Exactly one week before the 2 hour marathon barrier was broken in Vienna, Austria, I was in the county for a race of an entirely different variety. The Kaisermarathon (don’t you love how German smashes two nouns together) is a beautiful mountain trail race in the Wilder Kaiser region of Tyrol, in the Austrian Alps.
The race starts in the small village of Söll and winds its way onto a well-known (in that region) mountain called the Hohe Salve 1,829 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level. On this long awaited trip to Austria I was ready to trek through postcard-perfect scenes of Alpen paradise.
It rained relentlessly.
The Kaisermarathon Race RecapFlying into Munich I stayed with my friends Andy and Franzi Lenk who were fresh off the Berlin Marathon. My trip coincided with Oktoberfest (by pure coincidence wink wink) so my first evening in Bavaria was spent in the storied Hacker-Pschorr beer tent, then the Paulaner tent, standing on benches and hoisting one-liter steins in the air (Prost!) with Andy’s very welcoming friends. This is my kind of carb loading.
After staving off a hangover the next day I drove my rental car the 2 1/2 hours to Söll in the Austrian state of Tyrol. This area is renowned for its winter ski resorts . . . Kitzbühel being the most famous. The Wilder Kaiser (Wild Emperor) mountain range provides a dramatic backdrop any direction you peek. The Kaiser mountains are thus named because they look just like an imperial crown, on account of their many peaks. And perhaps because these lands were ruled by the Hapsburg kings for 600 years.
Tour de Tirol
I ran the Kaisermarathon on October 5th 2019. My race was part of a series called the Tour de Tirol which has three events over three days:
- The Söller Zehner, a 10k
- The Kaisermarathon Söll, a marathon
- and the Pölven Trail, a 23k trail run
If you run all three, 75 kilometers total, you get a special finisher’s prize . . I’m not sure what. I was in town for the marathon. Packet pickup was in a large tent, with a biergarten, naturally! The people were friendly and most everyone spoke English. I picked up my race number and walked back to my hotel.
I knew the weather was going to be terrible. The race didn’t start until 9:30 so I had time to eat breakfast and contemplate the misery that was to be the next 4-6 hours of my life. After 18 marathons I’ve managed to escaped running in the pouring rain at all my races. I knew it wouldn’t kill me but having travelled 4,000 miles to be there, I longed for a perfect day.
The rain didn’t dampen the energy at the startling line of the Kaisermarathon. The runners were there decked out in rain gear and eager to get underway. As I settled into the first kilometer I remember thinking, “There is nothing else I’d rather be doing right now!”
Because of the rugged nature of this race they stipulate that each runner must have the following obligatory equipment: Rescue Blanket, Whistle, Gloves, Beanie, Rainjacket, and Mobile Phone.
I believe this is a good precaution by the race organizers. They didn’t inspect to see if we had the stipulated items but I had my kit in order nonetheless.
We started in the center of Söll and ran west along rolling green pastures of grazing cows. Gradually we climbed up into the tree line where, at least for a few kilometers, we were sheltered from the rain.
The race had manned aid stations at least every 4-5 kilometers and in spite of the weather, the locals were out to cheer us. One guy was playing a trumpet at the start of a long hill. In Austria, like in Switzerland, you hear the crowds call out “Hop Hop Hop” which, I think, is shortened from the word hopsa meaning jump, up we go! They are also found of saying Bravo!
This part of the course was well marked with little flags and if there was any doubt I just followed the runners ahead of me. I was feeling great and managed to run most of the uphills except for the really steep sections.
After 7.7 kilometers we re-entered the village of Söll and ran through cheering crowds back across the starting line in reverse direction . . . something I was a little surprised by. For a flickering moment I thought to myself, “Did I make a wrong turn onto a 8k race? We just came back like a boomerang, is this the end?”
We slingshotted out of town again this time heading east on cycle paths and hiking trails.
The rain continued to pound but my breathable technical running jacket was doing its job keeping me warm. My socks were also still dry . . . but at 14k I distinctly remember running through wet grass and saying goodbye to dry feet. The remainder of my run would be with water sloshing in my shoes. Water water everywhere.
The weather was so schlecht you just had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Angie’s mantra (mentioned on podcast episode 297) “I can do hard things” came to mind.
Whenever the clouds would shift enough to give me a view of the landscape I could glimpse the mesmerizing beauty of the Alps. Even on a crap day the Alps is an epic place to be. We ran by charming little places with names like Scheffau, Ellmau, Rübezahlalm and Jägerhütte. As we ascended in elevation we came upon steep places accessible by cable car. In winter this must be a ski paradise. I could see passengers riding the cables cars and looking down at what must have been a pitiful sight -runners like a string of ants struggling up the mountain against the wind and rain.
