Three Countries, One Six-Hour Run

Sometime in the last year, my friend Greg casually mentioned to me that it was possible to run across Liechtenstein.

“Oh yeah, we did it,” he said.

I guess I knew that the country was tiny. But – not to diminish Greg’s running chops – it didn’t occur to me just how tiny it was. 62 square miles. I started looking into it and, of course, there are quite a few writeups of how to “cross an entire country on foot!” The shortest way across is about eight miles. A fast runner could do that in an hour.

The idea of crossing the whole country definitely appealed to me. I knew that I had to do it. But an eight-mile run along the flat part of the country? That didn’t really inspire me. I started looking at the map. There were mountains along the Liechtenstein-Austria border. That is more my speed.

When my friend Steve mentioned wanting to get out this weekend to get “above the clouds” (it has rained nonstop in Switzerland for, I swear, months), I pitched him the idea. So there it was, Saturday morning and we were on a train to Buchs, Switzerland, just over an hour from Zurich, gleefully making jokes about our day “out of the country”.

From the Buchs train station it’s just a few hundred meters to the Rhine River, which forms the border with Liechtenstein. We paused for a photo. Whee! We’ve already come so far!

First border crossing: check!

First border crossing: check!

On we ran, through Schaan, the largest municipality in the principality of Liechtenstein. It has 5,800 people and houses a major manufacturer of false teeth, as well as Hilti, a power drill company. The downtown was cute, but didn’t look that different than Switzerland.

There are actually more companies than people in Liechtenstein, and it’s a financial capital. It’s a tax haven for those too choosy to pick Switzerland, so the place is awash in money – if not residents. A major global consulting firm seemed to sponsor the local tennis courts and we saw the names of more than a few companies we recognized.

After making it to Schaan we started climbing, first along a paved street past a convent, then on a jogging path through the woods and finally into a picturesque small village complete with grazing cows and beautiful old wooden houses, meticulously kept up. We could see the Rhine below us, sweeping its way towards Lake Constance; the Swiss mountains to the north; the Austrian Alps to the south; more Swiss peaks southeast and west. A few grannies cheerfully greeted us from across the street as a got a quick drink from the public water fountain. In the Alps, the water is always delicious, especially when you’ve been running uphill.

And above us, always, was the ridge we were set to traverse. It was rocky and looked epic, even though I knew it was not as tall, remote, or technical as many places I’ve been in Switzerland. We wound up and up along a forest road until, almost eleven kilometers in and after climbing about 1,000 meters, we found ourselves in the typical alpine meadows you associate with Austria and Switzerland. There was a mountain hut up the hill on the left and we passed our first other hikers of the day, three women happily chatting away.

I probably would have ski-walked a few more of those 1,000 meters of climbing, but Steve is not a skier; he’s a runner. His backpack was heavier than mine but his shoes lighter. He’s also just faster. It wasn’t a spectacularly hot day – rain was forecast for the afternoon – but by the time we stopped after the hut we were both completely sweaty. I needed a snack so we took off our shirts and tried to let them dry in the sun.

It… didn’t work. Putting a soaking wet sweaty shirt back on is not the best thing in the world. We continued.

After only about a kilometer, mostly through the woods, we once again found ourselves in a nice meadow, this time looking out from the top of a pass over into Austria proper. And there it was: the border with Austria. After just 12 kilometers and about two hours of running uphill, we had crossed the entire country.

You can't read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the left is a stone marker planted into the ground - a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line.

You can’t read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the right is a stone marker planted into the ground – a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line. Luckily in the light, you also can’t tell just how sweaty and disgusting I have become at this point….

We had started in Switzerland, made it through Liechtenstein, and were now in Austria – but our goals were not complete. The ridge and its most charismatic peaks, the Drei Schwestern or Three Sisters, were still above us. Faced with a trail that skirted around the mountain through Austrian meadows or an alpine route that headed back toward Liechtenstein, we picked the alpine route.

