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Running the Alps in 30 days

Intro background

This is the
Via Alpina trail.

It spans 2,650 km
and crosses
8 nations.

The total elevation is 150,000 meters. That’s 17 mount Everests. Karel Sabbe attempted to run it in 30 days. Two marathons and 5,000 altimeters. Every day. This is his story.

Explore Karel’s journey!

Run along with Karel on the Via Alpina trail – and read his journal entries for the most exciting and challenging days. Use the arrows to go forward and back.

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Aiming for a solid start

Day: 01
Distance: 100km
Altimeter: 2028m
This is his story
Via Alpina
Trieste - Monaco

The day before the start, I arrived in Trieste with my wife Emma and my son Jack. On this very hot and sunny day, we did some practical arrangements and shot some early material for the documentary as well.

You can only
cherish a moment
so much

All three of us went swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, and I realized you can only cherish a moment so much. To see this as my last “relaxed” day would not help me through the 30-day FKT attempt. Instead, I knew I needed to try and enjoy everything along way, while still moving forward.

As Day 1 began, I was feeling a bit anxious. My FKT attempts had begun in 2016, when Joren and I had the crazy idea to go for the speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. We were just a two-man team on their own little adventure back then.

Now, five years later, it wasn’t just us, but a crew of four additional people and two cameramen. There were also my parents, travelling alongside us in a camper van to take care of Jack. And while everyone around me would all accept it if things were to go wrong, I did feel a lot more pressure this time.

We were aiming to run about 100 km on the first day – partly to get a solid kickstart and partly because this stretch had less elevation change than what was to come. Still, the first day and week are crucial in a record attempt such as this. If you get through it without injury, you can find a nice flow for the rest of the attempt. If you do get injured, it can all be over – or become a very long struggle.

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A reality check

Day: 05
Distance: 92km
Altimeter: 4404m
The most challenging trail
Karnische Höhenweg
Thörl-Maglern, Austria

Day 5 brought the most challenging part of my Via Alpina attempt. I did not know this, however, when I started out in Plocken early in the morning. On the map it looked like I was going to run on top of a ridge, the Karnische Höhenweg, for the entire day. After a rather tough Day 4, I hoped that this meant that the elevation change would be small and manageable.

However, the trail was pretty technical and exposed, and for a few hours there was also quite a lot of rain. In some sections, the safety cables and via ferrata had come loose, making them quite dangerous to cross. Due to the rain, Kobe and I became really cold, and we didn’t have any extra layers to add on. We became painfully aware that the weather at that altitude can change quickly and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

It was a
wake-up call

The ridge itself would rise and drop, significantly and continuously. That small elevation change I had hoped quickly became the opposite. Lastly, I realised that the tonnes of snow that had fallen in the Alps in late May was going to impact my speed, as there were surprisingly many snow fields left for this time of year (mid-July).

All these factors resulted in a day of “only” 74 km of running, but with an elevation change of 5,500 meters. Those figures equaled the most challenging part of my Appalachian Trail FKT attempt three years earlier. It was a wake-up call. Via Alpina was going to be tougher than that, and on a much tighter time schedule at that.

What eventually got me through Day 5 was my determination to get a head start in my FKT attempt. To find some extra strength, I envisioned an athlete in the future trying to beat my record, and how he or she would really struggle to keep up with my extremely solid first week.

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storm hits

Day: 07
Distance: 68km
Altimeter: 2678m
The worst weather
Passo Ponte Di Ghiaccio
Selva Dei Molini / Mühlwald, Italy

At the end of Day 7, as me and Kobe were crossing the pass Passo Ponte di Ghiaccio (or Eisbruggjoch in German), a thunderstorm was drawing nearer. The delay between lightning and thunder was then about 10 seconds, and I was OK with that, but Kobe was starting to feel uncomfortable.

We reached the hut at the pass and had to make a quick decision, as we still had a 7 km descent left before reaching our camping spot in the next valley. Kobe decided he wanted to stay safe in the hut, but I wanted to push on as I reckoned the lightning was still far away.

