Why trail running in the Alps should be your next adventure

One of the world’s fastest growing sports was given fresh legs in lockdown with new devotees seeking off-road adventure.

By Rachel Ifans
Published 4 Mar 2023, 15:00 GMT
The popularity of trail running gathered pace during the pandemic.

The popularity of trail running gathered pace during the pandemic.

Photograph by LIFE Events and Lajf d.o.o

I’ve entered a parallel universe. Here, in the Austrian Alps, there’s snow in September, women are revered athletes and men are only allowed to stand at the aid stations cheering us on. This is the Women’s Trail race in Zell am See: a three-day event which, in 2022, saw nine nationalities take on the highs (and lows) of the mountains, attracting experienced hobbyist runners who want a real adventure.
Defined as runs taking place in a natural environment, mostly on closed roads, the popularity of trail running gathered pace during the pandemic with adoptees seeking the freedom of an off-road run.

The three-race weekender covers 19 miles with total elevation of nearly 3,280ft, reaching heights of 6,562ft. First off: the four-mile Night Run. The dusk-to-dark route climbs insultingly quickly up towards Ebenbergalm above Zell am See, but along with the required head-torch, I’m wearing flowers in my hair and the buzz in the crowd at the start line has left spirits high. We run a few hundred feet along the lake before climbing through the forest into the blackness, following the bobbing line of runners’ torches. There’s a spectacular lake view, now twinkling below us before we switchback inland, cutting into root-strewn mud paths back down to town. For an unpractised night runner, it’s a good balance of terrifying and exciting.

The Panorama follows hard and fast the next morning, via a gondola to the start line at the 6,234ft Schmittenhöhe peak. Here, the air is fresh and there’s more than a sprinkling of snow: unusual for September. I’ve never run in snow but before I can utter any words of trepidation, we’re off along a narrow path snaking the mountainside. With gravel, mud, an ankle-deep boggy section, snow, wet grass, side-slide cambers and precarious scree, my new trail shoes get a serious workout. So do I; the climbs are so lung-bustingly steep that I have to dig deep to even walk up. But eight miles later, the atmosphere at the finish line is elated, and instant friends are made: two French sisters, along with Bettina from Germany and Lisa, a Yorkshire lass and the only other Brit; we all head down in the cable-car for lunch and the laid-on yoga class.

The final leg is a blessedly flat seven-mile lakeside run. It’s chilly but we run in a chatty group before settling into our own races. As I power on, the sun bursts through the clouds and I thank the ‘run gods’ that I’m here. Elated, at the final finish we all leap in the lake, fully clothed in running gear (and medals). Then we run, one last time, back to the hotel to warm up in the hot tub and sauna.

How to do it

The Women’s Trail event in Zell am See takes place over the final weekend in September and costs £140 for all three races, a meal after each one and a choice of wellness sessions on Saturday afternoon (yoga, trail technique or nutrition). Races can be entered individually. 

Three to try

1. Trail Des Gets, July 2023
This event offers a choice of seven-to-26-mile runs through the Portes du Soleil region of the French Alps, a paradise of meadows, forest paths and more technical terrain. Plus a children’s race, too. 

2. Triglav Run, August 2023
A trail festival in Slovenia’s Julian Alps offers a choice of routes (four distances: 49 miles, 27 miles, 16 miles and 8 miles) some taking in mighty Mont Triglav over elevation gains of 4,429-14,435ft. Elsewhere, the terrain is mostly walking paths and forest trails. 

3. TransAlpine Run2, September 2023
A chance to do just the first two days of the famous eight-day Transalpine Run from Germany through Austria to Italy. Entry 
includes luggage transfer, medical support and food stations, as well as a hot meal each evening. Distances are 27 miles on day one and 12 miles on day two, but the elevation gain on both days is a dizzying 6,562ft.

Published in Alpine 2023 guide, distributed with the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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