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Running the French Alps

People will travel the World to discover the best Mountain Trails and a number of areas have become ‘musts’ to visit. None more so than Chamonix in the heart of the French Alps, more so if you are based within Europe.

Mont Blanc from Chamonix

Mont Blanc from Chamonix

Chamonix, has always been well known as a ski destination and as Trail and Mountain Running developed, so the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc was instigated and is now considered to be one of the top long distance events in the World.  As a result during the key racing period accommodation in the area can be tougher to find than in the height of the ski season.  That said some of the outlying villages offer a superb alternative, all be it with less of the thriving night life of busy bars and restaurants.  Rail and bus links along the valley are excellent and getting about is pretty straightforward.

Chamonix, centre, with its cold emitting river...

Chamonix, centre, with its cold emitting river…

So with all of this in mind, Chamonix was definitely on my list of places ‘to run’ and with Debs I had my own personal guide as this was her eighth trip to ‘Cham’, including her completing the UTMB.  Debs, to be fair had always promised this holiday and so this July (2018) we were off.  Liverpool to Geneva, followed by a short bus ride across the border to Cham.

Running The Alps – Things to Look Out For…
There is much to consider with a running holiday and it always surprises me that few give the notion a second thought beyond travel and accomodation.  Especially when it comes to thinking about your training before you go, how you manage your runs whilst you are out there, let alone when you return back home.

We had six days out in Cham, plenty to fit in, and a rough plan of action – although much would depend on the weather, after all we are staying in the mountains.
Going into the trip we used the Peak District for training, practicing routes with a more trail bias and plenty of up and down. We certainly were not afraid to practice walking, up and down and I definitely took Debs lead in ensuring the effort was constant on each training run, up, down and on the flat. It is one thing that Debs does so well and I always have a habit of being a little quick early on.

Ascent by zig-zag

Ascent by zig-zag

I had been told that the climbs around Chamonix are very runnable, as they zig-zag their way along and up the side of the mountain, yet they would be so much longer than pretty much anything else in the UK. I was warned that descending would be great fun and would most likely feel harder than the ascent especially as we would be looking to plan routes with the greater gradients within the descent. It kinda makes sense if you want to run more than walk through the whole of the run. As with everything there would be exceptions to this.
Going into the holiday we also tapered through the last week of running – even having a couple of days off. Neither of us could see the point of arriving tired. We also both knew we are not as running fit as we would like to be and that this was going to be a pretty big week for us.
It wasn’t the time on our feet that we were so much concerned about, it was the height gain over the course of the week that would most likely be the main consideration.  If you live in the Lakes, North Wales or Scotland then this would likely be less of an issue, yet is still worth bearing in mind especially if you intend to stretch yourself a little more and tackle runs at a higher altitude.
Another consideration was that we planned a longer, harder day to be followed by a shorter and easier run the next day.  We both felt this sensible option would ensure we stayed a little fresher for the end of the week and still be able to run long and high.  Another consideration for us was that this was our first week off in the last 12-months, we were pretty tired, so ensuring a little R&R was definitely a good thing to add into the equation.
We pretty much stuck to the above plan and it worked.

Maps are a must, yet the guideposts help...

Maps are a must, yet the guideposts help…

Now Chamonix sits at around the height of Snowdon and that is before you have done anything. We were planning on climbing the same again or more on our longer run days. On day one we topped out at 2204 meters and climbed and descended just shy of 1,400 meters over 19 kilometers. One of the plus points is that once you are up, you can stay up. The long terraces are fantastic. Single track running that just winds it self around the mountain side. They roll, sometimes they kick and on other occasions they can be pretty technical.

Terrace Running

Terrace Running

A head for heights is recommended in places as you step across exposed sections or you encounter a short section of ‘iron work’ built into the rock to allow safer passage. By careful route planning you can certainly keep the tracks and trails less technical and with less iron-work, therefore more runnable. Yet, I was with Debs and there was gonna be none of that despite the fact I very much like to see the ground beneath and around my feet.
Yes, by the end of the week we had scrambled around and over plenty of rock, we discovered ladders built into the rock to ease passage with out the need for ropes.  Yes, I really enjoyed those!! Hanging on for all my worth – remembering to keep 3 out of 4 parts of my body connected to the ladder and to not even consider looking down. It worked, I moved relatively smoothly and most definitely with less haste.

Better the wooden 'steps' than the ironwork.

Better the wooden ‘steps’ than the ironwork.

Now to running downhill – oh my!  That was an experience and a half. Especially on the Monday.
We were running down from Plan d’Aguille a drop of around 1,000 meters and a distance approaching 3.2km. Yikes, despite the zig-zag nature of the descent, that was tough.

