Brit Mountain Runner Martin Cox is no stranger to travel and racing. He is well known in the New Zealand mountain running scene (he is a 2X Shotover Moonlight winner and was 2nd behind Phil Costley when he set the Kepler Challenge record), but is also just as active on European mountain running scene. As such is has accumulated a a mass on stories and race experiences over the last 12+ years, below are a few- (You can follow Martin and his mountain running adventures on Twitter @CableCarCox)
A Brief History Of The 52 Finest Mountain Races That I Have Raced
In Approximate Order With A Brief Thought On Each;
Have Your Adventures, Make Your Mistakes, And Choose Your Friends Poorly –
All These Things Make For Great Stories.
1. Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon, Queenstown, New Zealand. A race of steep mountains, technical ridge running, ankle-busting contours, and deep river crossings. You’re permitted to run these unmanicured sheep-trods and gold-rush era water-races on one day of the year only – the day of this perfect race. Former Welshman Adrian Bailey is the brains behind the event. His philosophy, Freedom is something that dies unless it is used.
2. Schlickeralmlauf, Telfes, Austria. THE classic uphill-only race. I won here in 2001 and 2002 – a golden age for this sort of event, the kind of peak that never comes again. I’ve spent many months camping and training high up in the mountains of the Stubai, sometimes alone, sometimes with a wildly argumentative Australian. This was where I banished the ghosts of too many schools and bailed on the tyranny of the rat-race. This was where I learnt to drink wine and live life well and laugh at the odds and RUN up mountains. I still have stuff – food, trainers, running kit – stashed under an old hut up there.
3. Graubuenden Marathon, Lenzerheide, Switzerland. My first marathon. It climbs and climbs and climbs, and then when you think the climbing’s over you turn a corner and it climbs a whole lot more. Braved the storm here six times with a couple of wins and a couple of epic fails. Not a race to go looking for; a race that will find you when it thinks you’re ready.
4. The Annapurna Trail, Dolpo, Nepal. I didn’t run in this race. It’s a race for the wealthy. The French organisers charge a small fortune for the honour of running the trail over 10 days. I ran the 300km(ish) trail early in 2003 with my buddy Pete in 36(ish) hours over 4(ish) days. This was before anyone came up with the bright idea of commercialising the thing, so I’m not sure if that counts as a race. But running in the Himalayas was, for me, the first time I took things to another (and dare I say the next) level. If you want out of the labels and the branding, if you don’t want your life summed up by a single word; if you want something else, unknowable and undefined, some place to be that’s not on the map, something chaotic, try starting somewhere in the Himalaya.
5. Drei Zinnen Alpine Run, Sesto, Italy. After messing around with various distances and routes over the years the organisers have finally settled on the original 17km of steep rocky Dolomite madness. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to Jono Wyatt at his best, passing him on the steep, awkward descent a kilometer from the finiish, only to be re-passed with jelly-legs on the final climb. It’s also the most cake and grappa I’ve ever consumed post-race. I won here in 2006 after many years of not winning.
6. Val Gardena Extreme Marathon, Ortisei, Italy. Not a marathon. It was originally an Half, but now it’s 12km and goes up another mountain – to the characterless Seceda rather than the iconic Forcella Sassolungo. But it’s still the Dolomites and I love the Dolomites, I want to have babies with the Dolomites. The Alps are a merciless and indifferent range of mountains, inhabited by trolls and dragons; the Dolomites are peaceful by comparison, home to pixies and leprechauns.
7. Grossglockner Berglauf, Heiligenblut, Austria. A colourful race over very mixed terrain that finishes at a multi-story car-park. In 2001 I was riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, I had momentum, and the 71 minutes I clocked that year was the best race I’ve ever ran, so far. 2006 was another memorable year in Heiligenblut. Accompanied by messers Wyatt and Brown, I made a record-breakingly slow and clumsy ascent of The Grossglockner (3798m).
8. The Kepler, Te Anau, New Zealand. My first ultra. Most ultra runners will tell you 60km does not qualify as an ultra. Most marathon runners will tell you it does. It seemed like a bloody long way to me at the time, particularly after traversing a pretty significant lump of rock in the first 30km. In 2005 I ran it in 5 hours, finishing a subdued and knackered second to the great Phil Costley.