Stay in
the hut!!!!!

I carried on alone for about 500 meters, until I turned around a bend and was able to see the valley I was supposed to descend into. It was a sight of absolute terror. The enormous thunderstorm came rolling up the valley, and the same moment I saw it, I was right in middle of it. I was at the same level as the lightning was, which was now simultaneous with the thunder.

I found some shelter underneath an overhanging rock, and then I had to decide whether I should stay there – or make a run back to the hut. Carrying on down the valley was definitely not an option anymore. After 30 seconds I chose the hut, but with the storm around me I really feared for my life. Lightning struck all around me, and huge hailstones hurt my head and ears as I ran. After a few terrifying minutes, I reached the hut and Kobe was very relieved to see me returning unharmed.

The storm then got even worse, so we had to stay in the hut for the night and carry on early in the morning. We were able to send a message to the crew that we had found shelter and that we were safe.

Descending into the valley the next day, I received an SMS that had been delayed since the evening before. In capital letters it read, “STAY IN THE HUT!!!!!” It was from the crew, who had seen the full scale of the storm coming up towards us.

As the crew drove out of the valley in the morning, they reported seeing countless fallen trees, a flooded river, and firemen rescuing stranded people and working hard to clear the roads.

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An endless

Day: 09
Distance: 78km
Altimeter: 4235m
The toughest climb

At the end of Day 9, I had already run 82 km with quite a bit of elevation change. But me and the team still decided it would be good for the schedule to finish the day with a long climb. Then we could spend the night at the beautifully located and historic Meilerhütte, a hut located 3,145 meters above sea level.

The climb was 1,530 meters on a distance of 8 km. Since it was at the end of the day, and I was really longing for the hut, it felt endless. Like always, the more you long for something, the longer it feels to reach it. In addition, we also knew there was heavy rain coming up. What got me through it was thinking that I have no other option than to carry on.

It felt endless!

I was so happy to reach the hut before the sunset and the heavy rain. But to our surprise, Joren, who had our sleeping bags and some practical things for the day after, wasn’t there. The hut keeper told us Joren had called, telling him what had happened. He had gone up a different valley than us, hoping to take a shortcut and arrive at the hut before us. There was no shortcut, however, so he had to descend all the way down again and start over, all the while carrying a backpack of more than 18 kg.

Luckily, I could borrow a sleeping bag from the hut. When I woke up in the morning, I saw that Joren had arrived there all right and I was able to start off on Day 10.

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Pride and perspective

Day: 10
Distance: 84km
Altimeter: 4209m
Pride and perspective
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

I’m very sensitive to nostalgic and historic places, and the night we spent at the Meilerhütte will always be special to me. This old alpine hut right beside the German-Austrian border is now 110 years old, and it had a great feeling of a bygone era.

I am the
Belgian runner

The wooden interior was beautiful and peaceful, and it made me think about the time when people were just beginning to discover the sport of alpinism. How many tales would the hut not tell if it could – of human lives being saved by its shelter in a storm, of the numerous unique people who spent the night here.

All of this gave me a sense of pride and perspective, thinking that I myself would now become part of the hut’s history. I’m “the Belgian runner” who spent a night here on his way to set a new speed record on the Via Alpina.

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and beauty

Day: 14
Distance: 87km
Altimeter: 4684m
The best camping spot
Refugio Eita
Val Grosina, Italy

Our night at the Refugio Eita, in the small village of Eita in Val Grosina, was probably the most enjoyable camping spot during my record attempt. It really wasn’t very special in terms of spectacular landscapes or high peaks with glaciers, but it was such a peaceful valley, with a waterfall and a beautiful sunset. can change quickly and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Such a
powerful valley

As I arrived early that night, we had time to drink a beer and cook together. Our camping spot was right beside a beautifully located little church, and all of us had a great night.

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Day: 17
Distance: 82km
Altimeter: 5253m
Running through the night

At the end of Day 17, in the village of Biasca, Switzerland, I only had to run about 7 more kilometers to finish the day. My crew had checked out the weather forecast for the next day and the valley I was heading for the day after that. From about 3 PM, a huge thunderstorm was coming in, making further running impossible.

