The challenges of finding perfect trail running routes
Even before we started, the day was sketchy. In the previous 48 hours, it had rained nearly nonstop until the temperatures dropped, then it snowed. Reports said the snowline was 2600 meters but we were already crunching through snow at 2400 that we illuminated with our headlamps through misty breath. It was freezing cold, the wind was blowing and it was August 5. We’d gotten up at 3 a.m. for this, a new run Janine had found studying maps and determined was a candidate for our site. At least the snow would allow us to clean our shoes of all the cow shit we’d wallowed through at the beginning of the run.
We reached the ridge we wanted to shoot at sunrise, right on schedule. That dreamy backlit trail running shot with the sun popping up behind me had a new ingredient, a frozen layer of snow. Wearing every piece of clothing I’d brought, Janine shot me as planned, and as quickly as possible. We continued on, moving as fast as the slippery snow would allow. After a few more photo stops on pretty sections, we had to get off the exposed ridge to warm our frozen fingers and toes. A descent of sloppy snow and muddy trail led to a small lake basin where, we sprawled out on a perfectly flat boulder, like marmots. There’s really nothing like snoring away beneath sunny skies.
Our one hour snooze allowed the next section of trail time to melt. Still groggy from sleep, we set off with it feeling a little more like a normal summer day.
But after several kilometers, we hadn’t run more than a few steps. Instead, we stepped in and around, up and down, and across the type of terrain we fear most, the much dreaded karst. A type of limestone we know to be very unfriendly to what trail runners want, smooth(ish), flowing trails. Not only did we have ankle rolling, knobby, sharp rock to contend with, we also had the sheep shit it was covered in. All this while our legs were being caressed by an abundance of stinging nettle.
Someone had to say it, “Gong!”. It wasn’t the first time I used our declaration of failure.
Whenever we’re out running a new trail that we hope finds a home on our Elevation : The Alps Trail & Peak Running Resource site, it runs the risk of being “gonged,” marking it as sub par for our quality control. Over the course of the last few years putting together our Run the Alps Switzerland book and building this site, Kim, Janine and I have gonged many routes.
But with 75 runs now on the site, apparently it usually goes right. However, we’re finding it increasingly difficult to establish new tours in new areas that meet our standards. Our goal is to spread the runs out across the Swiss Alps, but we know that several regions’ geology just don’t make for the kind of trail running we enjoy. As a result, we end up in the same places; the Valais, Berner Oberland and Graubunden.
So what goes into the creation of these runs? Who does it? What’s the vision for a great run? Also, what doesn’t work, and why?
The mastermind behind almost every run on the site, and the person who has done more of them than anyone else, is Janine Patitucci. I asked her all about what it is she does, and how she feels about her efforts resulting in great experiences for trail runners.
An interview with Janine Patitucci
Tell us about yourself and your experience in the Alps.
I’m Swiss and grew up outside of Luzern. In 1999, I started working as a professional mountain sport photographer, which I still do together with Dan as our full time work.
Part of my job has always been to research mountain locations for trips and photos. Then, when we started ALPSinsight, I found I really enjoyed creating the best trips for photos, the experience, and to share with other people, especially in my home mountains- the Alps.
Our Run the Alps Switzerland trail running guidebook was when I really got to have some fun with this skill I developed. I wanted 30 perfect trail runs. Some we knew, but the majority were ones I only knew of, either from studying maps or from having already been in the area.
After the book, we got to do the same kind of project for Swiss Tourism and their collection of runs. Today, we add to Elevation as we come up with ideas.
What’s the process of zeroing in on a trail running route you would like to create?
I love exploring new areas. When I hear of a beautiful place or see pictures of a stunning landscape, I feel intrigued to find the best trails possible, connect them into a loop and then I have a great excuse to go explore and spend time in a new place.
What tools do you use to study possible trail running tours?
For trails in Switzerland I use SchweizMobil. Outside of Switzerland, I use FATMAP. SchweizMobil is perfect for creating and saving your own tours. You can see distance and elevation changes live while creating a route. In their 3D view, it’s possible to see incredible trail details and get a feel for the landscape you’ll pass through.
