On July 25, I ran the Swissalpine K78. This is an ultramarathon on trails through the Swiss Alps, starting and finishing in Davos, Switzerland. It’s a challenging mountain race, with elevations ranging from 1032 to 2739 meters (3286 to 8988 feet), and 2560 meters (8400 feet) of total climbing.
This race first caught my attention in 2012. That’s the year I went on a business trip to Switzerland. That trip was originally scheduled to take place in late July. When I checked to see if there were any marathons in Switzerland at that time, I saw the Swissalpine K42, which is a marathon run on the same trails.
As I started reading the Swissalpine Marathon website, it seemed familiar. I realized I had read about this race before. At first, I looked through recent issues of various running magazines. Then I realized I had read about it in Couple on the Run, a book by Andrew and Sue O’Brien, recounting their adventures running eight marathons in eight countries in eight weeks. The Swissalpine Marathon was one of their eight races.
I didn’t end up running the K42 that year. My business trip was rescheduled for September. On the bright side, that gave me an opportunity to run the Einstein Marathon in Ulm, Germany.
In April, I went out for beers with my friend Stefan, while we were both in Boston for the Boston Marathon. He asked me which European races I wanted to do. When I mentioned the Swissalpine K42, he said “If you’re going to do it, you should do the whole thing.” By the whole thing, he meant the K78. He also told me let him know if I decided to do it this year, because he would do it too.
When I got home from Boston, I looked up the K78. It’s one long loop, which starts and finishes in Davos. There are two marathons and various shorter races that follow different portions of the same loop, but the K78 is the one that gives you the most views. It also has the simplest logistics, since it starts and finishes in Davos. The K42 is a point-to-point race, so running that race would have involved taking a bus to the start.
Davos is situated in a valley in the Swiss Alps. It’s home to several ski resorts.
To get to Davos, I had to take two flights and three trains. I left Minneapolis on Wednesday. First I flew to Atlanta. Then I had an overnight flight to Zurich. I arrived there Thursday morning.
I had to pay for my flights, but the train fares were included with my race entry. About a month before the race, I received a race booklet in the mail. With it came two transit passes. The first was a Swiss Ticket, good for round-trip passage to Davos on Swiss Rail from anywhere in Switzerland. I didn’t need any reservations. I just needed to validate my ticket and board a train. That was especially convenient as I didn’t have to worry about missing a train if my flight was delayed.
The second transit pass was a regional ticket. It gave me unlimited transit on local trains or buses for nine days. That was more than enough for my stay in Davos.
Delta gives me a fairly generous baggage allowance, but I didn’t know how many bags I could bring on the trains. I was able to chat online with a Swiss Rail representative. He said the baggage allowance was whatever I could carry with me. That was easy.
The first train was a 10 minute trip from the Zurich airport to the main train station in Zurich. Next I had a one hour trip to Landquart. From there I had another one hour trip to Davos.
Although I didn’t need reservations for the trains, I made a point of studying the train schedules beforehand. One of the connections was only five minutes, so I wanted to know the train and platform numbers before arriving.
I didn’t get any sleep on my overnight flight. Even though I was tired, I enjoyed the train rides. I had good views all the way. It was a mixture of farms, towns, lakes, mountains, valleys, and alpine streams.
On arrival in Davos, I still needed to travel about a mile to get to my hotel. I didn’t want to walk that far with luggage, so I took a bus. After getting off the train, I had just enough time to validate my regional ticket and walk across the street to the bus stop before the next bus arrived.
I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Davos. It’s a familiar brand where I knew I’d get free breakfasts and wifi. It was also close to the Congress Center, where the expo was held. After checking in, I started looking for a place to eat lunch. I found a pizzeria a few blocks from the hotel.
After lunch, I walked over to the expo and picked up my race packet. Then I walked over to the sports center where the race starts and finishes.
It was a beautiful sunny day, but lack of sleep and a large lunch combined to give me a bad case of the afternoon sleepies. I could barely keep my eyes open. After returning to the hotel for a brief nap, I felt refreshed. Then I went for a stroll through the city. I saw several shops and restaurants, including at least five more pizzerias.
After dinner, I did my best to get to bed at an appropriate time for this time zone. Despite my nap, I had no trouble falling asleep, and I got a full night’s sleep.
The hotel gave me a card good for unlimited rides on the trams for the various ski resorts. After breakfast on Friday, I rode two trams to get to the top of Jakobshorn, one of the mountains overlooking the east side of the valley. From the first tram, I had good views of the valley.
