As I steadily pushed my way up the seemingly endless 1000 meter climb to the Refuge du Grenairon during the Tour des Huit Refuges, something clicked in my mind – I was going to try to strike up a conversation with the silent French racers, because surely a moment of rejection and awkwardness was better than carrying on with just the thoughts in my own head for the next six hours. I had latched on to the back of two quick moving climbers, who instructed me to suis le wagon! (follow the train!) as we reeled people in and charged up the mountain. Fumbling with my broken French I exclaimed “Vous connaissez le Hard Rock?” to which they turned around, grinning from ear to ear, and replied “Bien sur!! Francois a gagne ça, Il est le Roi!” and I realized that all the super-focused, spandex-clad racers needed to get them chatting was a little talk about their national trail running hero.
One month ago, we landed in the Alps for another summer after taking a bit of a risk buying (refundable) plane tickets for a good price into Geneva, and renting a (non-refundable) well-reviewed mountain chalet in the rural Swiss valley of Trient. Traveling to the Alps was certainly not our original plan for 2021 – with covid, and the difficulties of traveling and racing, we previously had our sights set on hitting the Pacific Crest Trail again and perhaps walking from Tahoe to Yosemite. But then in the first crazy months of 2021 I finally got selected in the lottery for UTMB and my wife Maureen was chosen in the lottery for the insanely long, multi-day Italian race known as the Tor des Géants. It didn’t take us long to realize that the universe was handing us an itinerary, and we just needed to make it happen. And so, as I wound toward the final stretches of my almost decade long Road to Chamonix and the UTMB, we packed up our duffel bags with as many running shoes and gels as we could cram in there and landed in the mountains we know and love so well.
We are fortunate and blessed and have a bit of a tradition of spending the odd year summers in the Alps, going all the way back to 2011 when we thru-hiked the long distance French trail known as the GR-5 with baby Sage on our back. Since then we have managed to return to this magical spot biannually, and in many ways our kids have grown up in these mountains and on these trails. My wife’s family has deep roots in the Chamonix valley, her father spending summers there while growing up in Paris and her uncle and cousins still spending a significant amount of time in their cozy chalet in Le Buet. We have succeeded in infusing French culture and life into our two boys, and the summers in the country give them a chance to practice and perfect the French that they learn at their bilingual school in Berkeley. And so, after a few quality weeks with both of our families in the States, we settled in just a few kilometers across the border in a steep, hanging Swiss valley known as Trient.
On previous trips we had opted to stay in the main Chamonix valley, closer to the city, the lifts, and the excitement. While we always enjoyed our summers there we had an idea in the back of our mind that we would love to try some more rural living one of these trips. We were looking for peace and quiet for the summer, along with easy access to quality trails and vert, and the small hamlet of Trient seemed to fit the bill very well. Our gracious AirBNB host described it as a village that didn’t even have a bakery (“It’s more of a bake your own bread kind of place”), and for our family unit of four that seemed like a perfect spot to waste away a couple of months.
The valley delivered on all of its promises and our life immediately slowed down once we entered its clutches (so much so that this is the first writing I’ve done in a month since we’ve been here.) The access to trails is unprecedented – a “flat” run still takes us up over 1000 feet of gain, and the “normal” climb to get out of our house is nearly 3000 feet. It rained a bunch the first few weeks and we happily hunkered down, recharging our bodies and mind – the boys building forts in the nearby woods, Maureen and I sneaking in as many long runs as we could, always climbing toward the glaciers and the clouds, and eating loads of good food and cheese from the farm across the street before playing board games and going to bed. In mid July we made a brief escape to crew and cheer for Mo in Italy at the Gran Trail Courmayeur 100k, where she crushed a ridiculously tough race through the mountains of the Aosta Valley, and soon enough I knew that I was next on the agenda for my alpine tune-up.
The Trail du Tour des Fiz is a well known, local running festival hosted by the town of Passy, just down valley from the international mountain mecca of Chamonix. It circles through the terrain just across the valley from Le Mont Blanc, and the course goes up and down through incredibly steep terrain around the central formations of Les Fiz. I know the area well as in 2019 we completed a five night backpack with the cousins on a shorter version of the course I would be running, and in truth it was a race that I had always wanted to do but never remember to sign up for until I was in France and it was too late. So once we had the idea that we would be here for the summer I registered for the 64 kilometer “Tour des Huit Refuges”, a grand loop with nearly 5000 meters of elevation gain that strung together the backcountry refuges as aid stations and would take me through both familiar and new territory over the course of the day.
