This whole mix-up started because neither Emelie Forsberg or I spoke French in 2014 when we went to the French-speaking part of Switzerland to run a vertical kilometer race.
Now, in my experience, everyone in Switzerland speaks at least five languages, and one of them is always English. But apparently this doesn’t hold for the smaller, alpine villages. Another preconception that was dashed here was that usually everyone—literally —knows who Emelie Forsberg is, and to my chagrin I often find that many people know who I am, too. But on this morning I followed Emelie into a crowded town hall full of runners and staff, and the two of us were neither recognized nor understood when we requested our bib numbers. We had to combine our limited French in order to make the simplest demands. But you know what? I hate to brag, but we got those bib numbers.
Vertical Kilometer (VK) = Races with 1,000m vertical climb over variable terrain with a substantial incline, not exceeding 5 kilometres in length, according to the International Skyrunning Federation
Then lightning struck: a race official looked up and seemingly sneezed. “Bless you,” I said. Then he sneezed again and I realized it was on purpose. I turned in wonder to Emelie and was in the process of remarking that I’d never met anyone who could sneeze on demand, when she interrupted me and said he was asking a question.
We turned back the official, looking both curious and apologetic. This time he vocalized a little slower, and I caught the word ‘quelle,’ which often means ‘which,’ but I’m sure could also mean about seven other things because French has a way of using the same words for multiple meanings, many of which are contradictory, and apparently you’re supposed to just know what they mean by context … but what the hell does that even mean? … and besides… Look, I didn’t understand him, all right?
Eventually, we gathered there were three waves of starts. I figured there must be some rhyme or reason to them, that they couldn’t be random and maybe we should get some more information. But Emelie hardly considered the matter. “I think we would like to be done earlier,” she said, smiling in this cute way where she seems to imply that by being cute she can get away with things. I scoff at such an assumption, but after she signed us both up for the first wave without consulting me I just sort of blushed and put my hands in my pockets, realizing I, too, would do pretty much anything she said from then on.
This was my first-ever vertical kilometer (VK) race, but I knew several things about them. First, I was aware that a VK is any race that climbs 1,000 meters uphill in less than 5 kilometers of distance, so it’s a short, steep, uphill race. Second, I was under the impression that they were run mostly by skiers with huge legs and enormous VO2max levels to match. I had also been told numerous times that although they were very painful and difficult to accomplish, they always provided snacks at the finish. I love snacks, especially the baked goods that Europeans often put at their aid stations as if it’s totally normal to eat a chocolate croissant mid-race. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to make a croissant, let alone a chocolate one? They take like three days. It’s absurd. And these Europeans were willing to give them away as freely as high-fives. This was not an opportunity to waste, you must understand.
As we made our way through the crowd and to the starting line, I looked at the people around me. That’s odd, I thought to myself, I was expecting to see more young, competitive-looking skier types. What I saw instead looked to be an assortment of moms and children. Maybe a few fit grandparents scattered in. Occasionally there seemed to be someone about my age, but they, ahem, didn’t seem to be in exactly Olympic fitness. I looked curiously at Emelie, but the music was too loud to permit discussion, and anyway, she seemed to notice my concern and just gave me another one of those smiles, causing me to redden and smile bashfully at the ground. But then the race started, and I began running uphill.
I ran in a tight pack with other people at first. This being my first VK, I wasn’t sure how to pace myself and I was hoping to try to pace myself off the leaders. But after about 20 seconds, I found myself running at the front with just Emelie, and about 2 minutes after that I started pulling ahead of her. I glanced backward, nervous. Do these people know something I don’t? I wondered. Am I going to blow up? But I felt pretty good, and after some waffling I decided to just keep going at this pace and see how it went. Before long I had pulled out of sight of the rest of the runners on the steep switchbacks. The race wound its way up through a dense forest that minimized noise. The sounds of the town, of the runners, of cars on the roads below, of birds, even of the wind, slowly dissipated until I was enveloped in a fog of my own steps and breathing. I worked my way uphill with barely-measured intensity.
Though I had run the first few hundred meters, the slope steepened (and my heart rate increased) to the point that hiking became a much more effective means of forward movement. This is to say, I was quickly gasping for breath and needed to slow the hell down. It’s astounding how quickly you can work yourself into a state of almost complete cardiac desperation, with your lungs burning and your muscles throbbing and the blood pounding in your ears. Your heart climbs into your throat and suddenly your mouth seems far too small to allow the amount of air you desperately need for survival. For me, racing seems to be a matter of getting to this point and then just sort of dealing with it. If I slowed down, it was involuntary; I was ready to suffer.
