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Exotic Destination Race: The Jungfrau Marathon

Look waaaaay up. This is not your average flat and fast marathon.

The Jungfrau Marathon

Interlaken, Switzerland

A 42.2K Vertical Challenge in the Swiss Alps

The race entry form reads: “An extremely challenging race suitable only for highly trained endurance athletes.” In other words, look waaaaay up. This is not your average flat and fast marathon.

The Jungfrau Marathon combines Swiss Alpine scenery with one of the most gruelling ascents ever put into a marathon. The race features a total elevation gain of 1,823 metres, the equivalent of running from Canmore, Alta. to the top of Sunshine Ski Resort then climbing another 400 vertical metres. Not an easy task, but worth every step – even if it’s on a trail fit for a goat.

On Sept 11, 2010, the 18th running of the Jungfrau Marathon is, like every other year, sold out.  This year, it filled up 11 months in advance. Due to the rugged terrain, the entries are capped at 4,000 racers.

The race starts in the town of Interlaken, Switzerland, and winds briefly around the town, where visitors and townsfolk line the curbs waving flags and ringing huge Kuhglocken cowbells. When the racers leave town, so do the spectators. While runners find their race pace along the flat shores of the River Aare, the chain-driven cog train full of cheering spectators chugs past to vantage points high up the mountain.

The course continues to follow the valley with a small elevation gain until it turns back to Lauterbrunnen. A hard right through town sends the runners into one of the toughest legs of the race. In less than 3K, the trail takes 20 switchbacks through a fragrant dense forest and gains nearly 500 metres. Breaking through the trees, racers pass through the downhill ski mecca of Wengen, where waiting crowds break away from their fondue and beer to cheer and clang bells. All they have to do is re-board the train for a quick trip to the top. The runners still have 800 vertical metres to cover over 12K.

The thread of runners meanders up through pastureland on a trail shared by bovines to a roadblock near the 38K marker, where a doctor visually inspects racers as they trundle by. From that point on, bailing out is almost impossible.

Above the tree line and across the valley is the Schilthorn, where in 1968, James Bond did his crazy escape from the remote gondola station using his pocket liners to hang onto the gondola cable. By now, many racers would appreciate a cable because they are marching nose-to-butt up a steep boulder-strewn goat trail hugging the precarious side moraine of a glacier. Three of the highest peaks in Switzerland loom overhead – the Eiger (3,970 metres), the Monch (4,099 metres) and the Jungfrau (4,158 metres).

The wind whips a cool breeze off the glacier, bringing bits of music. A lone bagpiper has stood on that crag every year heralding the highest point in the race. Beyond him, the last kilometre is downhill through some seriously large glacier erratic that the sub-three-hour winners probably bounced off like surefooted goats. Volunteers offer help to weary racers who need a hand down.

Around the last boulder at the end of an alpine trail is the resort area of Kleine Scheidegg, known by most people for the Clint Eastwood movie, The Eiger Sanction. For the marathoners – it’s the most beautiful backdrop to receive a well-earned finisher’s medal.

If you go:

The race is held each year in September. Entries are accepted in October and are granted through a lottery. Log onto www.jungfrau-marathon.ch to find out more.

Once accepted, book a hotel room in Interlaken through www.interlakentourism.ch

More on Switzerland can be found on www.myswitzerland.com

Air Canada flies direct to Zurich from Toronto www.aircanada.com

Buy a rail pass through www.swiss-pass.ch

Joanne Elves is a Calgary-based writer and photographer.