Monday, July 15, 2013

Pitztal Gletscher 95k: DNF

The start of ~3,300 feet of climbing over 3 miles
Brutal.  The Pitztal Gletscher 95k is definitely the hardest ultra I've ever run.  The day started out promising enough --- beautiful weather, uneventful check-in, and glorious scenery --- but would unceremoniously end approximately 14 hours and 57 kilometers (~35 miles) later when I failed to make the first time cut-off.  I would have expected my response to be one of disappointment, perhaps even anger, but when the aid station volunteer announced in broken English, "Your race is finished", I was relieved.  

The original course was suppose to traverse the Pitztal Glacier but the day before the race the organizers re-routed the course for safety concerns due to too much snow.  The original race featured ~7,100 meters (~23,300 feet) of elevation gain but the modified course was slightly easier:  6,423 meters (~21,070 feet) of elevation gain.  (I was under the mistaken impression prior to the race that the number provided on the race website was gross elevation gain/loss --- oh how mistaken I was!)  At the race briefing the evening before, the race directors mentioned two time cut-offs, 13 hours to reach 57k and 16 hours to reach 68k (~42 miles) and I remember thinking, "Thirteen hours for ~35 miles?  Shouldn't be too much of a problem."  I also found it odd that the briefer repeatedly mentioned that if you fail to make the cut-off(s) or drop for other reasons, you'd still be eligible for some sort of finisher's medal but I didn't dwell too much on his comments since I didn't think they'd really apply to me.  

This race, along with most in Europe, are "semi-autonomous" so you have to schlep a lot of *mandatory* gear along with you.  Up until the day before, the race organizers were requiring all runners to carry micro-spikes with them for the glacier traverse and the pack I was originally going to use (Nathan Endurance Vest) wasn't large enough to haul everything I'd need so I purchased a larger vest:  the UltrAspire Omega Hydration Vest.  Turns out I may have been able to use the Nathan pack when the organizers nixed the micro-spikes but with everything else I had to carry, I was glad I used the larger vest.  The required gear included insulating layers (top & bottom), rain pants (WTF?!), jacket, emergency blanket, whistle, basic first aid supplies, functioning cell phone, two liters of water, warm hat & gloves, 500+ calories of food, your own cup, course map (provided), money, and ID.  I also carried sunglasses, TUMS, some Perpeteum powder, and my iPod.  The pack was, no surprise, relatively heavy but I was pleased with how well the pack distributed the weight.  The ultra running scene in Europe is, of course, different from the US and although I may not be too keen on all the gear you have to carry (rain pants?!?), I understand.  A high-alpine environment can be terribly unpredictable and I suspect the race organizers have to have some modicum of confidence that the runners can get themselves out of a jam.  
Lisa --- crew extraordinaire --- and me
The were 70 runners officially registered but according to the race results, only 55 toed the start line.  The attrition in this race was astounding:  only 20 or so made the 13 hour cut-off and just 11(!) made it to the finish line.  I suspect some of the 20 who didn't finish were probably pulled when they failed to make the 16 hour cut-off but it's unclear from the results.  Nevertheless, a race where only 20% of the starters actually finish is a damn difficult race.  Perhaps too difficult.  
His day was much more relaxed than mine
With the exception of such legendary races like the Barkeley Marathons (actually a 100 mile race) and Hardrock, I can't think of any races (especially ones I've run) where the majority of runners don't even make it two-thirds the distance and just a fifth finish.  This was my first DNF (Did Not Finish) and, funny thing, I don't feel too disappointed in myself because in spite of not finishing, I felt like I ran a relatively strong race and probably could have gone the entire distance if the cut-offs weren't so unforgiving. 

