I honestly hope that everyone has at least one friend in their life who inspires them, consistently encourages them and supports them, and at times suggests fun adventures that make you feel alive! While I have surrounded myself by many of these type people, Karin George is one of these friends for me. She makes every year's birthday a celebration for herself, where she aspires to have an adventure and truly live! She flew around the world last summer to support me at UTMB (and even allowed me to puke on her shoes at mile 20!). And she constantly responds to my emails with heartfelt responses, sage advice, and a bit of humor. Everyone should have a Karin in their lives!
(Karin and I arriving in Zurich for Jungfrau Marathon)
Anyway, this year for her birthday, Karin wanted to run the Jungfrau Marathon which is in Switzerland. I'm always game for an adventure, and doing a mountain marathon in Europe sounded like a blast...so Karin and I started planning our adventure!
I was particularly intrigued by Jungfrau, not only because it's labeled 'the most beautiful marathon in the world', but because it's a European mountain marathon. The course starts out with about 10 miles of flat road running, then snakes into the valley towards the mountains (Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger) for 6 miles before kicking up for the last 10 miles of mixed trails and dirt paths towards the finish. The views along the way are spectacular, the spectators are numerous and enthusiastic, the vibe is awesome, and it's got a great mix of trails and roads so I would certainly have some fun!
(View of Jungfrau Mountain from the Town of Interlaken, where the starting line was)
Karin and I stayed in the Town of Interlaken for a few days before the race. We enjoyed running on the trails a bit, visiting the quaint stores, and watching the shorter races (and wheelchair races) associated with the Jungfrau weekend.
(Found a green cow, which I thought was fantastic!)
(The view of the mountains from the opposite valley)
While the weather was fantastic for the days leading up to the race, it was drizzling when Karin and I walked to the starting line on race day. I guess it would be a crummier day to race...bummer! I was hopeful that we'd still get some views along the way. Karin and I enjoyed listening to the alpenhorns and watching their color guard throw the swiss flags around just before the official start of the race.
(Early miles through Interlaken)
I wasn't sure what to expect for this race, but most folks seemed to indicate that Jungfrau should take you 60-90 minutes slower than a typical road marathon would take you. Given that I'm likely in about 3:20-3:30 shape, I lined up with the 4:30 group to start. Hopefully I would be able to hang on!
The first few miles felt super easy, so I actually made my way ahead of the pace group - wondering if I was just being dumb at this point, but also not wanting to waste the flatter miles if I could turn the legs over a bit. The first 5 miles or so took us through the Town of Interlaken, through the shopping areas, the neighborhoods, past the train station, it felt like we'd seen most of the Town by then.
Then, the trail turned onto a gravel bike path as we snuck our way away from the Town. However, the enthusiasm of the fans never ceased - we would pass folks cheering as we went, pass a line of kids holding cowbells that were almost half their size as they swung back and forth to make them ring, and hear 'Bravo!' and 'Super' as we ran along. I loved the atmosphere so much that the miles simply passed by quickly.
(Slightly climbing miles in the first half of the race)
By mile 10, the course turned onto some grass, then a narrow gravel path by a river as we climbed up into the valley. Mile 13 brought us into the first mountain village, and folks lined the roadway to cheer us past the half marathon mark. The course looped north out of town for a few kilometers before bringing us past the same mountain village again 5k later. We ran on gravel trails, passed a band of bagpipers, and numerous cowbells as we did this loop. I looked up in awe at the hanging water falls on the nearby cliffs, as the water dropped thousands of feet towards us - simply a beautiful place to run! I was a bit concerned when I looked back and saw that the 4:30 group was only about a minute behind me at this point - I hoped they didn't catch me!
At mile 16, the course turned up...and turned up steeply. For the first time in the race, I was power hiking, along with everyone around me. Rather than clicking off a kilometer (which were each marked) every few minutes, I instead hiked for 5 minutes and looked up to find that they marked this section down to the 0.25 km - I had barely made any progress! The trail was so steep, you were starting at the calves of the person ahead of you. That 1.5 km hike seemed to take forever and never end!
