BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Well, I did it. On my fifth try, I finally made it to the starting line–and the finish line–of the Zermatt Ultramarathon. Here’s photographic proof:
The Zermatt Ultra is one of the most spectacular courses in the world, starting in the alpine village of Sankt Niklaus (1,116m), paralleling the glacier-fed Vispa River southward through Zermatt village, and then chugging straight up to Europe’s highest rail station, at Gornergrat. Gornergrat is a moonscape plateau at 3,089m above sea level staring directly across the yawning Vispa valley at the north face of the Matterhorn. You feel pretty tiny up there.
If you’re a runner and you’ve ever seen that view, you immediately think: bucket list; this is something I have to do before I die. And so it was for me. Eventually.
A friend put the Zermatt bug in my ear about about 10 years ago. He was fresh back from finishing it and probably noticed from my treadmill work that I also had a thing for hill running. At the time, though, my knees were bad, and running Zermatt was only an abstract wish. My “runs” mostly consisted of isolated 10k hobbles between bouts of runner’s knee that sometimes lasted weeks at a time.
Over the next few years, though, my knees improved, and the idea started to take hold that I just might make it to Zermatt. The first time I tried to go, in 2013, my training program took me till mid-May, when my knees blew out. Zermatt happens in early July. So it goes.
Well, Zermatt is a long game, I told myself, and that is what I would play. I regrouped and made a training plan for the next year. Again, the knees blew out, although this time they lasted till June. Progress.
A friend of mine recently gave me the perfect phrases for what Zermatt would become for me over the years. It was my “Murphy,” a special destination I really wanted to reach but which was fenced off by chronically bad luck. All of my efforts to get there were (again his phrase) “needlessly fraught.”
In 2015 I had to write Zermatt off entirely. My back, which had bothered me for years, needed a disc replacement. So I got one, on the week of the race, as it turned out. I was flat on my back in the hospital when the starting gun fired that year.
I only got back to running in January of the next year. It was a slow trudge back to fitness, and I just didn’t have the strength to train for Zermatt early in the season. (I tried a challenging race later in the season, which had its own Murphy-like qualities–another story, which I have already set down.)
2017 looked like my year. Both knees were great, and by April I was turning in strong training runs on big hills. I felt confident in my endurance, and so I started to do some strength- and speed work. One Tuesday in late April I finished a speedy 10k hill workout on the treadmill feeling pretty good but with just a little tightness near the top of my quad. It nagged me. Two days later I couldn’t run at all, and a week after that an MRI solved the mystery of the tightness. It was a torn muscle, and I was out for the next six months.
By this time in my Zermatt “career,” I felt like a Zen master who spends hours and hours making an intricate sand sculpture and then sweeps it all away to learn detachment. Except I never quite finished the sculpture; it just kept getting swept away right before it was done.
I already had money down on my family’s reservations in Zermatt that year, and so we went anyway, for a mountain getaway. We watched the runners and felt the excitement of the race, which is a big production. It takes more than a thousand volunteers to pull the Zermatt Marathon off. The main point of the trip seemed to be teaching my kids that it was good to keep pursuing long-term goals even if they kept eluding you.
This year I made a concession to caution and told myself I wouldn’t do any speedwork. If I made it through the early spring of my training plan without injuries, I promised I would just keep plodding and not get greedy about my finishing time.
It worked, for the most part. Murphy certainly did his best to scotch this year, and he kept me guessing right up till the end, but luck and caution won out, just barely.
Just like in 2017, I was feeling strong right through late April. Then a strain in my right calf had to be nursed. I didn’t run for a whole month, which was galling. May is idyllic running weather in Germany; plus it is just the time you really want to be feeling your game if you are going to show up for Zermatt. But I was waiting and just holding on. The calf strain could have easily cost me the race (again), but luckily I was able to keep up some cross-training throughout May. The the spin bike, the stairmaster and elliptical trainer became my special friends–sometimes for three hours at a go. It wasn’t fun, but it kept me in the game.
From my town, I can see the big hill where I do my long training runs. It looms dark emerald on the horizon. It’s beautiful. I spent the whole month of May wondering if I was going to get back on it, which meant, in effect, wondering if I was going to make it to Zermatt. You can cycle like the devil, but you can’t get there on the spin bike. Miles must be trod on God’s green earth.
