Trail Running

Swiss Trail Running – Alpstein

TrailRunningAlpstein-07378My head was exhausted and I needed an escape. My UX flows for lostinreality were past due and I was still working on organizing the overview for the Zurich Health Hackathon. I didn’t know where to start so I decided to skip out on everything and go trail running in the Alpstein in Switzerland. The Alpstein encompasses the massif around Mt. Santis, the high-point of the region, and according to tradition, the refuge of a mad weather man who had murdered his wife. The Santis region is dear to my heart, as it was the first Swiss region I started hiking in and could call my own, in so much as I could go there without a map and feel confident of knowing where I was headed.

I decided to start from Wildhaus, with the objective of summiting the Altmann, and then heading down to Schwendi. This is the perfect place for trail running in the mountains, which is essential for finishing races like the Sardona Ultra or marathon, which I dropped out of in 2013. The startup world has made my muscles weak, and I’ve made a commitment to myself this year of getting back into the mountain adventures which make living in Switzerland so different from anywhere else.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 18.09.27Route

The route was pretty basic, start from Wildhaus, head up to the Zwingli Pass, then over towards the Rotstein Pass and head up Altmann. It was a beautiful day and I didn’t start running from Wildhaus until 3pm, which is rather late in the day, risking that I wouldn’t be able to make the last train in Schwende. As I eventually got lost and ended up in Brülisau, the deadline eventually became irrelevant.

I had just participated in an interview for a shot film on mobility in Switzerland, and I felt a certain desire to document this run. Being mobile for me is about choice, and retaining a sense of control and exercising choice in how you experience the world. Running over the Alpstein (or rather hiking quickly) gives you a true sense of how rugged the region is. Grass meadows and valleys define the foothills of Santis, the glaciers are mainly gone, but so early in the summer you still traverse bits of snow, and in between you might find cracked earth, more reminiscent in appears to a dry lakebed.


The word “daunting” fills your mind as you look up towards the Zwingli Pass, and you wonder if you’ll be moving slowly up it all day until the sunset. If you look back each pause, you’ll notice that the valley is gradually falling below you, and the mountain horizon begins to reveal itself. It is that horizon of hope and a view of an expansive world and future, that let my mind swim free of User Journeys and mobile app requirements, putting the larger picture into perspective. Once you rise above the details, it’s easier to focus again and systematically attack the problems at hand. When you’re out on a trail though, there’s nothing to do but head up, mind the weather, and make sure you don’t risk your life too much.



Cresting the ridge at the Chreialp the mountain panorama opened up to my eyes. The grass was starting to give way to the remnants of glacier formations showing up here and there at the higher elevations. The beautiful thing about the Alpstien though is that you’re still basically running over a gradual rounded field, the formations of neighbouring peaks are of to either side and clouds are just shadows adding layers over the green brush strokes and jutting rock slabs. Eventually I made my way to the Zwingli Pass Hutte, I had stayed there many years ago, it has a fantastic position overlooking the Churfirsten on the opposite side of the valley where I had started from. It was now late in the day, my assent had been slower than desired, and there was no chance to summit the Altmann as my water was getting low and it was after 6pm already. I instead headed down towards the lake of the Fahlenalp.

Descending the north-facing slopes is often fun trail running in this region of Switzerland because even in the early Summer you find long passages of snow. You just have to take large leaps and sort of shoe-ski down the slopes, which is faster than on rock and make me wish I had taken time to ski tour last season. Along the way I passed a family of Steinbocks, the mountain goats of the region and marmots sent high pierced warning signals through the air as I passed by, altering all the marmots in the vicinity to my presence. Eventually I was down at the Fahlenalp, where I could have taken a mattress to sleep for the evening, but there was plenty of light and I pushed on.


The Fahlenalp has a large alpine lake, parts of it recede depending on the water levels, and it forms a flat plane, now covered with blankets of yellow alpine flowers pushing up through the grass bed. The grass has that hopeful green like the intense hue that sustain Gatsby all thought years yearning for just another whips of Daisy. It is a golden corridor, and behind you stand the mountain gates, the fortress you just descended from, with militant towers on either side.

I had planned to catch the last train from Schwende at 21:10, but when I noticed that the signs only pointed towards Brülisau, I figured I should just head there instead. The sun was slowly falling into the distant horizon now, and eventually I stopped around Ruhsitz to watch the darkness embrace us. The fireball in the sky, so strong and relenting during the day was now a calm and gentle being. I stared longingly into her as she raised her warmth up towards my cheek, and touched my lips in a fading kiss before expiring.


