On the advice of a friend, I signed up for an event outside of Zürich called the 5-Tage Berglauf Cup.
That means, in English, the 5-day mountain running cup. It was organized by a local ski club and featured five days of racing from small villages up to the top of hills in the Zürich Oberland, a rolling region of farms and rivers to the east of Zürich itself.
By the Monday that the series was about to start, I realized that things might not be as easy as I thought. Fabian, who had told me about the series in the first place and had done it many times, wasn’t able to come to any of the races after all.
And things are measured in meters here, not in feet as they are in the United States. So when a five-kilometer race has 500 meters of elevation gain, that doesn’t seem like so much… until I thought about what 500 meters really is. 1600 feet. A lot of topo lines all piled on top of each other on a map.
On top of that, I had just gotten back from a three-day training camp in the Jura mountains on the Swiss-French border. I don’t train full-time – I am doing a PhD and hold a part-time job! So I only do these “training camps” with a group of other skiers three times a year or so. When that happens, all of a sudden I’m training twice a day, usually with one session of intervals and one a long recovery workout. It really takes it out of me.
I stood on the start line on Monday, not knowing a single other person at the race, and I didn’t feel so great. And I definitely, definitely, only felt worse once we started climbing.
I felt like I had made a huge mistake, as a member of the Bluth family might say.
At the end of the day, as I was running down from the finish (no transportation is provided, so you have a handy compulsory cool-down unless you make friends with someone whose family drove a car up) I wondered whether to continue or bag the whole thing.
Those five kilometers had been hard, not fun. It was hot and humid and I could wring the sweat from my tank top after just over half an hour of racing. I tried to eat a granola bar but it wasn’t going down.
Tired from the weekend, I hadn’t been able to push myself, get my heart rate very high, or even have much of a killer instinct at the finish, where the next person in front of me was a 62-year-old man.
(Which, by the way, is awesome. You go, guy!)
My dreams of an age-group podium were definitely gone and I knew that I’d be in for a world of pain. I think that I often sign up for races because I believe that going hard will make me feel fit, but this did not make me feel fit!
There are plenty of Swiss people who never, ever run up a mountain. But for those who are interested in running up mountains, there’s lots of places to practice and, well, they are pretty expert.
As I neared the bottom of the hill and the bus stop where I’d start my hour-and-a-half ride back to my apartment via public transportation, I caught up with a middle-aged guy running backwards and sideways, clearly trying to stretch out his legs after the steep run downhill.
“We made it!” I said, holding up my hand for a high five.
I don’t think high-fiving is a universal behavior in Switzerland, and he let me hang.
But we started chatting, and when I stopped at the bus station, he asked where I was going. Did I need a ride? Zürich wasn’t too far out of his way.
My long bus and train ride home was cut to a pleasant 30-minute drive, and my new friend said that “This was the worst one.” By the time I got home, I had decided that I would race the rest of the week. After all, not showing up for a race you paid for seems like chickening out, and I may be slow, but I don’t want to be a chicken.
So the week rolled along. I felt a bit better on day two, and had even a good day on day three (good enough that I almost puked at the finish…). My friend Joseph had told me he would come race that day if we had a beer afterward, but then he backed out. So what? I was hooked on this mountain running thing!
(And Thursday I took as a day off, since only your best four results from the five-day series are scored in the cup.)
I ended up racing up 6,000 feet in elevation in four days, with an average grade of 9.5%. As the week went on, fewer 55-year-old women and teenagers beat me. If there’s one strength of cross-country skiers, it’s that we are tough and can take the hits in grueling race series.
I was proud to have finished the Cup, especially after sweating all day in my unventilated seventh-floor office in the midst of one of Europe’s worst heat waves ever. Not exactly good race prep.
For those of us with day jobs, maybe we enter races for glory. But in the end we finish them for the satisfaction of doing so. Dropping out is not an option, and crossing the finish line is an accomplishment something that most of our coworkers will never be able to boast about.