Update: This is an old post from 2007 but i figured i’d keep it here since it continues to attract readers searching for Jungfrau race reports..
The Jungfrau Marathon / WMRA Long Distance World Championship
26.2 miles (nearly all uphill)
6000 feet elevation gain (nearly all in the last 12 miles)
Pre-race: I arrived in Interlaken on Wednesday night after a long but uneventful 16 hour journey (San Francisco – Frankfurt – Zurich – (train) – Interlaken). On Thursday I checked out the top few kilometers of the course with friend and fellow racer Adam Campbell from Victoria, BC. On Friday I did an easy 25 minute run along the river. The race organization was kind enough to put me up in a hotel for 4 nights and provided meal vouchers each day. On Thursday and Friday nights there were athlete dinners, technical briefings, and opening ceremonies where I had the honor of being introduced on stage alongside Wyatt and three other top seeded male runners. A different song was played as each athlete was introduced and jogged down the center of the banquet tent to the stage: they played “Born in the USA” for me. It was awesome. Also, every country with a representative in the race had a flag hung at the ceremonies, which i think is pretty cool. The only downside to arriving early is that I had the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced. Basically, whether I napped during the day or not, I woke up at 3:00 AM every morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. In fact, 6 nights into the trip, I still have insomnia which is how/why I’m writing such a long report on this race…
Race day weather: Perfect – clear skies and mild temperatures (50-60 F at the start, 40-45 F at the top)
Fuel: Ate a bigger than normal breakfast – oatmeal with dates, half of a hardboiled egg, a piece of toast, and about 2 oz. of black coffee. I ate three gels during the race and one gel 45 minutes before the start. Also made a concerted effort to drink two cups of water at every aid station.
Now, if you’re still with me, on to the race…
The Jungfrau Marathon is the most beautiful course I’ve ever seen. The race starts in Interlaken, with the first 5km flat in the city to maximize spectator support. The next 15km climbs gently (800 ft) up the Lauterbrunnen valley, along the river, on rolling singletrack, bike paths and paved roads.
4,000 or so runners filled the starting chute on the main street in downtown Interlaken, while the elite athletes warmed up in front of the starting line. Spectators, at least 3 or 4 deep, lined the sides of the street as far as you could see, and banners of previous year’s champions loomed overhead. About 5 minutes before the start, the announcer once again presented five of the top seeded male and female runners. As they called my name I jogged a few steps in front of the start and waved to the swarm of photographers, trying my best to hide how awkward I felt. I’ve never been a part of something with so much fanfare and hype, and I felt a little out of place. But that’s the great thing about racing in Europe – they are into it! Every race has prize money, helicopters shoot video for TV broadcasts, and people come out to watch it.
At 9:00 a loud canon exploded and we launched out of the blocks. Not getting knocked down was all I was thinking about at this point, as getting trampled by 4000 runners would not be the ideal way to start the race. The cheers from the crowd were deafening as they banged on the guard rails and screamed, and loud firecrackers went off all around us, only adding to the adrenaline rush that is natural at the start.
Two guys immediately went off the front to go for the sprint primes (cash prizes for intermediate points along the race), while a group of 14 or so collected to form the main pack. I tucked in near the back of this group while Jonathan Wyatt (NZ), Zac Freudenberg (US) and Daniel Kipton (Kenya) set the pace. We went through 5k in 16:40 and it felt like we were jogging; same thing when we through 10k in 34:10. However, at the 10k aid station I got detached from the group when I missed the water handoffs (downside to being in the back of the group) and had to stop and grab some water.
Without much road racing experience I am remarkably unskillful at grabbing a cup of water and drinking it while running 5:30/mile pace. I would say 95% of the water typically distributes itself across my face, eyes, up my nose or anywhere except the back of my throat, but the 5% I do manage to get down is accompanied by a large gulp of air. I figured slowing down to drink was worth it to make sure I got enough water during the early part of the race.
At this point I also started to wonder if it was smart to maintain the pace the group was going at. It felt easy now, but we still had 32km to go and 6000 feet of climbing. I decided to keep my distance and not surge to rejoin the group, but basically followed within 10-100 meters of them over the next 10km. The section along the river was very nice – a mixture of gently rolling bike paths, singletrack and roads.
At 20km, the course passes through the center of Lauterbrunnen where at least a 1000 spectators lined the course, and 74 (official count) waterfalls pour hundreds of feet from the steep canyon walls on either side. I saw a BASE jumper pull his/her parachute right above me at one point (and I read the next day that a BASE jumper had died right there the day before).
I could start to feel the gentle climb in my legs and the increased effort that it required, and it reflected in my time through the half marathon (1:15:55), about a minute behind the lead group now, and four minutes slower than what I ran on a flat sea level course in San Francisco in late July. But I felt that I was running the right pace knowing that the hardest was yet to come, and was counting on most of the guys in front of me dropping back once the real climb started.
After 25km, the course turns up the mountain and the real race beings. The steepest part of the race occurs between 25km and 30km where about 1,500 feet are gained. It is viciously steep here. At 30km, the course flattens out a bit and passes through Wengen, a small but cheerful car-less village perched on the side of the mountain.
