I look at my watch: 1:30AM. I groan, and try to go back to sleep, but my heart starts racing as soon as i remember what i’m about to do. I finally drift into a state that is neither sleep nor awake, only to repeat the cycle less than an hour later.
Such is the life of a jet lagged long distance runner the night before a race.
On this particular race morning I was the a small Swiss village of Wilderswil awaiting the start of the Jungfrau marathon, which is said to be the most beautiful marathon in the world. While that claim sounds entirely too subjective, I had run this race once before back in 2007 and found myself in complete agreement. Consider the following:
Roaring rivers, 800-ft waterfalls, quaint villages, clinking cowbells, glaciers and mountains are all discovered along the course. And not just any mountains. The race finishes on the steps of three of the most legendary peaks in all of Europe: the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau. It’s a mountain lovers dream.
The gun went off at 9am and a colorful stream of runners, 6000+ in total, burst across the starting line (it is now the largest marathon in Switzerland, road or trail). Crowds lined up along the starting chute pounded the barriers, rang cowbells, and cheered, as firecrackers exploded nearby. Ah, racing in Europe, there’s nothing like it.
Unfortunately, there were no such fireworks happening in my legs. In the proceeding days I had felt a tightness settle in to my calves that made them tender even to the touch. Perhaps i did one too many workouts the week before, and the air travel probably didn’t help. Whatever it was I didn’t have the spring in my step that you always hope for on race day. But i didn’t want that to be an excuse not to run my best, so I tried to remain patient, hopeful that the legs would eventually come around and loosen up.
I was here to participate in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge (or Championship, depending on who you ask) with a USA team that included 5 guys and 5 women. We would compete individually for overall placement in the race but with the added context that our three fastest runners would score for team honors. The unique profile of the race (and significant prize money — $56,000 in total) draws an impressive pool of backgrounds and talent. 70 countries in total were represented, including usual suspects such as Switzerland, Austria, Germany, but also speed powerhouses like Kenya and Ethiopia. Reading through the bios of these athletes, it was not uncommon to see marathon PRs in the 2:14-2:20 range, with mountain experience to boot. Mountain racing in Europe is the real deal.
After running through the first 10k in 36min (5:47 pace) a lead group of ~20 had already gone off the front and I had no choice but to settle in with an equally sized chase group to continue running what felt to be a sensible pace. Although my breathing felt relaxed, my legs were feeling flat, and it seemed like my calves might cramp up at any time. This is just the warmup, I kept saying to myself.
From 10km to 21km the course is gently uphill (2% grade avg.), and I could see our pace slowing on my Garmin. At that point I went off the front of our chase group to push the pace a bit, because I knew I wanted to go through the first half in 1h:16m or faster.
My goal for this race was to improve upon the time I ran in 2007 (3:11:05), when I finished 5th. To do that, I knew I had to train smarter and more effectively to make up for whatever natural speed I’ve lost (and work/life responsibilities gained) since then. So I studied the course in great detail over the summer and identified each unique segment of the race, noting it’s length and grade (steepness).*
I used this information to match similar sections of trails and roads near my house (with a little help from Strava!) and trained assiduously on them with hill repeats and tempo runs to get my body dialed to those gradients. I love this kind of focused training and i saw considerable improvement along the way.
Going through Lauterbrunnen at the halfway point I was elated by the hundreds of spectators lining the streets cheering and screaming. High fives were exchanged as I floated through the crowd. But it was only temporary relief from the sinking feeling of seeing my time (1h:19m:33s) nearly 4 minutes slower than in 2007. I was way off my targeted pace. I needed a hill.
The start of the climb finally arrived just before km 26 and i was in 25th place, with the chase group not far behind but nobody in sight ahead of me. I told myself “the real race starts now”.
The first few km of the climb are outrageously steep), and although I felt my confidence returning in more familiar terrain, I was gaining little ground on the runners behind me. For the first 8km of the climb it felt like i was running by brute force and will, with little energy to enjoy the incredible event I was participating in. The realization that I wasn’t enjoying myself frustrated me even more than my pace.
At around 33km, the first glimmers of hope started to appear. I could see runners ahead of me for the first time since the first 10km of the race. Despite how poorly I was feeling, I was finally starting to reel people in. After passing the first few stragglers, i felt some adrenalin releasing, and the tension and tightness in my legs start to ease up. I pounded my 4th gel to try and supercharge the sudden wellspring of energy. Boom! It worked – before I knew it, I was dancing up the mountain with lightness and joy that I hadn’t felt all day, and was passing people like they were standing still. I was finally running the race I had imagined all along, and it felt spectacular.
I ended up passing 10 people in the last 10km and ran the fastest split among all competitors on the steepest and most spectacular final climb before the finish. Near the top of the climb, I passed a dazed and stumbling Ethiopian, clearly out of his element. Knowing that his 10k PR is likely 5 minutes faster than my own, i sprinted down the last kilometer to the finish with reckless (and fearful) abandon and crossed the line in 3:10:58 for 11th place.
In the end, I felt elated by my strong finish, relieved to run faster (incredibly, by less than 10 seconds!) than in 2007 when I was 5 years younger, and yet puzzled by how poorly I felt early on. Under-trained for the flat stuff maybe? Over-trained in general (i won the Mt Tam Hill Climb six day prior, maybe i wasn’t recovered)? Or maybe I’m turning into an ultra runner and need 30km just to warm up. These are things to ponder as I take a little break from training this month…
As for the team competition: my time, combined with Sage Canaday’s 5th place time and Zac Freudenburg’s 32nd place time, earned Team USA the silver medal, with the local Swiss team taking gold, and Germany staking bronze. Josh Ferenc and Jason Bryant put in gutsy performances for the US as well, finishing 43rd and 63rd respectively, despite some hardships in the second half.
The women put in a great performance the day before, taking home the gold in the team comp.
- Results: Men | Women
- Article: Team USA Races to Silver
- Strava: GPS recording
- Video: YouTube footage from Sage Canaday
- Race report: 2007
*The breakdown of the course looks alittle something like this:
10km (flat) + 11km (2% grade) + 5km (flat) + 4km@18% + 8km@7% + 3km@18% + 1.2km downhill = 42.2km with 6000 ft of climbing.