2017 Zugspitze Ultra Trail 100K

My race starts at the back, as it always does. Hundreds of anxious runners push their way to the front, oblivious to their abilities and those around them. I choose to relax at the back for now. I know all but a few will finish behind me.

L-R: Connor, me, Markus before the start of the race!
L-R: Connor, me, Markus before the start of the race!

At 07:15 the race starts. An oompah band slowly leads the race for the opening section through town before runners make a left-hand turn to head toward the trails. I’m with Markus and Connor, who plan on running together again this year as they (we) did last year. For today’s race I will be on my own, running my own race. I’ve set a somewhat ambitious goal time of 16 hours. In my pocket I carry a folded map of the entire course, with checkpoint and elevation info.

Full map with checkpoint and elevation details for the course
Full map with checkpoint and elevation details for the course

On one section of the map, there’s a list of each of the 10 major checkpoints (V1 through V10). I have scrawled goal times at each, based on a finish time of 15:30. I went through the 2016 results and scoured the results to find the ideal splits for each section based on the most consistent competitor(s), so these times represented a very evenly paced effort over all 100 kilometers and one I hoped to replicate.

A close-up of the splits to hit to keep me under 16 hours.
A close-up of the splits to hit to keep me under 16 hours.

Starting the race, even on roads there are  running/trekking poles everywhere. Europeans love them, even on pavement. I hate them because right now they’re just sticking out in all directions and it’s difficult to pass people. I would love a rule prohibiting their use on paved roads or in the first 5 kilometers of any race. It’s just too crowded to have to deal with the drama of getting poked by these things.

In a mile we’re out of town and on the trails. The weather is cool and dry, perfect for ultra running. The sun is out and lights up the forest beneath the mountain. Already we’re climbing as we head toward the Zugspitz (the highest peak in Germany), and the trail is runnable enough to move up positions. There are a few sections of single-track, but even on uphill switchbacks it is possible to pass people. I briefly consider whether it’s wise to pass people so early, but my effort is light and given that I started so far back I decide it’s not an issue.

This section of the course is the perfect way to start out the race. It’s gentle trails, rolling uphill toward the first aid station at Eibsee (elev 3370). The total ascent in the first 10km is only about 1,000 feet, and without any real drama I’m at Eibsee filling my bottle with “iso” to continue my run around the mountains. My time is slightly ahead of last year but a bit behind where I should be: My course time is 1:09 (versus the goal of 1:03). Still, I’ve got plenty of time to make up in the miles ahead, so I don’t really think anything of behind 6 minutes behind and continue along the course.

Elevation profile for the 100K
Elevation profile for the 100K

Making a left from the first aid station, the course immediately heads uphill. And uphill. And uphill. Soon all the trekking poles come out, and I’ve got my hands on my knees pushing up steep grades. Over the next 2.7 miles we climb 2,000 feet and at the summit of this bump we find ourselves crossing the border into Austria! It’s the first real climb of the day and I try to remind myself that there’s still a lot more climbing to come. Thankfully we have a very runnable descent and lose more than a thousand feet heading down to the second aid station, Gamsalm (elev. 4109), overlooking Ehrwald in the valley below. On the immediate descent into Gamsalm we head down the switchbacks of a ski slope. Dozens of runners are zig-zagging their way down the grassy slope, and I’m happy we’re not allowed to go straight down because that sort of route might destroy my quads too early in the race.

My elapsed time at Gamsalm is 2:43:11, against a goal of 2:24. I’ve slipped a few more minutes from goal (now 19 minutes behind) so I make a note that I can’t take it too easy any longer. With almost three hours on my feet, I decide it’s time to start replenishing calories. First I start with fluids (iso) because the sun has come out and the course is more exposed. I’m finding that I have to ration my fluids along the course, which is a big change from last year when it was wet and overcast. I drink 20 ounces at the station, and fill up another 20 ounces to bring on the course. I listen to my stomach, which is craving sweet fruit, and down a couple pounds of watermelon before continuing my way along the course.

We make our way east through Austria toward the next aid station (V3), Pestkapelle (elev. 5319). V3 is only 8km (5 miles) away, and it’s positioned before the biggest climbs of the day. Although there is a fair amount of climbing headed to V3, most of it is surprisingly runnable and I decide to push the pace a bit to start passing people before the real hard climbing begins. I decide to run all but the steepest of uphills, even when others are walking, and I move up a few spots but make sure to enjoy the changing scenery along the way. Looking south we see more mountains and a valley between us. The sky is amazingly clear.

