Friday, June 5, 2009

Making people smile: Running the Zürich Marathon with an Alphorn

Race Date: April 26, 2009
Road Marathon ... and Smile Day
A new Swiss tunnel has opened this year and it goes right under one of my favorite local mountains for biking and running, the Üetliberg. As a part of the tunnel opening ceremony, this year's Zurich Marathon started with a little underground jaunt. Once I heard about this I thought, hey -- I've never ran a marathon that starts with nearly 10KM of tunnel running, so why not give it a go? I signed up several months ago and at Becky's urging finally did a couple long runs to prep for the race. I've been in ski mode since November and aside from the Ötzi race have only been maintenance running since my last ultra toward the end of summer. The couple of long training runs I did for the Zurich Marathon went just fine -- which made me happy because it took several months for my ligament tear from an October running injury to heal. I've done lots of road marathons and really favor trail races now, so I decided that instead of running Zurich for a fast time, I'd run it to entertain people -- with a singular mission: make as many people smile as possible.

I also wanted to pay tribute to the Swiss for having such a wonderful country and allowing me the privilege of living in it. So, in Jeff-land, this all translated into me running the marathon while carrying a 3-meter long alphorn -- and not just running with it -- but playing mini-concerts for people along the way.

To make things interesting, I decided also run from home to the race start and another hour back home after the race -- for a nice 60km+ day of running. I arrived at the race start happy to be warmed up after an hour of running and bumped into an English mate, Mike, who was running the marathon dressed as the Pink Panther. Mike and I were apparently the only people stepping outside the box into creative/wacky-land as everyone else looked the part of serious runner. It's fun to shake things up. On the way to the race start I found a hill to play on and started what would be an endless series of mini-concerts. Every time the alphorn was spotted, people smiled and cheered -- awesome, it's working.

I fired up the crowd with mini concerts at the tunnel entrance and exits, in the tunnel, and for 4 1/2 hours along the race course. Highlights included passing the various musicians performing for the marathon (there's a great common brotherhood that works quite well only on the connection of music), playing a bit for a quartet of alphorn players performing for the race, and seeing the great reactions of the young and old when I would stop to play for them.

As for running with such an instrument, while it looks super heavy, it weighs only 1kg (2.2 pounds), so the weight wasn't much of a problem. Although, a few hours in and I could definitely feel it! My biggest concern was that I didn't hit anyone!

By the way, I've had this wonderful instrument for a year now and have run, biked, and hiked with it all over Switzerland. A carbon fiber alphorn is a great idea and is custom-made by a very interesting and entertaining gentleman in western (French-Speaking) Switzerland, (Roger Zanetti).My good friend Kate showed up on a bike to cheer and motivate me on a later section of the race, prompting a great observation from another friend's parent (who didn't know me): "I saw some poor chap running with an alphorn while some girl on a bike yelled at him." Ah, perfect -- that's about it -- her "yelling" was very helpful though, because whenever the crowds thinned out I would lose an audience to bring to smiles and my energy would begin to fade.

I had lots of conversations in Swiss German throughout the race -- well, semi-conversations, especially after I learned all the standard questions and practiced my responses in my broken Swiss dialect. People were always quite a bit shocked that I was 1) not Swiss 2) an American, and 3) can actually play the alphorn. They always smiled when we talked and that rocked.

It was a real joy on the finishing straight -- I stopped and played for the large crowd and then crossed the finish line with the alphorn high in the air (a celebration of Switzerland and this great mountain musical instrument, not me). A volunteer at the finish asked me to play for her before she'd give me water -- which I did of course -- and then I walked to cool down playing for people along the lake. One woman was insistent on paying me -- after refusing several times, I finally accepted the money when her gent suggested that it was to buy me a beer. Playing alphorn for a post-race beer -- well, ok.

After enjoying some post-race time with my friends, I got back on my feet and ran another hour home -- with the alphorn on my shoulder the whole time -- getting waves, honks, and smiles from passerbys. Yes, smiles -- it was free to give them and I got such warmth back in return. What a brilliant day!

p.s. Thanks for the photos Howard Brundrett (2nd, 6th, and last from the top)!


Martina said...

I already posted this on FB, but for those who have not seen it there: I had to smile when I asked my cousin Conny how her first marathon went and she told me it went well, but she saw this poor guy who must have lost a bet or something because he was running the whole race with an alphorn on his shoulders... :-)

Becky said...

The good thing is that a smile is one thing that is understood in all languages and cultures! And as they say, smiles are contagious, so who knows how many people it got spread to that day :-) How appropriate, I just noticed that April was national smile month:

Will said...

wow .... chapeau

I assume the hardest part was not knocking other people over?

well done!

chocolate girl said...

Simply marvelous. You know how much I love and adore you and Becky because of your passion for life and how you spread that joy to others.
Kudos to Howard for his great pics!

Aunt Thelma and Uncle Bob said...

Jeff, leave it to you to make a special event even more so! I agree with "chocolategirl" - you and Becky both have such a zest for living life to its fullest, being interested in and caring for others along the way, an ability to turn negatives into positives, that you spread infectious joy and smiles wherever you go! At least, that's our experience with you!!!