From the top, I could see more of the mountains on the other side of the valley. I also had several views of two other valleys and the mountains to the north and east.
When I got back to Davos, I met Stefan and Gülben near the expo, and we walked to the other end of town to take the cable cars to the top of a mountain on the west side of the valley. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the mountain. While we were there, we bumped into Deo, who's also a Marathon Globetrotter.
After lunch, we stayed to chat and enjoy the views.
We stayed until an afternoon thunderstorm spoiled the party. Then we took the cable cars back down and returned to our hotels. I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hotel and getting my clothes organized for the race.
I got to sleep early, but only slept for about half the night. Then I was kept awake by an upset stomach. It was probably too much chocolate. (On a side note, I shouldn’t be allowed to go grocery shopping unsupervised in Switzerland.)
Saturday was race day. I got up at 5:00 and started getting ready. The hotel started their breakfast service early, so I was able to eat something to settle my stomach.
It was 50 degrees when I left for the start. The forecast called for a high of 63 with a chance of thunderstorms. That was in Davos. Part of the race was farther down the valley, where the elevation was lower and the temperature would be a little bit warmer. Later in the race, we would be at high elevation, where the temperature would be much cooler, and the chance of storms was greater.
The K78 is the largest ultramarathon in the world, and this was its 30th running. The website lists the distance as 76.1K. That about 47.3 miles. Presumably, it was originally measured at 78K. I’m not sure if the difference is the result of changes to the course or improvements in measurement techniques. Regardless, they still call it the K78.
The race started at 7:00 AM, and I had until 8:00 PM to finish. I had to take that 13 hour time limit seriously. This is a tough course, and I didn’t get to do the training I originally planned to do. As always, I was concerned about my groin injury. I was more concerned, however, that I might not be in good enough shape for this race. My only goal was to finish within the time limit.
I was originally planning to carry a water bottle. I went online to see which aid stations had food, and I noticed there were more aid stations than I thought. At first, they were 3-5 kilometers apart, but on more challenging parts of the course they were only 1-2 kilometers apart. I talked to other runners who confirmed that you don’t need to carry any water with you.
I started the race wearing a singlet, shorts and gloves. I wore a Tyvek jacket to the start, but tied it around my waist before we started running. In my fanny pack, I had warmer clothes, including a plastic rain poncho.
We started on a track at the sports center. I’ve never seen such a crowded start for a trail race.
The early miles were on roads. After leaving the track, we ran through Davos to the north end of town. Then we turned and followed a different street back through Davos in the opposite direction. Spectators came out to cheer us on as we ran through the city.
As we left Davos, we continued running south through the valley.
There were a couple switchbacks, which gave me one last look at Davos.
Next, we got onto a wide gravel trail. At different times during the race, we would run on wide trails, dirt roads, and single-track trails. Going through towns, we ran on pavement.
For the first 15 kilometers, we had a fair amount of ups and downs, but very little net change in elevation. At times, we ran into the forest. Other times, we came out into the valley. That gave as a variety of views.
After about 15K, we began to descend. At first we were on forest trails. The slope was gradual, but I had to watch out for roots. Then we ran through a small village, and the grade became uncomfortable. I wondered if I was trashing my quads and would pay for it later.
We returned to trails, but continued to descend rapidly until we reached a river. It was a wide trail, and there weren’t too many roots, but I found it to be uncomfortably steep. At one point, I saw a road way below us and wondered if we would be going all the way down to the road. Then I saw runners alongside the road. Two switchbacks later, we were there. After we reached the river, we followed it downstream, but the descent wasn’t as rapid.
We followed the river through a canyon, giving us lots of nice views of the river and the canyon walls.
There were distance markers every 5K. They counted down the remaining kilometers. The first sign that sounded like a manageable distance was 50K to go. I reached this point in 3:09. That gave me almost 10 hours to complete the remaining 50K. That sounds really easy, but all the difficult parts of the course were still ahead of me.
There was a K30 race that started with the K78. As we neared the end of that race, we started getting more mountain views.
The K30 ended in the town of Filisur. After that, the course wasn’t as crowded. Everyone continuing past Filisur was either doing the K78 or the T78 (relay).
Aid stations usually had water and flavored tea. Some also had food and sports drinks. The aid station in Filisur was the first one with soup broth. That hit the spot.
Filisur was at the lowest elevation on the course. From there, we needed to ascend about 5000 feet to reach the first of two alpine passes. We crossed a river and started following a dirt road on the other side. Now we were going upstream. The road didn’t look very steep, but it was tiring. Other runners were walking. I forced myself to keep running.
