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.

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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.

Ugly/pretty.

If you look at the photo above, maybe you will not notice anything amiss. Maybe the thing that jumps out is the cut on my right leg. But actually, if you look at my ankles, you’ll see the left one is bulging out like crazy.

I later found out, this is what it looks like when you slip on some mud, fall, and tear two ligaments in your ankle trail running, and then you cinch your shoes up real tight and say “I can do this, I’m probably overreacting”, run 10 more kilometers, begin to be in really excruciating pain, attempt to hitchhike without success, and then walk five more kilometers over uneven ground down to the nearest train station. When you take your shoe off, finally, your ankle does not look good.

When you finally get the MRI’s and the doctor explains just how much you tore, it will all make sense.

So, kids, be careful and take care of yourselves. I am not going to be doing much for quite some time while the ankle heals (this is my first major injury ever and I don’t really know what to do with myself).

The run I was out on when it happened was spectacular, but I don’t have the emotional energy to describe it very well given what happened afterwards. I will just say that I started in the Brand valley in Austria, which is quite easily reachable in Zurich and amazingly beautiful. As I passed the well-maintained traditional-style hotels on the bus, I thought, maybe I should come here for a weekend vacation. Anyway, from there I ran up to the top of Schesaplana, the highest mountain in the Rätikon Alps, and down the other side back into Switzerland. It was a truly amazing route. I hope the pictures do it more justice than my brief explanation can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking hut-to-hut in Slovenia.

For quite some time, I have been wanting to go to Slovenia. I’m not quite sure who the first person was to tell me that it was very cool, but whoever it was, it stuck in my brain. Slovenia is a young country, formed after the breakup of Yugoslavia, but it has everything from Alps to beaches on the Adriatic Sea.

For my 30th birthday, I decided to finally go. The capital, Ljubljana, is just an hour flight from Zurich, so I could put together a meaningful trip of only a few days by not wasting much time in transit. It was a very last-minute decision – I think I booked tickets two weeks in advance, bought a map of Triglav National Park in the outdoor store, and called a few mountain huts to reserve a place to stay. I was heading out on a hiking trip!

I flew to Ljubljana and spent an evening wandering around. It’s a very cool small city with rivers winding through and tons and tons of nice little outdoor restaurants and cafes. Despite the threat of a rainstorm (which eventually unleashed its torrential downpour while I was eating dinner), it was summer and everyone seemed so thrilled to be out in the streets drinking beer or wine and hanging out with friends. The atmosphere was so great.

 

 

The next morning, I took a slow local bus up to Lake Bohinj. The buses leave every hour from the main station in Ljubljana, are pretty cheap, and don’t require advance reservations. Seriously, getting around in this country was sometimes slow, but very easy.

I had decided to start my hiking here basically just by reading a few blogs of other people’s trips in the National Park. There are many other potential starting points. But the lake is beautiful and was a nice place to start. I could see the mountains where I was headed and got really excited.

I started by accidentally wandering up the Mostnica gorge – it was simply a trail in the direction I wanted to go, and I was surprised to find a manned info desk in the woods charging me €3 to enter the gorge!

It was funny, because as I started walking, a couple people actually asked me if I was going to “the gorge” and how to get there (apparently I at least LOOKED like I knew what I was doing). And then that’s where I ended up. It was money well spent, because it was gorgeous (of course). I was utterly unable to capture the beauty of it, but here’s a taste.

Then I wound back and took the steep climb up to an outcropping overlooking the lake, where I stopped for lunch. I could look back from where I had come from in the morning and it was rather rewarding.

After lunch I continued above the lake, up and over Pršivec – a lovely peak (1762 meters = 5780 feet) and my favorite spot of the day. As I got to the top however, I saw very dark clouds and instead of stopping to take pictures ran down the other side of the mountain. I kind of regret that now as it never thundered and I could have survived the rain for a few extra minutes, but oh well. Just know, if you make the trip to the area, that Pršivec is a super worthwhile destination! It was quite a scramble at the top, but I saw some people with small children or even less appropriate gear than I had, so that illustrates that it’s very doable.

