by Sarah Baxter, The Telegraph, November 17, 2017
Arriving in Chamonix is not a little intimidating. Mont Blanc looms over the French adventure town like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man: white, massive, dangerous. It doesn’t seem possible or sensible that I’m going to try to learn to trail run up it – its lower slopes at least – but that’s the aim.
Trail running is the softer-on-the-knees, more spiritual alternative to pounding miles on the pavement. It’s taking exercise into the wilds, embracing nature. You don’t need to be a mountain goat or Paula Radcliffe – a love of running is the main criteria, though you should be of at least average fitness. Speed is not of the essence; trail runs are often long, slow explorations across diverse terrain – including mountains – with lots of hiking and eating stops.
Chamonix, home of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (the Tour de France of trail running) is a hotspot for the increasingly popular sport, so I’ve come here to join a five-day Alpine Training Camp run by GB ultra-marathon runner and coach Robbie Britton and his fell-running partner Natalie White. It will, I hope, improve my ability to scoot up and down hills, avoid injuries, eat better and generally become a super-human mountain goat. A big ask for a long weekend. But Robbie can run 162 miles in 24 hours – if anyone can help me, it might be him.
Things start well. Our small group of mixed abilities gathers at a beautiful Chamonix chalet where the fridge is full and copious eating is encouraged. Key to understanding how to run in the mountains is learning how to eat in the mountains, and performance dietitian Renee McGregor – who’s sorted the nutritional strategies of many world-class athletes – is on hand. Renee has no truck with food fads: she advocates everything in moderation and real food. I’ll eat to that.
The camp is a mix of hard, easy, long and short training sessions, plus informative talks, strength and conditioning advice, yoga, shared meals and convivial lounging. The first, heartening lesson learned is that even top trail runners don’t run all the climbs. As we begin our first ascent from the valley floor to a not-inconsiderable altitude of more than 7,000ft (2,134m), we walk. If the slope is steep, it makes no sense to run, says Robbie. Think efficiency – save your legs as much work as possible.
To this end, we practise ascending with poles. Natalie lends me the pair she used to complete the 210-mile – yes, 210-mile – Tor des Géants. With these hallowed sticks, I set about perfecting a tap-tap technique, planting one pole slightly after the other, then pulling my weight through. “If your triceps don’t hurt by the end,” says Robbie, “you’re not doing it right.” Later, I feel a dull arm ache. C+ for effort, perhaps?
As lovely as it is to hike amid the mountains – and it is soul-soaringly lovely – this is a running camp. So a calf-burning hill session is scheduled for day two: six lots of three-minute bursts uphill. The fourth burst will be our “favourite”, declares Robbie. Because it’s the toughest challenge, he tells us to flip it: instead of fearing session four, we’ll focus on relishing it. I try this strategy. Short steps, pumping arms, mind over matter. And if favourite is judged by how nearly you throw up, four truly was the best.
Although running up mountains sounds intimidating, everyone at the camp is more concerned about getting down. So one session is dedicated to descent. “I’m always scared going downhill but fear is good – it keeps you alive,” says Robbie as we stare down a rain-slicked, root-tangled track. “Push just one per cent out of your comfort zone; test the edges of your limits and you will improve.”
We’re given tips on efficiency, on judging terrain, on posture; we’re told to remember to breathe (surprisingly easy to forget).
And then we give it a try; one by one, everyone encouraging everyone else. I skid a bit and nearly collide with Rosa the dog. But I feel my edges expand just a little; my confidence starting to grow. Sadly, Robbie can do nothing about my inner klutz. On our longest day, a seven-hour adventure via pastures, glaciers and the border of Switzerland, I kick a mere pebble on the most innocuous of trails and trip face first into the Alps. It hurts my ego. And my toe, which turns to a livid purple colour.
But still, I love this. I’m a road runner who’s just spent five fun, educational days amid the snow-capped peaks with a pack of positive souls united in what initially sounds like madness: running up mountains. It’s invigorating, restorative, a reminder of being alive. Or maybe that’s just the throbbing in my toe...
You’re allowed to walk the steep bits, eat twice an hour and revel in the mountains. What’s not to love?
Need to know
Robbie Britton’s Alpine Trail Camp 2018 runs in Chamonix from July 12-16; places are limited and booking is open now. The experience costs £820, including five nights’ accommodation, all food and snacks, coaching, workshops and lift passes; excludes flights (robbiebritton.co.uk/training-camps).