Ever since I heard of The Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland and saw photos it has been on my bucket list. It is billed as the most beautiful marathon in the world. DER SCHÖNSTE MARATHON DER WELT. Lots of photos ahead!
Race Recap: The Jungfrau Marathon
The Jungfrau Marathon gets it’s name from the mountain range with three famous mountains side-by-side, the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.
- The 2018 Jungfrau Marathon was held on September 8th
- The race started in 1993 and is one of the best known mountain marathons
- 4,000 runners from more than 60 countries participate. The race sells out fast.
- The course has 1,829 meters of elevation gain (6,000 feet or 1.1 miles)
- The highest point 2320 meters (7,611.5 feet)
- There are 160 metical professionals and 1,800 volunteers
I flew into Zurich where I was was able to meet with 3 listeners to the podcast, Marc Pesse, Christian Sturm, and Kristen Truempy whom you will hear in this episode. The next day I took advantage of my jet-lag and went on a lovely seven mile run along the lake at 5:30 a.m..
The next day I traveled to Neuchâtel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland to stay with Barbara Braun, a long-time listener to the MTA Podcast. Barbara emailed me earlier this year and said if I ever came to Switzerland I’d have a place to stay. Her kind offer is the main reason I took the plunge and signed up for the race. Otherwise, I would have been wandering around the country by myself, not fun! We went on a very enjoyable hike through a canyon called the Gorges de L’Areuse.
Barbara introduced me to her friend David Amrein who has done the Jungfrau Marathon 7 or 8 times and many other mountain races. I caught a ride with David to Interlaken, on the way we stopped in Lucerne because I’d never seen this jewel of a city. Lucerne has a massive wall dating back to 1386, which we climbed. From the top one can see the Alps. David taught me a Swiss limerick about predicting mountain weather,
“Hat er einen hut, wird das wetter gut”.
If he [the mountain] has a hat, the weather is good
“Hat er einen degen, gibt es sicher regen”.
If he has a sword, there is sure to be rain
Thankfully the clouds were hats on top of the mountains rather than swords resting on the sides of the mountains. Good weather was in the forecast!
The Day Before the Race
Packet pickup was in the town of Interlaken (which is between two lakes) where the race was all set to begin the next day. They gave us a swag-bag with all the usually little inserts and freebies but they also gave out a massive Lindt Chocolate bar, which was a nice touch! I brought it home and my kids devoured it.
I think other races can take a lesson from how the Jungfrau Marathon does it race expo/ runner festival. Everything was outdoors, packet pick-up was under a massive tent, and . . . most importantly . . . they had a Biergarten. Because one would expect no less.
I got my packet, said goodbye to David, and walked to the train station. My hotel was in Wengen which required a 25 minute train ride up the mountain. No cars are allowed in Wengen.
The Train Ride to My Hotel
On the train to Wengen I caught my first glimpse of the marathon course and was completely blown away by the most dramatic yet inviting landscape I’ve ever seen. I have gazed at a lot to mountains this year but these mountains are special.
I stayed at the Hotel Regina in Wengen, the room was small but it had an amazing view from the balcony.
The race started at 8:30 on Saturday Morning. I met up with David and Barbara, gave my bag to Barbara who was planning to meet us at the top, and ambled my way into my starting block. I was hoping to see a listener named Yves Kraft but the crowds were huge and we didn’t connect. Congrats to Yves on completing his second marathon!
The crowds hushed, they played the Swiss National Anthem, and then a group of alphorn players thundered. Best race start ever!
There were two things about this marathon that had me feeling nervous. I knew that after mile 16 it was all uphill. I also knew that they had a checkpoint at kilometer 37.9 (way up the mountain). If you didn’t get there by 5:35 minutes after the start of the race you were out of luck.
Here is what a document entitled Rules and Regulations Jungfrau-Marahton 2018 says . . .
Runners passing the checkpoint after the closing times will have their personally coded race number marked and are not permitted to continue the race. The race number entitles the participant to travel to the Kleine Scheidegg, where personal effects and valuables must be collected.
Interlaken to Wilderswill
We looped around Interlaken before running out to the Brienzersee (lake). This first 5k is all a blur now, but I remember that I had already sweated through my hat. It turned out to be a hot day in the valley. Thankfully, we were running along streets with mature trees and plenty of shade.
I learned that in Switzerland the people shout hopp, hopp, hopp to cheer the runners. They also have a high tolerance for ringing cowbells! The crowd support was fantastic.
We came to Wilderswill at around the 10k mark. I didn’t stop to take any photos because I was so focused on my pace and obsessing about making the cutoff. Looking up at the top of the mountains I thought, “wow, are we really going up there?”.
My plan was simple: don’t walk until mile 16.
At the 15k mark we ran into the town of Zweilutschinen. The road turned to gravel and then narrowed until we were funneled onto a single track trail.
We ran along a river, passing over footbridges, and plunging deeper into the valley. At one point all the runners were bottle-necked on a skinny section of trail. We were basically moving at a shuffle, but not for long.
At the 20k mark we made it to the village of Lauterbrunnen. This was my favorite section. A banner was stretched across the road that read “Herzlich Willkommen” (Warm Welcome) and spectators were out in force to cheers us on.
I’ve read that Lauterbrunnen was mentioned in antiquity as early as 1240. On either side of this narrow valley are steep canyon walls with massive waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet seemingly right into the backyards of the residents of Lauterbrunnen.
The mountains are covered in bucolic green pastures dotted with tiny villages and chalets. High above you can see the jagged snow-covered peaks and as your eye moves down the mountain you come to the first tree line which is abruptly cut short by a dramatic precipice -a sheer rock face of limestone. Snow melting above forms streams that plunge down into the valley 800 feet below. High up on the rock face you could see a splash of red where someone had hung the Swiss flag in a seemingly impossible place. Paragliders were also floating into the valley.
