Last weekend the Verbier St-Bernard trail run took place. A good moment to talk to you about trail running and to introduce you to some of our trail running friends.
What is trail-running?
Essentially, anyone who runs outdoors in nature on unpaved paths is a trail-runner. It is a relatively new sport that is growing fast, especially in countries such as Switzerland, France and Italy, where the mountainous regions offer both challenging terrains and magnificent views to motivate you! Because you run on nature trails and hiking tracks, it is less impactfull and better for your knees.
Trail running isn’t only a thing in Europe and competitions are happening all over the world. Some of the most challenging races are in Nepal.
Mira Rai is a Nepalese athlete and an ultra-trail runner. She was elected winner of 2017 Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic. Her story is very inspiring, and a documentary shows how she discovered she was a trail runner. Check out the trailer:
This year Norlha an NGO based in Lausanne and active in Nepal was a partner of the Verbier St-Bernard trail. The event has a race for every level of runner, from the extreme X-Alpine – 110km long and with 8400m of positive ascent – to a 61km race with 4000m positive ascent. From a 29km race with 2500m positive ascent to a 6km uphill race. All of this in the picturesque St Bernard region in Switzerland.
Norlha at the Verbier St-Bernard trail
Why I ran for Norlha:
Trail runners seem crazy to those looking in from the outside. However, there is something strangely compelling about someone running down a treacherous mountain trail in the middle of the night by the light of a headlamp, possibly in pouring rain, freezing temperatures and snow (mountain weather is as you know unpredictable).
I first took notice of trail running due to a friend who was becoming addicted fast. Previously, I was blissfully unaware. My first thoughts were “why do this?” and “how is it possible to stay on your running feet for more than a day sometimes in wild conditions?”. She was training for the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) trail – one of four races in the Mont Blanc world class event held in Chamonix, France, every August. It is described as only “quite difficult” on the website! The CCC involves running 101 km and climbing 6,100m in total. So yes relatively easy compared to the extremely prestigious Ultra-trail Mont Blanc covering 171 km and climbing 10,000m and described as “quite difficult.”
Repeated exposure to this mythic running world while chatting with the “obsessed” friend on short, easy training runs in the forest, began to have an effect. The option of beautiful scenery and dirt tracks instead of unforgiving tarmac was appealing.
At the same time I am a volunteer with Norlha – a small Swiss NGO that supports some of the poorest Himalayan populations through subsistence farming and by empowering women. When I saw a story about Mira Rai in the Guardian – a UK newspaper – I made a connection. Mira was a former Maoist child soldier in her native Nepal who had turned international trail runner, and I felt she might be interested in us and our projects for women. The Swiss have a strong affinity with the Himalayas and the Nepali, in return, like the Swiss. Mira attended our “Women in the rural Himalayas” conference in 2016 and we became firm friends. She is an incredible role model for young Nepali women who lack many of the opportunities taken for granted elsewhere, such as a decent education. Mira was one of a growing number of Nepali trail runners making a name for herself in the international circuit. Nepal, Norlha, Swiss mountains and trail running seemed to be on a collision course. The organisers of the Trail Verbier St Bernard agreed to include us as an approved association and Team Norlha was born for the 2017 version of the trail run in the Swiss Valais in July.
How my first 29km trail run was:
This distance seemed feasible compared with the other options of 61km and 111km. There is the same killer steep ascent at the end though. So while the first 18km was really enjoyable, when I hit the climb to La Chaux – a steep 7km from 1070 up to 2200m – I began to struggle. This stage took me three hours, plenty of time for photos, rest stops and meeting new friends, also battling and driven on by sheer will power. I was just glad to reach the finish in seven and a half hours and in daylight. I really thought I might struggle to beat 10 hours or even the 12 hours cut off point. It is hard to predict what might happen, but I made it and I would probably do it again.
I was running for Norlha to support their cause of supporting communities in the Himalayas. My wife was also running and works for Norlha, so that brought a personal touch to the run.
It was neither my first trail run nor my first endurance event but my first combined long-distance trail run – 29Km! The combination of trail running over a prolonged duration puts your body under a lot of strain, something I was neither physically or mentally prepared for. My last trail was back in 2006 when I did a series of trail runs in the Valais, Switzerland. I am an active person but I was not prepared at all for this event, with no training.
If you’re physically active, you will finish but it won’t necessarily be a pleasant experience. It is well advised to be trained for a run of this distance. I underestimated the strain on the legs on both going up and down. Your muscles are worked differently going up and down, but in both cases, due to the distance, your legs are completely milked of energy. I did finish so I am happy about that, but the following days will be uncomfortable and I am now paying the price for not training ☺
My most enjoyable moments on the trail were:
- The sublime mountain views, and pastures which have had minimum human impact due to how remote they are to get to. There was even a pristine mountain lake with crystal blue water.