9. Thyon-Dixence, Val de Herens, Switzerland. From the depressing concrete structure of Thyon 2000 to the depressing concrete structure of the Dixence Dam, a very un-Swisslike ten mile cross-country-style mountain race – fast, hilly, some really crappy single-track, all at over 2000m. It’s a real leveller. Improbably, my best run came in 2008 at the age of 38 – 2nd in 72 minutes.
10. Karwendel Berglauf, Mittenwald, Germany. There is huge body of evidence to support the notion that trying to run fast up very steep mountains is a sign of insanity. Exhibit one: The Karwendelauf. 10Km and 1400m up the virtually unrunnable scree of the Damkar, Germany’s longest ski run. How can all that rock defy gravity; why hasn’t already rolled to the bottom of the mountain? Jono Wyatt broke an hour here. What else can you say to big-up a race?
11. The Goat, Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. At some point, your memories, your stories, your adventures, will be the only things you’ll have left. I could write a book about this one, or at least the chapter of a book. The most technical mountain race I’ve ever attempted and completed. The first recce of this 21km course took me 5 hours. I eventually ran it in just under 2 hours. I am not sure how, it seems improbable to me now. New Zealand seems to specialise in this sort of race.
12. Llanbedr to Blaenafon, Black Mountains/Brecon Beacons, Wales. A long, mountainous, runnable point-to-point fell race, requiring some skilled navigation through Abergavenny town centre and finishing with an grovelling ascent of the formidable and ridiculous Blorenge. I won it in 2011 in perfect weather conditions; it would have been a quite different story in the rain and cloud.
13. Challenge Stellina, Susa, Italy. I was twice second to Mr Wyatt here. A historic race, with an actual Catholic mass, and unlimited amounts of wine and grappa and mouldy cheese at the finish. Last man off the mountain is the real winner.
14. Snowdon Marathon, Llanberis, Wales. My first road marathon in 2003. I won in 2:36. The pass of Waun Fawr at mile 21 is what makes this almost a true mountain race. I also won in 2008 during what meteorologists called a hurricane but in North Wales was described as typical October Bank Holiday weather.
15. Aletsch Half-Marathon, Bettmeralp, Switzerland. What is there to say about the Aletsch Glacier; it’s like a vision, an hallucination, a glacier seen through eyes dilated by acid. I was stunned the first time I saw it, like the first time I saw the Matterhorn; all of a sudden it was there looming up in front of me. But despite the otherworldliness of the place, this race starts high and goes much higher and hurting is an unavoidable reality whether you’re in the fast lane or on vacation.
16. Cross du Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France. In times gone past this was one of the biggest money races on the calendar. I banked 2000 Euro (minus taxes!!!) for 2nd place in 2002. But the forked tongue of fate set this event on a different path and The Cross has been relegated to mere fun run status in favour of the Marathon du Mont Blanc. The trail to Plan Praz via Flegere remains one of the most stunning trails in mountain running though and both races traverse it.
17. Northburn, Cromwell, New Zealand. I had entered the 100 miler (7000m deniv) and been bigging myself up for months, then developed a fortuitous last-minute niggle and ended up running the 50km fun run (a mere 2600m deniv). What a fucking coward! A beautiful, evil, windy, parched, cold, barren, mountainous, merciless, confusing place. No place for a race of any kind, let alone an ultra.
18. The Jungfrau Marathon, Interlaken, Switzerland. During September there is something fresh and crisp about those first few early morning hours in Interlaken; a happy anticipation that something is about to happen. This is my sort of course, if ever there was such a thing. 16 miles of flat. 10 miles of hill. In 2008 I was flabbergasted to shuffle past all but one of the favourites on the hill. Since then it’s all been downhill. I no longer get an invite even.
19. Glacier 3000 Run, Gstaad, Switzerland. Not the Aletsch Glacier, not much to look at, but you do get to run across it. Also my sort of course. 10 miles of flat. 6 miles of hill. I won the first four editions and still hold the course record despite the best efforts of young Joseph Gray this year.
20. Sierre-Zinal, Val de Annivers, Switzerland. If mountain running has such a thing as a savage heart, then this race is it. And if there is such a thing as a jinx race, then this is mine. I have a heap of DNF’s and truly woeful performances just under the 3 hour mark. In 2006, for example, I fell on the CLIMB and knocked myself senseless. I always have a sense of impending doom just before the start in that lay-by down in Sierre, but it is my restless idealism and vagrant optimism that keeps me returning. And I love training on this course, it’s such an unique trail. The climb was always my favourite bit, and in 2002 I was 3rd when the course was shortened, oh joy, to just the climb.