Along the road, we reached the 45K to go sign. My time so far was 3:45. Now I had over nine hours to complete 45K. To beat the 13 hour time limit, I just had to cover 5K every hour. The next 5K was all uphill, so that was a good benchmark.
As the road got steeper, I had to start taking walking breaks. I never walked for more than a minute. I tried to run for at least three minutes at a time. Eventually, we left the road for a forest trail that climbed up a mountainside. The trail was much steeper than the road. Here, everybody had to walk. The trail took us past this waterfall. The bridge halfway up is the same trail, but one switchback higher.
Although the trail was steep, I made every effort to walk at a brisk pace where I could. When I reached 40K to go, I was pleased to see that I covered this section in 57 minutes. If I could make good enough time on this tough section, I was pretty sure I could do it for the rest of the race.
This was the only part of the course where we had to go a long time between aid stations. We were on a 7K stretch of trail that wasn’t accessible by road and didn’t have any intersecting trails. It was probably as warm here as it got during the race, and I was sweating like a pig. This was the only place where I regretted not having a bottle.
As we were nearing the top of the climb, I heard a loud PA system. I realized we must be getting close to Bergün. Then I came to an overlook where I could see the city.
It was discouraging to see that the city was way below us. It was nice to run downhill again, but it meant we were undoing some of the work from our long climb. As we got closer to the river, the trail got uncomfortably steep. I had to put on the brakes as I descended. Again, I wondered if I was trashing my quads and would pay for it later. As I entered the city, I got a look at where we were going next.
The aid station in Bergün had water, soup broth, tea and sports drink. I drank one of each. I needed to rehydrate after the long hot ascent through the forest. After that, I drank two cups at each aid station. As we ascended, the temperature got cooler, but the air got drier.
In Bergün, we were temporarily on city streets. As long as we were on pavement, I tried to run, even if it was uphill. I made an exception for this street, which was not only uphill, but also cobblestones.
As we resumed the long climb, we were often next to this river. We were following it upstream. The rapid current was evidence that we were ascending.
My next time check was also encouraging. It was mostly uphill, but I still covered 5K in 56 minutes. I knew it would get worse before it got better. The climbs would get steeper and the air would get thinner. I also knew that there would be lots of downhill running toward the end of the race.
I hit the 30K to go mark in 6:28. That would be my last encouraging time check. We crossed the river, and headed in a different direction. I assumed we were leaving the river behind for good.
The trail got steeper, and I knew progress would get slower. It also got somewhat rocky, so I had to watch my footing.
Then the trail got much steeper and much rockier. Some runners were stopping to catch their breath. I kept moving at whatever pace I could. I heard the clanging of cowbells. In the villages, spectators always greeted us with cowbells. It’s a Swiss thing. I wondered who was up here to cheer us so high on the mountain. It turns out these spectators were cows.
As we climbed higher, I noticed a cold wind. It was time to put on my jacket and gloves. So far, the forecast thunderstorm hadn’t materialized. The last place I wanted rain was going over the top of a mountain. I took a look back to see the valley we climbed through to get here.
As we reached an aid station, I estimated that we had covered two kilometers since beginning the steep part of the climb. Another runner, who was struggling with the thin air, asked how much farther it was to the top. A volunteer told her it was another two kilometers.
The trail got easier, but I still couldn’t see the top. That stream we left behind miles ago. Here it is again. It keeps climbing with us. Seriously, where was all that water coming from? I didn’t see that much snow.
Finally, I could see the top. I also saw the source of all the snow melt.
I reached the 25K to go sign in 7:47. The last 5K took 1:19. I reminded myself that there would be lots of downhill running later in the race. Still, it was going to get worse before it got better.
After crossing the first pass, we entered a saddle shaped valley. We descended along the valley wall, but eventually we would need to climb over the other side. At first, the descent was steep, and I was once again forced to put on the brakes to stay under control. Once again, I was afraid I was trashing my quads and would pay for it later. Eventually, it got better, but I had to watch my step carefully. As fatigued as I was, I did a pretty good job of stepping around the rocks and maintaining my balance. Maybe I’m getting better at this trail stuff.
There was an aid station in the middle of the “saddle.” All the supplies had to be brought in by helicopter.
It didn’t seem like we descended very far, so I was hopeful that we wouldn’t have to climb much to reach the next pass. I was wrong. It was a long climb. When we were finally within sight of the pass, it got MUCH steeper. Each step took effort.
There was an aid station just before the top. We were rewarded for our hard work with risotto. Have you ever tried eating risotto when you’re totally out of breath? It took me a minute or two, but I enjoyed it.