Course Cut Short!
When I reached the aid station at kilometer 22 a worker was announcing in German, “Hexenwasser ist Ziel! Hexenwasser ist Ziel!”. I heard my fellow runners grumbling.
The man was saying that the Hexenwasser aid station at kilometer 35 was the new finish line. The course had just been shorted by 8 kilometers due to the severity of the weather beyond that point. It was a judgment call the organizers had to make to insure the safety of the runners. I can’t say I was disappointed by this news. My hands were so cold and stiff I could barely fumble my phone out of the ziplock bag for a photo.
With temperatures hovering around 7 degrees Celsius (44 Fahrenheit) already, the higher we climbed the colder it would become. The Hohe Salve could even get snow. Here is what the official message from Kaisermarathon Facebook page said (translated to English):
That. Was. Extreme!! Unbelievable what conditions the runners had to fight today! The rain and wind were still very strong and cold on the mountain. Finally, for safety reasons, the organizer decided to reduce the course. Unfortunately it didn’t go quite to the Hohe Salve but instead to Hexenwasser which was probably the best solution for this weather today. . . . Hats off to everyone who managed the extremely heavy 35 km!! . . .And of course not to forget.. Thanks to all the helpers who also gave everything today!
Scrolling down in the Facebook comments I could see that this was actually the 3rd year out of 14 that the course had to be shortened or changed.
As I stood there wrestling gloves onto my stiff fingers I made eye contact with a fellow runner and said, “Wie gehts?” (how’s it going?)
He cocked a half smile and just said, “Scheiss”.
The Final 13k
I only had 13 kilometers more to run until I reached Hexenwasser. I thought to myself, “Oh that’s only 8 miles, this will be easy!”. Then we immediately started up a steep hill and I was quickly disabused of that notion.
This felt like the longest 13k in history. The higher we climbed the nastier the weather became. With fewer trees to provide shelter the wind cut into us. I could see why the course was shortened. Visibility was also very low and soon runners would be getting lost. In fact, in some places the tiny flags marking the course were uprooted and the pink arrows they had spray-painted on the ground were washed away. Twice I came to a junction and didn’t know which way to go so I waited for other runners to catch up who knew the way.
The late aid stations had warm soup and fantastic volunteers! My hands were cold and the exposed part of my legs were pink but my core stayed warm. Overall I was feeling good and still hoping the weather would miraculously turn and allow us to continue to the top of the Hohe Salve (the real finish line).
One interesting feature of the course is they have you run through a restaurant. No joke! It was a nice touch.
Hexenwasser means Witches’ Water in German. This is a cable car station on the mountain that has been themed with witches everywhere. In the summer it’s a delightful waterpark for kids.
As I approached the finish I saw my new friends Dominique and Tony who came to the race to cheer me on with their two boys. They listen to the MTA Podcast and reached out when they heard I was going to be in Söll. They made what could have been a miserable day into something truly special that I will never forget. The last thing I wanted to do was come to Austria, run in the cold and rain, and have no friends to commiserate with.
Dominique and Tony live in Munich but keep an apartment in the Wilder Kaiser for weekend excursions in the mountains. We had dinner together the night before the marathon and they said they’d meet me at the finish line. This was yet another reason I was happy to reach the end. They even brought hot soup!
I crossed the finish line in Hexenwasser in 4:49:50. Though the course was short of a marathon they still gave us finisher’s medals and I will display mine with pride. But I’ve decided not to count this race in my official marathon tally since I didn’t run a full 42.2k. This also means that I’ll be coming back to Austria for another marathon since I have the long term goal of running a marathon in every country in Europe.
I picked up my gear bag, changed into dry clothes, and went in search of post-race food.
With Dominque and Tony’s help I boarded the cable car with my wet gear and headed down the mountain. Later we met up for dinner at a nice traditional Austrian restaurant.
So that is the story of when I almost ran a marathon in Austria! It was an adventure I’ll never forget.
A hot shower never felt so good. For dinner I had Wiener Schnitzel, Kaiserschmarrn, and a couple glasses of Stiegl. I slept soundly that night and the next day when it was time to leave Austria . . . the weather was nice. 😂
Before leaving Austria I visited the Hofburg Palace in Innsbruck and saw the famous Goldenes Dachl (Golden roof) and the Hofkirche (Court Church) where 28 larger-than-life statues from the 16th century surround the cenotaph (empty tomb) of Emperor Maximilian I. Notice the statue of Rudolph I (center). You can tell that over the centuries countless visitors have touched his gonads 😂.