Epicurian delights along the Swiss Alps’ vibrant trail-racing circuit
Photo by PatitucciPhoto
“Du fromage?” I’m 30 kilometers into the Trail Dents du Midi Ultra, or “Trail DM,” in Switzerland’s Valais region when I get the question. Happily cruising along worn cobblestone in the alpine village of Mex, I have a split second to decide whether to break stride and accept the offer. Passing up thick slabs of Swiss cheese is at odds with what friends politely call my “fromage problem,” but I’m liking my newfound momentum.
I glance at the group of Swiss revelers, tucked into an alleyway, that has extended the offer. Wine bottles are out, and everyone is enjoying the afternoon. In seconds, I think, I could tear off my bib, skip the two cols looming on today’s itinerary and join this friendly gathering.
But, practicality wins. “Euh … non,” I tell them. “Mais merci!” After all, I’ve got an appointment with a finish line, and, well, I’m running a bit late.
Five hours later, I finish in the village of Champéry. Today’s run was 35 miles, with over 12,000 feet of climbing. I can already tell that the next week will be all about my legs paying the price for my casual training program. At the post-race party, I try my best to wave off more wine from my adopted tablemates.
In the last 12 hours, I have been offered cheese, wine and pastries, been cheered by bell-ringing hikers and warmly supported by eager bénévoles at the aid stations that encircled the rugged Dents du Midi range. As the evening passes, the awards and raffle announcements taper, but no one seems interested in leaving. I succumb to the insistent gestures, and take a few more deciliters of the local Gamay. During a break in the banter, I have two important insights—first, drinking really helps my French, and, second, tomorrow I will be both crippled and hung over.
I’ve been coming to this part of Switzerland for decades. Nearly 50 years ago, my aunt and uncle bought an aging chalet on a hillside in the Valais. They were looking to be close to my aunt’s family in what was then Yugoslavia. My uncle, a professor of Eastern European politics, could be a day’s travels to the countries and people he both studied and admired.
The Valais is part of the 20 percent of the country that speaks French and drinks a bit more of its famed wine than it probably should. Here, the trains run a few minutes late, and it’s all taken in stride. With a long tradition of alpine skiing, mountaineering, ski racing and trail running, the Valais is also regarded as the sportiest of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, or states.
Finding paradise on Switzerland’s high-alpine singletrack. Photo by PatitucciPhoto
One day, almost 20 years ago, my brother and I shoved a few Swiss francs in our socks and headed off on a trail run that included stops at cafés and close-up views of the North Face of the Eiger, the 3,970-meter-high, glaciated limestone peak that looms over Grindelwald.
When we battled our way up the steep, nearby slope of the 2,343-meter Männlichen, tourists in the tram gasped, “They’re running!” Our mom, in the tram, glanced down, saw us and didn’t miss a beat: “Those two down there? Those are my boys!”
From that day forward, the Alps held new meaning for me. The trail running there, I realized, was very different than any I had experienced. Tough, uphill challenges. Gentle, bucolic pastures. Herds of cows, whose bells created a hypnotic trail-runner’s lullaby. An abundance of classic huts and private auberges, serving croissants, café au lait and local sausage.
And, of course, there was the scenery, which remains nearly impossible for me to describe without sounding like I’ve been bribed by government officials. It varies by the angle of the view—first, lush farmland. Then, a weatherworn chalet or hut. Higher still, the alpinist’s steep terrain, where you have to crane your neck to catch the glint of snow or glacier on the high summits. For me, these places build a bank account, to be drawn against when life’s challenges roll around.
It doesn’t take too much meandering in the Alps before your curiosity is piqued by the prospects of a Swiss trail race. Many of the most famous races have their routes permanently marked. In my runs, I stumbled across signs for “Jungfrau Marathon,” wooden “Trail DM” markers and the code-like, almost secretive “S-Z” for Sierre-Zinal. These were my breadcrumbs, and, in the years that ensued, I’ve followed them zealously.