After 20 minutes in the drizzle I arrived at Koča na Planini pri Jezeru, my hut for the night. It had a cozy dining room, good company (six fun Belgian guys who shared their wine, cheese, and apple strudel with me, and a cool Croatian family), and a nice outdoor terrace where I could sit and read my book after the rain cleared. There’s no camping allowed in Triglav National Park, but the hut system is fantastic, cheap, and allows you to travel light. And make new friends!

During the trip, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It was a really interesting pick for the trip. I thought a lot about what wilderness means and what national parks should be. The Slovenian national park was in a lot of ways so different than an American one – for one thing, basically no car access except to a few small farming communities mostly on the edges. And unlike most of the places I hike in Switzerland (which aren’t parks, but nevertheless an interesting comparison), there are no ski lifts/gondolas to take people up and down in winter or summer. With no cars or gondolas, that meant that everyone I met had gotten there completely on their own two feet – and it was a lot of people. At the same time, the huts were all half a day or less apart (at average hiking speed), so you never had to go super far to be able to do a hiking trip in the park. That makes hiking an approachable goal – I saw lots of people fairly high up in the mountains who definitely weren’t experts. Around Triglav itself (I’ll get to that later), it was quite busy. But many other parts of the park are very quiet, and at points I would go an hour or more without seeing another person. How to make nature accessible to people certainly varies by culture, but I appreciated the Slovenian approach more than many others I’ve seen.

Anyway, after a very good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast with my new friends, it was off to really get up high!

I set off into the forest. Such a morning is alive with possibilities and it felt like everything could happen. I knew that today I was going to the big mountains, and just 45 minutes later I saw them, providing a backrest to Planina v Lazu, a very old tiny village where they make cheese. Not even the cows were out and about yet as I passed by, bound for higher places.

I walked the high route to Vodnikov Dom for lunch, enjoying the alpine gardens – one of my favorite landscapes – at Lazovški preval and Mišeljski preval. This was hands-down my favorite spot of the day. On my way down from the pass it started drizzling, but I was so giddy with my mountain high that I didn’t even care.

I had lunch at Vodnikov Dom, reading a bit while a rain shower passed, and then continued up to the flank of Mount Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia. I crossed the Konjsko sedlo pass and took a slightly detouring route up to Dom Planika, a hut at 2401 meters. Click to enlarge the panorama from Konjsko sedlo:

The area around here is not only above treeline, but almost completely devoid of vegetation. It’s just scree and a lot of rocks – but of different colors and sizes, and it’s very beautiful.

The hut is a key spot for people wishing to summit Triglav the next morning. The dining room was crowded and I ended up sitting with four German guys: three friends from Stuttgart on a trip together, and a fellow solo traveler named Chris. We discussed all of our adventures and how to summit the next day. We all had varying types of equipment, from helmets and harnesses to me in just my trail running shoes, and we also had varying willingness to wake up early. After a fun couple hours of chatting we headed to bed at 8 pm (!) wondering what (and what weather) the next day would bring.

Getting to the summit of Triglavinvolves via ferrata (cables fixed to rock with iron bars), and if it was crowded it would mean a lot of waiting. I knew breakfast would start at 6, so the next morning I left just before that to get up the mountain while the rest of the crowd was eating. There were some clouds on the summit (obscured on the left of this photo), but I decided to just go for it anyway.

I had only my trail running shoes, no helmet or harness, and was worried I was unequipped. But there were no problems – I had tons of fun racing up the mountain, climbing my way along the via ferrata with my hands. Don’t look down! The summit was clouded but still lovely, and just 50 meters below it the views were spectacular.

I had made it up in 45 minutes but took much longer to carefully descend, passing people who were on their way up (including my German friends from the night before). Highest peak in Slovenia, check! I enjoyed my breakfast back at Dom Planika.

After breakfast I set off to the west, crossing a few places and stopping for lunch at the Zasavska koča na Prehodavcih hut. From there, I dropped down onto the 7 Lakes Trail, which is one of the places which had initially drawn me to Slovenia – it is part of the Via Alpina and famed for its beauty. It did not disappoint. The trail meanders past high alpine lakes and I was there at the perfect time of year: the wild flowers seemed to be in peak bloom. I took my time this afternoon, stopping to look at flowers, watch marmots play, and read my book on a rock next to one of the lakes. What an amazing landscape.

