Why Trail Running May Be An Excellent Vacation For Couples

Forbes May 30, 2024


Why Trail Running May Be An Excellent Vacation For Couples

Beginning at 8:00 pm on a balmy Friday night earlier this May, Sébastien Spehler began running 106 miles (171 kilometers) over the Vosges mountains between the towns of Colmar and Obernai in the Alsace region of eastern France. He ran through the night by headlamp, continued through rain and low temperatures and ascended a total of 4.1 vertical miles (6,625 meters) before arriving at the finish line 17 hours, 21 minutes and 21 seconds later—where he picked up his young child from his waiting wife and calmly paced through the finish line while smiling at an applauding audience.

Sébastien Spehler completes a 100+ mile run in Alsace, France

That is the equivalent of running between the U.S. cities New York and Philadelphia, or between the Belgian city of Brussels and the Hague in the Netherlands, while additionally climbing the vertical equivalent of 17 times the height of the Empire State Building, or about one and a third times the vertical height of Mont Blanc—the highest peak in the Alps and western Europe.

Yet in the world of trail running, that feat is admirable but no longer unusual.

Spehler was followed by 380 other individuals on that same route who completed the course in less than 40 hours. They included a French entrant named Pierre David (over 70 years old), and Patricia Abad Lamas of Peru (over 60 years old). Although these individuals took more than twice as long as Spehler to cover that distance, they nevertheless victoriously completed the grueling course within the allotted time. Of 637 runners who began that race, some 60% finished.

Young girl applauds runner entering night near Hohlandsbourg Castle

The course they ran, named the Ultra-Trail des Chevaliers (the Knights Ultra Trail) is one of four associated races that took place last weekend in the Alsace region of France—part of a series titled Trail Alsace Grand Est, organized by UTMB World Series. The three other mountain trail courses were shorter in distance: 72 miles, (116 kilometers), 31 miles (50 kilometers) and 21 miles (34 kilometers). Some 4,819 participants entered these running events, and 3,726, or 77%, finished.

As trail running blossoms throughout the world (these organizers have 42 events organized this year in the continents of Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia) the attraction is no longer only physical and psychological, but also aesthetic, cultural and social.

While watching the 100+mile event I saw one runner pull out his phone after 12 hours on the trail to photograph castle turrets at Kintzheim—a mountain castle complex that includes an eagle and raptor park and which attracts up to 3,000 visitors a day during summer. Looking east from this castle visitors see the Black Forest across the Rhine River, which forms the border with Germany. Looking south they see the Swiss Alps and to the north is the distant outline of Strasbourg cathedral.

View from Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, Alsace, France

After completion of another related run last Sunday, the 34-kilometer Trail de Pèlerins, many exhausted runners raved verbally about the beauty of the course. That was because the trail was designed not just to pass over arduous scenic mountain terrain and a half dozen peaks; it also wound adjacent to, or through, eight castles (chateaux)—including Birkenfels, Kagenfels as Lutzelbourg, as well as the convent of Mount Sainte Odile.

Frédéric Lénart is the CEO of the UTMB Group that organized this race series. A tall, slim, affable and modest man, he claims to be a poor runner himself, but also admits to frequently running 20-kilometer distances. He has held his position for four years and lives in Annecy in France while working in Chamonix, Switzerland. He explained that the attraction of trail races goes far beyond athletics.

“We encourage runners not to come for one or two days but to stay a week and experience something different. Usually, they come with their wife or husband. It’s a fantastic occasion to stay together. You have local culture with different landscapes and old castles. It’s not just about sport but also about discovering a culture and territory and local identify. Here you have the history which is very rich between France and Germany, as well as the wines, vineyards and food.

“New events are successful because more and more people want to practice traveling. For each event we have different distances. Some are for very strong runners—like 100 miles or 100 kilometers. Shorter distances are accessible to any runner.

“The biggest challenges are to keep connected to communities and to manage growth more in quality than quantity. It’s important to be anchored in the territories and we really want to stick to local communities. People involved in the organization of this event are local.”

Volunteers provide aid along trails

I later spoke with Nathalie Kaltenbach, mayor of the city of Barr who is also responsible for tourism in the entire Alsace region of France. An influx of thousands of runners and their friends helps the local economy, while also showcasing attractions.

“It’s important to show that Alsace has an extraordinary heritage of castles. There are 80 chateaux that can be visited, and almost 500 altogether. This circuit passes through 18 castles. Last year a little more than half of the runners came from Alsace, but this year more than half the people come from outside this region. We have reversed the trend. They can taste our wines, visit our forests, see our castles and architecture. We want this known all over the world, and these races are a good opportunity to show that.”

Running through Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, Alsace, France

The Alsace region has oscillated between German and French control during past centuries and the mountains are drenched with rich history. Local food specialties include blueberry pies and fluted kougelhopf cakes with rum soaked raisins. This is also wine country—with a 100-mile wine road route, as well as a bicycle wine route that passes between Marlenheim (north of Strasbourg) and Thann.

White wines do well in the cool temperatures of Alsace and are typically made from Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chasselas and Muscat grapes. The quality of Pinot Noir red wines has also soared during recent years, while bubbly Crémant d’Alsace is also excellent and inexpensive.

The 100 mile race that Spehler won begins in the scenic city of Colmar—which includes canals, local markets, a chocolate museum and Alsace wine museum. While waiting for the event to begin I sampled wine at an outdoor stall. A nearby man offered advice regarding preferred types of Alsatian wines. When I asked his name he casually introduced himself as Éric Straumann—Mayor of Colmar. He explained that the city attracts U.S. visitors not only for wine and scenery, but for heritage. Americans assisted with liberating the city in February of 1945, and the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty—Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi—was born in Colmar.

Nathalie Kaltenbach - Mayor of Barr

“Colmar is an extraordinary city,” he explained. “We have up to 12 million tourists a year. A lot from the U.S, especially during the Christmas markets—where we have almost two million visitors. These races allow us to diversify visitors and give us a world view. We are a small town with two five-star hotels, which is quite remarkable. We’re two and a half hours from Paris and close to the airport of Frankfurt, Gemany.”

Colmar, Alsace, France

This UTMB race series was founded by French couple Catherine and Michel Poletti. Both were computer science majors who met in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s they founded an IT company that provided software for record and sports stores. Michel, an avid skier and runner from Chamonix, considered trail running as a niche sport in the year 2000. However they decided to organize an ultra course on Mont Blanc in October of 2002. This running race crossed three countries—France, Switzerland, Italy—before returning to Chamonix. Renown for the course soon blossomed and eventually the event attracted runners from 87 countries. Today remnants of computer science experience remains embedded in events. The Poletti family’s phone application LiveTrail allows anyone with a phone to track the position of specific runners, while web cams display footage of participants in action at remote locations.

34 km entrants Raúl Rodriguez and Lorena Garcia from Spain in Barr, Alsace, France

Statistics cannot portray attractions of trail running that transcend physical exercise. The beauty and camaraderie are best experienced by entering an event, or just by observing. After dozens of hours of slogging over mountain peaks and through woodlands and castles in both darkness and daylight and in sunshine and rain while spectators shriek ‘bravo’ and high five weary runners—these entrants run, walk or hobble across a finish line. For participants and many observers these are more than races; they can also be life altering events.

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