With over 50,000 kilometers of maintained trails and an average altitude of over 4000 feet, Switzerland actually earns the often-used compliment, "trail runner's paradise". As easy on the eyes as it is tough on the lungs, trail running in Switzerland can mean anything from an easy jog through a field of grazing brown cows to a steep and rocky quad-burner at 8000 feet.
Long known as a top travel destination for hikers, Switzerland is rapidly gaining equal acclaim for its running scene, with races such as the Jungfrau and Davos marathons drawing an international field. If you wouldn't mix the words "fun" and "26.2 miles up a mountain", no worries. The Swiss landscape offers options for every trail runner, including flat city multi-use trails and graded farm-to-farm paths.
Switzerland's trail network is a vestige of the country's pre-industrial days, when dirt paths connected nearly every city and village in the country, which now hosts a population of about seven million. While most people know Switzerland as the land of secret bank accounts, ultra-accurate watches and great cheese, many are surprised to see that anachronisms like horse-drawn milk carts are still in use today. Although today's Swiss may tool around in Mercedes, some of the country's smallest villages weren't connected to the road system until the mid-twentieth century. In the absence of asphalt, farmers, goats, cows and families out for a Sunday hike used the ubiquitous "wanderweg" paths that trail runners now find snaking out from Zurich's center or any village's main square.
From a foreigner's perspective, the most amazing thing about Swiss trails is that they are literally everywhere; step off a train in any city or village and it is hard not to fall over the yellow arrow signs pointing the way up or down the nearest hill or valley. Forget hours in the car or running along a four-lane highway; just pick two towns and chances are that you can run between them. In the words of experienced trail runner Christie Aschwanden, "You can pretty much trail run from any one point to another". Aschwanden, an American science and sports writer based near the mountain resort of St. Moritz, goes on to say, "the number and quality of trails here are better than anywhere I've seen in the United States". "Jungfrau Marathon" finisher Alberto de Fanis, an Italian based in Japan, sums up his experience, "I've run perhaps one hundred races since [the "Jungfrau Marathon"] with more than one overall victory, but that race is still the one that gave me the strongest emotions", quite a compliment considering that the race involves an altitude gain of more than 1800 meters and can be snow-covered at any time of the year.
Adding to the joy of trail running in Switzerland is the country's outstanding infrastructure and passion for efficiency. Noting that the Swiss go out walking in any kind of weather, Aschwanden comments that even in snow season, many trails are packed and groomed so that it is possible to trail run year round. Trails in Switzerland are classified as either Wanderweg (walking paths), which are often graded and rolling, or the steeper, rockier and higher-altitude Bergweg (mountain paths). All trails are identified by yellow arrow-shaped signs bearing the name of the path's destination and the approximate walking time to get there. Runners will find the Wanderweg to be for the most part wide and smooth with no technical sections, often traveling through farmland on the way from one village to another with a café at the end of the route. Bergweg, indicated by a red and white blaze on their yellow arrow signs as well on trees and rocks along the way, may involve technical sections or safety aids such as ladders, but should still meet some runners' definition of "runnable". High mountain paths, designated by blue and white blazes, may require a guide or technical climbing equipment in some spots.
Switzerland is about the size of Massachusetts, divided lengthwise by the Alps and anchored by its largest cities, German-speaking Zurich in the North-East and French-speaking Geneva in the West with the capital Berne lying between them, and the Italian-speaking regions to the South. While trail running can and does happen anywhere in the country, experienced runners wax particularly poetic about the Bernese Oberland region near the major resorts of Interlaken and Grindelwald and the Engadine area around St. Moritz and the Swiss National Park. Also high on the list of many runners is the Italian-speaking southern region of Ticino, where outstanding Italian food adds to the lure of the mountains. However, it is possible to run even from the largest cities. Hans Martin Graf, a runner whose racing credits include the "Davos Alpine 30k", suggests a trail along Berne's Aare river, which runs through the center of town. "Just find the river and run as along as you like. Easy, car-free and close to the city". A twenty minute train ride from Berne (take the Schwartzenburg train) drops runners in the valley village of Niederscherli, where trails take off for higher ground and views of the Bernese Alps. Highly recommended is the trail to Borisried (approximately 1 hour), home to a great cheese factory and small café restaurant with a panoramic terrace.
Visitors to Zurich will find an equal array of accessible trails, especially in the vicinity of the city's closest mountain, the Uetliberg, altitude 871 meters. To get to a pleasant starting point, take the number 13 tram from Zurich Hauptbahnhof (main train station) to Albisguetli. After checking out a panorama of the city, lake Zurich and the Alps beyond, runners can follow a Wanderweg south along the lake, either doing an out and back or running as far as the suburb of Rapperswil (about 30 miles) and returning to Zurich by train. For flatter but still eye-catching options, numerous paved paths take off from the intersection of the Limmat river and Lake Zurich, right in the center of town; head south along the lakeshore and pick your own distance.
Runners in Switzerland need to be prepared for varied surfaces and weather conditions, so proper gear is essential. Relating his experience crossing the country on foot, American hiker Brandon Wilson says "Even in the spring and fall, the temperature can make sudden swings. Mornings can be bracing and afternoons can become hot and dry. And of course, rain is always a possibility". Shoes are a major concern; Alberto de Fanis reports that he ran the "Jungfrau Marathon" in road shoes and would do so again unless conditions were wet. American runner Christie Aschwanden prefers trail shoes, "mostly because I've found a pair that really works for me", but says that road or trail shoes wear out quickly on the rocks and uneven terrain of the higher-elevation trails.
