So here are my impressions of the marathons that I've competed in. For those who have already run long distance, many of the experiences I describe will be familiar. For those that have not yet competed in endurance events, hopefully it will give some idea of what life as a serial marathon runner is like!
I’m not an elite athlete, my average flat marathon time is a little under four hours. Many resources available online focus on runners who excel at what they do, Instead I’ll talk about my perspective as someone who is in the end a pretty average guy who likes to run. As I really like trail running, special focus is given to the Jungfrau Marathon, as it is one of the most memorable events that I have been lucky enough to participate in.
I’ll start from the beginning, a false start many years ago long before my first marathon attempt. If you want to know the whole story of my running history and all of my other reports, then they can be found below that, and you can tap on each section to open and read it. If you just want my latest race report, scroll to the bottom.
- Prologue: Road to Lausanne, Summer 2003Open or Close
I don't recall the exact moment that I decided to train for a competitive long run. However, it was in Spring 2003 and my target became the Lausanne Half Marathon scheduled for late October. This would be a long race and I did not even think about the full marathon distance at that time. I was not a competitive runner. Just 3 or 4km around the park with my girlfriend at most. But the idea popped into my head so I searched online and found a beginner training programme for the half marathon distance, downloaded it, and proceeded to follow it.
Well, I failed to reach the finish line. In fact, I failed to even reach the start line!
And not because of injury… I trained for awhile but a combination of being unused to running long distances, long work hours, the unusually hot and humid Summer… and if I am being honest: less mental strength, made everything seem like a struggle.
Reaching 11km one day in training around our local park close to our apartment (a half marathon is 21.2km), I recall a dual feeling of both admiration and dread: "Wow! That's 11km, that's a long way…. yet it's barely half of the full distance of what I am training for.” I was reaching my perceived (perception being perhaps the key factor here) limits and shortly thereafter I just let it go, giving up on the whole endeavour and returning to normal life.
Many months later, I was at home in bed on a Sunday morning when I received a text message informing me that I would be starting the race in an hour, and reminding me of my start details. I was several hundred kilometers away, it was cold outside and I was nicely tucked up in a warm bed (it was a cold October Sunday after all) and hadn't thought about the race in months. We had a laugh about it and went back to reading the Sunday newspapers.
7 Years pass would pass before I would try anything like it again…
- Marathon 1: Lausanne 2010Open or CloseWhat made me decide to try again, so many years later, and this time try to run nearly four times further than my previous training had gotten me to? This I do remember: it was a mountain, and not any old one at that: It was Mount Everest. In the Spring of that 2010 I undertook a personal adventure: trekking in the Himalayas to the base camp of Everest, a long time dream of mine. Furthermore, I had planned and completed the trip totally independently, and had found that I had enjoyed not only the trip, but the planning and organisation needed to arrange it. Both aspects certainly gave me a sense of empowerment. Hey, I can trek for twelve days straight to over 5500m above sea level. What's next? The marathon idea hove back into view.
Signing up was next. Then choosing a training programme. A sixteen week programme. I began to use the fairly new at that point Nike+ system to record and analyse my runs. I started training. Some weeks later, Ursula grumbled begrudgingly onto the programme as well.
Lots of first time experiences followed. Mainly this meant every Sunday when the weekly long run normally exceeded that of the prior weekend (that's a feature of all training programmes). For example, I recall getting to 19km around a nearby lake (my longest distance at that point) and barely being able to summit a tiny hill that was not more than five meters high. I often recall this in light of my later runs which definitely included some bigger hills!
Now quite suddenly, I was being asked to run further than a half marathon every single weekend. If you are committed, then mental expectations adjust upwards, and you just do it. We found a route along the river from Zürich to Baden, around 25km, which was a great training run.
Following the river meant that the scenery was nice, the route was easy to follow, it was neither too hilly nor too flat, and traffic was not a problem. These are all considerations that you think about when choosing training routes for long runs, and I saw that as part of the fun and a great way to explore the hitherto murky backwaters around my City. Of course, I could also have simply run on a treadmill but gym’s are not really my thing. I like the open air, and see it as a real plus of running. The outdoors really is a free gym you know.
My mantra was (and remains) that being prepared was the best preparation. That meant, we should experience a race before the race. So we signed up for the Greifenseelauf (a half marathon) which was to be our first competitive event. Ursula felt sick on the day but ran anyway after being inspired by watching James Cracknell (an ex-olympic rower who occasionally took part in extreme challenges) push himself in a documentary on TV the night before while he was also sick. Taking account that Ursula was not in tip top condition, we ran together and came in shortly after two hours.One thing however that I couldn't prepare for was running the actual marathon distance: 42.195km. The longest training run in marathon programmes only gets to about 34km. The idea is that the full distance is too stressful for the human body in training (it takes weeks to fully recover), so you keep it for the race day only.
Not long afterwards arrived the Taper. No, that's not a wise mythical figure or a kind of worm. It's the point three weeks out from the big day that you start to wind down the training so as to be in peak condition on Marathon day and not overtrained. Once you are tapering, you know that you are on the cusp.
We arrived nervous and excited in Lausanne the day before race day. First stop: the first Marathon Expo. Here you pick up your bib (like the one above) and timing chip, which normally comes in a goodie bag with race details and things that the sponsors give away like little boxes of cereal, and a voucher for that other institution of the marathon experience: the Pasta Party. Lausanne has one was the best (they vary), as it's a nice meal with a cool atmosphere and its on a big boat parked in the harbour.
Up at 5am for a small breakfast and the first of several nervous bowel movements. Before I know it, we are on the start line, checking for the third time that my laces are tied properly… but not too tightly (that would be a rookie error). BANG went the start gun! I felt like I was flying through the first 25km thinking, oh wow, I am going to be faster than I expected…. The training must have really paid off!But I was committing a cardinal sin of marathon running: racing much faster on race day than in training. And I was about to pay for it. Around 30km suddenly I was beginning to feel sick and nauseous. Lausanne is an out and in course: they close the major lakeside road just for you and you run up to Vevey where you turn and head back to Lausanne. The scenery is spectacular: steep vineyards on one side and the great expanse of lake and the Alps on the other. The return leg has quite some uphills to rolling hills to traverse: nothing much really but still enough to hurt. By 34km, which I had run in training without incident, I was feeling increasingly nauseous. After 38km I had to stop and walk occasionally.
Before the race, Ursula and I had decided to run the course together, and although she was in good shape and could have gone much faster, Ursula stuck by me when I said I needed her and we limped over the line in 4H:12M. Afterwards I began to shiver uncontrollably from my body cooling, and decided to visit the medical tent. They told me that I was suffering from mild hypothermia, and they put a saline drip into my arm and got it somehow wrong because in the coming weeks my vein inflated like a bodybuilder on too many steroids, and looked very ugly indeed.
What I know now is that the medical tent was also cold and I was cold and all I really needed was a warm blanket or something, and this is what they failed to provide. Anyhow, after twenty minutes on a gurney, I felt a little better and limped away. Marathon complete.
Nevertheless, I was happy I did it, proud of the finisher medal that I wore all the way back to Zürich on the train. I'd aimed for around four hours, and by and large had achieved it even though in a very ragged state. I was also recipient of my first marathon finisher shirt, made by Switcher and perhaps the best single piece of sports clothing I possibly have owned, it still looks like new four years later after hundreds of wears.
- Marathon 2: Lausanne 2011Open or CloseI clearly recall towards the end of my first marathon, during the actual race as nausea swept over me, thinking: "Never Again!” (In fact, I shouted this out loud around 40km!)
Indeed, I never had ambitions past completing one Marathon. Well, never say never again as I signed up for a second attempt a year later. Although I had completed my objective of completing a marathon, it had left a sour taste in my mouth that I had crossed the line feeling so ill. I had hit the wall, which could reasonably be expected… but I had hit the wall at a distance where in training I had avoided it. Why?
My first suspicion was that I had not worn enough clothes during the race, my core body temperature had cooled and I had gotten mildly hypothermic. Running 10km in that state is truly horrible I can say first hand. We all know the feeling when our stomach churns and we think we might soon throw up. Well imagine having that feeling and then needing to do a ten kilometer run. Decidedly unpleasant.
Last year it had been 13 degrees Celsius. So this year I decided to wear more clothes: long trousers, a base layer, and thin gloves. That would sort me out! Aside from that, I incorporated some different training techniques and worked on nutrition. Once again we ran a half marathon during training and this time I achieved 1H:54M, not bad, not bad. How would I fare on the big day. Weather conditions indicated essentially the same conditions. Once again, 13 degrees and sunny.
The end result was, I had pretty much the same experience as before. Nausea, wanting to vomit, exhaustion. I clearly recall momentarily sitting down on the pavement around 38km, and an old lady with her little bulldog came to inspect me, and the bulldog licking my arm because it was salted with sweat. Then the little old lady admonished me, telling me it was time to get a move on. She was right, so I did.
That year I coped slightly better though, and got over the line with 4:05. Still above four hours, but seven minutes better than the previous year. Prior to the start, I had told Ursula that she should run her own race and she came in around 3:55. Sitting down after the race, I was again shivering but not so much. I recall downing a cold bottle of Coca Cola and for whatever reason this momentarily sent me to the very precipice of physical collapse for a minute! Still, I reigned myself back in and with a warm jacket on, soon recovered. Hey, I was faster than before and had avoided medical attention! A good result.
- 2012: No Marathons At All. Open or CloseGiven that Zürich is my adopted ”hometown" and has it's own marathon, why hadn't I aimed for that? Well, when I first decided to attempt a marathon in Spring and the Zürich marathon is in Spring so the timing was off. In endurance running, you really need to think ahead! So I chose Lausanne because it still sounded exotic, being on the other side of the country, but was relatively easy to get to, and was in Autumn.
I've not yet run a major marathon like London. I like the vibe of slightly smaller events, and enjoy being able to get home easily enough afterwards… that's worth taking into consideration after making a supreme effort like a marathon requires.
Finally, I've heard that waiting times at the start line in major marathons can be horrendous, like three hours. Most of the marathons I have done have had between one and four thousand entrants. At some events these numbers are swelled to perhaps ten thousand because marathoners run with half marathoners and with a simultaneous team relay event.
Anyhow, Zürich was always in the back of my mind. I'd trained for it the year before but had to pull out half way through training as I'd suffered knee problems which wouldn't go away. This year, I trained again but a month out from race day I'd been having a lot of pain in my achilles area of the ankle. I went to the doctor and she diagnosed Achilles Tendonitis, making me squeal like a stuck pig when she squeezed the relevant bit of my anatomy. She strongly suggested that I shouldn't attempt the marathon in that condition. I took a moment then listened and pulled out.
Indeed I gave up all sport completely for five months to let them heal. Nothing healed. I still have achilles tendonitis today, as I write this, but I live with it and it seems to live with me.
- Marathon 3: Zürich 2013Open or CloseHeres where things definitely heated up for me, though not as a result of a conscious plan. Registering once again for Zürich would mean my third attempt just to reach the start line, let alone the finish. This time I would do more training alone, as work commitments ruled out Ursula from this race. I would try to train intelligently and attempt to run in under the magical four hour mark.
It's worth pausing on that for a moment. A marathon is race. It is a competitive race. But more than many sports, a marathon is a competition against oneself. The so called PB, standing for personal best. This depends entirely on the runner, but since I was hovering just above the four hour mark, I really wanted to see if I could get my finish time to start with a "3". I would not base my sense of self worth on achieving this, but I really wanted to try and make it happen.
I would also try to finish the race without feeling as sick as a dog, and considered this at least as important as the finish time. I had been plenty warm enough during my second Lausanne attempt and had felt almost as bad as the first one, so I pinpointed that the cause must be to do with nutrition. Adequate fuelling is crucial in marathon running. I've always been sporty, but it is only since I became a long distance runner that I really began to see my body in the same way as a car in terms of servicing and fuelling. In endurance running this means liquids AND solids, for example sports drinks and energy gels. Finding the right mix that works for you can be problematic and is largely a case of trial and error over time. But the subject must be mastered because the human body has enough reserves to last a couple of hours of running, but not for a full marathon time.
Fail to take on enough liquid during a marathon and you will dehydrate to the point where your body is exhausted and cramped. Take on too much and you can become bloated, even feeling the water sloshing around in your belly as you run. Isotonic drinks are helpful because during sport you don’t simply sweat water, you also lose salt (lick your arm while sweating if you don’t believe me). Isotonic drinks generally help to replace everything you lose, not just water.
