A friend of mine commented on one of my photos of the Inferno “trust the Swiss to create an Inferno in heaven” and I had to chuckle when I read it, because it really verbalised the experience I had last weekend in one of the toughest races I have competed in. It was a punishing slog the whole way but I lost count of the amount of times I looked around, totally awestruck at the beauty of the mountains, lakes and forests we were passing through. It wasnt just physical exertion that was catching my breath.
“Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return” Oscar Wilde -De Profundis
The Inferno claims to be the highest triathlon in the world and if it isn’t the highest, I dare someone to find another triathlon or one day multisport race that boasts a total altitude gain of 5,000mtrs. The Inferno punishes its victims like no other race, I saw tough boys whimper as they pushed their bikes up the steeper sections of the mountain bike course, managing nothing faster than a slow walk up the Shilthorn because thats all their legs could give.
Why is it so hard you might ask? Take this virtual tour to find out.
I am always really critical of my racing and seem to always look back and recognise things I could have done that may have meant more speed “I should have done this and I should have done that” but this time, Im going to look back proudly of my result and my performance. It was a good show and I raced how I like to race, within myself, going at my own pace and not getting distracted by others.
Preparing for an Inferno
I had to take a closer look at my diet after the troublesome time I had in Ironman Switzerland. I had struggled like never before on the run in that race and it really destroyed the event for me. I asked around, did some research on athletes who had similiar problems with nutrition in big events and I got some advice from one of my heroes, famous hill runner and World Champion John Lenihan. He sent me some really great advice. I decided to stay away from gels and try to “go natural”. I drank mostly water, some Isostar isotonic drink, I prepared flapjacks at home, had some Biberli‘s I had tested in training. For the run I had Jelly babies and natural fruit gels. It worked! Back to basics.
I tend to always over pack but when you race in the mountains I think it is better to have too much gear and clothes for the elements than not enough. You can never really predict what the weather is going to be like at 2,000mtrs so I made sure I had waterproofs and warm items with me. I was going to wear my Inov8’s for the run but decided against the x-Talons as I would need a stiffer sole over the rocks on the Schilthorn.
I had actually given up on competing in the Inferno by about April this year. I have been struggling a bit financially throughout the year and I had to pick and choose my races carefully. The Ironman was paid for since last year but even keeping gear in order, entry and travel to the Natur Enegie triathlon in Rheinfleden, the Jura Raid and money spent on a little training camp in Pontresina and upgrading my bike with some new parts was enough. So I didnt enter the Inferno, it filled up and that race was crossed off the list. Until Abi, my training buddy all year decided she wanted to forgo her entry and I begged the organization to let me in. Although I hadnt done (in my mind) as much hill training as I would have done normally because I was preparing for the relatively flat Ironman race over the last few months, the hills have always been my strength and the amount of adventure racing experience and Uetliberg run and bike training would stand to me in this case.
It was also a really great opportunity to race against girls I have always admired and raced against in past, such as Andrea Huser who was also at the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge last December and the legendary Gigathlete and Inferno champion Nina Brenn. In the end I came 6th in my category and 8th overall out of 33 competitors. I came 101 overall men included.
The Night Before
Friday was a very very stressful day for me. I worked in Zurich that morning, raced from there to Interlaken to do all of the check-ins in the afternoon and I was behind schedule for the whole day. I was very stressed out and not much fun to be around that day. I hadnt estimated how long it would take to get to Interlaken, the traffic in the area was incredibly slow and I hadnt done a thorough last check on my gear until I was dropping it off at the various stations. Next time I will definitely be better organized. We finally made it to the last transition zone and equipment drop off at Oberhofen to pick up my timing chip at about 18.00, an hour late. But at least we did it. Then we made our way all the way back to Stechelberg to catch the cable cars up to Murren to sleep up at 1,930 mtrs in the Eiger Hotel.
The atmosphere in Murren was really highly charged, there were athletes everywhere. I was surprised that there were so many, thinking that more of them would have chosen to sleep at Thun which is closer to the swim start.
I had thought I would be at a disadvantage having to get up so early in the morning to catch cable cars and a bus to Thun for the race start but when I saw Marc Pschebizin the defending Inferno champion, was also staying in my hotel, I thought it cant be that bad. I really like the atmosphere before races, especially when everyone is organised and just getting ready to race. There is excitement and apprehension in the air and Murren is such a nice little town, nestled up in the hills the view of the mountains and the hills with the moon rising behind the Eiger was also settling on the nerves.
Marc Pschebizin (GER) – legend
I grabbed a free plate of pasta in the Sports Centre before heading back to the hotel, I was out for the count by 9.30pm with the alarm set for breakfast at 3.30am. I slept well and woke up to the sound of footsteps in the room above me (turns out it was Pschebizins room) had breakfast, and made my way to catch the 4.20am cable car down to Stechelberg to get the 4.50am bus to Thun.
