Marathon Corgi
Part I - Part II
By Andrew Bushnell, Switzerland

A Welsh Corgi in the middle of the Swiss Alps
"Corgis are not easily tired out. They are adaptable to town or country,
and will follow a horse over all sorts of terrain for many miles."
Charles Lister-Kaye: "The Welsh Corgi".

How can a short-legged, heavily-built dog, less adapted for speed than most other breeds, run a Marathon race - climb twice the height of Wales' peak, Snowdon - finish in half the usual hiker's time, and show no sign of being tired afterwards?

Swiss & Int. Ch. Cardwyn Gwylon, alias Bryn

The following account is an example to cheer friends of the breed, and to show that Corgis still have the speed and stamina to outrun the average human athlete over any distance.

This mountain Marathon race takes place in the Swiss Alps (canton of Valais), with a view of the Matterhorn and four other 4000 metre high summits from which the race takes its name - "The Race of Five 4000m Peaks". It is perhaps the most famous among several dozen similar races counting for the European Championship of Mountain Running.

Five 4000m peaks

From beside the river Rhone at Sierre, 100 km upstream from Lake Geneva, the runners climb 2000 m (6600 ft) and cross 31 km (20 miles) of rough mountain tracks, finishing half way to the Italian border at Zinal, the last village in a narrow side valley. This represents rather more than a Marathon race in time and effort.

Besides the thin air and the intense sunshine, there are also special difficulties for a Corgi. There are scree slopes of sharp stones that slide as you step on them. Several kilometres of the way are strewn with boulders that a Corgi's short legs must scramble over. Even in summer the weather can quickly change to mist or snow; the path is then slippery, and it becomes dangerous to run at full speed, since much of the track is single file across precipitous mountainside.

The 3'500 participants are mostly from Switzerland and adjoining countries, together with some invited champions from America and from Britain. There are also many British among the anonymous throng plodding behind.

The writer, a veteran of the anonymous plodders, has the rare advantage of living only five minutes' drive from where the race starts. So it is that Bryn, a brindle Cardigan Corgi, and his master may be seen frequently training up and down the steep, gritty track which zig-zags between cliffs and woods on the mountainside.

A Head for Heights
When Bryn was a rapidly growing puppy he could only walk short distances, and up to the age of six months he tired very quickly. After that he accompanied me on all training runs, and I have never since seen him tired out. At eight months old, Bryn ran ahead of me up the first 1500 m (5000 ft) of the Sierre-Zinal Marathon climb, much of it a 1 in 4 gradient. It was the hottest afternoon of the year, but Bryn showed no sign of fatigue during or after the run. To spare his joints and mine, we returned by bus.

Paradoxically, my wife and I continued to carry Bryn down the stairs every day until he was twelve months old, following the breeder's advice, because shocks and heavy loads are very bad for growing joints. Long distance exercise, by contrast, is relatively safe, provided that it is regular and progresses gradually.

To get used to rough tracks, we trained on the smooth pebbles beside the river Rhone. So that Bryn would not be afraid of crossing scree slopes that move under foot, we ran up and down the unstable heaps of gravel that are quarried from the river. Bryn soon began to enjoy the game, almost swimming in moving sand. Then he found it was fun to charge down a high heap of shingle towards me, bringing the whole slope with him like an avalanche. It was time to stop the lesson, before the confidence he was gaining began to undermine my own!

Ramblers enjoy following the ancient irrigation channels, which bring melt water from the glaciers, in places across sheer cliffs, to the dry lower fields. Following one of these channels across a cliff in the adjoining gorge, I stooped under the over-hanging rock face, and was forced to look down a long drop. Fortunately, it was possible to walk in the channel, as there was no water there, and I expected Bryn to be suffering from vertigo like me; but no - he was trotting jauntily ahead on the wall less than 60 cm (2 ft) wide that serves as a dyke and a path.

irrigation channel Irrigation channel, called bisse (French) or Suone (German),
on a steep mountain side in the canton of Valais

Dare I call him back? .... there is scarcely enough width for him to turn round ... Holding my breath, I kept quiet until he reached a wider spot and turned round of his own accord.

Some, weeks later I was very surprised to see Bryn walk along the 10cm (4 in) wide edge of a stone drinking trough, and turn round on a 20cm (8 in) width. It was an unsteady maneuver, but this time, fortunately, at a safe height from the ground.

Continued Part II

CWCA Newsletter August 1990
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

Further reading: Ordeal By Water - Bryn in the irrigation pipe.