I share some of the trail with eventual 3rd place woman and we enter the V3 aid station at Pestkapelle together with 3:45 on the clock. Shit, each aid station I’m falling further behind target. Target time was 3:23; I’m now 22 minutes behind. I make it a point to stay a few extra minutes here because I know there is a fair bit of climbing ahead. I eat at least a pound or two of watermelon and top up on fluids. Without wanting to waste any more time there, I make my way along the trail.

We hit some little climbs shortly after leaving V3. I note a cable car that ascends up the side of the mountain and wish I could take such a shortcut with some mechanical assistance. Pretty soon we’re moving up some of the steepest sections of the range. I’m suddenly wishing I had poles, as my hands go on my knees to try and force push my way up the mountain. Switchbacks ease the slope up the mountain but lengthen the distance. I guess it’s a necessary evil. I recall that at this section last year, we got hailed on and I had to put on my jacket and hat because the constant pelting of hard ice actually hurt a bit. This year we had amazing views and clear skies to reward us at the top of each peak.

In about 2.5 miles into this section, we hit the race’s highest and perhaps steepest point at 7218 feet (2200m). My lungs are fine but my legs are ready for some downhills already! My wish is granted, and there’s a fairly runnable section headed down to V4 at Hammermoosalm. I find myself running with the 3rd place woman again although she pulls away along a stretch of downhill fire road. I make up that lost time on some of the more technical downhills, which she doesn’t appear to do well on.

Between V3 and V4 is the highest point of the course, with some of the most beautiful views.
Between V3 and V4 is the highest point of the course, with some of the most beautiful views.

Entering Hammermoosalm (V4), I check my time against my goal and I’ve stopped the hemorrhage: my course time is 6:03 against a goal of 5:50. I’ve claimed 10 minutes somehow. Was it pushing the uphills, or doing well on the technical downs? I’m not sure yet. I do know that the last big climb of the first half of the race is ahead, and I am very much looking forward to getting to V5 at Hubertushof Reindlau, which roughly marks the halfway point. More importantly, I know that after V5 there is a long stretch of flat road along a river that will be my best opportunity to make up lost time on some of the ascents. We’re already 40 kilometers into the race, but it still feels quite early in the race and I don’t let myself think too much or get excited about finishing. There is still a lot of race (and pain) left ahead of me.

Feeling a bit crushed by a long uphill that stretches as far as the eye can see. And not even halfway to the finish!
Feeling a bit crushed by a long uphill that stretches as far as the eye can see. And not even halfway to the finish!

The ascent from V4 (4650 ft) up to the top of the Scharnitzjoch peak (~6720 ft) isn’t any steeper or longer than the ones that preceded it, but the fact that I can see almost the entire climb makes it difficult. The prior ascents had a few more switchbacks and turns. This I can see stretch on for quite a bit ahead and beside me. Having run the race last year, at least I know where the peak is and know there is a big downhill to V5. Unfortunately, it’s not a downhill that I particularly like. It’s a little tricky to run because the trails are narrow and very channel-like. It’s too narrow to comfortably run without kicking your ankles — the dirt walls flanking the trail prevent you from running with much grace, but the surrounding grassy areas are too uneven to run fluidly. I clomp my way down this unpleasant section, but I’m reminded that last year this was all mud and I’m grateful that it’s dry and without snow this year.

I find a good rhythm with a woman just behind me and we make our descent quite quickly, passing a number of runners who do not handle the downhill sections so well; or perhaps they went out too fast and they’re paying the price for their early pace. Either way, we make our way down to V5 where I see the first batch of competitors pulling out from the race. There is a mandatory medical tent that everyone must stop in for a quick evaluation. There’s someone receiving an IV drip, laying on a cot. His day is over. There are a few others being attended to by medical staff, so I skip the checkup and continue through the tent to the aid station. My time at V5 is 8:10, only 17 minutes slower than target goal.

I’m feeling tired, so I grab a lot of watermelon (what’s my obsession with watermelon today?) and have a seat in the shade. It’s the first time I’ve sat down all day and it feels good — perhaps too good. I’m feeling very good mentally now, knowing that more than half the course is behind me and, more importantly, that the section ahead is all runnable. I decide to allow myself a 10-minute break in the shade here, fearing that if I keep pushing the entire race I will blow up from either exhaustion or a lack of calories. I eat more watermelon.

