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.

Easter Break in the Alps

Coming from the U.S. and a non-religious family, I never thought about Easter all that much once I grew up and stopped having Easter egg hunts. But in Europe, the Easter weekend is a major holiday, a kind of spring break of sorts. Even in places that are no longer particularly religious (or, no longer very observantly religious), Good Friday and Easter Monday are often off from work, making a long weekend for family, friends, and maybe travel. Many people tack on a day or more on either side, or take the whole next week off.

If you follow any Scandinavian or Finns, you probably saw pictures of their Easter holidays spent skiing (cross-country, downhill, or touring), snowmobiling, ice fishing, and getting sunburnt up north. This always makes me jealous – the days are getting long up there, the sun is warm, and there’s still snow to play in. Exhibits A, B, and C.

This year we decided to go to the Valais, one fo the parts of Switzerland with the highest mountains, for our Easter weekend. We arrived Thursday night just in time to take in the views across the valley from our AirBnB. Clearly, this was going to be a nice time.

We were staying in Riederalp, a car-free village accessible by cablecar. The offseason had begun and many hotels and restaurants were closed. There were tourists, but only a few to add to the less than 500 people who live there (some of whom were certainly off on their own holidays in warmer places). Our rented apartment was between the two village centers, and so very quiet. This was exactly what I needed. Every morning we would wake up and have a coffee on the porch looking at this view and how the light changed on the mountains.

Riederalp is just below a ridge, and if you hike up there you are offered a view of the Aletsch glacier, the largest one in the Alps. It’s 23 kilometers long, surrounded by 4000-meter mountains, and by 2100 is predicted to lose 90% of its 27 billion metric tons of ice.

The “Aletsch Arena,” as the greater area has billed itself, is one of the big tourist draws. But we realized that it wasn’t the perfect time of year to have all kinds of adventures.

Riederalp is on the south side of the ridge and much of the snow had melted even at 1900 meters where we were staying. I thought maybe that meant we could make a trail running loop around the closest small mountain, but once we got going, reality set in. There was kind of a lot of snow.

This was one of those days where I made a plan and Steve was maybe not thrilled to be tagging along with my bad plan.

Still, part of the reason I had wanted to go to the mountains – other than the extreme happiness I get from just looking at them – was to do some running with vertical, as I’m training for a trail running race in the Alps in July. So I tried to make better plans. A few days, we ended up hiking/running on the “Winterwanderweg” winter hiking trails.

These were pretty high up, so the views were spectacular. They were also packed down – occasionally groomed, and then walked on by people in boots and sometimes snowshoes. Depending on whether the snow was still frozen or soft and slushy, this made it quite challenging running, either sliding around or constantly stretching your ankles in different directions as your feet landed in frozen ruts. It wasn’t the most fun running and by the end of the last day my ankle was sore, but at the same time it was the most fun running, because who can argue with this scenery!?

Two other days, I mapped out routes of about 20 km each that we hiked/ran. Both had a lot of vertical, and some snow patches despite my attempts to route down to lower elevations. The first was through villages and involved losing and then gaining about 1000 meters of elevation to get back to our porch, and it pretty much destroyed me.

The other was a new favorite loop following two local trails, the “Massaweg” and the “Hexeweg”, which curved over singletrack around the side of a mountain and then down a stream valley.

Anyway, we certainly got in some miles and some vertical.

But the nicest part of the holiday in many ways was just being quiet and not worrying too much about work. Sleeping late, sitting on the porch and looking at the mountains. We took some walks around the near-empty village and wondered what it would be like to have a place here. What it would be like to grow up here. What it was like to live here 200 years ago.

Spring is a great time to stop and take a breath. And this was a great place to take that breath.

autumn in the Engadin.

I love shoulder season in the mountains.

Autumn is incredibly beautiful, but for a lot of alpine resorts, it is the slow time of year. Business owners take a break before the winter tourism rush begins. Kids are back in school, so the summer vacationers are long gone. Maybe it rains a lot. In many senses it’s an in-between.

