Einstein may or may not have said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Likewise in trail running, expecting to do better at a race you’ve done the previous year without having done a better preparation may indeed be, well, insane.
I’ve written extensively about my experience at the Inferno half marathon in 2017. My motivation to toe the starting line again this year was really three different aspects. First of all, last year the weather was very cloudy and foggy and all throughout the race I didn’t really see any of the surrounding mountains. Secondly, I am signed up for a few more mountain races later this year and since I don’t actually live in the mountains a race in the Alps is far better preparation that anything I would realistically do at home. And finally, considering my legs cramped up during the final kilometers of the race last year I was expecting that a bigger emphasis on running regularly this year would certainly translate into a better time. Insanity? Maybe, because even though I did more running this year I once again did not manage to insert a sufficient amount of climbing into my training regimen; and that’s the crucial aspect of succeeding at a race like this.
Last year, a thunderstorm passed through the valley the evening before the race, and it left a lot of clouds and fog in its wake. This year, early weather predictions were forecasting similar doom and gloom. But after driving through heavy rain on my drive down from Luxembourg to Switzerland, the Lauterbrunnen valley was dry. Continuing in that vein, I awoke on race day at around 6:30am to a cloudless sky. Rain was still forecast to strike with about 50% probability around lunch time, so I did pack a water-proof layer in my running backpack. This was in stark contrast with most other competitors – the majority didn’t bother with backpacks or even carrying water, and instead relied on the large amount of aid stations for refreshments.
As 10:15 rolled around, aligned myself in the front half of the starting line-up, since that seems to play well with my tendency to start reasonably fast. The gun went off exactly on time and about 500 runners set off; out of the Jungfrau campground, and then through the main street of Lauterbrunnen.
With just a few hundred meters done, I noticed that my legs were not really feeling fresh. “It’s going to be a long day, then” is the thought that flashed through my head. I kept a respectful distance towards the leading pack, but set out quite a bit faster than last year, at a 4:33min/km pace on the first KM. Spoiler: throughout the rest of the race, I wouldn’t even remotely approach that pace again.
After 1km, we were already past Lauterbrunnen, and the climbing started in earnest. Almost straight away, I felt hot. My watch recorded a high of 28°C, which may not be too far off the mark. Needless to say, I did not really appreciate the heat. (Yep, rain or shine, I’m never happy with the weather because it’s almost never a perfect 18°C.)
The going here was still fairly straightforward: a mix of paved surface and gravel. By the time the 2km marker appeared (after a far more leisurely 6:19min/km pace), I had reached a heart rate of 172bpm. This seems to have become the level where my body’s “self-preservation” mode kicks in; and I switched over to a run/hike mode where I tried to run the slightly more level parts and speed-hike the steeper stretches. Needless to say, most other people around me (predominantly Swiss) were having none of that, and were merrily passing me left and right. How do these people do it? I guess living and training at elevation helps.
Kilometers 3 (7:42min/km), 4 (9:10min/km) and 5 (9:00min/km) were quite similar as far as grade and surface were concerned, but the decrease in my pace was already starting to worry me. I had memorized my 5km split from last year, and even though those things can fluctuate a bit due to GPS precision I was still in the same ballpark: a mere 16 seconds slower than last year. What was different from last year, however, was the way I felt. Already in these initial Kilometers, I was feeling a little nauseous. I’d eaten a caffeine-based energy bar ahead of the start, and maybe my body did not appreciate that (even though I’d done the same at previous races without ill effect).
Kilometer 6 took 8:32, and then we left the wide gravel path and headed onto a wooded single-trail for Kilometer 7. Here, the pace was pretty much dictated by whoever was in front of you, because overtaking wasn’t easy. Speaking of “not easy”, whereas the climbing on Kilometers 2-6 had been roughly 10%, we now went up a considerable 171m. Needless to say my pace further deteriorated (12:59min/km). My heart rate had calmed down somewhat, down to 165, but on a good day I should have been able to maintain 170 quite easily. 165 meant my body was holding back.
By kilometer 7 we were once again out in the open, and back out on a wider path. From here, I could finally see all the glaciated mountain peaks on the other side of the valley, with Jungfrau (4.158m) probably being the most prominent and well-known. The trail here undulates slightly, but starting at KM8 mostly just follows the narrow gauge trail line to Mürren. Consequently, the next few kilometers are comparatively easy, and I recorded a pace between 5:40 and 6:40min/km. Hardly record-breaking, but I was still suffering a bit from nausea and at one point I had also developed a side-stitch; something that hasn’t happened to me in years.
1 hour and 19 minutes into the race, with 774m of elevation gained, I crossed the 10km threshold. I was a bit dismayed to find that 2017 me now had at least a 2-minute lead.
