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Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival K65

Date: 12.09.2020 Time: 7:10:22 Distance: 61.2km

After a fun Night Trail race on Thursday it was time for my main event on Saturday. The K65 was actually 61km, due to a route change that came as a result of the Covid-19 adjustments. But either way it was still a huge day out in the mountains, and the longest race I’ve ever done. 

I explicitly had one aim for the day, “to find the line between being pleased with my performance, but not hit the wall like I have in past ultras”. In practice this meant running fast enough to feel I’d worked really hard, but not so hard I found myself 20km from the finish lying on the ground asleep / crying / unable to move (all of which have actually happened to me in the past). 

I always find it a little frustrating when the mandatory kit list for trail races contains a load of stuff that I don’t own or feel I’ll need. This was no different. For example we needed to carry a headlamp, despite the race starting at 09:30am. If I hadn’t been able to borrow a tiny headlamp from Caro, I would have had to carry my chestlamp (adding an 165g of unnecessary weight) or buy a small one, which I had no intention to use. 

Waterproof trousers were also a requirement; despite a clear blue sky all day long! Since there was no option to borrow gear from race organisers this all adds to the cost of trail racing, making it prohibitively expensive for many runners. 

But anyway, aside from my griping about the kit list the day was awesome. It was a gorgeous sunny day. A little hot, but there were plenty of mountain streams and taps to cool off in. 

I decided to start with Caro, in an attempt to stop myself setting out too fast – which has always been my issue when I’ve previously tried ultras. Pleasingly this tactic worked. We ran together for a few Km, and then I gradually worked my way a little further ahead. 

The route had three major climbs & an infinity of great views. Initially we went south out of the city and then up a mountain to the south-west. Then we descended back to city level and crossed the valley. At the 25km point we began the biggest climb, up the mountains to the north of the city and then back down to the river in the east. Finally we climbed a mountain south-east of the city before descending to finish back where we started. 

We actually made a nice, neat circle around the city. 

The first 20km were pretty uneventful, and by the time we got to river level at 25km I made my first friend of the race. We had a great chat until about halfway up the second hill and I got distracted by the awesome setup at the 30km aid station.

I even had an alcohol-free beer at 30km.

Feeling refreshed I set off to continue the climb, with a new set of friends. At this point a small group had formed, including Pieter who I had met just before going into the 30km aid station. 

At that point we settled into a good rhythm. The mountains gave us awesome views, great company and a sense of true freedom. It was interesting to chat to the other runners and I spent a good long while with Pieter, discussing whatever came to our (slightly oxygen depleted) minds. I always find that running with someone helps the distance pass in the most enjoyable way, and races are a great opportunity to meet people who I’d never otherwise get a chance to talk to.

Just one of the great views.

It’s worth mentioning just how beautiful the area around Innsbruck is. The city sits in a valley and you get awesome views of the place once you get up into the mountains and look back down. It also helped give some perspective on the race. When you looked across the valley from the 30km point you could see almost the whole route.

At some point I met Tim. We’d been leapfrogging each other for some time. Occasionally I would find some energy and speed up, only to slow down once I remembered there was a long way to go and he’d catch me again.

Tim was certainly noticeable in his bright orange top.

I should have listened to his advice when Tim suggested that I’d be better off running a consistent pace (something I always aim to do in road marathon, but for some reason had neglected to do here). He seemed much more comfortable than me whenever he caught me, as he inevitably did each time I pushed forwards.

After the fourth or fifth time Tim had caught me I finally heeded his words and tried to simply stick with him. We hit the base of the final climb together (or rather Tim was towing me along in his wake by then). And we struggled up it, mostly in silent pain. 

Midway up the climb I forgot Tim’s advice and tagged along with another friendly face, a Polish guy I’d run next to around the 20km point. We had a good chat and I was given a good opportunity to practice my German, given that he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Polish.

Smile? Grimace? At least the scenery was nice and the trees gave me some shade.

By the time I rounded the top of this climb I was reduced to a very painful fast walk, regardless of the fact it was a essentially flat terrain. Mainly I was motivated by the thought of what Tim would say if he caught me up again. I could just imagine the friendly laugh he would give me, saying something like ” Oh it’s you again. I wondered when you’d slow down”.

The final 10km were exceptionally painful, but I managed to keep a slow run going the whole way. The final 5km of a race has never felt so long.

Somehow I managed to fall over just about 1km from where I’d fallen in the night trail on Thursday. Much less blood this time, but a bigger sense of embarrassment as I feel right in front of a family out for their casual Saturday walk.

Coming towards the finish I did manage a slightly less slow run than the last 5km. I hobbled across the line as an undignified and unimpressive as I’ve ever been, but I achieved a really pleasing result nonetheless. Somehow I managed to find the line between being pleased with my performance, but not hit the wall like I have in past ultras. 

I can only remember one race that has had me in the same level of pain in immediate aftermath. After the London Marathon 2017 I lay on the pavement, head resting on the curb, and felt a sense of whole body pain I hoped never to have to re-experience. Unfortunately the feeling came for me again in the shadow of the Innsbruck K65. 

