Monday, October 14, 2019

Country Hopping: Liechtenstein, Austria, and Switzerland

I recently found myself in Europe where Austria, Germany, and Switzerland all are just a few miles from each other at the southern tip of Lake Constance. I was here because one of my clients chose a marathon that went through these three countries as his first and when it was brought to my attention I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore this geographical anomaly as well. While scrutinizing the maps, as I am wont to do, I noticed that the country of Liechtenstein was just a few miles away from the confluence of these other countries. I knew that even though I’d be running the marathon I had to find a reason and a way to tack on another country less than 48 hours later. I mean, a one day break before the marathon and another 30k is enough, right?

While searching for the shortest possible way to get from Liechtenstein all the way back to where I was staying in Austria I found a tiny little road that left Liechtenstein and joined a larger road in Bangs, Austria. Soon thereafter that road crossed the Rhine River and entered Switzerland. And by "soon thereafter" I mean one mile is all you needed to go through three different countries. Technically, I could have stopped there to get my three countries in one run but I figured I need more than four laps of a track to count as a decent trot. (Also, upon further review I see that you can not only follow a bicycle path that goes through all three countries in .36 of a mile but there is a point in the Rhine called the Dreiländereck where all three countries meet!)

My original plan was to cross from Austria into Switzerland over the Rhine River and take a bicycle trail all the way to Saint Margrethen. From there I would hop on a quick half hour train to get me back to my hotel in Lochau, Austria.

However, as fate would have it, I met the CEO of SkinFit, an apparel company that I was in partnership with for this marathon that I was running a few days before this run. He mentioned that the route I was taking would put me mere feet away from their offices and that I should stop in for a tour. Knowing this would be about 7 miles into what was turning into at least a 17 mile run I figured the small break would do me well. Silke, one of the SkinFit employees, generously volunteered to take me to the start of my run the morning of. She had just run the half-marathon herself so was surprised I was doing another 30 km run. I said I couldn't pass up the opportunity for such an adventure.

We made our way down the highway and the weather looked just amazing for this run. Cloudy, in the low 50s and just way more pleasant than I have experienced any time in the past six months in Texas. Silke dropped me off near my starting point and I walked the remaining meters to a small stone bridge which went over the smallest of streams. If not for a country crossing I doubt this bridge would even be here. A small shack of some sort was positioned to the right and I was hoping it was a bathroom. It definitely was not any sort of border patrol. As I got ready to run and take a selfie to commemorate it, in the middle of nowhere, after seeing no one for a miles, a man and his dog came around the corner. We truly aren't alone virtually anywhere in this world anymore. I snapped a photo and away I went.

I quickly entered Bangs, hung a left and scampered down the road to the bicycle trail. A quick ramp up took me right alongside the Rhine. A well-maintained bikepath lay in front of me and I was far from the only one using it here at noon on a Tuesday. Cyclists were abound as was a random car which seemed to be tending to a small herd of cattle. I am not exactly sure how the car got here but my German isn't strong enough to ask the fella doing the tending.

Three miles later I passed over the Ill River, a tributary of the Rhine and was roughly halfway to my first stop of the day at SkinFit. I wasn't aware that his tributary passed through Feldkirch, a town I had been exploring the day before on my "recovery" day. Recovery included trying to find a zoo and encountering 390 stairs that I decided to hike. Ooof.

The weather continued to be just perfect and even though I had a very light weight SkinFit Ranna jacket tucked into my Camelbak pack, there was never a need for me to pull it out. The next few miles were just as uneventful as the ones behind me. In addition, I was running surprisingly spryly, maintaining roughly an 8 minute mile.

