I’m getting ready for ultra mountain marathons like the Swiss Irontrail T71 and need a shoe to help me build up my distance running in the city environment (I hate running on asphalt). I’ve heard good things about the On CloudTec shoes from by a friend who has been running with On shoes on his marathons and ultras, so I picked up the Cloudsurfer shoe and have been running on it the past few days. (more…)
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.
The thing I love about trail-mountain running is that it combines the best elements of speed and terrain. As a runner I move over mountain trails with speed inspired by ski touring. I use the foot work and balance I’ve developed as a sport climber. I stay light and go from valley to peak to valley in one day and feel a sense of exploration that traditional mountaineering doesn’t provide.
In 2011 I started with trail running with the Swiss Alpine K42, a nice little mountain marathon in the Davos region. I continued with the Jungfrau faux marathon and learned how much I hate running on asphalt, and now it’s 2012 and the passes are starting to clear of snow. In a race I look for elevation change and mountain terrain. I look for alpine exposure and the elements. The Junfrau marathon was a big disappointment in this respect, and that’s why this year I have my eyes set on the Irontrail T71.
2012 is the inaugural year of the Swiss Irontrail, with distances ranging from 21 to 200 km it has the longest single stage race in existence. As this will be my first ultra marathon I’m going to start easy and do the T71. The T71 is sort of short by ultra standards, 66.3 km distance but includes + 4’830 m / – 4’830 m. The basic path is Chur - Malixer Alp – Churwalden - Lenzerheide – Rothorn – Arosa – Weisshorn - Joch – Chur. It’s one of those races where you need to take a minimum amount of material with you to reduce the possibility of a runner dying during the event. I have my eyes on a Salomon XA Advanced Skin S-Lab 12 backpack, but have yet to find a way to buy one in Switzerland.
Naturally I’ll needs some shoes for this race as well. My beloved Salomon Crossmax XR shoes from 2011 are at the end, I’ve broken out a new pair (this time in blue) but I’m also looking at the La Sportiva Vertical K shoes. Anyways, here’s a good bye photo of my red Crossmax shoes, still a little muddy from running up and down and then back up again the Hornli in Zurich.
One week to go before the Jungfrau Marathon, and I was in the Jungfrau region to train. This was a special training run in fact, because it was an essentially unplanned for screw up. See, I got a few dates mixed up in my head and when I left the house on Friday morning on the 2nd of Sept. I thought I would be running the Jungfrau Marathon the next day. As it turns out – in reality, the race is on Sept. 10th, one week away. I realized this later that morning, but since the hotel was already booked I figured I would just go there anyways and run from Lauterbrunnen to the Kleine Scheidegg, which is the last 20km of the official Jungfrau Marathon race route. Now I am relaxing on a German train speeding towards Bern with my netbook and a fine Franziskaner Weissbier to recount the adventure, all is well in the world.
A Jog in the Alps
The run up from Lauterbrunenen was uneventful, the roads give way to trees and dirt and little rocks. This climbs passed Wengen and soon the view of the mountains comes into view. Those high peaks kissed with snow fields and glaciers melting into history. I try to get into the Alps and shoot a lot of pictures so maybe one day I’ll show some grandkids what it was like the when the Alps still had ice and snow. I’ve done this route before when hiking with Kate, a friend of mine who was visiting Switzerland and I decided to show her the Alps. Any route which starts in trees and green and ends in glaciers and high peaks is a fun day for me. This route is a fun run, but leaves my body unfulfilled and a lingering desire is present at the end, with a lust for thinner air. When I reached the remnants of the Eiger glacier my legs were a little tired, but I must be in half-way decent shape, because I didn’t feel any need to stop or have a beer at the restaurant. It was still early, just 10:30am and since I was already there, I figured there could be more to do and see. This is the mountaineer in me, always pushing for more. I imagine I’ll feel differently when I run the full Jungfrau Marathon, which starts in Interlaken and ends at the Kleine Scheidegg. But on this day, my spirit desired something more.
It took me just over two hours and thirty minutes to get from Lauterbrunnen to the end of the race at the Eiger glacier (what’s left of it at that altitude). This was only 20 km and I really wasn’t that tired and it was still early so I decided to just keep going. Beyond the Eiger Nordwand train stop there’s the trail leading up to the mountaineering routes, and I decided to just see what was up there. The normal trail stops at this point but there’s one of those nice blue SAC Alpine trails which includes ropes to climb up. I kept ascending till just below the famous wall of the Eiger and then saw a continuation of blue to a little peak to my left. To be honest, if I had had a climbing axe and better shoes I might have just kept on going up – but this of course, would have be irresponsible and…totally awesome (maybe another day). Instead of climbing the Eiger I continued to the smaller peak and a few minutes later I was on the summit of the Rotstock at 2660 meters. At the Rotstock I stayed to run around and pose for some self-portraits, naturally I want to look cool in my Salomon running gear. I also figured it would be a good time to record some thoughts in the SAC summit book. So, in total I started from Lauterbrunen at 796m and ended up at 2660m, a nice workout for the day. This was my version, what I call the Jungfrau-Rotstock half-marathon, which ascends just a few more vertical meters than the SwissAlpine K42.