This raisin demonstrates dehydration.
On the food side, the human body has enough reserves to last a couple of hours of running. After that, in simple terms it starts to dig into its emergency reserves and when it does that, lets be clear: your body starts to eat itself, you are going to feel that and it is going to hurt. You are hitting the wall. But if you have a sensitive constitution like me, then eating the wrong thing can cause terrible bloating and itself bring on nausea.
To achieve my aims, I made a number of changes to my training. I trained even more like I would race (this is generally always a good strategy). So I started my long run on a weekend at the same time as the marathon would start. I began getting up three hours before this and eating the same breakfast I would eat on race day. This meant that I was often rising at 4:30am for breakfast on race day and then go back to bed for a couple of hours. I ran different parts of the actual Zürich route in training (this being an advantage of training for a home town marathon where you tend to know the route already and intimately). I studied the route and found out where the water stops would be, for example after 5km, 11km, 16km etc. I wrote these numbers on my arm with a felt pen and would drink and refuel at the same time on my long training runs to get my body used to the rhythm. I practiced drinking out of plastic cups while running…. note, this does not really work for me, so I still use a bottle which I refill en route.
Basically, I took it seriously. Of course, I could just have naturally been a faster runner… would have been easier… but I had to work with the tools I had been given!
To cut to the chase, my preparations paid off and I shaved 12 minutes from my PB, to come in at 3:56. Around 35km I had a battle with my old nemesis the wall, with the feeling of nausea creeping in, but somehow this time I was able to push it back down, and as the final km ticked by I knew I would for the first time finish feeling in good shape. Both these things translated into a great runners high. I was literally singing and dancing as I ran back through town and up the main street Bahnhofstrasse towards the end, and in fact my final km was the fastest of the entire race! Over the final kilometers I easily passed at least fifty other runners.
- Marathon 4: Geneva 2013Open or CloseMost doctors do not advise to run more than two marathons in a year. 2013 would see me run four. The Geneva Marathon (for Unicef) took place less than a month after Zürich. My friend Ahmet had signed up for his first marathon, that being Geneva. Ursula had felt some remorse after failing to join me in the Zürich race, so I suggested to try Geneva with Ahmet, and we booked a hotel and registered her. A secret plan started to ferment in my mind: could I run two marathons in the space of a month? Hell, lets try.
Our two matching shirts, hung the night before the race, with bibs already attached
The answer is, yes I could. And my result was only 30 seconds slower than Zürich. Not bad, considering Geneva has a less flat course than Zürich. It is surprisingly picturesque, and the route travels through ten back country villages on the outskirts of the city. A really nice route.
The final 10km wheel back into town, running down from the countryside and then by the lake. I was mildly disappointed to see that they had failed to turn on the big water fountain. A late cobbled street and unexpected hill made final progress a little impeded. To my surprise, as I rounded a late corner I spotted Ursula up ahead and flagging. Turns out her lack of training had stunted her a little too. I sped past, checked that she was ok, and went for the finish. It would be the first time (so far / probably ever) that I would beat her in a marathon. Ahmet came in a little after that. A nice race, a good success.
- Marathon 5: Jungfrau 2013.Open or CloseThe Jungfrau is a special marathon, for people who are just a little bit crazy. The kind of people for whom a normal marathon is just not enough. The kind of people who think that it would be fun to run up a mountain for 42km rather than a flat course.
How did I find myself on the start line of this monster? Simply put, a guy at work who had completed it and several Ironmans told me, "It had the most special atmosphere of any race that I had ever done." This sentiment lingered in my thoughts and I found myself registering. I actually told myself, I'll probably never make that start line, but lets give it a try.
Here's the headline stats: The start at Interlaken lies at 600m above sea level. The route would bring us up to 2250m. So more than a kilometer and a half of vertical, the vast majority coming in the second half. It's a so called "Mountain Marathon". At least until recently, it was ranked as the third hardest marathon on Earth (Pikes Peak in the USA with about the same climb but starting at a higher elevation, and some Volcano in Hawaii are the other two). It is also ranked #1 worldwide for having the most spectacular scenery of any marathon.
Once again, a lot of my memories about the Jungfrau marathon are actually about the training. Instead of training on flat courses, we now had to find hills, and lots of them. Zürich's local little mountain, the Uetliberg, is a 9km run from my back door and has a steep climb of around 350m from it's base. Before very long, this became too little, we needed more, so we would run to the top of that and then back through town and end with another climb back to our apartment. Soon this too was not enough, so we began to run there and back and then run up the hills on the other side to Zurich Zoo (it's a nice zoo, visit it if you get the chance).
These were seriously, seriously taxing runs. But none of this was enough, so I planned two special training runs in the Alps themselves, but first some info on the Jungfrau course. In simple terms, the route of the Jungfrau marathon is basically like this: you start at Interlaken and run about 26km on a slight uphill route. The final 17km are steeper, culminating in the steepest part at kms 40 and 41. The final one kilometer is downhill, the only downhill of the race.
So I had the bright idea of running the final 25km of the actual route in training, so that we could see what we were up against. Starting in Lauterbrunnen, we would run through the steep flanked valley, and then hit the steep uphill, following the exact official course. This was a smart move, because we then knew what the hardest parts of route would really be like. In order not to get lost, I found some gpx files which I could load into a gps program on my iPhone which basically showed us the way all the way up… very useful. When we reached the top about four hours later (i.e. our training run took as long as a normal marathon would take us!), we were exhausted, but had done it. Just the tricky problem that on race day, we would have to run more than 17km further than we had just struggled to put behind us! Here is a picture I took of Ursula around the midpoint of that run.
Training run in the Jungfrau area of Switzerland
A greater challenge lay ahead in training. For our longest training run of 33km, I had decided we would run up the Rigi mountain outside the town of Zug. It would be a climb of about 1400m, so altogether substantially less and shorter than the Jungfrau itself, but still a great test. The Rigi loomed large in the distance as we set off more than 20km away from it’s base in the little town of Baar. We would run to Zug, along the whole Zugersee (Zug Lake), through some other villages, and then hit the ascent button.
It's fair to say that the Rigi practically broke me. Once we got to the base, it was a relentless and energy sapping climb. By the top, I was literally crawling (and by this, I repeat, I was actually crawling on all fours), and because it was colder than expected and I had underdressed, my old friend hypothermia paid my a little visit. I remember ending that run saying to Ursula, "It's no good, I should quit, there is no way I can climb further than this for another 10km at the Jungfrau."
It genuinely did seem at that moment to be an exercise in futility (there is some kind of pun in there). Ursula, though, in her wisdom, counselled me to keep trying… it could get better, it's not worth giving up yet. This was high summer, a month out from the mid September race date. I decided to persevere, with a lot of reservations.
Arriving in Interlaken the day before the race was exciting. We booked into our hotel and took care of the usual admin. As we normally did, mid afternoon we changed into our race gear, attached the race bib and timer, and ran a few km through town to freshen our legs and make sure that the kit and layering was in order. You never ever want to start a race and then realise for example that something needs adjusting: your bib is pinned on uncomfortably or you definitely underdressed, say.
Anyhow, in the evening we found a lovely little Italian restaurant which served very nice pasta. I recall not sleeping until a little past midnight. Race nerves were definitely present and correct. Rising early for a small breakfast, I found it impossible to go back to sleep and soon enough it was time for the off.
Race report: Ran the first 7km with Ursula, looping through Interlaken a couple of times before heading up the valley. I noted that comparatively, I wasn't feeling particularly strong already even after just the first 10km…. perhaps my poor sleep and nerves? The initial 25km of the route were an unknown to me, but I was pleased to find that it was a very nice route, often following a whitewater river up towards Lauterbrunnen. Passing a shooting range, some of the locals came out to view the strange specimens that had descended on their town for the day. I noticed one old shooter who was still wearing his special shooting spectacles, and smiled to myself that he seemed like a bit of a character. After the race, I learned that Ursula had seen him and thought the same. Such are the things you remember.
After a great reception from the locals at Lauterbrunnen at around 25km, the route continues up a stunning valley with absolutely huge sheer cliffs each side, with a number of waterfalls cascading from the top. This played havoc with my GPS watch for a few km's which meant that I could no longer rely on the distance measured: in other words, I had no reliable indicator of how far I had run and how far I had left to go. Still, I was prepared for this because I had encountered the same problem during the training run.
And bam, here comes the first of two super steep uphills. As we made our way up, I passed someone off to the side of the trail already vomiting. With 17km of the decidedly hardest part of the race remaining, I doubted that he would be making it much further. At the top of this hill, things evened out for a little while before we entered the town of Wengen (famous for it's downhill ski race), with another great atmosphere - it seemed that the whole town had turned out to applaud us through and ring the occasional cowbell.
After that, it was all up all the way, until towards the end, we made it to the final steepest 2km climb, scrambling over rocks and muddy mountain path. As is usual for the Jungfrau, there was something of a traffic jam at this steepest point which slowed us to a hurried walk. On the one hand, it's frustrating to have to slow down. On the other, it's a secret blessing along the lines of "Oh damn I have to walk here, what a shame, thank you God!"
Nearing the finish line, T shirt and medal almost in sight
Cresting a verge, the landscape fell away to the right to reveal an incredible vista of rock and ice the other side of the nearby valley, a helicopter swinging overhead as it filmed the runners on this spectacular part of the course. Suddenly, we were treated to the guttural roar and sight of a spectacular avalanche speeding down the cliff, luckily at a safe distance away. Talk about atmosphere, even the mountains were applauding us! Drifting down to me was another sound. Bagpipes. Traditionally, a lone bagpipe player serenades runners as they reach the highest point of the race. Upon climbing another hundred meters or so, I'd be on the final kilometer down to the finish line, and it dawned on me that I had the finish line in my sights. A tricky rock to be negotiated, several helpers grabbed our hands and hoisted us safely over, and I tasted a short negative incline for about the first time in five hours. Up through a tunnel to a high mountain reservoir and then a final short downhill over rocky path to the finish.
Ursula, having come in more than twenty minutes before, waited excitedly at the finish. She was very happy too see me, I think primarily because it meant I was alive! Proudly collecting my medal, I took a rest at the verge and appeared a TV reporter wanting to interview me about my experience. In case you want to see my brief interview, here is the link, you can forward to me at 5 mins 20 seconds (because the video does not in my opinion capture the truly epic scale of this event) to see me looking incredibly thin, having lost around 4kg DURING this race alone. That isn't a typo, I lost 4kg during that five and a half hours of exertion (However, just to be clear, a lot of that is water not fat, and is soon replenished).
I’m in this video at 5 mins 20 seconds :-)
So, overall it's not hard to see what makes this such a special race full of fond memories. I had just turned forty years old one week before. What a great way to start the forties! There is really only one Jungfrau Marathon. Do it if you dare!
- Marathon 6: Lausanne 2013Open or CloseFour seemed like a fitting number for the year in which I turned forty so I signed on for my fourth Marathon of 2013 - Lausanne - to see if I had improved. Hence far, I had run marathons in various temperatures but this would be my first proper soaking…. it rained hard for almost the entire race. The course also hadn't gotten any easier, even with my increased mileometer and experience.
Apart from being wet as well as cold, I recall some big waterfalls on the route which had appeared just because of the rainstorm. As I said before, the route follows steep hilly vineyards along the Lausanne side of Lake Geneva. The downpours had to go somewhere, so we were treated to a few great displays of the power of water.
I finished in 4:05, the weather and course edging me up over the four hour mark. I wondered, and continue to wonder, if I am capable of a sub four Lausanne. I'm not sure I will do it again, time will tell, but I guess I will not make it under four. No worries!
- Marathon 7: Zürich 2014Open or CloseMy second stab at Zürich, and Ursula's first attempt. I achieved my all time personal best of 3:54 (at the time of writing this!). I recall another great runners high. There's just something great about doing your hometown marathon. This may sound presumptuous since I grew up in rural England but I do now consider Zurich a home town. Anyhow, a great run and perhaps my best ever flat Marathon performance. Also a nicer finisher shirt this time around.
Looking surprisingly good after 42km
- Marathon 8: Geneva 2014Open or CloseHaving enjoyed Geneva last year, I did it again. For once I do not recall that much, except that the fountain still wasnt running!
Ahmet (Blue neckband) and Josh just above the pace runner.