I ended up in Brülisau well after the last bus had left, and took a pizza in the Hotel Kroner before heading off to bed. On there terrace there was a dinner party of Swiss, elder Swiss from the region enjoying a fine dinner in the Alpstein. They were singing together in the local Schweiz-Deutsch language of the region, their voices carried across the valley, I had heard them on the descent into the village, I had followed the songs to the Hotel Kroner. There tempo was not unlike the title song from the the movie, the Grand Budapest Hotel, and every so often the cadence was accented with a powerful Yuuppp from one of the women. I wish I had had my audio recorder, and I wonder how long those songs will persist in the local culture. Then I had a short chat with local who had come in to order a Cafe Lutz, he told me he had been to Chicago once to show off Swiss cows from the region. I used my hand to illustrate Michigan (where I’m from) and the position of Chicago in Illinois. The next morning I ran to Weissbad and jumped on the train back towards Zurich just as I arrived.

Bumblebee Quadrocopter for Trail Running Films

Bumblebee QuadI was putting together ideas for a trail running short film project with some friends, and naturally my mind gravitated towards the ideas of picking up a quadrocopter to get some nice aerial shots of us running in the Swiss Alps. Given that I live in Switzerland where these things are expensive, and my budget wasn’t huge, so I decided on the Bumblebee Quadrocopter. It’s a nice affordable entry-level flying machine, which comes with a cheap gimbal, ideal for flying a GoPro 2. This was a very experimental project, our director of photography was Matthew Anderson, and I entrusted him with flying the contraption while I was in the running shots with Christian, my co-author of the Dromeus Running Blog.

Bumblebee QuadEasy Assembly

The Bumblebee was pretty easy to put together. You just need to make sure you don’t break any wires and install the rotors in the correct pattern. After that you just run the calibration of the controller with some software that you need to run on a Windows computer. I then handed off the copter to Matt to experiment with while I headed off to the X-Media Lab event in Basel to get some feedback on my location-based storytelling startup project Lost In Reality. The weekend after that we headed up to the Rotsteinpass in the Alpstein to shoot our film project: Swiss Trail Running – Mt. Santis.

Swiss Trail Running - BTS-0017502Learn To Fly

I’ll be upfront on this one, quadrocopters are awesome, but you need to practice and know what you’re doing. We had a reasonably successful shoot, we got the basic aerial shots we wanted for the film, but we were also lucky the wind didn’t send the copter off onto the glacier. After the shoot we did some more testing, and well, the result is what happened. Part of the reason I bought the Bumblebee was I was sure it would survive some crashes, but before upgrading to a hexcopter to fly my Sony NEX-5n, I plan to focus on simulators and learning how to fly these crazy things with confidence and determination.


Swiss Irontrail Mammut Trail Running Test Event

It pays to keep tabs on social media streams and to apply to things you find on the internet. I saw a posting from Mammut about a race called the Swiss Irontrail, the longest single stage foot race through the Alps, and via that I learned about the Mammut test event. The race comes in four flavors, T201, T141, T71, and T21. This being my first ultra, I decided to sign up to run the shorter of the ultra races, the T71. It’s about 68km long with about 4300m elevation gain (and then subsequent descent). Along with sponsoring the race, Mammut has also organized a test week with some pre-selected runners before, and after applying I was one of those lucky few invited down to Pontresina for their pre-Irontrail running event next week. This should a fabulous time running in the Alps, getting my lungs ready for the T71 and testing out the latest trail running gear from Mammut. (more…)

Inov-8 RocLite 285 User Review

In 2011 my do-it-all shoe was the Salomon Crossmax XR Neutral, and lately I’ve been running a lot on the On Cloudsurfer on non-technical trails (mainly flat, wide, and few tree roots or large rocks). However, I’m a gear whore and am always looking out for new concepts, lately I came upon the Inov-8 RocLite 285.

