Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k

I’ve spent the last month not working, and it has been fantastic.

It was such a huge push to defend my PhD, and then I had a few more months of work at Eawag, trying to finish up projects and papers. I wanted to make sure to take some time to myself before starting a postdoc, because I’m not sure when I’ll have another chance to just completely unplug. Science moves fast and as soon as I start my postdoc, I’ll be applying for jobs all over again.

“That’s great!” People would say when I told them I was taking the summer off. “What will you do with yourself?”

“Well, a lot of hiking, sleeping late, and reading,” I’d say. “And in July I’m doing my first real mountain running race.”

Thinking back, I have realized that the race – the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30 k – isn’t really my first mountain trail race at all.

Last year I did a trail marathon, the Transruinaulta, with 6,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

In 2016, I did a trail half marathon that went straight up a downhill ski resort in Arosa, Switzerland, for 4,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

What about all the times before, during and after college that I time trialed up Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire? Or participated in the Presidential Ridge Relay Race?

Those were all, in fact, mountain running races. Especially the one in Arosa. But I for some reason didn’t consider them to be my “real” mountain running debut, probably for two reasons.

One was that maybe I wanted to be ready for that debut, to have prepared, to train, to take it seriously. I didn’t do that before Arosa, I just signed up and figured I was a cross-country skier so I’d be fine. Now, I’ve been preparing.

And the second one was maybe because, having lived in Europe for a while, I have this picture in my head of a mountain running race, with singletrack trail and glaciers in the background. I think in my mind my mountain running debut had to fit that image. And Arosa… it was up a ski resort. It didn’t feel so wild. Transruinaulta was as much on dirt roads as trails. Moosilauke, you only race up, not down.

Whether it was my “first real mountain race” or not, Gran Trail Courmayeur is in the books. It was awesome, and I’m excited to explore the mountain/trail race scene in North America after this intro from the Alps.

I had never really been to the Mont Blanc area, so went down the Thursday before my Saturday race. It was amazing to see this huge mountain, and so much ice crammed up in there. I’ve seen glaciers running into the ocean, glaciers filling valleys in the Alps, shrinking and sad-looking patches of glacier on mountainsides. But the amount of ice just perched up there, literally hanging off the side of the mountain, blew my mind.

I wanted to just look at it, to soak it in. What a cool place.

The Friday, I didn’t know what to do with myself – I wanted to explore, but didn’t want to get tired. So I splurged and took an expensive cablecar ride up to Punta Helbronner, 3,466 meters high and looking over at Mont Blanc.

Well, where Mont Blanc should be. It was covered in clouds.

 

The highest peak in Europe west of the Caucasus is back in there, somewhere.

View in the other direction was pretty nice though. (click to expand)

But being up there sure was amazing, and seeing ant-like figures trekking across the snowfields. I kind of couldn’t believe I was in Europe, and that the hot valley floor was just a few minutes cablecar ride away.

An aerial view down on the Rifugio Torino and onwards to my racecourse, over around and past the green ridge in the center of the photo.

Then, I went to the sports center to pick up my number. The race organization was typically Italian: everything worked out perfectly in the end, but it was very confusing. For example, I had studied the course map trying to figure out where the start/finish would be. It appeared to be in the middle of town, but on my way past, I hadn’t seen anything you’d expect for a race starting in just 12 hours.

The line to pick up our numbers; race officials had to check our medical certificates to make sure a doctor had said we could participate in such an event without dying. This is a common requirement for races in Italy and France, but explaining the request to a Swiss doctor was interesting. Also – do you see many women in this line? sigh.

“The race start is not here, it is somewhere else, is that correct?” I asked the woman who handed me my number.

“The start and finish are here,” she said, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Oh, really? Here?”

“Yes, down, outside, with the big arch!”

Okay, so I’d have to subtract two kilometers from everything on the course map/profile, because they seemed to be using the same loop as the map on their website [I assumed], but moving where the loop started and ended. Makes total sense.

I’m a pretty organized person, and I’m also a nerd, and I also worry a lot. At races like this, it can be challenging for me to prepare because I want to have a detailed plan of exactly how the race was going to go. This sort of uncertainty didn’t help.

I pored over the course map, sussing out how the 1,800 meters (6,000+ feet) of elevation gain and loss were distributed around the course. One big climb in the beginning. Then a flat that I doubted was actually flat, for six kilometers. Then a second major climb. A drop down to a valley, a shorter steep climb, and then all downhill from there. Steeply.

And I checked the finishing times from the previous year, trying to estimate how long the race would take me. Four hours? Five? It all depended on the trail. And whether there would be any other surprises in store for me along the way.

The next morning I hurried down from our AirBnB to get to the start, because it was written that we had to enter the start pen 30 minutes before the start, and then they would close it. Well, the start pen didn’t even open until 20 minutes til start time, and then it stayed open. Again, classic Italy.

Once the race began, though, everything was perfectly organized. We ran through neighborhoods out of town, with people cheering along the sides of the road. After two kilometers or so, we joined the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail and climbed upward: about two and a half kilometers of an average 25% grade.

This part of the race was a hiking race, and it felt a little bit silly to be hiking. The trail was crowded with hikers carrying backpacks big and small: tourists out for a day hike, or folks backpacking the whole TMB loop. We were sure moving faster than them, but we must have looked ridiculous.

I tried to stay at a steady pace, below my anaerobic threshold, and just climb away. By the top my legs were aching a bit, nothing major, but reminding me that although I had only been going for an hour, I’d already put in more than 2,500 feet of the course’s elevation.

We passed through the first aid station, then crested a pass. We had just been climbing straight up, and my eyes had been glued to the trail in front of me. But suddenly, there was no trail or hill in front of me.

Just the Mont Blanc massif in all its glory, basking a bit in the sun. Everyone around me paused and took out their phones for pictures. It was just amazing.

I really, really don’t usually stop to take photos in races. But this was such a scene, and everyone else around me was stopping to take pictures too. So I did.

That feeling, that image I had been looking for for my “first real mountain race”? As we set off on the singletrack along the Balcon de Ferret, I definitely had it. This was it. This was the stuff of dreams and legends. I was there and I was doing it.

As I had expected, the Balcon wasn’t actually flat. But for the most part, it was runnable, and a really fun trail.

There were a few guys around me and we cruised along. I felt better, like I was in a running race after all. The views were continually astounding, and every once in a while there would be hikers pulling off the trail or having stopped for a snack in an alpine meadow who would cheer us along.

“Brava!” they would shout as I passed. I wasn’t sure how many women were ahead of me, but there were few women in the field (just under a third of the entrants in the 30 k were women), and so seeing me among the sea of men was probably still notable no matter how many women were faster.

Before long, we ran out of Balcon and turned right up a steep hill. This was the start of the second big climb, and its beginning was a doozy, a shock after the easy kilometers we had been lulled into. Here there were even more spectators, because there was a hut up ahead where they were probably planning to have lunch.

We climbed for a while, and then the trail leveled off into a broad bowl-like meadow valley. Looking ahead, all you could see was mountain.