- Marathon 9: Grand Union Challenge 50km (31 miles) 2014Open or CloseThrough work, I had come to know an American broker working in Geneva named Josh, who was a keen Iron Man competitor. To cut a long story short, he decided to run a massive 100km ultra marathon and I helped him find a suitable race which fitted his schedule. This turned out to be an event called the Grand Union Challenge, which started in central London close to Paddington Station and followed the canal network north to Bletchley. I decided to run the first 50k (31 miles) with him, which would after all, be my first Ultra Marathon (defined as anything longer than the standard 42.195km).
I didn't do any specific training except than to slow down my pace a little bit so that I had higher energy reserves. The day turned out to be a nice success, as we basically stuck together and gossiped through the majority of it. I recall at one point there was a large plastic alligator situated in someones garden on the far bank and as we approached I pranked Josh by pointing it out and saying thats a big one, even for these canals. I didn't expect him to take the bait but he stopped stone cold with the thought that he was running next to a canal filled with 15 foot long killer alligators. "You get THOSE in Europe???" Err, no, not really Josh. Still, can't be too hard on a guy that doesn't give up, even after close to 15 hours of competing.
At the start line, fresh as daisies.
After 45km, I felt unreasonably fine and decided to leave Josh to his plan while I sped to my finish and enjoyed a good meal and decent massage in the finisher tent. Meanwhile Josh soldiered on and eventually collected his first 100km finish late that evening. Amazing!
A small detail but the other memorable thing about the GUC was that this was a privately organised race whereas all the other events I have competed in have the feeling of being organised by their respective cities, with a sort of heritage that city Marathons bring. I’m not saying that this was better or worse, but it certainly felt different somehow. The catering at this event was easily the best I’ve seen with a great selection.
Also, the field of entrants certainly felt smaller. Less than 1% of the western population have attempted to run a Marathon. Ultra marathons are even much more than this the province of the rarefied few. The troposphere to the marathon atmosphere. While there are always a few in a race that don’t really belong there (and inevitably also some who look like they dont really belong but then summarily leave you in the dust!), everyone here was in good shape and you felt that.
- Marathon 10: Jungfrau 2014Open or CloseHaving clearly not had enough punishment the year before, I signed up again for the great hill climb. I suppose the truth is, I enjoyed the atmosphere and experience and sense of achievement so much that I wanted to recapture it. And… I did! Luckily we got good weather again, because if there is one marathon I've done where weather could conceivable make or break your day, I think this is probably it.
And of course, with the Jungfrau marathon comes the training for the Jungfrau marathon. More than any other, you have to respect this one, and put the effort in. Get up those hills. Having been battered and spat out by the Mt Rigi training climb one year ago, I resolved this year to hit back. And I did… sort of. At the top, I was in much better condition than the year before (well, I was still on two legs rather than four!), and declared aloud how I this year I had beaten the Rigi! How I gloried in my audacity!
Over the next two evenings in bed I woke up repeatedly throughout the night with weird feelings in my chest and body which worried the hell out of me! Mt Rigi clearly hadn’t been on board with my audacity, and had decided to have the last laugh. I suspect it always will.
Anyhow, I recovered, and went on to run the race day a couple of minutes faster than the year before with 5:37. I had wanted to shave off a little more, but by the end was so happy to finish that it didn't really matter to me.
Recently I've thought back to the Jungfrau Marathon and to some extent I genuinely marvel that I have completed them. Even now, small hill runs in training can remain very painful. It's really about mentally accepting what you have to do and simply doing it.
- Marathon 11: Lucerne 2014Open or CloseFor whatever reason, Lausanne and Lucerne are run on the same day of the year in late October. Although they are on separate sides of the country, it does mean that one must pick and choose. I always chose Lausanne because it has great atmosphere and scenery… but there is something about Lausanne which is simply tougher than most "flat" (by which I mean not mountainous) marathons. So, to try something different, this year I enrolled for Lucerne.
Lucerne is a two lap course, essentially running two half marathons one after the other. This was something new. So far all the marathons I had done had been a single loop, or a sort of out and in course. I did think that the repetition would count against it. I won't say that it did. Still, it is interesting to me that even after so many marathons, each is a new experience in some way.
I won't call it classic but It's a nice enough route, also rather tougher than Zürich, but I ran it in a leisurely style with 4:11… for this run I had intended to do it this way to simply enjoy it. At the beginning of the second loop, you saw the half marathoners finishing while you turned the corner and went for round two. On one hand, this is demoralising as it seems like a long way to go. On the other, I could secretly tell myself, the pussies are finishing now, lets show them how its really done. Oops, did I say secretly?
Ursula was nice enough to crew for me (keep my bag, give me support from the sideline, and look after me at the end), and it was enjoyable enough. Season finished. Now, I would take my traditional winter rest under the spring of next year….. well, or so I thought at the time……
- Marathon 12: Zürich New Years Marathon 2015Open or CloseMost Christmas's I spend with Ursula in the UK seeing family and then we tack on a few days in London to shop and see a show, that kind of thing. On 27th of December I was sitting in the lobby cafe of the Hoxton Hotel in Holborn (it's their second hotel which was just a few months old at the time, I recommend it) having a coffee after a decent fry up breakfast. Ping, an email from Datasport, nothing special, but my eyes browse down it before I delete it when I spot something called the Zürich Neujahrsmarathon (New Years Marathon). Upon further investigation I found out the following:
* There would be a marathon in Zürich on New Years Eve.
* It would start at precisely midnight as 2014 became 2015, and run overnight.
* There seems to be no other event like this in the world, and it's in my home town!
I chewed it over in my mind for some minutes, and decided to mention it to Ursula, though without much expectation. I was sure she would look at me like I'd lost my mind, but a slightly resigned look just came over her face as if to say, here we go again with another adventure that she was about to be roped into. Reading this look like the expert negotiator that I am, I suddenly saw that the race might be a real possibility. By the time our coffee cups were empty, it was happening.
A few things to note: normally I train for several months before a marathon. This one would be happening four days from now. Secondly, there was snow on the ground and more forecast. It would be cold and dark. Very cold. To hell with it. We cancelled our New Years plans and got ready to race. Game on!
It’s 3am Eternal at the KLF
Ursula, with a lot more common sense than me as usual, decided to just take part in the half marathon. We would run that together. Yet again, a new marathon course would provide a new experience. This time, it would be a 4x 10.5km loop along the River Limmat. I knew most of the route well enough from training there many times. Starting in Schlieren, we would run towards Zürich and turn at the Werdinsel weir. We gathered at the start line inside a gym, just five minutes remaining in 2014. At the stroke of midnight, we kissed and congratulated each other. And off we went, each runner with their head torch ablaze. Just about 150 marathoners were signed up, but several hundred more for the half and a 10km. As we came to the river, there was a heavy fog of little ice particles kicked up from the snow by so many runners ploughing through it… it was truly a surreal thing. Later on as the numbers dwindled the air cleared but at that point it was very special.
For the first half hour, we were treated to various fireworks being set off by the locals to celebrate New Year. We passed some houses with parties in full swing, nicely dressed looking people inside sipping champagne and wondering who the crackpots running past their windows were.
By the final leg of the half marathon, both of us were starting to tire. That was not a great sign for me. Still, I soldiered on, through the snow and ice for the second half. I did not dare stop, as I knew that at the best of times that would leave me open to becoming hypothermic, which quite honestly could have been dangerous at that point: the temperature was -9 degrees Celsius.
With the final 5km remaining, I was very slow indeed but kept going. There was a lot of ice on the course by this time which made slipping another real danger, and I came perilously close to falling on at least three occasions. Progress was painful and painfully slow. I crossed the finish line with 4:54.
Certainly my slowest flat marathon by far (an hour off my personal best!) but without training and in the middle of the night in those conditions I had no real complaints. I suspect that now I've done this one, I won't be signing up for it again!
My podium finish, by myself except for the prosecco
I normally never drink alcohol after a race but since it was New Years and a bottle of bubbly was handed to me at the finish line, I sat shivering in a gym at 5am drinking out of plastic cups with Ursula, and then went home and drank some more, collapsing into bed around 8am.
A lightweight drinker at the best of times, it was very easy to get drunk following all that exertion. After a decent rest, we also had some good wine later that evening to make up for missing the actual NYE celebrations. Thats why I can say, already on the first day of 2015, I had run a marathon and been drunk on two separate occasions. Quite an interesting way to start a year!
As I said at the beginning, a lot of endurance running is about adjusting your perceived limits to the event at hand. Train for a half marathon and you will put your perceived limits there. Train for the full and your perception will adjust upwards. Then just put the work in, follow a programme, and see how you go. At least, that's how I've generally experienced endurance running so far.
As for the rest of 2015, I have no fixed plans so far, though I do have a few things in mind which I am keeping a low profile about. Anyhow, I’ll update this site if I do anything else that is interesting. Thank you for taking the time to read about my running life!
- Marathon 13 & 14: Two in a week, Brighton & Zürich April 2015Open or CloseThis year I have decided to train for an Ultra marathon, the Rennsteiglauf in May in Germany which is 73km. If that goes according to plan, I’m thinking about the Biel 100km in June. Training for an ultra brings things to a new level, with back to back weekend long runs rather than one long run per week. At some point in my training I would be called to run pretty much marathon distances on a weekly basis, so instead of trudging around in the forest on my own somewhere I decided to try to run two competitive marathons in a week.
I had already registered for Zürich and as luck would have it Brighton, which is the major town where I was born and grew up, would be the week before. Brighton is quite a beast in terms of participants. Zurich tends to have about 3000 marathoners while Brighton has about 18k. Much bigger than anything else I have run. Why not?
Brighton, however, was sold out. Luckily, I secured a very late charity place for the World Wildlife Fund. That was good as it would be cool to try and raise some money and I hoped that the novelty value of running two in seven days would help attract sponsors.
Brief race report. Due to the ultra training, I had upped my weekly training mileage somewhat, and had also been doing some treadmill running and gym work for core such as rowing. However, I had no particular result expectations for Brighton and just hoped that I could do a sub four if possible. Weather was nice, crowd support was superb, atmosphere was excellent, and I was feeling unusually strong in general by the half way mark.
This being the case, I decided to push the gas pedal for the last 10km. I realised that I was on for a PB and hoped for a 3:52. With 2km to go, I pushed even harder with 5min per km pace. With 1km to go, I looked at my watch and saw that my elapsed time was 3:45. Suddenly, the prospect of a sub 3:50 was there. I sprinted as fast as I could and crossed the line with 3:50:03. Nearly four minutes better than my previous PB yet just 4 seconds away from a new frontier. Brilliant but bittersweet.
With big sister, Norks.
How would I fare in the second race one week later?
Seven days later, on the start line for Zürich, my legs were still clearly not feeling 100% but I concocted a plan to try and run the first half at a 3:50 overall pace (i.e. 1:55 for the half marathon) and just see how I felt for the second half. To be brief, I went for it, and even pushed a little harder than my plan. This could have been foolhardy, as in the past it has led to disastrous nausea and general wall hitting.
By km 33, I was suffering but could live with it, and pushed on. I began to realise that if I was ever going to do a sub 3:50, it would probably be today. The remainder of my running this year would be ultra training or mountain training, where fast times are not the focus. So I resolved to try my best and pushed on with a mounting sense of elation as the kilometers ticked down and I found myself back on the outskirts of the city.
I’m pleased to say that it worked. I once again surprised myself by crossing the line with 3:46:31. A great result for me, of which I’m really proud. I had expected to be slower than Brighton after only a week to recover, and in fact I posted my best ever time!
In addition, I raised about £750 for the WWF, something I’m also proud of.
- Marathon 15 (Training Marathon #1): Lake of Zürich May 2015 Open or CloseThis was notable as being the first training run that I did (as part of my ultra training) which matched or exceeded official marathon distance, i.e. I ran a marathon, but not as part of an organised event.
My ultra training had by this point simply prescribed that the time on feet would be above four hours, in this case 4:36 for 43.2km (I added in an extra kilometer to account for potential errors on my GPS watch).
- Marathon 16: Geneva May 2015Open or Close
Completion of this meant four marathons in a month, one per weekend.
Conditions blustery and sometimes wet. I had a good first 20km, following the 3:45 pacer, with distant dreams of a third personal best in a row. Twas not to be. By 28km my legs began to suffer and the pacer became a rather distant figure ahead, although still in sight.
Wind and rain did not help, and my legs began to tighten badly.
This time Geneva FINALLY turned on the water fountain for us, visible once coming back into the city. In my pain though, it took forever to get to it and was more of a bane than a tonic. By the time I crossed the line, in 3:53:31, my legs were truly worn out, and more stiff and tired than I can ever remember after a race.