By dinner time I had made it to the Koča pri Triglavskih Jezerih, where I would spend the night. I had dinner and a beer with two Irish teachers who were walking around the National Park for two weeks as part of their summer break. They were awesome ladies and once again, I was surprised how happy I was to have some new people to talk to.

I woke up before 6 a.m. to hit the trail. This time it was because I had to be on a bus to Ljubljana by 11:40 and I had quite a way to walk first. Leaving the Triglav Lakes Hut in the dawn light was beautiful.

It had rained hard the night before and as I hiked through the forest water was still dripping off the trees. The birds were singing and the landscape was peaceful, but alive. I painstakingly descended the steep, technical trail by the Savica waterfalls, entering the cloud of fog sitting like a second sea over Lake Bohinj.

Finally, I was into the hot morning sun and walked along the lake back to “town”. Before getting on the bus I took a swim to try to spare whoever I was flying with from the smell of four days of waking with no shower…

After that, it was onto the bus and then onto the plane and then back to Zurich. It had been an amazing four days.

Some of my friends expressed surprise that I had celebrated my 30th birthday alone, rather than having a big or small party, or at least inviting friends on my trip with me. If I had planned a bit farther in advance, maybe I would have invited friends. But actually, it was really perfect. I had lots of time to think to myself, and I could do whatever I wanted: I could wake up as early or late as I felt like, eat breakfast fast or slow, stop to take as many pictures as I wanted, or ID flowers; I could hike fast sometimes and slowly other times; I could stop to read a book, and given the technical nature of a lot of the trails, I didn’t spend any mental brain space worrying about others’ safety, just about where I should put my own feet (and hands). It was nice to be totally the master of my own days. Solo travel can be incredibly rewarding.

In the end, I’m so glad I finally decided to go on this trip, and that Slovenia is close enough that I could pull it off at the last minute.

Hochfilzen

I’ve been in Hochfilzen, Austria, for a bit over week now, and dang, it has been AWESOME!

I spent all my mornings in the first week skiing, including one great 40 k day on classic skis:

The last time I was here, in 2013, it was one of those bad winters the Alps have had recently. I showed up with some brand new Fischer skate skis that I was dying to test out. I did test them out, but barely any of the ski trails were open and I ended up hitting some rocks that were poking through. After just a few days in Hochfilzen, my skis were no longer pristine (and I felt pretty stupid – although luckily the scratches weren’t too bad and those are still my favorite race skis).

This winter could not be more different. There is tons of snow, thanks in part to good grooming. It has been warm and some of the south-facing slopes have melted down to brown hillside. But where the trails were packed, it’s no problem. Pillerseetal, as this region is referred to, advertises 100 kilometers of ski trails. I’ve checked out a lot of them. The trails connect different villages, each with their own little flavor, and it has been a blast to explore around.

I’ve had some great skiing in Switzerland this year, but only being able to ski on the weekends is tough. To have this whole week to literally ski my brains out, I’m in heaven. Before I left on this trip I had reached a big milestone in my PhD, submitting the first chapter from my dissertation to a journal. Being able to take a mental break after that was perfect.

(Of course, while I was here, I heard back that the paper was rejected and I had to reformat and rewrite bits and submit it somewhere else but… that’s academia. Get used to failure.)

While I have definitely been taking some recharge time, I’m also here for biathlon World Championships. (And in fact, that’s why I’m in Hochfilzen instead of somewhere else – thanks, biathlon, for bringing me to this place I have totally fallen in love with!) The weather was sunny until Friday, which meant that watching the races from behind the shooting range was a real treat:

The races have also been great. A highlight was seeing Lowell Bailey win the 20 k individual, the first World Championships gold ever to an American biathlete. I’m really proud of the story I wrote about that; I think it might be the best race story I’ve ever written.

