This Saturday I was in Le Sentier to pick up my bib for my first ultramarathon, the Trail Vallee de Joux (85km). As John and I sat in a café flicking through a newspaper, I saw the news from Vienna: that very morning, Eliud Kipchoge had run the fastest marathon in history: one hour, fifty-nine minutes and forty seconds. This meant that this human comet had managed to run every single one of the 26.2 miles faster than 4 minutes and thirty-four seconds, a speed not so very far away from the world record for one mile (Hicham El Guerrouj’s 3:43:13). I think I might have run that fast for five meters once when trying to catch a receding school bus.
Sipping my coffee, I reflected on the fact that not only had Eliud Kipchoge managed to accomplish this incredible feat of physical endurance, but he’d finished with a smile. If he could do that, how much easier would it be for me to run 50-something miles at a mule’s pace without keeling over? Much easier!
Aside from dying, there was only one thing worrying me: the race started at 2.30 am and our hotel was 3 kilometers from the pick-up point with no taxis willing to come to our village (“Désolé ca sera pas possible”). I didn’t want to run an extra three kilometers without getting credit for them. So, when we went to pick up my bib at the Centre Sportif, John, a polyglot, asked the official if he knew of anyway I could cadge a ride. The man looked thoughtful for a moment then said that we should come back in 20 minutes. We took a seat and watched the pleasant scene of families milling around between sessions of ice-hockey or swimming. Gazing wistfully at the beautiful outdoor jacuzzi surrounded by lounge chairs, John murmured wistfully, “That’s what you get when you have a public sector.”
The official returned with a guy who said I should be waiting outside my hotel at one-thirty sharp that morning. The guy seemed very stern and not altogether happy at his new midnight mission, so I promised solemnly that I would be there. I suspected he thought that, as a foreigner, I probably lacked the true Swiss respect for temporal precision.
It was hard to sleep beforehand. For nine hours I lay awake staring at the ceiling and wondering if the bloody cows would ever stand still. Cow bells are the soundtrack of the Jura mountains. The first couple of days I found their gamelan clanging quaint and even soothing, but in my pre-race state of heightened nervousness, the distant, constant racket started to annoy. I wondered why it was necessary, in this day and age, for an animal to wear a great honking bell around its neck. If farmers were worried about losing their giant animals, why didn’t they just stick some kind of tracking mechanism under the skin, as pet owners do? As the watchful hours wore on, I realized that Swiss emigration to America could explained by a persecuted people’s desire for a little peace and quiet.
There were other bells too. When we booked the hotel, we’d asked for a quiet room. Technically, most of the time, it was a quiet room. But it was directly, as if scientifically measured, opposite the bell-tower of a church. This being Switzerland, the church had an excellent timepiece and wanted everyone to know it. The bell rang loud and clear every quarter hour. On the hour it burst into a long-winded and obnoxiously emphatic explanation of exactly what time it was.
Meanwhile, it being a Saturday night, there was some kind of lively musical event happening nearby. It was loud but I didn’t mind it too much because the singer was doing a pretty good attempt of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. I took this as a good omen, which shows how foolish superstition is.
To make a long story short, one-thirty arrived and I was standing outside the hotel. Just as I suspected, the guy showed up exactly on the half-hour, right in the middle of the ‘dong dong’. I jumped into the car and we set off for Le Sentier. I remarked on the warmth of the evening and he said that it was warmer than he could remember it being at this time of year. I tried a conversational gambit on the topic of Climate Change but there was a language-barrier issue that caused the small talk to sputter out. Thankfully, we reached the sporting center before the social awkwardness could bloom to suicide-inducing levels. I offered him payment for the ride, but he adamantly refused to accept any money, which was awfully decent of him. I can not imagine sacrificing any sleep for a total stranger.
I jumped on the bus saying ‘Bon jour’ to the driver. He laughed and said ‘Bon soir’. I sat down on the bus and watched with growing dismay the other people getting on the bus. They were all half cheetah. Rangy, weathered, sleek and well equipped. And so polite, at two o’clock in the morning. It was inhuman. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, not being able to face small talk.
