EIGER ULTRA TRAIL 51 km – July 2022

by Trevor Wilson

Rrriinngggg – my alarms going and I awaken from my fitful sleep and check the time – 4:00am. Brilliant, time to take the next permitted dose of paracetamol. I’ve picked up a tooth infection within two days of arrival in Grindelwald and the swelling on one side of my face and associated pain don’t make for an easy life. Eating and sleeping are proving to be hard fought tasks. I gratefully swallow another two tablets and eventually manage to drift off for a further few hours sleep.

Arrive in the Tourist Information office as the doors open at 9:30 and explain that I need the services of a dentist, urgently. The very helpful person behind the COVID screens spends the next half an hour ringing around the local dentists until one dentist in the next village eventually says that he will offer an appointment at 3:00pm, after he has dealt with all of his scheduled appointments. The tourist information officer states that payment is cash only.

Spend the next few hours in and around Grindelwald, eating ice cream and raiding the local cash machine for our daily cash allowance from all available card accounts, until it’s time to catch the train to the next village and attend my dentist appointment, making sure that we won’t be late.

The dentist is called Tony and doesn’t speak any English, just German. His nurse speaks only a few works of English and leads me off to have a 3D x-ray – amazing to see a 3D image of your own skull on the computer screen. The x-ray isn’t detailed enough to see if there’s a brain in there or not! Tony’s examining the x-ray of my teeth, making grunting sounds until he starts prodding the screen with his stubby finger, repeatedly saying ‘ nicht gut’ as he he points to various teeth – I’m thinking that he wants to upgrade his car to the latest Porsche at my expense.

Eventually he’s speaking to me, in German. Now, my German language skills are minimal at best, having mainly been gleaned from reading Commando comics in my primary school days. I don’t think that the phrases “Actung Tommy!” or “Der Englander!” were going to be of any use when trying to discuss intricate dental treatment. Eventually I worked out that I was being offered a choice of two treatments – whatever they were. Seeing the look of bewilderment on my swollen face, the nurse uttered the deciding phrase “two is cheaper!” I hold two fingers up and Tony makes a few more grunting noises.

A couple of pain killing injections in my gum later and as I see Tony reaching for his pliers, I’ve realised that I’ve chosen the extraction option. Luckily Tony has forearms like a blacksmith and 15seconds later after a couple of swift twists and tugs, he’s waving my now extracted molar in front of my face and looking very pleased with himself. Probably thinking what colour of metallic paint he’s going to select for his new car.

As I’m the last patient of the day, I get quick shift out of the dental chair and onto an upright wooden chair in the dental reception, head spinning with the effects of the recent trauma and the pain killers, mouth stuffed with bloodied gauze, watching my wife handing over copious amounts of our son’s inheritance in used Swiss Franc notes, then back onto the train and to our apartment, where I retire to bed and sleep for the next 15 hours.

Rrriinngggg – my alarms going and I awaken from my restful sleep and check the time – 4:00am. RACE DAY!! Jump out of bed, breakfast, running gear on and head off for the 7:30am start in the centre of Grindelwald, which is an easy downhill walk, only a mile away from our apartment. Sun’s shining, not a cloud in the bright blue sky and it’s going to be a hot, hot day out in the hills. I’ve selected to go in the second wave of starters as never having undertaken an ultra race of this nature before, I don’t think that I’ll finish before 9:30 hrs, which is the time suggested if you want to start 15 mins before the rest.

Grindelwald is situated in its own valley, there’s one road in and one road out and the valley is dominated by the North Face of the Eiger on the southern side. The Jungfrau and Monch massifs are behind and to the west of the Eiger – it’s a very spectacular setting, especially in the good weather that has been present all week. There’s a range of races on offer, 101 km, 51 km, 32 km and 16 km, so the town is busy with runners. There’s also a 250 km race for teams of 2 or 3 people, with 10,000m of climb and a 100 hr time limit. Maybe next year.

Thankfully the E51 km race goes nowhere near these big mountains. The race starts and finishes in the centre of Grindelwald, heading east up to the ridge line and then along the ridge to the north, returning to the floor of the valley in the west and a run alongside the river until we’re back in Grindelwald at the finish. 51 km and 3100m of climb – easy peasy.

Off we go, 811 starters, along with 113 couple’s teams, over 1000 people heading upwards along Grindelwald Main Street, heading to the first check point at Grosse Scheidegg. A couples category would be interesting to introduce to our local races, may push the divorce rate up a bit! Grosse Scheidegg turns out to be a cow shed, commandeered as a race checkpoint for the day, animals all exiled to the fields. Pass the 10k mark soon after, 2 hours in and all uphill so far.

