Inferno Triathlon 2011


It’s 2:45 in the morning and I am awake. My view out of the hotel shows the dark silhouette of the village of Mürren, at 1200m altitude at the foot of the Schilthorn mountain near Interlaken in Switzerland. No wind but a slight drizzle isn’t quite what the weather report called for, but chances are high that it will clear up and turn hot later in the day.

It’s exactly a year since I’d been here. Last year, a few friends asked me to join them in a team triathlon, where I would take over the mountain bike section. I didn’t have any experience in that discipline, except for my childhood days using my road bike in the big sandpits near our summer home. With little preparation then, I did my part in the Inferno Trophy 2010 and came to the end of my section with a big smile on my face: the ride was demanding but exhilarating, especially the descent.

As we took the cable car up from the transition to the main event area in Mürren, I was hooked by the impression of the mountain above us. Unlike the teams, the single athletes had to finish a full 1600m higher than we did, after doing all the other stuff. My decision was therefore clear: I would have to try this again, but this time going it alone.

My Christmas present was a mountain bike, of course, and lots of friends gave me advice on how to ride it. I still spent the start of the season running mostly, as I was trying to beat a 3-hour time at the Zurich marathon this year. My performance improved nicely, but in March my left leg started hurting too much. Two weeks before the marathon, in a test run over 10k, I had to stop from the pain. Doctors gave me a 2 month moratorium on running to cure my stress fracture. Fortunately, I could still cycle and swim.

That was 4 months ago. It’s 4:15 in the morning now, a group of about 15 athletes had breakfast at the hotel (with service!) and we’re now taking the cable car down. The steep ride, darkness, rain on the windows and the car packed with about 80 people give a strange feeling in the stomach. Our bus waits for us, we scramble for the seats to get some rest for the next 45 minutes as we ride past Interlaken to Thun. I’m checking the athletes around me, all slim, fit and even the middle-aged lady across from me looks like she’s done this kind of thing several times.

At 5:30, we get out at the lake shore swim center in Thun. It’s now warm and dry, though still nighttime. I notice the strong wind and wonder what it will feel like on the lake, together with a certain current, due to the heavy rains we had over the week. The castle of Oberhofen, our target, is lit in orange across the lake, 3.1km away from us. White ridges mark the tops of many waves and you have to stem against the wind near the lake shore.

I meet up with some friends and we discuss the weather. There is a commotion at the front, where the organisers are gathering in a larger group. As they separate, one walks hastily to the microphone. I have a feeling what the news will be: the swim section cannot be secured, due to the winds. The danger of accidents is too high. For the first time in its 14 year history, this race has to be cut short at the start. Instead of the 6:30 swim start, we’ll take the ferry at 6:45, the race will start with the road bike section.

I’m actually relieved, swimming is my worst discipline. But there are about 100 very disappointed swimmers from the team event standing around, and many of the triathletes had hoped to position themselves well after a good swim start. What’s more, the logistics of the event have just gotten more complicated, as if that were necessary.

Yesterday, I packed 4 differently colored bags, plus two extra bags with gear, and a backpack for everything else, all to be deposited at the different transition areas. It had taken all morning to pack, then all afternoon to get the road bike to the swim finish, the mountain bike to the road bike finish, the running gear to the next transition and the extra bag to a place halfway up the mountain. Yes, this is no normal triathlon. With four disciplines it is already a bit special, and as we find out later, there are good reasons to call this one of the toughest triathlons in Europe.

Originally, our pre-swim gear was going to be shipped up to the top of the hill, so that we can recover it immediately at the finish, before we make our way down to the main event area. But now that we need the stuff while we ship to the other side of the lake, confusion arises. After a while everything is sorted out, the clockwork precision of Swiss organization is combined with enough flexibility to get us what we need. Our 300 bags will later be shipped from the bike transition to the finish.

It’s 7:30 and 300 bikers are packed on the road, the signal goes off and we race down the slope of the road, ready to take a sharp S-turn and begin our first climb. Well, some of us weren’t quite ready and the Tour-de-France feeling is garnished with a matching crash at the base of the climb. Fortunately, I am in the back of the pack and get through unharmed.

