So you need a holiday but you don’t know where to go. Sitting on a beach all day for 7 days is worse than watching paint dry and going Skegness for your holidays and eat ice cream on a soggy beach wrapped up in waterproofs and wellies is about as tempting as moldy cheese on soggy cold toast, oh and did I mention anything about running?
So why not book a trail running holiday to the Alps? So I did, with Tracks and Trails – a company based in Chamonix France and lots of tracks and trails there were too.
I checked out the holiday in detail before booking to ensure it was the right sort of level for me. After speaking to the organiser Julia Tregaskis, I was in no doubt that it would be fun, challenging and I would learn some new skills at the same time. The package promised lots of trail running, lots of hills, learning new techniques, gym sessions, nutritional advise, fitness tests and other goodies thrown in for good measure, and it certainty delivered. The holiday was perfect timing in my life too; nested in the middle of finishing my old job and starting a new one and a perfect excuse to get away after sadly loosing my cat only 10 days earlier.
Holidays are about experiences and people, and tuning into what you feel like doing at that moment. Enjoy not having to look at a watch. – Evelyn Glennie
So off I went to Chamonix via a train to Manchester, another to Liverpool, a plane to Geneva and a shuttle bus to Chamonix.
I was the last to arrive at the Chalet in Chamonix, of course I do not make a habit of being last, far from it. The other runners in the group were already gathered outside with a glass of wine in their hands. I instantly felt at home as I was showed my room, and handed over a t-shirt and some other running goodies.
We were a unique international bunch. Jordan, Scotland, France, Switzerland and Canada and me Yorkshire. What a fantastic mix of people. We all had different reasons for being here which made it even more interesting. From those who had done 20 or so marathons and the Comrades Ultra to others who were new to trail running but had done other inspirational things in their lives.
A nutritional 3 course meal awaited us the first evening, with bowls of inspirational chit chat. I was especially interested in the Comrades Ultra as well as hearing about how far people had come with their running and their reasons for choosing a trail running holiday.
The accomodation was adorable, a spacious lounge, a plentiful hallway to put multiple pairs of trainers, free wifi, hot tub and sauna, what else do you need for a week of trail running in the Alps? Just heaps of motivation enthusiasm and a pair of trail running shoes.. more about that later..
Ding Dong; wide awake at 7am for a breakfast start at 8am. French breads, toast, cereals, and some not so healthy buttery flaky viennoiserie bread rolls of the naughty but nice type. Well we were on holiday after all – my inner demon told me I would run it off. Of course there were ample cups of English Breakfast tea too. It was an informal help yourself on the table affair but all in moderation. Those of us who are fussy even got soya milk for breakfast.
After the first briefing we were off for our first run. Today however Chamonix had drenched itself in that wet stuff. Not just drizzling, not just a few raindrops but a few thousand million raindrops, big raindrops little raindrops, regular raindrops, irregular raindrops, it was dropping with rain. To make it even more dramatic the mountains were covered in a blanket of mist so we were unable to see 100 feet in front of us, maybe that was because there were only around 16 feet on the trail? 16 muddy wet feet.
Once we were out and up on the trails the water-logged trainers and sodden jacket was forgotten, as I felt like I was dancing through the midst. This was beautiful and only a small taster of what was to come.
Faries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the disheveled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame
W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire
Like any group there were different abilities and this was of course catered for by regrouping regularly. 2 miles in and we were regrouping to have a brief on running up hill. Running up hill you say? don’t you just go up? And keep going up? and don’t stop? How difficult can it be to run uphill? Well actually it was about maintaining the pace and taking small steps to reach the top in a state of non exhaustion. We were reminded by Mr Oxygen in the air that it was less here than what we may have been used to, so much harder than I initially assumed.
Try not to fight the trail. Instead, try to feel the natural rhythm, the flow… and rather than attempting to conquer it, practice becoming one with it. Begin each run with Shoshin – A Beginners Mind. – Xen Running
Once we had mastered the uphill running we had a good stretch squeezing those Glute muscles and advanced our knowledge on which muscles are used to run up hills in Chamonix.
These were mountains, hills and hills of them, so we had better become friends with the hills. To make it more manageable the next challenge – a 15 minute or so ascent was broken into three parts where we would regroup each time and enable us to split it up into manageable chunks. Slowly does it as I took on each section gasping for air as I put one foot in front of the other. Although I was used to hills at home these were in a completely different category. Compare me to Mo Farah – that’s how different they were.
You eat the elephant one bite at a time – Author Unknown
At the top we were treated with absolutely stunning views of Mont Banc. Somewhere in the distance Mont Blanc was gleaming back at us, but we would have to wait for another day to gleam back at her.