You might want to stay in such a nice, welcoming, pleasant spot. But we couldn’t. After a dissapointingly short flat section, up we went, steeply again, to the top of the second major climb.

And here I got my first surprise of the race. It had nothing to do with the organizers; it had to do with me. I wasn’t feeling strong exactly, and I was struggling to eat (not because of stomach issues, but on a hot day my food just didn’t seem appealing). And yet, I began to catch people who had hiked away from me on the first climb.

On these big hills, you can see everyone spread out way ahead of you, and I watched in amazement as I came ever closer to two women whom I hadn’t seen in over an hour.

“Don’t get too excited,” I tried to tell myself. “There’s a lot of race left. You could still blow up and they could pass you back. Just be careful and do a good job.”

But on the downhill to the next valley, I put distance on them (and passed some men, too). The “last” steep climb up to the final pass felt terrible, and my legs were screaming. For sure they’ll catch me, I thought. But they didn’t. In fact, I was catching more men, and another woman. Again, I was amazed. I didn’t feel strong.

The last pass!

And then, the big downhill. This was my second surprise.

I love downhill. Maybe it’s because I’m a skier, but running downhill is just fun. I’m pretty confident in my footwork, and I know that it’s easier to zoom than it is to be braking all the time and put so much stress on your quads and knees. I had dreamed of this downhill for kilometers. I was going to fly. My resolution: I wouldn’t let myself be passed by any woman.

Somehow, I had failed to completely account for the magnitude of this downhill. We had eight kilometers to lose 1,300 meters of elevation, and there were 150 or so meters of climbing thrown in there too. So on average, the grade was more than 15%. That’s steep. We classify “A” and “B” climbs in skiing, categorize climbs in bike racing, etc etc… but we don’t classify descents.

The beginning of this descent was unreal. Loose dirt, incredibly steep. I found myself taking tiny steps, putting on the brakes, terrified of sliding out and falling down the mountain. I was not zooming. I wouldn’t be at the finish line as soon as I had hoped, that much was clear.

And my concern was justified. A few kilometers later, I heard a terrible scream. I couldn’t place it – somewhere in front of me, but was it a person? An animal? Was it a racer, or a bystander, maybe a kid? I ran on, and eventually came across a few male runners stopped on the side of the trail. Ten feet down the side of the mountains, someone was moaning and trying to climb out of the brush and the forest. It was a racer down there, who must have tripped and fell over the edge. One of the men was on a cell phone calling for help.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“I guess you can go on,” one of them said. Not speaking Italian, I did doubt how useful I would be in helping this poor person, but as I ran on, it also felt wrong to leave.

When we reached the next aid station, the men I was following explained more to the volunteers about the injured runner. They were setting off to go assist.

I sucked on an orange slice, glad for the new option for sugar delivery. I was thirsty and knew I should eat more, but the downhill pounding and the heat made doing so very unattractive. Oranges, though? Perfect. I started running again.

Although I was so much more tentative on the downhills than I expected to be, I still passed quite a few people. No more women, after that, but some men. There were sections of trail that were less steep, or just more even, and there I could fly.

That’s what I thought, until a woman with a long braid went sailing past me. Shewas flying. I hadn’t even known what flying was. It was instantly clear that I could not keep up with her. My resolution was broken. I have to practice downhills before my next race, I guess.

We eventually hit a paved road and dropped down into town, across the river, and back towards the sports center and the finish. There weren’t many signs or markings through town; roads weren’t closed; people were watching, but they didn’t have any clues about what was happening. I had expected an adrenaline rush, but mostly, the tourists were just going about their day and we were some weird sideshow that they barely noticed.

The final 10 meters of climbing leading up to the finish line were brutal, and I felt I couldn’t push at all. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but happy, and took off my sunglasses and smiled big for the finish line photographer.

I had done my first “real” mountain race, or my second or third or or eighth mountain race. Who cares? It had been fun and brutal, which are two things I had been counting on. The trail had been technical – if 4:30 (my final time) seems slow for a 28 k race, the actual trail was a big part of that, besides the up and down.

I had felt okay, but most importantly, I had felt like I belonged there. I was running and hiking with people who obviously trained for this, but we also all had fun enjoying the spectacular scenery. The atmosphere and camaraderie were fantastic, a great combination of serious sport and doing this because we actually enjoy being in the mountains.

And I had finished ninth. I don’t know what top ten means in this field, and that’s actually something I love about racing in new places. I didn’t know a single person there, so my analytical mind couldn’t really consider whether that’s a good or bad or respectable result. A whole exhausting, self-defeating doom loop I could just skip. But top-10 always has a nice ring to it.

The next day it was a long trip back to Zurich, during which I read almost an entire book. Since I’m on vacation, I could recover on the sofa at home in the next few days, rather than dragging my tired body around at work and trying to make my tired brain be smart.

Instead of working, I’ve been dreaming up what my next adventures will be.

It’s Italy so… post-race (and post-shower!) aperitivo!

Night to Day on the Hardergrat

Annie defending after the Augstmatthorn, partway across the Hardergrat and just after sunrise.

Annie & Joel descending after the Augstmatthorn, partway across the Hardergrat just after sunrise.

A few years ago I ran into a college friend who was visiting Zurich. When we met up, he and his girlfriend had just done a hike of something called “the Hardergrat”. It was an all-day ordeal that they said was amazing and terrifying and exhausting.

When we were living in a large shared house back in our early 20s, my friend hadn’t been much of a hiker or runner. He was paddling all the time, finding adventures in whitewater and not so much on land. The fact that he (1) had taken part of his Switzerland time to do this route and (2) was raving about how epic it was, made me sit up and listen.

It turns out that Hardergrat, a long ridge between Interlaken and Brienz, is low-key famous in the hiking and trail running community. And it is not a joke. The ridge is very exposed for long periods of time. The trail is just inches from thousand-foot drop-offs to one or both sides. People die there if they make a small mistake on footing. The Hardergrat is also very long, and has thousands of feet of climbing and descending.

When I heard about the ridge, it was just a few weeks after I had wrecked by ankle, and I wasn’t in any shape to be attempting a route so long and technical any time soon. Last summer also didn’t feel right: I was getting back in shape and training for a marathon, but I didn’t feel like I was actually *in* shape yet.

But the Hardergrat stayed in my mind, in the background. It was in my friend Annie’s mind too. I was determined that before I left Switzerland, I would do it.

Earlier this summer we emailed about possible dates with Joel, another adventure buddy. The Hardergrat has to be dry just to be attempted. The snow has to have melted, and many of the paths are just narrow dirt tracks through the grass. If you slip on the mud or wet grass, you will fall thousands of feet. It was a late-melting spring, so we waited impatiently, and then listed the possible summer weekends, the ones where none of us were traveling or racing anywhere, and then crossed our fingers for the right weather.

Last weekend, the weather came through. Sort of. Europe has been in a record heat wave, maybe you’ve heard. The Hardergrat would be dry, that was for sure. We didn’t know if we’d get another good opportunity, so we had to go for it.