The better-known Alp races are famous for their uber-competitiveness: a professional circuit, cash prizes, points in the International Skyrunning series, dopage testing. There’s Matterhorn Ultraks, which this year will be a series of four races at the base of one of the world’s most iconic peaks. Part road, part trail, the Jungfrau Marathon has morphed into a multi-day series of festivities that include running camps, a mile-long sprint race the day prior and a pararace.
The more you explore, the bigger the list grows. Eiger Ultra. Swiss Alpine. Mountainman. Inferno. Aletsch. Glacier 3000. Fully Vertical KM. Trail des Dents du Midi.
Among them, none is more iconic than Sierre-Zinal, a race dreamed up 40 years ago by Jean-Claude Pont. Pont, 73, has a resumé that reads like a character who walked off the pages of a renaissance novel: Chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Geneva, author of mathematical treatises, Swiss Mountain Guide, founder of the much-loved St. Luc Observatory and creator of one of the world’s most prominent trail races.
“The genesis of the idea was fairly sudden,” says Pont. “It was in the fall of 1973. There were no trail races in Europe. We had no information on what existed elsewhere in the world.” Pont and his early volunteers were largely on their own, organizing that first event.
Sierre-Zinal, says Pont, turned out to be, “like a little candle—difficult to light, and flickering in the wind, always ready to die. Who knew that one day it would become a beacon that would shine so brightly?”
Running down the finishers’ chute along Rue du Village, Champery, Valais local Emmanuel “Manu” Voudon celebrates winning the 2013 Trail Dents du Midi Ultra. Photo by Denis Roulet/Sismic.ch
“JC’s race,” as I’ve heard it referred, is no pushover. It starts in the valley town of Sierre, near the banks of the storied Rhône. For those of us who are something less than elite, Sierre-Zinal offers a special treat—the “tourist” division gets a four-hour head-start, allowing recreational runners to finish early and watch the world’s best mountain runners dash into Zinal and across the finish line.
The first time I ran the 31-kilometer course, I found myself blissfully cruising above treeline nearly four hours in, starting to wonder which of the villages far below was Zinal. Then, the path turned right. The ground fell away. Gravity took over and I nearly collided with several onlookers a bit too close to my bumpy trajectory.
Zoned out on endorphins after the race, Run the Alps’ Val Stori and I relaxed on a hillside and watched the world’s elite runners blow past us to the finish. An unassuming dentist from nearby Neuchâtel, Marc Lauenstein, surprised nearly everyone by winning the race and becoming Switzerland’s newest hero. Then came Columbia’s Juan Carlos Cardona, Spain’s Kilian Jornet and the indefatigable New Zealander Jonathan Wyatt. A few minutes later, Rickey Gates flew past to become the first American finisher.
We roared for Rickey, an unassuming, low-key friend. (“Ami,” I sheepishly explained to the confused onlookers next to us.) Other U.S. runners followed, with Colorado’s Stevie Kremer taking second place for the women, and Megan Lund-Lizotte and Stephanie Howe finishing seventh and eighth, respectively.
Later that evening, Rickey invited us to join the elite runners at a post-race dinner. A guitar was passed around. Jean-Claude poured wine. Smiles, high-fives and friendly conversation ruled the evening. A tent that had earlier held thousands of sweaty participants downing their post-race lunches, felt ridiculously oversized for a few dozen runners and their friends. But, a special warmth filled the space. “There are no other races in all of Europe this weekend,” said Rickey. “None. There’s only Sierre-Zinal.”
Events like Sierre-Zinal have a powerful allure. But, once the sponsored athletes have moved on to the next cash purse, another, less competitive trail-racing world reveals itself: one where courses like Trail DM’s veer through flocks of sheep, aid stations boast 70-kilo wheels of Gruyère and local troupes of bell ringers and alphorn players appear in the most remote pastures. It is this below-the-radar scene—the one that remains after Radio Télévision Suisse has packed up their cameras and flown back to Bern—that has stolen my heart.
