The Jungfrau Marathon by Andy Guy

The Jungfrau Marathon markets itself as 'The Most Beautiful Marathon in the World'.  This beauty is certainly not a reflection of the course profile but typically based on the photogenic beauty of the valleys and mountains of the Swiss Alps.  Not this year:


This year was the 25th Anniversary of the Jungfrau Marathon and over a few too many glasses of wine during Christmas 2016 I was convinced to enter it.  The Berner Oberland region has a special meaning to me and I decided that running a non-road marathon would help keep my fitness up during the summer.  I conveniently forgot that I now live in London and there is a rather different course profile to this marathon – with over a vertical mile to climb during the last 10 miles:


I'd done a recce of the steepest sections (both conveniently highlighted in green above) and found them to be horrific!  A couple of other mountain runs and a 16km race in the region during July confirmed that I'm simply not very good at hiking up the steepest points at speed.

The Race

The weather forecast had been consistent all week.  A cold, cloudy day in Interlaken (around 12 degrees) with rain/snow forecast (and 2 degrees) for the top of the race at around midday.  The temperature change involved more than the usual faffing in terms of 'what to wear'.  The race started at 0830 so it was the usual early start, get a train down to Interlaken and run up a mountain, into a cloud.

Starting waves were invoked for the first time and the timings were stuck to with Swiss precision.  As part of Block 2 I started at 0835 with the question that had been playing on my mind for months: how to pace this?  In terms of expectations, my main aim was to finish – a Swiss friend who has completed this race twice mentioned recently that he has seen this course reduce grown men to tears.  Of all the advice I'd received the best was to simply enjoy the run and the views.  Given a combination of the terrain, route profile and weather, this seemed unlikely! But the sentiment was spot on – and confirmed a conservative approach was probably sensible.  In addition, the rough guidance from the organisers was to add 1.5 hours to a recent road marathon time, so based on that I'd decided to pick up a 4h 45m pace band and set out at 5 min/km.

The atmosphere in Interlaken for the start was fantastic in spite of the poor weather.  Alpine horns, traditional flag throwing and the Swiss National Anthem all preceded the start.  Given it was the 25th Anniversary there were an additional 1,000 runners or so (around 5,100) and a certain nervousness about how this would play out on the single track paths above. 

The first 26.5km are described by most people who look at the route profile as 'flat' – except that they're not and climb some 300m!  The first 5km are flat though and it was a bizarre and almost eerie feeling as we set off.  I've never been in a race before where virtually everybody is holding back and thoughts already flicking ahead to the wall that will meet us at the 26.5km mark.  The lack of racing meant that a few conversations broke out; the Eagles vest being an advertisement to anyone wishing to converse in English and the FiveFingers shoes being the usual icebreaker from anyone who drew up next to me.  In short: yes, I've run in them before (this is a marathon afterall) and yes, I've considered my shoe choice (I'm an adult and dress myself).

Each hamlet or village we pass on the way was great – applause, 'Hopp Hopp' cheering, Trychler groups with their huge cow bells, Fasnacht bands, solo guitarists with huge speakers and various other bands.  The event is clearly an important part of the region and each of the small villages that the route passes through.

I had now hit each of my pace targets within 20 or so seconds. This was going well in spite of the high heart rate brought on by a head cold and the not so flat first half.  Now for the right turn towards the wall to Wengen.  Deep breathe. The glacial valley on top of which Wengen is perched means that there is no simple route up to this car free village – presumably the reason it is car free!  The steep switchback section of the narrow path is only about 2km long but took me 24 minutes during my recce run. The flow of people past me confirmed my fears that I don't speed-hike as quickly as others. Having said that it looks from the results that I held my own and didn't lose as much time as I feared.  Significantly I started running again as soon as the tarmac section appeared and managed to run all the way up the next 2km to Wengen passing many of those frustratingly quick walkers.  I'd agreed that I'd see my one-man support crew in Wengen to replace water bottles etc but when I got there I didn't need a new supply – mainly because the fuelling stations had been so good and it certainly wasn't warm.  Indeed, it struck me that Simon looked freezing with his down jacket, additional waterproof and hat pulled down tightly.  An ominous sign for what was to come! Wengen is at 1283m above sea level and marked the 30km mark.  I think I was right on target – about 2h 55m.  Only 12km to go. Good?  Nope - it was going to take me at least another 1h 50m…

The route now follows the route of the mountain railway quite closely and it was a boost to see the support crew again at the Allmend station (the slow pace and the trains up the mountain means some parts of the course are quite accessible for spectators).  However the rain had now well and truly set it and the cloud was hovering above us.  Running into the cloud was when it became really miserable and much colder, although thankfully, after Allmend, there were some decent sections where something resembling a run could break out.  It's worth pointing out at this stage that along with kilometre markers at each and every kilometre – held by incredibly positive and increasingly cold looking volunteers – there are markers every 250m such is the time taken to pass each of these.  The very fact they need to do that on this course freaked me out and helped keep moral up in equal measure.