And yet: the mountains are still there. The days where it doesn’t rain can bring the most glorious blue skies. The plants start turning pretty colors, mostly reds and yellows. The highest peaks start accumulating snow. The weather is cooler, and as a person who suffers greatly in even moderate heat, that sure brings a smile to my face. It allows me to play outside for longer.

Fall is a great time for the budget traveler, because it’s not high season (except if you’re headed to leaf-peeping land….) and rates are reduced. Last year I had a great getaway to the Austrian Alps and stayed in a hotel I would never be able to afford in the winter season. I had the elaborate sauna suite all to myself one rainy afternoon.

This year, we headed to the Engadin valley in southeastern Switzerland.

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Upper Engadin. Cross-country skiers are probably most familiar with it as the location for the Engadin Skimarathon, which I’ve done just once despite being in Switzerland for several winters. We also had a nice ski weekend in Zuoz at the end of this winter. The Lower Engadin is one of my very favorite places, full of small villages with Romantsch writing on them, surrounded by big mountains: so quiet and peaceful. But I really had only been to the Upper Engadin once in summer, and it was a day of frustration while I was mentally processing some work-related problems.

It being shoulder season, we found a great AirBnB in St. Moritz, which again, is more posh that I would usually choose; nearby Samedan, Celerina, or Pontresina are more affordable.

The day before we left, I ran into my colleague Chris, a group leader in my research institute, on the train on the way to work. He had just returned from Val Roseg, a valley in the Engadin where he and another colleague, Amael, study biodiversity and ecosystem function. (You can find out about their research on this valley – with a big glacier at the top! – here, and watch a video they made about it here.) Chris was raving not just about a cool scientific result they had uncovered, but how beautiful it was.

“We’re going there this weekend!” I said excitedly.

We discussed a little, and when I said we were staying in St. Moritz, Chris looked at me like I had lost my mind. But, shoulder season!

Anyway, I arrived on Friday evening and picked up some locally-made mushroom pasta, wild mushrooms, bacon, and alp cheese, and whipped up a dinner as the alpenglow faded. I had big plans for the weekend: part of the reason we had come was that as part of my marathon training, I had two big runs on the schedule. 30 km on Saturday, and 20 km on Sunday, each with some elevation. It seemed a bit intimidating, and I doubted I would get out the door for Sunday’s effort if I was just doing it in my backyard. Hence, I picked some spectacular scenery to get motivated.

But where to go? There are so many trails, valleys, mountains, ridges, bowls… too much to explore in a single weekend. I pored over the Alps Insight trail running site looking at routes, and then pored some more over online topo maps looking at more routes.

On Saturday, we woke up, made breakfast, and then ran over to Pontresina, a rolling six-kilometer stretch along the lake and through pine forests. The trail was cushy under my feet and I marveled, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to run on trails like this every day?”

After going through Pontresina, we hit the big hills, climbing about 700 meters in five kilometers. I didn’t even try to run – I knew what we still had ahead, and just kept to a steady hiking grind.

But then we were above treeline near Alp Languard, and everything was spectacular. We were looking more or less straight across the valley into Val Roseg, where my colleagues had been doing fieldwork just a few days prior. The glacier hung, shimmering white, on the mountains in the back. Looking to the other side, we were surrounded by the alpine meadow playground we would inhabit for the next few hours.

Finally above treeline!

We climbed along a small ridge called Paradis – fitting. It was more gradual and a bit of a rest after all the steep climbing. We passed a small hut before descending some hard-won meters into a gorgeous bowl just below Lej (Lake) Languard. For much of the climb we hadn’t seen other hikers, but here people converged on this small alpine lake perched on the side of the mountains. I couldn’t capture its turquoise blue color, but believe me, it was special.

We descended the trail you can see snaking along the left to reach a wide bowl, before climbing back up to Lej Languard. This part of the trail is a runner’s dream.

The route was like a series of step: up to the lake, pause. Up a headwall to another plateau with tiny lakes, pause. We finally hit a traversing trail that cut below some big cliffs near the tops of the mountains. I ran off an extra kilometer or so to a pass, Fuorcla Pischa, just to see what was on the other side. It was a huge, rocky, open bowl with several more lakes, and in this direction, not a ski lift to be seen. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but it was the wrong direction.

