Restarting at the Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival

This story starts at the end of March. We’re full swing in the Covid-19 pandemic and after 1 year nearly in full isolation (yes, we took it damn serious!), we made a weekend visit to Düsseldorf to be with close friends. Two days, single interaction, everyone tested, good food and connection with dear ones. What could possibly go wrong?

2020 was a bad year for my running adventures. It was a bad year for everyone I guess!

Back injury, low training volume, nearly no strength training and obviously no races to participate in. I’d finally gotten a place in the CCC at the UTMB in summer and had high hopes that, vaccination kicking in and the fact that we have increasingly got acquainted with a way of living with the virus, the race might come true. And my dream as well, of visiting Chamonix and living an epic experience in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. Training plan built with Paulo Pires and a lot of courage to dare consider a 100 km challenge, the recipe was prepared to get to work and start building endurance for it.

So here I am, on a beautiful Sunday at the end of March, in a standard training with friends at the beautiful Grafenberger Wald, running in trails that I’ve paved so many times and that are known by heart. A feel of joy to be out early morning. The companionship of sharing a moment with friends. The peace of mind of complying with health safety measures. The body working in unison with the mind. And then… a moment of distraction… the body falling at an awkward angle… forward… an unstoppable inertia… the strength to speed up in an attempt to get vertical… the additional acceleration unable to solve the fall and instead increasing the speed for impact… the shoulder screaming loud with the shock, as an attempt to roll sideways failed… how nice it would have been to land with my back. Numbness… Dizziness… Words of friends talking about bones broken. A moment of bliss turned into uncertainty and dread.

Long story short: the CCC dream is over. Broken collarbone. Surgery two days after. Metal plate. Nine screws. Forecasted recovery of 6 months. Loads of pain, moments of unrest, the inability to take care of myself autonomously – bless you my dear wife Margarida, your love is unparalleled and your support is irreplaceable.

Fast forward 5 and a ½ months, shall we?

I’m sitting at my home office on a Monday night when the usual suspects call :). Stefan and Cristina had registered for the Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival the year before, which got naturally cancelled due to the pandemic situation. They got surprised by their mailbox that they had tickets for this year’s edition, which they completely forgot about. Aaaaaaand… the race had vacant seats for last minute joiners! The call was indeed an invitation to join the crazy ones and go for the race on Saturday. Yes! You got that right! To plan a trip from Hannover to the middle of Austria, with 5 days advance notice, and challenge myself on a 62 km race with 1700 m ascent.

It’s now 3 months that I’ve started “jogging” and 2 months since I started “running”. Volume has been increasing steadily but I haven’t made any run above 15 km. All pretty slow. And a few long cycling adventures, which is far from the impact a long run brings, bear alone the resilience that a mountain race demands. While my first impulse was that they could only be insane, I did take a look at the race website: pretty smooth track, low mountain, seemingly easy trails without hard technical requirements, good weather, appropriate safety measures for protecting athletes in a time of long-lasting pandemic, taintless organisation and… wow!!! 3 qualification points for UTMB races!?! Hold on a second! I do have 3 points at the moment and, hopeful that the medical committee grants me a place in next year’s race due to injury based cancellation, I will still need to fulfil the prerequisites to join the race. Including qualifying points, of which I’m 3 points short.

And so the idea starts forming in my mind that this might be possible, with a lot of care, proper planning, detachment from race timings and pure willingness to run in an atmosphere of enjoyment and camaraderie with two friends I love. Pre-check done at home with unparalleled support from the family, coach supporting the endeavour, doctor visit to assure feasibility, train tickets and hotel booked… looks like this is happening! Here I go!!

Innsbruck is a lovely city, sitting in the middle of a valley in the Alps, sided by two beautiful mountains. The train journey from Munich is absolutely stunning – I so much recommend it! The majestic hills slowly approaching, the river flow along the train tracks, the mesmerising green… lovely, just lovely! Arriving by train at the central station is as convenient as it can be: two steps away from the old city, abundant connections to public transportation, the buzz of a large city with the simultaneous feel of a small town, beautiful old buildings, small streets to wander about and an absolutely stunning landscape by the river. Don’t know it? Go visit please!

It’s Saturday morning and we’re at the starting line. The journey the day before has been long, the night’s sleep unsatisfactory and I have butterflies on my stomach. Will this really work?… There’s a strange mix of excitement and concern that keeps me in a sensitive emotional state… more joy than fear really, ultimately a sense of detachment from reality, as if I’m here but my brain doesn’t believe it is happening. The first athletes from the longer races are arriving at the finish line and moments of enthusiasm are lived among the crowd, interviews made, testimonies of awe and greatness… suspense, expectation… a prospect of what is to come.

