Monday, August 19, 2013

Probably the Most Painful Experience of My Life

Sorry for the delay since Sierre-Zinal.  It's been quite a week.  After the race, I came home (to Arizona now) and have spent the last week doing graduate student orientation.  I thought originally that grad student orientation would be kind of like undergrad orientation.  You know, this is where the dining hall is kind of stuff.  But I've been expected to learn a great variety of things, from how to operate a fire extinguisher to what strategies to use teaching undergraduates to what do do with any radioactive waste a lab I'm in generates.  I am not being sarcastic, these are all topics we have covered.  Also, to add to my terrible excuses for not updating in a timely fashion, it took me a while to get internet to my apartment.

Anyways, Sierre-Zinal is a 32 km race from Sierre, Switzerland to Zinal, Switzerland.  The race starts at 500m or 800m or something like that above sea level.  It then immediately climbs about 2000m up one of the steepest hills I've ever seen in a race, rolls across the top through every type of terrain and surface I can think of except deep sand and cobblestones, then drops off the face of the mountain to end in Zinal.

I ran Sierre-Zinal two years ago in just over 2:45, and thought that my preparation was much better and would allow me to at least run faster than last time.  I know that Sierre-Zinal is the kind of race that has so many challenges that nobody can be strong at everything, but I thought that I was stronger in essentially every part of the race than last time, an idea that I now find somewhat laughable.

Early in the race, I positioned myself near the front.  I thought I was in the perfect position, not leading, but far enough up to hopefully stay close up the hill.  My legs disagreed.  This year had a much deeper field than previous years, as it was the 40th running of the race and somewhat of a landmark, so that meant I was passed by a lot of people going up the hill.

I reached the top and reminded myself that last time I ran, I also lost a lot of ground on the uphill but surged over the top.  I thought I could do that again.  I passed some people, but my legs still felt pretty heavy.  As I came into the part of the course that gradually works it's way down in preparation for the drop into Zinal, I thought I was finally ready to come into my own.  The sight of Zinal made me realize that I really wanted to be done, so I picked up the pace to finish earlier and started to feel good.

Then I reached a "stony path."  This is a way of saying the course went across a boulder field.  I had told myself that these parts of the course were few and short, and hadn't put in a ton of work on them.  Apparently I was more tired than I remembered last time, because it felt like the boulders never stopped.  Finally, my back seized up, which made me too afraid to run down the hill like I had hoped to.  So basically, I felt good for about a mile of the race.  Not bad for a 20 mile race.

This was where we slept in Zinal.  Even on a rainy day it looks amazing!
The street that our chalet was on
I finished and walked immediately to the chalet that the amazing race organizers had put the American men into. I told myself that I was just going to drink my PowerBar Recovery drink, eat my PowerBar Recovery Bar, change my shoes and leave to grab my gear check bag.  I suppose this was what I actually did, but I was in so much pain from the race, I almost crawled into a ball on the floor and cried.  Then I started shivering so I made my way to my bedroom and found sweats to put on.  Sierre-Zinal really does take it out of you.  For those of you who really care about the result list, I was announced as 18th at the awards ceremony and ran about 2 minutes slower than two years ago for a 2:47.

I managed to get a very slow cooldown in, and within a few hours was feeling better.  That is the amazing thing about mountain running as opposed to marathoning.  A marathon has a really tough time going too terribly, but almost regardless, there is a week of terrible pain after.  A mountain race cannot be "kind of bad."  It goes from good to really bad in the blink of an eye, and Sierre-Zinal is an unforgiving course in mountain running.  But give it a few hours, a day tops, and all of that awful pain has turned into just fatigue, but you can still actually walk.

Then, as I said, I came back to the states, where I now live in Arizona, where I'm attending graduate school in physics.  Okay, so far I have just been attending graduate school orientation, but I start progress toward a PhD later this week.  High temperatures in Tempe have been above 106F this week, so I have had to run either really early in the morning or inside.  Based on what I have seen of outside, the trail running around Phoenix has a great deal of potential, assuming I don't plant myself onto a cactus.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Switzerland, Now with Pictures!