21. Matterhornlauf, Zermatt, Switzerland. The first mountain race I won in the Alps. It was 1998 and I had a great battle with Scotsman Bobby Quinn. Sadly axed by it’s sponsers in favour of a more fashionable event after 30 extraordinary years (the race that is, not Bobby). Just goes to show: nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.
22. Matterhorn Ultraks, Zermatt, Switzerland. History is filled with brilliant people who wanted to fix things and just made them worse. I so much wanted to hate this race, the new-improved Matterhornlauf, but the 30km course I ran this year was epic. I finished feeling thoroughly used-up and totally worn-out and wishing I’d had the balls to get out of bed two hours earlier to start the 46km. And wishing that I’d done more of these kind of races fifteen years ago. When you’re young you can survive the brutal overindulence of running steep mountains regularly.
23. Barr Trail Race, Manitou Springs, USA. We runners, we run not because we want to live longer, but because we want to live life to the fullest, not in a fog. There’s no greater test of the runners individual limits than Pikes Peak. It’s the essence of what mountain running is about. Barr Trail goes halfway up and halfway down Pikes, a soft introduction but a pretty wonderful thing all the same. It was my last day in the States and I bashed out the full-monty the day after Barr Trail in order to win a rather childish bet with race organiser and bona-fide legend Matt Carpenter.
24. Les KM de Chando, Chandolin, Switzerland. Who knows if there is in fact a heaven or a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously steep never-ending series of switch-backs, slippery with mud and trecherous with loose rocks. Celebrating only it’s second year, this nutty double vertical race is set to become a classic. The first time I ever felt the need to wield the wizard sticks in anger.
25. Zugspitze Extreme Berglauf, Ehrwald, Germany. Infamous race to the summit of Deutschland’s highest peak. Not especially extreme though. I was the somewhat confused and surprised winner in 2005 after getting lost in the mad fog that so often shrouds the calamitous moraine below the summit. Apparently the course marshalls had temporarily abandoned their posts to see what could be found at the bottom of a big bottle of schnapps. Somehow I remain the course record holder.
26. Monte Faudo, Iberia, Italy. Shit hot road race with a big mountain finish. I was third here in 2008, passing a boat-load of Morrocans in the final 5km. Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube; in other words, slow is good, but fast is better.
27. Hochfelln Berglauf, Bergen, Germany. Iconic short(ish), steep(ish) uphill only couse. The perfect end of season race. It’s appeal is further heightened by the proximity of Bergen to Munich and the Octoberfest. Race boss Bibi Angfang is usually the most hospitable, generous,and likeable German in mountain running, unless you try to fuck with his race.
28. The Inferno, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. At 3000m, the Schilthorn provides one of the highest finishes to any mountain race in the Alps. More interestingly: (a) they filmed an early James Bond film up there; and (b) the restaurant revolves thanks to some massive clockwork gizmo operated by trolls.
29. Dolomitten Marathon, Brixen, Italy. Climbs for 2500m without you really noticing it, so taken aback are you by the ever-expanding views of the Dolomites. This race is like a fairytale, it really is, just so long as you like your fairytales to include a little bit of suffering. I competed here once, in 2012 and, Bahrain aside, it was the hottest weather conditions I ever raced in. Thirty five freaking degrees at the start. Then again, the beer at the finish was the finest, coldest beer I’ve ever drank, which kind of balanced things out.
30. Zermatt Marathon, Zermatt, Switzerland. More and more it has felt like I am doing a bad impersonation of myself. So to finish fifth here this year in my fastest ever time was a reaffirmation that I am still able to raise the bar if need be, that I am not yet a piece of drftwood washed up on the shore The gods have been good to me, they’ve kept me alive, feeling the goodness of good people, feeling the miracle of fitness run up my arm and down my spine like a crazy mouse. I just hope this wasn’t a cameo appearance.
31. Troi dei Cimbri, Fregona, Italy. A tough little skyrace in an unspolit corner of the Dolomites. In 2005 I finished a distant second to the legendary Lucio Fregona. Such was his love of competition, Lucio tried to force-feed me bananas and lollies at the penultimate aid station when he saw that I was bonking. I think this proves the old addage that we race not purely to beat each other, but also to be with each other. Interesting fact: the Cimbri are forest-dwelling pixies that live entirely on pizza quattro formaggi con funghi.