When I learned about the forecast, the weather was still fair, so we quickly decided to push on through the night and get as far as possible before the storm. The goal was to cross three high passes and arrive at a hut before 3 PM. With the skies clear and the moon bright and full, it became a unique experience to run through that night.

My crew was excited too. Henri did the first pass with me, a tricky, awkward climb with a faint trail. It took us rather long to reach the top, but the descent was easier. Arriving in the next village a bit past midnight, Joren then did the next pass with me. This time the situation was the opposite: a rather easy climb followed by a difficult descent.

Your brain can
play tricks on you

As the terrain gradually became easier, the need for sleep was finally catching up with me. I couldn’t keep up the pace, I stumbled and struggled. Joren, who was running ahead of me, said he thought it best to stay behind me now. And he was right. Minutes later, I fell asleep standing upright, falling backwards, but Joren was there to prevent me from hitting the ground, talk about good timing.

A bit later, we decided that I should do a powernap. I laid down right on the trail and fell asleep immediately, having the weirdest dreams. I woke up feeling well-rested, and as we carried on, I asked Joren how long I had slept. About a minute. When you’re dead tired, your brain can play those tricks on you – I really thought I had a great, long sleep and was fully prepared to carry on.

Meeting up with the crew soon after sunrise, I slept 20 more minutes and then I went for the third high pass with Klaas. Descending into the next valley, we could already feel the storm coming. I pushed on and headed for the hut, which was pretty high up the next valley, and finally at 3 PM, after 35 hours and 155 km, I arrived at the goal. Just as I got to bed, the storm hit with thunder, lightning, and heavy rain. It had certainly been a good call to go through the night!

We all felt excited that we had kept on going through the whole night. The first two weeks had been rather smooth, and this was the first time we really showed what we were capable of. There was a general feeling of “There we have it,” and I was happy to see that everybody was willing to do a lot for my record attempt.

I admit I had been a bit anxious before that night, because of the high expectations after a year and a half of cancelled events. Now those feelings finally settled, and I found a nice flow that I hoped would stay with me for the rest of the FKT attempt.

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A glacier
at work

Day: 19
Distance: 89km
Altimeter: 4146m
A glacier at work
Aletsch Glacier
Fieschertal, Switzerland

When looking at the map as I started out on Day 19, I noticed we were going to run alongside the huge Aletsch Glacier. I had a feeling this would be a spectacular sight, but as I like to think of my FKTs as exploring journeys, I didn’t want to google images beforehand.

I was running with Joren and Klaas, and as we crossed a pass and saw the huge glacier for the first time, we were just in awe. It was just so unique and impressive, a glacier as far as the eye could see, up and down the valley. It was also a humbling experience, making the three of us quite emotional. Glaciers are always something special; you feel small in time as well as in dimensions.

We heard it crack
and make noises

Running alongside the glacier, we heard it crack and make loud noises, which made it even more impressive. Since glaciers are actively shaping the landscape, I think it’s always special to see them at work. 

The three of us were grateful to have experienced the Aletsch Glacier together. It was just very unexpected to see something like that on mainland Europe in 2021. I thought glaciers of that kind were long gone already, so it felt inspiring.

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Pushing on to the end

Day: 30
Distance: 165km
Altimeter: 7568m
The final stretch
Sospel / Peillon

For the final stretch of my Via Alpina FKT attempt, I decided to push on through the night without sleeping to reach Monaco on schedule.

Ten days before, it seemed as though I needed to push a full 190 km during the last day and a half. As that may have been a little too far for one stretch, I squeezed in a few kilometers here and there each day, ending up with a final distance of 165 km – still hard but manageable.

Knowing that this was the very last push was what kept me going. It also helped that halfway through the first day I could see the Mediterranean Sea again after 30 days of alpine running. The goal was finally within reach.

