Thursday, 16 September 2010

Hopp Hopp - Jungfrau Marathon 2010 Race Report

After a 3 hour picturesque train journey from Geneva Airport, my wife and I were standing at the train station at Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. I had completely forgotten about the race coming up a few days later. The views were magnificent boasting snow topped mountains, waterfalls gushing off the canyon falls, bell jangling mountain cows and fresh air. You know, the kind of postcard style pictures you see of Switzerland. In fact, the place was so clean you could have eaten off the restaurant urinals!

This is a place that is not short of adventure. On our way to the chalet we could not make out this ripping sound high in the air. Having squinted up towards the mountains we could see it was a bat-shape base jumper, jumping of the canyons into a field. Mad!

A couple of days before the race I had decided to recce the Lauterbrunnen to Wengen part of the course (around 8 miles there and back) which later turned out to be both a good and bad decision. Good because I knew what was coming up at about 25km into the course, bad because I had destroyed my hamstrings on what the club later called “zig zag” - a relentless zig zagged path up from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen. This ultimately meant I was standing at the start line feeling a little sore. Hey Ho!

The Jungfrau Marathon is an extremely popular mountain marathon attracting around 3500 to 4000 competitors each year. It is not hard to see why; any marathon which heads up towards a the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountain range is bound to be spectacular. Thankfully, on this occasion the snow had decided to stay on top of the mountains rather than under our feet!

Anyway, I digress from the important stuff. The Jungfrau Marathon starts at Interlaken where you take full advantage of the spectator support with a nice 5k flat start. This is followed by a steady climb of about 15km up to Lauterbrunnen, doing a horse-shoe style shape through the valley and the river which flows through it. I had started off reasonably well with a pace ranging from 5.3 to 5.4 minute mile hitting 10 miles in around 56 minutes. All was going well. I had decided to hold back a little to save what I may have left for what may be above Wengen.

We set down as a group of 3 which took us close to Lauterbrunnen. However, I found myself running alone by the time we passed the half marathon mark and had unknowingly dropped my pace down to 6.2 – 6.4 minute miles. Disaster! This lack of concentration cost me as this was the stage where you really make up your time and I was unlikely to be able to make it up in the second half - most of the second half of the course was unknown to me but in any event was simply UP!

I had managed to pick up a group of 3 in the valley who were pushing out a decent pace so I stuck with these guys until we hit zig zag. I didn’t really have a plan for the second part of the course other than to get up it as fast as possible and avoid walking too much. I knew that this is really where the race begins for some and many would have an advantage over me on this kind of terrain and ascent (I live in Bramley which, in comparison, is extremely flat!). Zig Zag boasts approximately 1500ft of ascent in an extremely short distance. I focused on the guy in front (as 2 of the runners I was running with simply drilled it straight up zig zag like they were on a Sunday stroll). The aim was to walk when the guy in front walked and run when he started running. We set a decent pattern of running and then walking for 3 – 5 strides, hands on knees to catch a breath and then plough on with the running business.

It was a relief and a much needed morale boost to hit Wengen with the extremely friendly and loud supporters shouting for me to Hopp Hopp (I could hardly run let alone Hopp!) there was a wave of spectators, flags, horns, bells, food, colours and noise. A young lad got a bit of a shock when he held out his hand for a high five and was met with my clammy and somewhat gel encrusted hands. I don’t think he will be doing that again!

The checkpoints were around every 5k and the checkpoint was much needed at this point of the race. Many of the checkpoints had several volunteers offering water, sports drink (I think called ‘Sponsor’), bananas, biscuits and gel. It was a reasonably hot day so I made the most of drinking as much as I could hold down and even slowing down to walk through the stations to make sure the sports drink went in the mouth rather than the eyes, nose and hair.

