SwissPeaks 360: Ultra Trail Unwrapped

#TeamMontane ultrarunning athlete Howard Dracup gives his first-hand account of the technically demanding SwissPeaks 360 race. 

Did you know Switzerland’s array of 4,000-metre peaks is home to a mythical ultra trail? The SwissPeaks 360 is a mountain challenge for serious runners looking to push their mountain skills to the absolute limit. Having secured a place, Cumbrian-based running coach Howard Dracup shares his experience and lessons learned taking on this authentic Alpine course…

Racing from glaciers to Lake Geneva

Last year, I saw my fellow Montane teammate Galen Reynolds take part in a really cool-looking race called “The SwissPeaks 360”, it caught my eye and I thought “I must do this one day”! Fast forward 6 months and I tried to get a place in another big mountain race called the Tor Des Geants. To get a place in the Tor you need to enter a ballot, so I applied and didn't get in, which then led me to entering the Swiss Peaks 360!

The Swiss Peaks 360 is a single-stage footrace that runs across the Swiss Alps. By single stage I mean the clock is always ticking. You can run, walk, eat, sleep, and rest whenever you like, but there is no official end to the day, where you all sit down and eat, sleep, and recharge. It’s a continuous race! There are also different distances you can do, there's the 360km race, the 170km race, the 100km race, the 70km race, the marathon, and the half marathon. So there's something for everyone.

The 360 race starts in a little town called Oberwald and finishes at Lake Geneva, the website labels it “from Glaciers to Lake Geneva”, which sums it up well. By the time you get to Lake Geneva, not only will you have clocked up more than 360 horizontal kilometers, but you will have also clocked up more than 26,000m of vertical height gain and descent. The equivalent would be climbing Mount Everest from sea level and going back down again x3, then also covering the 360km distance with it! It's a mammoth undertaking, especially when you take into consideration environmental considerations like the high altitude, the heat, and the technicality of the trail underfoot!

Swiss Peaks Kit

You have to carry your own food, water, and mandatory kit and there are regular aid stations where you can resupply. Approximately every 50km there is also a life base where you can access a pre-packed bag of yours containing personal belongings like fresh clothes. There are hot meals, showers, and beds. You can also have your own crew to help you out at certain locations to help speed up your race, so I asked my girlfriend Maggie to crew me.

I wanted to do the Swiss Peaks 360km because it looked like a fantastic adventure and not just a race! Id also heard it was technical, long, and tough, which are 3 of my strengths in racing. So when I heard that, I thought it was a good sign to enter! I also wanted to enter because part of me genuinely didn't know if I could finish this race. It was new territory! 

I’d never done a big European race before so it was exciting knowing that I was up against a fresh new challenge. The longest mountain event I’ve ever done is around 170km and was in the UK, the Swiss Peaks 360 is more than double my previous longest mountain adventure and would have me face new problems like heat, sleep, and altitude. 

Essential training & altitude acclimatisation

2 weeks prior to the Swiss Peaks I drove over to Switzerland and I camped at 2000m in Arolla, to help my body adapt to the altitude. When at altitude the body becomes stressed, so the longer you can acclimatise in advance, the better you will feel on race day.

A lot of people think that at altitude there is less, or no oxygen in the air, this isn’t entirely true. When at altitude the pressure in the air is lower and it is this pressure difference that makes the lungs unable to process and utilise the oxygen, as it would at sea level. So by living up high for a few weeks, your body will adapt by producing more red blood cells to counteract the lower oxygen saturation in the blood.

So for 2 weeks I lived at 2000m and trained daily anywhere between 2000m-3000m above sea level. Over the 2 week period, I did notice a marginal effect on the way I was breathing when training. Personally, I think I could have done with another week at a higher altitude, but I had to stop and taper at this point and allow all the training and the accumulation of fatigue I had built up over the last 9 months to fully dissipate.

Prior to driving to Switzerland, I was running in the fells at home and training anywhere between 15-25 hours per week! I did a lot of my final training block around the more technical parts of the Lake District so I’d park in Seathwaite and head up towards Bowfell, Crinkle Crags, and Pike Of Blisco. Then I’d turn back around and run the way I’d just come, but then continue over to Scafell Pike and Great Gable! This really helped condition my body physically and mentally.

Team Montane Athlete Howard Dracup

Day 1 on the trail

So the big day came, it started in Oberwald at 10am. The race started fast! But I didn't, I trusted my plan and ran my own race. I arrived at the first life base in good spirits in Fiesch 50km, in 10hours. I had a bowl of soup and some rice, changed my t-shirt, brushed my teeth, checked my feet were ok and quickly left the checkpoint. 