But the heat… the ridge is completely exposed for about 17 kilometers, and the sun would be beating down on us. One thing I know about myself is that I suck in the heat. Even when I was training in Vermont, on hot summer days I would sometimes wake up at 5 or 6 and do my long workouts alone, because if I waited until 8:30 or 9 to start with the rest of the team I’d be roasted and useless before we even finished. I was worried about the heat.

Many people start the Hardergrat at 4 am for “various complicated reasons” (Annie’s quote), and so we began thinking. It didn’t seem worthwhile to get a room in Interlaken (incredibly expensive) for just a few hours. We could camp near the base of the trail, but then we’d have a tent, and since the route is point-to-point we would have to either carry it (not desirable, we wanted to be light and nimble) or leave it somewhere.

And so a plan was born: to avoid the heat of the day, we would take the last train from Zurich to Interlaken and start hiking up at 1:30 in the morning.

I also need a lot of sleep, so I definitely questioned whether this was a good idea. But for some reason, I just went along with it and didn’t really worry.

It turned out to be probably the best decision that we made.

It was surreal taking the train to Interlaken, carrying our small running backpacks and surrounded by people who were going home after a night of partying, many still drinking and/or smelling of beer.

When we got off the train, too, some people were biking home from nights out. We ran past them with our headlamps. On the steep climb up to Harder Kulm (about 5 km and 750 meters of up), we could hear the noise from Interlaken, parties still going on. In one sense, we couldn’t leave the crowded world of tourists and “culture” completely behind.

But in another one sense, we were in the forest, in the dark, focusing just on the trail in front of us. We weren’t sure which direction it was going to turn or where it was going to go. Insects flew into our faces, attracted to the light of our headlamps, which also illuminated ants and so many kinds of beetles scurrying around on the ground in front of us. Every once in a while we would hear the noise of bigger animals like deer crashing around in the forest above or below. At one point I heard what I thought was a stone rolling off the trail, and looked left to see that it was actually a large frog, escaping my disturbance to his night-time peace.

In the middle of the night with just the halos of our headlamps to follow, I entered some kind of meditative climbing. I didn’t really notice the distance or the time. When we came around a corner and the Harder Kulm restaurant/viewing platform was right in front of us, I was surprised we had come up so far, even though it had been over an hour of hiking. I’m actually very glad that we started in the dark with this unique night-time experience, because in some ways it made the climbing at the start mentally easier.

We paused at Harder Kulm and looked out over the lights of Interlaken below us. Then, we headed back into the woods and continued up and up.

By the time we reached the ridge, the horizon was getting a little lighter and tinged with orange. It was only 4 am, far from sunrise, but it felt like we had reached the next stage of our journey: a great combination of timing. The climb up and up and up (I know I’m being repetitive, but so was the climbing) through the forest was done. I felt a new level of excitement.

45 minutes later we came out of the scattered trees and took a short rest (Annie wanted to nap, but Joel and I were a little cold) in a ridgetop meadow, gazing over the ever-lightening landscape. The orange was spreading to more of the mountains and we could glimpse Brienzersee, as well as the outline of the first few mountains we would have to conquer on the ridgeline.

Photo: Annie Chalifour

We also started seeing a few headlamps in the distance, and when we got closer to those first mountains, we realized that people had hiked up (directly, unlike our long route…) to watch the sunrise, too. A few had also slept out overnight. We smiled and said hi as we passed them. A community of people who had sacrificed sleep for a pretty amazing experience.

By the time we stopped and sat down for “breakfast” on the Suggiture (2084 meters), it was 6:15 in the morning. We had five hours under our belts, maybe 12 kilometers, and at least 1500 meters of elevation.

Here’s looking at you, Alps. Photo of me by Annie Chalifour.

I’m not sure any sunrise view has ever been so special.

The air is full of dust from the Sahara right now, because the heat wave has blown in from Africa. In some ways this is a little unfortunate, as it made our views of the ridge and the snow-covered 4,000-meter peaks in the distance a lot less crisp. The air over the Lake of Brienz and the valley to the north was hazy.

But for the sunrise, I think it made the colors even more spectacular. We really couldn’t believe it. Looking around erased some of the effort it had taken to get up here. All I could do was be amazed that I was in this place at this moment.

As we got ready to continue, we began to have our first sense of what was ahead of us. We still had some climbing to get to the Augstmatthorn, the first “major” peak on the ridge. And now we could see the Brienzer Rothorn, which seemed very, very far away.

As we continued, at first we were still stopping every few minutes to continue gawking at the view. The sun was beginning to hit the snow-covered peaks and the dawn alpenglow was constantly changing. The morning light was incredible.

Photo: Annie Chalifour

Atop the Augstmatthorn, I think I had the first real sense of what we were up against on this adventure. Going up was one thing, but for the first time I got to see one of the big downhills, the ridge stretching ahead of us, and how full of uphills and downhills it was. It’s kind of impossible to count how many bumps there are on this ridge, but there is almost no flat.

It felt like we had put in a lot to get to the Augstmatthorn, the highest peak for a few kilometers in any direction. But we were immediately going to lose 300 meters (1000 feet) – and we were going to lose them steeply, with a cost to the quads because letting yourself roll and pick up too much momentum would be a mistake in terrain like this where tripping over a rock would have scary consequences. It hurt a little bit psychologically to immediately lose such a chunk of the elevation we had worked so hard to gain.

But as we continued, it was clear that this was the whole experience of the Hardergrat. The ridge is long, but in some senses not so long. From where we had come out of the trees and taken our rest/nap break, it was 17 kilometers to the Rothorn. That’s long, but I’ve done many runs and hikes far longer. So it’s not the length that makes the Hardergrat such an undertaking.

It’s the terrain. Sometimes you’d see the bigger peaks out in front of you. I remember at one point counting: one, two, three, four. One big-ish one, then the Tannhorn, then another big-ish one, and then up to Rothorn. Four big climbs left. But as soon as you got to the top of one hill, you’d see three or five more, with steep up and then steep down again, in between it and the next one. A kilometer or more of these big and little bumps before the next “peak”. And maybe even another one you hadn’t seen that was just as big as the one you were counting as “three”.

“It literally never ends!” Annie exclaimed at one point.

I must have mentally prepared well, because this actually never got to me too badly. I had heard one estimate that it takes 10 hours to do the Hardergrat, and I kept that in the back of my head. Even though the most elevation gain I’d done in a single hike/run so far this year was 1100 meters, I was pleasantly surprised when we were on top of Suggiture that even though we’d already come up more than that, I felt mostly fine. I think from that point on, I just thought, “You’ve come this far and you’re fine, so of course you can keep going. Stick to your pace and you won’t have any problem getting this ridge done. You’ve done the training to make you strong.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so positive on a hard route. The work I’ve been doing this spring on self-confidence seems to be paying off.

It made it fun to look around and enjoy the trail and the scenery.

Our little trail threading over the narrow ridge, kilometer later kilometer. Photo: Annie Chalifour

Pretty nice views.

There were a few more aspects of planning and execution that I’m also really proud of, that enabled this to be an amazing and actually fun experience instead of just a difficult slog. I am doing a race in two weeks, and I really wanted to make sure that this adventure was a good training stimulus, not something that destroyed me for days.

