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Mountain Racing in Europe – A Dream Continued

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 two in a two part story from Russell about his time racing in the European Alps. You can see part one HERE

Although I was very focused on winning the 1992 Kepler Challenge and thrilled to achieve that, it seemed surreal to win yet another trip to Europe. I was really stoked to be getting another crack at the Swiss Alpine Marathon but would have to go on my own this time. My success in 1992 had significantly raised my expectations and I had a feeling that I now knew better what was required. Work commitments limited me to just the one race so I was determined to give the Swiss Alpine Marathon my very best shot. I also went better equipped to promote the Kepler Challenge at the massive pre-race expo, one of the few effective methods of international race promotion in those pre-internet days.

However my confidence in knowing what was required was badly misplaced and I received a valuable lesson in the wider aspects of race preparation in a foreign land. For several days the prerace weather had been very hot, 25+ degrees even at 1550m altitude. Race morning dawned very warm again and I was concerned about how to manage that during the race, remembering that I had just come out of a cold NZ winter. Not long after the start light rain began to fall although it was still very warm. There were no compulsory gear requirements and everyone was dressed lightly for the heat. But as a cautionary measure I picked up a light jacket from my supporters at the last significant township before the climb to the mountain pass. It was still hot and I remained focused on adequate hydration.

Running with John in the rain but before it got cold-Swiss Alpine Marathon 1993

Running with John in the rain but before it got cold-Swiss Alpine Marathon 1993

Not long into the 13 kilometres of the 1400m climb it cooled off quickly. By halfway up the rain had turned to sleet and snow. I had my jacket on and was really feeling the cold. But I still had my racer mentality and kept pushing. Before long though I was occasionally missing my footing on the rocks and stumbling. Several runners passed me, including one wearing no top, only shorts. I later learned that this Welshman had stomach cramps and thought he might settle them if he wasn’t so hot. It worked apparently.

My progressively more stumbling gait and frequent bouts of severe shivering gradually dampened my racing focus. I accepted it was now a matter of survival. I was less than 3kms from the 2700m pass but amazingly even at this altitude and in those conditions there were lots of spectators. So I didn’t feel totally at risk as you would be in these circumstances in New Zealand. I pushed on as best I could.

At the summit aid station I sheltered in a tent for a while and had some food which perked me up a little. I decided to carry on and make my own way off the mountain. I still couldn’t run properly, was often shivering uncontrollably and had to be very careful not to fall on the steep descent. Fortunately I didn’t have to go far off the summit for the temperature to increase significantly. But even though I could feel the chill lifting I couldn’t run with any coordination at all. I was miserable, still stumbling regularly and runner after runner was passing. I had had enough and decided to catch a bus back into Davos withdrawing from the race, very disappointed.

After a long soak in a hot bath and more food I was feeling much healthier and went around to race HQ to watch proceedings. There I caught up with Gabriel Kamau, one of the Kenyan guys I had been having my meals with at the hotel prerace, and winner of the 28km first section of the Swiss Alpine marathon. He was frantically looking for fellow Kenyan John who had been running with me early in the day. I helped him search without success and we were becoming very worried as John had no warm clothes and limited English or German to request help. As time went on we really feared for his wellbeing. We were very relieved when our enquiries eventually revealed that John was in the local hospital recovering from hypothermia having been lifted off the mountain by helicopter. I arrived back home from that trip a good deal wiser and much more accepting of the need to carry compulsory gear.

Very near the Sertig Pass summit, Swiss Alpine Marathon 1994

Very near the Sertig Pass summit, Swiss Alpine Marathon 1994

Come December 1993 I was fortunate to again win the Kepler Challenge so in July 1994 I was gratefully back in the air en route to Davos and the Swiss Alpine Marathon. The weather was ideal this time and I ran well but couldn’t match my 1992 effort finishing 4th. The interesting thing about that year was the appearance of a group of three Tarahumara Mexican Indians. These are the group that feature in Christopher McDougall’s best selling book “Born To Run”. There had been a wave of publicity about their running prowess after they had won a 100mile race in USA and a promoter had become involved taking them around many prominent races – for a large fee no doubt.

The Tarahumara were a colourful spectacle in their native costume and huarache sandals made from old car tyres. They were short, not much more than 150cm tall, very lightly built guys with crumbled, battered toes. It looked like either their open top huaraches or their customary wooden football had taken a toll on those toes. Their top runner was 54 years of age and he finished in a similar time to the top women, so not fast but very strong running for a 54 year old.

Approaching the top of the Sertig Pass, Swiss Alpine Marathon 1994

Approaching the top of the Sertig Pass, Swiss Alpine Marathon 1994

Two more trips followed further Kepler victories but despite my form being good before leaving New Zealand injuries affected both runs. In 1995 it was gluteal muscles and back trouble and I finished 38th. In 1996 it was my Achilles tendons and 26th place. Soon after returning from that trip I had surgery for the Achilles problems and there were no more Kepler wins. However I was really pleased that Keith Murray, the man who pushed me so hard to my fastest Keplers, was able to take the trip in 1997. It was to be the last trip as the Comalco sponsorship had finished.

Those years of Comalco sponsorship were great days for the Kepler Challenge. Such a valuable prize attracted strong fields and added publicity to establish the Kepler Challenge as New Zealand’s premiere mountain race. In Europe the publicity from my Swiss Alpine runs in German and Swiss running magazines, and prerace expo’s, gradually grew awareness of the event within the mountain running community and international runners started coming out here to race. Now with the help of the internet tourism for mountain runners often involves a race. The Kepler Challenge being on a “Great Walk” track is a real beacon, a proud Kiwi icon.

So I was thrilled to learn that links with the Swiss Alpine Marathon remain through current Kepler champion Vajin Armstrong. His hopes of running that event in 2012 were thwarted by injury but he is keen to get there this year. Best wishes Vajin. Fly the Kiwi Kepler Challenge flag high.

 


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