For the next several days, my legs remained quite useless. I’m not sure if this was because of the wet colder weather, or because I did not stretch after the race, or failed to eat something appropriate to recovery, or because of overtraining.
Whatever the cause, my shattered legs remain the defining memory of the marathon, even though it was my best Geneva time!
I went through the following week in a state of mild panic. After all, the big test… a 72.7km Ultramarathon in Germany on Saturday coming, and my legs more or less in pieces.
- Marathon 17: Rennsteiglauf Ultramarathon, Germany May 2015 Open or CloseThis was a big milestone. 72.7km mainly trail running, with 1400+m of climb and 900+m of descent. Starting at 6am in the town of Eisenach, about an hour north of Frankfurt.
Luckily weather conditions were good and the race well organised. It’s the biggest Ultramarathon in Germany, with about 1500 entrants (contrast that with the 100 or so who did the full Grand Union Challenge in London last year).
The week before, my legs had been quite useless, but by the Thursday (2 days before the Ultra), they had slowly started to feel a little more normal again, and by the time of the race I actually felt ok.
Overall, the event took me 9:06:26
In such a time there were bound to be a lot of ups and downs, not just the crazy amount of hills this route presented. Toward the end, I think I had my first running induced hallucinations, as trees beside me took on an almost human form and seemed to run beside me at one point. Did I reach some level of Nirvana?
Well, after the finish line, the bratwurst sure tasted like Heaven! Biel was now in my sights, just under a month from now….
Looking surprisingly good for 72.7km!
- Marathon 18 (Training #2): Zürichsee Gold Coast May 2015 Open or CloseAnother week, another training marathon. This made six marathon distances in six weeks. To be honest, without the emotional and visual hooks of an organised event, this is the point in my running career at which I can say I have ran a marathon but can barely remember it.
This time, my programme called for a slow run of five hours duration. I ran 46.2km with a time of 5:06:23
- Marathon 19 (Training #3): Overnight Greifensee May 2015Open or CloseWelcome to the toughest weekend of Ultra training.
Because the Biel 100km starts at 10pm and runs overnight and into the next day, I decided to do my next 5 hour run overnight to simulate those conditions.
That meant, eating a pizza at 5pm, and starting my run at 10pm. Ursula gamely joined me by bicycle, and we headed off into the night cross country, headlamps blazing, towards a local lake about 10km away. The Greifensee is the route of a popular half marathon each September. Around the lake is 19km, so I trundled around that, then back to the area of my apartment, and then a few extra km on top, finishing around 3:45am all in all and climbing into bed straight after.
This run was tough. My body was not used to starting at that time of night after a healthy dinner. I spent the first few hours fighting off some mild nausea due to eating a few pizza slices too many (I cannot help myself!), and probably recorded my slowest flat marathon time ever.
By the end of the night I had covered 45km and took 5:29:15 to do it, including a couple of toilet stops and a little bit of vomiting. Brutal.
Not only that, but my training plan called for me to have a few hours sleep and then get up and run another marathon that same day!
- Marathon 20 (Training #4): Limmat and Zürichsee May 2015Open or CloseSo, it went like this. The previous night I had run from 10pm until 3:45am, gone to bed around 4am, and slept until about 9am. I had breakfast at 9:30am, and headed up for another 4 hours+ on my feet at 1:30pm that same day.
In fact, despite feeling quite tired from the night before, I recorded 43km with 4:18:30 time, which was really good, all things considered.
For the sharp eyed among you, that means I did two marathons in two days (or actually, in one 24 hour period).
This marked the most intense point of training for Biel, and now I am entering the taper, so reducing my running to be better recovered and ready for the race. For posterity, I have now run 8 marathons in 7 weeks, with one per week except the last week where I did two marathons on consecutive days.
Now, I will be winding down with maximum 2 hour runs until Biel in mid June. I’m very much hoping that the taper will put me in good stead and trying not to put on too much weight in the next few weeks!
- Marathon 21: Biel 100km June 2015Open or CloseThe day of reckoning for the 100km Ultra had arrived. This race starts at 10pm on a Friday, and runs overnight and into Saturday. We arrived in Biel by train around midday and checked into the Mercure Hotel. I had already had an early lunch so that I would be ready for an early dinner and still have time to digest before the start later in the evening. After picking up my race bib at 4pm, I had pasta at a neighbouring restaurant. I made a conscious effort not to eat too much because of the limited time left for digestion, and headed back to the hotel to try to get a couple of hours sleep: although not feeling overly nervous, I could not sleep at all.
Just after 9pm we headed to the start area. Soon enough, the starting pistol sounded and off I went, waving Ursula goodbye. Around 1000 people had signed up, making this potentially the biggest ultra event for this distance in Europe.
The first part of the race wends its way around the city. Almost immediately, I noticed that my water bottle, filled with a sticky sports drink, was leaking all over my arse and legs: bad preparation, and far from ideal! I carry a phone on Ultra events, in case of emergency, so I called Ursula while running to see if she was in the area because I had given her my spare bottle. Unfortunately, she was already out of the way. So I spent a bit of time trying to repair my bottle while running. It continued to leak, but less, and when I replaced it with water I decided to just live with it.
After passing the river at about 6km, the route leaves the city proper and there begins a 2km uphill slog through more residential areas. Gradually, you head into the countryside and it is soon time to switch on the head torch, which will be used until the sun comes up. The route is rather up and down, passing through countryside and small villages, with large expanses of cross country trail running in between. I had thought that given it was now the middle of the night, crowd support would be minimal at best, but actually it was surprisingly good: the locals decided that tonight they would party, so we got to see a fair bit of drunken cheering at the crazy nuts running through their domain.
Unfortunately, on this night I was not feeling my strongest. Time and again, I have felt that the tapering before a race does not always benefit me that much. I can say with certainty that I felt much stronger during the Rennsteiglauf a month before, and that came six days after the Geneva marathon and weekly marathons before that. The Rennsteiglauf also has even more brutal climbs and descents than Biel, though of course it is a third shorter overall.
Somewhere around 3am, the 50km marker appeared. Almost exactly at this point, a female runner next to me took a big tumble and smashed her (rather thick) glasses to pieces on the the ground, scuffing her arm quite badly at the same time. I helped her up and asked if there was anything I could do to help, but she said she would be ok. I hope she still made it.
During a normal marathon, I quite often find that by around 38km, I am really looking forward to finish (this being a euphemism for “suffering like hell”) and get it done, so it’s hard not to start counting down the kilometers as the markers pass. At Biel, my clock watching started already by this 50km mark! Not encouraging!
Eventually, I settled back into rhythm and I focussed on meeting Ursula, who was riding out the reverse route on her bike to meet me at the 70km mark, where she would support me on the way in (moral support, carrying my water bottle, etc). That would mark the first time I had had support en route from anyone during an event.
The overall route of this 100km roughly resembles a massive rectangle. We head south out the city, then make a left turn and head to Kirchberg at about 55km Here we head north to Gefahrlingen (just South of Solothun) at about 70km where I hoped to meet Ursula, and then make a dogleg back onto the banks of the River Aare and then follow it all the way into Biel.
Right now I was beginning my northward leg, which follows a different river and includes about 10km of truly tough off road trail through a forest, with lots of rocks and tree roots underfoot. You really need to take care on this part of the race, it would be very easy to fall or twist an ankle. It’s also super hard on the legs. On the flip side, it was at this time that the sun began to rise and the birdsong in the forest was astoundingly lovely. A real cacophony. Crowd support from the avian locals.
Eventually I met Ursula, which provided a great boost to morale - and after that distance, even being able to offload a small water bottle onto her makes a tangible difference. Sounds crazy but try it and you’ll see. I had worried that it might be a bit tough on Ursula to support me, not only because she had had to get up at 2:30am and ride 30km to meet me. By that time, I was tired and didn’t have a lot of energy for chit chat, and was not feeling great anyway, but it worked well enough most of the time. We made the final major turn left and aimed at Biel, 30km away.
Soon after, another substantial hill arrived, which was too steep to run up, so I power walked it as best I could. Because I had previously biked the whole route in training (over two days in fact!!), I knew that there would be another few km of more gentle uphill and then, I would see a break in the road, flanked by trees on either side, which would mark the beginning of an extended beautiful downhill lasting more than 5km. I also knew that the route after that into Biel would be long but relatively flat along the river. Hence, I was looking forward to see that shining milestone where the downhill would begin, even though I would still have at least another three hours to run, with nine behind me.
Cause for celebration, though in general I was not enjoying myself much at all - honestly it was just a struggle. There were some bright spots where I could take pleasure, and when passersby give you support, it genuinely helps, but it was also a slog. In terms of nutrition, I had been eating gels once an hour every hour. I had promised myself a Cliff bar white chocolate energy bar as a “treat” at around 6 hours in (meaning 4am), but in the end it was too sweet and sickly and I had to throw most of it away. So I squirted in another gel. After ten hours of gels, you really don’t want to eat any more of them!
One positive note: I had set a target of beating 14 hours and at my current rate, I was looking at a sub 13 hour time. I had also somehow convinced myself that I would be finishing in the afternoon, but I realised that if I kept it up, I’d finish before 11am. This really helped boost my flagging spirits.
Slowly but surely, we began to edge closer to Biel, even though I still had a few hours to go. At this point, I was able to increase my pace again to a slightly more sprightly level. Eventually, the city limits came into view. Now I could begin to count down the kilometers left to go, but with an actual finish in sight. I asked Ursula to join me in riding over the finish line. It had not been easy on her either to crew me, as at some points I had just had to basically blurt out my needs to her, but she had been a great help, as she always is.
Kevin and Coach at the finish!
My finish time was 12 hours 32 minutes. Afterwards I found a spot to lay down on some concrete in the shade for a few minutes. Never in my life has being flat felt so good. Later, I hobbled over to collect my finisher shirt from an adjacent building, ate a sausage and limped back to my hotel a while later. It was now Saturday afternoon and I had not slept since Thursday night. Even so, I only managed about an hour of sleep back at the hotel. I am not really sure why I could not sleep for longer. We then got up and went to a very nice Thai restaurant in the old part of town. Before eating, we stopped for an aperitif in a local bar. Proudly wearing my finisher T Shirt, I had two drinks and was immediately pretty drunk!
Physically, I was clearly exhausted after the race. However, while some had speculated that a 100km would ruin my feet and that I would need to tape them up like some kind of Egyptian mummy, I correctly predicted that in my case I would be fine on that front: I ran with normal shoes and socks only and did not even suffer a single blister. Thank you feet! And the day after, I even felt “relatively” fresh, all things considered.
I suppose what is left to say is, would I do it again? All during training for that Ultra, I have said that it is a one off thing. Ultra training is really brutal, there is no two ways about it. Running marathon+ distances week after week, and back to back long training runs. And there was a lot of the actual race that I just could not enjoy as much as I wanted, because it was of course hard and I was not in peak form. Nevertheless, I am writing this two weeks afterwards, and once or twice I had the merest flicker of a thought that perhaps I could revisit it to see if I could enjoy it more next time.
- Marathon 22: Jungfrau Marathon September 2015 Open or Close
Probably my favourite picture of myself during a run
On Sep 12th 2015 we participated in our third Jungfrau. I felt quietly confident that I would have a shot at a personal best, having completed so many races this year. Additionally, our traditional summer training runs on the Rigi and the upper part of the Jungfrau course had gone well.
With perfect sunny weather, we started quickly off the line, perhaps a touch faster than I should have, at about 5:25 per km. As usual, Ursula was a bit of a rocket and I paced her but thought to myself, lets see where this goes, perhaps I can handle it.
The course loops around Interlaken before heading gently up the valley, following a mountain river, until Lauterbrunnen at 22km, by which time Ursula had pushed ahead. Arriving there, my stomach was feeling unsettled. I told myself not to worry, I would have time to loop around the valley and then would come the 2km super steep power walk, where perhaps I could recover a little. Many people find this power walk to be very demanding - it is, and I have seen people drop out of the race there - but personally I sort of see it as a rest from running. At the top of the walk, I gave myself a full minute of standing still to try to recover. From there, it is about 11km of upward running until the steepest 2km of the course looms above you.
Profile of the race, with power walk shown at the first steep part.
Unfortunately, my nausea increased to the point where, above Wengen (around 32km into the race), I decided that my best course of action would be to try and make myself throw up. I’d like to point out that I have never properly vomited or made myself vomit in a race before! In fact, I had not felt quite like this since my first ever marathons.
