Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about two former Soldotna High School athletes who tested themselves last fall in one of the world’s most rigorous running competitions. Last week, Part One covered the athletes’ background and an early stage of the race. This week, Part Two reveals how it all turned out.
By Clark Fair
As they iced their aching legs in the frigid alpine creek running through town, teammates Brandon Newbould and Brent Knight shivered in a state of near-hypothermia and reflected on the day’s accomplishments.
On the bridge above them, locals and tourists eyeballed the chilly pair, who sat hunched in their running shorts in the clear, shallow water, their bare legs extended across the sandy creek bottom, and their arms curled about their chests. On the bridge, passers-by cheered them on and paused to take their picture.
The two young men had just completed the 22.5-mile Stage One of the Gore-Tex Transalpine-Run, which had begun in Ruhpolding, Germany, and then — accumulating more than 4,000 vertical feet of elevation gain along the way — had followed the crests and troughs of the alpine landscape to this place, St. Ulrich im Pillerseetal, Austria.
Friends since their days as accomplished runners and skiers at Soldotna High School, Knight and Newbould
had traversed that distance in 3 hours and 14 seconds. Their time was 12 minutes behind the leaders, the defending champs from the United Kingdom, but good enough for third place out of about 100 men’s teams, and for a spot on the podium at that evening’s post-mealtime awards ceremony.
However, the celebration that night was not as important at that moment as rest and recovery for the runners, who would be on the trails again at 8 a.m. the next day, and then at 7 a.m. the next, and so forth, for all eight days of the competition that was slated for 189.5 miles through the Alps (from Germany, through Austria, into Italy) and for a cumulative vertical gain of 44,291 feet.
So Newbould and Knight moved, zombielike, from the cold stream to the warm showers available at the racing venue, and from there to rest and put their legs up in the chocolate-brown Volkswagen Vanagon that Knight’s father, Paul, had rented and was using as a traveling getaway for the two runners.
The majority of the 250 running teams in the Transalpine-Run stayed each night in the gymnasiumlike
quarters afforded by the race committee in each host town along the way. Paul Knight, who had originally traveled to Europe solely to be a spectator, said he learned that he could “be of some use” by supplying the van and helping Knight and Newbould just after and just before each race stage.
“They discovered that it would be much more comfortable to sleep up top in the camper van and have some privacy,” Paul said. “I consider my role minor, but I think the boys appreciated it.”
Brent clearly considered his father’s role more than minor.
“Thanking my dad to no end, he had everything laid out for us. Like, we’re across the line, and he’s, ‘Showers are right here. The icing is right over here.’ He
just kind of guided us into each place, so that way we weren’t really thinking about how to find things when we got there,” he said.
Each day, which usually began in the chill of an alpine morning, Paul accompanied Knight and Newbould to the staging area. He collected their warm-ups and any other gear they left behind, loaded up the Vanagon and used his GPS to guide him down narrow, winding mountain roads to the next venue.
There, he would locate a nearby campsite, park the vehicle and scout for a handy stream, the showers, and everything else the runners might need. When they finished that stage, he would meet them with fresh clothes and sandals, clear directions and encouragement.
Frankly, they needed the help. The Gore-Tex Transalpine-Run is a grueling, punishing affair that tests its participants physically, mentally and psychologically. During the latter portion of Stage One, Newbould and Knight (Team Skinny Raven) were wobbly from their final descent, and Knight was hurting because he was inadequately hydrated and had not eaten enough.
In Stage Two, Knight again had problems, this time during the final climb — a tightness in his right
quadriceps that was threatening to turn into a cramp. He and Newbould were forced to walk and then to stop so that Knight could massage the leg before continuing. They finished the stage 30 minutes behind the leaders and slipped to fourth overall.
Newbould — who is 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, compared to Knight at 5-foot-10½ and 175 pounds — referred to his teammate as a “large aerobic machine,” and said that it would be essential to keep him well fed the rest of the way.
Stage Three was the longest stage (29.1 miles) and featured the most elevation gain (7,388 feet). It also became arguably the best stage in the race for Team Skinny Raven, propelling them back into third place and back onto the evening podium.