I’ve never been much of a runner, but mountain running has a fine allure. Being light, going fast and traversing up and down peaks gives me a certain sense of freedom. I find it fun to train for marathons when I take the opportunity to just run and see what I’ll find. You might find Swiss Army tank bases doing target practice or just some peace of mind pushing yourself over passes and through mountain ampitheaters, either way it’s a fun way to spend the day and if you take a camera you’re sure to capture some wonderful mountain vistas. That’s the real reason why I like this mountain marathon thing, the adventure of discovering new places and just pushing myself a little to see what will happen. Cape diem and all that mens sana en copre sana bullshit. Plus I like to dress up like an X-man in Salomon running gear and do something with the look aside from planning a trip to comic-con in San Diego (although it’s on my to visit list).
Next weekend on the 10th of September 2011 is the official Jungfrau Marathon, it starts just in front of Hooters in Interlaken (or in front of the Grand hotel, depends on where you look), and ends at what is left of the Eiger glacier. I still need to find a hotel, I imagine that Interlaken will be booked out so I may be staying in Spiez. I’m looking forward to the starting bell (I’m assuming a giant cow bell will kick things off). I didn’t die on the SwissAlpine K42 so I’m planning to survive and write an article about the Jungfrau Marathon experience. And then, well, who knows? The passes don’t have snow yet so I’ll probably go on a few more running adventures in the Alps before the ski touring season starts.
I think it’s a good think to keep your mind flexible and challenge yourself in the, seep out of your comfort zone and do something excessive. So when my girlfriend suggested I run the SwissAlpine mountain marathon I sort of said “yes” in my heads. The farthest I’ve run so far is 10K at the Detroit Turkey Trot, and that was years and years ago. This is a bit more challenging, but the people in the Swiss Startup community are inspiring, and if they can start cool companies, I figure I can run the K42 SwissAlpine mountain marathon in Davos, Switzerland on July 30th. It’s 1800m of elevation gain, which is more than I normally do in a day of mountaineering, but I won’t be wearing a pack full of climbing gear. Besides, I’m an American and don’t sweat all those little details, I have a mountain heart and fierce, fierce determination, full of undeserved confidence, and anyways, I’m a Doktor of Science and I have a training plan. Now for some full disclosure, I don’t really like running all that much. At least, not on flat pavement, but when you’re running up a mountain you’re connected to the environment, part of the landscape. That’s why I’m doing it, I love moving through the altitude, and thinking that your body and spirit and flowing in the wind. Plus, the running gear that Salomon is offering is hands-down awesome.
I know you should’t do sports because of the gear, but I don’t mind admitting that I’m running the SwissAlpine partially because I get to dress up like a superhero. It makes sense, I openly admit being a gear whore. The Salomon trail running shoes I have are amazing. I had a blister from running in my Scarpa approach climbing shoes, and the Salomon shoes don’t even put pressure on the blister area, it’s just amazing. The XT 5 SLAB running pack I’m looking at and their muscle support clothing also looks awesome, I can’t wait to run in the Wallis with the EXO shorts. It’s the perfect form of functional fashion, clothing which looks cool and actually improves your athletic performance. You’ll never find that mix at Dolce & Gabbana or H&M. My official drink for the event and training period is Isostar. I started drinking it years back when I was looking for a sports mix to help me hike/climb/ski faster and longer in the Alps, and Isostrar does the trick. I haven’t done an testing, I just know I go long and faster when drinking Isostar instead of just water. Gear is motivating, it feels nice to have a pair of Petzl arm warmers keeping you dry and warm when the weather turns dark and thunder rolls from Thor’s hammer across the sky, threatening to zap you with a lighting bolt if you run too slow over the mountain top. However, you have to back it up with results. If I’ve learned anything from the Swiss Startup community, it’s that ideas are useless with determined execution.
How do you train for a mountain marathon? I’ve asked the marathon runners and tri-athletes that I know, but it seems like this isn’t a normal type of race. Being a Doktor of Science, I decided to design a program-philosophy on my own. A lot of sources say things about running long distances and ramping up and ramping down, but that does nothing to address the altitude issue. So, instead, I’m training for the K42 like I would for speed climbing. I go to mountains in Switzerland, and try to ascend them as quickly as possible. For example, I ran/walked up Rigi Kulm from Goldau in 1 hour 50 minutes last Saturday, that’s a pace of about 500m/hour and matches my basic goal for the K42. It means I should be able to finish the K42 in 5-7 hours, which is 1800m up and 1600m down. It’s not for sure I can do it, I’ve never run a marathon before, I just like the mountains of Switzerland. However, I see no point in not being positive. That’s what Americans excel at, backing up an undeserved excess of self-confidence with measured results. In this case, I think a mountain madness training philosophy makes sense. Later this week I’m heading to Bettmeralp to train around the Great Aletsch Glacier. That’s why I’ll attempt a day trip in Bettmeralp, going from the dorf to the Oberaletsch SAC mountain hut and back. It’s an excessive amount of up and down and I’ll be leaving early in the day and coming back late at night. I figure if I just become one with the mountains and altitude and concentrate on being light and fast, I’ll survive. I’ll stay committed to this cause as long as it stays fun. What’s the point if you’re not having fun in life doing what you’re doing? I’ll add the big posts on my blog, but I’ve also started a new Tumblr with all the images and randomness of training for the SwissAlpine, http://myswissalpine2011.tumblr.com/.