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In Defense of Savoring: Hillary Gerardi Reflects on her Mont Blanc FKT

In Defense of Savoring: Hillary Gerardi Reflects on her Mont Blanc FKT

Jun 17, 2024

June 17, 2023  9:29 a.m. 

I dash up the stairs to Eglise Saint Michel, the church in downtown Chamonix, place a hand on the hallowed granite wall, and then crumple to the ground, completely spent and overwhelmed by emotions. I stop my watch. 7 hours, 25 minutes and 14 seconds to run from this church to the summit of Mont Blanc and back. 

9:55 a.m.

I do the tour of hugs, tears and high fives, thanking my friends for their support. I drink a beer and am finally ready to talk to the couple journalists that had come to see if I would succeed in setting a new record on the highest summit in western Europe. The conversations are somewhat predictable – how did you prepare? How did you decide that today was the day?  How do you feel? What does this mean to you? And then, at the end of the exchange, the follow up question that I should have known to anticipate but that somehow catches me off guard anyway: So, what’s next?

What’s next?!
I think. Come on, I finished this project less than a half hour ago! Let me savor it a little!

It’s not the first time someone has asked me this. In fact, it’s become nearly de rigueur as a finish line question at races. Congratulations on your performance, where will we see you performing next?  But this time around it irks me. 

In some ways, I’d been preparing to attempt the record on Mont Blanc for several months, but in others, it had been in the works for years. I’d been thinking about, even at times obsessing about, the project – what itinerary, what gear, what people, what skill set… I spent countless hours fully focused, accumulating training and experience. And while I was relieved to have the weight of preparation lifted off my shoulders, upon arrival at the church, I wasn’t ready to shift my focus to the next project. Shouldn’t I revel in the feelings of achievement and gratitude?

Hillary Gerardi Mont Blanc new FKT for just 7 hours, 25 minutes, 28 seconds.
Hillary Gerardi sets a new FKT on Mont Blanc in just 7 hours, 25 minutes, 28 seconds. (Photo: Toni Spasenoski)

So, What’s Next? 

After I left the church steps, ate a hearty second breakfast, took a hot shower, and recovered the gear I’d stashed on the mountain, I thought more about that question and why it had gotten under my skin. And the more that I thought about it (even if I don’t blame anyone for asking it), I saw it as problematic. Not just because it felt unfair in the moment, but also because it felt like it was symptomatic of a greater phenomenon in our sport and in our lives. We’ve internalized the habit of achieving, purchasing, and experiencing things, feeling the rush of gratification, and then almost immediately moving on to the next fix. This cycle is often used to describe our consumption and we can see it everywhere.

As a professional athlete, we consume races and results like snack food. We celebrate results one weekend and have forgotten about them by the next. We have to race again and again to stay relevant, leaving precious little time for recovery, and leading to injury and burnout. 

I talked to a friend who is a professional snowboarder and he described spending most of his energy on a summit spying the next line he wanted to ride – before he’d even descended the one he was atop.

I’ve heard about an almost cartoonish version, manifested by compulsive buying online. We click, we buy, we get a rush, and then have forgotten about the purchase by the time the package shows up on our doorstep. 

This happens with travel, too. We get back from a trip, and rather than taking the time to fondly retrace our steps in our minds, bringing our film to get developed, making an album and sharing it with our family, we’re often thinking about the next trip we could take. I “did” Spain, where should I go next?

Relaxing by a river
Hillary Gerardi in a river
There is little you can do to be more in touch with your body and the present moment than plunge into ice-cold water. (Photos: courtesy Hillary Gerardi)

Slowing Down

What would it look like if we slowed down a bit and really took the time to anticipate, live, and savor our experiences? On the one hand, I recognize that our friends, families, and peers might tire of hearing us talk about that thing we did, but that shouldn’t prevent us from striving for a more holistic approach. Psychology tells us that focusing our energy on being fully present, and then on gratitude and appreciation, can have extremely positive impacts on our wellbeing. Savoring is an active behavior that you can embrace across all parts of an experience – in the anticipation, the moment, and the memory – and can help make the experience more fulfilling. 

It’s not that I spent the rest of 2023 doing nothing but reveling in my achievement. I continued to run, to race and to experience new things – and I admit to sometimes being guilty of the “do what I say, but not what I do” approach. But I also spent lots of time talking about it with friends and family, writing about it, working on a film about it, thinking about what the project meant to me and recalling the feelings that I experienced through preparation, anticipation, pushing my limits, and gratitude at the support I’d received.

In trying to mindfully take the time to savor and reflect on my Mont Blanc ascent, the experience has felt so much more satisfying. And that is something I’m trying to carry with me far beyond my running career. 

flowers on the side of a mountain
flowers by a river

For me, part of savoring is slowing down and shifting my gaze from the big landscape to the little things at ground level.  My husband Brad, who is a mountain guide and alpine ecologist, has taught me lots about high Alpine flowers and how much we can learn from their adaptations to their environment. (Photos: Hillary Gerardi)

Practice Savoring

Sometimes when I’m eating, after lifting my fork to my mouth, I challenge myself to chew slowly, and close my eyes to really concentrate on the textures, temperatures and flavors. A simple act, that I probably do 1/10th of 1% of the times I eat, but that is a sure-fire way to increase my enjoyment of the food. And I think it’s a worthy challenge to apply that approach to all of our experiences. In a society that values speed and efficiency, it can seem like a small revolutionary act to slow down and really absorb. 

I’ll be honest that I don’t have a roadmap for this, and I expect that savoring looks different for different people. As an athlete, I’ve tried to limit myself to a few “A” objectives per year, rather than a dozen races. I don’t say yes to everything anymore, and if I decide to travel, I do so mindfully, thinking hard and choosing carefully. Even if going fast is part of my job description, I intersperse it with going slow, and appreciating all of my senses, taking and sorting photos, writing and focusing on the details. I try to savor the anticipation, experience, and feelings afterward, rather than chasing a fleeting finish line moment. 

Mont Blanc, one year later – I can still remember the evenings spent tinkering with my gear to best adapt it to the needs of the route. I can still picture wandering with a friend through La Jonction to try to identify the most efficient route through the labyrinth of glacial crevasses. I can still remember the feeling of a too-thin crust breaking underfoot testing conditions with Brad and Doug. I still chew my nails when I think about the nervous anticipation as I weighed whether or not to pull the trigger and activate the troops. I can still feel the bite of cold on the ridge as I braced myself against the wind and wondered if a gust could knock me over. I still remember the feeling when Meg told me to empty the tank, as I pushed my legs and lungs right to their limit. One year later, and it’s still fresh and satisfying because I took the time to savor. 

You can read Run the Alps’ interview with Hillary on the day after her FKT:

Hillary Gerardi Resets the Fastest Known Time on Mont Blanc

Lead image: PatitucciPhoto

Hillary Gerardi
Hillary Gerardi is a professional athlete for Black Diamond and Scarpa. She's also Run the Alps' Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility. On June 17, 2023, Hillary set the FKT on Mont Blanc in 7 hours, 25 minutes, 28 seconds.