Swissalpine K78 2014

Pete West

Swissalpine K78 2014


A week is a long time to sit staring at beautiful mountains that you’re not allowed to explore. Every fibre of your body screaming at how lucky you are to be there, and you should be making the most of it but your head is telling you to be calm, relax. You’ve got a long way to run at the weekend — almost twice as far as you’ve ever run before — enjoy the rest; you’ll need it.
Bearing all of this in mind I had spent a week in the fantastic youth hostel in Klosters with only light hiking and the occasional run to keep me sane. This meant I was wide awake and raring to go before my 4:15am alarm on race morning. The hostel owners (absolute saints that they were!) had got up even earlier to prepare breakfast for us runners and I managed to eat a fair bit, despite the nerves.

Race morning

We’d made friends with a few other runners staying at the hostel — Rinat and Hans — so we all teamed up to share our nerves on the train ride in to Davos. All except Hans, anyway, who had run this course a number of times and was excited but cool as a cucumber.
In typical Swiss assiduousness (anality?) they had a ticket inspector on the train they’d laid on for runners; even though your race entry gave you free travel. Maybe everything in Switzerland is so expensive that the locals will get up for the 5:30am train on a Saturday morning, in their running kit, just to bum a free ride to the next town.
My dad disappeared to find a toilet without a queue, Hans disappeared to to get ready so Rinat and I made our way to the start area and at exactly 06:59:50 the countdown started for the race. I’ve never been to a race that started on time before. No wonder the Swiss are so famous for their clocks and watches if this is how seriously they take time. As I cross the start line my nerves instantly disappear and I start to relax as my body realises all I need it to do is run.

The race

The Swissalpine has four races all taking part on the same course at the same time: the K78, K30, C42 and K42. The K78, K30 and C42 are all one mass start in Davos. The K30 runners finish at Filisur, the C42 runners finish at Bergün and a few hours after we all start the K42 runners start in Bergün and join the K78 racers for the mountain section to finish in Davos some time in the afternoon/evening.
The first 5 KM is a flat road loop around town. I knew it would be very easy to go out too hard, spurred on by the excitement of all the locals that had got up early and braved the inclement weather, so I set myself the target of 29-30 minutes for this section to force myself to go slow. I looked down at my watch to see I had dialled in to a pace averaging 5:50 to 6 minutes per kilometre. Perfect.
After the brief jaunt through downtown Davos we head out through the countryside and start to get the views for which I’d been hoping. Just one short hop over the railway line and residential apartment blocks give way to trees, meadows, barns and the majestic sight of well over 1,000 runners all relieving themselves in the first bush they can find.
A few K30 and C42 runners start trying to work their way through the crowd. I feel quite sorry for these guys, although it’s on the same course they’re (tactically) running a very different race to the K78’ers. I’m quite panicked now, frantically checking the bib colour (and hence race discipline) of each runner I pass or that passes me, trying to work out if I’m giving too much; not enough; or if they’re in a different race and it doesn’t matter.

Out of town and heading through the valley

Winding our way through pretty valleys and villages all lined with locals ringing cowbells is amazing. One of the villages has a large shed with “VIP aid station” hand painted above the door and a giant collection of cowbells on a rig with a bloke sitting outside tugging on a rope to make them all ring. It’s still raining but the locals have been out there all morning and it doesn’t look like they’re going to stop until the last runner comes through. Now that’s support!

Heading out of Davos Monstein I spot Hans just ahead so pick up the pace to catch up. It’s great to have some company for a change and we run together on a fantastic downhill section following the Landwasser river, through tunnels in the mountains and over the Wiesen viaduct with breathtaking views down to the river gushing with rain water over 80 metres below.
Hans pushes on, through a narrow technical descent, so I let him pull away knowing he’s planning on a much faster finish than I and not wanting to use all my energy to keep up only to crash later.

The next section of the course is all new this year. We drop sharply down so we’re level with the river, running alongside it, and underneath the extremely impressive Landwasserviadukt. It’s over 65 metres high and 100 years old and is part of the World Heritage railway line.

Landwasserviadukt. We were lucky to be able to see it with the low cloud cover.

Not long after passing under the viaduct my right thigh started to feel a bit odd. Considering I was only 30 KM in to the run, and I’d been running at least one 30 KM run every single week for months, I was not expecting my quadricep to decide it wanted to clamp up and refuse to move at this point. Running on the flat was painful; downhill: agony. There is only 3 KM to go to the finish line for the K30 race and the opportunity to withdraw from the K78 and yet still get a medal for finishing the K30, jump on a train and be back at the hostel in time for dinner. Tempting.
On the walk uphill to the K30 finish I have a serious chat with myself:

  • Can you still move?
  • Are you able to eat and keep food down?
  • Are you dead?
  • You’ve trained hard for your first ultra- do you really want to pull out before you’ve even passed marathon distance?
  • Can you let your dad beat you to the finish line?

The answers to which, of course, are: yes, yes, no, no and definitely not!

