At 11:00 pm the mandatory race briefing began, which is about when my eyelids started getting heavy and the uncontrollable yawning started. Next to me sat my son who had laid his head on the table and fallen asleep. I wished I was at home in my bed.
In the conference room of the Hotel Niederreiter in Maria Alm am Steinener Meer, a small idyllic village nestled in the Austrian Alps, there were 135 runners and their families gathered to listen to the race director run down the details for the 2017 Hochkönigman Endurance Trail. The race would begin in an hour, at midnight, and cover 84.9 km of trails with 4,928 meters of positive elevation. I was hoping to finish in about 14 hours, but I’d later find out that was hopelessly optimistic.
So, shortly after 11:30pm we hesitantly headed out to the starting area where we had a quick gear check of mandatory equipment. A list had been provided on the Internet and my small backpack was stuffed full: long pants, rain pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a rain jacket, first-aid kit, 1.5 L of water, a cell phone, headlamp, spare batteries, a foil rescue sheet, food (for between the aid stations), a drinking cup, hat, gloves, and a map of the course. The weather report said there was 0% chance of rain and mild temperatures, but you still can’t skimp on the warm, dry clothes when in the mountains, because if you happen to get hurt at 2000 meters and can’t run, then your body temperature decreases drastically as soon as you stop running, and waiting several hours for help in sweaty running shorts and a short-sleeved shirt could be life threatening.
A few billion kisses from my kids during the last few nervous minutes of waiting, then the countdown began, and we were rather unceremoniously sent out into the night.
The course started out of the city and immediately uphill. All headlamps were on. After only about 500 meters the incline was so steep that everyone halted to a walk. What? So soon? This was going to be a long day.
Any time the ascent wasn’t so steep, I tried to run, but running wasn’t much faster than my mountain-hikers gait of pushing off from the quads with each step. As I looked at the other runners I noticed that almost all of them had trekking poles. I always thought the poles lookd like such a clumsy burden, but as I watched them pick delicately over the terrain and support their steps I was beginning to change my mind.
My family had found a forestry road and were waiting at kilometer 5, at a chalet on the top of the first ascent. I saw my son in the distance and called out to him, as it would be nearly impossible for him to recognize me in the dark among all the runners shining headlamps in his direction. He gave me a high-five as I ran by, telling me I was ‘fast’, then I soon saw my daughter (on the playground) and my husband who informed me I was the fourth woman. That wouldn’t last for very long as just before the next ascent another woman passed me. But I stayed right behind her. There were several of us in a group and she did a great job of leading us up the mountain. I followed her almost to the Messingssattel. Then she slowed down and I passed her, but she’d overtake me again a couple hours later and I’d never see her again.
That section of the trail was very technical, narrow and lots of exposed tree roots. Actually there were more roots than free ground to step on, and due to the heavy rain the day before the roots were really slippery, so you had to constantly look for safe footing. Full concentration. With only a headlamp lighting the way.
The first official checkpoint and aid station was at kilometer 13 in the village of Hinterthal. I saw our car parked in the distance and knew my family was there. I filled up on water and ate a piece of banana and a couple of slices of watermelon before I was quickly on my way again.
Once out of the forest and up to the Pichlalm, the clouds had cleared and an amazing star-filled sky had appeared. I alternated watching my step and taking in the beauty of the heavens which was exceptionally bright since we were far removed from the artificial lights of cities and towns.
Past the Erichütte and the trail wove in a ring along the Hochkönig mountain ridge where I could see the dotted runner’s headlamps for miles. Some were so far away…do I really have to run that far? (Though we were still not even a quarter of the way through the race.)
In the silence of the night, your senses are heightened and you can hear flowing water quite clearly even at distance. So I knew that a large river was nearby. When the trail opened up to river-washed stones I could see the headlamps of other runners making a sharp turn ahead and coming back in my direction for a short distance. As I got closer I noticed a runner on all-fours. What is going on? Then as I climbed through some large rocks I noticed it: a fallen tree spanning a raging river. And I had to cross it. Oh, great. And of course due to the rains and the spray from the river, the tree was wet and slippery. I was not going to risk a balanced walk across, so I straddled it and shimmied forward, all the while with thoughts of my son’s favorite cartoon, “Jakari, the Inidan Boy” going through my head.
The trail was marked with reflective paint that you could see from several hundred meters away, so it was really easy to follow. Also, it was relatively flat along that section and running was often possible, when we weren’t jumping over streams or passing through cattle gates built to keep the free-roaming cows in the pastures.
