I believe Mark Twain is attributed as saying, “Golf is a good walk spoiled”. Well you certainly can’t state the same about the Jungfrau (‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’) Marathon. Though this 26+ mile adventure through Swiss mountain villages and pastures yielding bell-toting cows is quite often little more than a walk or crawl, Mr. Twain would never describe it as spoiled. On the contrary, this journey, beginning in the quaint town of Interlaken at 1800 feet and finishing in Kleine Scheidegg at 7000 feet with picturesque views of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau range so near they appear close enough to touch, is rated the most beautiful marathon in the world. My journey began on Labor Day, in Long Beach.
As I prepared and packed the day before a plane and train would transport my fiancée, Tracy, and I to the gorgeous country known for watches, chocolate, and neutrality, I had no idea that a theme was about to unfold… injury. With my head tilted down to shade my eyes from the sun, I walked between my truck and house in an attempt to load my vehicle and abruptly slammed my forehead into an open window frame. It left a 1-inch vertical gash from which the blood flowed freely. Like any red-blooded testosterone-filled American male, I wanted to let the wound heal by itself, but Tracy convinced me to see if it required stitches… by a Doctor… on Labor Day. Three and a half hours later I returned home with my forehead sealed shut by a product called Dermabond, which is basically super-glue. At least it would look better than stitches in the photos that would soon be taken.
Interlaken is breathtaking, situated in a valley BETWEEN THE Thun and Brinz lakes (thus Inter-laken) on the east and west ends, with its own steep mountain on the north border and the snow-capped Alps to the south. The locals speak Swiss-German, but many also communicate very well in English and are quite accommodating. The town was filled with double the usual number of runners for the event. It was the 10th anniversary of the race, so the organizers celebrated by allowing 3500 people to run Saturday and Sunday! There was a buzz in the air on Friday at the Expo and on the streets in the evening as the excitement built. I was running Sunday.
The sun rose Saturday with a beautiful day forecasted. Tracy and I got up in time to stroll down the main street and grab 2 seats at a sidewalk café where we ate croissants, drank wonderful coffee, and waited for the gun to go off. At 8:45am the first of the two races had begun. We relaxed as the runners dashed by, circled the small town, and returned to be cheered again. Our plan was to follow the course by train, take pictures along the way, and enjoy all the sights and sounds. We got to the 20K mark, Lauterbrunnen, before the lead runners, but when they arrived the enthusiastic crowd erupted with cowbells and mesmerizing chants of “hop, hop, hop, hop” meaning go, go, go, go. The next stop was Wengen at 30K and more of the same. The setting at the “ziel” or finish in Kleine Scheidegg was spectacular. The day was unseasonably warm, yet crisp and clean. This wasn’t the elite men’s race, so the winner only managed a time of 3:20:00. Deciding that we weren’t high enough yet, Tracy and I jumped on another train up to Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe at 11,333 feet. The views were amazing and it was cold! After lunch and moments of awe-inspiring silence, we headed all the way back down to Interlaken. Along the way… it began to rain. The weather can change quickly in these valleys and it proceeded to pour off and on all night long. I was nervous before, I mean first of all, this is ranked as the 3rd most difficult marathon course in the world (behind Mt. Fuji and Pikes Peak). And only 6 weeks earlier I re-injured my reconstructed right knee on a 21-mile training run and hadn’t run since to let it heal the best that it could. My orthopedist didn’t believe it was my ACL again, but instead a possible stress fracture in the tibia. The x-rays were negative and I was never able to get the necessary MRI for confirmation. So I had reason to be nervous, but now it was raining… and I was worried too.
Finally, race day! Some of my fears immediately subsided when I opened the hotel room curtains to see a nearly clear sky. Since the date was September 8, I put on my red, white and blue in memory of 9/11 and support of the USA, then made my way to the starting area. I knew this was not a race for me, but something to slowly savor, so I carried a disposable camera with me rigged in a water flask pouch. The butterflies churned as the race director completed his pre-race acknowledgements and pep talk, which seemed to last for an hour. BANG!! The first 5K through and out of town was a rush of adrenaline. I felt great, but I took it easy letting others go by, all the while smiling and giving high fives. We passed over a river at the 10K mark through a covered bridge. I took a picture with the clock – just over 52 minutes, or about 8:25/mile (maybe a little too fast). The next 10K rolled gradually up and down on primarily dirt paths. There is a 20K cutoff time in Lauterbrunnen of 2:20:00 and I eased in at 1:50:00, but my knee was already hurting. Tracy had repeated our train ride from the day before, and was waiting for me. We hugged, talked and then I gingerly jogged on knowing I was almost half way there.
The course doubled back through Lauterbrunnen again at 25K. By this point I was relegated to walking, which was fine with me, because this is where the race begins to earn its brutal reputation. After a hard right turn, the participants faced a 3-4K version of Hill St. in Signal Hill disguised as switchbacks so you can never really tell when it will end. Coming into Wengen at 30K, there was still a cheering section and I got lots of “hop, hop, hop” and “go USA” support, so I tried to start jogging, but my legs immediately seized up with cramps making me briefly forget about my knee troubles. Some quick stretching relieved the pain and I hobbled up to greet Tracy again. The cutoff time here was 4:10:00, but I continued to be ½ hour ahead of it at 3:40:00. For you math flunkies, that was an 80-minute 10K, definitely not a PR. For the final 12K, I figured I had 2 hours and 50 minutes to make the 6 and ½ hour deadline… no problem… right? I persistently walked slowly up hills and picked up the pace a little on the flat areas. This section of the course is incredible. I kept taking pictures and talking to English speaking volunteers at the aid stations as they comforted me with sports drinks, gels, chicken broth, and praise. It all helped tremendously. As I came upon the 37K marker (only a 5K to go), it occurred to me that I wasn’t wearing a watch since I had no concern for time, but I had a strange feeling that maybe I should be. I limped quickly to 39K where a narrow 2K (1.2 miles) vertical climb over loose gravel started, again with deceiving switchbacks, but this time at 7200 feet of elevation and nearly a full marathon draining my body and mind. Twenty steps up, then rest. Twenty steps up, then rest. The sun was out and the sky was blue, mirroring the previous day’s weather. It felt very warm and I still had the feeling that I needed to hurry. Finally I crested the steep hill and cautiously started down, pausing only to grab some chocolate, which I quickly devoured. At the bottom I saw a man taking my picture. When he came into focus I realized that I knew him from my company. Stephan used to work in Torrance with me, and then moved back to Switzerland where my company is based. He had driven over 1 hour, taken the train to Kleine Scheidegg, and waited for hours at the finish just to support me. I was amazed and excited to see him, then reality hit. He screamed, “You only have 6 minutes left, HURRY!”. It must have been both hilarious and painful to watch me hobble the last ½K. As I closed in on the finish line, I could see that I had made it. 6:27:36! I do like to make things exciting.
The following morning I woke up to find that my knee had stiffened up overnight. I couldn’t put any pressure on my right leg and could not walk. I was fortunate to get a doctor appointment that afternoon. He prescribed me some pain/anti-inflammatory pills and a pair of crutches. Though I spent the rest of my vacation (a week in Paris) on those crutches, the Jungfrau Marathon was worth every step.