Of Buffs, Lycra, And Being Well-Coiffed: Tips For Trail Running In Switzerland

[Editor’s Note: With numerous Americans about to head across the Atlantic to race TransGranCanaria, this is the first in a two-part humor series on international trail running fashion. Don’t worry, we’re equal-opportunity humorists so stay tuned for a follow-up article that tackles U.S. trail running fashion for Euro visitors.]

2013 TNF UTMB start

The Euro-style start of TNF UTMB in 2013. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

“Your parts, they are not too loose?”

The question, offered in a thick Swiss German accent, comes as I am getting ready for Glacier 3000, one of Switzerland’s more scenic trail runs in a country that offers dozens of remarkable trail races. Twenty-six kilometers long and with almost 2,000 meters of climbing, Glacier 3000 is a bit schizophrenic, featuring a rolling tour of several bucolic Swiss villages, followed by a steep upward push through alpine terrain, and a finish across an aging glacier.

It’s not exactly the usual low-key chatter I expect before the starting gun. Apprehensively, I followed the stare of my new acquaintance, and looked below my belt line. Nothing to see there. Everything seemed to be in order. Then, I looked towards, well, his he-ness. As an EMT instructor might say, when scanning a body for trauma, I ‘glanced casually.’

He was compressed, mightily so. Tight Lycra covered everything, his torso, the area that was the topic of the moment, his calves, and feet. His parts were anything but loose.

I decided to have some fun. “I like the wind down there,” I explained. “Feels good. Give it a try sometime!” I got a blank stare back. My comment clearly didn’t compute.

The gun went off. We left the posh village of Gstaad, and headed for the mountain looming in the distance. Each of us with—how do I put this delicately?—our culturally different degrees of compaction. Vive la différence!

I have been running in Switzerland for a number of years now, ever since my brother and I stuffed a few francs in our socks and took off one day during a family reunion, on what we later called our ‘Gentleman’s Trail Run’—a hard push uphill, followed by a café au lait and a croissant. That was nearly 20 years ago, and it’s a concept so good, it’s still in use in our family.

I love running here, more than anywhere else in the world. For what I like, it’s got it all. Cozy villages. Miles of high-alpine pastures filled with contented cows, sheep, and goats. Tough climbs, followed by a reward of fresh fruit tarts at the local hut. Scenery that’s right out of, well, Heidi. And a culture that loves trail runners. It’s not unusual to run past a farmer, only to have him put aside his rake and clap a few times. The fact that his tools look a century old and he’s dressed in clothing that appears to have been provided by the Swiss tourism board makes it that much more memorable.

Switzerland and I, though, we’re at odds on one thing: trail running fashion. To me, it’s an oxymoron. To the Swiss and many other European runners, it’s a phrase that can be uttered entirely without irony.

I’ve never been accused of being the slightest bit fashionable. To make matters worse, I work for the NPR show, Car Talk, with two bosses whose idea of haute couture is wearing something to the studio that’s not so saturated in petroleum that it might spontaneously combust. Our Executive Producer’s nickname is ‘Not a Slave to Fashion.’ We take pride in our slothfulness.

To be honest, I am a bit torn. One side of me secretly admires the sleek look of the Euro trail runner. The clichéd American in me, though, comes out when I’m in the Alps. I scoff at time spent preening. Back home, I tell myself, that would cut into our time spent burning donuts in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Or, in my case, finally reading that New Yorker that’s been sitting around, gathering dust.

The lure of the European trail running scene is mightily strong, though. And, I’d hate for any reader to be caught unawares, perplexed by disbelieving looks. So, with that in mind, I offer a few fashion faux pas and tips, for those of you someday headed to the pastures and peaks of the Alps.

Dos

Compress! Compress everything you can. Compress your toes, your calves, your quads, your torso, your arms. It wouldn’t surprise me if guys will soon be wearing compression jock straps and women, compression bras. The manufacturers, of course, will claim they will make you run faster. (Imagine the sensation. It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t.)

Coordinate. Your pack should match your shirt, which should match your socks, which should match your shoes, which should match the accent stripe on the inner layer of your compression shorts, which should match… well, you get the idea.

Wear designer sports sunglasses in the absolute brightest colors you can find.

Use a Buff. In the quiet of your bedroom, train endlessly to understand the dozens of ways it can be worn. When you’re wearing it, try your best to shunt aside the thought that you look like you just walked off the set of an old ER episode.

Emma Roca - 2013 TNF UTMB

Emma Roca finishing in style… Euro style at TNF UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Bring trail running poles. Refer to them as batons. When someone asks you if you have batons, say “Bien sûr!” and act mildly displeased at the stupidity of the question.

Accessorize! Guys: consider a small earring stud. Women: lightweight jewelry is a must.

