If “make yourself at home” means getting comfortable and lazy, someone failed to inform me. Or rather, I deliberately choose to ignore that all-too-common interpretation in favor of one that is more exploratory, exhausting – and rich in experiences.

MirafallAfter all, what is living if it is not, well, living? Going hard when that seems appropriate, recovering while knowing one really accomplished something, learning about oneself and the world in all the process…

You are a human being, aren’t you?

And so, I found myself remembering a run that I had been interested in doing last year already, realized that the nearly three weeks it came before the Ultra Trail in Lavaredo made for a good (and slightly crazy) time frame, and discovered that a friend was also going there (and to Lavaredo, and to the Traunsee mountain marathon like me).

So, a short inquiry about registration, in the same week in which the event would take place, reservation of a bed in the youth hostel, and there we went last weekend.

There, the Ötscher of the title, is one of Austria’s mountains, a skiing area in winter, and an interesting hiking (and apparently, fly-fishing) area in summer. The Ötschergräben – basically, Ötscher canyons – are sometimes addressed as Austria’s Grand Canyon. (They are not nearly as deep… not by far… but the rock walls rising above a river do give something of a similar feel, if on a much smaller scale.)

The Ötscher-Ultra, in turn, is composed of two parts.
Saturday, the run (which can also be done by itself, as the Ötscher-Marathon) goes around the mountain, through the just-mentioned Ötschergräben, for a total course length of 50 km (with 1850 m of altitude change).
Sunday’s Ötscher-Lauf (Ötscher Run) “only” covers a distance of 20 km, but with some 1150 m of altitude gain and loss, most of them in pretty much one go, up and down the mountain itself, over its Northeasterly ridge. And a ridge it is, making for quite a bit of climbing…

Day 1: Ötscher-Mountain-Marathon

50 km, 1850 m altitude

By my recording, 48.10 km (but such distance measurements typically fall a bit short) and 1739 m of ascent, 1737 of descent

Checking Route in Ötschergräben

Checking the route in the Ötschergräben (but yes, I turned around for the better image ;) )

After a bit of a detour due to flooding, at the end of a week (or had it been two?) of rain, we arrived in Lackenhof at the foot of the Ötscher just 20 minutes before the race was due to start. Still, no problem; just some amused team comments, inquiring if getting up that morning had taken a bit longer. (Actually, no. I was on a train at 4:50 a.m. to start the trip there…)

As always, it was only too easy to get caught up in the excitement of a race’s start, to go faster than usual – and pay for it later. Pay I did, running into some GI issues. Can’t say what it was exactly that didn’t sit well with me, but it was good to be on a trail with some bushes to disappear behind.

Lesson 1: Rein yourself in, in running speed and in eating before a race.

Lesson 2: Don’t wipe with dry grass lying under coniferous trees. Tree ‘needles’… (I’d brought tissues, but didn’t want to get out of the race vest to get at them.)

Still, even as I was reduced to walking, needing to drink but generally feeling a bit squeamish after having drunk, needing sugar, but quite unable to comfortably partake of anything (which is, of course, just normal on such long runs), it was a great experience.

Simply making it through becomes a worthy goal, and the course goes through very nice landscapes, regularly passing by waterfalls and along the river, through forests and along the mountains. The Ötscher itself sometimes looms large, serving as a great reminder of the next day’s strenuous route.

No need to explain the entire route, though, as I can show you impressions from the trail. Be forewarned, though: The video may make you a little seasick; running isn’t exactly conducive to steady shots.

The mixture is most opportune: Beauty and pain… Long ascents rewarding with views (or at least, downhills), long punishing descents, easy tracks on forest roads and along the river, and steep climbs in unexpected places.

Well, the climbs came not so unexpected, but the climb out off the Ötschergräben ‘canyons’ had seemed like it should be less exhausting, but proved to be much more so, and the climb up to the Riffelsattel ridge only coming shortly before the descent to the finish meandered through forest paths with fallen trees for what seemed like forever…

In the end, for me, it was not a glorious result, coming in as only the 110th out of 130 participants, having had to walk so much. Then again, I made it through and had – and have – another nice adventure to remember. Followed by another the next day…

Day 2: Ötscher-Lauf (i.e., Ötscher Run)

20 km, 1150 m

‘Move’:  16.93 km, 1151 m ascent, 1114 m descent
(By the way, for the data fanatics: my Suunto Ambit2 recorded 1892 m as the highest point reached on that course, and the Ötscher’s peak is at 1893 m.)

The second day started like the first day ended: wondering why even just walking had to hurt so badly. My calves were so tight, even just walking to the start was somewhat painful… but I was intent on walking to the start and over the mountain, anyways.

Like I said before, I don’t think “if you can walk, you can run” is really good advice (or correct), but I do think that the opposite holds true: if you can’t run (anymore), at least you can walk.

Not sure why – the wonders of adrenaline, I guess – but I did actually run. Carefully, very conscious of my heart rate and holding back, at a sensible pace. Which paid off. Descents which soon approached went rather well, and then we got into the forest at the foot of the Ötscher, and up onto the Rauher Kamm ridge, for interminable climbs that reduced everyone to walking – but gave a little advantage to the stronger walker able to push on anyways. Which seems to be me.

This course is really hard to put adequately into words.

It’s not as difficult and dangerous as some of the images make it look, but it’s nothing to take lightly. The views go farther and farther – and are reduced to the next step on the path, with the mountain falling away rather steeply just a little off the path.

Often enough, it’s not just footholds that are of concern, it’s also handholds. And all that goes on for a long time, until finally cresting a lower peak and moving over to the very top, over a few snowfields – and right into the rocky descent that goes on pretty much down to the finish.

Once again, even with all the seesawing, better to go for impressions than words:

Only the very finish is missing on the video from this day.

Oddly, I found it in me to sprint down into the finish – but didn’t start the video for that, and only got the finish picture taken once I’d gotten in, and was standing there like an utterly exhausted fool.

It’s not for the photo ops I go on such runs, participate in the races, anyways. It’s to move up into 65th place on the second day (out of 85 still in the running; or 95th out of 150 total participants in this run), after having felt like I wouldn’t be taking a single running step.

No, of course not. It’s nice to improve, interesting to be faster on the second day than people who’d been faster on the first, but what it’s all about are the experiences gained, the stories to tell, the views to remember.

There was also…
Lesson 3: Nutrition continues to be something to experiment with – and not necessarily get any results that make sense. I ate a grilled cutlet after the first day’s run (one meal per day is included in the starter fee), had two soft-boiled eggs, well-salted, and a bread roll for breakfast, and it seems to have done me good. Frankly, I wouldn’t have expected it.

Now, it’s three days later. My calves are much better again, but a little post-race cold is trying to settle in.

Next up: Italy. Lavaredo Ultra Trail.

The ‘moves’ for the Ötscher Marathon and Ötscher Run are on Suunto’s Movescount platform, here and here; you can follow my training and explorations there as well – and if you get to or are in Austria, I could also show you around for some serious trails.

This summer will lead me back to China, though…