I am lucky enough to have been based in Europe for a fair portion of this year, and along the way I have been fortunate enough to have made a contact or two in the local running scene. It was one of these people who alerted me to the Montreux Trail Festival. Having never heard of Montreux, I instantly became intrigued; travelling and racing in new and exciting places is a big driver in the races I choose. I took one look at the event website and was in, then I researched the town and was astounded!
The Festival and Location:
In its second year the festival has an amazing vibe in general. This goes hand in hand with the region, which is a popular tourist destination. I already knew the race directors were from a trail running background, but this became increasingly obvious in the family vibe they had created around the festival and the trails themselves! With many options for varying abilities (anything from the 8km Queen’s night run to the 160km MXTREME) and races that allowed for family participation (such as the MXFAMILY, which involved a child running an initial segment, starting their parent off and then finishing with their parents) it was very clear that these race directors knew what it was like to juggle family life with trailrunning. The choice of location was a very natural one with stunning surroundings. These included attractions such as the Château de Chillon (start point for the MXTREME) and the final peak before the brutal descent from Rochers-de-Naye.
(Château de Chillon)
The Race:I raced the MXSKY, a “skyrace” 34km trail race with 2500m elevation and 3000m descent (or as close to these numbers as a trail race gets). For the unfamiliar; “skyrace” is a designation given to races with a certain amount of elevation gain for the given distance run. In short: for the sadists who enjoy being unable to walk down stairs the following day. These are somewhat rare in Australia, (I personally only know of one) but are commonly part of trailrunning festivals in Europe. When it comes to trailrunning, people generally talk about racing in the USA and Europe as the big two destinations. In doing so, the USA is generally associated with stunning scenery and serenity but with large amounts of time in relative isolation. Europe, on the other hand, is associated with large crowds, support and an amazing atmosphere. It is not uncommon for people to be all over the course including its most remote sections, often cheering and ringing cow bells. The feeling is unparalleled with anything I have experienced in either road or trail races in Australia. Trail races in Europe tend to be much bigger events, with more hype, excitement and sheer numbers of people. This was no exception at Montreux, with the whole festival providing racing opportunities for almost any ability. *for more specifics the location and Montreux Trail Festival see my article on the Trailrun Mag website blog and to the event website: https://montreux-trail.ch/
The Strategy:Looking at the course profile gave me great insight on how to approach the race. This was VERY welcome when considering my preparation (see below). I cannot stress enough how helpful the quality of information provided by the race directors was (the quality of the information and it’s delivery with the software used was something I had not come across)! Being an absolute data fiend, I went to town analysing the course and strategies for everything from effort to pacing, nutrition and hydration. My takeaways (pre-race):
- There were some seriously steep sections, averaging 15% or more gradient. This made poles a must for my gear selection!
- The difference between smart and stupid pacing had the potential to be up to an hour in finish time for me, maybe even more.
- The race was made in the first 5km and last 10km sections, if these were poorly executed one could be found out badly.
- Walking on the Monday after this was going to be a challenge.
Experience has lead me to keep my race plans structured, but lacking too many specifics. Generally, I find I have the ability to adapt well ‘on the run’ (see what I did there) aside from two errors: one in execution in my previous European race (also a skyrace) and an error in decision making during my previous 50km race. My race plan was as follows:
- Take it VERY easy and hike as much of the first 5km as needed to be in great shape at the 5km mark.
- Roughly continue this approach, ensuring the last 10km would be able to be completed well, having saved my legs for a BIG section of downhill from Rochers-de-Naye onwards (1600m descent over 10km).
- Keep to a nutrition strategy similar to previous races, but work from a timed equivalent (whereas I have previously worked off distance).
- With regards to hydration, based on distance between aid stations etc, I decided I would rather carry extra water than be caught without it. Thus, I planned to carry extra soft flasks and have an extra 500ml of fluids to what I thought I needed, at all times.
- Resist the temptation to devour what was sure to be an absolute smorgasbord of the best European foods, the norm at European trail races (think: chocolate, cheese, cured meats, breads and the standard fruit, coke and lollies).
The Training:I try to keep my training fairly consistent in general, this was no exception. For the record, this is actually something I give as advice to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, my location prevented a great deal of trail running or much hill work! These challenges had the potential to pose a big issue for me and some would have changed events. I decided to persist and adjust training in the following ways:
- Longer distance long runs (to make up for a lack of elevation) to ensure they were long enough time-wise (though this can only be done within reason).
- Specific strength work in the gym, altering my usual work in there slightly.
- Some makeshift elevation training.
The Footwear:Unlike Australia where many trails are manageable in road shoes, Europe is a different beast. Trail shoes are a must, and to be honest you may need to consider different ones and additions such as crampons at times. Based on weather, time of year and nature of the trails (as well as pictures I’d seen) I ascertained the trails would like not be too soggy or soft, meaning aggressive lugs were not needed. Likewise, with the highest pass of around 2000m, snow on the trail was unlikely. Based on this information, I was free to use my favourite shoe; the Wave Hayate.
The Post-race thoughts and evaluation:
Well, what do you say when you get caught out completely? You take a step back and evaluate things more objectively without the ego. I often use similar dissections to the below with athletes I work with. Subsequently, I thought it may be pertinent to use this format as a starting point, with the hope it may help readers, as it often does the athletes.
(Montreux with some of the mountains on which the race took place in the background)
Was it actually that bad of a performance? What were the real circumstances versus your feelings and ego?
- There were 445 finishers, with a large number of people missing cut off times for various reasons.
