how to really #GetAtHome in this world

Via Natura 100 Mile Mountain Ultra Trail Marathon

Writing the title as fully descriptive as the above seems an attempt to hit all the sweet key word spots of modern trail running – but how not? After all, this is – finally – the first 100 mile ultra marathon in Austria. And, it follows the uber-modern way of the MUT (mountain ultra trail) that Alpine trail runs have pretty much always followed…

In a serendipitous twist I recognized only as I was writing on the way to the event in another Railjet train, this event’s date was exactly one year after my private tour along the Alpannonia trail. Must be a good weekend for events – and by the looks of it, it looked to be a similarly changeable weather. Good for running, but also a challenge of its own.

Via Natura Track

Via Natura Track (as recorded and on Suunto Movescount)

In the footsteps of the Via Natura hiking trails between Styria and Carinthia, the event goes in a loop starting and finishing in St. Lambrecht, Styria, and climbing over the Grebenzen for the start and the finish. It marks Thomas Bosnjak‘s entry into the role of race organizer rather than trail runner (and trainer, and shop owner). Funnily, we had first met in person at the 100 Milja Istre / 100 Miles of Istria, my first attempt at doing a 100-miler – when we both gave up at the same place.

As races/events go, this is yet more of a deliberately familiar affair than even the Traunsee Bergmarathon, with a starter field limited to only 50 full-distance runners (plus a few more for the relay). For this inaugural event, there were 24 registered starters.

Something of the difficulty the race presented can be shown easily, simply continuing with the numbers: There would eventually be 8 finishers, all others dropped out.

The way it went, it wasn’t necessarily even the distance and the difficulty of the path, it was the conditions and the equipment that seems to have brought about most early DNFs (“did not finish”).

What is there to say. It’s the discomfort and even the pain that accompanies the dreamy views on the path, like in life, making the experiences and impressions all the deeper. The desire for comfort and convenience is deep in us; we shouldn’t just go for pain and problems – but the way to deeper experiences and better lives leads through a bit of suffering for a purpose. Even if the purpose is just to move and keep moving.

The proper gear was essential. Without a rain jacket with hood and rain pants that really were waterproof, there just wasn’t a way of continuing without suffering hypothermia. This was not a run for which to say that one will get wet from the sweat, anyways.

Then again, when it comes to shoes, it didn’t matter much whatever type were worn; they got wet and uncomfortable.

No wonder.

We started out before the main gate of the Benedictine monastery of St. Lambrecht, with the abbot’s blessings, in warm temperatures and the last few hours of a spring evening’s sunlight.

Start in St. Lambrecht

The first climb went easy and nice enough, with quite some scrambling to do because of broken tree branches and toppled trees, but nothing too bad.

First Climb

Only coming out on the treeless top did it become necessary to don more than a  normal running shirt – and there were more, and more ominous, clouds to be seen all around.

Scharfes Eck, Grebenzen

Just around the Dreiwiesenhütte, rain set in and got stronger pretty rapidly. We waited for a bit out the front of the hut, chatted, wondered if the rain was letting off or the clouds were moving in. Some clouds were definitely moving in, but it didn’t seem too bad and we – by then, a few more of us had come together here – finally decided to rather go on.

Approaching the Dreiwiesenhütte

The storm decided it was time to go on, too.

What had been some lightning flashes somewhere around became a full-fledged thunderstorm, and what had been rain turned into a downpour that included more and more (but fortunately, at least not bigger and bigger) hail. Some of the people in the group had their GPS out, and it was all one could do to follow the track shown there, or a person following such a track.

Thunderstorm map, Austria, May 9, 2014....

Thunderstorm map, Austria, May 9, 2014…. That danger spot in the South-central area, between Styria and Carinthia? That was just where we were…

The situation was bad enough I wondered why no information came, telling us that the race was cancelled – but we all wouldn’t even have heard any of the beeping of our phones over the thunderclaps and downpour. There was no turning back anymore, either, for that would have meant having to climb up against the water rushing down the mountainside, into the thunderstorm.

So, on we went.

At some point, I turned on my own GPS and went on Ambit autopilot: Check the track on the Ambit, see that it’s also a track in front of your feet, and keep going. No matter if running or walking, just fast.

This way, I’d lost Stephan (>70-years-old German on his second 100-miler in 14 days, as usual doing it with his Husky Ronja), but found myself all the way with Massimo from Italy. Some others had come and gone. We got to the first “live point” in St. Marein bei Neumarkt, refreshed ourselves, found that some fast runners had passed there hours before, but quite a few were still missing (and some, if I remember correctly, had already given up). That check point was just 25 km from the start, but the weather being as it was, it had taken us from the start at 6 pm until 11 pm to get there – and the cut-off time was midnight.

Through the darkness

Going on, a friend suddenly came towards us, back down the path. He warned us of the way the path branched off – in a branch-off we would, indeed, miss and have to go looking for – and told me he’d be throwing in the towel. Or rather, drenched as he was, throw in the wet gear and go looking for a dry towel…

We went on, at some point soon re-united with Stephan again, in a three-person team that would continue like that.

Middle of the night, we received an sms telling us that an alternative path would be taken because of the bad weather. It took until the point talked about for us to realize where this should be, but we decided that the weather had actually become nice enough, and the original track was better visible to us, to change course now.

And thus, we went up the Zirbitzkogel into the Seetaler Alpen, to a (first) cold new morning and beautiful new sunrise.