I was determined to go an “easy” pace, not above my aerobic threshold. I knew it would probably make me slower than Annie and Joel, but I managed to not let my ego get upset. I was going to do this at my pace (trying to keep my heart rate below 150 or 155 at the very most; my max is ~195, and my anaerobic threshold in the high 170s somewhere) and if they had to wait for me, they could wait.

(And they did. Repeatedly. I’d watch them just hike away from me, and then I’d focus on the trail in front of me and remind myself to enjoy going my own pace.)

I also brought a lot of snacks, and after the first hour I ate something (just a chunk of a bar, a few gummies, or a little ball of rice with soy sauce and honey) every 20-25 minutes. This is my strategy for long runs and races, but I’ve never done if for an effort as long as this ended up being (10 hours, counting all the big and small breaks we took). It was hard to keep eating, and I honestly didn’t know how well my body would handle it. But I also knew that after the halfway point, if I gave up on my eating schedule I would bonk, or at least have to stop and eat something more substantial. So the two times it was hard to choke something down, I did anyway. It worked. I never bonked.

Just keep grinding. Photo: Annie Chalifour

And finally, hydration. I was really scared of the heat. It was good that we got a lot of the distance over with before the sun really came out, but once it did it really was hot. And there was no place anywhere to refill on water. I had brought four liters of water – a full liter and a half more than Annie – and I drank almost all of it (with some Skratch Labs hydration mix). I had also drank plenty of electrolytes and sodium the day before to try to prepare. I was definitely thirsty by the time I finished, but I think I managed about as well as I could have hoped. Despite the extra weight I was carrying in the beginning, I was happy to have brought so much water. I needed it.

Those might seem like technical details, but on a route like the Hardergrat all these small aspects of planning are key to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time. Besides just not wanting to feel too wasted afterwards, I was nervous about the terrain. The consequences of a mis-step were so serious, and the more tired I was, the more likely I would be to make a mistake. I needed to be the least tired I could reasonably be.

So all the planning is indeed what enabled us to have such a great time. None of us ever took a serious stumble, even though the terrain got more and more scary as the ridge went on. The climbs were not so bad, most often a dirt path cutting through grass. If wet, this would be terrifyingly dangerous, but it was dry and so it was mostly just perfect; the only difficult aspect was the steepness.

Many hours in and still this happy.

Joel on one of the easier downhills. Photo: Annie Chalifour

But the downhills were something else. Often we were climbing down cliffy piles of rock and loose soil, using our hands to help ourselves. It wasn’t technical climbing, really, but it sure wasn’t just walking on a trail. The consequences of slipping were severe. Every peak or hilltop we reached as an adventure of looking down the other side and asking, “what’s in store for us on the downhill this time?”

As we crossed more and more of these downhills, I began wondering what would come after the Tannhorn. At 2200 meters, it’s the biggest peak on the ridge other than the Rothorn at the end. And I had read that the “crux” of the ridge came after the Tannhorn. So if the crux was more dangerous than what we were already doing, what exactly was it going to be!?

It turned out not to be what we expected. The part after the Tannhorn was in some ways easier: the trail was not as rocky or loose. It was actually a trail that if it was somewhere else, I would definitely run. It was some of the least technical trail we’d seen in a while.

… but… it’s the crux. That’s because this trail was a knife edge. It was probably less than a foot wide in many places, and the drop-offs on either side were even more enormous than most of the areas we had crossed so far. To the north, they led to a rock glacier. That would be even worse to slide down onto than a normal glacier.

Because the terrain was easy, I knew that all I had to do was just walk like normal. There was no reason I would make a mis-step. Just treat this like normal, I told myself.

But as I focused on the trail in front of me, the drop-offs on either side glided past in my peripheral vision. It was vertigo-inducing and made it impossible not to remember the risk of where we were walking. Good thing none of the three of us have a fear of heights.

Because we had prepared so well, though, we made it through no problem and were smiling after we got back on (comparatively) safer ground. Like, “that was it?” And by now we were so close to the Rothorn, just a few kilometers. We were tired but I felt somehow lighter, because I knew we were going to make it no problem.

We had one more fun ridge to follow, of relatively more gradual terrain; we could actually run a little bit of it. I was so full of happiness.

Me and Joel, on the next-to-last ridge! Photo: Annie Chalifour

We hit Wannepass, the last low point before the Rothorn. The finish was in sight! The trail wound up and to the left away from us, which didn’t make that much sense because the Rothorn was to the right. But I followed Annie and Joel on up.

Soon, I was looking up a steep couloir. I didn’t quite comprehend – I kept looking to the left to see if the trail perhaps wound all the way around these cliffs and somehow behind them. But then I saw Annie and Joel up above me, in the loose scree.

I heard Annie’s voice saying something indistinct, and then Joel: “well, if they are coming down this, than of course we can go up it.”

For the first time all day, I thought… fuck my life.

It was so steep, just a ribbon of scree between a cliff and a patch of snow. Near the top, someone had actually built concrete steps. But to get there, you had to climb up loose gravel underlain by dirt that was wet with the melting snow.

I had manage my effort and my pace well until here, but there was really no way to go up something like this after 25 kilometers and 2500 meters of climbing without going pretty hard. I periodically stopped to rest and wondered what the heck I was doing here. When would it end.

When I finally reached the top of the climb and rejoined Annie and Joel, they were similarly unimpressed with the end of the hike. But from there, it was an easy path over to the Rothorn; even a bit of downhill, and we could run again. Just a few minutes later, we were pulling out chairs on the porch of the restaurant and ordering cold drinks.

We had made it to the end.

Or, I had…

My knee had been bothering me since I tweaked it 10 days before, and had been quite painful on some of the downclimbing. So I decided that rather than drop the 1700 meters down to the lake, I would take the steam train down. Joel and Annie would continue running, making it a 40 k day for them by the end, but I had the chance to not further aggravate my injury and I took it. I felt no shame, because I had completed the hard part of the ridge.

So we said a hurried goodbye, and I trotted off for the train. The steam train was loud, but I fell asleep repeatedly. I had felt fine while hiking, but the lack of sleep finally caught up with me on the way home.

For the last 48 hours I have just been marveling over this experience, which is one of the most magical hikes I’ve ever been on.

I’m also just amazed that my body can take me on adventures like this: no sleep, heat, 9,000 meters of elevation gain. It didn’t kill me. I have so much confidence now, that I am putting in my pocket and taking with me on the rest of my summer adventures.

I’m really happy that my preparation and planning allowed me to enjoy it so much, and I can barely believe that we stood on that ridge, much less traversed the whole thing. There aren’t so many places in the world like Hardergrat.

If you ever get the chance, you should check it out. 1 am start optional.

All this we did! Plus some hiding behind the last peak in the background.

Finally, My Almost-Perfect Davos Ski Day

Midway up the Sertig valley, striding along the classic tracks. This is what dreams are made of.

(Before I start: I’ve been featured two places online recently, talking about being a scientist. Check out Episode 4 of the MEME Stream podcast talking about my research on climate change in the arctic tundra, grad school in Europe, and the importance of hobbies (like skiing!). And fellow ecologist xc-skier Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie invited me onto the Plos Ecology blog to talk about reading a lot of papers and combatting imposter syndrome.)

