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