The Eiger ultra trail. One that has been on my ‘list’ for some time. The E101 is a 100km route circling Grindelwald with a not too subtle >6,000m of elevation gain.
It’s 3:30am and Paul and I have met Matt at the start line in the shadows of the majestic mountains surrounding Grindelwald. Despite the early hour and darkness it is already very hot. We are upbeat and excited as the race gets underway and we pass through the start arch with hundreds of other runners.
For the first few kms we begin running up the Main Street and back passed our hotel. We made many promises about not running this gently inclining road section but, of course, we get completely sucked in and are moving along with the flow of the runners. Thankfully though we soon hit a bottleneck as we come across the trail head and the single track trail to begin our first climb. Here we chatted to Bert, a local runner with numerous finishes on the E101. He shared his experiences with us and gave us an insight into what adventures lay ahead.
The climb was a series of switchbacks through some forests at what was a very civilised pace. No one was trying to jostle for positions or overtake and everyone was comfortable just moving along together. It was quiet and all we could hear in the night was each other as we chatted away. We met Matt during the Val D Aran last year and this was the first time we’d met since and really the first real time we’d gotten to know each other properly. Looking back at Val D’Aran all we really did was moan at each other.
As we climbed, we started to leave the trees behind and the mountain started to open up and we could look back and see the sun rising over the Eiger and the tail of runners climbing both ahead and behind us. It was a surreal view. We then soon arrived at the first aid station which had a very narrow setup and led to the runners being funnelled, but it had everything we needed. A quick top up of water and we continued on.
Now, on the ‘second section’ of the course we had our first chance to run and move at a comfortable pace as the trails opened up on the mountain. We rolled along enjoying the incredible panoramic over Grindelwald with the majestic Eiger standing prominent behind the town. The sun was now up and the moon was fading.
The trails took us up towards ‘First’, but not quite all the way. Just before the final climb to the summit, the route diverted us away and we began the first descent. Bert was with us once more and told us this was the ‘easy’ downhill and to save our legs. I’m not sure there was much we could do to save our legs as the steepness of the sealed track meant gravity was in control here.
The downhill was long and sweeping as we looped back and forth on switchbacks used for the mountain carts. Our legs thumped at the ground and our feet heated up with the constant slapping. As we came upon the Firstbahn station we had a brief rest bite at the aidstation, once more ensuring we had enough water consumed and packed as we’d now begin the climb back to the summit of First. At around 10am the day was truly heating up now and the sun could be felt on our exposed skin.
We had a basic plan for the heat management. It was as simple as ensuring we drank enough and smothered ourselves in plenty of suncream! So far all was good and I was confident my morning lathering would see me through to around midday, so at First we planned a little longer rest and to apply the next layer.
This climb once more started with a long forest section. The smells were fresh and clean. Segments of the route were a long series of steps made out of long longs. The legs were definitely ’feeling it’ after the previous quad-buster of a downhill. As we left the forest we were hit with the full force of the sun as we climbed an exposed track on the side of the mountain. There was no escaping it now until the final ascent to First not in the distance you could see the clear line of shadow where the angle of the mountain would block the sun’s rays.
It was a lovely climb. The incline was gradual and gentle terrain still very forgiving and not too rocky. Into the shade we went into single line as we climbed the last few hundred metres to the summit. Here the route weaved you around the mountain side and under the tourist attraction of the summit viewing platform. A series of metal walkways were constructed and the views were incredible. Maarten, whom I met at MIUT and Cappadocia, was on hand to provide the support and loudly cheered us in. There was a small gathering of tourists and supporters over looking us from the platform as we made away along and under them. I whooped and cheered as me and Matt passed through but I had a very muted reply!
This aid station was slightly larger than the two before and we took a few extra minutes to eat, acknowledging we were all hungry, and to apply more sunscreen. We chatted to another Irish Paul, enjoyed the view and then set off towards Faulhorn. Just as we set off once more Maarten provided the energy and gave us a mid-morning boost. From here we had clear views of the trails we’d run and could see Faulhorn off up in the distance. Faulhorn would be the highest point on the race at around 2,644m. The tracks were once more very forgiving and were long gentle gravel tracks. Once more, as I was sure it would all day, the Eiger stood proud and prominent watching our progress.
Very soon we were at a series of lakes which were amazingly tranquil and provided a view looming back down onto First. We’d hardly noticed how high we’d climbed already. After weaving through the lakes, for the first time the trails turned a little more technical and became rocky and narrow for a short descent. As we began, the first of the 50km runners began to pass us and zipped by. The lead runner was flying up and down with ease (he went on to win with an incredible time!).
Before completing the climb to Faulhorn we had another aid station after descending a few hundred metres. This was the first time we were a bit confused. None of us could remember this on the route profile. Still, it was a fairly easy section with a very short out and back to to the water stop where I filled a third bottle of water ready for the climb. I’ve no idea how hot it was now but it felt above 30 degrees, although occasionally we’d catch a cooling breeze.