The next 20 – 30 KM are all uphill and with my leg in its current state the thing that hurts least is walking up hill. So, head down, let’s crack on. I grab a bun on my way through Filisur and keep going.

Uphill struggle

Plenty of mountain streams from all the rain we’d had that week

The nature of the race changed dramatically at this point. I’m not sure if it was the departure of the K30 runners (and their youthful exuberance, bless ‘em) or anticipation of the mountain section ahead but almost everyone walked the next 10 KM to Bergün even though lots of it was only very gently uphill and should have been quite runnable. Maybe it’s just that my mental state had changed so I was looking at everything differently or maybe everyone was struggling with the 30 to 40 KM blues.

Heading in to the aid station in Bergün means the C42 runners are leaving us and the K42 ones are joining. I instantly hate every one of the fresh-faced runners, with their 4 hours extra in bed, 40 fewer KM run and the spring in their step, making me feel even more of a tortoise. Bastards.
I pick up my drop bag, sort my stuff out and give myself a few minutes to regroup before going back out on to the course feeling much more positive.

Hiking up through Chants to Keschhütte feels great. My leg isn’t hurting too much with all the uphill and although it takes me to 2.5 hours to cover the 1,300M climb it passes in a bit of a blur. My only goal now is to get to the finish line before the sweeper sweeps me out of the race so all the pressure has gone; just deal with what happens when it happens. I switch my head off and stop looking at my watch and tell myself: follow the trail, keep going.


The aid station staff are handing out bin liners as ponchos to the people silly enough not to bring their own warm/wet weather gear as we drop down on the colder northern face of the mountain. This is the section I’ve been concerned about since my quad seized but everyone is taking it very slowly on the jagged, loose, rock and I’m able to keep pace with most of the runners without too much pain with a bit of careful planning.

Lake just before the trail up to Sertigpass

This downhill section is quite short-lived before the trail kicks up again to the highest point of the race: Sertigpass at 2,739M. The landscape here is just beautiful, with fast mountain streams to jump over on stepping stones and majestic lakes. I can only imagine how wonderful it is when you can see the view from the top!

A group of medics positioned at the top of the pass are checking runners as they come through to look for any signs of people not well enough to continue. I must’ve looked in pretty bad shape as the lady said I only just smiled at her in time. Considering, by this point, I’d been on my feet for over 9 hours I think I looked pretty damn good.

Heading down the steep path from the pass I take a look at my watch for the first time since the start of the uphill proper. What a nice surprise! I’m only about an hour behind where I was hoping to be with a downhill half marathon to go and over 2.5 hours to do it in to hit the finish line inside my 12 hour target. Rock on.
Clipping along now at a steady jog, trying my best to ignore the pain and tiredness and just keeping myself focused on ticking off the miles to the finish line now that I’ve got a goal again. This section passes through forest trails and meadows, with the odd village here and there. It’s beautiful and much more my kind of running than the tarmac and hard trail we’ve had for the rest of the day. I tag on to the back of a father & daughter team running the K42 together, using them as my pacers to give me an indication of when it’s OK to be walking and when I really should be kicking myself up the arse and forcing myself to run.

As the distance markers count down I keep checking my watch and doing the maths to work out exactly how slow I can go while still making my goal time. My head is so fuzzy that at one point I’m convinced five quarters make 2.5. It takes me over five minutes to work out how come I’ve suddenly lost so much time.

To the finish line

With just inside 5 KM to go my makeshift pacers pass me while I’m walking through an aid station and the daughter calls back to tell me to join on with them and keep going. I haven’t got the energy to run through the pain so I wave them on and say goodbye, almost in tears from the effort.
I’ve got to be averaging 8 minutes per kilometre and my watch is showing my current run/walk as being about 7:50. Damn, this is going to be close. If either the markers or my GPS are off (very likely) I could easily watch this slip. Forcing myself to put in more sustained efforts: running more, walking less, I pass them again with just over 2 KM to go. I say hello and tell myself no more walking, you’re to run until you stop the clock.

I pass the 1 KM sign with 8 minutes to go. This could be so close. The course drops from the trail and heads back in to Davos with locals and runners lining the short trip through town even though it hasn’t stopped raining all day. Entering the stadium for the half-lap of the track to the finish line I hear my name ring out over the tannoy and I give myself a little whoop as I cross the finish line, followed by so much swearing a dock worker would’ve been proud.

First stop is to collect my medal — in case they try to stretcher me off without it — and a sit down to regroup. I check my right leg and it’s double the size it should be. So swollen I can’t even see my knee. But damnit, I finished!

The father and daughter team finish not long after so I congratulate and thank them both for pushing me on, knowing full well that I could easily have been 30 minutes, or more, slower if it weren’t for their support. Maybe the K42 runners aren’t such a bad bunch after all.

Official stats

Distance 79 KM
Elevation ±2,660 M
Time 11 hours 57 minutes 08 seconds

GPS stats

Distance 81.28 KM
Elevation ±2,872 M
Time 11 hours 57 minutes 11 seconds