In the land of the Green Fairy

Posted on: 28 Jun 2015

So on the back of some fairly inadequate training, off I went to Couvet, in the Swiss Jura, for this summer's rather spontaneous project, a trail half marathon under the auspices of the 'Défi Val de Travers'. The main event is a 75 km ultra, but there are also a marathon, a half marathon, a 12k, and a walking 12k. We were here 3 years ago as spectators, and have always fancied coming back to take part. Once again it seemed certain that it wouldn't be possible this year, as it was the theatre's 175th birthday, with various events planned for that weekend......... then the previous week, it was definitively established that these did not involve the chorus, and we 'just' had rehearsals for next season's productions. With a bit of gentle prompting, we were able to persuade the chorus master that work on these was already well advanced, justifying that weekend free. He agreed! - so the idea was back on. It was now too late to register online, but it should still be possible on the day, or the previous evening. I sorted out a B&B, packed for all weather eventualities (predicted fine/hot/thunderstormy), and on the Friday afternoon (12th June) we were on our way. Train to Olten, another to Neuchatel, where (courtesy of a scheme called 'Mobility') we picked up a car. Always a bit stressful negotiating rush hour traffic in a strange city (especially in a car with a very reluctant reverse gear - source of some embarrassment when trying to turn round in a gateway, having taken a wrong turn, and blocking all traffic in both directions for a while), but we eventually succeeded, and were presently bowling along the Val de Travers to Couvet.

I thought we should go and register first, so we rediscovered the way to the Sports Centre; then equipped with start numbers, tee shirts, and vouchers for the evening's pasta party, we drove on in search of our B&B, about a km and a half further down the road. Found it with no trouble, introduced ourselves to our hostess, a very chatty 80 year old, over a cup of coffee in her garden, deposited our luggage in our room; then back to the Sports Centre for our plateful of pasta. (And a beer.) 'Home' just as the rain began - prelude to a thunderstorm that apparently lasted most of the night. I wasn't aware of it, though - slept right through it.......... and woke to a promisingly bright and sunny morning.

The first batch of ultra runners - the ones who wanted an extra 2 hours to make sure of meeting the time limit - were already on their way; the rest, plus the marathoners, started at quarter past 7; the 12 km people at 10. The half marathon wasn't till quarter past eleven, so no cruelly early start required, and plenty of time for breakfast. (I remembered to go easy on the coffee, though! - lesson learnt!) We decided to walk there; already kitted out for the race, we just had to leave our change of clothes in the changing room for afterwards. I was planning to wear my usual blue money belt with my 'survival kit' - tissues, Ibuprofen, glucose sweets, sun cream, lip salve, little tube of Voltaren.......... - but in a last-minute change of heart, I suddenly thought "I don't need all this!" and ditched it. Just one tissue and a couple of Ibuprofen in the little key pocket of my tights. (And I didn't even need them.) I felt much lighter and freer for this act of bravery, especially as it was now getting pretty warm. (Though at least there was some breeze.) Nerves twitching a little, as they always do before a race, even one avowed to be 'just for the experience' rather than any serious ambition. We were agreed that just completing it, (preferably with all limbs still intact, and enjoying the experience) was target enough, given the current state of our training.

So where does the Green Fairy come into it? She is the persona of the Val de Travers' most famous - or should that be 'notorious'? - product: absinthe. Demonized and banned for almost a century, it is now legal again (since 2005), and freely available in a whole gamut of products as well as its classic liquid form. (There is even absinthe chocolate!) She is the emblem not only of the Val de Travers itself, but also of this event. You have to love her!

