A Bohemian Odyssey that will Rock You: Montreux Trail Festival Race Report

Written by David Lipman

In just it’s second year, the Montreux trail festival is QUICKLY gaining the momentum of a flying European descending from Rochers-de-Naye (1600m descent over 10km to the finish line that all races in the festival have in common). Billed as the Vaud Alps experience tour, it does not disappoint! Race directors Diego Pazos (Swiss Ultra Trail Runner of the year 2015) and Cédric Agassis and their team have put in a lot of work to create this gem and it is sure to continue to grow and become a massive part of the European summer race calendar considering its unique mix of beautiful trails, family-friendly nature of the festival and clear background of the RDs as trail runners!

It’s the little things that let you know that these RDs REALLY, get it: the way things are streamlined for gear check-in, the free buses to the start line, the manual explaining how people can follow the race (any race) and the full card explaining what is available at each aid station. It is no surprise to me that the big ticket races sold out here. When you add this crucial catalyst into the mix of a family-friendly environment, excellent racing, unbelievable trails and the stunning setting of Montreux, you have something extraordinary! And all within a short train trip from Geneva.

This was reinforced for me when I was with the media party watching the start of the MXALPS. Due to weather conditions and the course, they delayed the start by 45mins (from 8:45 am to 9 am). Finally deciding it would not go ahead that morning, the entrants then had three options: start at 4 pm that evening, change to the MXSKY the next day or get a refund on their bibs. Additionally, those who stayed were given lunch, and the rest were transported back to Montreux, all at no cost to the entrants.

Based in Montreux, a stunningly beautiful Swiss town on Lake Geneva, North East of Geneva, it is roughly an hour via train the Swiss capital (90mins with connections from the airport itself and well worth the time, the scenery is phenomenal). The town is steeped in musical history, something that becomes very apparent when researching the race and upon arrival in town! This includes the burning of Montreux Casino being the subject of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and the town’s iconic statue of Freddie Mercury facing Lake Geneva in the main square and race hub (see picture).

Freddie-MercuryFreddie Mercury Statue on Lake Geneva, Montreux

Despite the beauty of the lake and spectacle of the statue, I could not keep my neck from craning around (and UP) to the awe-inspiring mountains of the Alps that surround the town (I was in blissful denial that I was to run up and down them at this stage).  This beauty is something the festival takes very seriously, with a great list of activities and sights to explore on days surrounding the festival for family and runners alike.

montreuxMontreux from the Mountains

I had little knowledge of the region before researching it, but I was continuously surprised by the incredible history of Montreux. Beyond the aforementioned residence of Freddie Mercury and the burning of the Montreux Casino by a fan letting off a flare at a Frank Zappa concert, the broader region has some impressive claims to fame! This includes: being the location for the genesis of milk chocolate, boasting the Lavaux UNESCO heritage listed wine region and “Chaplin’s World”- a venue dedicated entirely to the life and works of Charles Spencer Chapman.

In a style familiar to many in the Australian and New Zealand trail running community the festival offers a whole host of events for varying abilities, ages and levels of insanity. Also, in a similar fashion to some Australian and New Zealand trail running festivals, there is a full itinerary of free entertainment in the race zone, not mention the expo. The main courses all follow a common route to the finish, that is, the MXYSKY is the last 34km of the MXALPS, which is the last 60km of the MXTREME.

The list is as follows(info correct for 2018):

MXTREME (164km and 12’000m D+, 11’650m D-) (6 ITRA Points)
Departs 06:00 Friday morning
The big kahuna. This thing pulls no punches with some absolutely brutal sections, including the aforementioned final descent from Rochers-de-Naye and an almost mirror image climb to start the race. Boasting 2000m more elevation and only 6km shorter, this course may well be more difficult than UTMB in many ways. It will remain to be seen in the coming years as this event grows and attracts more and more elites whether the already impressive course record drops significantly (Sange Sherpa knocking off his time from last year by almost 3 hours, running 26:42:39)

MXTREME Relay (5 ITRA points each)
Runner 1: 99km, 8’000m D+ 6’970m D-
Runner 2: 91km, 6’700m D+ 7’600m D-
Departs 06:00 Friday morning
This is a super cool concept, clearly from the minds of people who have had the benefits of some awesome friends pacing them or the likes. In short; runner 1 starts, is picked up by runner 2 prior to some shared trail time, after which the runner 2 finishes their leg (around ~70km solo, with ~26km common for those playing along with their calculators at home).

mxtreme-map
MXTREME course, with colours for duo and individual portions for the MXTREME Relay. Note: MXALPS uses the same course but starts in Gyron and likewise the MXSKY starts in Leysin

MXALPS (60km and 4’062m D+, 4’884m D-) (4 ITRA points)
Departs 08:45 Saturday morning

MXSKY (34km and 2’451m D+, 3’319m D-) (2 ITRA points)
Departs 09:00 Sunday morning
As mentioned this is the last portion of both the MXTREME and MXALPS and as the race that I ran, I cannot fathom how one would do this on tired legs. Granted this was the bulk of the climbing and descending of the MXALPS, I was still pretty intimidated by the thought of that. This course was tough and technical but had some absolutely breathtaking views.

MXFAMILY (800 m (child) + 34km (adult) + 1 km (child+adult)) (2 ITRA points)
Departs 08:45 Sunday morning
Clearly understanding the family nature of many festivals like this and having watched many an ultramarathon finish, the organisers have done a great job of creating something really special for families.
A child (<15 years old) starts, running an 800m segment prior to passing the baton (read ‘space blanket’-SO PERFECT!) to an adult who then completes the MXSKY course, whereby they are re-joined by the child at the entry to Montreux to run the last kilometre together (note finish only official with BOTH team members).
I am sans children, but if I were not, I think this would skyrocket to the top of my bucket list!