It was fun, and funny, to be an American journalist on that day. Often, I’m the only one in the mixed zone who wants to talk to the Canadian or American athletes. There are a few exceptions – Lowell has been doing more interviews because he is doing really well this season and also his work on anti-doping issues has raised his profile. Tim Burke and Susan Dunklee get some attention from the foreign press and anyone who does well on a given day might get one or two questions. But mostly it’s me.

On the day Lowell won: not so much. Every single television crew wanted an interview. He took longer to go through the mixed zone than any athlete of the entire Championships so far, I think. The media coordinator actually pulled him before the last TV crew could get an interview, and sent him to the press conference. Then, he had to take photos with his medal, before popping back to take more questions. Because television always gets first priority over written press, I didn’t get to talk to him until more than an hour after he finished – even though I was basically the only home-country press on site! By then, I was getting pretty hangry, so I have no idea how Lowell held it together through the whirlwind. Although I’m sure he just wanted to have some quiet time, it was really cool to see how much interest there was in American biathlon, all of a sudden.

Here’s Lowell answering questions from Norway’s TV2, while a journalist from France’s L’Equipe looks on:

All the races have been fun to watch, though. When the race is over every day, it is sort of a bummer to have to leave the beautiful weather to go inside to do the writing. At least the press center has some good windows, that’s not always the case.

Recently the weather turned, with a big snowstorm rolling through during the women’s relay. The coaches looking through scopes on the shooting range put up little umbrellas to shield their expensive scopes and the whiteboards they use to track where shots go. Photographers were wearing ponchos and fashioning protection for their telephoto lenses out of basically anything they could find. Personally, I wished that I had a hard-shell jacket… but luckily it was still warm, so a raincoat would do.

My time here is almost over, and soon it will be back to work on science stuff. I can’t say that there has been any day here that I have taken completely off from my PhD, but it has still been a nice break. It has also given me time to catch up with Susan Dunklee, who has been one of my closest friends for ten years regardless of the fact that we occasionally have a reporter-athlete relationship! It was Susan’s birthday earlier this week. She organized a little pizza party for herself using an outdoor grill made by one of her sponsors, and then her coach Jonne organized a second little party too.

And, I’m feeling better and better about my skiing. I’m way more fit and strong than I was last season, and I’m looking forward to hopping in some races again, maybe as soon as next weekend.

autumn alpine adventures.

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This summer I was on quite a string of trail running/hiking jaunts, accumulating miles of distance and thousands of feet of elevation every weekend.

It’s funny how these things go in fits and starts. Work gets crazy and all of a sudden it’s hard for me to put energy into planning weekend trips. Or I prioritize a rollerski instead, and bid the mountains farewell til next week… or the week after… or the one after that, when I spend hours planning where to go only to then look at the forecast and see rain.

Plus, to try to fit in so much exercise (let’s not exactly call it “training”, shall we?) I had tried to find routes which were not more than an hour or two’s train ride from Zürich where I live. There’s plenty there, but it led me to start from similar places a few weekends in a row. There’s a lot of different pockets of mountains – infinite pockets, really – but I wasn’t seeing much of that diversity. Good workouts though. I was running myself all around a two-hour radius of the city.

But not recently. And it also happens that I hadn’t seen my friend Greg in many weeks- maybe months? We finally connected when planning a trip to La Sgambeda, a ski marathon in Italy, in early December, and remembered: yeah! We should go hiking! In a moment of serendipity, we had been both looking at doing the same hike earlier this summer and neither of us had ever gotten around to it. So we met up on Sunday to finally conquer the beast and get some high elevation views in.

We took the train to Schwyz, a city in the region outside of Zürich and one of the closest places with relatively big mountains. Then we took a bus up a winding valley to Muotathal, a town of a few thousand people on the Muota river. Muotathal is most famous (or only famous?) for having six men who are called the “weather prophets” who predict the weather with various strange methods. One basis is, for example, anthills. You can see their latest predictions and stories here.

But I digress. We wound up in Muotathal and started hiking up through steep cow pastures and then past small “alps”. In Switzerland, the Alps are not just mountains. An Alp is also a hill farm, and is likely but not guaranteed to sell cheese or other products.