At this point, descending looks straightforward enough...

At this point, descending looks straightforward enough…

It was rocky and rooty at the same time, the corners tight and a natural flow always being broken up by the nature of the ground and the ever changing gradient through the zig-zags. We took a couple of stops on the way down…it was mentally tough too, you just could not stop concentrating for a second as the risk of a trip was pretty high. Something I know others have noted and commented on – I totally get that now.

So now I understand. Debs economical pacing that has always appeared to come so naturally to her was most likely honed here in the high mountains of the Alps. An efficiency of necessity, yet as always there was a little in reserve should she of needed it. She just has this knack… very pleased to have let her take the lead and to have in the main followed – not all the time though, gotta let loose every now and then.

Definitely feeling the heat... Approaching 2,000 meters

Definitely feeling the heat… Approaching 2,000 meters

Now lastly, here’s another important consideration. You may well feel that overall you are moving economically and all is well. Just don’t forget the fact that these climbs are pretty much non stop up and as in the case of the week we were in Cham the temperature was well above the seasonal average of a high 22°C. It was also noticeable that despite climbing 1,000 meters that it was still ridiculously warm and we had both expected a noticeable drop as we ran higher.  Add into this that at 2,000 meters you do notice that you start to take in lung fulls of air, taking ever increasing deep breaths. My breathing muscles certainly knew they had worked day one!

Trails Wind through an expansive landscape

Trails Wind through an expansive landscape

Oh, and don’t just assume that those lovely looking streams and rivers and high up lakes will cool you down.  Indeed they will! Just remember they are fed by snow melt and often the glaciers in the region – they were freezing and even your hand felt numb after a couple of minutes just holding it in the water.  As you approached the wider streams, rivers and the lakes you could feel them emitting ‘cold’, even the main river flowing through Chamonix.

Snow feed lakes and streams...a chilly dip if you dare...

Snow feed lakes and streams…a chilly dip if you dare…

By the end of the week the weather was more normal and running was definitely more comfortable, even needing a long sleeve top to sit outside one of the many refuge cafe’s you find half way up a French Mountain.

From a kit point point of view we took everything and almost the kitchen sink. Remember, you are visiting the high mountains and they can be much less hospitable than what we see in the guide books. We took full winter kit, including quilted jackets and larger packs.  Each day we carried full tights, long sleeve tops and at least a windproof jacket. Hat and gloves were again the norm within our packs. This despite the fact that most days a sun hat and glasses were the order of the day. You just never know.

Even in July, the occasional snowfield to run across.

Even in July, the occasional snowfield to run across.

Shoe wise we took summer trail grip for hard packed rock and loose steep ground through to trail studs if the weather turned nasty.  Truth is fell shoes would have been too studded for the terrain, plus the risk of ripping the studs off on the steeper rocky sections would have been high.
Inov-8 Roclites, rocked, as did the Topo Terra Venture, with the Scott Supertrac RC’s really coming into their own.

Personal Highlights
It was more than just about being in the mountains. Everytime I have visited the big hills I am always humbled by the shear scale of these peaks from their jagged edges to their rounded summits. It looks to be impossible that you could even get to the height we did without encountering some impassable obstacle. Yet I guess if they can get a cable car up there…

Having fun through the rolling landscape of the woodland on the lower slopes

Having fun through the rolling landscape of the woodland on the lower slopes

The Single track running for me was the definite highlight, along the terraces of ‘Grand Sud’ was mightly impressive with so much to see.  Yet, for me it was the descent through the trees from the Loriaz Refuge Hut, descending into Vallorcine.  Fast, runnable and with enough technical ground to keep you occupied.

Coffee with a view, another must do.

Coffee with a view, another must do.

We were also prepared to catch the Chamonix Express to travel up the valley to explore. There was a certain excitement to this and it added to the adventure.
As to the scenery, well, where does one start…

A different day, another spectacular view

A different day, another spectacular view

Now we are back home. A great holiday with my best mate and plenty to look back on. Happy days running in the high mountains always take some beating.
As to training, well a nice easy week to recover and then to get back to normal the following week. Oh and to plan the next trip.
Chamonix, we’ll be back.

About Run Stu

Accelerate Performance and Healthy Run Coaching, Heart rate, Periodisation, Strength & Stability. Business owner @accelerateuk Coach to #TeamAccelerate The open road, fell, moorland and high places. Sunny days, days the wind blows and rain is horizontal - 'You're Alive!' Twitter and Instagram: @RunStuCoach
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