Fingers down the throat produced retching and a cold sweat, but try as I might, nothing came up, so I decided to race on. The next km felt slightly better, so I thought perhaps it had helped. Annoyingly, it came back strong and while I could run, I could only run quite slowly and in suffering.
Lets just say, it’s not much fun to run 20km in that condition, especially when it is all uphill! I did what I could, even still forcing down a few gels, a strategy which had helped in the past, but to not much avail.
The tremendous, kilometer high north face of the Eiger on the left, and Ursula with her medal below
Before the race, I had been quietly hoping for 5 twenty something. Ursula made 5:20 exactly, very good as usual. I crossed the line with 5:48, so eleven minutes slower than the year before. In some sense, that was a victory considering how I was feeling.
What went wrong? As typically seems to be the case with me, the cause is difficult to pin down. Perhaps I went off the line too fast (though I have run flat marathons at that pace before without issue). Perhaps I drank too much too early (this is my current favourite diagnosis). Perhaps my running belt was too heavy or too tight (I carried quite a lot of gels to see me through). Perhaps the meal the night before had not been ideal. Maybe I did not pay the mountains enough respect. Perhaps, it just was not my day to shine. Fair enough, considering my other achievements this year.
So on the one hand, disappointing. On the other, at least I made it and did not give up. By tradition, we had a very nice Cafe de Paris steak with some Ripasso in the evening, followed by one of those post marathon nights of twisting turning uncomfortable sleep, that seem especially prevalent and related to running up mountains!
No matter what, the Jungfrau marathon remains my favourite race. The combination of training beforehand, the scenery there, alphorns playing beautiful soulful music at the start, the crowd support, helicopters swinging overhead to film you, a bagpipe player at the peak of the final climb to serenade you. The whole majesty of it. It is Switzerland’s #1 marathon for many reasons.
and now a video from the race, this time showing Ursula….
Next up…. IWB Basel, 27th Sep!!!! :-)
- Marathon 23: IWB Basel September 2015Open or CloseI spotted that Basel runs in late September, and figured that by doing it, I would be able to cross off another Swiss Marathon from my list, so I figured, why not? After the difficulties of the Jungfrau two weeks before, I wanted to regain a bit of confidence.
I was never under the illusion that Basel would have high hopes of producing any personal bests, but I went out relatively quickly (for me) with a pace around 5:25 per km, just in case. Nevertheless, by the half way mark I could tell that I was in reasonable but not great shape, so from then on I just did what I could do.
The Basel course is a 2 lap route through the city, around the Zoo (which you cannot see into unfortunately) and up to the harbour. It is not particularly scenic, and Basel is somewhat industrial in nature, especially with it’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry. I do not know the town too well, although I used to commute through it for a year or so, back in the day.
So I would not rank it as a beautiful course, and as in Lucerne, I have found that two lap courses do not suit me particularly well. Perhaps it is because you see the half marathoners finish halfway through, while realising that you have to do it all again? This can be a little demoralising. Additionally, there is less to see in general. On the plus side, you do get a visual cue when in the late stages of the marathon as to how far remains.
Around 30km, I started the fight to cross the line sub four hours. This time, I was able to do so, with 3:56. I was very happy with this time and overall I am happy to have completed Basel. Ursula did the half marathon and achieved a personal best for herself of 1:46, so I was also very pleased about that! She also scored in the top 20% of women doing the half marathon… quite an achievement given that she does not train very seriously. She professed to have liked the course and said she might come back for it again. In my case, I’m not so sure - it would more likely be if I am hungry to run and the date fits.
As an aside, it’s quite a small marathon. Only 300 people did the full, although a few thousand more do a half and some relay thing. Organisation was top notch (except it is the only Marathon I have done where a finisher shirt is not included). Changing rooms are located really close to the start, and they had those wonderful showers in a truck that I have only seen at the Zurich triathlon. No kidding, it’s a truck, with great showers in it (they even have a “Rainforest Mode”), better than in most hotel rooms! It’s the opposite to the cold dripping shower at the Zürich Marathon a couple of years back.
In a few weeks I’ll give Lausanne another try - my fourth - and then will take my traditional two month break from running, in November and December, to allow rest and recuperation.
- Marathon 24: Lausanne October 2015Open or Close
Just great scenery on the Lausanne Marathon
Over the last few years, I have come to treat my late October marathon as a sort of end-of-the-year-run to bring my running season to a close. Normally, this meant Lausanne, but last year I decided to try Lucerne instead - both are always held on the same day.
Both are also rather on the harder side for “flat” courses, making personal bests unlikely. So that is why I treat them as events to try and enjoy, before taking a well earned few months break from running in general.
Lucerne was good to try and had it’s own highlights, but Lausanne is hands down one of the most beautiful routes I have done, with wonderful views of steep vineyards, Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and the Swiss and French Alps beyond. And of course, it also holds the distinction of being my first marathon - and you never forget your first marathon!
With this in mind, plus the fact that Lausanne made a big effort to advertise itself throughout the year, I decided to head back and support it once more - making it my fourth Lausanne. Ursula had signed on for the half, but when she found out that it did not start until mid afternoon (and started 20km outside Lausanne) we had a discussion about whether perhaps she could think about doing the full, even at such short notice. Because she had completed the Basel half four weeks prior, and ran a few longish distance fun runs in between, we jointly decided she would be in good enough shape to try the full distance, so she changed her registration at the expo.
The expo itself is always quite well put together and the goody bag stuffed with some useful items. We made the traditional visit to the boat moored in the harbour for the pasta party in the evening. I’m ambivalent about a lot of pasta party’s - for a start I am not convinced that the actual pasta that they use is good quality, so I generally look elsewhere for carbs on the night before a race, but Lausanne has such a nicely located party that I like to join in. Migros (the supermarket) sponsors this race and they always do a really good job with the organisation and food available. Tasty apple for dessert! After that, we retired back to our hotel, somewhat up the hill at Riponne for a long evening of watching TV and relaxing. We were also treated to an extra hour in bed due to the clocks changing that night.
The route follows the lake along to Vevey and then broadly turns back on itself. Weather conditions were fantastic for the time of year, hovering around 14 to 15 deg C and sunny, making a change from the continuous torrential deluge we had slogged through two years ago.
In brief, I ran with Ursula for the first 7.5km and then she edged ahead in typical fashion. I enjoyed the running and felt reasonably strong, but was under no illusion that the second half of Lausanne is always tough. The statistics say that it is just a few hundred metres of climb, but I don’t know - Ursula and I always talk about how tough the second half seems. Lots of rolling hills, nothing steep, but continuous, and draining.
At 26km though, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. My legs felt reasonable, my stomach was behaving, the sun was shining, crowd support at Lausanne is always pleasing, and I had a few good songs playing on my iPod nano. I experienced a really decent runners high, triggered in part by a great song and by looking back at what a fantastic running year I have had this year - 13 marathons, my two personal best standard marathon times, and two successful Ultramarathon’s at 73km and 100km respectively.
I’ve never run a sub four time at Lausanne, either because I got sick or because the return leg sapped my strength. This time though, it looked like a possibility so I aimed for it. Around 34km, I had an average time of 5:36m per km, which was under the 5:42 needed for sub four.
I figured that this time I felt reasonable and I had a good chance. This confidence was increased when I looked back every now and again to see if the four hour pacemaker was in view behind me, and could not see him. I was dimly aware that I was slowing with every km, though….
Listening to music and pushing on I reached 37km - with 5km left. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me… the sound of a lot of footsteps. Even before looking around, some part of my brain already knew what it was… the block of people who follow the pacemaker, meaning that he must be close by. Yes, I looked around and there he was, surrounded by people and almost close enough to touch. Shit! Where had he come from???
Well, I sped up because I did not want to get behind him, and realised right there that I had a fight on my hands. I was losing energy, but would have to up my pace for the whole remaining distance if I was to come in ahead. This coupled with a developing stitch in my side and my stomach starting to feel quite unsettled in general. On the upside, around 39km I saw Ursula up ahead, and while I knew that I would not catch her this time, it still gave me some added energy.
Well, I fought the good fight and this time came out ahead. I had hoped to have done the hard work earlier in the race and cruise in smoothly for something just sub four. In the event, I had to battle for 5km but kept ahead and crossed the line with 3:59:12. Ursula was one minute ahead of me. After recovering with a bouillon and water, we headed off for a cheeseburger at the port entrance … very tasty it was too.
When I wrote my last race report for Lausanne, I wondered aloud if I would ever reach a sub four time for Lausanne, and I had. While 2015 has been a challenging year personally, this was a fantastic way to cap off an incredible running year. Time for a rest.
- Marathon 25: Zürich New Years Marathon, Jan 2016Open or CloseDeciding to see once again how painful a marathon without preparation can be (one forgets, perhaps like childbirth), I signed in for the fist marathon on planet Earth that takes place in 2016. Luckily this happens to be more or less on my doorstep. To remind you, the starting gun for this race goes off at midnight on New Years Eve, so you run into the small hours of the new year. Being an official IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) event, it means that whoever wins is the worlds fastest marathon runner for that year at that point. Of course, in my case, I am just happy to get around the course.
Last time, I ran it in the snow, this time in the wet. It was hard work. It was also at one point terrifying. Chugging along slowly at the 36km mark, I was suddenly held up, physically stopped, by three guys. This being me, running on my own with a head torch, at nearly 4am by the river in the dark. Things got worse when I realised that the guy who stopped me, by putting a hand on my chest, was shouting at me and carrying a pistol in his other hand. For a moment, I realised that this could be really really bad, and my stomach felt like it was dropping out of me somehow.
Anyhow, he ranted a bit about why was I paying 60 Swiss Francs to run in such a stupid race. I mean, he had a point when I later thought about it, but at the time I told him that I just like running and its a hobby. He never expressly pointed the gun at me, and instead told me to give him a high five… ok yes sir, but he was rattled and it was threatening. I mean, who knows, maybe they were high on who knows what. One of the other three then stepped in to say hi, was not that unfriendly, but I asked if I could continue with words to the effect of “Well, I must continue the race, is that ok?” and they let me go.
Before this encounter, I was really struggling with the running, at times forcing myself to keep running and not to walk. Suffice to say, once I escaped from my new friends, I genuinely could have given Usain Bolt a run for his money. When I finished the race about 30 minutes later, I reported it to the race leader and asked him to report it to the police. He took my details but I heard no more about it.
Once again, I had a drink or two after the race… this time more to calm my nerves, went home, slept, got up and had a decent bottle of wine that we had saved for that evening. Like last year, I like to say that already on the first day of the year, I ran a marathon and got drunk twice, all in the same day.
However, this time, I can add…. and got held up at gunpoint. Not to be recommended.
- Marathon 26: Paris Marathon, April 2016Open or CloseI am not really a marathon tourist. In other words, I do not particularly seek to tick off marathons in far away countries. However, my wife wanted to run the Paris marathon, partially to try a famous big event, and partly so that she could do shopping afterwards I suspect… so we booked ourselves in and made space for it.
Six weeks out from the start date, she had a fall down some stairs and hurt her right foot. She immediately went to her local doctor, who said it was sprained and not broken. After a few days, the pain was still severe, so she went back and was told the same thing. Not happy with this, she went to a specialist who also said it was not broken but that an MRI should show what up. What was up was that her foot was broken in three places! She was out of the race.
However I was still in and alone. Arriving in Paris, there was a huge expo before the event, the largest I have attended, and I bought some tiny hot pants from Asics there which barely covered my dignity!
A brief race report. It was really thrilling to line up on the Champs Elysee with so many other people awaiting the start gun! The Arc de Triomphe not far behind me… the whole of Paris ahead of me! I’d been to Paris three or four times before the race, and was surprised how much of the city I covered in the race that I had previously covered as a tourist, even outside the centre in the parks region where previously I had rowed aimlessly with the Wife on a summer afternoon. Another memory is one of the tunnel underpasses was given over to ambient music which was quite atmospheric.
It was not to be an historic performance, coming in at 4:04. The last couple of miles had a lot of cobblestones which were not conducive to a rapid finish. I think it’s ticked off the list now.
- Marathon 27: Brighton Marathon, April 2016Open or CloseBack to Brighton for a second time. A large muddy field served as the staging point for the start. Zoe Ball, a local celebrity (and former wife of Mr Fatboy Slim) sounded the starting klaxon and I gave her a high five as I passed the start line. The first km has a few hills, and I was recovering from a cold. In fact, I remember blowing my nose as I climbed the hill… not a great sign, and I suffered a fair bit in the later stages.
