Flashback Friday! 2002 Jungfrau Marathon

“Editors note: The 2002 Jungfrau Marathon Race Report was written by Mark E Nesfeder for ATRA’s Trail Times Newsletter #26. Have you run the Jungfrau Marathon? Share your race experience in the comments below.  The above photo is from the 2012 Jungfrau Marathon which served as the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships and was won by American Stevie Kremer.”

The 2002 Jungfrau Marathon was held on September 7 and 8 in Interlaken, Switzerland. This tourist mecca city, a scenic 3½ hour train ride southwest of Zurich, serves as the center of activity for one of the most scenic and challenging marathons in the world. At an elevation of 1854 feet, Interlaken lies between 2 mountain lakes, Thun and Brienz. and is surrounded everywhere else by towering mountains, many covered with snow year round.

Mountain weather is always unpredictable, but September weather in Switzerland is fairly consistent and quite comfortable. Each morning was foggy and cool with temperatures in the low 40s. The overcast would break up by late morning with partly to mostly sunny skies appearing by mid-day and the temperature climbing to the mid 60s. Afternoon showers were quite common with the fog developing again around sunset.

To celebrate its tenth anniversary, the race was run on both Saturday and Sunday, thus doubling the previous single day runner limit of 3500 to 7000 entrants. With my trip throughout Switzerland taking me to Zermatt on Sunday, I chose to run on Saturday. This was with hope for better weather than the following day, (not quite) and the allure of fresh trails. (I’m sure it was.)

We received a rousing sendoff from the Interlaken faithful at the 8:45am start, especially with the first 2 miles looping through the downtown area. The residents of Unterseen, a small community bordering Interlaken, gave all of us a taste of what lay ahead….noise.

A cowbell chorus deafened us as we ran though the narrow gauntlet. By the way, these cowbells are not the small variety seen and heard dangling from the necks of most Swiss cows. They are huge mutations used most commonly during festive celebrations, with their human ringers dressed in traditional garb. It was eerily quiet departing Interlakenfor the quiet lakeside village of Bonigen.

The entire first 10k are run on paved roads, with your first taste of softer surfaces coming at Winderswil. A gradual climb begins past Winderswil on a beautiful trail bordered by a roaring stream. The railroad also runs parallel to the stream and the trail, so packed trains heading towards a change in Lauterbrunnen shout encouragement as they pass by. Lauterbrunnen, at 2612 feet, lies beneath glacier carved cliffs and its trademark waterfall was gushing at full force as we ran through another gauntlet of noise and encouragement.

After a short loop past Lauterbrunnen, where BASE jumpers were popping open their chutes above the valley, you can glance skyward to your next destination, the ski resort of Wengen, a car free town only accessible by train or trail. I found this climb of 1568 feet over 5k to be the most steep and challenging part of the course. The serious running was over at this point and the race began to take on a whole new walk/run ultra strategy.

The town of Wengen brought out their best to encourage the runners as the route passed through the heart of town. With flower boxes in full bloom below the windows of picture postcard Swiss chalets, this town was one of the most scenic and memorable. Wengen also marks the beginning of the more remote and isolated parts of the course. I am sure that in previous years this is the point where temperatures begin to fall as well as the snow.

You leave behind the final cheering crowds and paved portions of the course as you depart Wengen, again climbing at a steady pace towards Allmend, an aid station and a stop on the train route to the finish at Kleine Scheidegg. Views in all directions become increasingly spectacular, but the long awaited glimpse of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrauwill have to wait awhile longer. This is the beginning of the “Man vs. The Mountain” portion of the course.

Just prior to reaching the top of tree line, a slight left turn points the trail, a wide gravel road at this point, directly towards to towering Eiger, looming over 7000 feet above. Not far beyond, the Monch and Jungfrau appear off your right. Suddenly you are dwarfed by an amphitheater of some of the most spectacular rock and ice on the face of the earth.

The wide gravel road becomes a single-track alpine trail just below 6145 feet at Wengernalp. Don’t become too distracted with the breathtaking scenery. You still have 1467 feet of climbing to reach Eigergletscher, the highest point on the course at 7612 feet.

The final long grueling climb to the Eigergletscher is the highlight of the Jungfrau Marathon. Runners were strung out single file for as far as the eye can see. The single track is occasionally rocky, but overall in excellent condition. Passing was very hard on this section, as any off-trail jaunt was met with rocky and overgrown tundra. Just prior to making a final left turn for the finish, a helicopter filming the race appeared from below the spine, washing everyone with its wake turbulence and then disappearing down valley to capture the remainder of the field.

It was quickly time to reawaken the descent-mode of your quadriceps for the final kilometer. The 755-foot descent to the finish line is one that quickly convinces you that the entire race wasn’t as bad as it had felt moments earlier. The crowds slowly grow, as do the cheers, many from those recognizing your home country. When you focus in on the “ZIEL” (finish) banner you know you’ve got it made. The clock had just passed the 5-hour mark as I crossed the finish line.

Combine a holiday celebration, train station, flea market, and a carnival together and you might get a sense of what the Kleine Scheidegg experience was like. The finish of the Jungfrau Marathon is an experience in and of itself. From the tented changing areas and hot showers for the runners to the multitude of vendors selling mostly non-carbohydrate-laden foods, you could have spent the remainder of the day here. I’m sure many did.

The return train ride, packed to the point of claustrophobia, through Wengen and Lauterbrunnen gave all of us a better sense of what we had just accomplished. The magnitude of the climb as well as a different perspective of the course and surrounding landscape will never be forgotten.

Race day organization was excellent, complete with Champion Chip timing. I think the organizers were caught somewhat off guard this year with the increase in entrants, especially evident at the registration, where the lines to get your number filled an uncomfortably hot room to capacity. My pre-race information program and starting card, required at registration to get your number, arrived at my home address one week after I had concluded my trip. Regardless, this race is a must do for those wishing to experience the culture, hospitality and challenging terrain of a beautiful country. As the Switzerland tourism web site so appropriately says, “If mountains had a home, it would be Switzerland.”

The 2015 Jungfrau Marathon takes place on September 12.  For more information about this years race visit their website here.