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Meet the Grossglockner Ultra Trail

by adventuretarq
Monday 25th July 2016
Tarquin Cooper takes on Austria's Grossglockner Ultra Trail

A classic mountain ultra around an iconic peak. Technical ascents and flowing descents. Epic views and great vibes. It’s not difficult to see why taking on an alpine ultra is the goal of most trail runners. But the UTMB isn’t the only one out there. Just a few hundred miles away in the Eastern Alps is the GGUT, the Grossglockner Ultra Trail. It’s a 110km circular loop around Austria’s highest mountain, boasting 6,500m of ascent and some of the finest mountain trails in the Alps. And even better – still only in it’s second year, there’s no lottery or daunting points system to get in. (Just one race with a couple of points will do.) 
When it first appeared a year ago, Germany’s Trail Running magazine found it so hard they reportedly told race sponsors Dynafit: “What have you done – you’ve created a monster?”
“It’s a very powerful place to do a race,” defending course champion Markus Amon said at a pre-race briefing. “For Austrians it’s a famous place. It’s a long race but it’s a great adventure.”

start GGUT

Image copyright Kovacs Balazs

The course begins and ends in the village of Kaprun, near Zell am See, better known as a winter ski resort. From the village square, where beers are served by waiters and waitresses wearing traditional lederhosen or dirndl dresses, the route winds its way into the mountains. Past the cows grazing in alpine green meadows, through forests and into the snowline, it crosses seven valleys, five passes up to 2,800m and the main chain of the Alps twice before finishing back in Kaprun. 
Just 200 runners set off at midnight, with 10% being women. Almost half of the total will DNF. Thanks to a niggling knee complaint, I swopped courses at the last minute, perhaps foreseeing I might have been one of them, and join at the half way point of Kals am Grossglockner, 1,324m, where the 50km Glockner Trail race begins at 7am. (There’s also a 30km trail and a relay race. In total there are 730 competitors taking part, making it a relatively small race but there’s still capacity to grow over the next few years.)
Through the starters’ arch and up the Kalser valley, 270 runners set off in the Grossglockner’s early morning shadow along beautiful trails for the 50k course. Among them is the elite Lithuanian runner Gediminas Grinius. More suited to longer distances he’s using it as a training run ahead of the UTMB. 
The first 10km gives a foretaste of the sheer variety of the course. Within minutes we’ve gone from road to winding forest trails to precipitous narrow paths hewn into the rock and sprayed with waterfall before hitting a long dirt road up the valley floor with wide views of the mountains ahead. This gives way to a boulder field ahead of the first major climb to the top of a 2,500m pass. It’s hard but glorious and the views are spectacular – all the more so since I was not expecting to see anything. 
All week the forecast had promised a washout. The course director Hubert Resch admitted to me that he had barely slept all week, so apprehensive was he about the threat of thunderstorms. But in the end, competitors were rewarded with blue skies and big mountain vistas across the Weißsee glacier resort, where our first food station at the 20km mark awaited. 
“Mahlzeit!” (It’s Austria’s equivalent of Bon Appetit.)
An array of obligatory mountain fare of cheese, salami and cake awaited, as well as some savoury pasta dishes. 
“Alles gute!” one of the volunteer girls cried. “All the best.” 
Refuelled on fresh fruit and cake I headed out into the race once again. A short climb led us to an enjoyable meandering descent down steep and narrow trails that thanks to recent rainfall were soft and muddy like familiar peaty fells. 
This led to the course’s second major ascent, a climb of almost 600m. I dropped down a gear from trot to march and settled in for the climb. Having spent much of the winter ski-mountaineering, I put my poles and arm strength to good use and found myself powering ahead, passing other runners without too much stress.
From the rocky col, the course then offered up some of the most technical and enjoyable running of the entire race, with one highlight being a massive glissade down a snow slope. Skiing ability and poles definitely an advantage. 

Tarquin GGUT

At 2,000m we levelled out and ran for almost 10km, undulating beside the enormous Mooserboden reservoir before crossing the equally impressive Mooser dam which is almost 500m wide and 100m high. By now my legs were complaining. The knee issue, whether it was my IT band, my 41 years, the wrong training I’m not sure, but whatever it was – it felt like I had a vice clamped to my knee and with each step it was getting tighter. I watched as those runners I’d overtaken an hour previously sauntered past.
Fortunately, the next aid station was just around the corner and I was able to stop and stretch it out a little. But pain mostly comes in waves; it ebbs and flows and sometimes even goes away. With micro adjustments to my running style, I found a way to carry on.
The last stage, a 1,250m descent to Kaprun still held some technical surprises including precipitous traverses on wet rock that required holding onto steel cables above the Wasserfallboden reservoir, pitch black tunnels and endless switchbacks through a forest that went on forever. It’s a rule with ultras that last few kilometres always pass the slowest and I congratulated myself if I could maintain the dizzying pace of 6’30m/km along the flat. 
Eventually, I passed under that magical arch, finishing in 7h 24m, 25th in my category, 81st male overall. This being Austria, I was given a beer at the finish, a special isotonic one. Shortly afterwards, Gerald Fister and Florian Grasel crossed the line together to claim joint first in the 110km course in the time of 15h 13m 36s to big applause, continuing a tradition as last year’s winners also crossed the line together.

collage GGUT

Images copyright Stephan Repke

First in the 50k course was Markus Stock 4h 48m 21s. Grinius came second in 4m 50 23s, later telling me on the Compex recovery bed next to mine that he really enjoyed the route and would be back for the 110k race next year. “It’s really the kind of running I like,” he said. 
GGUT may not have the cult status of UTMB but it has all the ingredients to become a real gem of a classic – and one of Europe’s top ultras.  

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