Eleven kilometers after I left Liechtenstein I found myself at the foot of the SkinFit offices. A new-to-SkinFit employee, James Lamont gave me a tour which allowed me to see how the product was made and how it was sold. They had a very interesting business model for sure. I could see given the care and quality that went into each piece of clothing why they were priced a little bit higher than most people who are looking for bargains will wish to pay. After the tour and some discussion about exercise in general, I was told that another employee of SkinFit, Florian, would be guiding me along my destination for the next few miles. I tried to express how I was hoping to run as short a distance as possible but they were also interested in showing me another geographical anomaly. I had come all this way and decided there was nothing wrong with tacking on a few more miles.

This extra mile segment included the bulge in Switzerland called Diepoldsau. The only part of Switzerland that lies east of the Rhine River, this area was also a crossing point for Jews escaping Nazi Germany. Thousands of Jews were saved despite the general Swiss policy of restricting Jewish escape during that time. One man, Paul Grüninger, saved the lives of up to 3,600 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria by pre-dating their visas, enabling them to migrate 'illegally' to Switzerland.  Take that, Schindler! (Seriously, kudos to both men, obviously.)

Florian guided me through this area which would have been rather tricky to find by myself. In fact we even got a tad off track adding a little more mileage to my ever-lengthening run. But soon we crossed the Alter Rhein and here is where Florian gave me the quick history lesson I addressed above.  He was often apologizing for his "less-than-perfect" English, and I said that if he wanted to see less-than-perfect, we should have a conversation in German.

When we officially crossed the Rhine, it was a border crossing that somehow was even less impressive than the one I had started my entire day with. A few planks of wood were placed down in a small stream section of the river and as I crossed Florian pointed to one side and said "Austria" before pointing to the other side and saying "Switzerland". Pretty darn neat.

At this point it was time for him to return back to work and time for me to finish the last seven miles of my run. We parted ways, he told me to keep up my fight against the current political administration in America (as I assured him most of us hated what was going on here) and now I just had roughly 10km to go.

Four miles later I found myself leaving Switzerland to cross into Austria for what would only be a half of a mile. Then I would finally cross the Rhine proper (for the first time and head back into Switzerland. A quick stop at a convenience store to down a Coke for calories meant that I only had three more miles to go. I sat outside of this shop, contemplating the $3 I had just spent on roughly a can-and-a-half and how fortunate I am to be able to do what I do. I work hard for sure, but at 43, I am 12 years older than the last time my father had use of his legs. I am fortunate indeed. Doesn't mean I can't be tired though and man I was ready for this run to be over. Away I went.

The weather had been intermittently sunny and cloudy with a spritz of rain here and there but the final two miles were a brisk 52° with a bright sunshine and slight wind. Up ahead I saw where I would be ending my run even though I had another mile to walk to the train station. If I hadn’t stopped where I did, in another 200 yards I would’ve left Switzerland once again and entered Austria. In fact, if I hadn’t been so tired, I would’ve noticed that two days earlier I had ran on this exact same stretch of road at mile 17.5 of the marathon!

All told, I ran 18.5 miles and maintain that there really is no better way to see this world than by our own two feet. I sincerely hope to be back to this area for a multitude of reasons and races. This time it will feel like home.

Thanks again to the people of SkinFit, the Drei-Lander Marathon and the people of these four countries for making this trip so enjoyable.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Three Countries Marathon (3-Länder-Marathon) Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 13; 10th Edition 
100.75 miles run and 12.75 miles biked and 6409 meters swam in races in 2019 races
Race: Three Countries Marathon (3-Länder-Marathon)
Place: Bregenz, Austria
Miles from home: 5500
Weather: 52 degrees; mostly cloudy; cool

This race was about 24 hours from not happening for me. That has nothing to do with the event itself, which was pulled off expertly by the race organizers.

A persistent but oddly-occurring breathing problem happening for most of this year had me sucking wind just one day before the race. I have chalked it up all year to some sort of allergies or weather but I honestly have no real idea what is causing it. Given that all the other circumstances have changed every time I’ve had this problem the only thing that it can seem to actually be is something that I’ve never really dealt with before: stress.

