When Iron gets Rusty

Last weekend there was the Iron Trail in Switzerland. Things did not go as planned.

I was there and had decided beforehand that I would drop at latest in Sankt Moritz. The long stretch between Sankt Moritz seemed too much for my inflamed Achilles tendon. Things took a first wrong turn right at the start. In stead of taking of at 8 am the start was postponed and the race shortened. Diavolezza was supposedly too dangerous, the weather too rough. That might be. I was not on Diavolezza so can not judge.

However I climbed Piz Languard, from where I had a nice view on Diavolezza all the time. Diavolezza was in dark clouds the entire time but I didn’t see any lightning nor did I hear any thunder. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any of course. So, it might have been a good idea to skip Diavolezza.

The logical alternative becomes then to follow the valley and climb directly to Fuorcla Pischa. I don’t see why they did not chose this option. On that part of the course there were no noteworthy troubles. I had a little bit of hail but the frozen drizzle kind of hail, not the all destroying ping pong ball kind of hail. There were definitely no thunderstorms. It was in fact pleasant up there. It is of course possible that thunderstorms were forecast for this part of the course. I don’t know but did not here anything about that. But when I was there, I saw something striking. Or rather, it was striking what I did not see. On all of the course that I did (between where you hit the course on your way from Pontresina to the Languard to the biffurcation with the path that descends to Lej Languard) I did not see a single course marking. This was at a time that runners were supposed to pass on that exact part of the course. Were they never there? Did someone alien to the race remove them? Did they send someone up to a part of the course that was supposedly to dangerous for the runners to remove them? I don’t know, but it does not make any sense to me…

Finally, we had our new start at 4pm going directly to the Fuorcla Surlej. On that part it was already obvious that the course marking was rubbish. Too sparse, too invisible. There is no way that it would suffice to find your way around at night.

In the end the race was halted during the night. At that time I was in my tent in Pontresina, so I don’t have an eye witness view on the situation. But it is clear that there was rain (also the case in Pontresina). There are messages of some scattered thunderstorms and the organisation points to runners that were not dressed for the circumstances.

As far as I can see it that is no reason to stop the race. If you can’t deal with bad weather you have lost nothing in the mountains. You can not organise a race in the Alps supposing that you will have a blue sky all the way. Thunderstorms are more tricky. But as I understand it there were no all night long thunderstorms all over the place, but at most some scattered ones. Why is it impossible to suspend the race for the duration of the thunderstorm? You simply keep the runners in the aid station and let them leave when the thunderstorm passed. With a field the size of the one there was at the Iron Trail that’s no problem. I has happened to me a few times during other races. As for the runners that could not cope with the circumstances it is very easy. Take them out of the race. No doubting about that. Take them out because they did not have the required equipment. And if they did, take them out for medical reasons. But don’t stop everybody because of it. That makes totally no sense. If you see that you have a problem with runners not carrying the required gear, put spot checks in place. At a secret point you let all the runners show one fixed part of the gear (e.g. the waterproof jacket or the emergency blanket). Those not having it can not continue. It is very effective to make sure that everybody carries the equipment at all time. And forget about the verification the evening before. How difficult is it to have something the evening before but not have it at the start? Very easy, indeed. I get seriously annoyed with races that require you to have the gear that allows you to survive the end of the world but get cancelled because it rains a bit. If you still worry about runner safety, you can force runners to run in groups. In the UK there are even race where you are grouped at night. No matter how nice or bad the weather would be.

Overall, my feeling is that the organisation was not up to it. I really wonder if they had any experience with this kind of races. Especially with alpine racing at night time. I wonder if the course marking had ever been tested before at night. I wonder if the organisation was in close contact with the meteorological services. You can ask them for very precise predictions and almost in real time follow where thunderstorms are heading. This is the best investment a race organiser can make. A lot more interesting than sending me an sms that I passed a certain checkpoint. I kind of know that. And certainly don’t send it twice. I already knew it before you sent it the first time.
Certainly don’t blame a few runners that were not capable of dealing with the circumstances. Just take those out. With the growing popularity of trail running more and more runners with a total lack of experience will take on this kind of challenges. And in fact the same holds for organisers…

Positive side: amazing course, very friendly voluntaries at the aid stations and a flexible organisation (putting up a pasta party that quickly after cancelling is impressive and I have the impression that the evacuation went more or less well). There is an enormous potential but try to learn a bit from the experts before

My last bit of advice: change the name of the race to Rusty Trail. You kind of deserved that.

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2 Responses to When Iron gets Rusty

  1. Michiel says:

    He wouter,

    Waarom is dit verhaal in het Engels opgeschreven? Is het de bedoeling om als waarschuwing te laten dienen? t Klinkt nogal serieus allemaal. Heb je van anderen vergelijkbare twijfels gehoord? Is het dan niet een idee om het wat breder onder de aandacht te brengen? Het is toch vervelend als je veel kosten maakt om ergens te gaan lopen, en de organisatie voldoet geheel niet aan je verwachtingen. Zonder overigens een ‘name and shame list’ te publiceren… Ik sta er versteld van. zoiets verwacht je wellicht in Andorra (prima organisatie by the way), maar niet in Zwitserland…

  2. wouter says:

    - Ik schrijf in de taal die ik het meest geschikt acht. Meestal is dat Nederlands, maar je zal hier al eerdere stukjes in Engels en Frans vinden.
    - Vergelijkbare twijfels? Vraag je me nu om negatieve reacties te vinden op een wedstrijd die afgelast werd? Is er iets gemakkelijker? OK, een paar voorbeelden: hier en hier en hier.
    - Andorra is een mooi voorbeeld waar ik het al meemaakte dat ik een uurtje moest wachten bij een bevoorrading tot het onweer voorbij getrokken was. Iets wat ik zeker in gedachten had bij het schrijven van dit stukje.

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