We are often asked what it is like to run in the mountains. The easiest way to explain this is to suggest you watch this film which encapsulates the experience of running along stunning mountain trails high above the valley of Chamonix, France. Chamonix is often referred to as the world capital of 'alpine mountaineering', but is fast gaining a reputation as a major trail running destination. The sensation of running through alpine meadows, taking in stunning views, while enjoying the physical sensation of running 'free' is not to be missed.
Many of us that struggle to find enough time to dedicate to training wonder how best to develop our VO2 max, given busy lives and tight schedules ('VO2 max' is shorthand for maximal oxygen uptake, a standard measure of aerobic fitness). In actual fact about 50% of our VO2 maximum is innate i.e. it's based on our own genetics… so you're to some extent blessed with being born relatively fit, or rather less so. That however does mean that the remaining 50% is in essence entirely up to you!
South Tyrol, known by the Italians as Alto Adige and German-speakers as the Südtirol, is a picturesque, tranquil region in northern Italy and home to the Dolomites mountain range. The Dolomites, also known as the ‘Pale Mountains’ for their limestone hue, are a UNESCO World Heritage site and the South Tyrol’s truly unique natural wonder. It’s no exaggeration to say that the forests and mountains here are widely regarded as being among the most attractive landscapes in the world. Indeed, the recognition given by the protected status of UNESCO since June 2009 is testimony to just how well preserved and unspoilt the natural environment remains.
This years 'between seasons road trip' has taken my husband and I into Spain. We left Chamonix a month ago making our way where the sunshines, through France, Andorra and then the Pyrenees in search of amazing rock climbing, hills to climb on the bike or on foot and catching up with friends along the way. A perfect holiday! We are travelling in style in our custom-made campervan – our well loved home on wheels (fitted out by the other half). I think it's the best way to travel. We have food, a bed, transport and all the 'toys' on board!
For the past week we have been in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, in a remote village called Rodellar, situated at the head of a limestone gorge. Amazing towers of rock to challenge the body and mind, along with fabulous trails to run on - for the rest days!
This weekend Chamonix is absolutely buzzing. Two weeks ago the valley was really sleepy with just the locals, a few walkers and the early alpinists filling the cafes and restaurants. But this weekend is seen as the true 'start to the summer season' as this is when all the mountain huts & refuges open for business - not to mention the warm weather we are now having. 31 degrees yesterday!
Janet and I spent a further 2 weeks continuing our training in preparation for the big day. In the Gokyo Valley we ascended Gokyo Ri at sunset and visited the glacial lakes surrounded by views of the Everest range and Cho Oyu, 8201m. Runners were able to take things at their own pace depending on their acclimatisation. Some runners, more accustomed to road running, had more than just the altitude to test them. My test was whether i'd last another 2 weeks in a tent! Now on my 8th week camping I was dreaming of my warm comfy bed and wondering what it would be like to not have to sleep in two down jackets and in a down sleeping bag (not to mention all the layers underneath to combat the overnight cold of -20)! That along with walking uphill for weeks on end didn't register as my 'normal' marathon preparation! In the meantime we kept our minds busy testing the lovely bakeries along the way (carbo loading I believe it's called?) and by soaking up the culture of the region visiting monasteries and enjoying living in the mountains.
Each runner was required to have a medical the day before the race to be deemed 'fit to run' the 42km course. As expected, many runners were recovering from stomach bugs, chesty choughs (commonly known as the 'Khumbu cough' due to the dry air in the Solukhumbu), altitude headaches and loss of sleep - but thankfully by race day most of us were given the thumbs up to race. Finally we arrived at our destination, Gorak Shep, 5140m, the race start and the Basecamp setting for several 1950's Everest expeditions. Here we all slept in simple teahouses and were woken at 4.30am with breakfast tea and porridge in bed - a luxury! The time always flies on race mornings and by 6.15am we were all stood waiting for the signal to start. At 6.30am we crossed the line, anyone would have thought the local Nepali runners were only running a 100 metres, they shot off out of sight. One lady was also wearing her regional dress over her running tights! The first mile I would say was technically the hardest due to the altitude and crossing the glacial moraine but thankfully on fresh (ish) legs - then we began our descent. Our route was mainly on good trails but being that high means when you are going down you can still feel the lack of oxygen. The descent meant I ran a little too hard at the start so my legs definitely suffered when we began the 1100m of ascent! The local support especially from the bright cheery children and regular drinks stops was really appreciated. Not to mention negotiating fully loaded yak trains on route! As the temperatures rose and we neared Namche Bazaar (3440m) I got my final boost of energy to see my tired legs up the last hill to the finish line crossing it in 6h36, 3rd non- Nepali lady. Anna Frost a pro- runner from New Zealand swept up breaking the female record flying round the course in 4h35! Janet excelled and came in 7h42, 6th non-Nepali lady and the first male was local Deepak Raj Rai in 3h59. The hardest bit was the 6 hour hilly walk out the following day!
Welcome to Nepal, Solukhumbu Valley, Everest Region! I have just completed a fantastic 5 weeks leading treks to Everest Basecamp and up the famous Everest view point Kala Pattar (5550m). What with wonderful scenery, challenging climbs, beautiful people and culture I already know that I will soon be coming back!
But for now I am preparing for my own challenge – the Everest Marathon! Joined by fellow running friend, Janet Lefton, we are currently amongst 80 other runners from around the world, medics and support crew who will all walk in and acclimatise together to Basecamp (5200m) where we will begin our 42km race back to the Sherpa Village of Namche Bazaar (3450m). Ok so it’s mainly downhill but it still definitely has its’ challenges along the way. Apart from acclimatizing and staying healthy the race start point has temperatures as low as minus 20 and moving at 5200m can feel like you are literally crawling along the trail, not to mention the cold/dry & dusty air that’s pouring into you with every breath.
Today is an another acclimatisation walk to 4000m, to the Everest View Hotel which gives an amazing panorama of Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse and awe inspiring Ama Dablam. Tomorrow we set off for a training run and higher camp and begin our ascent to the start line….!
Our 2009 Alpine Trail Running camp took place in Chamonix last week. This annual event ties in with the Mont Blanc 10k, half and full marathon events – so if at the end of the week if you’d like a challenge it’s there with all the support you could ever imagine! Our runners all had different running backgrounds and ambitions which meant there was a lot of experience and stories to share.
Based in a luxury Yeti Lodge chalet our runners were able to enjoy a daily run along mountain trails, amongst pine trees and meadows, visit high villages with inspiring views around every corner – not to mention benefitting from fresh mountain air in their lungs! On our return we’d enjoy lunch, sunshine and hot tub all under the eyes of Mont Blanc!
One of the weeks highlights were the excellent tips and advice from World Champion runner, Lizzy Hawker who also gave a very inspiring talk of her worldwide running tales.
To round the week off several of our runners took part in the various races in Chamonix at the weekend with podium results! Sue Smith got 3rd in her category at her first ever mountain half marathon, Mara Larson scooped up two prizes with 3rd overall female and also 1st in her age category, and Janet Lefton completed the full marathon in an excellent time of 7h30 giving her the points required for the full Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in 2010.
So what will your 2010 challenge be? To find out more about our running week check out the feature by journalist and runner Antonia Kanczula who joined us last week in the September issue of Health & Fitness Magazine.