During the night I started to feel nauseous. To make myself feel better I had to pull the pace back. If I tried to walk fast the nauseous feeling would come on much stronger. I was feeling frustrated because my body was fine and I wasn't tired, but I had to go slow to stay in the game. Thoughts of DNF’ing (did not finish, or quitting) began to cross my mind. Despite thinking all night about what excuses I could give to justify a DNF, I pushed on.

Crew support 

I arrived at Life Base number 2 in Eisten approx 100km in 20 hours, so my pace was pretty good and even though I was having a bad time, I was still ahead of my schedule a little bit. At each life base, Maggie had a few key things to help me with. They were:

  • Take my phone and watch off me and put them on charge
  • Take my used head torch battery off me and give me a new recharged one
  •  Take my empty soft flasks from me and refill with hydration mix, water, or cordial
  •  Remove any excess nutrition out of my pack and put in my new nutrition bundles which were already bagged and labeled for each checkpoint. 
  • Apply suncream to my arms legs, ears, and neck
  • Provide me with new clothing, buffs, gloves, or caps, if any were too wet to reuse
  • Maggie would also grab me some real food and something to drink from the checkpoint

At this stage, we figured out what was wrong with my stomach. I had eaten nothing but pretty much sugar for the last 20 hours. I couldn’t go to the toilet properly either. I began stopping and eating more real food at the checkpoints and the nauseous feeling began to fade. Instead of relying on my own sports nutrition, I backed right off it and began picking on salami/chorizo style sausage and cheese at all the checkpoints.

Switzerland peaks

Navigating hot conditions

I left Eisten, again brushing my teeth before I left, feeling better but not for much longer, the day got extremely hot and I can remember getting passed by lots of people, who I'm assuming were local or European because they were not sweating and were moving well! I on the other hand looked like a sweaty mess, or a drunken man swaying slowly across the trail back and forth. I kept stopping every 5 mins for a sit down - I was broken. It took me all day to cover around 40km! 

I met Maggie at Bluomatt and had some Raclette, an omelette, baby potatoes, and pickled gherkins. I also tried to sleep, but it was too noisy at the checkpoint. By this point I’d lost all my tenacity, I had no interest in racing and I was saying I’d be extremely happy to just finish the race! My feet were also very, very sore. But I had a coffee and was on my way.

I was now going into the second night and I’d had no sleep. Once the sun had gone down, things became easier and I hatched a plan to take it easy in the days and try to move faster at night! 5 hours later I arrived at Life Base 3 in Grimentz.

Maggie was having a sleep in a bed when I arrived, she was just as tired as I was. She’d had no sleep, just as I hadn’t and I was fine feeding myself, so I didn't wake her for anything. I had lots of pizza and pasta from the kitchen and then decided I’d take a quick shower and have a good sleep! Maggie had all my stuff so I had to wake her eventually. A highlight here was that she had bought me a double cheeseburger from McDonalds!

Swiss Peaks 360

Tackling the Grand Dessert

We both went back to sleep for 4 hours and I woke up feeling extremely recharged and fresh! I had a good coffee, some nutella pancakes and I was out of the checkpoint at 7am, ready to hit day 3 hard. I took advantage of the cool air until 10-11am and then backed off the pace. The temperature was the same, but my perception of it wasn't as bad today. I made really good time (I genuinely think it was the double cheeseburger) and made it to life base number 4 at Grand Dixence.

I had some chicken, rice and aubergine and was on my way again. I had found a new favourite drink out there called ‘Rivella’, so I took a bottle away with me from the checkpoint and set off to tackle the most technical part of the course, “The Grand Dessert”!

I’d timed the crossing of the Grand Dessert perfectly! When I got to the highest point at around 3100m, the sun was beginning to set and the sky was a mix of orange, yellow and pink, it was beautiful. I also passed 2 Ibex on my way down. I have never seen these animals before and it was a special encounter. 

The sun set and I was now in full head torch mode following the luminous flags. I could see head torches up ahead and passed 3 people. I used this section to my advantage, with it being technical underfoot and technical running being one of my strong points. We descended into Lourtier and I wanted a sleep, but Mags urged me not too, which was good of her really as this is what I needed. 

Ultra running

Fuelling along the way

By now, my feet were extremely sore! I had some more Raclette and a can of Red Bull and was on my way. There was a horrible climb out of Lourtier, it was steep and never-ending but at the top, there was a bunkhouse where you could sleep. I lay down and tried to sleep for an hour, but the Red Bull was giving my mind wings! I’d just wasted an hour, so feeling annoyed with myself I set off again, tired, but wired, and got into Prassurny for Sunrise.

I had 2 bowls of egg pasta salad and went to sleep for an hour. I woke up and had some more pasta, brushed my teeth and I set off on another notorious section over the fenetre d’arpette that had no food or water on for quite a while. So I left with 2 litres of water, as well as some extra gels, and made my way over to Trient.

