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Race Report: 2018 Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon, Switzerland

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At 10:18am 7 July 2018, under a pure blue sky with the enormous Matterhorn shy behind a bikini-cloud, the gun went off. A few minutes later we were finally released, on a rolling start across the line in the Zermatt half marathon, a point in time I’d been focused on for six months, finally, finally, finally here. We were off!!! Phil and I had shaken hands, wished each other good luck, and were running alongside each other through the chalet-lined streets of the iconic mountain town as folks cheered us on: “HOP HOP HOP”! 13.1 miles of test awaited us, taking us from 1616m at Zermatt up to 2585m at Riffelburg, and I was ready for it, bring it the hell on.

Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonIn the holding pen at Zeermatt waiting for the start. Phil had gone rather wild at this point, sprouting hair from his palms, a full-on hill-hunting werewolf! Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonWhhhoooaaarrr, almost at the start!!! Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonGo, Daft Hats, GOOOOOOO!!!!

Let’s not get too carried away though Jay, as I recall you were more than a tad nervous. Phil ran the race in 2017, with his mate who’d been burned by the altitude and the steepness of the course. The first couple of miles, Phil told me beforehand, are out and back into Zermatt, and are pretty flat. After that it’s about three miles at 10% uphill, on trails leading us up through the forest. I’d done some short sections of 10% on the Col de L’Iseran, and they’d been hard work, I had no idea whether I could keep going for three miles. From there I knew the course opened out above the treeline, with magnificent views, some flatter and downhill sections, and others which were un-runnable, hands-on-thighs at 15% or so. Jules (Phil’s better half) told me the end of the race is a mile like that, up alongside the cog railway, with a couple of hundred meters of flatter stuff at the top so you can run into the finish line.

The Zermatt Half Marathon profile: a bit hilly.The Zermatt Half Marathon profile: a bit hilly. The Zermatt Half Marathon courseThe Zermatt Half Marathon course – it’s only 13.1 miles, my watch was a bit off!

I’ve been running the past few months with an old Garmin Forerunner (a watch with a GPS in it), and had been getting used to the kind of pace I could do on the long hills, the longest being a 9 mile uphill to Les Arcs 1800m, at about 6%, at about 12 minutes per mile. From the off we were swept along, and the watch told me were were doing 8.5 minute miles – too fast – so we eased off a bit. Those couple of miles were over in an instant, the route left the milky glacier river we’d been tracking, and the hill came up at us. I didn’t take a camera with me, so thanks to Phil Russ for the great trail shots be grabbed on the way!

Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonLots of hills to hunt on this here joggy joggy!

At the start an announcer in Zermatt had told us to drink, because up here at altitude he said we needed 20% more water than at sea level. I took his advice on board, grabbing water at each of the stations except the last one, which was only a mile from the end. If you fancied it, you could have had sports drink, sports bars, bullion (thin soup), all sorts of stuff. I’d eaten my usual breakfast of oats and nuts, plus a bit of honey as a race-day lifter-upper, 3 hours beforehand, so avoided the food and other drinks, the water did the job. Oh, and a cold sponge went down a treat later on. The sun was in full force, although the altitude increase cancelled it out, and the air stayed beautifully cool.

The first ten-percenter had lots of folks walking, but all those hilly half marathons were in me, in my legs and head, and I was so happy to discover I could jog along without busting my lungs, and steadily got to the top at about 5.8 miles, and off out into the open. Phil had told me to remember to look up, to enjoy what was happening around me, and I remembered his words. The trails were tight in places, with sections of uneven rocks, dust and gravel, tree roots and streams, so some looking down is mandatory if you don’t want to break and ankle, but the scenery and the sensation of running with a pack of people were extra-ordinary. Out of this world, folks, I felt pure joy at it, but kept checking my watch to see how many miles were left!

Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon

As the course levelled off for a mile or so, and I could start to run more easily, steadily overtaking folks, being amazed at the marathon and Ultra marathon runners who came flowing past me. Jules later told me my overall position improved throughout the race, using an app tracker the race organisers provided for free, which showed when we crossed a number of timing points along the course. The marathoners had got 13 miles in their legs before reaching Zermatt, from their start further down the valley at St Niklaus, and we’d merged onto the same course as them when we were released to coincide with the leaders coming through.