The route initially takes you further east from Brighton in the direction of Eastbourne. It’s really nice up there, you really feel out of the city quite quickly and you great great sea views and feel the sea breeze. For a little while, it feels more like a countryside marathon than a city one. It was a pleasant sunny day which added to the allure.
The second half of the marathon swings back and heads through and out of town in the other direction, with a trip to Shoreham, where you swing around what used to be the old power station, which is a familiar sight to anyone growing up in this area. On the way back, you can see the finish far in the distance around Brighton pier, but it seemed to take forever and never came closer, something of an optical illusion, or perhaps I really was running that slowly!
Luckily I had some support from the Murgatroyd family, old friends of mine from growing up in Sussex, although they had to scream at me so that I actually noticed them all! Sorry guys but thanks so much for turning out!
A slow finish compared to the year before (4:16), where I had 3 hours forty something in my sights, but hey…. try running a marathon with a head cold, and you’ll see it’s far from easy!
- Marathon 28: Zürich Marathon, April 2016Open or CloseHard to believe, as I am writing this in an injury prone early 2018, but just seven days after Brighton I found myself on the start line in Zurich. My head cold had cleared, and I broke sub four again with a 3:56. This would be my fourth time running this marathon, my adopted hometown, and most likely the flattest route of all the courses I have run. That is why a lot of people aim for a personal best time on this route, although I have heard by a few people that they find it a rather boring route.
Well, that may be for some people, but I adore it. I always have a lovely sense of pride running down the main street Bahnhofstrasse, and have it now just by remembering it. As I write this, it is March 2018 and the next Zurich Marathon is six weeks away. Just now I had butterflies in my stomach… if I make the start line, it will be my first marathon for more than a year and a half.
- Marathon 29: Geneva Marathon, April 2016Open or CloseTwo weeks after Zürich, I’m back in Geneva with my friend Ahmet, who I got to know from playing football together. We always stay at the same hotel, which purports to have a special price for marathon runners but never seems to in practice.
I must admit, the sands of time have erased too many memories of this one… but it was memorable for being the moment when Ahmet broke the sub four barrier with a cheeky 3:59. Nice work!
I suppose I need to say that at this time I was nominally aiming to try the Biel 100km again, and that’s why I was working up to it by participating in multiple marathons again in a short time. But I realised that niggling injuries were starting to come to the fore and that it just was not sensible to attempt it this year. Instead, let’s run up some more mountains, this time in France….
- Marathon 30: Marathon du Mont Blanc, June 2016Open or CloseBecause I so enjoy the Jungfrau Marathon both in concept and in practice, I decided that I should try an alternative mountain marathon. Having snowboarded in Chamonix before, I know how absolutely stunning the mountain scenery is in that area, so I was intrigued by the Marathon du Mont Blanc, which is in the same valley.
A steep hill climb section, poles coming in handy
The key differences between this and the Jungfrau race is that this one has 2500m of climb instead of 1850m at the Jungfrau, and also that this one has significant downhills in the middle, dropping about 700m during one stretch, whereas the Jungfrau is all up (apart from the final kilometer).
That means, this is one tough mofo of a run. Although downhill running sounds great in theory, with the gravity assist, I’ve never much liked it in practice. As hard as uphill is, at least you can plod it out, whereas steep downhill gives the body a lot of jarring impacts. For this race, most participants carry running poles (basically thin trekking poles), so I would do the same. They would be especially helpful in the downhill sections to maintain balance on rocky terrain.
There are some other differences compared to the Jungfrau. The Mont Blanc requires you to submit medical certification prior to the race to demonstrate your race fitness (this is often the case for French Marathons). One must also bring some mandatory equipment : a survival sheet, whistle, minimum liquid requirements and so on. Hence, I would be running this race with a backpack…. I suppose, the first and only marathon where I have done this… as well as running poles.
I enjoyed this run but there was a strange disconnect between my perceived performance and the actual results. The winner came in with 4:04… stunning really for the terrain. The median time was 7:31, I ran it in 8:48 and the slowest finisher crossed the line with 9:48. That placed me in 1788th out of 2045 finishers. Normally in marathons I place close to the median (so if 2000 runners run, I am normally around the 1000th over the line). By contrast, the best time ever recorded at the Jungfrau is just under three hours (again an incredible feat all things considered)… Ursula’s best was 5:03 and my best 5:37, much closer to the median in that race.
So today I finished towards the bottom of the pack. And yet, I never had the feeling during the whole race that I was particularly slow. There was a queue during a thin path section about one hour into the race, where we had to plod along at walking pace for several minutes, but apart from that I always thought I was performing pretty well in context.
I enjoyed the race, the scenery was excellent, although Mont Blanc itself was obscured in cloud for most of it. But those downhill sections are genuinely really tough and not that enjoyable. On one awkward step, I just narrowly avoided screwing up my ankle. Thankfully I was saved by my poles, but managed to damage one of them (which remains a little bent to this day as a reminder) - a little annoying as I had only bought them the day before and they cost about EUR 100!
An Alpine Ibex watches the proceedings… my favourite spectator!
Still, nearly 9 hours is a long time to run by anyones standards, and I sure was happy to cross the finish line. The last 5km was a slog over large boulders and uneven terrain, with the finish line taking a long time to inch closer. Even Ursula was surprised, perhaps a little annoyed at having to stand around at the finish line for so long, and asking why it took so long. I’m glad I did it, but haven’t thought too much about returning. One pretty cool detail… before the race, they make a temporary tattoo of the route onto your forearm! It looked good as I proceeded to drink a bottle of wine that evening!
- Marathon 31: Jungfrau Marathon, Sep 2016Open or CloseMy last marathon prior to my enforced injury related break. I’m not really sure why, perhaps my injuries were catching up with me, but it was also a fairly weak performance. It was not my day, and I made a 6:35 finish compared to 5:45 the previous year. I was pooped, and had to lay down on the side of the course twice after the initial power walk. This, with quite a bit of walking rather than running in the final third.
A pink finisher shirt came my way, as well as a large block of free Lindt chocolate, but it wasn’t the way I wanted to finish my mountain running career. I still hope I can get back to running this race for a fifth time in September 2018. Whatever the case may be, it’s still an awesome event and I encourage anyone who has an interest and thinks they are capable, to give it a shot.
- 2017: No Marathons, Injuries.Open or CloseMemory fails me as to why I did not attempt my usual end of season marathon in 2016, either Lausanne or Lucerne, but I’m guessing it is because my hamstring injury had become debilitating by then and I decided to let it rest. In fact, it didn’t go away so I tried a bit of training in early 2017 without success and then sought the advice of a sports clinic in Zürich. Concurrently, I visited a chiropractor for the first time. Attack the problem!
Previous injuries had led me more to a general practitioner than sports doc, so it was good to feel taken care of by people used to sports injuries. My doctor works with some of the Swiss olympic competitors, so he knows his stuff. As well as my hamstring, I also developed some lower back pain from my L4 facet joint, which developed a protrusion. He instructed me to stop all sport except some front crawl and light cycling, for a period of 6 months, and to engage in some painful physio called cross friction physiotherapy.
This I reluctantly did. I hate to give up sport, it’s terrible for my state of mind. Many long distance runners enjoy a healthy appetite as well, and stopping training doesn’t always equate to careful eating. At exactly this time, I also lost my job as well. So I was unemployed, unable to do sport, getting painful physio, and still eating too much. A shit combination to be honest.
I did break the rules by doing some downhill mountain biking, which when I look back on it was entirely the wrong sport to do for my injuries. Gotta admit, it was good fun though… Laax, Lenzerheide, and so on, have some amazing downhill bike routes that you can access by bringing your bike on the ski chair lift.
The hamstring slowly got better but persisted, and still persists today. I’m pretty sure it was caused by overtraining for the Biel 100km. Ultra’s are hard on the body, the heart, and the mind.
Still glad I did it though :-)
- 2018 and BeyondOpen or CloseThe lower back injury went away in Summer 2017 but came back at the end of the year. It’s no longer acute but I’m still being treated now, by my chiropractor and a different physiotherapist…. one of the team responsible for physio for the Zürich ice hockey team (the ZSC Lions). They seem optimistic, and have told me I can continue to run. The hamstring injury lingers in the background. It is not as bad as it was, but it’s background presence is threatening. Hey, at least the achilles tendonitis went away!
Well, there are practical considerations. I am now 44 years old. Sure, some people are doing endurance running twenty years down the line, but others had to give up ten years before with knee injuries. I know people of both types. I’m the middle ground, and I cannot see the future.
Since early January of this year, I decided to cautiously get back into a running programme for the Zürich marathon, scheduled April 22nd. As I write, it is early March 2018. I’m on target in the programme, somewhat slower than before, but if I can complete the marathon in 4:15 or under, I’d consider that a victory. I had gained 12kg in the space between my last race and now, so I went on a diet and have lost 9 of those in Jan and Feb of this year.
I’m a bit achey in the back, getting older, but feeling slim and fit. After a 29km run last weekend, I felt thigh pain in my muscles the day after… which is totally normal… but I realised that I hadn’t felt that for many years, which I think is a testament to just how in shape I was between say 2011 and 2016, when I could run a half marathon at any point with basically no real recovery time needed.
One cannot expect to continue sport into old age without any issues. I am more fastidious than ever about stretching, and do some frequent exercises to strengthen my core. I think however that the time may finally be arriving to hang up my soccer boots. I and a group of friends participate in a friendly 5 a side football tournament in Amsterdam every year. The next one is in three weeks. I think I will likely make this my last one, or at least take an extended break, even though team sports brings my a special joy which is different to the pleasure I derive from running.
Let’s see how it goes!
- Summary of Race ResultsOpen or Close
- Marathon 32: Zurich Marathon 22 April 2018 (5x)Open or CloseBack in the game… and the first marathon that I have run five times! Re-reading my last entry, my target was to beat 4:15. I just squeaked through with a 4:13:54. I was on for a sub four until 30km but unfortunately my old nemesis of nausea was back.
In addition to the nausea, I also ran this marathon with a broken right hand!! I was previously musing about my football tournament in Amsterdam… during some particularly vigorous defending I managed to break my right 5th Metacarpal. Therefore I ended up tapering and running the marathon with a broken hand in a cast… hardly ideal, but, well, another story to tell!
Temperatures were around 25 degrees Celsius by midday so the conditions were also suboptimal… around 11 degrees is probably ideal… and I consequently drank more than I should have, because I was burping shortly after 20km, which is never a good sign.
I kept the dream alive with a 1:55 half marathon time, but then started to flag on the return leg after the turning point at Meilen. My legs also started to seize up, my hamstring and lower back were playing up too in minor ways but all of which contributed to a punishing final 12km. Around 34km I had to walk for a brief time, but as I neared the entrance back into the city I could trot along again, albeit slowly.
Ursula was waiting in the wings to cheer me on, which was helpful as always. The broken hand did make eating and drinking more difficult I must say. Still, another experience to look back on :-)
In the immediate aftermath, I was shivering again, even though it was a warm day. I also couldn’t really eat … I managed a third of a burger and then waited for my nausea to cease, which this time took a couple of hours.
Post run, I also had some strange feelings in my chest for a couple of days. I tried a recovery run on the following Wednesday, three days after the race, and could only manage a slow 4km. The following weekend, I also got a very stiff neck and shoulder…. I basically could not look to the left. Ah, the unalloyed joys of marathon running. I also convinced myself that this was marathon 33 instead of 32, and thus when I updated my results spreadsheet, I felt a little cheated. Silly man. It’s 32!
Still, got through it and glad that I am back, one way or another. About to start hill training for the Summer, hopefully this time a smoother path ahead!
Incapacitated Eating and Drinking!
- Marathon 33: Zermatt Ultramarathon 8 July 2018 Open or Close
Next up…. Zermatt. This is what my hill training has been about. Over the last few months I have been slogging up the local Zurich “mountain” called the Uetliberg, time and again. It is a 10km round trip from my front door, and it’s about 350m of climb, with a great view over Zurich. Now and again, I would run up and down it twice in one run. I also did my usual training run up Mt Rigi near Zug, the classic 33km training run from Baar, to the top. I learned that the famous artist JMW Turner liked to paint the Rigi, which is known as queen of the mountains. That Rigi climb has 1400m of relentless climb in the last 10km. It’s really hard actually, but I did it nicely.