Instead, we traversed back to the northwest, finally on gradual terrain through the scree, and spectacular view ahead of us. After a while we hit the spur up to the top of Piz Languard, which we ignored – the route had 1500 meters of climbing already, and I didn’t feel the need to add a few hundred more. We dropped down a bit before joining the “Steinbock-weg”, and a hard truth. I had looked forward to this section of the run because it was gradual, high-altitude traversing – the hard work of climbing was done, I was tired, and I expected to be able to cruise. But the Steinbock-weg was basically navigating boulderfields. I had to take care and go slower than expected. The last thing I wanted was to reinsure my ankle. That was okay, but not what I had pictured in my mind’s eye.

The last major point on our route was Chamanna Segantini, a hut where we could have stopped for something to eat and drink. But instead we descended a fun trail and than ran on beautiful, easy dirt paths around the side of the mountain a few kilometers, before taking another steep drop down all the way back to Pontresina.

30 k and more than 4 1/2 hours, and I had one workout done for the weekend. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch. It was great.

For day two, I knew I couldn’t handle so much climbing again, so I reluctantly left the Alps Insight website behind and picked an easier route. On Sunday morning I took the bus west and up the valley past a series of lakes toward Maloja. It was such an incredibly beautiful morning, it almost broke my heart to think that soon I will have to leave this country and find a job somewhere else.

I started by run by going along the south shore of the Sils lake; the path over big rocks and under the trees reminded me of running on a lake shore in New England.

But after a few kilometers I turned uphill, the only big-is climb of the day taking me over a headwall and into the Val Fedoz valley. Luckily, the climb was along a dirt road, so I didn’t have to think too much about where to put my feet – I was mentally tired from the previous day. I just tried to keep my heart rate from going too high, and savored the view out over the lake of Sils.

The view was stunning, and the valley nearly empty. The singletrack was faint and in places I lost its thread, and would have to pause to find it again. The stream meandered through the valley bottom until I got to one steep drop, where it had carved its way through with a waterfall. There, as I was climbing up through the boulders on one side, I met two hunters packing out their kill. After finally identifying that French was our only language of common currency, we discussed how beautiful it was, and that winter would come soon.

At the top of the waterfall, I climbed on top of a huge rock, stopped my watch, and ate a snack. The glacier at the end of the valley – there’s one in every valley here, it seems – beckoned, but I didn’t have the time, or extra kilometers, to explore further on the ever-fainter trail. Instead, I turned around and headed back down the valley on the other side of the stream.

Eventually I dropped down into Sils, where I caught a bus back.

Back to the St. Moritz train station, then back to Zurich, then back to home, and then, the next day, back to work.

My dissertation is due in a month now, and I have been working like crazy to get it done. Every day I feel completely mentally exhausted. Maybe hiking and running 50 k in two days doesn’t sound relaxing, but it was: relative to mental work, physical work is not so taxing.

Taking in the color and the sun, the mountain air and the mountains, was the best way I could possibly have spent a weekend, and I was thrilled to finally get to the Upper Engadin and explore with shoes instead of skis.

There were seemingly infinite valleys and mountains to explore, and I’d love to get back one day. Two friends are there right now, and they have been ensconced for a week or so, having a different incredible adventure every day. I’m jealous, but it’s not my time for that. Hopefully, in the future I’ll have more chances, because the mountains are there waiting.

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):

Walensee, two times.

The first time I went to Walensee was in the spring of 2015 when my friend Susan came to visit me in Zurich at the end of her biathlon season. As it happened, one of her close friends from high school in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, also lived in Zurich – what a crazy coincidence! Her friend suggested we take the boat to Quinten, on the far side of the Walensee lake, and walk from there back along the shore.

It was very much the end of March. That far shore of Walensee has a notoriously nice climate, so we were warmed by the sun a bit, but things were still dark and just beginning to come out of winter.

The walk, on a map, goes straight along the shore of the lake, so I was expecting something flat. Not so, that’s not really how it works. There are huge cliffs that drop down to the lake and for one section, it would be impossible to cross such cliffs. Instead, the trail climbs a few hundred meters in elevation to get above them. The going is rocky and fairly technical – not to mention steep. I grumbled a bit about the amount of effort I had to put in.

