Recently, US trail runner David Laney and I had a chance to visit with the organizing committee of Trail Verbier St-Bernard. “TVSB,” as it’s known, is one of the great trail races in the Alps. In fact, it’s not just one race but four, high in the beautiful Valais canton, often meandering along or near Switzerland’s border with Italy.
David and I weren’t running – though he did sneak out for a run up to Fenêtre de Ferret from the tiny end-of-the-valley village of La Fouly. Instead, we joined the committee for their annual planting of Arolla pines, in a new grove just outside the village.
I asked Race Co-Director Matthieu Girard about the project, its origins, and why a trail race would be planting trees. We talked as volunteers dug holes, moved rocks, and packed soil around freshly planted Arolla pines. Here’s what he had to say.
(Matthieu, by the way, is very familiar with US trail running. This past summer, he finished 14th in the Silverton, Colorado’s Hardrock 100.)
Run the Alps: When did the race start planting trees – and why?
Matthieu: We started three years ago. It was the idea of Tiphaine Artur, my Race Co-Director. Her idea was simple: to give something back to nature. We are very sensitive to the imprint that we as a trail race make on nature.
So, we decided to plant some trees. It’s a symbol, of course. But it’s very nice.
Run the Alps: Why Arolla pines?
Matthieu: We chose the Arolla pines because these trees are special to us and to this area. I think that they reflect the spirit of trail runners, too. They’re very strong. They have to be strong, to endure rough winters.
Run the Alps: Why this location?
Matthieu: We selected this spot with help from La Fouly’s forester. The village needed to plant new trees, and in particular, Arolla pines. The Arollas that were here, were cut by residents years ago. There were very few left. Instead what we had were a lot of fir trees. Fir trees quickly occupy all space in a forest, because their reproduction process is very effective. Arolla pines, by contrast, need 50 years to produce their first seeds. So, it’s difficult for them to compete. It just made a lot of sense for us to replace the firs with a tree that was indigenous.
In three years we’ve planted sixty-six trees. It’s not a lot, but Arollas are actually very expensive. They grow very slowly.
Run the Alps: Trail Verbier St. Bernard has a number of initiatives to protect the environment. Can you tell me about the others?
Matthieu: In 2015, we joined the Ecosport program of SwissOlympics, which encourages us to promote environmental protection with different actions, such as offering a bus service to reduce private cars on race day, reducing the use of helicopters to supply the aid stations, or limiting the quantity of printed materials. For next year, we are studying using washable dishes for all the catering in Verbier. Every year we try to be more eco-friendly.
Run the Alps: Trail maintenance here is different than in many other countries outside of Europe, right?
Mattieu: Right. Here in Switzerland, it’s a little bit different than the US. The towns, or communes, are responsible for the trails. In some of the smaller towns, the trails are maintained by volunteers. Maybe one day we can consider volunteering here, to adopt a part of the trail. I like what I see in the United States, where trail runners are asked to give back to the land.
You can read more about Trail Verbier St-Bernard here. Registration has opened for 2019.
Interested in more trail running in the Alps? Run the Alps will be offering registration for any of the Trail Verbier St Bernard races, as part of a Run the Alps trip. Contact us for details.