Pitz Alpine Glacier Trail or why to run more than 100 km

Austria is a trail paradise for any ultra runner. People all over Europe and the world seek the location during summer to enjoy beautiful hiking paths, high mountain experiences and the perfection of being immersed into pristine nature.

The Zugspitz Ultra Trail last year offered us the possibility to stay in this neighbouring country and delighted us with its offerings. On winter holidays spent there, we were always welcomed by wonderful people and visited dazzling places that left us with a feeling that we’d always want to come back. Summer was no exception and hence the invitation from Stefan to join a 100 km race offered the possibility to a) plan a fabulous summer holiday with family and friends and b) jump into the next running challenge… the 3 digit race.

The P100 presented itself as a 106 km course with 6.100 elevation gain. At the heart of Tyrol, the beautiful town of Mandarfen would host the starting line, several passages of the course and the finish line itself. Key highlights? The stunning Scharte Mittagskogel at 3.070 m high, crossing a glacier at 2.800 m, the amazing Rifflesee, Krummer See and Brechsee lakes, countless high mountain passes and so much more…

Let’s start at the end this time, shall we?
How did the race go?

Oh well… not exactly as planned…
The race had moments of exceptional magnificence and periods of the darkest pain.

When Stefan invited me to join the race and I evaluated options for how the calendar would look like, it took me a long while to decide to do Pitz Alpine Glacier Trail. I don’t have the opportunity to join a lot of races during the year and hence always seek to find the most dazzling experiences possible, to make it all worth, to live the dream, to find the void in all its possible extent. Participating in a race with a glacier crossing, a plain full of ice, didn’t really sound like a runnable and enjoyable experience, rather a hiatus in the race that would force us into unnecessary logistics (spikes would be needed)… more of a climbing/mountaineering practise really.

How wrong could I have been…? A lot actually!

Crossing the glacier was one of the most sublime things I’ve done in my life. The shades of white, blue and black belong to a vast colour palette that I’d thought to be much narrower. I still visualise today all those unreproducible hues, tones that only nature can cast, over deep pits of water and underground waterfalls, visible through the shining crystal of the ice. With my running shoes equipped with snow chains and the help of poles to improve balance, the surface is surprisingly stable. Any concerns of slippage were very rapidly stowed away, in particular given the fact that most of the ice is melting from below, rather than at the outer layers. The streams of water flowing down the mountain would later escort us all the way down to the valley, keeping the soul of the glacier alive in our memory, its pristine translucency and glassy ice diamonds keeping us wondering how perfection is reached in the wild, on such simple terms. I loved it! And still dream of it as of today…

Along with the glacier segment, the Pitz Alpine Glacier Trail (PAGT) is a marvellous high mountain race, providing fascinating views, trailing along incredible locations through high peaks and formidable valleys. It has a high degree of technicality, forcing athletes to cross large less-runnable sections of rock, rumble and at times lunar landscapes. For a first time Pitztal visit and for revisiting the astonishing locations the region has to offer, PAGT is a must!

Go ahead and zoom in. Can you see them?

The challenge of going for such a long distance was something I didn’t know exactly how to handle in my mind…
I battled in anticipation for how it would feel in the race, at times certain it’d be something I’d love to do, on others uncertain if I’d come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be suited for it.

There are 3 key elements I always consider in ultra running:

  1. the physical ability to be able to achieve the proposed distance.
  2. the nutritional discipline to fuel your body.
  3. the mind to endure.

The most controllable of them all is the first one, which is the reason training is so important. Together with Paulo Pires and the beAPT platform, we were able to build a balanced training plan that guides me into what, when and how to train, building the necessary strength and the ability to shape the muscles of my body into the running machine that makes me go the distance and the elevation gain of the races I throw myself into. I couldn’t be happier with what we achieved in this race, for there was not a single point in time I felt my legs would fail me nor my body would collapse from the physical strain I subjected it to. Zero fatigue on the day after the race. A feel of authentic easiness during the traditional recovery run… just spot on!

The second factor is where I’ve come to the conclusion I often fail. I need to learn a lot in this area, improve my fuel intake, discover the balance between solids and liquids, know better the nutritional input of the food I’m consuming, find a dependent approach of how to manage energy during races. I’ve had occasional hiccups during races but during this one I broke. Broke really bad. No matter how much we read from the running community about encounters of the mind with very dark caves, I’ve confirmed that once there, it is very easy to realise where you are, yet extremely hard to pull yourself out of it. How does one rebound into a positive atmosphere? Stomach cramps have hit me twice during the race, for long periods of time, hindering my ability to enjoy the race and depleting my energy severely…

This brings us to the third element, our ability to carry through our physical endeavour, to interpret our senses, to manage our thoughts, to enjoy our surrounding in the most positive manner and to flush out all the negative emotions that get constantly pinned in our head. To circumvent the numbness and to be able to flow through the void in a state of bliss…

With stomach aches and mental struggle during large sections of the route, this was the closest time I’ve ever been to a DNF (Did-Not-Finish) in a race. Didn’t quit… but was nearly there… did so mentally but found energy at the very end to cross a finish line of the 85 km race… The organisation provided the option for runners to fallback from the P100 to the P85, which is what I ended up doing.