My UTMB training has been going extremely well and I was excited to have a race on the calendar as a bit of a tune-up, and to get my head wrapped around the European racing scene again. It’s an entirely different ballgame than the Northern California events that I am used to, starting with the bib pickup days before the race. On Saturday night I bid adieu to Mo and the boys and drove down the valley into Passy and the Decathlon Mountain Store, an amazing entity in itself – like an REI on steroids with anything you could imagine for about half the price. At the European bib pickups you are required to bring your vest, equipment, and kit for a mandatory gear check – somehow this usually morphs into a high profile fashion show, with many of the runners wearing full running clothes, always immacuately clean and matching. At my first exposure to this I thought it was ridiculous, but now I am growing to love it (even though a Canyons t-shirt and hat was basically the extent of my own participation on the catwalk). Europeans seem to take a lot of pride in the fact that they look good while racing, and the bib pickup provides everyone the first chance to show up and show off a bit. Additionally it seems in good form to wear hats, jerseys, or gear from previous races that you have completed – even if this is not the same outfit that you will wear in the actual race the next day. I took it all in good stride and was impressed with the thoroughness of the QR code scanning and check-in for the newly unveiled Pass Sanitaire, which proved that every single entrant in the race was either vaccinated, recovered, or had a negative test for covid within 48 hours. They balked for a moment at my cheaply printed out CDC vaccination card, then accepted it, informing me that I was the only American in the entire race and that it seemed to look official enough. Not wanting to bail on my dirtbag runner identity yet, I crawled in the hatchback of our Mazda rental car in the parking lot and got a few hours of disrupted sleep before hopping on the mandatory shuttle up to the start.
We had nice, personalized bibs with our first names prominently displayed on them, and I wore mine on my newly acquired elastic waist-belt (another European racing necessity it seems). Oddly enough they also had the flag of our country of origin on the bib, which seemed silly as out of 330 entrants in my race there were only five of us not from France. But I decided to proudly rock the Stars and Bars, and it was enough to strike up a friendly conversation with the Frenchman who sat next to me on the bus. My broken French got us through enough small talk to realize that he spoke perfect English of course, and he confided in me that this was his first trail running event of any distance. He ran a lot, but really just to stay in shape during the summer and fill the gap between ski seasons, which seemed like the pattern for many of the people running the trails that day. He asked for advice and I told him what I consider to be the classic nugget of ultra wisdom: “Don’t start too fast, pace yourself, and leave some for the finish!” In a display of just how fit and athletic the average French mountain citizen is, he would finish a mere 20 minutes or so behind me at the end of the day.
The start was exciting with over 300 spandex clad runners in headlights and masks clustered together for the 5:00 AM gun. I looked a bit out of sorts, of course, wearing giant Altra Olympuses, a pair of shorts I inherited from my late buddy Lucas, a Dick Collins Firetrail 50 shirt that was handed down to me from my friend Lance, and my lucky blue Canyons 100k trucker hat backwards on my head. We rocketed out from the start and I told myself that I didn’t need to be at the front, I just needed to find my spot in the pack that felt comfortable without pushing it. The starts of these races are always tricky because inevitably the pack gets squeezed into a singletrack bottleneck at some point, and once you are on the narrow trail your pace is really at the mercy of those around you. I did a reasonable job of positioning myself where I needed to be, and the first 10km loop that took us through the first refuge Varan went by unremarkably as the sun rose through the misty, foggy skies.
I knew that we were getting to the first big climb of the course, as we would enter into the range and the real business of the day by climbing straight up an earthquake fault in the massive limestone wall around the Fiz. Maureen and I had descended that trail on a run two years ago, and I knew how steep and unforgiving it was going to be. I started climbing well, wanting to focus on high cadence and efficiency, and also heeding the words of my coach that this was meant to be a B race and that I shouldn’t venture into the pain cave on this outing (there would be plenty of time for that during UTMB). Once I started going up everything began clicking and working together – I felt like I was flying up the climb, but my breathing was steady and low and my legs didn’t even feel tired. I don’t know if it was the relentless hill repeats and fartleks Coach Bob had been assigning me, or if the mountains were finally just giving me a proper welcome, but I found a climbing gear that I didn’t even know I had that stayed with me for the entire day.
