Today we feature the final part of James Stewart’s epic vertical K racing season over in the European summer. Here James into some of the utter insane climbing in the Red Bull V3, where one section in particular, James climbed 580m in just one km, taking him a total of 33 minutes – the slowest km of his life as he puts it. Thanks to James for putting this epic report together for us and allowing us to publish his well-chosen words over the last three days, I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride and it may inspire you to take on a European challenge yourself…
The police escort pulled away, the runners in the K3 began the ascent up the mountain. I was in 10th place, but as the climbing began, I quickly hit the heart rate of 172bpm, the number I was not prepared to go above during the race. I decided after the K2 that 168bpm was too low, so I would take the risk and hold a higher HR in the K3 to ensure I was sitting in the top 20%.
Most of the other runners decided to push harder earlier; I was quickly consumed and sticking to my race plan dropped me 50 places back. I was worried, but the races at Mont Blanc, and the K2, had given me confidence that I would be able to pull back quite a few of those positions. I had to be patient.
The race began at 9 am, but already it was hot and humid in the Susa Valley. Europe had been experiencing an abnormal summer of heat and the previous day in Susa, had broached 40 degrees celsius. I had decided to run without a pack and no water, and I carried only three gels. I normally take no gels or water in a vertical KM race, and only took one gel at the K2. I planned for two gels in the K3 with one in reserve. The first aid station at Trucco (1200m) could be reached in about an hour so I felt comfortable not carrying extra water weight. Unexpectedly, the humidity in the tree-canopied mountain path was quickly sapping me of hydration from early in the race. I regretted my choice, but at the same time thankful because a pack on my back would have only made me hotter. Most of the elites appeared not to carry water either.
After only 30 minutes of climbing, I was shocked to see Mathéo Jacquemoud, a French national team ski mountaineer and a regular running companion of Kilian Jornet, hunched over the side of the trail, soaked in sweat and struggling to breathe. I enquired if he was okay, not knowing if he understood, he nodded, but he did not continue.
I continued to feel parched as I see-sawed with a small group of runners. I was pacing to HR, but they surged, and then I caught them, and then they surged again. I was unsure of their strategy. Trucco felt a long way away, but as we neared, a free flowing water spring greeted us on the trail. I patiently waited for one runner to drink, before quickly drowning myself with almost half a litre of water. I had lost ten places just standing around, and it was a risk to take onboard so much fluid, but I was parched. Several minutes later we reached the aid station, where I drunk even more.
“Now I will get a stitch,” I thought.
Little did I know, we were about to hit a 1km near flat runnable section. The water sloshed in my stomach, I felt uncomfortable, but I pushed on. The race results later showed I was in 59th place, but I quickly picked up almost 20 places over the flat section as most runners chose to recover on this section. I sped up, maintaining my HR pacing, feeling little tiredness in my legs from the previous 1,200m of paced climbing.
At the end of this flat section, we turned back up the mountain. The water I had taken on added some additional weight, but it quickly emptied from my stomach. I would never feel dehydrated again in the race, so it had been the right decision.
The forest and its humidity made way to the exposed mountain slopes. The sun battered down, but I was thankful for a clear day so we could tackle the summit safely. An enormous grass wall loomed, we were heading straight up it! I could see the summit 1,800m above. “Wow…. Okay then, let’s do this,” I encouraged myself.
The gradient went from 30% grade, to 40% and beyond. It pushed up to 60%. It was like you took one step up and two steps backward. I was climbing on all fours, grabbing at grass and the odd prickly weed made me repeatedly curse. I was pulling myself up the slope by my arms. I passed a few runners not using poles; I encouraged them, and we both acknowledged our plight.
For a few brief moments on this grass wall, every ounce of my body wanted to stop and lie down, I almost did. This was the hardest moment in my racing career. I’ve rarely been filled with dread climbing mountains, after all a Vertical KM takes me only just over 40 minutes to run, but this time, I could see all of what was coming in this race, way over 1,000m above. I saw the faint dots of the lead runners, and a long line behind them, I was a long way behind, it was not worth focusing on.
There was also a conga line of climbers close behind me; I could hear the clamoring of their climbing poles, gaining on me. I was regretting not having poles. I looked back only once, “Don’t do that again”, I reminded myself. Looking back is often viewed as a sign of weakness in a runner. At least I saw their pained expressions; we were all struggling. I held all but two off on this grass wall, passing many more along the way. Some people appeared completely stationary at times despite moving their limbs.
It was like this grass wall never ended, for the first time I started to feel demoralized by a mountain, I wished I had poles at this point to take some strain off my legs. I am a firm advocate if the mind perceives something is going to be hard, then it will feel that way. I tried to find my happy place. Travis had reminded me during the tough moments to focus on why I was doing it, how I would feel at the top, but interchanged with periods of focusing solely on what I was doing. One step at a time is all I can do.