Next was our lesson in down hill running – a weak point for me and one of the things I was keen to learn. I was unable to get the rhythm down hill. Everyone else looked so relaxed like they were dancing on air, putting everyone in Strictly to shame. I was going to persevere, I am not a quitter, I will master this downhill running. My coordination resembled spaghetti on speed, rhythm was not in my vocabulary. I could not run downhill, how hard could this be?. A couple of the guys came speeding down at a fantastic speed with fantastic technique. I watched in envy determined to get it right by the end of the week.
The mountains, the forest, and the sea, render men savage; they develop the fierce, but yet do not destroy the human. – Victor Hugo
It was still raining as we crossed back over the gushing river and made our way back up the hill to the Chalet. On went the hot showers and washing machine all ready for a delicious French style lunch of breads cheeses and hams. Well deserved.
Then it was time for the gym. The gym you ask on a trail running holiday? Yes the gym. This was a good introduction to using some of the equipment that some people may not have come across before. In addition each of us had a fitness test on the treadmill. This required starting off slowly and increasing the speed every 30 seconds until each of us was maxed out. Our heart rates were measured along with our recovery rates. We were then given some valuable information about our fitness levels. Apparently I am quite fit – that’s ok then!
Further introductions to some of the toys in the gym left us all exhausted and ready for a lazy evening with another fantastic nutritious meal.
On day 2 we were introduced to the types of gear to take when trail running. Some people were new to trail running and even those of us who had done some before were amazed at all the different types of gear used, especially out here in the mountains. From rucksacks to water bottles, to gaiters to 101 different pairs of gloves and hats and tops and bottoms and shoes and socks. It seemed that compression socks were definitely the thumbs up, no thumb warmers though only gloves and mittens.
This was the first time some of the group had run with rucksacks. Having done a couple of ultras before I was comfortable with my rucksack though not in a mountainous environment so I took much more with me than I normally would, gloves, waterproof, hat, kitchen sink and a bottle of Henderson’s relish just in case.
And off we went for our first long run. A drive half way up the mountain relieved a few feet of altitude for us but the only way was up though Yazz wasn’t in sight.
The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me
First on gentle ascending trails then through narrow heather infested paths and down to mountain huts. I was bouncing over the trails, my body in equilibrium with the blissful mountains. I felt free from everything, I was flying as the blue skies glistened on top of me. This is what running is about – just me and the ground, how much more simple can it get? I am free free running free.
Running is about finding your inner peace, and so is a life well lived. – Dean Karnazes, ultra runner
Re-grouping allowed us to evaluate where we had come from and where we were going. Up.. However parts of the trail were so steep that we needed to walk, so we learned the art of power walking, and it really does work. Something I learned on my Ultras was that walking was ok, no it wasn’t just Ok it was compulsory, and here again walking was compulsory.
At the top the views of the Chamonix valley were just stunning. Mont blanc towered away in the distance, paths and paths stretched across the mountains crying out to be run upon. Oh how I wanted to get my feet into those trails. This was the height of luxury for me.
I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill—then what’s beyond that. – Emma Gatewood
The group mixed well. Of course there was a degree of abilities yet we were all within reaching ground of each other. Those who were a little faster were able to get their pace up, then made to turn around and re-run parts of the route until they caught up the rest of the group. This way everyone got the same amount of rest. Rest? you need rest? What is this? a holiday?
We stopped for a bite to eat on top of the mountain introducing people to eating whilst running. We were not talking Yorkshire Puddings and Beef stew up here, we were talking salty, light snacks. Crackers and cheese were the perfect and most popular snack, enough to keep everyone going.
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. – Robert M. Pirsig
Whilst scoffing my baby bell (ding ding) I noticed I had the perfect round hole in my trail shoe. Theres a hole in my shoe, a nice round hole. My big toe was poking out, peeky boo! In France the word for toes is doigts des pied – which means, in literal translation, feet fingers so my feet fingers were poking out of the round hole. That was me done with those trainers, trainers that had travelled around the Isle of Wight, the trainers that had eliminated 8 of my toe nails for me throughout the summer. Thank you trainers, I love you and leave you.
I looked in the sky where an elephant’s eye
Was looking at me from a bubblegum tree
And all that I knew was the hole in my shoe
Which was letting in water.
After refueling the laws of gravity meant that what goes up must come down and it did as we once again practiced our down hill running and once again I was struggling. What is the knack to this? Is the knack just to throw yourself down the mountain? Gulp. No! We were told to use our arms to keep our balance. I may as well have been an elephant on a tightrope I think one would have been more delicate than me running down those hills.
The secret of flight is this — you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. – Michael Cunningham
Once back on mid-ground I was able to get a comfortable pace up. Through woodland we went, bounding through pine needles, dodging tree branches and jumping over rocks.
