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Leukerbad’s 65-Minute Dash

Leukerbad’s 65-Minute Dash

Jun 7, 2016

I have a serious soft spot in my heart for crazy trail running ideas: the self-created adventures, the offbeat concepts, the way-out-of-the-mainstream mountain runs that have you shaking your head in a combination of admiration and shock, thinking “Who dreamed up that idea—and how many beers had they had–when they did?”

So, when Salomon team member Rickey Gates mentioned an Alp town with a DIY trail race, complete with prizes for beating the clock, I knew that I’d have to find my way there. The winnings that awaited anyone who finished sub-70 minutes? A free tram ride down, and a day pass to the town’s posh hot springs. For a guy who only gets to step up onto a podium when no one else is looking, I finally had a reason other than “personal best” to push hard in a trail run.

And so, one fall morning, I found myself in the posh Alp resort of Leukerbad, asking a staff member at the Tourist Info bureau, “Is this the town where I can run to the top and get a free ride down?” I braced for a blank stare. Without missing a beat, I had my answer. “If you can beat 1 hour, 10 minutes.” I don’t think I was imagining a certain coyness in her smile as she sized me up. Game on.

Known for centuries for its natural, thermal hot springs, the village of Leukerbad seems filled with those in search of the claimed restorative powers of 110 degree, bubbling thermes: wealthy playboy types, the arthritic and the aged and–every now and then–a trail runner looking for a decadent franc-free soak after a solid uphill battle.

How’s it work? Like all things Swiss, it seems, it was remarkably easy:

1.     Check in at the Sportarena. Your helpful attendant will explain the process.

My personal race director. And in place of a timing chip? That innocuous looking punch-in time clock.

2.     Complete a run ticket, with your name and address.

3.     Get ready to race. I found this oddly awkward. It’s a race… but there’s no one there. The gun goes off, well, whenever you want. You’re the entire field. And the race director, for that matter.

4.     Ready? Set? GO! Punch the time clock, run out the door, through the campground, under the cow fences, and head for that tramline in the distance.

5.     Follow the signs for Gemmi Run. Go, go, go! See that cliff up there? The trail goes up it. It’s best not to think about it. Keep your head down and your heart rate up.

When there's no way out, Swiss trail builders just go... up.
When there’s no way out, Swiss trail builders just go… up.

6.     Along the route look for that manual hole punch for your ticket that the friendly arena attendant told you about. (You didn’t think the organizers hadn’t thought about the morally bankrupt trail runner, now did you?)

7.     While you’re running…wonder. Wonder where the summit is. Wonder if that 70-minute target is only for elite athletes, or within range of the recreational mountain runner. Wonder why this matters to you so much. Remind yourself that you can buy a day pass for Leukerbad Therme. Remind yourself that you’ve paid for dozens of tram rides down this season. Is it really worth the effort?

8.     With the summit in sight, look wildly about for the Mountain Hotel Wildstrubel. Tourists will scatter when they see the crazed look in your eyes. Your brain might be a little addled at this point, so here’s a useful tip:  the hotel is right in front of you.

9.     Sprint into the hotel restaurant and look confused. The waiter will happily gesture frantically towards the hotel reception while the staff cheers you on.

10. Get your card punched by the receptionist. She’ll look at your time. If you’re around 56 minutes, you’ll get an offhand,  “Not bad” as she hands you your completed card, and sizes you up. (“Tough to impress,” I thought.)

11.  Enjoy a café au lait and tart at the summit restaurant. Quietly bask in the glory of your accomplishment. Think of the free ride down, your upcoming hours soaking in the baths, and do your best to suppress the feeling of moral superiority you have over the tourists around you.

Basking. (Why can’t every trail race end this way?)

As for the run, it was a classic Swiss Alps mountain battle:  a warm up in the village, then an unrelenting uphill push through to the last step. The route was entirely improbable, but nothing a few dozen cliff-side cables and a hundred switchbacks couldn’t overcome. This is Switzerland, after all, where trail builders look at a sheer cliff, shrug, and get to work.

The view from the top, by the way, is worth every calorie spent. Gemmipass is a remarkable location—one of the rare topographic weaknesses between the Rhône valley and the Berner Oberland, it has been traveled by traders, shepherds and flocks, for, well, who knows how long? Roman coins were discovered there, this summer.

The route, as seen from the tram ride down. Look in the lower left. And the bottom. And the middle right. And the top. Who designs these trails, anyway?
The route, as seen from the tram ride down. Look in the lower left. And the bottom. And the middle right. And the top. Who designs these trails, anyway?

Back in town, the Leukerbad hot springs lived up to their reputation. A three-level complex caters to every ache and pain imaginable. Saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs and soaking pools? That’s just a launching point. Signs offer those inclined to spend a few more francs everything from hot rock massage to mud baths to—I kid not—something called brain rejuvenation. (A translation error? I wasn’t about to find out. Trail running does the trick for me, thank you very much.) That sub-seventy punchcard was well worth it here, too. Savings: 23 franc.

Hang on, I'm coming!
“Oh, you paid to get in here?”

During the run up, and throughout my day in Leukerbad, I couldn’t help but think of my friend back home in New Hampshire, Mike Micucci. Twenty-five years ago, he created what became a classic mountain event, the Wildman Biathlon. Riding the gondola down after one year’s race, an exhausted participant turned to Mike and said, straight-faced, “I’d like to meet the guy who dreamed this up!”

I’d like to meet the guy who dreamed up Leukerbad’s concept run. It’s pure, unadulterated trail running genius. Little did I know, though, that he had a final surprise in store for me. Home, showered and basking in a great day’s adventure, I Googled, “Gemmipass Trail Run” out of idle curiosity. There, on the first page, were the 2013 results. Complete with my time.

Hey, Michel Metry from Susten-- we tied!
Rare Swiss error– it’s New Hampshire, not New York, guys. (Hey, Michel Metry from Susten– we tied!)
Leukerbad. The route goes up the middle of the photo.
Leukerbad. The route goes up the middle of the photo. Look very closely, or expand the photo, and you’ll see the tram station at the top. It’s that impossibly tiny dot on the skyline.

Spring 2016 update: The Gemmi Challenge now starts at the tram station base, and the time has been lowered to 65 minutes. Everything else remains, thankfully, very much the same. Good luck!

Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.