Looking back to Grindelwald at the 10km mark

The course flattens out onto a service road on the way to First, the next checkpoint. First is served directly from Grindelwald by a cable car, so it’s very popular with tourists, which means that there’s a proper mountain hut, toilets, etc. we have to run over the famed ‘cliff walk’, a metal bridge suspended off the cliff face but which wobbles like the Gilchrist bridge over the Lagan, except there’s a 1000 ft drop below the ‘cliff walk’ bridge, rather than the 20 feet into the Lagan from the Gilchrist bridge.

Then onto the next checkpoint at Feld, which is another cattle shed, which smells like the occupants only left 5 minutes before I arrive. Dropped a banana half on the floor and the five second pick-up rule was not applied! No hanging about for a rest and squelched my way outside. Was still running at just over 5 km an hour, 20 km into the race at this stage.

Onwards to the next checkpoint on Faulhorn, the highest point on the course at 2700m.
Unfortunately it’s all up, up and more up – 1500m of climb between check points 3 and 4. Definitely noticing that I was slowing down after crossing 2000m altitude and my pace dropped below the 5 km an hour I had been running, dropped half an hour on that climb. But the Faulhorn checkpoint is a proper mountain hut, with all facilities. Had a seat for 5 minutes before heading off on the downhill section.

Faulhorn checkpoint – it’s a mini Alp D’Huez with NINE hairpins from here to the top.

A glance at the course map would make think that it’s a downhill run all the way to the finish = not all all! The course covers very rough, stoney ground and is best described as technical and undulating. Lost another 30 mins on this section – had to call my support team from checkpoint 5 (Schynige) to tell her not to buy the beers just yet as I was an hour behind schedule. This checkpoint is advertised in the race description as having no water available and on arrival, I understood why. The checkpoint consisted of three marshals sitting under a gazebo at the side of the mountain path – a folding table contained what food they could carry. Thankfully, due to the heat, the organisers had relented and had arranged for a local farmer to bring a tank of water to the checkpoint on his Quad, so glad to see that there was plenty of water left when I arrived.

Looking back to Faulhorn Checkpoint.

The course continues downhill and I’m making up time, now down below the tree line and into the cooler forest section. Then I hit a section of the forest which is all exposed tree roots, with rocks in between, progress stalls to walking pace. After a mile downhill, there’s a metal grate bolted to the rock face to cross the void below and then another mile uphill, through more tree roots and rock. Imagine the start of the Glen River path below the first bridge, with sharp rocks everywhere you’d want to place your feet. Once clear of that, we’re starting to get onto farm tracks and eventually tarmac as we make our way to the final checkpoint at Burglaenen, which is in a school playground. Have to wrestle a water melon slice from the swarm of wasps that have taken up residence on the plate, then head off for the final 6 km alongside the river on the valley floor. Very
hot at this level, even though it’s nearly 5:00 pm. Running out of energy due to the double effect of the heat and dehydration but jog on.

Ultra run organisers can have a weird sense of humour, there were no distance markers anywhere on the course until 50 km, with a direction arrow pointing uphill to the finish. 100m climb over 800 metres before the short run down the Main Street to the finish. I nearly laughed. I struggled up the last hill and was running along the Main Street when I was hit with a bout of nausea – had to sit down on the kerb and boak into the nearest road gully. As Grindelwald is quite a posh place, there were lots of spectators applauding the runners on the way to the finish line – I’m sure that most of them ran off in horror when they see the meagre contents of my stomach emerge onto
the roadside. Anxious that nobody got any of my discharge on their Gucci trainers, I flushed everything away with the remaining contents of my water bottle. Then, feeling great again, got up and jogged over the finish line in 11 hours 8 mins, 2 hours inside the cut of and 17th vet 60, out of 34, for 588th place overall. Delighted.

Collected my medal (a stone off the Eiger on a ribbon) and joined the support team on the hotel balcony, where she had a cool beer waiting for my attention. Perfect ending. The mile walk uphill back to our apartment was quite slow!

Thanks to Fred for the lend of his poles!

The next day, Ann decided that she’d quite like to undertake a 10 mile uphill hike from Bussalp to First, challenging! Especially as I’d got up early to undertake my daily 5k run! But at least we got to come down to Grindelwald in the cable car.

Things to note; the heat turned all my chia energy bars to mush – inedible. The heat also turned my jelly energy gels into tubes of tepid water. Go for hard bars as an independent food source.

A fantastic experience for my first Ultra, would recommend it. The weather was fantastic during our stay, really warm, no wind and bright blue skies, every day. It’s not always like that in the Alps.

Did anyone mention ‘summer holiday’?

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