I’m always on the lookout for unusual events that involve a) mountains b) beautiful scenery and c) travel and I’m gradually working my way through an extensive bucket list of trail marathons and ultras. I’m not exactly a mountain goat, more of a ‘running tourist’, and I’m generally happy plodding along (somewhere towards the back), enjoying the views, the challenge, the camaraderie and – of course – the cake.
When I first heard about the Tour de Tirol in Austria, I couldn’t press ‘enter now’ fast enough. It ticked all my boxes and more. The full ‘Tour’ is spread over three days and involves a 10K, full mountain marathon (known as the Kaiser Marathon) and a half marathon on three consecutive days.
But it’s not the distance that’s the biggest challenge. The total elevation gain (3800m) over the three events is eye watering and akin to climbing Scarfell Pike or Snowdon about four times. The marathon alone has 2400m of ascent. On paper, it didn’t seem that bad… but it turned out to be a little more challenging in reality. Actually, it turned out to be the hardest marathon my husband, John, and I have ever competed in.
The event HQ is in a small ski resort called Soll. About 90 minutes drive from Salzburg and in an area known as the Wilder Kaiser – an utterly stunning mountain range. John and I decided not to do the full Tour, but to run the 10K on the Friday night and then the Kaiser Marathon on the Saturday. A sensible decision as it turned out.
Unless you’re a proper mountain runner, you can’t really ‘race’ an event like this. So our only goal was to finish and have a fun weekend away with some close friends who we had travelled with. We approached the hilly 10K on the Friday evening as a gentle warm up ready for the main race the next day.
Saturday morning dawned with clear skies, and thankfully the snow and wind that had been forecast didn’t materialise. A mere 14 hours after finishing the 10K, we headed to the start line of the Kaiser Marathon. We were surrounded by uber-fit looking alpine mountain runners (very few women), and suddenly our training (the hills of East Sussex aren’t quite the same) and level of fitness seemed wholly inadequate.
However, undeterred, we set off. We kept the pace comfortable, walking up hills, taking our time at aid stations and enjoying it. The terrain wasn’t too technical, mostly fire track. Lots of climbing, lots of fast downhill sections and more climbing. But the views helped take our minds off the pain. Imagine stunning Austrian mountains, glistening in the snow with green rolling hills down below, cow bells clanging in the fields… you get the picture. It was truly magical.
With 5K to go a marshal called out, “Two minutes!” We asked him what he meant and he replied, “Two minutes until the cut off!” What!?!? We had no idea we were so close. I’ve never been anywhere near a cut off before. Had we just been running really slowly? Or were the cut offs just really tight? We sprinted through and just made it (many others didn’t), only to be faced with 700m of climbing over the final 5K. Aha.. that explained it. As it turned out, that final 5K took us nearly two hours. There were even ropes on the side of the path to help pull us up.
Finally, after 7hrs 10mins, I dragged myself across the line and then promptly threw up.
It was incredibly tough. Probably the hardest single marathon we’ve ever done. But also the most beautiful. We were very lucky with the weather, the next day there was rain and thick cloud with no visibility at all.
We hadn’t anticipated how tough the cut-offs would be and the high standard of the field. We should have run a bit faster, taken less photos and spent less time at the aid stations. It’s a brutal race and you need to be strong, fit and experienced to tackle it. If you are up for the challenge however, you won’t be disappointed. The Kaiser Marathon is probably the most breathtakingly stunning race I’ve ever done and it will provide you with memories to last a lifetime.
Save the Date: The Tour de Tirol (including the Kaiser Marathon) will take place 5-7 October 2018. You can choose to do the full 75K Tour de Tirol, or just one of the three race options. Perfect for a weekend away with friends or a club, with a choice of races and distances for all.
Words: Sarah Russell