- Placed 121st overall and 74th in my category (senior men). Only 20 women finished before me and I was 7th of all non-European runners.
- The Men’s winner ran 4:07 and my goal time (4:30) would have put me 6th. The Women’s winner managed 5:23, roughly an hour faster than me (of interest I climbed with her on the first hill, knowing she would be someone that would climb well but stay controlled)
- Many of the runners in the race were those that changed from the MXALPS race- the 61km equivalent (poor weather meant that these runners had 3 options for their race entry, start the race at 4pm the previous day as opposed to the scheduled 8:45am start, race the MXSKY with me the following day or receive a refund). These runners were prepared for an extra 27km with 1600m elevation (BEFORE the course we ran in the MXSKY). I am unsure how many of these runners ended up in my race or beating me, but this was worth consideration.
What I did well:
- Racing: I raced to plan very well in terms of the rough outline, I comfortably climbed at my planned speed and did not getting too excited.
- Climbing: I climbed very well and found myself passing a lot of people on the ascents therefore rarely being passed myself. This is a considerable rarity for me, likewise, some issues I previously had with this style of climbing were not present.
- Nutrition: This was a tweak to using a more time-based approach, rather than a bit of a mixture or a distance-based approach previously. This went really well and I was actually a little flexible with my timing of intake, through necessity (not a great idea to be nailing a gel whilst climbing hard but sometimes you can’t avoid it).
- ‘Disaster’ planning: I packed extra nutrition and planned to carry extra water. In many ways, this was probably the difference between finishing and not being able to do so.
- Aid station utilisation: I was very planned and meticulous through aid stations, something I usually am not. Additionally, I adjusted my usage as needed.
- Endurance: I held up quite well in this department. Particularly looking at paces of what I could run of the trail, this was well maintained.
- Compartmentalising: considering I was out on trail for 105mins more than my longest prior race and saw my goal time slip away before 25km, I managed to stay mentally in the game.
- Pole usage: having not used poles for nearly 12 months I feel like I did exceptionally well to use them and use them to good effect.
- Climatically: I managed the day in excessive heat really well.
What I could have done better:
- Preparation for the technicality of the terrain. I got found out by the technicality of this trail. I had no idea it would be this technical and this REALLY slowed me down on the flats and to an extent on the downhills.
- Descent work, I had a feeling descending would be a weakness as I couldn’t really address this in training and it can make a huge difference.
- Checked previous finish times; this would probably have alerted me to the fact that my goal time and projections were well off the mark. If I’d have run my goal time, I would have finished behind only a few elite International runners. This would have ensured my planning for nutrition and hydration was more proactive and planned than reactive.
What I would do next time:
- Aside from being prepared for a longer day out and doing more research, I would spend more time on the course. Generally, I have found time on the specific course helps unbelievably, particularly for confidence on trail (a large part of moving quickly on technical terrain and downhills).
- Significantly more hill work, mostly down, preferably on steep trails. This was unachievable due to where I was living but in an honest evaluation this is something that cannot be excluded.
Recovery:I was surprised at how well I pulled up following the race. Part of this was no doubt due to the lack of running and more hiking, particularly on the hills (up and down). Soreness is more related to eccentric contractions and these are reduced or eliminated with less running and more walking in general. Additionally, some of this was no doubt due to use of poles (aka wizard walking sticks), they helped in shifting some of the muscular work and load to the upper body on climbing and descending. The lower intensity I raced at, mostly due to an inability to speed up, likely played a role in reducing soreness also. As an illustration, my average heart rate was around 15bpm lower than a normal race and my maximum heart rate was 10bpm below my maximum heart rate and probably 5bpm or so lower than it often gets in a race. This is all in the setting of significant heat (North of 31 degrees at times) and a longer race (generally heart rate goes up over a race in a phenomenon known as ‘cardiovascular drift’).
The Highlights of the race:
- I am now two from two in European races with Red Hot Chilli Peppers playing pre-race, so that’s a huge win! In this case there was a heavy Queen influence in music selection due to the connection with Montreux (it is where Freddie Mercury resided for part of his life, with a lakefront statue in tribute to him).
- As per usual with European racing, the support was phenomenal!
- Bonus kilometres! Most agree the course measured a bit long ~36.5-37km but that’s to be expected and I have grown to love it!
- Running along, only to turn a corner and notice an enormous bull sitting on trail, looking VERY comfortable. After a few moments and a bit of worry I went around him carefully, which I am unsure he noticed or cared about.
- A vertigo inducing view from around 2000m elevation down over Lake Geneva.
- Getting hosed down by the two-time winner of the MXTREME who was at an aid station helping out, post 160km in 26hrs having finished just over 24hrs beforehand. This sort of thing is what I really love about the trail running community.
- Turning onto the final stretch, along Lake Geneva, running past a bunch of people in town going about their day, only to stop whatever they were doing (including eating at restaurants) and cheer.
- Impromptu trail friends: I got to meet a few people that I ended up running quite a bit of the trail with later during the race. This is something that I think is very unique in trail running and another reason I love it so much.
- Finishers meal: upon finishing there was a feast waiting for runners which was greatly appreciated.
- Ice Tea (not the rapper/actor, though that would have been pretty cool) at aid stations and the finish line. This was a first for me and VERY welcome, I found it the perfect balance of “not-water” and “not sweet” that I needed.
- Bus trip to the start line! I love a point to point race for lots of reasons, but there is something really fun about a bus trip to the start line (maybe it reminds me of school sport?). It helps when views are of the STUNNING Swiss countryside.