Running with the Gods, Chamonix
After trying unsuccessfully to get a much sought after ticket to Glastonbury, I looked around for something to fill the void so as not to sit at home with total jealousy. I love running, especially trails, so when I came across a week of doing just that, I was super excited to get on board.
When you mention the word Chamonix the first thing that springs to most people’s minds is the winter wonderland of the French Alps. While this is a dream location for many people to head on their annual ski or snowboard holiday, it’s also fast becoming an iconic summer location to hit the trails.
Home of the iconic UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc), a trail run that is definitely not for the faint hearted, this race starts and finishes in Chamonix covering 168km including 9,600 metres of vertical gain. Ouch! An extremely hard race to even qualify for, let alone to gain an entry, the idea of running parts of this course were something I’d never really considered before.
The weekend I arrived, Chamonix had just finished hosting the Skyrunning World Championships which included the Mont-Blanc 80km, the Mont-Blanc Marathon and the Vertical km. It attracts most top trail running athletes from around the world and sets the benchmark for the skyrunning circuit. People like Killian Jornet (this guy is incredible) and kiwi Anna Frost were present, making it a great weekend for people watching and great inspiration before starting my own week of trail running.
I was lucky to meet Alison on my airport shuttle from Geneva to Chamonix, who was also doing the week course with me. With a few hours to spare before meeting the rest of the crew we decided to catch the cable car half way up the Agulille du Midi and walk down. I put zero thought into this excursion as I left wearing my leather jacket, jeans, chucks and even my handbag (princess, what was I thinking?). It started off well but very quickly we passed people fully decked out in waterproof gear, tramping boots and walking sticks (so European!). Maybe I should have at least packed a jacket?
It took us about 1hr 45min to get back to the bottom, by when I was completely soaked and my white shoes covered in mud. I didn’t say a word; this was not a good look as I was about to start a week running around these trails. But I loved it. It was so nice to be back in the hills again; fresh air, tree roots and amazing views, I couldn’t wait for the week to start.
The group consisted of three Poms, me and Kingsley, our guide from Icicles who was running the course. Alison, who was using this week as training for UTMB was affectionately given the name ‘One Gear’ for her amazing ability to never stop, no matter what the terrain. Jen earned the name ‘Hot Chocolate’ for her love of the very thick and tasty drink and Liz, ‘Terretz’. No need to explain this one and according to her she was very well restrained! As for me, ‘Pocket Rocket’; these long legs give it away every time. All of us were similar in ability and all shared the same love; running trails.
I hadn’t exactly done much training for this week, and when I woke up on Monday morning with sore quads from my walk the day before I was more than a little nervous about how the body was going to last. I had taken for granted how hill-fit I had become after a year training for Coast with the Port Hills and Southern Alps on my doorstep. There was no relying on base fitness anymore!
The next five days consisted of trails and scenery far better than I had ever imagined. On day one we set off from the streets of Chamonix and headed for the Brevent. There was no easing into it as we quickly climbed up through the forest belt before emerging into open space. The clouds kept the view hidden for the first part until they finally cleared offering spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains. One thing in particular I have missed since leaving New Zealand is the Southern Alps and with views like this it made me homesick, making me all the more aware of the amazing country I call home.
Over the next couple of hours we climbed up over the trails where the terrain changed from dirt track to gravel, then rock and eventually snow! We stopped at the highest point for a lunch break before traversing across and down to the top of the Planpraz cable car. As mostly all these slopes are skiable in winter it meant that there were cafés dotted all around, meaning we were never too far from the next hot chocolate (Jen!) or loo stop. A far cry from the Alps of NZ.
The first day finished off with a very enjoyable run back down through the forest belt before appearing once again in the Chamonix township. I could feel the legs and had given the lungs a serious workout, but after just one day knew I was going to love this week.
Day two dawned with clear blue skies and an amazing view of Mont Blanc from our apartment. We met early and jumped on the train heading for the French and Swiss border. After a mostly cloudy day the day before the views were breathtaking and I couldn’t help but stop often and take in the scenery (plus another picture!). We headed up towards the Emmoson Dam where the opening scene from the James Bond movie ‘Die Another Day’ was filmed. This trip was fast becoming a great history and geography lesson, let alone a 101 on tech gadgets and the iPhone (there was also a lot of trial and error with my new GoPro).
We stopped here for our lunch break before traversing around towards Loriaz where there was a cute cafe and down into the Buet township to catch the train home. There were a lot more open undulating trails on this section, which meant we could just run without too much climbing or steps to slow the rhythm. I felt like I was in a scene from The Sound of Music, although for those that know me there was definitely no signing involved (luckily for the others too!).
Day three was not great weather wise, but in saying that, some of my favourite pictures from the week were taken on this day. Setting off again from Chamonix it was straight up and into the forest, zigzagging our way to the first hut. Everyone had a point during the week when things didn’t seem to click and the first part of this run was my turn. My legs burned, my feet hurt and I just couldn’t get into a rhythm. Walking poles are quite common around these parts so Kinglsey kindly offered me his to try to help me get back on track. I’m still undecided if I’m a fan or not, but I can see over a long race how helpful they can be and after using them for a while I started to get my mojo back, so no more dissing the Europeans and their poles!