“Our strategy today was two-fold,” wrote Newbould at the time. “(1) Run a steady pace, avoiding even slight over-exertion at all costs, regardless of position. (2) Make sure Brent eats something every 20 or 30 minutes! Brent must have knocked out a couple gallons of fluids yesterday afternoon in preparation for today … and today he carried a full water bladder on his back.
“In addition, he ate all of my energy gels (I volunteered them), took gels at all three aid stations, in addition to other food and drink at each aid station. It’s like fueling a Lincoln Town Car on a road trip with that guy.”
The Lincoln Town Car purred right along. And so did Newbould, revitalized by the terrain and his partner’s improvements.
“The course felt like an Alaskan training run in the mountains. We even had to use our hands to climb the steepest sections of trail,” Newbould wrote. “Brent came to life in the roughest single track, reverting automatically into a power-hiking rhythm that I could never match. He was a sight to behold, monstrous legs stomping up the steep faces like pile drivers.”
During Stage Four, the runners crossed out of Austria and into Italy. They also raced in drizzling rain, endured occasional blasts of wind, and, at 8,750-foot Birnlücke Pass, scaled the highest point in the race.
Knight and Newbould once again managed to finish in third.
“It was a great stage, but we are banged up,” Newbould wrote. “Both of us have acute soreness in a couple of places, while the general soreness in our legs is somehow becoming status quo.”
As they had done throughout the race, the two men communicated well and used their individual abilities to boost their performance as a team.
“We’re both comfortable in the mountains,” said Knight, an elite U.S. Nordic skier who competes regularly in mountain running races. “(Newbould) trains for marathons, so his technical mountain training was not as good as mine, because he’s been away from it for a few years. But his durability was better than mine — the day-after-day high mileage — where my mileage running is not as much. So we kind of had some in-between. If we both played to our strengths, we’d have a chance to do pretty well.”
And they did do well, but it certainly was not easy.
Before Stage Five, an avalanche on the course required a course adjustment, which added 3.1 miles and nearly 1,000 feet of vertical to the stage. In addition to this increase in difficulty, Newbould also found himself nursing a particularly tender area high in his left quadriceps.
As the terrain took its toll on them both, Newbould felt the tender spot becoming a muscle strain, and he feared that he was holding Knight back — and that it would take a great effort just to finish.
Newbould was able to cross the finish line, with Team Skinny Raven finishing fifth for the stage. The “rescue” he received after the race was even more fortunate. A Dutch runner — a licensed physical trainer and a member of a team forced by injury to drop out of the race — offered to massage the strain and tape the leg for the next stage.
As a result, despite continued soreness, Newbould performed well in Stage Six, and he and Knight were once again on the podium.
After another massage, a restless night with his legs in compression socks, and another tape job from their Dutch friend the following morning, Newbould and Knight hit the trail out of St. Vigil, Italy, at 8 a.m.
Stage Seven proved the most difficult for both men. As they reached the first major climb, Newbould found himself falling behind.
“I felt as if I had no power in my legs,” he said. “I was a heavy, hollow shell of a runner.”
After a few minutes, Newbould said that Knight “bent down and picked up a stick. In my fatigue I barely took
notice, but then saw that he was offering it to me — Brent wanted to pull me up the mountain.”
With Knight alternately pulling and allowing Newbould to chug along on his own, they climbed — and “after a painful eternity,” Newbould said, they attained the summit. At that point, Knight’s legs were exhausted from the extra effort, and their subsequent descent was “numbing, painful, endless.” Both men wept as they crossed the finish line — somehow, once again, completing a stage in third place.
In the 20.7-mile, 4,163-foot final stage, Newbould once more struggled with his wounded quad, and in the end he could not swing his left leg in a full running motion. As a result, Team Skinny Raven finished fifth for the day while landing comfortably in third place overall.
After eight days they had finished 53 minutes behind the second-place German team and more than two hours behind the repeat-champion runners from the United Kingdom.
Later that day, Newbould, who had earlier imagined the end of the race as a triumphant surge to the line, wrote that “a feeling of completion” was, instead, his dominant emotion. More recently, he said, “Afterward, it was nice to know that I could simply sleep and recover. The stress of wondering if I could finish the race was finally gone. I felt pride in Brent and gratitude to God for the race.”