I was out running with Christian Langenegger the other day and he mentioned he as going to have a talk with the good folks from Inov-8. A week later I dropped by his place and he had two pairs of shoes to show me, the pair I took home to test was the RocLite 285 trail running shoe. I’ve since been running on them and pondering the design, and the following is the result of my meditations on them but I’ll just jump the gun and tell you straight up: the RocLite 285 is a wonderful minimalist trail running shoe. (more…)

Salomon XT Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 – User Review

I am a gear whore, sort of a bag slut. I have packs and bags for everything from urban adventures to backcountry camping, biking, climbing, painting, photographing, writing, skiing, summit assaults, but nothing I had fit right for mountain running and ultra marathons. Nothing worked until I was able to get my hands on a Salomon XT Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 running pack last year when I signed up to run the SwissAlpine K42 mountain marathon. The S-Lab 5 is now my pack for mountain and trail running in Switzerland. After a nice season of running with it in 2011, here are my thoughts on the S-Lab, let’s call it a user review…

Salomon S-Lab Line

Before we jump in, some background is in order. Salomon is an interesting company. I know them mainly from ski gear, but now they have branched out into serious trail and long distance (ultra) running. From my perspective they’re the only large sports company which is really trying to capitalize on the trail running and ultra-marathon market, in some ways actually pushing the sport forward (and are essentially expanding the market need for their products). Unlike other companies which are now bringing out trail running products in a me too fashion, I have the feeling that Salomon is more committed to creating great products for this growing sport, and they also have the design and distribution capacity to bring innovative products to the market. This lends more confidence in Salomon as a company and I consider their products to be the benchmark by which others are measured by.

The pinnacle of their effort is the S-Lab line (I guess this stands for Salomon Laboratory). Basically S-Lab means high-end clothing, shoes, and accessories for trail running. There’s an actual S-Lab place (a sort of prototype shop) where they design, build, test, and refine these products (check out this video on YouTube). They have a guy on their running team named Kilian Jornet who is a sort of a trail running God from Spxain. He wins a lot of ultra races (and came in 3rd after Dakota Jones and Andy Symonds at the 2012 Transvulcania) and is setting the pace for the sport. Salomon sponsors and learns from the best runners in the world, but it seems like the relationship with Kilian is very close. So close, that as I understand it, that various products in the S-Lab product line are developed with direct feedback from Kilian like the new Salomon Sense running shoe (and the S-Lab 5 pack). The result is a product line with a high level of design and attention to detail that addresses the needs of people pushing their personal limits on the trail.

The S-Lab products are lean, light, fit close to your body and really move with you. Normally clothing is something that you need to wear for protection, but in an ideal world you would go without, it’s just there because we want to protect our bodies from the elements. But the S-Lab products actually improve your performance in subtle ways (my scientist opinion). Function and design are combined in a beautiful way, and the 5 pack is a wonderful example of designing a product to specifically fulfill the needs of long-distance athletes.

S-Lab 5 Overview

The S-Lab 5 is made very well with materials that stretch and conform to your body as you move (they call it Sensifit construction). The pack fits very close to your body and the fits like a glove analogy makes sense here. I have a fabulous pair of Mammut gloves that often wear with the pack when the weather is cold, and the two products give me the same sense of perfect form and function. Designed as a hydration pack with space for minimal gear, it’s not the type of pack you can stuff full of gear you might need. It’s a minimalist pack where you need to make sure you only take what you really need. There are two water bottle pockets on the shoulder straps (which also work well for small cameras, food, etc) and a water bladder in the main pocket on the back. The bulk of the pack is composed of a hexagonal mesh material. It’s an elastic 3D weave of hexagons (or you could call it honeycomb) that defines the core function of the pack, to feel like a second skin so that you almost forget that you’re wearing it. The open mesh also lets perspiration move through the material and dry quickly.

If you’re a material scientist (like me) you’ll instantly think of a hexagonal crystallographic lattice when you pick up the pack. The hexagon is a beautiful structure with three main directions and corresponding planes of symmetry that make it ideal for this application. From a mechanics viewpoint, this means the the fabric should stretch with an equal resistance in three directions. Other packs usually have 2D weave like normal nylon (think of the fabric weave of your clothing) which is basically orthotropic. This means it will provide equal stretch in two, the 0 and 90 degree directions, but at 45 degrees you get a different mechanical response. Anyways, I digress, the point is that a hexagonal arrangement isn’t an accident here and if I had designed this from scratch I would have taken a similar design path (the hexagonal crystal structure was inspiration for one of my patents on heat shield technologies).

The only real thing you need to know is that the design of the pack reduces pressure points over your body. It hugs and maintains contact with the surface of your back and frontal torso, more like a tactical vest than a traditional pack. Due to the multi-directional symmetric planes of the hexagon array the pack material expands as you move in different directions, differentiating from all other pack designs (as I know them).

Breath Easier

A huge problem with non-running packs when used for trail running is compression across the chest. In general, to keep a backpack on your body you need to stabilize the pack by closing down the shoulder and chest straps. As you start to run and the weight of the pack becomes more unstable and you can only counteract this by going slower or tightening the straps to their limit. However, this then constricts the ability of your torso to move, which constricts the volume of air you can take into your body. Basically your breathing ability is impeded and your running performance is reduced by your reduced ability to take in oxygen. Usually the only solution is to not wear a pack, or to reduce the load so that there isn’t as much mass to stabilize.