Freddie’s Night (15km, 950 m D+)
Departs 20:30 Saturday night
In homage to the late Freddie Mercury (who’s statue holds prime position near the finish line) this race is ideal for those who are not able to go long yet or just want some extra hurt for the weekend. And, in the tradition of many great trail races, has a dress-up theme and big party attached to it. Don’t get confused though, it’s nearly a vertical km course!

Queen’s Night (6km, 350 m D+)
Departs 21:30 Saturday night
For the rest of the ‘band’ (see what I did there) along in support there is a second, shorter night run.

MXKIDS 2km FREE
Departs 10:00 Saturday morning
Hard to do a better job of explaining this than the race description: “A 2km race in the streets of Montreux to imitate their idols (parents or Kilian).”

So why is it you would even bother to run in Europe you ask?

WELL, my first answer is to ask anyone you know who has done so to watch their faces light up!
But as someone who has returned to do so, I will provide something a little more concrete for the discerning readers.  Unlike our small corner of the world, where trail running and mountain sports, in general, are considered fringe sports, they are front and centre in Europe, particularly in the Alpine regions. As a result, the support and vibe are unrivalled with anything I have come across in Australia and New Zealand. The passion for all things mountain sports is palpable and definitely rubs off on you!

For those looking for a challenge, the pure weight of numbers in terms of participation rates in general and in each race means that the level of competition is much higher than what I have personally experienced in Australia and New Zealand (Caveat, I am by no means professing myself as an authority in our region, not having been to either UTA or Tarawera for example).

Racing holiday? Yup, the European racing season is perfectly poised for this. Take the short flight over to Europe (what’s a day between friends really) to escape the Australian winter and experience some epically long days, with amazing sunsets and all things European: cuisine (wine, cheese, cured meats and bread. I mean I am sure there’s more but why look).

Finally, and most importantly; COW BELLS! (disclaimer, some are actually on cows), or indeed the bull I found lying on the trail part of the way through the race. Don’t worry, me carefully walking around him didn’t seem to even make him bat an eyelid.
Things I personally love about racing in Europe?

  • Mandatory gear requirements are generally much more liberal (Australia and New Zealand having to bow to the pressures of public indemnity insurance which is of a different culture).
  • Racers are both very friendly and much more serious in their own, great ways!
  • Unreal hype and build-up pre-race! Blaring of music is a regular and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers seem to be a common pick (happy days!)
  • The absolute smorgasbords that we know as ‘aid stations’, be weary though, these reflect the local cuisine and subsequently feature large amounts of bread, chocolate, cheese and cold meats.
  • The terrain encountered in Europe is something that I personally find very attractive. I do love the lush trails in wet regions such as the rainforests of Australia and in New Zealand in general, but if I were to choose I find the mountain scenery to be of preference-especially the views!!!
  • The multicultural nature of the races (the race website itself has 4 available languages), which makes for a super cool atmosphere especially pre-race. It is something that was very awe-inspiring for me in my first race in Europe. Oh, and don’t worry, “Get out of the way, I am passing” sounds the same in any language.
  • Serious hills! (Just check out Freddie’s Night Run, at 15km and almost 1000m ascent, there’s generally no way around, only over).
  • The support on course. In all my European racing I have found myself somewhere in the middle of nowhere on course, battling away, often uphill. In all my races, as I was battling the race demons, some awesome local support found its way to the middle of nowhere to yell encouragement and shake a cowbell at me!
  • The difference in trail running culture: forget seeing a handheld bottle or modesty shorts from a European runner and prepare to be looked at strangely at times for wearing your trucker backwards. They often race with very minimal gear and have no issues with powering straight up a set of switchbacks. These differences are what makes sport in general and trail running as part thereof truly great to be a part of.

Things to consider racing in Europe

  • Aid station smorgasbords, you may need to BYO some things you feel you need (Don’t stress you caffiends, “Coca Cola” is one of the most recognised phrases in the world).
  • Altitude. This one is TOUGH! It will kick the wheels out from under you late in a race if you don’t notice yourself breathing surprisingly hard for a low effort early in the race! For me; this is part of the challenge that I like. The nice thing about the Montreux trail festival itself, is that this is not a factor (the town is at 380m so you are never too high ~2000m highest pass in the MXTREME)
  • You WILL be climbing and descending, a LOT (you probably need poles, great excuse right!?).

Reasons to run the Montreux Trail Festival:

  • Very reasonable cut off times
  • Reasonably priced (*obviously these are subject to change and effects of currency prices, not to mention changed depending on when races are entered)
  • Point to point or at worst a big circuit trail (MXTREME)
  • Entry isn’t impossible to gain; European races tend to sell out swiftly!
  • Perfect location for logistics, scenery, vibe and racing.
  • Timing is perfect. You can easily link it with races prior (for instance the Eiger) or afterwards (UTMB or the likes) and or continue onwards to a perfect European holiday (and avoid the Southern Hemisphere Winter)
  • Great location to holiday in, the “Swiss Riviera” boasts a huge tourism industry with exceptional food and activities.
  • Ideal for all experience levels racing in Europe
  • Something for everyone’s ability
  • Awesome scenery and trails!
  • Downhill trends to races (or am I the only one who loves that “can’t walk down the stairs” feeling?)
  • Very inclusive and family friendly
  • ITRA points!
  • European racing experience
  • It’s a short trip to Chamonix
  • Awesome RDs who REALLY ‘get it’
  • Mountains!
  • This: https://montreux-trail.ch/en/montreux-trail-2017-highlights-3/

For more information, see:
https://montreux-trail.ch/en/

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