I’d like to tell you it was diligent research that exposed me to the humbler trail-running circuit here. In fact, though, it was mostly serendipity. Digging through brochures in the tourist office in the quiet mountain village of St. Luc one afternoon, I stumbled across a flyer for the Valais Cup—a collection of mostly steep, short trail races scattered around Switzerland’s French-speaking canton on the mountainous frontier with France and Italy. I’d heard about these races before, but Internet searches and queries to trail-running friends yielded only vague half answers. With the brochure, I felt the Rosetta Stone of Swiss Alp trail running was in my fingertips.
Following bread crumbs: cairns and painted rocks mark the Sierre-Zinal course. Photo by Olivier Tytgat/Courtesy of Jean-Claude Pont
First on the calendar was Grimpette des Bedjuis. Coming just a few days after the 166-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) that brings thousands of runners to the Alps each summer, the Grimpette is everything that UTMB is not. It was a quiet, humble antidote for a Facebook newsfeed filled with live coverage, press conferences and breathless headlines. After breakfast of apricot tart and café au lait, I joined a hundred or so other runners milling around the starting line.
First, though, a marching band of bagpipers was sent out ahead. I envisioned our collision and the subsequent headlines, but this band was either speedy, sneaky or both, for I never saw them again. Twenty minutes later, Nordic walkers and “marcheurs” (hikers) were sent off. Then, it was our turn.
We headed out of town in low gear, uphill past vineyards and into the woods. The vertical push of 930 meters over 6.3 kilometers relented only for a twisting diversion through the 800-year-old village of Isérables. Residents lined the narrow streets to cheer us on.
A half hour later, I was dodging between chalets along a worn dirt path while aged farmers straight out of Central Casting cheered us on with cries of “Allez, Allez!” and “Bon Courage!” As quickly as it started, the Grimpette was over, in a cow pasture high above the busy valley below. Or, at least, I thought it was over.
In fact, the race was just an excuse for what came next, as villagers took to the local soccer field—the only flat piece of land within miles—for an afternoon that featured no shortage of sausage and wine.
The French have a word for it: chaleureux, which blends warm, cozy and welcoming. Later that afternoon, spent, stuffed and half drunk, I napped soundly by the goal post before taking a tram back down to the valley.
Later that season, I jumped into another Valais Cup event, Fully-Sorniot, a 40-year-old race that’s deeply ingrained in the sportif culture of the region. Again, we battled our way upward, first along meandering village roads, then through hillside vineyards and forests. I tried my best to stay in lock step with my friend Chris Longbottom, a Valais local who grew up dividing his time between the Alps and England, until mountain running kept him happily anchored in Switzerland. Easily seven inches taller than I, he ambled as I gutted it out, trying to keep pace. Then, with no trace of irony, he said, “Here’s where it gets steep.”
Chris owns a hotel in nearby Trient, along the UTMB route. I assumed the vertical topography that surrounded his every waking hour was badly influencing his thinking. But, he was right, of course, and the route promptly doubled down. Thankfully, every few minutes another cluster of spectators were cheering “Bon Courage!” I found it impossible not to pass by without offering some kind of smile and a feeble, “Merci!”
An hour later, 1,500 meters above the valley floor, we ran through a cliff band (complete with chains, if vertigo threatened) then topped out amid a throng of ebullient onlookers. Their cheers acted like a much-needed magnet, pulling me up over the cliff edge. Then, a perfectly flat victory spin around an alpine tarn right to the “Arrivée” banner.
Not content with a scenic finish that included views of the snow-capped Grand Combin and Mont Blanc massif across the valley, Fully-Sorniot race organizers had dozens of bottles of the local white wine on hand. An aged volunteer dressed neatly in tweed poured drinks and thrust them into the hands of finishers. Everyone looked oddly comfortable, in dry clothes. Then I remembered—bags had been ferried up to the finish, courtesy of the local Air Glaciers helicopter, and many runners had already changed and were deep into conversations with old friends. Chaleureux? Check.