So after accepting that we hadn’t already started climbing to Faulhorn, we now began the climb. It was the toughest so far. Whilst it did feel marginally steeper than the earlier climbs, I think it was the heat which, was energy sapping, that made this more difficult. Matt drifted a little behind us and Paul powered on ahead. I was plodding somewhere between the two. Like Matt, I felt it a little harder to breathe with a regular rhythm as the progressive climb took all my energy. I put it to one side and focused on keeping up with Paul who was passing people frequently and getting further away. I saw him disappear over the summit as I lagged behind.
Up into Faulhorn there was a huge Eiger Ultra Trail arch erected on the summit marking our arrival to Faulhorn which we passed through. The views were spectacular and runners stopped on the platform to take selfies. I spotted Paul a few metered below at the water station and I went after him.
Initially this aid station was to be limited for water refills, however, the day before the race the organisers had added more water here, as well as additional water stops in the next section and later somewhere later on in the second half of the route. It was greatly appreciated and there was even coke available at Faulhorn. I broke my own ‘no coke before halfway’ rule and knocked some back. It was well earnt in this heat I thought.
The immediate descent from the aid station was rocky and once again a little more technical at first. It wasn’t long before we left the rocks behind and started descending into a valley. After passing a refuge/mountain cafe there was another rocky section as we continued downhill. We then looped back around with amazing views over the Brienzersee lake and across to the Hardergrat ridge (which Paul ran along a few weeks earlier). Check it out. It looks spectacular and terrifying in equal measures!
Through this section there were increasing number of hikers marking the trek in the opposite direction from Scheidegg to Faulhorn. We exchanged pleasantries with everyone as we passed. The trails then left the valley behind and levelled out to some lovely undulating trails with more expensive views off into the distance and the trails we’d run earlier in the day. Paul was checking up on Matt and they agreed we’d meet and wait at the halfway mark. It was just a very long descent over about 10 miles to go before we reached there.
First we hit up ‘Egg’, the extra water stop, and then eventually some switchbacks to another mountain lodge where there were plenty of supporters. As we left there was a family with small kids offering high fives which I, and all the runners around us, greatly indulged in. It’s such a boost to interact with people when running an ultra. Shortly after there was a man with a hose pipe spraying runners and me and Paul danced in the rain. It was so cooling and refreshing.
Paul and I both started to feel the need for more water, despite the extra stop and carrying an extra bottle we’d been drinking loads (the heat management plan was being perfectly executed so far). It felt like the next stop wasn’t coming anytime soon luckily we then spied a tap / trough on the side of a building and took advantage, Paul submerging his whole head. As we walked on, pleased with our find, we could see the next aid station was just a few hundred metres further ahead. Typical.
From here we entered the forest, and the descent began to steepen. The trails were narrow and the ground was littered with lumpy tree roots. It wasn’t easy underfoot and we accepted this is how it would be for quite some time. After what felt like a few km of consistent rooty downhill running, out of nowhere we started to climb again. I was furious. It couldn’t visualise it on the elevation profile. It hit me hard. I called out to Paul that I needed a break. Like hours earlier on the climb to Faulhorn, my breathing was erratic again. Every race profile is like this and has those sections where you are going downhill but have a ‘hidden’ uphill included (or vice versa). The distance and elevation never easily transfers to a small visual elevation profile. It really messes with your mind sometimes and, today, it was messing with me. It took my strength and my energy and I needed a few mins sitting on a rock to regain composure and carry on. Fucking tree routes!
We were soon back in the rhythm and then, for the first time ever in a race, I hit the deck. I went down like I’d been tasered. Mid-flow I got cramp in my right calf and my lower body just seized up. I did a quarter of a turn and just fell, rigid and straight, down bouncing off what I thought was my left arm and shoulder. On the floor I then instantly got cramp in my other calf too and couldn’t get up. I was like a bug on its back flailing my. A runner coming behind called out and I’ve no idea what I mumbled back as I slowly relaxed and clambered back to my feet. It seemed like my left arm had come out and broken the fall and I had a few little indents on my palm from small stones. Somehow despite all the roots I’d fallen on a fairly clear and soft area. Frustratingly though, covered in sweat it was like I’d been dipped in breadcrumbs. My arms and hands were covered in soil and I was now irritable. I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long without falling before. With no issues or concerns we just got back on with it.
I don’t know how much longer the downhill carried on for, but there was one last steep section through a field as we approached the halfway mark.
