland, zig-zagging up and over the 2500m Furkapass, into the clouds and onto the San Gottardo pass, then down into the stunning Ticino region.  We were staying near the start in Faido and after checking into the hotel for us girls (and campsite for Andy & the dog!) we headed back to Airolo to pick up our race numbers, only to get stuck in stationary traffic from an earlier accident.  Hungry and hoping for an early night, this was not good!  Nikki phoned the lovely race organiser, Fabio, who confirmed they would wait as long as they could so we (and presumably lots of other people stuck in the same jam) could get our bibs.  She had his number on speed dial that day and he didn't seem to mind!  After an hour we started moving, so we dashed into a service station to get food just in case the traffic stopped again, but luckily we made it to Airolo in time to get our race numbers, along with one of the best pre-race goodie bags I have ever seen: folding cup, cap, drinks bottle, energy snack & powder, anti-inflam gel and a pot of local honey!  We uselessly spoke no Italian, but everyone was trying so hard to speak to us, they were just lovely.  We shovelled down some lasagne and got back to Faido for a later than hoped for 11pm bedtime.

I usually sleep so badly the night before a race, but my new ear-plugs meant I was out like a light and slept right through til 7.30, until a huge clap of thunder woke us both up.  It proceeded to pour down with rain - not a great start to the day - but thankfully soon eased off.  Shower, breakfast, final packing of race bags, a lot of vaseline smothering and we walked through town to the start to join about 100 other runners.  As a new race it's not surprising that it was under-subscribed, but after only ever running races in Chamonix with it's Europop enthusiasm for trail-running, it felt strangely calm and somewhat surreal, more like a group of friends going out for a run rather than an actual race.  We even found ourselves at the front of the start line with no elbows jostling for position.

10am and we were off, through Faido and straight onto an uphill trail.  The weather was warm and hinting at getting hot, but a lot of clouds kept it unpredictable.  The first section covered 14km with 1660m of ascent, through forests and out onto open mountainside to the Leit Hut, where there was a food station and 5hr time barrier.  I try not to stress too much about times, Nikki loves to, but when running in an unknown area it was hard not to.  I barely noticed the first 10km, chatting to Nikki and a few other runners and, although it got a little steeper towards the end of that section, it felt gradual and nothing like what we were used to in Chamonix.  We got to the hut in just 3 hours and were happy, knowing that were were comfortably inside the barrier and thus taking the pressure off.  The food station was manned by 3 lovely guys and 2 friendly dogs and had bananas, chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, local ham and cheese, bread, TUC biscuits, tea, water, coke and energy drink.  We chatted for ages, topped up our hydration packs, force-fed fellow runner Daniel (a complete novice from Germany who had no food in his pack whatsoever) and headed off after about 10 mins as we were starting to get cold.  Arm-warmers were put on (they really are one of the best running accessories) to take the edge off the wind.

From there we headed down a short, bouldered descent, through green meadows, home to the mushroom-coloured local cows, up and over the blowy Campolungo pass and down a rocky then forested trail into the next control point in Fusio at 22km.  We had taken 5 hrs in total, easily under the 8hr time barrier.  The food here was again excellent, the volunteers friendly and toilets plentiful.  As we were about to leave it started raining, light to start with, then a downpour.  We donned our waterproof jackets and headed out into the rain, up a forest trail and across the Lake Sambuco Dam.  Here the course went along the side of the lake for some time, on a tarmac road, which was unexpected and not too enjoyable.  At the end of the lake we headed back onto a grassy trail and started the long 1100m ascent up to the Lake Naret Dam.  There were 5 of us running together at this point and the guy in front of me suddenly slipped and fell on a wet rock.  It looked like he had hurt his wrist as he was holding it, but as I got closer I could see the all too familiar sight of a dislocated shoulder, not too badly out, but out nonetheless.  Having done this to myself 3 times I know what it looks like and how much it hurts!  I immediately started thinking about what the best plan of action would be, when luckily he sat up and his shoulder popped back into place.  There was instant relief on his face.  We checked that he was OK, gave him some ibuprofen and made him stay in front of us so we could keep an eye on him.

The ascent to Lake Naret was lovely, but the rain kept starting and stopping for 5-10min blasts.  This did give us a stunning rainbow at one point, but also made the trail slippery.  I was the first up the ascent, across the dam and into the 34km checkpoint, which was manned by a lovely, friendly young team of volunteers who spoke excellent English.  I chatted and stuffed my face until Nikki arrived, and topped up my hydration pack again with water & Torq powder.  We learned that we had already covered over 3200m of ascent in total, which gave us a real boost.  Daniel arrived and said his stomach was feeling bad - he didn't appear to be eating solids and was surviving on energy drink alone, a receipe for disaster on such a long run in my experience. The shoulder guy also arrived and said his shoulder was hurting - again, not ideal to carry a heavy pack after a recent dislocation, in my experience!  He left the checkpoint before us and we didn't see him again after that, so I have no idea if he finished.  We waited for another downpour to subside then headed out over the second section of this impressive double-dam and up the Naret Pass.  Daniel had a quick vomit on the way up and we suggested that he might want to go back to the control, but he was having none of it and pressed on.

