Race reports for races that I've done before tend to descend into simple route descriptions. That is not the case with the Davos 78k and even if it were it would still be worth writing. The course here is stunning. This race is the first foreign one that I would like to do every year forever.
Last year was pretty special. I was introduced to mountain running for the first time (I'm not including the hills you find in the UK). I was amazed by how hard but how rewarding it was to scramble up a mountain, stagger across the top on a knife edge sometime and then bound back down. There is something very humbling about standing near the bottom of a mountain, equally it is quite liberating to climb onto their back and stamp all over them. I was really looking forward to this race.
My plan was simple and based upon a mistake of last year. Last year I took the first 30k (mainly downhill) a bit easy and got caught up in the crowds while going up the mountain. This year I was going to nail the first 30k and then hopefully be able to have a clearer run up the mountain.
The run starts in a stadium in the town. We are all penned into the starting area while helicopters roared above. The loudspeakers were playing "Conquest of Paradise" by Vangelis at full volume, it was hard not to get excited by such a fitting song, I sure was hoping to conquer paradise today. For the first time since I watched Black Hawk Down I thought to myself "helicopters are cool".
10-9-8 etc and the horn goes, Vangelis gives way to U2's "Beautiful Day" and 1000 runners pile out of the stadium and start a lap of the town. The first 3 miles are on road and the streets are lined with people clapping and cheering, every hotel has people hanging out of the window yelling. After a little twisting and turning we are into the trails and heading for the mountains.
Davos has 6 races running through the day. The K78, K31 and C42 start at the same time and follow the same path until the K31 finishes. The C42 diverts before any hills arrive. The K42 joins the K78 at around 40k and sticks with it for most of the rest, taking in the same mountains. The K11 and K21 start and finish somewhere else. A great thing about this was that I knew people in all the races and was expecting to see them over the course of the day.
After about 5 miles there is a small climb (Parliament Hill x 4) that takes you from the open trail into the woods. Rob and Jamie passed me at this stage and started to fade in the distance. I was going at a fair pace still but was having the usual stomach problems. Perhaps I shouldn't have had so much beer the night before. As soon as we were in the woods I did what the Pope allegedly does there quite a lot and managed to get moving again. I was trying to keep Rob and Jamie in sight but I had lost them. I ran through a food station at around 8 miles and was told "well done James - wait a moment". I looked round to see if I'd dropped something but then realised that the route was closed at a train crossing. We all gathered behind the barrier as a train carried lots of spectators down to the village where they would be cheering us on later. That was ok.
The first 20 miles of the course are generally downhill. There are a few small climbs, Londoners would call them hills but the locals here and most Europeans would probably not even notice them. There were some significant down hill sections that were great to run down, just the right gradient for a crap downhill runner like me to not fall over. Often when I run down hills like this it is hard to gauge how far I've gone down. This is not particularly important except that it will be the distance I have to come back up again at some point.
After 31k you run into a small village with roaring crowd support. This is where the K31 runners veer left and finish. Some of them look quite exhausted but not as much as I was, I'd took the first 31k hard and was going to pay for it, I still have 47k left. Shortly after the field is thinned out by the departing K31 runners we are joined by the K42 runners. Here I was expecting to see lots friends overtake me as they would have just started the marathon.
My memory of last year was quite poor. I deliberately didn't look at the course profiles before as I wanted it all to be a surprise, and it was. A I can really remember from last year was than there was a mountain some time just after 20 miles then lots of mountain top trail which was quite hard but really enjoyable to run on. I remember joining in with all the K42 runners and getting a bit caught up hence why I went much faster this year. I thought the mountain is going to kill me anyway, I may as well be nearly dead when I get there.
Before we met the K42ers we had a long climb up a winding road. I did not remember doing this last year, I was expecting the mountain. Instead I climbed up 2 miles of steep road, half running half walking. Then it was back into the woods for more trail, the mountain was surely just coming up? No?
Ben was the first to overtake me, looking fresh and telling me to keep my head up. I was shortly followed by Dave Ross who did the K78 last year. I chatted briefly with him and he told me he'd just got engaged to his girlfriend Mel. I congratulated him and he said to watch out for Mel who was not far behind, also doing the K42. As we started to climb up but still not steeply Mark Bell and Gareth Jones passed me. At that stage I had already run a marathon. Soon after Lars Olsen, Jenny Bradley and Andrew Taylor jogged past, looking like they were really enjoying themselves. It was really great to see smiles on all of their faces though I suspected that my change as soon as the mountain comes.
The weather turned out to be perfect. The previous day it baked, then later that night it poured it down. If either of these weather conditions prevailed then we were in for a hard time. When it came to race day the sun took it easy and every now and then there was a fine rain shower. It was almost as if you could just switch it on when you were feeling a bit warm. I think a lot of people would have struggled without that rain.
The mountain threatened to appear but again was stalling. More people overtook and I felt like I was getting in their way. Jany Tsai came past, stopped to take a photo of me looking exhausted then ran off in the distance to take more photos. Shortly after the mountain finally came, 28 miles in. I was exhausted and new that I had more than the proverbial "mountain to climb".
