The Jungfrau Marathon is an event which has been on my 'bucket list' (I hate that phrase, but you know what I mean) all my life. Now it's over, I can safely say it was the most incredible event I've ever done and it exceeded every expectation.
I've run 9 marathons in my life and I don't think I've started any of them feeling 100% prepared or that I had done 'enough' training. I don't know a runner who does. But my preparation for the Jungfrau marathon was truly woeful.
Only 9 months ago I had my 5th major abdominal surgery and my third stoma. In the lead up to that surgery I'd been unable to eat solid food for 4 months due to adhesions and I'd lost 2 stone in weight. After the surgery, I was weak and frail and at my all time low. It took a while to get back on my feet and it's not been an easy road. Muscle loss had been extreme, postural and biomechanical changes have meant numerous running injuries and my stoma is still dysfunctional at times, meaning periods of having a liquid diet and feeling rather unwell.
That all said, the surgery has made a difference and I'm actually much better than I've been in 3 years. Nonetheless, the decision to enter the Jungfrau marathon last February - known as one of the toughest and most beautiful in the World - was an interesting one (some would say deluded), given where I've been with my health.
Of course it may have been more sensible to wait until 2014, but then I'm not that sensible. And anyway, life's just too short.
The race itself is interesting, in that you run the first 16 miles or so mostly on the road, then it becomes more of a climb/walk as you go up the mountain on trails and narrow paths.
It climbs 1500m in total (which, when you compare it to Ben Nevis at 1344m, puts it in perspective) starting at around 550m and finishing at 2100m at a famous landmark known as Kleine Scheidegg just below the peak of the Eiger. As you do.
On that basis my plan was never to follow a 'classic marathon' schedule, but to mix it up with long bike rides and strength work. I kept my longest run to 18 miles and tried to incorporate more walking, hiking and riding to get my legs stronger. And basically just kept my fingers crossed. Like all great plans, it was a bit hit and miss, to say the least. I'd had a few spells of my stomach not being great, which had meant missing training and wondering what on earth I was thinking. A ongoing hip niggle was just about manageable with hours of strength work, foam rolling and massage every week, but a calf tear with only 3 weeks to go nearly put paid to the whole thing.
So to say that I felt unprepared when we boarded the plane to Switzerland was the understatement of the year. I don't think I've ever felt less confident going into an event. I had no faith in my body or my training and really really didn't know how it would go. I'm not just saying that either like many runners do before a race 'Oh you know, I've been injured and don't feel great' then they run a PB. I really really didn't think I'd make it. Not only was I unprepared, but the event itself was up there as one of the biggest challenges I've taken on. What could possibly go wrong? or more to the point.. what could possibly go right?
Anyway.. Switzerland. We arrived. First stop was the expo (conveniently right next door to our hotel in Interlaken) on the Friday to collect our race numbers. They were showing a video of the race from previous years on big screens and everyone was milling around looking fit, excited and far more prepared than me. I was suddenly overcome with emotion and fear and burst into tears. 'I can't do it!' I sobbed to my husband. 'Look at that' pointing to the massive mountain 'what are we thinking?'. Fairly pathetic really, but given the physical and emotional roller coaster I've been on over the last 3 years, perhaps not that surprising.
'We're here now' he said encouragingly (or perhaps he was just deluded too) 'we've just got to give it a go and have fun, and see how far we can get'. But I wanted more than that. I wanted to finish it, I wanted to experience the most beautiful marathon on the planet and I wanted to tick that box, and share it with the man who's been by my side through thick and thin. No pressure then.
We reckoned, that the best outcome was we'd both finish and it would be an amazing experience. The worst outcome was that one of us (or both) would have to pull out, or worse still, I'd end up in hospital with dehydration (always a possibility). We didn't know how it would pan out, but it had to be somewhere between the two!
I had decided to run with a camelbak so I could take my own electrolyte fluids (having an ileostomy I have greater hydration needs) and not just rely on the organisers, which turned out to be a great decision. It ended up being a really hot day and I drained 2 litres of sports drink as well as taking fluid and food from every feed station.