Zinal, Switzerland is probably my favorite place in the world.  Two years ago, when I came here, I fell in love.  This year, however, it would be a lot more favorite if the sun would occasionally shine.  Wow, I need to write that more, because the sun just came out.

Anyways, I can hear an Abba cover band concert playing in the distance.  Because when Sierre-Zinal comes to Zinal, they pull out all the stops.  There are press cars, runners, people in black jackets, race organizers, paragliders and an Abba cover band filling the town. 
The bus ride to Zinal
 In order to get to Zinal, you have to ride a bus from Sierre, where the race starts.  To give you an idea of how steep the course is, I took a picture from the bus, looking down on Sierre.  We had just driven up the switchbacks you can see.

The trail we usually train on before the race.
As I alluded to before, Zinal is having a lot of rain.  The path we usually train on has turned into a creek, so we have to run elsewhere.  We have, however, been hearing a lot of cowbells during out training.  Specifically, the type of cowbells that are attached to cows, as opposed to the type wielded by cheering squads.  But yeah, the rain caused a certain amount of flooding.  Rumor had it some cars were damaged, and this bridge is definitely in bad shape, but I don't know of any houses that have been damaged.  I'm sure that the Swiss will just rebuild the bridge even better and this will never happen again.

That is supposed to be a bridge, not a pier.
Pablo Vigil, chopping wood
 Pablo Vigil recruits the American runners to come to Sierre-Zinal.  He is a 4 time champion of the race and all around great guy.  He is also fluent in enough languages that he isn't just a dignitary, he's a translator for the Swiss, who have more languages regularly spoken in their country than most linguists know.  A lesser known fact about Pablo, for all of the mountain runners reading this, is that Pablo enjoys chopping wood.  So invite him over before winter comes if you want to keep your house warm.

Anyways, race is on Sunday.  I'm getting excited.

The fog is steadily rising out of the forest as I write this.  I'd love to describe it in a metaphor, but the closes I can come to is by plagiarizing the band playing in the distance.  Mama mia!  (that's what they're playing right now, sorry)  A better metaphor is that it looks like a thousand ghosts are migrating up the valley, perhaps to listen to Abba or watch the end of the race.  Or maybe they just want to get to the mountains floating in the clouds.
A mountain floating in the clouds

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hopefully This Makes Sense When I Come Back and Read It Later

They say that in Switzerland, nothing is free.  Unfortunately, I don't have anything profound to say about that.  But if you ever come to Switzerland, bring lots of cash.  Because not only is nothing free, nothing is cheap either.  I went to a currency exchange before I left the United States.  I had to go to another currency exchange before I left the Geneva Aeroport.  Although I guess I did get a better deal on currency exchange in Switzerland than I did in the USA, so I suppose some things in Switzerland are cheap.  As long as you ignore the extra charges.  Those ones hurt.

I got into Switzerland yesterday.  I'm here to run Sierre-Zinal this weekend.  I arrived in Zinal at around lunch time.  Zinal is the type of sleepy town that closes around lunch time, except for the restaurants, and rather than wander around town like a hobo looking for somebody I know to fill me in on details like where I'm staying and where I'm supposed to be eating, I took a nap in the grass in front of the race office like a hobo.  As it turns out, I'm staying in a chalet.  And not a small one, either.  I guess some things in Switzerland are free.

I have some pictures that I've taken out here, but I haven't had it together enough to get them onto my computer, so unfortunately, you will have to wait until I either get a new post up or update this one.  My planning skills, grasp of the English language, and pretty much all other cognitive abilities are still a few time zones from catching up.  But I got a great night's sleep last night and my legs feel mostly good, so I guess the important things are in the correct time zone.  Although given that I don't know French, it would be kind of nice if my English language fluency was here.

It's a little after 9am here, and it looks like the morning rush of locals just showed up for breakfast.  As I said, Zinal is a sleepy town.  It was very warm yesterday when I took my nap, but it seems like a cold front has moved in with rain, and now I'm cursing all of my efforts to get acclimated to the Arizona heat.  Ooh, the sun's out!  I'd better go try to get my morning workout in while this lasts!