SwissAlpine 2016: All in the mind?

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August 31st 2016
Published: August 31st 2016
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So what have we learnt from SwissAlpine 2016?

1. That you get no respect whatsoever for running a 30 km trail race through the Alps when there’s a 78 km race happening at the same time.

2. Nearly everyone else here were blokes older than me or female because apparently they are the only people with sufficient pain threshold to do it.

3. Everything in Switzerland is either really expensive or free.

4. Cowbells, when rung vigorously by the entire populace of a small alpine village as you race through it at 8am, really do make you run faster.

5. Despite questioning my life choices quite a lot while running the 30k, I think I’ll go for the 42 km next year.

I was wondering what to write about in this blog and almost did a Paul Theroux by summing up the entire country and its people after spending only a week there – actually a bit less than a week because a few days were spent in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Liechtenstein. (PT managed to do this for Slovenia and the Slovenes after spending an hour in a railway station waiting room!) Anyway, I wouldn’t be saying
Landwasser ViaductLandwasser ViaductLandwasser Viaduct

About 6 km to go...
anything you didn’t already know; beautiful mountain vistas, pretty but rather bland cities, reserved but exceptionally polite people, it is really expensive, etc.

Instead I thought I’d tell you about SwissAlpine 2016. You may not have heard of this festival unless you are a trail runner, and even then you may not have heard of it. Basically, about ten thousand people from around the world get together for a few days in Davos, high in the Swiss Alps, then run various races through the mountains. Why? Why not?

One of my 2016 new year’s resolutions was to start fell running (fells = hills/mountains in northern England). I ran quite a bit anyway but running in the hills is infinitely more satisfying. Newcastle upon Tyne is surrounded by some nice countryside and coast that I can drive to in under an hour then run for a couple of hours and return knackered but refreshed. I hardly ever see anyone except for the odd bemused farmer, lots of wildlife, some lovely sunsets, Roman remains if I end up around Hadrian’s Wall, massive castles if I end up at the beach, and Bronze Age hill forts in the Cheviots. I also
Davos from the Youth HostelDavos from the Youth HostelDavos from the Youth Hostel

It was a nice view to wake up to each morning
find it really productive for my PhD because it provides the opportunity to step back from the computer modelling and hydrochemical or climate analyses to actually think about what I should be doing.

I had a few plans for the summer, ranging from a workshop at Brown University in Rhode Island combined with seeing mates in the US, to kayaking in Poland, to a tour of Belarus, to a long weekend in Jersey, all of which gradually fell through for various reasons. I was getting concerned that I wouldn’t have a summer holiday. So I looked for a place, not too far away, where I had mates to visit and ideally where there were some mountains to climb. I also wondered if I could combine it with a trail race – a reason for travelling which I had never previously considered and which could be the excuse I need to get me to some not very visited places, such as the Faeroe Islands or Ascension Island. Naturally, the races that appealed were in places I’d never visited; Finland and the Baltic States had a few, but then I had no mates there and the mountains were far far away. Italy had a few, I had mates there and there are mountains but I fancied going somewhere new. Switzerland ticked all the boxes, so I signed up for a 30 km race at SwissAlpine 2016.

I stayed in a dorm in a hostel for the first time in many years because all the accommodation in Davos was full of runners. The hostel was great but I soon learnt I was running the shortest distance of anyone in my room; the other five were doing either of the 42 km races and one Swedish nutter was doing the 78k.

The 30k and 78k started simultaneously at 7am at the Davos Sports Centre. I wasn’t at all nervous or apprehensive as I sometimes am at the start line, despite this being the longest race I’d ever done, because I realised my race was nowt compared to what the people running 78 km had to do. I started deliberately very slowly, mostly because my knee had been giving me some pain after a football tournament 3 days earlier where we unexpectedly got to the final thus had to play five matches in an afternoon. I was on super strong Swiss pain
Davoser SeeDavoser SeeDavoser See

I wondered why nobody was swimming until I dipped my toes in and they went instantly blue.
killers which were effective for exactly 58 seconds though after about 10 km it stopped hurting and hasn’t done since so perhaps running was the cure. I soon realised I was going too slowly after reaching the 5 km marker nearly ten minutes slower than I do parkrun so sped up a bit but it was too late. We hit the narrow singletrack climbs in the forest and if someone in front started walking, we all had to because it was too narrow to pass. This was more frustrating for me on the descents because I tend to run downhill really quickly but couldn’t get past the more hesitant types.

The scenery was stunning and really did distract from the distance. I remember being regularly surprised when looking at my watch to notice another half an hour had passed without me realising. The little pretty villages we ran through gave great support with Swiss flag bunting strung everywhere, everyone ringing cow bells, and tables filled with cups of juice and cut up bananas. The final third of the route was through a narrow deep gorge with the path clinging to the cliff edge or passing through tunnels and over a dizzyingly high viaduct.

My aim was to get round in under 3 hours which I achieved by two minutes following a last few kilometres dash into the village of Filisur. I felt a strange combination of pity and envy for the ultrarunners who when I finished my race were just passing a sign saying “48 km to go”. Though this race more than any other convinced me that so much of it is in your head anyway. I passed the 2/3 mark and saw the sign saying “10 km to go” so I sped up thinking I was near the end. Conversely, the week before I had run the Durham city race which was 10 km in total but it felt tougher from start to finish and I was desperate to get to the end. True, much of it is in the legs, but a lot of it is in the mind.

To demonstrate just how fit the human body can become, the bloke who won the 78k race beat me to the 30k mark by a whole hour! He was a professional ultrarunner from New Zealand but still. He was only beaten to the 30k mark by one person – the winner of the 30k race, who only beat him by seconds. I came in 112th out of about 500 and was initially a bit disappointed by my time and position. However, in hindsight (I’m writing this three weeks later from a guesthouse in India) I think I should be pretty pleased given that I was up against mostly Swiss and German entrants who could do runs like this every day if they wanted. Northumberland is nice but the Cheviots aren’t the Alps.

Other than running I took advantage of getting a free rail pass with my race entry to have a ride on the Rhaetian Railway to St Moritz. It’s one of only three UNESCO World Heritage railway journeys in the world and is a remarkable feat of engineering with its spiral tunnels to gain altitude which see you popping out on to bridges high above the other bridge you were on a minute ago going the other direction. It can be quite confusing when looking out the window at the lovely views. I also got up a mountain or two taking advantage of the free cable car pass which comes with most accommodation.
Park in the middle of DavosPark in the middle of DavosPark in the middle of Davos

And a far better place to sleep than the youth hostel dorm
Big hikes were not possible because I generally made the most of the free hostel breakfasts by having at least four courses which would put me on till dinner but prevented much strenuous activity through the day.

I got home and started looking for a trail marathon to enter to prove whether or not it is all in the mind (I’m yet to run a full marathon). I found one in the Yorkshire Moors but then got the offer of a paid trip to Uttarakhand for 11 days so went for that instead. As long as I don’t end up in hospital like the last India trip (see a few blogs ago) this could be some good altitude training for the Great North Run in a few weeks’ time!

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