2nd LUCERNE MARATHON (26 Oct 2008)
It is not often that one gets to write about being last. The Lucerne Marathon was all
plans gone wrong, but what an incredible turn of events and experience it became.
I registered for the marathon a couple of months ago, hoping to do a good timing. All the enabling
conditions were present - great weather, relatively flat and scenic route, fantastic supporters and well-
organized event. Except for an unexpected factor – an injured runner who had laid off for 1½ months.
I showed up in Lucerne on the eve of the marathon. Race number collection at the Schweizerhof
Hotel (one of the most expensive) was a breeze. There were sponsor booths selling race gear, as well
as a free pasta meal for all participants. I bought myself a nicely designed long-sleeved black race
shirt. Over 7,000 people registered for the run this year, compared to 5,800 in its inaugural event last
year. All the race information was in German and I could hardly figure out the instructions. It took me a
while to realize that the start point was not at the hotel, and I had to take a free shuttle cruise from the
main railway station across Lake Luzern.
Race starts at 9:00am (9:06 for those over 4hrs). I got up at 7:00am for a hearty breakfast at the hotel.
There were a number of sporty-looking guests in the dining hall, presumably going for the marathon
as well. I tried to gauge the weather and spy what they were wearing. It was clear skies today, a
respite from the foggy wet weather in the past days.
A quick stroll to the railway station and I boarded the cruise with many runners. A few wore short
tights, but the majority was in long tights with a light wind breaker. I was wearing a most un-
photogenic combination of double tops and bottoms – a bright pink Nike long-sleeved top over
another, and a navy blue Nike Capri tights over black 2XU longs.
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The cruise reached the opposite shore at the starting area near the Museum of Transport
(Verkehrshaus). I was almost late, and still had to find the bag deposit tent. After wasting 10 precious
minutes and a futile search, I desperately approached some race officials. It was 2min to race time,
and Swiss punctuality was renowned. I was all ready to simply dump my bag somewhere and head
off. Seeing my angst, one of the officials found me some public lockers at a nearby theatre, and even
paid the CHF2 locker fee for me! Merci! I joined the start line, surrounded by race tags that looked like
the half-marathoners. There were only a handful of full-marathoners around, so I guessed the main
pack had already been flagged off. The clock stated 9min as I crossed the starting mats.
What a carnival it was! Lucerne was a small touristy town. The marathon closed off roads in the main
section of the town centre and everything came to a standstill that morning. Crowds lined the streets
and supporters made a party out of the event. Everywhere we ran, there were many people cheering
“Hoppe-hoppe” or “Super”. The marathon route was a 2x 21km loop that took us around the bank of
Lake Luzern, major landmarks, and into the scenic neighbourhoods of St. Niklausen, Kastanienbaum,
and Horw. The average Luzern altitude was 400-500m asl, and the course was relatively flat except
for 2-3 sections that had rather steep and long rolling hills.
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Twenty-one musical bands lined the route (almost every kilometer) and added to the festive cheer.
The bands ranged from formal ensemble decked in traditional garb, or traditional instruments, to
recreational groups that jammed together for a fun time. I ran with a bottle of Endurance drink and
power gels in one hand, and my camera in the other. I was constantly distracted by the bands and
scenery, pausing ever so often for quick snaps. I must have taken about 2-3 shots per kilometre!
There were 3 race categories – Marathon (full), Halbmarathon (half), and Schnupperlauf (13km). The
cut-off times were 2:45h (21km mark), and 5:30h (42km). I had eased off running for many weeks
following a knee injury, and the longest I did was 2h a week before the race. And I paid the price
today with unconditioned legs. The first 5km was a breeze, high from the excitement and relatively
fresh legs. But the Swiss and Europeans were strong runners. Even old ladies trotted along steadily
and faster. Many people ran in organized teams and clubs. I spotted a group of T-shirts that read
“Desperate Housewives. For Charity”! I ran ahead of the 4:30h pacers (they were called “pacemakers”
and carried a bunch of blue balloons), and chugged up the unexpected slopes. But by 10km, the
balloons were in front of me and I felt tired already. We crossed the finishing mats for the
Schnupperlauf, and I eyed them with envy. By 15km, I was low on sugar and my nose was constantly
running ahead of me. Perhaps it was the cold, coupled with my unconditioned state, I was perpetually
hungry. Power gels did not help. Thankfully the aid stations were well-organized and stocked with
water, Endurance drinks, bananas and cut-up pieces of Powerbar.
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As I neared 18km, the 3h-ish marathoners were already coming in the opposite direction on their
second loop. Running into the u-turn zone, the men’s podium winners came up behind me in around
2:30h. I u-turned with an English girl who instantly identified my Singaporean accent (having studied
in Singapore before) and we ran together for a while. The women’s champion returned around 3:00h
as we headed a distance into our 2nd loop. We were amongst the last few in the full marathon, and the
streets were quieter now. However, kudos to the encouraging supporters in the 25 – 35km zone, who
were clearly enjoying their parties in the nice sunshine. Each time a runner ran by, they would start
smiling broadly and shout Hoppe-hoppe in earnest. Mothers pushing prams would stop and cheer,
little girls perched on their daddies’ shoulders joined in the shouting, old couples flashed genuine
smiles and clapped along. Most of the bands were resting, but as each of us approached, they would
drum up a few notes to keep the cheer going. The festive mood was awesome. Each time I pointed
my camera at them, the supporters would be momentarily surprised before posing gamely.
Despite the cheering, it was a painful run for me, both physically and mentally. Hungry, cold and
miserable. My legs were aching and almost cramped.by 30km. I stopped many times to walk.
Suddenly at 33km, I spied a convoy of bicycles riding slowly behind me. I thought they were cleaning
the streets of discarded cups. Then it dawned on me that they deliberately stayed back and were
escorting me! Unlike the podium finishers who each had one cyclist with a flag stating their rankings
(1, 2, or 3), I had a group of 6-7 bicycles merrily chatting away behind me, and an ambulance. It was
utterly hilarious! I was very tickled and started taking photos. One of the cyclists took my camera, rode
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ahead and snapped pictures of me on the run. Then another held on to my camera and promised to
take my finishing shots, urging me to keep going in the last 3-5 km. It was pressurizing though, to
have so many people staring at my back.
Being last (or nearly last) had its privileges. As I alternated the “last” spot with another guy, the
bicycles faithfully kept their distance behind the last runner. The finishing line seemed forever and so
far away. At 38km, they fed my bib number to the main control, and I kept hearing my name over the
public speakers. I did not understand the announcements, except these words – my mispronounced
name in the wrong sequence, Singapore, and Welcome to Lucerne. As I neared the finishing mats, a
guy with the finisher medal grabbed my hand and ran with me across the line with raised arms. I think
I was the last or 2nd last to make it under the cut-off time. The (rather cute) guy introduced himself as
the Vice-President of the marathon organizers, and had me shake hands with the President as well.
I posed for a shot on the finishing bridge, kissing my hard-earned medal. The Lucerne Marathon was
a race that eventually ended well, for all the wrong reasons. Now, pardon me while I hobble around on
a bad knee for the next few days.
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