The best comparison I have is Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings movie (where the elves live). In fact, I later learned that JRR Tolkien hiked from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley in 1911 and this landscape is what provided the concept for Rivendell.
At this point I was stopping to take pictures every 5 minutes. It was mesmerizing . . . and the runners around me were feeling it too. A quietness come over us. I remember seeing a couple of hikers dressed in quintessential Swiss kleidung. Paints rolled up to the knees. Felt hat. Trusty knapsack. It reminded me of the old German folk song, “The Happy Wanderer”.
I love to go a-wandering
Along the mountain track
And as I go, I love to sing
My knapsack on my back
My knapsack on my back.
We crossed a pasture at about the 22k mark (which means I had passed the half way point). I glanced back at where I came from and saw a stream of runners still behind me as far as the eye could see. At this point I knew I would make the cut off with no problem.
The Climb Begins! (Der Aufstieg Beginnt)
The race up to this point had been a stroll through paradise. However, I was hot and feeling depleted of electrolytes. In my haste I had forgotten to grab my Hammer Endurolytes before leaving my hotel room.
Now my stomach was feeling off and I was craving salt. I could have licked it off a rock. Something felt off and my instincts were telling me to drink something salty. Water was not helping.
At round the 25k mark we started leaving the valley floor behind.
At kilometer 26 boom! No more running. Everyone is now death-marching uphill. Our heads are down, hands hanging dead by our sides, heels never completely touching the ground. There is no reprieve, every step is higher than the first and it’s totally quiet among the runners except for our heavy breathing.
The organizers had humorously set up a faux wall and had the song The Wall by Pink Floyd playing on continual loop. Love it!
I actually welcomed the uphill slog because I knew I could use my hiking muscle built up from our excellent summer adventure. However, along this part of the course I saw people dropping out, I saw a lady throwing up, and I saw more than a few people sitting down.
We climbed up and up and up until we came to Wengen. We actually ran right in front of my hotel and I could have been on an elevator to my room in less than 60 seconds.
It was here that I took some bouillon from an aid station and my eyes were opened! After sweating through about 17 miles I desperately needed salt, and it was magical. Angie has spoken of how yummy bouillon is in a race but I had never tried it. If this was a movie drinking the bouillon would be when everyone spontaneously bursts into singing and dancing (this is a musical). A ridiculous song from 1969 came to mind, “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius!”
The Cutoff at 38k
After leaving Wengen we started our climb into the high country. The tops of the mountains got closer and closer. I remember longing for flat ground again. At this point it’s hard not to do math in your head and start thinking about how much longer it will take you to finish. The course markers were counting down every 100 meters to help us feel like we were making progress.
A couple runners went by and said we only had 15 minutes to make the cut off. At this time I was less than 1 kilometer away so I didn’t worry about it though I did quicken my steps. I later heard that about 20% of runners don’t make it. (Don’t quote me on that statistic).
The Swiss Alphorn Players
At about 39 kilometers we came upon the Swiss alphorn players and flag throwers. We were very high-up on the Alpine at this point. Ahead and behind I could see runners like a line of ants ascending the mountain. It was surreal.
I thought about how fortunate I was to be there on such a perfect day; to have a body and mind that is not perfect but can carry me all that way. I thought of the friends I made in Switzerland, especially Barbara and David who were waiting for me at the top. It was the most spiritual moment in the race.
From 39k on you are basically death marching up a ridge single file and can see sweeping views on either side. Looming over us are the tree peaks the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.
The highest point of the course is 2,320 meters (7,611 feet). Then, you run downhill for the final 2 kilometers until you reach Klenie Scheidegg.
The Finish Line
As you can imagine, I was happy to see the finish line. Barbara was there to greet me with a hug. David finished about 2 hours before me! We sat down at a table with an umbrella and had a nice Swiss beer and raclette. We lingered for about an hour before taking the train back down.
And just like that, the marathon was over. This is the most spectacular race I’ve had the privilege of running. My gracious Swiss hosts made my trip even more special!
Before Leaving Switzerland
Before I left Switzerland I stopped in Basel and met up with Liam and Mary Cox. Liam is training for the Drei-Lander Marathon which takes runners through Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
I returned from Europe only 6 days ago and it feels good to have a bucket-list item completed. In my opinion The Jungfrau Marathon lives up it’s claim as the ‘most beautiful marathon in the world’.
Too many people never leave home and explore new places, meet new people, and do something physically demanding. I didn’t come back with a lot of souvenirs from this trip but I do have new friends, stories, and points of reference. If you’ve never seen the Swiss Alps, I urge you to go.
One of our members posted this yesterday,
When I heard Trevor mention the Jungfrau marathon on the podcast my interest was piqued and I immediately googled it. I thought the race itself looked far too long to be all uphill , but reading about it inspired me to investigate hiking trails in the Jungfrau region and I became obsessed with getting there . . .
So I spent this past Friday-Monday there and had the best trail running/hiking experience of my life. Two ten-milers and one 16-miler. I wanted to be doing more running, but the inclines and declines were just BRUTAL, so I walked a lot and ran where I could, even if for just 20-second increments at a time. By Monday I couldn’t walk and rented a bicycle to ride around one of Interlaken’s lakes.
I can’t thank you enough Trevor Spencer for prompting this superb experience!! There are still so many trails I didn’t get to see I’ll definitely return next year…and maybe even subject myself to the pain of the marathon… -Kristen L.
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