At Trient Mags was waiting with a hotdog, salad, fries,  and a smoothie! I also sampled some of the beef stroganoff with rostis, they were that good … I had 2 bowls! I was now too full to walk, so I lay down for 5 minutes. I was starting to smell the finish now! I was feeling ok, but more than anything the pain in my feet was slowing me down. It was the soles, they felt like they were sore and blistered, but they weren’t.

I made it to Finhaut and was still not hungry from all the food at Trient, so I had a protein shake, a quick shower and then tried to sleep for an hour. My tummy rumbling woke me up, I was hungry again! I had some Spag Bol, while Mags massaged my feet.

I decided to ditch the toe socks I had worn all the way so far and this made a big difference, with all the descending the webbing in-between the toes had been pulling up and putting a huge strain on my feet. Once Mags had massaged the sole of my feet near the forefoot I felt so much better. I also changed my trainers from the spin infinity, to the spin planets and my feet felt brand new.

The final push

For me the race began at Finhaut, I managed to find some of that tenacity I was lacking and I powered up the first big climb with ease. I really enjoyed this leg, it’s just a shame it was in the dark, looking at the map and the shadows in the dark and the feeling of airiness I knew I was high and extremely exposed. I was full of adrenaline now and this helped me push harder as I scanned the horizon for any signs of torchlight! There was nothing. I kept pushing and finally, I saw 3-4 head torches in the distance. I arrived at the mini checkpoint Auberge De Salanfe, had some soup, meat, cheese and tried to have a 15-minute power nap.

There were around 5 other people asleep in there too, so I quietly exited and carried onto Barme. I was falling asleep while running on this leg and I had to keep singing loudly, shouting random things to stay awake! I was catching 2 of the head torches up that I could see before, but when we got to the top of the mountain they went the wrong way. I wonder if it's part of the media team with a drone going up high to capture some footage at sunrise? “Your going the wrong way” I shouted, to help keep myself awake. They didn't reply. Maybe there was nobody there, maybe I was hallucinating?

At Barme, I had some of Aldi’s finest cereal, cocoa peanut butter balls! I was feeling good, I knew that this could potentially be my last day out on the trail. With this in mind, I started pushing more, running again, even though my feet were back to feeling extremely painful again! I ignored this and pushed on to the final life base at Morgins. This section was really busy and there were quite a few of us too’ing and fro’ing. I found it helped distract the mind and pass time.

At Morgins, I tried to be as quick as I could, but it turned into quite a lengthy stop. I had some shepherd's pie, a foot massage, and a 1 hour sleep. I did this to set myself up for one big final push to the end. If I couldn’t smell the finish before, I could sure as hell smell it now! I had about 40km left and around 3000m of elevation, that's small potatoes in a race of this magnitude. I knew I’d be finished today now and it felt good! But I still had work to do…

The last section was super runnable, the ground underfoot was easy going and the hills were more rolling. I started to run the descents hard, my quads were absolutely fine and in really good condition. My feet however were not happy and they were probably my biggest limiting factor during the whole race. I passed around 4 people on this leg. I used this as pressure to keep on pushing to the end.

The final descent was tough. It was never-ending and my feet had now truly had enough. I wasn't able to run hard downhill, I’d maxed out the tolerance at which they could withstand. I finally made it across the line at just after midnight in the early hours of Friday morning in 22nd place overall, 17th man, 10th in my age group and 2nd Brit! It took me 4 days and 12 hours or 110 hours in total! Maggie and fellow #TeamMontane SwissPeaks racer Tom Hollins (who came 10th male overall) were both waiting at the finish line.

Lessons learnt on the trail

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, there's definitely lots I have learnt and things I would do differently. I know I need to focus on eating more real food from the start of the race and less sports nutrition. I learnt that if my body is unhappy, it's generally down to 1 of 3 things and if I listen to it and give it what it wants, it stops complaining and lets me continue. Those 3 things are food, water and sleep. I also found that simply slowing the pace down helps too, especially in the heat, or if you are at a high point in the race!

I felt that when the going got tough, I backed off way too much. I didn't have any tenacity in me when I needed it, tenacity which I used to have and I put this down to not doing enough big B races in the mountains, or 100-mile races in the year leading up to it. I feel like had I done a few of them and remembered how tough they are, I’d of been able to deal with it a hell of a lot better when the going got tough!

All in all, I'm quite happy with how it went. This was my first big European Mountain Race and I learnt so much from it. Just to finish this race is such a massive achievement and I'm proud of myself for sucking it up and getting on with it during the dark times! Same time, next year?

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You've been reading a story inspired by ultra running coach and #TeamMontane Howard Dracup. Hear more from our wide range of athletes on our dedicated #TeamMontane hub.