Swiss Peaks 360 – An Interview with Tom Hollins and Howard Dracup

Swiss Peaks 360 – An Interview with Tom Hollins and Howard Dracup

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The Swiss Peaks 360 is an ultra-trail undoubtedly among the most difficult in the world: a demanding and technical race. It takes place over a distance of 365 km and a total elevation gain of 25900 m! Going from glaciers to Lake Geneva through the most beautiful alpine valleys of the 4,000s of the Alps.

SCARPA Athletes Tom Hollins and Howard Dracup both were taking on the Swiss Peaks for the first time.

In a race of this length and difficulty finishing is a great achievement – but both of our boys not only finished but ran in excellent times.

Tom finished 12th overall with a time of 99:43:45, while Howard was 22nd with a time of 110:04:32. It is great to see two Brits doing so well in European races!

We caught up with Tom and Howard a week after the race to hear how it was for them, how they are recovering and what is next for the pair.

First up is Tom:

Tom, for those of us who have never been to a race like this, tell us a bit about the format, locations and atmosphere at the Swiss Peaks 360. 

The Swiss Peaks 360 is a 360k point to point race starting at Uberwald in the Swiss mountains and ending at Bouveret on the shores of Lake Geneva. In between it climbs the sides of several mountains and crosses several passes gaining as much vert and high mountain atmosphere as possible. The course is a typical European flagged course with a flag every 50 metres or so. Of course over such a big distance there will always be a flag or 2 that goes missing so it pays to have electronic nav going at the same time to make sure you are on track.

The course has 6 life bases placed approximately every 50 kilometres where you can sleep and smaller intermediate aid stations every 10 to 20k. At all of these aid stations you will get a smile, some words of encouragement and a variety of bread, cheese and dried meats. Several of the smaller aid stations were also doing proper cooked food which is a massive benefit on a long race like this with delights like raclette and lasagne featuring. If raclette doesn’t motivate you to keep moving then the sound of cow bells and the alpine views surely will.

How did you prepare for such a big challenge? 

I think the keys are mental prep, distance, vert and pacing prep, altitude prep and heat prep. Of all of these mental preparation is the most important. I knew the course was technical compared to a typical European race and in preparation I did the Haute route from Chamonix to Zermatt over a week 6 weeks before the race.

This covered the 2 most technical sections on the course so they held no fear for me on the day. It also covered a lot of ground that was as or more technical than that featured in the race. This gave me great mental resilience which really helped. I didn’t stay on the exact Haute route making some small deviations at the end of each day to sleep as high as possible in refuges.

This added extra vert alongside the distance training but also was the best altitude training I could get in. Altitude adaptations don’t persist in any significant way from 6 weeks out but again I had the mental prep of reminding myself what it felt like to move at altitude and what an appropriate pace meant. Unfortunately it snowed when I did the Haute route. This added to the mental prep but certainly didn’t prepare me for the searing heat during the race!

In the background I turned 50 three weeks before the race. This meant an extended family holiday in Wales for a week and an opportunity for some early starts and more mountains on very technical ground. Family always comes first and its important to be home in time for family activities, but having their understanding for training where possible is what makes getting enough training in feasible.

What shoes did you wear for the race?

I started in Spin Ultras size 45 for the first 100k as my favourite shoe with enough cushioning for distance but still with great midfoot hold for precision on technical terrain.

I then moved to Spin Planets size 45 as a higher volume shoe with a bit more cushioning to keep the miles going as the feet expanded in the heat. I was expecting to move to the Spin Ultra size 46 I had in my drop bag before the end of the race but these weren’t required demonstrating that I got the footwear strategy right as well as my feet getting more used to these types of events.

What were some of your high and low points during the race?

I run these races at a very constant pace trying to not to go above the top end of my aerobic zone at all in the first 24hrs and then trying to stay in that zone as long as possible after 24hrs! I was in 110th place at the first checkpoint and 12th place at the end.

From a racing perspective a continued high of this approach is continuously picking off runners in front of you on the course and almost never getting passed, this really helps in the later stages when your head is more likely to go down.

The usual low of these events is the sleep deprivation but my sleep strategy worked really well and I was never hallucinating for long! The biggest low was definitely the heat. It was baking every afternoon and this dramatically reduced the pace of movement as well as making it harder to enjoy the race atmosphere when the scenery was at its best.

That said moving continuously through these environments and being at 1 with the mountains is always the greatest motivator and the greatest high. I just kept an eye on my heart rate and slowed down as required, sometimes stopping to enjoy the view to reinvigorate myself.

You are no stranger to long distances – how was this for you? Any tips for competing in races like this? 

It was a definite success. I fulfilled all my race goals and had a great time. I am pretty heat sensitive and had DNFd the previous 2 times I had attempted long European races in these types of conditions. Finishing is always the hardest part and I was super proud of the fact that I managed. It was also the first time I had completed in a long European race without a support crew. I was lucky in that Maggie was supporting Howard and also gave me some support but I was still over 50% on my own, particularly in the later stages when supporting yourself gets harder. Again I was pleased that I managed myself well without Sara wiping my bum for me.

