Mountain Running in Europe – Worlds Apart

Russell Hurring is probably best known for his winning streak at the Kepler Challenge and course record of 4hr41mins, but Russell also has a stella international running resume from around the same time of his Kepler domination. Below is part one is a two part story from Russell about his time racing in the European Alps.

The 25th anniversary Kepler Challenge rekindled memories for me of the very fortunate six years in the early 90’s when I could travel to race in the European mountains during the coldest, most miserable part of our New Zealand winter. Here are a few stories from those trips, an opportunity to again express my gratitude for the support and foresight that enabled it all, particularly from the Kepler Challenge Committee.

At that time there were some well established mountain races here but fields were small, and very friendly. This background was a huge contrast to the scale of mountain racing in Europe, the large number and variety of races, and the massive fields in the bigger races. Initially my interest was prompted by running mates who knew that Athletics New Zealand was looking for people keen to run the World Mountain Running Trophy races in Zermatt Switzerland, in September 1991. I had won local races from the 4km Kellys Canter to the 67km Kepler Challenge and during several hard hilly runs they persuaded me to apply. Barry Prosser, the very accomplished mountain runner from Wellington also applied but like me he had a young family and couldn’t afford to go if the trip wasn’t funded. As the 1991 winter arrived the trip was looking rather doubtful. Then quite by chance Barry was doing some carpentry work for Barry Davenport, the chief of the Sports Foundation funding body. Luckily our pioneering venture into international mountain running fitted the Sports Foundation funding objectives and the trip was back on.

photo (1)

The first NZ Mountain Running World Trophy team 1991 at the opening ceremony Zermatt, Switzerland, left to right Thomas Whitehead, Russell Hurring, Barry Prosser

Just before leaving for Switzerland we learned that Thomas Whitehead, 1989 Kepler Challenge winner was going to join us there. Thomas had been living and racing in Switzerland for some time so was a very helpful source of knowledge about the European scene, the runners and the races. We were made most welcome in Zermatt by officials and other teams alike, and we had a great time soaking up the international race environment as we counted down to race day. In many ways it was the same friendly atmosphere that we were used to in NZ, until the start gun fired at least. Our results were ok rather than spectacular. I think I was 29th and Barry somewhere in the 30’s, with Thomas a little further back. But I was definitely keen for more of this.

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Russell at the World Trophy race in Zermatt 1991

While we were in Switzerland it was announced that Comalco Aluminium Smelters would become the major sponsor of the Kepler Challenge offering a trip to run the 67km Swiss Alpine Marathon for first place. This prize was an idea that evolved in the staff room at FiordlandCollege. Ross Redpath of the Kepler Challenge Committee knew of the Swiss Alpine Marathon, and its identical 67km distance, which made the races a perfect match. The Kepler Challenge Committee duly wrote to the Swiss Alpine organisers and they set up the link that was to last all six years of that most generous Comalco support. Ironically the 67km of the Swiss Alpine Marathon always seemed to be much longer than the Kepler Challenge 67. Race times were certainly much slower even allowing for the altitude differences. In due course both races were remeasured. The Kepler became 60km and the Swiss Alpine 71km. Come December 1991 I was fortunate enough to win my second Kepler Challenge and this wonderful prize. I was certain that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Theresa and I decided to dip into our meagre savings so that she could travel too. We planned a two month stay to allow further races including the World Trophy events in Susa, Italy, and catching up with friends and contacts made in Zermatt. To adjust to summer temperatures and the 1550m altitude we spent ten days in Davos before the Swiss Alpine Marathon. What a new world that was for a rural Dunback couple! On our second day in town I ran over the high mountain section of the course to check it out. This run began at 1370m elevation and went over 2730m, much higher than I had ever run before so was an essential prerace experience. It involved train and bus trips to avoid running the full 67km race course, not something one can do at our NZ mountain races. As we left the train station on returning to Davos two runners came down the road towards us at a fair clip wearing tights and long sleeved tops despite the mid 20 degrees temperature. As they passed I recognised the world 1500m record holder Noureddine Morceli. The other man looked quite like him and I believe it would be his brother and constant training partner. Wow!! That was also the day of the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics and Morceli was still training at altitude. Unfortunately he did not have a good run at Barcelona and it would be another four years before he won his gold. It turns out that Davos is a regular altitude training venue for several of the world’s best in a variety of sports, many living gratis in the best hotels so they can mix with the rich and famous. So on the Saturday evening prior to the Swiss Alpine Marathon a truly international field was assembled for the Nachlauf (night run, dusk actually), a three lap, 8km road race through downtown Davos. These runners were mostly near misses for Olympic selection and had points to prove. I had seen and run against Douglas Wakiihuri during his training stints in Dunedin but this was the first time I had seen the marvel of African runners at speed, en masse. All so fast, yet so fluid and relaxed, what a spectacle in the fast failing light. Added inspiration for my own efforts.

