Thanks to the magic of low cost European airlines, I jumped between dramatically different environments during my annual summer trip to visit family. I ran trails in the Italian and Swiss Alps, the Dolomites, Luxembourg and Sardinia.
What struck me the most, beyond the cultural, climatic and environmental differences, was the incredible variety of trails. Like a universe all its own, discovering the difference between all the trails and their challenges and nuances was fascinating.
The Italian Alps and the Dolomites were steep, rocky, and seemingly straight up or straight down. When I wanted a break from the incline, I had to escape to the valleys below to find anything flat. In the mountains, gradual climbs were almost non-existent. At times, the trails were impossibly steep, and even the paved roads were sharply inclined. The trails were rocky and littered with loose rubble. Wearing the right trail shoes with a supportive upper allowed for nimble changes in direction and made a big difference when navigating the rocky terrain. Water can be found everywhere and is easily accessible from fountains, springs and huts. I never had to carry more than one water bottle and easily refilled it along the way.
While still steep, the Swiss Alps were more sweeping with wider valleys. Some of the trails were rocky and very steep, but there was often an alternate, more gradual path to go up or come down on mossy, spongy trails. I found more gradual climbs on long service roads with wide turns winding their way to ski resorts. It rained often, and temperatures fluctuated between the 80s and 30s. Snow at higher elevations (about 2,000 meters) was quite common and not unheard of in the valley below. With all the rain and, higher up, the snow and ice, the rocky trails were quite slippery. Wet, sun-exposed snow on slippery loose, steep rocks was a dangerous combination, and wearing the right shoes made all the difference.
Luxembourg was a wonderful mix of rolling gravel roads and idyllic trails through old growth forests. The climate was very pleasant with spring-like temperatures even in summer. Hundreds of miles of bike paths and trails intertwined and connected, rolling and gentle, following fields and the attentive looks of cows. The trails were not technical and easy on the feet and the mind, with miles endlessly and quietly rolling by. Because every field looks like the next, it’s easy to get turned around inside the forest and, if you have no point of reference when you pop out of the woods, it’s easy to get lost.
As a volcanic island, the trails on Sardinia were gnarly, dry and technical. The hard volcanic rock rolled around on the trails, rough and irregular like coral, making it hard to put your foot down on solid ground. The volcanic rock gave way to sand, my least favorite surface, and every step felt like running on a planet with three times the gravity of planet Earth. The sun was relentless and so intense; early morning runs before 8 a.m. were best. The roads were narrow with blind curves, so I had to take great care. I never ran with the low-hanging sun behind me, as it blinds oncoming drivers. Water was difficult to find on the trail, but I had better luck when running through town. With the extreme heat, I planned for water stops every hour.
From the steepest climbs in the Alps to the rocky shores of Sardinia, every trail I ran was a signature of its environment, a little window into each place. With the unique challenges and wonderful qualities, every step was unique, and I can’t wait to come back next summer.