I was heading to the checkout at the Coop last week when I ran into a woman I know from my years with the University symphony. She’s a runner, and we are both friends with Monica, who is also a runner.
I asked if she’d done the 20km. Trop de monde, she said. Too many people. (There were 19,000 of us.) She and Monica had run 26 kilometers up and down the gorges du Nozon instead, because they were going to have to miss the Montée du Nozon race in the gorge on Saturday. Montée? I said. That sounds interesting…
Montée means “climb” in French; this race has a 600m net elevation gain (around 2,000 ft) and a lot of it is run on trails or forest roads, following the Nozon river up to its source in the Jura mountains. As I mentioned in my 20km de Lausanne Race Report, I am much better at running uphill than downhill, and I love running on trails. This is my kind of race!
On the website, it looked like the signups were closed, but there was a telephone number. No answer. Just as well, I had tons of translating to do. Plus, my arms were killing me – I’d done too many pushups in the gym on Wednesday. My triceps were so traumatized that it was agony just to reach my arm up to my face to put my contacts in. Perhaps not the ideal weekend to run a race.
A minute later, the phone rang. It was still possible to sign up, and she’d take my registration info over the phone. Just like that, I was signed up for the Monteé du Nozon. Who am I to argue with fate?
Saturday arrives, raining on and off, squalls coming in from the west. A big grey cloud is parked over the Jura. Marc calls and says he’s going to stay and work; the audit report he’s supposed to produce is failing miserably at writing itself. I’m thinking of not going. I could curl up and read a book. But then I think of that enthusiastic woman who took down my info on the phone. I climb in the car and head to the start.
The registration is in a community center, and it’s a comfortable mayhem in which everyone seems to know each other, except me. Oh you’re the one I talked to on the phone yesterday, says a woman behind the registration table. I exchange 25 francs for three juice glasses with the race logo on them and a cotton fabric race number.
Outside again, I watch a squall approach; it spatters rain. When it passes, it looks like there’s nothing but blue sky behind. I share that happy observation with a friendly guy named Rodrigo. In his thick Spanish accent he tells me he’s been running this race for many years. There’s a shuttle bus to the start, which is in another village, but Rodrigo says he’s going to walk down the gorge instead. That way he warms up and scopes out the race route at the same time. I tag along with his group and we squelch our way down the muddy trail to the start. My shoes are not destined to stay dry or clean today. Good thing they’re already black.
At the start, a bridge over the Nozon, 300 people mill around, pounding each other on the back, jogging in place, and doing other things people do before a race (peeing in the bushes). I strike up a conversation with a kid who’s wearing a jersey with a logo saying “Australian Tour” and a picture of a bike on it – Marc lived in Australia for several years – and wish him luck. He’s running the race to sponsor his brother, who’s riding his bike solo across Australia.
I don’t want to get trampled when the trail goes to singletrack, and I want plenty of room to jump over the puddles, so I head for the back of the pack. That was a mistake.
The race starts and I immediately start passing people. I’m not going fast, but I do have a comfort zone. Then after a while, the trail narrows into switchbacks up a steep slope, and people start walking. Walking! I’m stymied. I can’t pass, there’s no room, but I don’t want to walk!
I have no choice. I walk up the switchbacks. At the top, the trail widens out and I can run again. I plug along, passing people slowly but steadily.
Everywhere along the route, people are clapping and cheering. At one point, we enter a minuscule village, and as I round a sharp corner an alphorn choir starts playing. Wow! Around another corner in another village, a bunch of guys are swinging enormous cowbells in unison. This is about as “Swiss countryside” as it gets.
It spits a bit of rain, but it’s halfhearted and soon stops. There’s a stretch where I’m on my own, but I keep on reeling in runners ahead of me. The trail soon turns to singletrack again, the gorge narrows, and the incline steepens. People start to walk again. I chill and just follow. Soon enough we leave the narrows and join a wider road, and I can move on.
This is when I see Australia man up ahead. I pick up the pace, and manage to catch up. Allez! I encourage him. He seems energized by my presence and we run along together. Think of your brother under the blazing sun of the Outback, I say. At least here it’s nice and cool!
There’s a downhill section in which, of course, I get passed by a bunch of people, including a woman who shouts, Lache les freins! which can be roughly translated as “take the brakes off!” I try, but it’s no use. Another man barrels past me, sounding like a herd of elephants. I say as much to Australia man, who kindly sticks with me through it all.
Then we’re coming to the end. As luck would have it, the race ends after a steep downhill, and I get passed in the last five meters by a woman who’s being cheered by her entire (extended) family. Good for her! I’m not racing this, anyway, am I?
A few mintues later, Australia man comes up and gives me a huge hug. You really pulled me through this, he says. I find Rodrigo, who has already finished, and we congratulate each other and I retrieve my jacket and car keys from his backpack. I hand in my race number so it can be used again next year, and get a bar of artisanal chocolate and a long-stemmed rose in return. Cheery elderly gentlemen are handing out cups of hot tea and cold water; there are slices of cake and apples.
I take my leave of Australia man (aka Dmitri, as I find out later from the race results), who points to the website of his brother’s trip on his jersey and tells me to look it up. I tell Rodrigo I’ll see him at the Aletsch half-marathon and the Montreux-Rochers du Naye and the Sierre Zinal and he smiles widely and says Mais oui!
I climb in the Postbus for the ride back down to the car, and lean my head tiredly back on the headrest. The rotund driver chuckles. On the way down I join in a heated discussion on the merits of track intervals versus fartlek runs. The woman opposite me won the 60-65 age group in the 20km. She and I agree that speed work on the track is boring. We run for the fun of it, not to get faster.
Even though I don’t know any of these people, they include me in their bubble. We’re part of the larger community of runners, and as such, we’re all friends. This is what running is all about, isn’t it?
In the car on the way home, the heavens unleash with a fury I’ve rarely seen here. I can barely make out the road in front of me through the rain.
I’ll definitely be doing this race again next year. And now I’m looking forward to the summer’s races even more than before, because I have some familiar faces to look for in the crowd.
Top image: Bob-the-runner’s blog – you can read his account of last year’s race (in French!)