The gun went and we set off. A short trot around the town and then out into some of the stunning little villages around Interlaken. After about 10km I started to relax. Maybe I could do this after all? everything was working. Hubby was still in one piece. Wow. We might just do it. We were actually enjoying it too. The villages and Swiss chalets were stunning and the support was amazing, cow bells, shouts of 'hopp hopp' and bands playing all the way around the course. I was overcome with emotion. I was here, alive, taking part and so far still in one piece.
The route climbed a bit up to Lauterbraunnen - a valley beneath the mountain range of the Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger and the views started to become breathtaking. Cue, more tears from me. 16 miles in and so far so good. Then suddenly the route went uphill and everyone ground to a walk. Running was impossible, so it was hands on knees and a lot of huffing and puffing for the next 3 miles - around 500m ascent over 5km. This was the infamous climb up to Wengen (the beautiful car free town beneath the peak of the Jungfrau) and it lived up to expectations. My heart rate was higher than when running the previous 16 miles. The experience of running through Wengen is sealed in my memory forever - amazing support, stunning views, beautiful buildings and just a very special feel to the whole town. Definintely a place I'll be going back to.
After that the scenery became just more and more breathtaking, with glimpses of the Jungfrau as the route climbed up and up. More climbing with hands on knees as the route changed to more mountain trail and paths. There were parts where we could run a bit, but then it got steep again and back to walking. It was difficult not being in a rhythm and probably the hardest part of the race. Then at Wixi we turned the corner and were confronted by the most stunning view of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau range. It was utterly breathtaking. I texted back home to my mum and boys '20 miles done.. we're going to make it!'. For the first time I realised it was going to be possible. We'd got this far and nothing was going to stop me now. I felt elated.
The path then wound up through forest and out onto the mountain side, heading up to the peak of the Eiger with the Jungfrau on our right. Initially we thought we might be capable of running 5.5 hours, but that soon became irrelevant as we just stopped to take photos and just take in this 'once in a lifetime' experience. Finish time was the last thing on our minds and in fact I don't even think I looked at my watch. This was never about 'time' or performance. It was just about the experience and the achievement.
The path then turned into a single file of 'ants' crawling up the mountain. The atmosphere and camaraderie at this stage was just lovely. There was a group of Swiss horn players and a man playing bag pipes right there on the side of the mountain and lots of supporters who'd made a massive effort to get up here and cheer on their friends and loved ones. It put our efforts of getting to Tower Bridge for the London Marathon into perspective.
Running was completely impossible now and it was just a slog onwards and upwards, up the mountain. The markers were now every 250m which felt demoralising as it took so long to get to each one. But the end was in sight. The North Face of the Eiger was just up ahead and that meant the finish line was near. Some kind volunteers helped us all over a particularly technical bit of rock which was right on the edge of the mountain - which was just as well as I had serious jelly legs - then it was a nice flat downhill stretch to the finish line at Kleinne Scheidegg. More tears. In fact this time it was more like big sobs.
We crossed the line hand in hand having had one of the most magical and perfect experiences of our lives. Straight over the line and hubby heads to the beer tent for some 'rehydration' and I just sat down taking it all in and soaking up the enormity of what I'd just achieved.
Not in terms of time (it was 5:51 in the end, not that I really cared - although its estimated it takes around 2 hours longer than a normal road marathon) or even the distance, but in terms of where I've been with my health over the last 3 years. At times thinking I might never get back to running (just re-read some of this blog) and wondering that I might not make it at all. What made it so perfect was the combination of all of that plus the lovely weather, amazing views, stunning beautiful Switzerland (which I've now fallen in love with) and sharing it all with my hubby. It could not have been a more perfect day and I'd go as far to say it's my greatest achievement.
Friends have asked if I'd do it again, but the answer is no. It's sealed in my memory as one of the best days of my life and I never want to change that. It couldn't have been better and I'd never top it.
Talking of things that might top it however.... lets put it like this, I'm working on a list :-) Comrades anyone?