Laid on the concrete bleachers I experienced an all-consuming pain that lasted for the full two hours until Caro crossed the line and I was able to distract myself by congratulating her and shuffling home. In pain, but proud. 

Innsbruck Alpine Night Trail

Date: 10.09.2020 Time: 34:07 Distance: 6.6km

The Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival is an event that Caro has done several times in the past, but I hadn’t yet done. Amazingly the races were not only going ahead despite Covid-19, but they were still accepting entry. I decided on the 65km event on Saturday, plus the 7km Night Trail event on Thursday evening. 

Being a nighttime race, it was an event where I’d be using my trusty Decathlon chestlamp – I always prefer a chestlamp to a headlamp. Our route started on the edge of the city, went up and then down a single hill, in a circular route. The route was supposedly well marked, although I struggled at times. I felt like it was probably well marked in daytime, but harder to navigate by torchlight. 

Because the Covid-19 rules in Austria allowed for groups of up to 150 people starting races together, and there were around 200 participants, we had been split randomly into two waves, and I was in the second. Each wave would run separately, but compete as one race. 

The start line was also the finish line, so my start group had to wait until all of the runners in the first group had finished before we were able to start. In the end this was nice for both groups, since the second wave clapped & cheered for the finishers in the first wave, and we were able to see what kind of times we could expect. I made a note of the first finisher coming though in 33:43. Given that it was only a 6.6k route this prepared me for a hard hill.

The start line was managed in the “form three lines & keep your distance” manner that events seem to have settled on at the moment. Thomas and I managed to get near the front, but not the first row, so we were able to stay in the mix, without the pressure of being right at the front. 

In a literal cloud of smoke we were off. The organisers had chosen to fire up the smoke machine, which made for cool pictures, but wasn’t great for seeing or breathing. Immediately two guys set off at an absolute sprint. Thankfully this made my choices easy, if either of them could hold that pace I didn’t stand a chance, but if they’d set off too fast they were going to slow down a lot once we hit the hill. 

To be fair the smoke machines made for some very cool photos.

As it happens I caught one guy before we’d even hit the base of the hill. 700m into the race he’d slowed to a more responsible speed and I overtook. At the 1km mark we started climbing and pretty soon afterwards I caught the other guy.

The hill was tough to say the least. I’ve raced on bigger hills, but this was a unique experience for me. When the hills are bigger and the race is longer it is always worth slowing down on the hill and saving energy. This race was only 6.6k, and since I was expecting the descent to be too technical for me to be able to really push my speed I was left with just 3.3k of fast running, followed by 3.3k of trying not to fall over. So I had no option but to power up the hill as fast as I could, which was seriously hard work. Thankfully I was only forced into a walk for the very steepest section. 

At one point I couldn’t find the route, so had to stop and wait for the second placed runner who knew the way to catch up and ask him the way. It lost me a good 20seconds which was super frustrating! It was also probably the first time I’ve ever totally stopped during a race, which was a surreal experience. 

But, by the time I got to the top of the hill and the halfway point I knew I had used 22mins going uphill, so was targeting just 11mins to get home. The descent was steep and and visibility was poor in the dark. It was going to be fun terrifying.

Actually the descent was equal parts amazing fun and absolutely terrifying. It was awesome to see the trees whipping past, hear the occasional cheer form a supporter hidden in the shadows and charge, recklessly fast, down the hill. But I was really pushing my limits and at several points got lucky to avoid slamming into trees.

Alas, just a second before I was going to burst out the trees and onto the road at the base of the climb I pushed my luck too far and hit the ground. I have absolutely no recollection of what made me fall, but it certainly hurt. Instead of appearing from the trees as a majestic, graceful athlete I appeared as a muddy wreck, tumbling along the ground. 

Oh well. It might not be graceful but I still had a shot at a good position. So I picked myself up and pushed for the final 1km. Coming into the stadium I saw I would be over the 34min mark and, unsure what time positions two and three had achieved in the previous wave, I sprinted for the line. 

After crossing the line I hobbled to the medical tent, cleaned my leg up and before I knew it the announcer was shouting about Caro being involved in an awesome sprint finish in the women’s race. 

I just made it back to the finish line in time to see Caro squeeze past the leading woman and win her wave. She wasn’t expecting to win and had no idea what times the women in the other wave had done. This made for a tense wait for the pair of us until the prize ceremony. 

It was close to say the least. I had come 3rd, missing out on 2nd by less than a second. Caro had also come  3rd, beating 4th by just a few seconds. Clearly her track sprints have been paying off. 

Caro receiving her hard earned trophy

There were several factors that made this race so enjoyable. Firstly, the fact it was run in the dark made for a really fun element.

Second, the two waves aspect meant I got to both spectate, and race, in the same event. Watching the headlamps of the first wave make their way up & down the hill fuelled the anticipation for our own run.

Also, because it wasn’t a race type I’ve ever done before (the closest thing I’ve done is cross country, but this was just one huge hill, rather than the undulating courses you get in the UK), I was able to experience the joy of the unknown and discover something new.

Finally, the weather was warm and dry, so we were able to hang around before and after in just our race gear without getting cold.

The matching plaques that Caro & I won are now hanging on the wall next to each other as a memory of one of the most fun races I’ve ever done.