Words and images by: Simon Freeman
Drifting off to sleep, gazing up at deep black, cloudless sky full of stars and the vast, sweeping brush-stroke of the Milky Way, I thought that the sunrise would wake me. After all, there was no way to cover the windows. It was mid-summer in the higher reaches of the French Alps, during one of the hottest June weeks on record. And the sun would be up early. Like 5am early. So, yes, I was sure it would be the sun that would rouse me from my slumber.
In fact I was tugged into consciousness not by the light but by urgent voices and the sound of runners’ feet crunching on the gravel verge on the other side of the road that my wife and I had parked on.
We’d stopped our car and bedded down for the night right on the course the Marathon du Mont Blanc. For the second night in a row. And in a matter of minutes the thin line of elite runners would turn into a torrent of mid-packers. We’d be stuck. There was nothing else for it – throw the luggage from the front seats on top of the still-warm mattress in the back and get going. Otherwise we could be there for hours.
Laughing like mad as we drove down the valley towards Argentiere, the first town we’d pass through on our way back to Chamonix, France, we wondered how it was possible that we’d opted for two completely different parking spots on consecutive nights and been woken by race leaders running next to our four-wheeled home both times? Luck, I suppose. Or perhaps it’s just that at this time of year the trails around Chamonix are all bustling with runners.
It didn’t matter. We love runners. So watching them through the back window of our car, as they raced past and we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, was a treat really.
If you love the mountains, Chamonix is heaven. Set in the bottom of a steep-sided valley, with the Mont Blanc creating the south side and the Brevant the north, the town itself is a vibrant mix of camera-touting tourists and grizzled mountain athletes. Expensive fashion boutiques sit side-by-side with sports outfitters selling everything from ropes, ice axes and crampons to the latest, lightest trail running gear.
The town is home to less than 10,000 residents year-round. And then there are weekends when the population swells with an influx of people attracted by one of the many events the town hosts.
The Marathon du Mont Blanc is one such event. It is a full weekend of racing and acts as the unofficial signal for the start of the summer season. It was those races that passed our overnight parking spot both mornings we were there.
We’ve been living in Switzerland for a while. And it’s just a few hours’ drive to Chamonix. We had a car that was perfect for a couple of nights. We wanted to enjoy the atmosphere on race weekend as well as run on some of the trails ourselves. So we headed for the valley.
Wherever you sit on the climate change debate, it is undoubtedly the case that the weather is showing some pretty extreme tendencies at the moment. Europe is seeing more and more really hot summers. Indeed according to French meteorologists the number of heatwaves has doubled in the last 30 or so years. And is expected to double again by 2050.
In Paris the authorities feared a repeat of 2003 when 30,000 people died in a heat wave which also caused 13 billion Euros of damage. In north-east Spain firefighters battled forest fires that ripped through 10,000 acres of tinder-dry scrub in Tarragona. In the German state of Sachsen-Anhalt a speed limit on the Autobahn was imposed because the heat started deforming the road surface.
And in Chamonix, where the daytime temperatures were 34°C and climbing by midday, thousands of runners prepared to race over 10km, half marathon, marathon, 90km or the notorious ‘vertical kilometer’ – 1,000m of vertical gain over 3.8km up the side of the valley.
At the risk of getting a little too philosophical here, perhaps it is thanks to the really challenging nature of trail running that the culture of this sport is forged. Climbing thousands of feet, often covering huge distances, battling crazy heat at the same time as slipping and sliding across the remnants of the winter snow fields or racing through torrential rain and thunder storms; this sort of craziness brings us closer to the essence of life.
And on those two consecutive mornings, watching the runners stream past, it was easy to spot aspects of the human condition that unites the fastest with those at the very back of the field – embracing challenge; connecting with nature; competition; physical exertion. I saw it in the runners’ faces – determined and yet at the same time so happy to be on the trails. In the way they reached out for high-fives from me and my wife and the handful of spectators on the course. It was obvious when some runners paused to snap a picture at a particularly beautiful spot on the course. I witnessed it in the group of runners that stopped without hesitation to help a runners who’d slipped back to her feet.
So maybe it was pure chance that two mornings in a row my wife and I were woken by runners passing next to our car-come-hotel room. But what a wonderful coincidence it turned out to be. Because being able to witness so many people doing something as fundamental as running in one of the most beautiful places on earth, is a privilege and an inspiration. Here’s to the trails. Long may we be able to enjoy them like this.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” -Edward Abbey