Grossglockner Ultra Trail is a race that goes around Austria’s highest peak, Grossglockner (3798m), through the National Park Hohe Tauern. And it’s one of the few trail events that have a long distance team relay race. Of course that’s what Andrei and I went for.
It’s a relatively “young” race, the 2019 edition being the 5th one so far.
We signed up for the 110k race, the longest one, but split in two: Andrei would do the first leg, 60k with 4500m elevation, while I’d do the second, 50k with about 2000m elevation. The 50k segment was exactly the route of the official Kalser Tauern Trail race of the event.
None of us had ever done a trail relay before so it sounded like fun.
“The race crosses 3 provinces, 7 valleys, 6 municipalities, runners cross the Alps 2 times running along of 14 glaciers, surrounded by around 300 mountains higher than 3000m” – according to the event website.
For both of us it was supposed to be this year’s A race – the most important of the season.
I knew that Andrei felt strong and in shape, and that I’d do my best to get in shape for the race. However, exactly two weeks before the competition, I sprained my right ankle. That was my good ankle.
I started crying when I heard it crack, and I still don’t know how many of the tears were for the physical pain and how many for what a bad ankle meant. I still had memories from two years ago, when the sprain at my other ankle took 6 months to heal.
I decided to take a complete rest break until the competition, hoping it would get better. A few days before the race, my best case scenario was that I’d finish the race in a decent time, my second best was to finish it walking, and the worst case scenario was a big fat DNF.
I learned to tie my ankle up with tape in order to keep it fixed. This really helped. I went for a short run two days before the race and the tied ankle felt ok. The way I had tied the tape prevented it from rolling, and nothing hurt. Except for my muscles and lungs that had been on a forced rest break for two weeks and seemed to had forgotten all about running.
But my hope was in the muscle memory. The memory of all those kilometers and all that sweat, hoping my body will remember the hard work on race day.
The Austrian Adventure
We headed for Austria with almost the entire Datacor Running Team. We had runners in all the distances of the event – 30k, individual 50k, 75k, plus our 110k relay. The trip was long, because we went by car, but not as tiring as I expected. Plus, we had a few days to spend in Kaprun before the race, that some of us used for cycling, hiking, and some route recognitions.
For me, it’s always hard to choose between being competitive in a race and doing all kinds of activities before it. Especially when I go to a new place. It was the same in Lavaredo, when the long hike we did a few days before the competition costed us a bit. So this time I decided not to sacrifice the result, and rest. But we still want to come back one day and do everything we missed out on.
I wasn’t nervous. Not until Friday evening, when Andrei was getting ready to go to the start line.
Before he started, he warned me about my own race: “You’re going to have so many reasons to give up tomorrow – ankle, lack of shape, lack of speed, heat, better runners, stomach problems etc. Find an excuse to overpass each one of them”.
He started at 10pm, at the same time with the runners in the 110k. He looked confident and I knew that running at night would be an advantage for him. He didn’t see anything, though 🙂 All he did was push as hard as he could so that he’d put as much distance as possible in front of the other runners.
After dropping Andrei off at the start line I went back to the room, finished preparing my bag for my race and tried to get some sleep. Unsuccessfully. I kept checking the live trail app and with every refresh I saw Andrei on the 1st position in the relay teams and the 2nd position overall, after the winner of the 110k, Florian Grasel. He was kicking ass.
The thing is we had estimated he’d arrive in about 8-9 hours, and the ETA in the app was 5h. It didn’t seem realistic for this distance and elevation, but who knows what happened, I thought. The risk was he’d arrive before I got there to take the relay over.
This was my biggest fear, because from the place we were staying at there was a 5 minute drive to a bus and then a one hour and a half bus ride from Kaprun to Kals. That’s where I and the runners of the 50k race, had the start. But there were only two buses at night – 2.45 am and 4.30 am. So every little detail had to be calculated by the minute.
But the app kept saying that Andrei would finish the race in 5 hours. So at 2am I went downstairs and met Alin, ready to leave for the 2.45 am bus, telling him I’m coming with him. We discussed a few minutes and decided it’s probably safe for me to wait for the 4.30 am bus because it’s very likely that there was an error in the app.
And that’s what I did. At 4.30 am, I was in the bus, surrounded mostly by runners from the 50k race. I kept refreshing the live results app. It showed Andrei’s finish time: 5.36 am. And the driver’s Waze showed the ETA for 5.45 am. I felt nervous from head to toes.
To sum up my night, it meant not one minute of sleep, a small and rushed cup of coffee and barely a few spoons of oatmeal at 3.30am.
Finally the app adjusted Andrei’s ETA and I was joking that I had enough time to warm up in the bus and start running as soon as I hopped off.
Where’s my runner?
I made it on time to the tent where I was changing the relay and the 50k runners had their start. Unfortunately, the start time for the 50k race kept being postponed, and this caused a bit of a mess and confusion in the tent.
The organisers announced the arrival of the first runner in the checkpoint, and I was getting ready because I knew Andrei couldn’t be far. I went to the tent exit to see the start of the 50k race, but while refreshing the livetrail app I saw Andrei had arrived. But I couldn’t see him anywhere. None of us spotted the other in time so Andrei started to run on the 50k route for a few minutes to look for me. In the end he came back to the tent and that’s when we met and I started right away.
We lost a few minutes like this and it was mostly my fault, because I should have been right by the entrance in order to spot him.
A bit frustrated by losing a few minutes, I started running after the 50k runners. I had to overpass most of them and it wasn’t easy. In the first 10k we had a runnable uphill on a wide forest road and things were easier. I must have said “sorry, sorry, excuse me” a hundred times. Not an easy thing to do when you’re running.
