Swiss Peaks 100k – 9.2.22

This June, our good friend Dan and his family moved to Switzerland for his work. The following thoughts ensued. Sounds like a great opportunity. We will miss you terribly. Can we come and visit? What races can we find in Switzerland? Of course there are lots of iconic races in the area: UTMB, the Eiger Ultra Trail, Sierre-Zinal, and the Jungfrau Marathon to name a few. Somehow Yuch identified the Swiss Peaks trail festival, and the decision was made.

The Swiss Peaks 100k is part of a larger trail festival offering races of all distances: 360k, 170k, 100k, marathon, half marathon, and even a kids race. The 100k is actually a 96k (60ish miles), with 5790 meters of gain (19,000ish feet). In other words, similar elevation gain to the Bighorn 100, but in 40 less miles. As per my usual, I was hesitant to sign up, but when Yuch offered the entry as my Christmas present, I couldn’t resist. Plus, I couldn’t let them have all the fun without me.

I haven’t had much time for training since I’ve been working full time, but between my solid base, biking to work, and running every chance I get, I knew I had enough miles underneath me to “survive”. My goal was 18-20 hours, but I was prepared for a 24 hour+ day if worse came to worse.

The race started at 8:30 am in a quaint little village called Finhaut (pronounced fah-ooh), and ended in Bouveret, a village on the southernmost end of Lake Geneva. We got accommodations in Finhaut and Dan and family got accommodations in Bouveret, so we had a place to crash at the finish. Having an Airbnb just minutes away from the start was awesome. It allowed me to sleep 10 luxurious hours that night and have a nice leisurely pre-race morning. At the start, announcers said all kinds of things I didn’t understand until the countdown which I could only assume meant we were taking off very soon. Heading up the road leaving Finhaut, kids shouted “Allez allez!” and before I knew it we were off into the mountains.  

Finhaut – start of the Swiss Peaks 100k
View of Finhaut from our Airbnb window – the race start is at the end of this road

3/4 Americans running the 100k!

There are ten peaks and nine refueling stations on the trek from Finhaut to Bouveret. Types of refueling stations varied between light refueling, full refueling, integral fueling, and lifebases. Don’t ask me what the difference was between each. I think the differences mattered more for the longer races. For example, we had only one lifebase during the 100k, but these were critical stations for those doing the 360k as there were beds for sleeping and showers. For us, the lifebase was where we would find our following bag.

The course profile was up, down, up, down, a little bit of flat, up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, repeat. The ups were basically a whole lotta power hiking with the poles, which was fine by me. At the top of the first peak, Col de Fenestral (2450 meters), I thought alright, time for downhill!

Climb up to Col de Fenestral – follow the trail of ants
First descent

Too bad the downhill was even slower than my uphill. All the runners I had passed on the uphill and even those behind me were now passing me as I crawled along trying not to faceplant on the technical descent. The next ascent brought us to Col d’Emaney at 2462 meters. More super steep and slow hiking. It was going to be a long day. Fortunately I had a lot of bovine company along the way. There were tons of cows with massive cowbells on their necks along the course.

In route to the second pass – Col de Emaney (2462 m)
Enjoying the company of the cows and wondering where this trail over the pass goes…
If you like the constant serenading of cow bells, this is the race for you!
Ascent to Col d’Emaney
Still ascending. It’s harder than it looks!

Fortunately the descent from Col d’Emaney looked fairly runnable. I took a cue from the runners around me and stashed my poles this time, and took in the nice runnable singletrack to the first aid station at Auberge de Salanfe.

Descent to aid station at Auberge de Salanfe

First aid station, and it only took me…4 hours?! I was currently traveling at a pace of 2.5 miles an hour. Some running race! The aid station here had all the usual fair, bananas, watermelon, candy bars, but then there was bread, cheese, salami, and chocolate! Interesting. I wasn’t sure if I could handle that, so filled up on water, grabbed a granola bar, and took off.

Ascent to Col de Susanfe (2493 m) – looking back
Almost at the top of the third peak
Storm clouds gathering at the top of Col de Susanfe

The rest of the ascents and descents were kind of a blur. All I know is that they were hard as heck, and the usual negative thoughts creeped through my brain. “I’m never doing this again”. “If this is what UTMB is like, I’m never doing UTMB”. Then, it started raining on the descent from Col de Susanfe. The race had advised us to carry certain cold weather gear in our pack (rain jacket, warm second layer, gloves, and leggings), and to put it on sooner rather than later if bad weather hit. As the rain started, I couldn’t be bothered to put on any layers in such an exposed area so I just kept going hoping for some future coverage. A runner ahead of me slipped on a particularly slick rock, fell on his back, and hit his head. “Ahhh!” He moaned as he held both of his hands on either side of his head. I stopped, eyes wide open. “Are you okay??” I asked him. “Ahhh!” was all he could say. Finally he said in broken English that he would be okay and that I should go on. I left, pretty shaken up. The rocks were really slick now. What if that had been me?

