Tuesday, October 2, 2012

No longer a Jungfrau "Jungfrau"

On September 9, 2012, I had the runcation experience of a lifetime. I participated in the Jungfrau Marathon in Interlaken, Switzerland. Originally, when I conceived of this idea, I was not going to run in the event. It was more for my husband, who at one point several years earlier had become fascinated with the possibility of doing this race. Toeing the start line at 9 a.m., that Sunday morning of race day, I knew two things – I was not as well trained as I had hoped for and there was a very real possibility that I would not be able to finish. But, I was in Switzerland!

The day before the marathon with race
shirt on and the Jungfrau in the background.
The Jungfrau Marathon celebrated its 20th year this past September, and as a special gift to itself, it decided to double its marathon capacity. Normally topping out at 4,000 runners, it opened its starting gate to 8,000. Because the race cannot actually handle 8,000 runners, they solved this problem by holding not one, but two marathons on race weekend – one on Saturday and one on Sunday.

My husband and I were scheduled to run on Sunday. He as a matter of course, me as an exception, because as it turns out this year the race was also hosting the Long Distance Mountain Running World Championships. As such, for the most part, the two marathons were divided along gender lines: women on Saturday and men on Sunday. This was not a hard and fast rule, because men and women did end up running in both events. Some were actually Doublers – running both days. And some, like myself, were no doubt exceptions to the rule. Given the limited amount of vacation time that we had – and the fact that I didn't want to upstage my husband (this was HIS 40th birthday present after all) – I asked for and received special dispensation to run on Sunday. So, as a result, when race day dawned, I was one of about 90 women in a field of over 3,500 men.

So, why the Jungfrau Marathon? Well, why not? Just this year, the Jungfrau Marathon was listed on as one of the Ten Great Races in Amazing Places. In fact, it seems quite often to be listed in top ten lists – most beautiful marathon, most exotic destination marathon, etc. We first heard about the Jungfrau in Runner's World Magazine's “2007 Marathon Guide,” where it was listed as the runner-up in the “Run Up a Mountain” category. (Pikes Peak was listed first.) It had been on the bucket list ever since.

The race itself is not for the faint of heart. It's a full marathon that saves the toughest parts for last. In fact, relatively speaking, the first 15 miles are a breeze. Starting out in Interlaken, you do a loop through town, before heading out into the countryside. You wend your way through several Swiss villages, past small farms, and into the Lauterbrunnen Valley – famous for its 1,300-foot cliffs and 72 water falls. 

The shouts of “Hopp, Hopp” follow you along the way as you are cheered by a host of spectators. Runners' names are printed on the race bibs, so the cheering became personal, as I heard “Bravo, Shannon! Hopp, hopp!” almost anywhere people were gathered to watch.

A lot of spectators in Wengen make for a fun party!
In each village, there seemed to be an announcer welcoming racers by name as they came through and entertaining the throngs of spectators hanging out. Each little town seemed to make this event into a big party – with food and beer, live music or a DJ. The alpine history and traditions of the area were brought to life with many people ringing cowbells as their way of cheering runners on.

In one village, a whole band was present, ringing oversized bells that required two hands to hold. The resulting tones were deafening, and I almost had to cover my ears to make it through that section with my hearing intact. Everywhere you looked, fans were waving Swiss flags, and overall the event was very festive.

Aid stations were plentiful along the route. Every couple of miles or so they would pop up with water, a sports drink, and food items. The day was warm, so as the race wore on it was nice to see some stations offering sponges soaked in cool water.

It is easy to enjoy the first 15 miles of this race, and I did. The scenery is dramatic and stunning in spots, and the terrain is easy – roads, mostly – and relatively flat with only a few rolling hills. Of course, a few of those hills rolled a little more than others, with two in particular taking me by surprise with their height. When compared to the second half of the course on the elevation chart, however, they had barely registered as bumps in the landscape. 

The real challenge of this race, however, comes after Mile 15. That is where you start climbing.

At about Mile 15, runners get on a trail – not too technical, rather a nice hiking trail. It's outstanding feature at this point, however, is that it mercilessly, endlessly winds its way up in an almost three-mile stretch of switchbacks – that's 26 turns taking you up 1,594 feet in elevation. Running at this point is not an option for most people. The grade is at about 16 percent. This is not a technical trail section; there are no step-ups onto rocks that would make you think you should have worked out on a Stairmaster. Rather, you head up on a steep incline with your toes pointing towards the sky and your achilles stretched about as far as they want to go.

