Swissalpine 2013: how the Swiss organize a major alpine race

The Swiss have beautiful mountains and brilliant organizational skills. Put those things together and you can have an incredible alpine running event.

Swissalpine 2013 was bloody hot this year (84 fahrenheit, 29 celsius) in Davos and not a whole lot colder on the top despite the odd snow patches. The premier event is K78 (just shy of a 50 miler) which is best characterized as a giant loop starting and ending in Davos,  including a 30 mile warm up followed by a brutal 5000 ft climb, a short dip, another 1000 ft climb to a peak of a nearly 9000ft and then a long 12 mile run down to the finish (starting with a precipitous 2000ft 16% descent over rocks and snow). As the Swiss are particularly precise you can see the exact km marks and elevations here

The exact K42 course profile

The exact K42 course profile

Final approach to Keschhutte - first peak

Final approach to Keschhutte – first peak

Cows on the trail!

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Amazing views up top

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Snow and rocks made for some very technical descents

Having had a ridiculously bad year I opted to downgrade to just the interesting bits via the K42 – see profile pic to right. (The longer explanation of the bad year: over eager training after Boston Qualifying (yay, can’t wait for 2014!) at the incredibly wet and windy 2012 California International Marathon last December set off some persistent left knee issues (jumper’s knee as opposed to runner’s knee) followed by a broken neck (following some ill advised yard work #hiresomeonenextime, #luckytobealive) and then my right knee felt like it was missing out and claimed to be suffering from similar symptoms to the left knee. Despite seemingly endless sports medicine, physical therapy and chiropractic appointments all was not well and preparation was far from adequate and hence K42 not K78)

Those be some big hills up ahead

 

K42 basically skips 20 miles of warm up and “just” does the last 42.2 km (yep a real marathon) of K78. Following a little 5km loop, you do the big climb, dip and descent. No Boston Qualifying times here – add about 30-50% to your current road marathon time (depending on conditions and quality of your preparation)

Coming from the SF Bay Area with a plethora of short (as in 1500-2000 ft) and occasionally vicious climbs, I thought I had some basic level of preparation but the length and steepness of the climbs was certainly both new and challenging. Lets just say there was a lot of “power hiking”

The organization was brilliant – far better than what we typically see in the US. Considering the 9 separate events and probably about 5000 participants there had to be (and I guess the entry fees could fund it).

Highlights included:
1) The amazing number of spectators dotted all over the course in even the most remote locations all clapping or cheering “hopp, hopp, hopp”, “bravo” and/or “superbe” and the big stadium finish in Davos
2) The incredible views
3) The ability to get a massage at the two mountain peaks, following the big descent, and at the finish. Given the cramping brought on by the heat and my lack of muscle endurance this was a huge help in getting across the line without hobbling – never had a massage at 9000 ft before by 2 people at once with a magnesium chaser!
4) Access to showers at the end
5) Extremely clear sign posting at start for all amenities and extremely clear course markings (including ribbons laid on ground on either side of the trail across any trail junctions to avoid wrong turns)
6) starting a marathon at 10:30 (very civilized vs. the usual early waking for nutrition, and concerns about getting to the start)

7) Reasonably-priced day care was available all day for parents who wanted to run but needed someone to look after the kids
8) Return train tickets from anywhere in Switzerland and regional train ticket for 7 days included in entry fee
9) A detailed sheet explaining exactly what would be available at each of the many aid stations (water, bananas, alpine bread, granola bars, electrolyte drinks, soup, coke)

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Celebrating with a beer (burger was on the way)

There were a few things they could have done better:
– more frequent km markers in the final 10km and perhaps at each aid station (there were markers indicating distance to go every 5km and at 2 and 1 km to go.
– more generous provisions at the finish line – non-alcoholic beer, water and bananas does not a finish line party make
– not located luggage delivery (think bag drop) all the way round the back of the building up a flight of stairs (enough climbing already!) and about as far away as possible from the showers
– shuttles to train station for outbound trains (these may have been available but I ended up with an hour to kill after just missing my train)

All-in-all an extraordinary experience to cap off an amazing 2 week vacation. Can’t wait to an the next one!

What’s been your favorite overseas running experience and were there any lessons learned for US races?

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