Speaking of cows. It was spring and they were out with their young calves, and for that reason, on high alert. As I came across a herd of them near a farmhouse, some became very active and ran up onto the trail next to me. Ok, they are cows, and from a distance very idyllic, but up close these animals are HUGE. And I had a very keen sense of not being welcome. I tried to run faster but that seemed to get them more agitated. I had to stop a couple of times to try to out-maneuver them. I called out hoping that someone in the farmhouse might hear me and come out to help, but it wasn’t even 5:00 am and just barely getting an early dawn light. Then I realized that I still had my headlamp on. I turned it off and this immediately seemed to calm the cows down. Then I scurried up an embankment and ran as fast as I could past the herd. I wondered why ‘dodging aggressive cattle’ had not been in the race description.
A few minutes later I saw my daughter in the distance and knew I had reached the second aid station at kilometer 30. Time for a sunrise breakfast. Once again I filled the 1.5-liter bladder in my backpack which was empty and I ate some more banana and watermelon, and relayed my adventure with the cows. I also drank some hot isotonic drink, but after just a couple of minutes I began to cool down and knew I needed to keep moving. My son was sleeping in the car so I said goodbye to my husband and daughter and headed out once again into the woods.
In addition to fruit, the aid stations also offered pretzels and some other baked goods, but being a vegan I always carry what I know I can rely on. I had my own gels, roasted nuts and granola bars with me and ate them between the stations. Although, you can never take in as many calories as you are using in a race and I knew that over the course of the next week I’d be enjoying some extra meals. But what most people don’t realize is that in a race of this duration and intensity, it’s not just muscles that are getting used and calories that are burned, the body grabs whatever nutrients it needs from wherever it can find it. The days following the race I had a massive mineral deficit which was evident because my teeth were so sensitive that even breathing over them was uncomfortable and I also lost quite a bit of hair. But after a few days of vitamin supplements and lots of healthy meals I was back in good shape.
The trail was now up above the tree line and at the next peak we were offered a spectacular view of the sunrise and a valley below which was filled to the rim with a bath of clouds. It was so stunning that I had to stop several times to take photos.
Up next was a descent of almost 900 meters, but unfortunately we weren’t on forest roads, tractor paths, or even well-treaded trails; no, the descent was steep and again very technical. I was reduced to walking and picking my way down at a depressingly slow pace.
I was near another runner and we had exchanged a few words about the course of the trail which was really hard to follow in the early morning light now that there was no longer reflective paint and we had to rely on the pink markings and occasional sign or ribbon.
Back out onto a pasture and ahead was another herd of cows. Uh oh. We had to cross through them to a gate on the other side. I looked over at the other runner, gestured him forward, and said “After you…” with a smile. He then began to move through the herd and the last few meters before the gate a large animal came running behind him. He opened the gate, slammed it behind him and began talking softly to the cow, which then slowly moved away. The runner then opened the gate for me and told me to run!
The last two kilometers before the next aid station at kilometer 39 were roads that were runnable but it was then that I first realized how the muscle contraction of my quads had been worked when going downhill. That was exactly the training that I don’t have the luxury of living in the Danube River Valley, and each step was painful. I had to sit for a few minutes there and my husband told me how other runners were also complaining about their quads.
When I left that aid station I was in a small group of seven runners. The next several kilometers were to be the most difficult ascent of the day. Nearly 1000 meters of positive elevation over a distance of just over 3 kilometers. The trail was narrow and one of the men took the lead, but he soon relinquished his role to me and I led the group up the mountain. We reached the top after an hour and 15 minutes. There was a minor aid station with water containers and my family was there to meet me. A giant hand-carved ‘Hochkönig’ chair was there and I collapsed into it. I placed my hands in front of my face and burst out crying. I couldn’t control it and my poor son said, “Don’t be sad, mom, you’re doing great!” I told him that I wasn’t sad, I was exhausted. I needed a few minutes there and my daughter gave me a leg massage and repeatedly filled my cup with water. My family is such a huge motivation for me during these long races; I can mentally break up the day by looking forward to seeing them and getting their positive reinforcement. They also have stories to tell and adventures of their own along the way.
The group that I had led up the mountain was gone. But I couldn’t stop for long or I’d never get going again, so as the next runner was leaving the water station I tagged along behind him. Up, up and up some more until we crossed over a large snow drift and reached the next summit. Then another steep descent of 800 meters elevation. This was getting a little frustrating…massive climbs, then major descents. All that work for nothing. Though it was hard to decide which was more work: running uphill or downhill!
