I love running.
I love the mountains.
Trail running combines both and has become a passion my heart and mind lingers for…
Düsseldorf is currently my home base and is unfortunately pretty flat. It just doesn’t offer a lot of possibilities to satiate the calling for the sport. There’s wonderful forests around, a million trails to be explored, some elevation to be conquered… yet no true mountains in the vicinity offering challenging trail running races. Travel is required to get to those. Family plans need to be made. Time from work needs to be taken. Logistics need to be thought of. Identifying the list of races to attend in a calendar year is a quest for the best opportunities, the craziest of adventures and truly awesome events capable of making the word “epic” real justice.
I fell in love this year with the Eiger Ultra Trail, a run in the center of Switzerland, starting in Grindelwald and cruising stunning locations in the Swiss Alps. Often labelled as Europe’s most beautiful valley, Grindelwald is the kind of place that recalls our childhood memories of green pastures, milk cows sprinkled through the land, spending their relaxed time amid pure mountain spring watered flowers, from all colours of the rainbow.
It reminds us of Heidi dashing through the hills, sun cutting through the finest air, smile wide open with the joy of being in the wonderful countryside. It makes us think of chocolate, Cailler of Switzerland, its first and finest, produced with strictly chosen ingredients, creator of a high quality mouth-melting delightful wonder. It takes our imagination through high mountain passes of pure white, sun reflecting snow untouched through time, heavenly silence and admirable nature all around.
When the time came to decide doing the Eiger Ultra Trail (E51) this year, it was immediately crystal clear this would be an adventure for the whole family. Curiosity for visiting Switzerland had been growing over the past years and appreciation for spending holiday time outdoors has been gradually increasing as well, specially as the kids grew older. Visiting old friends here and there would be the icing on the cake.
The travel by car was a long one yet totally worth it, for each and every panoramic sight of Switzerland’s untouched nature is a delight to the naked eye. Wonderful views… impressive mountains, mirrored lakes, exquisite villages and green… so much green! We naturally progressed from fluid highways to scenic dwindling roads that danced through the valleys along the passes. Grindelwald greeted us on arrival with its homely village look, buildings in their wooden emblematic style, ready to receive, set to welcome. From the hotel room balcony the Eiger north face imposed its magnificence upon us. Made us think about the immortality of time, of how infinitesimal we are in Nature’s master plan.
We sat down.
We sank time.
We slowly breathed all that splendour in and out…
We spent two days in Grindelwald prior the race, intention being to have the whole family exploring what the mountain range had to offer. Weather was suboptimal however, constantly drizzling, raining at times, chilly temperature in the morning stubbornly staying below 10ºC.
We visited Grindelwald’s Gletscherschlucht, an impressive glacier canyon which one can walk through. Once covered by the glacier, the ravine has been deepened by melting waters flowing between the slopes. A long suspended walkway provides passage through its valley, meandering through rock, tunnels and balconies. With all the water pouring down from the heavens in the past days, we had magnificent views to enjoy. An artificial spiderweb spanning from side to side allows visitors to get themselves over the canyon… which my kids absolutely loved! If you plan to pass by Grindelwald, this is a must visit!
The race organisation kept posting information on social media about challenges in the mountain top. With the low temperatures and constant rain, the snow line kept itself quite low. The highest passes were covered in white. The organisers and volunteers did a fantastic job to ensure that trails could be used by athletes the day of the race, to the point of shovelling snow in cases where that was needed. Weather forecast showed a significant improvement for race day, cloud clearing out and sunshine coming back to the Alps. The race itself was never in doubt but the conditions did make me wonder how the mountain is king and how one should be prepared for it. If anyone wondered if all mandatory safety equipment was really needed, the answer was in plain sight.
Now the best way to avoid the anxiety of a great event is to get yourself entertained, don’t you feel?
The day before the race we went for another fascinating tour: a visit to Pfingstegg, taking the cable car directly from Grindelwald, having lunch at the top in the restaurant with a superb scenic view, followed by a hike to Berghaus Bäregg through Mättenberg’s slopes. Well… we didn’t really get to the Bäregg refuge but got close to the Swiss flag, which provides a great view of the glacier. Needless to say that the path tours above the glacier canyon we visited the day before, adding a different perspective into the whole experience.
We’re far from being experienced hikers yet the trail was very accessible. Kids loved it once again which made it an excellent choice for a family day well spent in the outdoors. If you bring children with you, do take the cable car to save the first part of the path. From Pfingstegg you should plan a couple of hours for going up and nearly the same for getting back. Makes it perfect for a relaxed day.
