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Thyon-Dixence 2014: The Race Across the Fog

Thyon-Dixence 2014: The Race Across the Fog

Oct 31, 2014

Editor’s note: July and early August 2014 proved to be one of the wettest periods in Switzerland in more than sixty years. Views were far and few between, alas. Nonetheless, Run the Alps’ self-guided trail runners Walt and Melissa Bleser made the best of a cloudy situation. While there, they took part in one of Switzerland’s more interesting trail races, Thyon-Dixence. The race starts at a high elevation above the Rhône valley, and finishes at a large dam, Dixence, not far from Switzerland’s border with Italy. We’re pleased to share Walt’s race report.

There is a series of endurance races in the Colorado town of Leadville, one of which is known as the “Race Across the Sky.” The term comes from the fact that you are riding or running no lower than 10,000 feet in elevation, and can see for miles in each direction due to the lack of vegetation at that altitude. For us, and the menacing weather, the 2014 Thyon-Dixence point-to-point 16.5k trail race in the Swiss Alps was lovingly referred to as the “Race Across the Fog,” because you could not see more than fifty feet in any one direction, the entire day.

On Saturday, August 2nd, we packed our bags in Zinal, and jumped on the early morning bus to Vissoie, where we caught the bus to Sierre, where we caught the bus to Sion, and then the bus to Les Collons, a tiny village just below the ski town of Thyon 2000, which sounds like the name of less-than-stellar 1980s sci-fi flick. Or maybe a hairdryer sold exclusively on late-night TV. But it’s actually a town high in the Alps, in the Valais canton of Switzerland, not too very far from the French border. As for that “2000,” it demarks the elevation in meters. An odd choice from a ski area re-branding team, we guessed. It could have been “en haut,” or “sous montagne,” but apparently futuristic enthusiasm can get the best of village elders sometimes.

This year, the only view to be found was on the race bib.
This year, the only view to be found was on the race bib.

We found our hotel, checked in, and had lunch at the restaurant… which proved to be the only place to eat this time of year. With nary a centimeter of snow on the ground, nearly every business was closed. The food was good, but, well, you can only have so much fondue, and I hope for your sake it’s not the night before a trail race. Each chunk of white bread you drown in cheese and then devour will have its revenge on you after the starting gun goes off.

After lunch, we threw on our raincoats and grabbed a bus up to Thyon 2000 to get our bearings. We quickly realized why Run the Alps booked us in a hotel below because there was not much to speak of at Thyon 2000. It was as if Loveland Ski Area in my native Colorado, had picked up all its structures and moved in with Arapahoe Basin. There was a small complex of apartments, a building that housed a restaurant, a ski shop, and an open courtyard with one of those large chess games where the pieces are four feet tall. In other words, it was a bit surreal.

As we were wandering around, we met a member of the Swiss National Mountain Running Team. She was super friendly and spoke English, which seemed rare at this point, so it was fun to chat with her. She explained that the limited housing at Thyon 2000 was for elite runners only. As we spoke to her, the Kenyan national team walked by and we quickly realized this was the real deal, not a local-for-fun-10k. The prize money was quite good, and a lot of big names came out to play, which reminded me of a quote from the late Hunter S. Thompson:

Marathon running, like golf, is a game for players, not winners. That is why Callaway sells golf clubs and Nike sells running shoes. But running is unique in that the world’s best racers are on the same course, at the same time, as amateurs, who have as much chance of winning as your average weekend warrior would scoring a touchdown in the NFL.

We woke up early on Sunday, August 3rd, and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was not raining but simply gray and foggy. We threw on our running clothes and headed downstairs, where we spotted a young couple who were also headed to the race. The husband spoke limited English, while his wife spoke as much English as I speak French (read: none), but somehow we convinced them it would be a good idea to rearrange the baby seats in their station wagon and take us from Los Collons 1850 to the start at 2000. (Bucket list item: hitchhiking, check!)

Swiss trail races have amusingly named categories. In our case, we were signed up for the vaguely demeaning “Tourist” division, as opposed to the “Runner” category. We later learned that “Runner,” should really be translated as “Extremely Elite” and possibly with the subtitle, “World Class Kenyan.” For the first time this entire trip, we were embraced for being tourists.

Check-in was difficult because nobody spoke English. Luckily, a list of registered athletes was posted on the wall, and we were able to write down our race numbers and show them to the volunteers to receive our race bibs. The bibs were actually quite nice, and included a photo that reminded us of how nice the view could have been–were we not deep in a cloud.

The tourist division gets ready for action. Note the remarkably gray view. It was the wettest July in 60 years in the Valais canton, where the race is held.
The tourist division gets ready for action. Note the remarkably gray view. It was the wettest July in 60 years in the Valais canton, where the race is held. (Photo courtesy of Grégory Clivaz.)

Thyon-Dixence is small compared to other Swiss trail races, but it still had 1,000 participants. Fortunately, Swiss trail race directors have a lot of things figured out, perhaps the wisest of which is that they started the Tourist category at 8:30 am, and two hours later Elites begin their race. This allows the tourists to finish, have some food, put on a jacket, and then watch the Elites come over the finish line. I have never competed in a format like this, and it was cool to see the Elites smoke the very course I had just traversed.

My wife Melissa and I lined up amid the Euro-tourist-runner-pack of roughly 600. Looking around, it was clear that Salomon owns trail running in Europe. We saw everything, from the athletically fit and toned to the rotund sporting running poles, all decked out in Salomon red and white. It was a very similar demographic to a U.S. trail race–minus the poles and language barrier, and the countless men in spandex shorts or Capris. The gun went off. Six hundred Europeans started galloping towards the first climb. And, later we found out, just two Americans. Pretty cool.