But there was little I could do about that, except to press on as well as my body would allow. The next few kilometers were again quite level. Somewhere before 11km the Mürren “city” limit sign came into few, but it wasn’t until km12 that I was properly in the town. km12 and km13 are once again on paved roads, and you spend those running through the entire town, and then back again in the other direction at a slightly higher elevation. There seemed to be more spectators out and about than last year, which can probably be explained by the much nicer weather: the sun was still out in full force, even if some clouds had started to appear.
At the end of km13 you go past another aid station – there really are quite a lot on this course. That aid station also marks the end of Mürren. From here, there’s a small stretch of gravel to ease you back into climbing, and then the real work of the day starts: on the remaining 8 kilometers – just a little less than a third of the course – you need to climb the remaining two thirds of elevation.
I was hopeful that I could make up time here against my 2017 self – after all, my training last year had been lacking in long-distance runs and this year I’d successfully done a 32km race just a few weeks prior.
Km14 was still fairly benign – “only” 134m of elevation gain that I covered in 10:34. I passed yet another aid station, and then on km15 the climbing starts in earnest: 172 meters took me 13:57. Here, the path is quite stony with one or two well-defined ruts where the going is easier. By this time, almost everyone around me was walking so this wasn’t any issue. Occasionally, a relay runner would go past at a faster clip, but basically the fast runners were well ahead by now and there weren’t any big gaps in performance of the people around me.
After 15km, “2017 me” had built his lead to 3 minutes and 21 seconds. By now, that gap was starting to be really worrisome, and my goal to finish in a better time than 2017 was starting to slip away.
I still took quite a lot of pictures of the mountains and the few clouds surrounding them, leading a fellow runner to make a joke comment about “ah, the youth of today”. Looks can be deceiving, but I think I might have been his elder. But yeah, point taken. I remarked if there was one “win” that I was in the running for today, it was “most pictures taken during the race”.
km16 was the steepest of them all, at whopping 234m of elevation. That one took me 18:34, once again the slowest kilometer of the entire year (just like last year). I took more pictures there last year, including of a very steep incline with two cement “lines” that were probably put there in case a Jeep ventured up here. Last year, I went straight up and my calves were not happy. This year, with my calves already threatening to tighten up a bunch of times after leaving Mürren, I used the trail switchbacks; which cost me a little distance (and a few positions) but I made it up without any further muscular distress.
km17 wasn’t much better, with 182m of elevation gain in 15:39. Since I was still aiming at a 3:25 finish line to at least break even with last year, I knew that 15-minute kilometers were working very much against me. But there’s nothing I could do; because it was to steep for me to be able to run, and even on the spots where I managed to run it wasn’t very fast.
km18 marked the end of the relentless climbing, and there was even a little downhill. Here, I first noticed a fairly cold wind blowing. We had been moving closer and closer to the cloud level, almost imperceptibly because my main focus while climbing so much had been to watch the ground ahead of me in order to optimize foot placement.
The descent was inconsequential and short-lived. Now, I was facing the climb where my upper legs had cramped up last year. At this point, I felt like I was moving quite well – at least considering the circumstances. But yeah, “moving well” at this point meant a 10:08 pace. Not really anything to wow a road runner, but then they don’t get to cross slippery make-shift bridges over a small stream, and then a small snow field that had not been there last year (but no, global warming is not a hoax).
At any normal race, km18 is where you start to think of the finish line and how you can be there in a quarter of an hour if you’re a decent enough runner. Not here. With 3km to go, I still had around 500m of elevation to cover.
By the end of km19, I had reached a col of some sorts. At the same time I was now level with the clouds. Visibility really started to suffer as a consequence. Which might have been for the best, because at least I wasn’t looking around anymore and was instead concentrating on the ground to deal with the changing terrain. We’d left the easy gravel paths and were now dealing with a rockier surface. On a good day and with plenty of energy this would not have been any issue, but with the growing fatigue I used my hands a few times to steady myself on the trickier sections. (But in case you’re wondering if you should sign up for next year’s edition, no, this is not at all rock climbing; and no technical mountain experience is needed.)
Around km20, I was sandwiched between two Italians. It’s a beaten old cliché about southern European countries and their tendency to talk more than the “more reserved” Western or Northern European, and mostly it’s all a load of bull; but these two were putting me slightly on edge and a bit of my concentration was replaced by misplaced annoyance. Because really, no big deal. Maybe at that precise moment I wasn’t so much annoyed at them or their talking; but how they could still muster up the energy to do so while I was digging increasingly deep to even just move forward with the flow of the race at that point.
They eventually moved ahead into the mist and a welcome sign appeared: “500M”. Only half a kilometer to the top. Sadly, I knew that there was still a fairly large amount of upwards movement involved, and this is exemplified by the set of uneven rocky steps that start just behind the sign. Meanwhile, I was beaten; and I used up all the energy I could produce just to not impede the progress of the people behind me.