Race day finally arrived! 🙂
It greeted us with blue sky and an amazing weather! As forecasted! What a delight…
Some fantastic 51 km with 3100 m+ elevation awaited us… 🙂
The start of the race takes athletes slowly up, all the way to Grosse Scheidegg, adding nearly 1000 m+ in the first 10 km. Leaving the village, asphalt quickly gives way to a trail passing through outer mountain villas and water streams. Thereafter a single trail gets all runners in a tight row, drawing the trail up ahead, in a preview of what is to come. Each look back at the valley provides stunning views of Grindelwald, the Eiger north face and a land of green.
Grosse Scheidegg offered us the first aid station, which I quickly passed by. With no need for supplies I just wanted to continue running and to absorb the panoramic views. The sun started to come out, the light of dawn caressing our skin, offering compensation for temperatures smoothly getting lower as we continued to go up.
I greeted each and every runner passing by. The German that lived in Switzerland for a decade. The Swiss lady that was as dazzled as I was. The British that was stunned with the views. Retribution came from the faces of most. Surprise from the faces of a few.
– “You’re pretty happy today, aren’t you?”
– “It is a fantastic day, isn’t it?”
Such bliss could come from the weather. Could be from the views. Or the culmination of months of training. Who knows from such wonderful trails already left behind… and so many yet to come. Endorphins. Holidays. Such awe was definitely from it all… what a fantastic event!
Next stop was First, a minor summit on the slopes of the Schwarzhorn, typically accessible by cable car from Grindelwald and ran by thousands on that particular day. The location provides a sensational view to the valley. The First Cliff Walk, a suspended walkway in the rock, with a 40-meter long one-rope suspension bridge and a 45-meter long observation platform suspended in middle air, is a privileged location to sight the valley’s pastures, lakes and waterfall.
The place hosted the second aid station in the scenic restaurant and had a considerable amount of spectators cheering runners as they passed by. Access to the restaurant was done through the First Cliff Walk itself, providing all runners the chance for an authentic first hand experience. A-ma-zing!
As I approached the suspended bridge, a female athlete was standing at its entrance. I saluted her (I greet everyone, remember?) yet there was no answer back. It is absolutely extraordinary how there’s a few moments in life where you don’t need words at all to be able to connect with people. Her gaze was distant. She shook her head slightly, a movement almost imperceptible wasn’t it for a light quiver in her body. She couldn’t give one step further. The bridge crossing seemed impossible for a moment of pure fear seemed to take over her thoughts. Almost as if an invisible force was pushing her back, away from the cliff. The disillusion of not being able to finish the race was palpable, as if that obstacle would be too hard to transpose.
My verbal approach was inconsequential. I held her arm firmly and asked what she’d think of doing a walk with me. Rules of engagement would be looking ahead, enjoying the view and the beautiful mountains ahead, focusing on the peaks and the snowed summits that lied ahead. Whatever was down was not really worth looking at. The idea would be to focus on my voice and seek to reach the aid station.
A modest nod indicated we could go…
We started walking… I started talking.
My friends tell me I talk a lot sometimes… it was definitely useful this time around.
As we neared the observation platform at the end of the suspended walkway, pressure started to dispel and words of thanks were heard. Both ways. I was so happy I could help. Pure joy. An intimately familiar feeling that trail running is really different than other sports. Companionship and camaraderie between trail runners is truly unique. There is so much to give as to receive. There’s an invisible bond when you cross runners in the trail, smiling back at you, that is imperceptible in the real world yet so tangible in the world of the mind. My conclusion so far is that it exists when two or more people combine separate consciousness energy flows, operating in the same length frequency, sharing the commonality of enjoying the outdoors, the sport, the challenge, the love for the mountains, a passion for trails… what a wonderful feeling…
The moment I hit the aid station, a Portuguese runner, who most certainly had seen the previous episode, shouts out loud that “Portuguese are fantastic and everywhere!”. I looked back to find Ricardo, a fellow countryman from the Madeira island, smile wide open as we give an audible laugh together and change a few introduction words. Turns out he had been as well in Estrela Grande Trail earlier in the year and enjoyed it as much as I did 🙂 Portugal being a small country, finding compatriots around is always a moment of glee – even though you can pretty much find Portuguese people everywhere in the world.
We took advantage of the great food offered in the aid station, loaded supplies and off we go!
The marked path led us through a wide gravel road towards the Bachalpsee, a beautiful lake located aprox. 2250 m high, background canvas painted with tones of meadow green, rock grey and frosty white. A landmark at high altitude, a place to ponder the stillness of time and the grandiosity of nature. Dazzling… Do make sure to add it to your bucket list. Perfect for a long day hike or a shorter one should you take the cable car to First.
The Bachalpsee marked the beginning of the first patches of snow, which would accompany runners through the next couple of hours. After a rocky, technical descent to Oberläger Bussalp and resupplying again, we’d have a big climb all the way to the Faulhorn. Wise words of advice from my coach Paulo Pires came immediately to mind, reminding me to be smart on that long and steep ascent to the 2600 m summit, to cautiously manage my efforts and to pay special attention to the progressive lack of oxygen as elevation accumulated.
