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The TransAlpine Run

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At 11:30 AM on a bright, breezy Saturday morning last September, I was among the two hundred backpack-clad runners (from fifteen countries) who sprinted off the starting line in the quaint ski town of Obesrstdorf, Germany, nestled in the foothills of the Alps. Many competitors carried trekking poles to assist with the arduous, rocky ascents and quad-pounding, steep descents awaiting us over the next 233 kilometers. This was the second annual GORE-TEX TransAlpine Run, an eight-day stage race following a north-to-south route across the Alps—from Germany to Austria to Switzerland, finishing at last in Latsch, Italy.


Each team in the field was composed of two people. My teammate was Fredrik Ölmqvist, a mountain runner from Sweden. We were both members of a sponsoring group, the Team Salomon Trail Runners. We were competing in the mixed division, which paired men and women together. For safety reasons, teammates were required to stay within one hundred feet of each other, and all runners were required to carry a rain jacket, long-sleeved top, and first aid supplies. Staff-supported aid stations—overflowing with water, sports drinks, fruit, nuts, and chips—peppered the course, so racers needed to carry only limited food and liquid supplies during each four- to six-hour stage.


Hoofing out of town at the start of the first day’s 28-kilometer stage (1496 meters vertical gain), the clump of racers stretched out in a line, as the asphalt became dirt and the trail sloped upwards. Fredrik and I got off to a spunky start, leading the mixed division through the first feed zone. Grabbing handfuls of bananas, raisins, and sliced apples, we nibbled on the fly, so we wouldn’t lose precious time. In a blink, the fast-moving forest trail turned into treacherous, rocky ridgelines. I had a “Holy crap! What have I gotten myself into?” moment.


Another pair from Team Salomon bounded past us like billy goats on caffeine. It was mountain-savvy local racers Barbara and Stephan Tassani-Prell, husband and wife from Bavaria, Germany, who had been on our tails all morning. My New-York-City-trained legs struggled to maintain the pace they started pushing.


Fredrik and I tried to keep up, following the yellow, plastic tape and the neon spray-painted dots that served as course markings. We traipsed up jutting, snowy peaks where the footing was as slippery as olive oil on a wet road, and moved quickly along flat, crunchy, ice-covered paths. We took inspiration from the pastel-colored mountainside and the peaceful river valley below—eye candy for the soul.


We lost sight of Team Salomon, who finished the day thirteen minutes ahead of us. We crossed the first day’s finish line in fourth place.


The next day’s 30-kilometer stage (1947 meter vertical gain) started at 8:00 AM with a staggeringly steep power-hike up a leg-burning, rocky trail into the snowy Austrian Alps. Slogging along knife-edge ridgelines with sheer drop-offs, we grasped fixed wire lines to pull ourselves around narrow mountain shelves.


Upon reaching the breathtaking view at the top of the St. Anton ski resort, Fredrik and I took in the view and a deep breath of fresh mountain air, before buzzing down the wide-open, precipitous mountainside like kids on the last day of school. Halfway through the forty-minute descent, we spotted the second- and third-place mixed teams below us. We set our loping legs on hyper-speed.


Minutes later we caught them, on a twisting, turning path weaving through a vacant ski village. Our hearts and quads were pounding, almost in time with our wheezing lungs. Navigating down the rocky singletrack, we could hear the cheering crowd at the finish line below. Fredrik cut the inside line to shave a few seconds off, caught his foot, and fell. I did the unthinkable—I looked over at him, and asked “Are you all right?” just before I tripped in a hole—and also fell.


We scrambled to our feet, and quickly got back on track. But the whole drama had cost us time and we crossed the finish line in fourth place for the mixed division. We hugged and high-fived each other, then found our way to the cold spa, where we celebrated our efforts with a refreshing, non-alcoholic beer.


Muddy footsteps marked snowy, narrow trails leading up to a slick, rock-covered peak, on Day Three’s 35-kilometer stage (2417 meters vertical gain). Later in the day, the trail became less technical, crossing small streams and rolling farmland shimmering with wild mushrooms and delicate pastel flowers. My right calf (which I’d torn last fall in a six-day running race in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert), had been bothering me all day. By the time we crossed that day’s finish line in the bustling ski town of Arlberg, the pain was unbearable. I consulted the doctor. I had to drop out. My race was over.


It was hugely disappointing. I didn’t want to abandon Fredrik and I was keen to finish what I’d started. But I’m a seasoned endurance sports competitor. I knew continuing could mean serious injury that might put me on the sideline for the entire season, and would certainly make me miss my next race: the Big Sur Trail Marathon in Big Sur, California, scheduled for the following month. (A story for another day.)


We found Fredrik a new partner so he could continue running, but we were no longer officially in the competition. The remaining stages included (Day Four) a 42-kilometer stage (2234 meters vertical gain) along an undulating dirt forest road offering momentary solace from the focus-demanding rocky terrain. Day Five was a short, steep 5.4-kilometer hill climb in Scuol, a tiny nook of Switzerland known for its historic village.


The exhausted, excited racers finally crossed into Italy along a vicious, steep, rocky path to the top of Rappensharte (3012) on Day Six’s 38-kilometer stage (1357 meters vertical gain). The final day’s 24-kilometer (1729 meters vertical gain) stage traversed a stunning ridgeline, with a birds-eye view of the Italian Alps. It zigzagged through aromatic apple groves, ultimately coming to the town square of Latsch, Italy.


Locals cheered the elated pairs as they took the final steps of their amazing Alpine adventure, and crossed the finish line hand-in-hand.

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