Mike, cycling mate from last year’s race had described the first section to me as “steep but not too long”. I have to stay in the first three gears of my 30 gear bike to take this hill. As we’re all close together, everyone is trying to push really hard to stay in the middle of the pack and not to drop out. 200 eager team cyclists have started 15 minutes after us and will soon be catching up from behind.

My heart has been racing at a good pace for the last 45 minutes. I don’t know how far we got yet, but then there’s a sign: 10km done. What???? That cannot be right, we have another 87km to do like this and I am already feeling too tired. I rest my mind by taking a look at the scenery to my right. Lake Thun is about 600m below us. Behind it are the mountains that form the “Berner Oberland”. Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are over there somewhere, and very near them is the Schilthorn, which had its 90 minutes of fame in the James Bond movie “On Your Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Our narrow road winds up and down, through villages, along steep rock faces, through rough tunnels hewn into the rock, presenting wide views of the scenery. Finally, it’s time for the descent. The road widens into large switchbacks. It’s about 10% steep, and we have strict instructions to stay this side of the dividing line and not to pass any cars, which would be quite possible, my top speed is 78.5 km/h. Braking is a special discipline, as some of the hair needle curves are overshadowed by trees and therefore still wet.

At the bottom, we cross Interlaken, which as the name indicates is located between lake Thun and Lake Brienz, and continue along the shores of the second lake, mostly flat and a nice relief before the big one. In Meiringen, our steepest and longest climb begins, as we move from about 600m altitude over the Grosse Scheidegg at 2000m. The sun is scorching already, we’re close to noontime. I go through water bottle after bottle and the salt tablet dispenser in my handlebars is very useful. I had tried this section before, and had decided that my gears were too long, so my bike now has 32/27 as the lowest gear, instead of the 32/25 I had before. Not enough, as I realize now, my legs are tired and while 1400m climbing over 18k sounds ok, the profile isn’t continuous, instead we have lots of sections that are much more steep than the average.

After the very long climb, with the top third lacking any shade, we’re not yet allowed to relax. I take a last view at the ascent we’ve done, clearly visible beneath us. That’s almost as far up as we’ll have to go down now. The only problem: the downhill part is as narrow, bumpy and curvy as the uphill. At least we know that on this one-lane road the oncoming public bus service will be escorted by motorcycles to warn us!

I manage to pass several people who seem to have more fear (or realism?) on the way down. I’ve done this course before so I fully expect my arms to hurt from holding the brakes. I pass another two people at good speed, get ready for the next hairpin turn and my rear wheel starts slipping… I compensate, try to shift braking power to the front wheel, but careful not to get that to slip too. It did, anayway. As I slide off the road with about 40km/h and land on the narrow strip of earth and grass near it, I think that this race is over. With a slim chance of getting things under control, I steer towards the road again and brace myself for a hard fall as my front wheel approaches the tarmac in a slim angle. My guardian angel takes good care of me, for reasons I don’t understand I make it onto the road safely and unharmed but pumped up with even more adrenaline.

In the transition area, my friends greet me. Time for a quick “Hello” and photo then I switch bikes. The mountain bike feels funny after 4:08 hours on the road bike. Nice and soft, but strangely upright. My backpack is loaded with 3 liters of high-energy drink, perfect for a hot day like this. Our first section is through a small river, which I manage as I have tried this out yesterday. Then, I start climbing. Not good, I notice. I have to switch into the lowest gear already. I thought I’d be alright with the setup, but I hadn’t accounted for the fatigue and the hot weather. It’s about 32 degrees now, the road underneath us reflects the heat as we climb across the open meadows on the south face of the hill. We all long for the shadow that we expect from the forest section further up, but it will be a long time till then.

