Zen and the art of Alpine racing

22 06 2011

Gigathlon.

The word kind of sounds like the Wrath of God, doesn’t it?

First let’s take the back part of it: “thlon”. “Duathlon” and “triathlon” are the other two common words with this suffix. Any other contexts you can think of? Nope, me neither.

Right, then let’s look at the beginning of the word: “giga” – reminds you of storage space on computers, SD-cards and USB-sticks, right?

OK. So whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with activity, and lots of it. And since this is Switzerland, that means it probably takes place in the mountains, and probably has a few thousand participants with an irrepressible urge to torture themselves. (Taking the software-storage analogy one step further: “Kilothlon” and “Megathlon” just sounded too wimpy, I guess.)

I first heard the word “Gigathlon” when I arrived in Switzerland a few years ago. The Swiss – Masters and Mistresses Of The Universe when it comes to physical activity – invented the Gigathlon as just one more fun thing to do outdoors during an action-packed summer. It is an ultra-endurance race that spans not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE disciplines and is usually held on some (hopefully warm and dry) July weekend in the Alps.

Yep, count 'em. Five.

Altogether the distance to be covered in the 2011 edition of the race – on bicycle, mountain bike, inline skates, by foot and in the water – is 340 kilometers (213 miles), and the difference in altitude from start to finish is 11,111 meters (37,000 feet).

No, that is no typo.

There are three categories: Relay teams of five (each person responsible for one discipline), two (a man and a woman dividing the labor unequally) and one (contested by athletes whose sanity I must question).

A friend and I wanted to put together our own team of five – we had been discussing it since about this time last year. Despite weeks of querying, prompting, nagging and cajoling, we could not find three equally-motivated individuals to join us. She too lost interest and energy, and her last deed before heading off to the beach was to hook me up with a team needing a female skater.

And so lo and behold, in my seventh year here, I find myself as a registered Gigathlon participant. Our team name is: “Isches nah wiiiiit?!” Loosely translated from Swiss German that means: “How much fuuurrrrther?!

So in nine days I will travel to a valley in the southwestern corner of Switzerland with four strangers, sleep in a tent, and skate a total of 55 kilometers over the course of two days. Saturday’s skater route is a relatively civilized and flat 35 kilometers, Sunday calls for 20 kilometers up a sheer mountain face. The relay races on both days start at the crack of dawn (with skaters heading out first) and, if successful, I will have completed my share of the work by 8:30 a.m.

Gigathlon 2010: Skaters trailed by an ambulance.

And now that there is just over a week between me and this year’s race (subtitled: “On the Rocks”), that oh-so-obvious and sneakily familiar question pops into my consciousness like a blinking red traffic light: “What on earth was I thinking?”

Along with its bastard cousin: “Who the hell am I kidding?”

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3 responses

22 06 2011
Leanne Shirtliffe

Umm. Good luck with that.

You inspire me (even though I’m still sitting on my butt).

22 06 2011
Evelynn Starr

You are too kind. I hope my madness is not contagious.

4 07 2011
On the Rocks at Gigathlon 2011 « Evelynn Starr

[…] those of you unfamiliar with Gigathlon, go ahead and read my previous two blog entries, here and here so that the rest of this story makes sense to you. The "race of death" […]

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