This race was brought to my attention because one of the athletes that I coach was choosing it for his first marathon ever. As such, I reached out to the race and we decided to work together in arrangement between myself, the Visit Vorarlberg and the apparel company SkinFit to have me come in, speak about my endeavors, run the marathon and share it all with you my experiences. But the morning before the race it look like I might be downgrading to a half marathon jog rather than exploring the three countries of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland this marathon course traversed.

As I spoke to a group of multi-national citizens about what brought me to this event something happened with my lungs and they opened up. That night I was cautiously optimistic about running, albeit slowly, the marathon. The next morning, still cautious, I dressed for the race feeling like I could breathe for the first time in days. To say that I was elated to not be “wasting” this trip on a half marathon alone would be an understatement.

The race course itself starts on an island in Lake Constance in the city of Lindau, Germany. From there it runs into Austria for a majority of the race before skipping over into Switzerland for just a brief minute and then heading back in to Austria for a finish in the town of Bregenz. The race has a wonderful starting time of 10:30 AM which would only be a problem if there is unnaturally warm weather. That was not the case for us as we had an idyllic 52° with heavy cloud cover and the occasional spritz of rain.

As I readied myself for this midsize marathon I was shocked by the absolute lack of any overweight people whatsoever at the race. At many races in America we see people taking on the marathon as part of their weight-loss program. Here it appears that absolutely nobody would dare to eve toe the line of the half marathon distance until they had lost any of those extra pounds. So kudos to these citizens for conquering one epidemic. However, as I explored the countries over the next few days it was clear they seemed to miss the memo on cigarette smoking. You win some, you lose some.

I also got to experience what is the closest one can ever have two public urination without getting arrested as I saddled up to one of these "Iron Crosses of Humiliation", as I call them. With four patrons relieving themselves simultaneously all while looking directly at each other with just the smallest lip of plastic shielding your manhood from the prying eyes of anyone walking by, this set up really illustrates that there is no modesty in long-distance running.

I scored a nice spot near the front of the race while a rockabilly band played numerous American songs with just a hint of an accent and listened to the countdown in German: “Drei, Zewi, Eins!...GEHEN!"

First 5km: 21:43

It is funny how quickly ,as an athlete, you go from "I won't be able to run at all" to "I should probably be able to run this under three hours". As we left the island in Lindau and headed onto the mainland, my first few kilometers surprised me. All were under sub-3 hour pace. But I felt fine.  I didn't think I was pushing it and no alarms were going off.  However. when the third, fourth and fifth kilometers slowed down my pace, it was for the best. I decided to only look at my watch every five kilometers during this race which would keep me from being too obsessed with time. I just had to be happy to be here.

When I heard some cowbells here, I thought "Typical. So many spectators have those these days."  Then I looked over and it was an actual cow in a field about ten feet away. I laughed about that for like a mile.

When I hit 5km and saw I was on pace for a 3:03 marathon, I told myself I would be over the moon with that time and just see how long I could hold that pace.

10km: 21:46

The next 5km was just like the first 5km: running along a paved bike path right next to Lake Constance (or Bodensee in German. There are all kinds of fun facts about Lake Constance which touches all three countries. Like how you are in international waters the minute your toes hit liquid.) At this point and all the way for miles, I had picked up a shadow. A chap named Gabriel decided that my back pocket was where he was going to be sitting. Apparently Gabriel had lots of friends on the course. I wish some had run with him so that he would have quit riding my ass.

He finally decided to pass me, on the turn, on my inside shoulder with no space to spare. I don't know if "Come on, dude" translates but I know my tone did. I decided right then, I would beat this guy to the finish. But for now, I let him slide ahead.