The trail was poorly marked in this section. Either that or I was losing my concentration and didn’t see all the markers. In any case, after running down the middle of an overgrown, grassy ski slope, I found myself on a forestry road and was enjoying being able to run without watching every step. Then reality hit and I knew I missed a turn off because this was too easy. I didn’t know if I should turn back, so I stopped to take a look at my map. I dug it out of my pocket and found it to be a soggy mess that fell apart in my hands. It must have gotten wet at the last aid station when I doused myself with water. And I was getting no GPS signal on my cell phone to check out the Google map. Super. Now what? Then ahead I saw another runner sitting on a bench. I ran up, sat down next to him and asked him if this was the right way. He was also pretty sure we’d missed a turn-off, but he didn’t really care because he said he was ‘done’, out of the race. I called Frank but he couldn’t locate my iPhone. Just then two more runners were coming down the road and they also said they were sure they missed a turn off, though how far back they didn’t know, but they thought the forestry road would lead down into the village of Dienten where our next aid station was. So, without too many other options, I tagged along with them and half an hour later we showed up in Dienten, having added a little over 2 kilometers to an already incredibly long day.
Dienten was the single bag-drop station on the course so I was finally able to change my clothes. Off with the long pants and long-sleeved shirt that had kept me warm though the night, and on with the shorts and tee. Ahhh…that’s better!
The only saving grace that kept me in motion was that the Statzerhaus was supposed to be the highest point of the course (which it was) and that it was ‘all downhill from there’ (which it wasn’t). From a few kilometers away I could see Frank’s car perched on the side of the mountain just downhill from the Haus, so at least that was something to look forward to, but it still looked sooooo far away. And there were more snow fields to cross, and pathless fields to navigate, and one of the ascents was so steep I had to sit down about every hundred meters just to catch my breath. This is nuts.
Then I caught up with another runner, who commented that I had recovered well since he last saw me. It took me a second to realize he’d witnessed my complete breakdown back at kilometer 45. We talked a bit and he said he ran it last year, which is why he knew what was still to come. Something about his comment was foreboding and I told him that I didn’t want to know. But he proceeded to tell me anyway and said that after the Statzerhaus we have the Schwalbenwand (Swallow's Wall), and he pointed to a ridge of three peaks (yes, three) that we still had to traverse. I laughed because I thought he was joking. Isn’t it all downhill after the next aid station? Um, no. Those three peaks extending into eternity, and then all downhill (very technical and steep, of course). Will this nightmare ever end?!? Yes, but not quite yet.
So, the other runner and I came up over a snow bank and finally out onto the forestry road leading up to the aid station, which is where we came across a group of mountain bikers who had heard about the race and asked with astonishment if we had really been running since midnight (it was presently 2 pm). Yes, 14 hours so far, and still aways to go. They were in awe. I briefly felt heroic.
Suddenly my family was upon us and accompanied me to the aid station. They were struggling slightly to keep up with my hiking pace and Frank said, “I can barely keep your tempo and you’ve got 70 km in your legs!” Hit repeat on the hero comment. But of course he was exhausted too after having driven through the night.
Last chance to tank up on some fresh fruit and water. And make a visit to the bathroom. Making pee stops in the woods is ok, but some things require the porcelain bowl.
Then onto the Schwalbenwand. It was intense. Those last 15 kilometers took me almost four hours. At kilometer 80 there was even a climb on a stone cliff with ropes. This was getting ridiculous.
But then finally in the distance I could see the village of Maria Alm. And when I was about 2 kilometers away I called my husband and told the kids to be ready if they wanted to join me the last few hundred meters. I ran into the village, down the main street and passed the cafes filled with diners, all of whom stopped talking and eating when they saw me and all began to cheer. Then suddenly I heard my name called out, a man emerged from a café and he was running alongside me! It was one of my teammates from the Armin Wolf Team at home! He said he had run one of the other races that morning.
Then I saw my kids, now there were three of them, who were ecstatic to finally see me. They took their places beside me, my girls grabbed my hands as we ran. Then I saw my girlfriend Stephanie who had come out to the finish too, and then Frank. And with arms raised over my head, I heard a blur of announcements, a cheer from the crowd and I crossed the finish line, 18 hours and 21 minutes after I’d started.
Was I jubilant? Not really.
What was I feeling? Just pretty numb.
There were baby pools set up in the finish area, filled with cold water and alcohol-free beer, they were surrounded by beach chairs into one of which I sank. With the help of my family, my shoes and compression socks were off in no time and my feet went into that icy water as I cracked open a beer.
Now, I was jubilant and relieved, but still numb.
The ride home was 30 minutes and I was fighting to keep my eyes open the whole time. I lost the battle about a minute from the house. But in the driveway my oldest daughter helped me out of the car and into the house. She brought me into the shower and got a comfortable change of clothes. Then out onto the terrace where Stephanie brought me a huge plate of food and ordered me to eat.
I got about a quarter of the way through my dinner and almost did a face plant before I said I needed to sleep. So, my daughter helped me to bed where I slept for the next 12 hours.