The 2023 Swiss Alps 100 Mile took place on the second weekend in August, and for me it was the last leg of a great adventure around Europe. We traveled by train from Berlin, Germany, on the Thursday, and the near-1,000-kilometer journey took us through some breathtaking landscapes, which became steadily more spectacular as we neared the Swiss municipality of Fiesch that hosts to the event.
As my body wasn’t up to another ultra just then, I was taking part in the roughly 10-kilometer vertical race. I think on reading the stats of the race as I signed up for it, I had seen only what I wanted to see, and convinced myself that this was a fairly standard vertical kilometer, with about a 1,000 meters of elevation gain. It was only while consulting the route map in the start area on race morning that the penny dropped that it was more like 1,850 meters. A lot of bang for the buck for a 10k race!
The race started at 10 a.m. on the Friday, a half hour after the 100-mile main event, which had the additional draw this year of being both a Hardrock 100 and Western States 100 qualifier. Our race followed the 100-mile route for roughly 7k, before deviating to a steep climb to the finish.
Unusually for an uphill mountain race, we started with a few hundred meters of downhill on the road. This was a good way of spacing out the field before we got to the narrow singletrack that followed as the climbing commenced. I found myself at the back of the lead pack by the time we started the climb, with a gap behind me to the larger chasing pack. Already there were two women gone on ahead, but moving so well I didn’t have any designs on chasing them. And when I looked around, I couldn’t see anyone close behind to challenge me for third place. So, it was one of those races where my fate seemed sealed from very early on.
Even at that hour of the morning the heat was picking up, and I was grateful for the shade in the wooded sections in the first half. But once the course opened up a little higher up, the views were more than good enough to compensate.
Our small field had strung out pretty quickly, but gratefully we caught up with the back of the 100-mile field soon enough, and picking off 100-mile runners while offering words of encouragement gave the run some momentum. At 7k, we got to the aid station. It was small and low key, but the atmosphere and the welcome for the runners, particularly in the 100 miler, was extra. I was humbled by what these folks were setting out to do, covering 160k with 10,150 meters of height gain, while I was fretting about an 1,850-meter climb.
I hurried past the aid station without stopping for water. Not smart. I’ve been running trail races for about eight years now, and still have a way of making it look like it’s my first time. The last 3k to the top was when the climbing really picked up. I somehow wobbled my way to the top, and happily managed to hold on to third place.
Once the exertion was over, only then could I fully take in where I was. The most serene and otherworldly finish area, overlooking the Aletsch Glacier (Grosser Aletschgletscher). Measured to be 23k in length as recently as 2014, although sadly reducing year on year, this is still believed to be the largest glacier in the Alps. My partner, Garth, had been busy friend-making while he waited for me at the top, so we hung around for a while to soak it in and talk to the other runners and supporters before taking the cable car back down.
We spent three nights in Fiesch around the event, and found it a super base to holiday from, with brilliant public transport linking up the region. The event itself has something for everyone, from the 100 miler down to a 100k, 50k, and Vertical. Also, having traveled to huge global events such as UTMB and the Trail World Championships this summer, as well as no-frills ultras at home in Ireland, I would describe this event as a happy middle ground in that respect. Although growth is inevitable, for now at least it retains an intimate feel.
Call for Comments
- Have you been to the Swiss Alps 100? Which race did you do? How did you find it?
- Do you also have a fondness for medium-sized events like this?