With that mile over the trail narrowed and kicked upwards for about half a mile. I’d been worried about working out which bits I should try and run, but needn’t have bothered: no-one was running this stuff. Hands went on knees and we all formed a giant caterpillar of plodders, hearts hammering, lungs pulling in as much of the thinning air as we could, just clawing away the trail. Eventually it dropped and we were again released, hopping over rocks, my mind-voice uttering a fair few expletives as I nearly went over! A bloke flew past me at one point, I swear his feet didn’t touch the crazy slabs of rock, respect! Phil told me later on he’d seen a guy along this section being given CPR. He’d stopped to help but the organisers were on it, and a helicopter came in quickly. We’ve not heard if the bloke survived, and of course wish him the very best of luck.

Phil had to stop every now and again to let the pack catch him up.Phil had to stop every now and again to let the pack catch him up.

About 8 miles in, the course actually tracks downhill or level for about three miles, and I’d decided at this point to get my head down and run, as fast as I dared. I figured the last part couldn’t be run anyway, and as long as I could drag myself up there I’d be OK. On one downhill section I was passing a fair few runners, arms flapping about like Animal from the Muppets, when my right foot decided to raise the alarm and a few shooting pains slowed me down a bit, although they didn’t come back and I’ve felt OK since.

Although there were long sections of course with no supporters, there were lots of places with support, and the “HOP HOP HOPs” and “BRAVO” rang in my ears, encouraging me along. A few folks spotted my name on my bib and shouted it out, clapping me through, and I tried to give a thumbs-up to everyone who was helping the runners. As I came through the Riffelalp train station, Jule’s voice rang out from the crowd and she came legging alongside the course shouting encouragement. Ju had an array of cameras set up to grab some great shots, saving us a small fortune on the official race photos! Quad bikes were patrolling the wider sections of trail too, and it felt all along that we were being perfectly looked after.

The 'Jules Personal Mountain Trainer' service running alongside me at RiffelalpThe ‘Jules Personal Mountain Trainer’ service running alongside me at Riffelalp Turning the corner at Riffelalp it took me a second to work out the course had just gone vertical!Turning the corner at Riffelalp it took me a second to work out the course had just gone vertical!

That final section finally appeared, and it is the feisty animal folks say it is. Almost two miles of slogging away trying to walk as fast as you can, heart beating against chest wall, air thin in your lungs, legs threatening to cramp up. I kept alongside the overhang to the railway line, after a bit of shade. It felt like cheating, having to walk, but running was just impossible: I tried a few times but just couldn’t do more than a few strides and took to just trying to pick people off by turning my legs over a bit quicker than them. The watch showed the miles very, very slowly increasing.

The long, long final drag up to RiffelburgThe long, long final drag up to Riffelburg

The point the course gets close to Riffelburg the noise started to increase. Folks around the finish had walked down the course and were shouting us on up the long drag and over the top. The trail narrows but eventually becomes runnable again, sweeping around the hill, past a couple of bag-pipers filling us all with adrenaline again for the arm-raised triumphant crossing of the line. Done it. What a feeling!

The months of effort. The long years my Dad’s suffered with his lungs. The dreadfully sad need to have our dog Charlie put down just over a week before the race. The donations and message of support from friends, family and strangers. It all hit me and after I’d hugged Ju I sat on the hillside, looked out at 4000m peaks, and cried. These runs aren’t really about running. They’re about struggle, and that’s a deeply personal thing for all of us. Everyone out there was running their own race, their own struggle against their own demons, their own problems, chasing their own personal peace.

A short while later Phil ploughed his way up the incline, defying an injury which had stopped him running the 7 weeks before the race. That takes some serious mental strength, and I salute him for piling his way up that animal of a course. I also thank him, once again, for inspiring me to be here in the first place. Phil: you’re a hero my friend!

Here’s Phil on the final climb, you can see down to the valley we had just run up from

Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon 2018

And that was it. We watched more runners fighting their way into the finish, supped our 0.0% Heineken handed out at the finish, posed for a few photos and hugged each other. The racer’s numbers have a chip in them which gives us three days of free access to the railway, and Ju had bought a one day ticket allowing her to get up to the finish. We used these tickets to get up to Gornergrat, where the ultra runners were finishing their gruelling climb and being adorned in silver and gold blankets to protect them against the cold. The views up there of glaciers and 40-odd 4000m peaks are sensational, a more than fitting end to a day I won’t forget in a hurry.

I did the run in 2hrs, 37 mins, was 19th in my class and 114th overall, from about 800 runners. I also raised over £1100 for the British Lung Foundation (final donations gratefully accepted here), I’m very happy with that.