I reached the 20K to go sign in 9:28. I was encouraged that I somehow ran that section in less than an hour. No. I ran it in 1:41. My oxygen-deprived brain couldn’t do simple arithmetic. For the next hour and a half, I thought I was on pace to break 12 hours. Not really.
There was a little bit more climbing after the aid station. As we went over the top, we descended through a cloud. The trail on the other side was steep and rocky. At first, it seemed completely unrunnable.
The trail got a little bit better, and I ran where I could. I wasn’t very fast, though. Where there was room, other runners passed me.
There were a lot of stream crossings. Some were just a trickle. Others forced you to get your feet wet. This one, thankfully, had a bridge.
We had a cold headwind, and the moisture from the cloud made it feel colder. I was wishing for three things. I wanted the trail to level off a bit, I wanted it to be less rocky, and I wanted to get below the cloud. I got all three wishes at once.
Running got easier, and I was able to pick up the pace. I reached 15K to go in 10:18. I still didn’t realize my thinking was an hour off. Eventually, we turned a corner and entered a familiar valley. This was the far end of a valley I saw on Friday when I took the tram up to Jakobshorn.
I thought I now had a pretty good idea where I was in relationship to Davos. I hadn’t seen the 10K to go sign, but it seemed like a long time since the 15K sign. Looking at my watch, I assumed I must have missed it. I still didn’t realize that my thinking was off by an hour.
I saw the 10K sign. My time was 11:03. It suddenly dawned on me that an hour for each 5K wouldn’t be fast enough. Fortunately, it was all downhill to the finish … or so I thought.
The trail veered into the forest on the valley wall. Every time we entered a forest, we started climbing. I was now too fatigued to run uphill. I walked the uphills and ran the downhills. If I ran at least some of the time, I’d be fast enough.
I started feeling drops of rain. At first, the canopy of trees shielded us. Eventually, the rain came through, and I started getting drenched. The rain gradually soaked through my Tyvek jacket. I had a rain poncho in my fanny pack, but I didn’t want to stop to put it on. I had less than 10K to go, so I thought I could tough it out.
It was evening, and the temperature was dropping. I was getting cold. I still had about five miles to go. I finally stopped to put on the rain poncho. I couldn’t find the tie to keep the hood on, and the wind was blowing it off my head. I had to negotiate a muddy trail with one hand holding my hood in place.
We came out of the forest and reached an aid station. I removed one of the pins from my race bib, and a volunteer used it to pin my hood in place.
I once again assumed it was all downhill from here. Then we entered the forest again. More climbing. Can’t make it too easy. I was relieved to reach the 5K sign in 11:51. From here, I could walk and still beat the cutoff. I might be one of the last finishers, but I was going to finish.
Eventually, the trail brought us to a dirt road. From there, it really was all downhill to Davos. We entered town near the Davos Platz train station. I had less an a kilometer to go, but I wanted to start walking. After all the descending, level ground felt like it was uphill. It’s not very far from the train station to the sports center, so I kept running. Then I saw another runner entering the sports center.
I kept running until I was on the track myself. Then I had to run halfway around the track. They announced my name. I crossed the line in 12:35:00.
After turning in my timing chip, I received my finished medal and shirt. At this race, you don’t get the shirt until you finish. I think that makes it better. During the race, I saw other runners wearing finisher shirts from prior years. I knew what they went through to get those shirts, and they instantly earned my respect. This is a tough race.
My time was slow, reflecting my lack of training. I’m still not a good descender, but I’m getting better at running the technical sections without catching my feet on roots or rocks. I tripped once and slipped on a snowfield once. Both times, I was able to break my fall with my hands. I didn’t get as much as a scrape, but putting my hand into the snow wasn’t comfortable. I’m also pleasantly surprised that I never seemed to trash my quads. I was getting slow on the descents, but they were never painful. Also, I still had enough stability in my legs to maintain my balance on some pretty uneven terrain.
I still had one more day in Davos. One of the places I could travel with my regional train ticket was St. Moritz. To get there, I had to take two trains. Both were scenic rides. The first train went to Filisur. It basically followed the same route as the first 30K of my race, but I got some different views from the train. The train from Filisur to St. Moritz went over some interesting bridges and through a long tunnel. I also got to see some different mountain views.
St. Moritz is a resort town in southeastern Switzerland that has hosted the Winter Olympics twice. It’s located on a lake, surrounded by mountains. I spent the afternoon there with Stefan and Gülben, and we had pizza for lunch.
Tomorrow I travel to Zurich, where I’ll spend one night before flying home.