The goal was
within reach

Then during the first part of the night, I had to run alone on a difficult section, as the crew had a flat tire on the way to the meeting point. As we finally caught up with each other, I first ran with Henri. Due to some washouts the trail was very slow-going and technical, and we sometimes had to scramble around rockslides. 

Just like on Day 17, I had my hardest moment while running with Joren during the last part of the night. Once again I took a powernap on the trail, no dreams this time, and I slept for about 9 minutes. I felt less refreshed this time, but it was enough to keep the worst tiredness away.

At this point, it had become hard for me to eat, as after 30 days of eating 10,000 calories a day, I was fed up with everything. But next to the meet-up point in the morning there was a bakery, and they had freshly baked chocolate croissants that tasted amazing.

Fueled on chocolate croissants I was able to run the last 35 km to the finish in Monaco. As always with the Via Alpina, I didn’t even get this last stretch “for free,” as it was extremely dry and pretty technical to run. 

The documentary

The full extent of the extreme pressure Karel Sabbe put on his body and mind, the many challenges and the brief moments of absolute joy, is revealed in the documentary “Solace – Running the Alps in 30 Days.”

Karel Sabbe

The crew

Even if you are the one doing the running, you need some dedicated support to cross the Alps in 30 days. On Via Alpina, Karel Sabbe brought along four of his best friends and his wife, each one whole-heartedly committed to the FKT attempt.

Karel Sabbe
Karel Sabbe
“The Flying Dentist”
Record Breaker
“After long-distance hikes (including the Pyrenean High Route, the Sierra High Route and crossing New Zealand), I turned to setting the FKTs (Fastest Known Times) on some of the world’s most epic trails, starting with the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. The passion of my life is to explore the world’s different natural environments, and when I’m pushing my mind and body to the limit, I always learn new things about myself.” – Karel
Joren Biebuyck
Joren Biebuyck
“Sloppy Joe”
Crew Master
“Crew master since my first successful FKT attempt, the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. Joren then came along on the Appalachian Trail, where we again set a new record. Via Alpina was his third major support of a speed record attempt. A physiotherapist in daily life, Joren is the most optimistic and dedicated crew member out there.” – Karel
Henri De Veene
Henri De Veene
“The Yeti”
Longtime Friend
“A longtime friend, as well as one of the most dedicated crew members and pacers. With our shared passion for adventure and nature (a few years ago we hitchhiked from France to Kazakhstan), we get along very well. Via Alpina was the first time he joined me on an FKT attempt. As Henri is getting more and more into ultrarunning himself, he was always quick to recognize my needs and help out.” – Karel
Emma Vandoorne
Emma Vandoorne
“Ultra Patience”
“My wife, whose first encounter with an FKT attempt back in 2016 was a shocking experience, when she realised the extreme sleep deprivation and difficult situations that Joren and I exposed ourselves to. On Via Alpina, Emma was there for the whole FKT attempt, and by now she knew the deal. She started cherishing the unexpected meetings with strangers, the crazy days and beautiful moments, and the special atmosphere among the crew during such an adventure.” – Karel
Klaas Tiebout
Klaas Tiebout
Close Friend
“A close friend of mine since we were 3, and crew chef. Over the last couple of years, Klaas has really gotten into cooking, and it was so nice to have him in the crew during Via Alpina. He is the best at classic Belgian dishes, never hesitating to add more butter and spices. Klaas is also a solid pacer, never having to catch up – and always ready to run ahead of me to order an espresso and an apfelstrudel in a mountain hut.” – Karel
Kobe Blondeel
Kobe Blondeel
Recent Friend
“A recent friend and fellow ultrarunner. For Kobe this was the first time he was in the crew for such a speed record attempt. Kobe was super-excited and very willing to help out, any way and anywhere he could. He is also a very solid pacer. We could run comfortably together for hours, and our long conversations felt just as good as simply running alongside each other without saying much.” – Karel

The shoe

Throughout the Via Alpina FKT attempt, Karel Sabbe used On Cloudultra shoes. Designed to help you move quickly and easily on uneven ground and off-road.


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