The Fear of the Thing

Runners climb into the mountains ahead of Susan Donnelly in Swiss Alpine Post Marathon.

My fifth ultra was the Swiss Alpine Post Marathon in Davos, Switzerland.

Overseas was a big jump, but using my new-found love of ultrarunning to see one of the places I’d always wanted to?

A total no-brainer.

Also, a bold stretch. I barely knew what I was doing in trail ultras, so 46 miles was an intimidating step up from my longest race of 40 miles, I’d never travelled overseas as an adult, and it would be my first time running in the mountains. Ever.

As the trip approached, I figured out schedule and logistics as best I could but it felt more iffy than exciting. 

Then there were the minimal course description, rules, and details on the website - in German.

My boyfriend and I arrived to find the mountains seriously intimidating.

Then, the day before the race, as I was picking up my number, I overheard that the race course had been re-routed and would now be 55 miles.

My stomach knotted.

This was WAY beyond what I’d already had to dare myself to do - 15 miles further than my longest distance, 10 miles longer than I’d trained and prepared for, in conditions - serious mountains - I’d never even run in.

I was angry and scared. It wasn’t fair to do this last minute. I wasn’t ready for this.

Finally, I felt totally out of my depth, like I’d somehow managed to sign up for the Tour de France without having ridden a bicycle.

But here I was, so I decided to do my best without embarrassing myself or my country, or ruining the vacation.

The next morning, I stood grimly at the starting line, facing my first foreign race, in a new country, running over mountains I didn’t know, with no map, with no altitude chart for comparison, on a course I didn’t know, following roughly-translated rules and warnings I thought I understood, over a distance I mentally and physically wasn’t prepared for.

The race started and my boyfriend split off at the marathon mark, leaving me on my own in a sea of runners speaking other languages. “I can do this, I can do this,” I told myself.

We quickly left the towns behind and started climbing in a tight line up an extremely narrow, knife-edge track with no room to pass. I glanced up only now and then to catch a postcard view. 

Which may be how I missed the unpredicted clouds.

In mere moments, the temperature plummeted, visibility dropped to the two runners ahead of me in line, and it started to sleet. 

And we were still climbing.

Now I was really afraid. Why had I imagined I could do this?

I'll never forget the singlet-clad guy ahead of me on the narrow trail, arms wrapped around himself, soaked and visibly shaking. 

I had no idea how far we were from aid or a descent, or if either would even help, but I wasn’t as cold as that guy. 

This time, I felt the fear but refused to react, and doggedly kept moving. This was business.

We finally reached the aid station - two small tents battered by the wind. Volunteers in the nearest were handing out garbage bags to the runners so I took two and headed down the rocky hill.

At the bottom lay the head of the long valley down into town. A few steps along this trail and the sun came out. All down the remaining miles of trail, one farm family after another was haying their flower-covered fields. I still remember the enchanting scent.

The extra distance I was so scared of? I didn’t notice it.

The weather? I survived it.

The fear? I saw the emotion in a new light.

It was one of the first times in a race where I saw that fear was a story in my head about some neutral thing, like miles.

And that the fear of the thing was worse than the thing itself.

Susan Donnelly’s signature