I take another sip from the camelback, it tastes a bit strange. A few sips later, I begin to realize what’s wrong. The backpack was in the sun for about 4 hours yesterday and 5 hours today. It’s undrinkable. Frustrated and angry at myself for this error in logistics, I begin to ponder my options. We’ve already passed the single water station on the entire climb. I’m drained of power and feel weak. Finally, I give in. I take a break in the shadow, and I empty my three liters of stale drink into the forest. Funnily, I don’t feel worse now but much better. 3 kilos less is about 5% of my total weight. I just hope that I can keep the performance up to the peak.

As we approach 2000m altitude, it’s clear that I won’t be able to push very hard on any steep sections, the resulting lack of oxygen would take too much of a toll. Just below the top, there’s a very steep section and everybody begins to push their bikes, I’m not different. We have a face-saving flattish section as we climb the last meters to 2200m just before we pass through the visitors that change trains here at “Kleine Scheidegg” on their way up to the Jungfrau. The troops at the food station are fantastic, the best “room service” I ever had in a race. They ask what you want, get it for you and bring it to your bike, while you enjoy the peaceful moment and the view. Behind me, I can see the “Grosse Scheidegg” which I passed about 2 hours earlier. This climb took me almost a half hour longer than last year, similar to what I expected.

In front of me, I see the valley that we’ll now be diving into. Taking in a lot of fuel, I mentally recall the images from last year, the training run and the YouTube video that some folks posted. Ahead of us is a long downhill section, which we’ll do at about 45 km/h. As we scream down the path, hikers whizz by at astonishing speed. Several sharp turns get us almost to standstill, then we’re into the forest for the easiest part. I enjoy the comfortable ride of the full-suspension bike, relaxing my legs, which I’ll need for the run later. There, the technical section starts. A sideways slope across muddy terrain, tree roots, foot-high drops. I notice the other racers, many of which are having trouble with this, while I’m flying, controlled and fast. The medics here and there stand waiting, but I don’t need them.

Now, the “piece de resistance”: a steep narrow gravel path with switchbacks. As before, I enjoy the balance I’ve learned and the technique of going through the turns with the rear wheel sliding. I’m flying past other racers, then, suddenly, I am literally flying. My front wheel had blocked on the gravel while I was getting ready for an easy turn. I land on my hands and knees, facing downhill. The guys I just passed are probably thinking “suits you right!” but ask kindly if I’m ok, as the slowly drive by. I check myself and my bike: minor injuries only, knee dripping blood as I get onto the bike again. The gloves took the impact on the hands. Two turns later, I’ve caught up with the same riders and I head towards the flat 5k bottom section.

Time to shift gears, lean forward onto the handlebars and reduce the wind drag. Ouch, and ouch again, those are my thighs that lock up! I struggle to get rid of the cramps, reduce the speed, switch to an easier gear and get upright. Lucky, my legs loosen again and I can finish the flat section and reach the transition area.

The organizers take my bike from me here. They will collect the other one too, so that I can pick everything up in one place tomorrow. I switch backpacks; this one feels cool as it spent the day in the shade of a tent, no risk to the content here.

After a short hello to my friends Sebastien and Joachim, who are waiting at the sideline, my next visit is to the doctor’s tent. The nurse takes a several long minutes to wash the dirt off my chafed knee, then announces that the removal of the gravel bits is going to hurt. I say, “Don’t worry, I won’t feel a thing, as I am so pumped up on adrenaline!” and indeed, I don’t feel any pain while she takes care of me.

With bandages wrapped around my knee and elbow, after this 20 minute break, I begin to jog along the straight but slightly descending path to Lauterbrunnen. After 1 km, I check my watch and it has taken me just short of 6 minutes for this first distance, not great, but I give myself time to settle in. The heat is beating on us and my hopes are on the forest leading uphill. The harder part is yet to come.

