25 Years Ago in Mountain Running: An American Takes on Europe’s Best

The following is an excerpt from 1993 World Mountain Running Championship silver medalist Dave Dunham’s August 1994 training log. Dave and several other American runners competed in events which are now considered mountain running classics. At that time the U.S. trail & mountain running scene was still in its infancy. These European mountain running races would inspire Dave to found the USATF New England Mountain Running Circuit in 1996.

I ran 464 miles (14.9 per day) for the month of August 1994 that included some big mileage weeks while I was in Europe. I raced five times as I prepared for the World Mountain Running Championships. I started the month racing the 5k distance at the Yankee Homecoming races in Newburyport. I normally wouldn’t go the shorter route but was flying to Europe for the next month and didn’t want to overdo it. I ended up topping the field of 700+ finishers with a 15:03. Four days later I was racing in the mountains of Switzerland! The race director of the hugely popular Sierre-Zinal race was covering my hotel for 2 weeks in exchange for me doing two races and the folks at the Challenge Stellina (Susa, Italy) were covering the cost of my flights.

There was also some under the table food money and as always, some prize money to win. Things started out on a bit of a rough note as my luggage went somewhere other than where I was. Fortunately, I always keep my racing flats and singlet in my carry-on. The airline gave me some cash to purchase a few other items and 5 days after I arrived I did get my bag. The first race was Thyon-Dixence, a very tough 10 miles from Thyon to Dixence. It was a beautiful course that ran out of Thyon (at an altitude of 6600’) and continued up to the tallest dam in Europe at Dixence. The footing, altitude, and surprising amount of descent did not work in my favor and I only managed a 10th place finish in a field of 900.

Fun Geography Fact: The Grande Dixence Dam is a concrete gravity dam on the Dixence at the head of the Val d’Hérémence in the canton of Valais in Switzerland. At 285 m (935 ft) high, it is the tallest gravity dam in the world, fifth tallest dam overall, and the tallest dam in Europe. It is part of the Cleuson-Dixence Complex.

Dave with (left to right) Rob Reece, Lyndon Ellefson, Dan Verrington and Mike Casner.

I spent the next week in Sierre, Switzerland near the finish line of the 19+ mile race I’d be doing. I had plenty of time to train and rest. The Sierre-Zinal race went well. I had the lead through the initial tough ascent but then got crushed on the downhills. The views were amazing on the course and it was interesting how the race officials would blow whistles to tell the “citizens” (early start) to move out of the way. I was still in the top 5 when we reached the final summit, but the final 40 minutes of running was all downhill and I just could not roll with the fast descenders. I hit the finish line in 2:42:31 which was good enough for $200 and even got me a little more per-diem money from the RD as I spent a few more days in Zinal.

Dave power-hiking the final climb at Challenge Stellina.

Mid-week I headed via train to Susa, Italy to meet up with my USA teammates. On August 21st we took on the Challenge Stellina mountain race (9.57 miles of mostly uphill running). I had a pretty good run taking 3rd place after leading through half-way. The course featured 5,000’ of climb and 400’ of drop. Most of the drop was right after half-way, so you can guess how I lost the lead. Thierry Icart (France) won in 1:22:27 and I picked up $750 for my finish 21 seconds later.

Our group made our way to Zermatt, Switzerland for the final race before the World Mountain Running Championships. We had a lot of fun training and hanging out. The MatterhornLauf was a tough 7.6 miles with 4,000’ of climb, all on trail. The toughest part was that it was all between 5,300’ and 9,000’ a bit high for a low-lander like me. I almost didn’t start the race as I was having some digestive issues. Once I got going it wasn’t bad and I managed a third-place finish in 59:29 (2 minutes behind the winner).

Dave on the MatterhornLauf podium.

Editor’s Note: Dave Dunham, Dan Verrington, Mike Casner, Rob Reece and Lyndon Ellefson would go on to the 1994 World Mountain Running Championships in Berchtesgaden, Germany in September. Dave finished 15th out of 115 runners on the 13 km course 1200 meters of ascent. The U.S. men’s team would finish 10th of 18 countries.