Onto the race itself. I arrived in the area of Zermatt the day before, about 20km down the valley from Zermatt in fact, close to St Niklaus which is the starting line. We took a hostel a few km up the hill from there. Arriving, the expo was rather small and we had a lunch at a local restaurant where they messed up the order. Still, our hostel had great views. Zermatt is the home of the Matterhorn, though from where we stayed it was not visible. That would have to come during the race itself. The route winds up through the valley to and through Zermatt itself, starting at 1100m over sea level and climbing about 500m in the first 20km. They the upward profile increases, until the end at Gornergrat at 3089m. All told, the amount of vertical climb is about 2300m, about 500m more than the Jungfrau. The distance is 45.5km, so 3km further than a standard marathon and a punishing 500m of climb in that last 3km alone.
Race report: Parked the car and managed to scrape the side of it against a concrete wall, leaving some nasty scratches. Damn! Weather was great however, I was feeling reasonable though nervous as always. Setting off led to an immediate bit of climbing, and a traffic jam through St Niklaus. Shortly after, up into the hills around the village and a pleasant, if hard, first 20km into Zermatt, past the helicopter base and the glorious Matterhorn itself welcomed me with a lovely view of it’s summit.
There in town Ursula was waiting for me. I had texted her at 18km (from my apple watch) and asked her to tear out the route profile (showing the gradient throughout the race) from the race booklet, because I had not studied it enough and it was giving me angst about what was ahead. With a kiss and some encouragement she handed it over. This was great, because I could now see clearly what was ahead. It was super helpful for my mental state. Unlike the Jungfrau, where I practiced the upper part of the route as part of my training, here in Zermatt this was my first time over this ground. Zermatt is actually quite remote from Zurich, so I had not had the chance to visit it beforehand.
I could see now that the route would wend it’s way through Zermatt, then a hard 6km long climb, followed by a flat and then gently descending 6km of uneven terrain bringing me up to km39. Finally, then a monster climb of about 1100m over the last 6.5km. In actual fact, the hard climbs turned mostly into power walks, and this was the case for 9 out of 10 of my fellow athletes.
Yet again, I had to keep an upset stomach at bay. The 5km power walk following Zermatt did help in this regard, and then I was then able to mostly run until km 39. I did ok from km39 until 42km, the traditional marathon finish (there is a finish line here for those who signed up for a marathon only)… and then a second finish line for about 700 people who signed up for the ultra distance, including me of course.
From km42 until 45.5 was fairly hellish because my nausea kicked back in. A few of the helpers checked in on me in case I had altitude sickness …. I did not and did not find the altitude much of a burden to be honest… one told me I needed to drink half a litre of water with each gel and that I had not drunk enough perhaps. By this stage I was drinking quite a bit at every stop, including some coke and a bouillon.
Nevertheless, I slogged my way slowly up the hill, relentlessly, to the finish line, where Ursula was cheerfully waving. How lucky I am to have her support! Thanks darling! After the line I was handed a golden reflective warming blanket with my medal. At that altitude, it was mid afternoon and 8 deg Celsius. Pretty warm for up there! Still, I shivered uncontrollably like I have on several other occasions - my core temperature rapidly falling after stopping race effort - until Ursula arrived with a hot soup which slowly warmed me up again. The view from the finish line was stupendous…. high above even some glaciers, and way above any altitude I have ever run at before!
FINISH LINE VIEW!!!!!!!
The result was 7:04:19, and I arrived ranked as 330th out of 440 for the men taking part in the ultra. Not too bad considering how I felt towards the end. My marathon ranking (i.e. 42.2km) was somewhat better, but had to be estimated as I didn’t cross an exact finish line for that. That was at approximately 5hrs and 55 minutes. Clearly the last 3.5km cost me a number of places as I slowed up a lot during it. But I am happy to have taken part and completed it. Saying that, I don’t think I would do the ultra here again. It felt like too many parts needed power walking and I prefer a race where there is more running involved. One never knows though.
As can happen with mountain marathons, the next day my legs felt relatively fresh, so we took the funicular up to Suunega and hiked around and back down into Zermatt, with even better Matterhorn views, and feet resting in a nice mountain pond. A great hike, I recommend it.
Speaking now 10 days after, my lower back has suffered a bit and I am definitely still in a recovery phase. I am planning to take part in another race just ten days from now, which should be slightly easier, but I am happy to have some more days to recover. Marathons really do need some recovery time.
- Marathon 34: Davos Swissalpine K43 28 July 2018 Open or CloseA mere twenty days after my efforts in Zermatt… along came Davos. I am constantly surprised by the fact that even after all these marathons, I still encounter very different experiences from time to time. This would be the first off road mountain marathon where the route profile is essentially, first half climb, second half descend, in a loop.
The others I had done tended to be climbs all along the way, finishing at the top of a very big hill… this one skirted around and climbed a large block of land, then descended back down to the start line. Roughly speaking, the route follows a nice valley gently upwards for a little more than 10km, then climbs proper and loops to the right, climbing about 1400m in total by the 25km mark. The rest is rather downhill. That does not make it easy. Try running up a 1400m hill and see how you like it. And people tend to think that running downhill is easy… it’s not, it pounds your joints and you can’t run as fast as you think unless it is a very gentle incline.
I started well, having carefully appraised the weather situation the previous day: warm weather expected, no rain, with a temp of about 14 deg at the top. That’s really hot for this kind of terrain, so I decided to go as light as I have even been. I had even bought a new lightweight Salomon t shirt at the expo. I know that you shouldn’t really try anything new on race day, but since time is less important on mountain marathons, I figured i’d throw caution to the wind. I also left my waist pack in my training bag, as well as my wrist warmers. This was verging on reckless because avid readers of my reports (of which there are none!) know that I am prone to cooling down and even hypothermia. What am I thinking!
So, as soon as I hit the step climb of about 700m, rain sweeps in up the valley in a way that was certainly not forecast! By the top of the first big climb, there is rain and wind and I am cooling rapidly. Luckily this event is sponsored by Migros, the supermarket chain, and they tend to be the best of the sponsors. At the top, helpers are handing out temporary rain jackets! I’m saved, and run the next few km in the big binbag or with it stuffed down by backside. Still, I’m really grateful. What follows is a lovely run across the valley on a very thin single track path, but with superb valley views. Confidence returns and I ran this section at a pretty fast clip. Throughout the race, I must have stumbled at least ten times, twice very nearly toppling over, but managed to save it each time. There were a few patches here where a stumble off the side would have led to a pretty long slide down the hill, but I was fine.
Next up was the second major climb, of about 400m. By this point my usual nauseous feelings in my gut had arrived. I had heard from Ursula that they would serve some risotto at the top, so I resolved to have some. In fact, they had a little tent and a bench, and had made an open fire, so I decided to hell with it, I’ll take five minutes and have a bite of risotto (tasty), a little bouillon, and some extra water, and take in the best views of the race. This was a special moment and I really liked it, instead of piling on more pressure on myself to get going, it was great to simply take it easy and drink it all in. This was the highlight of my race, right here.
After that, a small climb to crest the ridge and then a really steep descent over broken rocks followed by a general descent and starting to loop back round the hill towards where I had started. At this point, I realised that the dimensions of the hill I was running around and the terrain itself, was quite similar in a lot of ways to a trek that I had done a few years ago around Mt Kailash in remote Tibet. Eerily so in fact. All except that I was worshipping the running gods, not the Hindu ones.
After a prolonged gravel and then asphalt trail, I entered more forest style track which winds it’s way up and down through the woods above Davos. Very pleasant running, except for me feeling a little sick. I finally overcame my nausea at km39, when I think my body decided it’s ok, I can see Davos now in the distance. Arriving back into town at the local running track near the ice rink, Ursula was on hand to wave me in and give me a high five. Another finish line crossed. After cooling off, getting some lunch and coffee, the winner of the 127km race came in, a Swiss guy. He had covered the distance and +/- 6000m in fifteen hours. Some hell of an achievement that, and two hours faster than the second place finisher! A 34hour time limit for that one.
Results: out of overall men, I came 300th out of 482. For my age group, Men 40, I came 69th out of 114. My time was 6:07:56. An hour faster than Zermatt, which has more climb and distance. Checking out the comparison with my Jungfrau times, they seemed to equate, although I had thought that the Davos track would be faster than the Jungfrau, it seems not to be.
Note: Ursula ran the 23km event from Klosters and, without much training, came 78th out of 257 overall women with a time of 2:34:04 (with 600m climb, 350m descent), and 18th out of 57 for her age group… really impressive.
Arriving back in Zurich one day later, the legs and everything felt reasonable… once again, the mountain marathon, although much longer in time, does not seem to quite impact the body the way a flat race does. Four days later, I even hiked up the Santis mountain, with another climb of 1100m. Great trek by the way, though not for the completely faint of heart. It is now 9 days after the event, and I now have a painful lower back, but a 7km run today did not seem to aggravate it.
Next planned run is the Jungfrau Marathon in exactly one month from now.
30 minutes after finishing
- Marathon 35: Jungfrau Marathon 2018 5x 08 September 2018 Open or Close
I recall my preparations for my first Jungfrau Marathon, wanting to reach that finish line and earn the right to wear that particular finisher shirt… the only time I have actually coveted a finisher shirt. Back then, I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be lining up for a fifth attempt at this beautiful, terrible, wonderful beast of a race.
I also had some payback to give. My last time here, in September 2016, had been difficult. I was reasonably well trained on that day, but I was weak. I think my injuries were catching up with me as well, and indeed it was my last event for a year and a half. I had felt sick and tried to make myself vomit (the only time I have done that - and without success). In 2016 I struggled to the finish line at 6:35, which was considerably slower than the 5:45 of the year before. I hoped it would not be how I finished my mountain running career. How would I fare today?
On the one hand, I knew that this year I had a fighting chance of doing ok because I had never done so much mountain running in a summer prior to this one. Two times up the punishing Rigi run of 33km, along with the Zermatt 45km and the Davos 43k, a training run on part of the Jungfrau route, plus runs up my local hills too numerous to mention. On the other hand, I also knew that once my nausea kicked in, it was hard to control and stop it derailing me completely.
These were my thoughts as I stood in Interlaken on a beautiful late summer morning, thankful for the weather and listening to the alphorn players after hastily sneaking into the Victoria Jungfrau hotel for some pre race bowel emptying.
As the gun went off, we did our our first loop around Interlaken (this year, it went the opposite way than before, not sure why the change) and I controlled my pace at the off pretty well, not becoming flustered or tempted to shoot off too quickly. Up and along the valley we went, snaking along by the river, reaching close to the halfway point at Lauterbrunnen. I had expected to see Ursula here, and indeed wanted to hand off my running belt to her, but we both got a bit confused and missed each other. The race goes on.
From Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen is a steady but gentle climb over a half marathon distance. After this, runners along the valley, running in the shape of three sides of a rectangle over a further 5km, with towering cliffs either side. And then begins the serious gradient, starting at about 26km. There is a 2km long super steep part that most everyone power walks, and then further up to Wengen, and then further up and up and … you get the picture.
After that initial power walk finishes at km28, the climb continues until the steepest part of the race between km 39 and 41, which again almost everyone power walks. Between these two points, I successfully ran almost all of it, though I have noted over the years that more people are walking parts of this inbetween as well. I do not know if the culture of the race has changed, or just that more people are entering who are not fully trained, but there it is. One really needs to be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security, along the lines of thinking that, “oh, they are walking so I can walk.”
Eventually I found myself at the bottom of the final steep ascent which ascends several hundred metres over 2km. I knew that I still had a shot at a personal best, which was 5:37 from my second attempt some years ago. Nausea was present, but it was one of those races where I could keep it on the sidelines. Getting towards the top of the steepest part (which is sometimes steep enough that you can use your hands to climb up!), I passed the bagpipe player that always serenades the climbers over the final rocks. As always, at the very highest point of the race, you climb over some actual rocks and some members of the public give you a helping hand over. So wonderful.
What lay before me now was the only downhill kilometer of the race. Checking my watch, I figured I had a chance of around 5:31 but decided to fly and see if I could come closer to 5:30. Fly I did! I pulled out all the stops. It was now, or it was never. I sprinted like Usain over the rocky ground and around other competitors and lunged across the finish line. Not until the final few hundred metres did I realise that I there was a shot at under 5 and a half hours. Digging pretty deep, I sprinted as fast as I could… and I made it… Result: 5:29:45! Awesome.
I was 45 years old, and had gotten my personal best at the Jungfrau Marathon on my fifth attempt! Honestly, three weeks later as I write this, I am still incredibly pleased with this result. I suspect that this will be in my top mountain memories, alongside completing my first marathon at Lausanne, completing my first Jungfrau, getting my first sub four time, and also getting my personal best in Zurich.
