So – I Didn’t See Any Swans

By Emma Pearson

June 22, 2024

Main image by Dype Official on Unsplash. All other photos my own

10th September 2023

Race Event day + one. My lower back is achy. I can feel my tight thigh muscles, and know they will be all the tighter tomorrow, event day + two. But otherwise, all good. Better than good. I feel enthused, re-enthused, re-infused with glee and awe after finishing the “baby sister” event yesterday.

Last minute, we got news that the already-short-by-mountain-trail-standards-race was being shortened from 24 km to 18 km due to a rockslide that, presumably, made our planned route impassable, dangerous, or both. Hats off to the organisers for getting Route B in place so quickly, promising equally beautiful views. I noticed with some shock that the altitude gain would be the same over the shorter distance as it was expected to be over the longer one. Not 1/3 less as I would have expected.  A proportionally steeper event, then.

Julie and I met up half an hour before the ten o’clock start time. She grinning and light, me more sober and nervous. We’d clarified our “race strategy” – which was simply, “go at your own pace, enjoy it, and finish with a smile on your face”. I added, “should we stay together, or find ourselves together at the end, let’s cross the finish line holding hands”. A vestige of my very youthful orienteering days where I always admired the (only ever female) orienteers, who, after five days of orienteering races, on the final day in the “chasing start” (where the one in the lead left first, and the second might leave just seconds or minutes after her, according to the distance between them over the four previous days), would find themselves running together, helping one another out, and then opt to finish hand in hand so as to force a tie, and a shared place on the podium. It always moved me profoundly, a decade or more before I first understood the virtues of “collaboration” and “partnership”.

Me & Julie at the start. All smiles.

And then we were off – about 50 of us. Julie and I hung out at the back and quickly found ourselves just in one another’s company. A woman in a green top was some 100 m ahead, and a 75 year old man, Glenn, from the US, a similar distance behind us. He’d registered the day before, having met Julie in Zermatt, and was persuaded to sign up. He boldly told us that he was slow going up but fast coming down, so I was happy to leave him behind me for now. He can overtake me later.

Gentle jogging along the quaint streets of Grächen, church bells tolling for the funeral of the family of a mountain guide adding to the atmosphere, into the nearby woods, along cool, earthy paths and “bisses” channels…along and down, along and down, along and down… I would have been enjoying it 100% or more had my mind not been niggling, “But where’s the ‘Up’? Aren’t we meant to be getting some altitude in? If this keeps on like this, we will have all the climb at the end – ugh”. The downside of the route change was that, other than knowing distance and altitude gain, I didn’t have a sense of the route we were to take. Yes, some GPX coordinates were sent, but I am not runners-world-savvy enough to know how to place them in my snazzy Garmin watch, nor over a map.

No worry. Allow the event to unfold, no pre-conceived notions. We got to the first of our two check points, at 4km, and were cheered in way too enthusiastically for the modest effort we had already put in. I asked, “When do we start going up?” “Now!” came the answer. And so it was. From that point for the next 6 kms we put in almost all the event’s climb – all 1,300m of it. It was tough in parts, but reminiscent of the many days I’d had with Medjool the previous summer during the Haute Route des Pyrénées. And also easier. Carrying just a tiny pack with water, some emergency food, wind jacket, emergency blanket, whistle, and sun cream, instead of a full-on 12 kg backpack with essentials for weeks on end.

Up and up and up… through forests (thank you shade!), open valleys (thank you views of glaciers!), and finally scree-y rock faces (thank you marmotte cries!) There was barely a cloud in the sky.

Grateful that both of us wanted a photo record of the trip!
Photo taking takes precious minutes, but we were counting hours, not minutes.

Julie was always just behind me – I encouraged her myriad times to get in front, to just run her race – I could tell she was fitter, bouncier, altogether more “light” and joyous about the whole event than I was. Julie chatting away to me, even on the ups. Me answering monosyllabically. And eventually:

Emma, (panting): “I can’t talk, I am too puffed”.
Julie, (gleefully): “Oh me too! Breathless!”

She didn’t seem it! But I loved the company, the occasional banter, her extolling of the beauty of far off glaciers that she knew the names of, distant chamois which I couldn’t see. She was fully in it in a way I couldn’t be. Not yet.

Then at about the 6 km mark, a third of the way round, I relaxed into enjoying it. I’ve noticed that pattern before… I find I can’t simply enjoy it from the beginning, despite what I tell myself. I don’t have too much of a worrying tendency, but I have circular thoughts like, “I hope I don’t get cramp… I hope I have enough water… what if I get starving hungry and haven’t got enough food? What if I get timed out…?” Oddly, I never worry about slipping and wrenching a knee, or tripping and falling on my face, or stumbling and breaking an ankle, though the likelihood of any of those is fairly high given the tricky terrain.

Suddenly I was enjoying the event. Aware that it was a great privilege and an honour. A precious gift to myself from myself. And Julie’s presence, the cherry on the cake.

