Monday, May 4, 2009

Ötzi Alpine Marathon

April 18, 2009 - South Tirol (Naturno, Italy) - Ötzi Alpine Marathon

42km & 3200M elevation gain: Mountain Biking, Trail Running, and Ski Mountaineering Race

I can clearly blame (or credit) Becky on this one as a couple months ago she sent me a link for a video of an alpine triathlon that she thought would be a perfect fit for capturing my imagination and creating yet another mini-obsession. Late one evening I decided to check out the video -- which went something like this ... starts with mountain bike racers (in what looks like the middle of summer) racing away from a picturesque village surrounded by vineyards, cycling up a mountain, shouldering their bikes in a steep technical section, and then racing into another village. Cool -- looks like a fun bike race -- but next you see them trail running up a gorgeous valley, around a lake, and up, up, up. Wow, great duathlon in a mountain setting. That's not all though. Next -- in one of the oddest triathlon transitions I've ever seen -- they run into the second transition zone and trade the trail running shoes for ski boots and Randonee (touring) skis. Next shot has them skiing uphill still wearing summer bike clothes -- now in a full-on winter setting right up to the top of a glacier. 10 seconds into the video and I was already hooked -- once I saw them ski racing up a mountain in bike clothes, I was as good as in South Tirol already.

Becky got in on the action too, quickly forming Team Abenteur (German for 'Adventure') with our friends Kate and Kat, while I decided that I wouldn't let a lack of specific training get in the way of going for the solo category. I managed to squeeze in a few ski tours to prep for the ski part, including my most awesome Swiss April Sunday training day ever (road cycling in the morning, kayaking over lunch, running, and then skiing up and down a mountain at sunset). We dusted our bikes off in early April and did a few rides to start the transition from ski season to bike season fitness. Breaking all the rules, I also switched equipment the day before the race as I decided to buy some used ski mountaineering racing skis as I was panicking a bit from checking out the photo gallery from last year's race and seeing everybody in super light race kit! I would be racing on these skis before ever trying them out - cool!

We enjoyed a very scenic 4 hour drive through the Engadine into Italy, passing Stelvio Pass (one of our favorite road bike climbs) and finally arriving in Naturno to find our hotel in the middle of a vineryard in full bloom. Just stunning.

The race briefing was in German and Italian (reminds me of the Blues Brothers line "we got both kinds -- country ... and western", so we caught only bits and pieces here and there, but missed the important stuff like "how do Jeff's skis make it to the start of the ski section and how do the relay members make it up the mountain?". We sorted this out in a mix of English and German with the race organizers after the meeting and enjoyed a free pre-race buffet of -- get this, and I'm not kidding -- local cheeses, sausage, a delicious soup, fruits and red wine. Ah -- racing in Italy -- gotta love it. No paper plates collapsing under the weight of a blob of spaghetti and adorned with stale bread, but nice cheeses, fruits, and endless bottles of wine. And yes, it was only after filling up on cheese, soup, and sausage and a few glasses of wine that I somehow still craved (and ate) a whole pizza with the girls at a local pizzeria and then (and only then) thought that I should take pre-race nutrition more seriously!

By the way, the race organizers were quite surprised to see our group representing the U.S. and U.K. in a race dominated by (well, pretty much solely attended by) Italians, Germans, Austrians, and Swiss.

Morning arrived and I managed to successfully drop off my ski and running gear at what I hoped was the place where it would all get transported for me. I did a little bike warm-up trying to shake off the nerves and settle a stomach that was quite unhappy with the previous evening's gorge-fest. I know better -- I really do -- or I should.

We were racing by 9AM -- during a lap through the village I got my legs spinning, felt ok, and decided to move up through the pack. At 9:05 I was nearly in the lead pack as we approached the start line again and then STOPPED. A full-on STOP. I looked around and quickly noticed that I was the only one surprised that we were coming to a complete stop five minutes into a race.

Ah, the joys of language and me not knowing enough of the one in the part of world I'm living -- apparently this was a warm-up lap. That five minute speech before the warm-up lap (in both German and Italian) probably went something like this: "alright folks, we're gonna do the warm-up lap that you all know about because you've done this before and know what you're doing, but see that poor chap with the stupid grin over there. You know, the one who laughs when we all do but doesn't have a clue why he's laughing or what we're saying. Wait, everyone laugh on 3. 1-2-3 ... ok, now you see him. So that guy will think we're racing during the warm-up lap, so let him pass you, it'll really boost his confidence which we'll later tear apart, and then watch his face when we all get back to the starting line and stop to await the real start."

