The Austrian city of Salzburg is both old and incredibly beautiful. With a founding date of 696AD, think Baroque church-scapes built from ancient salt-extraction (the name Salzburg literally means ‘salt mountain’) and gold-mining garnered wealth. Its human-made beauty, evident throughout the Altstadt straddling the banks of the River Salzach, makes the city a fantastic destination for tourism of the pointing cameras, sandals and socks, flapping sheets of unwieldy city maps, and wallet emptying ice cream prices, kind.
It does not, on initial investigation, imbue you with thoughts of a trail running demi-mecca. That is until you focus your gaze past the turrets of the Hohensalzburg Fortress or the immaculate facade of the Kollegienkirche and spy the towering limestone massif of the curiously recognisable 1900-meter high Untersberg, the most famous ‘book-end’ mountain in mid-1960s film history – you know what I’m referring to, ‘The Sound of Music’ fans.
The position of Salzburg within easy striking distance of the north-western edge of this Julie Andrews inspired gateway to the Alps is enough to make it a sound idea as a platform from which to explore further afield in a country oft-overlooked as a trail destination in favor of its chocolate-loving, clock-making brethren to the west.
I should come clean as to my motives for being in Salzburg over a blazing hot June weekend. I admit that I had no idea of the ‘salt mountain’ moniker. I definitely had not made the connection with ‘The Sound of Music’…honest. Nor the inextricable links to one of the greatest musical prodigies who ever lived (not Julie Andrews). I was here for Mozart, not THE Mozart, the virtuoso whose repertoire extended to over 800 compositions in every genre of the age, but the trail race series of the same name.
The Mozart 100 by UTMB, to give it its full title, has been in existence for 10 years, around a quarter of the more famous Mozart’s full life span. It has recently become one of the UTMB World Series events amidst that confusing conglomerate’s hoop-jumping approach to qualifying for the ultimate circus in Chamonix. My reason for choosing this race was a bit less lofty; I needed to ‘prove fitness’ in order to be in contention for selection for the Great Britain ultra-trail team for the World Championships due to be held in Thailand in November. The Mozart Ultra, the younger brother of the Mozart 100, fit the bill perfectly at 75 km; +/- 4.000 m.
There are a few things I expect when I think of Austria; Teutonic straight-talking, apfelstrudel, a healthy respect for rules, lederhosen, dirndl dresses, endlessly blue lakes, flowing forest trails and mountains on top of mountains. I had never been to Austria before this summer and so these base stereotypes can solely be blamed on, yes, you guessed it, Julie Andrews again.
From the experience that I had it would be disingenuous of me to report anything but the confirmation of these stereotypes. There were a lot of people in lederhosen and dirndl, especially on a Sunday, there was a lot of apple strudel, people did have a healthy respect for rules and directness in their manner, and there were endless, glorious, stunning mountains, lakes, and snaking woodland trails.
I came for the strudel and stayed for the trails.
It is, technically, possible to run straight from the city and out onto mountainous trails, the local hills of the Monchsberg and Kapuzinerberg are testament to this, but the real action lies to the south and east of the city. Here dwell the crowning monoliths of the Untersberg and, slightly further, the Zwolferhorn, and Schafberg, of the Saustall Alps, touching the clouds at around 1500m altitude. A short trip well serviced by local buses and trains will take you to the beautiful villages of Fuschl am See and, further on, St Gilgen on the banks of the Fuschlsee and Wolfgangsee respectively. Speaking from the experience of running past both of these mountain lakes I can say, hand on heart, that they are the most gorgeously welcoming pools of water you will ever see in your life.
If you want to get the full ‘most gorgeously welcoming pools of water’ experience then I would suggest not doing the Mozart 100 by UTMB, or, at least, don’t race it because racing will keep you a full meter from the water’s edge, staring longingly into the azure blueness.
Shucks, listen to me getting all gooey-eyed over a couple of ponds. We’re here for the running not swimming, right?
The best way to appreciate these two pristine bodies of liquid, and if you crane your neck and stand on tiptoes, Salzburg itself, are from the encircling heights, which create an amphitheater with a dozen or more ‘f*ck me!’ inducing panoramas from their ample acmes. Indeed that’s exactly what Hoka-ninja Harry Jones and I said when we reached the top of the Zwolferhorn after just 10 lung-busting uphill kilometers of running in the race that was our raison d’etre for visiting the area. The effort to get there was, as alluded to, fairly taxing, but the reward pays dividends.
This becomes a recurring theme in the north-western part of Austria in the foothills of the Alps proper. Steep climbs through forested valleys lead past winter sports infrastructure and just-when-you-need-it Alpine huts to summits with 360-degree vistas. A perfect antidote to the climb, provided your eyes aren’t stung-shut from sixteen gallons (plus or minus) of sweat cascading down your brow.
Europe was going through one of its increasingly common heatwaves and, while I managed a good impression of the more liquid element of water, I failed miserably in the flow. The second half of the Mozart 100 by UTMB follows the fast, groomed lakeside trails and tracks on a meandering course, generally downhill though not without its lumps and bumps, back to Salzburg with a cruel climb onto the Nochstein, the pinnacle of a ridge that bisects the valley proper.
I wish I could say that my running during the race flowed like water cascading down abundant mountain streams, but that would be a lie. A blatant one at that. Cue the runner, tired, sweaty, stumbling about like a drunken clown, and longing to jump in one of those perfect pools.
Speaking of perfect pools…if I had had the cojones and wherewithal I would have taken advantage of the pool on the grandest stage of all, the famous Residenzbrunnen in the aptly named Residenzplatz. This, a fountain finished in 1661, was, alas, not the place to wash away the grime of 70km of racing.
The finish takes you on a grand tour of the opulence that Austria once knew, by the landmarks of Mozart’s youth and the legacies of a more sinister recent past, to finish under the watchful ramparts of that famous old castle.
There are a rich host of other races in Austria that will tickle the feet of any runner, of any ability, and of any inclination as to preferred distance. The Mozart 100 has races from 10km up to 100km for a start. A quick search on Ecosia reveals a full calendar through the spring and summer months, with the choicest selection found on the excellent Run the Alps ‘Race Finder’ resource.
I often ask myself, during moments of existential angst, if I’d rather ‘more space’ or ‘more time’. The answer, in that perfect world, would be a resounding ‘both;’ the answer, in this imperfect one, is ‘pick one, and be quick about it’.
The running in Austria comes closest to that perfect world.
Time is an embraced luxury away from an admittedly hardly-cut-throat Salzburg city. And space? Get to the top of the Schafberg with its overlook and talk to me of ‘space.’
[Editor’s Note: In his typically understated fashion, George finished in 2nd place, 20 minutes ahead of 3rd.]
George Foster is a fell and mountain runner from the north of England with a penchant for a croissant aux amandes. He works as a firefighter and tries to spend all of his free time in the mountains as much as possible, which luckily this career lends itself to well. He’s had the good fortune to run all over the Alps and the US, and plans to do so for as long as his body lets him!
Tags: Trail racing