After rounding a 10,000-foot peak in running shoes, local athlete Rene Unser says her eight-day endurance race in the Alps just might remain an unmatched high point.
“To be honest, I think this was the single most rewarding experience I have ever had the privilege of doing. I still feel so content and satisfied with this—the overall experience, and the way it went, and the gratitude I have for all of it—that I’m not really ready to move on from it yet,” she said.
This past September, Unser and running partner, Sarah Macleod, were one of four Canadian teams to participate in the Gore-Tex Transalpine-Run, an eight-day stage-race covering 273 kilometres of trail over 15,500 metres of elevation gain.
The pair ran from the start line in Germany to the finish in Italy together, placing eighth out of 32 women’s teams. From the sponsors who helped them, to the unfaltering support of their crew, and the friendship they built over months of training, the whole adventure has left them awestruck.
“I loved running in the mountains so much, and it was such a spectacular event, that if I had a wish list, I would love to go back and do it again,” said Unser.
Multi-day racing of any kind isn’t for everyone, let alone a run so tough participants use poles to reduce impact on their joints as they descend and carry backpacks of water to stay hydrated. Set aside their descriptions of spectacular runs through mountainous caves and shale-dusted slopes, and it’s clear the ins and outs of an event like this are technically very difficult. The athletes involved must strategize how to budget their energy reserves as they challenge several courses, day after day, sleeping it off each night and regrouping each morning.
These multi-day races are an emerging niche in trail running, which has been dubbed the fastest growing new sport worldwide. Garnering a proclaimed spot on the American calendar, National Trail Running Day, the off-road pastime is the darling of health promotion at the moment, offering multiple benefits in one activity—muscle building, cardiovascular work, connection with nature and less interaction with traffic hazards.
But epic trail races attract athletes who seek the remote—not to mention generally difficult—terrain, and courses like the Transalpine-Run draw competitors the world over.
“‘Magical’ is the word I use because it really is a pinch me experience the landscapes are so spectacular,” Unser explained. “I remember just things like, you’re at 7000-feet and you’re running past cows. It sounds funny, but the sound of a cow bell when you’re out there, you appreciate that.”
At the peak of their training, the pair put in 16-20 hour training weeks on an eight-month program, Macleod working as a massage therapist at Wave Physiotherapy and Unser as the fitness director for Global Fitness and running her endurance coaching company PACE Sport Fitness.
Managing commitments was by far the hardest part, Unser said, particularly as the run itself saw them assisted by an unstoppable crew. Her husband, Trent Marshall, and 10-year-old son, Carter, made sure both women had a clean change of clothes, food, and whatever else they needed waiting for them at the start and finish of each day. And they spent long hours in the car to make it happen.
“All we had to do was run, so that was the easy part,” said Unser.
Naturally, there were challenges for the runners as well. Macleod fell on a switchback and had trouble shaking it off in the humidity of the first day; Unser rolled both ankles on day-seven, a day in which she was also struggling with stomach issues.
“I went off to the side of the trail to use the washroom and started running back down before I realized I left my poles,” she recalled. “It’s those little things that on an average day are not a big deal, you just go back and get your poles; but on day seven, when your coping skills really aren’t quite there, and you’re feeling maybe not quite good, you look up at the hill where you left them and think, do I have to go get those?”
Asked if the pair have another race in mind, Unser said simply: “Not all experiences need to be topped.”
At this point, they’re just thankful for all the support they got along the way. Local sports stores Kelowna Cycle and Valhalla Pure Outfitters helped pave the way, as did Icebreaker Clothing, Udo’s Oil and many friends and family members.