MAD ABOUT MOUN­TAINS

To the French Alps, where we learn to stop wor­ry­ing about times and dis­tances in the mag­i­cal world of moun­tain run­ning.

Trail Running (UK) - - Contents - Words Paul Larkins

Our ed­i­tor takes a crash-course in moun­tain run­ning, then shares the top tips with you

Head down, we’ve been run­ning for 90 min­utes. Scram­bling across loose rock, look­ing for se­cure footholds, never look­ing up for fear of stum­bling and never look­ing back for fear of dis­cov­er­ing just how high we’ve climbed in such a rel­a­tively short space of time.

Sweat pours down our faces, glasses steam up, and calf mus­cles scream to such an ex­tent that even run­ning two strides be­comes an achieve­ment worth not­ing. At 10am we’re chat­ting about the weather, last night’s TV and train­ing we have or haven’t done, all at 1100 me­tres above sea-level. But by noon words fail us as we all stand silently, soak­ing up the views at 2200m.

“It’s what makes trail run­ning so spe­cial,” says our run­ning guide for the day, Adam Camp­bell, throw­ing his arms across the hori­zon in an ever-widen­ing arc as fi­nally we reach the high­est point on the run. We stop, take a swig of wa­ter and all turn around to ad­mire the Alpine moun­tains shim­mer­ing in the heat in the dis­tance. More than a kilo­me­tre be­low us is the café we set out from; but above us, to the right, to the left and as far as our eyes can see, is moun­tain af­ter stun­ning snow-capped moun­tain. It truly is an achieve­ment to be here. Throw your watch away “Peo­ple think about goals as races and times, but this is what it’s all about,” says Adam, who can’t stop smil­ing or stress enough how great we’ve all been. “Awe­some!” is how he de­scribes it so far, point­ing to a trail that darts in and out of the snow­line, adding that there’s much more of that emo­tion to come.

“That’s long enough,” he shouts, skip­ping across the rub­ble-strewn path, onto a snow ledge and away into the dis­tance. Moun­tain goats look ge­ri­atric and im­mo­bile com­pared to this man.

We’re all tak­ing on this amaz­ing chal­lenge as part of the Arc’teryx Alpine Acad­emy’s sched­ule of mas­ter­classes.

There was Class 1, an in­tro to the moun­tains and what they can of­fer (cof­fee and cake at 2000m, as it turns out); Class 2, a quad-crunch­ing ver­ti­cal kilo­me­tre fol­lowed by 11km of de­scent over the next three hours; and then Class 3, some­thing for those of you who like to live life on the edge – lit­er­ally. Should you be so in­clined, you could also learn about Alpine climb­ing, glacier walk­ing, ice-axe use or any num­ber of other moun­tain-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing cel­e­brat­ing with an al­limpor­tant beer af­ter the day is done. There’s even one de­voted to learn­ing how to take the per­fect moun­tain selfie.

“Throw your watch away,” is Adam’s rec­om­men­da­tion when we start fret­ting about the pro­posed time for each run. Road run­ners might get queasy at the thought of four hours or more on the move, but trail run­ners know bet­ter. There will be much view ad­mi­ra­tion, many fuel stops and even, dare we say it, a bit of walk­ing. “Four hours in this ter­rain; we might only cover seven miles,” says Adam. “Just en­joy it.” Keep your heels down Be­ing a master­class, there’s plenty of help on hand to make sure you can do just that. In Class 1, for in­stance, run leader Tif­fany Saibil dis­cusses the finer points of foot place­ment in the first hour of climb­ing. Did you know you shouldn’t stay up on your toes? Calf mus­cles will be blown pretty quickly do­ing that. “Let your heel drop when you get the chance,” says ul­tra­run­ner Tif­fany, time and again as foot af­ter foot goes into the nat­u­ral toe-off drive po­si­tion. It takes per­se­ver­ance, but we get used to low­er­ing our heels to the floor as we climb end­lessly up­wards. It seems counter-in­tu­itive but it’s a skill worth learn­ing. Save your fore­foot strike for the jour­ney down – also at odds with how your foot wants to land, but a rather handy abil­ity to have when it comes to sav­ing your legs.

