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Eiger Ultra: How Not to Do It

Eiger Ultra: How Not to Do It

Jul 21, 2014

It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I am lost, wandering through a construction zone in the middle of Grindelwald, Switzerland. I am surrounded by concrete and rebar. Across Dorfstrasse, the latest watches from Tissot and Breitling are expertly arranged, ready to catch the eye of cash-burdened tourists arriving daily from London to Dubai. I am not looking to buy anything, though. Not at this hour. I’m looking for the Eiger Ultra Trail registration. And I’m doing it on four hours of sleep. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” I thought, as I nearly walk into a gravel crater. This day is one step away from becoming an abject failure, and the sun hasn’t even crested the Wetterhorn.

Months ago, I had signed up for the 51 km edition of the Eiger Ultra Trail race. Featuring a stunning, high-elevation route above this legendary mountain destination, the course keeps the Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau and other high peaks of the Berner Oberland in full view for hours on end. Just a few years old, it already had a reputation as being a race not to be missed. I had traded kind emails with the race organizer, and anticipated this day for months.

But, a week prior, photographer friend Dan Patitucci had texted me. “Wanna go to the Alpstein? It’s amazing. Quiet. Great running. We’ll photograph. You write something. We’ll figure it out.”

Single photos have changed the course of my life, and Dan and Janine’s photographs rank among some of the most powerful images I’ve seen. Over the years, I had spotted their work in climbing and running magazines, and that twice-a-year standby, the Patagonia catalog. Long before I knew them personally, I knew their name, and could spot their work. It nearly always elicited an involuntary, “I gotta go there!” Or, “I want to do that!” Some people tear up when listening to Mendelssohn or Vivaldi. Me? I get dope-slapped by great outdoors photography.

So, when Dan texted, the choice was easy. If dinner with Julia Roberts had been on the calendar, her iPhone would have lit up with, BCNU LTR JR.

As it has a habit of happening, though, the outside world intervened. In this case, it was Meteo Swiss, which called for heavy rain, flooding and something called “extreme hail”—a phrase I never want to experience first-hand without the presence of at least one sheet of 3/8ths-inch thick plywood. I have my scars from enough time outdoors in dicey situations that went south, fast. At a certain age, you get tired of hiding under a boulder, praying to a God whose existence you found uncertain, at best. And for Dan and Janine, this was play, but it was also work. So, the forecast called for screen time, not mountain time.

Coasting down from a mid-day run a few hours after the updated meteo, my thinking started to reorganize itself. If I left soon, I could still run the Eiger Ultra. No… not soon. It’s nearly four hours by bus and train from St Luc to Grindewald. If I wanted to get there, I’d better start running downhill faster.

Not everyone runs in Grindelwald. Some take life a bit more leisurely.
Not everyone runs in Grindelwald. Some take life a bit more leisurely. Photo courtesy of Tobi Gaulke, via Flickr.

I have packed more slowly for urgent mountain rescues. I opened a duffel and tossed items towards it. Shoes. Shell. Dry layers. Food. Electrolyte tablets. Focus, Mayer, focus! I’d have to work en route, too—add in the laptop, phone, cords, extra battery, accessories.

If “Stairway to Heaven” had started to play when I reached the door to my summer rental, Robert Plant’s plaintiff tones could still have been heard wailing those last few words when I locked the door, duffel packed, and started to sprint towards the waiting Postbus.

Still, hurdles remained. I would be missing the mandatory race meeting and pack inspection. My friend Nate, already in Grindelwald to run the 16 km race, texted me to report that I could go through the pack inspection at 5 am, but that the race organizers were, “quite emphatic that you only have one chance” to show you had the requisite items. And the fact was, I didn’t have all those things on the list. Not yet, anyway. But, my travel schedule allowed 18 minutes in the Rhône valley city of Sierre. On the bus down from St. Luc, I called pharmacies, and whispered politely in uncertain French, searching for a specific kind of adhesive, elastic first aid tape.

Breitlings are worth thousands of francs for one reason: Swiss attention to detail. No Swiss race organizer worth his alpkäse was going to let a late-arriving, carefree American ruin his race by running with improper first aid tape in his pack. I imagined a “DNF” without ever lacing up my shoes, if I didn’t pass the pack inspection.

One by one, though, the obstacles fell. First aid tape? Check. Place to stay in overbooked Grindelwald? Miraculously… check. Late night packing with Nate’s assistance? Grateful check. Asleep by midnight? Fail. But close enough. Maybe.

Midnight: probably time to pack my gear and think about heading to sleep.
Midnight: probably time to pack my gear and think about heading to sleep. Thanks. Nate!

At 5:00 am on race morning, bleary-eyed, I finally exited that bewildering construction zone and found my way to registration. I breezed through the pack inspection with Nicole, one of the race director’s deputies. I got a voucher for breakfast and stopped drinking coffee only when it was clear that sets of eyes around the pre-dawn breakfast table were watching me. Who was this late arriving, caffeine-swilling American guy, anyway? Was he going to drink another cup?

At 6:59, somehow, I found myself behind the starting line, going through the checklist, from orthotics to cap, external bladder to… internal bladder. Once the pre-flight rundown was done, my mind flipped to the big picture. I’m always grateful in these moments. It is a form of a victory to simply be standing there at a start line, ready to run. I know it won’t always be this way. It’s poignant. How can it not be, when you stop to think about it?

Poles, compression shorts: Being sensitive to local traditions is important. Photo courtesy of AlphaFoto.

Would I rather have been in the Alpstein? Absolutely. But, even on four hours of sleep, I thought to myself, being right here, right now, is a pretty damned good thing. And then the gun went off.

As for the race? It lived up to every expectation, and more. At turn after turn, some of the best alpine scenery anywhere in Europe. Well-positioned and well-stocked aid stations. Good company. (Save the brief lecture about passing on the single-track. Uncalled-for lectures are the last refuge of the less fit and the pettily jealous.) Plenty of little laughs along the course with fellow runners. And a great post-race party.

Finally, a trail surface that allows you look up and enjoy the view-- without falling flat on your face.
Finally, a trail surface that allows you look up and enjoy the view– without falling flat on your face.

I finished respectably—13th out of the 87 runners in my division. I’d like to credit a rigorous training schedule. But, since I didn’t have that, or anything close to it, I’m left confessing to a gooey, artificial dietary transgression. After years of reading of the power of gels during long trail races, I crossed to the dark side, and gave it a go. I downed one slimy packet every hour, for 31 miles.

How’d it work? Let me explain it this way. Nine hours after I had crossed the finish line, as the Mondaine SBB Railway clock in the Patitucci’s kitchen ticked past midnight, I was still yammering away. I was doping with my own personal version of EPO, but it was a Pyrrhic victory that spiked my sympathetic nervous system into warp drive. Tossing and turning an hour later, I modified the infamous Viagra warning that all EMTs learn. If your hyperactivity persists more than twelve hours, please seek medical attention immediately.

Who wants to feel like the Tasmanian devil, whirring along hours after the finish line has been put away? When the next Swiss ultra rolls around, I’m going with tradition: Bieberli, Gruyere, and broth.

Next time, something that looks more like real food, please.
Next time, something that looks more like real food, please.
Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.