32. Tour des Alpages, Anzere, Switzerland. I’ve lived and worked and trained in this charmless Swiss ski resort for longer than I care to remember. But Anzere is a great place to steer clear of all the bullshit in this weird and cruel world. There are a few dragons left in these mountains, if you venture far enough and high enough. And it’s cool that Anzere has it’s own race. It’s 10 miles of mainly cowfields, up and down.
33. Mount Snowdon, Llanberis, Wales. Even a sub-40 minute ascent was insufficient to secure a win in 1998. I was passed by eleven guys on my way down the mountain, but ran a respectable 68 something minutes. My first real experience with delayed onset muscle soreness put me off up and down racing for many years.
34. Course de Lac du Bouget, Aix-le-Bains, France. A superb race for those requiring a little end of season luxary and sunshine. Unfortunately it’s 60km and bloody hilly and includes a three-person relay which serves only to lead astray and befuddle the hapless solo runner. Twas my first win in an ultra-distance race.
35. Motatapu, Wanaka, New Zealand. Before she lost the Motatapu sheep station in a rather costly divorce settlement, American songstress Shania Twain had the whole place reseeded as the native grass wasn’t green enough. Or so the story goes. Undulating rather than mountainous, it’s a mountain marathon for those who prefer to gaze up at the mountains in wonder rather than run over them. I enjoyed it in 2006 after the nightmare that was The Kepler.
36. The Coast-To-Coast, Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. Actually a multi-sport race, but for a king’s ransom you can now run the mountain leg as part of a relay team or as an individual. The course follows the aptly-named Deception River and is largely an unmarked and unrunnable mine-field of house-sized boulders, whirlpools and rapids, and impenetrable bush. I was told after the race, in which I got hopelessly lost, that a few reccies with someone who knows the way are essential to avoid getting hopelessly lost. New Zealand seems to specialise in this sort of race.
37. Haldi Berglauf, Schattdorf, Switzerland. It may have been Mark Twain who pointed out that it’s far easier to go down a hill than up, but the view is much better from the top. The Haldi is just an awesome, relaxing little uphill-only race, with an epic view from the top. The type of race in which Switzerland seems to abound.
38. St James Stampede Ultra, Hanmer Springs, New Zealand. The more rivers you cross, the more you know about rivers. It was definitely Mark Twain who said that. I am not a swimmer and getting completely lost on the hottest day of the year with co-leaders Vajin Armstrong and Martin Lukes and having to cross the raging Waimau River somewhat spoilt my day out in one of the most unspoilt wilderness regions of New Zealand. For me, a few arrows here and a couple of flags there would have improved the race immeasurably. It turned out that some environmental terrorists, worried about the damage caused by bunting, had removed the course markers.
39. Ovronnaz – Cabane Rambert, Ovronnaz, Switzerland. 8Km and 1600m up into the first snows of the season. I have ran here just the once, in 1998, and came in second to Thierry Icart, the only Frenchman I know to have worn Walshes. I often wonder if they still hand out as much wine as you can drink at each of the aid stations on the walk back down.
40. Cross de Velan, Bourg St. Pierre, Switzerland. A cracking little race up to the surprisingly well-stocked and reasonably-priced bar at the Cabane du Velan, followed by another unsteady hike back down. In order to keep up with the times, the organisers have just added a pretty brutal looking 45km skyrun which I am itching to have a crack at. So many great races though, and so few weekends in July.
41. Neirivue – Le Moleson, Fribourg, Switzerland. With the rise of ultra-sky-trail-running, or whatever the hell they’re rebranding mountain running as currently, great uphill-only races like this may one day soon be unfashionable and rare, like those yellow Lance Armstrong wrist-bands. I thought I had this one in the bag in 2006, until I walked into the restaurant the night before the race. Jono Wyatt, Marco de Gasperi and Helmut Schiessel had not shown up merely to sample the local fondue.
42. Morat – Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland. Not a true mountain race. Well, to be honest, not even close to being a mountain race. It’s a road race with hills. Jono Wyatt holds the record. But along with the fearsome Marvejols-Mende (which I have never ran), this is a must-do for any self-respecting mountain runner. This is the fast-lane folks, and some of us like it here occasionally. Let the chips fall where they may.