At 2.15 precisely the bus set off for the town of L’Abbaye, where the race was to begin. The bus disgorged us outside a hotel and so I followed the crowd down the hill, where there was the familiar row of porta-potties, fences arranged in a starting corridor and van for the collection of ‘drop bags’. Soon, though, people started walking back up the driveway. Confused, I followed them. They walked to a hall where runners were gathering to drink tea, eat bread and jam and put on all their gear. I noticed that some people were collecting bibs for other races and suddenly doubted I was in the right place after all. I went out back across the road and down the driveway, but there was no one there yet. Finally, I was convinced that most people were in the tea building and so I stayed there, keeping an eye on them.
Finally, there was a herd movement downwards. For some reason, three men were gathered around a flaming tree stump in the driveway. As we were all gathered at the starting block, someone made a speech in French and then a man with a pistol started counting down. Behind me I heard an American woman confide to her friend, “The only thing I’m worried about is getting lost.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” her friend replied chirpily. “You did study the course beforehand right? So you’ll be fine!”
This conversation unsettled me. The possibility of getting lost had not occurred to me. Aside from a few glances, I had not studied the course beforehand in any detail. I hoped that this interplay was merely a kind of subtle ‘psyching out’ game between rivals and that there really was no need to worry.
The pistol went off.
The first few moments were great. Everyone moved and I felt like a wildebeest setting off with her brothers and sisters on a long journey to a new home. It was something the first, non-gloomy, stanza of that poem by Siegfried Sassoon “Everyone Sang”:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields; on; on; and out of sight.
There we all were, moving at a nice pace, not too fast because we had a whole day of running ahead of us, but not slow either. Our headlights created a road of light in a world that, except for the bright full moon above, was utterly black. The path was narrow but no one was pushing. I focused on the reflective stripes on the pants of the runner in front of me and settled into a meditative rhythm.
This went on for about half an hour, until we came to Le Pont, a town on the northern tip of Lac de Joux. Here, I felt so confident and pleased that I decided to stop to take a few pictures. When I resumed running, the group I’d been in was nearly out of sight but I saw their headlights cross a railway track and turn right on a path that ran parallel to it. I put on a spurt of speed so that I wouldn’t lose the way, but relaxed somewhat when I realized the path was lit by little reflective flags The night was so warm and the path was so pleasant—it ran around the forested moonlit shore of yet another lake—that I didn’t mind when the headlight in front of me disappeared around a corner and I was completely alone.
The path became less forested and more rural. When I heard the familiar maddening cow-bell clang and saw three cows near a water trough, I considered asking them acidly if they ever got any sleep. Suddenly, beyond the cows, three headlights in the distance went up a hill to my right. Relieved that I wasn’t as behind as I’d thought, I trotted on and turned up the same road. But when I got to the top, there were no signs or course markers. I thought maybe the other runners had made a mistake, so I ran downhill toward a church. No arrows there either. I retraced my steps and went right back down the hill to where I’d seen those phantom headlights earlier.
Sure enough, there were pink chalk arrows pointing up the hill. But then I noticed that there was a reflector-flag in the other direction, straight ahead, so I followed it. Fifty meters on, I saw a pink arrow indicating that I should turn around and go back the way I’d come. So I did. I went back up the same hill the other runners had climbed. This time, when I got to the top, I carefully inspected the road for any marker or arrow. Nothing. I’d already turned left last time; this time I went right and, sure enough, a few hundred metres along the way I saw another of those pink chalk arrows pointing up a little track between two fields.
I bounded up that little track, which was quite a climb, until I got to an asphalt road. Here, there were three possible directions. Left was to ‘Mouthe’ in France; straight ahead was up a farm road; right was downhill. Squinting at the asphalt, I saw a faint white arrow pointing right. It really looked quite old and didn’t conform to the other signage, but it was all I could see, so I went right. This took me past more fields and I looked vainly for more reflector flags to reassure me. At last I thought I saw one that had fallen down into a field. On closer inspection, , I realized that it was just a cat staring up at me.
Finally, I got to the bottom of the farm track I’d already climbed; I’d come full circle. Another unnecessary kilometer. Okay, I gritted my teeth, don’t give up! Let’s try it again…This time, at the top of the track I crossed the asphalt road and went straight up the farm road. At the top was a dairy barn with lights on. There was a road that turned to the left but it looked so dark and someone’s house was there so I concluded it was a private driveway and retraced my steps back to the crossroad.
