Europe's Fastest Trail Runner

16th Jul 2011

Each summer the outdoor industry gathers in Friedrichshafen, Germany for the OutDoor Trade Show. A feature of the show is the Gore-Tex sponsored 'Europe's Fastest Trail Runner' competition. This quite crazy competition is part running, part parcour, part assault course and takes place on a BMX terrain park used for the Euro Bike show a few weeks later. Without seeing the course it's difficult to describe just how big and bad the obstacles are…

From the start line the course drops down a steep slope with a one metre vertical drop at its end. Following this, is the first of four huge jumps; the face of each jump rises very steeply for five metres and is almost vertical at the top - it's also gravelly and loose and some competitors simply loose momentum and slide backwards from here. On the other side, the jump consists of large rock blocks randomly and very steeply arranged; last year a competitor broke their wrist falling here. Immediately following the first jump is the second, which is identical to the first. There is then a 180 degree turn to your right, wood chip pits to run across, wooden logs to balance over and then the water filled pool to splash through. It's a hard left turn at the WindStopper corner before another 180 degree turn to the right but this turn has to be done whilst negotiating a jumble of boulders. Now, there is sweeping leftward berm (like one half of a fish bowl). From here it's a straight run into the finish but with two final huge jumps to run over (they are about one metre higher than the first two) and then the brutal climb up a 50 degree slope to the top of a 12 metre tower and the finishing line. Certainly they pack a lot into 250m!

Above: A view of the bonkers course from the top of the finishing tower.

Over the years this race has changed from a friendly competition for exhibitors and visitors at the show into a major marketing exercise for many brands with their respective sponsored athletes being drafted in to compete. Every year the competition gets harder in terms of quality and depth of the field competing.

Last year I'd competed in this race and seriously burnt myself to win my semi (the course record for 2010), only to be told, as I lay exhausted on the finish line, that the final was in two minutes... Somehow I composed myself to start and lead the race until midway when I died. It literally felt like someone had unplugged my heart and lungs while my legs burned lactic, acidic enough to melt my bones. I crawled over the line to finish fourth, which given my years of illness and subsequent loss of fitness was a triumph of mind of body.

One year later and again my heart was beating itself out my chest again. I feel so nervous, it seemed that every one of the show’s 30,000 visitors was outside and watching. Over the last few days I’d worked my way through the qualifiers without any drama and now I stood with three others on the start line of the semi final, with the fastest two from each of the three semi finals going through to the final.

Above: On the left one of the sponsored Vibram 5 Fingers runners and Shane on the right, in one of the heats.

GO! A burst of power and gravity takes over as we head down the initial steep slope. My tactics for this race are simple; hang back and control the race from behind, hoping that superior fitness and power on the final mega incline to the finish would be sufficient. At the summit of the final jump I'm in third place, about three metres behind second but with plenty in reserve. I hit the 'max power’ button for just a few seconds at the start of the ramp and leave second for dead and very nearly pass the leader on the line, who now collapses in exhaustion. Job done. I feel fine.

I watch the female finals and then a Canie Cross demonstration (don’t ask), giving all the men’s finalist plenty of rest as the atmosphere builds; the music is loud, the bilingual commentator whips up the crowd and with the sunny evening weather more and more people are gathering to watch the men’s final.

Above Left: Shane on the left powering up the final finishing tower. Above Right: Shane on the left heading over one of the course jumps.

My experience from last year had taught me that you needed to be close enough to the front to respond to the leader’s speed whilst keeping clear of the slower moving competitors. Watching the heats and semi finals this year it was evident that there were some very fast runners but without exception they were dragging themselves up the last few meters of the finishing slope and then collapsing exhausted. Indeed, after my fourth place last year I did think I was going to die and needed to lay in dark, cool room and be fed cold drinks for half an hour before I could walk or talk!

My heart is in my mouth. I don't think I have ever been nervous like this before. My legs have turned to jelly and I feel faint. My heart is rushing and I am struggling to keep control. Our names are announced and we stand on the start line. This is it. Deep breathe. Focus. In 45 seconds it will all be over. Finally I break through into an oasis of calm. My heart rate relaxes and I am ready.

GO! We are off. Instantly I slot into second, a metre behind the speedy 5-Finger sponsored Italian. We take slightly different lines over the first and second jumps both looking for half a step’s advantage but it makes no difference as we slow for the first 180 degree turn. Wood chip, logs, water obstacles pass and I am still sitting on his arse. I am in control whether he knows it or not.


Above: More action from the heats; shane on the left.

He knows it! On the WindStopper Corner he glances back and then grabs the crash barrier marking the edge of the course and yanks it in front me! I have to dodge right to avoid a collision. I drop back a little to better respond to his gamesmanship. He is three metres ahead as we bank round the berm. I've watched him run in the heats; I know three meters isn't enough. The shock waves of the thunderous landings and radical changes of direction make breathing hard and the berm is the last place on the course that’s flat enough to suck in some deep breathes. I get in two or three.

Third jump, fourth jump, finish ramp. Again, I switch to ‘maximum-effort-full-power-punishment’ mode for the final seconds. The Italian is already slowing on the ramp and I rapidly close the gap. He swerves right, elbows out to block my pass. Contact. I stumble. Hand on the ground. He falls as well but his outstretched hand crosses the line as his body crawls behind. I am a nanosecond behind, still on my feet but still in second. He 'wins' but I (and most of the spectators) know.