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“When I go running, I go the whole hog.”

101 km, 6,700 metres of height gain, plus the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau: Lea Degen, Regional Head German-speaking Switzerland and Ticino in Mortgage Portfolio Management, takes you along on the fifth Eiger Ultratrail and tells you how she made the switch from casual jogger to extreme athlete.

3 April 2018, author: Lea Degen, photo: Lea Degen

Lea Degen smiles into the camera during a mountain run.
Lea Degen: switched from casual jogger to extreme athlete

“Saturday, 18 July 2015, 4.45 a.m. Alongside almost 500 other runners, I am standing in the centre of Grindelwald. I can hardly wait for the start of the fifth Eiger Ultratrail, with its large field of international runners. In a few minutes we’ll be off; the countdown is underway. Ahead of me lie 101 km and 6,700 metres of tough climbing. The time limit is 26 hours. The forecast for the next two days is for sun and warm temperatures. A dream for any ultrarunner. I am extremely nervous and I can hardly keep track of my thoughts: Will I finish inside the time limit? Have I covered enough kilometres in training? Have I got everything I need in my backpack? Have I got enough energy bars, gels, gummi bears and water to keep me going to the end? Have I made a good note of the climbs and where they come in the run? When will we get to the first refreshment station? Did I choose the right running clothes and the proper trail running shoes?

Then we’re finally on our way! I run the first few kilometres in the pack and don’t hurry. Why should I? I’ll have plenty of time to overtake in the next 100 kilometres. I’m only fighting for myself and to achieve my own personal targets. The competition will be an adventure of superlatives for me. The grandiose Alpine landscape is magnificent, I manage the climbs with no difficulty, and at the top I enjoy the fantastic views for a few moments. The wall that all runners fear hitting is notable in its absence; physically I am in great shape. The competition is going perfectly for me. I’m enjoying every kilometre. Finally, less than 19 hours later, I’m back in Grindelwald, where I cross the finish line with an enormous smile on my face.

Hit by the running bug

It all started with an ad in the paper. To the Basel City Run in ten weeks. That was in 1992, and since then I’ve been hit by the running bug. At the start I just used to smile at my trainer when she raved about running through the forest for hours; now I’m one of those mad people. The distances have slowly grown. From that 5.7 km City Run to a ten-kilometre run, then the first half-marathon and finally the full marathon distance of 42.2 km. But that was not the end. Now ultraruns over distances of more than 42 kilometres are among my favourite runs. If you’re going running, why not go the whole hog? While I’m running I can follow up ideas. I review my everyday working life. I sketch out unconventional solutions in my mind. I think about ongoing projects, the future development of my team and much more. I can switch off when I run and let my mind wander.

‘The Iron Lady of Switzerland’ on a bike

As marathons on the flat were starting to give me health problems, I gave mountain runs a try. And very soon the Jungfrau marathon, the Zermatt marathon and the 78 km Swissalpine became some of my favourite runs. I have now completed the Jungfrau marathon ten times. In spite of that I get a shiver down my spine every time I reach kilometre 40, climb the notorious moraine, pass the traditional bagpiper and then step on the gas again over the last two kilometres. This mountain panorama is simply magnificent. The impressive mountain landscape rewards me for all my efforts every time. I consider myself to be mentally very strong. And without irresistible staying power it is simply not possible. In ultraruns, all competitors suffer. For that reason, a positive mindset is a prerequisite for success. What makes me strong is the certainty that I can reach the finish, thanks to prefect preparation. And the feeling of joy when I cross the line is indescribable.

The maddest thing that I have ever done? In 2010 I took part in the world’s longest bike race: The Andes Trail. Between the start in Quito (Ecuador) and the finish in Ushuaia (Argentina) there lie 11,000 km and 100,000 metres of height gain. We took four and a half months to complete the bike tour. Only two out of 25 bikers managed to complete the distance alone on a bike. I was one of them. That’s why they respectfully called me ‘The Iron Lady of Switzerland’. And as I wanted to become a proper ‘Iron Lady’, in 2016 I decided to compete in the ‘Swiss Iron Trail’. This is an ultratrail in Graubünden, covering 201 km and more than 12,000 metres of height gain. Since completing the run I can call myself a real ‘Iron Lady of Switzerland’. If you think my appetite for big challenges has now been satisfied, you can think again. There are many more ultratrails and bike rides that I would like to tackle.

Enthusiasm, endurance, power and performance in my job too

My daily bike rides to work and back, covering 54 kilometres, allow me to get the necessary basic training. I also do one or two training runs each week. In that way I manage to combine my demanding job and my hobby. I am firmly convinced that if you do sport in your spare time you are worth twice as much to your company. My experiences in sport also have an effect on my performance in my job. Just like in a competition, a successful team needs the commitment, the support and the knowledge of each of its members. I know that I can rely on my team. I also possess perseverance and assertiveness. After reaching the top of the pass there is always a magnificent downhill section. And even after a setback I have learnt to get up again and look ahead. To be successful you need enthusiasm, endurance, power and performance – at Helvetia and in sport alike!”

Lea Degen loves her large area of responsibility in Mortgage Portfolio Management, and she values the fact that she can make an active contribution and implement her own ideas. Lea was also actively involved in our first live recruitment stream, for which we were given the HR Innovation Award.

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