Just a few minutes 'til the start!
When we set off at 5AM, we immediately started climbing (~600 meters) toward Rifflsee, rounded the lake, gently ascended a ridge, then traversed a ridge toward Taschachhaus.  There were three aid stations in the first 20 miles but all of them were largely inaccessible to spectators so I wouldn't see Lisa and her father until the start/finish area (Mandarfen) at ~mile 21.  Aside from a steep 1,640' ascent over 2.5 miles beginning at around mile 17, I was moving pretty well.  I fell off course once (minor detour) and thought I had fallen off a second time but when three other runners caught me they assured me I was headed in the right direction.  When I arrived in Mandarfen, I refilled my bladder, drank some Coke, ate some cucumber and pretzels, emptied the pebbles and sand out my shoes and socks, chatted with Lisa and her father for a few minutes, then set off for the slog to the highest point on the course:  Braunschweiger Hutte (2,727 meters, ~8,950 feet).  The ascent began gently enough but it quickly became obscenely steep with some sections characterized as "Klettersteig" (fixed rope route) --- there were chains and cables that you could hold on to as you snaked your way up the rock face.  I've run some races featuring steep sections but no race I've ever run featured terrain quite like this one.  Near the summit, there was a small snowfield that would have been easier with trekking poles but since I'd never run with poles before, I wasn't about to start now.  At the summit, I hung out for a bit, ate several orange slices, enjoyed the sunshine, and took in the view.  The descent, although marginally faster than the ascent, still featured sections (especially those with cables or chains on steep drop-offs) where I was moving pretty slowly.  The round trip to Braunschweiger Hutte was only ~11 km or so but it took me about three hours.  
Somewhere along the ascent to Braunschweiger Hutte.  Mandarfen is waaaay down there! 
When I arrived back at Mandarfen, I hadn't yet had a chance to remove my pack when the race director came over and told me (first in German then switched to English) that the 13 hour cut-off had been extended to 13.5 hours (6:30PM) and that I should quickly gather what I need and set off.  This was about 3PM and, somewhat naively, I thought 3.5 hours would be plenty of time to cover the next 11km.  At the time, I thought his advice was misplaced since I was, after all, just behind the second woman and well ahead of 50% of the field.  The possibility of not making the cut-off and having as many as half to two-thirds of the runners not the make the cut-off hadn't yet set in.  I gathered up some cucumber and orange slices then headed out with Lisa alongside for about a half kilometer.  After a gentle decline to the base of the next steep climb, I caught the runner in front of me, meekishly confirmed if he spoke English ("Yes, of course" is always the answer), then asked him if the race director also told him to hurry up and haul ass otherwise he might not make the cut-off.  This runner (I never caught his name or number) replied yes then told me he was the only local running the race (he was from Pitztal) and that the cut-offs were way too early.  He was pretty confident we wouldn't make the cut-off since we had ~1,000+ meters to climb and 1,000+ meters of descent in overgrown, rooty, grassy, wet trail still ahead of us.  But we soldiered on.  I stayed with him for a bit but he soon overtook me then disappeared up the trail.  Similar to the ascent up to Braunschweiger Hutte, the ascent up the Plangerossalpe was insanely steep but unlike Braunschweiger, there wasn't any "Klettersteig" --- it was just steep, exposed scree.  At one point I looked down at my pace as reported on my Garmin and was discouraged, yet amused, to be moving at a glacial 57+ minutes per mile.  
The route paralleled the stream way down below
Ridiculously steep.  Since there weren't any cables or chains to grab onto, I clung to the mountainside as I walked.
When I finally crested the summit ridge, I thought it would be a relatively uneventful descent but that expectation was dashed as soon as I reached a fairly large snow field and had to glissade down it.  For the most part, I don't have much problem glissading and quite enjoy it but in one particularly treacherous section, a small snowfield traversed a steep section of trail where one misplaced step would have sent me sliding down the snow toward a rock field below.  It's a good thing no one was in front of me because had they looked into my eyes, they certainly would have seen terror.  I was relieved when I finally descended below the snow line but what I lost in snow I gained in wet grass and rooty, overgrown trail.  The race director made some comment during the race briefing about this section of the course being "nature trail" but it didn't become obvious what that meant until I was slowly picking my way down the trail and trying not to roll an ankle or fall into the many muddy stream crossings.   About two-thirds the way down it became obvious there was no way I'd make the time cut-off so I stopped, snapped photos, and walked it into the 57km control point.  Lisa and her father were waiting for me and I'm not sure why Lisa thought I would be angry about missing the cut-off but I wasn't.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  It had become obvious I would DNF several kilometers back and although I felt like I had a strong run, the parameters of the race were too unforgiving for all but the front runners.  After the aid station volunteer checked me out of the race (administratively), I ran/walked the remaining six kilometers back to Mandarfen for, weirdly, a finish-line finish with all the pomp that accompanies an official finish.  Strange, but, I suppose, better than no recognition at all.  In the end, I ran(?) 63km (~39 miles) and prior to my Garmin battery dying about two-thirds the way down Plangerossalpe, I had climbed 14,000 feet and descended ~13,050 feet (both underestimates since I hadn't yet reached the 57km check-point when my Gamin died and I still had 6km and ~650 feet of climbing to go en route back to Mandarfen).  My final DNF time was 14h:47m:31s.  

I have mixed feelings about this race.  Would I run it again?  Not if the parameters of the course were the same.  The cut-offs, especially the first one, were too early.  I'm no race director but it seems reasonable to expect the majority of runners who start the race to make the time cut-offs and the majority of those runners to finish (barring extreme circumstances, e.g. horribly inclement weather).  I knew the race was going to be difficult but I grossly underestimated just how difficult it was going to be, especially since I assumed the elevation gained value as elevation gain and loss.  Big difference.  If the race course remains as it is, then they either need to start the race earlier (3AM?) or characterize this race as an "advanced" race (similar to Hardrock) and only admit those runners who have successfully completed events of similar difficulty.  Most runners have a fighting chance of finishing the race they start --- it may not be pretty --- but a fighting chance, nonetheless.  There wasn't much of a chance for the middle-of-the-packer in this race.  My complaints about the unforgiving cut-offs aside, the race was well-organized, the aid station staffers helpful and enthusiastic, and the location of the race (Pitztal) exceptional. 
The Rifflesee and surrounding mountains.  The scenery and weather were top-notch.

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