(Australian Associated Press)
The sky is blue and cloudless, the snow-capped mountains shimmering – and all I can think is: how the hell will I ever get all the way up there?
A full marathon that finishes nearly two kilometres higher than it starts is surely a masochist’s dream.
Yet here I am, hooked on the prospect of completing Europe’s largest incline in altitude over 42km.
Switzerland’s Jungfrau Marathon is easily one of the most demanding in the world.
It’s also billed as the most beautiful. And as it turns out, for good reason.
The spectacular Bernese Alps are ruled by skiing in the winter months, but every September since 1993 another showpiece takes centre stage when about 4000 mostly Swiss runners traverse the little resort town of Interlaken and charming nearby villages, before tackling relentless skyward trails to the big reward: front-row views of the country’s famous peaks, the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.
Inside Switzerland, this journey to heaven has gained almost cult status, a revered rite of passage some will complete only once – if they make it.
For others it’s an annual pilgrimage that continues until their ageing bodies have simply had enough.
In the eyes of foreigners like myself, running alongside fresh snow and glaciers is an attractive, often overlooked alternative to the shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle of majors such as New York, London and Berlin.
This year I’m one of seven Australians taking part.
Unsurprisingly, I see none of them, though do hear the odd American and British voice during the pre-race buzz in Interlaken.
I’m excited, but worryingly under-trained.
Having signed up months beforehand, I reassure myself this is not the race to achieve a personal best.
After all, the course record of 2:49:01, set in 2003 by Kiwi Olympian and renowned mountain runner Jonathan Wyatt, is nearly 50 minutes slower than the current marathon world record.
In fact, every year hundreds fail to finish, either injured, fatigued or simply too slow for the strict cut-off checkpoints.
It’s this point that keeps me awake in the nights before and has me shovelling down full loaves of bread in a nervous new level of carb loading.
The apprehension eases marginally on race morning once I’m sardined into the friendly, almost jaunty environment of the startline.
Vivaciousness is in full swing after the gun goes and we wind through the crowded streets of Interlaken.
The 5:30 pacesetter I’ve optimistically decided to follow is particularly social, spotting friends roadside and disappearing for minutes at a time, while another man appears to be running the whole thing on bare feet.
Locals clang cowbells as we push out onto green pastures along the alpine Lake Brienz, settling into a rhythm for the steady 25km to Lauterbrunnen.
With a name meaning “many fountains”, this town is the start of a dramatically beautiful glacial valley flanked by vast rock walls spouting waterfalls.
It’s also where the real work starts.
The next 2.5km section of heavy forested switchbacks are notorious for sapping runners’ energy stocks.
Some witty person has set up a radio on one of the sharp turns that blares a familiar tune.
A youngish Swiss man behind me chuckles and turns to his friend: “Ziss is Pink Floyd, Zee Wall.”
I thank Roger Waters I haven’t yet hit mine.
In fact, I’m feeling good. My dodgy knees, having screamed at me on the flat, relish the rest when I join the others in shifting to a quick hike.
Eventually we pop out into the small mountain town of Wengen.
In a nice personal touch from organisers, my first name and nationality are printed on my race bib, eliciting steady calls of “hopp, hopp Emma” from the watching spectators.
One very large middle-aged man takes his encouragement a step further, winding his arm up like a spring then releasing in a kind of windmill fist pump as he bellows “Emmmmmaaaaaaa!”.
This jovial sideline support is what gets me through the arduous yet beguiling final 12km, that takes nearly half my total race time to complete.
The other runners too have maintained their enthusiasm.
A few relax at a physio stop for impromptu massages, their laughing and joking showing little sign of real injury.
The physical slog wears more clearly on other weary figures parked on the grass, some receiving medical attention.
For me, the alternation between walking and running removes the mind-blowing intensity of a regular marathon.
It’s still a grind, but every glimpse of white snow sparks the engine again.
Having previously known that mid-marathon feeling of wanting to cry from purely physical pain, I’m surprised to find myself welling up for a very different reason when I turn a corner and cop an eyeful of the grand mountain triumvirate.
The magnitude of the whole situation is slightly overwhelming.
I want to savour it, drink it up like I have cup after endless cup of water – along with that one horrid accidental sip of hot soup.
A flurry of photo-taking stops once we are ushered into single file on a narrow and steep moraine ridge at the foot of the Eiger glacier.
It will be like this for an eternity – or the final 3km.
A snake of people winds up into the distance and out of sight.
No one can overtake, lest risk tumbling to a lengthy drop either side.
When we finally reach 40.5km and the highest point at Eigergletscher (2320m), we’re greeted by a bagpipe player in traditional dress.
The path widens ever so slightly and I peel off to one side to let others through.
Completely wiped, I’m nearly swaying.
A passing man squeezes me gently on the arm and grins, “Nearly there!”.
It’s enough to get me half-jogging again towards a bunch of volunteers helping competitors one by one over a jutting rock.
On the other side a woman offers squares of chocolate. As soon as one hits my lips I spit it out, fighting the urge to hurl.
It hardly matters – a few downhill bends later there’s a giant block of Lindt waiting for me at the finish.
Hundreds of people gather at Kleine Scheidegg (2100m) mountain pass; others who’ve arrived faster than my middling 5:36 sit contented on the grass, beer and sausage in hand, taking in the view.
Along with chocolate, I receive a finisher’s shirt that reads “I’m a happy winner”.
In a nutshell, it’s exactly how I feel.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Return economy fares start from $1721 to Zurich or $1704 to Geneva. The scenic Golden Pass railway line between Luzern and Montreux passes through Interlaken. Bernese Oberland regional passes are the best value for travellers planning multiple train and cable car trips in the mountains, and range from approx $332 for four days to approx $530 for 10 days.
STAYING THERE: There are numerous hotels in Interlaken, but they book up quickly around race day. The Neoclassical Hotel Royal St Georges is a three-minute walk from the start line. It also offers a cheaper studio alternative in Bodeli Budget behind its premises, which includes breakfast in the main hotel.
THE RACE: Registrations for the 2016 Jungfrau Marathon open on February 14 and are snapped up fast. The race is scheduled for September 10.
* The writer travelled independently.