The first female fastest known time on the Swiss Via Alpina
“In the mountains, the idea of a record is relative, since it’s impossible to compare two times even on the same peak. A journalist may emphasize and value the time achieved, but in the end speed should be less important than an athlete’s inner assessment of his performance. And this has to do with his own evaluation of the results of his training and preparation, and the conditions under which he or she has achieved this concrete time.”
Kilian Jornet (emphasis mine)
I have had problems in the past with not being able to put an experience into words. Running the entire 390 km of the Swiss Via Alpina has left me with the dilemma that I could never justify the adventure in a single blog post.
The brain also ultimately has finite resources. Since the same pool is used for creative energy and feats of endurance, there is no way I summon the energy today to write a literary masterpiece.. so please bear with me.
It’s been less than 24 hours since I finished the most epic adventure I ever hoped to do. Instead of trying to describe the effect this has had on my view of the Alps, of Switzerland, of what my body is capable of or the reason why I wanted to do this in the first place, I’m going to go with a factual report to describe the FKT.
FKT stands for “Fastest Known Time” and refers to a speed record on a popular and predetermined route. These times and routes are curated and posted on fastestknowntime.com
After wetting my appetite for FKTs with a short one and a bizarre one, I decided to do a more traditional FKT course and cover the Swiss national hiking route nr 1 from Lichtenstein to France. The route goes over 14 Alpine passes and covers 23 500 m of elevation gain.
The Via Alpina is designed as 20 days of hiking (excluding rest and bad weather days). I finished it in 8 days, 5 hours, and 26 minutes (or in 197 hours). My total moving time was 90 hours and 34 minutes. While moving time excludes the periods used for sleeping, eating, washing my clothes, stretching, and writing Strava posts, only the total elapsed time is relevant for an FKT.
Killian Jornet puts it so beautifully above: You want to measure your attempt against your training and preparation. In both cases, I could not be happier with how my incredibly cramped planning and lack of training turned into a resounding success.
Training and Preparation
I first started running in the Alps in June 2019. My biggest weekend of mountain running before deciding to do the Via Alpina was 60 km over 2 days.
Because I felt so ill-prepared for 390 km, I decided to do no more than 55 km per day before having a proper rest. I booked all of the huts, tents, and hotels in advance, which means that some days I had to push a bit harder to get to where I needed to sleep and some days I reached the hut at 6 pm and sat around for a bit.
This strategy sounds reasonable if you approach an FKT as a holiday as I did, but it’s not necessarily the normal way to plan an attempt. In contrast, Wouter Berghuijs set the male self-supported Via Alpina record one week before my effort and ran the first 24 hours (130 km!) without stopping. He booked his hotels as he went along. I knew my body wouldn’t be able to withstand that kind of distance, so I stopped at a predefined point every night.
Even with my detailed schedule, I didn’t account for route detours due to rockslides and storm damage. Neither did I take into account the distance from my hotels to the start of the trail, getting lost, or going out of the way for a supermarket.
In the end only 2 out of 9 days were close to the distance I planned, with day 8 even being 13 km longer than I anticipated.
Each of the sections below is a link to the Strava activity with a description of the day. Since I ‘wasted’ a lot of time writing these daily reports during the attempt, I recommend reading the summary of the days on Strava. It will also allow you to see the magnificent views each section has to offer.
|Date||Section||Actual Distance||Planned Distance||Calories||Time||Elev Gain||Elev Loss|
|14/08||Gaflei to Weisstannen||40 km||41 km||1,961||06:04:04||1,100||1,591|
|15/08||Weisstannen to Ski hut Obererbs||36 km||36 km||2,347||07:39:52||2,254||1,553|
|16/08||Ski hut Obererbs to Urigen||50 km||45 km||3,085||10:18:40||2,489||2,881|
|17/08||Urigen to Jochpass||51 km||51 km||3,031||11:09:50||3,255||2,371|
|18/08||Jockpass to Kleine Scheidegg||62 km||55 km||3,392||12:02:53||3,183||3,321|
|19/08||Kleine Scheidegg to Blümlisalphütte||44 km||41 km||2,880||10:50:05||3,285||2,604|
|20/08||Blümlisalphütte to Lenk||43 km||37 km||2,596||09:59:07||1,961||3,642|
|21/08||Lenk to Rossinière||58 km||45 km||3,053||11:56:18||2,543||2,613|
|22/08||Rossinière to Montreux||37 km||28 km||2,012||10:33:35||1,789||2,319|
I spend a lot of effort into getting my kit ready. My backpack weighed 6.5 kg (including water) when I left home and had 61 items in it. In another stark contrast, Wouter, the male record holder, only lists 17 items of kit for his attempt. I’ll be publishing a post soon to examine the 44 items I needed which a male attempter did not.
The Via Alpine is Switzerland’s national hiking pride and is extremely well signposted. Even so, there wasn’t a single day I didn’t have to do a detour or got slightly lost. Below is a collection of the most memorable route confusions:
Day 1 – Sign in Azmoos not clear or obstructed
Day 3 – A path marked on the route app does not exist
Day 5 – Touring all of Meiringen
Day 9 – Lost among the cows
I was blown away by the support I received from friends, family, flatmates, my running club, and runners on Stava. Save one, I was welcomed warmly at every hut and hotel, even though I was always late, very stinky, and often wet. The hotel keeper at Jochpass made me a fresh, warm rosti and soup at 21:30 and then kept me company while I ate it like I haven’t seen food in 3 days. The landlady in Rossinière made me a takeaway breakfast sandwich and apologized profusely to me that I didn’t want any cheese on it.
As Killian wrote above, an attempt finally comes down to an athlete’s inner assessment of her performance: My execution far outweighs any expectation I had at the start.
My ankles were covered in K-tape in Gaflei and by the time I reached Rossinière, I had also taped up part of my calf and quad. In fact, my quad was so sore that I couldn’t bend my leg at all and could only manage a limping walk for the last 53 km of the route.
Despite my body’s protests, I was still able to run during 340 km of the course. I put it down to my genetic disposition to stubbornness that I was able to finish the last two stages, even though my fastest split on the last day was 11:28 minutes per kilometer (and that was downhill!).
This challenge was the toughest feat of resilience I have ever endured. I wore one of two sweat covered shirts for 9 days. It was freezing cold and dark up Jochpass and I was soaked. I cried tears of pain and frustration up Blümlisalp, cut myself on barbed wire, and stabbed myself with the tips of my poles. I chafed on my shoulders and hips and lost 3kg in the process of getting to Montreux. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
I guess we set challenges for ourselves as a way to explore who we are and what we are capable of. When these challenges throw us curveballs, the only thing we can do is to tackle them with resilience and a growth mindset, while leaning on others for support and encouragement.
I hope you too will set yourself an unachievable challenge and go for it with all your mind, body, and heart. If you can do that, you can truly learn what you are capable of. And if you choose your challenge well, you might even get to see a few (figurative) alpine views along the way.