Tentatively, I did get back to that hill. I put in 20k the last day of May. I did some rough math as I was finishing that run and figured I needed to step up each long session by 8k a week if I was going to peak on schedule, two weeks before Zermatt.
This I did, turning in successively longer runs and finally a decent 44k run on the 24th of June with lots of climb. But Murphy wasn’t done with me yet. Less than halfway through the run, I felt a tightness and then a distinct pain in my left calf, same place the right one had bothered me before. Godammit-motherfucking-sonofabitch, I thought placidly as I decided to keep going. Am I really sweeping away this sand sculpture again?
One of the cardinal rules of running is never continue if you feel more pain than the usual discomfort of exertion. You’re going to do more harm than good. The calf pain made me mad, though, and I decided to break the rule. If I didn’t finish this run, my Zermatt dream was going to be over one way or another. Quitting that training run would have left me without a sufficient peak training session, and grinding the damn calf injury into a torn muscle was going to end my whole season. Seeing no real choice, and feeling spiteful at the frailty of my own body, I decided to go with option two.
Foolish? Oh, my, yes. But this is probably the right place to point out that 2018 was going to be my last shot at Zermatt ever. The Army, after employing me for 18 years in Europe, was sending me home to the States. The orders were already written, 20 copies of them printed out and sitting in a stack on my desk. Sure, we’d come back to visit Europe and drink coffee in some market square, but I knew I would never lace up my shoes for a serious mountain run this side of the Atlantic again. I tried not to get emotional about it, but it really was a do-or-die thing.
Somehow, pushing my lame calf on the long run didn’t result in catastrophe. The day after, it was stiff and sore but not completely done in, as I thought it might be. I took heart, telling myself I would ice it, rest it and just go back to cross-training for the last two weeks, which were supposed to be easier anyway.
This I did, and after a few days I could ride the spin bike without pain and walk without a limp. I dared not run; all I could do was hope the calf was healing as I was idling away my peak fitness.
But with 10 days to go, Murphy re-made his acquaintance. I guess I should have been expecting him. I drank a recovery shake after a two-hour session on the spin bike, and then I had some pizza at home with the kids. This combination produced a violent misadventure in my stomach that laid me out in incapacitating pain. I kept telling myself that whatever bad things were happening in the stomach, no matter how excruciating, would cycle through in four or five hours, but this proved not to be the case. At hour seven I asked Bibi to take me to the clinic for a possible alien-removal procedure.
Apparently the decision to go to the clinic cured me. I felt better as soon as I got there. The doc gave me the once over, ruled out the worst, and sent me on my way with the usual advice about taking it easy. Don’t extend yourself, he said. Sure, I thought, I would just take it easy.
If you are still reading, you are showing me more patience than I deserve as I bring this story to the Zermatt starting line, where you already know it is going to end anyway. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say at the end of all his speeches, thank you for your attention.
But there’s more. Recovered from the world’s worst upset stomach, I ventured forth exactly one week before the race to put in a cool 7k tuneup run through the local woods. A merry trot. The purpose of this kind of run, if you are peaking for an ultramarathon, is just to hear your engine purr. You’re supposed to come off it without a sweat, full of steady confidence. I had to stop at 4k. My left calf was still hurting. A week to go, and I couldn’t eke out one tenth of the race distance, on a flat course.
So there it was. It was not necessarily the end of my race, but it was the big, fat question mark that would hover over the starting line. And so, when I took my place in Sankt Niklaus on race day, I had no idea how things would turn out. Would my calf start hurting ridiculously early and make me drop out before the race really began? Probably. Maybe. I didn’t know.
Would my fitness have declined too much from sitting out the last 10 days of training? From substituting too much gym time for real trail running? Again, I didn’t know. It seemed likely.
Kierkegaard said we live life forward, and we only understand it in retrospect. This is an important insight. It means we don’t fully understand anything as we are doing it. We just give it our best shot, not knowing if we are sufficiently prepared or if we are even in the right place, aimed in the right direction. Something may come along and erase your sand sculpture in an instant. Or you might finish it and have it turn out beautiful. It seems impossible to live in the radically indeterminate space in between those possibilities, but that’s where we must live. That’s where I was when the starting gun went off.