Although the 10 minute break seemed a bit gratuitous — a lot of runners came in the aid station after me and left well before — I feel justified in having taken it as I shuffle my way out and along the Leutasche Ache (river). Running along gentle rivers is nice because it means the terrain is flat. It feels a bit strange to be running with a regular gait at this point, but my legs are so tired from the ascents that I can only maintain about a 9:45 pace. My hips are tight, my quads are exhausted, and I’m doing everything I can to keep moving forward.

It’s at about this point where I start to pass runners doing the shorter distance. They’ve had a 20+ km headstart on me, so I note the color on their bibs. 100k competitors have green bibs, and 80k runners have blue bibs. I feel sorry for every blue bib I pass here, because there is still a lot of course left and I know they will finish deep into the night.

There are children’s playgrounds here and weird signs with troll-looking faces painted on them. I think some of it may have to do with ghosts, but I’m not sure. It feels a bit like I’m running through the hometown of the 7 dwarfs. Thankfully the presence of other humans means that there are proper bathroom facilities and I duck in a nice facility to relieve myself instead of having to do it behind the bushes and trees surrounding us.

A flat stretch of trail en route to Mittenwald.
A flat stretch of trail en route to Mittenwald.

After about 10km of flat running we are back in Germany at Mittenwald (V6) at 10:11 course time. My rest break at V5 and bathroom break shows: I am now a troubling 37 minutes behind. This is where Aaron, Amr, and Reto had planned to come cheer Connor, Markus, and myself — but I realize I have hit this aid station well ahead of schedule and they’re not here. I pull out my phone for the first time and text them telling them that I’m, “Leaving Mittenwald at 16:55.” Hopefully they can relay this info to Connor and Markus behind me when they all see each other.

I almost over-react when I see that Mittenwald doesn’t have watermelon (!) but then I notice they have some honeydew-looking type of melon. It’s tasty and I ask one of the volunteers what it is. It takes about 4 people to figure out the english word for this type of melon: stone melon. It’s quite tasty and I forget that they don’t have any watermelon.

I continue my run to V7, Gasthof Ferchensee. I recall last year that this is where Markus and I really pushed the pace and so I made a commitment to keep that tradition alive! It’s only a 5-kilometer stretch and relatively flat, so I barely have time to drink my bottle of iso before I’ve arrived. My course time is 12:31, 42 minutes off my goal time (11:49). No good. I don’t waste any time eating and just fill up my bottle to continue to ward V8, Partnachalm.

Last year this entire stretch was fairly dark and I needed my headlamp already. This year I’m still under the light of the full sun. It’s starting to retreat behind the mountains to the west, but the sky is still very light and I’m happy to not rely on my headlamp at this point. Leaving V7 there’s a decently significant climb. It’s enough that most people are walking up at this point (mile 45) but I continue to run, although at a very slow pace. Still, it’s enough to get a lot of thumbs-up from the people I’m passing. I sort of feed off this to keep me moving forward before hitting the high point for the segment. About halfway through it levels off and becomes runnable in a nice, grassy, Alpine sort of way. I see a course medical volunteer out there who is monitoring competitors. He’s walking around the field and asks how I’m doing, I’m I’m OK. I respond, “Great! How about you?!” He chuckles and continues his walk along the course.

I’m feeling surprisingly good at this point and I know there’s a big downhill toward a river crossing shortly before the V8 checkpoint (Partnachalm). I know that V8 is where my race begins; it’s there where I struggled last year covered in mud and the darkness of night. So far I have energy to spare, so I’m looking forward to that push.

Soon I’m at a set of switchbacks that I recall vividly from last year. It’s on a fairly narrow trail, and in 2016 Markus and I got stuck behind a train of slower competitors. It irritated the hell out of me because I do much better on downhill stretches and they were really holding me back. This year I had no one holding me back and I scalp a few solo runners along the way. In just a couple kilometers, the course descends 300 meters (~1000 ft) over about 30 consecutive switchbacks. Each averages only 15 seconds…. right, then left, then right, then left, then right, then left… my ankles are begging to get to the bottom already. My mind was so tired in 2016 that I Had forgotten how many of these there were, but soon I reach the bottom and I recognize that the V8 checkpoint is not far. I just have to run down across a river and then up the other side to reach Partnachalm.

