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Into the Light

Swiss Ultra Trail is not a blog. Yes, there should be space for personal stories and emotions, but first and foremost Swiss Ultra Trail is about trail running and not about the people behind the platform. Nonetheless I, Alex Brennwald, would like to highlight some thoughts and feelings that stirred up my very personal past 12 months. It was a bit of a rollercoaster, but let’s start blow by blow.
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Into the dark

Prerace anxiety is mixing with the joy of spending time in the mountains with some of my best friends. I am standing at the tracks at Zurich main station with a heavy duffel bag packed up with gear, food and other nonsense needed to run around Grenoble for some odd 160km with 10’000m of vert. UT4M is thought to be a good prep up for Grand Raid Réunion – La Diagonale des Fous. Traversing the four massifs of Grenoble in four stages sounds good enough for my friend Joel to fly in from the United States and for Nico to join from Zurich and for Daniel to spread some trail-magic by providing lifts to the French mountain town. In Geneva we all meet. Spirits are high and we’re good to go. I only need to move around my packed duffel bag a last time to sort things. And then it happens –I lift the heavy bag and suddenly something in my back gives in. I can feel it right away. It’s not painful, but it is also not good. A strange sensation is going through my back and legs, but I cannot pin it down to where it is coming from and what just happened. I try to forget about it and focus on the business at hand. I race the first day. I’m in pain. I start the second day’s huge first climb but need to throw in the towel as soon as we go flat and downhill – the pain in my leg is unbearable. I rest the third day and try it again on day four. Big mistake. I can move uphill but as soon as we go straight or down, thousand of needles shoot through my knee. Today, I’m still feeling bad for brother Joel who had the stoicism to tolerate me during those miles. Due to the lack of alternatives, I finish the stage – one of the worst things I’ve ever done.

The cave

More than four weeks later is sit in a medical practice and a doctor shows me a MRI scan of my spine. All the focus is on a small black bump that eats deep into some white stuff. I learn that a disc in my spine busted and its fluid was pressed out and now puts serious pressure on the nerves that travel down through my spine to my left leg. The compressed and inflamed nerves send excruciating pain to my knee and start paralyzing the leg. Before this diagnosis, I was seeing a physio and doctor for weeks, but nobody was able to put together all the pieces. Only after one morning when my left leg lost its ability to function and unable to hold my weight, everything went quick – Xray, MRI, doctors left and right. And there I sit with a doctor telling me that my disc is herniated for good and that being pain free and able to walk properly, let alone run, is everything but certain. I’m crushed. Running is not important at this point but just getting rid of the pain and live a normal life is all I care. I cannot sit at the office, I commute in the train standing and driving a car is a huge problem. And there is no quick relief on the horizon. Needless to say that Diagonale des Fous is off the table.

My spine with 2 good and 1 bad discs

I decide to let infiltrate my spine with cortisone to accommodate the swelling of the nerves. This is no treatment of the source, since a ruptured disc is a permanent damage and will never heal, but at least it gives some sort of relief, even if it is only temporary by suppressing the inflamation.

The weeks goes by. I still cannot sit. I’m still hurting. I’m grumpy. Only in late November, early December maybe, the pain gets better and with lots of physio and core training I’m able to make some minor progress. Slowly things improve towards Xmas and I can start running again in January. It’s a very cautious process but I’m so happy to be back on the move. From there, I keep working my spine and core almost every day. Training improves and I start picking it up again. Wonderful. Especially since I got the nod from Western States to run this prestigious 100 Miler again in June and, on top of that, a guaranteed UTMB slot for late August, I’m anxious about the season ahead. Two once-in-a-life-time races and only very little time at hand. In order to have a chance to finish these two races that both are courting to be the pinnacle of ultra trail running, I need to be on the top of my game. Training smart and minimizing the odds of a set back are in the focus of my preparation

Into the light

Alex Brennwald

Western States 100 with Nico and Joel (Photo: Larry Gassan)

Spring is good. Not only is the back getting better and better, but also my running is back on track. Okay, I’m very low on miles but I manage to put all the quality sessions in. June is approaching fast and before I realize I’m sitting in a plane westwards bound to San Francisco. Western States 100 Miles – the big dance. Again, I’m forever thankful to my awesome crew Nico and Joel for being there in the Sierra Nevada and sharing this adventure with me.