Knight came away with a strong sense of the camaraderie among the many runners.
“You don’t care where you finish so much sometimes, it’s more of an IF you finish,” he said. “Even those guys who are finishing in 200th place, you’re so proud of them when they finish because they just did something huge.
“In the end, in the last stage, the guys that won are standing there with the guys that are finishing in last place — but finishing — and sharing bottles of champagne because it’s such a huge deal to finish that race.”
Knight had blisters on his feet and later lost one of his toenails, but said that those injuries were “no big deal.” Newbould added, “Physically, it seemed that some of my leg muscles were destroyed, but we were able to jog again in another day or two, and things healed up well.”
Both Knight and Newbould are considering participation in another race of this type this year, but they’ve made no decisions as to the venue.
Meanwhile, Knight just finished competing in the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Championships in
Rumford, Maine. Out in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and children, Newbould continues to train for distance, hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon.
And despite the distance between Alaska and New Hampshire, Knight and Newbould remain close — perhaps even closer because of their experience in the Alps.
“Brandon and I accomplished something that was beyond ourselves, beyond what we thought was accomplishable for both of us,” Knight said. “We had to rely on each other, and that reliance on each other was what got us through.”
Gore-Tex Transalpine Run
Sixth annual, Sept. 4-11, 2010
Some comparative figures to keep in mind:
- An official marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards.
- Bird Ridge, which begins at sea level near Mile 102 of the Seward Highway, crests at 3,855 feet. (An adjoining ridge line leads to higher Bird Ridge Overlook, but the mountain race held here each summer stops at 3,855 feet.)
- The distance from the “Y” in Soldotna to the center of Kenai is about 11 miles, and the distance around the entire Soldotna-Kenai bike loop is approximately 22 miles.
- Skyline Trail at Mile 61 Sterling Highway begins at about 500 feet. The “box,” a common stopping point for hikers who climb past the saddle, sits at nearly 3,300 feet.
- The summit of Andy Simons Mountain (near the upper end of Kenai Lake) is one of the highest points on the Kenai Peninsula at 6,210 feet.
Stage One, Sept. 4, 2010 — Ruhpolding, Germany, to St. Ulrich am Pillersee, Austria
- Horizontal distance: 22.5 miles
- Vertical distance: 4,012 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 3 hours, 14 seconds
Stage Two, Sept. 5, 2010 — St. Ulrich, Austria, to Kitzbühel, Austria
- Horizontal: 20.6 miles
- Vertical: 5,938 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 3:29:0 (approx.)
Stage Three, Sept. 6, 2010 — Kitzbühel, Austria, to Neukirchen am Großvenediger, Austria
- Horizontal: 29.1 miles
- Vertical: 7,388 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 4:57:37
Stage Four, Sept. 7, 2010 — Neukirchen, Austria, to Prettau, Italy
- Horizontal: 27.2 miles
- Vertical: 6,453 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 4:34:28
Stage Five, Sept. 8, 2010 — Prettau, Italy, to Sands in Taufers, Italy
- Horizontal: 21.3 miles
- Vertical: 5,916 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 4:00:38
Stage Six, Sept. 9, 2010 — Sands in Taufers, Italy, to St. Vigil, Italy
- Horizontal: 24.6 miles
- Vertical: 4,960 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 3:33:48
Stage Seven, Sept. 10, 2010 — St. Vigil, Italy, to Niederdorf im Pustertal, Italy
- Horizontal: 26.2 miles
- Vertical: 6,440 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 4:16:29
Stage Eight, Sept. 11, 2010 — Niederdorf im Pustertal, Italy, to Sexten, Italy
- Horizontal: 20.7 miles
- Vertical: 4,163 feet
- Team Skinny Raven time: 3:05:07
Total horizontal distance (adjusted): 192.6 miles
Total vertical distance (adjusted): 45,276 feet
Lowest elevation: 2,200 feet
Highest elevation: 8,750 feet
Total finishing time for Team Skinny Raven: 30:56:21