A couple of kilometres outside Wengen I met with Anjali (my wife) which gave me a massive boost and learnt that I was in 34th place. I had comfortably kept up with the pace of the guy in front and we were both knocking out between 8 minute to 12 minute miles! Not exactly lightning speed but a reasonable effort up this kind of ascent. Looking behind me I could see that Simona Staicu (first elite lady – see picture above) and (what I think was) her pacer catching up with me quite quickly on the mountains. I had passed her at the 10k mark so she was really drilling it up this section of the course. I continued to push.

I had heard at the start when the organisers announced the elite runners that the ‘horse beating (as in race) UK runner Lobb Huw had entered. It was at this stage that I had reconsidered the prospect of coming in as first Brit! However, there was still a chance to come in the top 3 Brits.

My body had slightly recovered in Wengen with the reasonably flat and soft footing, however the pleasure was short lived. Coming out of Wengen we were met with more UP and a variety of terrain. My ears had started to pop. There were various villages which I ran past without much notice and a few pine forests to enjoy along the way. The shade of the trees the various stages was much appreciated by most of the runners.

After (what felt like a slow) winding trail up to about 37 / 38 km we hit what was to be the hardest (but not steepest) part of the course. This part was attacked with more walk / run rationale (in fact probably more walk than run). At this point I was neck and neck with Simona and her pacer who appeared to be shouting at her in a language I did not understand. It got generally more aggressive (I think) when she decided to walk instead of running. I was seriously flagging at this stage as the ascent had taken its toll on my hamstrings – with a lack of salt intake cramp was certainly imminent. I tried not to focus at this point and look at the positive fact that we only had a few km to go. I decided that despite the language barrier, to tag on to Simona and her pacer and attempt to follow their approach to this part of the marathon. Good decision.

With my views generally being Simona’s back I could not take in the beautiful views of the mountain range to my right and in fact the extremely aggressive drop (although I later sat back with a beer and a sausage and took it all in). You know you are reasonably high up when the helicopter is hovering at the same height as your feet. Importantly, I could hear what sounded like bagpipes above my and Simona’s extremely loud breathing – we were close.

The final section is defined by the bagpipe player and once passed the competitors are faced with an extremely fast downhill section to the finish. My legs were like jelly babies at this stage so although downhill was welcome the speed that followed was not! The sharp downhill needed to be tackled in the right way – just let go and enjoy the ride.

With a quick run (but thankfully I was not forced into a sprint finish) towards Kleine Sheidegg and under the finish sign, I was finally greeted by Anjali. I was only a few minutes behind the Kenyans. Great!

Position: 36th 3 hours 34 (3rd Brit).

Top 3 Male

1st Marco De Gaspi (Italy) – 2.56
2nd Marc Lauenstein (Peseux) – 3.03
3rd Huw Lobb (GB) – 3.04

I was reasonably happy with this time given that I have little to no mountain training and had never competed in a mountain marathon like this. I had finished the Lakeland 100 a month or so beforehand which would have provided some solid base training however the two are approached at a completely different pace (unless you are Stuart Mills!).

I would highly recommend the Jungfrau Marathon which is a challenging, enjoyable and extremely satisfying race. I had the advantage of running with several other Basingstoke Club members who all said the same and did amazingly well. I would strongly recommend that you reach Switzerland a couple of days before and after the marathon and spend some time around Lauderbrunnen and experience the mountain range and various challenging walks available. In particular, the views of the glaciers on The Top of Europe are breathtaking and add to the sense of achievement. You may also want to check out the course beforehand!

From the start, it took me a while for me to settle down in a comfortable pace and find the right group of runners running at a pace I was looking for.

Things went a little pear shaped when I ran past a group of runners looking strong however a few of which decided to use me to set the pace. This is not what I was looking for! I was a little uncomfortable with this and could not shake them off. If I slowed down to allow someone to move forward, they may in turn slow which I need to avoid but I was also uncomfortable with having to set the pace with people on my shoulder.

That said, I would not recommend walking around the mountain range in shorts and t-shirt. Yes! You know who you are!!!


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