It was a lovely walk though, and near the end we detoured to the Seerenbach falls, some of the highest Switzerland. Because of their height it’s hard to capture them in one camera frame, but here’s what I got – the falls are a three-tiered affair, and the cascade on the left of this picture is just the lowest of the three tiers. The gushing falls on the right is a different source which has come though a cave system.


I didn’t return to Walensee for a long time, actually. But this summer I decided to go back and instead of starting in Quinten, start in Walenstadt and traverse the entire side of the lake to Weesen rather than starting halfway through.

It’s about 21 kilometers, and it was my first really long run of the year. The last summer and fall I had been doing longer trail runs/hikes with much more elevation gain, but I hadn’t run much all winter. This was going to serve as something of a test of my running shape and how long it might take me to get back into mountain running again.

Luckily, it was a lovely day – so much greener and more cheerful than the March day I had first visited Walensee.

The route from Walensee starts out by climbing dirt roads up most of the way to Walenstadtberg. It’s not the easiest way to start, but the roads are even and the grade is pretty run-able. I was feeling good, and then descended down to Quinten.

When I got to Quinten and started the climb just after, the memory of my last trip there suddenly came rushing back. I tried to run but couldn’t – long sections of the climb are at a 30% grade or steeper, I now know thanks to the GPS track. I slowed to a walk but after having tried to push the “running” for as long as I could, even that was a disaster. I was getting lightheaded and dizzy and had to drastically cut my pace.

With little running fitness to go on, that just about killed me. It was hard to recover from the lactate which had flushed my legs on that stupidly steep hill. I gave up trying to make a good run of things and ended up walking more sections. That gave me more opportunity to enjoy the views – of the waterfalls, the lake, and the picturesque Swiss landscape.

I now knew that I could run for a while, but I needed to work on some things before tackling any truly serious mountain runs.


Before and After the Fall: A Meditation on Healthiness

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It was a busy summer. And so, I inevitably got sick.

After a rainy ridge run in the Jura mountains confirmed that me and my friend Steve were more or less compatible overdistance-run partners, we ran across Liechtenstein. I often do these sorts of point-to-point runs in the mountains in summer and fall, but a certain amount of caution is usually maintained in choosing routes when I’m alone. Having a buddy willing to go the crazy places I suggested opened up new route possibilities and with it, more wear and tear (and fitness!) for my body.

The summer was full of opportunity and I was giddy.

We ran a section of the Via Alpina, a 1500-mile trail which traverses the Alps from Monaco to Slovenia, crossing through six other countries on the way. While I’d love to trek the trail some day, these days section runs are the best I can do. We “only” went 25+ kilometers in Switzerland’s Kanton Glarus.

Another day we “ran”, or mostly walked, up an incredibly steep headwall on the far side of Walensee lake, climbing 1500 meters in just three kilometers. The run along a small shelf below the uppermost cliffs was gorgeous, as was the relatively gentle descent back to the other end of the lake. But after that one I told Steve he could pick the route because I had caused us a world of pain.

Later in the summer, I skiwalked up to a glacier with my friend Jonas. I don’t know if Jonas knew how steep it was going to be, but I certainly wasn’t mentally prepared. By the time we hit the ice my legs were rubber. We wisely decided across crossing the glacier.

View from the glacier down to Engelberg.

At some point, I started to feel fit like a warrior, even if each of these individual crazy adventures (and a few more long ones on my own) left me totally exhausted, achy and sore. Pain brings fitness, though. I was hardening up.

But then, when I thought I might be getting onto a bit of a roll, fieldwork started.

I was asked with another PhD student to organize a big joint project for our whole lab this summer. It was/is a really great project – lots of interesting angles, and a cool opportunity to be involved in something so big. I really love fieldwork, too. But organizing everything was incredibly stressful. And I had to be at work extra early to organize everything before the rest of the team showed up, then often stay late to process samples and equipment when the day was over.