If you’re a cross-country skier, you have probably heard of Davos. There’s a World Cup there every year, and it’s also a favorite training camp location for the U.S. Ski Team, among others. There are always blog posts and Instagram stories showing sunshine and powder days that recharge the soul.

Despite living in Switzerland for four years – and visiting a few times before that – I’ve never had what I’d consider a great Davos ski day.

The best part of the Davos trail network is probably its extensive classic-only trails which go up long side valleys out of town. When I was living and working there in the summer of 2013, these were some of my favorite places to get out for a hike or rollerski, and my gateway to mountain passes.

I immediately looked forward to coming back in the winter so I could ski them.

When I was in Davos for the World Cup in 2017, it had snowed, so I wanted to explore the Dischma valley. They hadn’t groomed yet though. D’oh.

But things didn’t really work out. For several years I went to the December World Cups to work for FasterSkier, but those years happened to be times when there was barely any snow, just a snowfarmed loop on the race course. (It’s been a bad few years.) This year, there was apparently good skiing, but I was at a conference in the UK that weekend.

I went back a few times to skate, but then you can’t access those long valley trails. And last year I had a long classic ski in a rain/snowstorm, where I did traipse up one of the valleys, but visibility was basically zero and the huge temperature swing made my classic wax a complete disaster.

So I’ve been to ski in Davos at least once each year, but I’ve never had the kind sunny alpine day that dreams are made of.

This really is my last winter in Switzerland, and I realized at some point that I was running out of chances. So on Sunday I woke up early and took the first train to Graubunden. Davos is quite far away (by Swiss standards), so even catching that train, I only arrived just before nine.

If you’ve been watching World Championships, you know that the Alps have been going through something of a heat wave. Switzerland is no different than Austria in that regard, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuffed hardwax ranging from blue to red into my drink belt and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t need klister instead.

Scenery.

Click. Click. Into my skis. It was cold when I arrived, and after days of freeze-thaw cycles the tracks were fast as I double-poled down to Frauenkirch, at the bottom of the main valley. I skied in and out of the shadow of the steep hillsides, and through hollows by the river where the cold had really settled overnight.

But an hour in, the sun had come over the mountains and suddenly, it was hot. I stopped to re-wax my skis. Blue clearly wasn’t right anymore.

I meandered through the Junkerboden, a forested hillside. After a week of relatively hard (for me) training, my legs were feeling tired as I climbed the steep trail through the woods and traversed its switchbacks. But this is a part of the trail system that relatively few people visit, and I sank into the quiet and peace of the forest.

Then I dropped down to the Sertig valley proper, and all of a sudden I was in 50-degree heat and immediately sweating. I took off my headband, unzipped my jacket, took a swig of water. My skis were slow, but miraculously my wax was still kind of kicking.

Heat is not my strong point, and I bogged down as I ticked through the kilometers up the valley. But it was so beautiful. I’d stop to take a breather and look around, captivated by the scenery. This wasn’t the extra-blue skiing of my dreams, but the sun was so bright, the mountains so crisp, the sky so blue. Aside from overheating, it was everything I’d imagined the valley to be as I hiked and ran it so many summers ago.

Everyone I passed was smiling, as if we couldn’t believe our good luck to be out here in the sun. It was the kind of day where even if you don’t feel great, you feel happy.

And I was particularly happy to be striding up the valley. Every time I classic ski, I’m reminded that it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s so natural to settle into the rhythm of kick, kick, kick. In this snow, a little less glide.

Nearing the top of the valley.

I eventually reached the top of the valley, where you are faced with a large mountain face and, for a ski tour or hike, the choice of two mountain passes, one left and one right. For cross-country skiers, it’s the end of the road, although you can stop for food or drink at a restaurant looking out across the meadow.

Sweaty. Go away tropical heat wave, I want winter back.

I opted out, and instead headed back down the valley. Despite the snow rapidly becoming slush, I whizzed down the trail, trying to thread between the skiers coming up the narrow trail. The fresh air on my face a welcome respite from the heat. Several kilometers were gone in no time, and I was back in the main valley, heading towards town.

By the time I clicked out of my skis, it was almost 60 degrees, and I was happy I had done this ski today. Unless the weather pattern changes drastically, I’m not sure how long the lower-elevation trails will last. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have skied another hour easily, but I was wiped out from the heat.

It wasn’t a completely perfect day, but maybe that doesn’t exist. I got to see the mountains, and the groups of classic skiers striding ant-like up the narrow classic-only trail through the valley. The next day my face was a little more tan and my legs a little more tired, and I added one more happy memory to all my summer memories of Davos.

Keep on skiing.

My Guide To Cross-Country Skiing in Eastern Switzerland

 

A lot of people have asked me: where should I go cross-country skiing? Or, I’d like to try cross-country skiing – but where can I go around Zurich?

Well, I’ve made a post with the answers! Check out my guide to cross-country skiing in Eastern Switzerland, HERE! I’ve picked 12 favorite spots to recommend, and summarized the trail system, how to get there, rental and ticket information, and where you can leave a backpack of dry clothes.

If you run through those suggestions too fast, I add 10 more possibilities at the bottom, with fewer details.

Happy skiing! Please get out there and enjoy winter!

The marathons of 2018.

This autumn I ground away at two big goals: finishing my dissertation, and running my first trail marathon.

A number of people told me I was insane to try to do both of these things at the same time. But everyone has different ways of staying happy and maximizing what they are capable of. For me, it’s essential to have more than one thing to focus on. I have a few friends who must live like I do: they said, oh, that’s perfect!

The last few months of dissertation writing were really hard. Although I made a plan with my supervisor about how to get everything done, work didn’t really proceed according to plan. Some things took longer. Other tasks required waiting on collaborators for feedback. Sometimes I simply realized that I had no idea what was expected as a certain output. I tried to start working anyway, only to have my first attempt deemed garbage.

By contrast, my marathon training was straightforward. I won’t say it was easy, but I knew what I had to do.

***

I didn’t sign up for just any marathon; the Transruinaulta in southeastern Switzerland is mostly off-road and features 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) of climbing, plus the corresponding 1,800 meters of descents. In order to do a race effort I felt good about, I knew I would have to take training seriously.

I bought a training plan from Uphill Athlete, a company and community run by Scott Johnston and Steve House. I have known about Scott for years through the cross-country ski community (though I have never met him), and I respect his work, experience, and philosophy so much. I knew that whatever plan I got from Uphill Athlete would deliver me well-prepared to the start line. It had been seven years since I last followed a training plan, but at last, I was ready to return to intentional, organized training. I dove in and had confidence every step of the way that I was doing the right thing.

“The right thing” involved functional strength training exercises that did more to rehab my ankle from last year’s ruptured ligaments than anything my non-skiing PT had taught me. It included interval sessions that I found I really enjoyed – a surprise, since in those last seven years I had done intervals less than a dozen times annually, and some years probably less than five times.

One week “the right thing” involved a 30-kilometer run/hike one day and a 20 k  run/hike the next day. That was hard, but I planned in advance to head to the Engadin valley for the weekend so that I the spectacular scenery would entice me out the door on Sunday when my body was already tired.

