If there is a better place to do outdoor activity than Switzerland, AW’s Steve Smythe is yet to find it
Whether you are training for running, triathlon or want some multi-sport action also including cycling, trekking and open water swimming then Switzerland looks a great destination and it took just over a hour to get there from the UK.
Many of the world’s top sportspeople use Switzerland as a training base and the Brownlee brothers are particularly fond of training here.
Triathlete Alistair Brownlee said: “It’s an amazing place to train and we’ve had a great experience each time we’ve been,” while brother Jonny added: “Both of us have responded really well to training at altitude and spending a month in St Moritz each summer has been brilliant.”
I was very fortunate to be part of a small select group of people connected with sports asked to sample the Swiss outdoor life. The star name with us was multiple Olympic sprint cycling champion Vicky Pendleton, who is another great advocate of training in Switzerland.
She said: “I thoroughly enjoyed my time living and training in Switzerland and have enjoyed returning to the country for training and also ski holidays. It offers the best in road riding and is also fantastic for training at altitude and is an ideal destination for an active break.”
Day one involved a choice of swimming in Lake Lucerne or doing part of the Swiss City Marathon and half-marathon course and, though carrying an injury, it seemed safer with my lack of swimming capabilities to do the run.
The title to me is misleading as you can’t get any less of a typical city race as the route goes around beautiful Lake Lucerne. It’s not pancake-flat but fast times are possible and the scenery with the lake overlooked by mountains is stunning.
I really enjoyed the run and though we didn’t cover the whole course by foot – we cheated by doing some of the less spectacular bits by car – we received a finishers bag with a striking technical orange long sleeved finishers t-shirt. It immediately became a favourite for training on run and bike even though I normally dislike wearing a top of an event I haven’t done.
The weather was gloriously warm if a little windy for that run but by the following morning for an early morning group training run around the lake the rain was very heavy. For this run we were joined by Pendleton. Since giving up the heavy weights and cycling sprinting, she had lost 8kg of muscle and looked far more like a runner and says she enjoys it more now than cycling.
About a hour or so after the soaking morning run, a cycling ride was arranged. We split into three, the advanced group, the intermediate group and a mountain bike group.
On the strength of my 4:40 ride in the London 100, I mistakenly thought I might qualify for advanced. I began to waver when I saw there were just two others joining the guide for the ride and most others, including Pendleton were doing the other rides. Then I found my cycling shoes weren’t compatible and I had to try and balance a wet pair of trainers on slippery pedals.
The word was that the ride wasn’t going to be that tough, though rides in Switzerland are rarely easy.
It was the hardest ride I have ever done.
The first 10 miles weren’t too bad – the roads were wet but it had stopped raining as we went along a valley (following the Kleine Emme river) with a gradual climb and I felt comfortable, other than the odd pedal slip. However, going over a rail crossing my wheel got caught in the gap and I fell heavily and punctured the tyre. After 10 minutes or so we resumed and I felt a little uncomfortable on hip, rib and elbow and then struggled up a steep climb at around the 15 mile mark.
Steep hills aside, I was enjoying the ride and at 25 miles I enjoyed it more as the river swung to the left and we left the main road and went up a smaller road beside the river. The road surface was superb and we passed waterfalls, went through a small tunnel and the climb was manageable. The scenery was picture-postcard everywhere. We stopped at a small town called Flühli where the support van gave out drinks.
Thereafter the hill cranked up more and I struggled blaming the pedals, though it might have been my fitness. The guide kindly waited for me as the other two went ahead. The hill seemed endless and the superb views couldn’t quite compensate for the discomfort.
We went into the edge of the clouds but finally, after 40 miles of cycling, I was very relieved as we reached the top. By this time we had been cycling mostly uphill for over three hours and had reached a height of 5250 feet.
After a stop and some photos we started the descent. On Garmin and Strava it looks like the next eight miles were close to a vertical drop but it was manageable. However, on uncomfortable pedals and wet roads and considering the earlier fall and the fact that I was frozen as temperatures were about 2 degrees centigrade (I couldn’t feel the brakes), I wasn’t prepared to risk 40mph plus descents on a new route for me on sharp turns. I consequently took it very cautiously and got dropped but this time insisted the guide go on ahead as I limited myself to 30mph.
I just about managed to avoid plummeting off the side and did catch the others up when the road was totally blocked by a herd of cows and we had to wait for a gap to open up. Once on the flat, the last 25 miles were mostly beside lakes and I was able to comfortably keep up but was still relieved when I saw Lake Lucerne and the finish.
While I wouldn’t necessarily have said it right after the ride, I would love to return one day but this time doing it without falling over, on proper bike shoes and pedals and dressed slightly better for the higher ground and descent.
Swiss trails: swisstrails.ch
Thereafter I transferred from Lucerne to Bettmeralp. On paper it looked tortuous with changes at Berne, Brig and Betten and then on to two cable cars but it went well. The only problem was the change at Berne, complicated by the platform full of UEFA Cup fans as a match was taking place there that evening.
Finally I arrived in Bettmeralp which is just short of 8000 feet. I stayed at probably my favourite ever hotel, the Bettmerhof. The food was brilliant, the owner Christian was very friendly and in the morning the views were sensational with the Matterhorn visible from the window. It would have looked even more amazing in the snow which covers it for a fair proportion of the year with the skiing said to be top class.
In the morning I met a guide and we got another cable car up to a higher point with sensational views of Europe’s largest glazier, the Aletsch, and started a trek. The trek followed the reverse route of the Aletsch Half-marathon finishing on the 2650 metre Bettmerhorn.
Britons Martin Cox and Billy Burns have won the race in the past and the winning time is in the region of an hour and half.
The way we went was downhill but the actual race goes the opposite way. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the initial descent and would have probably preferred to run up, albeit very slowly.
The views again were unbelievable and we did a detour through a forest before having lunch.
The trails were very well marked and well sign-posted. The race takes place every June and if ever fit enough I would love to return or even do some altitude training on the trails, though it’s worth noting that is is a ski resort during the winter months.
Here is a selection of altitude running events:
» Mountainman (Alpine Trail Running Challenge)
It is the longest alpine trail running race in Switzerland. Over 500 participants do the event crossing ridges, bogs and summits. There are also guided training possibilities before the event is held and there is a three-day training course in the high altitude of Melchsee-Frutt at the end of July.
» Jungfrau Marathon
You run in full view of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. There is a climb of 1839 metres.
» Gstaad – Glacier3000
The varying terrain and altitude gain is a challenge, even for experienced runners.
» Trail Verbier St-Bernard
An alpine race in Verbier St Bernard.
» Matterhorn Ultracks
Includes the option of a 16km, 30km or 46km trail race in Zermatt.
» Trail des Dents du Midi
A trail race starting and finishing in the Rue Centrale of Champéry at an altitude of 1050m.
»Swiss Alpin Marathon
Options include a mountain ultramarathon, the highest altitude marathon in Europe and a half-marathon.
A challenging long and high alpine trail.
» Human Race, the UK’s largest sport events company, recommends Switzerland as a great training destination for triathlon, running, cycling and open water swimming www.humanrace.co.uk/switzerland
Photo credits: Switzerland Tourism / Thomas Lüthi /AW