There’s a loud contingent of German and Dutch runners crowded into the lounge of the Villa, watching recaps from the 2010 Jungfrau Marathon on a flat screen TV and pounding coffee and beer…getting fired up. I am content to sit outside on the patio, contemplating death and the implications of an undereducated American workforce. Balls – I’m just out here enjoying the last glow of the sun defining the mountain landscape around Interlaken. I’ll try to code some Python on my netbook before going to bed, and tomorrow I run the 2011 Jungfrau Marathon.
At the start of the race I decided to snap an image of the start inline with my Ricoh GRD, and it said there was no memory left. As it happened, although I was smart enough to charge the battery, I forgot to put in a memory card. I can still see it plugged into the reader on my computer, waiting there patiently to be retrieved and made ready to record more memories. Maybe I could just use images from my Lauterbrunnen – Eiger Rotstock run? Essentially it was the same views, but my run had more altitude and a little climbing at the end. There were just a few key memories to photograph anyways, such as the guy running as a caveman with a plastic blow-up mauler-club hanging off his back. Or there was the twin tower runner, a guy put a building over this head, with the words 9/11 We will remember written on the back. A fitting tribute, after all, the Jungfrau marathon was on Sept. 10, 2011, just one day before the 10 year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centers of Sept. 11, 2001. Most everyone else just ran in normal running uniforms, stretch pants, tight shirts, the normal garb. I was decked out in Salomon S-Lab running gear (basically the same as my portrait here). A few had custom shirts listing their finished marathons, or finisher shirts from races like the SwissAlpine or Boston or…where ever. I have to say I’ll probably never wear my Jungfrau or SwissAlpine finishing shirts anywhere – not even for a photo shoot. Maybe I’ll put one on my kid if I ever become responsible for one (which feels like a long-shot at this point to be honest, but people keep telling me I’m still young).
The conditions for the race were sunny and clear skies the entire day. It was amazing how clear and blue the sky above the Eiger group was, and this meant an alpine sun beating down on my body. I’m a Pole and Ukrainian mix by history. I don’t really get drunk easily and I can toil in a field all day, but if the sun is beating down on my back it can suck up my energy and endurance quickly and without remorse. That’s one reason why the SwissAlpine K42 wasn’t such a bad trip for me. The sun was barely out and half the race had some form of rain. Cool temperatures, and my body regulates that temperature environment very well – it’s my zone.
The marathon started in Interlaken, just in front of the Hooter’s restaurant. In Switzerland they try to be conservative and instead of two giant eye attracting O’s to mimic the pneumatic attributes of the staff, they have a small, respectable sign that makes you think they serve up owl as a faux-delicacy in hamburger form. The start of a marathon is always filled with hope and apprehension for me. Will I, could I, should I finish? The start is announced and the static topography of heads in front of me start bobbing up and down in alternating rhythms, and as the wave moves forward and cheers erupt from the spectators, you have a tangible feeling that what you are doing is noble, and relevant to the world. Then you stop because the people in front of you stop because the people in front of them ran into the people in front of them, and the process starts again.
The name Jungfrau conjures up notions of high altitude snow capped peaks rising above the Swiss landscape. It gives you the impression of running up through the trees and rock trails to the base of the Eiger. However, my notion of adventure, my dance with the romance of another mountain marathon was wounded, knocked down and kicked in the stomach while rubber hoses whipped me near unconscious – because the majority of the race took place on asphalt and dirt roads.
Asphalt Torture Ordeal
The first 23 km from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen were basically all on asphalt (with some welcome variation). Asphalt – that black hellishly flat torment under my feet. Why do people enjoy running on this hard shit? Completely illogical. The sun shoots back at you from the street and it’s just one foot after the other on the same flat black mother-fucking god-damned spine breaking solution engineered for automobiles. In retrospect, I could have just stayed in Zurich and run through the alleyways in the Niederdorf. In the future I’ll be checking the marathon routes more carefully, and avoid those with excessive lengths of the pointless hard black torment. My body tried to be optimistic and accommodate this madness at first, but after I hit the 20 km mark in Lauterbrunnen my back sort of ceased up and I had to stop to stretch. I was reduced to a near-broken robot, fatigued in the joints by too long a life on the assembly line of some vast post-apocalypse IKEA production facility based on the dark side of the Moon. I just decided to walk until the madness would end and the highway would become trails and would finally begin ascending in altitude instead of looping around the valley for no good reason. Lush green fields all around with mythic rock walls climbing to the sky and I was walking along a long black strip of pain. Very enjoyable.
The asphalt hell was bound to end, and as soon as we began ascending into the woods I began passing people who thought they had left me on the black flats. Finally the black torment was gone and I could jog up the hiking path headed towards Wengen, and then it would be just a bend in the road with the Jungfrau peak in view and then onwards to the mountain trails leading to the finish line. I kept on pushing, my legs starting to burn and the sweat was starting to pour. I was beginning to think I should just walk the rest of the way. But in my despair appeared a savior – and inspiration lifted my soul.
