I started trail running around two years ago. The idea was to combine a bit of the speed from ski touring with the foot work from sport climbing into an easily accessible sport. I also discovered the marathon experience, starting with the Swiss Alpine k42 and Jungfrau marathons in 2011. Since then I’ve run in various competitions including the Swiss Iron Trail and have now come to the conclusion that I’m positively bored with marathons and most organized runs. Instead, I’m just exploring the mountains and wear trail running gear while doing it.
I’m bored with marathons for a couple of reasons but the main demotivation stems from looking back and thinking about what I actually got out of running organized races juxtaposed against my normal mountain activities. Why run marathons? What value does one really get from them?
One wonderful thing about running marathons is the same reason I go on tours with the Swiss Alpine Club. Laziness. Not lazy in the physical sense, but when you sign up to one of these community events it’s because you don’t have to think about where you’re going. You just send in your registration and show up on that particular day and have a little adventure. There’s nothing wrong with this, but for me it takes a bit away from the sense of adventure. Sometimes I just start somewhere and run up into the mountains. I know I’ll see a village on the other side eventually and it stimulated my soul to just go and explore. Naturally this requires knowing about the places I’m headed to so I don’t run into trouble. I can feel reasonably sure that if I sign up for a marathon or ultra that the route has been checked and I can just go and enjoy. However, the ones I plan on my own are often the most adventurous and interesting.
This is one thing I’ve never really understood about marathons, the mandatory medals and finisher shirts. Most marathons are really not that much of a challenge if you’re prepared for them, and many can be run and finished with little real preparation. So why does everyone get a medal? It’s just a question if you want to finish faster or slower. The first time I ran the Swiss Alpine k42 I was struck by how much it felt like a self-confidence summer camp at the end. It feels good to hear people cheering you on and it was unexpected to be presented with a medal at the end of it. I felt a bit like Han Solo at the end of Star Wars. Then I ran another race (Jungfrau Marathon) and got another medal and another finisher shirt and I thought, “great, where do I put these things I’ll never wear?” I’m sure someone (or many people) has a collection of medals from twenty years of races and the collection looks as impressive on their wall as the milk awards you see while running past Swiss barns. It’s just that I don’t care the medals and shirts unless it’s a really memorable experience. You can already get pictures of your experience from professional photographers and you can track it all via the GPS on your smart phone or watch, so why should I pay for a medal?
The Jungfrau 2011 finisher shirt is a not-very-breathable purple mesh design that makes me feel like an eggplant zombie bite me and my skin had started to turn to the undead state. I only tried it on once and then tossed into a dark corner of my closet. Since I don’t find medals very interesting, as you might imagine the last thing I’m going to do is run around with a finisher shirt from this or that marathon. From a marketing perspective the fucntion of the finisher shirt is to advertise for future events and get more eyeball time for the sponsors. This is fine, but how about giving away finisher things we can actually use? What if the money allocated for shirts and medals went to something useful or interesting? A great example comes from the 2013 Iron Trail. At the end finishers received a bag of goodies which included a headlamp from Mammut (the main sponsor). I love my Mammut headlamp and take it on all my ultras and backcountry running experiences, continually advertising the Mammut logo and I’m totally fine with that. When I ran the Transviamala 20 km race I received a little sack including tasty treats from the region wrapped in an awesome dish towel that I use every day. The only finisher shirt I sometimes think on is the awesome Raidlight shirt from the Sardona Marathon that I didn’t get because it was too much of a race for me. There’s also the Iron Trail 2012 shirt I don’t have, only because the race was canceled and they gave the t-shirts away as suveniers. I didn’t get one because instead of hanging around Chur after they canceled the race I ran in beautiful weather conditions to Arosa (following the course they had deemed to dangerous to run). The people who hung out depressed in Chur got the finisher shirts for the race that was never run.
Value in Competition
There is some value in competition and organized events like marathons are a place to explore it. You feel more motivated to keep going when other people are around you, and you see them passing you or you feel good when you pass them. However, the mountains are a place where I really don’t care about competition. I go to the mountains because philosophically the experience is more important for me. I never feel failure if I don’t reach a peak or can’t do a climb, it’s the experience of the event which brings value to my life. In marathons most people are out for enjoyment or are competing with themselves by recording personal records and tracking finishing times. Events like marathons and the olympics were created in order to evaluate the performance of individuals under the same conditions. With running trackers and GPS watches, it’s now sort of irrelevant if your running time is tracked officially or not during a race (which is what you’re paying for). Apps like Strava make it easy to track your performance and how you relate to other people in the world. So why join a marathon and pay for it?