Despite it’s small size, Wengen was host to the most exuberant, supportive crowd I’ve ever experienced in a race. Spectators were literally lining the street 10 deep on both sides, leaning over the guard fence, waving flags, blowing horns, ringing cow bells, cheering and pumping their fists in encouragement. Dozens of outstretched hands from kids awaited high fives. Meanwhile an announcer was screaming something in German over the speaker system but all I could understand were the sounds of “Gaaaah-len …. Bah-rellllll!!!” and “America!!”. As I ran through Wengen, still alone and in 11th place at this point, the energy of the crowd seemed to literally lift me off the ground and carry me through the town. It was like I was floating in the wind, and it felt like my entire body was buzzing. Who needs drugs to get high when all you have to do is run 5:00 pace through a small village in a mountain marathon? It was one of the most euphoric moments of my life.
The flat section is short lived, and after Wengen the course (mostly cinder trails and soft, narrow dirt roads at this point) continues to climb through steep pastures and tiny villages, and into a pine forrest. Cows and goats roam the pastures with bells clinking below their necks, lazily chewing on grass. Old farmers cutting hey with a sith would pause long enough to smile at you as you run by and say “hoppe! hoppe! hoppe!” (i.e. go! go! go!).
Soon after Wengen I passed one of the other top seeded runners – Daniel Kipton from Kenya. I couldn’t help but feel both pleasure and sympathy passing the Kenyan. Pleasure because he is obviously a great runner who is much faster than I am on flat terrain, but sympathy because he was clearly way out of his element. I also started to realize that I was executing my plan as hoped, as I was starting to reel people in, but I started to wonder if I had gone out too conservatively.
The last 5km are the second steepest of the race, and the most technical, as the course switches to single track with rocky steps, and climbs up along the ridge of the glacial moraine. At this point, you are running directly below three of the most famous 4000+ meter peaks in Alps: The Eiger, Monch, and the Jungfrau, each crusted in snow and blowing snow plumes off their summits into the azure blue sky. A bagpipe player dressed in a kilt signals that you are near the top of the climb, and only 1km remains, which is all downhill to the finish line at Klein Sheidegg (6857 feet).
With 5km to go I caught up to Zac Freudenburg, the other top seeded American runner who helped set the pace at the start. Zac is a great guy who I became friends with after he got 3rd place behind me in Pikes Peak last year. He has a strong road background and ran 2:21 in Boston this year to qualify for the Olympic trials. Given his fast marathon background and climbing abilities, I knew this would be a good course for him. But the strong early pace followed by the steep climb was clearly taking its toll, and he was suffering pretty badly. Still, he was kind enough to hold out his hand for congratulatory slap as I passed by him, and we offered each other words of encouragement. At that point I was in 8th place and feeling more and more confident with each runner I picked off.
I passed two more runners on the steep, technical single track heading up to the moraine ridge, and could see one other runner further ahead. The top was in sight and I knew 5th place was in reach. At this point however, my legs were feeling completely depleted and I was reduced to power hiking with hands on my knees for a few steps on every switchback. My arms started to tingle and was feeling light headed, a tell tale sign that I was right on the edge. But I kept up the cadence and passed my last competitor of the day just below the bag pipe player to move into 5th place. As it turns out, he was a defending champion (in 2000) and runner up last year.
As the trail crested the climb and turned down for the last kilometer towards the finish, I felt the thrill of completing the race. My quads felt like jell-o at first but soon adjusted to the downhill and I was able to sprint down to the finish in good form. The two race directors (who had been following the race by car or motorcycle along the course) were the first to greet me across the finish line and congratulate me. Hot shower, massage, and beer and chocolate immediately followed (yes, at least the last two are available on most mountain tops in Europe).
I am happy with my performance. I wouldn’t call it a breakthrough performance by any means, but I ran tactically and executed my game plan. It’s hard to have a goal for a mountain course you’ve never seen before, amidst competitors you have never met. There are so many unknowns. The climbs were certainly much steeper than I expected, for example. But once the gun goes off you let go of expectations and just compete the best you can. I ran within the means that my training afforded, played my strengths (climbing, endurance), and tried to pick off as many people as possible at the end. If I have any regrets it’s that I have a sinking suspicion that I didn’t leave it all on the mountain. I felt a little too good throughout the race, particularly at the end, and might have let up too much after 10km. Something to remember for next time I suppose. I’d like to do the race again, now that I understand the course a lot more, and know exactly how to train for it.
Above all, the entire race was just an awesome experience. The support and organization from the race committee was beyond expectations and the crowd support was inspiring. And the three hours I spent running below waterfalls and alpine peaks and alongside glaciers was totally surreal. It truly is one of the most beautiful marathon courses in the world.
Finish: 5th Place overall, 3:11:05
Course record holder, three time Olympian, and five time world mountain running champion Jonathan Wyatt won as expected in fairly convincing fashion. Two Italian runners placed second and third, and a tiny Mexican runner got fourth. Zack Freudenberg ended up a very solid 8th, and my friend from Canada, Adam Campbell, rounded out the top 15.
Me, Zac F. (8th), and Jonathan Wyatt (1st) at the awards ceremony
Click here to see some photos of the race