Get a haircut. And not from a barber, but rather from what one Euro friend would call “a proper stylist.” If you’re getting this done in Switzerland, prepare to have your savings drained. A simple haircut last summer cost more than my first car. Unsure if your style works? Try this test: it shouldn’t budge, even when you remove your Buff. (Side note: On the upside? Guys who, like me, are follicle-ly challenged will love this country. Lack of cranial coverage seems almost desirable.)

Got it? Good! Now keep telling yourself this is exactly how you run at home. (French-speaking trail runners searching for the right word will sometimes use the word ‘costume’ to describe their collection of trail running gear. It’s an accident of language that works beautifully, in this case.)

A final tip: buy everything you need before you leave the States. In Grindelwald, Switzerland, I once saw a Salomon trail running clothing package that totaled well over $1,000. No one said fashion was cheap.

Seb Chaigneau - 2013 Hardrock 100

Seb Chaigneau debuting some French flare on the Hardrock catwalk in the summer of 2013. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Don’ts

Don’t wear baseball caps. As a friend of mine from Paris once pointed out, only kids and tourists wear caps in Europe.

Don’t be unkempt. Know exactly which pocket in your trail running pack is designed for your Buff, which for the gels, and which for your comb. (Yes, I have seen this.) Never confuse them.

Don’t wear clothing that isn’t formfitting. The only fabric that should be flapping in Switzerland is the iconic red and white flag.

Don’t allow mud on you shoes. I have seen runners in ultramarathons, finishing the day with shoes that look like they are still warm from the factory forms. How do they do it? I’m still puzzling over it.

Conclusion

Now you’re dressed and ready for a nice, long trail run through the Alps. Locals will address you in French or German, naturally assuming you’re one of them. Smile knowingly and nod, but don’t utter a word. They’ll never know you once wore mismatched clothing whose total value was less than a latte at the local hut.

I, by the way, never seem to care enough to follow any of my own advice. And, frankly, I like to run with my settings a bit, well, loose. So, I remain mostly unfashionable.

One final observation that’s part fashion, part physiology. Swiss trail runners, it seems, don’t sweat. I, on the other hand, sometimes look like I just walked out of a swimming pool. I’m not sure how they do it. More research is needed. So, when the snows disappear and the heat comes back to the Valais Alps on the border with France and Italy, I’ll be there, still trying to figure it all out.

Dylan Bowman - 2013 TNF EC 50 Mile

DBeau has certainly picked up some tips during his travels in Europe. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Let’s add some more humor here. What are some other dos and don’ts you have observed for trail running in Switzerland or Western Europe in general?

What countries outside Western Europe have similar trail running trends? Can anyone in Asia, Africa, Australia, or South America fill us in?

Javier Dominquez - 2013 TNF UTMB

In summary: If you’ve got it, flaunt it!
Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

There are 21 comments

  1. Alessandrots

    Not really jockstraps, but X-Bionic (Swiss…of course…) actually produces a compression brief. Someone must definitely love that "squeeze" :-)

  2. osloSharon

    Hmmm, you seem to be a bit unclear on the concept of sports-bras. Compression is the entire point. Bouncing is not desired, and should not happen.

  3. travelmike

    Awesome article! like it!
    The reason why swiss runners don't sweat is ease: Compression fabric transmits it immediatly outside –> No sweat.

    Greetings from Austria :-)

  4. jaxcharlie845

    I switched to compression shorts after the first time I had issues with chaffing on a long run… so what if it's "euro" style! Fun article anyway! :)

  5. @waynemaurer

    Funny article! I'm an expat in Switzerland, and much of what's written rings very true. Lycra is no stranger to me, but only on the bike. Well, except for maybe winter tights … I've succumbed to them because the otherwise swishing sound would drive me mad. But that's my limit, poles and calf-socks are, for me personally, 'not in the spirit' and laughable respectively – I'd rather run slower than succumb to those. And for us men, lycra shorts should definitely be hidden under something more flappy. I always wear a baseball cap when it's not cold, and never really thought about it and my beard making me stand out … but I'm sure they do. I'd much rather that though than wear one of those 'golf visor' things – man, they are just so … so … so … Triathlon! Come to think of it maybe that's it – the runners here are completely unafraid to look like a triathlete, whereas for me, the thought makes me cringe, and therefore I'll never 'fit in' in terms of style.

    1. ctkohm

      Nice way to put it, @waynemaurer… like a triathlete. Spend the weekend of Ironman World Championships in Kona and you can witness people strutting their stuff without shame and nearly without clothes!! Actually, one thing I appreciate about Ironman WC/Kona, and perhaps now the Alps too, is that its a time/place where men can wear a little less (more form-fitting, shorter shorts, better fashion choices, tri-tops, etc) and not feel like odd-balls. In general, men need better fashion selection with shorter shorts and shorter shirts!! Girls get all the good gear and good looks!! At least in my opinion… ;-) Also, I certainly enjoyed the comments from women in Kona about how "hot" we guys looked in our race kits, and that our shaved and exposed legs were nearly irresistible to them! Do the men shave legs in the Europe?

