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Infinite Trails | Running With The Pros In A Trail Race Like No Other

I'm not an ultra runner and neither are my team mates, but we're about to compete in a 125k mountain ultra in the Alps...

“Will! Where the f**k are you?”

I’d been waiting in the runners’ pen for Huw to finish his gruelling 60km leg of the relay for around half an hour, but had become so distracted by my efforts to locate him on the race tracking app that I hadn’t noticed his arrival to tag me in for my turn. Quickly, I pushed my way towards him, catching the sudden relief on his face when he realised I was there and ready to go, and that his 9 hours of running in 30 degree heat and over two 2,000m mountains wouldn’t be in vain – at least not yet anyway. I shouted an apology, we high-fived, and then I was off on my own leg, with 40km and 2100m in front of me and a merciless cut off time to keep ahead of. 

“It’s dark now and all I can see are the outlines of the mountains against the star-filled sky, and the lights of the runners I’m trying to hold off…”

We were at the adidas INFINITE TRAILS race in the Austrian Alps – Bad Gastein more specifically – where a heatwave had well and truly set in. 200 teams with three runners in each one had joined us in the quintessential Austrian spa town to take on a relay race of 125km, almost entirely on single track, and taking in a lot of altitude. In fact, between the three of us we needed to get through a total ascent of 8,000m. Just short of Everest in a day then. 

The ‘Warm Up’ Race

But it had all started two days earlier with the ‘prologue race’ where all of the Infinite Trails teams ran together to set their start time for the relay. I’ll be honest, we approached this 15km run as a bit of a warm up – Giles, our third team mate, was wearing a Hawaiian shirt for God’s sake. It turned out to be brutal. I’m talking crawling uphill with hands-constantly-on-thighs and head-fixed-on-the-floor kind of brutal.

Timothy Olson, a big name in the ultra running world now, had lined up right alongside us at the start line of this prologue race. He returned with a time of 1:17. We came in at 2:11. Needless to say, we were right at the back when it came to the main event.  

Photo: Manuel Marktl/ adidas INFINITE TRAILS
Ultra runner Timothy Olson. Photo: Manuel Marktl / adidas INFINITE TRAILS
Photo: Manuel Marktl / adidas INFINITE TRAILS

The INFINITE TRAILS Relay Commences

Giles was the first to set off in our relay team, starting before sunrise while the night time drinkers were still out and seemingly yet to peak. His challenge was 25km up and out of the valley then straight back down. I’d crawled out of bed to watch from the sidelines amongst the cheering crowd as he set off and then disappeared down the cobbled streets of the town. Bleary eyed, I went straight back to my hotel and back to sleep. After all, I wouldn’t be racing for at least another 13 hours.

Photo: Ian Corless / adidas INFINITE TRAILS

“Here’s that guy with the crazy shirt,” I could hear the race announcer shout over the system. Sure enough, there was Giles, in his second Hawaiian shirt of the trip (which was fully unbuttoned and looking heavy with sweat), coming in at just over 4 hours 30 for our first leg.

He tagged in our ringer, Huw Brassington, a guy with one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons to his name: the 315km Dragon’s Back across Wales. Throughout the day, while Huw was out in the blazing sun, Giles and I just, well, lounged away in a luxury spa.

Photo: © Ian Corless / adidas INFINITE TRAILS

Sleep, Sauna, Schnitzel, Summit

Fast forward to later in the day and, like in the prologue race, I was back with my hands on my thighs and my head bent so low to the ground my neck ached. My lips were dry with thirst, and my stomach was in bits thanks to the mega schnitzel I’d eaten with Giles before the race. That was a bad idea. I’d been running for four hours straight on my stage, the third and final one of our team Infinite Trails relay, slogging my way up to 2,100m along a narrow track on the mountainside. I thought back to the spa earlier, that’s exactly where Huw and Giles would be. They’d probably had a beer or two as well and, to be fair, they’d earned them. It was up to me to make sure their running wouldn’t be wasted.

Up until an hour previously, I’d been able to see back to my start and finish point in the valley below and had witnessed the sun setting below the hundreds of jagged alpine peaks, but now it had gone dark and all I could see were the outlines of the mountains below a star-filled sky, and the bobbing lights of the runners I was trying to hold off behind me. Every now and then the complete and constant silence was broken by a family cheering from the veranda of their mountain lodge, or occasionally even a whole street full of people out enjoying the novelty of having a race go through their normally quiet village.

Two-thirds of the way through my leg and I’d just about held our team’s position, maybe even gained us a few places, but more importantly, I’d got ahead of the clock and the cut off time. There would be a good few people behind me who wouldn’t have made it but would be carrying on simply because it was the only way to get back. All that kept me going at this point was the prospect of the next aid station, with the smiling volunteers who’d thrust sugary snacks into my hands and then cheer me onwards.

Giles... and one of his shirts.
Huw waiting for Giles to return and tap him in for his 60km leg.

The Last Kilometre

Then, all of a sudden, I could just about hear the faint sound of the event announcer in the distance. Then the sound was louder, clearer, and I was off the mountain and on the flat working my way towards two huge green light beams which were emanating from the town. Minutes later, I swerved with heavy legs through a big crowd that cheered me along a purple runway to the end of my stage. But it wasn’t the end of my run just yet; this was Infinite Trails after all – a whole different approach to racing. No, I had an extra kilometre to run before I could earn my finish, and this time, I needed to link back up with Giles and Huw to run the last leg with them.

It might have taken us over 20 hours to finish our relay, we might have all spent some part of the race either asleep or in a jacuzzi, the winners might have finished half a day earlier than us, and we might be finishing in 80th place, but in a way, that last kilometre felt like a victory lap, because there were hundreds of people on the streets and at the finish, all cheering the three of us down the runway for the third and final time.

Before our visit to Austria, the idea of a 125km relay with a prologue race and a concluding lap had all been a bit of a confusing thing to get our heads around. But on that last kilometre, and then afterwards as we watched the other teams struggle in together, helping each other over the line, the concept all made complete and utter sense.

Main image: © Ian Corless
Thumbnail image:© Manuel Marktl

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