We wound our way through ever-shorter stunted conifers until there were no more. It reminded me of my beloved White Mountains. The rock started and so did the metal cables to hold onto, the dizzying drop-offs below, and in a few places, metal and wooden ladders to scramble up. The Drei Schwestern were pretty spectacular. The first real peaks I’d been on this year so far, we landed just over 2,000 meters above sea level, or slightly above the top of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in my home state of New Hampshire.

That’s not particularly tall by Swiss standards, but the view was still great. Austria and the Swiss canton of Graubunden stretched out ahead of us, peak after peak after peak still lined with snow. There was finally a cool breeze. I soaked it in: why haven’t I done this in so long?

Oh right, because it rains all the damn time. 

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool.

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool. There are actually two people in the cleft of the rocks near the top, if you can spot them.

We eventually continued on the ridge, and our pace dropped precipitously (because we ourselves didn’t want to….). It was technical scrambling up and down, again holding onto metal cables bolted into the rock. What had begun as a run was now a delicate crawl. We could have gone much farther along the ridge, but after three peaks decided to bail off back down into Liechtenstein.

The path I had picked turned out to be the lightest path you could consider a marked trail in Switzerland. It was rocky and rooty and, thanks to all the recent rain, muddy. The trail was hacked into the alpine heath, with surprised-looking naked root nubs still recovering from some recent trimming.

I sort of loved it, but with his minimalist footwear Steve did not. Personally, I maintain that there are few things you can’t do in a pair of Salomon Speedcross trail runners with their beefy treads. When the company gave the Craftsbury Green Racing Project a pair of shoes each back in 2010 they hooked this one customer for life…

The forest seemed to go on forever: I could see Schaan below us now and then, and it felt like my quads were burning more and more from holding myself in check on the impossibly steep grade. But Schaan never got closer! I began to worry we were in some sort of enchanted forest that expanded with us and we would never get out.

When we realized it was nearly two in the afternoon, it all made sense. Eating lunch cleared some of the grumpiness we had both been developing from the endless, messy downhill. Soon after that we popped out of the forest and into an opulent neighborhood of modern-day castles and mansions.

I could practically taste the chlorine in the swimming pools that I knew lay just beyond each perfectly-manicured hedge. But those swimming pools were not for us, so we continued running down and down, back into Schaan. By now I was flagging – it had been well over 20 km and a lot of uphill, over 1,800 meters or almost 6,000 feet, and then the corresponding leg-destroying downhill.

Just keep running, I thought. Admit no weakness to your running buddyOkay though, he can probably tell. The bridge over the Rhine was in sight, then we were over it, back in Buchs, and I could stop. I was incredibly dehydrated and savored a lemonade bought at the train station kiosk like it was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Three countries? One run? Not too shabby. We gave ourselves a high five for being adventurous – and, as Americans, laughed to ourselves at how long it would take to run across our own country. We had to take these opportunities where they came.

The next day was sunny too.

“I hear Monaco is nice this time of year,” Steve joked.

springtime of my sverige.

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In less than a week I’ll be competing in another big ski marathon. I know, I know. After the Vasaloppet, you really want to do this again, Chelsea? Well yes, I do. It’s the Birkebeiner. I’ve been excited abut the Birken for…. years. This year is no exception. I’m ready – to do whatever is possible for my body on that day, to participate, to have a great time. I know that it can’t possibly take 7 hours, since it’s only just over 50 k. So that right there means I will have significantly more fun.

But I digress – I’m going to be competing in a ski marathon. It feels surreal: these days in Uppsala have been warm and sunny. Spring came weeks ago and is not going anywhere. Winter is a distant memory.

And so in the midst of a long run I found myself standing in this magical clearing asking: where did the snow go? What did you do with it, Sweden? Which god have we offended and what can I sacrifice to appease him, or her? I’ll do it.

Don’t get me wrong, spring is lovely. It has been painful to work sitting at my desk all day, looking out the window at the sun that washes over everything and wishing that it could wash over me. I’ve been sneaking in a run here, a bounding session there, as I try to stay somewhat fit for the Birken.

Today I finally had time for a big run, and hit up my favorite place in Uppsala, Hågadalen. Just to get there, I had to make my way on a bike/pedestrian path full of happy people who were thrilled to be out in the spring weather. It was 50 degrees F and everyone was still bundled up, as if they were excited for spring but just weren’t quite sure whether they could trust it or not.