My top tip is: it is very easy to start these races too fast and very hard to start too slow. If you slightly under perform in the first 24hrs you will almost always get the time back later on. If you overcook yourself you can easily be toast.

If you have a niggle stop and protect it early before it becomes a big problem – this applies particularly to blisters. Its hard to learn how to sleep in these races until you have done them – knowing the distance between checkpoints is key – staggering around hallucinating is not fun and will lose you time.

Lying in bed not sleeping is also not great and can feel frustrating. I tend not to sleep until the 2nd night on these races as I am never tired enough the first night. I then get just enough each night to keep me happy and moving, knowing the length of my sleep cycles and avoiding waking up from deep sleep.

How did you keep motivated during the long days (and nights) of running? 

That was different this race to any other before. Normally the scenery is the main motivator, but it was just so hot. In this race I loved the night running. I have never run all night in shorts and T-shirt for 4 nights.

I put a hat on once or twice but otherwise no additional layers even at altitude. The temperature was lovely for running at night and it felt great to move after the heat of the day. Perhaps that was the key – adapting to the conditions and finding satisfaction in things other than you would usually. I enjoyed the banquet at checkpoints as usual!

This is a tough race to complete, with many physical and mental challenges – how did you feel afterwards? And how is the recovery going?

In all honesty after a sleep-athon in the first 48hrs after finishing I have felt great. Every year I do more strength and conditioning and every year I wish I had done more years ago.

I was broken for months the first time I did one of these races. This time I finished on the Thursday and was back at work on the Monday. I did drive for a couple of days, but I have been cycling to work as usual every day since Wednesday. I am already looking forward to the next challenge!

Many of our readers would not have experienced a big international race like this. How does it compare to big races in the UK?

OK. So I am British and may be biased…..

On the whole British races are the best organised out there. Every European race I have been to there is always some head scratching interpreting what you are meant to be doing and when. It isn’t just the language barrier – its something so very European in attitude.

That said the carnival atmosphere and insane cheese-fest is something you just cant replicate in the UK. The European races have their own special beauty – there are less bogs and more glaciers – and I just love the different people and cultures.

I felt like my French was becoming more fluent by the end of the Swiss Peaks although that may have just been my slurred speech. I sort of love and also hate how the Europeans flag mark their courses. It is a massive piece of work which you have to respect in itself. It does reduce risk in a high altitude environment but I like some navigational challenges alongside my sleep deprivation to up the ante.

What’s next? Do you have plans for other European races?

I fancy a return to the Spine Race at the challenger North in January, but whether or not I compete hard will all depend on whether I need to save some gas in the tank for a shot at the Barkley in Spring – places for that race being hard to come by….

I would love to have a shot at the TOR 450 (Tor des Glaciers) next September as I really enjoyed the TOR 330 when I did it. The Aosta valley is an amazing place and I would love to go back. I haven’t heard from Swiss Peaks whether I will get an invite back for my 1st V50 placing. Having done the course once there is lots I could plan to improve my standing a second time, and it was such a great event. It’s on at almost the same time as the TOR so we will see what next September brings 🙂

Hi Howard, congratulations on completing the Swiss Peaks 360! How did you get on? 

Thank you! I’m quite happy, I think it went quite well! With races as big as this, there’s so much that can go wrong, so to just finish is a big accomplishment so I’m going to be kind to myself and say I’m happy with how it went!

It was also my first big European race and I learnt a-lot! I was 22nd overall, 17th man, 10th in my age category and 2nd Brit in 110 hours!

For those of us who have never been to a race like this, tell us a bit about the format, locations and atmosphere at the Swiss Peaks. 

So, The Swiss Peaks 360 is a single stage footrace that runs across the Swiss Alps. By single stage I mean the clock is always ticking. You can run, walk, eat, sleep and rest whenever you like, theres no end to the day where you all sit down and eat, sleep, recharge and then go again the day after, its a continuous race!

It starts in a little town called Oberwald and finishes at Lake Geneva, the website labels it “from Glaciers to Lake Geneva” which sums it up really well and I think is pretty cool! By the time you get to Lake Geneva not only will you have clocked up more than 360 horizontal kilometres, but you will have also clocked up more than 26,000m of vertical height gain and descent too, so thats like climbing Mount Everest from sea level and going back down again x3 and then also covering the 360km of distance with it! Its a mammoth undertaking, especially when you take into consideration the environmental considerations like the high altitude, the heat and the technicality of the trail underfoot!

You have to carry your own food, water and mandatory kit and there are regular aid stations where you can resupply. Approximately every 50km there is also a life base where you can access a pre packed bag of yours containing personal belongings like fresh clothes. There’s also hot meals, showers and beds. 

You spent some time in the alps acclimatising before the race, how did you prepare? Did this help during the race? 