On the first uphill I was trying to catch my breath and set my pace. I kept getting stung with poles and getting suspicious looks from the runners I was overpassing. I apologised but I wasn’t there to be polite. I just hoped that by the time the first 10k ascent finished, I’d feel warmed up and ready to rock.
As soon as I reached the second checkpoint, I saw lots of people around cheering and I had a smile on my face. I stopped for a sip of coke and kept climbing. I couldn’t eat anything.
Unfortunatelly what followed were some technical areas where, even if they wanted to let me pass, the runners in front of me didn’t have any place to go. The route is pretty technial overall and in some places there’s room to pass only one by one. So yeah, I spent a while in line.
The second uphill was a real killer. I felt slow and I wanted it to end, but it didn’t. I could feel the strong sun, and because of the altitude I also felt a bit dizzy. But it all seemed a bit better when I looked around and saw that everyone else was also suffering, lol. Shared pain is half pain.
I was overpassed on that climb by a few runners, including two women, if I remember correctly, that had climbing poles. New running goal: learn to climb with poles.
The part where I had the most fun was a descent on snow, from Kapruner Torl. I was hoping to win some time there with my snow descent skills, but the snow was so soft this time, that I kept falling and sliding. But I laughed like a kid and definitely overtook a lot of runners who kept breaking downhill.
Then, after two long climbs, out of which one was rocky and vertical, came the second part of the race: almost 30km of downhill. Because who needs quads anyway, right?
There were a few moments in this race when the sights made me forget all about the pain. The route is truly beautiful, from either way – looking up from the valleys towards the high peaks that surrounded us or looking down to the big blue lakes and rocky paths.
The sunny weather made me drink more than I was used to, even if in the first part of the route I didn’t feel hot. But as we approached lunch time, the sun was shining right on top of us and made the lakes shine in blue and green colours, I also approached the third checkpoint at km 32.
To get there, we passed through a runnable segment, where I felt my legs loaded and I was getting hungry and thirsty, running real low on fuel. Especially the last few hundred meters to the dam where the checkpoint was felt horrible. I was feeling exhausted and I spent a lot of time there eating and drinking, and taking some melon to go.
Or maybe it was the paradox of choice, not knowing what to choose from all those bars, gels, fruit, crackers, salty foods and such.
Andrei will probably remind me for the rest of my life how he was refreshing the live trail app and saw that I spent a lot of time in that checkpoint, together with one of the women I was competing with, wondering if we’d decided to stay for a picnic or have a swim in the lake.
But this helped me recover a little bit and keep going. The downhill went fine, although I was taking it easy because downhills are where a sprained ankle hurts most. And I didn’t want to roll it again, either.
The thing with running downhill carefully is that you put a lot of strain on the legs, so my muscles, knees and hip joints got all the suffering.
If this race had finished at km 41, at the last checkpoint, things would have been perfect.
But no. From there I still had 9km to go, partially on asphalt and partially on trail, with a slight downhill or easy ups and downs (rollercoaster), but all of it in the 1pm summer sun.
I felt like I couldn’t move anymore. And it was obvious how much the temperature affects my running: we passed through a few tunnels where it was cooler and dark and I was feeling strong and fast, and as soon as I got out of the tunnels, I’d feel lousy again.
On the last 3 km I actually felt like walking. But I met Andrei and he ran beside me to the finish line, reminding me that the race is still on, and it’s not over until it’s over.
And so it was. I passed the finish line in exactly 7h 00min. Thanks to his amazing effort (60k with 4500m elevation in 8h16min) we were the first mixed team relay. And just one minute behind the first (male) relay team (they finished in a total time of 15h16min and we finished in 15h17min). Damn, so close. A minute that I could have recovered in so many places during my race.
We won the mixed relay race, with Andrei being the first finisher of the first 60k leg, and me being the third woman in the 50k leg. This means that there were two other super strong ladies – that I later met on the podium – who had done the 50k faster than me. But because Andrei put a lot of distance between himself and the other male runners in the 60k leg, the other teams couldn’t catch up. Again, every minute matters, right until the end.
Overall, I didn’t feel like I pushed as hard as I could in this race. Partially because of the ankle, partially because of my running break, and also because of the queues I was in on the route. I know I can definitely improve my result. But after the finish I still needed a half an hour to be able to speak. Long distance running is tough 😛
I was happy for Andrei, happy for our race together and winning the first place, and also happy that I didn’t have any extra pain in the ankle. It went as good as it possibly could.
Besides, everyone in the Datacor Running Team did a great job in their races. We celebrated by resting one day more in Austria, visiting Hallstatt, and then off we went straight back home, for a real vacation and new plans.
I recommend Grossglockner Ultra Trail to anyone who’s looking for an event in a beautiful area that can be mixed with a nice active vacation, some other sports, and some visiting. The possibilities are endless in this part of the Austrian Alps.
The event itself is pretty well organised and overall I have nothing to complain about. I just wished they’d signaled the first relay finish line better, and there was also a problem with the ITRA points – because some of the races got shortened (not ours), ITRA offered less points for the runners, even if they did the entire route in an amazing time.
GGUT is a relatively young race that still feels a bit like a lower key event, but still very well organised and with some big names in the start lists. But I loved that they made a real party for the last runner of the ultra, waiting for her in the cheering crowd, with music.
Thanks to Datacor Running Team for setting up this adventure, and to GoldNutrition Romania for fuelling my trainings and my races. It was definitely the biggest adventure this summer!