And then we were back where we started some 4 or so hours later, with around 10 miles or so completed. Is that all you say? Well you try running up mountains at altitude. Its much harder than you think! What a fantastic run with a good stretch in the car park afterwards. It left us all rather tired and eagerly waiting for a hot tub or sauna.
But I had to go shopping for new trail shoes. So into town I went to try on every pair of trail shoes in the shop. Eventually I walked out with some shiny new Brooks, very nice and shiny. But not for long.
A nutritional talk later that evening introduced the group to gels, cereal bars and other dietary stuff. We were given Torc gels to try out and a cereal bar.
We runners talk about having fun but I don’t think anybody believes us. We talk about discipline and endurance, we take care, we exercise caution, we watch our diets and monitor our pace. We are ascetics who talk, unconvincingly, of the bracing enjoyment of self-abuse. – Peter Sagal
Day 3 was speed work. Speed work at altitude with attitude. Speed work is really not my best friend, and I wasn’t going to become best friends with it like I had done so with the hills. Yet the 4 mile warm up run by the side of the picturesque river really cheered me up, this is what its about. However I know that variety is the spice of life and without variety there will not be results so speed work has to be part of the pie. It doesn’t mean you have to have custard with it though.
We were introduced to some drills, and I could tell instantly who was good at this speed work lark. Not me as I was left for dust by some of the other guys. Give me an ultra and I plod for hours give me 100m and I still plod for hours.
The main session was x3 sets of 30 seconds, 60 seconds and 90 seconds around a track which wasn’t a 200m track nor a 400m track – that’s the French for you! We were treated with 2 minutes rest between each effort. Easy? Yeah no problem!
The beauty of running is its simplicity; the beauty of runners is that we all have a similar drive to improve. – Deena Kastor
As usual it took me a while to get into it but by the last middle laps I was doing ok and began to get that special running buzz.
A somewhat lazy afternoon awaited us, well deserved and a chance to catch up and recharge the batteries. We were later treated to a gym session introducing Core to the pie. It must be an apple pie then.
Day 4 was our introduction to polling. Oh yes polling. Was there an election on? I don’t know and I don’t care because this was about running with poles. Why would you want to run with poles? Because if you don’t run with poles in this sort of environment then you may find yourself exhausted before you have opened the door.
We first practiced on the flat trails, first holding the poles in the correct way then learning to power walk with poles and finally to run up the hills with them.
Again my brain was just unable to connect to my hands and feet, I was all over the place, ungracefully stumbling in an unwieldy manner. The rest of the group had ran to Switzerland and back by the time I eventually got the hang of putting one pole in front of the other – how hard can it be? Did I have two right feet? Two left hands? 2 left brains? 2 right brains? Or just no brain at all?
It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. – Sir Edmund Hillary
The mountain was steep so we power walked with the poles up most of it taking in the stunning views of the glacier and surrounding ridges. We even had a lesson on safety in the mountains, creating a stretcher, dealing with injury and all other things useful. Forewarned is forearmed, respect the mountain.
A perfectly pitched Cafe awaited us at the top of the mountain and after refuelling with hot drinks we caught the train back down the mountain. Jules’ mum had joined us for the run. At 65 years old I was so inspired by her fitness and enthusiasm. She had run the Mont Blanc half marathon recently absolutely admirable. I love meeting such inspirational people. They make me want to live.
Number one is just to gain a passion for running. To love the morning, to love the trail, to love the pace on the track. And if some kid gets really good at it, that’s cool too. – Pat Tyson
Day 5 and the week was coming to an end. Friday could have been our day off, but oh no! No rest for the wicked. Our alarms all went off ready for a 7.30am strengthening stretch at the gym. A great combination of pilates type stretching stuff to start the day.
An introduction to maps & navigation tools took up the morning. The focus was on how to plan routes. This would all come into play the following day.
So instead of running up a mountain some of us decided to hitch a ride up the mountain – the Aiguille du Midi cable car/tramway. The tramway lifted us up over 9,000 vertical feet in under 20 minutes with minus degree temperatures but breathtaking views of the Chamonix valley. We could pinpoint exactly where we had been previous days and even map out some of the route we were going to do the following day.
The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too – Hervey Voge
A restful day actually turned into a good hefty fast walk back to the Chalet from Chamonix, enjoyable and definatly counted towards our exercise for the day and a well earned pudding for tea.
Day 6 – Saturday. Normally Sundays are for your long run but today was Saturday for our long run some 25km or so taking in half of the Mont Blanc Marathon a real taster of what its all about here. Forget pounding those concrete cityscape streets this is what its about, a bunch of runners trailing the paths dressed to impress with waterproofs, rucksacks and ample food. My North Face gortex waterproof was packed – although I had never run in it before as its more a walking waterproof I had a feeling I would be needing it for this run.