I did not run those weeks. On the good days, I forced myself to ride my bike either to work (a measly 9 km) or back, but usually not both. By the end of the day of fieldwork I was so tired that riding home seemed impossible. It was mental exhaustion above all else: after a day of remembering details and always trying to plan two steps ahead, plus perhaps driving for three or four hours, any additional feat of willpower was doomed to fail.

But… I got to see many new corners of Eastern Switzerland. And I love fieldwork! Did I mention that I love fieldwork? Why would you ever work in an office if you could work outside?

Here’s what a block of summer fieldwork for an aquatic ecologist looks like. It looks, despite what I just wrote above, like happiness.

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I think that even those of us who love our jobs lie to ourselves a little bit and say that because the work is something we enjoy, it’s easier than it really is. This kind of research is what I dream of doing. I love the science and the questions we ask and (try to) answer; it’s outside; there’s always something new and it never gets dull. For better or for worse, there’s a new challenge every week, sometimes every day, and you end up using a crazy-diverse set of skills and developing new ones. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything (well….). But there’s no denying that it totally saps me to organize such ventures.

As soon as fieldwork was over – no, not really, just in the middle of the experiment when we let nature do its thing and tried not to stress out about what might be happening in our absence – I headed back to North America to visit friends and family, go to a few weddings of people near and dear to my heart, and give a talk at a big ecology conference.

The first night I was back on Eastern Standard Time, I slept for 14 1/2 hours.

It was so, so awesome to see so many people I love! But I was flying constantly across the country to get to one thing or another and I never really settled in. For the most part, it wasn’t a very relaxing vacation. I also had to put out some fires with the experiment from afar, not being able to see anything in person, which is always nerve-wracking.

With my cousins Jess and Emily at a family wedding in Houston.

Some of the most relaxing moments of my "vacation" were walks in the Lyme Town Forest with my mom and our dog during my six days at home.

A rainy-ish hike up Mount Moosilauke with Susan and Jenny was a great way to cap off my time in New Hampshire.

And so yes: I cannot even schedule my “vacation” to be recovery time. There’s so much exciting stuff to do! I’m like a squirrel chasing every fun thing that catches my attention.

As soon as I got back to Switzerland it was back to fieldwork as we took the experiment apart. Again with the organizing and the long days.

Because I had been in the south for a lot of my trip back to the States and I am legendarily bad at exercising in hot weather, I had lost a lot of my fitness – I just hadn’t been running a lot, much less biking or rollerskiing.

Nevertheless, on the yearly goals list I had made myself in the spring I had written “do a mountain running race.” This had been an idea of mine ever since moving to Switzerland: I couldn’t really live in the Alps without doing the mountain running thing, could I?

The previous summer I had chickened out. I was doing some other fieldwork, a bit more ski-specific training, and just generally didn’t feel great about my uphill running chops compared to people who grew up in the Alps. I was sure I would get demolished, which was one thing, but more scared that I just simply wouldn’t have fun.

But in September I thought, I’ve got to pull the trigger on this or else this goal will stay as an unchecked box on my list. If I waited much longer there would be snow in the mountains. So I impulsively signed up for a mountain half-marathon in Arosa and convinced Steve to join me. Then I’d at least have someone to commiserate with, I thought, and I was certainly right about that.

Pre-race in Arosa. This dude guided our way to one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had.

Earlier in the summer, I had done a not insignificant number of long trail runs – longer than a half marathon – with a lot of elevation. But that day, I just didn’t have it. I’m not sure if it was simply a bad day (those certainly happen) or whether the difference between self-pacing and trying to guess a sustainable race pace just wrecked me early, but it was a brutal slog. The course climbed 900 meters in about eight kilometers at the start, then dropped off a precipitous face where you felt more like you were free-falling than running. Then it was up a second peak and a long downhill run back to the finish.

Falling off the mountain.

By the time I was running the last few kilometers, I had totally bonked. I was a mess at the finish line: rubber legs, salt-crusted face, salt streaks covering my arms and legs, dehydrated, totally depleted but with no appetite. It took me hours to get back to anything resembling being alive. A crazy thunderstorm rolled into the mountains and we sat drinking a beer and watching the lightning, me just being thrilled that I didn’t have to so much as stand up.

