Saturday, September 13, 2014

Jungfrau Marathon 2014

Of all the races that I have done since I started running back in 2008, the one that sticks out in my memory the most is definitely the Jungfrau Marathon.  I ran it back in 2009 and have always hoped to do it again one day.  What makes it special is a combination of many things.  Firstly it's a very challenging course with 1800 meters of elevation gain. Starting in Interlaken at 568 meters above sea level, going up to 2,320 meters at the highest point of the race.  However, what makes the race extra special is the breathtaking scenery that the course takes you through and also the incredible atmosphere surrounding the event. Not many races offer stunning views of glacial lakes, mountain rivers, lush green valleys, cascading water falls, Swiss villages, magnificent mountains, amazing glaciers and cows!  If all that was not enough, the icing on the cake is the unbelievable atmosphere created by the local Swiss people, who come out in huge numbers to watch the race and support the runners.  Loud cheers, smiling faces, clanging cow bells and constant shouts of "Hopp Hopp Hopp" were the order of the day. 

Although I had run the Jungfrau Marathon once before, it was my partner Zoe's first time.  I had tried to explain just how amazing the race is but I don't think she really appreciated the wonders that were to come.  We decided to stay in Interlaken for a week, so making it into a holiday with the race at the end of the week.  We stayed with my good friend Andrea who lives in Interlaken and we were made to feel very welcome. This allowed us to enjoy lots of hiking and sightseeing in the area with the race as the climax of the week. 

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Zoe had been suffering an achilles injury, so had not been able to train.  I felt in good shape but we decided to run the race together at a steady pace and enjoy it. Just get to the finish line before the 6hr 30min cut off.  So after having a wonderful week's holiday, we got the the start line along with 4000 other runners from all over the world. 

The course starts in the center of Interlaken and takes you around the town before heading out to the shore of Lake Brienz.  The streets were crowded with people lining the course as we ran the first few kilometers around Interlaken. The atmosphere was fantastic and we were already starting to feel quite emotional. Then we headed out of the town and followed the course to small village of Bonigen on Lake Brienz, then toward the village of Wilderswil at the back of Interlaken.  From here, the course headed up the valley and slowly climbs as it runs along side the Lutschine River.

The course narrowed as we headed up the valley and we took in the views and sound of the river as we climbed and neared the village of Lauterbrunnen.  As we entered the the village we were welcomed by crowds of very loud and enthusiastic supporters.  The emotions swelled and we felt like we were the luckiest runners to be experiencing something very special.  Lauterbrunnen lies at the start of the most beautiful valley that I've ever seen.  A large U-shaped glacial valley with lush green grass and trees at the bottom, then dramatic steep limestone vertical walls on either side. one of the deepest valleys in the Alps.  From the top of these walls, on both side, are numerous water falls cascading down into the valley bottom.  Spectacular!

As we passed through Lauterbrunnen, we had the pleasure of running through the glacial valley and gazed at the amazing views.  To make the vista even more mind blowing, in contrast to the deep valley we were in, you can see the huge mountains of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau (Ogre, Monk and Virgin) directly ahead of us rising high above the end of the valley.  

Upon reaching half way into the valley, we turned, crossed over to the other side, then turned back towards the village of Lauterbrunnen.  Once back in the village, the serious part of the race was about to begin.  The first 25km of the race so far had been mainly flat or steady uphill inclines, an altitude change of approx 230m .  Very runnable. However, now the course changed and the inclines suddenly get much steeper. With 17km to go, we still had 1600m still to climb. Yikes! 

The first steep section took us from Lauterbrunnen (795m) up to the village of Wengen (1,274m). It was STEEP.  We decided to power hike, as did everyone else around us which made us feel better.  This climb went on for about 5km.  Towards the top the incline lessened and we could begin to run again.  We were passing some other runners who were still walking, they must have pushed too hard up the steep climb.  We were pleased and relieved to reach Wengen.  The crowds of supporters here were amazing. So loud and supportive. We felt like super stars as we ran through the main street, high fives we aplenty and our hearts swelled.  We ran through the narrows street of Wengen and started the climb out the back of the village, and heading toward the big mountains.  

After Wengen, the course took us through a wooded area. Constantly climbing were we could run, walk and run again depending on the steepness.  We were passing lots of people now who looked like they were struggling.  We felt pleased to have taken it a little easier in the first half of the race and still have energy in our legs. The course was taking us closer to the big mountains and the huge glaciers.  We felt in awe as we looked up. 

The number of aid stations on the course was incredible.  We were stopping at most of them and filling up on water, soup, coke, bananas, energy bars, gels and more.  The soup was especially good, hot and salty.  Plus there were massage stations at various points along the way. We were tempted to stop for massage but didn't want to break our rhythm or slow ourselves down. 

The good news was that Zoe's legs were holding up fine and our time was actually pretty good. Much faster then we expected.  We had started the race just ahead of the 6hr pacer and had passed the 5hr 30min pacer someway back too.  We pushed on and were now heading up the final uphill section and reaching the alpine region above the tree line.  The course narrowed even further and it ended up being single file for the last few km's.  Our legs were really feeling tired now but we neared the highest point and it was time to grit the teeth and soldier on.  

Finally we reached the top, just a last narrow ridge to ascend where there was a bagpiper and we could see the highest point ahead.  Our emotions took over and a few tears were shed but we made it to the Eigergletscher (2,320m).  We then headed on to the final part of the race, a downhill 1.5km section leading to the finish line at Kleine Scheidegg (2,100m). As we approached the finish line, we held hands and let our emotions take over.  The sense of achievement and gratitude were overwhelming. We embraced and wept.  We finished in 5hrs 15mins.

As we gathered ourselves up and walked away from the finishing line, we saw a sight for sore eyes. A stand giving away free beer to the runners who just completed the race.  The local brewery offering glasses of Rugenbrau beer. We looked at each other and made a B-Line for it. Cheers!! Here's to you, Jungfrau Marathon. We'll be back!!

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