Originally written 16DEC2006.
SEP2004 + 2006 Interlaken, Switzerland
Jungfrau. What is it? Is it a young woman? Though that is its translation in German, the truth is it is so much more than that. It is a beautiful mountain in Switzerland that happens to be the namesake for one of the toughest marathons in the world. This marathon is run in early September and it is beautiful, but it is much more than just a pretty "face". I want to say that if you never go to Interlaken, Switzerland to do the marathon, Interlaken is very beautiful and worth the trip in itself. I can't imagine a bad time of year to visit this picturesque city. For those that don't know, this is a very challenging marathon. It starts at 500 meters in elevation, peaks at 2200 meters, and finishes at about 2100 meters. If you ever get to thinking too highly of yourself and want a humbling marathon experience to bring you back down to earth, then by all means don't miss this marathon.
This is the retelling of my 2 attempts of doing the Jungfrau, the first being in 2004 and then again in 2006. A Runner's World article about the 2003 Jungfrau Marathon is responsible for first peaking my interest about this marathon. I signed up for this marathon in 2004 after taking off almost 3 years from my first marathon in 2001. I am the type of guy that signs up for something and does it whether I am properly prepared to do it or not. I was not ready for a marathon let alone the Jungfrau Marathon, but I foolishly figured that my casual hiking and biking had prepared me enough. I knew I could walk a marathon in a little more than 6 hours and they give you 6.5 hours to finish so figured I was ready since I was gonna be running most of it anyway or at least the first half. Do I need to tell you how wrong I was? That might fly for most marathons, but the Jungfrau is definitely not most marathons. In 2006 I was fortunate enough to be able to run this with 2 of my friends from HIMC(Heidelberg International Marathon Club), Doug Roberts and Shelley Caywood and we were accompanied by my wife, Vicki, and Shelley's husband, Garth. I came in well trained in 2006 and I thought I was prepared to finish in about 5.5 hours. We shall see.
The race starts in downtown Interlaken and does a loop around a park and some city blocks before bringing you back through where you started and on your way out of the city. The beautiful thing about this marathon is that you have tons of fans to cheer you along in the cities and villages, but you also have a beautiful and breathtaking country side to enjoy with your fellow runners as well. The marathon then brings you through some lovely little villages and countrysides before your arrival into Wilderswil and your first climb worth mentioning. Doug and I got separated from Shelley shortly before here and were wondering why she hadn't caught back up. We figured she was just playing it safe and taking it easy, which proved to be true. It is a nice little climb through some more little villages and along a stream up into Lauterbrunnen. The stream provides a refreshing cooling effect. All was good for Doug and I along this stretch in 2006, but 2 years before this I already found myself walking along this stretch and found myself telling the people of Lauterbrunnen I was kaput(broken). In Lauterbrunnen you are greeted with lots of cheers and support. In 2006 it was nice to see Vicki and Garth(Shelley's husband) here. From here you run out of Lauterbrunn past a few small waterfalls across the halfway point and then back along that same stream into the other side of Lauterbrunnen. At the halfway mark in 2004 my time was 2 hours 29 minutes and in 2006 our time was 2 hours 11 minutes. Shelley caught up to us on this stretch and we were all united again. We were well on pace to make my 5.5 hour finish. At kilometer 25(15 miles) the real race begins and you find everything up to this point was just a casual warm up.
It is here that you hit the longest steepest switchbacks most of us will ever encounter in our lives. These are brutal and the trademark part of the race. To add insult to injury the race organizers start marking ever quarter kilometer. The last thing you want to know is just how long it took you to crawl that last .25K. We all separated here. Shelley's conservative strategy paid off and she forged on ahead. Doug fell back from me and I settled into the middle. We were walking this approx 1.5k-2k climb because as they said in the RW article everyone walks here. In 2004 I had run my last step and this was where I fell behind the pace to make the 6.5 hour finish though I would continue on at a brisk walk. At least in 2006 I was not having to hold onto the rails to pull myself uphill and stop at almost every switchback landing as I did in 2004. In 2006 there was no more running for me from here until I got to Wengen where even then I was only running the flats and downhills. The clock read 3 hours 40 minutes as I passed it in Wengen. It was a relief to see Vicki and Garth here. I gave Vicki a kiss here hoping it might help get me through the last 10.5k to the finish where I would see her again.
