I am just back from spending almost a week in Goms, the valley that runs from Brig to the base of the Furka Pass in the Valais.
I was there to help organize the Swiss Alps 100 Endurance Race. A bit of backstory: I came to the race three years ago when my runner friend Tom introduced me to Jakob Hermann. I first met Jakob over Skype because he lives in California.
He had left Brig/Glis after finishing high school in order to study computer engineering. And like many, he decided to stay. Jakob and Tom knew each other from ultra-running in the US. I am sure that you get the picture: the running community is well connected!
It turns out that Jakob had a dream of organizing a 100-mile run in his native Valais.
The Valais is no stranger to trail runs, boasting the Zermatt Marathon, Matterhorn Ultraks, Sierre-Zinal, and many more. I listened to Jakob’s story and learned about the trail he had scoped during his visits and using the Swiss Hiking Path website. It sounded great, and I signed on to help mark the course and coordinate other volunteers.
About the first edition of the Swiss Alps 100... or the Swiss Alps 80?
In 2017, we ran the Swiss Alps 100 for the first time, though it was neither 100 miles nor 100 kilometers - nor did we have 100 runners. We were a small group of runners going from Oberwald to Simplon Dorf - a distance of 80 km and some 5000 m of elevation.
It was challenging, and in the two days together with Jakob, my girlfriend and two other friends, I marked about 60 km of that trail. Jakob had marked the other twenty, plus the half marathon distance. If you want to know what dedication looks like, it’s this.
The White Curse: snow during the second edition
Last year was the premiere of the 100 km trail. To accommodate this, Jakob found a starting and finishing line that is more conveniently located at the airfield in Münster.
Having a loop course helped with logistics. This time, we had more volunteers for the marking of the route. But unfortunately, race day started cold and cloudy, quickly turning to rain. As temperatures dropped in the mountains, snow began to fall, and a thick blanket of fog left runners with little visibility.
After several runners got lost and one suffered from hypothermia, we had to make a hard decision and call off the race. Runners were stopped at the next aid station, and by midnight, the course had been cleared.
The event left all of us shocked and full of doubt. Should we even try to do it again? Then we started getting messages from runners showing their support for the decision, and we knew we had a second chance to run the race.
Jakob's dream does come true...
In 2018, Jakob did get to realize his dream: a 100-mile race. One hundred sixty kilometers with 10’000 meters of climb – the equivalent of running 260 km on flat terrain. I lucked out with the marking that year. Together with my friend, Mark Melnykowycz, with whom I started the Dromeus blog, we marked the distance from Niederwald to Riederfurka.
It is 22 km of some of Switzerland's most stunning landscape as you work your way up the Fieschertal, cross the Aspi-Tritter suspension bridge, climb up to the Gletscherstube and then run along the Aletsch Glacier. We were both in awe.
Even more trail to mark in 2019
Thankfully, we had even more help in 2019 and got done marking within two days: a 100 mi, a 100 km and a 50 km trail. On a Friday at 7 AM, the race started with 65 people. They took off from the airfield, continuing down along the Rhône River.
Less than five minutes after the race began, I was in a car to Belalp with two other first-aid volunteers from the International Ski Patrol. After some minor confusion at the cable car, we were on our way up from Blatten to Belalp. A twenty-minute walk brought us to the Hotel Belalp, where we quickly set up our aid station and waited for the first runners.
We waited and waited and waited, and then the goats came.
Goats are naturally curious animals, but they also have a keen sense of smell and will eat almost anything. Without notice, they charged the stand as a herd. They knocked over cups and spilled bowls while eating pretzels and M&Ms and chewing on oranges, only to spit them out in favor of more sweets...
Thanks to the hotel staff, we learned that goats don't like being splashed with water. The water method kept them away for most of the day, but there was always one of two hanging around waiting to try and steal something from the table.
At 12:15 PM, the first runner reached our station. Thirsty and a little hungry, he had something to eat and drink and was off on a 500-meter climb in 2.85 km to the Hexenbar at Belalp Hohbiel. An out-and-back portion of the course, the climb is tough, but the views are spectacular.
On the way back, the runners passed our station a second time before heading down the mountain. By 6:30 PM, all the runners had passed us and we packed up. I picked up a wheel of cheese from a stand and made my way to Grengiols to work the night shift.
Halfway there: Grengiols and the start of the climb
The Grengiols aid station is located at an intersection, with the race route going up a switch-back road that goes up over 1300 meters to the top of the Breithorn. Here, I saw many of the runners that had passed Belalp earlier.
I was surprised how cheerful most were despite being out for more than 12 hours and only halfway through the race. They came through until about 4:30 AM, beating the cut-off time of 6 AM.
The early passing of the runners gave me a brief moment to catch some much-needed shuteye in the small tent we had set up beside the station. I slept for about an hour and a half, but my mind was on the runners, and my feet were cold, so I got up and started prepping the station for the 100 km runners who would be passing through around 9 AM.
At 8:55 AM, the first runner came through Grengiols, having already run a half marathon distance with a 600-meter gain in elevation. A fantastic speed. After that, they came in waves until 11:15 AM. We then took down our station and went for a hot meal and a quick nap.
With 11 kilometers to go, I worked the last station all night long.
Shortly after midnight on Sunday, I was at the last aid station located in Reckingen and situated at the end of the Blinnental. After this station, the runners had 11 km more on a rolling forest path, followed by a straight break for the finish line on a country road along the Rhône.
The runners coming in here were generally exhausted, though still positive. At this point in the race (150 km or 90 km), they were eating little food and just wanted Coca-Cola and water. They knew they would finish.
We did not pull anyone from the station and only had one person give up here. Throughout the night, we spotted bobbing headlamps coming out of the forest and moving towards us. Around 7 AM, the last person passed our station and we started dismantling. By 8:30 AM, I was back at the starting line to see the last runners cross the finish.
To all those who finished within the allotted time - congratulations on an ultra-human feat!
With you, next year will be even better!
Ever since the race, we have been getting feedback on how to further improve it along with many congratulations. It was a real team effort. And were it not for all the volunteers, it would not have been possible.
People who stayed up all night, took nearly a week off work to mark the trails, coordinate stations and more. If you would like to run this race or be a volunteer, we would love to see you next year at the Swiss Alps 100! We will be announcing next year's dates soon.
(All photographs copyright Sportograf)