From here the trail traversed across and down a mixture of rock and meadow trails.  The scenery and wildlife was just so stunning - delicate alpine bluebells, deep golden dandelions, huge purple thistles, bright pink mini sweet-williams and vibrant purple and yellow daisies.  We saw cows, birds, hundreds of butterflies, mice, bats, frogs, tadpoles in the tiniest of streams and I very nearly trod on a marmot that darted across the path inches in front of my feet.  The mountains were breathtaking, despite the miserable weather, with mist enveloping the huge peaks, vast valleys and picture-postcard villages nestled here and there.  The descent took a couple of hours and eventually we came onto a road that wound through the village of Bedretto, where we were met by an excited group of young kids that gave us cups of water, very cute.  Through into Villa and the penultimate checkpoint at 9pm, where it was time to put on our head-torches.  More friendly volunteers gave us soup and didn't flinch when I took of my very wet and smelly socks!  I decided to 'treat' myself to a fresh pair for the last 13km - really shouldn't have bothered because a) my shoes were soaking, b) it started pouring again and c) I ran straight into a river soon afterwards.  Great.

As we headed off into the darkness, the weather was pretty miserable, so we were back in waterproofs, the raindrops clearly picked out by our torches.  We initially ran through a flat, grassy meadow, but as the trail headed back into the forest we slowed to a hike and walked the rest of the way.  The route was clearly marked with a combination of florescent paint, stripey tape and reflective markers, so it was easy to find our way in the dark, but too wet and slippery to risk running.  The expected short ascent was not steep but seemed to go on forever (it was actually twice as much as we'd been advised at the checkpoint) and we were willing for the descent to start.  Moths kept flying into my beam and the eyes of cows lit up as we headed through a field, like they were all watching us.  Finally after 2 hours we stumbled into the last checkpoint at the Pescium ski station.  I was keen to keep moving but Nikki was feeling the cold, so we stopped for some more delicious soup.  We joked with one of the volunteers about wanting a beer, he told us he was sorry that Federer was going to beat Murray at the Olympics the next day (oh how wrong he was) and he offered us a choice of about 7 different types of chocolate, brilliant!

Just 4km remained between us and the finish line and we were 13hr20 in.  I was convinced we could crack 14hrs so we dashed off as fast as we could.  However the rain made the steep descent over wet grass and mud really difficult and we slipped and skidded rather than ran, using our poles all the way.  As we entered the outskirts of Airolo, the markers became hard to see, but we kept running along the road and up into the town.  An old lady got very excited when she saw us, trying to give us directions and following us along the road.  Finally the finish came into view and we ran into the finish area to claps and cheers in a time of about 14hrs10mins.  We were ecstatic, had achieved a time we were really pleased with despite our unhurried approach and did not feel nearly half as knackered as I thought we would.

As we ate our bowls of pasta, then had seconds, washed down with a well-earned beer, we saw other runners finish that we had passed along the way, including Daniel, who was over the moon and really grateful to us for helping him.  We sat around and chatted and the enormity of what we had just done started to sink in.  We had not only run further than we had ever run before, a full 10 miles more than a marathon, but covered a lot of ascent & descent, dealt with changeable weather, ran in the dark and kept moving for 14 hours.  Physically our bodies had coped pretty well - our feet were white and wrinkled from being wet for hours, Nikki had an enormous blister on her heel that she hadn't even noticed, my knee felt sore on the descents but my foot hadn't caused me any problems at all, neither had Nikki's dodgy leg.  I certainly didn't feel like I had just run that far.  But perhaps the most pleasing realisation was how we had dealt with things mentally - we made a strong team, we did not run side by side the whole way (I am usually first up the hills, then Nikki 'gazelles' past me on the descents) but we were constantly checking on each other, we made sure each had enough food & water, we listened to each other if one of us wanted to walk, but we also laughed, helped others, drank in the views and basically loved almost every minute of it.  The mental side of endurance running is as, if not more, important than the physical side of things and not once had either of us considered stopping.  That was a huge achievement.

The winner took 7hrs11 (half our time) and the first woman finished in 8hrs 42.  Our main aim was to finish, but not to come last, which we achieved.  Out of the 75 starters in the full distance race, only 5 runners finished, probably due to bad weather, but possibly also due to that lack of entry requirements for this 117km distance, which could encourage less experienced runners to give it a go.  Lizzy Hawker was on the start line for that race and we fully expected her to overtake us at some point!  The Ticino Trail was absolutely beautiful, well-organised, with great terrain, helpful, friendly volunteers and excellently-stocked refreshment stations.  I would absolutely recommend it and really hope for them that it takes off - the fact that they have UTMB qualification points means it surely can't fail.  I definitely hope to return again.  Nikki and I both have additional races planned for this year, but not together, and soon it will be time to start planning for next year and what we want to do to prepare for the CCC.  Ticino was an important milestone for us, proving that we can race together, go beyond 50km, but most of all that we can do that and still enjoy ourselves.  Afterall, isn't that why we do it?