As I worked my way up the steep grade, I pushed off my knees powerfully with each step, leaning so far forward that my sweat, and occasionally drool, dripped down ahead of my feet. Many people use poles for VKs, and I probably would if I did one again. But pushing off my knees worked too, and it wasn’t long until I climbed into the rising sun.
The trees began to thin out. I was hiking at my usual race intensity: where I push myself until every part of my body is screaming for air and my vision is condensed to what is immediately at hand, and then I push a little harder, feeling like I’m courting death. As I came into more open terrain, I started looking up and ahead, keen to spy a ridgeline that might spell the finish. But to my dismay, the ridgeline still seemed a long distance off. And I was further surprised to see that the incline was slackening slightly. I began to mix in some running with my hiking. The motion felt foreign. My legs felt heavy, swollen with lactic acid.
I was far ahead of the next runners, but I’ve never developed a sense of moderation. If I’m racing, I mean to race, all the way to the finish, and I pushed myself on ever harder. This turned out to be a good thing in the end, but at the time I was thinking only of maximizing my own output.
There’s a certain kind of suffering that is desirable, or perhaps a certain kind of personality that embraces extreme difficulty. If I always felt as taxed as I did that morning, my life would be a living hell. But at certain times, under pre-planned and controlled circumstances, I want nothing more than to throw my entire heart and soul into the simple act of moving as fast as possible on foot, no matter the agony, fighting through the fear of collapse or the despair of an indeterminate end. Only under the most extreme or accidental circumstances will such an effort kill you. Most of the time it’s just a matter of power and patience.
In time, I crested the ridge into the full glare of the morning sun. Around and above me stood the dark and hazy shapes of many of the most famous mountains in the world: Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and the Eiger. But I had eyes only for the trail and thoughts only for the finish. This VK was slightly unconventional in that it finished with about a half-kilometer of descent, and this played into my strengths. I love downhill. But after about 45 minutes of sustained intensity, my legs were only just loosening up to running fast when I flashed through the finish line and was brought to a screeching halt by the accommodating hands of several volunteers. Someone thrust a chocolate croissant into my hand. I barely noticed.
Looking back up the trail, I saw nobody. In a flush of victorious excitement I realized that I hadn’t simply won the race; I had dominated it. Nearly 5 minutes passed before the next runner came over the ridge and down to the finish line. It was Emelie. I embraced her, and we proudly waved to the small cheering crowd. “First and second, Emelie!” I shouted. “What a great day!”
“I am sorry,” said a voice behind me with a thick French accent. “But ze race is not yet over.”
I turned around. “Excuse me?” I asked. I saw a man of middle height, with a tanned and lined face under a beret. He was holding a clipboard with all the runners listed on it.
“Ze race is not yet over,” he repeated. “Zere are yet two waves.”
I blinked at him, and then looked at Emelie, who was sitting on a rock in the sun, happily eating chocolate croissants.
“You see here. Zese are ze people of your wave. Next zere are two more. And ze elites are last,” explained the race official.
With terrible clarity, this suddenly made perfect sense. Of course the elites were last. That would minimize the amount of time that the finish line volunteers had to stay up there. Of course they would organize the slowest people first and have the fastest come last. Looking around, I saw that the finishers were mostly families who had come out for a mellow run up to a table of chocolate croissants. Indeed, the stock seemed to be running low, and despite my horror I raced over to get handful of my own. But I needn’t have worried. Even as I was elbowing my way through the crowd of preteens and their grandparents, a volunteer struggled over with a heaping basket of more croissants. Where in the hell do these come from?
What I was forced to realize was that I had dominated the children’s race. I am by no means a great athlete, but I do qualify as an elite runner. And I had shown up to this race in the full power of my prime and proceeded to outrun a field of children. I had even felt proud of this for almost 15 minutes. But that quickly seeped away as the successive ways rolled in. By the time the third wave showed up on the crest of the ridge, I could see that I had been hopelessly outclassed. Seven elite men roared over the crest like a pack of wolves on the hunt, charging recklessly down the rocky path and dodging slower runners.
After it was all said and done, Emelie’s time was still the fastest for the women, but I had slipped from first place to something like 12th. They were all skiers too. Their legs were huge!
I walked over to Emelie and confronted her. “Why would you put us in the first wave?” I asked in a bewildered tone. “Didn’t you know that we were supposed to be third?”
“Yes, of course,” she said earnestly. “But I wanted to be done early. And look! Chocolate croissants!” She handed me one and smiled.