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Enjoying some amazing trail running/hiking around Pontresina.

And maybe the hardest week was when “the right thing” had a 30 k run scheduled on a weekday. I woke up early, took the train to Baden, and ran all the way to the office. I have to admit I wasn’t a very effective worker that day.

But even though it was often hard, I knew what I had to do. Just follow the plan. The plan will get you where you want to go.

Training for a marathon was probably the easiest thing I did this fall.

***

The trauma (there, I said it) of the last month of my dissertation has almost blotted out the months that came before, work-wise. But looking back, I can piece together what they looked like.

I want to be clear that a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I’m a perfectionist. I hate doing less than the best I could possibly do.

I also have a strong viewpoint that data should not go un-analyzed and un-reported. It’s not good for science if we leave something in a file drawer just because it didn’t turn out to be interesting. That means that someone else will repeat our experiment in the future. And if they also leave it in a file drawer because it turns out to not be interesting, then some unsuspecting third scientist will also decide to tackle it. And so on. You get the picture.

My natural tendency to overwork myself was at some points made worse by my supervisor. Florian is a great supervisor – I would highly recommend working in his lab, and the effusive thanks I eventually wrote in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation were not exaggerations. But he knows how to get the most out of all of us. And at this point, he has known me for four years. He probably knew that if he told me he didn’t think I could do something, that would make me try that much harder to get it done.

All of which is to say that in late August when I sat down with Florian to plan the final few months, I should have been confident that my dissertation would be fine. I had already published three chapters of it as papers, which is a great position to be in. If I had wanted to, I could have coasted in to the finish, writing up one more chapter and calling it a day. Nobody would have said my dissertation wasn’t adequate.

But neither Florian nor I were interested in that option. Instead we planned out three more chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion to the dissertation. I had the data already for all of those chapters, but I still had to analyze it and I still had to do the writing.  I had until mid-November to get all of that done.

And so I made an estimate of how long everything would take. Choosing and learning the appropriate geostatistical method to upscale my survey data: would that take two days, or two weeks? Better just schedule one.

“You can write a paper in a week,” Florian said. I didn’t feel like that was true, but sure, chapter four, let’s schedule a week for the writing.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan. And I also had to apply for postdoc fellowships, too, an exhausting process during which I came up with a research proposal that didn’t even strongly relate to my dissertation. Charging ahead on both of these fronts required shifting between intellectual arenas in my brain.

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So here’s a plan I didn’t end up following, like, at all… in fact, the chapters aren’t even the ones that ended up in my dissertation!

Most days I came home from work exhausted, but through early fall, I was making progress. I submitted the fourth chapter to a journal two weeks before we had planned. Things weren’t going exactly as I had thought, but the parts going better than planned seemed to be making up for the areas where I was way behind.

***

In mid-October, with one month until my dissertation was due, I took the train to southeastern Switzerland on a Friday afternoon and got ready to race the next day. I had been tapering, which felt weird. I hadn’t done any competitions I felt strongly enough about to taper for since my only other marathon run, back in 2013 in France. (That one was on the road; I trained for it, but not according to any real plan.)

My friend Annie came down to race too, and was likewise stressed by work. She had been in the field all week, hardly ideal preparation. We went to bed early, and neither of us slept well. We made some overnight oats for breakfast and found a regional bus that would take us to Ilanz, where the race would start.

In the leadup to the race, a lot of people would ask how long I thought it would take. I had no idea what to answer. Five hours? Four hours? There was all that up and down. Plus, though it was clear that the race wouldn’t have much pavement, would the balance be dirt/gravel roads, or singletrack? How technical would the terrain be? This was clearly not a race where you could pick a pace or split and just try to consistently hit it.

Instead, I made a race plan based on heart rate. I wanted to start off easy on for the first few kilometers and then get into an easy but fast groove for the first ten or so kilometers, which looked mostly flat on the course profile. I set limits for the big climbs: don’t let your heart rate go above this. If you have to walk, walk. You’re in this for the long hall and you are not going to make yourself bonk. Downhills are one of my strengths, so I wanted to run every downhill as fast as I sustainably could.

Oh, and I planned to eat as many calories as I could stuff in my face.

I more or less followed this plan. My slow start meant that people poured past me in the opening kilometers (it was an individual-start marathon, weirdly), and I ended up going a little harder than I planned – but still easy enough that I don’t think it taxed me too much. My plan had probably been too conservative.

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First 10 k: whee, this is fun!

After that, my plan worked great. On the climbs that went for kilometer after kilometer, mostly on dirt roads but sometimes on singletrack, I kept up a steady effort hovering just around my anaerobic threshold. The downhills were a blast as I flew past people. Sometimes they would pass me again as I slowed to my steady pace on the uphills, but it paid off.

We hit the high point of the course around 30 k (20 miles) into the marathon, and there was an aid station at the top. One guy who had been running around me – sometimes ahead, sometime behind – staggered over to a picnic table and sat down heavily.

“Scheisse,” he groaned.

I ran through the aid station, stopping only for a few seconds to refill a water flask. I had quite a few kilometers of gradual to steep downhill to look forward to. I hadn’t completely wrecked myself on the uphill, and I started reeling people in. I was flying, catching runners whom I had told myself not to worry about as they went past me on the last climb.

It was pretty fun until a few kilometers to go. We had all been warned that there were three steep hills just before the finish, so to save something. The first one was a reality check after those nice kilometers of downhill, and it was longer than I had guessed, but not so bad.

The second one was short and very steep. I walked. Everyone walked.

The third one: very steep. It was terrible. I mentally cursed the race organizers. I came over what I thought was the top only to see that the hill went on. I felt like I was crawling. My swagger from a few kilometers ago was long gone. But at least from here it would only get easier towards the finish.

Down the other side, around a corner and… what the hell? Another steep hill. Like, really steep, find-something-to-grab-ahold-of steep. There were two retirees by the side of the trail. The runners ahead of me swore out loud this time, and the retirees laughed at them. At us. If I wasn’t so tired I would have fixed them an evil glare as I went by.

By the time I went down the fourth of the three hills, I wasn’t even fast on the downhills anymore. There was a very, very gradual climb to the finish line, back on pavement, which should have felt fast and easy. Instead, I struggled to maintain a jog. But I got to the finish, clocking a time just under five hours.

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The organizers set up this sweet panorama so you could mug and get a cool finish line photo as if you were running on the trail, but I was so beat I didn’t even notice. Whoops!

The sun was shining as we congratulated each other and began to refuel the calories and salt we had lost. Dry clothes felt so good. Sitting down felt good. I was proud of myself – my result was not particularly great, but I had worked hard and followed a plan and, I believe, done the best race I could do on that day. I was just over a year out from a major injury, and another major victory is that I hadn’t hurt myself again. That functional strength had worked: even when I was so tired, my feet nimbly navigated the trails and my ankles stayed stable.

Most importantly, I had a ton of fun and I was already dreaming of what long trail or mountain race to sign up for next year.

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With Annie at the finish: we did it! (Photo: some older lady walking by, who we accosted…)

***

The race hadn’t been easy.