Waiting to start......... Garmin on, satellites found.......... someone goes round with a scanner, scanning our start numbers, a bit randomly. (One chip in this, another in a little tag we supposedly have to fasten to our rucksack or bottle belt; as I have neither of these, mine is pinned to the back of my tee shirt.) After a mysterious delay, we finally set off 5 minutes late. J. and I started at the very back - probably the last two to cross the line - but within seconds I started to pass people as I found a pace that felt right for me. A round of the track, then over a bridge, and out along a road past Couvet station, before the first of many, many hills. I had been following a woman who looked as though she might be in my age category, but she gradually got away from me here. Soon we left the road and were on the trails: mostly woodland; the odd bit of field path. Twisty, uneven, undulating, full of potential pitfalls - definitely not 'autopilot' running! Impossible now to remember it all in the right order - just disjointed impressions. A drinks station where I took water; another where I took tea (cold herbal tea, that is - not hot tea 'à l'anglaise'!); a downhill track deeply gouged and washed out by the recent heavy rain; the painted arrows marking the route (pink for us; blue for the marathon, orange for the ultra - sometimes together, sometimes divergent, sometimes meeting up again); tee shirts that passed and were never seen again; others that acquired a certain familiarity.......... Another drinks station; I took a piece of apple, which was a mistake - impossible to chew and breathe at the same time! - I gave the rest of it to J. A longish stretch of road, some of it lined by an avenue of trees, for which I was grateful for the shade; a village (Fleurier? Motier? - possibly both; but yes, definitely Motier - I recognized it when we were there the next day.) Then back into the woods again, and a monstrously steep hill, immediately preceded by another drinks station (no idea what I had here - I was busy staring in disbelief at what lay ahead!), where 3 little girls dressed as the 'Fée Verte' were playing among the trees - a lovely, atmospheric touch. After plodding laboriously up this hill to more humane territory, I thought it must be all downhill from here. Wrong! There was one more surprise, in the form of another short but brutal uphill, so steep and slippery, it required a handrail to get up it. Said handrail was a rustic affair, constructed of roughly fastened together lengths of wood, and as I was clambering up, a piece of it literally came off in my hand and cannoned back down the slope towards the woman behind. I shouted "Sorry!" but couldn't look back to see if it hit her, as I was having problems of my own. Having so far managed against all the odds not to trip and fall, I had now been floored by the collapsing handrail! The steepness of the path was actually my salvation, as it was only about eighteen inches before my hands met the ground, so not too much damage was done. I suppose it HAD to happen! After this, the general trend WAS downwards, occasionally fairly steeply; on one of these downhills, the woman I had unwittingly sabotaged caught me up, so I stepped aside to let her pass - it seemed the least I could do! Suddenly I recognized where I was - this was one of the places we had stood to spectate 3 years ago. And I remembered with perfect clarity the route to the finish. Something about this put fresh heart into me, and with some 2 kms to go, I drew on new reserves of energy and went for it. Up till now, I had barely considered the time. Before the race, I had had a vague concept - nothing so definite as a target - of 2 hrs 30. Once in the race, I had released myself from expectations, and just let it happen. 'What will be, will be.' But now I realized it might be possible after all. Another woman who looked as though she might be in my age category passed, looking strong. Fearing I might now be last in the category, I was spurred on to re-pass her. Carried by the impetus of this little personal battle, I charged down the hillside (stony track; tussocky field path)with an unconstrained freedom that surprised me and was good for another couple of overtakes. Back over the river, left turn, and now just 1 km to go, a long, straight path back to the Sports Centre. It should have been easy. It wasn't. My fire had burnt itself out; I was flagging now; I was hurting. 'Handrail woman' was ahead of me; I closed up a little, but couldn't catch her. I kept glancing at my watch, seeing the seconds and minutes ticking past, knowing it was going to be very close. This is really hard now, but keep going, keep going........That was a long, tough 1 km! - but at last we were passing the Sports Centre, along a lane of plastic bands. The track again; under an archway......... Where the hell IS the finish?! Ah........ across a stretch of grass, curve to the right, and THIS archway really is the finish. I reached for J's hand, and we finished stride for stride together. (Except, dammit, he's been given a time one second quicker than me! - that must have happened at the start.) Garmin reckoned I had done it, but it was 2 days later before I found out for sure: 2:29:55! - I'll take that!

Lazed around on the grass for a while, then noticed the presentations had started, so went over to applaud. I never for a moment expected to be summoned to the rostrum myself......... but suddenly it was my name I heard the speaker announcing! Still in my sweaty running clothes, shoes unlaced, and with a ridiculous grin of utter amazement, I took my place on the third step, and was presented with a bottle of local 'champagne' (Mauler - made in Motier), a bottle of absinthe (what else), chocolate, and a packet of absinthe biscuits. A fairly distant third, it has to be said, but still.......... And having subsequently discovered that 4th and 5th were not that far behind, I know it was worth all the effort I put into that last couple of kms.

A wonderful shower; a beer, and a rather limp piece of plum tart left over from the previous evening; then we parked ourselves in the shade of tree a bit further up the road and cheered in the returning ultra runners. Some responded with smiles and thanks, others were totally fixed on just getting to the finish, a few were still running with astonishing ease and fluidity. We were joined for a while by a German woman who had run the marathon, and was now waiting for her husband in the ultra, and by a group of children waiting for their mother/aunt - they all had matching tee shirts with her picture and 'Bravo Céline' on them. Céline duly arrived and was accompanied to the finish by her entourage, but there was no sign of the German woman's husband. Eventually she set off walking further back along the route, and after a while we did the same. She had joined another little group of spectators by a crossroads, where a small boy in an oversize fluorescent jacket was marshalling the runners across the minor road (two traffic policemen doing the same on the main road), and another child was manfully ringing a large cowbell to encourage them on their way. We hung around there for a while as the runners continued to trickle in - including, at last, the woman's husband. This seemed a good point to move on and go in search of something to eat. Couvet is not overflowing with possibilities, but we found a hotel with a restaurant and ate on the terrace. I think my cow must have been a hundred years old, but I managed to eat enough to stave off the hunger that was now beginning to set in. They were having a 'flamenco night', of all things, so we had two men with guitars serenading us while we ate. Then we walked back to the B&B, where our hostess once again plied us with tea in the garden.......... and again the rain began to fall, with increasingly loud rumbles of thunder, so we quickly moved inside. This was a storm and a half, with some very spectacular lightning - I sat up for a while watching it before I went to bed.


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