Looking back across the valley as we climbed higher, the views were amazing. Although we had taken the bus just under 30 minutes from Schwyz, it felt like we were infinitely further into the mountains: deep in them, surrounded, far from anything. Schwyz, on the other hand, feels very much like the border of the mountains. It is surrounded by a few charismatic peaks like Rigi and Grosser and Kleiner Mythen. But those peaks are filled with people and have restaurants on top. They look out in one direction to the mountains and glaciers, but in the other over large, beautiful lakes dotted with cities, and towards the Swiss Plateau.

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We were definitely not on Rigi.

And I was reminded that autumn is one of the most beautiful times of year to be in the high mountains. The alpine tundra vegetation was turning completely golden. Not so many deciduous shrubs and trees here, instead the gold was bordered by the dark green of Switzerland’s ubiquitous conifers.

We stopped to eat lunch and admire the view.

Then we kept going. This turned into one of those hikes where we kept seeing a height of land ahead, or a space between two hills which we assumed we would go through and then be on our way down the other side. Mostly, we weren’t there yet.

Greg and I both suffer from a problem with scale in Switzerland. No matter how many times I look at a map, I can’t internalize how big 1000 or 1500 meters of height is. In my head I can say, “yes, this route will take us up 1500 meters. That’s almost 5000 feet.” But I still don’t understand what 1500 meters is. And so I’m hiking and I keep thinking, I must be there yet. And I’m not there. And I keep going up and up and up.

Stupid Americans.

But we were excited (even if exhausted and in pain) because we were creeping closer and closer to the snow. We passed a surprisingly large collection of farm buildings – what are they doing up there!? – and at one point walked along a perfectly graded dirt road. Seriously, there are roads in New Hampshire which get regular traffic and are in far worse shape. It was hard to picture anyone driving up here.

After 2 1/2 hours, we finally got to Chinzig peak/pass, and it was definitely worth it.

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Here’s some culture. We were hiking along a section of the Via Suworow. I know very little about Swiss history, but it turns out that Napoleon’s French army invaded Switzerland in 1798. A Russian general named Suvorov (Suworow spelled more like in Russia, I guess) marched up from Italy to try to push the French out. He and his army couldn’t handle the French, however, and had to turn around in Glarus, the canton south of Zürich. As they marched to escape south, they crossed this peak/pass and many others. The scenery is beautiful, but I’d rather not be walking it as I fled.

After eating lunch, we began wandering down to a cablecar station where we could save about 1000 meters (that’s 3000 feet) of wear and tear on knees and legs by getting a ride down. A very expensive ride, as it turned out.

And then we had just barely missed the bus into the nearest big town, Altdorf and Flüelen. It only came once an hour. Shucks! We wandered down into the small town of Burglen to look for a cafe or somewhere to wait out the time. We weren’t really successful….

…. but, it turns out that Burglen was the hometown of William Tell. William Tell! Did you even know he was Swiss? I’m not sure if I remembered that or not, but it was in Altdorf, just down the hill, where he assassinated a lord representing the Hapsburg dynasty. Swiss don’t like being ruled by monarchs; Switzerland is a confederacy. Therefore, Tell’s act is a legend of action against tyranny. Also, that one time he shot an apple off his son’s head. Another thing I didn’t know, and probably you didn’t either, is that actually there’s no proof that William Tell or the Hapsburg lord ever existed. They might just be fiction.

Anyway, we saw a sort of creepy statue of Tell and his son. There was also a Tell museum which we didn’t go into. Burglen was a pretty little town.

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Eventually we made it to Flüelen where we could buy some chips to get that salt craving under control, and hop on a direct train to Zürich. With the bus snafu, our 15 k hike which was just one canton away from Zürich had turned out to take pretty much all day. I crawled home to cook dinner.

I’m hoping to get in at least one more high altitude hike/run before it really becomes winter, but ski season is coming. More importantly, we’re nearing the time when it’s not so great to hike (too much snow) but not yet time to ski (not enough snow). Most importantly, I’m swamped with fieldwork and trying to prepare for a PhD committee meeting.

But we all need some personal time, and for me the best personal time is in the mountains. So I’ll find a good route and get up high one more time, at least.