My alarm went off at 3:30 in the morning and I rolled over like a lolling seal trying to flop back into the sea. At that point the glamour of flying to the mountains was surpassed by a cranky longing to remain in bed and I cursed my love of adventure for making me wake up at obscene hours.
It was a mere five days after the London Marathon and I was trying to will my weary legs to Gatwick to catch a red eye flight to the French Alps to join a trail running camp in Chamonix hosted by James Poole and Claudia Schroegel who run the AR Collective. I had booked this trip after being sold by the thought of a spring adventure in the mountains, learning new technique for a style of running I knew nothing about. My running routes are very unadventurous back in London. My idea of an intrepid run is veering off the path and cutting through the trees in Richmond Park. I only realised how scenic and awe-inspiring trail running can be when I went to the Highlands with Sophie. Ever since then my eyes have been opened and on this trip, I wanted to take it to the next level by trail running in the formidable snowy mountains.
Once I was on the plane, with my first coffee down the hatch and having bumped into some fellow runners from the group, my general red-eye malaise was beginning to clear and the collective energy blasted away any cobwebs as we took off into the sky. I was struck with bubbling excitement about four days of intense mountain running with a new group of friends. Being coached by the experienced ultra trail runners, Claudi and James meant that I was in good hands even though my legs were about to be pushed to their limits. Here are my ten moments of enlightenment gleaned from this alpine adventure.
Mountains are bigger than you
So insignificant are we in comparison to these vast structures of nature that any illusions of grandeur are wiped out and instead you find yourself clinging to a branch as the path takes a hairy bend round the face of the mountain. For a Londoner whose only running obstacles are cars and perhaps a Bichon Frise snapping at your heels, this was another level of challenge. It is very humbling when a mountain makes you feel like the tiniest speck of dust and they soon earn your ultimate respect.
It’s cold at the top
In early May, the sun was shining down on Chamonix town and we worked up quite a bit of a sweat each day as we began our ascent. On day two we were tackling the Vertical KM which, as the name suggests, is 1,000 kilometres of uphill which for me involved the odd pause to catch my breath and wipe my brow. As we neared the top, we started to pull on long sleeve tops and gloves to help with the slight scramble over rocks. Higher and higher we went until at the summit we were greeted with white flakes falling from the sky. The climate had completely changed and within minutes, the May sunshine had been replaced by a total white out. I was very grateful to my packed leggings and down jacket at that point.
Mountains are high
Normally when I go for a run I judge myself on two metrics, speed and distance. Mountain trail running is very different and each day I would marvel at the number of feet we would ascend on one run. Slowing my uphill pace down to a walk made me worry I wasn’t trying hard enough but as my lungs began to heave up and down I realised I was working harder than my usual dance down the Thames tow path. Getting up mountains with the power of your own legs (rather than dangling them off a ski lift) makes you appreciate just how high they are. There were some moments when I was gripped with a touch of vertigo but when you finally poke your head out of the trees and reach the summit, you quite literally feel like you’re on top of the world.
Your lungs will work hard
Not only are you going uphill for large proportion of the time, the air also gets fresher and thinner the more you climb which means your lungs are working extra hard. Huge gulping breaths assisted my ascents and I could almost feel my fitness improving with each step. Then, just as you arrive at the summit thinking your lungs will have a chance to regulate, the magnificent views take your breath away once again.
Everyone has an inner chamoix
After a couple of days, all of us London runners started to align with the power of the mountains. We found our rhythm, adjusted to the air and the temperature, became less fearful of heights and more adept at clambering up rocks and jumping over streams. Essentially, even the most intrinsically urban parts of us started to channel our inner mountain goat, our chamoix. This also applied to trying to eat everything in sight.
Cheese is your friend
Running up and down mountains is hungry work and where better to source food than glorious France, the land of meat and cheese. Each day Claudi, James and chamoix, Spencer would haul bags of cheese, bread, fruit and saucission up the mountain to fuel us ravenous runners. The first hour after the staunch was always a bit sluggish but once our extreme dairy binge had settled, we were back into the swing. Powered by cheese.
To get down is to surrender
Believe it or not, the downhills were just as challenging as the uphill. Running down the face of a mountain is a psychological battle: grappling with fear and ogling the ground for snow, tree roots, holes and rocks. After some coaching from the Claudi and James I learned that you must ignore your brain when it tells you to slam on the brakes and instead relax into your descent, up your cadence, take steps little and often and don’t look directly down but a few feet ahead. The most surprising thing I learnt is that your brain already tracks what is in front of you before you get there so that your feet then take the necessary steps to avoid anything that will trip you up. Surrender to the downhill and just fly.
Hot tubs make it worth it
The thing I love about any kind of endurance or outdoor sport is that at the end of a long day, your rewards feel all the more greater. We were staying in a traditional Chamonix wooden chalet and after each mountain would grab a bottle of wine or some beer and head straight to the piping hot tub in the garden to merrily soak the aches away and review the massive day we had all had.
Quit while you are ahead
Sadly for me I had to sit out day four after the load of the London Marathon, cycling training and mountain running had worked my quads so much that they had started to pull on my knee and I knew that if I ran the last day, I would just be doing more damage. I had an epic cycling adventure planned in four days time and needed to give my knee a break until then. Even though it’s frustrating to watch people get out there whilst you sit in the chalet, you need to listen to your body when it asks for a rest.
Your problems feel smaller at the summit
Trail running in the mountains has a meditative effect on your brain. It quiets the noise of the daily grind and presents you with a physical challenge that you need your focus for. The beauty, scale and magnitude of the mountains are so much bigger than you and they will squash your anxieties with every step towards the summit.
I think it’s called perspective.
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