(Power hiking in some of the last 10 miles of the course)
Luckily, after about a mile of hiking, the trail leveled out and even had a bit of downhill. I quickly shifted to running and enjoyed stretching the legs again. I knew that from here on out, the last 10 miles would be a mix of power hiking and running - so I'd better run when I could!
From there, the trail wove through small mountain villages, past the alpine fields with grazing cows, and along dirt paths as it climbed up towards our finish line. We were running into the fog, so the views weren't as spectacular but we could still see the beauty around us. Sometimes, we would hear a cowbell ringing and I would wonder if it was a fan further down the course, or a cow up in the field moving around - either way, I enjoyed the encouragement.
(Loving the section of trail running on the course!)
At the 37km mark, we passed under a ski lift and saw the line of alpenhorns and color guard supporting us along. From there, the course turned to technical trail for a few kilometers, and I surged ahead of anyone gently running around the slippery rocks - this was my type of terrain!
(On the knife's edge, the day after the race)
The course turned up and I knew that we were on the 'knife's edge' section of the trail, where the views are typically spectacular and the drop offs to either side of the trail are pretty steep. Unfortunately, I couldn't see much in the fog, so I focused on powering up this climb knowing it was the last climb of the race.
(Power hiking the last climb before the finish)
At the top of the climb, I heard the bagpiper who is there every year to greet runners at the high point of the course. I was amazed that he was out there in this weather (it was now raining, foggy, and quite chilly - and I was moving!). I gladly ran down the trail towards the finish, but was greeted by one more short climb up and over a rock shoulder before ultimately dropping to the finish.
For the past several kilometers, you could hear the finish announcer echo through the hillside but not see any indication of where the finish line was. So, finally turning the last corner and dropping towards the finish was amazing. The course was lined, many people deep, in cheering fans for this last section. It didn't matter what place you were in, you felt like a rock star as you finished!
(Cruising towards the finish line)
I was pleased to have finished in 4:24 - so ahead of my predicted 4:30 time. However, I had no idea how Karin was doing and I didn't want to miss her finish. I quickly grabbed my post-race beer, threw the thin rain cover over myself that they gave me at the finish, and headed back out to wait for Karin.
(Finishing Jungfrau, in 4:24)
I didn't realize how raw it was outside until I was sitting there waiting for Karin to finish. I warmed myself watching the finishers come in - some with tears in their eyes, some with one last kick towards the line, some high fiving everyone as they passed by. There was so much emotion to take in. Of course, watching Karin finish was the most emotional - she lit up when she heard me cheering for her, and gave a strong kick into the line. I sprinted to catch her on the other side of the finish chute, and she was in tears - just so happy to be out here, running strong, and celebrating her birthday with a fun adventure like this.
(Karin showing her emotions when she finished)
With Karin by my side, we made our way down towards the train station (for our ride back down the mountain) and to collect our finisher shirt and finisher chocolate bar (YUM!). We changed quickly - I hadn't realized how cold I had gotten sitting at the finish line, and made our way to the train and ultimately back down to Interlaken.
(Karin and I already drooling over our giant finisher chocolate bars)
Karin has a few international friends who met us in Interlaken for drinks and to chat. It was wonderful to meet these super sweet and enthusiastic women - it warmed me up from my insides to get to know them a bit, and to watch them celebrate Karin and her birthday.
(Hanging with Karin's Swiss friends after the race)
After a good night's sleep, Karin and I saw a bit of blue sky (but very little) on Sunday, and we decided to take the train back up to the finish line again. We wanted to see if there was a better view of the sights - or at least to explore around the area a bit. The train ride up was actually parallel to much of the course (I had no idea how much we followed the train's route up the mountainside), and we were greeted by snow at the finish line. We got a brief glimpse of the peak of Eiger, I threw my first snowball of the year (well, of the season?) and we even saw a pack of ibex.
(An ibex hanging on the 'knife edge' the day after the race)
Unfortunately, we had to get on the earliest train on Monday morning to make it to Zurich in time for our flight (and due to the train delay - we only barely made it!), so our journey ended there. However, it was an amazing trip with an awesome friend!
(Karin and I near the finish line the day after - with snow on the ground)