French Ta · per (noun): To pull an all-nighter crewing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc before running the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge
Gina Lucrezi (left) and the author scope the final miles of the Jungfrau Marathon course before race day. Photo by Chris Hunter.
When I lined up at the 20th Anniversary Jungfrau Marathon in Interlaken, Switzerland, I felt the non-linear construct of time: I was simultaneously back in my kitchen in Carbondale, Colorado, on a cool spring afternoon watching the Jungfrau course video with my roommate, Gina Lucrezi, and also on the start line, jumping up and down, shaking out my legs, expelling nervous energy amid hundreds of runners.
As always before race starts, we took countless runs to the Porta Potties, to the nearby grass and, when there was no time at all, a few racers took a final pee on the start line. I felt as expected: An avocado-pit of nervousness churned in my gut and I felt as though I could puke, cry or both. And, yet, I was smiling. After days of dreary rain and fog, the sky had cleared to crystal blue and the jagged Jungfrau, the third-highest peak in the Bernese Alps, jutted into the sky.
The Jungfrau Marathon is one of the most scenic marathons in the world. It starts in the center of Interlaken directly in front of the incongruous American Hooter’s restaurant. The course first makes a loop through downtown’s mixture of ethnic restaurants, shaded streets and touristy boutiques and along the aquamarine Aare River that divides the town.
The route then passes tidy neighborhoods of gingerbread houses overflowing with window flower boxes and perfectly manicured front stoops—perhaps it’s the cleanest marathon course, too. Then it goes along relatively flat paved paths, roads and crushed gravel trails for close to 10 miles before tilting sharply upward to finish on the Kleine Sheidegg—the mountain pass that sits below the towering peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau—at 6762 feet.
This September, for the second year in a row, the race served as the World Long Distance (LD) Mountain Running Challenge—meaning that teams from countries around the world would be competing for both team and individual titles.
Unlike the World Mountain Running Championships, which take place on a “short course” (typically between five and eight miles), the LD Mountain Running Challenge is usually a marathon (42K) but must not exceed 45 kilometers, must have more than 1600 meters of elevation gain and the men’s course must take between 1 hour 45 minutes and 4 hours to complete.
The first-ever LD Mountain Running Challenge was held here at Jungfrau in 2004. I felt fortunate to be lining up in Switzerland where it had all started, as part of Team USA with four other women: Kim Dobson, Brandy Erholtz, Melody Fairchild and Gina.
Melody and Brandy were members of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team, which won Gold the weekend before in Italy on the short uphill course. Lean and powerful, Melody sports long, chestnut-blonde braids and a warm face with the first hint of smile lines. She speaks articulately and evenly, displaying a quiet, collected energy. The 39-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, was the first high-school girl in U.S. history to run a sub-10-minute two-mile. She has qualified for the Olympic Trials in both the 10,000 meters (1996) and the marathon (2000) and was a member of the 1997 U.S. World Track and Field Championships team for the 5000 meters, claiming a 15:30 PR in that event.
Twice named Female Mountain Runner of the Year by USA Track and Field (2008 and 2009), Brandy, 35, has been a member of the U.S. Mountain Running team for five consecutive years. She transitioned to the mountain-running scene after winning the Northeast’s iconic Mount Washington Road Race in 2008 and 2009. The Evergreen, Colorado, resident talks like she runs uphill—fast. At the start, her short dark blonde hair was pulled back in braids, and muscular calves and quads revealed her proclivity for uphill terrain.
Kim, a rail-thin, standout uphiller who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, had, this year alone, clenched an impressive win at Mount Washington, where she posted the second-fastest women’s time ever. Then, with $8000 on the line, she obliterated Colorado’s Pikes Peak Ascent women’s record by 8 minutes 32 seconds—a record set in 1981.
Having trained together at least once a week for much of the summer, I knew Kim was in the kind of shape it took to win the race, but you’d never know it by talking to her.
“After running such a strong race at Pikes, I didn’t feel any pressure for Jungfrau,” said Kim. “I just wanted to run a smart race and enjoy being part of a team.”
Gina, who is practically my sister and also the advertising manager at Trail Runner, was focussed, staring at the ground. She wore giant pearl earrings (I’ve never seen her without them), and her dark hair was pulled back in a tight, bobbing ponytail.
Earlier this summer, Gina had finished third in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup. She holds a mean 5K PR (16:40), and was a standout miler in college, posting a 4:32 1500-meter best and winning an NCAA Division III Championship in 2004. This was her first year focusing on longer distances, and the Jungfrau was her first marathon.
Stevie Kremer, 28, of Crested Butte, Colorado, was also on the line after making a last-minute decision to race—though not as part of this U.S. team—since she was living in Europe for the summer teaching.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she murmured shaking her head while prancing around on her tiny, muscular frame. Like Gina, she has dark-brown hair and wears giant pearl earrings that look almost too heavy for her ears. Stevie displayed a nervous pessimism that could just as easily be read as sandbagging. “I am not fast on the road. I don’t belong here,” she continued.
Stevie said the same thing moments before crushing the Loon Mountain Race, the U.S. Mountain Championships earlier this summer where she slid her way to a fourth-place finish, earning the final spot on the team.
As for myself, I didn’t know what to expect. I had spent the last week in France indulging in too much of everything, including running more uphill terrain than I had any week this summer. I’d had a mid-season slump that meant I’d spent the last month feeling sluggish, burned out and depressed. I was confident in my climbing, although it was the 15 miles of road that scared me.
And, then, we were racing. The field took off aggressively. Spectators lined the streets, screaming encouragement in French, Italian, German and Spanish. Rows of flags and banners lined the course.
“The excitement was contagious,” Gina said later. “The fans were enthusiastic and compassionate about the race and the runners.”
Stevie took off in the lead pack with Kim trailing a few steps back in the chase. Melody, Gina, Brandy and I settled farther back into a comfortable 6:30ish-per-mile pace, chatting and laughing occasionally as we clicked off the road miles.
We hit a narrow gravel path and jockeyed with spandex-clad runners. I spent a frustrating 15 minutes bouncing back and forth with a tall, sweat-soaked man who smelled of a locker room and who was trying too hard to prevent me from passing. He eventually fell back, and that was that.
The four of us pushed the pace then backed off a little as we maneuvered short climbs and bridges, through tunnels of cowbell-ringing, flag-waving and shaker-shaking spectators.
“It was like I was out on a beautiful Sunday long run with friends,” Brandy said later.
The race became a dance, all of us sinking into rhythms just hard enough that we felt slight discomfort, a comfortable discomfort. I shook out my arms and my neck, anticipating the climb ahead and let my mind drift from the race until I was somewhere else entirely.