The tiny central European country of Switzerland was renowned for centuries for the quality of their fighting men and was one of the few countries on that continent that was never attacked in either of the great World Wars. One reason may be the grueling armed marathon that they call the Waffenlauf.
Swiss martial tradition
Long a country known for their belief in freedom, the Swiss have kept that notion alive through force of arms. During the Renaissance, citizen sportsmen such as the legendary William Tell kept his crossbow skills sharp– just in case. At a small mountain valley named Sempach in 1386, an Austrian army of professional soldiers attempted to invade Switzerland.
A small militia force of a few farmers led by a man named Arnold Winkelreid met them in battle. The farmers were outnumbered 6:1 and trapped. The only sane thing to do was for them to surrender and submit to the invader.
But they didn’t.
Arnold ran forward alone and yelled, “Make way for liberty.” The farmers followed him and the stunned professional solders of the Austrian army broke and retreated, with the farmers harassing them all the way back to the border.
That 1386 battle was the last time Switzerland was invaded.
Sometime after this, Swiss mercenaries (Reisläufer) became the toast of military service for over four centuries. To this day, the Pontifical Swiss Guards– all highly trained veterans of the Swiss Army– ensure that the Vatican is secure from invasion.
Speaking of which, the “Swiss model,” that of requiring all fit males of military age to serve in the armed forces or civil defense, even going so far as to keep all of their arms and equipment at home, ready to go when needed, has been largely cited as a reason that Hitler never came across the Alps during WWII. The prospect of fighting 850,000 Winkelreids on their own turf Wolverines-style likely kept it that way.
Enter the Waffenlauf
In 1916, with Europe at war on all sides of Switzerland’s borders during the First World War, an event called the “Gun Barrel” (Waffenlauf) was run to help showcase military skills and provide a bit of sport. This run, a marathon run in military uniform with marching shoes, full pack, and rifle at distances up to 43 kilometers (26 miles), sounds about as fun as slip and slide made out of cactus, but hey, it’s Switzerland!