Sometime in the last year, my friend Greg casually mentioned to me that it was possible to run across Liechtenstein.
“Oh yeah, we did it,” he said.
I guess I knew that the country was tiny. But – not to diminish Greg’s running chops – it didn’t occur to me just how tiny it was. 62 square miles. I started looking into it and, of course, there are quite a few writeups of how to “cross an entire country on foot!” The shortest way across is about eight miles. A fast runner could do that in an hour.
The idea of crossing the whole country definitely appealed to me. I knew that I had to do it. But an eight-mile run along the flat part of the country? That didn’t really inspire me. I started looking at the map. There were mountains along the Liechtenstein-Austria border. That is more my speed.
When my friend Steve mentioned wanting to get out this weekend to get “above the clouds” (it has rained nonstop in Switzerland for, I swear, months), I pitched him the idea. So there it was, Saturday morning and we were on a train to Buchs, Switzerland, just over an hour from Zurich, gleefully making jokes about our day “out of the country”.
From the Buchs train station it’s just a few hundred meters to the Rhine River, which forms the border with Liechtenstein. We paused for a photo. Whee! We’ve already come so far!
On we ran, through Schaan, the largest municipality in the principality of Liechtenstein. It has 5,800 people and houses a major manufacturer of false teeth, as well as Hilti, a power drill company. The downtown was cute, but didn’t look that different than Switzerland.
There are actually more companies than people in Liechtenstein, and it’s a financial capital. It’s a tax haven for those too choosy to pick Switzerland, so the place is awash in money – if not residents. A major global consulting firm seemed to sponsor the local tennis courts and we saw the names of more than a few companies we recognized.
After making it to Schaan we started climbing, first along a paved street past a convent, then on a jogging path through the woods and finally into a picturesque small village complete with grazing cows and beautiful old wooden houses, meticulously kept up. We could see the Rhine below us, sweeping its way towards Lake Constance; the Swiss mountains to the north; the Austrian Alps to the south; more Swiss peaks southeast and west. A few grannies cheerfully greeted us from across the street as a got a quick drink from the public water fountain. In the Alps, the water is always delicious, especially when you’ve been running uphill.
And above us, always, was the ridge we were set to traverse. It was rocky and looked epic, even though I knew it was not as tall, remote, or technical as many places I’ve been in Switzerland. We wound up and up along a forest road until, almost eleven kilometers in and after climbing about 1,000 meters, we found ourselves in the typical alpine meadows you associate with Austria and Switzerland. There was a mountain hut up the hill on the left and we passed our first other hikers of the day, three women happily chatting away.
I probably would have ski-walked a few more of those 1,000 meters of climbing, but Steve is not a skier; he’s a runner. His backpack was heavier than mine but his shoes lighter. He’s also just faster. It wasn’t a spectacularly hot day – rain was forecast for the afternoon – but by the time we stopped after the hut we were both completely sweaty. I needed a snack so we took off our shirts and tried to let them dry in the sun.
It… didn’t work. Putting a soaking wet sweaty shirt back on is not the best thing in the world. We continued.
After only about a kilometer, mostly through the woods, we once again found ourselves in a nice meadow, this time looking out from the top of a pass over into Austria proper. And there it was: the border with Austria. After just 12 kilometers and about two hours of running uphill, we had crossed the entire country.
We had started in Switzerland, made it through Liechtenstein, and were now in Austria – but our goals were not complete. The ridge and its most charismatic peaks, the Drei Schwestern or Three Sisters, were still above us. Faced with a trail that skirted around the mountain through Austrian meadows or an alpine route that headed back toward Liechtenstein, we picked the alpine route.
We wound our way through ever-shorter stunted conifers until there were no more. It reminded me of my beloved White Mountains.
Then the rock started and so did the metal cables to hold onto, the dizzying drop-offs below, and in a few places, metal and wooden ladders to scramble up. The Drei Schwestern were pretty spectacular. The first real peaks I’d been on this year so far, we landed just over 2,000 meters above sea level, or slightly above the top of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in my home state of New Hampshire.
That’s not particularly tall by Swiss standards, but the view was still great. Austria and the Swiss canton of Graubunden stretched out ahead of us, peak after peak after peak still lined with snow. There was finally a cool breeze. I soaked it in: why haven’t I done this in so long?
Oh right, because it rains all the damn time.
We eventually continued on the ridge, and our pace dropped precipitously (because we ourselves didn’t want to….). It was technical scrambling up and down, again holding onto metal cables bolted into the rock. What had begun as a run was now a delicate crawl. We could have gone much farther along the ridge, but after three peaks decided to bail off back down into Liechtenstein.
The path I had picked turned out to be the lightest path you could consider a marked trail in Switzerland. It was rocky and rooty and, thanks to all the recent rain, muddy. The trail was hacked into the alpine heath, with surprised-looking naked root nubs still recovering from some recent trimming.
I sort of loved it, but with his minimalist footwear Steve did not. Personally, I maintain that there are few things you can’t do in a pair of Salomon Speedcross trail runners with their beefy treads. When the company gave the Craftsbury Green Racing Project a pair of shoes each back in 2010 they hooked this one customer for life…
The forest seemed to go on forever: I could see Schaan below us now and then, and it felt like my quads were burning more and more from holding myself in check on the impossibly steep grade. But Schaan never got closer! I began to worry we were in some sort of enchanted forest that expanded with us and we would never get out.
When we realized it was nearly two in the afternoon, it all made sense. Eating lunch cleared some of the grumpiness we had both been developing from the endless, messy downhill. Soon after that we popped out of the forest and into an opulent neighborhood of modern-day castles and mansions.
I could practically taste the chlorine in the swimming pools that I knew lay just beyond each perfectly-manicured hedge. But those swimming pools were not for us, so we continued running down and down, back into Schaan. By now I was flagging – it had been well over 20 km and a lot of uphill, over 1,800 meters or almost 6,000 feet, and then the corresponding leg-destroying downhill.
Just keep running, I thought. Admit no weakness to your running buddy. Okay though, he can probably tell. The bridge over the Rhine was in sight, then we were over it, back in Buchs, and I could stop. I was incredibly dehydrated and savored a lemonade bought at the train station kiosk like it was the best thing I had ever tasted.
Three countries? One run? Not too shabby. We gave ourselves a high five for being adventurous – and, as Americans, laughed to ourselves at how long it would take to run across our own country. We had to take these opportunities where they came.
The next day was sunny too.
“I hear Monaco is nice this time of year,” Steve joked.