Heading down to the river, there are rails to keep me from flying around more switchbacks (will there be no end?!). Soon I’m crossing over a bridge, and heading back up the other side. This time the railings come in a bit more useful as I desperately try to aid my legs by pulling myself up. My legs are shot. How did I go from having gas in the tank to struggling so badly? Some of the runners I passed on the downhill switchbacks are catching up with me as I scale up to V8. They’re gaining on me each switchback up and all of a sudden I’m jealous of their poles that I hate so much with a passion. My hands go my knees to push with each step and I’m sweating like a pig. Where is V8?! It should be here already!

The course turns down a small alley and opens to V8/Partnachalm. I’m here. Course time is 13:48. I’ve made up some time against my goal (now 34 minutes behind the 13:14 goal time) but I’m hurting and concerned. I rush to the aid station and find none of the glorious melon I had shoveled into my face at previous aid stations. I’m bonking and with no melon in sight! I head straight to the quarter-cut oranges and stuff them in my face, in desperate hopes that their juice will revive me. I oscillate between getting in some protein (cheese? sausage?) or sticking to fruit. I sample a bit of everything, hoping a cornucopia of nutrients will magically combine to give me strength to push the final 12+ miles.

I sit off to the side of the aid station to sit down for the second in the race. I assess my body. Nothing’s injured, but there’s little gas left in the tank. Finishing under 16 hours? It doesn’t seem possible anymore. I’ve made up time on the last segment, but perhaps pushed too hard too soon. Soon it will be dark and I don’t know how that will play out. I know there’s a big climb coming ahead — two, in fact — and I’m having doubts for the first time. I text Aaron my disappointment and try to temper expectations: “…I’m leaving V8 now. Headed up that damn mountain soon… Probably finish around 17 hrs.

Lowering expectations! So tired that I typed "V7" instead of "V8"
Lowering expectations! So tired that I typed “V7” instead of “V8”
And a message to Markus. "Feeling very tired," was an understatement!
And a message to Markus. “Feeling very tired,” was an understatement! Again, too tired to realize that I meant V8!

I switch into a long-sleeve shirt here, unsure if I’ll be able to sustain a pace/effort to generate enough heat in the cooling temperatures now that the sun has started to set behind the mountains. I leave V8 feeling beaten, physically and mentally, and of course there is a slight uphill to start the next leg. Lovely. I walk. The incline is very moderate, so I make a deal with myself to jog; jog until I cannot physically jog, and then I will allow myself to walk. I keep jogging. Jogging becomes running. Running turns into passing people. Somehow I’m feeling alright again, but I know that there’s a steep climb leading up to V9 (Talstation Langenfelder).

The good news is that there’s still plenty of sunlight. Last year it had been dark at this point of the race for hours, and worse it had been raining all day. This stretch was muddy and uphill, which was like two steps up and one step back. Mile for mile, it’s probably one of the steepest ascents and it hurts so late in the race. As soon as I reach it I put my head down and start marching: up, up, up. There are few people left to pass, so I run out of desperation just to get this stretch over. It’s longer than I remember. Last year I didn’t see anything in the dark. This year I see everything and recognize none of it. I only remember the narrowness of the trails, the felled trees, grasping at branches to help pull me up the mountain.

Somehow the strength that left me climbing to the top of V8 has come back. V9 is getting closer and closer. I know not to expect is anytime soon, and it’s a good thing because this feels like the longest 7 kilometers of the race. 4.3 miles has never felt so long and for good reason: it takes 1 hour and 17 minutes, roughly 18-minute per mile pace of quad-burning uphill. I reach the top knowing that the rest of the course is fairly runnable.

Looking back at this stretch, I had thrown the Sub-16:00 finish time out the window when I started. Coming into V8 I felt broken. After consuming a few calories and a 5-minute sitdown, I started off toward V9 feeling empty but somehow found my legs again on a very difficult stretch of the course. Relative to the rest of the 476-person field I actually had my best stretch here. Somehow I posted the 11th fastest split here of the entire field. I had almost given up, yet my place for that segment was my strongest of the entire race. This was a big lesson; I hit V9 and did the mental math: I arrived just before 14 hours. I had two hours to finish under 16 hours. I knew there was a 4-mile loop of considerable difficulty: the climb I had just finished heading into V9 continued another two miles up, before coming back down to the same checkpoint (this time considered V10). I recalled last year most people took 1.5 to 2 hours to finish this loop, so I wasted no time in heading out.