It took me 33 minutes to go 1km in distance. Single-handedly, the slowest km in my entire running career, I was not running, barely hiking either, I was crawling. We ascended 580 meters in this 1km. For those in Australia who have run the Buffalo Stampede course, the climb up Clear Spot ascends 500m in 2km. Imagine climbing even double that steepness!
Towards the end of the grass wall, I had begun to fade and could no longer maintain a heart rate in the 170’s. At higher altitude it is harder to hold a high heart rate as the oxygen thins since the body cannot pump blood as fast. Fatigue prevents a high heart rate too. I dropped into the low 160’s. I had factored this in, and I felt I paced it correctly given I was still pulling places back.
Eventually, the grass made way to gravel and rock and the gradient eased back to 35-40%, but the high altitude and lactic acid truly kicked in. My brain wanted to give more, but my legs were flat out and my pace continued to drop. It never felt any easier.
I could see the cutoff checkpoint ahead; a bystander told me I was placed somewhere in the high 30’s. I knew I would make it and ascend to the peak. Quite a lot of people were at the checkpoint screaming at me in support, cow bells ringing in my ears. Do I drink some free Red Bull? Coca-Cola? I decide against it. Carbonation is a vertical climbers worst enemy. I prefer to race without caffeine or stimulants. I took my gel and some water and continued the trail to the summit. The next 1,000 meters of distance took 27 minutes, climbing 445 meters.
There was one brief flat section of 30 meters. I tried to run, but after two hours of pushing upwards, my legs would not comply. I had never felt like I could not run before; it was a surreal feeling as I barely shuffled forward. I was thankful the flat part ended, so I could return to the hiking motion up the rocks my body had become automated to doing for over two hours.
The final 300 meters distance ascended only 113 meters, but it took me nine minutes. I passed another few weary souls, we all patted each other in support acknowledging our shared experience. There were ropes lining the summit trail; I used them most of the time.
The runners who had already finished were starting to descend. Ferren Teixido, patted me on the back, encouraging me up the mountain. So too, did Marco Moletto. I appreciated their gestures, cursing under my breath they were already coming back down. Eventually, I climbed over some rocks and stumbled over the line. I collapsed to the ground relieved it was over.
Half an hour later, I took my third gel, ate a few biscuits, took a few sips of Red Bull and returned to the lower aid station checkpoint where there was a larger buffet. Another hour of jogging downhill on the easier winding summit trails saw me reach the shuttle bus carpark. My quads were seizing up and was thankful for no more. An hour later I was back in Susa. I ate Italian Pizza.
On top of Rocciamelone, there was one thought that never entered my mind. It was the absence of never wanting to do this race again. This race hurt a lot, but it was a bigger achievement to me than any prior race. 3,030m of constant climbing at race pace is something only experienced, but I hope I did some of it justice in this write-up.
I think this race will contain some form of unfinished business for most who attempt it. I am not sure why, but like I said earlier, the mountain wins. We just survive it. For all suffering it represents, the belief encompassing the race in Areu, represents the creation of an enduring legend for those who tackle the race.
I have contemplated that I did this for reasons unrelated to running at all, maybe part of life’s continual search to understand who I am beneath the self-concept I have created in my mind over the years. I am not sure if I will ever return to try again; I know it depleted my body for a time afterward, but not as much as the Mont Blanc Marathon did.
Maybe learning more about one’s self through extreme pursuits is misguided. However, my belief is it can be a stepping-stone to learning, change and growth as long as we don’t get entirely addicted to it as some form of drug hit. Vertical KM racing does bring with it a huge endorphin rush, the mountain runner’s high. Why else would someone do it! This is something I regularly tell people.
Ultimately though, I have learned my sense of identity was not attached to the concept of finishing, although I am proud to have done so. The true victory was the reinforcement of the values I used to get me through the experience. It challenged my self-belief and tested my character, strength, and courage so I know I can find these in other areas of life too. All these values instill purpose for existence and the deeper notions of self-identity. An extreme race is not the only way in life to test such values, but it is one way for those of athletic and adventurous dispositions.
Was it worth it? All I know is I am grateful for the experience, I know it provided me with something to contemplate and learn about myself. In this way, this experience is something I will cherish. Sometimes we do need a true test, although this race is probably beyond the limitations of many people. The Red Bull K3 is there in August 2016 for those that are brave enough to try.
The Road In
June 13 – Milla Vertical d’Areu, Areu, Spain – Strava File
June 20 – Verticale du Criou, Samoens, France – Strava File
June 26 – Mont Blanc Vertical KM, Chamonix, France – Strava File
June 28 – Mont Blanc Marathon, Chamonix, France – Strava File
July 10 – Kilomètre Vertical Face De Bellevarde, Val d’Isere, France – Strava File
July 17 – Dolomites Vertical KM, Canazei, Italy – Strava File
July 19 – Dolomites Sky Race, Canazei, Italy – Strava File
Aug 2 – TPS Vertical K2, Villaroger, France – Strava File
Aug 8 – Red Bull K3, Susa, Italy – Strava File