I slept the entire way in the bus to Thun! Not exactly ideal to be asleep 30minutes before the race start but I am so used to sleeping and getting up and going from pre-work runs and my years of 5am rowing training starts that it wasnt a big deal and I was actually happy that I had that extra hour or so of sleep. The swim started on schedule at 6.30 am. When the gun went off most people started trying to swim until they realised that you could still walk or wade for about 150mtrs so there was a lot of people run swimming in the water. Within a minute of the swim I got a nice kick in the face, but when I checked and there was no blood I figured it couldnt be that serious. Who said triathlon is a non contact sport!
The swim was never ending. A point to point swim, it was a lot different from the Ironman in Zurich which was esentially almost two laps of a square course . At least you can count laps and you have a better idea of how much you have left to go, but this swim was just a straight line with the only reference being some big orange buoys and the final destination – Oberhofen castle. To top it all off the water wasnt flat and the cross wind from the south made the swim conditions very bouncy. I felt as though I went off course so many times too, I was out on my own for a lot of the race, way too much to the left but when I tried to make little adjustments in direction to get into the pack and get in someones slipstream it never really worked.
I finally made it to the finish, I thought I had a disastrous swim but I actually came in 11th although my pace was much much slower than what I did for the Zurich Ironman.
Oberhofen Swim – Road Bike
A bit disorientated as usual getting out of the water, I wobbled my way to my road bike and started to get ready to go. I looked around quickly to see how many bikes were gone from the racks and surprisingly there werent that many so I reckoned I was in good shape! I looked around for my Free Radicals clubmember Liselore Vollmer and I couldnt see her, but on the way out of the transition area I saw Markus – her partner and I figured she must have come in behind me if he was still waiting for her (unless he was waiting to cheer me too). I was shocked that I was faster than her in the swim because she is always kicking my ass in training!
So. Onto the bike and straight onto a hill! Up up up, the relentless climbing began. The road bike was going pretty well for me, I had some back pain early on but it was manageable. The only part of the race I didnt like so much was the ride around Interlaken up towards the beginning of the climb to Grosse Scheidegg but as soon as we hit the climb again I started to pass lots of people and wow, were people suffering. There was no chit chat amongst competitors even though we werent going that fast and everywhere around me were grinding grunts and groans. I remember failing miserably last year on this climb with friends. We had already done Susten and I had a ridiculous gear ratio on my bike back then, I made it 3/4 of the way and I walked. I wasnt walking this time. I pushed and pushed and cycled past guys who were walking but I wasnt putting a foot down!
When we made it to the top I was really happy, my descending had improved a lot this year and I was ready to rock and roll and enjoy the winding downhill switchbacks. But about 2 kilometers into the descent we approached plastic flaps across the road. On some of the Swiss roads in the mountains when there are open fields with cattle, they put two plastic little pipes as a sort of gate across the road. Of course you can cycle straight through them and you just get a little whip on the legs as you go through them but I spooked. It was just an instinctual reaction when I saw them, probably thinking of having being electrocuted by an electric fence a few years ago, I pulled on the brakes, my rear wheel locked, slid on the road and then the tyre blew. I punctured the rear tyre. I was running tubular tyres with no spare tyre with me as I had used the spare one the day before to repair the latest puncture! I took a risk in not bringing a back up tyre and luck was not on my side. To make matters worse Liselore passed me as I was standing there, not knowing what to do. I decided to wheel the bike down. All of my weight was on the front wheel anyway so unless the next transition at Grindelwald was very far away I knew I would make it with minimal damage to the carbon wheels. It was another risk and I would have to pay for it if my sponsored wheels were damaged.
Grindelwald Road – MTB
I finally came into transition – like a bat out of hell. I was also completely disorientated as the entrance was on the opposite side from where we had come in to drop the gear off the day before, I had to run around and ask one of the volunteers where my bike was. A quick change, backpack on (I decided it would be easier to hydrate on the mtb with a water bladder) and off we went. It was hot now, but I was keen to get off the road bike and have a change of body position on the mtb.
I knew now I would have my work cut out for me. I had been passed by 3 girls while I was free wheeling my punctured bike down Grosse Scheidegg. I wasnt sure how many of them were solo competitors as there were lots of relay team members out there, but I knew that Liselore had passed me and she is strong on the mountain bike. I settled in and started up the steep climb up Kleine Scheidegg. It was very steep. I mean very very steep and it never stopped. I hadnt expected this at all. About 600 mtrs before the top, it was impossible to ride anymore, the conditions of the track were loose gravel and perhaps it would have been manageable had you just started riding from Grindelwald but with already 115km of steep climbs under your belt, that grind and strength is absent from the legs and walking is a much better option.
When we made it to the top of Kleine Scheidegg there were competitors lying on the ground, taking an extended break at the aid station and some had serious looks of pain on their faces. I definitely whimpered up there as it was such a hard slog but one look around at the amazing view and I decided to head off again and not waste time. Besides, Liselore had told me that the descent was great fun so I was anxious to see what she had been talking about!