I finished the 85 km official course in 22 hours 58 min and 58 seconds, just below the 23-hour mark…
The distance recorded on the watch was 100 km with 5.450 m elevation gain. Though conscious that any GPS device recording has deviations from the official figures, it still fills my heart to realise that more may have been achieved. The race organisation has in the meantime revised its figures and upgraded the races from 85 to 90 and 100 to 105 km, based on runners’ feedback, which is definitely a stance worth praising.

My ambition at the start line was simply put to finish the race… No matter how humble the attitude is, there is nonetheless always a side of me that builds up an expectation as to what the end result may be. It’s part of being a human being I guess, to define a goal, an ambition, a mark to strive for, to challenge ourselves to be better, to improve from where we are or to ultimately fail and have the opportunity to learn with it. We started at 3:30 AM and I told myself that it should be possible to arrive around dinner… or at least to have a late dinner with family and friends. I arrived much later though… and to much distress, couldn’t communicate any reliable information during long periods of time to those that wanted to check on me and/or were waiting at the finish line.

This has been perhaps the most relevant subject matter around this race: the discussion around the meaningfulness (or meaninglessness) of it all.

Why would I run such a race?
What for?
How to understand such motivation?
Why do it if after a specific distance the gut will always cause problems?
The significance of the hopelessness of the ones suffering on the sidelines?

The day after the race we spent a good deal of time debating the subject between us all. Wife. Kids. Friends. Fellow runners. An emotional discussion. Truthful between one another. Candid given the feelings being exposed. Inflamed by each ones’ convictions and at the same time inconclusive given each ones’ uncertainties. Sentimental with discernible tears testifying the affection, care and love for one another. A discussion that has moved my heart and still unsettles my soul. For it is hard to find the answer… if there is one… or the answers… if any at all.

My dearest friend Paulo Pires, in all his wisdom and experience, called my attention to the great explorer George Mallory, who had set his mind to reach the summit of Mount Everest in the early 1920s, an astounding 30 years prior to the first ascent being successfully achieved, several decades after.

His most two famous quotes come from the simplest question: “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”
His first answer was…

«Because it’s there.»

His second, my favourite…

«The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise, nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.»

From the experience of the race, there are 2 supplementary elements that get added to my previous list:

  1. friendship and/or companionship between fellow athletes
  2. the influence of the community in your mindset and ultimately your actions 

It was during the darkest hours suffering with a knotted stomach, that my mind deteriorated to the point I’d curse all the training and my subscription to such a long distance. That I damned my intentions and promised never to do it again. That I progressively felt my energy draining as I couldn’t fuel any longer. That I ultimately took the decision not to go on any further… and during all that time, my dear friend Stefan stood by my side. I so much wanted him to go on and do his race. He just kept saying he wouldn’t leave me in such condition in the middle of the mountain, no matter how confident he was I’d recover. And while I wanted him to have his race, the mechanical attitude of getting myself into a follower-mode felt good… kept me going… pushed me through. He saw me fall once and stand up with a warm bowl of pasta soup. He saw me fall a second time and recover again with warm soup at 2.800 high. And during all the dark moments, he was just there. Can’t thank you enough Stefan

Coming downhill to the valley, we finally decided to split up, as I was set to quit at the next aid station. Before doing so, it was the community that came into my aid. Text messages. Phone calls. To all my companions at beAPT, I’ll never forget your comfort… Armando, Anabela, Nuno, Hugo, Jorge, Diana, Paulo, Miguel, Rui, Lucinda, António, Frederico, Vitor, Sara… you’ve were phenomenal… I got my mind back in place, took my time to recover at the aid station and rejoined Stefan in the last section of the race. Ironically becoming strong again during the last 10 km stretch. Gracefully crossing the finish line together, side by side, exactly how we started.

To my family and friends, in particular my wife that I wholeheartedly love, I thank you for bearing with this passion of mine that so often has no explanation. For being there by my side. In body and always in spirit.

I don’t know what will come next and how to find rationale in whatever I come to choose.
I’m confident however that whatever the path, it will be the right one.
I’ll be happy. I’ll be sorrow. I’ll succeed, I’ll fail and I’ll learn. Like everything in life…

«Everything has been figured out, except how to live.»
— Jean-Paul Sartre

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