If you’re interested in doing the race, I can highly recommend it! The 2019 race is on 6 July, and entries are open. Have a look at the official website, and book early as the half marathon fills up. I’ve photographed a couple of pages from the 2018 race magazine to give you some idea of the logistics too.

Cheers, Jay

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Find Places to Sleep

Google Tour Maps from Motorhome Bloggers

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Julie and Jason Buckley - Authors of the OurTour Travel Blog

Thinking about a campervan trip around Europe, or even a year long motorhome tour? You’ll find tons of first-hand information, hints and tips, costs, places to stay, full-timing info (living in a van), practical advice, photos and stories to inspire you here at the ourtour.co.uk travel blog. Why not start with this summary of our tours to date, or dive into a full list of all ourtour blog posts?

Thanks for visiting, Julie and Jason Buckley

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breakdown cover

Brexit Considerations for a European Motorhome Tour

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motorhome on the channel tunnel How cool is this?

Ju and I are planning to start a six month(ish) motorhome tour of Europe in January 2019 (yeah baby!), which means we’ll be out of the country on 29 March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU. Hmmm. We need to think about what this might mean…

What impact will that have on our travel plans? We dunno. Until the details of Brexit are made known and ratified by parliament, we won’t know, but this post outlines the areas we’re starting to consider, just in case. At this very point in time we’re watching and waiting to see what happens in November and early December, but if you plan to travel with a pet, you may need to take immediate action. Read on folks.

Motorhome on Channel TunnelJu’s booked us on the Chunnel in January, so no fear of sea sickness!

Please don’t treat this post as anything but our thoughts on what may or may not need to be done. We’re not experts in any of the areas mentioned and we may well have misunderstood or missed some key aspects. If the UK agrees a deal with the EU, then it’s entirely possible none of the points below will change from the current pre-Brexit scenario. 

If you spot anything inaccurate or missing below, feel free to tell us using the comments section, that would be very helpful.  Please don’t go political on us though. Comments we deem to be political won’t be approved as we’re just trying to keep stuff simple, and make sure none of us fall foul of the law in April next year.

OK, let’s go.

Motorhome Insurance and Green Cards

Best case here will be that our insurance continues to let us travel in the EEA countries plus Serbia, Switzerland and Andorra, without needing to present a Green Card document to the authorities. If we travel outside of these countries (like Morocco or Turkey for example), we currently have to get a Green Card from our insurer in advance (you physically need the piece of green paper, so it is posted to you, this makes it tricky to arrange once you are on the road). For some countries, like Ukraine and Bosnia & Herzegovina, our insurer will not issue a Green Card and we have to buy third party insurance at the border, known as frontier insurance.

Brexit won’t change the need for frontier insurance, but could force us to get a Green Card for the countries which don’t currently need one. Whether this is necessary or not remains an open point until any deal is agreed with the EU. We’re in touch with Safeguard (our insurer) to get their view on the situation and will update this section when we have a response.

Breakdown Insurance

Our motorhome insurance policy includes European AA breakdown cover. We also have a separate breakdown policy with the ‘German version’ of the AA, called ADAC (this option is no longer available non-German applicants, nothing to do with Brexit). Our expectation is that these policies will remain valid after Brexit, as we’ve not been advised otherwise.

Travel Insurance

We buy travel insurance for our tours abroad. The main reason for this is to avoid potentially very high medical costs for emergency repatriation to the UK, or for emergency private treatment abroad. We don’t see this need changing post Brexit, and will continue to ensure we’re covered but will check the wording more carefully if the EHIC becomes invalid (see below).

Internet and Mobile Roaming Costs

At the moment mobile phone call charges and Internet data roaming costs are capped in Europe. This might not be the case at some point post-Brexit, but then again it might stay exactly as-is (here’s the government’s official line on it). According to the BBC if there is a deal: “All EU rules and regulations, including on mobile roaming anywhere in the EU, will continue to apply until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020.”  This wouldn’t apply if there is no deal, but the same BBC article states: “Three has “committed to maintain the availability of roaming in the EU at no additional cost following Brexit”. Vodafone, EE and O2 made similar statements.

We use 1p Mobile (www.1pmobile.com) for our phone SIMs (for voice calls and text messages), and Three (three.co.uk) Internet with Legs (mobile Internet data SIMs). So it looks like we don’t need to worry about the Internet, but may need to change provider for our voice and text SIMs. We’ll keep a close eye on what happens and switch providers if needs be (or consider buying SIMs abroad).