Fun Single Track!
The beginning of the mountain bike course was not so interesting, loose gravel and next to wet roots my least favourite terrain. But we soon turned off into a nice little field with a single track which led into the woods and now the fun began! Not full of roots, but more like big rocks with loose earth it was great, not overly technical but there were some bits that required some mountain biking experience and a lot of the typical non-mountain biking triathletes had to dismount here and walk this section whereas Liselore and I flew down it and really gained a lot of time on the decent with the burm like switchbacks on the wanderweg. There were first aid people stationed every 500 mtrs it seemed which was a really good call on the part of the organization as I saw some competitors has sustained some impressive road burn at the end of the race!
MTB – Hill Run
On arriving at Stechelberg I was ready to stop biking and get on my feet for a while. I caught up with Liselore in transition and she gave me a couple of salt tablets. It was very hot outside and I knew I should have taken the time to put some sunscreen on after the swim that morning.
As soon as I got on my feet I knew that it was going to be my day. I still felt ok. I had energy, I could run. We had to run about 5 flat kilometers along the valley floor until the ascent to Murren began. Peter Ackermann a like-mind multisporter from the Free Radicals club I am a member of, caught up with me on his bike and it was great to see a friendly face and have someone to chat with.
I soon caught up to Liselore on the first hill through the forest and she was struggling with the heat so she had decided to walk, which was perfectly ok as there were a lot of people walking already too. I walked with her for a while but then pushed on. It was hard going and I tried to run walk as much of the ascent as I could but also remembering that I was a long way from the Schilthorn summit so I needed to conserve energy and not get carried away.
I saw another couple of girls ahead of me. There was no way of knowing if they were soloists but there was definitely one behind me who was. She was closing in on me and I tried to hold her off but I knew that I would only risk getting into trouble later on if I held her pace so I decided to hold my own and let her pass me if needs be. She then passed me at about km14 of the run. I saw her again in Murren but then she had a cracking speed on the steeper sections of the Shilthorn as she opened up an impressive 13 minute lead on me over the last hour of the race. I subsequently found out her name is Sandra Danzer and she came 4th in the Zermatt Marathon last year so hill running is definitely her speciality!
As I neared the top Markus Kohl appeared over the mountain. I love that! When you see someone you know who is coming out just to cheer you on! I really owe some time to my friends during their races next year, looks as though Ill have to pay my dues in the support role next summer and I will be very happy to do so as I know how much it means for me to have someone on the sideline offering you some words of encouragement. Markus ran a few minutes next to me, told me I was doing good but on asking him if the peak ahead was the Schilthorn he chuckled, then dropped the news gently to me “nooooo, the top of that mountain is not the summit, but you will see where it is when you get to the top of that little one” – now I was scared. As I neared the top of the hill which I thought was the Schilthorn I became anxious to see where the summit really was, and there was no missing it. The Shilthorn in all of its glory was a big bad ass triangle of sheer steepness lying between me and the finishline.
Nothing for it but hands on the hips, head down and get on with it. At least thats what I told myself. The climb up the Shilthorn was very steep and involved some scrambling along the way with your hands. I tried to push hard towards the finish but I could hear my heartbeat in my ears and I started getting dizzy so I decided to just hold the pace I was at. The last 30 minutes of the race were amazing, I felt like I was floating and it must have been the effects of altitude but there was a deep sense of peace about getting to the top of this magnificent alpine peak and we could hear the commentator naming off people as they crossed the line. The guy in front of me came in 100th.
Making it to the top was really great. I felt a really great sensation as I ran through the finish line in the bergstation at the top of the Schilthorn. It really was a better feeling than the Ironman where I crossed the line in relief that the whole ordeal was finally over but then I was left with a horrible feeling of desperation and frustration at having not performed to my expectations due to having to stop on the run so many times. During the Inferno I felt good, I had no stomach troubles, my legs were in good shape, my lungs were working well and I paced the whole event really well.
I think you can tell by the look on my face as I cross the finish line.
The morning after the Inferno I met the winner Marc Pschebizin at breakfast. He could barely walk, it looked as though he had a lot of pain in one of his hips. But I asked him how he prepares for the Inferno. His winning time was 8.53, a really inhuman result.
He simply replied “lots and lots of hills, up and down hills” I guess that is the best advice to give anyone preparing for an event such as this. The run up the Schilthorn is so severe that training to speed walk up really steep hills and hill repeats is probably one of the best trypes of sessions you can do! So next year I will look forward to spending even more time in the mountains enjoying what this wonderful country has to offer in preparation for my second day in hell in paradise!
And – of course – thank you so much for following me, supporting me and offering great advice throughout this season! It really is a great feeling to know there are people thinking of you while you are doing these events – at low points you give me the strength to carry on!
Fit For Life magazine write up in German