We have been at it for 20 minutes already, and I am soaked with sweat. Today’s race, Fully-Sorniot, offers runners a full five minutes of pleasant coasting along old village roads, until delivering the goods: 1.6 vertical kilometers of ass-kicking, no-holes-barred switchbacks.
I try not to look up, but it’s too tempting. I glance skyward, and all I see is… rock. Apprehensively, I tilt my head higher still. My neck hurts from the angle. Don’t do it, I think. Don’t go there. Keep your head down. I can see that up there, somewhere, the climb ends at a ridge.
I settle into my business-as-usual climbing pace. It’s a trail race, but everyone is walking–as fast as they can. At this angle, unless you’re an elite racer, all running does is burn more calories and use more water. It’s senseless. Then Chris, my tour guide for the day, says it. “This is where the climb begins.”
Huh? I glance at the ground ahead of Chris. The angle doubles. Head down, Mayer.
Chris Longbottom is easily seven inches taller than me. He is also massively fit and tough. A five-time UTMB runner, he’s out for a Sunday coast today. This route—a short 7 km but with a 1,600-meter climb, is his after-work run. Some folks walk the dog around the neighborhood. Chris climbs the equivalent of Mount Washington before dinner. Today, I can tell–his engine is barely idling. I manage to match him, step for step… but he steadily pulls ahead with his long gait. Affable and polite, he stops at the aid stations en route to check in on me.
An hour in, we’re still switchbacking mercilessly. Locals, out to cheer on the racers, holler the familiar cries of a Swiss trail race in progress. Allez-Allez! Bon Courage! Bravo, Bravo! I swap places a few times with racers near me. My pulse pounding, I distract my mind with my usual pointless game–focusing on reeling in the guy ahead: I’m coming for you, Lycra Man!
At an hour and a quarter, I’m ready to start thinking about the end. I’m at a low ebb today—last weekend, I ran the Trail Dents du Midi. I was easily more than fit enough for the Dents du Midi after a summer of Alp running, but had undertrained for the 56 km and 4,300 meters of vertical. My legs still feel it, and the outside of one knee hobbles me slightly. On top of the aches, last night I was out at a party in nearby Martigny at the home of Chris’ fiancée, Alexandra Schlich, and crossed paths with Caro Grange, one of the organizers of the Fully KM, a raced legendary for its pure, unrepentant verticality—the route follows an old funicular track. In other words, straight and inconceivably steep. (Check out this video and this one of Kilian Jornet, on the route. See what I mean?) We talked until nearly midnight. These factors in mind, I know that today I can only be here for the fun of it. I don’t feel the slightest urge to push harder.
Finally, at 1:20, I hit the chains, bolted to the cliff to protect against the deadly consequences of a slip. Swiss trail races, it occurs to me, have their own unique elevation zones. It begins with the village cobblestone, that lead to the vineyards, then the chalets and low pastures, then forests, then the cliff bands with chains… and then you’re finally granted access to the alpine pasture, the big views, the colder temperatures and the views of the 4,000-meter peaks. Today is no different.
At this set of chains, I spot a plaque as I cruise by. I miss the name, but catch the dates. 1945-1993. I do the math. He died at my age. I wonder, was he running Fully-Sorniot and just cashed it in, pushing his chips off the table in disgust, the plateau almost within sight? Most likely, it was a winter fatality, and the chains were installed the following year. It seems to be that way in the Alps. The chains follow the death.
We top out, and in ten meters the grade transitions from stupidly steep to perfectly flat. A small crowd of onlookers cheers wildly for each of us as we reach this race Nirvana. Ahead is Lac Inférior de Fully (there’s a much larger lake, just higher), and that beloved, flat victory lap around the alpine tarn to La Cabane de Sorniot and the finish. I feel strong, but the warning light on my dash says, “Mechanical issue: check knee.” It hurts. I take it easy around the lake, and enjoy the view. Behind me, the huge massif of the Grand Combin. In front, a huge alpine basin with the Grand Chavalard and the Tête du Portail… and a banner that reads, “ARRIVÉE.”
I finish in 1:41:09, and as soon as I’m through the informal corral at the hut, I catch sight of an older gentleman handing out glasses of wine to finishers. He’s right out of central casting, tweed jacket and all. I find out later he’s the local vintner, and we’re getting a 2012 Fully blanc. Before heading down, I raise a plastic glass and toast the Grand Combin, its snowy flanks bright white in front of me. Santé, Alps. Thanks for another good one.