From the valley floor below you start your three mile climb to
where this picture was taken from. (Lauterbrunnen below.  Wengen above.)
Not the actual switchbacks to Wengen. This stretch came later, but it gives you an
an idea of what incline looks like if you haven't seen it for a while!
It is at about this stretch, too, that signage on the course goes from being placed at every kilometer to every quarter kilometer.

You wouldn't think a quarter kilometer could last that long, but it does. At just about the time it occurs to you for the tenth time that the climb will never end, it does flatten out a bit.

Finally, at Mile 18, you know you have arguably the worst climb behind you. A short downhill has you running into the village of Wengen where spectators are your reward for making the climb. Even here, they are ready to cheer you on and push you forward with their enthusiasm and encouragement.

Wengen, the morning of the Saturday marathon. Raising the arch, flags
waving merrily in the scant breeze.  Split clock already running for the
sprint awards.
However, getting through Wengen, you realize once again what you already knew: the climb is not over. In fact, although one of the toughest stretches is done, the last 12K continues the theme and it's a tough slog as you climb another 3,280 feet to the finish if you happen to make it there.

Not the best picture, but from this vantage point you can see that climb
awaiting runners in the last 12K.  Below is the village of Wengen. We are taking
the picture from about the level of the finish line.  We were actually in
Maennlichen, but from here we did an easy, flat hike over to Kleine
Scheidegg where the finish was located.
For me, I am sorry to report, I did not finish.  My first DNF was handed to me by a Swiss Alp. Rightly so.  If you are going to do it, do it right!

There were two time cutoffs that I was aware of for the Jungfrau. The first one was at Mile 18, right after the steep upward haul to Wengen. The time for that was 4:10. The second one was at Mile 23.5 at 5:30. Runners need to reach the finish line in 6:30. Having made the first cut-off with admittedly not a lot of time to spare, I thought I had one hour and 30 minutes to make it the 5.5 miles to the second cut-off before the finish. I wasn't too worried about making this cutoff. I was surrounded by other folks and didn't have the feeling of being left at the end of the race. And, as I felt that I was walking strongly on the hill parts (it was strangely a nice break from the running), I felt that with the running parts that I knew were coming mixed in, I would have a good shot at beating the second cutoff. What I didn't know, however, was that there were two sweeper bikes slowly working their way up the field, and if they reached certain aid stations before you did, you were done. Seeing as I stepped aside to let them pass right before one of these aid stations, not knowing who they were, I was particularly irate when it was explained to me that I could no longer continue.

Me at the 18-mile cutoff point.  This would be after a steep three-mile climb.
If this all sounds like sour grapes, that is in part because it is. However, I don't know who I am more irate at – the race for the unclear directions – or myself for not pushing it harder in the first half to position myself better to finish. I suspect it is the latter. It's one thing to DNF an event because you just bomb it and feel awful. It's another thing to do so because you are playing things too cautiously and you just barely miss a cutoff. I will never know if I could have finished the Jungfrau that day. I know I couldn't have gone much faster in the first half, although I think I could have shaved another five minutes or more. I had opted to go to a run/walk from miles 6 through 15, thinking that would help me save energy for the second half. Looking back, if I had it to do again, I would have run more in the first half and not worried so much about the second half. I won't deny that you need to conserve some energy, but at the pace I run, I am hardly ever giving it all I've got.

So, officially, my race was over at Mile 20.5. With only a 10K left to go and still feeling relatively okay, after signing off on my finish and handing over my bib and chip, I refilled my water bottle, grabbed a banana and continued along the marathon course. I didn't really have a plan. The thought occurred to me to finish the race anyway, but I debated too long with myself. Being – at essence – a rule follower, it would have been hard for me to whole-heartedly break away from all my fellow participants who were following regulations and getting on the train for the finish line. Instead, I dawdle-walked for a while, holding an internal debate, telling myself I would just see what was around the next bend. As it turns out, I did this for the next three miles.

Leaving the villages behind, the marathon course takes you relentlessly uphill on a beautiful alpine walking path – a wide dirt path through the forest with glimpses of breathtaking views of the Alps you are in fact wending your way through. The couple of water stations I passed were closing up, but the volunteers freely offered me refills on my water for which I was grateful. With about a 30-minute uphill hike left to the second cutoff point, the views really started opening up. The panorama of the Alps is almost unreal – too picture perfect to somehow not have been painted against the sky. The Eiger, MÅ‘nch and Jungfrau Mountains are framed so perfectly that it's really hard to take it all in.

