A tram to a regional train to a plane to an intercity train to a regional train to an alpine train to a train replacement bus, and a cable car. So was our nearly 12-hour journey from Berlin to the Swiss alpine resort town of Verbier.
And it was worth every transfer.
As has been the theme this year––from Gran Canaria to the Scottish Cairngorms, and the Greek island of Hydra––we traveled for a trail race. This time, it was UTMB’s Trail Verbier St-Bernard 26-kilometer X-Plore course.
Paying the price for Switzerland
This, remarkably, was the ‘baby’ of the races on offer––not counting the ‘Discovery Race’ for kids up to 14. The other options included a 44-kilometer marathon, a 76-kilometer traverse, and the most extreme of them all, a 140-kilometer alpine trek.
Ours included 1,700 meters (5,577 feet) of elevation at altitude. But before I worried too much about the elevation, I joined my fellow travelers for some beers at the first bar we could spot, fresh off the cable car. Then it was straight to our dinner reservation at L’écurie. The homemade ravioli with spinach, mozzarella, and morels was an easy decision despite the hefty 34 CHF price tag. (Switzerland –– it ain’t cheap.)
Our apartment was just a 15 or 20-minute walk away, but it was going up the entire walk. We’re talkin’ the definition of a schlepp. There was an unintentionally synchronized crescendo of collapsing as soon as we arrived, rising again only to admire the sunset view of the alps from our balcony.
This view, this mountain air is why you pay the price tag of Switzerland.
Alpine shakeout run
The morning started off back on the patio, this time admiring the paragliders floating in the valley like leaves caught in the wind. After a filling Germanic breakfast of bread, müsli, yogurt, and fruit, we ventured back into Verbier for a cable car ride even higher into the mountains.
Melanie and I opted for a short shakeout run to get used to the local trails before the next day’s race. My Garmin watch––busy constantly tracking my heart rate, VO2 Max, and I assume, my self-loathing––showed me just how much my body struggled with the thin air. Fortunately I didn’t notice for long, sitting down at Le Dahu for a bowl of nettle soup (a first for me) and a few slices of pizza.
Then it was back down into Verbier to collect ingredients for a home cooked pasta dinner later that night at the apartment. Sufficiently satiated, I called it an early night to save energy for the 26-kilometer run ahead of me.
The start of the slog
It’s race day and we mosey on down the very road we’ll have to run back up in just a bit. Such is the incongruous logic that comes with trail running.
About 600 runners have come out to spend their Sunday morning torturing themselves in the thinning air of the Swiss alps. And as the countdown rolls by, groupthink takes hold like a bachelorette party hypnotist and the slog up 1,700 meters of trail begins.
The course immediately runs uphill, following the quickly familiar trek we’d been practicing from our apartment to the heart of Verbier. I’m feeling strangely fine, so I decide to run slowly but at a quick cadence up the hill until the road turns into a stubbly concrete path that eventually disintegrates into a forested trail. There’s a clear point when most runners give in and go for the hike as the path twists even steeper upward, though a few eager beavers with trekking poles skate around the line.
The second climb
Though I felt fine during the short shakeout run the day before, the altitude and unrelenting climb started to get to me. The second climb proved to be especially excruciating with my heart pounding out of my chest like an EDM bass line.
I needed a quick break and that’s when I noticed Melanie nipping at my heels. She passed me when I stopped for a bite to eat, realizing I was wildly behind on my fueling. But I caught up at the beginning of the downhill and we met up again at the final checkpoint at La Chaux where we had lunch the day before.
This was the furthest in a race that Melanie had ever been around me. I knew the remainder of the course was almost exclusively downhill, save one uphill bump on the road (though nothing remotely like what we’d just finished). I’m hardly the most skilled downhill runner, but I can fly (if somewhat uncontrollably) so long as it’s not super technical.
But we never finish together and I don’t much care about where I place. Finishing together could be fun, but Melanie can be wildly competitive––so I didn’t want to take that option out for her in case she wanted to try to beat me.
“Here’s the question,” I said. “Do you want to race me or finish together?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Together.”
And so we spent the final six-ish kilometers together, whipping down and around the mountainside along dusty trails until the course mercilessly dropped us back into Verbier with the cable cars in sight. This was all familiar territory. We knew we were less than a kilometer from the finish, so we picked a couple of targets to blow by (just for fun), clasped our hands together, and raised them high as we crossed the finish line together.
Fondue at Le Caveau
With the race behind us, we lazed around a bit in some shade near the finish line while we waited for the rest of the crew to finish. As they started to trickle in, we headed for the beer and food tents to start making up for lost calories. But nothing would quite compare to the caloric intake we were setting out for that evening––fondue at Le Caveau.
The wooden interior felt like we were walking into a barrel with patches of cool stone walls. Famished, we quickly place orders for our fondues of choice. Melanie and I share the fondue à la tomate, served with a literal basket of boiled potatoes. We also had the option of dipping pieces of freshly baked bread with a hard, dark brown crust that tasted like licking the crispy bits out of the stone oven.
Suffice it to say, I’m certain I consumed that which I lost in the race.
Our final morning was back to reality. Work calls, packing, and checking out of the apartment to start the long journey back to Berlin. I’m still hesitant to check our bank account, but I’m certain the last-minute decision to join this dalliance in Switzerland was well worth it.