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Saas-fee trails

Over the past week and a half, I have been lucky enough to be in the summer training grounds of the Olympic downhill ski teams from all around the world. Specifically, I am working with the US Women's downhill tech team as their staff physical therapist (PT). While training is a huge part of their world, it also happens to take place in the Alps of Switzerland, where there is no shortage of trails to run.

One of the amazing things about Switzerland is the network of trails all over the mountains. Every little mountain town has trails that zig zag up and down the hillside, connecting ridge lines with valleys, valleys with pastures, and towns with each other. This well-established network of trails is ripe for the picking for me, and itching to get out and put some miles on my shoes.

This week, between training sessions on the Saas-Fee glacier in the mornings with the team and PT treatment for them in the afternoons I have had a chance to get out and sample some of the trails. The great thing about the trails here is that at almost every intersection there is a sign post, with yellow arrows pointing the direction to a peak, route, or town. Following along these it is easy to turn a simple out-and-back into a great loop. Starting out with a plan of running an out-and-back route, with some options for alternate routes should the mood strike, I headed out with my suffer vest, some water and my phone tucked away in a pocket.

The trails in Saas-Fee are rocky, uneven, well used and well maintained. Since the town sits in the bottom of the valley the only way to go is up, up, and up. I picked a switch-backed trail the went up to the top of the hill right outside of my hotel. The peak had a now decommissioned gondola at the top with a restaurant that didn't seem to be open. One of the things I like about trail running is that it’s not all running. If you are new to trail running you may think that you "have to run" the whole time you are out on the trail. This could not be further from the truth. Trail running is really a mix of hiking and running. Depending on the trail and how steep it is I may end up hiking a good portion of the uphill sections with short bursts of slightly faster jogs on the sections that are not as steep. This trail had a considerable amount of hiking involved due to the amount of elevation gain.

On the way up I passed through a small field with an electric fence to keep the high alpine mountain cows in their summer pasture. The cows in the mountains of Switzerland are shaggy, long haired things with a decent sized set of horns sitting atop their heads. Luckily as I walked through their pasture, they could really care less about me, and were more concerned with munching on the green grass and wild flowers.

Since this was one of my first trail runs starting at 1800 meters above sea level it was slow going. Within minutes my heart rate on my watch was in the red zone at 165, I was breathing hard and could feel the pounding of blood in my head and ears. Taking a short break to get my breathing under control I decided that this was going to be a trail run that I would use my heart rate as a gauge rather than speed or time. Keeping my heart rate between 150 - 163 BPM I was able to chew up the switch backs at a respectable rate. Once at the top I took a moment to assess my surroundings, take a few pictures and most of all catch my breath.

Taking a moment to refer to the map on my phone I noticed that instead of headed back down the hill, I could take an alternate route that had fewer switch backs, and a longer consistent decent. Starting off in the direction of the trail I had picked I realized that the map on my phone and the "well worn" trail I was previously on slowly started to fade away. Seeing that I was still on the general path shown on my phone, I decided that the faint rocky trail was enough that I could make my way down this now mostly forgotten game trail.

Down and down, zigging and zagging, hopping off rocks I went. Following the general direction of the game trail. After about 10 min the trail slowly started to materialize out of the rocky and shrub filled terrain. With a slight sigh of relief, a quick check of the map I was back onto the main pathway back to town. The trail slowly opened up, and then connected to a rough dirt road. Following it back into town I could feel the combination of the uphill work and now the much faster downhill running that required significant eccentric work from my quads and anterior tibias muscles in my shins.

Through the electric fence, past the cows, and back into town. Walking the last little bit to cool down. A solid run in the mountains, legs were feeling the downhill work, and I could tell that I would be sore in the coming days. Again, this is trail running, getting out into the mountains and country side, breathing the fresh air, and enjoying the time outside. After a run like this it’s time for a little recovery work and to get something the eat.

Until we meet on the trail, state safe out there.


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