The PETS Pet Passport Travel Scheme

We’re no longer travelling with a dog, after Charlie passed away earlier this year. Our understanding is that even if you have a Pet Passport, it might not be valid after Brexit, depending on whether a rabies inoculation test was done when it was issued.

If you plan to travel in the EU post Brexit with a pet, we’d strongly recommend you contact your vet ASAP to check whether your passport is valid, as you may need to allow up to four months to travel after Brexit in a worse-case scenario. You may also need to obtain a health certificate in advance of any trip, another point to discuss with your vet. The reasons for all this are complex, and explained here.

Customs Controls

It’s possible customs controls will come back into force, so we won’t be able to import large quantities of wine from France back into the UK, say. This is one area we’ll just keep an eye on, and act according to whatever the law says when we cross international borders after Brexit. Needless to say we brought back a considerable amount of wine when we returned from our last trip, just in case!

Driving Licenses and International Driving Permits (IDPs)

At the moment we can use our UK driving license in any EU country. This may or may not continue after Brexit. If it doesn’t continue, we’ll need to buy two International Driving Permits (IDPs) each (to ensure we can travel to all EU countries – France and Spain use different IDPs for example). The IDPs will be available from Post Offices and cost £5.50 each, last a year, and we’d need four of ’em (two each). For more on IDPs and Brexit, read the government’s notice here.

The EHIC Card and Health Insurance 

At the moment we both carry free European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC), which entitle us to access state-provided health care in EEA countries plus Switzerland (read about the cards on the NHS website here). It’s possible the EHIC system will continue after Brexit. In the worse case scenario where the EHIC scheme is discontinued, we’ll need to spend more time checking exactly what our travel insurance will cover before buying it, and possibly budgeting more for medical treatment abroad.

Visas

At the moment, as UK citizens, we can visit most of Europe without applying for a visa (Turkey and Russia being obvious exceptions). It’s not yet clear whether this will continue post Brexit and we can only watch and wait to see what any new requirements will be.

Passport Validity

The UK foreign office has already stated that passports need a minimum of 6 months validity before travelling to the EU. Our passports both have a few years validity on them.

I **think** that’s it. Please feel free to pop any (non-political remember!) thoughts in the comments section below.

Cheers, Jay

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Departmental Roads

D Roads to Stella Plage, North to the Opal Coast

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Zagan the motorhome’s up against familiar pale yellow dunes in the free aire at Stella Plage (N50.47341, E1.57723), just south of Le Touquet on the Côte d’Opale (the Opal Coast). When we arrived yesterday afternoon, 18 of the 20 spaces of the aire were taken, and another 6 or 7 vans were parked up on the seafront. This morning (which happens to be a Monday) pretty much everyone’s gone, so it seems there were a few weekend wanderers here, rather than the whole of France being packed out with camping cars.

The free motorhome aire at Stella Plage on the Opal CoastThe free motorhome aire at Stella Plage on the Opal Coast

Quick aside: France has a thing about posting signs indicating the full details of local laws, so rather than a great big blunt ‘NO MOTORHOMES’ sign on the sea front spaces, there’s a 4 page notice (in teeny weeny writing) giving precise dates when vans can park outside the aire, where they can park, the fact they need to be self-sufficient for cooking, washing, sleeping and toilet facilities and lots of other details we couldn’t easily translate.  After September, the sea front if fair game, but we’re happy we opted for the aire as the dunes we’re sandwiched between are protecting us beautifully from the wind. Every time we come here there are land yachts or kite surfers hammering up and down the coast.

Motorhomes along the seafront at Stella PlageMotorhomes along the seafront at Stella Plage

Now we’re pooch-less, so don’t need to allow 24 hours after a vet visit before heading to the UK, we could quite easily (with some strong coffee perhaps) motorhome our way home from Paris in a day. Get up early, pile up the A16 toll motorway, grab a train under the channel, free motorway it up to Nottingham. But no, we’re WAY, WAY too lazy for that. That and the fact a couple of hours driving serves to seize my upper back into a mass of painful muscle, in a way no number of press-ups, kilometres on the rowing machine or miles of running can touch.

