17 June 2017


Valley descent.
The Zugspitz Ultratrail 100K would be my third mountain race in the span of 8 days during my most recent 14 day work trip to Europe that had me spending two weekends in Switzerland and Germany. I hadn't really known about this race, which happens to be the biggest trail race in Germany around the tallest mountain in Germany, until Bryan McClure, a fellow US runner currently living in Germany, told me about it. He had attempted it the year prior and it didn't take much effort for me to convince him to join me in running this race to take care of some unfinished business.

The view from my pre-race dinner table at my hotel.
I started researching accommodations near the race location and while I struggled initially to find something reasonably affordable, I finally got lucky when I was able to make reservations at a quaint local hotel/restaurant right in Grainau, Germany just a 5 minute drive from the location of the race headquarters, race expo and the actual race start/finish area. In fact, my pre-race dinner at my hotel afforded me a spectacular view of the Zugspitze right from the back patio.

Pretty electric atmosphere right before the race start.
I picked up my race packet Friday evening, spent a couple of bucks (maybe more) at the race expo and headed back to the hotel for some dinner, before picking up Bryan at the train station in Garmisch-Partenkirchen just a couple of miles away. The hotel owner whipped up an amazing Lasagna for Bryan before he and I returned to our room to get our gear ready for the next day. Like most European mountain races, Zugspitz Ultratrail had an extensive list of mandatory gear for the 100K distance runners. Weather in the Alps is rather unpredictable, which is why most race organizers require a wide range of safety gear.

Quick pic before the race start.
For this race, the requirements were very similar to UTMB requirements and included an extensive first aid kit along with safety whistle, emergency blanket, long pants, waterproof rain jacket, gloves, hat, etc. However, I welcomed yet another opportunity to carry and test mandatory gear ahead of my big summer adventure at Fat Dog 120 Miler in British Columbia, Canada. As before, I managed to fit all of the required gear along with gels and other personal items into my special edition Hardrock Ultimate Direction vest. For the first time, I was also able to test the front straps for attaching trekking poles to my vest. This turned out extremely convenient and is a major improvement over older vest models. These elastic straps held my Black Diamond Carbon Ultra Distance Z-Poles perfectly and allowed for quick access to my poles without interfering with my access to other vest pockets and compartments.

Beautiful single track.
Bryan, however, wasn't quite as lucky with his gear. He ended up forgetting his trekking poles in our hotel room. In addition, his GPS watch wasn't cooperating for the first 5 miles, adding a level of frustration to an otherwise already intimidating and challenging event. However, as it turned out and as I expected, it did not keep Bryan from achieving his goal and finishing the race. As it happened, I chose not to use my poles until the final climb and descent between kilometers 85 and 95.

Massive mountain ranges in every direction.
The race start and finishline were located in a large Octoberfest style tent that included a large permanent stage and was equipped with gear check tables and a large cue for runners to line up for the actual race start. Later in the day, this area would be "converted" to the finish area, turning the "gear check tables" to "beer tent tables" to celebrate runners finishes. This was actually a great setup as it would protect runners and spectators alike in the event of inclement weather. Thankfully, we had near perfect weather conditions all weekend and didn't have to rely on any shelter.

The race was started on time and with a countdown shouted in unison by all 100K runners. Next, the shuffle across the start timing mats began as runners were funneled through the start/finish line chute. Bryan and I had line up somewhere in the middle of the pack with every intention to take it easy for most of the race. His goal was a sub 24 hour finish while mine would be to finish in under 20 hours in order to secure a Western States qualifier as a fellow runner indicated while we waited in the starting chute. As it turned out, Western States allows 22 hours to finish this race as a qualifier, which would have allowed for a more conservative pace. Regardless of how this race would turn out, it was meant as another way to get in miles and lots of climbing in a beautiful setting and I most certainly accomplished that.

Beautiful evergreens.
The race course took runners out of town somewhat quickly as we approached our first climb of the day. Almost immediately, I took out my phone and started to take pictures. I pretty much acted like a tourist for the rest of the day, shouting "Oh"s and "Ah"s at every turn and taking more than a hundred pictures, some of them included in this race report.
Cattle grazing in the higher elevations.
I had broken down the race into multiple sections based on a combination of aid stations and severe climbs. I had counted 5 significant climbs, but as it turned out, there were a couple more climbs hidden along the course. My race strategy was to keep my heart rate in check, never to worry or even check my pace and just keep an eye on the actual elevation profile on my watch while making my way from checkpoint to checkpoint. This eliminated any kind of pressure as a result of keeping any kind of pace. Instead, I focussed on readying myself any time I approached a climb as my watch indicated the elevation profile, amount of climbing to be done and amount of climbing already completed.

Single track trails do not get much better than this.
In general, aid stations and checkpoints were about 10km (6 miles) apart. I never needed more than two bottles of water, but I did drink water straight from some of the glacier streams in the mountains and used it to cool off a couple of times as well. Glacier water is the coolest and most refreshing and best tasting water you will ever drink. While I carried and used a few energy gels I had brought from the US, I largely relied on the amazing aid station fare. The food choices available to runners at each aid station were absolutely amazing. Along with fresh cheeses and salami and bread, runners were treated to different varieties of cakes, sweets and fruits. It really was amazing.

Single track for most of the day.
I managed to stay in control for most of the race, never really redlining or feeling exhausted. There was only one low point during the race, when I spotted a 55K sign just before heading into the perceived halfway point of the race, where runners could choose to place drop bags. I had opted against a drop bag as I carried most of my necessary gear and didn't feel that a gear change would be necessary during a 10k race. Thankfully, I did not regret that decision.

Beautiful 360 degree skylines.
While I did take some time to reset and empty rocks out of my shoes at kilometer 55, I eventually did get going again. It was temporarily intimidating to consider that I was only halfway done. However, I was still on track for a 20 hour finish as I left the 55K checkpoint at 10 hours, leaving me another 10 hours for the final 45K including the major climb up Alpspitze peak at 85K. I approached the final climb just before dusk. I got my headlamp ready for the final 15K and the biggest climb of the day. I had also chosen to finally make use of my trekking poles. I also learned why it is important to always carry spare batteries. When I finally did need to turn on my headlamp, it wasn't working. The brandnew batteries I had put in the headlamp prior to my trip had somehow gotten completely drained inside my bag. I quickly replaced the batteries with my spare set and would have no further issues.

Amazing ridge line trail running.
I never could tell how close I was to my sub 20 hour goal, but as I started the final descent towards Grainau and the finish line, I realized that I could actually break 18 hours, IF I managed the 6 mile descent in under an hour. I finally started pushing my pace, so much so that I missed the final turn a half mile from the finish in Grainau. Thankfully, a couple of locals on a scooter were able to point me in the right direction, which wasn't a given considering that it was 1 AM in the morning. I rounded the corner and finally spotted the finish line, crossing it in 17 hours and 54 minutes, elated to be done and happy to still be in one piece after completely circumventing the Wetterstein mountain range with its many peaks including Zugspitze.

Kudos and a huge thank you to the race directors and their amazing team of volunteers. If you are not convinced by my report, just take a look at these pictures and be sure to register for the 2018 edition of the Zugspitz Ultratrail. There are plenty of distances to choose from, but if you want the full experience, sign up for the 100K:-)

Ridge line trails.

More ridge line running.

What a backdrop for an alpine mountain race.

Panoramic views.

Climbing just above the tree lines.

Spectator along the race course.

Amazing trails all day.


Starting another long climb.
Below is a short clip from the race:

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