Yes I did, so 2 weeks prior to the Swiss Peaks I drove over to Switzerland and I camped at 2000m in Arolla to help my body adapt to the altitude. When at altitude the body becomes stressed so the longer you can acclimate in advance, the better you will feel on race day.

A lot of people think that at altitude there is less or no oxygen in the air, this isn’t entirely true. When at altitude the pressure in the air is lower and its this pressure difference that makes the lungs unable to process and utilise the oxygen as it would at sea level. So by living up high for a few weeks your body will adapt by producing more red blood cells to counteract the lower oxygen saturation in the blood.

So for 2 weeks I lived at 2000m and trained daily anywhere between 2000m-3000m above sea level. Over the 2 week period I did notice an improvement in the way I felt and was breathing when training and during the race, personally I think I could have done with another week at higher altitude but I had to stop and taper at a certain point to allow all the accumulated fatigue I had built up over the last 9 months to fully dissipate.

What shoes did you wear for the race? 

I started in the Spin Infinity, as this was the shoe of choice that I had chosen to do all of my training in and they did a great job! Just over the half way point though I changed into some Spin Planets as I wanted some more cushion and they were a great shoe to change into! 

What were some of your high and low points during the race? 

Good question, I had some lows really early on in the race, as early as night one I started to feel really nauseous and couldn’t go at the pace I wanted to.

Quitting crossed my mind but I had a quiet word with myself and things go better after that. Also on day 2 it just felt really, really hot and it made the day really slow and miserable, there was lots of suffering ha! The highest point of my race was crossing the Grand Desert at sunset and seeing a couple of Ibex!   

This is your longest race to date – how did you cope with such a long distance? Any tips for competing in races like this? 

Yes, prior to this race I’d only ever ran 100miles in the Fells of the lake District back in 2020 so it was quite a while ago! There was no real heat and  there was definitely no altitude! I think with races on this magnitude, you have to break it down, don’t even begin to start about thinking about getting to the finish. You need to break it down into smaller chunks.

There were several life bases each approximately 50km apart so I used them to break it down into chunks. Some top tips I can give out are, when it all gets too much, don’t quit, just slow down, this more often than not sorts out the problem! Also, just keep moving, you will feel like your moving slow but the reality is your not going that slow! You can’t go slow enough in these races!! Finally I’d say build up the distance slowly and try to do some 100km/100mile mountain races in Europe at altitude prior to something as big as this, to help give you the mental toughness needed!

How did you keep motivated during the long days (and nights) of running? 

Another good question, to be honest, I don’t really know. I don’t struggle naturally to be motivated because I truly love being in the mountains! If you truly love being in the mountains above a certain point, like on another level, then I believe that you don’t find races like Dragons back, The Tor, The Swiss Peaks as hard as some people do because you are in your element. I was smiling at every Sunrise and every Sunset because I love the way the land looks and I know I get to see the world in a different way to how most people do!

This is a tough race to complete, with many physical and mental challenges – how did you feel afterwards? And how is the recovery going? 

I feel very happy and extremely grateful that I was able to finish with a smile and with no injuries. The first 12 hours I felt tired and sleepy. I was shuffling around. However I ate breakfast the day after and felt really ill, so I was in bed all day, shivering, sweating, burning up, nauseous, upset stomach, swollen feet, I had a blistered mouth and tongue and I was hallucinating.

Then the day after that I woke up feeling very good and hungry and I was able to walk normal with no pain, my feet had returned to there normal size and I my tongue and mouth wasn’t sore anymore! I walked a mile down the road to a burger bar and ate my bodyweight in loaded fries with a chicken burger!

Then the day after that I woke up with coldsores on my lips, blisters on my tongue and a stinking rotten cold! I have been quite run down but physically and muscularly my body has had the fastest recovery ever! I put this down to the amount of volume I did in my training. 1 week out on the exterior I’m looking/feeling good but deep down inside I suspect my Nervous system is still extremely stressed!

This was your first big European race. How does it compare to big races in the UK? 

I think for me I really noticed the length of the climbs and the descents. Some of these hills we went up and down were over 1500m of continuous ascent and descent!

Now if I go to Skiddaw near me the most climb and descent I can get in one go is around 800m! So these hills are twice as big and if your not prepared they will chew you up and spit you out!! Then I think the other main comparison is the environmental factors, so the heat and altitude! Occasionally we can get some heat but its rare we will get 35 degrees in a valley! So for me these few factors make the bigger races in Europe that little bit more difficult.

What’s next? Do you have plans for other European races? 

I’m not sure what’s 100% next, I’m thinking of doing one of the Spine Races. I’m down for doing the Spine North but I might drop down to the Spine Sprint because I want to focus on getting faster.

I’d rather make my winter focus working on speed and if I do the Spine North I’ll need to do some more volume and you can’t do both so I’m thinking Spine Sprint and training for a fast 50miles!

With regards to European races, hell yes to more! I’m hoping to do the Cervinio Matterhorn Ultra Race next year and either the Swiss Peaks 360 again or the Tor Des Geants and maybe some smaller races in Andorra as training races in-between!

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