In between Valais Cup events, I followed up on a tip from Rickey Gates, and found myself one morning in the town of Leukerbad, at a race that positively defied categorization. In fact, the day I was there, I was the only one running. There were no race bibs, nor finisher’s shirts. Instead, I punched in at a time clock at the local Sportarena, and off I went, following signs marked “Gemmi Run” up a trail carved into the cliffs to Gemmipass.
For those who top out the course at the Berghotel Wildstrubel in 70 minutes or less, the prize is a free tram ride down and pass to the town’s centuries-old natural hot springs.
Nearing the hotel, I became increasingly obsessed with my finish time. I dashed into the summit restaurant, and a waiter smiled and laughed. He jumped out of my way and gestured toward the other end of the building. I nodded thanks, and blitzed past the dining tables like they were slalom gates. A demure receptionist punched my card, then looked at the time. “56:08. Not so bad.”
By that evening, in highly organized Swiss fashion, my results were already online.
The Run the Alps team runs at the Schynige Platte with big views of the Berner Oberland, a Swiss Canton adjacent to the Valais. Photo by PatitucciPhoto
For me, my race season came to a close with the Chandolin Double KM, a vertical lung burner named for the race’s 2,000 meters of climbing over 7.7 kilometers. The course also constituted a tour of the Swiss ecosystems, from warm, dry valleys, through deep forests to high pastures. All that was missing was a glacier. It culminated above treeline atop the precipitous, windy summit of L’Illhorn.
I hoped for a time under two hours, and narrowly succeeded, in 1:58.19. Atop L’Illhorn, I joined a dozen runners soaking in views of the snowy summits of the nearby Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn and Matterhorn. Someone uncorked a bottle of wine. A gentle breeze rustled the alpine grasses. A week earlier, Chandolin had already held its annual désalps celebration, marking the descent of the cow herds from these high pastures, in preparation for the winter ahead.
Martin Anthamatten, a member of the Swiss ski-mountaineering team, won “Chando,” but it was second-place finisher Emmanuel “Manu” Vaudan who perhaps best captured the spirit of the afternoon.
A school teacher and local legend, Manu is much adored in the Valais. For a year, he held the world record for the vertical kilometer event, running the nearby Fully Vertical KM course in 30:56. Heading straight up an old funicular route, the race climbs 1,000 vertical meters in just 1,920 meters. Steep is what Manu does best. He also holds the course record for the world’s longest staircase—the 11,674 steps that constitute the Niesenlauf in the nearby Bernese Oberland. Manu ran it in 55:55.
His records are impressive, but coupled with his unassuming, selfless nature, and it’s not hard to see why Valais locals cheer when he takes the podium. In the uber-competitive world of Swiss trail running, Manu stands out as being one part Mario Andretti and one part Little Prince. Later that Chando afternoon, not quite done taking in this spectacular fall day, he would run along the ridge, summiting nearby Bella Tolla. In the process, he lost track of time and missed the awards ceremony. I learned later that this was all totally in keeping with Manu.
Gil Caillet-Bois, a Valais friend of Manu’s for more than 20 years, says, “He has remained in the image of the soul of the trail, putting pleasure before competition, accessible, open to the natural world and passionate.”
After the race, not far from the summit, Manu napped amid the rust-colored alpine sedge. No one, it seemed, wanted to leave L’Illhorn. For a final few moments, I soaked it all in. A day later, I’d be on a plane, headed back to New Hampshire, to obligations both personal and professional.
A thousand meters beneath us, volunteers in Chandolin were about to serve raclette and pasta. The afternoon would turn to evening with wine, toasts and hours of friendly conversation. It was time to break the spell and head down. One at a time, we slowly pulled ourselves away from our airy outpost, jogging reluctantly toward the chairlift that would take us down to the village. I smiled and thought, chaleureux, and turned to face the valley below.
Doug Mayer lives in the mountain town of Randolph, New Hampshire. He is a producer for the NPR show Car Talk and partner in the company Run the Alps.
This article originally appeared in our special journal-style issue DIRT. If you’re hungry for more great photos and stories about trail running, you can pick up DIRT 2016 in mid-March. Or, subscribe now to get DIRT plus a full year of Trail Runner!