Finally, yellow safety fences marked the start of a famous knife-edge ridge that runners must cross. With the rest of the race not at all being problematic as far as exposure and drops are concerned, this is then the only demanding spot if you’re afraid of heights. Presumably, there’s a big drop on either sides. I didn’t see it last year, and I didn’t see it this year. At least being engulfed in clouds may have some positive aspects.
And then, the final climb. Much to my dismay, I was passed here by a bunch of people that I could easily have placed ahead of if I had just held it together for a few more minutes. But as is, my pace was probably glacial.
And then finally, I move up the final steps to the famous “007” cable car station. Parts of a James Bond movie (” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) were shot here. And even though this particular Bond was played by a less than memorable actor, I’m sure he would have noticed much faster than me that the actual finish line was not after the last steps, but another 10 meters or so along the outside walk. Hmm. At least there was nobody immediately behind me to make use of that snafu.
And there I was, across the finish line. The official time was 3:33:14, a whopping 9:02 slower than in 2017. And if I look at the (unofficial as of right now) list of finishers, I find that I’m pretty much at the 2/3 mark of them, meaning I only left behind 1/3 of people. What was more impressive than that was the large amount of “weaker” competitors who were ahead of me. Traditionally, a lot of people will look down on women in competitions, or on older men and women in general, and proclaim that they are not really “athletes”. Well, here I am, getting beaten by quite a large margin by lots of people who were both “weaker” and “older” (by traditional definitions) than me. I guess society could learn a few lessons here.
As for my race, the most immediate thought was one of disappointment. I had come here to better my 2017 time, even if it was only by a small margin. What happened instead was that I lost to myself by a whopping 9 minutes. There’s a few excused (hot weather, queasy stomach, some issue with my left foot that had manifested itself some time in the weeks after Mont Blanc Marathon…) But really, what it probably boils down to is that in order to be successful at beating “myself” is that I should have done more training on steep hills (as well as more training runs over 2 hours). Hence, the introduction about “insanity”. To come here with less elevation training in my legs than last year and yet to hope for a better outcome was, well, you can guess by now.
What I wore and what I had in my backpack:
- Hoka One One ATR3 running shoes – these worked well. They provided sufficient grip and offered ample cushioning (maybe too much).
- Ronhill 2-in-1 shorts (should have gone with just standard shorts – there was no need for two layers today).
- Icebreaker brief and X-Socks ankle-high running socks. I decided against knee-high “compression” socks because of the heat aspect, but maybe they would have made a positive impact on my calves
- Samsung S8 cell phone (used only for photos): having a cell phone that is water-proof (or at least highly resistant) elevated my photo game during races to a new level. I sweat a lot, so all previous cell phones would need to live in water-proof bags, which made them a hassle to use. With the S8, my only worry is if the lens gets water on it; and any time I accidentally switch on “selfie mode” which I never want. Samsung still hasn’t come up with a “disable selfie mode” for unphotogenic runners. 🙂
- S-Lab Sense Ultra 5 backpack – no issues
- In the backpack:
- Gloves (used for maybe 10 minutes), buff (not used), Icebreaker wool beanie (not used), Salomon Bonatti rain-proof pants & upper (not used – but I wanted to be prepared in case a thunderstorm hit and/or I was incapacitated by a twisted ankle or something).
- I had one Salomon soft flask with 0.5 litres of water in the backpack, which I had refilled at the aid stations a few times.
- I also carried four or five gels, of which I consumed two. Basically, with my stomach not feeling all that happy, I didn’t want to further upset it. I did refill with Isostar at the aid stations; which might or might not have provided me with sufficient calories.
What the race organizers could improve
Overall, I have no big complaints about the race. One thing that rubbed me the wrong way this year was that I noticed a lot more waste at the aid stations. Since the majority of runners were not carrying any water, or not much, they all relied on paper/plastic cups. At every aid station, of which there were many, there were tons of disposable cups both inside the rubbish bags or bins that had been provided, and on the ground. I’d like to know how many thousand cups were used briefly, once, for a matter of seconds. Races like the Mont Blanc Marathon have shown that it is very much possible to be much closer to “Zero Waste” in that respect by requiring the runners to carry reusable cups. That trend doesn’t seem to have reached this race; I got a few surprised looks for asking to have my own soft flask refilled out of their big reservoir instead of taking disposable cups.
Another issue I have with the race, but there’s no easy solution for that, is how long it takes to get down the mountain after you’ve finished. A lot of this is caused by the “007” effect; which a lot of people from far-away countries seem to be drawn to. Consequently, there’s a mad rush for the cable/cabin cars; and as a runner you end up spending an hour in a very tightly packed queue.
Let’s summarize the 3000 words I’ve written by asking the same question that seems to sum up most of my race reports: will I come back? It’s a difficult answer this time around. I’d like to run a better race here. While I ticked off the “I want to see the mountains” aspect this year, I’m not happy with the slower result this year. But to do well, a number of things would need to change in my training. So I guess I might come back IF I can put in the required steep mountain training beforehand.