The route first took us on a very lovely mile or so trail and through flat fields. Flat up here? What’s all that about? Not for long my friends, not for long. It was refreshingly invigorating as the fine rain drizzled upon us but no one minded one bit. How could we when the views were just breathtaking?
If the miles behind me could be put into words before you…
you would feel my efforts, my struggles, my desires,
most of all you would see my joy
Watch me from afar run the trails and hills
and miles upon miles and you will see
We were soon to be introduced to the first hill. So runners this is your fist hill, say hello to your first hill. The hill wants to be your friend so be nice to the hill. Hello Hill, Oh you don’t speak English. Ok, Bonjour hill, bonjour. Respect the hill and the hill will be your friend. So to respect the hill we power walked up it, out came the poles and believe me they really did work!
You guys going up ? – Yes, yes, we go up – You may be going a lot higher than you think – Don Whillans, to a Japanese party
Then through forested paths and muddy landslides we went. Across ski slopes even though there was not a spot of snow in sight. Yet! Views of Switzerland stretched across on one side of the valley and the French mountains on the other, wedged between a perfect picturesque mass of Peak District moorland, or that’s how it almost felt.
Up on the top of the mountain I realised again what went up had to go down and out came the poles to have a go at running down hill, but with poles this time. Again very new to us all and we were first shown how to do it. An odd sensation at fist but soon I began to see how poles can really help using them to break, to balance and to help you work through the sharp narrow sections of the trail.
Once the ground flattened out a little I strapped the poles to my rucksack and ran, and ran and ran. Ah, la vache! blocking the way! Finally at the bottom we regrouped and refuelled before going on wards and downwards to find a nice little cafe to stock up on caffeine. A perfect rest before hitting the next section of the run.
The last section topped off the holiday in the most perfect way. Weaving up and down through pined forests, immaculate. I was riding the wave of trail running. The primitive lightness of the ground as I felt my feet bounce in harmony through the trails, whizzing around the corners, my feet laughing, my legs smiling, my head in the clouds. Au poil.
I love that place where you get in running where you’re just never out of breath and you just feel like you could go forever. I love that. I love feeling strong. – Ann Bancroft, polar explorer
We were however to be put through our paces right near the end as the final challenge was a near on a mile of predefined effort leaving me breathless in trail running utopian.
The last night was a chat with Jon Bracey who had joined us on the final run. Jon Bracey is a world class Alpinist having slept on vertical mountain faces, and taken part in skiing. Jon is also an expert in trail / fell running and had some amazing photos to show us along with sound advice and heaps of inspiration. A brilliant way to wrap up the holiday.
Day 7 – home time! As most of the runners were flying out early two of us were left so decided to take on the 6 mile route up the mountain that we did on day 1. This time without as many rests. The weather was very similar to that of the first day, fog lingered across the mountain though we were able to see a little more than at the beginning of the week.
I used the run as a quick tempo as I was racing a half marathon 7 days later so wanted to see if I could still run at a 7.30/8 minute mile pace for a couple of miles at this altitude. I used the easier flatter sections to set my mind and free my legs and the hills to challenge my body. I felt invigorated after finishing, feeling refreshed, relaxed and ready to take on the world of Tissington and beyond.
It hurts to train at altitude. If that raises your pain tolerance level one notch when you go back to sea level, that same new willingness to deal with discomfort is associated with a little faster pace than it used to be. Psychologically you’re going to be better when you go down (to sea level) – Author Unknown
An exceptional week of trail running. Almost faultless. Leaders’ Jules and Steph were most helpful and supportive proving invaluable advice for all. They were instrumental in making the trail running holiday one of the most enjoyable breaks I have had.
Every one of us took different things away from the week. For me; being a trail runner at home it reinforced my knowledge and love for the trails. I learned new techniques running down hill and running with poles, challenging myself with the altitude and running with like-minded people.
There is no limit to what you can imagine. And with commitment, with effort, what you can imagine you can become. Put your mind to work for you. Believe that you can do it. The world will tell you that you can’t. Yet, in your belief you’ll find the strength, you’ll find the ability, to do it anyway. – Ralph Marston
A week prior to the holiday I had cracked open a 131.40 half marathon at the Great North Run. I was dubious I would get anywhere near that ever again, and above all off the back of a weeks’ eating copious amounts of delicious food amidst some trail running. Little did I realise that the daily training and the altitude intensity coupled with such a friendly group of supportive people gave me an extra impetus to storm out a 127.40 half marathon on the Tissington Trail Half Marathon the following sunday. What next?
I run with this this girl I am her she is me – Author Unknown adapted by Me