“Be light, fluffy and bouncy,” I’m told, “find a relaxed rhythm and try to avoid pounding.” Whilst more familiar as a formula for making a successful sponge cake, this isn’t a cookery course, but a recipe for successful trail running.
“Shorten your stride, keep your head up and chest forward and you’ll start to cruise those up hills…” says our coach and international mountain leader, Julia Tregaskis-Allen, “and for those tight down hills, think ‘Michael Schumacher’: lean into the corners, using your head to initiate the turn, like banking a bike, keep your eyes focused a little ahead and you’ll avoid obstacles like stone and tree roots.”
I never realised there was so much technique involved in off road running, but what better place to learn than in Chamonix in the French Alps. Better known for its challenging skiing and off-piste terrain, as well as its party scene, I’m here right at the end of the ski season with the melting snow turning the valleys from white to green. I’m certain that running here, with the backdrop of the mighty Mont Blanc, will keep me motivated.
The trail running camp run by Tracks and Trails is the perfect antidote to pounding the urban jungle of South London. I wanted to get off the beaten track and make my running more technically challenging. I’d entered a couple of off-road races and the North Downs 30km was looming… It’s also a matter of confidence: I often find off road running intimidating, especially if I’m alone and not sure where I am going, but when I have dared, I’ve discovered places I never knew existed right on my doorstep. The varying scenery is also invigorating and stops me getting bored so I can keep going for longer. I’m also getting more susceptible to injury, so varying the terrain helps prevent this.
We were a small group of four, and surprisingly the others hadn’t done much running, although they were used to being in the mountains. “The most I’ve run is 20 minutes,” says Eric Kendall, who’s on the camp with his wife, Penny. However, they are keen ski mountaineers and hikers so more prepared than me for this kind of terrain and already acclimatised. Also on the trip was Susan, a keen mountain biker who hadn’t run since the beginning of the ski season. Everyone was certainly fit, but not necessarily running fit, and keen to get started off road… “if you can run 10km, no matter how slowly, and enjoy it, you will be fine,” says our mountain-running coach and personal trainer, Steph Lightfoot.
In Chamonix you are spoilt for choice for places to go running; there are lifts to take you up or down and the Carte d’Horte pass is given to you free of charge by your accommodation host so you can use the trains or buses for free. It means you can go quite far out of town and run the whole route back rather than a circular, making it feel more of a journey.
When we arrive at the very comfortable 4* Chalet Maverick, just outside Chamonix centre in the pretty village of Les Bossons, a healthy but delicious lunch is rustled up by Polly, the in-house chef-nutritionist We tuck into carrot, sweet potato and lentil soup, a salad of beans, beetroot and local cheese, smocked haddock and fruit and yoghurt. Whilst we wait for lunch to settle, Steph and Julia talk us through all the different equipment we might want for runs of various durations, showing us the different sorts of trainers, back packs, clothes and running poles we could choose from and we are welcome to try out anything on display. We then look at first aid kit, and they impart all their know-how on everything from nutrition, safety and pre-race preparation to training to go longer and learning about our heart rate training zones.
That afternoon we head out to the Coupeau Cross for an hour or so session on running with poles, which are great for taking the strain off the up hills. We are shown how to position them for maximum efficiency, moving them at same time as our feet and planting them so the angle of the pole leans into the hill, stabilising your ascent or descent. The poles also help keep you more upright so the airways are open even when we are tired and on down hills, they can save your knees from too much pounding. We are told to keep our elbows into the sides of the body, and then push back on each plant of the pole for maximum uphill momentum and to try and sustain baby steps at a cadence you can keep going at the same pace as on the flats. However, says Julia, “it’s often just as fast to power walk uphill rather than run, so do this unless you are training to push your running fitness.”