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Russell 1km from the summit of the Swiss Alpine Marathon

My Swiss Alpine Marathon went very well. It was very congested at the start line on the local Davos athletic track with 2500+ starters. Some wag in the crowd burst a paper bag two minutes before the official start time and the field was off. Officials did really well to stop them 150 metres down the track. But getting everyone back to the start line was never going to happen. So only 66.85km to run! I set my own pace early on very aware that many runners were running a shorter race that finished at the next town and not wanting to be sucked along too fast. Further on the sheltered lower valleys of the main climb were very hot. But there were plenty of drink stations and my rhythm was good as I passed several runners. I had no idea of my placing because of the confusion caused by the shorter race. There were lots of spectators giving heaps of encouragement. Eventually I understood an English voice. I was in second place and the runner just ahead was the leader. Time to race.

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Podium of the 1992 Swiss Alpine Marathon

Near the 2730m Sertig Pass summit 17km from the finish we were together but I decided not to push it too hard because of the heat, just bide my time. Mistake, Peter Camenzind is a great descender. I was soon trailing significantly and that was how we finished. I was happy with my run though with my time earning 7th place in the top ten ever on the course. For Peter, 3rd on that list, it was his third Swiss Alpine marathon win. Next race was two weeks later, the very famous Sierre to Zinal, a 31 km trail climbing 2200m and descending 800m as it passes five peaks over 4000m high, spectacular country and a strong international field. The start is on a closed multi-lane highway. You run about one kilometre up a slight gradient and turn left onto very steep, tight single track. With a field of 3000+ runners, real start line pressure. I was pleased with this run too, climbing in 8th to 10th position. But over the latter stages the rougher rocky trail aggravated problems in both my ankles and I slipped back to 20th. The following weekend we took up the kind invitation of English mountain running team manager Pete Bland to join the team training camp in Kendall, England. Pete is a legend of English fell running. He worked with Norman Walsh to develop the famous Walsh Fell shoes that all the English runners wore in those days. With huge rubber studs that were soft enough to grip wet rocks and asphalt they were something special and I still use my pair each year for the horrendously steep and slippery Kellys Canter. I really enjoyed catching up with the English runners again and witnessed some amazing form in the training runs, an omen for Martin Jones’s dominant World Trophy win in Susa. We next travelled to Poolewe in Scotland and I won a local 21km event very like a typical NZ race, enthusiastic rural town support and small friendly field. Although the beautifully harsh highland countryside with its sparse vegetation and very dark peat stained rivers were uniquely Scottish. It was then on to Susa and my last race of the trip, the World Trophy. The course was quite different from the one in Zermatt, shorter with a much more gradual climb and therefore significantly faster. I was not as competitive finishing a rather tired and disappointed 38th. Time to go home, gratefully relieve Theresa’s parents from caring for our children, rest briefly, and plan another Kepler build up.

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