I have a bad habit of being late. Just by a few minutes, but it happens all the time. The day of the Mountain Man ultramarathon in Switzerland was no exception.

I’d arrived at Lucerne around midnight the night before the race, but the start was a two-hour journey from there. To reach it, I’d have to take a taxi, a train, and then a gondola from Engelberg to the race start at Trübsee. This meant I hardly had time for two hours of sleep at my hostel before I had to leave, since the start time was 7:00 a.m. Unfortunately, I hit snooze on my phone one too many times and ended up starting the journey late.

As the gondola moved slowly up the last stretch of hill before the start, I checked the time on my phone. It was 6:58 a.m. I’d be late for sure. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a race of 50 miles had it not started out as a single track. I’d only be able to pass one or two runners at a time, since there’d be no room to run alongside the crowd. Starting behind the pack, it would be an hour or more before I could run at my own pace.

When the trolley opened at Trübsee a few minutes later, I jumped out and ran to the course. As expected, I soon caught the tail end of the pack, but there was no way around them. We were headed towards a steep ridge where everyone had slowed to a walk and no one was passing. I thought of dodging in and out of the line, but decided to go with the flow. There was no need to annoy my fellow racers just to spare a few minutes. Twenty minutes later, I reached the source of the holdup: a revolving cow gate that let only one runner through at a time. Thirty minutes after this, we crested the hill and the trail opened up to a broad, open road. Finally free to run, I kicked it into gear.

The group separated as we ran down, so when it turned uphill again, I wasn’t caught up like before. For a long time after that, the trail just rolled gently up and down in a serene ebb and flow. Everywhere I looked were snow-capped mountains and fluffy white clouds. It was a perfect day in the Alps, made even better by the fact that I had a full day of running ahead.

Around mile 12, I noticed that I was more tired than I’d expected to be going into the race. I was dragging my feet and stumbling on loose rocks, probably thanks to the lack of sleep. One rock caught me at just the wrong time and I fell, banging my knee pretty hard. I told myself to be sharper. I had a lot of uneven ground ahead and couldn’t afford injury. A few miles later, I feared that the damage had already been done. My knee ached and I knew it would only get worse with more miles.

On the plus side, my nutrition was going well. It was my first ultramarathon where so much support was provided. Every aid station had gels, trail mix, pretzels, coke, sports drink, and more. I hardly had to break into my own supplies, which made me glad I was the most lightly-packed person on the course. At the start, I’d been worried that everyone else had whole backpacks, compasses, jackets, extra socks, etc. I had only a water bottle and some running gels, but that proved to be more than enough.

With my mood lifting, I hit a five-mile stretch of downhill on a road so flawless it seemed as if it had been paved yesterday. The yellow line down the center was pristine and the asphalt sparkled with bits of glass. I was so happy as I ran down that I grinned like an idiot, not caring who saw me. I let gravity do most of the work and tried to make up some of the time I’d lost on the uphills. Despite having the biggest hill of the race waiting at the bottom of the valley, I ran down as hard and fast as I could without a thought of holding back.

When I reached the bottom, 19 miles into the race, a crowd of race volunteers and support crews was waiting to cheer us on. They kept saying things like, “stay strong” and “just keep moving, you’ll get through it.” I realized they were talking about the upcoming climb, which was around 3,300 feet over 6 miles. Looking at the nervous runners around me as I refueled, I realized it might be more of a struggle than I expected.

I’d glanced at the course profiles before the race, but only to get a sense of how many major climbs there would be. As is my habit, I purposely avoided trying to gauge the gravity of each hill. Whether it was a 1,000-foot climb or 3,300 feet, my approach would be the same: one foot in front of the other until it peaks. So I hadn’t appreciated how challenging the climb ahead of me would be until I was staring it down, hoping my downhill sprint wouldn’t come back to bite me.

After 30 minutes of climbing, I reached the crest of one hill, but I knew that was only the start of it. I turned a corner and found an enormous hill before me. There were dozens of switchbacks, which were needed to make the steep terrain traversable. I could see other runners weaving back and forth. Everyone was walking, and this time I knew it wasn’t an issue of being in the wrong pace group.

As I joined the train and made my way slowly up, the music I’d turned on was a fantastic help. So was the view. An icy turquoise lake below perfectly complemented the granite mountains and lush green forests. Every now and then, I stopped for pictures, figuring that the memories would be well worth a few minutes. With all the diversions, the hill hardly fazed me in the end, even though it took two hours to go a mere six miles. At the top, I took a deep breath in and then exhaled all the stress of the climb.

There was one big hill remaining, rising 2,600 feet over 3 miles to the finish line. It took well over an hour to cover those last few miles, but part of that was stopping to take pictures. As the orange sun dipped below the mountains, I tried to capture the moment as twilight’s rainbow started spreading across the sky. Yellow and orange faded into soft lavender and then navy. Several runners passed as I stood there transfixed, but I couldn’t have cared less. The beauty of ultrarunning is that it makes no difference where you come in. What matters is what you experience and learn along your run.

I arrived at the finish line atop Mt. Pilatus with just enough light remaining to witness its panoramic views. There wasn’t much fanfare, which I kind of liked—it made it feel more like a casual run through the Alps than a race. I found a lounge chair and stretched out, eager to call Dad and share the good news. He picked up immediately, as he always does when I’m traveling. I told him, “I finished!” He was happy for me, but not all that surprised. I told him about the course, how beautiful it was and how steep some of the hills had been. Then he was surprised.

“Wait,” he said, “it was on a trail?” He’d just assumed I was running a road race and hadn’t checked the course. “That’s like . . . ten times tougher! Holy cow, how do you feel?” His change of attitude was hilarious, like 50 miles on the road was nothing, but 50 miles on a trail, well that’s a different story. I teased him about it for a few minutes and then figured I’d better let him go. The call was costing about a dollar a minute.

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