New Zealand’s leading ultra runner Vajin Armstrong had great success last weekend at the Zugspitz 100km Ultra Trail in Germany, below is Vajin’s race report.
This was the first stop on a six race, 3 month tour of Europe. Being the first race it assumed an important position. It would help show me where I stood in relation to our European brothers, plus it would also give me an idea of what shape I was in for coming events. Finally it is always nice to get off to a good start in whatever you do.
I arrived in Germany a couple of weeks before the race which gave me time to start acclimatising to summer as well as time to check out some of the trails used in the race. We were staying at Grainau which is right at the foot of the Zugspitz, it was also the start and finish point of the race. The Zugspitz is the tallest mountain in Germany at 2962m and is one of the most striking and beautiful mountains I have come across. The broad and picturesque valley at it’s base is only 750m high so the mountain really seems to soar straight into the sky. For the Ultra Trail we would be running 100km around the entire Zugspitz massif, plus dealing with 5420m of climbing. It would be easily the toughest course I had raced on and would be a perfect introduction to ultra running Euro style.
Lining up on the morning of the race for the start at the local Music Pavilion the first thing that struck me was how geared up everyone was. There was more compression gear, trekking poles and tight Lycra than I had seen in a lifetime. The thing the stood out was it wasn’t just a few runners that were fully decked out, it was everybody. You could have been in a Salomon commercial for all you had known. It was cool too see a crowd of over 700 runners that were ready to go and and really looked the part. To contrast it with a New Zealand race it would be rare to see even one runner(apart from Grant Guise) wearing the latest matching creations from Salomon’s S Lab. Here I passed at least 100 guys who looked like they were fully sponsored if not by Salomon, then by Raid Light, or Gore.
The effect on a new comer entering this environment is slightly unnerving, you suddenly start thinking “Did I pack enough compression/nutrition/survival gear”. Luckily I never considered whether I should have packed some trekking poles as being a true Kiwi, I already knew I would not be needing those. It was a relief when we were called to the start and I could focus on the one thing I new I was prepared for, which was running 100kms. This start was one of the coolest and most unique starts to any event I have taken part in. Basically we lined up, but in front of us, dressed to the nines in their finest Lederhosen, were the local Bavarian marching band. Once the gun went the band started and we slowly marched behind them out onto the main road. When we hit the road the band went right, the runners went left and it was all on.
Right from the start the pace felt comfortable and I was happy to lead out the first few climbs. I would normally create a small gap on the climbs and then a small lead group would form on the descents. I was feeling pretty confident as on all these early runnable climbs I was easily dropping the rest of the pack and they were having to work harder and harder to get back on on the descents. By 10km it had already separated out slightly so when the young German Prince, Phillip Reiter, joined me at the front we set to work building a solid lead. It was nice having someone to run and talk with and were setting a good tempo at the front. I would tend to drop him on the runnable climbs and he would slowly work his way back on the downs and the super steep climbs. We were moving along nicely through to 30kms when we started the grind up to the highest part of the course at 2200m. Until this point all the climbs had been nice and runnable and I was leading the way, at this point though things started to change. From here onwards it was all all steep, steep hiking only terrain. Normally I would fancy my chances if you challenged me to a hiking contest, but when Philip pulled out his poles it was game over. I had never really considered using poles as I had never had too. All the races I had done the climbing was all runnable so there was no need for them. But here I was in a hiking competition with an Uber German Ski Mountaineering race champion, and it was here I saw for the first time what a good pair of poles in the right hands could achieve.
So this was last I saw of Phillip, walking away from me into the clouds. For the next while I hiked as hard as I could and attempted to not slip off the mountain while crossing one of the many small snow fields. One of the best sections was descending a 200 m long snow field, first by graceful glissade, and then finally sitting down as my legs were starting complain. During this time we had two big climbs followed by two big descents and it was during this time that I was joined by the downhill maestro Matthias Dippacher. We ended up coming into the aid station at 56km separated by only a few seconds. Splits were saying that Phillip was 9mins up on us but the next section was pretty flat and I was feeling good, so I got to work. Not much to say but the next time check I got at around 75km had me only 5mins down on Phillip. The race was on….
Unfortunately from 79km there is a 1250m climb up to the Osterfelderhof, which entails a lot of hiking. Something my young German friend was quite good at, so despite my best efforts by the time we reached the top at 88km he had a nice 11min lead. From here I was happy to enjoy the rest of the course and make sure I got down to the finish in one piece. The run through town to the finish was brilliant to say the least, there were groups of spectators and fans spread out along the way and the finish area had an atmosphere that needed to be felt to be believed. We had brought a NZ flag just before we left for Europe, just on the off chance that I won UTMB, and my of my German friends was waiting with it at 400m to go. An amazing finish to a fantastic race, I definitely can’t recommend this race enough. Super challenging and extremely beautiful course, great atmosphere and support plus the usual German efficiency make it one I would love to do again.
So what do I take away from this race, I know I am in good shape especially for climbing and am strong in the middle and later stages of an ultra. But I need to improve my hiking (poles) and my technical descending especially in the alpine regions. I still have time before the big one, UTMB, to get these things sorted so watch this space. Next race coming up on July 6th is the Zermatt Marathon, 42km with 1500m ascending. After that I am looking forward to the famous Swiss Alpine Marathon and hoping to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Russell Hurring.
Until then, Ciao.
Big thanks and love to all my friends and supporters, especially the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, Macpac, Saucony, UltrAspire, Buff, Injinji and Zensah.