In 2004 on the way to Wengen I met up with a guy named Jan from the Netherlands. We would tough it out the rest of the way together. I could have moved faster if I had continued on solo, but I opted for fellowship in suffering since I wasn't going to make the official finish. Jan had to keep stopping due to back pain, but was a great companion. We raided a supply stop that the organizers had closed down and left along the way to the finish. The people we encountered along the way were friendly and encouraged us to keep going though the organizers preferred that we just quit. We reached the finish around 8.5 hours though we had to ask someone where the finish was since it was already torn down. This was the first marathon that I had ever been offered Coke on the course by the organizers. The sugar and caffeine are great and you really don't notice the carbonation.
Back to 2006. I ran some more flats and downhills while walking the climb up and out of Wengen. I hit a point some time after that where I attempted to run a downhill and my hamstrings cramped up in addition to my quads and calves, which were already cramped up. About half a kilometer ahead was a massage area. Of course I stopped. They asked if I had prepared by running any mountains. I thought I had, but when I told them I ran in Heidelberg I was informed that we don't have mountains, only small hills in Heidelberg. In comparison I would have to say they were right. The massage worked out the cramps for about another half a kilometer before my quads and calves were back at, but I could handle them as long as my hamstrings didn't join in. I trudged along just fine until the last 2.5k, where you start about 2k of single track featuring a fairly steep drop off on both sides so you can't really pass. This part was agony for me because not being able to take my full stride brought back all the cramps in my legs.
Doug and I were getting close to not finishing on time and I had been worried about Doug making it since I hadn't seen him after the switchbacks. I got half the way up this stretch before all the muscles in my leg balled up on me forcing me to immediately sit down on the side of the trail. I looked at the fellow runners(everyone was a walker at this point) coming up the mountain and who did I see back a ways, but Doug. I got moving again, but it was probably only about 100-200 meters before I got froze up again and had to sit. I am just gonna say right now, "In case you didn't know, Doug is the Man!" A few minutes later he comes along and asks me what is wrong and if there is anything he can do. Doug tells me he is gonna have me put my arm around his shoulder and he is gonna get me to the massage tent about 200 meters ahead up the trail. Doug gets me there and they help relax the cramps and give us some Coke(pop of course). We get moving and finally put the last of the climbs behind us. Doug was feeling pretty good and asks how I am doing. I said I am fine and told him to go get a strong finish. He goes on ahead and I continue my brisk walk before finding my stride again at 42k. The only reason I found my stride again was because they placed a timing chip recorder right at the 42k mark. I crossed the finish line in 6h25m20s. I had succeeded and gotten my revenge on the Jungfrau. I may not have finished in my goal time of 5.5 hours, but after 2 attempts I have learned to HUMBLY accept an official finish at all in Jungfrau as being well rewarding enough. Shelley crushed us and finished in 5h41m01s and Doug was a couple minutes ahead of me at 6h23m30s.
All I wanted to do was see Vicki, give her kiss, get my finishers shirt and medal, and eat. After showering and eating some more we caught the long slow train ride down the mountain. I cramped up a lot and felt lightheaded and slightly ill. Nothing I could do about the cramps, but I knew the other problem was because I needed protein. The kiosk at the Interlaken West train station had exactly what I was looking for just as it had in 2004, a nice juicy hamburger. It was what I needed cause after eating it I felt better both years.
In 2004 I went back to race headquarters and argued that I still deserved a finishers medal and shirt because they were giving them to people that had gone the first 10k before quitting and turning in their chips at the next aid station. NOTE: they have since changed this policy. Was it do in part to me? Who knows? If I had quit and turned in my chip at the first check point after switchbacks I would have been given my finisher's shirt and medal. I persisted and eventually they gave in and took my name and address to send me the medal and shirt. The shirt they sent was only an event shirt and not a finisher's shirt, but I didn't complain anymore. Jan, his wife, and I then went out to an Italian restaurant before I hobbled back to my hotel and prayed that I would survive to morning. The following week I discovered the Heidelberg International Marathon Club and began to prepare for my second Dublin marathon.
In 2006 the problem was that I was hobbling around due to cramps and soreness and Vicki and I still had to go across town to Doug's room to get our bag before catching our train in about 30 minutes. Doug was the man yet again. He and Garth went to get our bag and with just minutes to spare here comes Doug RUNNING with our bag. He gets us on the train as the door almost closes on him before he can get off the train. DOUG IS THE MAN! The train was nice and relaxing all the way back. The next day I walked the marathon course of the annual Heidelberg International Wandering Club Volksmarch marathon distance. The day after that my 5.5 years of great running in Europe were over as I boarded a plan to the US and back home for leave before we reported to Fort Bragg, NC and the United States portion of my running adventures.