35 people stare at me expectantly. I’m standing in The North Face Store in Chamonix with their professional athletes by my side. I’m about to go running with them and a group of runners from seasoned ultra veterans to newbies like me in the lead up to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, one of the most famous and toughest ultra races in the world. How did I get here?
An amazing opportunity to work with The North Face
In June I was invited by The North Face to run the Cortina Skyrace, the shortest run at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, an event they sponsor. This was an amazing opportunity to try out a trail running competition and see whether it was something that I should do more of. Yes, I’ve run a bit but it has always been quite casual and, apart from the Chamonix Vertical KM and the London Marathon, I’ve never been in an actual race.
Well, I loved it and am very psyched for more – in fact, I have two races lined up in October – and have been very grateful to be welcomed into the ultra running community. Having stayed in touch with TNF, when they messaged me to say they were going to be putting on a series of events in Chamonix during UTMB week and they were looking for some in town support, I leapt at the opportunity.
The plan was an afternoon at the store with their athletes manning the floor followed by three 10km runs around the Chamonix valley trying out the three Ultra Series shoes – the Cardiac, Endurance, and MT – with different athletes leading each day, then finally a Mountain Athletics session with Fernanda. No small project..
Day 1 – The athletes working in the Chamonix Store
With events running all week, we kicked off the programme with getting four of their athletes working in the flagship store. Rory Bosio, Fernanda Maciel, Lizzy Hawker, and Seb Chaigneau all donned work shirts and sales assistant tags and hit the floor of the busy shop.
As was hoped, people flocked to the store to meet the athletes up close and personal and to ask the questions, grab a selfie, and get something signed with a personal message. All of the athletes were incredibly open and friendly and it was awesome to see everyone mixing so casually and having so much fun – with the till ringing away, they were obviously pretty handy sales people too!
The afternoon flew by and, with an incredible spread thrown on for more signatures and to get the evening started, we enjoyed a river-side evening of aperatifs, saucisson, and cheese. However, I was a little nervous about the next day – our first group run!
Day 2 – Running with Rory Bosio, Fernanda Maciel and Seb Chaigneau
Arriving at the store at 8am, coffee in hand, I was greeted by the store staff as well as our first few runners – there 30 minutes early! The whole purpose of these runs was to bring together the vibrant running community in town for the UTMB for a fun and enjoyable run and with excited runners raring to go this early, it was a good omen.
The first day was about trying out the Ultra Cardiac shoe, a running shoe aimed at valley trails and even ground – this run was going to be lead by Rory and Fernanda but, bouncing from foot to foot, Seb Chaigneau leapt through the door and was clearly very excited to be coming along too.
I love early morning runs and with 35 normal people like me in tow, the TNF athletes and Alain and Suze, our mountain guides, led off into the rising sun. My normal runs are solo affairs and so setting of en masse was a completely different experience. Over the last two years I have met a tonne of interesting people and so many came along this morning to support and so, as we enjoyed a beautiful morning in the Chamonix valley, I was able to catch up with friends, make new ones, and chat with the pros.
Day 2, part 2 – Mountain Athletics session with Fernanda Maciel
With a long shower and some breakfast in the bag, I knew the day was not over. That evening, it was training event number 2 and the second on the day, a Mountain Athletics session with Fernanda.
As (I hope!) you all know, I’ve been training people all summer with The Mountain Foundry and so was really excited to try out an official Mountain Athletics session with one of their trainers based out of Lyon. With Fernanda as his demonstrator, I joined in with 14 other keen athletes as we moved through a number of fundamental movements and protocols, all designed to best improve mountain performance, increase injury prevention, and be a stronger outdoors lover.
A little nervous with the class being carried out in one of the main squares in town – and so in full view of all the public – we quickly got stuck in. While passers-by gave us quizzical yet interested looks we hopped, skipped, jumped and sprinted up and around whatever local obstacles we could get our hands on.
With all of us left in thoroughly sweaty mess by the end, the fact I was getting up at 7am to run another mountain 10k meant I needed to head home and get some sleep before it all begins again!
Day 3 – Running with Seb Chaigneau and Lizzy Hawker
With a slightly later start, and so a much needed extra hour in bed, we set off at 9.30am for our run with Seb and Lizzy. Testing out the Ultra Endurance shoe, the aim was to get a little more ascent in today. Setting of at quite a clip Alain, our guide, Seb and Lizzy blazed a trail up onto the Petit Balcon Sud.
Though only a height gain of about 200m, it is a steep path and caught a few of the visiting runners unawares. Thankfully I know the trail well and knew that it was only a short way before we hit the rolling Balcon route but I was still breathing heavily by the time I caught up with an impressively fresh Lizzy and Seb!
The team re-grouped and, with a number of people needing to get back to collect their running numbers for the OCC, the group split. Taking one for the team, I headed back – cough cough – and let the hardcore carry on up to Chalet La Floria, along the rolling hills of the balcon.
It is in these moments that you really see just how different these runners are. Everyone was certainly feeling the run when they made it back home but the spring in Seb and Lizzy’s steps was unmistakeable. These guys had barely broken a sweat.
Day 4 – Running with Jez Bragg
And then there were three. No rest for the wicked, Jez Bragg only made it into town the night before but was raring to go bright and early just one day before his start of the UTMB. Ever positive, he was up for testing the MT shoes in their natural habitat and so off we set in search of wet boulders and rocky terrain.
This sort of terrain, though plentiful in Chamonix, is more high level and so, with just a few hours for the run, the guides had to get creative and so we headed up to the Arveyron river where we leapt, bounded and pranced between boulders and river stones.
The awesome ultra running community
As we headed back on our last run, I separated a little from the group and took some time to have a little think about the last few days. Now, with a week since the madness was in full flow, it has had a little more time to settle.
It really feels like I have come so far. I look back to this time last year and to what I was doing, what I wanted to do, and where I was heading and it seems almost an entirely different person. I have been welcomed into new groups, meeting the incredible ultra running community and really got settled here in Chamonix.
The end of the summer really feels like my ‘end of year’ and, with an awesome trip to America starting today, it feels like now is the perfect time to reflect on what is next, what I want to happen, and what my future holds.
Thank you The North Face for getting me involved, I hope we have plenty more together, thank you to their incredible and generous athletes, and, finally, thank you to everyone who turned up and supported me!