I grin and bear it and start the 2nd time hoping that this is the real start and not another warm-up/laugh-at-Jeff lap. We skip the village tour part this time and head straight UP (within 2 minutes). Now that I've positioned myself in the front during the warm-up lap, I'm quickly passed by ... well seemingly everyone .. on the climb. I'm stunned at how fast these guys and gals are climbing right from the start -- well, the 2nd start. I also notice that most of them switched out normal mountain bike tires for narrow slicks or semi-slicks and most were on hard-tails, not full suspension rigs (like I was). Now I know -- and yes, I am blatantly throwing excuses out before I even finish telling the story! Anyway, we climb and climb for over an hour - the views rocked. This is wine country and the vines were all in full bloom. It was also a very hot climb -- felt like mid-summer.
I climbed my heart out, redlining the whole way and wishing I had actually trained on the bike for this race (as I knew I was near the back of the pack). The scenery couldn't be beat though.

I kept thinking "my god there are super fit people doing this race." The climb transitioned into a single-track section that involved carrying the bike up some non-rideable sections.

After the single-track, I tried to gain some time by pushing it on the descent, but suffered again on the last long climb to the first transition area.

After a tough 2 hours on the bike I wheeled into the transition zone (right past a cool bell tower) and was happy to hear Kat's cheers as she waited for Becky to hand off the baton in the relay. I managed a quick transition and ran off toward a steep slope to start the run segment.

During the run I was passed by the lead runners in the relay division. The relay teams started an hour behind the soloists and I was floored by how fast the lead runners blew past me. To my defense though, these guys just had to run 12KM and they were done for the day. I had to do the run and still ski up a mountain that looked really far away from the run start.

Aside from a really annoying quad cramp, the run felt fine and at just over an hour, wasn't a big deal. I did have to walk the steep parts though and definitely didn't feel like I had my summer legs. Before long I was running into T2 and searching for my skis. It was a very odd feeling to run out of that transition area in ski boots and biking clothes! I relaxed a bit when my never-tested new skis grabbed into the snow and climbed just fine. The ski course covered 10KM and 1200 meters (3700 feet) of elevation. I was again stunned at how fast so many people were skiing -- especially the relay skiers who zoomed past me like I had my skis on backwards! (come to think of it, maybe I did!).

I did perk up when one of the fast relay guys noticed I was a soloist (and suffering a bit) and said "bravissimo". Hearing the athlete-to-athlete motivation in a mix of languages is one of the wonderful things about living and racing in Europe. This and some other camaraderie banter fed me energy to keep sliding one ski boot in front of the other -- up, up, up.

It was quite a sight to see recreational downhill skiers and boarders zooming down the mountain beside the race course wearing their full winter gear. They stared at us like we were aliens -- cold aliens in funny clothes who didn't quite have the direction of travel on a ski slope figured out.

The higher on the mountain I climbed, the worst the weather got. What started as a sunny day turned into a foggy, snowy mist toward the top. Plus, I could feel the altitude (3000+ meters/9800+feet) making me light-headed and a dull headache. The photographer had camped out on a particularly steep and narrow section near the top. It was so steep that I could barely get my skis to stick. I had to take tiny steps, else I would slide backwards. It was grueling, but an awesome challenge at the same time. I started to get cold and snow was sticking to my arms, but soon I heard the finish line announcer. I pushed on and finally sighted the finish line. I vaguely remember them announcing my arrival in Italian. I saw Becky and Kat and felt a surge of energy that drove me to my first sprint finish on skis. I crossed the finish line and fell to my knees in exhaustion and an emotional release. 5 1/2 hours of hard effort -- in stunningly beautiful mountains -- both of which enrich my soul. Someone threw a blanket on me -- I looked up and saw smiles from Becky and Kat.

I grabbed a shower at the mountaintop hotel where the race finished and made it back outside (this time in proper winter clothes) just in time to cheer Kate on as she finished Team Abenteur's final leg of the relay. The girls did great and had a wonderful time taking on the profi Italians and Austrians. We caught the cable car down to a rockin' post-race party, enjoyed some food, and then drove back down the valley to warmth and a treat of gelado in Naturno.

The race was a super experience -- a perfect event for a multi-sport mountain lover. Now that I've tasted it, I can't wait to go back next year with some proper training under my belt and give it a go again. This time though, I know the trick about the warm-up lap and will be on the lookout for a fellow English speaker to give me some laughs this time!

Thanks for reading!