If I’m thinking about the events that cap off my grueling goals, I think my PhD defense – scheduled for January – will be much easier. I like giving presentations, and I am excited to tell my colleagues, friends, and family about what I’ve been working on. I’m sure I will be nervous, but mostly, it will be fun. I’ve been imagining that day for months and months and months.

Compared to a mountainous trail marathon? PhD defense = easy.

But if I’m thinking about the paths that lead to those days, the running was much easier. The day after my marathon, I went for a little walk in the mountains with Annie, because we were already there and the views and mountain feeling are too good to miss even when your legs are jelly.

On Monday I went back to the office, and I didn’t take another day away from my dissertation until I handed it in just over a month later.

Again: that bad, bad situation of overwork, and everything it led to, was somewhat self-inflicted. I could have told myself, look, this is crazy. You don’t even really need six chapters. Florian, I can’t do chapter six. I’m going to take the weekend off and unscramble my brain and work on giving you a great five-chapter dissertation.

But that is not what I did. I wrote for hours at a time. I revised. I formatted. I cried. I ate a lot of cookies (a lot!). I asked colleagues to read terrible drafts. I rarely went running. I kept writing. I slept badly. I complained. I became a bad friend and officemate. I resented Florian. I cried more.

What I lacked was confidence. I was trying to follow the plan we had made, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have that feeling that if I just did what was on the schedule, everything would be fine. Most days, it felt like there was no way in the world that everything would be fine.

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You think you’re doing okay and then you start correcting your bibliography and it looks like this…

Maybe partly because my training was over and I was rarely exercising, I totally lost perspective. My dissertation seemed like the only thing in my life, in some ways, and it felt like a slow-rolling disaster. Every little setback seemed like the end of the world.

But, on November 19, I handed Florian a printed version of my dissertation.

He made some minor corrections and told me it was very nice. This was classic: he had previously told me that he expected he would make a lot of corrections and there was no way I’d be able to turn it in the next day. But by saying that, he had ensured that I would ruin myself attempting to give him a nearly perfect dissertation.

I made those small corrections, and on November 20, I submitted my dissertation to the University of Zurich. It was anticlimactic. I uploaded a PDF to the online interface, and then walked some paperwork over to the Faculty of Science. The woman at the desk who accepted my registration for a PhD defense didn’t even say congratulations. Nobody had come along to give me a high five or hug, because I hadn’t asked them to.

Instead I went home and, much like after my marathon, lay on the couch. I sank into the leather cushions and felt like maybe I could stay there forever.

***

Recovery began the next day.

If there’s anything that being an athlete has taught me, it is that recovery is important. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s also something that I didn’t really value for much of my “serious” athletic career. I was interested in too many other things – when I didn’t have to train, I filled that time with something else. I’m pretty sure I would have been a lot faster if I had just taken a nap.

But now I’m some combination of older and wiser, and my body is older, and my brain is older. They need recovery and I fully believe in its value.

I took almost a week off from work, and now I’m back. I’m able to enjoy going to the office again. I’m able to get excited about reading papers, another thing that I almost completely neglected while I was writing. Many of the projects I am working on now, in this time between my dissertation and defense, are collaborative, and that feels great to get back to, too.

And in the back of my mind I can say that no matter what else happened in 2018 – the political, the personal, the stupid stress I put myself under – I accomplished my two big goals. That feels pretty good.

Seven More Routes on my Swiss Hiking/Trail Running Guide

I haven’t been blogging this summer, and for that I’m sorry. It has been busy, but when hasn’t it been?

Anyway, maybe I didn’t write at the time, but you can still take advantage of all the adventures I’ve been having. I added seven new routes to my Swiss Hiking & Trail Running Guide, based on the favorite spots I went this year so far. I still have a few long runs planned for the fall, so the guide could see one more update before I leave the country after defending my PhD this winter.

Click here for the guide.

The new routes:

Schwyzer Hohenweg from Brunni to Einsiedeln:

Innerthal to Ziegelbrucke over Schwarzenegg and Scheidegg:

Maderanertal Höhenweg:

Glattgrat on the way from Klewenalp to Urnersee:

Glattalpsee, from Bisisthal to Braunwald:

Glaubenberg to Glaubenbielen and into the Marienthal (pic by Annie Chalifour):

Trans Swiss Trail from Lugano to Morcote (pic by Steve Towler):

Seiser Alm and perfect ski vacations.

I’m seriously late with this trip report, but no matter. I want to tell you about a trip I took back in early February.

Earlier this winter, when I realized that I was not going to the Olympics and thus had more time to play with in Europe (ha! only kind of! I need to finish my dissertation!), I asked on Facebook: what were my friends’ favorite places to cross-country ski in Europe? Places that I shouldn’t leave next fall without having visited?

Yes, I am in that mode. I anticipate defending my PhD in September, which means that I am looking for postdoc positions and in all likelihood I’ll be headed back to North America. It’s not that I’ll never take another ski trip in Europe, of course, but doing so will be a lot harder once I’m based on a different continent. There is such a world to explore here, and I’ve had so many great trips and experiences – many of which you can read about on this blog, like this, this, or this – but there are so many places that I still want to go, and not enough time to visit them.

So I wanted some help narrowing down my list.

A suggestion from multiple people was Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) in Italy. I had known for a while that this would be a nice place to go, as evidenced by the fact that oh so many national ski teams do training camps there: it is a favorite of the Americans, the Canadians, the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Finns, among others. Marit Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla each decided to ditch their teams’ pre-Olympic training camps and train in Seiser Alm instead. (And that turned out to work out well for both of them, as each came home with individual gold medals.)

Seiser Alm isn’t all that hard to get to, if you’re coming from afar. Go to Milan, take a train to Bolzano, and then it’s a quick bus ride to Seis/Siusi, the town below the plateau. You can stay there and take the cablecar or bus up to the plateau of Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi every day to ski, or you can travel up the big hill and stay up there, for example in the village of Compatsch, as we did.

Pro tip, do some work on the train.

The reason I hadn’t been to Seiser Alm so far, however, is that if you are coming from the north it is not so convenient. With a car, it’s probably not that bad. I don’t have a car, however, so the trip was a long combination of train and bus connections. Crossing the Alps is never a simple feat and I took the train into Austria, then another train to the top of a pass, then a another train down the other side of the pass into Italy, then a bus from Brixen/Bressanone to Seis/Siusi*, then the cablecar. I had wanted to take this trip before, but the logistics put me off. From Zurich it’s literally as fast to fly to Oslo and then take a train to Lillehammer, as it is to take public transportation to Seiser Alm!

I’m bad at writing blog posts, because my introductions are always longer than the meat of the post. But here, I’ll finally get to the point: I took a few days off work and made it a long weekend, reserved a hotel, and traveled to Seiser Alm. I went with my boyfriend, who had never cross-country skied before. I was hoping he wouldn’t hate it, and figured that if I wanted him to love my sport, I might as well introduce him to it in the awesomest place I could think of.