Third time lucky! I thought. So, when I got to the bottom (again ascertaining that there were no reflective course markers), I decided to try the road to Mouthe. My reasoning (flawed, but I hadn’t had any sleep) was that even if it wasn’t the right way, it might be nice to go to France and have a pain au chocolat for breakfast before getting a train back to Switzerland. I hared on up the hill for about a kilometer when I realized that this might not be the best plan after all because (a) I didn’t know how far it was to Mouthe and (b) I didn’t speak French and (c) I was running low on water. I really needed to get to the 16-kilometer point, where I could get a refill. Besides, there wasn’t much of a verge on this road. I was also pretty sure by now that this was not the right way.
When I got back to the intersection, there were now suddenly heaps of little reflective markers! They led a little way up the farm road and then to the right, along a trail I hadn’t seen before. Not pausing to wonder how this miracle could have happened, I felt a leap of joy and got going. The markers were very clear now and I pranced across several kilometres of gravel, muddy fields and forest paths. All the way the markers were glinting at me encouragingly. Occasionally there was even a flashing light embedded in the ground. It was a little strange to be all alone, but in an enchanting way, as if some elves had arranged a VIP forest tour for me personally. The air smelled good, like all-spice and pine. Sometimes I heard the hoot of an owl.
On and on I went, wondering where on earth the aid station was. I’d now been running five hours, which meant I’d definitely gone more than 16 kilometres and should have reached it. Something was wrong. Why hadn’t I seen anyone else? Had I missed a loop? How come no one else had gotten lost? Did they have information that I didn’t? Or were they simply so mentally and physically superior that they could tell what to do? A thought struck me. Maybe they had apps. Maybe they had technology that told them where to go so that they didn’t need physical signs! At once, I realized this was the real answer. My stubborn analog tendencies had rendered me obsolete. I was like the elderly couple who’d almost perished in their own car because they were so confused about the keyless entry system. This was it. This was the moment when the modern world passed me by in its fancy jetcar, throwing space-litter at my head.
Yet, I kept going. As long as those reflective flags were there, I would put one foot in front of another. I was thirsty but that was OK. People had survived worse. Helen and Bill Thayer stumbling through the Gobi desert after one of their camels rolls over the water supply, Salvador Alvarenga surviving 438 days at sea, Mongols riding 10 days eating and drinking nothing but horse’s blood…we humans can take a lot of punishment!
But when I got to yet another intersection and there was no marker, I decided to quit. I had no more drink and didn’t know where I was. I guessed the trail probably went uphill, to Mount Orb, but I didn’t know for sure. Besides, I could see the lights of a town down the hill—Vallorbe judging from the road sign. In a town, I thought dreamily, I could catch a bus and make my way home. I carefully unpinned my bib and put it in my backpack.
After deciding to quit, I felt better. The landscape became more interesting at walking pace. There were mossy trees and limestone chunks, fallen logs and luminous mushrooms. At first I thought they were phosphorescent but close-up I realized this was an optical illusion caused by my headlights on dewdrops. I noticed that there was a large amount of daddy long-legses. The smell of the forest was intoxicating—Christmassy and fermented. It occurred to me that more people should get up in the middle of the night and walk around the forest. It was a experience I, for one, won’t soon forget.
As I descended, the sun started coming up and I could see a lake blanketed with mist. People were waking up and starting their daily routine—I met a couple jogging gamely up the hill who cheerfully called “Bon jour!” Down at the bottom of the hill, I blessed the orderliness of the Swiss because there was a large sign to the ‘GARE’, which I promptly followed.
The trains were not working but there was a bus waiting outside. The driver looked at me and I looked at her.
“Bonjour. Le Pont?” I said in my exquisite French.
“Oui,” she said.
I showed her my bus voucher but she said something to the effect that it didn’t apply to her bus line. I took out some cash but she shook her head and indicated that I should sit down anyway, for free. At Le Pont, I transferred to another bus that took me back to Le Brassus and to John, who was just getting ready to have breakfast.
The winner of the 85 km was Sange Sherpa, who has run more than hundred of these things and now that I’ve done a bit of one I can understand exactly how impressive that is.