 I slipped two times after this, luckily without any harm done but still freaked out. I repeated to myself that I couldn’t do this, and that it wasn’t worth injuring myself. I considered DNFing and I thought about my friend Paul. Before the race he commented that I was the only American woman running. As long as I didn’t DNF, I would be the first American woman. Therefore, it would be pretty lame if I DNFed. Shortly after I came across a little shed. I decided to take cover and put on my rain layers. Some other runners saw me duck in there and had the same idea. I ended up taking way too much time taking off my shoes so I could take my shorts off and put my leggings on, and putting my warm layer and rain jacket on. After all was said and done, I departed the shed to find that the rain had stopped and now I was sweating like a pig.

I arrived at the aid station at Barme pretty relieved to be there. The aid stations were not that far apart distance wise, but seeing as though I was going at a snail’s pace they were a welcome reprieve from the ups and downs of the race course. At Barme the aid station was in front of a hotel/restaurant. I utilized the bathroom inside which was very luxurious, but I had to move on. Hmm, what to eat from the aid station? Bread and cheese it was. Yum! I decided to have some more, hoping that there would not be dire consequences to this nutrition decision.  I also had several cups of Coke. I still couldn’t be bothered to do a clothing change so continued on out of Barme. As I continued, I decided I couldn’t bear to continue on with leggings and pulled aside the trail to make yet another time-consuming clothing change. The rain seemed to have stopped for now.

From this point on, I pretty regularly consumed bread and cheese at the aid stations, while having Spring Energy Awesome Sauce and dried pineapple and dates on the trail. One of the aid stations had chocolate fondue and I saw a runner dipping a banana in it. As much as I wanted to experience fondue in Switzerland, this did not look particularly appealing right now.

Chaux Palin aid – a runner dips a banana into chocolate fondue
Taking in the views as I depart Chaux Palin aid station
Last pic taken before sunset – between Chaux Palin and Morgins aid stations

I approached the lifebase at Morgins (approximate half way point) close to sunset. This is where I would find my following bag. I was looking forward to dumping some of my wet layers and grabbing some of my dry ones. The lifebase was full of runners seated at long tables taking a much needed break and feasting on food. After making all the necessary changes and grabbing some more food, I decided I needed to move on. Leaving Morgins, I saw a runner heading up the trail with a Ben Nevis race shirt on. I asked him what year he had done the race, and he responded…in English! Up until this point, I had been on my own because no one on the trail spoke English. I decided to keep talking to this gentleman.

Maarten was from Zurich and was running the 170k. He had done the 360k the previous year, but due to family/training limitations, he had decided to do the “shorter” distance. He was very familiar with the course. He told me he was spending a decent amount of time at aid stations to insure that he was properly fueled for each section. I knew I would probably not spend as much time as him and that eventually we would part. However, as we continued on together, the unspoken decision was made that we were better off together. We never talked about it, but he started to spend less time at aid stations and I started to spend more time at aid stations.

Having Maarten’s company was monumental for me as we ran through the dark and then the rain for the last few hours of the race. It helped that he knew the course and all I had to do was follow behind him. It also helped to lighten the mood to have someone belting out a continuous stream of farts in between singing Danish folk songs. The second half of the race was not as crazy technical as the first half, but that didn’t mean that it was necessarily runnable. It was still quite technical and the rain contributed to some pretty slippery and muddy sections. I told Maarten, if I had been alone, I probably would have been resenting the fact that Yuch was not with me. Instead, I was absolutely fine.

As we got off the trail and entered the village of Bouveret, Maarten and I started to pick up the pace. We had passed a number of runners on the descent and were starting to get big heads about it. We saw some more runners in the distance and decided we would try and pass them, too. It’s always amazing how much gas you have left in reserve at the end of a race. Crossing the finish line was anticlimactic, but that was perfectly fine with me. I could count the number of people at the finish line on one hand. It was 4:30 am in the morning, after all. I finished the race in 20 hours and 52 minutes, 12th female, and 1st American woman.

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