Susa, Italy – 27 July, 2019
It had been on my radar for a long time. If you’re passionate about running / hiking up hills, then the vertical races of Europe are a real draw. It looked like the pick of these challenging events was the K3: 3000 metres of elevation gain in a 9.7 kilometre course, the world’s only triple vertical kilometre race. The Italian town of Susa is the host of this VK world circuit race from some ancient ruins in the town centre at 503 masl to the very top of Monte Rocciamelone at an impressive 3538 masl.
I had dreamed about it for a long time while crushing endless 300-400 metre climbs in the Christchurch Port Hills. I was finally finishing my PhD and this was a real bucket list event that would fit into my plans for an adventure to Europe and beyond nicely. Get psyched and watch Remi Bonnet crush the 2015 edition here!
After an insane prologue in the Swiss Alps, I made it to Susa 2 weeks out from the race to have a crack at the full course in my last big hit out before the taper. With a bit of ‘nav faff’, cattle on the course, and some crazy long grass that I sincerely hoped would be absent on race day, I powered up ‘my best guess at the course’ in 3:48. Respectable, but I was cutting it fine at the second timing gate. The cutoffs had been loosened a little after Redbull, with their strong desire for severely restricting the number of finishers, had dropped the event. However, it was still no joke to get yourself up 2330 metres to the Ca d’Asti mountain refuge in 3 hours.
Training had gone well – not super structured, but super fun. I was confident of a finish and dreamed of breaking 3 hours. How achievable was that?! A long shot, but I wouldn’t take advice from someone who told me to dream small.
After a couple of relaxed weeks catching up with friends and sweating in the heat of Turin and surrounds, I was back in Susa, stocked up with supplies from Lidl and it was finally time to take on the K3. Jogging down the road on race day, my Airbnb neighbour Matthieu pulled up in his car and gave me a lift to the start line. A lot of people looked pretty serious with their warm ups. I was happy to just find somewhere for a nervous pee then line up for the start. The race bibs had little flags showing your nationality, and I met a friendly Aussie with a similar name moments before the race start.
It is a quirk of the K3 that competitors first run 2 kilometres through the town of Susa to the start of the climb in an untimed section, and the race clock, which controls the cutoffs, starts for everyone when the first competitor enters the timed section of the course. Arriving to the timed course, I was already a couple of minutes back and, more crucially, had fumbled and dropped half a snickers bar. We were underway!
Using Jeff Browning’s ‘racing like a slingshot’ analogy, where you build up and finish strong with race strategy divided into thirds (1st third – stay comfortable, 2nd third – stay focused, final 3rd – leave it all out there), I was firstly looking to set a steady pace and stay on it up to the first gate and cutoff. The first section is mostly single track so there was plenty of jockeying for position. I wasn’t looking to go too hard, but made the call a few times to overtake. After some time I identified an ideal pacer and stayed with him. Bright yellow shoes and a hardened look of experience told me: stick with this guy!
The ‘pacer’ passed a few people as we got stuck into the climb, and I kept up. Just prior to the first gate there is a flat, runable section. I wanted to pick up the pace so I did, leaving the ‘pacer’ behind. Was it an omen? Arriving to the first gate in good time, I calculated that I was bang on the split for a 3 hour finish. You know, the sort of ‘in the moment’ calculation that may or may not be right. There was just time for a little coke and hazelnut chocolate from the aid station.
After the gate, you promptly come upon the mythical grassy slopes! It’s steep. It sure is steep. This was an appropriate section for the ‘stay focused’ part of Bronco Billy’s race strategy. The grade in this section of the course exceeds an intimidating 60%. Suddenly your poles are just too long, and the goal of constant motion becomes a serious challenge. I knew how much of a drag this part was from my recce run, but this was still a serious mental test. Your pace slows to a crawl (which probably wouldn’t be a bad technique here) and goals start to slip away. The ‘pacer’ powered on past me and the struggle was certainly real.
You do what you can on the day, and I eventually made it up to the second gate – nicely under the cutoff, but 3 hours was no longer happening today. After a little aid, we were into part 3: leave it all out there. A change of terrain was nice and the final push for the summit is rocky and jagged. We were off the mountain trail at times here, straight lining for the 3538 metre peak of Rocciamelone. The need for some route selection here kept things interesting. Avoiding the looser stuff, which slid you those few excruciating centimetres back down the mountain, was key. Every which way was a bit tricky. I pushed on past the false summit, which I was glad to have prior knowledge of from the recce.
Leave it all out there! I was bloody well trying, but I was bloody well tired. The summit beckoned and in a somewhat anticlimactic moment I crossed the finish line under the sticks and took a short break in the increasingly unpopulated finish area as the weather closed in. I had enjoyed the view after the recce. Today was more of a day to keep moving and get back to town.
I only knew the official time later, taking into account the leader’s start time, but I was a little disappointed to not get closer to 3 hours. It’s easy to overlook what you have achieved and the effort that went into it, when you just consider your A goal. I had got the job done in 3:25, taking a chunk off my recce time and doing what I could on the day. It went well!
The descent was a bit of a drama! Before reaching the shuttle point, the weather closed in completely and we were pelted with hail and rain, making for a sloppy, stinging, and outright uncomfortable time. Pretty well the most unpleasant conditions I’ve been out there in. I carried on to the refuge and had a long and uncomfortable wait for a ride back to Susa. Once back in town I managed to get a lift to the pasta party with a friendly man who spoke no English. Winning! I ate some pasta, saw race winners Martin Anthamatten and Vicky Kreuzer pose with large novelty cheques, collected my finishers thir, and got a ride home with Mathieu, who had a great day and broke 3 hours.
This is when I met Matthieu’s friend Karl. After we started talking, things clicked: “Are you Karl Egloff?” Indeed it was. I had the pleasure of joining Karl and Matthieu for dinner and Karl is really the nicest most down to earth guy… who just happened to have broken the Denali speed climb record recently. Small world.
Thanks to Sportograf.com for the photos! Next stop: Cvrsnica Ultra Trail, Bosnia and Herzegovina!