After 5km on the downhill run, we begin to ramp up in the next town, I’m out of energy. The guy next to me is walking and we start to chat. He’s done it before and claims that with our timing so far, we can finish by just walking. I’m happy he says that as finishing was my only target for this race, so we walk. After a while I notice that I can walk a bit faster, since the forest is giving a cool shade. If we didn’t have such hard climbing sections in between, it would actually be easy…

Near the mid-section at Mürren, the path flattens out for about 3 km, and I begin to jog again. By now, I begin to meet the same people again and again. Some of us are faster in the flat, others in the climbs, so we pass each other quite often. Words of encouragement are passed every time we meet. We jog through the town of Mürren, past the sports center which hosts the finish for the relay teams. I bump into my team from last year, EFG Team Alpha, and we take a minute to do some photos. There are plenty of people along the way who applaud us athletes, so I jog on with a smile until the end of the village, noticing that I should have plenty of time to finish this race. At this stage, we’ve completed 2/3 of the distance of the run but only 1/3 of the ascent.

Now, the path takes a marked turn and starts climbing up the mountains. Instead of running, I go for a strong walk, which seems to be as fast but less straining. The constant climbing starts pulling in my calves, but whenever I lose motivation I turn around to enjoy the beautiful mountains around me. The field is sparse, there aren’t that many athletes around, as we are now only the “single” triathletes. A bit further up, after the next drinks station, we can see the next challenge, called the “muzzle”, for its steep, rounded shape. It’s basically an almost vertical wall (quite dramatic as a ski slope in the winter too), which we climb. The path is very steep, despite the switchback layout and my breathing is giving me trouble. We are now at about 2000m altitude and the thinner air is noticeable.

As with all things, this section also passes after a while. I enjoy another look back to see the trail of athletes climbing up behind me, like ants. Now, for the first time, we can see the station that marks our finish. We are now in a valley between the two highest peaks around here, with the cable car going across the sky over us. We have another food station here. I am still sweating like mad, but at the same time I feel week and a bit cold, swap my shirt and vest for a thin, long-sleeved woolen shirt and a windproof jacket. The warmth is comforting. I must have been on the verge of hypothermia despite the sweating.

The mountain faces around us are pure rock, dark and steep. We take a short climb up, then the path turns flat. A sign tells us that we are two kilometers away from the finish. My mood lifts, although I can see that we’ll be going flat for the next 500m, then we have 1.5 km of hard climbing ahead of us, as the finish towers about 400m above us. There are no stairs here, except for the occasional steps hewn into the edgy granite around us. We have to carefully plan each step. A fall would be quite damaging now.

The sun is beginning to set and I’m feeling colder, as the wind picks up a pace. The air is thinner again, we are now at about 2800m and another 200m to go up. I feel dizzy, rest, take steps, try to enjoy the view. The voice of the speaker overhead is clearly heard. I can hear how he greets every athlete. About 130 have made it into the finish already. I climb some more and find the section that impressed me most in the gallery of the website: a narrow ridge about 1m wide, 50m long, with vertical drops on either side. Fortunately, they secured it with orange netting on both sides, but I don’t feel like testing their strength.

I pause briefly to catch some air and get clear in my head. A look around me rewards me with another spectacular vista. Behind me, I can make out the Kleine Scheidegg, which I crossed on the mountain bike, and behind that again, I can see the Grosse Scheidegg, which was the pinnacle on the road bike. Proud of my achievements so far, I venture into the last section, almost vertical to the station. Suddenly, above me, I can see Sebastien who’s cheering me on. He has his iPhone in his hand, this will be the first time I have a personal finish video. I smile, stand for the camera, then start jogging up the stairs, along the terminal and onto the platform with the finish.

Tears of joy are streaming into my eyes as I cross the line in just under 12 hours. I’m athlete 99 out of the 127 people in my age group, position 210 out of the 280 men who started. 40 had to quit. The 360 degree view from here is stunning. This is the tallest peak (2970m) in the vicinity and we can make out Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains along with innumerable other peaks, as the setting sun stretches the shadows across the lower hills.

A big hug from Sebastien helps me get back to myself, I’m overjoyed with my achievement. This was by far the hardest race I’ve ever done, despite the missing swim. The worries from my broken leg earlier in the year, the resulting lack of training, the inadequate equipment, the heat, the injuries, the altitude, all of these I have mastered to finish anyway. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

After a quick bite in the station we make our way down in the cable car. It’s getting quite cold now so we’re happy to leave the top. On the way down, my decision is clear: I have to do this again next year!

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