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And then, finally, I was in Håga, navigating my way through the puddles and over the rocks. I adore trail running, adore adore it. There’s something spiritual about being out there in the quiet, absorbing the peace all around you, but also focused so acutely on the little details of the treacherous ground. And yet you can’t be focused too hard. The best thing about trail running is that you achieve a sort of trance state, where you are noticing the bumps and potential trip-ups almost through your peripheral vision and your stride automagically adjusts to take them in. You’re looking, but you’re not looking. It goes deep.

For me the singletrack of Håga is almost like a cathedral, a place which distills and amplifies all those little things about trail running. The quiet is so quiet – you are surrounded my mosses and lichens which soak up the sound in their softness. And the trail is so nimble and twisty. It’s muddy and rocky and rooty and sometimes the best way is to just head off through the heather. I never come back without a scratch as a souvenir.

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And so I was happy, so happy, to be out running in Hågadalen for the first time this year. I had this sense that I belonged. It was magical, especially as I headed toward Rödmossen, where that top photo was taken. Even within Håga, which I already love, Rödmossen is one of my very most favorite places. It seems almost mystical with all that moss and lichen, a spongy sort of forest that can absorb anything. Maybe it would just soak you right up into it. I follow trail signs but always have this nagging sense that the forest has a will of its own, that it’s its own being with wishes and plans. What if there’s something out there switching the signs around? The boggy, fenny, rocky forest would make the perfect labyrinth. I can imagine twisting and turning your way through, stuck forever not knowing which direction you were going. I always think that this area would be a fantastical place for a fairy tale, and indeed these landscapes must have inspired Norse mythology.

These slightly foreboding feelings are seldom at the front of my mind, though. The forest is a happy place. And today it was a happy day, the sun seeping through the trees and me and the forest just enjoying springtime together. And yet – I didn’t belong there. It’s early March! It’s not time for this. No, it is time for skiing. I have had a few snowless late winters in my life – Eugene, Oregon; Montpellier, France – but this is something on a whole new level. It has been spring for weeks and going to Norway will be like a culture shock: white? snow? Spring is lovely, but this was not what I was expecting from Sweden.

It’s the hand I’ve been dealt, though, so I might as well go about enjoying it. Starting in Hågadalen.

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cevennes on the trail of RLS.

I have been hoping to write this up for some time and have finally given up…. so here it is, a quick note and a photo gallery. Last weekend I didn’t really have the weekend off from work, I had to give a presentation on Monday which I hadn’t started putting together yet! And also I wasn’t sure whether I would have to come into the lab on Sunday afternoon. So I put together an unusual travel itinerary: get on the train in Montpellier at 7 a.m. on Sunday, go to the mountains, have a nice night, and then get back on the bus there at 7:15 the next morning to return in time to do my work. Most people don’t plan 24-hour trips this way, but it was great!

I got all the way to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, about 1 1/2 hours away, for less than six and a half Euros, on the train and bus. I was staying at the Château de Cabrières, which I would highly recommend; as far as Chateaus go, it was pretty cheap, and an absolutely amazing location. There were extensive grounds to wander around and my room had not only the huge bed (my requirement for travel these days) but also a huge window, with big French shutters like you imagine in the movies. The Chateau was up on a hill, so the view out the window was over the village and then into the next hills and valleys.

I dropped my stuff off (they were nice to let me check in early) and then hit the trail: the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail. I am now dreaming of coming back and doing a through-hike when I’m in my 40’s. It would be much different than the American style – you can stop and stay at gites, in small villages, or even in chateaus like this one – but it is quite long and has a lot of elevation gain and loss. My out-and-back run on a small section was a blast.

After a great dinner in town, probably the fanciest food I’ve eaten in France at half the cost of a comparable meal in Montpellier, I nestled down, exhausted, to enjoy that big bed. The early morning light woke me up and it was back to Montpellier. Although I would have loved to stay longer, it was a great one-day getaway. The Cevennes National Park area is huge and I was just scratching the surface – I will have to do much more exploring if I have time.