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.
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!
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?