Instead of Destroying­ Earth, CERN’s Hadron Collider Inspires Epic Run

A tale of brotherhood, sport, and SCIENCE!

While particles fly through the two-inch-wide pipe of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider underground, humans wishing to follow that path are better off doing so on the surface, following a zigzag of roads and paths through the villages, fields, and foothills above. In this image, the solid line traces that human route, the dashed line is the level path of the LHC below, and the dotted line marks the undulating border between France and Switzerland. Illustration by Andrew Howley

In the unassuming countryside outside Geneva, Switzerland, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider gives particles the world’s largest racetrack to zip around. It’s about 17.5 miles in circumference, only 2 inches wide, and varyingly 50 to 100 feet underground, depending on the height of the hills above it. A particle completes the route in 0.0000889 seconds.

Humans take considerably longer.

I know this for a fact not because I did the math but because on a cool, misty day one autumn, I met up with my brother, Ian — then a high-energy physicist at the LHC — for what we dubbed the inaugural CERNathon.

The Sphere Galileo Galilei, part of the facilities at the Large Hadron Collider, catches your attention and lets you know really cool things are going on. Inside is something of a welcome center and museum. Photo by Andrew Howley

The Eureka Moment

Along the route of the LHC, which weaves back and forth across the Swiss-French border, are eight aboveground stations for accessing the particle accelerator, some of which are huge, warehouse-like buildings, while others look more like a hatch on the LOST island.

Belowground, superconducting electromagnets push particles to go faster and faster. Two beams run at the same time in opposite directions, until, traveling near the speed of light, they’re made to cross paths and collide. Elaborate rings of increasingly fine filters then catch the atomic shrapnel and help researchers identify exactly what those original particles were made of.

Ian had first come to CERN to design and test those filters. During that summer, he bicycled or ran between several of the access stations — and the seed was planted.

An attempt of the complete circuit had to be made.

A complete route over the track of the Large Hadron Collider would pass through city, village, farm, and vineyard alike. Autumn would reveal details (like these patches of mistletoe) not visible in the usual summertime images from the region. Photo by Andrew Howley

An Almost-Marathon Is Born

Two years later, back at CERN to continue his grad work, he overlaid a diagram of the LHC with an online street map and traced out a road-based route that would carry us over the accelerator’s path. Meanwhile, I booked my flight to Geneva.

With all the zigs and zags required by the roads, our route comes to a total length of 22 miles. Neither of us has run much more than eight or ten miles at a time, so we’re basically running our first “marathons.” People tell us, “Heck, just add on another 4.2 and make it official.”

But this is no mere marathon — this is the CERNathon! Twenty-two miles it will stay.

Race Day

From our hotel outside the small village of St. Genis-Pouilly in France we drive to the local mall and get some sports drinks, food for breakfast, and snacks for the run. Back in the hotel, with an air of “Aren’t you glad there’s a scientific genius in the family?” Ian boils the newly acquired eggs in the room’s electric tea kettle.

The relatively low and rolling Jura mountains form a natural border to the northwest of the LHC. On a clear day and in other directions, the iconic Alps are visible in the distance. Photo by Andrew Howley

Our starting line is Station 1 just over the border in Switzerland, the main welcome center for the Large Hadron Collider.

On another day, it might have been sunny and warm, the Alps visible in the distance. This day, though, is pretty gray, pretty cold, and you can barely make out the much closer Jura Mountains (which contain stone dating back to the dino era and from which the name “Jurassic” is derived).

So with hats, gloves, water-bottle utility belts, and more layers than we probably need, we take off.

In the Footsteps of Subatomic Particles

We cross from Switzerland to France immediately, running through a typical highway checkpoint on the outskirts of Geneva. We check our pace. Seems fast to start, but it feels good. A good marathon time is three hours, so I optimistically figure that, with our lack of experience but shorter distance, it’s probably a good estimate. But time isn’t of the essence for us. This is man going where only particles have gone before. Four hours would be just as fine.

After the first couple of miles we pass through St. Genis-Pouilly, with its medieval streets, corner taverns, and awning-ed bakeries. From there we head up the foothills of the Jura and looked out on open farmland and a major housing development going up — brand new but with an appealing Old-World style.

A little extra color helps the different buildings and details of the main street of St. Genis-Pouilly stand out. Illustration by Andrew Howley

Every two or three miles we come to one of the above-ground LHC stations, are reassured that we’re on the right track, touch the numbered sign, and grab a photo.

Around mile six we enter a wooded area, and the road makes a hairpin turn over a stone bridge with moss-covered rocks and a barely trickling stream below. From here we pick up a little speed as the road descends from the mountain and draws us near the halfway point.

After running a few miles through major roads and smaller villages, the storybook scenery of an arched stone bridge in the woods is a welcome sight. Photo by Andrew Howley

Here we stop, stretch, eat, and meet a French-speaking mother and son out for a walk. We must already be quite a sight, because they seem pretty shocked at the plan, but they smile, take a picture for us, and wish us well.