15km: 22:06

We literally ran through the seating of the Bregenzer Festspiele which is an arts festival sporting the
Seebühne- the world's largest floating stage. That was actually pretty darn neat if not a tad precarious because of the tight turns. Then back onto the path again we went. By now I have settled into a place where a group of about five runners were a few dozen yards in front of me and no one else was around me. This is perfect for me. I don't like having other runners on my sides. But having a group of runners in front of me helping keep that pace (if they are in fact doing so) was quite nice.

The paved path turned surprisingly into trail mix of dirt and stone. I say surprising because we were well within the city of Bregenz and I expected it to stay paved the whole way. It was well-packed and except for the occasional puddle was pleasant to run on. Right around 13km the sun shot out from behind a cloud. I gave it a withering glance (but at least I had sunglasses on and it wasn't a solar eclipse, like some freaking moron) to let it know I did NOT want to see it at all today. The weather was so wonderful for me and even though I was covered in sweat, I was mildly cool. I hadn't experienced that in about six months.

We passed over the Bregenzer Ach, a river which I thought was the Rhine and that threw me. I knew the Rhine was about the half way point and didn't know this was here as well.  But as we ran over the bridge, a blast of cool air tickled my skin. "Yes," I thought. "That'll do, pig."

20km: 21:52

I was now settled into my pace. the group of runners in front of me, comprised of about six or seven, would occasionally overtake one runner or lose a runner from their pack. I too would overtake someone and keep on churning out miles. While I wasn't checking each mile split, I felt like I was clocking the same times and my watch shows me after the race I was doing just that.

We had out first small out and back of the day and I could see that the fifth, sixth and seventh women were just in front of me. If you are that close to the top of the women in the race, you are usually having a good day. We swung around a 180 degree turn and entered the town of Hard. The kilometer markers and signs all had the town's name on them and I said "Yes, this is."

25 km: 22:29

Finally crossing the Rhine, we had our first "hill" of the day as runners looped over an overpass. I was still feeling pretty good but just wanted to see what the half-marathon split would be. Entering Fußach and seeing a small mat for the half-marathon was what I had been waiting for. Clocking a 1:32:14 for the half had me elated. I was certain I could maintain at or close to this pace for the rest of the race. Running a 3:05 would just be wonderful.

I began playing a game with a few runners here where they would pass me and I would pass them.  But together we were passing other runners who we would never see again. Shoulder-sitting Gabriel and an Asian man were working together in front of me about 50 yards ahead. They were still in striking distance and I was still using them as a barometer for how I felt.

There were a smattering of crowds dotting this course even though it might have been a bit difficult to get out to cheer people on. That was definitely appreciated. In addition, when we passed through neighborhoods, a few residents had come out to cheer as well. I have always lamented that so few residents in American marathons use the fact that a marathon is going through their front yard as a chance to see the human spirit in motion. Here, that was not the case.

I was getting closer to running in a new country as well.

30 km: 22:35

We crossed the border into Switzerland with our bib number being our passport. There were high school (or their equivalent) bands and cheerleaders out as well as many fans and vuvuzelas (because it is still apparently the 2010 South Africa world cup.) I played with the crowd and cheered and whooped and got a new hop in my step. I would need it as there would be no less than three different underpasses we had to climb. Hardly Mt. Everest, but at this point, I just wanted flat running.

I passed Gabriel on a long straight path on the west side of the Rhine and was feeling good. For about a mile. Then the energy started to slip away. But no one was passing me. I just wanted to get to mile 20. Then I could get into my head and play all the games I do to forget about how tired I am.

I rarely look around when I am racing but there were plenty of funny signs encouraging runners that were just a bit off in their translation. Right now my memory fails me but they definitely made me smile at the time. I do think one said "Run Cool. Be Hard." Easy there, cheetah.

35 km: 24:09

Unfortunately, mile 20 did come but with it was the climb over the bridge again. I could tell my time was slowing. I just wanted to hold on the best I could.  The best part of this section was the fact we had been here before going the opposite direction. I knew what was ahead. I could picture it in my head with all the twists and turns and tangents to run. Sometimes the fact a marathon has so many more kilometers than miles can be a blessing. It feels like the race is flying by. When you begin to tire and each kilometer now seems further and further away, however, it can play with your head.