Because of all those logistics, we arrived in the mid afternoon. After checking in I immediately wanted to go for a ski before the sun went down, so I grabbed my skate skis and headed out. It had snowed the day before and the grooming was imperfect for skating (classic would have been better, but I didn’t want to take the time to pick and apply kickwax, I just wanted to get out there).

But it was beautiful. Everything I had dreamed of. And I had plenty of time to appreciate the scenery, because skating through the powder up some big climbs at 1800 meters of elevation (around 6,000 feet, and higher once I went up some of those big climbs) is really hard. I just skied until the sun was setting, maybe an hour and a half, but I was already pooped.

Luckily, I could refuel. Our hotel was delightful. As is probably the case for most or all of the hotels in Compatsch, half-board is the default: breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. That’s because Compatsch is a tiny, tiny village at the top of the cablecar. There are a handful of hotels, some of them fairly big, but maybe only two or three bars/pizza places that aren’t associated with hotels. There’s just not many other places you are going to eat, and the hotels aren’t really going to get dinner guests who aren’t staying up there because the cablecar stops running at 6 p.m. and you aren’t allowed to drive up to the plateau unless you are staying there (which makes the plateau very nice and quiet!). So, half-board makes sense for everyone.

The dinner was superb, including a great salad bar, some handmade pasta (of course), and a *dessert buffet*. I generally try not to eat dessert, but this was too much to resist. When I saw the 70-something-year-old German guy from Hamburg who was sitting at the table next to us get up and choose a second dessert, I decided that’s what I should do too.

Yes, even if you don’t count the phenomenal skiing, I was spoiled on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed a similarly great breakfast, and then set out to ski. That first afternoon I had remembered how exhausting it is to skate at altitude. I haven’t been doing a lot of skating this year because I’m still recovering from an ankle injury that has really affected my mechanics, so I had somehow forgotten that fact.

So we stuck to classic skiing. After the moody weather of our arrival day, it dawned bright and sunny. I slapped some blue hardwax on my skis, we rented some skis for my boyfriend, and set out.

Same view, this time with A+ grooming.

I can hardly explain how spectacular it was. I tried to be a good teacher but was distracted by the scenery, the perfect conditions, the feeling of sun on my skin (we hadn’t been getting a lot of that in Zurich). Every few minutes I would look around and grin, and sometimes spread my arms like, can you believe this?

From Compatsch, it is a few kilometers up to Ritsch, which is the true center of the trail system. From there, there’s a few kilometers of easy, rolling trails (and actually even a one-kilometer “practice loop” which is totally flat). We started there, but continued around the 12-km “Hartl” loop that goes far out the plateau to the northeast, and at its farthest point loops around alpine meadows with overlooks across a valley into Val Gardena.

I live in Switzerland, so I’m used to mountains, but the mountains in the Dolomites are totally different. They are made of, well, dolomite, and they are sharp and craggy. I think this is one thing that made me so awed by the scenery: it was just so different than what I was used to seeing. Take my wonder at the Swiss Alps, that feeling I have in Lenzerheide or Gantrisch or even Einsiedeln, and increase it by an order of magnitude, because these mountains are simply not what I usually look at. And throughout the day, the sun plays across them. Different parts are lit up or shaded. Clouds and snow squalls play around the spires. Every time you look is a little different.

My boyfriend survived the loop and we stopped in Ritsch for lunch at the hotel/restaurant there, devouring some excellent local-style dumplings. One was made with cheese, another spinach, a third one beets.

After replenishing, we parted ways and I skied down into Saltria and cruised around the 6 k loop there. Now is a good time to explain Seiser Alm. It is really just a huge alpine plateau, with hills and meadows, and sharp mountains on several sides. On every edge of this plateau are ski lifts and tiny resorts with a one or two hotels each; many of these areas are accessible from one another, albeit not by steep ski runs. Sometimes the cross-country ski trail would be running parallel to an alpine run, on a gradual downhill across the plateau. Even just in a tuck, on my cross-country skis I would be going faster than the downhill skiers on their heavy equipment, who couldn’t get up a head of momentum on such a gradual hill.

Saltria is another medium-sized village, a bit like Compatsch, but nestled down in a mini-valley a bit instead of totally perched on a plateau. To get down to Saltria, I dropped almost 200 meters of elevation in about two twisty kilometers, which was a lot of fun. I then cruised around the medium loop there, which was comparatively deserted and quite lovely, going up this mini-valley along a babbling river/stream instead of offering the bam-bam-bam of the plateau’s mountain views. And then I had to climb back up those 200 meters in two kilometers, which was slightly less fun.

Again, I was exhausted. But as I waited hungrily for dinner time, I appreciated the view, again. Perhaps some of the most special views of the spiky mountains are in the morning and the evening. As the light gradually disappeared, the spires were framed in different colors, just there right outside our window. The beauty and the quiet are so striking. Unless you have a really good reason to do a budget trip, it’s worth spending a little bit more money to stay up on the plateau and experience the mountains through whole days and nights instead of just enjoying the views from your skis during the day.

We had another great dinner, after which we sat in the hotel’s lounge area with a couple of beers. We were joined by two German couples, and the two men in the group began playing music on a guitar and singing. They were great, and played songs from several cultures and in several languages. The experience of this type of hotel, where everyone sticks around for meals, is a very different atmosphere from the impersonal settings of bigger resorts, and it was a lot of fun.

The next day was again beautiful and sunny, and we skied the “Panorama” loop, in total about a 20 km round trip from Compatsch, with a huge elevation gain.

Suddenly you find yourself skiing past the top of a ski lift, an experience you rarely get in the U.S. or Canada! The way that nordic and alpine skiing are integrated into the same space in Seiser Alm (and a few other places I have been, like Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees) is really neat. Groomed winter hiking/snowshoe trails are also embedded into this matrix, so up on the plateau at nearly any point you can look around and see people doing three or four different kinds of recreation. I wish more resorts would do this, instead of making these all totally separate activities, each with their own “area”. It’s great to be able to use the same space, and simply provides more terrain for everyone – why is that not a win/win!?

The panorama loop indeed offers spectacular panoramas. Again I was on blue hardwax, cruising around perfect classic tracks. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Perhaps because we set out directly after breakfast, we encountered relatively few other skiers, particularly in the outer parts of the loop.

The loop was so great that I went back the next day, when I skied as much as I could – the Panorama loop, the other loop overlooking Val Gardena – before reluctantly putting my skis back in their bag, getting on the cablecar, and starting the long journey home to Zurich. I had skied about 30 km each day, on average, and I was satisfied, exhausted, sore – but wished I could have just stayed and kept skiing.

I know exactly why so many people, from the world’s best skiers to that old guy from Hamburg who told us that he comes to Seiser Alm for two weeks every year, want to go there. I can’t wait to go back, even though it might be five or ten or twenty years before I have another chance.

Not only the snow, but that handmade pasta and an excellent glass of wine are waiting for me when I do.

*Why does everything have two names? Südtirol is an interesting region with an interesting history. It’s currently an “autonomous province” of Italy, but more than half the people living there speak German as their first language. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the region’s history, and a link to a 1927 article in Foreign Affairs stating that “the German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy… Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol.” That article is obviously not completely unbiased, but it’s quite interesting to read.