Trail racing in Switzerland can involve anything from an easy run through low-altitude meadows to some of the world's hardest contests. Adopting slogans such as "The crazy peaks experience" and "The world's most beautiful marathon", Swiss trail races often involve racing uphill and then taking a tram or gondola for the return. Those who have raced in Switzerland caution neophytes not to judge a race by its length, but by its altitude profile. Christie Aschwanden found the entry form for the "Haldi Berglauf" online and thought its length (9.5k) sounded like a great run for a weekend morning. However, upon arrival she found that the race involved an altitude gain of 1419 meters and grades of up to nineteen percent. Undeterred, Aschwanden attacked the course where at the steepest points, "I could almost put my hand out and touch the trail in front of me, it was so steep. I've run Pike's Peak and this was much harder. Finally the course reached a false summit and flattened out over a meadow where there were some local farmers cheering and giving out water". Upon crossing the finish line, Aschwanden was surprised to find not the gondola she had been hoping for, but a helicopter hovering overhead and dropping off the runners' bags for them to carry back down the mountain. "I actually won a prize, but I was so tired and hungry that we didn't even stay for the awards" says Aschwanden, who qualifies this experience by saying that in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, many races provide not only a ride down the mountain but a place to shower as well as a full meal after the race, culminating with awards which often offer cash prizes.
The "Jungfrau Marathon" does offer a cog railway ride down, but only after the approximately 2000 starters leg it from the lakeside resort of Interlaken to the mountain hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg, altitude 2100 meters. Italian Alberto de Fanis offers some perspective on the self-named world's most beautiful marathon course, saying "At the time I ran this race, my best half was 1:30 but I still had no clue what time to aim for. I was 22 and my friend was in his late thirties, we finished in 4:36, our friend in his early fifties needed about 1:30 more. We started conservatively and in the second half passed tens of people per kilometer, but even passing so many runners I remember the fortieth kilometer took us fourteen minutes. That is probably the slowest kilometer I've ever run, the most painful but also the most enjoyable". Alberto de Fanis goes on to describe the enthusiastic presence of thousands of spectators and the amazing views along the course. "The race was so hard, I guess I wouldn't have been able to do it without the terrific view of the glaciers coming down from the Jungfau on the last third, the Eiger north face at the end, the presence of my more experienced friend and the support of the public. There were thousands of spectators cheering along the course in the middle of the mountains where even cars are not allowed to go". For Jungfrau hopefuls, de Fanis emphasizes the importance of finding a good, steep mountain and making use of it. His longest training run was about 20 miles, but "at the time we were more hikers than marathon runners, so the steepest parts suited us better than it did others. More than once I did a training run with 5,000 feet of elevation gain". Races in Switzerland are usually well supported, and de Fanis says that the Jungfrau's aid stations were "simple but had all the necessary items: water, sport drinks, hot tea, bananas, and some other light food".
The website of the "Swiss Alpine Marathon" Davos/Bergün might be emphasizing the obvious by referring to the race as "a real challenge". Sometimes referred to as the toughest mountain ultramarathon in the world, the race involves 78 kilometers and two mountain passes, with a 21k run on a narrow and exposed mountain path. If 78k at 2,600 meters of elevation isn't your idea of a great workout, there are other options, including an 81k five member relay with legs for bikes or in-line skates, a "flatter" 42k marathon introduced in 2003, and a 30k trail race that skips the mountain pass section of the route. The postcard-ready mountain resort of Davos is nestled in the canton of Graubünden, slightly to the South of Liechtenstein and not far from the British royal family's favorite ski destination, Klosters. Davos is a great race to make a vacation out of, and not just because it might take a few days to. Notably, the entry fee includes a round trip rail ticket from Zurich that is good from July until August. Not surprisingly, the Davos/Bergün area also offers great hiking and mountain biking possibilities. The courses for all the Davos races other than the high-altitude 42k take off from Davos town and head in a counter-clockwise loop downhill toward the village of Bergün, where the "flat" marathon ends. The altitude profile is tempting, but be aware that this early section course involves runners, walkers and bikers. The 78k and team relay races continue on, and up, to about 2,700 meters. Runner's reach the course's high point at about kilometer 50, then dip briefly below 2,500 meters before ascending again to cross the Scaletta pass, where the course heads back down its final 15k to finish in Davos. The village goes all out for this race, boasting Davos Experience Week where runners can attend an expo, pasta dinner, group hikes and more.
If you are looking for something to do after Davos, Switzerland's comprehensive trail system and huge hospitality industry also offer the possibility of doing multi-day runs. Especially attractive to runners wanting to do a multi-day or one-way run is Switzerland's extensive public transportation network. In addition to its notoriously prompt trains, even the smallest villages are served by the yellow buses run by the Swiss postal service, known as the "Postauto", which even travel to Juf, Europe's highest village inhabited year-round. By using the Postauto, it is often possible to do a one-way run without needing a car on either end, or to have bags transported to the next village on the running route. Tourist offices, located in nearly every Swiss town, can provide information on the best routes and transport possibilities. The Swiss Alpine Club offers information about running between any of the 150 huts the club maintains.
Switzerland is a place that inspires superlatives. Most of the runners interviewed for this article commented that Switzerland offers some of the best running and the hardest running they have ever done. So whether you are after a Sunday trail or the Davos ultra, expect fun, a challenge, and great chocolate at the end.
Run The Planet thanks Corinne McKay for the permission to reprint the article "Runner's Paradise: On the Trail in Switzerland". Corinne McKay is a writer, French translator and outdoor enthusiast based in Fort Collins (Usa/Colorado). Her website is (www.translatewrite.com). Text © by Corinne McKay. Illustration © 2004 by Run The Planet.