We made our way up to Montenvers at the bottom of the Mer de Glace glacier. It was a shame the weather didn’t come to play as I imagine the view would have been amazing. We continued our climb until we reached our high point looking up the valley, where we even managed to spot a Chamois. It was a quick lunch break as it didn’t take long for the body temperature to cool down, but still enough time for some more panoramas and a couple of videos before we set off again. The rain made the rocks extremely slippery as we carefully made our way around Le Signal face just below the snow line, before another enjoyable run down through the forest and out into Chamonix.
Day four was one of those days that just make you so damn glad to be alive. It was amazing weather from start to finish, made even more so with the incredible backdrop. We hopped on the train again but this time got off at Montroc and had a gentle warm up toward the base of the hill. The calm before the storm! I managed to run at least 3/4 of the first part (it helped that it was my turn at the front so there was some motivation to keep going) before the burn became too much and I slowed back to a fast walk. Sweat was pouring off my nose, but all I had to do was look up and the smile was quickly back on my face. This place really is as incredible as people say.
After the first major climb it got easier as the terrain became more rolling and we were able to get back in a rhythm and cruise along. There were many stops however as every new corner seemed to offer another view worth capturing that seemed a slightly better angle than the last. We stopped for lunch at the Lac Blanc (glacier lakes) for a compulsory ‘ice bath’. While mind-numbing cold it did make the legs feel great once the feeling came back.
There is a great tradition with some friends and family of mine from home where if you climb a decent peak you then must ‘bag it and tag it’. There was no way I was letting an opportunity like this go by! I was stoked to get the hero shot, but what you actually can’t see from this photo are the many other people behind me, below me and walking up the path to my right! Photography does wonders and needless to say I didn’t wait around for long!
From here we had a fast run down and popped out at Flegere, near Planpraz from day one. A different route from here took us along a path where we came across Chalet le Floria, meaning flower, a very cute little café nestled in the hillside where we stopped for a well-earned fresh lemon drink (just like Granny Woody’s).
Day five and our final day of the course. The weather forecast wasn’t in our favour, but it turned out to be worse than expected. It blew all night, just like a raging Canterbury Nor’ Wester, with the hot humid temperature to go with it. So it was decided we would head to Courmayeur, Italy (as you do) and tackle a route over there. This was also a section of the UTMB course so a great chance for Alison to experience part of it before she heads out there again in August. She was still smiling at the end so that’s got to be a good sign.
We were in the cloud and mist for most of the day, occasionally getting glimpses of the impressive mountain range which surrounded us. I would love to come back and do this again on a clear day, as the images I have seen are incredible. This was our longest day, covering just under 23km so a great ending to an incredible week. I was feeling amazing, surprised at how well the body held up after five days of doing something which it wasn’t used to!
My flight out on Saturday wasn’t until after lunch which meant I had a morning to fill in. I was keen to either get the cable car and check out the amazing views of the Agulille du Midi, or give paragliding a go. I had watched people do it all week and as I have never done this before was keen to try something new. But it wasn’t to be; the clouds were still hanging around when I woke in the morning so that meant only one thing left to do, the Vertical km!! When in Rome…
As I mentioned earlier, this is also a race that was held the previous weekend. It runs directly under the cable car up to Planpraz; I was up for the challenge. It zigzagged almost all the way up until the last few 100 meters, which were more a scramble and climb than walk. To give you an idea of how super fit and also crazy these people are who do this, it took me just over 1hr 15min – the winner from this year did it in just over 35min. Admittedly I wasn’t racing and was getting some GoPro footage as evidence, but even still that’s a super fast time. I also cheated! (Naughty) I didn’t start my watch until I was at the base of the hill; these guys start from the middle of the town! I’d love to race it, but if I don’t get the chance then I’m happy with the fact that I’ve given it a go.
What an incredible week; I had experienced running trails in France, Switzerland and Italy. I fell in love with Chamonix, the people and the spectacular backdrop; that place has such a great vibe. I’m currently editing a video of the week so will post that up shortly! I’d love to go back in winter too as I can imagine it would be just as amazing.
So in huge a huge contrast it was back to the grey skies and concrete world of London, super motivated to keep running and train for my upcoming ultra in October. So yeah… about that, training started today!
A few stats from the week (these times are total hours from the day, so include all stops):
Monday: 6hr 13min, 19.59km – Chamonix, Bellachat, Brevent, Col du Brevent, Planpraz, Chamonix.
Tuesday: 5hr 17min, 15.01km – Vallorcine, Col Passet, Emmoson (Switzerland), Loriaz, Croix du Loriaz, Les Granges, Buet.
Wednesday: 4hr 40min, 19.37km – Les Planards, Les Mottets, Montenvers, Le Signal, Plan d’Aiguille, Chamonix.
Thursday: 5hr 18min, 17.78km – Montroc, Tre-le-Champ, Col des Montets, Tete aux Vents, Lac Blanc, Flegere, Chalet le Floria, Chamonix.
Friday (Italy): 5hr 48min, 22.89km – Planpincieux, Bertone, Mont de la Saxe, Testa Bernada, Col Sapin, Val Armina, Bonatti, Lavachey, Planpincieux.
Saturday: 1hr 16min, 3.58km (I didn’t record the run down) – Chamonix, Planpraz, Chamonix.
* A huge thank you to Kingsley and Sarah from Icicles for an amazing week. It was so well organised and lived up to every expectation. I had such a hard time choosing images for this post, there were so many more I could have included! A couple of the pictures above were also taken by Kingsley.
‘Sometimes there is no next time, no time-outs, no second chances. Sometimes it’s now or never.’ – Alan Bennet