Race Report: Zugspitz Ultratrail 2019

Starting line.

When I signed up for the Zugspitz Ultratrail, I knew I had to put some work in. It would be my first 100 km trail running ultra.

It’s tough to train for a mountain race if you don’t live in the mountains. My training strategy consisted of road running during the week and heading out to the closest mountains every weekend: the Harz mountains. It’s not the alps but it’s a start. To get significant elevation in, I ran the steepest sections I could find over and over again.

And that was necessary as the race is a challenging route with 102 km and over 5000 m of climbing. It takes us on a counter-clockwise tour around a mountain range called Wetterstein with its highest peak in Germany: Zugspitze.

Race profile

Apart from climbing, I had to work on a few other areas before I felt confident enough to line up at the start. There’s my fear of heights, for one. Running in darkness, also. I figured it would take me about 20 hours, so overnight and into the next morning. And finally, technical alpine terrain.

Electric atmosphere at the race briefing
Electric atmosphere at the race briefing

I arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen a week early to soak up mountain scenery. As race day grew closer, the weather got worse. Storms rolled in and brought heaps of rain and snow.

Sad news at the race briefing: The race directors announced the original route was too dangerous as new storms kept forming. Instead of the 102 km Ultratrail we would be running the much shorter 65 km Supertrail.

Message from the race directors

I would not get to run my first 100k. Disappointing but that’s just what trail running is about: being in tune with nature. Whatever the mountain throws at us, it’s our job to adapt. I am thankful for the race directors for putting people’s safety first.

This would now be a different race for me. I knew I could handle it easily seeing my peak training run had been a 70k, longer than the new route. So I threw my original strategy overboard and decided to just take it easy. Focus on spending time on the mountains, with beautiful scenery and cool people.

The first climb

Once out the gate, the first climb started immediately. Up to the Scharnitzjoch at 2050 m along an endless grassy hill. At the top, a huge snowfield opened up, one of my highlights of the race. Running, sliding, stumbling through the snow, I arrived at the first aid station much faster than I thought.

First snowfield.
First snowfield.

The next section was flatter, from the Leutasch valley up to Mittenwald along a beautiful river. With the initial adrenaline worn off, I used this section to focus on nutrition. Nutrition is one of my weaknesses. Getting food down during an ultra is hard. In training, I found eating just a few bites every 30 minutes is easier on me than eating larger foods less often. My training paid off.

The weather and route conditions were perfect. Maybe a little too warm but no signs of rain or storms. In Mittenwald, there was a surprise visit by my family, a welcome sendoff for the next climb.

I joined a group of runners and we stayed together for the next 20 km. It was a great group of people and hanging out with them helped me take my mind off things. There were a handful of sketchy moments, sections so steep my fear of heights kicked in. With encouragement from the others, it became easy to keep fear at bay.

Running with others.

Crossing to the north side of the Wetterstein range, we came to the final climb: the Alpspitzbahn station at 2000 m. 50k into the race my legs started to get tired. Nothing unusual but I started to imagine if the route hadn’t been changed and this was only the half way point. Would I make another 50k?

Climbing a mountain.

Up at the Alpspitzbahn station, all the climbing for the day was finished at last. I entered an almost too glorious state of mind. It was sundown and I wanted to make it down the mountain before darkness set in. I grabbed a final bite and hammered down the mountain as fast as I could towards the finish line. The descent was steep and technical on a narrow single trail, a perfect final section.

With the built-up adrenaline from the downhill, coming into the finish was pure ecstasy.

Finish line.