- The words of encouragement from fellow runners. This is something I have not experienced in other types of more traditional runs. There is a sense that we’re all in it together.
- Arriving at the refreshment stations was another high note, as it helps you to mentally get through the race by using them as checkpoints.
- Lastly, the post-race relief is always a pleasure in any race and is always a highly satisfying feeling ☺
My three learnings from this experience are:
- Train properly. Prepare yourself gradually for running up and running down, so that your body is ready for the extra strain trail running puts on your legs. You can be fit but it is the specifics of going up and down that take their toll on your legs during the race. Also, the altitude tires you out more quickly than you realise.
- Get proper equipment: Walking sticks will help you to be more efficient going up by lowering the strain on your legs because you will use your arms too. Good footwear will give you extra grip on the steeper climbs but especially on the descents, so you can be quicker with less fear of slipping. I had neither so overused my legs already on the first 1’200m climb and was overly cautious on the descents.
- Take your time. Don’t treat it like a road race over a similar distance otherwise, you’ll be in for a tough afternoon. The climbs and descents are energy sapping. Enjoy the experience if it is your first trail run or your first long-distance trail run. I went out too fast. If I had been properly trained with the right equipment, my speed would have been fine, but it was not the case so the last 10km were painful. ☺
The Science of Trail Running
Nadège Rochat has just completed her PhD dissertation on the mentalities of trail runners. Her research has shown that despite the challenge associated with trail running, it is a sport that anyone can take up – and its benefits mean that most people should!
For her PhD, Nadège wanted to determine the factors affecting the success rates of individual runners, with a particular focus on the mental stages they go through during a race.
What were the results of the research?
“My thesis was based on analysing the science of trail running success. How do people manage to run for such extended periods? What are the strategies to avoid breaking down? How do trail runners train? Why do around 30% of them quit?”
To answer these questions, Nadège’s team had to carefully analyse the mental activity of runners, in particular during training and races. Her research led to two main conclusions.
First, trail-runners go through three states during a trail run:
- The suffering state, when they struggle with pain and exhaustion
- The revival state, when they feel invigorated and thrilled with their efforts
- The preservation state, when they try to manage resources like their energy by adapting their pace or taking a break
It seems the difference between those who complete races and those who quit depends on how long the runners stay in each state. Quitters typically spent too much time in the “suffering” state, and were unable to continue, whereas those who finished the race spent longer in the “preservation” state. The conclusion that Nadège drew from this was that successful trail runners are the careful and sensible runners.
Nadège’s second finding was that trail runners share common concerns regarding health and training habits, and often discuss these in online forums, such as Raidlight. “The trail running community is very supportive, and even though runners may go through a difficult period, they are never completely alone.”
Nadège hopes that sharing her research with the community will help runners of all levels improve their performance so they can complete their races.
What are the benefits of trail running?
Trail running requires stamina, strength and good overall fitness, and so trail runners tend to make better choices regarding their health & nutrition. Most trail-runners make a conscious effort to eat healthily to properly fuel their bodies and train regularly, which leads to a happy and active life. This doesn’t only apply to semi-professionals who are training for a race, but also just to those who want to run 5km twice a week!
Trail running also has other benefits aside from improving activity levels and eating habits. Trail-runners get more opportunities to get fresh air and enjoy nature, as well as meet other people while running or within friendly and well-established online communities. Trail running is also a great way to reduce stress levels, and like all exercise, can lead to you feeling more energised over time.
Since anyone can take up trail running, how do I get started?
Anyone can take up trail running, and there are many resources for those interested in starting.
To find out where to run
RunTheAlps offers many different trails for those interested in completing a guided trail run with a group of other runners led by experienced professionals. In particular, their trips accommodate all levels of trail runners in a variety of locations in the Alps, so excitement and picturesque views are guaranteed!
To find out what you will need
When trail running, you have to carry everything you need for the entirety of the trail with you, whether your run is short or long. As a beginner, you may not know what you will need, but Raidlight is a great point of reference.
Many Swiss cantons and communes are currently investing time and money into establishing a trail running community, by offering support to runners through building beautiful trails and providing advice and guidance.
If you are a trail-runner, Tell us what you wish you had known before taking up the sport. If you are just starting, talk to us about your first experience!
Author: Laura Ostendorf
Laura is TIQ 2 Sports’ captain, mother of two daughters, former ski school owner and an avid sportswoman. Loves tennis, golf and skiing.