This article is part of the Run the Alps Back to Our Roots series, in which we highlight some of the many low-key, village-based trail races around the Alps– the ones that don’t get the lavish international media spotlight. During the summer, Run the Alps staff, guides, ambassadors, and friends had a chance to take part in these great events, and we wanted to shine a bit of light on these events, too! Enjoy.
The Aletsch Glacier is a sight to behold. Winding its way over 20 kilometers between the highest mountains of the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, this ice giant is the largest glacier in the Alps. The first time I ran the panoramic trails high above the glacier was over four years ago, spurred on by the amazing pictures in Run the Alps Switzerland: 30 Must-Do Trail Runs. I remember thinking that these trails needed to be on every trail runner’s tick list! So, when Jakob Herrmann, the founder and race director of the Swiss Alps 100 Endurance Run, reached out and offered me the opportunity to run this race, I jumped at the chance.
The Swiss Alps 100 takes place in Fiesch, a Swiss ski town near Brig, that’s below the Aletsch Glacier. The event is a festival of trail running with many different challenges for mountain athletes. It offers traditional race distances of 50, 100 & 160 kilometers as well as a huge, uphill only race that takes runners 1860 vertical meters up to the very top of the local ski area. This is also the first trail race that I have been a part of that offers a “fly” race designed for hike’n’fly paragliders.
With a full season of guiding running tours for Run the Alps in my legs, I opted for the 50 kilometer distance. That would get me onto the trails I remembered loving so much, and not leave me crippled for my next work as a trail running guide a few days later.
When I mentioned the race to my partner, Kate, she loved the idea and signed up to run the 50km too! This would not only be her first 50km race, but also her first trail race in the Alps. We decided to run together. I was excited to share a challenging and memorable day on the trails in a fantastic environment.
When you haven’t raced in a while, let alone a race in another country, everything is exciting. Even registering and picking up your bib, GPS tracker, and freebies all get the adrenaline going. We got the impression from registration that this race is a real grassroots operation. It reminded me of the vibe I experienced at Lizzy Hawker’s race, Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. Both have a small group of volunteers working hard to make a memorable experience for the runners. No obvious big sponsorship, not too much over-professionalism, and lots of friendly, smiling faces. Everyone was there to have a fun weekend of trail running.
Our race, the 50km, started at 6am on a Saturday morning in August. It was set to be a beautiful, cloud-free day, and there was a great energy amongst the 200 or so runners that congregated in the pre-dawn light. This was the kind of start line I like: mellow, stress-free, and no one taking themselves too seriously. We even started just slightly late as someone distracted the race director who gave a comically rushed 5,4,3,2,1, BANG, and we were off.
The first part of our race took us straight up from Fiesch. The 1400-meter gain went by pretty easily, and as we left the shadow of tree line, we were met by warm sun cresting the mountains to the east. It was going to be another hot day in the Alps, something we have gotten used to this summer. Just as we were greeted by the sun, we turned a corner back into the shade, and onto a rocky, traversing trail above the glacier.
This really is the jewel in the crown of the race. It’s hard to find a better view to accompany a run. The trail gently undulates along the side of the steep, glaciated mountainside, and we could open our gait to a run after hiking up the first climb.
All too soon, we left behind the cool glacial air as we turned the corner to head towards the second aid station near the Gletscherstube hut. This one made me smile! I’ve never before seen an aid station in a race set-up from the trunk of a car. It was more like a scene from an FKT attempt. There were potato chips, apples, peanut M&M’s, and gels waiting for hungry runners who dived into the trunk, trying to score a handful of the sustenance of their choice.
Leaving the aid station at Gletscherstube, the trail starts its journey back down towards the valley, away from the glaciers and mountains and towards the forests and meadows. It is a stunning piece of running and continued the quality of the trails. Swiss engineering and attention to detail were ever present as we ran over suspension bridges, down steep stairs built into rock faces, and up almost vertical ladders. It was a fun section of trail that eventually gave way to a short climb and then cruisey, smooth trails to the next aid station at kilometer 27.
Kate’s energy started to wane before getting to the checkpoint, but we were over halfway and felt confident that we were on track to finish in the time we had arbitrarily set for ourselves.
The next aid station at Niederwald served hot dogs and Bärli-Biberli, a classic Swiss gingerbread biscuit made of almond and honey. It was not my usual choice for race nutrition, so instead we stuck to the other options, potato chips, ice tea, and gulped down another gel.
After such a great first 27km, the next section of the 50km course seemed a shame, since we spent a long time running on the road. Though, while it felt like forever, it was actually only about 5km. It also felt longer, since Kate’s stomach had also started to give her some problems, making it hard to run properly, but she dug deep. Eventually, we got off the tarmac and onto the final trail climb.
This final climb of 700 meters or so put the final nail in the coffin for Kate’s stomach. Shortly after we started the final descent towards Fiesch and the finish line, Kate had to dash into the bushes to “take care of business.” Another 15 minutes down the trail and I turned around to see her vomiting in a ditch. What an experience for your first ultra! Neither of these episodes seemed to phase her one bit, however. If you can get through that with a smile, then you have chosen the right sport.
The last 7km felt hard. Hot, undulating and runnable…unless you are suffering with stomach cramps. Kate pushed on, forced herself to run, plunged her head into every available water fountain en route until we arrived at what is quite possibly the cruelest finish to a race that I have ever run. We spotted the finish line. It was just below the road we were running on. “It’s over!” But the flags led us away from the finish, looping around the back of the sports center that held the race start and finish area. Any thoughts of jogging across the finish line were dashed as we ran downhill below the finish, and then turned the next corner to be forced back uphill to stagger the final 100 meters of the race. Kate valiantly broke into a jog in the 5 meters before the finish, crossed the line, passed the offer of a medal, and went to collapse in the shade. After a few minutes of dry heaving and dizziness, I convinced Kate to take a walk to the medical tent where they took good care of her, cooled her down, and got electrolytes in her. Talk about running your first ultra race and giving it your all!
After the medical team was convinced that Kate was in good shape, we wandered back to our hotel and I asked her to reflect on her first Alpine race experience.
Kate: Probably, everything between the first and the second aid stations. This is the section after we crested the main climb, saw the glacier, and got onto those runnable trails with amazing views. The downhill after the second aid station would have been amazing, but I couldn’t enjoy it, as I was bonking pretty bad and had to concentrate on not tripping over my own feet!
Kate: For me the most difficult part of the race was once we had dropped into the valley after the last descent. My stomach just wouldn’t let me run the easy trails back into town and I felt sad that I couldn’t enjoy the finish as we ran the circle around the sports center and uphill to the finish line…it just finished me off!
Kate: Yes and no. If you want to run with good views and in stunning places come to the Alps! But be prepared for big climbs and technical trails. The grassroots atmosphere of the Swiss Alps 100 made racing feel less intimidating than I was expecting. It was a great race to start with and the longer courses are appealing too.
A huge thanks to Jakob Herrmann, all the team at Swiss Alps 100 and Aletsch Area for putting on a great weekend of racing and giving us the opportunity to come and run in a fantastic area of the Alps.
The 160km is beckoning!
Originally from the Lake District, in the North West of England, Sam Hill is a full-time freelance International Mountain Leader. Besides guiding running tours with Run the Alps, his work often takes him further afield. He’s a big believer in doing what you love, and does exactly that through guiding and photography.