I set about the full works. Pasta. Potatoe. More coke. Full wet wipe wash. Tshirt change. Sock and shoe change. Fresh hat. Fresh buff and more food and tailwind added to the bag. Not long after as we were getting ready to leave, Matt showed up. I made a big mistake here and led the decision to crack on without him. We said we’d wait, and he was bang on schedule for a 22:45hr finish. I said me and Paul wanted to try and finish in under 22 which was the qualifier time for western states. So we left without him. It was a mistake as, despite running the next 50km without him, he finished only 10 mins behind us, bang on that 22:45hr finish. Sorry Matt!
From the half way we had a series of two big climbs to overcome. The first climb was before the town of venkat. It started with a series of roads climbing on switchbacks. Here we Met another Swiss runner in Nicole who was doing her first ultra and chasing that sun 22hr finish also. We chatted as we climbed before the roads changed into forest tracks again. They were rooty, but not as bad as before. Some sections where steep and it was very humid with little wind or breeze reaching us. Occasionally we’d get a burst of sun and see the mountain alongside us. Slowly we tracked around the side of it.
There was also a brief stop where there was another water tap. From here we were back into the forests and making our way down hill to Wegen. One thing that was noticeable here was that we started seeing a lot of volunteers and mountain rescue dotted along the course. We were being very well Looked after! On the downhill I continued to cramp. I was cramping in my ankles and shins which was a whole new weird experience which I don’t know how to describe. Thankfully nothing too bad though.
The town of Wengen was delightful and I made a note to come and visit one day, it was very picturesque. We weaved through the aid station after collecting more water and coke and began the big climb to Mannlichen which was approximately 1,000m gain in around 5km. Pretty much a vertical Kilometer (VK).
After climbing through some narrow back streets of the town, we were yet again back in the forest. Every time there was an opening I tried to see where the hell we were going, but I couldn’t. I could see the end goal of Mannlichen on top of the mountain, but I could rarely see any runners on the mountain side climbing. I was so confused. Paul and I agreed to break the climb up. There was the extra aid station somewhere along here so we agreed to stop again before and after it. Paul was the time keeper and I was eager to test him and push the limit of how long I could stay sitting down for!
We weren’t alone and there were plenty of runners we passed and who passed us. At each stop we got talking to Jason, yet another Irishman, as we leapfrogged each other along this section. The route took us across the mountain face and through a series of snow barriers built to protect the town which was way down below us now. The breaks, and the water stop, were greatly appreciated. As we eventually summited a friendly voice called out and cheered our arrival. Like earlier in the day at First, Maarten was above us supporting and crewing runners reaching the aid station. He followed us into the aid station and tended to our needs like a hero. I was very hungry again and slowly ate a Chia Charge flap jack and remember Paul bringing me lumps of chocolate. It was very good chocolate!
Up top it was cold. Very cold. We discussed layering up and I acknowledged my stupidity in not bringing my arm sleeves or lightweight wind proof from my halfway drop bag. I always run with them but for some reason I purposely didn’t this time. Whilst I knew we’d run into the night, I guess I was so focused on the heat of the day that I didn’t think they would be needed. It wasn’t a problem though as I had a long sleeve top and a waterproof jacket in my bag, so I certainly wouldn’t be getting too cold. We cracked on, knowing that we’d warm up when we began running again. And boy did we run…
We acknowledged that we’d ‘broken the back of the beast’ now. There were no more aggressive climbs to come our way and we were probably 3/4 of our way through the distance by now. It was a huge boost. What made it better was that the trails were very wide, smooth and it was a very gentle downhill. It felt like we were running so fast for a few km as we were running straight toward the Eiger’s north face which was covered in cloud. What a sight it was.
All good things come to an end though, and so did the easy downhill as we then turned away from Grindelwald and headed off-track for another (comparatively) little climb. It was a little punchy and I remember passing loads of cows here. I was constantly looking to my left and across to the Eiger where I could see there were so many trails, but I couldn’t see a single runner on any of them. Once again I was disoriented and I had no idea where we were going. I knew we’d come back along the Eiger towards Grindelwald somewhere, but I just couldn’t see where. The tracks kept twisting and turning and my sense of direction was getting a little messed up. Eventually we dropped down and joined a wide gravel path again, crossed a train track and walked up a gentle hill towards the next aid station.
There was a runner here squatting down taking a picture of the Eiger reflecting in a small pond. As painful as it was, we stopped and indulged for the same picture. It was worth it.
We were soon at the next aid station. This was quite possibly the best location of any aid station I’ve ever been too. It was inside a train depot. It was getting dark and colder outside but inside it was so warm and smelt of oil. I loved it. Here we found some warm broth which was exactly the salty delight I needed. Sitting, eating, I looked around and noticed it was a little like a medical centre with a number of runners sleeping or receiving medical attention.
After a good 15 minutes or so, we left and headed back out for a short little downhill before climbing again to the Eiger Glacier. We passed a runner who was being sick but whom signalled he was ok. Then, moments later as we started to climb he sprinted passed us and continued to run the uphill. I couldn’t understand his miraculous recovery! It was around 9:30 now and our head torches were on as the last of the light started to leave us.