My first mountain running race experience was tough, but I’d probably do it again, with a clearer understanding of how brutal the race was going to be. The event was great and there’s a nice camaraderie to this community. I felt at home. So next year’s goal list: “do a second mountain-running race”…. maybe I’ll be faster?

Work got crazy again as we decided to use a student project to do a pilot test of a new experimental setup. One day I ran home from the office and titled my Strava workout “Trying to avoid a nervous breakdown about the new experiment.” I was literally running away from my problems.

Planning new experiments is so exhilarating, but it’s also frustrating and stressful and involves revision after revision of plans and ideas.

Around that time, Steve and I ran from Zurich to Zug, a nearby city. It was a 34 k run with a surprising amount of elevation gain: more than 3,000 feet, not bad for living in Switzerland’s lowlands.

I didn’t realize it, but it was going to be my last good run for a while. At the end of the next week, I noted that my supposed-to-be-easy evening run “felt like garbage”. I was just tired, I figured.

The next day I got sick. Really sick: going through an entire box of kleenex a day, unable to do much of anything, debilitatingly exhausted. I first blamed allergies but then, after a day and a half of this misery, took some flu medicine. I immediately felt better. Not good, but better. Ah-ha! If medication made me feel better, that meant I was actually sick. Right.

I didn’t get better very quickly, and had to take some time off of work. I didn’t exercise for two weeks. When I did, I felt okay, so I got excited and a few days later did a 16 k point-to-point run with my boyfriend (who was visiting, and who I thus felt I needed to provide with some workout opportunities). Predictable result: setback, more kleenex boxes. After a few days of re-recovery, we tried a 26 k run/hike up to a mountain hut. It was beautiful.

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Because of the snow and ice, we didn’t push the pace that much. My main challenge was staying warm, but my immune system seemed to handle it okay. The 20 k point-to-point going south from Zurich two days later, though, was one push too far. It required another kleenex box, more medicine, a few more days off from running.

You’d think that at almost 30 years old, I would have learned how to take care of myself better than this. But when to go back to training can be a tricky question – and I’m not exactly training for anything. When I go out for a long run in the mountains, it’s because that’s what will make me happy on that particular day. The balance of long- versus short-term planning is quite a bit shifted from my “athlete” days, meaning that I can risk a little more do get out there sooner – but the potential consequence, lying in bed being miserable, isn’t so nice either.

At a certain point, it came down to this for me. After weeks of yo-yoing back and forth between really sick, sort of sick, and sort of healthy, I couldn’t tell what “really healthy” actually was supposed to feel like. Better than yesterday, better than yesterday, better than yesterday; that seems like a good trajectory. When is better good enough?

And how do you value the trade-offs in life when athletic pursuits are essential for your happiness, but “performance” isn’t your job? Doing two jobs (now three, but that’s another story) and trying to get in good blocks of exercise is certainly pushing the limits of what I can do, mentally and physically. Yet my jobs are stimulating and fulfilling; I want to do well at them. I couldn’t quit them. I also couldn’t quit running (or, in the winter, skiing). If I did that, I’d be less stressed and I might not get sick, but I would be unhappy and the lack of exercise would leave me unhealthy for an entirely different set of reasons. I think I’d be less efficient at my jobs. To non-athletes that sounds counterintuitive, but I suspect that any recreational sportsperson knows exactly what I mean.

I’m lucky that I have some role models in this department. Most of my peers don’t pursue sports – I suspect that if I was in a similar graduate program in the U.S. the number might be higher, but without organized college sports teams many in Europe drop out of organized sports when they start their bachelors, and by grad school are focused primarily on academics – but a few do. When we see each other it’s like a relief: yes, I’m not crazy, this is a real thing that people do! And I’m not the only one who feels like doing work and sport together makes me better at each.

But it undeniably comes with costs. And so, occasionally, you run yourself into the ground and you get sick. Then the longer you sit around waiting for your mythical health to arrive, the more you stew in your own unhappiness. But pushing the envelope also might mean longer sitting around, just drawing things out.

I seem to be healthy again, finally, and I’m going to push it – but not too far. Ski season is coming and somehow, I need to break this cycle.

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