On this last weekend of June, the Western States trail is in a pretty rough shape. The first 45km of this 160km journey are covered in snow and mud. The going is tough. Despite the snowpack on the trail, the temperatures are overshooting the 40°C mark mid-day. Racing in these conditions is not easy.

My goal is to sneak under the 24 hours mark, a feat I already achieved in 2015. Due to the difficult conditions in the first part, I’m almost an hour behind the splits from last time and arrive at the 45k mark where I see my crew in the state of a pretty solid bonk. This is not what I wished for, but I can move on and reel in minute after minute and place after place in the 10 hours to come. Both my pacers Nico and Joel do an excellent job keeping me moving even keeled for the last part of race. Breaking 24 hours is in the cards again.

With 15 kilometers to go, my wheels start to come off though. Words of wisdom are needed – and they are coming from brother Joel. “When everybody is getting weaker – you are only getting stronger. The longer the race – the stronger you are getting”. His words are becoming my mantra and spark a massive fire. I run again. Hard. I push. Pain, doubt and insecurity go over board and we charge towards the finish fueled by passion and thrive. 22 hours 50 minutes – almost an hour faster than 2015. I’m exhausted. I’m happy. I’m thankful. And my back is all right.

La grande balade

After the Western States 100 recovery, the focus lies on UTMB. With all the top athletes being present in Chamonix in the end of August, the ultra trail world is going crazy about the big tour of 170km with 10’000m vertical gain around Mont-Blanc. When we arrive in Chamonix, that is again my friends Joel and Daniel, the weather turns from summer to fall over night. Snow down to 1800 meters, rain and heavy winds are forecasted. Shortly after the start thick fog and rain thereafter set the stage for what will be coming in the nights and days ahead. The nightly climbs up to Bonhomme and Col de la Seigne are indeed wet, cold and pretty miserable. The midway stop in Courmayeur is much appreciated as are the miles together with lovely fellow runners up Grand Col Ferret, where gusts of wind and sleet remind me of my humble coexistence, if not sole tolerance, in the alpine environment. I move slowly. My body feels drained and aching. Only after Trient I find some gait. Not for long. The final climb to La Flégère is for sure taking everything I have. Exhausted I roll into Chamonix and clock 31 hours 48 minutes. One hour faster again as 2014.

Alex Brennwald

UTMB finish line

You are only getting stronger

Why do I write all this? To be honest, I don’t know. But I would like to share the feeling of joy and success. Thinking back to the very dark hours I had last fall and winter, I’m forever thankful that my body recovered so well and that I was able to participate both in Western States 100 and UTMB. I will never forget the morning when I tried to get out of bed and my left leg paralyzed was not able to function and keep me upright. And I will never forget all the training sessions, physio therapies and doctor’s appointments that were not, each taken as an individual effort, yielding a visible progress. “You are only getting stronger” brother Joel said somewhere on that last part of the Western States trail. And we did. And we have to keep doing so.

Alex Brennwald

Run like you’ve never touched the ground before

I know, there are many people out there with bigger issues to face and more difficult tasks at hand. Nonetheless I would like highlight that many journeys might be longer and more difficult than what we like them to be, but they often come to a good end. This good end should not be misunderstood as a socially anticipated and accepted goal but more so as a very personal thing. Of course, I’m very happy with the Western States 100 and UTMB and of course, I also know that it is possible to do better. But that’s not what makes me happy. It is the very simple fact that I can get up, lace me shoes and run. And feel the trail under me feet, the wind in my face and air in my lungs. I will never forget when all these simple things were in doubt. Sometimes it takes baby steps and sometimes the outcome is not glorious to the wider audience. But this doesn’t matter. It’s your journey. It’s your  goal. And on the way you should never forget: You are only getting stronger!

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