The race was taking its toll, though. Finally, as I struggled up a particularly tough portion alone, I thought that when I got to the next railway station I would indeed just hop aboard and take the train to the finish. A part of me wondered if I could go the distance, as it were, but as I finally approached the cutoff station, the sight of the marathoners in the distance, snaking their way up a steep, single-track trail along the side of the mountain, and the view of the mountain falling away from the trail, I knew I wouldn't try that by myself. Perhaps, surrounded by others where I could really just concentrate on the person's feet in front of mine, then maybe. I would like to think I could do it – despite my fear of falling from high places. But, alone, with no one around, that is another story, and I am sorry to say that I was not brave enough. That, or maybe I do have sense. I was extremely tired at that point, and still not being an experienced marathoner, I didn't really know my limits. I figured, for me, at that time, trying to discover my limits while clinging to the side of a mountain was not the smartest thing to do.

I pulled in at the second cutoff point and asked the way to the train station. The volunteers there were – as they had been all along the course – exceptionally nice and concerned and helpful. They asked if I had already given up my chip and bib, and when I said yes they presented me with a finishers' medal – much to my surprise. When I tried to wave it off, they insisted. Apparently, as they explained, they feel their race is tough enough that if you make it to Mile 23.5 – even without officially finishing – you deserve the medal anyway. I felt a little funny about taking the medal, but then I thought when in Rome...or this case, Switzerland... So, actually, aside from the fact that I don't have the personal memory of finishing, I came away with the same things everyone else got: medal, shirt, and even the 20th anniversary gift of a backpack.

So, my race story ends rather anti-climatically. I took the train up to the finish line at Kleine Scheidegg – where I was to meet up with my husband. I claimed my backpack anniversary gift with the receipt I had been given when I gave up my bib, and searched through the throngs of finishers and supporters for Hubby, who was able to finish the event. His race went better than mine, needless to say, although he still found it tough. Normally, a 3:20 marathoner, he finished the Jungfrau in 4:50. The first half took him about an hour and 50 minutes, while the second half took him almost three hours.

His report of the heights and views confirmed what I had suspected – that I would have had a hard time doing that last stretch of trail on my own. Hubby reported that the last two miles were very slow. Being on a single-track with not a lot of room to step to the side, he was forced to stick to the pace of the person in front of him – a slow, painful walk. With about a half-mile to go, though, it was a fairly easy downhill into the finish area for him.

Finish area:

So, would I do this event again? Yes. I would try it. The only thing that would stand in my way is that there are too many places to go and races to try. However, I think Hubby and I both fell in love with the Berner Oberland region where the race was held. It's a hiker's paradise, and we have already joked about going back for the 30th anniversary of the Jungfrau. We'll see. One thing I know is that if I do go back, it will be as someone who has completed a lot more marathons than two – and as someone who has a much better understanding of how I manage that distance without the added obstacles of – say, a mountain – added into the mix. Also, I would have a much better training season behind me – preferably one not sidelined by an injury as this one was.

All in all, though, the race was a great experience, and a wonderful learning opportunity for me. The scenery is stunning. Switzerland, and in particular the region around Interlaken where the race is held, is beautiful. The race was very well organized and supported. As a racing tourist, I can't imagine somewhere where you would feel more welcomed. If you happen to be in the area or simply looking for adventure, love mountains, and can do a regular marathon in 4:30 or so, then the Jungfrau is definitely one to consider.

Waiting for the train back to Interlaken.
Hubby looking happy with his finish. Me?
Oh well, I tried.
Other random pictures:
Tent city at the start.
Inside the tent.
The start line, which you actually go through twice: once at the start
and once after three kilometers (after looping through Interlaken).
Waiting for the start.


  1. While I wish you were able to finish, I can't really say anything except congratulations! What a remarkable experience all around! What a stunning course! It'd be tough to be very disappointed in any part of that :) Amazing...

    1. I know, right? I feel like an ass even sounded mildly unhappy with the experience. In the end, I was disappointed, but was able to fairly quickly put it into perspective. I would DNF at a race overseas anytime now! LOL :)

  2. I'm glad you took the medal! I've earned medals for much less (distance and especially effort!). It sounds like a very cool experience. Sometimes the people surrounding a race really make it special, and I would have loved seeing the locals out with their swiss flags. The mountain...well, I bet it was nice from the top, but I can't say I have an extreme desire to run up the side of one. Although I did just sign up for a race that ends with a 1400' climb.

    1. Good luck on your race! How long do you have to make the climb? I am sure you will be brilliant! Yes, I am glad I took the medal, too, but I will definitely be marking it with the mile I was stopped and how far I got. It was an amazing experience, and I am glad I did it. I love mountains. I just wish I were better at running up them. :)

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  4. I hate that you weren't able to finish but it sounds like this was an amazing experience!

    1. Thanks! We had a lot of fun with it! :)