The American flag on my bib gave the fans something to talk about, at least, and there was an incredibly enthusiastic cow-bell ringer halfway up the steep faultline climb that was yelling “ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ your name here” to every runner that went by. As I passed him he continued his pattern, but it quickly became “ALLEZ MAT ALLEZ MAT ALLEZ MAT, L’Americain!” and he whipped out his phone to conduct an impromptu interview of me with his camera. Luckily my French is good enough to answer the simple questions – “where are you from, why are you doing this race, do you like France?” and I can rattle off enthusiastic answers that delighted the spectators (Je viens de Californie, près de San Francisco. J’aime beaucoup La France et les montagnes, et Les Fiz!”) This guy was having such a blast that he continued to interview the runner behind me, asking him in French “Why are you behind the American?” to which the runner replied “Parce qu’il monte bien“… I admit I was eating it up a bit and even flipped my bib to my back, both for comfort and so the runners could see Ol’ Glory as I passed them on the way up.
We climbed way up through the Désert de Platé, a beautiful barren limestone landscape high up on the plateau in the middle of the range. I had been through here twice before, but somehow never on the trail we were on, and the scenery was just jaw-dropping – I had to force myself not to stop every 200 meters and take another picture. Finally we began our long descent all the way down to Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, and now I was going the opposite direction from our 2011 trip when I hauled Sage up those mountains in a Deuter Kidcomfort II. I was stunned by the beauty of the waterfalls along the way, and soon enough I reached the bottom refuge and rounded the corner to begin the long, steep climb up to Grenairon.
Enter my newfound friend and fan of Francois D’Haene, a super friendly local named Oison and about as close to a dirtbag runner as I think I was going to find in that race. After we realized we had a similar climbing pace and I inquired about the Hardrock we totally hit it off, and he patiently listened as I stumbled through my broken French before we eventually converted most of the conversation to English. He explained to me that French runners usually don’t talk in races because they are so focused on the task at hand – an approach that I totally get and respect, and yet unless I am gunning for the win (which I never am) I always value some good chit-chat over dedicated concentration. He told me about a bunch of local routes and races and I recalled some stories of my previous trips through that terrain, and once we hooked up the kilometers really clicked away and I was having a blast. My climbing legs held throughout the whole day and we settled into the pattern of me rocketing us up the hill and him setting a nice, steady downhill pace that I could hang onto. I really enjoyed my time out there with him and was blown away at the geniality and warmth of the fans along the way – they were all sincerely excited to see each and every runner, and cheered you on by name (often adding L’Americain! after seeing my flag of course). This is a small local race and yet it got me incredibly stoked to see these valleys come alive across three different countries when I take my big lap that will be UTMB.
Oison rocketed off after that last refuge as I was trying to be diligent about not pushing too much on the descents. I had enough left in the tank to give a little kick the last 200 meters and I ran solidly into the webcam and finish line at Plaine Joux at 10 hours and 32 minutes, crossing in 48th place. The day went phenomenally, honestly, about as well as I could have imagined. If I can keep these climbing legs going for another month I hope to be able to settle into a nice groove as I navigate the 10,000 meters of vert going around the Mont Blanc massif. The aid stations were minimal but totally fine – I settled into the rhythm of downing a cup of Coke at each stop, a piece of chocolate, and a slice of some delicious and ubiquitous pound cake and then filling in with my own Gu’s and Twix between the refuges. As Mo and I discussed before her go at the GTC 100k – it’s not a deal breaker if you don’t send your tune-up before your A race, but man it’s nice to have a boost of confidence heading in.
At the last refuge a volunteer looked at my American flag and asked – “Did you really come all the way here to run this race?” to which i jokingly replied “of course… and also the UTMB.” And then she said “but really, there are so many races out there, why would you pick this one?” and I answered, with complete sincerity; “Because I love Les Fiz”.