Yet even though I was slowing, no one was passing me. It was like we were all suffering together. The signs that said "Hard" were no longer funny but rather letting me know that it wasn't going to get much easier. I needed to bite down and focus. Each little raise of a hill or slight turn was taking more and more energy to do. Finally, it was just too much.

40 km: 25:15

As I approached the last 5km of this race I could tell I was going to need to do something. When an aid station appeared, my executive decision was to take a walk break. Fortunately, this aid station had cola for the runners. (Most had water, tea, and some energy drink which I did not venture to try. Some also had cola.). I put three glasses into one and grabbed another glass of water. None of these were particularly cold as, if you have ever traveled in Europe, they don't chill many of their beverages. Finding ice even at a hotel is like a search for the Holy Grail.  But here I needed the calories and the sugar more than the ice.

I downed the cola quickly and kept walking. About 100 meters later I used the water to wash out my mouth a bit and then took the rest down the gullet. About a mile back we had joined a bunch of other runners doing either the half or the 10k. I wasn't sure. But now I had more than few runners around me and I was trying to suck out their energy.

Suddenly two marathoners passed me. I decided now was the time to go. I fell in behind them and almost immediately felt like a 100 Euros. (Which is even better than 100 bucks.) I looked at my watch and saw it was going to take a Herculean effort to get a Boston Qualifying time but I was going to give it my best. The quarter mile walk break had severely drained my time but without it I am not sure I could be running like I was right now. Three minutes before I was wondering if I was going to have to walk the last three miles. Now I was running below seven minute pace.

During my walk break, Gabriel had passed me.  But with one mile to go, he was just 50 meters in front of me. I revved myself up and began to ready myself for a duel to the finish. I knew he had speed but I had grit. I was ready to go. I hope you are, Gabriel. Because now is time for me to kick your a--
I turned the corner and Gabriel was walking. So much for that showdown.

In spite of my pick up, I know it was now nearly impossible to break 3:10. Last year, my age group BQ time was 3:15. But they sped it up for 2020. If I want to keep my 16 year streak of at least one qualifying time going I will have to be faster. I pumped my arms,  stretched out my stride, avoided the massive amount of runners in front of me and gave it all I had. But it was just not enough.

Entering the stadium finish I eased off the throttle a bit. I avoided some random mascot who wanted to high-five me (when I just wanted him to get the hell out of my lane) and finished my 163rd lifetime marathon in a time of 3:11:49. This was only my 77th fastest marathon but my fastest in four years. I am not going to say I "needed" this but it sure helped the psyche a bit. (I found Gabriel and shook his hand.  Competitors during the race and friends after.)

I wasn't quite finished with the day, however. I coach athletes remotely from around the world. One of them just happened to be running his first marathon at this particular race. Stefan Wegner was in the middle of one heck of a tumultuous period of time. He unfortunately lost his father just a few weeks ago. And he is getting married in two weeks. As if a first marathon marathon is not trying enough, imagine these other two things happening that the same time.

Over the past two years, he has lost around 40 pounds and during his time with me has lowered his personal best in the half from a 2:18 to a 1:41. And as he finished his first marathon in a time of 3:52, I was here waiting with his medal to put around his neck! It might have been a bigger thrill for me than it was to him. Way to go, Stefan!

All told this is an excellent race. The organization is top notch, the volunteers are great, the crowd, while a bit thin at times was boisterous and fun where it counted.  To be able to run through three countries was just a cherry on top of everything else. I would highly recommend taking the time to ignore some of the bigger marathons that every one seems to get bothered by not winning the "lottery" to be afforded the opportunity to spend $250 to enter a race where you are one of tens of thousands and truly experience something unique at 25% of the cost. 

Come run the 3-Länder-Marathon!