What are the criteria you look for?
Many different things need to line up for a perfect run. A worthy run needs to have a balanced ratio of distance and elevation gain. Ideally, I can find a loop long enough to be out a good part of the day, so it’s worth the drive to get there. Normally that’s in the 18-24km range with about 1200-1400m gain. The trail quality is a big factor. It’s okay to be rocky and slow on a steep ascent, but for everything else, I want to find a good flow and a rhythm you can settle into, on the way up and down. I like to find trails that contour through the landscape in an aesthetic, pleasing way. The trail should pull you into the landscape, and when you arrive at high points the biggest views should dramatically unfold in front of you, not at your back. I want runners to not want to stop because they are always curious to know what’s around the next corner.
What’s the criteria for Runs vs Way Ups?
Runs are normally shorter with less elevation gain. Runners with a solid base fitness for trail running should be able to enjoy it. For Way Ups, endurance becomes more important because the elevation gains are often in the 2000m+ range. You’ll also be at higher elevation, in the alpine zone, and will most likely have to do some rock scrambling, possibly with exposure.
Are there some surprises about what you do that people don’t consider?
I consider where the sun comes up and goes down for different reasons. Technical terrain is more difficult when it’s back lit and the runner is being blinded, so I will actually try to shape the run or go in a direction for the best running conditions. Long climbs are better done in the shade than when the sun is beating down on you. And, I always feel like a big climb that everyone will walk needs to be rewarded with a runnable, flowing descent. Basically, the tour needs to allow runners to maintain aesthetic movement with the best views.
What prevents a trail from making the site?
Usually, the problem is that a trail is just not good for running. Hiking trails don’t always make for good running trails. Trail runners have needs that only real trail runners can understand.
If we do an entire tour and feel like we only ran 50% of the time, and that 50% wasn’t really enjoyable, we’ll look to re-route it. We’d like for people to be able to run at least 60-70% of a tour, and it needs to be good running.
We’ve been on tours that we were excited about and then discovered a section of trail just missing. Sometimes old trails are still shown on the maps but just don’t exist, or are completely overgrown.
We’ve also had rock fall closures where trails were closed indefinitely.
But by far the most frustrating thing is when we do a tour in a great place and have beautiful views but the trail is terrible and not at all good for running – that hurts!
The Via Valais has to be your masterpiece, what’s the story behind that tour?
After finishing our guide book “Run the Alps Switzerland,” we knew how perfect the trails in the Valais can be, and that it was possible to link some of our book runs and connect Verbier with Zermatt. The running would be as good as it gets and be in an incredible mountain setting. It took about a month to put it all together and connect them in the best possible way. Now it’s hugely rewarding to see runners come from all over the world to do our route. The Via Valais belongs in the same category as any of the world’s famous tours.
What sort of trail runner are you creating these routes for?
We have a mix of runs for any level of trail runner. A good base fitness for running and some experience on mixed terrain and trails make the runs more enjoyable. Our runs are for people who are interested in less known valleys and places in Switzerland who love the mountains as much as we do. Many runs have shortcuts or tram access, to make the route easier if necessary. This makes them great for motivated beginners who want to get better on trails and in real mountain terrain. Remember, trail running means you hike steeper parts. It’s not a race, enjoy these and take your time.
What’s your favorite run? Favorite Way Up? Why?
Lac de Moiry to Pigne de la Lé is my favorite run. It has everything I like; long, flowing sections of trail, an interesting glacier crossing and then a fun scramble to the Pigne de la Lé with its incredible view of some of the Valais region’s biggest mountains, like the Matterhorn. All while surrounded in glaciers.
My favorite Way up is the 4000 meter Weissmies. When we did it in the fall, we had perfect conditions and actually did it for sunset. The run to the mountain is on perfect trails, you pass a nice hut for a snack, then scramble up perfect rock to a snowy summit ridge. It has everything, but it is never difficult if you go in the right conditions. Once you are off the mountain, the trail down to Saas Almagell is fast and smooth right to the end.
You can follow Janine on Instagram at @janinepatitucci
By Dan Patitucci