The half-marathon of Aletsch is a race I had been thinking of doing for at least two years. In fact, I had been wanting to do so ever since I saw a photograph of runners taking part in the race with the impressive glacier of Aletsch as a backdrop. As I had made up my mind on signing up for a longer mountain race this summer, called Sierre-Zinal, I thought that this half-marathon would also be the opportunity to obtain a foretaste of mountain running as part of a competition. Although I had not trained very diligently, I was looking forward to what would be for me the climax of this race: running with the glacier below me, on my left, whilst going up the last major stretch of the race. I have been to the area of Aletsch three times, but I know that even if I went there for the thirty-third time I would still enjoy it … Little wonder, really, as Aletsch is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Screenshot of webcam feed of the Aletsch glacier area; source: Riederalpbahnen
However, the weather has not been very cooperative (shall we say) of late and it even snowed on some of the stretches where the race was supposed to take place, which prompted the organisers to opt for a shorter, but safer course, some 15.2km long. I found out about this only late on the night before the race and thus decided that I would wear warmer garments than I had initially planned to wear.
Normal course (21km) or replacement course (15.2km – scroll down to the very bottom for a pdf of the course), I was still keen to take part in the race, but I had to make sure I would wake up very early the next morning …
… which I did … and I was thus able to enjoy the lake view and the mountains towering above while the train was travelling through the Rhone Valley. PS it is difficult to imagine that a marathon used to be run round the mountain on the right, called Dents du Midi.
An hour and forty minutes later, it was time to board another train (outside of Brig railway station), which would take me to Betten from which it would be a matter of boarding a cable car to Bettmeralp –– however, there were more than two thousand people (runners and hikers) who also had to go up … so the wait was quite long (nearly forty minutes!) before I could board one of the two huge cable cars.
Once at Bettmeralp, I had about 25 minutes before the start for my age group would be given. It was quite cold, but fortunately I had brought some gloves and a bonnet. So I went for a long warm-up session, so much so that I missed the 10 o’clock start for my category and started ten minutes later. But it did not matter, as our timing is based on what is recorded on the chip attached to our race bib, i.e. from the very moment we cross the start line until we cross the finish line.
After leaving the village, we ran on a road until we reached an area with woods, called Baschmeri. At first it was a steady climb, then downhill and again uphill …
… until we reached the foot of Bettmeralp, i.e. the mountain, not the village (which can be seen on the far left on the photo) …
I have to admit that I was finding it tough … but I carried on running, taking the occasional break to capture some shots.
What made this race particularly pleasing despite the last-minute change to the course (and the steep climbs, of course) was the public’s constant cheering up of the runners. This came as a nice surprise as I was not expecting to see (or hear) many onlookers given the weather.
In addition, the water stations were well supplied with water, tea, isotonic drinks, bananas and cereal bars. At this station just after Bettmersee, even the children were kindly helping out by picking up the plastic cups that had been dumped by the runners just after the water station.
The path was often very narrow … as can be seen from this photo, which shows the path leading to the Blauersee cable car station.
From there, the course was either flat or it went downhill until the village of Riederalp, which can be seen in the background on this photo.
So instead of taking the UNESCO promenade (which leads to Villa Cassel and then to the glacier), we headed (first downhill and then uphill) to Bettmeralp. A female runner who was with me in high school in Geneva recognised me while I was running through the village of Riederalp and we ended up talking for a large chunk of the 4km which were left — which is why I did not take any more photos until just before crossing the finish line, with the clock showing a dismal reading of 1:40.36 [results for the half-marathon of Aletsch are available here].
As the participants in the half-marathon were entitled to a free lift to Bettmerhorn cable station (altitude 2,600m), I decided to hop on a cable car so as to be able to admire this marvel of nature, the great glacier of Aletsch.
The wind-breaker the organisers had given to the finishers as a souvenir of their successful participation proved handy as it was cold up there and I was not really wearing garments thick enough to keep me warm.
The glacier of Aletsch in all its splendour. What a pity the path was closed (owing to the snow), otherwise I think I would have walked along it to be able to admire this king of European glaciers.
Although I have seen the glacier twice before, I am still taken aback by its beauty. No wonder the area made it into the UNESCO list of sites deemed to be preserved for future generations.
As the restaurant at the Bettmerhorn cable station was full, I decided to go back to Bettmeralp and then go down to Betten (by cable car) and take the train back home.
The Swiss Germans being well organised, extra carriages had been added to the train heading back to Brig, so that there was enough room. The sun had started to shine very brightly, in sharp contrast to the day before, which had been very wet.
A little more than an hour after it had left Brig, the train had reached Lac Léman with this famous landmark just before Montreux: Château de Chillon. So I enjoyed the almost Mediterranean blue I could see on my left (I had chosen the appropriate side of the carriage to be able to make the most of the view) until the train reached Lausanne.
Addition: as the organisers seem to have removed the map with the course we followed yesterday from their website, I thought I would make available (temporarily) the copy I had downloaded on Saturday before creating a map myself and displaying it here:
Links to excursions in the same area