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Sky runners

A dream vacation in August for many people includes rest and relaxation at a pool, lake or campsite. Rob Cain and John Price, not so much.

These two Ashland athletes — Cain is 60, Price is 56 — were looking for an active vacation that would end with a new check mark on their bucket lists. Between them, they have run 15 100-mile races and dozens of shorter ultramarathons. This time they were after something more extreme: the Trans-Alpine Run.

A stage race that covers 183 miles over 8 days in the Alps, the Trans-Alpine Run features more than 45,000 feet of climbing and plenty of rain, mud and snow.

Many men their age are more interested in reruns than long runs. This pair, however, figures that the time was right to tackle this challenge.

"I see my biological clock running out, and my ability to do this is not going to be forever,” says Cain

"It's kind of a 'do it before you're too decrepit' thing," Price adds.

A stage race puts a different demand on the body than an ultramarathon. In the Trans-Alpine, after running a marathon in the Alps, runners must wake up the next morning and do it again. And again. For eight consecutive days. Each team consists of two runners who must start and finish together.

"The hardest thing was the progression of what your body did over the course of eight days,” says Cain. “Generally you're getting run down, then more run down. Every day you're slightly less on top of things."

Injuries became the norm rather than the exception. One third of the teams eventually dropped out.

“I think it was on day three or four, between us we had a bloody knee, swollen ankle, taped-up calf, messed-up toenails, blisters,” Price recalls.

Injuries had as much to do with the different terrain as overuse.

"The main difference (between trail racing in the U.S. and the Alps) is the steepness of the trail — a factor of two to three times,” Cain explains.

A slope of 30 percent was typical and is why, these teammates discovered, European distance runners carried hiking poles. Many of the top competitors in the Trans-Alpine Run are mountaineers first and runners second. The frequent snow and rocky, technical climbs on this course suited them just fine. This über-steep hybrid of trail running and mountaineering is growing in popularity worldwide and goes by the name of sky running.

Because the challenges in this race included many faced by mountaineers — exposure to the elements, frequent risk of falls, cuts, bruises — each competitor was required to carry a small backpack.

"There was required gear that includes gloves, long-sleeved shirt — which you might already have started to wear anyway — rain pants, rain jacket, all the normal stuff you'd expect, space blanket, whistle, emergency kit, first-aid kit,” says Cain. “And a course map every day, and they'd check!"

What goes up must come down, and hiking poles can help on equally steep descents, except when there’s mud, which in this case was every day.

“The first day everybody was on their butts, some guys just sat, slid and bounced down the slope,” says Price.

Each stage ended in a different town in Germany, Austria or Italy. At the end of each day’s run, competitors gathered for showers, food and a place to sleep. A total of 377 teams started the race. Some shelled out Euros for B&Bs, but most spread out in gymnasiums each night with sleeping bags and wet clothes. The scene resembled a cross between a military barracks and a refugee camp.

“It was a big snorefest, and you're packed in like sardines,” says Price. “A lot of times there was no hot shower unless you were one of the first people to get there — so you'd get a cold shower. That was rugged. Then you'd see people in the morning in the camp getting up who could barely walk. … Every day at the start of the stage, they'd play 'Highway to Hell' by AC/DC."

Laundry facilities were mostly lacking and were about as effective as standing in a fountain or rinsing muddy clothes with a garden hose, a method Cain and Price resorted to several times. After a few communal nights, the Ashland pair sought out a cheap hotel room and found their run the following day much more agreeable.

The wet and smelly living conditions — combined with the unrelenting pain the Ashland runners endured — were not enough to ruin their alpine vacation.

“It's not always fun and easy when you're doing it, but later on you remember that the rest of your life,” says Price. “You remember the people, you remember the days in the mountains, those are the things you remember, the good things."

To get a feel for the Trans-Alpine Run, including a video, see http://en.transalpine-run.com

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org

Rob Cain, 60, left, and John Price, 56, decided it was time to cross the Trans-Alpine Run off their bucket list.
Runners climb a trail during the 8-day, 183-mile Trans-Alpine Run in the Alps last month. - Courtesy of Rob Cain