Run­ning in the moun­tains is about de­vel­op­ing the con­fi­dence to al­low your body to move with the slopes. The ter­rain is mixed and the weather is un­pre­dictable, but with just the slight­est mind­set ad­just­ment it’s all achiev­able.

Trail leader Tessa Strain agrees. As a Cam­bridge res­i­dent she’s used to run­ning on flat Fen­land trails, and loves the chal­lenge of ad­just­ing to the up and down. “It’s all about con­fi­dence,” she ex­plains. “I love run­ning, but I’m learn­ing the con­fi­dence to also walk when it’s bet­ter to do so.” Eat cof­fee and cake Moun­tain run­ning is about dis­cov­er­ing what works for you and hav­ing the con­fi­dence to be happy with it. And given we’re in the Alps, that also means stop­ping and hav­ing a cof­fee and cake. Granted that isn’t your usual run­ning ac­tiv­ity, but com­fort­ably achiev­able given the amount of cof­fee-serv­ing moun­tain huts along the Alpine path.

Those fu­elling stops pro­vide am­ple op­por­tu­nity to chat about all man­ner of train­ing tips: kit, route-plan­ning and more im­por­tantly just how great be­ing here, in the moun­tains, can be. “If some­one told me to­mor­row I could win UTMB, or Hardrock, or Western States or some­thing like that, but I could never run again – or I could run ev­ery day for the rest of my life and never race again – the choice would be very easy. I’d run ev­ery day,” says Adam, who fell more than 300ft in 2016 and broke his back in a climb­ing ac­ci­dent. Un­der­stand­ably that fall has changed him, but for the bet­ter. “I gained a lot from the ac­ci­dent and it’s too bad that it took some­thing so trau­matic to gain so many lessons and in­sights… so if you give just a lit­tle bit back it makes a big dif­fer­ence,” he adds. In short, re­lax and en­joy the ride, which is ex­actly what moun­tain run­ning is all about. Go with grav­ity It’s also about learn­ing new skills and now, Adam says, it’s time to run down­hill. It’s all about your fo­cus and trust­ing in science. Ap­par­ently, if you look ahead your brain has just enough time to cal­cu­late where your foot should land, so you sub­con­sciously make the cor­rect ad­just­ment. Amaz­ing but true. It’s time to get up on your toes and let grav­ity take over. If you lean back to brake, there’s just too much stress on your quads and very quickly they’ll fa­tigue. Not for the first time on our Alpine ad­ven­ture, we lis­ten to Tif­fany and Tessa ex­plain just how im­por­tant a skill run­ning down­hill is.

How many peo­ple ac­tu­ally do ses­sions like that? It’s a ques­tion that has the en­tire group look­ing at their feet and shuf­fling about. No­body! It makes sense, doesn’t it? We spend ages de­vel­op­ing amaz­ing pow­ers to run up­hill quickly, but never do the same for down.

For a flat-land res­i­dent like my­self, it’s an eye-open­ing master­class – if noth­ing else be­cause these are skills worth learn­ing. Run­ning in places like the Alps is noth­ing short of stun­ning and four hours in the moun­tains, hon­estly, feels like a 20-minute run on the flat. The vast scenery is spec­tac­u­lar, the ever-chang­ing weather chal­leng­ing, the feel­ing of achieve­ment amaz­ing. As we sit in the café at the foot of a 45-minute de­scent, sip­ping a cel­e­bra­tory cap­puc­cino, I can’t help but think ‘Where next?’

Ul­tra­run­ner Tessa Strain hits the trails above the Cha­monix Val­ley – and so could you if you fol­low the ad­vice be­low.

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