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Expats lace up running shoes for Swiss races

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Expats lace up running shoes for Swiss races
Runners take in mountain scenery in the Aletsch half marathon. Photo: Kathy Zimmerman
12:12 CEST+02:00

From the simply beautiful to the downright barmy, Switzerland's vast array of running races are a great way for expats to integrate into the Swiss way of life, The Local's Caroline Bishop learns.


"I never really liked running until I came to Switzerland," says expat fitness instructor Kathy Zimmermann.



“But here you can go out and run round the mountains. Everything's signposted. There are so many opportunities to get out there and stay fit and healthy."


Since moving to Lausanne several years ago, the Australian has entered running races all over Switzerland – from local fun runs to flat road races to long-distance routes set among some of the country's most beautiful mountains.


Such is her positive experience of these events that she set up Zimfit.ch, a fitness company aimed at encouraging expats to settle in by embracing Switzerland's outdoor lifestyle.


"Expats that come to Switzerland find the Swiss a little bit closed," Zimmermann tells The Local. "If you want to meet some great people, get out to these events. It's just so social. You see Swiss people out there and that, for me, is  a real part of it."


"You need something in common. You can't just walk up to someone and start chatting. Sport is a really natural link."


There are plenty of opportunities to get involved for novice and experienced runners alike, as most events offer a variety of distances.


The Geneva Marathon, for example, celebrates its tenth birthday on the weekend of May 3rd-4th with ten different races, from a five-kilometre women-only race to junior events and a ten-kilometre nordic walk, as well as the full marathon.


“For many years we have wanted to develop the event to allow everyone to take part,” Benjamin Chandelier, Event Director of Geneva Marathon, tells The Local.


Other popular road races include the 16-kilometre Bern Grand Prix on May 10th, which sees around 30,000 runners race through the capital, and the Lausanne 20km on April 26th which also stages ‘plaisir’ courses of two to four kilometres for novice runners and families.

"You've got every different level here and that's what I like about it," says Zimmermann.


At the extreme end of the scale, mountain races offer the chance to run among some of the country’s most challenging but spectacular scenery.


Among them are the Sierre-Zinal mountain race (August), dubbed 'the route of the five 4,000m peaks', which covers 31 kilometres and 2,200 metres of elevation change; the Davos SwissAlpine (July), which taxes runners with six distance categories of up to 78 kilometres; and the renowned

Jungfrau Marathon (September), in which runners race from Interlaken at 568 metres to Kleine Scheidegg at 2,100 metres.


“The Jungfrau is like the New York Marathon of mountain races,“ says Geneva-based Canadian Quan-Ling Sim, who has run most of Switzerland’s mountain and road events.


“People from all over the world fly in to do it. The ranging scenery is spectacular and running the marathon brings you a unique appreciation of the Swiss Alps.”


Mountain races require a different approach to flat road races, Sim tells The Local.


“In a mountain race your goal is to make it to the finish in one piece while contending with challenging terrain ranging from narrow mountain paths, snow, creeks, rocks, roots, steep climbs and sometimes steep descents.”  


“Your senses are heightened,” adds Sim. “Mountain running gives you a rush that you cannot get in a classic road run.”


One of Zimmermann’s favourite mountain runs is the “just stunning” Aletsch Half Marathon (June), in which participants race up to Bettmeralp in the Valais, overlooking the Aletsch Glacier.


"You get a bit intimidated because you think 'mountain run, too scary' and then you get out and do it and think 'why didn't I do this earlier?'" says Zimmermann.


"The atmosphere and the scenery . . . thousands of other people are up there with you. It's very motivating."


Whether on the road or in the mountains, races are typically well-organized.


"I love the way everything works here and what great jobs all the organizers and volunteers are doing, especially in the mountains," says Helen Gmuer, who founded a running group in Geneva six years ago which now counts 500 members, 95 percent of them expats.


Zimmermann agrees, crediting the “civilian army of workers” on national service who often organize the races. “You can go into a town and they'll completely transform it," she says.


"And the support is incredible. I volunteer a lot for sporting events and you have to get in early to get a spot because it's really popular."


The Swiss transport system makes getting to events straightforward, with ticket subsidies often available for participants.



For example, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) offers competitors in the Bern Grand Prix half price return train fare from their home town to the capital.


Exploring the country is another benefit, says Zimmermann. "For me that's been the other highlight. Quite often you won't visit a town and then it's like 'oh there's a race there, let's go there.'"


Taking up running could be life-changing in other ways, too.


"Friendships still continue, even when people leave Switzerland," says Gmuer of her running group.



"A few romances blossomed; we've had Geneva Runners weddings, and few babies have been born." 
 

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