We’re at the start line and the shot is given. I’ve been here before. This is a known feeling. But wow… how long has it been? How much did I have to endure through recovery to get here? This is so unbelievable… I have unstoppable tears streaming through my face but no one notices. The excitement is so great, to be back at an event, doing what I love, after so… sooo… soooooo long.

The race is well planned. Very enjoyable if you like to go for the distance without the risk of having yourself completely trashed. The ratio between length and elevation is perfect really, for if you like a runnable track where you can enjoy great sightseeing, without the harshness of long lasting climbs and descents, then this is the place to be. The organisation called it Panorama Ultra Trail for a reason: you enjoy breathtaking landscapes nearly the whole way. Add to that that the elevation is covered pretty smoothly, with short ascents of no longer than 200 m to 300 m at a time, which gives opportunity to a sense that you’re always on the run.

The track takes athletes first to the mountain south of Innsbruck, towards the west. We zigzag in forests that circumvent urban areas and provide great views over the valley. We cross river beds and there’s moments where you feel that there’s water everywhere… as if there’s a soundtrack playing in the background to ensure you’re immersed with nature. You do hear at times the sound of the highway, which, outside of tunnels, creates an unattractive buzz that you want to get rid of.

Returning to the valley, one crosses green pastures next to the airport (yes, you feel planes accelerating next to your head!) and thereafter across the Inn, the local river of an unmatched turquoise hue. The slope of the mountain north of the valley stands before us, outlining its greatness and indicating that next, it will only be uphill. After reaching an aid station, we go continuously east, meandering through forests, castles, inns, mountain huts, either through single trails or larger dirt roads. Going south towards Hall, we cross the valley again and realise the arc we’ve done. The town centre is rich in its traditional architecture style and its crossing is really pleasant.

South mountain, nice to see you again! 🙂
We go west again, uphill, towards the plateau. Charming views delight the eye but indicate that the finish is not so far away – Innsbruck is again in the horizon.

We had an enjoyable time. Needless to say that we had our ups and downs. I’ve messed up with nutrition again and recognise that, the more I learn, the more there is to learn. I took a lot of food this time. Was constantly eating. Placed a high bet on the mid-race soup and got really disappointed when getting there. Portuguese soup is rich, nutrient heavy and creamy. This was is too fluid. Tomato soup was never my thing anyhow… and definitely too acid for a race. Food goes in. Food goes out. The usual madness and sickness in the last fifth of the race. Next time will take sandwiches – you can quote me on that! The one that stood strong like a rock was Stefan: two weeks after doing CCC (the lucky guy managed to do it!) he ran with us like a breeze. Impressive!

It was nice to spend time together… we took 9 hours 15 minutes to complete, so lots of time to talk or just to silently enjoy being next to each other. We cheered athletes in the race, laughed with a few, shared experiences with others, made good friends (we’ll be seeing each other again Talha!). This is what is to love about trail running: competition is healthy but fellowship is so much stronger!

I’m now sitting after the finish line, with an alcohol free beer in my hands.

I dreamt so much during the day of this moment and how I’d enjoy the fresh refreshment of the cereal nectar 😉 As my stomach is playing tricks on me, I guess I’ll have to leave this for later. There’s a sense of achievement getting hold of me. Feels like we just left and yet… we’ve seen so much, sensed so much. I’ve been personally through so much to get here. I’m weeping now… Can’t help it…. Am recalling all the physio done in the previous months (thank you Frau Eichhorst!), the constant drills at home, the harsh recovery, the worries that the shoulder might never be the same again…. I’m thinking of the strength required to endure and keep pushing forward. It’s what it is all about, isn’t it?

The moment doesn’t go unnoticed but I take my time. It’s good to feel again, to shake off the numbness of this damn pandemic isolation.

After half a year of struggle I wonder if you might be reading this and going through a tough time. Should that be the case, do push through. Keep confident that your moment of bliss will come and the desire to overcome is what will keep you moving forward. Be humble to accept… but bold to challenge. Find the right balance between both… and I trust you’ll breakthrough.

The 6 points for next year’s UTMB CCC are collected.

Dreaming can start again for the prospect of an epic adventure.

The memories of a wonderful weekend among friends in nature… now those… those will never be lost.

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