Running up such steep hills feels like running and weight-training rolled into one, but there’s a supportive atmosphere amongst the group, so I push on up. As we practice keeping our steps ‘light and fluffy’ over rocks, roots and boulders and shortening our stride uphill, we are obstructed by many fallen trees. Although a welcome rest whilst enabling me to not feel guilty for stopping on the lung bursting steep hills, they were a sad sight. The night before we arrived, France has been hit hard by violent winds as strong as 150km/h. Chamonix saw trees crash to the ground and power supplies cut as the wind gathered strength on Saturday evening.
When we reached the cross we stopped to look out at awesome views across to Mont Blanc, then refreshed, we headed home, practicing our downhill technique: looking ahead, with the poles in front acting as probes and safety breaks, keeping our stride open, landing on our heels and banking our turns… it takes a lot of concentration to coordinate.
When we return to the chalet, we refuel with a Torq recovery drink, then head off to Steph’s gym in Les Houches, Be Pure Fit, for a stretch class; something I rarely do, but really should. Then it’s back to the chalet for a very scenic jacuzzi in the garden and a nutritious three-course dinner of cheese and tomato salsa tart, chicken, chick pea and coconut milk curry with brown rice, vegan chocolate brownies with pureed mango and honey frozen yoghurt.
The next day dawns warm and bright, and I’m still feeling quite fresh and ready for the long run ahead. After a breakfast of porridge, nuts seeds and berries, we have a session on navigation with Julia, where we learn how to plan our own routes, and then we take the train to Vallorcine where we begin a run back to Chamonix. We begin by running through snow patches at the Col des Montets, which at 1461 meters is higher than Ben Nevis. Running through snow is quite tricky and very hard work, so I was relieved to reach the ‘petit’ balcons which became clear of snow from 1300m. We ran past jagged peaks, hanging glaciers and alpine meadows, as well as traditional villages which have retained their Valaisian architecture, with houses perched on stone toadstools to keep out rats and mice. We stop to refuel after about an hour in the village of Argentiere – a good place for a break for a mixed ability group as you can stop for coffee or get the train back to Chamonix. Julia gives us some top tips for long runs – eat on the uphills, change your clothes and pee on the top of the hill, then you can engage your core muscles better on the down hills…
As we begin our descent into Lavancher village it became quite warm, so it was a welcome relief to move under a canopy of aromatic pine trees. Running really doesn’t get more scenic or stimulating than this and I actually feel relatively fresh as we begin the ‘home run’ into Chamonix town centre. After two and a half hours on our feet, we’d completed a stunning steady 16km on a variety of trails. Everyone was amazed as to how far they ran and with such ease, “to have achieved 10 miles on Sunday was a real personal best for me,” said Penny, “and has inspired me to do more.”
When we return to the chalet we have a hearty lunch of tomato and basil soup, ricotta, feta and roasted red pepper flan, and fruit or brownies. I suddenly feel incredibly sleepy, but it’s back to the gym where I am put through my paces in a fitness test. Steph measures my resting heart rate, weight and body fat percentage, tests my core strength and balance and checks my body alignment. She then puts me on a running machine where my heart rate is recorded every minute as the speed is increased. She can then work out my training zones and any other suggestions for improving my fitness.
It’s then off for a core and strength class and although I’m extremely tired, it’s also incredibly satisfying. Julia, who also did the class, didn’t seem at all tired. She reassured me that on a week-long camp, the pace is much gentler with more time to relax, recuperate and explore Chamonix. By the end of the week you will eventually do the whole course of the Chamonix Marathon and if you go at the end of June, you have the option of taking part in the Chamonix 10km… or you could go for one of their detox weeks where you drink juices for the first three days and take part in light exercise, Nordic walking and stretching.
The weekend is inspiring and gives you the tools to continue exploring and improving your fitness when you get home. I know that if I ran for 2.5 hours on road, my body would feel it and I’d get bored, but running off road on hills, it’s ok to stop and walk, look at the views, be sociable, and not be governed by keeping pace. I’m now looking forward to some more off road adventures and I may even enter the Mont Blanc marathon or the 166km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc… maybe.
Katy Dartford, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Image credit: SkiZinal
Katy runs in Striders Edge Engineered Climate Map Vest in Sunset Berry and UV Black Capri.