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Health & Fitness: High Altitude Trail Running Vacations For Beginners - Scaling The Mt. Blanc Peak, Chamonix

WHAT IS IT LIKE FOR a city runner to traverse the high altitude peaks of Mt. Blanc in Chamonix? Amateur trail runner Ben Arogundade got more than he bargained for when he took the challenge. December 16, 2019.

MOUNTAIN BEAUTY: Chamonix’s trail running vacations for beginners attracts runners from all over the world to test their fitness against the mighty peaks of Mt. Blanc, in the Alps.

I AM A RUNNER. A city runner to be exact. My terrain is the flat plain of the streets and parks of West London. I do 10 kilometre runs three times per week. I am very fit — at least I thought I was — until I went on a trail running vacation in Chamonix, in the Alps.


I joined Julia Tregaskis-Allen, ex-triathlete and guide at the Tracks And Trails running camp, together with a small group of male and female running enthusiasts from all over the world for the week-long vacation she organises in, south-east France for trail running beginners and experts. Chamonix has become a mecca for trail running in recent years, thanks to its unique terrain and the fact that many of the world’s big races are now run there. The sport even has its own global megastar, Kilian Jornet Burgada, king of the ‘ultras’, who powers through mountainous runs of 100 miles — an inconceivable distance for mere mortals.


TRAIL RUNNING - VACATIONS FOR BEGINNERS

Our group were housed in a spacious timber chalet in Les Praz, just outside Chamonix town, 11,000 feet above sea level and corralled on all sides by the imposing architecture of the Alp’s Mount Blanc mountains. I was nervous about the running that lay ahead on this so-called vacation. For this camp, patrons are required to be able to run a minimum of 10kms (6.2 miles) per day — (hardly a warm up run for Jornet). In principle, this distance was no problem for me, but this was trail running — off-road across undulating terrain — and, here in Chamonix — at altitude. This was a very different kinetic experience from anything I had done before.


CHAMONIX GOES UP, AND UP

We started after breakfast. We packed lunch and other supplies in our rucksacks as Julia led us up through the intricate maze of mountain trails that she has committed to memory. She’s like a human sat-nav. We ran for most of the day, with regular brief stops of a few minutes, meandering across the diverse terrain, our feet constantly pitter-pattering over a potpourri of stones, boulders, fallen trees, grass, rivers and streams. We were one with nature — our breath, our sweat, blending with the elements.


But just four miles into my running, I hit trouble. Sapped by a cocktail of the altitude, the heat and the unfamiliar terrain, I began to falter. I gritted my teeth and somehow kept going, buoyed only by the breathtaking scenery and the momentum of my fellow runners. Julia, by contrast, coasted along effortlessly, retaining enough breath to smile calmly in that way that synchronised swimmers do, while simultaneously talking us through the sights.


MT. BLANC PEAK FATIGUE

Back at the chalet, exhausted and beaten down by the cruel mountain, I wondered if I had made the right decision in coming to the camp. I told no one of my feelings, instead pretending I was fine. I soothed my aching muscles in the outdoor hot tub, longing for bedtime.


Day by day, things got easier as we all became accustomed to the conditions on Mt. Blanc. What helped was that we were backed up by a team of top specialists — including a massage therapist, yoga and Pilates teachers and Chamonix-based physio, Neil Maclean-Martin, all of whom assisted us with everything we needed to run efficiently. Performance nutritionist Rebecca Dent taught us about staying hydrated and fuelled while running, including the use of energy bars, gels and electrolyte tabs. Our meals were all freshly catered in-house, and nutritionally balanced with the right carbs and protein to fuel our daily trail running and recovery sessions.


BACK ON THE MOUNTAIN

Back out on the trail, the act of propelling ourselves up to the Mt. Blanc peak, from where we then gazed down at the world, was deeply satisfying compared to the concrete flat lands of London. As we surveyed the dramatic scenery around the Mt. Blanc massif, one of our group, overcome by the beauty before her, spontaneously burst into tears. Personally, I will never forget ‘sky-running’ with clouds, one mile in the air, or the discovery of Chamonix’s quaint mountainside café’s, so impenetrable that they are serviceable only by helicopter, and where we gratefully stopped for well-earned doses of coffee and homemade blueberry pie. 


As the camp drew to a close, we all felt a collective sense of sadness. After the intense week of our trail running vacation together, we had bonded — running together, living together, eating together — and now it was suddenly over. Nevertheless, we had come away with something important. The camp, by bringing us closer to nature, and giving us access to a range of specialist advisors, had improved us as runners, which in turn meant that our lives were improved — and you can’t get better than that.


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HITTING THE TRAIL: Trail running guide Julia Tregaskis-Allen leads Ben Arogundade (second left), and his co-runners through the mountainous trails of the Alps.

THE FEARLESS KILLIAN JORNET RUNS THE RIDGE OF A MOUNTAIN

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