So we’ve stuck to the old way: France’s departmental (D) roads have brought us here, the equivalent of ‘B’ roads back in Blighty. These smaller roads effectively join the dots between French villages and small towns, and since July 1st this year have a blanket 80kph (50mph) speed limit (previously 90kph). The aim of cutting the max speed is simple: to reduce the number of folks killed (roughly 10 a day) or injured (about 190 people a day) on French roads. Will it work? Time will tell, folks still pull off daft overtakes across solid white lines or in the face of fast oncoming traffic when we’re doing the new limit, so perhaps the lower limit will have the opposite effect? Ju’s updated our TomTom SatNav with the new limits, although it’s wrong in some places: sections of road with two lanes on one side and a single lane on the other, with no central divide, are sign-posted at 90kph for the dual-lane side, while the TomTom has them at 80kph. 

We cruised out of the campsite in Paris on Saturday around noon, having had a cracking stay seeing friends, visiting Versailles, gawping at the art and architecture in La Defense, looking around the Pere Lachaise cemetery and doing some Parkrun tourism. From what we could see, but for a section of roadworks on the way into the city, the roads around Paris flowed easily. Except at rush hour that is, when they were jam-packed for a couple of hours each morning and evening: think six lanes of endless brake lights with occasional horns blaring, that kind of stuff. Sundays were devoid of cars mind you: if you’re concerned about the traffic, come to the city on a Sunday and you’ll have the roads to yourself.

After a long section of free motorway and dual carriageway, the road gradually dwindled down to D road as we headed for a wee free aire at a village called Conty (N49.74425, E2.1565), to the south-west of Amiens (which we visited in 2017). We’d been recommended a visit to Arras by a nice British couple at the campsite in Paris, but we both thought we’d already been. Checking our map we just found we haven’t (doh), so that’s one for the ‘next time’ list. Conty turned out to be a good spot for a kip, a small town with boucheries, boulangeries (Ju can’t resist the artwork cakes these places flog, opting to try one called a Glandan acorn-looking treat), a poste, and a tabac (which had burned down). A kid quaintly greeted us with a passing ‘bonjour monsieur-dame’, and a lady opposite the permanently-shut church popped out her front door and asked whether I was cold (I think, my French is pretty rubbish). The aire was a grassy area away from the main road, a perfect spot for a good night’s sleep (we made sure we were at the far end from the cockerels spotted strutting in a neighbouring garden!).

Le Gland - the acorn cakeLe Gland – the acorn cake

Sunday morning we woke to the distant thud-thud of guns. Shop windows in France have us gawping at the array of shotguns, knives, throwing stars, explosive depth charges and the like you can buy and deploy of a Sunday in vengeful war against the local small mammal population. As we drove in among the fields, groups of blokes with dogs stalked through the low crops, guns at the ready, dogs trotting at their feet. They were pretty easy to spot, being dressed in bright orange jackets with a seemingly pointless camouflage pattern. Exactly what they were hunting, and how come their prey hadn’t been blasted out of existence through this relentless Sunday massacre, we dunno.

Crossing the Somme west of Amiens only took us past a handful of war cemeteries. This area of rolling countryside was the scene of human slaughter a hundred years back, and if we’d been further east the green signs pointing to the war graves would have stood at junction after junction. We didn’t stop to pay our respects though, not this time.

Up here at Stella Plage we’re on familiar ground, having stayed on the same spot two or three times before. I really like it here. The fact there’s only a single bar/cafe (open at the weekends) doesn’t bother me. I like the peace, the dunes, the huge beach. It has an easy living feel to me, a little like the Capbreton aire down towards Spain on the Atlantic coast which we first stayed in seven years ago on our first escape from the big bad World.

The sand dunes of the Opal Coast, south of Le Touquet Paris-PlageThe sand dunes of the Opal Coast, south of Le Touquet Paris-Plage

Our ferry home is at 6am tomorrow from Dunkirk (it was cheaper at that time, who needs sleep?), so we’ll head up to the aire at Oye Plage this afternoon, a shortish drive from the port. From there we’ll nip up the motorway and home to Nottingham, popping Zagan back in storage for a few days while we head off on holiday with friends. He won’t be alone for long, as we’re then grabbing him again for a jaunt up to Bonnie Scotland for a mate’s 65th and to check out the North Coast 500. After that, it’s a December back home and we’ve just about decided to use the van to head south in January for a longish tour through the winter months, Greece and Turkey maybe, not sure yet, watch this space :-).

Kudos to Ju! 10km beach run this morning, good work!

Cheers, Jay

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