Our French is broken, but it’s in better shape than our bodies. Standing back up, I feel the muscles and tendons around my knees questioning the endeavor. A pink glow at the tip of my sneaker makes me think some toe is attempting to cure its ailments through minor bloodletting. We’re still on a steady downhill though, and after a few taught and painful steps the energy starts flowing, and I feel ready for the next 11 miles.

Ian’s problems are just beginning.

Pain and the Ass

As we pass through a new landscape of industrial vineyards, the pounding on Ian’s knees and ankles starts taking its toll. We walk a bit. We jog a bit. We come to another small town.

Cute old houses speak of a quiet rural existence that’s been lived in this place, in these buildings, for centuries. On one corner we stop to capture a few photos of a particularly inquisitive donkey. One more shot, and I think I’ll lose my camera (or a finger).

In a more competitive time-focused run, stopping to catch a photo of a roadside donkey might have been ill-advised. For us running the CERNathon, there was time to smell the roses and — somewhat less romantically — the livestock. Photo by Andrew Howley

From here we enter the most rustic section of the run. The road goes by a few small fields as the number of trees climbs rapidly. Soon we’re dodging muddy ruts in the now dirt path as we enter the woods proper, and bare branches overhead obscure the cold gray sky.

To our right, another field opens up and a small herd of drowsy young cattle are startled into lively movement by our sudden appearance. Having run countless miles through suburban Virginia and Washington, D.C., this has me downright euphoric. No buildings, no cars, not even any other people. Just these trees, this huge field, the cows­ — and along the fringe, my brother and me, running.

Sure beats navigating the traffic in D.C. Photo by Andrew Howley

Highs and Lows

Before we come back onto the road, we pass through a birch grove with yellow leaves completely blanketing the ground. It dawns on me that I’ve never experienced autumn, my favorite season, outside the U.S. before. It’s almost surprising to see it here in France, with no accompanying images of pilgrims and turkeys. The euphoria continues: It’s just a week before my birthday, and I’m beside myself with the beauty of nature, the excitement of travel, and the joy of running.

Meanwhile, Ian’s mind is on more practical issues, namely the rapid deterioration of the condition of his extremities.

We come through another small village and out into a vineyard, and between its long rows of yellowing grape leaves we’re rewarded at last with a view of the Alps in the distance. A stone marked with an F on one side and an S on the other tells us we’re crossing the border back into Switzerland once more. As I stop to take a photo and catch Ian trudging in the distance, I have a terrible realization that the border stone bears an ominous resemblance to a grave marker.

Since Ian survived the CERNathon, I look back at this headstone-like international border marker with nothing but affection now. At the time, it seemed an ominous portent. Photo by Andrew Howley

The Voltaire’s Home Stretch

Ian is done.

We’re now only about five miles from the end, but that’s close to another hour of running at our current pace. It’s a tough circumstance to accept but not a difficult decision to make. A different mode of transportation than his own two feet is required to get him back to our car.

We’ve reached the town of Ferney-Voltaire, built to support the activities and upkeep of the famous philosopher’s grand home and grounds just up the hill. It’s one of the larger villages on our route, and gloriously it has a prominent bus stop.

The CERNathon has by no means been a lifelong goal, but it’s been essentially two years in the making and was the seed and centerpiece of our trip. We’ve traveled and hiked a lot together and have always obtained our objectives, come heat, rain, cold, sickness, whatever. It seems a shame to be so close to the finish and not complete the run.

Especially since we do still have one pair of working legs.

Still inspired by the rush I had felt in the birch grove, standing in Ferney-Voltaire I get a second wind and the impulse to finish the route as planned. Photo by Ian Howley

“You know, it is only another five miles,” I say. “So close.”

My brother can read my mind. “Dude, can you make it? If you can make it, you’ve got to go for it.”

“And literally leave you stranded, injured?”

“Complete the CERNathon! All for one, and one for all,” he says.

The bus comes. I take his knit hat to a) keep warm and b) represent him on the final stretch. The bus pulls out, and I take off running. Cold drizzle, fading light, and increasingly urban scenery characterize this final leg.

There’s just one more station to reach before the end. I push through to it and snap our customary photo. Everything is sore and tired, but the thrill of completing this most grandiose of brotherly self-imposed challenges keeps me going. In the final two miles I even get a second (fifteenth?) wind and pick up the pace. I’m cruising home faster than we’ve gone in hours.

The photos we took at each of the eight aboveground LHC stations and the finish line give their own summary of the day’s (and night’s) adventure. Photos courtesy Andrew Howley and Ian Howley

I reach the finish line.

The vicissitudes of public transportation have made for the unlikely coincidence that with Ian on the bus and me on foot, we should return to the start at just about the same time, and indeed it’s only a few minutes before a bus pulls up and out steps my little brother, a little worse for the wear, but beaming.

If we had more energy we would jump up and down. As it is, we smile broadly but weakly and snap some selfies to record the moment for posterity. It’s the latest such moment in a long line stretching clear back to the improvised obstacle courses we’d run as kids 20 years earlier.

We haven’t broken any speed records. We haven’t run without stopping. No one beside our friends, family, and some co-workers even knew what we were planning. But we’ve done it.

After countless protons have whizzed around this particle accelerator, at long last, so have two human beings.

Any takers for CERNathon II?

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