Taking on the trail would already have been a test for the crew that usually trains on the flat streets of Berlin. But the Run Pack Berlin don’t mess around. They set their sights straight on the ultra-distance off road challenge of the Zugspitz Ultratrail. We spoke to Co-founder Henrik Niehus to find out why – and what it took to go from urban to ultra.
Henrik, it doesn’t get much tougher than the Zugspitz Ultratrail. Why did you target such an epic challenge for the Run Pack’s first trail event?
We founded Run Pack over five years ago and most of us have run 5-10 marathons since then. We were looking for a new challenge and the most important thing was to find something we could do together without caring too much about the clock. Trail running was completely new for most of us. We had to prepare and work it all out together. We also wanted to have a proper challenge with a real chance of failure. The 63km Zugspitz Ultratrail, with 3000m of ascent, seemed perfect – especially because it was so far removed from our comfort zone of urban running on the well-known streets of Berlin.
What was the biggest challenge when transitioning to trail running?
The first challenge was the equipment. All of us got super excited about the new equipment we would need. We had endless WhatsApp chats full of recommendations from self-proclaimed experts, from which backpack to buy, how to run with trail sticks and what else we would ‘definitely need’ to survive in the mountains.
The second challenge was the training itself. There aren’t too many climbs in Berlin, so we made regular Sunday trips to Swiss Saxony (a national park outside Dresden) to get a feel for running off road. The other weekends we ran in the woods around Berlin to get the hang of running with equipment on trail-like terrain. We never really managed to overcome the challenge of running with sticks. We all bought some and the team from On showed us how to use them on numerous occasions, but in the end most of us ran without them and we all survived.
What did you enjoy most about your first trail runs?
I’m not from Berlin originally and grew up in the countryside. I really miss running in the woods, around lakes and in the middle of nowhere. So for me, it was about enjoying the nature. This was actually a factor in our choice of race. We didn’t want to find the most difficult one but preferred a scenic route and the Zugspitz Ultratrail was spectacular.
How did the On team help you?
We involved the On team early in our planning, so they were always in the loop with how we were training and where we were struggling. During the training phase, they took us on a trail camp in Bavaria, together with a dedicated team of experts. I think this was the moment it clicked for all of us. The trails there were beautiful, and the team shared so much knowledge and so many little tricks. I finally understood how to pack my backpack, what I really needed to carry and how to run more efficiently. For many of us, this weekend also took away the fear. Everyone was just looking forward to the race itself from that point on.
I’d already run in On shoes in my training in the past but I didn’t know the trail range. I’d always worried about having super heavy ones, designed with protection at their core. Running over 60km with heavy shoes would definitely have killed me. But these shoes were no heavier than my normal training shoes for the streets. What impressed me the most were the traction capabilities. I had to learn to trust them, but once you get there, you can go down even slippery trails super-fast.
Talk us through the experience of the race itself – how did it go?
The closer the race came, the more we all realised what a crazy idea this was. I actually tried not to think about it too much. I think it helped that the 10 of us decided early on in the training that we would run the whole race together, no matter how long it took. We had a few guys in the group that could have finished one or two hours earlier, but it was great fun to do it with such a big group. Everyone struggled at some point in the race but we made it through as a group.
How did it feel to finish?
Arriving at the finish line was really emotional. The last 5km through the village was one big party with lots of people cheering along the streets. I can honestly say that this was the biggest running adventure I ever had and the biggest team achievement for the Run Pack. I still get goosebumps talking about it. Normally, we have big after parties after marathons, but on this occasion, everyone was just really tired and happy. We just had a couple of beers before everyone just collapsed into bed.