  6. senelly

    Terrifically amusing piece. Love Cartalk too. Can't say much. I'm dressed for a Eurostyle run and the compression leaves me breathless. My buff is very tight. I'm ready to pass out. Is this good altitude training?

  7. javieronn

    Korea's trail running scene is still in its infancy, but a style/gear guide for its serious hiking culture might go something like this~

    "Weather forecast says 25 C and sunny skies? Great, but come prepared for wind, rain, snow, nuclear winter, and the apocalypse. Going for a casual 2 hour hike? Bring a 60 liter backpack to stuff all your gear in. No, wait. You want to show off the gear. Put on your color-coordinated and radioactively-neon boots, hiking pants, gaiters, technical shirt, rain jacket, gloves, bandana, hat, and sunglasses on before you leave home. It is still 25 C and sunny outside. Moving on- will you be hiking on paths that are practically wheelchair accessible, or on "city trails" that have actually been paved? Doesn't matter, bring trekking poles anyway. Final check- is there anything an expedition to the Himalayas would take that you don't have yet? Bring it."

    1. @HerdwickMatt

      Totally true. I hiked part of the Baekdu Daegon last easter. My wife and I felt very out of place in our green/grey trousers, mud covered boots, backpacks battered from previous trips. Everyone else was pristine. I nearly vomited at the price of gear in some of the shops!

  8. @briantinder

    I don't fit any this style! I know I will stand out like Shaq in China. They wont have a problem mistaking me for one of them this summer. On the upside I think I fit the American Ultra style to a T, if there is one…

  9. MTmartin

    Non-winter, I always wear a baseball cap. I remember running the Kokopelli Supermarathon in October ’92. There were a couple of Scots running. It turned out to be unseasonably warm for October. A cap was a necessity for me, coming from already wintery Montana. After a 20 mile stage on the third day, one Scot had a badly sunburned face. The other finished mumbling something like “Yank runners wear those goofy hats. Now I see why.” I couldn’t help chuckling. “You should come back in July.”

  10. smauland

    I'm always amazed at how glam the best European ultra runners look when they cross the finish line. Not a speck of mud anywhere! I think some of the teams have a secret aid station a few miles from the finish where they change into new gear in order to look pristine as they cross the finish line. Mind you, as a female European runner I always wear mascara when I race and I always try to match everything, including my sports bra and my shoe laces.

  11. @przem3k

    LOL what a piece! Just brilliant! I like it loose on the outside however i wear invisible compression underneath, but matching colours? No! I UN-match everything!!! EVERYTHING!

  12. francois_g

    Adding to the Dos/Don'ts list:
    In Europe, do run with a backpack and bladder. The backpack can accommodate a jacket or something warm (weather do change quickly in the alps), plus aid stations are further apart than in the US, so you might like a bit of storage. And, seriously, is sucking on a pipe that much more difficult than drinking from a bottle, as we frequently read on blogs?
    But don't run with a US-style bottle. You'll drive us mad with the cadenced, squishing noise it produces (unless you use soft flasks). I mean, seriously? The next think would be your keys tingling in rythm. I'm ready to slow down and let you go ahead :) Having said that I heard the one good reason to use handheld bottles (i believe it was from a Meltzer interview) which was to protect the hands if you tripped on a rocky trail. I'm moving to the US (SF bay area) in a month so I guess I'll have to get used to the bottles around me :)

    Other than that, great article. And yes, compression is overrated (plus Seb looks like a sponsors christmas tree in his racing outfit pictured above). I'm more of a lightweight guy (though I don't understand either the rolled up singlet AK flashed at UTMB, but I guess that will be covered in the sequel articles…) so I'm with you on this Doug :)

  13. Nick Jenkins

    I'm a UK expat living in the Pyrenees, since getting in to the local race scene here, I've noticed that the majority of runners are pristine in appearance just like the author states – head to toe compression, only the knee and elbow joints are visible, they'll have compression contact lenses soon I'm sure… I've seen some people in gear that defies all logic – Why would you want to race in a long sleeve lycra top and 3/4 length lycra shorts in 32°C heat? And then some people have the nerve to question my choice in going shirtless? It's bizarre, I get looks and comments such as "I hope you've got plenty of sun cream." Coming from the UK where we run in winter conditions in a pair of splits and a vest, I just can't fathom it. Each to there own I guess… Anyway I have a top tip where Buffs are concerned. If like me, you like to save the pennies, cut that Buff in to three equal parts – and…err… Boom! You now have three Buffs! Admittedly you won't be able to use them for anything other than a headband, but then that's all I want out of a Buff anyway, maximum result minimum bunchiness (that's not a word, but I think you know what I mean). Great article!

  14. rlhamelj

    Love the article, Doug. Maybe we can run American style sometime here in town. I teach at the high school and am training for my first 100 and confess that nothing in the summer is better than shorts, socks and shoes on a long run, and sucking from the mountain streams.

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