Traditional packs are designed so that load is carried by the shoulders and via contact with the lower back, generally using materials that are essentially static (don’t stretch). The S-Lab 5 is made of dynamic material that stretches easily in three different directions (thanks to the hexagon array) and maintains contact over your torso. This design greatly reduces and almost eliminates the stabilization problem (from my perspective). Since the pack is more like a vest, it maintains a large surface area in the back and over the shoulders. This essentially reduces the need for a chest closure system, because the pack is almost one with the form of your body. The S-Lab pack uses just two thin elastic bands that cross over your chest to close the pack around your torso. Since the pressure isn’t localized on the chest strap system and shoulders, the expansion of your chest isn’t restricted as much as with other packs. The pack remains stabilized around your body and therefore you can breath more naturally as the pack fabric expands and moves with you, so your breathing rhythm and oxygen flow isn’t restricted. The system makes for a much more natural running experience.

Detailed Construction

The manufacturing of the S-Lab is really top notch and includes a lot of attention to detail. Seams are sewn correctly, the materials are durable, and the design is streamlined. The main rear pocket has a stretch front, so you can cram in arm warmers, a jacket, water bottle, whatever, and it keeps the mass compressed as close as possible to your spine. I find this is important for running and balance because it means that the moment of inertia of the pack is minimized, and over the length of an ultra marathon this can greatly reduce fatigue as compared with a pack where the mass is positioned out too far from your center gravity (or is off-center from the vertical axis of your spine). Inside the main pocket you have a small magnet to close the opening. There is an adjustment system to pull the pack higher up on your back if needed (to customize the fit). The elastic cords are all high quality as are the plastic clasps which secure the chest compression straps. The front pockets have draw string closures making them super easy to access. I use them for gloves, snacks, cameras, or water bottles. The pack comes with a Source hydration water bladder, and includes a sleeve with reflective backing, which would help keep liquids cool from the heat of your back as you’re running. The drinking tube comes under your arm and then up the shoulder strap, so it isn’t flying around over your shoulder like on other packs. You can secure running sticks to the pack as well, although I haven’t tried this yet. There are small side pockets that are nice for a cell phone, extra snacks (like magnesium sticks) or keys.

Trial By Trails

I got into trail running because it combines the elements of speed from ski touring with the technical footwork of climbing and the thrill of mountaineering. I’ve taken my S-Lab 5 on the SwissAlpine K42, the Jungfrau Marathon, and on various mountain runs around Switzerland including Rigi Kulm, Lauterbrunnen – Eiger Rotstock, Braunwald, Elm – Linthal, biking from Winterthur to Bauma, and then running up and down the Hornli. In general I’m not one to count kilometers, but I’ve run with the S-Lab over long distances and terrain variations including asphalt, basic off-road and mountain trails, ascending and descending at high and low velocities, and S-Lab pack have been marvelous. It could also be the most comfortable pack I have for multi-pitch sport climbing, but for storage reasons I take my Lowe Alpine Attack pack. If I carry a normal mountaineering load I will often get a strained shoulder muscle (think it’s connected to cracking my clavicle long ago). I found this happens also if I run with a small pack like the Lowe Alpine Attack, but with the S-Lab I never have this problem. This tells me directly that the pack fits very well and distributes weight better than anything else I own (and biomechanics engineer side of my brain agrees).

Yes, It’s Worth It

If you’re looking for a casual running pack don’t even bother considering the S-Lab. It retails for 180 USD and you probably won’t use it enough to appreciate it (the true benefit comes when you’re logging lots of km). This is a piece of gear for serious distance and ultra runners, where you want a pack that will minimize your energy expenditure over long distances and will feel like a second skin around your body. The pack comes in two sizes, and this is probably the greatest limitation. If it doesn’t fit you well there isn’t much room to adjust it. I’ve tried mountain running with my Lowe Alpine Attack pack, my minimal Mountain Smith bike pack and other small packs, nothing compares to the S-Lab 5. It is vastly more comfortable and puts less stress on my shoulders than any other pack I have ever tried, and that makes the price totally worth it. I have loved running over the Swiss Alps with the S-Lab 5, and I’m now desperately trying to find the new larger version, the S-Lab 12 to take on the Swiss Irontrail T71 in July 2012.