Nice form, but I need Photoshop to do some tan line adjustments!
Nice form, but I need Photoshop to do some tan line adjustments!

I sprinted along the outside of the group, leaving Melissa to fend for herself amongst the savage Euros. Before I knew it, I hit the first climb, at just a third of a mile in. Over the next 1.9 miles, we climbed 850 feet. For me, this was ideal, as a two-mile climb is pretty much how all of our trail runs begin near our home on Colorado’s Front Range. I took advantage of this familiarity and passed several runners. More than several, actually. I guessed 75, or so. In fact, I could see the leading pack when I crested the climb.

Here, my friends, is where the wheels came off.

As I have mentioned, we named the 2014 edition of Thyon-Dixence “The Race Across the Fog,” and when I say fog, I don’t mean lighthearted cotton-candy fog that keeps you cool and breaks for a view here and there. I mean the wet, damp, slick, nasty stuff. The kind that induces falls, scrapes, and bad footing. I am used to the high desert climate of dry, sandy trails, or high alpine trails of scree that have plenty of grip. This was as if a rocky trail from Breckenridge had been shipped to British Columbia for the week, to get saturated, and then picked up and moved to Seattle in winter.
I lost several spots to fearless, flailing, falling, stumbling Euros. I have no idea how they did it.

The descent continued for the next mile and a half. Thankfully, some of it was a gravel road, which was a welcome respite. Then, at mile 3.5, we pulled into an aid station that featured cold water, hot water, or fruit juice. An odd assortment, for sure. I opted for cold water and then headed forth onto single track. The next four miles went up and down sharply, with wet rock gardens and multiple creek crossings. I found it difficult and at one point fell and slammed my hip on a rock. What really stuck out on this single track was how the Euros ran it. They would tailgate and say nothing. Not a word. Not “Peux-je vous passer?” or “Bougez-vous!” Nothing but heavy, labored breathing. Several times, I opted to move aside. They’d yell, “Merci!” and go careening into the rock fields as if they somehow had secretly modified shoes.

As we ran this gnarly single track, you could hear cowbells off in the distant, and the bleeting of sheep. Neither herd nor flock was the least bit visible, though. Mile 7.5 featured another aid station, which proved to be a godsend. I could take a break and recompose myself. Unfortunately, I accidentally chose a cup of hot water, which was a weird aid-station experience. After the stop, we began another mile-long climb, followed by a half-mile descent, a half-mile straight-up climb… then a screaming descent down a gravel road to the finish atop of the famed Dixence dam.

The 2013 race featured a lot fewer clouds, and a lot more blue sky. The finish at the Dixence dam is visible in the distance. (Photo courtesy of Grégory Clivaz.)

As I climbed the last hill, I heard fans screaming, Hop hop! and Allez-Allez! while alphorns bellowed in the distance. The fog made it all pretty surreal. I picked a few folks off, and a few more on our finish across the top of the Dixence dam, which came just past the right-out-of-the-Swiss-Tourism-Bureau horn player. I finished in 1:52, good enough for 35th place overall and 7th in my age group. Not a bad result given the conditions, or where I started, or the fact the field of runners was more akin to a pack of wild dogs than the trail racers I was used to back home.

As I waited for my wife to finish, I perused the refreshments. They had regular Pepsi, Pepsi light, sweet tea, hot sweet tea and water. Not a beer in sight. I grabbed a warm tea, and also some sort of food. I must have looked perplexed as a guy informed me, “It’s a pastry with nut paste.” Despite the unappetizing translation of an otherwise tasty Swiss hazelnut treat, I grabbed one and headed over to a curb to refuel. I sat there, taking in the energy and general vibe of my surroundings. The finish area was no different than an American race, with people chatting, looking at their watches as they finished, and most likely comparing apparel—in this case, nearly all Salomon. It was a good scene, and truly cool to take it all in.

Melissa rolled in bit later, nursing a running injury that had plagued her for the month of July, but happy to finish. Unfortunately, the cold fog killed most of the post-race festivities that had been planned, so we simply grabbed our finisher Tech T’s and headed to the gondola that took us to our bus and back to old, now-familiar 2000.

As we were departing, we saw the male Elite race winner come across in a time of 1:09, and the female Elite winner at 1:20, a new course record, in these awful conditions. They were same Kenyans we had seen the night before.

Thyon-Dixence offers as competitive a field as any trail race in the Alps. Here, Isaac Kosgei from Kenya crosses the finish line, in a time of 1:09:52.
Thyon-Dixence offers as competitive a field as any trail race in the Alps. Here, Isaac Kosgei from Kenya crosses the finish line, in a time of 1:09:52.

Not smart enough to bring a complete race bag and take advantage of the showers at the Ritz Hotel (importantly, there was no “Carlton” appended to the name, though), we immediately took the bus back to Thyon 2000. Once there, we hiked down to Los Collons, where we immediately jumped into a warm shower, followed by warm clothes. I had enough of feeling like George Costanza in the infamous Seinfeld episode involving a cold pool and an awkward moment of exposure. (I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.)

The next day we packed up, hopped a Swiss Postbus to Sion, took a train to Lausanne, and then the ultra-fast TGV (“Train à Grand Vitesse“) to Paris.  We flew out the next day.  Surprisingly, we did not miss a single connection the entire trip, and relied solely on public transportation. No I-70 traffic. No parking problems. It was spectacular.

I am now sitting at home in Denver, in my living room, staring at the same post card on my coffee table.

“Running in the Alps is unique” it says.

“Like nowhere on earth,” Doug says.

“Come see for yourself,” Doug says.

Right, he was.

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.