Usually when I reach the Wixi skilift I'm disappointed that the skiing has temporarily ended.  On this occasion it was with a sense of relief at there being only being 4km to 'run' but also the intrepidation of what lay ahead.  Now above the tree line this climb is brutal. Especially when you've run 38km (23.5 miles).  It's pretty much single file scrambling up a narrow rocky path. The good news is you cannot go too fast; the bad news is that if you lose contact with the runner in front you have the feeling you're holding 5,000 people back! 

The 41st kilometre is possibly the hardest – it climbs up a ridge called the 'Moräne' (glacial moraine).  It is exposed, and climbing through the freezing cloud in single file was truly miserable. That kilometre took me the best part of 18 minutes – only 44 seconds quicker than my best Gunnersbury Parkrun time!

For some bizarre reason a bagpiper stands at the highest point of the course – the sound of was eerie and he suddenly appeared out of the cloud at an altitude of 2,320m.   Never have I been so happy to hear the pipes!  My feelings at this point fluctuated widely between disbelief, inspiration and even amusement (I remembered that in these parts, the bagpipes are called the ‘Doodlesac’), but the overriding emotion was relief: the finish can’t be far away now.

These guys are from 'Block 1' – the front of the field.  Moräne, 2017

These guys are from 'Block 1' – the front of the field.  Moräne, 2017

Down now – almost down…  for the final kilometre, still mostly in single file.  A couple of people raced past taking no account of the health of their ankles.  Others were wincing in pain as quads and calves started cramping up.  But after scrambling through a gap in the rocks, before you know it you've finished.

Done. I’d lost a couple of minutes in the last climb and had fallen slightly behind my pace band, but still finished in 4h 50, cracking the 5 hours that I'd been hoping to do. 

I'd envisaged drinking a couple of cold beers, lying on the alpine meadow overlooking the Finish and valleys below and savouring the fact that I'd finished the Jungfrau Marathon.  However, given the weather (and the fact I'd now lost feeling in the ends of my fingers) the key was now to get warm, gather medal, slab of chocolate and Finisher T-shirt and get back to a warm restaurant.  Outside, it really was miserable – and getting worse.

My heart went out to a couple of finishers who sat near us on the train on the way back to Grindelwald in the valley below – one asked if you could normally see the mountains.  He'd run the Jungfrau Marathon and not even glimpsed the Jungfrau itself. If only he knew the foot of the world-famous Eiger Nordwand was only a couple of hundred metres away.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him.

The view my train companion missed…

The view my train companion missed…

Overall the event was brilliantly organised; an incredible challenge; a once in a lifetime experience and - much as it sounds ridiculous - the atrocious conditions made it even more satisfying (once I’d finished!). A lot of people asked ‘why run that marathon?’.  Well, the race itself was mostly too painful to think about an answer but afterwards I’d include it in that category where the greater the hardship and discomfort during, the greater the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction at the end.  Once the heat and feeling started coming back in my fingers – an hour after I'd finished - my mind had already started wandering to parts of the race where time had been won and lost… was this really only ‘once’ in a lifetime?

Lessons Learned

In case anyone’s tempted (and if you look at the odds, the weather next year must be better!), entries for the Jungfrau Marathon 2018 open on 14 February 2018 and will sell out within a week.  So for anyone who does fancy a trot up a Swiss mountain, here are a couple of observations and lessons learned:

•    [Obviously,] It’s not a regular marathon, you can’t compare it to a ‘normal’ course. It’s more two races – the first 26 kms or so (a slight uphill road race), and the final 16 kms (a monster hill – hiking with intermittent running off-road)
•    Walking uphill is a skill in itself requiring different technique and muscle groups than running so needs specific training – would have been a good idea!
•    Time on your feet – adding 1.5 hours to a normal marathon is a large percentage for any marathoner.  I ran a 30 miles training run in the North Downs at a very slow pace with a knowledgeable guide – that really helped. Should have done more.
•    There’s also no (or very little) downhill. So bearing in mind the havoc that steep downhills plays on your legs, the best hill training would be to find the steepest long slopes possible, but somehow defy the ‘what does up must go down’ law and avoid the pounding that coming back down a couple of thousand metre climb normally entails. Save your legs and recover faster for more uphills. Unfortunately, trail runs often don’t have a slide back 2 kilometres to the bottom
•    On pacing, there’s a school of thought that says embrace the two stage nature of the race, go harder and more aggressive than normal for the first half, knowing that the second half is a more evenly paced walk, often single file with no passing opportunities – the opportunity to recover and hang in there.  It sounds high risk and I wasn’t game to try, but…

I hope this was interesting.  For anyone thinking about the Jungfrau Marathon, I hope this helps.  It’s a truly beautiful part of the world (usually) and I’d urge anyone to give it a try. 
And maybe I’ll see you there.