For me the real value of a marathon or ultra is the nutrient support given during the race. It’s nice to be able to refuel every 10 km with sports drinks and food, but in many cases it’s easy in Switzerland to just refuel at mountain huts and restaurants. For example, when the 2013 Iron Trail was canceled, I ran from Chur to Arosa with my ultra pack and I didn’t have a problem with food or water along the way. I just wish I had gotten to the Rothorn station before they closed so I could have enjoyed a beer. The nutritional support and safety infrastructure are big values for me when mountain marathons, but not essential on every run. I had a fine time drinking beer (non-alcoholic) and eating pasta meals at the main rest areas along the 2013 Iron Trail ultra, it was more of a long fast hike than a race. Running one of those during the year is great as a type of photo outing.
The worst thing that can happen before a race (baring injury, death, etc.) is having it canceled. For example, waking up at 5am to start preparing and getting an SMS around 6am that the race you’ve been getting prepped for (over the past few months) has been called off due to the weather. Then the sun rises above the morning fog and you find out there was no real reason to cancel the race except for the organizers being worried they wouldn’t be able to ensure the safety of the runners because the night before too many runners had behaved as idiots and not taken the proper gear with them and ended up near hypothermic on a glacier pass and now the medical services had been overloaded (</rant>). Of course, one could argue it was the fault of the organizers for not following their own rules and should have eliminated those runners after they failed the mandatory gear checks (which wasn’t possible because it seems the gear checks never happened). I happily avoid bullshit like this when I plan and embark upon my own running adventures.
Race organizers and sponsors love to boast about having the longest, highest blah, blah, blah race when promoting the event. However, mountain weather is unpredictable and they don’t want to have the whole thing called off for fear of runners dying on the course, the solution is to limit the race to mainly roads and limited exposure on real mountain paths. The result is an less interesting and sort of boring running experience. The Jungfrau Marathon is a good example of a race with marketing materials which make it look like you’ll be running through the mountains, but in reality the majority of the race is on asphalt. The only real mountain marathon I’ve embarked upon is the Sardona Ultra course, and I plan to be back this year because it’s a true alpine experience. Overall the Swiss Alpine K42 is also a nice mountain run as well, but only a small part is in the alpine environment.
When I go out on my own I can easily plan a challenging mountain running course and change the details around if bad weather strikes. Large organized running events make this effectively impossible, in particular when a lot of runners are signed up. That’s a big reason I’ve stopped running mountain marathons, the massiveness of the event takes away from the enjoyment of the experience because challenging and interesting courses are too risky for most sponsors to take on.
I generally run in the mountains to get away from the bustle of city life (though it’s usually rather relaxing around Zurich), so it seems counter intuitive to pay money to run in the mountains alongside hundreds or thousands of other people. Unless you’re a pro running at the very lead, you then have the problem of trying to pass or getting passed by other runners. I usually pass people as I’m ascending and descending, and then I feel like a failure when other runners pass me while running on flat terrain. Does this really sound enjoyable? Since I’m not in it for the competition, it just seems silly to pay to run a marathon and have to jostle for positioning when going up and down the mountain trails.
Life is an adventure. It’s not really about finishing times or PRs. Those are just markers along the way which we sometimes need because it gives context to our lives and what we decided to spend our time on before dying. Feelings and the tangible experience of life are difficult to communicate. Pictures rarely do the experience justice and you have to give people you talk with something easy to quantify unless you want them to listen to you for hours trying to describe the race. So you tell them you ran a marathon and they see your medal and read the words on your finisher shirt and say “great job.”
I know the secret, I feel the rhythms of the alpine ridges falling way beneath my feet. I see the dry bones of glaciers. I run through golden spring fields and the ground is dry and cracked and then covered in snow. If you look at nearly anything in life with right attitude you’ll see the explanation you were seeking. I see a story of life and evolution when I run in the mountains. I feel timeless and complete. Running marathons just make me think I’m fat and slow.