Saturday, May 2, 2009

Map collecting

According to Cross Country magazine (edition 119, page 62), competing in the X-Alps costs €7,150, of which €750, over 10% of your budget, goes on maps. I can well believe it! You need every part of the Alps covered at 1:100 000, the turnpoints at 1:50 000, and the most difficult sections at 1:25 000. When you realise that you're likely to walk or fly 1,600km, i.e. one thousand miles, that's a lot of cartography.

The Race Organisation announced the final route recently and there were a couple of surprises.

As announced previously, we start in the Mozartplatz in the centre of Salzburg. We head up to the Gaisberg, the local mountain where we'll run though one of Red Bull's inflatable arches on to the take off. Weather permitting, we'll be taking of at about 1pm, the perfect time to start a long cross country flight.

The first turpoint is the Watzmann peak in Southern Germany. We have to get within 1km of the summit. It's a decent mountain summit and quite steep on both sides so this first turnpoint will be a challenge. If flying conditions are good the leaders might tag it in the early afternoon around 3-4pm , but if we're on the ground then the lead runners won't be clipping the cylinder until the early hours of the morning.

Next up is the Größglocker, Austria's highest peak. I say "next up" but there's a lot of mountain terrain to cover before you get there! Here we need to pass within 5km of the summit. It's high mountain terrain so actually getting physically within 5km of a 4000m+ summit is quite hard. The Größglocker lies on the primary alpine spine so it's a long climb up to it and a long way down on the other side. If you load up my Google Earth file of the route you'll see that, if you're on foot, you'll have to leave the road and follow mountain paths just to get the cylinder. There's nothing difficult about mountain paths per se, it's just that they're a really inefficient way to cover ground compared to slogging along straight tarmac roads, or, better, flying down a straight valley at cloudbase.

After that we're passing south of the Marmolada in the Dolomites, as expected and as in 2007, but it's the next turnpoint that holds the biggest surprise. We have to approach and leave the Matterhorn through a quarter-cylinder North East of the summit. After a straight run/fly across Northern Italy (it sounds so simple put that way but it's several hundred kilometres!) this rule means that we're effectively forced to cross the backbone of the Alps again to connect with the Upper Rhone Valley. There are several options here: you could cross very early into Switzerland to Chur, or later via one of the Gottard Pass, Nufenpass, or Simplon Pass. You could even head directly towards the Matterhorn but then you have to climb the Monte Rosa. The best option during the race will depend very much on the weather, and it's likely that different althetes will chose different strategies depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses. I'd expect the Swiss to cross early in to their home territory where the flying could potentially be very good, whereas the runners might talk a more direct but less flyable route. Whatever turns out to be best on the day, you'll need to have considered every possibility beforehand so you can make an informed decision.

We have to tag the Matterhorn turnpoint from the NE, so we'll end up walking or flying along the valley to Zermatt. It'll make for some spectacular images with the iconic peak in the background, but we have to leave by the same side as well. Given that Zermatt is surrounded by 4000m+ peaks in every direction except NE this is not surprising, but it does limit options that would otherwise have been open to the mountaineers.

The final part, blasting along the Rhone Valley to Mont Blanc (carefully avoiding the Sion airspace of course!) and then turning south for the sprint to Monaco, is the same as in previous years so you know it already :-)

If you haven't read it already, be sure to read Cross Country magazine's interviews with the 2007 athletes.