This article is part of the Run the Alps Back to Our Roots series. During the summer, Run the Alps staff, guides, ambassadors, and friends are trail running around the Alps, sharing the stories about the races that don’t get the lavish international media spotlight.
“Allez! Allez!” “Brava!”
Hikers and backpackers step off the trail out of the way and cheer. I smile, nod, mumble some version of grazie, merci, or thank you, and carry on. One step and pole placement after another.
It’s my first ever trail race: Italy’s Gran Trail Courmayeur 30km.
I’d climbed nearly 1000 meters (3000 feet) of elevation, but the mountains still look like giants all around. Pinks, purples, whites, yellows, and oranges dot the green pastures on either side of the trail. Beyond the pastures, the rocky peaks tower above. We’re here. Doing this beast of a run. And it’s absolutely gorgeous. I can’t stop smiling.
Rewind three hours and 15 kilometers to the starting line of the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30km, runners pack the Piazza Abbé Henry, an outdoor plaza with full views of the surrounding peaks. We’re all checked into the corral. You can feel the excitement and itching legs. Music is blasting from the speakers and Ivan Parasacco, an exuberant Italian with a full gray beard and balding head, is hyping everyone up in Italian, telling all the runners to put their hands up.
Ivan counts us down, then we’re off, running down the same streets that the famous Tor des Gèants travels. Starting through the town, advice from friends and other experienced trail runners cycle through my head:
Start easier than you think you should.
Eat your first snack before you start getting hungry – within the first 45 minutes of running.
Embrace the power hike.
Don’t let the excitement of the start make you go too fast too soon.
Take your time at the aid stations.
I start at the back of the pack and stay there. Running relaxed. Taking it easy. Letting people pass me on the road. When the roads start to head up and I start breathing harder, I transition into my power hike and try to settle in for what I’m expecting to be the next six to seven hours.
The Gran Trail Courmayeur 30km winds along the Val Ferret balcony up to the Bonatti refuge and Malatrà Valley. After passing Col Entre deux Sauts and Col Sapin, it descends through Curru, La Suche and L’Ermitage, different refugios and mountain huts along the trail. It climbs a total of approximately 2,000 meters (6561 feet) and descends just as much.
When we get to the start of the trail up to Rifugio Bertone, we all condense onto the singletrack trail and become a slow procession of poles and packs heading uphill. If it was just me on the trail, I think I’d be going faster, but it’s a forced ease into the climb. I concentrate on keeping my breathing steady as we switchback up through the forest.
I’ve been training for this race since February, slowly increasing mileage and finding as many hills as possible to run or hike up. Now that I’m here, the months spent training are coming into play.
7km in, the first refreshment point comes into view just past a herd of cows on the hillside. It’s just some big containers of water and a little canopy tent with a folding table, but it’s a beacon of joy. Runners stand and snack around it while spectators and volunteers clap and hype everyone up. The folding table has trays of cheese, salami and jerky, dried apricots, orange slices, and crackers. I pull out my travel cup and ask one of the volunteers to fill it with Coca Cola. The volunteer lifts up the bottle and says, “Coka?” I nod and he fills my cup until the fizz starts to overflow.
I chug the Coke, grab three dried apricots and three pieces of meat, and keep going. The trail flattens out, I’m hyped up on sugar and caffeine, and I’m cruising. It’s the first real moment I think to myself, “I’m doing this. I’m going to finish this.”
Throughout the race, I kept coming back to how grateful I was for the training I’d done to prepare. I could see how each of those training runs helped in different ways throughout the race. The mental endurance. The muscle memory. The coping strategies.
I learned how to settle into a steep uphill, just one step after another, from the steep climb up Barf fell (yes, that’s really what the peak is called!) in the Lake District in March. I felt confident using my poles to push myself forward on the flats from practicing with them on easy trails in Darlington, England, and learned how to find a rhythm with the poles pushing myself uphill from climbing up Roseberry Topping outside Middlesbrough, England. And I knew I could take some of the pressure off my knees by weighting the poles more on the downhills from going back down those same training hills.
Going down the extra steep, gravel-y bits, I used the poles and created my own mini-switchbacks to avoid slipping like when I trained going down the Stonewall-Panoramic trail in California.
On the flowy downhill switchbacks through the woods and along the hillsides around mile 12 and 13, I thought about my 12-mile training run in Hamsterley forest north of Darlington. I knew how to be nimble from swerving between trees during that run. I knew I could push off the poles to help me switch directions quickly and avoid rocks and roots.
Crossing the small creeks across the trail around Curru and La Suche were just fun little jumps because of the confidence I’d gained making leaps from stone to stone during my 12-mile wet and boggy run in the Lake District in May.
Finally, on the last mile and a half on the road, I knew I could run downhill on the pavement because of the countless runs I’d done going downhill from Lake Temescal in California on my go-to run. These roads were steeper and I’d already done 17 miles of trail, but the memory of doing those other practice runs and how I’d managed those got me through.
Leading up to the race, I hadn’t been sure if I was ready — whether I’d trained enough, if I had the right gear, if I’d have the endurance and speed to keep up. But by the end, having enjoyed every moment, I crossed the finish line feeling strong and proud both because of the race results and how much I’d done to get there.
Tags: Courmayeur, Italy, Trail racing, Trail Running