During the long uphill slog, I allowed my mind to wander to my reason for all of this at all…. That in my life before it was something I loved, something I did… long runs out in the mountains with Mike, long events, with or without Mike, but prepared for with him. That time before. Peaceful and happy.

In the steepest parts of the climb, now heavy-legged and getting tired, I wondered, playfully – “Hey guys – where are you? Give me some signs. Throw me a bone. Help me out here”.

I’d seen a couple of hearts in the ground already, right from the start. Don. Thank you for being here.

But Mike? Breeze and wind? Nowhere. Not so much as a breath of air. Such a warm/hot still day, even at altitude.

And Julia? Yellow – butterflies, birds, flowers…. Not a lot of life other than rocks, crows and marmotte cries up there.

And Edward? Stormy skies. Nope – just a very few light white clouds far away, across the other side of the valley.

Then, boom! There came a whisper, a breath of cool breeze – on my neck, on the backs of my bare arms and calves. Mike. I almost laughed out loud. Thank you, Mike! I asked for more support. “A bit more, a bit stronger, from behind, would be nice!” And so it was. The breeze lifted and wrapped itself around me, behind me, to the side of me, according to which way I was zigging or zagging up the mountain face. Never was it impeding me. Never was the breeze head-on.

Okay – now Julia… yellow. But what yellow to be found on a rocky face? Ah! The trail mark “balisage”! They are kind of fluo yellowy-green now, after having been orange and pink. And look at these patches of lichen… yellow for sure. And, hello little scraggy green bush growing out of nowhere… I see some yellowing leaves there! Thank you, Julia. Thank you for being with me.

I looked up at the deep blue sky – turned fully around. Nope. No stormy clouds. No Edward then. That’s okay. You can have a day off. I don’t particularly want you on this trail run. You can come out later.

And finally, I was at the top. Julie was just a 100m or so behind me. She’d been stopping here and there to ensure her recovering heart rate stayed down. I took advantage and ate my tasty, but ridiculously unhealthy, lunch snack – mini babybel and salty sausage! Yum. Never so good to eat fatty-greasy-salty-processed food. I can’t bear the sweet gels, nor the chewy protein bars, that are the trail runner’s usual fare. Give me salty cheese and ham any day.

I checked my snazzy Garmin, managed to find where it displays “cumulative altitude”, and found to my delighted shock that we had done 1,300 m already! So it could only be down from here, with perhaps one teeny little climb somewhere in the mix.

Our highest point. “The only way is down, baby!”

It was good to know because we still had over 7 km to go. But evidently all downhill. Some of it very steep and slippery over gravelly rocks. How the fast runners do it, I don’t know. Julie walked alongside me running – that’s how slowly I go downhill! But if I walked, I’d be even slower, so I “ran” in my own slow way. Rocks then paths, gravelly bits, a bit of ski run, then finally to the last check point at 14 km. Just four more kilometres to go, down over grassy slopes, into cool woods, smells of pine forests… the occasional person from one of the longer events now on the home strait with us, passing me at a rate of knots, despite the hours, or even days and nights, they’d been out on their courses.

At some stage it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any swans during the event. Rocks, glaciers, flowers, birds for sure, but no swans. I reasoned, then, that it could not, would not, be my swan song trail run. I want to do this again. My new distance – about 15-30 kms perhaps – no more… just events I can do in daylight hours, with views, with time for taking photos, with time for sheer enjoyment and pleasure. Even a bit of chit chat if I get fitter.

And suddenly we could tell we were close. Humans wandering around when we’d seen hardly any for hours, cheering us in, telling us we were awesome. It felt undeserved at some level, but I chose to bask in it. Each one of us is running for our own reasons. One person’s hill is another person’s mountain. One person’s sprint is another person’s marathon. Or whatever. Yes – we did good. We deserved the cheers and the big, clanking cowbells.

Into the village square along to the finish line we had started out from close to 4 ½ hours earlier. I took Julie’s hand as I had said I wanted to, and we held them high above our heads as we crossed the finish line, being photographed, feeling like stars!

Yes, I will be back for more. Julie too. We’ll be doing different distances going forward, I am sure, but I know I have a place, a modest place, in these events.

Thank you, Julie, for the company, before, during and after.
Thank you, Lizzy, for the beautiful events you organise.
Thank you, volunteers, for all the support, without which not…
Thank you, Mike, for being my mountain companion for close to 30 years.
And thank you, Julia, for showing up, here, there, everywhere.

After the prize giving, I took a detour back to my hotel, up the village path that the still-finishing runners were continuing to come down – those completing the 170 km, 100 km or 60 km events. I clapped and cheered a man in, and he seemed pleased. I know he felt seen and admired. It was getting dark now. He might have been out two days and two nights. Extraordinary achievement.

And then, no-one. Silence. Just the dark woods now up above.

I burst into tears. I hadn’t all day. But here was the space to do just that.

Simply missing Mike, missing Julia, missing all of what I used to have.

Always the missing. Alongside the gratitude. Alongside the relief.

Missing and wishing. The bittersweetness of my life.

Almost as fresh as at the start! But spot the wooden medals and Nepalese scarves.

About Emma Pearson

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