The most majestic moment of the day occurred when I was below Wengen, my legs tired and my heart was protesting in my chest, I thought I would fall in line with the other runners and just walk slowly up the route. Then the mountain air was permeated by soul lifting familiar line, softly and far away at first, it cut through my physical despair as I went higher and lifted my feet upon ancient Greek sandals, beckoning me towards the Gods…“We don’t need no education…teachers leave them kids alone.” Some fantastically awesome person was blasting Pink Floyd the Wall through the forest – energy coursed through my body and I floated up the inclined path, filled with a beautiful spirit, leaving colleague after colleague behind to contemplate the form of my legs ascending the mountain. Philosophically, The Wall is probably one of the most magnificent songs a person can hear on a marathon when the trail turns steep and you think you can’t keep going. The Wall is a mental block inside your head telling you to stop and take a break. Breaking on through The Wall is the mental challenge long-distance running is supposed to represent (although now marathons are more of jogs next to the 100km races). There is nothing more glorious than feeling that energy burst through your body and feeling the weight evaporate as you fly onwards. So, to whoever it was blasting The Wall through the trees below Wengen, you’re awesome, thank you.
This amazing feeling died after I couldn’t hear the music anymore and the route switched back to the asphalt of the Disappointment of Wengen. This is really something I can’t get my head around, you have an awesome, beautiful area to run in, and the organizers decide to include as much fucking asphalt as possible. Why? I know this area, I’ve been up the way a number of times and I know that there are hundreds of kilometers of nice Swiss Alpine Club trails to run on, but we were back on asphalt, the scourge of my soul, the tormentor of my body.
Thanks to the God-forsaken asphalt my hip was sort of killing me beyond Wengen, and I had to walk, there was no realistic choice and I saw no point in hurting my body for an asphalt run. I made my way up past the dorf and onto the dirt road heading eventually up to the scree ridge and the Eiger glacier – nearly to the beginning of the end now. Then I saw that there was a time check point. There was a giant clock and guys starting to draw a line across the trail. They called out my name and encouraged me to press on. It seems (and I would need to independently confirm this) that I was one of the last people to make the cut-off for finishing the Jungfrau ordeal.
A Joyful Exit
Now that my body was brutalized and I could barely run, the fun part of the race began – negotiating a few kilometers of alpine trail, leading up to the high point of the race and an easy descent to the finish line. This last section climbed up through rocks and trees on a mountain hiking trail. I was moving slow, but my slow was still faster than everyone around me. This is the stuff I love to run on. The trails are intricate puzzles of foot placement and climbing. You fall into a comfortable flow of concentration jumping from rock to earth and finding ways to pass the people around you. The scree is the last section, it’s the remnants of the glacier climbing up and up to the pinnacle. This is where people take breaks, vomit, and occasionally need medical attention from the race support staff. I alternated between hiking and jogging my way up, the biggest problem being that I couldn’t easily run around the other folks on the narrow trail in front of me. My heart was pumping like mad and I just wanted to finish as quickly as possible. We ran under farmers waving Swiss flags, we ran past the Alpine horns blowing mythic notes into the mountain winds.
Passing by the last water station I carefully folded my cup and placed it in a garbage bag by the trail. This caught the attention of one of the marathon helpers, who couldn’t believe I would take the time to not only dispose of my trash, but even take the time to fold it up first to reduce the garbage volume. The marathon helpers are lucky if the runners try to drop their cups by the trail instead of tossing them over their backs in an overly dramatic gesture of exhaustion. Yes people, you do have the energy left to put the cup in the garbage bag instead of blindly throwing it into the wind.
One of the coolest things about the Jungfrau Marathon is way everyone addresses you by name (it’s written above your number), from the race organizers offering encouragement to the moms who are happy when you take the time to give their kid a high-five, to the random spectator who yells out, “Hey Mark, the beer is at the end on the right.” And then I saw it, the finish line was just a few seconds away and I pulled out some energy out of my deep near-gone reserves to run over the line in style. I was greeted by a smiling friend of the marathon, who placed a medal around my neck, and I was done.
Beyond the Jungfrau
The Jungfrau Marathon was, fuck…that was a hard run. Excessive asphalt is an unholy way to organize such an event, but probably I just need to stick to mountain marathons. Maybe I’ll start a new Greek myth about a man condemned to an afterlife of running the same asphalt road each day to attone for his sins. I’m not a flat surface runner, it just doesn’t offer my soul anything. I finished in 6 hours, 35 minutes, a full half hour more than I needed for the SwissAlpine K42 - but I don’t like to piss around about numbers and statistics, this isn’t football after all. The Jungfrau is probably an excellent (and enjoyable) marathon challenge if you normally run on roads and enjoy the normality of hard blackness under your feet. The views of Jungfrau and Eiger are amazing, but I’ve been on other fantastic runs this year, and nothing beats the SwissAlpine, where you run in the mountains as opposed to below them. The short mountain trail at the end kills most of the runners – it was where my heart filled with joy and I found the motivation to not just press on to finish but to take my body as far as it could go.
Now it’s the start of the 2012 running season, snows are starting to melt from the passes and I’m thinking, I’m thinking….Adelboden to Kandersteg over the Wildstrubel. And then…maybe the Leadville 100? No, first we start with the Swiss Irontrail T71.