Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mountain Marathoning in Lichtenstein

June 6, 2009 - Lichtenstein - LGT Alpin Marathon

1800M elevation gain and 42KM: Trail Running

The LGT Alpin Marathon is held on a beautiful and sometimes brutally challenging course in the tiny and scenic country of Lichtenstein. This wealthy nation is nestled between Switzerland and Austria and contains some stunning alpine terrain, breathtaking views, super nice people, and even a handful of interesting castles to catch the eye. This race takes the standard marathon distance of 42KM(26 miles) and sends most of it uphill. Only the first 10km is comfy and flat - the rest tackles the mountainous terrain that's home to the beauty of Lichtenstein.

We weren't so lucky with the weather gods this year as the race turned into a real soak-fest! The rain never seemed to stop and it got colder as we climbed and the day progressed. I feel for the people who didn't bring a shell or hat. Even with my shell and gloves on, I was soaked and shivering by the time I crossed the finish.

The race opened with a nice and easy flat 10K and then the first big climb (10km itself), which was sometimes runnable but often so steep that walking was in order for all but the elite. I ran the first 10k at an easy pace and just enjoyed the view of the Rhine. Once we started heading up the mountain, I ran until my heart rate was too high (in the 170s) and then switched to a power walk. The rain was at its heaviest at this point, so I just smiled at the appeal of running a marathon up hill in a cold rain and powered on, alternating beween running and walked. Before too long (well, about an hour of climbing), we crossed over a mountain and entered a quick and muddy descent down to Steg to close out the 1/2 marathon section. I love running fast down hills, so I opened it up on the descent, leaping over small stream crossings and smacking my shoes straight into and through endless goopy mud puddles. As I finished out a rippin' descent into Steg, I had it in my mind that the bulk of the climbing was in the bag by this point -- which I later learned is entirely the wrong thing to have in your mind when you reach the half way point in Steg!

The photo below shows the border in yellow. Austria is to the left, Switzerland to the right/bottom. Licthenstein lies in between (and is nearly covered by the race course!).

From Steg (center-right in the photo below), it's a long, long climb (partly runnable with some rolling sections early on) toward the ski town of Malbun. This part of the course is very scenic (especially, I can imagine, when the weather is clear!). The views open up quite nicely as you wind your way around the mountain, into the forest, and then back out for the final upward march of this section. There are some very steep bits, especially the end push to the pass that overlooks Malbun (top of photo just left of center). 30km+ into the race -- this climb hurts and seems to never end. The higher we climbed, the less runnable parts I could find, so I resorted to as fast a hiking pace as I could muster. I really had to deep dig in this section to keep the pace going.

After topping out on the 2nd big climb of the day, the reward is a great view and the feeling that this is the home stretch -- you can see Malbun and soon even hear the Finish Line announcer. This is a cruel joke though. After descending to the edge of town (and I again ran the descent very hard as I raced to the joy, dryness, and warmth of the finish line), you climb back up again high above Malbun and take on a 5km tour of the town that packs a huge punch in tired legs that were expecting an easy push down (and only down!) to the Finish Line. Halfway through this tour, you drop back down toward Malbun and climb up again (toward the top of the Malbun ski lifts).

Finally the climbing ends and you have a rippin' descent to the Finish Line. Good SWAG at the finish (nice technical shirt plus a nice Swarovski wine bottle stopper). Even with my dry post-race clothes on, it took me half an hour to stop shivering. I saw people being treated for hypothermia -- which reinforces the need to take mountain weather seriously.

With the big day of rain, we made countless crossings of small streams and splashed through endless mud. It was a cold, wet, and dirty day of racing and a hell of a great day in the mountains!

I'm looking forward to next year's race, when the weather will hopefully cooperate! Next up, the Graubünden Marathon -- which I just noticed has nearly 900 additional meters of elevation gain over the LGT. Doh!

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)!