Here is a video of me running this year, it kicks in after the first 45 seconds….
Yes I know I look slow!
I have said it before and say it again. The Jungfrau marathon is a magical event (as long as it has good weather - which I always luckily have had). I think the route profile is superb. Gentle up, steep up, medium up, steep up, then a final little descent to enjoy. Comparing the Mont Blanc Marathon… nice but a bit too much downhill. The Zermatt Ultra: varied interesting route profile but relentless up (and down), even the last metres are steep and one crawls over the finish. Davos 43km… This is a fun route that has good scenery - it would qualify as my second favourite mountain marathon route so far - but it does not compare to the majesty of the Jungfrau: Amazing scenery, interesting and varied terrain. Excellent crowd support. Lots of atmosphere. Brilliant official support too.
Ursula photography masterclass.
- Marathon 36: Zürichseelauf Ultramarathon (Self Organised) 06 October 2018 Open or Close
Directly after my nice experience in Interlaken, I started to wonder about fitting in another event before the last of the season (Lausanne at the end of October).
An idea had been gestating in my mind for a while…. why not attempt to run around the Lake of Zurich (called the Zürichsee in the German language). After all, I had cycled it plenty of times on my road bike. On the other hand, it would be 66km… the third longest run I had ever attempted. And yet, if I was going to do an ultra distance again and if (as I currently do), I consider 100km to be too taxing on the body… it had a certain allure.
The logistics… there is no organised run around the lake. As far as I can tell, I see no record of anyone ever doing this route at all as a run. That’s not to say it hasn’t been done. Probably it has. But it is not documented.
So, a 66km run without any support then? Sounds like a challenge!! I frequently use a forum called Englishforum.ch which supports expats from all over the world working and living here in Switzerland. So I decided to advertise on it to see if anyone would be mad enough to join me. I decided to capitalise on my Jungfrau strength and set a date three weeks down the line, right in the middle between now and the Lausanne date.
To summarise, a guy knew a guy who was training for an even longer 100km race in Spain. His name was Ander, an aircraft mechanical engineer, and he decided that my little jaunt would be a good training run for him. We met for a 10k the week after, to eyeball each other and talk about the race. I agreed to cycle around the lake the following week to make a note of the logistics… were there enough fountains, kiosks, garages, etc, to guarantee our nutritional needs? My benchmark was, that there should always be somewhere to get liquids within 5km of any point on the route. Turns out, there was. Good for us. Race was on.
We met up at the ferry quai at Bürkliplatz at 7:30 on the chosen date. I scoffed down a croissant and a coffee while Anders was en route. Weather was good. Chilly first thing but predicted to be warm later in the day. No start gun, but with a press of a stopwatch button, we were off. I had told Ander several times that I was not out to break records, and intended to run the distance at a pretty slow pace to help my chances later in the run.
With that, we ambled along between 5:40m and 6:00m per km (5:40 being an approximate pace for a four hour marathon), stopping to drink every 5k and eat and drink every 10k. I have no doubt that Ander would have gone quicker without my explicit wish to stay slow. However, he was very friendly and cooperative and we chatted happily for the first half of the race, up to Rapperswil. There, at the top of the lake, we had ran around 31km if I recall. We chose that to have a rest stop and snacks.
After that, we crossed over and continued, getting slightly waylaid by a public footpath, prompting me to suggest that we stick to my known cycle route. It would be closer to traffic but the chance of needing to backtrack would disappear. When running 66km, trust me when I say that turning back on dead ends is something that you are keen to avoid!
Mental expectations had done their thing and adjusted upwards, so that mind and body no longer counted down to the usual 42km finish. Around 36km though, I noted that my legs were getting pretty stiff, and I was slowing down from what was, honestly, a pretty leisurely pace already. Ander had pains too, especially in the legs, but was basically was still strong in terms of energy and we talked about him potentially going ahead.
We decided to push on together until the 42km mark and then take a break for liquid and a snack. We sat in the shade at the side of the road as the temperature had now really heated up. It was on the way to soon be over 20 deg C, which was really quite warm for the time of year.
Around this point in the race, a switch in our relative conditions occurred… I started to regain some strength and yet meanwhile Ander started to flag…. increasing amounts of pain in his legs and feet started to give him real cause for concern. We switched from continuous running to a 8/2 split… run for eight minutes, power walk for 2 minutes, and repeat. It was clear that Ander was starting to suffer badly, because he kept asking when the 8 minutes was up! Fair enough.
At about 50km, we stopped for our “lunch” break and I ate a sandwich picked up from a garage. Shortly before, Ursula had caught up with us. She had cycled around the lake and the idea was that she could provide a bit of support in the last third if necessary. Super helpful as always!
Sitting there, Ander contemplated to abandon the race entirely. It would not have been unreasonable at all, because he was after all training for a longer and more serious 100km event just a few weeks from now. On the other hand, if he was quitting at 50km, then how would he survive a 100km event (with massive climbs involved)?
My advice was - if continuing todays run would put him at risk of an injury that could screw up his 100km, then he should quit. But, if he thought that completing todays run would not cause a serious injury, he should continue, even if slowly…. because time on the feet would still be good preparation for his longer run.
I think he felt the same. With approximately 15km to go, he decided to try and finish the race but by walking. I felt this was the best solution, and suggested that I should go ahead as I still had running power. We agreed on this. Stopping for a drink at the Wadenswil ferry stop, I ran on, leaving Ander behind.
The next 15km turned out to be difficult but doable. I was anything but fast, but I somehow had some resources. I immediately dropped the 8/2 split in favour of a continuous slow run, still stopping when needed for a drink. From 55 to 62km was particularly difficult - it just seemed to take forever - but seeing Zurich city in the distance did provide at least some respite.
Eventually, reaching the city borders, I caught a last wind and jogged more quickly towards the finish. At the end, I celebrated with a cold sparkling water - my usual tipple after a marathon and which I always massively look forward to - and did some gentle stretching before slumping onto a bench and happily chatting to Ursula about our endeavours.
I thought of Ander and wondered how he was getting on. Turns out, not badly! Ursula spotted him walking nonchalantly past us on the bench. He ended up finishing approximately 15 minutes after me. I shouted… Ander!! Handshakes and smiles. He got back some energy and ran it after all. A great result. It took 8 hours and 17 mins. Neither of us were particularly strong that day. I think in good form I could definitely do it in under 8 hours and possibly around 7:30. Who knows, maybe next year!
From my own side, I do think that running it with someone helped me out - it’s just fun to chat and not be in too much of a hurry. Conversely, Ander’s natural pace would be a bit quicker than mine - he is ten years younger as well - and perhaps that didn’t help him. But it was and is clear that he is a really strong guy and capable of great mental and physical exertions. He went on to run his 100km, with about 5000m of vertical ups and downs, in 21 hours in foul weather. That shows character!
Finally, to say, I enjoyed it immensely to devise and then complete this challenge. Another great chapter in my running career.
17km left. Fresh as daisies!
- Marathon 37: Lausanne Marathon 2018 5x 28 October 2018 Open or Close
Back to where it all began. Coming full circle, I closed off my 2018 running season with the Lausanne marathon. Compared to 23 degrees and sun on my run around the Zurichsee, today it was 4 deg, wet, and windy.
We lodged in the Hotel Fassbind (a nice find and good value, in a lovely quarter of Lausanne). When picking up my bib at the Expo, I was saddened to find that the pasta party on the boat is no more. A shame - that was the best pasta party I know. Oh well, things change!
I’ll keep this one brief. For clothing, I layered up so as to remain toasty. So, long thin trousers, an odlo vest, long sleeve T shirt, and Nike storm running jacket (my new Salomon jacket just doesn’t do breathable as well as I need). Yeah, probably overkill, but hey - if you read about my first ever marathon (this one, but in 2010) you might recall that after that one I landed in the medical tent with hypothermia in warmer conditions then today.
So, the clothing was a little much, I could have lost the vest or gone for a short sleeve t shirt, but whenever there was wind I was happy to have the jacket, as typical running shirts offer little to no wind resistance. I was aware also that while on the move I would normally be fine, but in case of needing to slow down and stop, I would cool really quickly, so that was another reason for the layers.
Even with all my experience, I still sometimes find it tricky to strike the right balance of clothing for the conditions, and you only really know it once the run has started and it’s too late to change anything.
Crowd support was still very nice, as it always is in Lausanne, and while clouds precluded us from the usual stunning views over the lake and Alps beyond, we still got nice views of the vineyards on the Lausanne side as we wound our way up to Vevey. There really is something about this route that is quite magical. I don’t know if it’s based on nostalgia because it was my first ever marathon, but even so, it feels special. The views, the road closures, the official support, and the crowd support combine to make it more than the sum of it’s parts.
So what about race strategy? This would be my sixth and final race of the year - after Zürich, Zermatt, Davos, the Jungfrau, and the lake run. Only the first one was a normal flat marathon, and there I had suffered pretty badly with nausea. As usual, the sub four question was in my mind. On the plus side, I had ran a lot this summer, so should be in shape for it. On the other, I had mostly done trail running, which is somewhat different. Back to the first hand… Lausanne was flat, but as Ursula and I have discussed several times, it isn’t really that flat. There are a lot of long rolling inclines on the way out and on the way back. On the way back, they have a habit of destroying me.
I had a plan. I would take huge care to not overdo the first half of the race, and then see if a negative split would be possible on the return leg (negative split meaning a faster second half of a race). After the usual enthusiastic start, including a nice bit of downhill, going slowly turned out not to be a problem! My legs were already getting stiff by 15km - this was not at all an encouraging signal. I reached the half marathon point with 2:00:30 ish. In fact, I would have liked to be more around 1:58 but my body wasn’t feeling cooperative with that.
As I turned direction and headed back in the direction of Lausanne, my mood went through several long rolling inclines in the same way that the road did. At points, I figured, I had a shot at a sub four. At others, it seemed futile. The four hour pacemaker provided by the race support team was still behind me, but I could clearly see him, perhaps 250 metres distant. Plus, he had possibly started a few minutes after me, which was not helpful.
I decided to fight hard to keep my momentum until 30km, and then consider my situation. Well, my strategy of keeping reserves paid off. Between 30 and 32km, something clicked and I realised I had a real chance of staying ahead of the pacer. I realised too that a sub four here would be a fantastic end to my season.
Yes, I know it isn’t the kind of performance most marathoners would write home about. Switzerland is a pretty fit country. The median marathon time is around 3:50 (compared to 4:30 in the UK according to what I can find out). So, in Switzerland, i’m pretty average. Just earlier that week I had had a job interview and the interviewer himself was a sub 3 guy. But I never set out to compete like that. I am competing with myself in a way that I am perfectly happy with.
With all that in mind, I knew my target today was now within the realms of possibility and I tried to take steps to achieve it. There were still climbs in the road to deal with. This may sound strange because they are gentle, not steep like the mountain marathons I do. But in the mountain marathons, you disregard the normal assumptions that most people have about marathon times. In a flat marathon, it is so much more important to control and keep your pace stable (having to stop for a pee can seem like a monumental waste of time). However gentle they may be, ascents can still add precious seconds to your per km pace, and that’s not helpful with a pacer almost literally breathing down your neck.
So I endeavoured to speed up a little on the flat and downhills, and try to maintain my pace on the climbs. I realised around 32km, that I could do it. I also realised that I was not going to get sick or nausea today. I’m not sure why, but I just knew it. This gave me a burst of happy endorphins… a virtuous circle was being drawn. Finally, I knew that there was a good chance of me getting under four hours, and not only that, but I could enjoy the experience. This may or may not be clear from my little narratives here, but precious few of my marathons have I been able to truly enjoy during them. Marathons are mostly Type 2 kinds of fun, after all (you can google that to see what that means if you are curious). I have only felt strong during the last third of, maybe, three marathons, today included.
And today I did indeed enjoy. I did not feel sick. I felt strong. Some great tunes on my headphones kicked in and added a smile to my face. A runners high was firmly in place! I had previously used Siri to message Ursula saying that I would likely be crossing the line some minutes over four hours. Now I messaged her again and told her that I might be under it after all.
And so it proved. A strong finish, sprinting the last 100m like Usain (ok, that’s what it felt like), and a nice gold medal and blue finisher shirt, and my favourite after marathon lunch of all the events I do - a small vendor by the lake selling a delicious cheeseburger. Stretch, and and train trip back home and a nice bottle of French red wine, finally falling contentedly asleep on the sofa while watching a travel documentary.