Through the snow

Totally Ronja's thing ;)

As the sun moved higher up, we moved farther south along the mountains, into Carinthia,

Sunrise

After 15 hours, we finally arrived at the Klippitztörl, the second control point where more gear was waiting. New, dry shoes and socks, mainly, which came as a godsend… but would get wet enough soon enough again. It had seemed as if the tour to that point should be just about the worst part, but then came the continuation of the Seetal Alps, apart from the main climb at the beginning, remaining at altitude – and still, it went up and down a lot, and whenever I thought that this would finally be the last peak, the views opened to the next one.

Seetaler Alpen, further south

The ground was glittering and glimmering, the rocks were so full of mica which was in rocks, which rocks were made of, which had been washed out of the rocks… and I distracted myself with idle speculation about the possible geology of these mountains, trying to draw out the little I knew from the mineralogy course I had just recently taken. Trying to think straight was a bit of a funny thing, though, for I had already noticed that the sleep deprivation had made it difficult to remember the names of the places we’d passed through, even as I’d seen the names before, and while passing markings en route.

Still on through the Seetaler Alpen

Of course, there did come a point when we were finally on the descent, turned onto the westerly heading at the southernmost part of the loop, getting down to Eberstein – and then up and over the next mountain, afternoon encroaching. Going on, there came a point where I took off from the two others to hopefully reach the next and last check point before falling asleep while walking and early enough to catch a little more sleep than the others seemed to have wanted, given that the reply I had got when I mentioned sleep was that maybe I should crash somewhere while it was still warm, during the day…

At km 120, in Meiselding, I found the third check point (after a little trouble), just around sunset.

Praying for good weather?

And they had a sleeping bag, and one of the common wooden picnic tables, which I promptly bedded myself on. Stephan and Massimo arrived 15 minutes later; I’d said to wake me up after 30 minutes… for all I know, I hadn’t been asleep at all, but some more time seemed to have passed: I had got there after 26:20 hours (not sure if counting the pause of 30 minutes at the Klippitztörl/check point 3 or not) and went on at 27:45 hours into the event…

We got up and got going, as best we still could. A bit on, up the Kogl on a road – lots of public roads, actually – Thomas Bosnjak caught up with us for some mobile servicing. Time for a Red Bull, though the effects of it were, by then, less than ephemeral. In the darkness of a second night, after a day that had already started us seeing some walking while falling asleep, things get difficult to tell as some hallucinating and the like set in.

Strassburg was reached after ~31 hours and 131 km, and I was happy there were as good as no cars, for I was only awake enough to doubt my fitness for traveling on roads. Only two more climbs to do, though, which sounded eminently doable by then.

It was not that much later, though, at km 138 and after 33 hours, that Stephan said that even his Ronja was starting to seriously fall asleep while moving, and shouldn’t be dragged on any further. He told us to go on, but we all could use the rest. Never before did the side of the road look so inviting.

On with all the rain and cold gear that hadn’t already been worn, running vest against a tree trunk, onto the leaf litter I went. Some crazy barking was heard, a few raindrops dripped on the hood’s visor, but it was all peaceful enough anyways. Until Massimo mentioned “the hikers” coming, turned on the headlamp, and we all got up and, together with the two ‘runners’ who had just arrived, went on. It had been 30 minutes of rest, maybe (40 minutes by my recording, but I almost forgot to un-pause my watch).

I went a bit faster and promptly got off-track, re-joined the others shortly, and soon we were the usual three people again. Moving on that penultimate downhill, our second sunrise came.

Early morning’s sun to move over, through St. Salvator bei Friesach, and on to the Grebenzen again. Another view at a mountain range, and then meandering forest roads, tracking higher and higher – until it was not even the forest road we found we had to follow, but a trail that went up. And again, whenever we thought that it couldn’t possibly go up any more, so it did anyways. From sunlight, we moved into fog…

Over the Grebenzen again, in the fog

… but eventually, we got over this peak, mainly downhill to the Dreiwiesenhaus – which presented itself in much nicer a light, even in the gloom, given the memory of the hailstorm after we’d passed it on the way out. From there, it was downhill through the forest, through meadows – and to a final trial: we needed to pass through a cow pasture, and there was a path between the enclosures that led to the gate out – for us, not the cows. But they could also go there, and in their apparent fear of the dog, they effectively fenced themselves in ever tighter. Until we could finally get them to move past us, it took quite a while.

Down, back in St. Lambrecht, Thomas greeted us again with the car, turning it into a lead car – and the drivers in town turned out to be just as bad as the cows had been; they were just stubbornly trying to get around us slow people on the road and obviously couldn’t fathom that maybe there was an event they didn’t know about but should be careful for. No, they just felt disturbed in their holy right to the road.

“Get out,” I wanted to shout at them. “Move about and live a little!”

Maybe I could have moved a bit faster. Stephan had admonished us both to go on.  But we had long before decided that we were obviously all moving at pretty similar speed and would be better off finishing together – which we did, giving the (men’s) race three third-place finishers.

My feet were, because of all the wetness and rubbing, pretty destroyed; the balls of my feet still hurt from ‘shed’ skin now, days later – but the memories remain (true or false as they may be), the health doesn’t seem to have suffered too much (on that note, a Thank You! to the Sportordination in Vienna who fortunately had an appointment become free just as I needed one because I couldn’t get the requisite medical certificate from my usual doctor – and I’d cut it way short with that), and all the hassles in daily life have taken on a less-serious tinge in these days after, with nothing dampening the feeling of accomplishment, and with nothing as threatening as the hailstorm passed through.

See you out there!

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