The climb up to Eiger Glacier was tough going. It was a mixture of dry trail (with more cows lining the track!) and little rocky sections. In parts it was steep with some narrow switchback trails before a long climb on a small ridge. It was another slow climb and one which slowly chipped away at our depleting energy levels. We took another moment at the top before beginning the descent towards the finish. It was a very long descent of around 1,200m over 10km kilometres back towards Grindelwald.
It was now obvious why, hours earlier, I couldn’t see any runners on any of the trails. We were tucked right up close on the mountain face. To our left the mountain dropped away on long scree slopes. Way off to our left headlights of runners descending form Mannlichen could be seen.
The trails were runnable. Not as nice as the initial descent from Mannlichen but the rocks were well trodden and flattened to the track for the most part. As we ran, we were in silence and all we could hear were the many, many waterfalls falling from the Eiger which we’d cross one after the other. After what felt like a long few kilometre of steady plodding the relaxing sound of water started increasing and becoming more ferocious. There was one huge waterfall absolutely gushing from the mountain and the sound was thunderous. From here we began descending at a steeper rate on a series of increasingly more rocky switchbacks. Surprisingly my feet were holding up very well. I feel the trails had been incredibly easy going and forgiving on this route considering we were running in such a mountainous area. The quads were definitely feeling it now though and the fatigue was kicking in!
For a while, Paul and I had been discussing what remained of the route. I recalled one big climb once we bottomed out from this descent. We’d heard mixed reports of the elevation ranging from 200m to 600m. We didn’t know. What we did know was that we didn’t want a 600m climb! We soon reached the next aid station, and I clocked the elevation profile on a board. My heart sank a little as I saw we still had plenty of descending to go as well as another small climb before another much bigger one. Paul asked for details and again a new number was thrown out about how big the last climb was “maybe 400m”. A bit deflated, we carried on with the remaining descent which was now on road (which didn’t make it any easier at this stage!).
Finally, we levelled out and began the last 10km or so of the route which would see us run parallel to Grindelwald, passing it before looping back and down into the town. From here we could see the finish line in the town. It is annoying seeing a finish line during a race and heading in the opposite direction, and this time was no different, especially as we were running ever so slowing now.
We began the little climb, although it went on and on and I clocked another 200m. Here the trails were very technical forest trials, yet again (and unsurprisingly) littered with roots once more. Our mood was sinking but we knew we just had to keep moving. After another hour or so we reached a small little aid station. Paul questioned the distance and vertical gain here too and we received a far more favourable response of “280m”. This was good. I perked up and and cracked a lot of jokes to the volunteers. I felt like I was on stage and absolutely killing it. They were probably just wishing I’d leave already. Eventually we did.
As we progressed along the 280m climb, a few runners caught and passed us. We kept our heads down and moved along and we’re joined by another runner whom we chatted to at the last stop. He was craving a bit of company in the night. Pretty much bang on 280m we arrived at Feinsteing. I was impressed. If anything, the root marking and distance markers were exceptional throughout. The trails had dedicated Eiger Ultra Trail flags, glow sticks, arrows on the ground, reflective paint throughout and even Eiger Ultra Trail specific trail signs. At every 5km/10km marker my watch had been pretty much in sync too. I’ve never had that before. Although Paul would argue differently with his Suunto (same model) clocking slightly longer. Anyway, from here it was about 4km downhill on road to the town with a small uphill towards the end to join the main street where it all began.
We begrudgingly left the comfort of the final aid station, acknowledging that a Western States qualifying time was beyond us now. There’s no way we were clocking a 30min 5km pace (even downhill) after running all day. We calculated that the 4km remaining would take more like 40mins. The downhill and roads weren’t particularly enjoyable. Now my feet were hurting after that last technical section and I wasn’t enjoying the feet slapping sensation like we felt all the way back on the first descent some 20 hours earlier.
We were trudging along through a camp site when we saw the next trail marker sign. It said 100km. We couldn’t believe it. That crept up on us out of nowhere. It worked us up and with a little moaning we powered through the last little climb back to the Main Street. Thankfully we merged further down than our hotel so didn’t have to run passed it! We emerged onto the street to cheers from some supporters out late in the night and then picked up the pace as we finished the course. The last little surprise being the very steep finishers bridge into the finish line. The risk of falling with our tired legs giving way was probably quite high! Thankfully we didn’t tumble for the camera. Seconds later we crossed the finish line. We’d done it. As Eiger E101 finishers we were handed our little piece of the Eiger – a rock from the moutain as our medal. I love it, but right then i was sick of the rocks!
Without knowing or realising, as we went into the sports centre to collect our bags, Matt snuck passed and finished just a few minutes after us. What a guy. Such consistent running all day!