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Swissalpine K42: A Short Story

Swissalpine K42: A Short Story

Jul 28, 2013

Starting off on a long, hard run is a bit like being handed a book to read without a cover or title. As the pages unfold, you come to find out what each successive chapter has in store for you. Misery? Elation? New friends, wild animals, injury, dramatic alpine scenery rarely glimpsed by others? The story could be anything. Downright Romantic, a light-hearted beach read, a gripping page-turner, or sometimes even an aesthetic masterpiece. Often, it’s a mish-mash– a team-written effort by an assortment of hack writers.

No matter what, though, it’s always an adventure, in the original sense of the word, before “adventure” travel and “adventure” theme parks. Sebastian Unger, in his collection of short stories Fire, writes that, “The word ‘adventure’ is from the Latin adventura, meaning, ‘what must happen.’ An adventure is a situation where the outcome is not entirely within your control. It’s up to fate.” Unger’s definition, however, doesn’t quite capture the emotional range of a real adventure. In the movie 180 South, Yvon Chouinard says adventure is what starts the moment you throw out your plans. That spirit is closer to the heart of the matter, I think.

Runners frequently experience cramps. I had been fortunate enough to dodge that bullet– until Davos. My run—the “K42” alpine marathon of the Swissalpine Marathon’s nine carefully orchestrated events yesterday—featured 1,840 meters of climbing as it wound through the classic centuries-old Graubunden village of Bergün, climbed through alpine pastures, along a fast-flowing glacial river, up to a high mountain pass, then traversed snowfields, and ultimately coasted down a deep, lush farm valley to finish among the streets of Davos.

K78 runner Jasmine Nunige of Davos on the way to her fifth victory. Photo courtesy of
Jasmine Nunige of Davos on the way to her fifth victory in the K78 event.
Photo courtesy of

It was hot. Event organizers had added extra water stops and installed signs alerting runners to take precautions. This particular race had lodged itself firmly in my imagination in the past few months. So, with this new set of warnings, I promised myself I’d monitor my hydration aggressively, balancing water with electrolytes to keep my body in sync and my mind in that happy place where all is as it should be. Smooth. Steady. Focused. Cruising over the terrain, come what may– it’s up to fate.

Somewhere along the way to the snow of Sertigpass, though, I must have erred. A deep stitch formed in my gut. I slowed and breathed deeply. Creative visualization? Sure, why not. I saw the colorful, exaggerated high school anatomy textbook version of my stomach slowly relax. No dice. People can will things away, right? I refused it for the next kilometer:  No, sorry. Not today. Get the %^&* out of here. Stubborn beast, it was still with me. I saw the top of the pass, and convinced myself the pain would fade with the upcoming downhill coast. No, not now either, huh? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance in three kilometers. Okay. We’ll travel together. Uneasy partners, not parting ways until a future chapter.

I made my peace, turning to my family’s irreverent humor for some entertainment to while away the coming two hours. Passing throngs of hikers yelling, “Hop, Hop,” “Bon Chance, “ and “Allez, Allez,” I stole an old an joke of my brother’s when he melted down in a marathon, formed a gun with my forefinger and thumb, put it to my head and pulled the trigger. Laughs from the spectators.  Crazy shouting in Swiss-German. Running alongside an electric fence, I wondered if cramps crumbled in the face of shock therapy. Would the surge provide some needed distraction? I never found out. Three meters away, the fence seemed too far off course.

I looked around me. I was running with a crowd I didn’t recognize. These aren’t my people. I don’t belong here.  I am among the wobbly-gaited, the few-extra-kilo’ed. How classist of you, I tell myself. We’re all traveling this path together. And today, the grim-faced American with the sick sense of humor is exactly where he belongs.

The cramp, persistently latched on, doesn’t touch my energy level. I feel strong and energetic after 40 km. When the path levels,  the pain ratchets down a notch, and I cruise. 1 km out, we hit Davos. The pain fades with the smooth sailing of tarmac I usually look upon with scorn, and the last kilometer is my fastest.  I am in the unusual position of being one of those finishers I have never understood.  Average recreational runners, they somehow suddenly channel their inner Usain Bolt to the finish. Onlookers are cheering me. “Doug! Doug!” How do they know my name? My brain is that colorful, spinning wheel on my Mac, stuck on a single byte too many, memory sluggish. Oh, right. Name’s on the bib. Funny.  They don’t know my story, though. It’s not that story. My mind explains to them. It’s a more downtrodden tale of a guy who had a great start, but crashed and burned near the pass, in a chapter about electrolytes, water and hydration science.

Doug, Johanna and Thom after each of their Swissalpine marathon events had wrapped up. The beer, by the way, was free-- but non-alcoholic!
Doug, Johanna and Thom after each of their Swissalpine marathon events had wrapped up.
The beer, by the way, was free– but non-alcoholic!

This one was good reading! An adventure, for sure, with Swiss villages, friendly fellow travelers, oppressive heat and cool snowfields, alpine tarns and skeptical, craggy-faced farmers leaning on aged wooden implements. There was happiness, pain, laughs, energy and fatigue. The plot was a surprise, but like it always does, the threads all seem to weave themselves together for a decent enough story in the end. I hear my name on the PA as I come into the stadium, for an obligatory few seconds of fame. I look up. There seem to be thousands of people here. I am totally in the moment, as I have been for nearly every second of the last five, plus hours. At long last, I think to myself. I know how this story ends.

Doug Mayer and his annoying sidekick finished 228 of 757 in the Swissalpine K42, with a time of 5:44:47.  One of them hopes to return next year.

Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.