In this episode Trevor shares what it was like to run a brutal trail marathon in the Italian Alps with 2,863 meters (9,393.04 feet) of elevation gain. And in the quick tip segment we feature a question about how many calories to consume on long run days versus lower mileage days.
The Südtirol Sky Marathon took place on August 28th. This was my 18th marathon to date (my 3rd in the Alps) and definitely the most challenging. We climbed a total of 2,800 meters (over 9,000 feet) it was a constant climb. The race and its 69k and 121k events calls itself “The Most Extreme Experience In the Alps”.
Here were my goals going into this race:
A Goal = Not finish last
B Goal = Make it before the cutoff
C Goal = Not breaking something
D Goal = Not die
I knew I was not prepared to do any real running at this grueling race. Firstly because of the constant uphill, the best I could do was power hike but as the day grew late my hiking got slower and slower.
I kept moving forward though step by step and never took a break or sat down except maybe to get rocks out of my shoes. I did pause and take a lot of photos though! Everywhere you looked there was a photo begging to be snapped . . . Alpine eye candy.
Bozen to the Rittner Horn
The race started in the Talvera Meadows in Bolzano. I made it to the starting line with only 1 minute to spare! Be sure to listen to the podcast episode for the full story.
For about 10 minutes we had a flat section as we headed through the park toward the mountain. Then we left the valley floor behind us and climbed switchback trails bringing our movement to a walking pace.
From the first kilometer I knew two things
- This race would be very slow
- This race would be very beautiful
When I ran the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland we dealt with a big change in elevation but the majority of the climbing was after the second half. The Südtirol Sky Marathon started with massive climbs and then kept throwing them at us. It was like going up a ramp all day.
I’ve read that as humans we have an innate longing for beauty. CS Lewis writes in Till We Have Faces,
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born.”
Another quote I admire is from John Muir, “When a man comes to the mountains, he comes home.”
As I ran along drinking it all in (the weather was perfect) I thought to myself, this is the reason I came here.
The course was making it’s way up to the Rittner Horn a high mountain plateau accessible by Gondola (or if you are crazy enough to walk there) where you can take in expansive 360 degree views of the Dolomites.
There were lots of families out hiking and cavorting on the mountain. It was interesting to see people in their jackets when I’m up there in shorts and a t-shirt. People could see we were part of the race and offered us props. Bravo!
At this point I’m not yet half way done and my legs are killing me!
What I made it to Rittner Horn I finally passed the half way point. We came to a much needed aid station and since my 1 liter hydration pack was empty the timing was perfect. To prevent an elevation headache I tried to sip water and nibble food all day. It seemed to work.
For miles there were no other runners in sight but at the aid station I started to see runners behind me and I began to care more about not being dead last (my A goal). Thank fully there were some downhill sections leaving out of the aid station where I was able to finally do some running.
The word Totenkirchl literally means (chapel of the dead). There is a little white chapel on the top of a mountain at an altitude of 2186, just a little hut with crucifix inside. It overlooks Totense (dead lake) so maybe that’s where it got it’s name.
It was hard to tell from the course map what to expect, or even know what mile mark I was at. All I knew that the next section of the map was in red and black. Red the was the color to indicate “Hiking Incline” and black indicated “Difficult Incline”. So after having gone uphill all day now the serious uphill would begin!
We wandered and wandered with not a soul around until we came to a massive boulder field. I could see the remains of stone walls and enclosures perhaps at one time used by herdsmen. I also passed some traditional Südtiroler ranchers moving their cattle by cracking whips. I had the feeling that there were families making a living this way in this place for a thousand years.
Eventually I came to the top of the boulder field and encountered a massive ridge (I’m calling a wall) with switchbacks and began to think that whoever designed the course must be sadistic. It was a mountain that you never reach the top. Imagine going up for hours and hours and when you are totally spent, looking for relief, you see an uphill section bigger than anything you’ve encountered yet. So steep it doesn’t look possible to go higher up. The people on the top look like little specks. It was so gnarly you just had to laugh.
When I got to the top of the mountain there were people stationed there to write down my race number as a safety check that I had made it this far and not got lost or dropped out. There was also a race photographer. Proceeding from that point guess what I saw . . . more incline! The last bit was so steep that we had cables to hold on to. When I reached the absolute top it felt like the clouds were only about 10 feet above my head. I could see why they call it the Sky Marathon.
I made it to the Totenkirchl (chapel of the dead) where they had an aid station and the volunteer didn’t speak English but no worries, I was able to get by in German.
A mother daughter team came into the aid station, they were running together, and I asked if they knew if there was anyone behind us. “Steht jemander hinter uns?”
“Ja! Wir sind nicht die Letzten”. (Yes, we are not the last)
I finally passed the 40k sign and though I was dropping in elevation much of the downhills were too rocky and steep to run down. Plus my legs were trashed.
In the final kilometer we ran by a castle (a nice bonus) and then along a path into the town of Sarnthein/ Sarentino. I must have looked delirious because people in the village kept pointing which way to go.
Finally the finish line was in sight and people were cheering. As I crossed under the finish line arch the announcer read off my name and home country. When he saw I was from the USA he double emphasized his words for dramatic effect. “This is Trevor Spencer from the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!!!” His tone sounded like, ‘Why would you come all the way here to do this?’
Then the announcer asked me, “What did you think about the Sky Marathon?” and held the mic up to my face. All I could think to say after being on my feet 9 1/2 hours was “It was extremely beautiful . . . and brutal. . . and I think whoever designed this course is probably sadistic.”which drew some chuckles.
I finished at 9:37:08 fulfilling my A goal of not being the last place man. 103 men finished and 3 DNF’d. 19 women finished and zero DNF’d.
The day after the marathon I went back to the village of Ritten via cable car, had a nice lunch, and hiked to the Earth Pyramids. Ich liebe ❤️ Südtirol!
Also Mentioned in This Episode
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The Richmond Marathon. Run through Virginias’s capital on November 13th. They offer a half and full marathon, and 8k. Sign up at Richmond marathon dot org and get ready to Run Richmond! Register now to beat the September 16th price increase.
Read our other race recaps from European Marathons: