|The view from town my first morning in Chamonix|
When my schedule finally opened up and a chance to fulfill a longtime dream came up, I booked a flight to France without hesitation. I took buses, trains, and planes for Chamonix, the mountaineering haven and home to the most-celebrated ultra trail running race in the world: the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).
I made it to Cham a week before the race went-off so I could run the trail solo and be back in time to see finishers come into the city center.
Besides a boatload of French hospitality, unreal scenery, endorphins, cheese, and wine, here are five takeaways from the experience.
On the first day of my five-day run, I got caught in a rainstorm. As the intensity increased, I was getting cold and soaked from beneath the trees I took shelter. After 20 minutes the storm wasn't improving, so I sprinted towards a nearby barn, looked around and didn’t see anyone, so I went in and took cover, resting on the back of a freestanding trailer. Shivering and wet, I glanced behind me and saw, of all things, a blanket in the trailer. I snatched it without pause and wrapped myself up until an old Mercedes came up the road and parked. The driver got out and, showing me a big, missing-tooth grin, hurled a barrage of French my way. I nodded, smiled, and asked him, “d’accord?” (this OK?), pointing to the blanket (...and the fact that I was trespassing in his barn!). He nodded back “oui oui!” giving me a look that suggested he wished me well.
And off he went.
And off he went.
2 – Get lost; try and speak French.
Two hours into day two, I managed to get off the TMB (Trail du Mont Blanc) trail, running unknowingly over two passes in the wrong direction. That sinking feeling of disorientation started to set in and I stopped to assess things.
When I opened my map and couldn’t find myself on it, some panic set in (getting lost when you’re running over 20 miles per day is NOT a good feeling). But a large group of hikers climbed by and they – in my broken French and their broken English – helped me find my way back. These miscues played out again several hours later when another group of French-speaking Swiss hikers helped set me right again. I ended the day with eight hours and 30 miles in my legs.
I learned that day that starting a conversation with French people in French, no matter how limited or embarrassing your ability is, pays off hugely. The reluctance fading from a stranger’s eyes is visible when you earnestly try to put yourself into his culture and norms. Turns out, getting lost can reap outstanding, unexpected rewards.
|Sheep crossing the TMB near the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme Refuge|
3 – Embrace being a running icon!
After a rest day in the Italian border town Courmayeur, I resumed running the morning of the start of the “CCC” (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix), a shorter, 60-mile race on the same TMB trails. I left Courmayeur an hour before the race went off, as fans began lining the villages through the TMB course. Hikers on the TMB also knew the race had begun, so to their delight and my embarrassment, began clapping, cheering, shouting “allez!” (go!) and asking if I was “le premier?” (the first) as I ran through town, thinking I was WINNING the race! Digging deep into my limited French ability, I shouted, “Non, non, non, je suis publique!” (very roughly, “No, I’m from the public!”). This was met with raised eyebrows and looks of confusion, which usually gave way to cheering anyway. I met two Aussies who witnessed several of my “fans’” cheering, and they gave me endless grief and the nickname “impasta!” a funny hybrid of the carbohydrate we were all craving and my imposter status in the CCC.
|My Aussie roommates at the breakfast table in the Nant Borrant refuge|
4 – There’s nothing like a cold Coca-Cola.
As a solo runner on the 106-mile TMB journey, I wanted to travel as light as possible, which meant my food rations were depleted or downright small most of the time. After miles and miles of slogging up huge climbs in midday heat, the only thing I craved on day three was an ice cold Coke. I came to a Swiss town completely parched and went inside a café wanting to buy a can. The waitress didn’t have cans, but only a machine behind her bar. As we struggled to communicate and figure out what I could put the Coke in, she searched and found an empty small screw top wine bottle. She cleaned it for me, filled it with Coke and handed it to me. Off I went, replenished and completely psyched about the good fortune and kindness of yet another person on this journey.
|Watching the CCC racers coming through Switzerland|
5 – This was worth it (and a final goal).
Getting back to Chamonix and completing the run was pretty emotional. It’s a super-demanding journey, and even though I broke it into several days, you arrive back to town with a new perspective having endured a lot of highs and lows along the way. What I wasn’t expecting was how choked up I’d be seeing other runners finish the UTMB. After making it back to Chamonix and sleeping, I saw runners who were finishing after 35-40 hours of running. The faster runners had come in 5-10 hours earlier. You can see a million emotions on the faces of these runners as they come into the finish – the exhaustion, the pride, the humility and the love as they see their friends and family. As the men draped themselves in their country’s flag, I decided one day to return to Chamonix as an official UTMB runner (not an “impasta!”). I can’t imagine what I’ll feel when I cross the line. For now, it’s back to the office.
|Running on top of the Col de la Seigne|
Written by Craig Randall, Julbo's PR guy who lives in Boulder, Colorado (@craigrandall).