Navigating Aches and Aging on the Best Trail-Running Route in the World
The Swiss Alps are home to an incredible new hut-to-hut runners’ route called the Via Valais. It’s a little demanding—150 miles, nine stages, and 42,000 feet of elevation gain—but if you can take it on, you’re guaranteed one of the most spectacular adventures of your life.
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A few years ago, I crossed an unseen boundary and entered the land of middle age. The shift came slowly, then abruptly, and there I was, at 48, the new guy in a place whose inhabitants talked about poor sleep, unfaithful bowels, and watching soccer instead of playing it. I adapted to these strange ways with an ease that surprised me, until I no longer recognized myself. Once, every morning had glowed bright with heroic possibilities. Now I felt like I was immersed in a tub of cooling bathwater. Nothing was wrong, exactly. Everything was just… less. Including myself. And I was scared.
Many people, finding themselves in a similar spot, reach for impulse, but I was too poor to buy a Porsche or launch my own tequila brand. Only one option interested me: I wanted to be a serious runner again.
“Serious” isn’t quite right, for it suggests a victorious past. I’d run all my life, but I was a lifelong grinder, a middle-of-the-pack finisher at the handful of marathons I entered. And for the past few years, I hadn’t even been that, because I was hobbled by a mystery ailment that made my legs seize with cramps whenever I tried to run.
After a gifted physical therapist saw that my problem wasn’t too many miles but a janky running posture and galumphing gait, and eventually got me moving decently once more, I decided to set a goal, with some rash middle-aged hubris thrown in: I wanted to become the runner I never was, the kind who glided through mountains all day, moving fast in big country, lean as a stag. I wanted to feel things sharply again, the way I did when I was younger: the lung-needling pain of the uphill gasser; the peace that flooded the synapses after long, hard effort; the squeeze to the heart when October’s light slanted down on the trail. I wanted to run as if my life depended on it. Because it felt like it did.
Around this time, an ageless hardman I know told me he was headed to Switzerland to try a new multiday trail run in the Alps, on a route meant to be the Grand Tour that the sport deserved. It was designed a few years ago by three friends who know Switzerland well—outdoor photographers Dan and Janine Patitucci, along with writer Kim Strom—and it’s called the Via Valais. Created by linking existing trails, huts, and hotels, the route takes you through southwest Switzerland’s Valais canton, the peaky province that’s home to many of the Alps’ highest mountains and marquee resorts. Starting in Verbier and ending in Zermatt, the nine-stage trip covers nearly 150 miles as it traverses the crenelated Swiss countryside. Along the way, my friend told me, you get daily helpings of up and down that are enough to have you sobbing into your fondue pot at night. Even seasoned trail runners take nine days to do it.
As I listened, I thought: That run is too everything. It’s too long. Too hard. Too all-consuming. Training for a run like that would take months and upend normal life. There would be no time for old routines. There would be only running and more running—days spent alone or with friends high in
the mountains, until the miles whittled us lean as stags.
And that’s when I knew: It’s perfect.