At such point in time in the race it is always sensible to do a system check.
Legs? Fine! Lungs? Purified! Mind? Clear! Commitment? Total and absolute! Decision? Let’s take in all of its toughness and have fun while doing it! 🙂
Photos taken during the ascent speak for themselves, don’t they?
Clouds started to mingle with ivory snow, a white cloak laid out over summits previously hidden, a blue sky emphasised by all things being suddenly below it, above it only the thin layer of atmosphere separating us from the infinity of space. A long chain of athletes followed me, still fighting their way up. A long dotted string stretching out into the horizon. Magnifying the effort just made. Bolstering the sensation of an unparalleled achievement just grasped. Intensifying immediately afterwards the feeling that a lot more efforts were to come. Half-way point: check!
The aid station at the top was perfectly organised for such a narrow space. The goal was to quickly refill my bottles with water and have some proper solid food to energise the body for the next stages. As I usually stay for as long as needed to fuel, walking away as soon as I can carry supplies in my hand, I took no exception in this case. Portable cup preparing food in one hand, hiking poles hanging in the wrist of the opposite hand, I start marching towards the edge of the aid station.
Suddenly: surprise! Instead of beautiful breathtaking panoramas, I see only blue. Blue sky. In front of my eyes. Which meant my feet slipped on black ice and I was suspended, mid air, completely horizontal, parallel to the ground. Time abruptly decelerated, a slow motion rolling in front of me, food and cup opening up in a hand fan, defying gravity as they moved upward, while my body felt gradually towards the ground. I hit the floor like a plank. I hit it hard. And when I suddenly thought that everything was over, I realised that the mandatory gear saved the day. Thermal shirt, waterproof jacket and long trousers on the backpack had provided enough cushion for protecting my back, avoiding any serious injury.
Picture that… at 2600m meters…
And now picture the slow motion ending…
Exactly! Time abruptly accelerated into its normal flow and food once suspended in mid air, came splashing all over me. Oh delight… there goes the fuel!
The proverb says to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, hence I had a second round of food with me just in case. A minor load for a big occasion 😉
Cleaned myself with some of the snow lying around (as wasting water would be unwise), turned back into the heart of the aid station, sat properly to prepare the food and eat it still. While doing it, I was recognised by Frederico, a fellow from our Armada Portuguesa do Trail family, daring athlete running the parallel 101 km distance (E101), which had just reached the summit. I hail his bravery and courage and we exchange a few impressions of the race until the time arrives for me to leave.
I gentled slid down the coming hour, poles in front of me to support the snowy descent and avoid any misfortune. Progress was done steadily, trails changing as altitude plummeted back into 2000 m high. Icy trails became muddy, soggy land became green again, speed continuously increasing as climbs ceased for a while.
At km 35 Schynige Platte was at reach, a dazzling view of Interlaken squeezed between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. Shades of turquoise filled the valley with a mystical ambiance. A sunken space, hidden between mountains, ready to be discovered.
The remaining of the race was mostly downhill, in a way that I couldn’t really train for in flat Düsseldorf. Steep descents with a need to constantly break, in order to avoid the abyss and fly directly to the valley. On the way to the last aid station at Burglauenen, a charming single track through a shady forest provided useful protection from the midday sun. Several E101 were kind enough to let me pass as our speeds were clearly distinct. Made me wonder if I’d have the courage and determination to do double of what I had proposed to do. One day perhaps…
The last 5 km would be a nearly flat course through the valley all the way back to Grindelwald. Quads completely broken from all the effort put into breaking, small hills were at that stage quite challenging. The excitement of the finish line getting close was evident however, a surge of will pushing the body forward, giving new energy to the muscles and power to the mind.
Getting to Grindelwald’s main street would prove to be a challenge, as it required a final climb into the village center. With my family waiting and kids eagerly anticipating cutting the finish line with me, the hurdle was swiftly left behind. Big smiles after such a long time waiting, the finish line couldn’t compete with the faces of my loved ones. An amazing race was coming to an end…
Retrospectively it was absolutely superb race! Finish time was very good but far away from being the key metric to be retained. Instead the characteristics of this event are what really matter! Stunning location, great atmosphere, event planned to the smallest of details and a commonly distributed, unconditional love for the mountains. If you plan to join one of the key trail running races in the heart of Europe and the Alps, the Eiger Ultra Trail is simply one you cannot miss!!
A final note on the days after the race. We explored further the surroundings, appreciating delicious rides in the Swiss rail, visiting the “top of Europe” at Jungfrau, promenading through numerous lakes, indulging ourselves in the Maison Cailler chocolate factory, ultimately touch basing Lausanne (home of the Olympic Museum) and the capital Zürich.