Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tre Rifugi Mountain Relay

I was first asked to run this relay in the Italian Alps during WOC2011. When one of the original team dropped out Anne Buckley called me up to see if I could ‘pop over’ from Chambery to fill the space. I thought about it then but it would have meant missing the WOC banquet and taking an extra day off work so I had to turn it down. However I didn’t forget about this interesting sounding race and when I was asked to take part this year I signed up straight away.
Refuge #3: they were selling beer at 9:30am when I arrived. Maybe to help calm the nerves?

The race, which is featured in the excellent “World's Ultimate Running Races” book, is a three leg relay. The first leg starts with 2km of gentle climbing from the village of Collina to the first “rifuge” then climbs steeply up to the second at the changeover on the Austrian border. Second leg is the real showpiece of the race, a steep scramble up a sheer rockface followed by a technical trail run to the third of the three rifugi where the final leg starts. From here it’s all downhill back down to the valley floor.  Every year a British team is invited to take part by the hosts and this year it happened that all the guys in the men’s team were Scottish so we ran as Team Scozia.
Second leg basically traverses this rock face: not for the faint hearted!

Robbie Simpson is spending the summer in the Alps and has been getting some great results including 5th at Sierre-Zinal the week before Tre Rifugi. He powered up the hill to win his leg by 10 seconds – read more over on his excellent blog. Finlay Wild is also spending some time in the Alps while he is between GP jobs and used the skills which saw him recently break the record for the Cuillin Ridge to power away from the opposition. He handed over to me with a minute lead which made my job on last leg fairly straightforward.
θ >> 0.  θ ~ 40°?

Straightdown might be more appropriate. I knew the first 200m would be the hardest descent and I was glad to get them done before I heard the cheers from above signalling the opposition starting. From there it was a slightly less steep sprint down alpine meadows and into a twisty singletrack path through the forest. 
Nice smooth track back to the valley floor. Not.

The race is incredibly well supported and all the way I was cheered with shouts of “Bravo” – slightly different to the usual “Dai” that you get in Italian races when you’re not leading. “Die” might have been a bit closer in some places as you leap off cliffs and drop offs with no idea what’s coming next.
A relatively short time later I dropped out of the trees and onto the road for the final 2km to the finish. By my reckoning I dropped 700m in that first 10 minutes: over one metre per second. Not quite free fall or terminal velocity but pretty quick nonetheless! 

Out on the road I could run a good fast pace on the gentle downhill and I knew that the victory would be ours. That said, the tiny little rise back into the village (10m?) felt like a mountain and the soles of my feet were burning up. In the end we won by the same minute margin that I had at the start of my leg, and sure enough I had two new blisters on the sole of my heels. The Red Cross even laughed at my feet when I went to get patched up – my heels have only partly recovered from the same affliction at Snowdon.

The girls finished second and also had two fastest legs so we fairly cleaned up at the prize giving and even spent some time signing autographs for the locals before heading off to enjoy some classic Italian hospitality at the after party – local food, beer and music with the organisers.

 All in all a great weekend away in the mountains – after spending so much time in the Alps last summer it was good to go back for a wee reminder of what a great place they are – especially after spending 5 weeks in the somewhat flatter Finland earlier this summer.
Travelling all the way to the Alps to run downhill for 17 minutes got me thinking about different sports and where they are best done. Here’s a diagram of my findings:

As this clearly shows you can run anywhere. This is not surprising as the oldest and most versatile of physical actions. But while there are plenty opportunities to run on the flat and on undulating or even uphill only courses there are precious few downhill only opportunities – while for disciplines like mountain biking and skiing these are some of the most popular disciplines. Well the good folks of Scottish Hill Running have spotted this gap in the market and for the next three Wednesdays are putting on a series ofdownhill only races to find the best "doonhiller" in the country. I’m not sure it fits in my training plans this year but it looks like a great laugh!
A short video showing the start of my leg:

Longer video of the whole event
Many thanks to the organisers of the race for inviting us over and making us feel so welcome!

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