43. The Terminator, Vale of Pewsey, England. Not really a mountain race either. But it’s about as mountainous as you can get in my old stomping ground of The Cotswolds. Some of the climbs require fixed ropes and crampons though. There’s also a pleasant 100m long section of ditch filled with rotting vegetables and slurry just before the finish. They love this kind of thing in the West Country.
44. Soltn Berghalbmarathon, San Genesio, Italy. The Dolomites, a great place to be at any time of the year. The race comprises a big fast loop with heaps of ups and downs and a very generous prize-giving. There’s also a bike hill-climb the day before, so bring your bike and blow your chances for the half-marathon.
45. Ullswater Trail, Glenridding, England. A great way to arrive at a race, by steam-boat. My 2007 course record remains untouched, thanks largely to the weather. Race Director Graham Patten is an evil trail-running genius. He organised the first proper fell race I ever did, The Beacon Batch, in 1996. And he’s organising the next race I will do, the Ultimate Trails 100km, in less than two weeks time.
46. Mount Washington, New Hampshire, USA. I have a long, vicious memory. There are races I wish I could forget. John Stifler, the race direcor, claims there’s only one hill. I disagree. There are some truly wonderful trails up this mountain, but this isn’t one of them. It’s a road race and it climbs 4700 feet in 7 miles. Another great American once claimed that there are clubs you can’t belong to, neighbourhoods you can’t live in, schools you can’t get in to, but the roads are always open. Wrong again. The Mount Washington Auto Road is only open to pedestrians one day per year. That said, it’s still a great race. I saw my favourite ever banner at the finish of this race: “Help Save The Environment: Get Drunk & Walk To Work”.
47. Kitzbuelerhorn Berglauf, Kitzbuhuel, Austria. Identical to Mount Washington in almost every respect, only it’s in Austria and goes up the road to the Kitzbuelerhorn. Then again, any race that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.
48. Cressier-Chaumont, Neuchatel, Switzerland. A gentle late-spring race to wash away the horrors of January and February. And the perfect early-season outing for those who aren’t quite ready for steep climbs, technical trails, and high altitudes. It’s an uncelebrated classic, it’s been going 40 years, and past winners include Jeff Norman, Les Presland, Craig Roberts, and me.
49. Skaala Opp, Nordfjord, Norway. Another agonising, unrelenting uphill grind. As if this list needed another. Skaala would figure higher up in the rankings were it not for the huge rucksack you have to carry all the way to the top; at least it seemed huge to someone as slight as myself. But it’s a fact that skinny guys fight until they’re burger, and I scraped 3rd in 2005. And what’s more, my suffering dissolved in an instant when the race mascot, Christian Prestgaard, produced a bottle of vintage Bollinger from his rucksack at the finish line. Genius. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I’d filled mine with warm clothing and nutritious snacks.
50. Swiss Alpine Marathon, Davos, Switzerland. Mick Jagger famously claimed that he’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ at the age of 45. When I was young, I was the same, I couldn’t imagine myself doing this kind of race in later life. The SAM was my first 50 miler. The first half of this race is a disappointment, not a mountain in sight, but the second half really makes up for it. I know it’s a cliché, but I’ve finally learnt that racing these distances is not about beating other runners, it’s a competition against that little voice in my head that wants me to bail. I reached halfway in two and a half hours still in sight of the leaders, and then at 45km I started to feel a bit lightheaded; then there came a weariness beyond fatigue and the dark thumb of fate squashed me into the dust. Somehow I recovered and can’t wait to do it all over again.
51. Kaiser Marathon, Soll, Austria. It’s motivation that gets me going at the start of the season, and habit that keeps me going at the end. This race takes place in October, at which point my good performances are usually a distant memory. The last time I ran here they stopped the race HALF-WAY THROUGH due to a couple of inches of snow. Without the bad races though, it’s impossible to appreciate the good ones. I’ve always thought it’s bad luck that makes you a good runner; if my luck had ALWAYS been good I’d have never have amounted to anything.
52. Man vs Horse, Llandywyrtdydrfttvvwyrdd Wells, Wales. I also have something of a love-hate relationship with this race. Won twice, heckled off the podium once. A scenic, tough, and unrelenting course, spoilt only by the prescence of so many sadistic, loutish twats on horses. The true story of this race I’ll only tell to a complete stranger, someplace private in the padded-cell of midnight.