This article is part of the Run the Alps Back to Our Roots series. During the summer, Run the Alps staff, guides, ambassadors, and friends have been trail running around the Alps, sharing the stories about the races that don’t get the lavish international media spotlight.
I stood in the dark with 70 runners, wet from the rain, in the quiet village of Bourg-St-Pierre, Switzerland. At 5am on 23rd July, with no pre-race hype – just one 10-second warning – the whistle blew and we left the two race officials and five spectators to run down valley on our 45km mountain adventure.
Taking place near to the Grand St Bernard pass, at the southern tip of the Valais canton, the Trail du Vélan is one of the longest-running trail races in the Alps. The local support and pride in the race is clear, and not surprising given the poignant story behind its creation: In March 1971 the guardian of the Cabane du Vélan, Raoul Max, was leading a group of four local youngsters just below the hut, when an avalanche took their lives. To show their respects, in 1977 about 100 people walked up to a chapel dedicated to the group, at the foot of the moraine that leads up to the Cabane du Vélan. The next day, 60 people ran in the first edition of the Cross du Vélan, running the same route to the oratory and continuing up to finish at the hut.
Sadly, two more guardians of the Cabane du Vélan also died in the mountains: Robert Balleys, who ventured out to help mountaineers in difficulty, and Dominique Max, who died in an avalanche in the Beaufort mountains of the French Alps. The Trail du Vélan commemorates these men, too.
Today’s event comprises an impressive range of options. Along with the Cross du Vélan, which is 6.8km and 1000m up to the Cabane du Vélan, the other courses are: the 45km Trail du Vélan; the 21km Petit Vélan, which covers the higher, more technical half of the Trail du Vélan; the 13km Trail Découverte, designed for new trail runners on the smoother trails in the Bourg-st-Pierre valley. There are also several short distances for children, called Le P’tit Cross.
Our first three kilometers of the 45km Trail du Vélan were mainly downhill on paved roads and jeep tracks, allowing the small field of runners to spread out and settle into a position in the race pack that was comfortable for them. As we started climbing from the valley, it was still raining and a southwesterly wind picked up – a wonderful change from the stifling heat that had dominated the summer. We speed-hiked up jeep tracks and past the strong smell of a mobile milking trailer.
A wonderful ridgeline trail brought us over Mont Brûlé, into the sun, and to the first aid station at 17km, Cabane de Mille. It became clear that this was a really friendly race. Runners were courteous, and the volunteers couldn’t have been more helpful, cheerfully offering us snacks and bouillon.
Wonderful single track took us most of the way to Azerin, winding along the flank of Mont Rogneux up at 2500m. I spent much of this section smiling and simply thinking, “I love this!”
I caught up with Anne-Lise, a French runner from the Jura, which proved helpful as the trails were vague and the race signage sparse. We ran together into Azerin, the second aid station, and ended up staying fairly near each other for the rest of the race. After Azerin, it was time for Trail du Vélan Part Two, where the character of the course changed completely. Anne-Lise and I commented that the hiking sign estimation of 4.5 hours to Cabane de Valsorey, the next aid station at 3060m, seemed surprisingly long. It made more sense as we climbed the rugged ridgeline of the Pointe de Penne, and then went through several cycles of disillusionment on the traverse, which played out like this:
I made a note to myself to look at the course profile more carefully in future races.
Technical single-track, boulder field crossings, and some easy scrambling brought us closer to the Valsorey glacier and, finally, the Cabane de Valsorey. The jovial group of volunteers helped fill my water bladder while I chatted, took pictures and stuffed my face with cheese and chocolate. The most challenging part of the race was done, leaving us with one more climb to Cabane de Vélan and then a long descent of the Valsorey valley back to Bourg-St-Pierre.
After climbing the moraine ridge to the final Cabane, I set off straight away down the valley. Anne-Lise soon overtook me as I struggled to get my feet to move faster on the rocky trail. For the final obstacle, a herd of feisty Hérens cows didn’t want to let us pass without some intimidation first!
The view continued to impress as the trail wound alongside the turbulent river back towards the village.
Nine hours after our early morning start, Bourg-St-Pierre was a different place. I thought the bustling crowd of hundreds of people eating and drinking next to tents and a bouncy child’s play castle must have been a different event, but I was in the right place. The crowd was 50 times bigger now! The race offered a choice of meals, consisting of raclette, chicken stew, or steak, and sweets were soon being tossed to entertain the kids during the lengthy prize-giving. The first three in each age category received the same prize: a full wheel of local raclette cheese for 1st, a half wheel for 2nd, and a quarter for 3rd. I was pleased to come third in my category, which awarded me a reasonable amount of cheese.
When the weather cools a little in the fall, I’ll share a special raclette dinner with some friends, and remember what a challenging, but beautiful and friendly, day I had at the Trail du Vélan.