A version of this article was published in the Financial Times International Edition on September 6
How do you make an already challenging race even more demanding? Run it up a mountain is what the organisers of the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland decided to do back in 1993, with huge success. The race, which styles itself the world’s toughest marathon, has grown strongly ever since the first event, which attracted around 1,800 runners of all abilities. Today, some 4,500 runners have registered for the16th Jungfrau Marathon, which starts at the Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken at 9am central European time. The winner is expected to cross the finishing line, in the shadow of the fearsome North Face of the Eiger, three hours later.
Last year’s male winner – world marathon champion and course record holder Jonathan Wyatt from New Zealand - finished in 2h 55m 32.1s; Norway’s Anita Hakenstad Evertsen was the first woman, in 3h 23m 05.5s. Jonathan Wyatt isn’t competing this year as the race is too close to another mountain race that is his priority, and he thinks the men’s race is very open. “You never know how the Africans will go but they could surprise,” he says. “The Italian Hermann Achmueller ran well last year and will be a top three contender. Tim Short (GB) has been going well this year. Martin Cox (also GB) is very experienced and knows the track, so if he can get to Wengen in the lead group he could well medal.”
Having taken part in a 20-kilometre training run over part of the course, organised by race director Richard Umberg, former Swiss marathon record holder, I can state with certainty that this is not a race for the faint-hearted. The final 5km section of this leg is a gruelling climb from the floor of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, by consensus the hardest part of the course because of the increase in altitude and the very steep gradients. It transports runners from a landscape widely accepted to be the model for Rivendell, home of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings. They arrive in the picturesque village of Wengen, which remains a popular target for non-Swiss property hunters even in the current climate of economic uncertainty. Local BEKB manager Erhard Mueller, one of the 1,200-strong team of volunteers assembled by technical officer Andreas Waser to man the race, must be one of the very few bankers in Europe still actively looking for new mortgage business.
The president of the organising committee is Christoph Seiler, whose day job is as chief financial officer of Jungfrau Railways, owner of the highest railway station in Europe, Jungfraujoch. Even he admits that a race with gradients of 30 per cent and a climb of 1,839 metres is over the top. “Ordinary people are trying something that is absolutely crazy,” he says. “It is very steep, and it hurts.” He ran a personal best of 3h 18m in 1998.
He did add – not with an entirely straight face - that it can be easier than a city marathon. “After 25 kilometres, it’s a hike. You only run the first half.” Some elite runners use the Jungfrau Marathon to prepare for city races. In 1997, the late Francisca Rochat-Moser won it, then won the 25th New York marathon in November, coached by Richard Umberg.
The Jungfrau Marathon was conceived partly as a means of extending the summer tourist season; it now accounts for around 25,000 overnight stays a year, half the field coming from abroad. The race offers equal prize money to the first three men and women to finish: Sfr10,000, Sfr5,000 and Sfr3,000 for third. There is Sfr2,500 extra for new course records, currently 2h 49m 02s for men, 3h 21m 03s for women.
A further Sfr4,200 is on offer to the man and woman who achieve the best results at three intermediate ranking points, in effect a series of sprint competitions. The first comes after 4km in Interlaken, William Tell country. The second is at 20km in Lauterbrunnen, which the romantic poet Lord Byron visited in September 1816. The last is at 30.3km in Wengen, which features strongly in Jeremy Cameron’s 1999 hugely enjoyable cult novel Brown Bread in Wengen, and plays a fleeting cameo role in Hugh Laurie's only novel to date, the excellent The Gun Seller. This money is only paid if the runners finish within 10 per cent of the winning times. Sprinting was the last thing on my own mind as I staggered down Wengen’s high street in late July, drenched in sweat on a cold, damp morning, struggling to move in a straight line.
While one part of the local tourist board works out how best to exploit the area’s links with history, literature and film (Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction is one of its screen credits, while Robert Redford and Gene Hackman's 1969 Downhill Racer is another), their colleagues seem to have declared an ‘extreme sports’ season. As we passed through Lauterbrunnen, Peter Streit, credit controller with Swiss technology group RUAG, and my course guide for 15km, bubbled enthusiastically about the Inferno Triathlon, in which he was looking forward to competing on August 23.
This comprises a 3.1km swim, a 97km road race, and a 30km mountain bike section. The final stretch is a 25km run up the mountain to Schilthorn, where the Piz Gloria restaurant - seen in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - revolves at a height of 2,970 metres.
“Why don’t you enter?” Peter asked, suddenly showing a striking resemblance to the late Heath Ledger in his final role as The Joker in the Batman film Dark Knight. Any inclination to do so vanished as we started the climb to Wengen, and I ran out of fuel. You don’t have to be mad to take part in the Jungfrau Marathon, or the Inferno Triathlon, I found myself thinking, but it surely must help. They are already accepting entries for next year’s events…