The climb finishes of what was started about 8 miles ago. Over 8 miles the course gradually ascends from 1000m to 2000m. The mountain climb then tops it off with 600m in about 2 miles. This is done on a track that switches back onto itself over and over so you can't see the top. A well know "rule of thumb" in running is that if you can't see the top of the hill, walk. This is what I and all those around me were doing. My pace had slowed in comparison to everyone else. I was getting overtaken by lots of people both marathon runners and the ultra runners, I tried my best to step aside when I thought someone wanted to pass but sometimes it was impossible. I was in exactly the opposite situation I was last year, instead of wanting to get past runners who were going too slow for me I was that slow person getting in everyone's way.
Despite doing this hill before I still underestimated how long it was. There comes a point where you can see a lot of sky and then assume you must be on top. Then it swings round into some more trees and then up again. At this point I was overtaken by Alex Pearson who looked like he was having the time of his life. "Thank you Davos for your wonderfully taxing calf stretching mountains" he entusiatically chuckled as he went about finishing the hill. It was almost over, at the top is an aid station with a lot more aid than usual.
The aid stations in this race are frequent and fully stocked. There is plenty of water, energy drink, sweets, cakes, coke (later on), soup, bananas and lots of medics braced for a refugee crisis. Many runners including myself took this as an opportunity to sit down for a minute and regain breath. I was feeling a bit queasy and short of breath, I assumed it was the exhausted effort of climbing a mountain when knackered. This is about the 32 mile point and the next 8 miles are at an altitude of about 2500 meters and along some fairly tough trail. It is quite technical running and this alone would justify wearing trail shoes. I saw lots of road shoes and they seemed to be going fine but I was happy to be as close to the ground as possible in this section.
I had long since departed from any idea that I was going to do this quicker than last year. Once I'd let go of any competitive finish I decided just to enjoy the spectacular trails, even though I was still feeling sick. I walked most of the 9 miles as I couldn't get going without feeling ill. This was strange as I didn't feel this last year. I recommended this to so many people as a race where it didn't matter if you had to walk large sections of it. Because it was so spectacular and quite difficult walking. It was really great seeing the guys overtake me and look like they were really enjoying it. I was enjoying it too even though I was struggling with exhaustion and sickness.
There is one more peak which the K42 runners do not do, this is where they start their decent. The climb is much smaller than before but takes you to the highest altitude. At the top of this one is another tent braced for a disaster. This one looks more like a proper destruction scene though, there were runners lying down in the tent, others sat on the rocks. The marshals were handing out foil and ponchos. I remember feeling cold having been so high and making quite a few snowy passes. I took the chance to drink some of the soup, it was delicious though it could have just been salt water at that point, I didn't really care.
39 miles in the descent starts and it is quite a spectacular one. It is quite hard and steep but if you can run downhill (and I can't) then it can be the most enjoyable of stumbles. I decided to really go for it anyway as I'd not run for some time and did quite well, overtaking lots of people which is unheard of for me on down hills. The sickness abated as I got lower and I knew that there was little in the way now in terms of hills between here and the finish line. There is a checkpoint at 40 miles that dispenses Coke. This was most welcome and taken advantage of. What lay ahead now was 9 miles of beautiful and fairly easy trail running. It is a straight line into Davos and runs through some towns full of friendly people. No more hard rocks and stumbling all over the place, I was on the home straight now.
50 meters later into the "easy" bit I tripped over a rock and went arse over tit and rolled into the ground. I was pretty shocked and a spectator was kind enough to look really worried and come running to me. It's funny how lying on the floor after an embarrassing fall turns you into the rudest person in the world. There I was in a heap on the ground and this lady was only worried about my welfare as the fall must have looked pretty bad, however I had little more to say to her than "Yeah Yeah, I'm fine thanks. Merci, Danke" and scuttle off. As I walked on and inspected the damage she called me again and gave me the sun glasses that I had dropped. I was more grateful this time as the last pair I had I lost in a fall. I thanked her again and walked on. She then shouted again and handed me back my Garmin which has come off and smashed on the floor. I was even more thankful this time, those are quite expensive. By this point I was smiling and I hope she appreciated my thanks.
I jogged on and saw blood dripping down my legs from a nasty gash on my knee. There was also cuts on my arms and my nipples were bleeding too though this was due to my stupidity in not putting anythin on them. I didn't really mourn the loss of the Garmin though, it was not very accurate on the mountains, it understates the distance travelled. Something to remember for next year.
There are markers every 5k and now they were appearing a lot more frequently. The sun started to shine some more and peoples pace picked up as they could sense the finish. I bumped into Ryan who's video I watched before the GUCR last year. It was really helpful and it was good to see him at races again this year. Near the end I was overtaken by Owen Barder who looked to be in good shape. With about 4k to go there is a cheeky little hill that leads into the woodlands that skirt Davos. At the top of this hill I saw Jamie who told me that he set out really fast too and spent some time in a medical tent. Despite his struggle he was really enjoying himself and said to me the best thing I heard all weekend. "Fuck Ironman, I'm selling the bike, I want to do this all the time". This alone made the weekend worth it.
We ran together and came out of the woods into the town where we saw Gavin and Lou taking photos. I ran past and then into the stadium where this all began over 9 hours ago. In the crowd was Rob who handed me a pint of beer. I was going for a sprint finish but decided that keeping the liquid in the glass was far more important. All about priorities.
I ended up having a great time regardless of the not so great time. I was most pleased by the others who enjoyed every minute of their adventure. I felt like Davos had converted some road runners into trail runners and some triathletes into ultra runners. There were about 25 Serpies here this year. Next year I'd like to try and get 100.
A couple of really good videos of the Davos race.
One where I feature a bit.