Starting at V9 the course heads south, up the mountain toward the top of the Alspitze (mountain). In about two miles it climbs approximately 425 meters (1400 ft) along what I would normally call runnable roads, however the severe incline of some portions rules out the possibility of anything resembling a run. While the roads are wide and non-technical, the grade of some sections forces everyone to a hike. It’s about this time that it’s starting to get dark. I have my headlamp ready for the second half of this 4-mile loop because I know the downhill sections are much more rocky and technical and I can’t afford to wipe out so late (also I value my teeth).

The fight for a sub-16 resumes. I push every uphill and see competitors at the top of the mountain with their headlamps starting to show. They’re the bait I need to keep going. I’m pushing as hard as I can and lose my breath more than I would like. I look forward to coming down this silly mountain so that I can make up for lost time. This is taking much longer than I had remembered from last year. In fact, most of these sections that I’m running in whatever remains of daylight are taking much longer than I had remembered from the nighttime of 2016. I guess this is the curse of being able to see everything ahead of you — it just doesn’t end.

Soon I crest the top of the loop, but I do recall from last year that it winds around a bit before making the ultimate descent down. I recall last year seeing headlamps in the direction NOT of the checkpoint but further out on the mountain. It’s a deceiving loop that takes you away from the checkpoint even as you head down from the peak. I try and focus not on getting close to the final checkpoint, but rather on the distance that my watch is showing. Just get to 4 miles for this loop and I’ll be good. Headed down the stepped mountainside, I pass the competitors whose headlamps I had been chasing up the hill. I’m going for broke to get to the finish. It gets runnable and I can start to see and smell the finish line. It’s near.

Making my way down the mountain, finishing the loop from V9 to V10.
Making my way down the mountain, finishing the loop from V9 to V10.

Hitting the runnable flats of V10, I top up my water bottle with a final coke. My watch is reading just over 15 hours, and I’ve run the 4-mile loop in about 66 minutes — the 18th fastest time in the field. I know the final section is a bit over 3 miles long and I’m feeling good that my legs continue their bounce back from the horrible condition they were in at V8. Praise baby Jesus, I have almost an hour to run 5 kilometers. For the first time in the race I can relax mentally.

I continue down the hill with a half-knowing smile on my face. I’m looking forward to finishing, to stopping, to having a beer and a big fucking sausage. It’s dark now, but I’m fine with that. Last year this section was slip-slide-slippery with mud. I probably fell 6 times. This time around it’s dry and fast. It’s two miles of switchbacks descending to a small town called Hammersback and then another mile to Grainau, where I had started so many hours ago.

Hitting Hammersbach, I see my first sign of civilization: some locals sitting on lawn chairs on a street corner, cheering me on! The course is not really well marked here and I can tell the locals know I look lost. They yell at me (in German?) and wave me left, so I comply! My watch reads 15:50 and I’m starting to get a little nervous that I’m going to miss my goal by literally seconds. I drop the hammer and grind out my fastest miles of the race now that I’m on flat roads.

Soon I hit Grainau and I recognize this bit from last year. I’m sneaking up on the backside of the Musikpavillon where we had started that morning. The sights are getting brighter and the sounds are getting louder — the end is near! Before I know it, I hit a back alley and I see the glow of the finish area. I finally allow a proper smile to come through and make a hard left to enter the finish area. With a final time of 15:57:23, I’ve managed to finish 31st overall and 21st in the open age group.

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It’s the first finish in at least two years where I feel like I have accomplished something. Last year’s finish was simply that: a finish. It wasn’t a race where I had pushed myself or set a good time. This year was different. I ran my race the entire 100+ kilometers and kept my foot on the pedal even when I wanted to (thought I had to) give up. Most of my run was solo. I don’t think I said more than a few words to anyone over the course of almost 16 hours, except to talk about stone melon. Somehow I held up; my mind and body hurt but are miraculously made whole again with a beer and the sight of friends at the finish.

Next year will not be Zugspitze. I love this race, but now it is time for something new. What will that be? Only time will tell!

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